Disclaimer note: I often use the Afrikaans terminology referring to this part of the world since I grew up with that terminology, and its been embedded as acceptable terms, e.g. veld – open, uncultivated country or grassland in southern Africa. It is conventionally divided by altitude into highveld, middleveld, and lowveld. There are other such terms I use throughout.
As soon as we decided to ‘go back home for Christmas’ I was in secret planning mode. And when Stean remarked, ‘I don’t really know the Karoo’, it was the last straw; my planning and dreaming and longing became acute. I asked Stean whether he wanted to see the Karoo and ‘He turned to me as if to say, “Hurry boy, it’s waiting there for you”
We’ve been living in Germany for eight years, and though we’ve been back home many times, we’ve not been there for Christmas – a summer Christmas with family and friends like the days of old beckoned. I knew the underlying idea was to visit family for Christmas, but my wanderlust convinced me very quickly that driving the 1338km down to the Garden Route should never be done in just one day. There’s just too many distractions, stops to be made, and I needed time to show my children the Karoo en route to Wilderness.
I’m fortunate though, I have a brother who lives on the Highveld some 100km east of Pretoria, and a weekend relaxing there with a braai, good South African wines and long chats catching up on all and sundry to get rid of Europe’s cold before embarking on my road trip seemed the perfect start to 3 weeks of bliss in the South African ‘platteland’. The ‘Hoëveld’, or Highveld is that large portion of the South African inland plateau which consist mostly of rolling grassland and open open spaces.
In die Hoëveld, waar dit oop is en die hemel wyd daarbo,
Waar kuddes waaigras huppel oor die veld,
Waar ‘n mens nog vry kan asemhaal en aan ‘n God kan glo, …
Toon van den Heever
Very freely translated it will read
‘On the the Highveld, where its open and the heaven wide above,
Where flocks of waving grass skips over the veld,
Where man can still breathe freely, and can believe in God, …’
“Budapest is a prime site for dreams: the East’s exuberant vision of the West, the West’s uneasy hallucination of the East. It is a dreamed-up city; a city almost completely faked; a city invented out of other cities, out of Paris by way of Vienna — the imitation, as Claudio Magris has it, of an imitation.”
― M. John Harrison, The Course of the Heart
Well, I’m not sure, and to be fair the quote does stem from 1992, but what I am sure about is that visiting places for a third time is a privilege providing opportunity for looking at the same stuff afresh. This was my third visit to Budapest, 26 years after my first.
My first visit was in January 1994, when Budapest and Hungary were actually still busy stepping out from behind the Iron Curtain. In those days you could still feel the cold eastern atmosphere in the Budapest streets. Strolling the streets in those days, you could see and feel the cold, grey and life’s weight on the residents but from a traveller’s perspective it was gloriously exciting. Since that trip, it has changed a lot. Budapest nowadays is a vibrant city, with a modern feel, many tourists ensuring the worldwide irritation of pedestrians texting while walking, selfie-sticks in abundance and English spoken everywhere. Don’t get me wrong when I refer to the latter negatively, but the globalised impact of being understood everywhere does dilute some of the traveling experience of old. It was exploratory on my first trip in 1994 to struggle being understood, adventuring through menus and using sign language to get to destinations or pointing at which ‘torta’ you want with your coffee. Nothing in Hungarian hints in any way to its English word, not to even think Afrikaans. Sitting in Ferenc Liszt Budapest airport just after arrival I was, for example, trying to find links between the Hungarian I saw on restaurant signs and English. Who would have thought that ‘péksütemények’ means ‘pastry’, or even shorter ‘deeg’ in Afrikaans? On that first trip, 26 years ago, there were no translate apps, no Googlemaps, nor commercial GPS’s, no Costas nor Starbucks and hardly any English; just the decent and proper ‘old world’ classy ‘cukrászda’ coffee establishments, such as Gerbeaud. Furthermore, in those old days, the clientele of Gerbeaud did not stroll in wearing hiking boots, loose hoodies and backpacks, they were dressed in old fashioned classy coats and scarves and vintage Fedora hats. In a sense, travel has become too easy, and dare I, who love wearing shorts, say, too casual?
Belgium was never particularly high on my list. I’ve always loved the relaxed passion of the Mediterranean nations, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Southern France; the language and ‘joy de vivre’ of France and I was naturally intrigued by the Afrikaans heritage from the Netherlands. To my layman’s understanding of Belgium and Luxembourg they were sort of the mix that wondered whether they were French, Dutch or German, not excelling at one of them, yet thriving on their political stance as home base of the EU. Last year’s trip, (see Summer in the sombre ‘The Somme’) to Flanders was the beginning of my enlightenment, but having spent a magnificent six days over Easter in the Belgian Ardenne, opened my eyes and made me realise that Belgium was a full longed and proper travel destination where you need time to meander, read, listen and just sit around to observe. It is rich in history (not all of it is good though), culture, engineering and finesse. Belgium is sort of my new Number One – sorry Jacob.
