Guest post: Carol and Tim!

This is Tim and Carol, Felice’s parents, and we have been asked by Felice and Luke to be guest bloggers.  This is quite an honor, and we will make every effort to be as entertaining and insightful as they are, although our chances of succeeding are slim.  We will start by saying that Felice and Luke travel like they’ve been doing this their entire lives.  They calmly make their way through cities and country roads, Luke driving like a professional, dealing with all manner of drivers, and Felice providing healthy snacks and navigating unfamiliar road signs, consistently able to quickly determine where we were and where we needed to be.  All this while still admiring and appreciating all they were seeing, and enjoying each other. They are quite the team! We did find ourselves offroading in Croatia; Felice told Luke to immediately turn left before the next bridge, which put us on a dead end dirt road through a vineyard.  Oops.

Our heroes are also incredibly well organized – everything has a place, and is in its place – grandpa Hal would be proud!  The wonderful custom cabinetry Luke designed and built for the truck makes this possible, and Felice’s endless lists assured every possible need will be met. Traveling with them was so seamless, it is easy to forget the mammoth preparation that made this seemingly effortless travel possible.

Dad and cows with our AirBnB host in Slovenia (near Lake Bled)
Dad and cows with our AirBnB host in Slovenia (near Lake Bled)

Now for our adventures.  We met Felice and Luke in Zagreb, Croatia.  Felice had arranged a lovely AirBnB, and we walked around the beautiful, old city for a few hours before heading to Slovenia.  There we had a remarkable homestay at a small farm with our gracious host, Alma.  Her Mom told us an amazing story about her great grandfather, who had traveled to Alaska in the 1890’s for the Gold Rush to make his fortune.  Against all odds, he not only made it to Alaska safely, but he also  found enough gold to buy the farm they live on today.  They were very proud of their brave and adventurous ancestor.

Lake Bled
Lake Bled

Onwards to Bovecs, Slovenia, where we spent a lovely afternoon on Lake Bled.  We rented a rowboat, and the kindly and strong Luke rowed us around the lake.  We all managed to not fall in, which was a huge accomplishment, given the size of us and the size of our boat.  Tim was quite a spectacle with his ripped shorts (he sat on a nail, no damage to his body) and his giant orange lifevest.  The castles on the surrounding hills were spectacular, as they were throughout the trip.  We also visited a World War I museum, which was very moving and emotionally exhausting.  Luke and Tim were especially affected by the soldiers who dug trenches on the top of mountains, at 9000 feet.

On a bridge
On a bridge

Slovenia was also the site of a mammoth hike that we are pleased to say we survived.  Up and down mountains, then up and down again, across a suspension bridge and along a cliff that ended at a waterfall and a bone chilling swim by Felice and Luke while we clung to the side of the mountain, hoping and praying they made it back to us safely, since we didn’t know where we were, where we were going, where the car keys were, where our next meal was coming from…you get our drift.

There we (Felice and Luke) are swimming to the waterfall - our skin tingled from the cold for ages after getting out
There we (Felice and Luke) are swimming to the waterfall – our skin tingled from the cold for ages after getting out
With Manfred, Huberta, and Cato the mountain dog (we still aren't convinced he's not just a ball of fluff and positive energy)
With Manfred, Huberta, and Cato the mountain dog (we still aren’t convinced he’s not just a ball of fluff and positive energy)

In Austria we visited Manfred, Huberta and Fritz Barthel, as well as Fritz’s children.  These wonderful people hosted Matt, Tim’s brother, when he was an exchange student 40 years ago.  There are not enough words to describe the love and kindness they showered on us.  We took gorgeous walks through the town, marveled at the mountains they had climbed, and enjoyed our time with them so much.  Tim, who had visited 40 years ago, threatened to never leave, now that Fritz’s daughter runs a coffee shop downstairs at the family home.

Touristing around Budapest
Touristing around Budapest

In Budapest we stayed with our daughter Eve’s college roommate, Julia, her husband Bill, and their adorable baby, Henry.  They were also wonderful hosts who gave us a great tour of the city and told us so many stories about the amazing history of Budapest.  If Tim, Carol and Luke hadn’t got stuck in their elevator it would have been a perfect visit!  (It was a small blip that, while horrifying Julia and Bill, was quite funny after the fact.)

We now have a new respect for Felice and Luke for another reason – writing blog posts is REALLY hard!  Just like every other aspect of their big adventure, they make it look easier than it actually is.

We are so thrilled to have been Felice and Luke’s first guests, it was a joy to watch them explore.  We love you so much and are so incredibly proud of you!  Live your dreams!

*Photos taken by all of us and “curated” by Felice

Zagreb, Croatia

Slovenia: Celje, Lake Bled and Bovecs

Salzburg, Austria

Bad Haring, Austria

Vienna, Austria

Budapest, Hungary 

Thoughts and feelings in the Balkans (and beyond)

For my newest excuse explaining the long duration between posts, I would like to offer: blame my parents. We have just had an extremely fun two weeks with them romping through Slovenia, Croatia, Austria, and Hungary. Also our computer broke again.

