Friday, 31 August 2012

It doesn't get any better than this...

I know I have been remiss; it has been ages since I last blogged. I lost my Mojo for a while, & wasn't feeling in the mood to be glib.

We returned to Oz over a month ago after receiving the heart breaking news that my cousin Gillian and her husband, Steve, were tragically killed when the plane Steve was piloting crashed while on a flying safari in Alaska. Their funeral, attended by hundreds of mourners, was a testament to the high esteem in which they were held. Though ours is not a very close knit family, their loss was a deep shock to us all and we will miss them dearly.

I now hold even dearer every moment spent with my loved ones; my darling, long-suffering hubby, our two wonderful sons, their beautiful partners and our two darling grandsons.

Last time I wrote we were somewhere on a road-less-travelled on our way to Banja Luka in Bosnia Herzegovina where we spent two days visiting the family of our younger son's partner, Mirna. They were tremendously hospitable and we were made to feel very welcome. They even enlisted the help of a family friend, Nevena, to act as translator for the duration. She was fantastic and very patient with us.

Here we are with Mirna's grandmother, uncle and great-uncle

The Cathedral in Banja Luka

After returning to Dubrovnik we met up with hubby's two brothers and their wives. We completed a 10 day driving holiday through Montenegro and Bosnia Herzegovina with them. It was an interesting time with six very different personalities but we all survived to tell the tale.

All of the Segals in the Durmitor National Park, Montenegro

It was a great holiday and the scenery was breathtaking. Though still pock-marked with the scars from the war of the 1990's Bosnia has pulled itself back up and rebuilt much of what was devastatingly destroyed.

the rebuilt bridge in Mostar

 On 9 August, a little over three weeks since the death of my cousin we were presented with the latest addition to our family, little baby Zach, a son to our elder son and his wife, and a brother to Charlie.

Here I am, in my element, snuggling up with Charlie and baby Zach. Charlie declared "I feel happy, Oma" and my heart swelled to near bursting. It doesn't get any better than this!

In this photo, baby Zach sleeps soundly nestled against my ample breast.  Once he would have been the envy of many a young man. Now it is just the domain of infant grandchildren .... and their grandfather, if he's lucky.

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Road Less Travelled

Over the years I have often blogged in praised of travelling with a GPS (Satellite Navigation). Unfortunately in Eastern Europe we have found our GPS to be sadly lacking. So warned, we decided to check with Google Earth and Via Michelin on the Internet before believing our GPS when in decided that we could reach the Bosnian border by continuing along the road from accommodation in the small village of Rastovaca, near Plitvicka Lakes (Plitvitza Lakes) in Croatia.

We had enjoyed a full day at the lakes the day before. There are insufficient superlatives to describe the absolute beauty of the lakes and waterfalls descending between them. I have previously blogged about Krka National Park in Croatia and the beautiful cascading falls there, but Plitvicka surpasses Krka ten fold.

And so having ended our visit to Plitvicka we departed the guesthouse and embarked along the small bitumen road passing the last house on the street. The residents standing in their front yards gawked at us as we drove by. We were blissfully ignorant to what awaited us ahead.

Less than a kilometre down the road the bitumen ended. We were not overly concerned, we had driven on dirt roads before. Over the course of the next kilometre the road diminished to little more than an overgrown goat track and then it got really narrow. In places the grass, flowers and weeds growing between the tyre tracks were waist high. At times Hubby had to get out of the car to break branches from the trees that so that we could pass. I didn't remind him that bears roamed these woods, but I stayed safely within the confines of our car. There was an ominous scratching sound as the trees on each side of the track scraped both sides of the car as we proceeded deeper into the untamed forest. I doubt whether any vehicle had passed this way since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

We had selected the "no unsealed roads" setting on the GPS, perhaps there needs to be a "no machete needed" setting too. Had there have been sufficient room to turn around, I think Hubby would have done so in an instant.
Because of the signs warning us about land mines all around, Hubby was reluctant to leave the less than beaten track, so when nature called I stoically crossed my legs rather than risk my life by "going bush" amid unexploded land mines.

At one stage we even came across a gate; albeit an open one, but it planted a seed of doubt in our minds that there may be others, and what if, at the end of the road, one is locked; what then. I'm sure Hubby would have sooner abandoned the car than drive all the way back again.

I was not very popular as Hubby had asked me if we should inquire about this road before we departed the guesthouse. Being a stubborn Capricorn I waved this suggestion off with the flick of my wrist, it was, after all, only 7 kilometres. They were destined, however, to be the longest 7 kilometres we had ever travelled, rarely getting out of first gear for the majority of the way. It really was the road less travelled.