We were based in a gîte just outside of Bastogne called Savy555 (find Christine on Booking.com – I recommend that) with a cosy fireplace for the relaxed evenings, a nice ‘stoep’ outside with stunning views over the spacious lawns towards the duck pond end. To perfect the amenities, there is a small braai for the good weather dinners I prepared.
Braai ≠ barbeque nor grill, but for clarity’s sake, let’s use those synonyms if you’re not South African
‘Koukus’ was an old radio comic story done by Leon Schuster and Fanus Rautenbach on Radio Suid Afrika in the 80s. It was Afrikaans radio comedy and sometimes hilariously funny. One particular story I remember was the one where the school ‘1ste rugbyspan’ went to support the 1st netball team as a little team building event. That’s the way it was, the boys extended gtremendous courtesy to support the girls occasionally, while it was expected that everyone supported the boys, ak ‘die manne’! The boys were slightly clueless about the game, and life for that matter, other than bashing each other in the hunt for that lovely oval leather ball, in those days branded as Super Springbok (sadly that has probably faded into oblivion) and the glory of scoring a try, winning a line-out or achieving a tight-head victory. However, on that fatal afternoon, the long-legged, blond pony-tailed captain, let’s call her Ansie, of the 1st Netball team hurt her ankle and true to his rugby coaches’ pep-talk on chivalry before the time, the ‘1ste Rugbyspan Kaptein’ ran onto the netball pitch and carried Ansie to the side-lines where he helped her massage her ankle, probably initially with Deepheat. I can even smell that ‘wetter green’ smell of Vicks chewing gum that was the distinctive smell of Deepheat. A little later the ‘1ste Rugbyspan Kaptein and Ansie moved to a more private spot for the ankle rubbing, which lead to him missing the kick-off of his rugby match later that afternoon!
That Monday at school, when the furious coach saw the ‘1ste Rugbyspan Kaptein’ at school he naturally confronted him; ‘where were you, we needed you, we counted on you, you’re the captain!!’ and then the laconic reply came, ‘I don’t know what they call it Sir, but I’m done with rugby!’
I can say the same about skiing, which incidentally I have said before in my blog post Skiing is believing
Skiing is a similar joy. It’s a recreational pleasure out in nature, wonderful scenery all round and a freedom of speed and movement beyond description. I do acknowledge that with age, the limitations start to appear, such as knee-strength and general fitness, but nonetheless its at least just as good as ankle rubbing on the netball field and what follows!
Since we’ve arrived in Europe in October 2011, we’ve spent a week or more of every December holiday-break skiing in either France or Livigno.
Livigno is a quaint Italian Alpine village with all modern amenities, state of the art ski slopes, infrastructure and a town vibe to adore. Restaurants are in abundance for all tastes to build up strength for tomorrow’s energy sapping ski-slopes, but the main refuelling is obviously the late afternoon après ski, somewhere with real loud music, or next to an open ‘street fire’ lazily people watching. This is where I recharge my batteries for both body and soul. This is where you relax, chat, meet new people, share stories, trade contact info, advise on restaurants and slopes; or just stare into the flames.
Though skiing is obviously the key activity, a very close second place is just, well, being in the snow. Being in the snow brings a pleasure and intrigue, as well as just plain fun. Helping some locals to recover their car from the ankle deep snow after a nice dinner with pushing, broken Italian (with a good mix of broken Spanish as substitute for the lack of broken Italian) and laughter together are the memories that stick. And while we, as South Africans not used to snow marvel at the splendour, you realise that it has a practical negative side too, when the local Italian utters is first words after we’ve recovered his car, in pretty good English, ‘fucking snow!’
Snow will always be marvellous and a splendour to enjoy. It is cosy, it is beautiful, it is sporty and it is playful. But, it is also dangerous, yet adventurous. It felt as if I was in a James Bond movie scene, when we headed home through the Alps.
In this post, pictures speak louder than words, I hope.
Can you imagine having been intimidated, interrogated and abused in the ‘old days’ of madness, and then many years later, after walls came tumbling down, you bump into your bully in a grocery store?
That’s the story our hotelier in the amazing city Schwerin shared with us at breakfast. His wife was clearly still shaken up by this experience, but that is so much reality in many parts of Germany, or the larger previously communist Eastern Europe.
Heleen and I decided to explore the far northeast of Germany for a week and to see what surprise destinations, in both sights and history we could find. And oh boy, did I enjoy it.
Schwerin is the capital city of German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and is particularly known for its breath-taking palace. The palace is currently the office of the state government and is situated on the lake island just out of town. It was February and as can be imagined, the weather was not ‘African friendly’ weather, but we were brave, tightened the scarves and strolled the beautiful island, amazed at the majestic palace before we sniffed out a delicious traditional German potato-, leek- and ‘wurst’ soup with bread and a glass of nearly acceptable quality wine in the well preserved ‘altstadt’.