I’m actually just going to tell you about our days before picking up Mom and Dad at Zagreb airport in Croatia. For their side of the story, I ask you to eagerly await a new segment on our blog: Travel companion guest post!!! This will happen in a couple of days. For now, I’ll just say that the four of us travelled well together and packed in the excellent adventures. I am also happy to report that, to my knowledge, no one in the party tried to murder anyone else. This sets a good precedent for future travel companion arrangements, including Rachel and Manny, whom we met last night at Manny’s parent’s house in Oradea, Romania.

In the days before meeting Mom and Dad in Zagreb, we had a brief taste of slightly more offbeat travel destinations – Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia (preceded by Croatia, which is decidedly not offbeat). We’ve also experienced some more extraordinary hospitality, this time from the much too sweet Rads, Leah, Peter, and Zorica in Novi Sad, Serbia.  To disentangle my confusing timeline, remember to check out the “Keeping up with the Shingle to Boggians” link, which has a list of our whereabouts.

I probably shouldn't have taken a picture of this? But so exciting!
I probably shouldn’t have taken a picture of this? But so exciting!

The border from Croatia to Bosnia was the first that I was nervous about (though not as much as, say, Kazakhstan to Russia, or China to Laos). I am happy to report, however, that this border crossing was – without sarcasm – simply a delight. We waited for about 20 minutes in a line on a lovely country road with a view over a valley. We did have to buy border insurance for about 30 euros (we knew we would), but the border guards were hilarious. One of them kept telling us that next time we come, we must bring them boomerangs. Travelling on an Aussie passport is fun.

Our companion at the border. There's a person in the middle of that hay. He cut off a couple of cars and cut in line.
Our companion at the border. There’s a person in the middle of that hay. He cut off a couple of cars and cut in line, a group of pedestrians cheering and laughing.

In general, borders in this area are crazy easy. I actually mean crazy. At a couple of borders they’ve barely even looked at our faces to check we match the passports, let along looking at our car rego, insurance, or any cargo we might be carrying. I really thought borders would be stricter given the current refugee situation.

How pretty is Bosnia though?
How pretty is Bosnia though?

Bosnia has beautiful nature and beautiful people. It’s very mountainous, with lots of forests and national parks. We couldn’t find anywhere online in advance to stay, but luckily we saw a sign for camping in an old national park complex. There were quite a few other people camping too. We did have to engage some 4WD action to get into the grassy area, which was fun (a Serbian/German couple joined us in this adventure with their little car). We “checked in” at the Soviet-looking hotel up the hill. This took us past a set of old tourist buildings that had clearly been shot at, shelled, and abandoned. It’s such a shame – if that complex was in Croatia it would be newly renovated and swarming with tourists.

It was a noteworthy night at that campground. First of all, there was a thunder storm. This forced us to take our glasses of wine and our activities (listening to Phantom of the Opera for Luke, and reading for me) into bed while we waited it out. I am afraid of thunder, so it was lucky that Hogwarts was there to welcome me home.

Secondly, a pack of 20-something guys spent most of the night and morning singing rousing choruses of Bosnian folk tunes at the tops of their very nice voices. I know they were folk songs because I asked the guys, which they thought was weird.

Thirdly, we got an introduction to stray dogs in the Balkans. They were adorable, sweet, well-behaved, and discernible breeds. There were three wandering the campground, getting pats and food from the campers. We almost adopted the puppy, who looked like he might have been part German Shepard. We thought he might be a good wedding present for you, Kim and Doug. Who doesn’t want a tragically adorable flee-ridden Bosnian puppy delivered to them on their wedding day, right? It’s just a LITTLE bit of potential rabies.

I mentioned before that we saw a bit of physical evidence of the war in Croatia. In Bosnia, it’s a whole other league. I don’t say this to be disrespectful or sensationalistic – it’s just true. Probably about a quarter of the buildings we saw in most places (given our very limited time there) had evidence of bullet holes, some were clearly shelled, many were abandoned (probably because people were killed, or fled and didn’t return). There were a couple of places we drove through where an entire street was thickly peppered with bullet holes. We also drove through a few towns – Foca and Visegrad, specifically, about whose history we  read. Very bad things happened in these places. It is not my history to tell, and I can’t begin to understand the complexities of the way that this recent history is recounted by the various groups of people involved. But I doubt that any would disagree that very bad things happened.

All that said, Bosnia (and also Serbia) are the places that Luke and I are most likely to travel to again – above Spain, Italy, France, the Netherlands. They are truly beautiful, they are not overrun with tourists, and the people really are incredibly friendly. We can talk all we want about the hospitality of people in other parts of Europe, but I think locals are just more welcoming in places that do not see packs of visitors all the time. In the case of Bosnia, I think people are happy we have come. Luke got his hair cut in a square in the small town of Trebinje, near the border with southern Croatia. The hairdresser was very sweet and talked to us a lot. She did, however, ask if we were “scared to come to Bosnia.” She said we had nothing to fear, it was safe. I totally agree with her. I would recommend Bosnia to any traveller with a healthy sense of adventure. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it’s very cheap for people with AUD and USD.

A lovely market in Trebinje
A lovely market in Trebinje

Another huge bonus of Bosnia (and also Serbia) is the booze. Oh, the best booze. We bought some homemade wine in plastic Coca-Cola bottles from some ladies in a market. It was fabulous, much better than a cheap Aussie red. Also, the market ladies are great. Welcoming and informative, and quick to offer a taste of their own wine in a small plastic cup, but they don’t push.

