Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Trieste – Better Close Up

Up till now, my impressions of Trieste have not been good. When you drive along the motorway past the edge of it, the city seems full of ugly apartment blocks, and horrendously hilly. While, looking across the bay from Slovenia at night, the contrast in the number of lights makes it seem horribly overcrowded and busy.

However, having got the bus there from Izola, on closer inspection, we found Trieste to be a really attractive place, full of character and lovely architecture. What gives Trieste its character is that it's been something of a political football over the past couple of centuries, as ownership of the city has passed from power to power, meaning that the city has influences from Italy, Austria and from the Slavic world too. The city was initially an important Roman settlement (as evidenced by part of a Roman arch sticking incongruously out of another building), and it was then a satellite port of the Venetian Empire. But, what gave Trieste its major boost was that after the end of the Venetian Republic at the start of the 19th century, it was awarded to the Austrian Empire, as it became their first ever (and only) route to the sea.

As the Austrians proudly started up their new navy, they embellished the city with some superbly grand architecture that made it seem like a Vienna by the sea. At its centre, the huge main square facing out to sea (apparently the biggest in Italy) is a wonderful set piece - surrounded by impressive monumental buildings that make it seem like a set from an opera.

In a boost to local flagmakers, the Italians managed to grab Trieste back from the Austrians after the First World War, and then after the Second World War, the city was coveted by Tito's Yugoslavia, and had to be designated an International City until 1954, when the international courts finally agreed that it should stay Italian. Since then, the city has grown rapidly (hence the rows of ugly apartment blocks that cling on to the steep hills around Trieste), particularly populated with Italians who left the former Italian coastal possessions (like Izola) that became Yugoslavian in 1945.

Even the food and drink scene here is still dominated by Trieste's influences from MittelEurop. It was the Austrians who first got Europe interested in coffee (which they imported through Trieste), something that the Italians have now moved on to an art form – in fact, the famous coffee brand, Illy, started up here. While, curiously enough, the most famous Trieste dish is bratwurst or pork served up Austrian-style in a bun, in restaurants that couldn't feel more Germanic if they tried. I guess it doesn't matter where it all started – Tracy loved the coffee and I loved the pork roll.

So, we were very pleasantly surprised by Trieste, although the traffic on the streets, the graffiti and the underlying sense of big city chaos made us feel happy to return to our peaceful haven in Izola.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Back on The Tourist Trail in Venice  

The conventional advice is, Don't go to Venice in August – it's too hot and too crowded. Well, it certainly was hot and crowded, but a place like this is worth seeing any time of the year – anyway, Venice is always crowded!
So, we left our little piece of the Venetian empire in Izola, Slovenia, and drove for a couple of hours around the top of the Adriatic to where it all started – La Serenissima. We were meeting up for the weekend with some friends who were joining a cruise in Venice, and we were lucky enough to join them on a couple of jaunts around the lagoon city. On the way, I managed to tick off a few Venetian experiences that I'd never done before.
They had hired a boat for the day, so we motored our way out to Murano and Torcello. It's way too hot to have all the furnaces running in August, but the glassworks that we visited still had one going so that we could see an amazing display of glass-blowing. The man's skill was incredible, as the molten glass was transformed before our eyes into a delicate work of art; although they then had to tell us that the cooling ovens weren't running, so it would have to be destroyed – such a waste.
Then we moved onto Torcello, an island in the lagoon that once was a rival to the main city of Venice, with a population of about 20,000, but now has a population that's less than 100. The magnificence of the mosaics from the 11th century in the huge church gives you some idea of lost wealth of this now semi-deserted place. Next, we went to somewhere I've always wanted to go – the famous Cipriani's restaurant. It didn't disappoint. The rural setting was superb, the service great, and the food excellent.
On our way back, the boat took us down some of the back canals of Venice, before a literally spectacular journey down the Grand Canal. The whole place is like a picture – if you can block out the chugging vaporetti overflowing with tourists, then modernity scarcely seems to have interfered with the appearance of this magnificent city.
That evening, even though we still felt full from lunchtime, we had a fabulous dinner just off the Grand Canal, before deciding to decamp to Harry's Bar to see if it lived up to the hype. Sadly, it didn't. It was fairly devoid of atmosphere, the waiters were surly, and much to Mike and mine's disappointment, the expensive drinks menu didn't include beer. However, the excellent company made up for this, and we had a real laugh at the ridiculousness of the whole place.
The next morning, the bellinis from last night had a bit of an affect and the heat seemed that little bit more draining, but we struggled on through. I took us on a walking tour round the backstreets of Canareggio , and then we ended up at the huge Gothic Church of Sts Giovanni e Paolo. This being a Sunday morning, we managed to get in for free, and the array of statuary, monuments and artwork were almost overwhelming. In some ways, it was more enjoyable to visit than St Marks – much lighter, more open, and hardly any crowds (which on an August day in Venice is a rarity).
For lunch, we had the chance to catch up with another friend from the ship for a pizza, and then we just kept on wandering. This has got to be the most picturesque and photogenic city in the world, but it's also one of the most tiring cities in the world. By the end of it, we were exhausted, but exhilarated.
What a city!