I attempt to also appreciate the extremely interesting other historic periods strolling the town and sights, but the Stasi- and the cold war period is constantly in my head. So much more after having a very absorbing conversation with our hotelier and being informed that the big empty building 200m from the hotel is actually the old Stasi Head Office, where his wife had her nightmare experience many years before. It was actually right there on our doorstep and one of many places where so many serious atrocities happened resulting in numerous innocent people’s life so dramatically influenced by the communist and socialist bully methods. This incident, of the hotelier wife and her face-to-face years later with her interrogator immediately reminded me of Anna Fulder’s book, Stasiland, and that particular comment Miriam made to Anna when she said, ‘And I think about those Stasi men. They would never in their lives have imagined that they would seize to exist and that their offices would become a museum. A museum!’ She then further says ‘I like to drive up to the Runde Ecke and park right outside. I just sit there in the car and I feel …. triumph! Miriam makes a gesture which starts as a wave, and becomes a guillotine. ‘You lot are gone’.
And that’s the lesson. Nothing lasts. Not Eric Mielke and his Stasi nor the Gadaffi’s, Sadam Hussains, or Robert/Grace Mugabes and their cronies.
I like driving around in these remoter parts of the over developed Germany. Here you still get a feeling that its slightly remote and rural – definitely not Karoo remote – but at least slightly less built up than Northrhein Westfalen, where we live. Once you’ve succeeded in shifting the Stasi history out of your head for a while, you realise how scenically beautiful this part of Germany is. Schwerin sits next to a beautiful lake, the Schwerin See, (yes, the Europeans call a lake a sea and the sea a ‘meer’, but then again, Obelix did repeatedly state that they are slightly crazy!). This northern coast provides some extra scenic splendour including the white cliffs at Putgarten on the island Rügen. It’s a worthwhile destination to go hiking, even in bad weather. Bad weather here has the knack to shut you off from the rest of the world. Its just you, the grey of the air and sea and the beautiful green of the coast, with a bleak hint of the whitish cliffs in the distance. And just before you freeze, you end your hike back in town in a small pub-like restaurant with thick vegetable soup and fresh bread. Winter here is grey, but it’s a grey that has its own peculiar excellence.
Further east and on the border with Poland is the holiday town, Heringsdorf, on the Usedom Island. The area is known as Kaiserbad, as it was the favourite spa destination of the German Emperors in days gone by due its its clean beaches and the long sandy stretch. It actually is the longest sand beach in Europe, being 40km in total distance. Heringsorf was our base for a few days from where we visited the astonishing Świnoujście (Swinemünde) which has a harbour in the river mouth of the Swine river. This was a major German naval base during WW2 as well as the Cold War period. On the beaches of Heringsdorf the military lookout towers are still plentiful. The irony about these is that they were mostly used, similar to the Berlin Wall, to keep the ‘free’ people of the German ‘Democratic’ Republic from defecting, and not so much as defending against external threats entering!
Some 40km to the west of Heringsdorf we strolled in fascination through the museum in Peenemünde. Here an Army Research Centre was founded in 1937. Many serious weapons, including guided missile and rocket weapons were tested and designed here using the nearby concentration camp inmates as forced labour – forced to build weapons they knew would destroy their homeland and massacre their own people. During the Cold War Soviet days it was rumoured that the Soviets revived Peenemünde for their space program.
Heading back home to Bad Honnef, I decided to drive via the historic towns of (Lutherstad) Wittenberg and Erfurt to spend a few hours in the footsteps of Martin Luther, the father of the German Protestant movement. It is 500 years ago (October) since he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg and certainly was a door I needed to see. The Luther church was inspiring to see, but as a town the old part of Erfurt was something extraordinary. It was here, in Erfurt where Martin Luther was ordained in the Cathedral of St Mary, which dates back to the 8th century and where he also delivered many of his sermons. Still intact in Erfurt is the Krämerbrucke (or merchant bridge) and its medieval houses spanning the Gera River. The original bridge was an important part of the trade and pilgrims routes connecting Rome with the Baltic Sea. It was originally a wooden bridge but was destroyed many times by fire. The current stone bridge, which is lined on both sides with half-timbered houses, was completed in 1472.
En route back home to ‘West Germany’, we stopped a last stop to sort of exit ‘Eastern Germany’ officially at a fantastically interesting museum called Point Alpha. Its one of many ‘Grenz’ museums where the ‘iron curtain’ became real. Point Alpha specifically was the border between the towns Rasdorf in the west and Geisa in the east. It has an excellent museum depicting the inner German border as well as some well-preserved samples of various stages of the original border.
After a thoroughly enjoyable week back in history and into a cold grey era, I must admit that there was a feeling of relief that we were heading west, and that it was into an era well beyond 9 November 1989, the day when such important walls came tumbling down. Walls aren’t the answer.
‘On day four, it was time to move on. Francois and Talitha said their goodbyes and headed back to Wildernis, while we headed north-west, towards Mata Mata and its border post. We still had 10 days ahead to explore the vast distances and rugged beauty of the Namib and Etosha. Distance for today was 774km of dirt road; pure ‘lekkerte!’’