Going into Serbia from Bosnia and Herzegovina was like driving from Detroit into Canada. Material signs of war and poverty vanished instantly in Serbia, though we did get some very small glimpses later. I’m not going to make any speculations or judgements on why this might be the case – I certainly don’t understand this situation well enough.

Our fancy-pants place in Serbia
Our fancy-pants place in Serbia

I will make a judgement about the hotel we stayed in, located in a ski resort area in Serbia. It was MAGICAL. There were ceilings that were AT LEAST 8 feet high, and we didn’t have to bring our own toilet paper. And the wi-fi worked. We ran around in circles like idiots and jumped on the bed when we got in our room. We hadn’t stayed in a building for about a month. (Don’t get me wrong – we adore our little “house”. We’re just very easily pleased now.)

But things got even better when we got to Novi Sad. Rads and Peter work with Luke in Sydney, and they happened to be in Serbia at just the right time, with their wives, Leah and Zorica. Peter and Zorica are Serbian and they come back here frequently. They have a gorgeous house which feels like a little slice of Australian housing (the good kind) in Serbia, it was like being home. Actually, it was way nicer than the house we lived in in Sydney. I don’t think they would ever let chickens inside their house.

Touristing together
Touristing together

Anyway, our main takeaway was a feeling of being very taken care of (more delicious food and drink than we can handle, Zorica washing and folding our laundry, and sleeping in a big huge bed in a bedroom with a view of Novi Sad and the Danube). We left feeling pampered and well-rested, but also educated. Like if you went to a day spa situated in a library, but with home cooked meals.

The education bit: the fam took us on some really good tourist expeditions, for a start. We checked out some ancient Roman ruins and a couple of great historical museums in a town called Sremska Mitrovica. It was a capital of the Roman Empire during the Tetrarchy! It was such a treat to see history in a not overly-touristed place: in both museum buildings, museum staff led us around the exhibitions, explaining and answering questions.

Also, we were allowed *very* close contact with Mammoth bones.
Also, we were allowed *very* close contact with Mammoth bones.

Secondly, we had some really good chats, including with their neighbour, who popped by for a drink. He, from what we understand, is a meteorology professor at a university in Novi Sad. He and Peter were not at all shy about telling us about the history of Serbia/Yugoslavia, including the World Wars. We actually really appreciate people taking the time (and emotional energy) to tell us about their home, especially when it’s had as much history happen as Serbia has.

Rewind: Dubrovnik

Welcome to King's Landing!
Welcome to King’s Landing!

Just to throw you for a temporal loop, I’ll now tell you a little bit about Dubrovnik, which we visited prior to Bosnia and Novi Sad. The first, but least important, tidbit to note about Dubrovnik is that it is the filming location for all the King’s Landing scenes in Game of Thrones. Luke and I did geek out about that a little, yes. But more importantly, Dubrovnik is a beautiful ancient town. It’s insanely touristed – the throngs were still descended when we arrived by boat at 9pm for a walk around. However, it is one place we would recommend despite the hordes. There’s also very important recent history, having been under siege for several months in the 90’s.

Until next time!

Southern Croatia and Dubrovnik

 

Bosnia

Serbia

Lots of cucumbers in Croatia (plus Italy and Slovenia)

We apologise for the long space since our last post. We thought our computer was broken. Luke sat on it, and it now looks like a banana (J/k, but it is bent). It wouldn’t turn on, so we couldn’t use it for several days. We took it into a computer repair shop in Zadar, Croatia, where we pressed the “on” button and it turned on and worked. We thanked the computer man for “fixing” the computer (he said it was the “positivity” in the shop), and now I can write the blog.

This was not the first time we have looked like idiots in Croatia. We realized one day that we had not seen one of our credit cards in a couple days (horrible sinking feeling, right?). We traced back our steps to a petrol station we had stopped at two days before. We drove 20 minutes back to it. The moment we entered, the fellow at the front counter threw his hands in the air and dove into a drawer under his front counter, retrieving our card. We had left it in the freaking card machine. (I say “we” so as not to implicate any individuals in this mistake.) This fellow was so relieved to see us. He said he had called after us, whistling. He had called his friend at the next petrol station down the road, who came out to the street and flagged us down with waving arms. (Clearly we did not see him.) He even called the frickin police, and told them to stop any blue Mitsubishi Shoguns they saw. Clearly they didn’t. We like to laugh at what we would have done if the Croatian police had pulled us over, said something about a credit card, and made us follow them 20 minutes back down the road. We would have found the first available hiding space in the forest. Anyway, hooray for this super upstanding and law-abiding Croatian petrol station worker.

Croatia is insanely overrun with tourists in most places. Example: Plitvice Lakes National Park. Just look at the photos, it is actually the prettiest place in the history of ever. What I didn’t take pictures of was the tourists, clogging the paths and stopping abruptly for photos (like the ones here on this blog). Luke and I were weaving through the hordes, jumping over puddles and squeezing through tight spaces between tourists, because we like to MOVE IT MOVE IT. There was a duo of young French guys who we enjoyed competing with to see who could dodge other tourists the fastest. At one point one of them yelled “WE DID IT!!” after passing a particularly sluggish group. Of course, as you’ll see from the photos, it was well worth the tourist-dodging.

