Wednesday, July 23, 2014

July 12th-19th – Family Reunion in Andalucia

When you have as big and spread out a family as I have (my Mum is one of seven), then we rarely get everyone together under one roof, and when we do, it has to be a pretty big roof. So every 5 years, the Mildner clan get together – this time the 28 of gathered in the Andalucian countryside between Granada, Malaga and Cordoba.

Anyone who knows southern Spain at this time of year, knows that it's phenomenally hot, but our lovely villas were blessed with cool swimming pools, lots of shade, and plenty of cool beer (ok, we provided this). We had a great time catching up with long lost cousins, uncles and aunts, plus day trips to the most amazing monuments of Moorish Andaluz, the Mezquita at Cordoba, and the Alhambra at Granada.

I wonder where we'll all meet up again in 2019?

July 11th – Carmen at Verona’s Amphitheatre

There can't be many more stirring places to watch an opera than open-air in the ancient Roman amphitheatre of Verona. We've been quite a few times before and it's always been swelteringly hot, but today was refreshingly (and surprisingly cool).

Other than not having sweat dripping down the back of our legs, what made the performance even better was that it was one of my favourite operas – Carmen (ok, I don't know many operas, but Carmen is one that I've seen a few times). Actually, it was the best staging of it that I've ever seen, with a cast of hundreds of singers and dancers on the huge stage, joined by plenty of children, donkeys and horses.

The only downside of having such amazing sets was that every set change (there were four) took over 20 minutes, which meant that it took almost 4 hours to complete. We took our seats on the stone steps around 8ish, and left just before 1am, scarcely able to feel our backsides!

Numb bum or not, it was a great experience.

July 8th – The White Horses of Lipica

We stood there full of anticipation by the side of the road to the stables. 100 metres up ahead of us a gate was opened, and suddenly, 50 beautiful white Lipizzaner horses came thundering past us at full gallop through the dappled sunlight, like a tide of equine power breaking over us, their manes flapping in the wind behind them and the ground shaking under the weight of their feet as they sprinted past. It was utterly exhilarating being so close to these phenomenal creatures, powerful and graceful at the same time.

This was the perfect end to one of my most enjoyable days in 10 years of campervanning, as we visited the legendary stables of Lipica (pronounced "Lipizza"), to see the original home of the amazing white horses that are used in the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Lipica was home to the imperial stables since the 16th century, but after the break up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, most of the stables' horses were taken off to Austria. However, since the Second World War the stables here have been thoroughly revamped and today demonstrated that the Slovenian branch of the Lippizaner family is in excellent health.

First we went to a perfectly choreographed show of horsemanship just like the Spanish Riding School, with the horses putting on a graceful show of skipping, prancing, pirouetting and high kicking to waltzes and classical tunes (some to a disco beat). The rider and the horse were in perfect unison, making these incredibly complicated manoeuvres look utterly effortless – it was wonderful to watch (sadly you're not allowed to take photos inside as it spooks the horses, so the pictures of the show are from their website).

Then we were taken to the stables to meet some of the horses that are in training – they take years of training, normally reaching performance standard between 10 and 20 years old, before going into a blissful retirement (they live to about 30). Normally I'm a bit wary of horses close up, because I find them a bit unpredictably skittish, but the ones we met were so incredibly calm and serene. It was like meeting horse royalty – I couldn't stop stroking them.

But, the best was saved till last, as we watched that joyful gallop of the mares and the foals (who, surprisingly enough, start off brown and turn white as they reach adulthood). As they galloped past, it felt like we were on the set for the Guinness add, or for a fantasy film.

Slovenia has been a joy from start to finish, but today was surely the best day of the lot.

Monday, July 21, 2014

July 7th – Cycling Along Slovenia’s Coast

From Izola, there's a cycle route along the path of an old train line that takes you to Slovenia's more upmarket resorts of Piran and Portoroz. As neither the road nor this path follows the coast, we were wary that we'd have to cycle up some pretty steep hills to get there, although the woman in the tourist office told us that "it wasn't too steep". Either she's a top-class cyclist or she was having a laugh with us, because the first hill felt like it was nearly vertical, and it almost killed us off before we'd really got going.

Fortunately, we persisted and the journey proved to be quite beautiful, through rolling valleys of vines, up a few more hills and then down to the coast again to Portoroz. With its beach bars and packed beaches of imported sand, I guess that Portoroz fancies itself as the St Tropez of Slovenia, although to me it seems a bit more Blackpool than Riviera.

So, instead of lingering there amongst the bucket and spade brigade for too long, we headed to the more refined charms of Piran along the coast. This place really is like a mini-Venice, full of graceful Italianate palazzi and churches – it made me wonder what Italian tourists must feel like as they walk around these quintessentially Italian streets. Do they think that these towns should belong to Italy instead? After all, they're only a few miles from Trieste across the border. Having said that, you only have to go a few miles in the other direction to Croatia to find yet more Venetian towns without the Italian flag flying over them – modern borders and modern history can be a confusing thing.

Without doubt, Piran is the most beautiful town on the Slovenian coast, but, as I said, Izola's more prosaic charms made it feel a bit more of a "real" place to me. It's funny to think that in their time, these towns have been ruled from Venice, from Vienna, from Paris (under Napoleon), from Rome (under Mussolini), from Belgrade (as part of Yugoslavia), and now from Ljubljana. I don't think that it's hard to see why they've been so coveted – it's a beautiful part of the world.