Mata Mata is one of the three conventional camps in the Kgalagadi and lies on the eastern border of Namibia with the convenience of a border post. One can enter and exit Namibia at this post if you stay in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park for two nights, preventing the park becoming a transit route, which is obviously a good rule. Namibia has vast distances and travellers more often than not underestimate the travel distances and times. I too made that mistake. Not so much in my planning, but more so in my execution. Enjoying the goodbyes with Francois and Talitha, the showers in Twee Rivieren and the game drive from Twee Rivieren to Mata Mata too much, meant that we exited South Africa about three hours later than initially planned. We still had 570km to cover from Mata Mata to Sesriem, and it was already after lunchtime. Of the 570km 90% was dirt roads, which translates to at least 8 hours of driving. Its normally not a problem, but this being wild country with plenty of wild animals, its not wise to travel after sunset. That clichéd quote ‘its better to travel hopeful than to arrive’ really rang true that evening, with frequent encounters with oryx, zebra, kudu and other large animals roaming the roads in the dark. Fortunately, we travelled well and arrived safely at Sossus Oasis Camp Site, Sesriem.
Namibia must be one of the best-kept secrets and I actually don’t want to promote it too much through my blog, as I’m afraid of more people traveling there and spoiling it for us selfish ones. It is pristine, wild, mostly dry, tranquil but rough and expansive. And why I have a very selfish stance on trying my little best to keep it that way is because people spoil things. Sitting and enjoying our campfire late afternoon the next day, sipping a Pinotage from Tulbach and not speaking much, the serenity was abruptly ended by an Englishman and a German entering a particularly abusive shout-fest over their camping spot and access to the electricity. Right there and then, Europe spoiled a perfect African setting for the better part of an hour. But the rough beauty of the place convinced me to ignore them and enjoy the splendour of God’s creation.
Though Lufthansa may be at risk, due to their lack of customer service (see my previous post Flight LH572 July 22, 2016 : An ugly story), we eventually did arrive in South Africa, and we did enjoy all the promised ‘braais’, ‘kuiers’ and catch-up with all and sundry; exactly the things Expats do when returning home for a visit. It was fortunately not ‘allesverloren’!
A truly special place is the Kgalagadi. Its one of those places which I truly wish I could show off to everybody I meet in Europe. It’s a pristine wilderness in the dry western parts of South Africa and Botswana as God intended and where wild beasts roam freely. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is one of the most pristine conservation areas on earth, and that was the first destination of our two week Kgalagadi and Namibian safari.
Special places require special equipment. Though the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park has normal dirt roads and its theoretically accessible with a sedan, its not advisable. Even when the roads are well maintained, you are still confronted with high sand walls next to most of the roads, which means while we are scanning the wide plains for Oryx, Springbuck, Lions et al from the raised elevation of the Land Rover, the sedan driver scans a meter high sand wall for ants, grouse and desert rats! To fully enjoy the Kgalagadi, one needs to have a bakkie, kombi or similar high, big tyres vehicle.
My view of the Vikings are really a scary image in my head of Hägar or Hiccup’s Dad being afraid of nothing and causing fear in everybody crossing their paths. But that reality has long gone. It is sort of generally accepted that that age lasted from the Viking raid on the Lindisfarne Monastery in Northern England in 793 until the battle of Hastings in 1066, a seriously brutal 273 years in northern Europe. Denmark is seen as the historical home to the Vikings and though once feared across Europe for their raids and killing sprees they have significantly calmed down. The modern day Viking, if we consider the Danes’ Viking heritage, is a ‘peaceful bunch that traded their long-ships for bicycles’ (according the the Visitdenmark website).
I think, after my week long traveling through Denmark, I can concur that they are actually a civilised and peaceful looking bunch, with plenty of modern engineering evidence in some awesome bridges and beautiful nature being preserved. Maybe too civilised as well. Denmark is regarded as the world’s happiest country, measured on criteria such as a strong social support system, freedom to live as one please and low perceived business and government corruption. Especially number two, living as one please was very insightful for me, as we went for a short stroll through the notorious free town of Christiana.
Christiana is sort of a hippy commune, to this day. It was founded in 1971 in an abandoned military camp in Copenhagen. For about 4 decades it was nothing more than a hippy squatter camp where selling and smoking all sorts of funny stuff was ‘accepted’ by turning a blind eye. Since 2011, the property was negotiated to belong to the community and residents could apply to get a living space. Its still a dump, don’t get me wrong, but its an interesting dump. Hippies trade and live and smoke and seem generally happy, but according to some warnings, you should not be too relaxed. Specific warnings against taking photos are plentiful and can apparently turn violent if disobeyed. However, we strolled deep into Christiana, up to a point where the hairs in the back of your neck told you to rather turn back and head out. Scrutinising eyes and disapproving gazes started to feel threatening. We turned back before we could see if there’s still a bit of Viking smouldering in the modern day Dane living in Christiana.