I mean, just look at it. Would you dodge tourists for this?
I mean, just look at it. Would you dodge tourists for this?

As much as our last blog post showed contrasts in the natural settings we visited, this blog post shows incredible contrast in the touristiness of the places we’ve visited. Examples:

10/10 on the touristy scale: Pompeii

Very well preserved paintings in someone's house in Herculaneum.
Very well preserved paintings in someone’s house in Herculaneum.

I have been to Pompeii twice before this, and I was thrilled to go back. Luke was unsure. Because I was aware that Pompeii itself would be heaving with our fellow sight-seers, I decided to start with Herculaneum, a smaller town about 20 km away from Pompeii. Herculaneum was destroyed more quickly than Pompeii. The culprit was the pyroclastic flow – hot and dry ash, gasses, and bits of rock. It’s actually way better preserved because of how it was covered. There is an intact 2nd floor wooden balcony over a street, for example. And – bonus – way, way, way fewer visitors. All the photos we have are from Herculaneum.

DSC01656
The setting of my historical fiction daydreams.

We did also go to Pompeii, which I loved despite the 10 bajillion people. I listened to ALL OF THE THINGS on the audioguide, including the extra information sections not attached to sites. Did you know that they washed clothes in a process involving urine and clay? I was an annoying student in grade school, yes. However, one thing to note about Pompeii, if you haven’t been there, is that it is a full city. There are busy streets (like the one with the brothel, of course), and there are empty streets where you can just go into empty restaurants and pretend you are a Roman craftsperson taking a break from your day of doing mosaics in the atrium of a house belonging to a local person of prominence, while in a country not far away the apostle Paul was writing some of his letters. That’s what I did.

0/10 on the touristy scale: Salvatore’s place

We did a lot of extra driving to get down to Pompeii, and we had to stop somewhere easy over night on the way to Venice. We found, on google maps, a campground in the countryside in Campania. When we pulled up past a small farm into the campground, it was seemingly empty. A young guy (19, it turns out) came out to meet our car. He said we could camp, and asked where we were from. When we said Australia/America, he got so excited. “WOW! WOW! AUSTRALIA!”. After paying for the night and talking about us having Kangaroos as indoor pets (jokes), Luke went to the car to get him one of the Australia-themed tea towels we brought. He, in turn, held the tea towel with two hands as if he was holding a gold medal from the Olympics, he seemed blown away. What a nice guy.

We got to talking with him. Through some sort of language-related misunderstanding, he thought, at one point, that I had asked to see his horse. He cheerfully said, “OK! 5 minutes!” and ran away. 5 minutes, here comes Salvatore and horse Marta up to our car. We gave her a pat – calmest, sweetest horse ever.

Next, after we started discussing chickens, he asks if we want to go to his Grandma’s house to meet her and the animals. Um, YES!!! So over we go, down the country lane, to Grandma’s house, who is a delightful old Italian lady. Uncle is there too. They take us around the house, introducing us to:

IMG_7393
Om nom nom nom
  • the chickens: there are dozens, roaming free around the farm, eating fresh wheat grains harvested meters away
  • the free-range pig: Uncle throws a melon from a wheelbarrow to the sow. She shows off her powerful jaws by splitting it open in one bite and chomps blissfully.
  • the kitten: Grandma disappears around the corner of the house and comes back with a tiny kitten, whose eyes had just opened, and handing it to Luke for a cuddle.

Before we left, we bought a few eggs from them, and they gave us some cucumbers growing by the side of the house. We kissed Grandma and said goodbye, obviously gushing about how we love this place SO MUCH.

IMG_7401Later, as we were munching on our delicious cucumbers at our campsite (just olive oil and salt, as Uncle said), who walked up, but Salvatore and Grandma. She’s brought more cucumbers for us. She grasped my face with both hands and told us we are beautiful. She came back the next morning too, with our final batch of cucumbers, to say goodbye. We ate every one of those cucumbers.

A meal comprised entirely of gifts from benevolent strangers
A meal comprised entirely of gifts from benevolent strangers

At this same campground, there was a couple who were setting up for a group of scouts to arrive the next day. They were staying in a cabin not far from our site. We said hello to them, and they smiled. They didn’t have any English, I don’t think. But they brought us dinner! Out of nowhere, the guy just walked over with a plate of spaghetti with fresh tomatoes, smiled, and left. No word. It was the best pasta we had in Italy, too.

Honourable mention: Pitigliano

A farmstay in Tuscany. When we asked the owner for wine, he gave us a jug from the cask.
A farmstay in Tuscany. When we asked the owner for wine, he gave us a jug from the cask.

I should also give an honourable mention in the non-touristy category to our farmstay near Pitigliano, in Tuscany. We were the only campers here, too. Upon arrival, the owner took us inside and made us 20 minutes of photo montages of the local area on his TV, while explaining the history and sites to us in Italian, broken French, and a few words of English. His pride was justified. Look at the pictures of Pitiliagno (AKA Little Jerusalem) and the nearby natural, public hot springs. I’ll save the descriptions for the captions. Suffice to say, it’s spectacular and it’s locals only. Cheers to a Florentine fellow at a campground in France who told us to go there.

