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Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The representative from California has the floor

Graz is the birthplace of Arnold Schwarzenegger; not a reason to avoid this lovely Austrian city, particularly as the city has distanced itself from him recently following a disagreement about the death penalty.

Graz is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a refreshing mix of Renaissance and modern architecture, with an expected beautiful main square of ornate buildings and trams and the modern balloon-like Kunsthaus merging well together.

Taking the funicular up to the castle is Carol's idea of extreme sport and gave a birds-eye view of the city. It is pleasant to be in a country where we can speak the language and understand what is going on, even if a cup of coffee is twice the price of anywhere else we've been.

The confortable Camping Central in Graz is next to a large outdoor swimming pool, which is excellent, although you do have to share it with the ducks: We are amused to see that the ducklings know their place and use the toddler pool.

Monday, 27 July 2009

There aint a cloud in sight

The warmth of the sun is wonderful and penetrates every bit of you, leaving you feeling so alive. The blue sky brings the whole landscape alight, the green of the fields is the greenest you can imagine, the cornflowers are a perfect blue. Even when it rains here it is with drama, the thunderstorms can last for hours and the lightening illuminates the whole sky. Do we miss dull days and drizzle? What do you think?

We are leaving Slovenia a little reluctantly, although excited to be seeing more new places. We have met with so much warmth from people we have encountered in Slovenia, it has been blissful to travel here and we are sure we will be back one day.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Such a lovely place

The Triglav National Park is the most protected landscape in Slovenia and the beauty of the area attracts many visitors. It is a lovely area with plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities and we are enjoying plenty of walking and cycling.

We are impressed with the friendliness of Slovenians and the relaxed and casual atmosphere of the country. The statistics show that poverty in Slovenia is below the European average and that economically it is a fairly equal society, although since the move away from communism inequalities are increasing. This seems to have resulted in a country that is flourishing.

The Slovenia we have observed has sufficient wealth, is clean and well kept, welcomes visitors and happily accepts that most tourists do not speak Slovenian. The landscape is on a human scale; around every corner is a brightly coloured house with red geraniums trailing from the window boxes, a herd of brown cows or pretty goats, a small and lush vegetable patch, a rustic barn, a welcoming cafe or a flower meadow. The wine tastes good, the beer is refreshing and the many varieties of bread are all delicious.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Get myself absolutely soaking wet

It is now only four weeks until we will be spending ten days with Matthew and Rachel and we are starting to count the days, we can’t wait to see them.

This also means it is only four weeks until we will have a shower to call our own and we are starting to fantasise about that luxury. We have become experts on campsite showers and rate them according to the following criteria:

Space – is there enough space to shower and still have a spot that is dry to get dressed in and will your towel still be dry after you've showered? The showers have varied from those with no room to put a leg in a pair of shorts, to the ones at Sangro river in Italy which were as large as our bathroom in Salford.

Hooks – three hooks for towel and clothes is ideal, but a standard not often reached.

Water – is the shower a dribble or a full on downfall? Is there hot water – never assume there will be – and is the temperature adjustable?

On/off controls – We are not keen on the showers where you have to keep pushing a knob to keep the water flowing after Anthony returned from one shower looking like he was entering the wet t-shirt competition after leaning against the knob after drying and getting dressed and getting an unexpected soaking. We have also come across sensor controlled showers that you have to dance in front of to ensure a steady flow – this is fine so long as no one is watching.

Shelf – the best showers have a shelf or tray for your shower gel and shampoo.

Cleanliness – It is fantastic if you can time your shower for immediately after the cleaner has visited, otherwise it is lovely when there is a mop to clear up the muddy footprints of the person before you and enable you to leave the shower sparkling for the next camper.

The photograph is Lake Bled, the most popular resort in Slovenia and also the easiest to pronounce; these two things may be related. The lake is picture box pretty with its castle and island and bustling with people, but it retains an easy going atmosphere.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Watch your honey drip

Radovljica, in north west slovenia, has a marvellous museum about bees and bee keeping; showing the history of bee keeping in Slovenia and a film about the biology of bees.