Eventually, without loss of life or limb, we hit civilisation and a bitumen road again and were soon at the border between Croatia and Bosnia/Herzegovina. Our passports were scrutinised, "Ooo! Ostrahlia...long way!" and we were ushered into yet another country.

We proceeded towards the city of Banja Luka on a wing and a prayer because, while our GPS recognised the overgrown dirt track as a road, it did not recognise 75% of the roads in Bosnia and as far as it was concerned the 120 km long, two lane, bitumen highway did not exist. Go figure!

P.S. my hands were shaking so violently that the photos of this road were too blurry to post, sorry.

Monday, 2 July 2012

I'm in Heaven

Over the past 4 weeks we have meandered up the coast of Croatia, criss-crossing between islands and generally having a great time. Croatia is blessed with hundreds of islands to choose from and thousands of kilometres of coast line dotted with delightful bays and coves of clear aqua water all enticing me to dive in. Unfortunately there are not enough hours in the day to swim in all of them.

But today was one of my lucky ones. We are currently on the island of Cres (pronounced "Tsres") and spent the day travelling the length of the island and over a small bridge to the Island of Losinj where we discovered a spectacular cove only accessible by means of a goat track from a narrow winding road. We were rewarded for our effort by a pristine cove not overcrowded, like most, with pleasure craft anchored bow to stern.

With the mercury hovering around 34 deg C most days, I needed little incentive to take the plunge. I snorkelled blissfully in the cool blue waters for over an hour. With visibility clear to a depth of 10-15 metres I could see all the way on the sea floor.

Although the sea life in the waters of Croatia are not as colourful as those on the Great Barrier Reef back home it was still delightful to swim amidst schools of tiny blue/green fish, glistering, changing colour as they weaved to and fro in front of my mask, seemingly unperturbed by my presence.

I was mesmerised as I floated on the surface; the midday sun sent fine shafts of lights all the way to the sandy bed below, shooting a marine laser light show all around me. Fish shimmered silver as the sun's rays caught them darting in and out of the beds of sea grass on either side of the sandy corridor. I don't know what they're called, but there were several large ones I'd be happy to call dinner.

Time passed too quickly and I had to revert to my life as a landlubber. In my next life want to come back as a mermaid....but knowing my luck I'll be reincarnated as a dugong.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Split to Zadar

Around 300 AD, what is now the city of Split, started life as a retirement village for the Roman emperor Diocletian. With a few quid to spare he built a stupendous villa covering 9½ acres (38,000 m²). After his demise it became the world's first time-share to various expelled Roman emperors and their family members.

Since about 639 AD it has been invaded, robbed and plundered by the who's who of the world's conquering forces, including the Slavs, Hungarians, Turks, Venetians and French.

Like hermit crabs, the various civilisations have colonised the palace with shops, market squares, & even a Christian cathedral (formerly Diocletian's mausoleum) inserted in the corridors and floors of the former palace. Each one making a little modification here and an attic conversion there, the place is now a labyrinth of narrow alleyways, made up of a hodge-podge of architectural styles. With souvenir shops, Pizzerias and B&B's at every turn, today the only invaders in sight are hordes of foreign tourists seeking fun in the sun.
Still the ambiance of a civilisations lost can be felt while treading the marble walkways polished smooth by millennia of weary soles.

It was hard to tear ourselves away from Split and our comfortable apartment, a stone's throw from the walls of the old palace but after bidding farewell to Merica and her fat cat Melena, we ventured forth to the beautiful national park at Krka.

A delightful valley with waterfalls cascading over pools of turquois blue, Krka is a tranquil relief after the hub bub of Split.

Raised walkways meander through the gorge facilitating breathtaking vistas at every turn.

Electric blue dragonflies hover over ponds filled with fish. Swans glide towards tourists on the waters edge, gratefully accepting any morsels offered.

Unfortunately we arrived on a stifling hot day with temperatures hovering around 36 degrees Celsius. Thank goodness for the Gelato vendors who have colonised every part of Croatia, including Krka.

We continued on towards Zadar with our latest rental car. In a period of three days we have changed cars no fewer than three times. The first being the one that broke down on Korcula and then the replacement car we received at Orebic needed replacing when we arrived in Split as the power supply from the cigarette lighter was not functioning. I know; we don't smoke, but our GPS requires 12 volt power to operate; something it struggles to do at the best of times over here. More often than not we end up driving round in circles as we wait for it to give us some direction in life. Streets we need either don't exist as far as its concerned or it simply decides to go out on strike at the most inopportune moments; why should we be the only ones on vacation?

