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Yamba to Croatia & Slovenia

AUSTRALIA | Monday, 8 September 2008 | Views [1128] | Comments [2]

 Yamba to Geneva & on to Avonnex… And further still

We have a brand new very best friend – Barbara; and she drove us to the airport at Ballina at the beginning of this trip. She is house–sitting our place for a while as she has bought a home in Oyster Cove but it is being used as a display home until the end of October and therefore she can’t occupy it. We flew down to Sydney on Saturday 16 Aug saving $100 each by travelling then instead of on Sunday 17th. This was fortuitous as the “Wharf Review” was on and we got tickets – probably the last two together from what the booking agent said, and we had a Ball. Some bitingly satirical stuff but all hilarious!!! Brother-in-law Brian dropped us at the International Terminal a bit after Noon on Monday 18th so the whole build up to our departure was relaxed and easy – except for Grant Hackett being bumped out of a history making Gold in the same event in three successive Olympics. Quel domage!

Qantas “Frequent Flyer Points” provided us with our flights - but boy they don’t make things easy for their users!  I tried to find the dates we wanted and do the entire booking on-line. That didn’t work because I couldn’t get into the list of available flights on the rest of the ‘One World’ hook- up of airlines so I did the lot by phone (and paid an administration fee – in points, of course). The flight over ended up being bout 30 hours because it took us to Hong Kong (change planes and carrier), London (another change of plane and carrier) and finally to Geneva where out brand new Citroen C3 motor vehicle awaited us – after we got out of the airport on the French side. The distributor collected us in a shuttle bus and finalised the paperwork - a highly efficient operation. He said that the Aussies, the Kiwis and Brazilians in that order buy the majority of his new car sales and he appears to be doing rather nicely thank you – as we were carrying out all of the bumf necessary, there were two – count them, 2, car carriers parked in the street outside – one delivering new cars and the other taking away the ones which had been handed back at the end of the lease period. They were heading off to an auction yard after a very short amount of use. I think that the “buy a new car on a guaranteed buy back basis and have it charged as a lease with full registration and insurance” deal will suit us. We did the whole deal on line and then sent the paperwork to an agent in Frankston – but they have agents all over the World. All one needs is to be a non European citizen. Their web site is  www.drivetravel.com One of our French acquaintances said that her brother who now lives in LA always uses them as it guarantees him a brand new vehicle and no hassles with alleged damage to a rental company’s car – and she doesn’t have to get him to and from the airport.

The car comes with 10 litres of fuel and the operator points out the closest refuelling point on the way to his holding yard – about 500 metres and right beside a large supermarket where we could do a mini stock up and also get some Euros out of a ‘hole in the wall’ so all of that is good too.

Catherine’s unit in Avonnex (near Taninges which is close to Cluses) has a fantastic ‘Sound of Music’ scenery view and is small enough to be cleaned easily on the last day and large enough to be really comfortable. We are blessed to have such a wonderfully generous friend who is prepared to lend us her apartment. Her neighbours have been in to ensure that we’ve found everything and to offer assistance – a good test for our fifty year old French lessons and our memory of those lessons as they speak no English!  I’d really like to come to this area in Winter – there are approx 1600Km!!!!!!!! of groomed runs within 45 mins drive of Catherine’s apartment.

Day one started disastrously! This confounded computer would not boot up – now how much worse could things be???! It was (understandably) a late start – 9ish when we finally got out of bed so off into Tanignes to buy a few groceries and contact Catherine’s friend Bernadette at the pharmacy as she speaks excellent English and could advise us about finding someone to fix the computer. Well, there was a market in town – not just the usual Thursday fruit & veg etc market in Taninges but one for collectors and for bric-a-brac and old books etc. How beaut! We browsed up and down the ‘quai’ where the stalls were laid out and were intrigued by some of the items for sale like the wooden pitchforks one sees in drawings of the peasants rising up in days of yore and cowbells the size of small filing cabinets and ancient skis and old horse ornaments and hand made steerable wooden toboggans as well as vinyl records, old post cards and antiquarian maps on top of just plain bric-a-brac junk. While they have excellent stalls and carrying vehicles, none of these vendors is as well set up as those who travel the towns for the weekly markets selling fresh produce etc. These folks have specially built trucks with refrigerated cabinets and the fishmonger displays his wares, as does the butcher and the cheese seller or else the truck has built in rotisseries to roast chickens etc. They are a tribute to the weekly markets in all of the villages and towns around the area..