That famous Little Mermaid
Interesting accommodation in downtown Copenhagen
Copenhagen in general is a beautiful city, with plenty of sights and interesting spots to explore. Its also small enough that its okay to stay in town, have two days at leisure and by foot see most of the city and if you’re lucky enough, even stumble onto the changing of the guards. As with most first visits to new destinations, I do believe you should tick off the obvious attractions, be it only to chat along in the future with a ‘yes, the Copenhagen Mermaid is smaller than I thought, or ‘no, I thought Christianshavn was as beautiful as I imagined, and not overly touristy! Is it overly touristy if there’s always a Chinese restaurant as well?’
A sad reality, which stayed with me since I saw Out of Africa, was the fact the Karen Blixen never returned to Africa after she ‘had a farm in Africa’ for 17 years. I had to see for myself how wonderful a place she had in Denmark to permanently give up her African farm, and I found that surely the family pressure to give up that farm must have been huge. We visited her home in Rungstedlund but unfortunately the museum house was closed. It’s a nice enough setting and beautiful manor and I hopefully one day will get the chance to see the inside, but that farm in Africa!!
The house, now a museum, of Karen Blixen
Denmark is fairly small. To put it in perspective, from Karen’s house on the east coast to our destination, Esbjerg on the west coast, is a mere 318km or just just more than twice the size of the Kruger National Park back home. Furthermore, for comparison purposes and simply because it is interesting, there are according to the 2011 census 6.85 million Afrikaans speakers (first language) in South Africa, while there are about 6 million Danish speakers (first language). Adding all the expats nowadays, there’s probably a million more Afrikaans speakers spread all over the world; I personally know of at least 7 in Köln.
Thus, it was a easy leisurely drive east, stopping at Roskilde’s Viking Museum to have a coffee and sandwich with Hägar and company, before having the coldest photo-shoot of my life at the awe-inspiring Storebælt suspension bridge at Halsskov. If the Vikings have gone soft, they surely make up for that loss in their gained skills for building infrastructure. This is a magnificent bridge, consisting of three ‘sections’; a suspension motor highway (pun intended as its 65 meters above the sea) and 6.7km long. With its 65 meters clearing, the world’s largest cruise ship class can pass under the bridge with its smoke stack folded. This ‘East Bridge’ part is the third longest suspension bridge in the world and is complemented with a twin tunnel rail system which provide thorough fare for trains, under the sea, with the two tunnels being 8 km long. From the little island Sprogø to the mainland at Knudshoved the cars and trains commute side by side across a box girder bridge that is 6.6 km long and with an 18 meters clearing. But let me say again, this place can be cold. That wind blows from Greenland across Iceland and the icy North Seas, makes a sharp right turn before Gothenburg to come and freeze curious travellers who dare to exit their cars for a photo or coffee break. Dress warmly!
Denmark is a fascinating country, but the best of the best sights for me surely was the natural wonder and the pure awe of the Creation visible at the west coast Wadden Sea islands, such as Rømø. Here, we waded on the beaches of the Wadden Sea (Vadehavet in Danish) where its wide, long and flat and beautifully serene. I constantly had the images in my head from a translated TV series I watched as a kid, where ‘Sill se Lobke’ roamed the beaches with her farther as ‘Strandlopers’ (beach drifters) to collect the wreckage and stuff washed up on the beaches from ships, and which they could use or sell. I know Sill was from Sweden, but the scenes were the same. It took me back in time to my childhood and reminded me how I always wanted to travel and see places such as those beaches Sill and Lobke frequented, and now I was so blessed to be able to that, with my best travel buddy at my side. The Wadde Sea is a large part of the north-western coast of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark and is listed on the UNESCO World heritage lists. Some parts are well developed, such as the German island, Sylt (and then seriously expensive too at €95 to ferry your car over by the compulsory train), but there are magnificent natural and nature rich areas kept in its natural conservation state. It must be visited, even just to see that you need to time your visits carefully. We booked a room through Booking.com without realising the reality of the area, on the island Mandø. Approaching the town of Ribe en route to Mondø, we received a call from the innkeeper saying we can’t come, ‘ve are flooding’.
The flooded road to Mondø
‘Shall we walk, if we can’t drive?’
We then Google searched and realised the road from the mainland to the island is a dirt road, thus not really ‘flat car’ accessible for one-, but a more significant reason, its covered by anything between 50 to 100 cm of sea during high tide, and this was high tide.
The world is small. We booked into an Air B&B near the rural town of Skærbæk on a farm for one evening. The owner was not around and the farmhand came to provide the necessary towels and stuff. After chatting and discovering that we are South Africans, he confessed to also being a Saffa, Wilhelm Schutte, from Schoemansville, a little town on the outskirts of Pretoria. Then we spent a lovely few hours chatting in Afrikaans over a South African red wine we bought in the Danish ‘platteland’ with a ‘Danish’ farmer who’ve been working in Europe for more than 20 years.