Anyway, we always seem to find our destination eventually and the definition of a true optimist is one who can enjoy the view on a detour.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Splitting to Split

Our visit to Croatia coincides with the UEFA Europe 2012. Here football is not just a sport but a national religion and Croatia's recent win against Ireland and Thurday night's draw with Italy has the whole nation in a flurry of patriotism. The Croatian flag looks like that of the Netherlands; red, white and blue, but with a red and white checkerboard shield stuck in the middle. Since the Europe 2012 started, every man and his dog, from babies in buggies to car bonnets, is decked out in red and white checks, the entire nation resemble one big Italian Trettoria minus the obligatory chianti bottle covered in melted candle wax.

We departed Dubrovnik on Monday, via the car rental agency where we picked up a car and were reunited with our driver's licences, courtesy of our very helpful son, Guy and Australia post; (Some genius, namely "yours truly" had left them in the scanner back home). 

We spent three perfect, sunny days on the island of Korcula at the recommendation of our much travelled son, Eddy.

Our accommodation there was a pleasant surprise when we eventually found it; not an easy task given there are few road names and the laneway it was on did not even register on our GPS. It was indeed spacious; room enough to swing two cats simultaneously and there was the added bonus of free croissants and cappuccino for breakfast.

During our time there we traversed the island east to west, north to south and discovered many delightful coves of brilliant aqua and small fishing villages nestled along the coast line. I went snorkelling at Lombarda and in the absence of changing booths or public toilets, in order to change into my swimsuit, performed a manouevre akin to the famous Mr Been skit where he skilfully removes his under garments without first taking off his outer garments. Quite a performance.

I floated blissfully; satisfied with my decision to bring my mask and snorkel with me but could only presume that, over here, they have not been watching enough Bear Grylls so as to discovered a recipe for sea urchins or sea cucumber as they were the only sea life in abundance apart from a few schools of tiny fish too small to constitute a meal by anyone's standard.

On Thursday we departed Korcula early to give ourselves time to meander slowly up the coast to Split, our next destination. Unfortunately our plans flew out the window when the clutch went through the floor (metaphorically speaking). As we approached the ferry to Orebic the clutch gave out and left us stranded at the wharf on Korcula. A quick phone call to the car rental agency in Dubrovnik brought a mechanic from the local village zooming along on his motorbike. He proclaimed the clutch "stuffed". The rental agency promised us a replacement car in 1.5 to 2 hours if we could get to ourselves and the car onto the car ferry and over to Orebic. Having already missed one we sweet talked our ways onto the same ferry on it's return journey. Once in Orebic our car was unceremoniously push off the ferry and onto the stone wharf and we found a cafe where we sat drinking coffee while we waited, and waited, and waited. Eventually the truck piggy backing our replacement car eventually arrived four hours later.

Our plans had to change as time was quickly slipping away so we opted for plan B; the motorway to Split. Unfortunately the motor way is still a work in progress and for nearly half the way we meandered through fertile valleys and winding mountain roads and quaint rural villages. We stopped at fruit stalls that dotted the road side and bought peaches and cherries.

Had a coffee at a tiny cafe where we were seated on the narrow strip of pavement abutting the road right at a sharp bend where cars and trucks alike thundered along at break-neck speeds, barely slowing to take the sharp curve...I saw my life pass before my eyes on more than one occasion. Eventually the motorway appeared. Here the speed limit skyrocketed to warp speed; 130 kph. However no matter how far hubby pushed the pedal to the metal we barely reached 100kph let alone 130. Cars, far inferior to ours, overtook us as if we were at a stand still. It may have had something to do with the half a tonne of baggage in the boot, but was more likely due to the two tonnes of lard in the front seats.

Eventually we found our way to the narrow laneway that housed our accommodation in Split. The landlady, Merica, met us in the lane and directed us into an even narrower passage that lead to the parking area. Phew, hubby was holding his breath as he navigated the tiny passageway; it was very tight but his skilful driving saved any dents or dints. The accommodation here at Apartment Merica is perhaps the nicest so far. A genuinely spacious apartment with a well appointed modern kitchen, 12 English channels on cable, a large, SOFT bed and an operational washing machine...whoopee! We enjoyed a glass of wine on the little terrace overlooking the ancient stone buildings that encompass the tiny courtyard where our car is parked as the sun set on a yet another very eventful day.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Double Dipping Dubrovnik

We recently spent 5 nights in the old town of Dubrovnik, a town steeped in history, safe for centuries within the protection of its thick stone walls, from invasion by land or sea, though not from rocket fire from Serbia in 1991, when some 60% of the conglomerate of dwellings standing shoulder to shoulder up and down the steep walk ways that constitute the old town were damaged. To date they have almost all been lovingly restored to their former glory.