In the true French tradition, the pharmacy was shut (open 9 – 12 then 2 to 7pm) so we strolled to the far end of town to the supermarket and had a fine time practising our written French while searching for our kinds of cereals, fruit juice etc. We both enjoyed stirring up the old grey cells again. On the way back to the car we called in to the pharmacy and spoke to Bernadette who directed us to a computer store which had recently opened in the town. The lady there has about as much English as we have French but we were able to establish that Windows XP repair disc needed to be run and yes she has one – but it’s in French and it may overwrite all of the Windows instructions from English to French. Hmmmm well I can read basic French and I know the main Windows instructions I need so let’s go ahead.

We headed off to explore through a part of the Alps back to Lake Geneva and on through a medieval village of Yvoire – we MUST come back here and spend at least a half a day exploring. The lady rang to say the computer was ready but road works. a series of detours and heavier than usual traffic through the tiny roads of the various villages meant we weren’t back by her closing time of 7pm!  Ah well, mañana.

One of the spots we travelled through was the ski resort of Les Gets. Perisher plus Thredbo and probably the Victorian ski fields too would be dwarfed by the extent of this resort – even though it’s touristy it doesn’t appear to be a big, brash in your face rip your money off place. It’s a series of village homes, farm houses, ski lift terminals, parking areas and all of the other necessaries of life delightfully mingled with hotels, restaurants, fast food outlets and souvenir shops etc. Some of the lifts were running and people were taking their mountain bikes up for the thrill of the ride down. As well, there were carnival type rides and bungy-trapeze trampoline thingos for other thrill seekers as well as deck chairs lined up outside the bars for the sun-lovers to soak up the rays while enjoying a beer or whatever. Most picturesque and laid back – yet still busy because some kids are still on vacation.

Our second day in Avonnex was a gem of a day so we picked up the computer (no it doesn’t speak French – it just repaired itself in English), did a swag of shopping at the weekly markets and then hied ourselves off to Chamonix and from there we took the cable car to Aiguille de Midi which is a needle-like pinnacle of rock with a needle-like building atop it. Simply the most wonderful spot from which to view Mont Blanc. There are a number of buildings up on top of this piece of rock apart from the ‘needle’ which is at 3842metres above sea level! We had a perfect day! (and took just a whole raft of photos). The weather was perfectly clear and blue so the scenery was stunning. The thing which struck us most (apart from the scenery) was the number of rock and ice climbers clambering all over the scenery – all weighed down with ice axes, crampons, ropes, backpacks and assorted other paraphernalia. There were dozens of them and on a Thursday; I just wonder how many would smother the place on a weekend. The excess gear they have really puts a strain on the space available in the cable car. They count the number of persons allowed per car and that number causes the car to resemble a can of sardines then add to this a plethora of BIG packs – many with sharp pointy bits and it can be very squeezy!

We had made a reservation at an auberge in the South for the nights of 23 and 24 Aug so on 22nd we headed off down through Combloux (which looks absolutely beautiful at this time of the year and is yet another pretty ski village),  Megeve (a large ski centre with lots of three and four storey ‘high rise’ – lots in concrete but a total tourist town) and Albertville (home of a Winter Olympics a lifetime ago) to Aix les Bains on the shores of Lake Bourget (near Chambery) to drive down the Rhône Valley. The flower baskets and displays in roundabouts are fantastic and it seems that in some towns the entire population is involved in the floral beautification of private homes and businesses as well as the public spaces. Quite a sight really.