Everywhere we have travelled in Slovenia we have seen the bee hives with their colourful front panels. Slovenia has a tradition of painting pictures on these panels which died out in the twentieth century. The photograph shows two examples which amused us. Many of the panels have religious pictures, others show celebrations and local myths.

Hans plays with Lotte, Lotte plays with Jane

The Slovenians seem to be a very active nation. Everywhere we go we see people engaging in sporting activities of some kind or another. There are plenty of lycra-clad cyclists hurtling around the roads and hoping to be in the next Tour de France; canoeists are on the rivers; there seem to be more olympic size swimming pools in this small country than in the whole of the UK, volleyball is very popular and we were particularly surprised to see a cricket match being played in full whites in one village.

In the small town of Radovljica, most of the 6,000 inhabitants seem to be out enjoying the fresh air on this balmy evening. Within sight of our van there are football fields, tennis courts, badminton courts, table tennis tables, a basketball court, a swimming pool and a volleyball court and they are all being used by the local people.

Not to be out done, we will get out there and show them how to throw a frisbee!

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

A very big house in the country

The Logar Valley is a beautiful and protected area in Slovenia. The area is actually three glaciated valleys, surrounded by steep-sided rocky mountains.

This is perfect walking country, with way-marked routes, but in common with such areas in Italy, there is little accommodation in the valleys.

We walked in the Robanov valley, which has been farmed by the same family for over 150 years. They keep cattle and manage the forestry, as well as some low key tourism, including running a fantastic rustic cafe at the head of the valley in July and August, where we enjoyed a refreshing mug of tea with a chunk of lemon.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Take a long holiday, watch the children play

We are now three months in to our trip, goodness a quarter of the way through. Even though we worked hard to make the trip happen, we do occasionally reflect on how fortunate we are to have this time.

A feature of campsites in the alps has been the arrival of the coach from Hungary or the Czech Republic: 20 or so small dome tents spring up around the coach and they all head off walking or canoeing. The campsites are now also bustling with families as school holidays are in full swing and any tourist attraction that is going to be open is.

In the Dolomites we were too early for some of the cable cars. Here in Slovenia we were able to whizz up to 1,500 m in a few minutes and walk around Golte's high pastures and woodland. We sat outside a wooden hut, a glass of the local blueberry schnapps in our hands, warm sun on our faces and a view of mountains and valleys and cute cows with bells and felt good with the world.

Imagine there's no heaven, no religion too

As two happy atheists we consider all religions superstitious and un-necessary: The rituals and beliefs of Southern European Catholicism are particularly in your face.

We have seen many road-side shrines in Italy, Austria and Slovenia: They are generally well looked after and usually have a plant or fresh bunch of flowers. The example in the photographs belongs to a farm in the Savinja valley and must be a contender for the best painted shrine prize. The picture of Jesus apparently blessing the village with fairy dust is quite amazing.

The Rough Guide writers are clearly interested in religious architecture, sometimes it seems to the exclusion of anything else and they really should re-name their books 'The Guide to Churches around Europe', as this seems to be the only place of interest the towns we visit have.

However, we do like to visit cemeteries, as these can tell you something about the people. Italian cemeteries are always very tidy and the photographs on the grave stones helps to make the cemetery feel more alive than you might expect. In Barrea we walked up to the cemetery to see the sunset and were surprised to find three people also there, sweeping the paths and watering the plants, the cemetery felt very much part of the village.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Try to set the night on fire

Slovenian fire stations are not the utilitarian buildings you find in England. The photograph shows one example we spotted in a village where we stopped to see some Roman Necropli. The stations are generally colourful, traditional building and have a wall painting or a statue to Saint Florian, the patron saint of firecrews in this country.

Brightly coloured buildings are usual in Slovenian towns and villages, making everywhere looks cheerful. Tangerine orange seems particularly popular on new houses this year.

