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Maria & Brett's HUGE Trip 06-07-08-09-? ok, so the Socceroos lost in 'that' penalty against Italy; Adriatic summers aren't long enough (bliss!); and we found that you should never use the term "Eastern Bloc" when talking to a Czech (Central Europe, please).

Roadtrip with the Oldies through Central Europe

CROATIA | Tuesday, 22 May 2007 | Views [2790]

The quintessential shot from the island of Pag, just off the coast near Zadar, bleak as the moon but home to some of the world's finest cheese from this little fella.

The quintessential shot from the island of Pag, just off the coast near Zadar, bleak as the moon but home to some of the world's finest cheese from this little fella.

We've just returned from a breathless yet wonderful two weeks with Sue, David and Sue. Before they touched down we asked ourselves "how the hell do we show them our life here in the Czech Republic in just fours days?"

It was a whistlestop tour indeed, leaving a web of dots on our Prague map according to the cafes, historic attractions, winding old streets and quirky Prague features we visited (and dawn marriage proposals we witnessed on Charles Bridge!).

From Prague the web stretched outwards to Karlštejn Castle in the south, and the further to Česky Krumlov, the historic gem of South Bohemia. You must visit this place at least once in your life. Pure magic. Nothing less. Nestled in a 180-degree bend in the Vltava River which flows north and dissects Prague down the middle, the UNESCO-listed walled town of Česky Krumlov has survived floods, fires and incursions and is one of the few places in this part of europe to have buildings that have remained intact since the gothic period - the building we stayed in even had original gothic wooden beams.

We were enchanted by the understated charm that the place had, which exuded from its many quiet cobblestoned alleys, wooden bridges across the rapidly flowing Vltava, towers, castles high above us (which can be seen from most points in the town - so sunken in the valley is the place compared to surrounding areas, including the castle) and the personality of a town that has survived so many centuries, yet is still in a development and restoration phase after years of neglect and idleness.

After celebrating David's birthday in a gypsy restaurant following an aussie picnic accompanied with Vegemite and a bottle of cheap but delicious French white, we left this magical place and followed the river south to Austria, where we accidentally missed an exit from the autobahn and ended up in Germany. We had barely blinked! Back in Austria, we found the right road again and entered Slovenia via a tunnel cut directly through the natural frontier. Having visited four countries in the time it takes one to travel from Chatswood to Cherrybrook it was time to call it a day.

Lake Bled captured us with its beauty and idyllic lakeside charm for the next 3 nights. Known for the church that sits on an island in the middle of the lake and the medieval castle that overlooks it from a steep cliff abutting the lake, Bled immediately offered us more than any Lonely Planet guide would describe in its pages: we found accommodation with the loveliest soul called Andrea (Sue’s, if you read this could you put her contact details here!) who, after telling us we could stay in two separate apartments for €17 each person, sat us down and explained every in-and-out of the whole district, including which pub had the best food, which cakeshop had the best kremšnita – like a vanilla slice, but a specialty of Lake Bled – where to go for the best mountain views, which village to visit to take in the renown white spring flowers that were now in bloom… She even invited us to have a coffee with her on the morning we left. What an ambassador for Slovenia!

During our time here we:

* got lost up a mountain on the Bohinj national park and nearly fell off it as we wound our way up gravel hairpin roads and under rocky overhangs (“don’t notice the rocks that have found their way, courtesy of gravity, to the road that we’re now travelling on”), and were rewarded with breathtaking views across alpine fields to the piercing snow-capped peaks on the other side of the lake.

*  stumbled almost literally across one of the most important WWI PoW memorial sites in the area, where the remains of Austro-Hungarian soldiers lie side-by-side in a small patch of mountainous forest, the plaques on their graves decorated by ribbons that now represent either Austria, Hungary, Italy and the Czech Republic. (It was moving to note that typically Czech names such as ‘Karel Marek’ were accompanied by the words “Austro-Hungär”).

*  turned off the main road and instantly found ourselves in villages where tractors, hand-carts and farmers made up the majority, villagers tending their fields by hand – bent over double – and old women in printed pinafores chatting with each other outside their houses.

*  whiled away a very relaxing afternoon on the shores of Lake Bled as the sun dipped through the last arc of the golden afternoon and we watched the gondoliers dodging the Olympic rowers doing their 2km laps up and down the lake, while they in turn dodged the swans and ducks that seem to be right at home here.

We eventually prised Lake Bled’s grip open and made a break for Vipava to visit Maria’s relatives – who are now 2 more in number thanks to the arrival of Mateuš and Živa, both born within 2 weeks of each other to sisters Barbara and Anka. With homemade wine, grilled chicken, fresh tomatoes (paradies), an asparagus dish to die for and a čevapčići dish borrowed from Bosnia we spent a wonderful afternoon with the family making new introductions, catching up on the news since we last visited at Christmas, and made new plans to return again sometime soon. Why is there never enough time?

