Dear Friends:As every year, we try to do some kind of special summer E-postcard, just to keep in touch with friends and family, especially when we have something to write about, pictures to show, etc. Here's this year's offering for Ron & Marianne's Summer Postcard 2002.
Of course, we've been off adventuring in Europe again, but this time we took our own little Nissan Serena minivan-camper, bicycles hanging on the back, and visited places we haven't been before.
Specifically Slovenia and Croatia, two of the "new" countries that had been part of ex-Yugoslavia. Of course, they're only "new" politically, those cities and towns have actually been there for thousands of years before the concept of "Yugoslavia" had ever been forced upon them. But since Eastern Europe has opened up, it's like there's all this undiscovered territory to explore, where the vast flocks of tourists haven't arrived yet, and it's all so nice and cheap. So as the established Western European countries get more expensive every day, east is the way to go.
I used to think the ex-Communist lands wouldn't be interesting, you know, too run down after 50 years of neglect (which you do see), but our trips to Prague and Budapest have been really good: the people are glad to have tourists, everything is a third the price of Italy or France, the beer is just as good but stronger and in half-liter mugs, the girls and guys are as pretty as can be, and the food is definitely way better than standard tourist resturant offerings in the west. That it's a little less developed than the rest of Europe is actually pretty appealing-- sort of like Mexico was back in the 60's.
We took the ferry from Denmark over to Rostock, putting us into ex-Eastern Germany, continuing south on the Autobahn past Berlin, Munich, heading for Salzburg in Austria as our first planned stop.
Usually our route south through Germany has been via Hamburg- Hannover- Frankfurt- Heidelberg, mainly to visit our friends Alf and Margarete in Weinheim along the way, but they had plans of their own this year. So this was a new route for us, and we found it to be quicker because there was less traffic and almost no Stau (that dreaded word for "total traffic jam", so much a part of life in Germany these days).
This trip was also our first contact with that famous new European currency, the Euro. It was a shock for me because it's basically the same value as dollars, and although I'm used to the high European prices, I've always had the cushion of foriegn currency confusion to keep me from registering just how many dollars things actually cost. My first tank of diesel on the Deutsches Autobahn was 35 Euros for 40 liters, which I translated to 35 Bucks for 10 gallons! Translating it back to real money--Danish Kroner--I realized that I'd been paying something like that all along, no big deal, but I still couldn't help feeling that everything was unreasonably expensive.
Well, actually it was: stopping to eat at any big luxurious Autobahn rastplatz is a foolish thing to do...but there you are, so you do it anyway. I won't list the prices of the boring tourist food we ate just because we were hungry enough (and bored after many hours of driving), you'd probably recognize them from any airport cafeteria in the world: same stuff same price.
However, there is also a bargain to be had at those rest areas: you can simply park for the night, use the toilets, and sleep for free in your little minivan camper. Don't need a hotel, campground, whatever. And since everyone does it, there's lots of cars and trucks and campers gathered together, so it's even pretty safe. Camping alone by the side of some road in the countryside can be a bit risky in some parts of Europe: gypsies, Russian Mafia, etc.
This was our first trip in which we actually used the van as a camper, and it was a success. Our own rolling Highway Hotel. It's got a comfortable double bed, luggage underneath, we've got a toilet system to get us through the night,lights for reading, and the acoustics inside that steel can are terrific for playing the guitar before going to sleep. We slept in it about 8 times on this trip, sometimes even when we were staying in campgrounds. It also kept us dry through one especially stormy night that our otherwise excellent big tent couldn't quite handle.
We had come through a lot of rain driving down through Germany and Austria, and it caught up with us again when we were camping in Slovenia on the northern coast of the Adriatic Sea. But we were lucky, we found out, because just behind us the storm rains were seriously flooding Austria and Prague, raising the level of the Vtlava River by 8 meters above normal, flooding the subway system 100 meters deep! There was a campground in Hungary that was flooded so bad that 75 people were washed into the Black Sea and drowned! Our friends back in Denmark were worried that we were caught up in something like that, called us on our cell phone to ask if we were alive.
So it was raining when we stopped in Salzburg, which is a nice town, although so perfect and quaint and stuffed with tourists that it felt like Disneyland on a busy day.
See Marianne getting wet? Don't you wish you were there too, having fun in Europe?
The real danger, though, was all those short Japanese tourists wielding umbrellas at exactly our eye-level...and I mean really! We didn't stay long--took a look at the Alte Stadt, bought the obligatory bottle of Austrian Stroh Rum (80%, good stuff!), and headed south towards what had once been Yugoslavia.
It was late when we crossed the border into Slovenia, and it was like the old days in Europe before EC, because suddenly there WAS a border--we had to show passports and change money. Up to this point we'd come from Denmark through Germany and Austria without ever stopping for customs, just like going between states in USA. Okay, the border was no big deal, we just waved our passports and they waved us on, but in the Communist days there had been rows of soldiers with machine guns standing there and it had been a pretty scarey scene.
We stayed at a rest area about 10 km before Lublijana, not wanting to come into town and look for a hotel at midnight. We ate in the resturant there--and were amazed at the wonderful food we got for almost no money. A nice Welcome to Slovenia.