Somewhere in the middle: The Sea Organ

Luke enjoys the seaside next to the Sea Organ
Luke enjoys the seaside next to the Sea Organ

This is a neat thing. In Zadar, a coastal city in northern Croatia, there is a thing called the Sea Organ. It’s stairs, which lead into the crystal clear Adriatic at the foot of the town. There are holes in the stairs, and pipes underneath. The waves pump through the pipes, creating ethereal, ever-changing music. Locals jump off the stairs into the water and dangle their feet in the waves, while a few tourists sit and listen. It’s beautiful.

And just a really good place: Slovenia

Slovenia was a hit. We only spent two nights, sadly, but we’ll be going back with my parents in a week or so. The campground was the first that was so fabulous, it inspired me to write a TripAdvisor review (Dujcevi Domaciji). For the first time on this trip, we got to have a fire, which was excellent in and of itself. Not to mention the Slovenian (read: potato-based) meal cooked up by the owner’s mother for dinner.

Luke in his element. Alcohol, fire, and a sharp axe. (This has ever disturbed me before, until I wrote caption)
Luke in his element. Wine, large fire, and a sharp axe. (This has ever disturbed me before, until I wrote caption)

Skocjan Caves: If you are ever in Slovenia, go there. If you would like to see a real-life Balrog habitat, go there. If you are terrified of heights and/or not seeing the sunlight, don’t go there. It’s an underground river, which includes an underground bridge perched 60 metres above the river. No photos are allowed inside, so if you’re curious you’ll just have to look on the internets.

A final word: Yugoslavia’s war

Because I love to end things on a depressing note, let’s talk about war. Not long after crossing the surprisingly easy Croatian border, we drove through a small town with a bit of a town hall in the middle. It was boarded up, with roof collapsed in and the walls completed riddled on 3 sides with bullet holes. I didn’t take pictures because something inside me says that might not be respectful.

We read a short history of each country we enter as we drive. We have had to read about the Yugoslavian war, about which we knew shamefully little. (Despite my social justice-conscious mother giving me a book about a girl trapped in Sarajevo under siege – Zlata’s Diary, it’s fantastic). I just remember joining in on joking around “with” two kids in my high school, one Bosnian and one Serbian, about their hatred for each other. I realise now there were probably no jokes there at all.

It’s odd to think, as we float on our backs in the salty Adriatic surrounded by European kids jumping around on plastic inflatables, that this country was immersed in a war only a couple of decades ago. I’m guessing I’ll have more to say on this as we enter Bosnia and Hercegovina, Serbia, and the Eastern parts of Croatia and Slovenia in the coming days.

Until next time!

Florence and Siena

Country Tuscany: Pitigliano and surrounds

Herculaneum, Vesuvius, and Salvatore’s place (WARNING: Real skeletons)

Venice

Slovenia and Croatia

Lamborghinis and jumping off rocks: Southern France, Monaco, and Italy

Cinque Terre is a group of five villages without car access that were built on the side of mountains rising above the Mediterranean. This one is Manerola.
Cinque Terre is a group of five villages without car access that were built on the side of mountains rising above the Mediterranean. This one is Manerola.

It’s been a few days of contrast for us since our last post. From the flat French mediterranean coast, up into the mountains, down into the Gorge du Verdon that cuts through said mountains, and then down to Monaco, along the French coast to Genoa, where we camped in the hills amongst redwoods. We spent last night and today traversing the Italian coastal towns of the Cinque Terre, and their accompanying vineyards terraced high above the sea. We moved onto a campsite outside of Florence, which also happens to have a section of cabins that belongs to the Contiki tour company. There are three bus-loads worth of pre-drunk 18-35 year old Australians swarming the place, but luckily the campsite owner told us where to park so that we can’t see or hear them, and it works. We did a half-hearted tour of Florence (it was hot and we were tired), and now we’re sitting by the campground pool in Siena.

Adventure Sports Time

I don’t consider myself a particularly brave person when it comes to heights, so when I jumped off of a 6 meter (18 foot) rock into shallow water not once, but twice, I admit that I was quite chuffed with myself. It was peer pressure that made me do it. Backing up, the Gorge du Verdon in southern France is a spectacular, you guessed it, gorge that is up to a kilometre (800 feet) deep at some points. It’s crowning feature is the Verdon, which is a magical green/blue river that runs down the middle. Luke and I decided to explore it in two ways: By hiking and canyoning.

Look at the very bottom - there's some water there! We hiked down to that from where this picture was taken.
Look at the very bottom – there’s some water there! We hiked down to that.

For the hike, we started at the top of the gorge, walked down to the river, and back up again, an elevation change of 460 metres each way. We cheerfully joked as we descended that it was really going to hurt on the way back up. It did. I would like to brag that Luke ran the last 20 minutes up, just for some extra fitness. I went slower and tried to have conversations with the lime-green butterflies (they said to say hi.) But the gorge at the bottom was well worth it. See photographic evidence below.

As for the canyoning: for those of you who haven’t previously been annoyed by our repetitive canyoning stories (we’ve done it twice before), canyoning is basically just walking down the middle of a river/stream that’s in a canyon. It involves jumping off rocks, sliding down waterfalls, swimming, some abseiling, and general silliness. We wanted to canyon down the main Verdon gorge, but unfortunately the power company upstream had let water out the dam off schedule, flooding the river dangerously. Instead, we canyoned down an equally beautiful tributary. There’s no photographic evidence of this journey, sadly, but suffice to say the canyon was made of lily white rocks (limestone!) and crystal clear blue/green water.