Leni owns the auberge and she is a wonderful cook! So much so that she’s actually published books of menus for jams and chutneys. Aurelie told us about both Leni and her auberge as she and Michael visited there as well. It was very close to the “Bambooserie” which has a display of probably every strain of bamboo from around the world as well as an amazing garden which is the home of a strain of bamboo which grows in France without special husbandry. It was developed by the founder of the venture. From the gardens we caught a little ‘Puffing Billy’ style steam train on a round trip to St Jean de Gard, back past the Bambooserie to Anduze and finally back to the Bambooserie. Anduze had a craft market in the town square or place so we drove back and were amazed at the amount of pottery on display – it turns out that this area is renowned for its pottery. Merran spotted a hand spun, hand knitted / hand everything angora wool jacket which looked light and useful – until she heard the price. It was probably worth every cent but much more than she was prepared to pay.

On our way to the Camargue area south of Leni’s auberge, we dropped in on the Roman aquaduct and viaduct – the Pont du Gard which we had seen on our first trip to France in 1976. The bridge itself has not changed but BOY!!! Everything else has! There is now a compulsory car park, a grand complex with eateries, galleries, toilets and a theatre as well as concrete paths and “Thou shalt not” signs everywhere. One of the big ‘thou shalt nots’ is walking across the top of the aquaduct – one can pay and walk through inside the actual duct but not on top any more. Mike and I did that in 76. The other big difference was the number of people enjoying the water beneath the bridge – even hire canoes and pedal boats. All very colourful but lacking that sense of discovery we had back when we just parked and climbed and did our own thing.

In the Camargue we had to do the total tourist thing and take in a swamp tour by boat – that way one sees the birdlife – especially the local flamingoes and (perhaps) the famous Camargue horses and cattle. The French bullfights use the Camargue bulls which have horns which grow vertically and don’t point forwards. The “bullfighters” are really fantastic athletes who wear simple white shirts and trousers which give them the freedom to run around the ring with the bull and try to remove a cockade of ribbons which have been placed between the bull’s horns. The bull is never killed in these ‘fights’. The Camargue horses are white. But, when born they are usually black! – sometimes brown and change to grey around two years and to total white about eight. The person who tends the cattle rides a white horse and is called a “Guardian”. While on our tour a guardian just happened to bring her horses and cattle to an area adjacent to the bank where the boat could pull along side. What a marvellous coincidence!!! A similar “coincidence” occurred as we passed an area where some folks had set their special fish traps. These traps are a large square of steel with a net slung beneath which is lowered into the water. When the owner thinks that there may be some fish in the trap he uses his spring loaded recovery arm to pluck the entire device from the water with much speed. One of the owners just happened to check his net just as we passed – he’d caught nothing. Neville & Lyn were fortunate to have similar coincidental happenings when they did their tour of the Camargue. Weren’t we all VERY lucky.

The area of Provence in the hinterland behind the Riviera has some of the “Most Beautiful Villages in France”. We’d been to a number of them in 1976 when we toured with the boys and held very fond memories of narrow cobbled laneways with window boxes of petunias and / or geraniums cascading to make every nook and hidden cranny a spot screaming “take me!” Well nothing has changed except for the large ‘paid’ parking areas and the far larger crowds. At one spot called “Les Baux” (in 1976) we’d found a disused chalk quarry where some folks had tried their hand at sculpture but which was deserted but wonderfully cool in the height of Summer. The boys climbed and explored while we parked the van in a vast cavernous ‘gallery’ left by the miners. Boy what a change to this area!!! The gallery is now just that and displays of works by French masters are projected onto the white chalk walls. A different artist is featured each year. Classical music is ‘piped’ through the entire area to give the right ambience. Both experiences have something to commend them. There were many others such as Gordes, Roussillon and Opede le Vieux which we would not have found without the wonderfully laid out book about France which Catherine and Alice gave me for my birthday. Thank you again to them both.

There are some rugged gorges in the South of France and we visited the Gorges of the Ardech and the Verdon. The scenery is steep, rugged and beautiful with the rushing waters of the rivers spotted with rafts and / or kayaks. I prefer the gorges of the Lot and the Tarn because of their delightful villages (mostly absent in the Ardech and the Verdon) as well as the limestone ‘Causse’ regions there. In these gorges (which seem wider from memory) people throw themselves off the cliff tops with a parachute attached and ‘paravent’ along the cliff walls using the updrafts – all very scenic with dozens of brightly coloured parasails dotting the skies above villages clinging to flattish land on the sides of the river.