We got into Lublijana, the capital city, about 9:00 next morning, the sun was shining again, and we were fresh and ready to explore a totally unknown place. I mean, what do YOU know about Lublijana? Ever heard of it? Me niether, almost. Once again I was expecting rows of Russian block buildings, obsolete factories pumping out smoke (as I remember Sofia, Bulgaria,for example), and some really nasty traffic. But the city wasn't so big, and although there were some of those old Soviet apartment complexes on the fringes, mostly it seemed clean and modern, and it got nicer and nicer as we approached the older center. Even pretty.
There's a river that meanders through the city center, and suddenly we seemed to be in a mini-Paris, but like Paris was back in the 50's, quite laid-back and restful. Lots of trees along shady riverbanks, sidewalk cafés and resturants, elegant shops, lots of art, youth-culture, university students hanging out, just enough tourists to be welcome. Very comfortable place. And cheap, whee!
Our first camping stop was in a nice little campground that we'd checked out the year before on an exploratory one-day trip to Slovenia from Italy. It was right up on the Adriatic Sea, about a mile from the perfect little town of Isola, where we'd bike in to explore and shop and eat. We set up our old villa tent and had us as a cozy little place to live for a while.
We even became friends with our Slovenian camping neighbors--who were two families and real party people, laughing a lot. I'd strummed about three chords on my guitar when Braco came running over and said, "Wollen Sie gerne ein bisschen Wein mit uns trinken?" He spoke some German, his friend Marjan spoke less English, their wives spoke only Slovene, so Marinanne and I spent an evening talking mish-mash. Of course, Braco and family and friends wanted some guitar music, so I had to do a concert for them, but they liked all the old 60's stuff I play anyway, so everyone was happy.
The local language--Serbo Croatian--was pretty useless to us since we don't speak more than the few words we've picked up along the way. HVALA is thank you, DOBRO is good, VODA is Water, etc. So conversations are hand-sewn with snippets from German, English, Italian, and even some French. But Braco's kids showed up, and they all spoke fluent English, even little 10-year-old Matic.
Of course, Marianne had to tell their kids that I drew comic books, so here's Ol' Uncle Ron drawing Spider-Man, Batman, etc for them. So I was cranking out one after another for about an hour. Good PR, tho. However, the oldest daughter, Maja, wanted something a little more challenging: "Draw me the Titanic," she said,"you know, the movie." Whew!
Slovenia is very nice, and the cheapest country around, but it's quite little. For example, there's only about 15 kilometers of usable coastline, so we'd explored every town along it after 3 days. And it kept raining on and off, so we moved farther south to Croatia.
We picked up a young hitchhiker, the first one we'd met along the way--and not only was he Danish, but also from Copenhagen! His name was Mikkel and he was about Mads' age, so Marianne pressed her cell phone on him and asked him to call his mother and let her know that he was all right. Since he'd been trying to call home earlier without luck, having been where the floods were, he was rather grateful for the chance.
Anyway, Mikkel was heading for a Mideival mountaintop town in the Istrian Peninsula, Motovun, so we took him there as a starting point for our own explorations. Then we headed further south and found the beach town of Rovinj, where it was nice and sunny at last.
There was a campground just outside of town, which we found listed in our camping book under "naturist". Yes, really, a nudist campground. Well, we're old hippies, right? So we went there.
Kinda funny at first to see all those people walking around naked--backpacks, sandals, nothing else, everything bobbing and swinging, but you get used to it. Although 3/4 of the people there DID NOT have beautiful bodies. Lots of REALLY fat old Germans, usually those with the big motor homes with all the luxurious extra equipment. This was really a case of letting it all hang out. You'd think nudist camping would be sexy, but the occasional bare beauty wasn't enough to outweigh the tons of big bellies and asses and sagging boobs. I mean WE were the sexy ones!
We liked being naked for swimming, sunbathing, using the shower facilities, but drew the line at sauntering up to the camp center and sitting around the coffee shop, bicycling around, playing badminton. Although, the truth is you forget that you're not wearing anything...at least, until you try to pay for something. It all seemed pretty innocent.
Speaking of innocent, how do you like our fig leaves? They're the real thing: there was a big beautiful fig tree right beside our tent, and the figs were good too, just becoming perfectly ripe while we were staying there.
Although there was a bit of decadence going on there too. A lot of people were pubic-shaved, pierced in the oddest places, nipple-chained, tattooed (although not much leather or latex was being worn, of course). Some of them were definitely into Look At Me. There was obviously a big gay guy scene too, and there were some gay-play areas where straights might feel unwelcome. But as in most campgrounds, everyone was always polite and well-behaved, none of it was threatening in any way--just amusing.
The area around Rovinj was great for exploring. Most of the towns were Roman colonies a couple thousand years back, Rovinj has an impressive ancient city center, there's even a Roman Colesseum in Pula, seen below.
After 6 days there We moved on to Camping Bunkaluca, located on the southern tip of the Croatian island called Krk. Marianne had been there with Mads 18 years ago, just before I'd come to Denmark. She wanted to see it again, and I'd always heard about it, so we gave it a shot.