This is the Gorge du Verdon. But this is what it looked like where we canyoned.
This is the Gorge du Verdon. But this is what it looked like where we canyoned.

We took to the canyon with 8 friendly French people, including our guide. We found friends in the most adorable teenage sisters, who giggled when they saw Luke braiding my hair, and then insisted on helping me get my wetsuit on. They took it upon themselves to translate everything for us (“Log underneath here!” “Jump to the left, there’s a rock to the right!” “Careful, slippery!” “Only small people through this waterfall running through the slit in the rock and under some boulders, Luke must climb over and jump!”) When we got to the 6 metre jump, I thought about chickening out. I did it, though (as did Luke of course). It feels like you’ll never hit the water. Just as I thought I was done, triumphantly swimming towards the clapping group, the adorable sisters called my name to clamber up the rocks with them and do it again. I was peer pressured. I did it again. (To be fair, it was really fun.)

Finding ourselves

Luke didn’t do the stereotypical “finding yourself” European backpacking trip in his 20’s like I did, so we joke that he’s doing it now. We’ve decided he is on a real, bonafide journey of personal exploration now that’s he’s wearing Moroccan linen (he bought it in Granada.) A person can’t find themselves without earth-tone linen tunics.

As for me, I “found myself” when I saw my heritage reflected in a fun conversation with a bunch of Italian rock climbers at a campground in La Palud sur Verdon (a small and non-touristy town in the Gorge du Verdon area). I got into a discussion with them because the woman had bright fuchsia hair. Turns out she’s a hairdresser from Bologne and, fun fact, married her husband (also present) at an Elvis chapel in Las Vegas that is now a supermarket. Anyway, they group got into a discussion about where we should go in Italy. Things got dramatic when they started to discuss wine. It was all in Italian, but I could understand them shouting, “Chianti!” “Multepulciano!” “No, Chianti!!” “No, no, no, Multepulciano!!!” while waving their arms in the air and tsking loudly. This sort of thing happened frequently in our lengthy conversation.

Other fun characters we have met along the way include a befuddled-looking Czech walker who I first met when he absentmindedly wandered into our campground, his phone dead and having taken a wrong turn. I helped him find his way (he promptly went the opposite way of what we had decided), only to run into him again two days later in a mountain village about 80 kilometres away. He said he reached it on foot. I expect to see him somewhere in Kyrgyzstan or Laos, having lost his socks or gotten stuck in a telephone booth.

Pretending to be James Bond

This is a 60 foot speed boat called "Gush". It had a custom floormat on the dock that said "Gush."
This is a 60 foot speed boat called “Gush”. It had a custom floormat on the dock that said “Gush.”

We did a big driving day to get from the Gorge to Genoa, Italy. It was our most diverse and probably most beautiful day of driving. We decided on a whim to pop into Monaco, as we were driving fairly close by anyway. For today’s geography lesson, we’ll learn that Monaco is

What Luke pretended he was driving
What Luke pretended he was driving

the second smallest nation in the world (after the Vatican), it is not part of the EU (but uses the Euro and doesn’t have border checks), and has enough Lamborginis and Ferraris to make the BMWs, Audis, and Porches pedestrian and unexciting. It seriously lived up to its glam hype. We didn’t eat anything or spend the night, but I could feel the money being sucked out of my pores when we passed the Monte Carlo, the famous casino that seems to cover half the country. Luke enjoyed driving on the twisty roads, pretending he was James Bond and our car was something other than a dusty Pajero with a bag of stinky laundry in the back.

Also, the drive from Monaco to Genoa, along the French Riviera: I totally get why it’s a toll road. It’s either tunnel or dizzyingly high bridge, without any normal road, for about 100 kilometres. It passes over a valley, barrels straight into the next mountain, and pops out over another deep valley. I’m happy to pay my €8,70 if it means that bridge doesn’t send me flying into the ritzy village below. Also, there are a lot of terraced greenhouses. We have learned that they grow a lot of basil, which goes into Genovese pesto, which we are binge eating.

On a bridge, headed towards a tunnel
On a bridge, headed towards a tunnel

More about driving

An Italian stereotype we were aware of prior to entering Italy was that the drivers are insane. So far, our experience has only confirmed this. According to Luke, there are two types of Italian drivers: ones that do double the speed limit, and ones that drive at half the speed limit, swerving erratically, talking to passengers or on their cell phones, gesticulating wildly with both hands (“like they are tossing a salad”, Luke says).

Shhh, they don’t want you to know about this

In closing, I would like to let you in on a conspiracy. Some devious mastermind, for unknown reasons, has been teaching all Europeans to say “funny” when they mean “fun”. Seriously, even people with otherwise 100% flawless English. We don’t yet know the goal of this widespread and mysterious conspiracy, but I’m sure it has something to do with world domination.

Maybe The Brain is behind it! Though it does sound more like a Pinky idea. (A van in Florence)
Maybe The Brain is behind it! Though it does sound more like a Pinky idea. (A camper van in Florence)

Entering France, and the Gorge du Verdon (including the villages of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, Annot, and Entreveaux)

Monaco and the drive to Genoa

Italy: Genoa and Cinque Terre

Goodbye to Spain

Friendly reminder: We suggest that you click on the title of this post to read it on the website, rather than reading it in your email.

