Saturday, 29 June 2013

the bends

Our road along the Konalve coast of Croatia takes us past Marko's place.  You can't miss it - he has big signs for warm showers and welcoming backpackers and we had written him to say we would be coming but kept postponing.  By the time we reach him at the highest point on the road the sun is setting over the sea.  
the Konalve coastline
We are immediately invited to pull up a chair and share in some sushi with Bruno, a Bavarian cyclist/bike mechanic/nomad who is evidently handy with a fishing rod, whilst Marko supplies the wine and repartee.  He talks like an express train, candidly critical of his home country but also full of stories from his 47 years spent in Canada.  If you compare Croatia with Canada it's a hard act to follow and he realises it.  Like Antonio, he too talks about the mentality of the Croats that hinders their development/progress.  But he too is cautiously optimistic about Croatia joining the EU "if only to put an end to the men with guns".  
"did you say bristly?"
It's hard to describe the man (but I'll have a go), a bristly entrepreunerial old hippy with a big heart.  He seems like the kind of guy that could irritate everyone for being too frank and too ambitious maybe, but at the same time he is opening his door to any passersby and is trying to restore an old local narrow gauge railway for tourists in the mountains as a means of generating some employment.  We have a great evening with both of them before crashing out in the spare beds in Marko's office.

The next morning we ride a helter-skelter road to the border and into Montenegro.  We want to reach Kotor, which sits in the far corner of a huge sea loch, and to get there we have to take the main highway again.  It's a horrible rolling road busy with traffic and we're happy to leave it at the entrance to the loch where a free ferry takes us over to a smaller road on the 'quiet' side.  We have visited Kotor before and the drama of the mountains falling into the bay, the coast dotted with small villages, the light on the water - all of it remains impressive.  We stop at a house advertising rooms and camping before Kotor where the shower is improvised in the driveway and the lady who runs the place offers us raki shots in the morning.  We share the front garden with families from Lithuania and Hungary.  Here we take a day off to soak up the views and psyche ourselves up for the ride north into the mountains.

We also need a little space and time to reflect after our stay with Ivana and Antonio.  I still have Antonio's ideas and questions buzzing in my head.  Gayle is more practically thinking about our route south to Greece and winter time.  It's now a comfortable 25 degrees in the shade but we are both keen to get into the mountains and get some cooler weather.  A young Macedonian who has come here for seasonal work warns us that he has come down to the coast to escape the excessive summer heat.  Looks like no escape for us temperate travellers. 
at last.....some downhill
Our journey from Kotor begins up the old road over the mountains climbing 26 hairpins up to a pass overlooking the bay of Kotor and out to sea.  The gradient is not too cruel but the sunshine is, so we're glad of the shade from the trees on the way up.  We emerge into a hanging valley with rolling grassy meadows and pine forest and houses dotted here and there.  The road then continues to climb up more hairpins until we reach a pass with huge views northwards.  I don't think either of us knows what to expect along the way as the empty road drops down into a series of wooded bowl-shaped valleys with very little habitation.  We stop at a tiny cafe bar at a junction for water and then find a place to camp.  We're sweaty and tired but very happy with the cycling - it seems that the harder the cycling the better the views.  The word for hairpin bends here is serpentina - I fall asleep wondering about snakes in the grass.......

Monday, 24 June 2013

a corner of Croatia

When we wake up the ferry is already sailing into the harbour of Dubrovnik.  We excitedly join other passengers on the deck and start sweating in the morning sun gleaming down at us above the mountainside.  It isn't yet 7am and it might already be close to 30 degrees.  We sit down and brew up in the shade as soon as we get out of the port.  Ahh, first coffee of the day and a bit of breakfast - and to business: straight into the supermarket to restock and then along the busy road (rush hour?) and up and over the hill for our second look at the stunning old city. 