On our trip of discovery in the Verdon Gorges, we drove on a side road which roughly translates to the road of the cretins! And one needs to be a cretin to clamber all over the cliffs which plunge I have no idea how many hundreds of feet to the boiling rapids below. They like their outdoor activities these French. All it did for me was make my palms clammy.

The “Icing-on-the Cake” as far a pretty villages are concerned has to be St Paul de Vence! We visited it in 1976 because of a travel booklet which sang its praises and fell in love with its quaintness. It still holds that charm and the ability to enchant. A wonderful thing happened to us here. We’d decided that we’d find ‘B&B’ type accommodation rather than hotels etc but did no bookings. We think we now know the difference between an ‘auberge’ (a restaurant with a couple of rooms available for rent), a ‘gite’ (a room or apartment available for rent on a weekly self-help basis) and a ‘chambre d’hote’ (a room – usually in a private home available for nightly rental – usually with breakfast). We found this because we couldn’t locate any chamres d’hote and saw signs to a gite which we followed, and followed, and followed – it was after all a gite rurale. When we finally arrived at the gate the lady of the house was delighted to find that we are Australian as she has been host to three families of Aussies and enjoyed their company but explained the difference of a gite from a chamber d’hote. She took us into the house and rang a friend who owns a place with rooms and secured us a booking. She and her husband then led us in their car to our newly acquired accommodation. The restaurant across the street is owned by a lady who fled Persia at the time of the revolution (and her husband). It was a wonderful night.

The God of travel has been extremely kind to us and has shone Her light upon us like that on at least three occasions to give us wonderful experiences. What She hasn’t provided is internet access!!! The one place which advertised that it was available had such poor connectivity that I was able to read my emails between about 23.30 to 00.15 and then only by waiting “forever” for each message. I ‘Cherrypicked’ those to read and answer first!

From the South of France, we ‘zapped’ across Italy and through Slovenia to the Istrian Peninsula of Croatia. As we don’t like the large cities and towns for accommodation, we headed down to the very tip of the peninsula to a Medulin where we found a place offering “Zimmer, Camere, appartmenta, Rooms”. So I rang the bell to be greeted in perfect English by a chap who was getting ready to go for a swim & so had on two shoes but only one sock. His response when asked where we could find email contact was that his daughter understood all of that – “I’m just a retired professor of Literature and I don’t need to understand any of that – I can use it as a typewriter and she can print it if I want it so we’ll ask her. If I can find her as well”. While we brought our bags from the car he found his daughter who set up her computer for us to be able to read any urgent emails but not to be able to spend much time on the thing. All of which was wonderful of them. While I was picking away on the keys, Merran was talking to Boris and his friend Vesna (I’m happily divorced two times and I live here with my daughter and my friend comes from Zagreb to visit. I have a good life) about where we should go in Croatia to get a taste of the country. Split and Dubrovnik were both too far South to fit into this trip so they sent us first to the provincial capital – Pula which has a rich Roman history as well as touches of the Austro-Hungarian heritage. It was an important Naval base for Empress Maria Therese and has a roman amphitheatre as well as a theatre and forum with a citadel on the top of its main hill. It is a fascinating town. From there we drove along the coast of the Adriatic, through Rietja to a small village south of there. The zimmer owner spoke no English nor French. Just Croatian and German but we got by and she was able to tell us that her aunt lives in Kingsgrove and visited in 2003 just after our host’s husband had died. She also sent us to a restaurant called “Feral”. No there were no domestic animals which had reverted to their wild state just a delightfully located eatery right by a jetty with a yawl moored alongside. Its name was ‘Nirvana’.