He takes a whisky drink, he takes a lager drink

We have moved to the Savinja valley, in the north of Slovenia to be back among the mountains. This is another very pretty area, with lots of hop growing for the brewing industry. However, Slovenia produces more wine than beer and the campsite organised a wine tasting evening to allow campers to taste a selection, as Slovenians drink all the wine they make rather than export it.

Not surprisingly, it turned out to be an entertaining evening, with the mostly Dutch audience entering in to the spirit of the evening with enthusiasm. Uri, the campsite owner was the host for the event: He told us, ‘My Dad was a communist, I am a capitalist’, as we handed over our ten euros.

He provided some background geography to the wines; ‘Slovenia is the shape of a chicken, and it is so small a chicken can walk across it in one day.’ His English was excellent, as was that of most of the Dutch, although he over-used the word ‘situation’. He entertained us with stories about the different wines: We drank fine wine Slovenian’s could only buy after 1980, as before then Tito drank it all and cheap wine favoured by the lumberjacks as they took huge rafts of logs down the rivers to the Black Sea; perfectly described as a ‘vinegar situation.’ We drank wine high in tannins, which he claimed was, ‘a really healthy situation’ and he was scathing about some of the wine spotted in the campsite bottle bank; ‘an Aldi situation’.

The evening became less structured and more out of control as Uri sampled the wines with us. We learnt that young people in Slovenia like to drink wine mixed with cola, to get them drunk and keep them alert at the same time. We also learnt that the screw top wine bottle is ‘legal, recommendable and fun!’ The wine was accompanied by bread and bowls of Slovenian Olive and Pumpkin oil to dip it in and cheese, as well as glasses of water and an accordion player and a group of five men who sang traditional songs beautifully.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Where do you get your hair cut? You look like a rolling gnome

After three months of being away from home we were both in desperate need of haircuts. In the attractive and relaxing town of Ptuj we decided to seek out a Friserski and found Madje. She did not speak any English, but with some German and polite gestures we both emerged looking much more presentable. Small talk was limited and Carol wasn’t asked where she was going for her holidays this year. Madje gave Anthony the local paper to read while he waited; his Slovenian is coming along well and he now knows that Gordon Brown is wearing the yellow jersey in the Tour.

Despite temperatures of over 30 C, we spent a day cycling around the Drava valley from Ptuj and managed 50 kms of good, mostly flat, cycling on country roads, through fields of corn, sunflowers and courgettes and busy haymakers. The campsite has an amazing range of facilities, including ten, yes ten, swimming pools and we recovered from the cycling by swimming and lying around in the fun massage bubble pool.

And when you're stealing clothes from Marks and Sparks

Slovenia is a very tidy nation; the public areas are generally clean and the houses are well maintained, with neat and colourful gardens. Everyone has productive rows of beans, lettuce, courgettes, tomatoes alongside their gladioli and sunflowers.

The country has taken to out of town shopping with enthusiasm: Every town has a couple of supermarkets, a cafĂ© and maybe a hardware store on the edge of town. Unlike Poland, where Tesco and others dominated the retail sector, the supermarkets are mostly home grown; Tus and Mercator are the most common, although Spar and Aldi also have outlets. Don't picture these places as soul-less deserts; the cafes at the shopping centres are lively with people having business meetings, friends meeting up and workers having a break. The town centres don’t seem to have suffered because of the lack of shops, the lovely squares in Slovenia’s towns are lively with cafes, restaurants and shoe shops.

If it wasn't for the good souls that make life better

One of the lovely things about travelling is the unexpected kindness strangers’ show. We have met some friendly and helpful Slovenians, but none more so than the Slovenian neighbour at the campsite near Metlika, who came over for a chat and offered us a glass of his home made blueberry schnapps. It was ten in the morning, but it seemed rude to refuse and he assured us we were fine driving on a small glass. After chorusing Na zvravje! And drinking he then insisted on giving us the rest of the bottle as a gift. We were sorry we had nothing typically English to give him in return.

We were able to share the blueberry schnapps with Bert, a lovely cyclist from the Netherlands who has been following us through Slovenia from campsite to campsite. He is the first person who did not say ‘Manchester United!’ when we told him where we lived and instead exclaimed, ‘Factory records!’ A positive sign that we would get along.