After a quick overnight visit to Sylt, we headed home. Sylt is beautiful, but to my taste, the more natural and less touristy islands in the Danish part of the Wadden Coast are a much better destination. I’ll go again.
Heading home, meant crossing the Nord-Ostsee Kanal, one of the other engineering sights I had on my to-do list for this trip. This canal crosses Germany’s neck and allows larger seafaring ships to cut hours from their trip between the North- and the Baltic Seas. Our timing was good and I was able to see a large ship deep inland crossing the continent.
It was a terrific week of driving through Denmark, and my conclusion in this day and age; ‘Something is not rotten in Demark’!
If WW2 and Cold War is regarded as old school, our next destination entered areas of extreme scenic beauty and much more recent violent conflict. We headed to Croatia, which will be the topic of my next Blog post. For now I’ll leave
‘My house in Budapest
My hidden treasure chest,
Golden grand piano
My beautiful Castillo’
For mountain lakes, Dalmation beaches, islands, boat cruises and gripping historic learning.
Though often missed as a tourism destination, I made up my mind that Zagreb is a gem and secretly beautiful while genuinely worth a visit.
Dolac market in Zagreb
Its small and I was enthralled while strolling the inner city, just sitting and people watching (photographing) on Ban Jelacic Square or while browsing the open market Dolac. August though, was extremely hot and uncomfortable and after properly enjoying the shortest funicular in the world to elevate us to Gornji Grad or up-town Zagreb enjoying the magnificent Baroque architecture and descending throught the 13th century Kamenita vrata (Stone Gate) to Donji Grad or down-town, it was time to head into the hinterland, where the breathtakingly beautiful Plitvice Lakes awaited.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of those destinations better described by photos.
Its waters flow over limestone chalk, building over time various natural dams and waterfalls reminiscent of beaver dams over which one can only stand in awe and take in the wonders of Gods creation. The wooden walkways at the side of the lakes and little bush footpaths provide the opportunity for a leisurely workout in nature, building up a nice sweat while deciding which angles will make the best pictures and traversing the many ups and downs of this nature walk. Its not a tough walk, but it does take time and one should be prepared by at least carrying sufficient water with you. It’s a natural wonder, though, and should be included in any bucket list venturing in the direction of Croatia.
But man steps in
Plitvice is also the sight where the first shots were fired in March 1991 when a policeman was killed as the start of the Croation independent war. Croatia was part of Yugoslavia during the communist era but splintered relations brewed as conflict for many years before the violent eruption in 1991. Croatia and Slovenia had a more liberal (imagine that irony, liberal communism) view and pushed for more autonomy versus the conservative hard-nosed Serbian side. Yugoslavia was a communist country since after WW1 and was made up of Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Traveling is not sight seeing
Therefor we enjoy and mostly try to find slightly more ‘authentic’ places to stay. Renting self-catering accommodation in these parts directly from local homeowners provide that ideal opportunity to meet and chat to the locals. We stayed with Ana, in Apartment Ana, in the sort of town area Smoljanac. The beauty of staying here was that you experienced rural Croatian daily life as well. You have the opportunity to buy your beer at the local little crocery shop, and take a seat at the wooden table outside on the street where the local labourers offer you their seats. Maybe because we’re foreigners or maybe because we had our parents with us, but still, six hardworking men, at the end of a long day and enjoying their Ožujsko beer without hesitance giving up their seats made me feel welcome, in an area where right in front of Apartments Ana you still see the sadness of a recent war in the soldier monument guarding the valley. Even today, some houses and building still show the bullet holes in the walls. Except for the tourism and accommodation side of this rural community, the existence is very much small scale farming where beans, tomatoes and corn are picked by hand, goats are milked by hand and all fresh produce produced locally for daily consumption.
Dinner at the friendly (or rather I think it was friendly judged by the smiles, service quality and interest in us as we have no idea of the Croatian language, and they very little of English, German and no Afrikaans) Pansion žafran, Smoljanac 88 was delightful. We started to learn more about the Croatian cuisine, realising the influences of what we know as Greek, Italian, Mediterranean and a few regulars from Germany featuring on our plates. There were amongst others schnitzels and pizzas but also cobanac (a delicious spicy meat stew), cevapcici (a type of skinless spicy sausage), burek (a type of pastry dish) and for desert rozata (a flan like caramel covered desert) to name just a few.
Self-drive hands you the scenic route
Take the scenic route. Stop at the war memorials and plan the extra time to enable you the wonderful sights of the Dalmation coast. That’s what I believe! There are 101 or thereabout stops to be made, photo opportunities or cafe’s to be experienced and simply wondering about life out here when you venture off the beaten track. Taking route 25 through the heart of where serious battles were fought all the way to Karlobag at the coast and across the amazingly beautiful mountain passes to get there proved an excellent choice providing us with a stunningly scenic drive, feeling like an extended Chapman’s Peak, for the entire day. Our end destination was Split.