Our accommodation at "Luxury Old Town Apartments" was just one of the conglomerate nestled near the top of a steep stone staircase leading from the Sjeverna (North Gate) down to the beautiful marble walkway of the Placa Stradum. Describing it as a spacious studio apartment in their internet advertisement just confirmed the subjective nature of these adjectives. Perhaps compared to cabins at a caravan park it was luxurious and in comparison with our room in Singapore it was spacious though no more spacious than the caravan we spend 3 years travelling around Australia in. Like our caravan only one of us could be walking around the apartment at any given time, so we had to take it in turns to get up. The apartment, crammed into the attic space 38 steps up from the ground floor, was perhaps spacious vertically in the centre, at the apex of the roof, but then the roof came down to meet the walls at window sill height. The kitchen was tucked into such a space so that hubby had to bend so as not to knock his head while washing the dishes in the sink. In order to open any cupboard door all others had to be closed and the garbage bin moved. The floor space in the kitchen, left to walk in, measured approx. 60cmx150cm, only one person could enter at any one time. Into such a space where the ceiling met the walls the tiny dining table, 45cmx45cm, was tucked, we had to choose the seating arrangement according to height, though either way hubby always knocked his head when rising. The king size bed, took up about 90% of the remaining floor space.

the advertised "views of the old town", although hubby had to hold me by the ankles so that I could hold the camera out far enough to capture them.

The advertised washing machine was broken, and by no fault of proprietor, the spare parts were not available in Dubrovnik. By the time they were due to arrive from Zagreb we would be long gone. To their credit, they took away a load of our laundry and returned it clean and nicely folded. However when we asked where the advertised microwave was we were advised that it had been loaned out to another unit but when it did arrive no one knew where it could stand nor where it could be plugged into power nor were there any microwave dishes suitable to use in it.
The advertised satellite TV had no connection to the TV nor a remote control to operate it. When I did connect it using a SCART plug borrowed from the terrestrial digital receiver there was no signal to any of the 499 channels. So I returned the SCART plug and we tried to guess what was being said on the news in Croatian from the free to air channels available. Luckily the advertised WiFi internet connection did work albeit at snail pace.

the Placa Stradum at dusk

Being in the old town had its advantages and its disadvantages. Proximity to all the great sights of the old town was delightful, having to walk up and down the 115 steep steps it took to access them from our accommodation was a bit of a deterrent to doing it too often. My calf muscle bare testament to the total number of times we completed the round trip of 230 steps (not including all the other steps around the old town itself).

the stairs leading from the Placa Stradum to the entrance to our accommodation at the top

The range of supermarkets was limited and here is where the double dipping really came into play. The first few times we purchased a range of items at the largest of the supermarkets within the walls of the old town, Konzum, we thought our bill was high but, not having received a receipt, we put it down to the price you pay for convenience. Eventually we learnt to ask for our receipts and when they handed them over reluctantly we discovered there were more items on them than we had purchased. Not being able to read the receipts we could only go by the total number of items. Pointing out the discrepancy to the teller we were begrudgingly hand the exact amount for the first item on the bill without them even checking what was in our shopping bag. Evidently they knew exactly what they had added to our bill. This happened on more than one occasion. The amounts were not enormous, between the equivalent to 1 or 2 dollars but this multiplied by the hundreds of tourists who walk through their doors on a daily basis would soon add up to a substantial amount.

The entrance to the supermarket is to the left of the statue
We raised this issue with our landlady and she admitted prior knowledge of this practice. We can only wonder why she had not considered imparting this knowledge to warn us. Guilt by association?
The tourists are seen as cash cows to be milked by one and all.....moo.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

the friendly Finnish

As a child growing up in the 60's and 70's I was much entranced by the fabulous Finnish designers of that era, the bold prints of Marimekko and classic glassware by iittala and was delighted to discover that this year Helsinki was named World Design Capital, unfortunately a fact that was sorely missed as we arrived at the airport and, having cleared passport controlled, were funnelled through a painted besser block corridor not dissimilar to the passage way to the public toilets at an outlet shopping mall back home. We followed the stencilled footprints and were disgorged at the baggage claim area.