We have now visited two shrines to Mithras; a religion popular with Roman soldiers and banned by the Emperor once he had become a Christian. The one near Crnomelj in the photograph was very atmospheric in a woodland setting, whereas the one at Ptuj had been enclosed in a modern building. However, the outdoor carvings are deteriorating quickly since excavation, with little to protect them.

Friday, 10 July 2009

There were plants and birds and rocks and things

Slovenia has a very short 40 kms stretch of coast line: From Piran you can see Croatia to the east and Italy to the west. We pottered down here for some sunshine, after a couple of days of heavy thunderstorms. Piran is a pretty, Italian-looking town which made its money from salt.

It is now the holiday season and the large campsite is busy. Round the headland from the campsite are old saltpans and we walked there in the evening. The setting sun over the Adriatic Sea gave us spectacular streaks of orange and crimson across the sky, reflected in the water. Around the edges of the saltpans were an array of flowers; the Sea Lavender providing lots of colour. Flocks of Egrets flew over-head and as it grew darker, bats swooped below them. We giggled watching a silver fish twist high out of the water and seem to belly-flop back in. All this 10 minutes away from a 500 pitch campsite.

Those of you who know him will not be surprised that Anthony suggested ‘Egrets, I have a few’ as the title for this blog!

Going Underground

The Skocjan Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage site and we spent an interesting morning walking through 3 kms of this cave system, with lots of drip-sticks, as our guide called the Stalactites and Stalacmites and a bridge high over a gushing and noisy river.

The Karst scenery of Slovenia is well known and protected in Slovenia. The geography provides some wonderful places to visit, such as the very small Divje Jezero or Wild Lake, a small, brilliant blue lake fed from an underground river and surrounded by high cliffs and dripping ferns.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Love is like a butterfly

Europe seems to be full of meadows luxuriant with flowers; bright blue cornflowers, yellow daisies, occasional lilies, tall cow parsley and many other. Not surprisingly, making the most of these flowers are butterflies: We generally have no idea what species they are, but love to watch them and try to photograph them.

We have also enjoyed watching many different insects we classify as grasshoppers and crickets; we now wish we had paid more attention to those wildlife programmes. Slovenia has some very large examples of these.

On our walks in the Triglav National Park, on separate occasions, we have come across dead Dormice on the path. A Slovenian might have picked these up and rustled them up in a ragout for dinner, as they as a popular dish here.

People are strange, when you're a stranger

We try to avoid resorting to national stereotypes as much as possible, as it seems unfair to categorise a whole nation. However, while in Slovenia we decided to watch our DVD of ‘No Man’s Land’; a fantastic thoughtful film set during the Serbian-Bosnian war. The film uses stereotypes of different nations that are part of the United Nations Peace-Keeping Force to great comic effect.

We were reminded of this when the Italians, who often live up to expectations, arrived at the campsite in Kobarid, on the edge of the Triglav National Park in Slovenia, in convoy: Six of them! They set up their large vans in a circle, creating an Italian enclave. However, the next morning, as if to squash any ideas you might have that these are stereotypical Italians; by 9.00 am (before we had even started breakfast), they had not only decided where they were going for a walk, but all 20 plus of them were ready and off. If we dare say, organisational skills surely the Germans would be proud of.

We are pleased to see that Slovenia is prepared for walkers and encourages them with footpath signs and way marks: Maps appear to be available easily too. This makes our days enjoyable and easy and we have walked to waterfalls, archeological digs of 6th Century villages and more World War I trenches, where they fought over mountains.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Middle of a chain reaction

Spending a couple of days in Austria and enjoying cycling along the wide valleys on excellent cycleways. Elves come out and spring clean Austria during the night, it is pristine.

Anthony is demonstrating the tools available at a cycle service station on the cycleway. We were sorry that the masseur and the mechanic to wipe your glasses were not in attendance when we were passing. They may have been busy clearing the cycleway of Adders, although they missed one; fortunately Carol missed it too, but only by centimetres!