‘Split is nie vandag se kind nie!’ (Split is no youngster)
Split is an ancient city with some sources taking economic activity as far back as 2,400 years ago. It was Greek and Roman in its day, but today Split is a proud Croatian city providing a tourist destination ‘par excellance’ including access to many stunning Adriatic islands, perfect for a day tour in the sun and on the salty sea surface. That’s what we did. Chartered a skipper and ski-boat and we explored the fascinating Adriatic Sea, its islands of Hvar and Vis with a first stop in Komiža. We would occasionally dive into the crystal clear blue waters to cool off and then head further exploring. There is never enough time, but we did have time to visit one of my personal highlights, the ex Yugoslavian shelter for boats and submarines on the island Vis, just off the town of Rogačić. This is a 75m deep shelter carved into the shore and which forms part of an entire network of tunnels and underground shelters which the Yugoslavian army occupied for decades.
Further around Vis is the little island Ravnik and the Green Cave, where we ventured in with the boat, had the opportunity to snorkel and enjoy the beautiful images of the sun piercing through a hole in the roof to provide stunning scenes in the crystal clear water inside the cave. I know my home country is ‘the most beautiful country in the world’, but once you’ve broadened your horizons you realise how often beauty is in the eye of the beer holder!
Our charter captain for the day, Alex, was a wealth of information and a delight to chat with. While relaxing for lunch at Restaurant Zori, Palmizane, I was able to get him talking about the history, the war and the modern day Croatia. The irony of the situation stays with me. We were having the time of our lives, thinking about Croatia as the best thing since sliced bread and making plans to come live here, while he was only interested to move away, where he can find a ‘proper’ job and be away from the ugliness of what the war reminded him of. He went on about the day the war ended, the evacuating senior officer giving orders to bomb Split, even though his family were still living in Split and how, though he saw the beauty and exciting future of a modern day Croatia, he preferred to move on.
The more I learn about Europe, the less I understand war.
North of Split is the bay area with is seven Kaštels making up the seven towns, before you reach the walled little gem of a town, Trogir, with its ancient architecture, zillions of photos to be taken, cafè’s to be tried and corners where you can duck behind to just restore your jaw into place after hanging open at the sights. Wealthy families built these seven Kastels in the 1500s mostly as summer residences but also as fortification against the attacking Turks who would come from the sea. Those young Turks certainly were a menace!
Stumbling onto a gem
Starting the long journey back, my daughter took initiative and secured our last stop. We were now taking the highway and not the small roads as we had many kilometres to kill, but it was still a scenic route through the central mountainous terrain, which is Croatia.
Ševlje, is a small little rural village in Slovenia, but it’s ideally situated for what we needed. We needed scenery, little mountain roads, a day trip opportunity and a warm shower. Then we would be happy. The fact that we got all of this, plus a delicious home cooked Fettuccini Alfredo courtesy of Linda and Pieter, some good conversation and a sip of wine to discuss the day’s events over, was pure bonus.
As is my nature, I selected the smallest little roads to get to Bohinjsko Jezero, or Lake Bohinj. It’s the slightly less famous lake in the Slovenian Alps with that clear Alpine mountain water as forefront and the snow peaked (its August yes) in the background. Old architecture of bridges, churches and more provide amply photographic opportunities, while there’s always sufficient coffee and ice-cream available in Europe. Lake Bled is the more famous one of the two lakes, and has the world famous Cerkev Marijinega Vnebovzetja (maybe slightly more pronounceable Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Maria) on the Island of Bled in the middle of the lake. After some canoeing on the lake and criss-crossing through and over the mountains to photograph the lonely Church of St Primoz with its majestic outlook over the world, we knew its time to move on.
A fantastic three week road-trip from Cologne, through the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria had to end with quick stopover in Munich, just to show off the Marienplatz to Pa Cas and Ouma Koekoe before embracing the autobahn all the way back.
It was a magical three weeks, 4,131km and uncountable photos, laughter, wow-moments, lessons from history, hope for the future and just pure wonderful nature experiences making me realise once more, ‘what a wonderful world’ we have.
‘A man who has not been in Italy is always conscious of an inferiority; from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see!’ – Samuel Johnson
Click on the photos to enlarge
I have seen It, I have traveled It, I have driven It, including that magnificent Amalfi coastal route, I have experienced a cutthroat Italian shave and now I have to share these travels as I simply cannot see so many inferiority complexes continue. However, I doubt if I can even slightly give justice to the experience, pleasure and sights I have seen on my three-week trip in this blogging attempt. If, however, I can inspire just one to visit Italy because of this blog, I’ll be happy.
So, please, go and just do it ✔
To add to an experience such as traveling Italy, its not a bad idea to take some of your best friends along. Sharing the beauty, the tastes, the wine, the music and friendship chatter with Andre en Rentia added that cherry on top satisfaction, which we had. It was good.