It’s a positive news day: we now have our Russian visas! We popped by Madrid a few days ago to pick them up at the visa office, at the exact date and hour they specified, of course. This means that I can now tell the visa story without jinxing things (though I suppose we still have to actually be let into the country – twice – which is not a given).

But first, some more contemporary updates. We have now officially ended the Spanish leg of our journey, as we crossed the border back into France yesterday afternoon. We’re now staying on the beach (again) near the Spanish border, and we’ll be spending the next week travelling across southern France.

Literally off the beaten track in Costa del Sol

IMG_6018
This is after the killer chihuahua almost got us.

We were warned not to go to Costa del Sol, which you’ve already heard me talk about a little (I wrote our last blog from there.) We were told it was a soulless, non-Spanish wasteland whose formal coastal beauty had been demolished to make way for high-rise apartment blocks to house Brits.  Largely, we found this to be true, though we just couldn’t find it in our hearts to hate it. Whatever, if people want to hide away in dodgily built condos and eat fish and chips all summer, that’s their business. We did, however, try to avoid it. So, when we required groceries, we were not too excited to leave our campground oasis to go into town to get some. 

We decided a bicycle ride would make the trip tolerable or even pleasant. We were told to go to out to the main road, cross it, and immediately turn right. We thought we did this. We did not. We cycled happily for ages (the shops were only supposed to be a couple kilometres away), on a dirt track, through banana groves and fields of recently cut sugar cane. We started to wonder where we were. Litter was strewn across the path and chain link fences guarded the few derelict properties we saw. A dog started barking menacingly, and my life flashed before my eyes. (Shut up, I’m dramatic, leave me alone.) It turned out to be a chihuahua, but there were others we could not see, so I’m sure my fear was totes justified. Also, a horse followed me along the path for a while, on the other side of its fence, which was friendly. We finally decided we were absolutely not headed towards the market, and veered off the path. And before you accuse me of being an irritating millennial who insists on misusing “literally”, as in the title above: we ended up on a track through a banana field that was not actually a track, but a bit of an irrigation ditch/trash collection point. We had to get off of our bikes and semi-run to avoid being eaten by the pack of rabid dogs in my head that were just trying to protect their property. Anyway, we eventually made it to the store and bought beans and carrots. The end.

Valor 

A scenic walk to town
A scenic walk to town

Perhaps the lovely Nick and Louise invited us to visit them in southern Spain before they realised that we would be overstaying our welcome in Louth by at least thirteen days. Perhaps they are masochists, or maybe just love the thrill of a risk. Whatever the case may be, they welcomed us into their lovely holiday accommodation in the Sierra Nevadas for a night, and, no less, on their 15th wedding anniversary. This is fitting, I think, because my family and I also went on their honeymoon, so infringing on their personal moments seems to be our schtik. Anyhow,

See? Free delicious sparkling water!
See? Free delicious sparkling water!

we had a fun and pee-inducingly hilarious reunion in the small white village perched precariously on a hillside, a world away from the grossness of the coastal high rises. This village – Valor – can only be reached by terrifying mountain passes (more later), has the most fabulous little tapas bars, and, to top it off, has beautiful sparkling water just pouring out of a spigot down the hill from Nick and Louise’s house. It’s seriously fizzy like Perrier but far more delicious, and you just fill all of your bottles with it. Magic.s

During this visit, Luke was hanging out the laundry and decided to see what it would feel like to repeatedly brush up against a big ol’ cactus, because he’s a guy who’s open to new experiences. It was VERY FUN for me to pull the pricklies out of his arm with tweezers, once he realized his painful mistake. I even got to use duct tape to peel out the little suckers. So satisfying. Nick and Louise were disturbed by my joy.

SO FUN.
SO FUN.

But about those roads: I thought the Pyrenees road was scary. This one, this one. In places, it was one lane, with traffic going both ways. There was no shoulder- the road fell straight off an inch outside of the line, down a cliff on one side and into a huge ditch on the other. On the switchbacks, there were signs to honk your horn to tell invisible oncoming cars to slow down. This was not fun for me, but we were lucky. We saw few cars, and those that we did see were going slow, and happened to appear on segments wide enough to slip past each other. We live to tell the tale.

The beauty of Islam

This says: "There is no conqueror but God." Carved into plaster.
This says: “There is no conqueror but God.” Carved into plaster.

Some of our dear readers may be aware that I’m a bit of a fangirl of Islamic architecture. The tile mosaics that are symmetrical on up to 8 axis, praising the perfection of God. The ornate plaster carvings with beautiful Arabic poetry. The white buildings that seem to float in air, the gardens that are a delight to the senses – smell, sound, touch, sight, and taste. Nowhere in the Western world is this stuff demonstrated better than the Alhambra (at least to my limited knowledge). The Alhambra, nestled in Granada, southern Spain, is a royal city that’s been constructed, added to, demolished, re-constructed, constructed differently, forgotten about, restored, and so forth for at least 1,000 years. It’s got palaces, theatres, churches, fortifications, houses, baths, monuments, and hordes of overheated American tourists. This particular overheated American tourist took ten million pictures and has included them below. I’ll skip the history lesson this time, but I will direct enquiring minds to the wikipedia article.