By nightfall we were on the road again and heading straight for the Istrian region of Croatia, in the north-west. Arriving at 8pm we had to find accommodation at an agency attached to a local bar but it wasn’t a problem as the peak season was still a few weeks away. For about €10 each we stayed in a large, ultra clean two-bedroom apartment with sea views, sat tv and modern kitchen, the perfect location to explore up and down the Istrian coast and countryside, including the peninsular and roman-era towns of Poreč and Piran (back over the border in Slovenia), the roman amphitheatre at Pula and of course the Bikers Fest at Umag!!!

Border crossing tip #1if you want to save time at border crossings, don’t ask for a stamp, as we did. With traffic moving at breakneck speed in the opposite direction we caused a mini-jam as the guard on duty looked around his cabin, found the stamp, looked again around his cabin – this time for a piece of paper – tested it, looked at the date on the stamp, fixed it, took our passports, asked us where we were going, entered the details of four passports, one-by-one, into his computer, found the stamp page in each passport, stamped them successively, handed them back and waved us through with a look of focused curiosity on his face.

Returning to the apartment one night we decided to find a typical Croatian ‘Grill’ restaurant, which are often set up in houses by the side of the road and unmistakeable for the huge shedded rotisserie out the front, often with a pig, lamb or both already roasting horizontally on it. Any decent grill will have a host of people sitting at outside tables. We were on a search for the ultimate grill.

We found a restaurant in the middle of a tiny village off the main road and were instantly transported to a land of rural tranquillity. Sitting on the verandah of a ranch-style house converted to a modern-day restaurant we licked up every morsel of roasted lamb, veal or fish that we’d ordered, listening to the sound of a trickling water feature in the front yard, bathing in the ambience of mediterranean lights that were placed here and there. And, to use one of Sue H’s phrases we had “one of the best” coffees ever, there.

After a walking visit to the Byzantine-era chapel at Poreč we headed for Zadar via Rijeka and some of the most dramatic scenery changes we could ever imagine. We went from soaring heights up in shrubby mountains down to coastal seas-side towns where the glasslike ripple-less water of the Adriatic Sea would’ve lapped against our car doors had there been any breath at all on the water. We passed through affluent suburbs that would put the French Riviera to shame, and drove past a motorscooter that was zinging up the hill in the opposite direction ON ONE WHEEL and remained so for several hundred metres until we lost sight of him. At times we felt like we were on the moon – so stark, barren and rocky was the land, as it took us on a winding path through hairpin turns, along sweeping plateaus (and roadhouse coffee stops so thoroughly enjoyable that we stayed for a second round, including apple strudels!) and across precipices so high that the charred and twisted remains of doomed car chassis were only just visible far below.

We finally made it to the car ferry that would take us across to the island of Pag – known for its delicious sheep cheese that we’d eaten for lunch, and home to some amazing scenery. It would also deposit us in Zadar after making the 80km trip down the spine of the island, through tiny rural towns that left us wondering what industry would sustain them other than bloody good cheese, and past the seaside resort town of Pag itself, which is surrounded on all sides by white, barren rock. Beauty in the extreme!

The whole island is divided into plots of farmland, marked out by rows upon rows of fences made up by the one resource that is ever present – rock. There was not a tree in sight so it wasn’t hard to see how the resources had shaped the industrial landscape itself. Sue decided to test the time-tested effectiveness of one of these fences by climbing on it to take a photo, only to find the fence coming off second best – or was that her coming off second best? Either way her jigsaw puzzle skills came in handy as she put it back together, ancient piece by ancient piece.

Finally arriving in Zadar we set out to explore the village where Maria’s parents grew up in and introduce them to Maria’s Baba whom we stayed with last summer. Baba had just shorn 6 sheep that morning and took the oldies on a tour of her part of the village.

The old town – or “open-air museum” of Zadar called us, with its 3000 year-old history still being unearthed by excavations that are on foot in one of the town’s squares. There we met up with Maria’s cousins, Tome and Bobo, who are both very much the archetypical cosmopolitan students. On our last night together we all made our way to Hotel Zagreb by the waterfront, a landmark made famous when Alfred Hitchcock decided that sunsets in Zadar are more beautiful than anywhere else. More recently the hotel housed refugees during the conflict that so violently was waged there.

Spending time wandering through the ancient streets of this peninsular city connected by man-made land was the perfect close to a tour with the oldies. They continued on their tour of a land blessed with unrivalled beauty, fortified with a better understanding of the troubles the nation has experienced, towards a boat that would take them on a week of sailing adventure.

We came back to Prague and rain!

Tags: On the Road

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