The first delightful stretch of road I discovered was still in Austria where I traversed the Alps between Zell am Zee and Heiligenblut over the Großglockner Hochalpenstraße, all the way up to the Edelweißspitze. I seriously suffer from fear of hights and this road tested me to the extreme of my bravery as far as hights go. I will, however be tested further on this journey as far as narrow, winding roads and Italian bus, car and scooter drivers are concerned. I believe I am now an accomplished driver and may even appear as a guest ‘Stig’ on Top Gear. Jeremy must just first discover me!
‘Ah Venice’ unfortunately is rapidly becoming ‘o no Venice’. The once magnificent icon on my third visit there was certainly the disappointment of the trip. Though the little alleyways, canals and architecture obviously are still there constantly posing for the Canon lens,
the Italian charm is mostly gone and replaced by a cheap plastic feel where shopkeepers are all but Italian and where the Gondola boats-men chat on cellphones and smoke rather than sing there once famous opera arias! Even those rows and rows of restaurant chairs on San Marco’s Square were pathetically empty, with some restaurants providing music to not a single customer at dinnertime. The once classy establishment had made way to a cheap ‘follow-the-flag-and-quickly-take-a-photo-from-a-distance’ type traveller who sees, but does not feel nor experience. Have the many years of exorbitant prices caught up with Venice, or is the Europe-wide influx of cheap labour and associated cheap stuff more to blame? It was a sad sad situation to observe. Very disgruntled by what we saw and experienced in Venice we were adamant to find some of the old charm for lunch and Cara took the lead out of the main streets. We were lucky. Seeing a little osteria (Da Mario at Fondamenta de la Malvasia Vecchia San Marco) tucked away in a quiet street we peaked through the door to see it filled with gondoliers.
Surely, this is the local hangout and we must try it. It was the real deal, with cheap great food, beer and wine as well as an Italian ‘mamma’ running the tiny kitchen with all the charm, sweat and noise which one would want and expect as the scene from an Italian restaurant. Venice was not yet completely lost!
Despite the disappointment of Venice, our stay was a delight, even though we camped. I opted for the lessor advertised and harder to find Agricampeggio Mose on Punta Sabbioni.
This camp is part of a working farm where they have a little stall selling the farm produce and which is run by (another) ‘Mama’, who even offer free transport to the ferry-bus and who runs the tiny café-bar, reception, shuttle service and no-English loud and fast Italian conversation with true Italian aplomb. Prepare for your survival by learning some life saving Italian phrases, such as ‘due espresso macchiato per favore’ and practice to say it in the required Italian rhythmic tone, with hands pointed backwards, all fingers clenched together and giving the beat of the request. Very important to then respond to Mama’s question, ‘latte caldo o freddo?’ with a confident ‘caldo’ (for hot milk) and not with a ‘huh!’ to prevent Mama whipping the floor with you! Even with the communication gap firmly in place, Mama’s sense of humor and joking with our ignorance regarding Italian ways and customs will make me recommend her camp-site with great pleasure. Just remember, Venice has plenty of water, take mosquito repellent.
On the west coast in the famous Cinque Terre region is another magic, yet slightly menacing to reach campsite, Campeggio Il Nido, which has been owned and run by Roberto for the past 28 years. Reaching Campeggio Il Nido was, even including the drive across the Alps in Austria, my first real driving challenge, negating the winding and narrow roads with crazy death challenging Italian drivers, each in his own mind totally convinced that his Vespa, Fiat 500 or even Piaggio 3-wheel delivery van/scooter thingy was a full-blooded Ferrari! Il Nido is truly tucked away in the coastal bush, on the edge of the mountain and with the most amazing views of the Mediterranean imaginable. The campsite consist of a few terraces where mostly only two- or three-man tents will fit and since its not in town, its little restaurant is where the entire camp will gather in the evenings and leisurely sit, eat, chat or catch-up on their Facebook status! It was here where I noticed the small interesting little library, with a particularly interesting book, for this part of the world.
Although the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre (remember cinque means five) can be reached by train, taking the hop-on-hop-off boat proved to be a stunningly relaxing way to visit the towns, with the added advantage of providing those exquisite views from the sea on the towns. The five towns that make up this must-visit destination are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Five old world fishing villages consisting of one or two mentionable little streets lined by the most exquisite and quaint buildings proudly inviting the camera lens for more and more. This coastline is rugged, with each town, except Corniglia, hugging a small bay/harbor where ‘the fish know all the fishermen and boats know each other’s name’, as Valiant Swart puts it so eloquently. Cinque Terre should be very high on any prospective traveller’s bucket list. Whether you love simply wandering around, browsing the many little stores, dipping into the clear clear water of the Mediterranean, sitting and sipping something cold to wash away the salty anchovies or actively hiking, taking photos and ‘ticking off’ your bucket list items, you will be happy in Cinque Terre.
And once we’ve accomplished that satisfactory happiness, slowly and hesitantly we turned our back on the beautiful five towns and the natural beauty linking them and headed for the famous leaning tower, the captivating Florence and the awe inspiring, history rich and fine cuisine of Tuscany and Amalfi. But that’s the next post.