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.