July 5th to 10th – La Izola Bonita

As you descend from Slovenia's mountainous interior towards its tiny sun-drenched Adriatic coast, you notice a real change in atmosphere – the temperature gets warmer, the air smells of pine, and the architecture changes from Middle Europe to Italian (as the many church bell towers change from Austrian-style bulbous tops to Venetian-style pointed tops). In fact, the whole atmosphere seems much more Italian, and much more focused on mainstream tourism.

It's no surprise that the Slovenian coastline feels Italian, because for most of its life it was governed by Venice, rather than governed by the Austrians like the rest of this young country. That means that Italian is the other official language here, all the restaurants serve pizza, and that the towns are known by alternate Italian names too – Piran is also Pirano, Koper is Capodistria, Portoroz is Portorosa, and the place where we stayed Izola, is also Isola.

Even the campsites felt much more like Italian coastal sites than the spacious, ordered ones of non-coastal Slovenia – much more crammed in and ramshackle than we'd experienced in the rest of the country. However, if you were lucky like we were, and had a shady pitch right on the sea, then there couldn't really be many more idyllic spots than we enjoyed for our last week in this wonderful country.

Izola retains its historic feel, but even though it is a holiday town, it still has the feel of a working class fishing port – a genuine town rather than the more tourist-focused resorts up the coastline. We loved the seafood, the sea breezes, the relaxed atmosphere, the cycle rides, the swims to cool down, the friendly people, the drinks outside the van as the sun set – all in all, a lovely place to spend the end of our stay here in Slovenia.

PS. From Izola we did side trips to other places like, Koper, Piran and Lipica – highlights to follow.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

July 4th – Predjama Castle

Central Slovenia doesn't have many campsites, so our plan today was to break up our westward journey towards the coast with a stop in Postojna, home to an enormous (and enormously popular) limestone cave system. Things didn't go quite to plan because, firstly, the campsite that was advertised as being 2.5kms from Postojna appeared to be much, much further away than that, in the middle of nowhere, and up a massively steep hill (so steep, that even our newly acquired cycling stamina would find it impossible). Secondly, on reflection, we decided that we weren't actually interested enough in caves to spend €44 Euros to join the hordes getting a train ride around a place that seemed to be advertised as a Disneyland for troglodytes.

So, satisfying ourselves that all we were missing out on was "just a big hole in the ground", we drove on to the impressively situated Predjama Castle, a medieval castle that was built into the rock face of another huge limestone cave. It was certainly one of the most distinctive castles that I've been to – half-cave, half-fortress – although it was probably more noteworthy for how it looked outside, than it looked inside, which was a bit bare and lacking in interesting features.

The most interesting thing about the castle's history was that it was once a refuge for an outlaw called Luegar, a kind of Slovenian Robin Hood, who was holed up here for months under siege from the Austrians. Luegar knew the secret passages through the massive cave system behind the castle, so would regularly taunt his attackers by lobbing fresh cherries at them (you can imagine him shouting Monty-Python insults at them about "your father smells of elderberries"). They got the last laugh though – a traitor told them when Leugar was sitting on the loo, and they fired a cannonball at the toilet and killed him while he was on the job. It wasn't just Elvis who died on the toilet.

Having filled up on fascinating stories like this, it was time to head down to the coast to the little Venetian town of Izola.

July 2nd – Maribor – Slovenia’s Second City?

I mentioned earlier that Pjuj had been sidelined by the coming of the railways under the Habsburgs. And, while that killed off Ptuj's urban development, it was a massive boost for the nearby city of Maribor (which was now on the line between Vienna and Trieste, the main port of the Empire). So, Maribor developed into Slovenia's second biggest city.

We took the bus from Ptuj to see what it was like – a visit that confirmed that we'd made the right decision to base ourselves in Ptuj, rather than Maribor. As you can see from the pictures, it's a nice enough place (in fact, the pictures probably make it seem better than it really is), but it's much more low-key than you might expect of a country's second city.

I suppose that in a country of little more than 2 million people, Maribor (with a population of about 90,000) might count as a metropolis, but it seemed little more than a small provincial town to me (which is exactly what it was for much of its life under the 7 centuries of Habsburg rule, when there was no concept of Slovenia as a country). It obviously didn't help that the city had been fairly devastated by bombing during the Second World War, but there was none of the vibrancy we'd experienced on the streets of Ljubljana.

Having said all that, the town appeared to be building itself up for a music festival that was kicking off by the riverside that evening – maybe Maribor is a town for night owls?

July 1st-3rd – Taking To The Waters In Ptuj

No, we don't really know how you pronounce Ptuj either – something along the lines of "Patoo-yah", kind of like you're making an exaggerated spitting sound. While its pronunciation may be unclear, the reasons for coming out to Slovenia's eastern corner are fairly obvious – Ptuj is a beautiful and historic little town, while it's home to the country's biggest thermal baths complex.

The Romans knew a good place to set up some baths when they saw one, and so they developed Ptuj into the biggest town in Slovenia, with the result that there's a few Roman relics and stonework dotted around town. The rest of town is an attractive blend of medieval and baroque architecture – a harmonious mix that's been well preserved because Ptuj was sidelined by the railways in the times of the Habsburg Empire.

But, the main reason that people come to Ptuj is to visit its Terme (its baths), which were right next to our campsite. So, we joined the locals in enjoying the health benefits of being boiled up like lobsters in hot bubbling pools, being buffeted by wave machines, super-heated in saunas, doing a few lengths, and then being scared witless by descending the giant water-slides. I'm sure it was all good for our health, even if it was bad for our bank balance.