Friday, August 7, 2015

3 Countries, 1 Weekend

The great thing about where we are in Slovenia, is that it's so close to other countries to explore – Italy is 10 kms away, while Croatia is about 15 kms away. So, this weekend we hired a car and did a bit of exploring.

On Friday night we visited Slovenia's most famous coastal town, the beautiful town of Piran – a perfectly-preserved Venetian gem that has the historic feel of one of the islands in the Venetian lagoon. For obvious reasons, the atmosphere was much more touristy, international and upmarket than more-workaday Izola, but it made a nice contrast.

The next day, we headed down to Porec on the Croatian Istrian coast – unfortunately, as we approached the queue of traffic at the border crossing, we hadn't realised that Croatia, while part of the EU, was not party to the Shengen Agreement. So, having neglected to bring our passports, we were turned away at the border – whoops! Anyway, Izola was only a 25-minute drive away, so we got the passports and tried again.

If you read the Lonely Planet guide to Croatia, you'd probably avoid Porec – according to LP, it's over-developed and over-touristy, and whilst they have a bit of a point, it's actually another beautiful Venetian port, with lots of historic architecture and a wonderful seaside setting. The highlight was a wonderful 6th century Byzantine Basilica, with glittering mosaics to rival Ravenna or Constantinople even.

To escape the tourists, we headed inland, which felt like another country – much quieter and much less developed. We happened upon a hilltop restaurant specialising in truffles (the local speciality), that promised "food for hedonists". I'm not sure I'd describe us as hedonists, but the food was fantastic – not cheap, but we consoled ourselves that it probably would have cost three-times that amount back in London.

Our final stop was the inland town of Pazin, home to a famous castle, some caves and a gorge – unfortunately, the whole town was asleep, the caves were shut, and the castle just ok. Having said that, the gorge was gorgeous, and it was good to see a bit of inland Istria.

Sunday, we headed towards the other side of Croatian Istria, to see some of its trademark stunning coastline. On the way, we stopped off at the tiny Slovenian village of Hrastovlje, home to a remarkable fortified Romanesque Church, featuring some fantastic frescoes – the highlight being a bizarre "Dance of the Dead", with some gleeful looking skeletons leading various figures to their graves.

Then, passports in hand, we crossed the border and visited the famous "Opatija Riviera" – to be honest, we'd never heard of it before, but once we got to this fabulous stretch of coastline, we could see why it was famous – unbelievably picturesque. We headed to the little village of Velosko, and fell in love with it immediately. It was touristy, but not too busy; a good choice of restaurants; plus an amazing coastline of crystal-clear water in all shades of blues. Fantastic.

From the sublime, we headed just a few kilometres along the coast to the slightly run-down port city of Rijeka, Croatia's third-largest city. Trying not to be put off by the lines of ugly tall apartment blocks from the Communist era, nor the crumbling dock facilities, we found that the centre of the city was actually quite picturesque (although virtually dead on a Sunday afternoon – I presume that everyone had sensibly headed off to enjoy the Opatija Riviera). The highlight was the Trsat Castle, high up on a hill overlooking the sprawling town below – fabulous views.

Before returning the car on Monday, we headed inland to visit Nova Gorica on the Italian border. There's not much remarkable about the town, other than the fact that it was built entirely from scratch after the war, when the borders between Italy and then-Yugoslavia were re-drawn, and a town of Slovenes were displaced from Gorizia which was designated as Italian. Supposedly, the new town was designed along the lines of Le Corbusier, but to me its pre-dominant use of concrete was pretty similar to places in the UK like Woking or Braknell (not what you'd describe as architectural gems), although it did have a good sense of space and some nice tree-lined roads.

But, for us, the interest was walking across the now-unpatrolled, unmanned border into Italy, crossing what was once the frontier between "the free world" and the Communist bloc. As we pulled back the iron curtain, suddenly the architecture was attractive again, the streets full of character. It was interesting to think about how things would have been 25 years ago, before Nova Gorica's version of the Berlin Wall was pulled down - the difference would have been even more marked.