Now just another wonderful traveller experience. The lass who came to wait upon our table had very very little English and said ‘My colleague will come’. A young man arrived and he was a delight. He spoke with an American accent and had recommendations for what meals were different and traditional and what was just the run of the mill fare one could get anywhere. We both decided on different traditional Croatian dishes. Merran commented on his accent and (after having told us previously that his house was literally the one next to the restaurant) he said that he lives in Chicago. His parents were both born I Croatia, met and married in USA but have bought a place in Jodranova right on the waterfront where they all come to spend the Summer. Ivo was attentive throughout – even though there was an attractive lass on a motor scooter who came to visit the bar and talk to him and his friend. The friend rode off with her on the scooter.

There are some unspoilt towns and villages all along the Adriatic but one needs a reliable means of transport to reach them. We had our picnic lunch at one such place, tucked into a turquoise bay with a breakwall protecting a tiny fleet of (mainly) pleasure craft and a quai about 120 – 150 metres long, a handful of homes and one restaurant. The road down (and back up the same way) has a slope of 15%!!! I had been going to comment on one road we drove on in Provence which led to the source of a local river and it had a slope of 14% - cyclists were riding up and down!!! As Crocodile Dundee would say “That’s not a slope – THIS is a slope”. One town is definitely on the tourist trail. It’s Opatje and it’s wall to wall grand hotels – each of which has taken over part of the street, placed lockable traffic blocks and numbered each space to correspond with the hotel room number. If you want to park in this town - “Get a room!” Despite all of this, it has a wonderful feel of sheer opulence and “Old Money”. Most of the hotels were built before WW1 and those which weren’t are ‘brand new’ and glitzy not our style but certainly worth a look.

Boris and Vesna both insisted that we HAD to visit the National Park at Plitvicka Jezera. We’ve since found that Jezera means lake and that the Plitvicka lakes (all 19 of them cascading from one to the next) are  listed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. We could see why. It is amazingly beautiful with the most stunning blue to the water and then there are the waterfalls. A truly amazing experience – especially since we’d stayed overnight in the area and were ahead of the tour buses and their hordes.

Well, what have been the highlights of our first three weeks, I hear you cry. As well as the above, sitting on the ridge capping of a church roof in Stes Marie de la Mer, climbing stone steps by the thousand to see “les beaux villages de France” we certainly didn’t need our “vacation vorkout” list of exercises during this section of the trip. Watching a balloon land in the vineyard outside our chamber d’hote. Exquisite floral displays in the most charming villages with shutters, pastel tones and cobbled streets (well  more like lanes really). A street mime clown doing his tricks with balloons in a square in the old town inside Ljubljana. Glorious panoramas from mountain peaks with the bucolic pastoral scenery spread before us. The massive mountains with their tunnels and bridges – 500metres of bridge 1500 metres of tunnel for mile upon mile. In Oz we get excited about 5Km of tunnel here some run for three and four times that length and are the followed by another of about the same length. We’re just playing on the edges when it comes to road building. After looking at all of the tunnels here it’s no wonder we got so many migrants when the Snowy Mountain Hydro System was being built Travelling from Italy to France in the Mont Blanc Tunnel (@ over €3 per Km) But most of all the generously friendly manner in which we’ve been treated by the locals. Australia rings a bell with Europeans and they seem happy to see us. The owner/manager of the ristorante we stayed above in Mori just outside Trento in Italy looked at our passports and came back to ask were we really all the way from Oz. When we answered that we were he sort of unbelievingly asked: “But why are you here?” Mori is not a tourist town and we found the café culture and the people watching a wonderful way to pass the time.




just opened your email as I sit here in London with Kristin. Had a wonderful trip with robyn around europe and have had a great time with m daughter here in London. graham is here as well so has been great.
Big birthday tomorrow - english time but already nearly over in Ausland. Hope you are both well and obviously very busy.

will catch up with your emails as they arrive


  Cynthia Oct 7, 2008 8:29 AM


Hi Merran and Ian
Absolutely LOVE reading about your adventures. You make retirement sound extraordinarily wonderful! We have just returned from Glen Innes, Dorrigo (rainforest walks) and Bellingen area before spending 4 days in Nelson Bay for Paul's birthday. A lovely, relaxing break for us.
Stay well and happy,
love Sharon xx
PS Your photos are brilliant!

  Sharon Brett Nov 16, 2008 9:57 AM

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