Who else is singing this in their head: He sees angels in the architecture, spinning to infinity, and he says, 'hey, hallelujah'
Who else is singing this in their head? “He sees angels in the architecture, spinning to infinity, and he says, ‘hey, hallelujah'”

The beauty of Catholicism

I saw La Sagrada Familia while travelling with my friend Mikaela over 10 years ago. We didn’t go inside, maybe because we were poor student types or maybe disorganised or maybe lazy? In any case, I was prepared to be blown away again by the outside of this church in Barcelona. It was designed by Gaudi, the Spanish architect famous for being the most austere Christian guy producing the most wacky of buildings. It’s been under construction for about a century and is still a long way off from completion – at least another 10 years – but it is already mind-boggling. It’s got completely different architecture on the outside for the stages of Christ’s life, especially contrasting for his birth (organic shapes, animals, plants, realistic people) and his crucification (hard, scary lines and almost cubist people).

The exterior side of the church that depicts the crucification. Look at Jesus. Also, note that the soldiers are wearing scary storm trooper helmets.
The exterior side of the church that depicts the crucification. Look at Jesus. Also, note that the soldiers are wearing scary storm trooper helmets.
The side depicting the birth of Christ. It looks like it's old or melting, but it's not - it's all intentional.
The side depicting the birth of Christ. It looks like it’s old or melting, but it’s not – it’s all intentional.

 

But the inside I was not prepared for. The light and the feeling are totally unlike any other church I’ve been in, and I’ve been in a few. It made me cry a little. Also, it made the goth couple at the entrance make out really intensely while blocking everyone’s paths into the church. Actually I won’t do any guesswork as to the inspiration for their extreme version of PDA, but it was definitely inappropriate (maybe their goal?). In any case, I won’t try to describe the church, I’ll leave it to the photos below.

Silly Gaudi! (In Parc Guell)
Silly Gaudi! (In Parc Guell)

Gaudi’s architecture is dotted throughout Barcelona. He has about 16 works in the city, ranging from sets of lampposts, to a failed housing estate-turned-public park (Parc Guell), to La Sagrada Familia. We did a very long touristing day, all on foot, to an apartment complex, office building, La Sagrada Familia, and Parc Guell. Luke was extremely impressed with Gaudi, which was a relief for me, having planned a whole day of the architect. He loved how the buildings lead your eye from one place to the next, and lack reference points as we normally know them (corners, sharp edges, defined points of view, etc.). Every element – down to individual columns or windows – is unique, and are often arranged asymmetrically. He also commented that Gaudi is one of the only architects he’s seen who produces not only beautiful, but highly practical and excellent feeling spaces. The architecture works with light and air beautifully, it’s very holistic. I’m sure Gaudi would be happy to know he has Luke’s approval.

OK, finally the Russian visa story.

In order to help you properly understand our pain in this situation, I require that each of you, prior to reading further, must list, in the comments, places and dates for everywhere you’ve been in the last 10 years, the full names of your parents, any organisations you’ve ever been affiliated with, the technical specifications of the cars you own and the names and contact numbers of every boss you’ve had.

We actually had to tell Russia all of this. We spent a day preparing the information. We went to the visa centre, me with my overachieving student posture fully deployed (back straight, chin up, neatly organised folder of paperwork clasped in my arms, judging gaze towards others who look less prepared). It did not go as expected, because I did not understand Russia. I’ll do this in bullet form:

  • Wait. Reach the desk, only to be told by the frenetic Russian gatekeeper, in Spanish, repeatedly, that it was 100% impossible to get a visa in Madrid, or Spain, or anywhere in Europe, in all cases, because we are Australian. There was absolutely no way, ever, to get a visa, other than actually flying to Sydney. So I cried. She called the embassy, and voila, she was telling us to take a number and sit down.
  • Wait. Reach the paperwork-taking desk, where we were told we had the wrong visa invitation. There was no way they would accept it, lo siento. Of course, we were supposed to have read the Russian letter and seen that it said “tourism” rather than the required “auto tourism.” We retreated to the car park, where we arranged for a new invitation online. Wait.
  • Wait. Arrive at desk again, where we were told the car paperwork was all wrong, all wrong, there is no way they could accept it. Go gather this long list of paperwork, lo siento, we cannot accept this. We retreat to gather the paperwork.
  • Come the next day, wait. When the frenetic front desk lady sees us, she tells us we must leave. Turn around. They are closed, no longer seeing customers. Today is Friday, she tells us to return Tuesday, maybe Wednesday. Lo siento, she is sorry, we must leave, no choice, goodbye. I cried. This is where our English-speaking angel stepped in to translate for us, and we were told to sit down and wait. We waited there until after closing, until they called us to the front desk. They looked at our paperwork briefly. They handed back almost all of it to us, without recording any information or taking copies. They took an enormous chunk of money out of our bank account and told us they would submit the visa to the embassy, no promises. We left, our spirits broken despite our half-hearted victory.
  • Despite all this, I’m still quite excited to go to Russia.

That’s all for now, folks. We love you all!

Granada (including the Alhambra)

Valor and the Spanish countryside in/near the Sierra Nevada mountains