So, in one weekend, we've seen some of the best of Croatia, had an insight into Slovenia's mix of influences, and got a glimpse into why we love Italy so much. Great fun!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Monday, August 3, 2015

Summer in Slovenia (again)

After spending 6 weeks in the UK (mainly helping my Mother recuperate from her foot operation), we've headed South back down to Slovenia again. After a gruelling 2-day drive through France, Belgium, Germany and Austria, we finally arrived at the serene Lake Bled for some time to get the journey out of system. It was pretty good timing, as the town was in the middle of a food festival, so in addition to cycling and swimming, we indulged in two of our favourite activities – eating and drinking (Jon), and watching fireworks (Tracy). Both were great.

This part of Europe was enjoying (or sweltering in) a summer heatwave of 35C plus temperatures every day, so we've headed to a familiar haunt, the Slovenian-Venetian town of Izola on the coast. With our pitch 5 metres from the sea, looking over towards the town and a fabulous sunset every night, we can't really ask for more.

Time is spent, mainly working on lectures for upcoming cruises, with enough time for a bit of relaxing (ok quite a lot), getting updates on the cricket, doing cycle rides, swimming in the sea, and a bit more eating and drinking (which are great value).

This weekend we're hiring a car, so we'll head down to Croatia for a bit of exploring.

This is what the summer should be about. Loving it.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

April 30th – The End of The World Cruise

So, after 115 days, 30,000 nautical miles, 50 ports, and 32 countries, it's all finally coming to an end – we reach Fort Lauderdale tomorrow and we say goodbye to a lot of old friends and a lot of new friends. I must say that this was one of the friendliest and most easy-going of all our World Cruises. A really nice bunch of people who got on very well with each other.

The World Cruise is partly about the onboard experience (which was great), and partly about the destinations, which were as good as ever. My personal highlights (in no particular order) include:
1. The night at the Opera in Sydney
2. Swimming with those enormous tuna in Port Lincoln
3. The Elephants of Pinnawela
4. Going on safari at Ngornogoro
5. Going to see the Cricket in Grenada

It's been a fantastic last 4 months, and we can't wait till the 2016 World Cruise to do it all over again.

In the mean time, we'll have a few days in Florida; then some time in London; a trip to Italy; some more time in London; a campervan trip somewhere (could be France, Spain or Slovenia), then a month on the Silver Spirit in October; then a month somewhere (could be Rome or Seville, or somewhere else – suggestions please); then the UK for Christmas; then back to Fort Lauderdale for the 2016 World Cruise.

Let me know your travel plans for the rest of the year.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

April 28th – Puerto Rico Without The Crowds

Puerto Rico sometimes gets a bad press – people who have been in San Juan when 4 monster cruise ships are in can find the crowds unbearable, while many people who haven't been here before don't realise that the Old Town is such a charming place of beautifully preserved Spanish colonial architecture.

Fortunately, we were the only ship in today, so we could get to savour the historic atmosphere in peace. The thing that strikes you first about the Old Town is how European it looks – architecturally, it bears many similarities with Cadiz in the Mother Country, while its layout of sturdy defensive walls and fortresses facing out to sea reminds me of Dubrovnik.

It was another steamy tropical day, but in amongst the grid of historic buildings, there was just enough shade for us to take shelter in, while there were plenty of bars and cafes to stop off for a cooling drink. Before it got too unbearably hot, we headed over to San Juan's number one historic site – the forbidding El Morro Fortress. This huge medieval fortress was begun in the 16th century, when possession of Puerto Rico was a cornerstone of a Spanish Empire that was growing incredibly rich on trade being shipped (via Puerto Rico) across the Atlantic from Mexico.

The approach to the fortress was by an attractive expanse of grass, which gave great views across to this huge medieval construction. Rather than being there to make it more photogenic, this open area was to give the Spanish a clear line of fire at their Dutch and English enemies (who attacked many times before the Americans finally took over the fortress in 1898). It was fascinating to explore the six different levels of the fortress, enjoying the views over land and sea, and getting to bump into the disconcertingly large pre-historic-looking iguanas that stood guard over the bastions as they nonchalantly sunned themselves.

By now, it was getting blisteringly hot, so we headed back into town to do some more exploring along its evocative blue cobblestone streets, before our final assault on another (even bigger) Spanish fortress – Fort San Cristobal – at the other end of town. This one was newer (it was only about 300 years old), so it didn't have as much history, however the sheer size of it was another reminder of the importance of San Juan to the Spanish.

After stopping for my first ever mofongo (a stodgy, plantain-based creole dish that's the national dish of Puerto Rico) in an air-conditioned restaurant (a pre-requisite by now), we braved the heat again, to head to a few of the town's factory outlet stores to check out the bargains – there were a few to be had.

Puerto Rico offers a nice combination of attractions – we didn't even go to the beach or the rainforest this time, but we still saw plenty of historical and cultural attractions on San Juan's atmospheric streets, plus we got to indulge ourselves with decent food and shopping options too. On a day without the crowds, San Juan was looking very good indeed. What a pleasant final port before the World Cruise ends.