This was another naturist campground, but also quite different. It's harder to get there, somewhat primitive, rather difficult to drive a normal car into tight locations on bumpy gravel trails, steep hills, small tent-sites. The big plush trailer caravans simply couldn't squeeze in there, which results in a different clientele: no really fat rich old people. In fact, most people there were beautiful--in one way or another--and easier to make contact with. We became friends with an Austrian family camping beside us, Reinhold and Elena and their 2 kids. Marianne and I both really warmed up to speaking German again, which was great.
There was a postage-stamp beach just in front of the camp resturant and market, but it got quickly filled up with sunbathers. Fortunately, there were many small alcoves along the coastline, accessible by trekking like a mountain goat for a few minutes, and the farther you went the fewer people were on them. No sand beaches anywhere, by the way, all rocks or gravel, but the water was perfectly clean and green.
Krk is a pretty bleak island, mostly rock and raw nature, so there weren't any towns to drive to except the very nice little port of Bashka beside the campground, which was close enough to walk to. We also used our bikes, but there were some severe hills we had to push over.
We went into town to eat one night, but mostly enjoyed just going shopping for ingredients and making dinner ourselves back at camp. We hadn't put up our tent there, our site was all rocks and uneven, so we just had our table and chairs and camp stove beside the van, which we lived in. We really liked the sausage they sold in the butcher's shops, green beans from the market place, and lots of fruit, of course. We'd also tried the local wine a few times, but preferred the beer.
Here's a picture of Marianne shopping...no, not in town, at the camp bakery. She was not exactly aware that I took her picture, so this is a little surprise for her.
After the 2 week point we had to think about the trip home, and we'd decided to see Venice on the way. It wasn't far to Italy, under 100 km to Trieste, but part of being less developed than Western Europe means that there are no Autobahns in Croatia, just 2-lane highways, which are full of commuters, tourists, big camping wagons, and even bigger trucks. Long, narrow, winding roads clogged with slow traffic. By the time we crossed the Italian border, I didn't care that we had to pay to take the Autostrada, I was ready for that 6-lane superhighway.
The plan was to go into Venice in the morning, spend the day there, and move on next evening. But it was too early to sleep when we arived in the area, so we went 20 km further to visit Padova, a place we'd never seen before. Later that night we found the closest Autostrada rest stop to Venice and checked into our free Highway Hotel. We had some rum & cola to drink, a guitar to play, made a party of it.
In the morning we drove in as close as you can to the canal city of Venice, parked the car in the big garage, took a boat-bus up the Canal Grande to Piazza San Marcos. Nice trip, see above.
Now here's the part where I tell you how expensive Venice is...nah, forget it. We knew it would be (and were stunned anyway), but we wanted to see the city again.
It'd been 10 years since last time, and one of Marianne's hobbies is making masks, and Venice is the place for masks. We found some nice ones, bought a couple, had a few snacks, couple beers, walked around. It IS a fantastic city, visually unique. And physically fantastic too--that it exists at all--it should have sunk into the sea 500 years ago. You should see what they have to go through to keep that soggy city functioning at all, constantly dealing with canals and stairway bridges. They have to supply tons of food and wine and goodies for all those tourists to gobble and quaff, so it's all driven in by truck, loaded over to a boat, then hand-carried on foot up and down stairs, hard work. Hey, no wonder it's expensive, every strand of spaghetti has to be hauled in on some guy's back.
Right, Venice is too expensive, too many tourists-- but if you get the chance, go there anyway, okay?
We headed north, stopping at Lago di Garda for the evening. Spent the evening in Pescheria on the southern tip of the lake, pretty nice little town, no problem parking for the night. (We've had one nightmare night tour up the eastern side of the lake-- 52 km of narrow winding cliffside road --where there was NOWHERE to stop, it was like driving in a tunnel, every square meter of road was attached to a hotel or a mansion and if you didn't have a reservation you could just move along or be towed away). We spent the early part of the day at the lake and headed north again, towards Denmark.
On the way home we stopped into Innsbruk to pick up more Stroh Rum to take back to Denmark (where you can't get the 80% stuff)--this has become a tradition, we know what we like.
We also know what we don't like, so heading back through Germany we simply refused to eat at the Autobahn resturants, and drove off the road to find a Gasthaus in some little town. We especially wanted to check out some of the ex-Deutsches Democratisches Republik towns, see what they were like. Sometimes it was just a waste of fuel, but there were some pretty neat places too, like Hilpoltstein, south of Nurnberg: classic "Alte Stadt", good food, reasonable prices, not like on the Authobahn. But it was clear that they were living in the modern world now, young people were sitting at sidewalk cafés talking on their cell phones, just like everywhere else. There was no sign that DDR had ever existed.
Finally we ran out of road and took the ferryboat back to Denmark. Which was fine, nice to come home again. Especially since it was--and is--still summer! Usually we come back to rain, wind, and have to accept that our summer vacation is really over. So we can pretend that it isn't, for a little while yet.
Ron & Marianne