Helsinki, home to less than 600,000, is more like a large country town. The inner city itself has many buildings of architectural merit but once outside of the CBD, most buildings are 3 floor walk up apartment blocks; monuments of post-war pebble-dash.

With approximately 5.4 million inhabitants, Finland is the most sparsely populated country in the European Union. The pace of life is much slower here which may account for the lack of young backpacker types who usually infiltrate most countries during the summer months. The speed limits are also excruciatingly slow. Even for a caution driver like hubby, containing his speed to 30 kph in built up areas and 60 kph on some major roads was very difficult.

The language is completely different to most other Latin/Germanic based languages in Europe and is more closely related to Estonian. When you hear it spoken it sounds like someone speaking Hungarian with a Swedish accent. Their words are unbelievable long and some almost constitute a whole sentence in themselves.

The country is bi-lingual with all people learning both Finnish and Swedish at school, though I have it on good authority that most Finns are hard pressed understanding modern Swedish and the Swedes have a good laugh at the Finns who speak a form of Swedish not spoke since their grandparent's day. Luckily nearly everyone we've met also speaks English.
It's a good thing we brought the GPS, as we would be hard pressed reading the street names before we had passed them by. Their map writers have been extremely challenged as most street names are longer than the streets themselves. Then there is the added confusion of all signs being written in Finnish and Swedish. Imagine approaching a round-about and having to decide at the spur of the moment whether to take Hernasaarenranta, Hylkeenpyytarjank or Heitalahdenranta. We could have been going round and around for ages trying to decipher the signs. Though I can only imagine we might have been more greatly entertained had we a GPS that enunciates the names of the approaching streets, like the GPS our friend Edna has.

On our last day in Finland we are enjoying the best weather so far. Outside our hotel room the sun is shining and it is pleasantly warm, I'm down to only three layers of clothing, it's almost as warm as a winter's day in Brisbane. We have enjoyed a mixed bag; not only regarding the weather, but also as far as our accommodation is concerned. This hotel adjacent the airport, in preparation for our early morning departure tomorrow, has the smallest rooms we've seen since Singapore where our room was little bigger than Harry Potter's room under the stairs. One of us had to exit the room if the other wanted to change their mind, even our caravan was spacious by comparison.

Having booked all our accommodation via the internet we were faced with some surprises. At one location our accommodation, unbeknownst to us at the time of booking, was on a farm. The place was unoccupied when we arrived with only a note on a window with a phone number which in due course we dialled. We were informed the key was in the door of one of the two ground floor units and someone would arrive to make our breakfast in the morning. Next morning we arrived at the main house to find the door unlocked. We entered but it appear void of all life, treading softly we headed upstairs in the direction of the sign "reception". The lights were out but we could see what appeared to be a dining area. Having located the light switch I followed the sound of faint music emanating from an adjoining room. I rapped tentatively on the door; no response. I opened the door sufficiently to see the form of a sleeping person beneath the covers on the bed. We decided to wait expecting the person to surely rise. Half an hour later our patience ran out, it was eight o'clock, we rang the number listed on the window. A phone warbled in the room next door. I hung up. Our phone rang..."would you like breakfast now" a sleep slurred voice asked", "we are waiting in the dining room" I responded.

Another thing that made us say, "What the..." is the custom here of housing poker machines inside supermarkets. Between the entrance and the check-out counters, on any given day, you can find the citizens of any town, large or small, having a flutter on pokies before (or maybe instead of) buying their groceries. A dotted line around the perimeter designated the area for over 18's only.
Having come directly from Singapore we were unprepared for the sudden drop in temperature and the very long days and almost non-existent nights. Being so near the Equator, Singapore's days and nights are almost equal in duration. When the sunsets it does so in a rush and then it is suddenly night and pitch dark. In the morning the sun veritably leaps into the sky and then there is day, bright and hot. Over here the sun spends an eternity receding slowly behind the horizon and then at around 11pm seems to only hide from view casting light into the sky almost until it reappears at 3am. 4 hours of night; must be a great market opportunity for manufacturers of block out curtains! Harder still for us Aussies to comprehend are the 4 hours of daylight they have here in winter. Though they do tell us it's not so bad as all the snow reflects a lot of light and it doesn't seem so dark....some consolation!
Perhaps it is because of the long winter nights but the Finns drink the most coffee on earth, and though I fail to see the link, they also eat the most ice cream....either way that makes them my kind of people!