We were here on our last journey in 2007 so we don't exactly gasp, but I'd forgotten how impressive the old town looks.  But close up at the gates it's bedlam.  Buses disgorge more and more visitors, an old lady keeps asking if we want a room, and it is still getting hotter.  We rehydrate at the fountain and decide our next step.  Last week we got a nice e-mail from Maxime and Elodie, the young French cyclists we met in Catania a month earlier.  They wrote from Dubrovnik asking if we were going to be there.  They were being hosted by a Croatian family with a young son similar in age to their Timeo and the hosts had kindly offered us a bed in their basement or space to camp in their garden.  So we want to cycle south of the city to get there, but first look around the old town.  But with the loaded bikes and the heat and the crowds I just can't face it.  
Gayle leaves me in a park full of pine trees on a bluff above the old town, happily reading and catching a vague breeze in the shade.  Meanwhile she braves the hot sun and the bright white shadeless streets of the old town alone.

Late afternoon and we think it's cool enough to set off - up and up and up the narrow coastal road and onto the main highway full of roaring tour buses and fast cars.  It's baking, there's heat haze, we're soaked with sweat.  Fortunately Ivana and Antonio do not live too far away and we find their house easily.  They are relaxed and thoughtful hosts and we are welcomed warmly into their home and meet their young children Filip and Thea.  Maxime, Elodie and Timeo are due to fly to Sweden tomorrow morning so we don't have much time to catch up.  In the evening Gayle turns down her tea.  She must be unwell to refuse food.  Heatstroke?  She goes to lie down for a long nap, while I join Elodie and Max and Timeo for a night out.  It turns out that Antonio is a musician - and he's playing the harmonica with his friend on guitar at a posh hotel restaurant in nearby Cavtat.  It's a joy to hear the blues and if I close my eyes I might just be sitting waterside on the Missisipi Delta.  We laugh about the cost of the beer - we can only afford a glass each - and I think Max's smile drops a little when I tell him the price of beer in Sweden is not much less.

Early the next day our French friends depart for the airport.  The temperature is still sweltering and we take our cue from Ivana and the kids who stay indoors where it's cooler during the hottest part of the day.  They built their house from a small farm building surrounded by olive trees and it's got a great view east over the valley to the long ridge of mountains that forms a physical border with Bosnia.  Down the road is a nice bay with a beach - and we head there for a cooling swim.  Antonio, who is an air-traffic controller in his spare time, offers to take us to the most beautiful beach in the world.  It's a great offer even if we don't believe him.  This part of Croatia, south of Dubrovnik, is a relatively undiscovered gem.  

possibly the most beautiful beach in the world

From a panoramic viewpoint we get to look over the huge Konavle valley, Cavtat bay at one end, with the airport on a raised plateau and the mountains bordering Bosnia surrounding a lush green valley.  This is where Antonio and Ivana grew up, although the war meant that Ivana spent her high school years with family in Split.  When he was younger Antonio thought Croatia a small, maybe backward place, but as he's grown older and visited other places he's also come to appreciate his surroundings.  They are lovely and the place is far from overcrowded.  He leads us on a narrow path cut into a cliff to reach the most beautiful beach in the world, at the foot of the cliffs, the typical brilliant turquoise waters clear as light.  It's a pebble beach with a handful of locals.  He tells us only locals know this beach.  And Czechs.  He explains: the Czechs like to get lost, they always find these out-of-the-way places.

In the end we spend almost a week with Ivana and Antonio and have a great time being shown around and sharing ideas, learning about their experiences and answering Antonio's testing questions.  They both enjoy music and one day I hear wonderful singing from their lounge.  Is that a new Cassandra Wilson record? I wonder.  Only if she sings in Croat.  Ivana has a warm rich voice and they tell us that they have performed together at a local festival singing songs they've written using local idioms and jokes.  We await a recording.
possibly the most beautiful music in the world

We meet Ivana's mum at her house in Gruda where her parents now have rooms for tourists who want something other than the mainstream tourism of the coast.  Her dad painstakingly reconstructed the old family home after the war and they have joined an international agro-tourism organisation along with a few other local families.  Antonio takes us to one of Tito's favourite restaurants - set in a shady cool spot next to a deliciously cold river pouring out of the mountains.  He tells us that he thinks Yugoslavia was a good idea for these western balkan countries, that they would be better off united.  But it's hard to imagine the countries reuniting.  

Croatia joins the EU in July.  Is that a good thing, we ask?  Possibly, if it can ensure the country is better run - too many poor leaders in the last twenty years and too much corruption has stifled the country's growth. We don't produce anything, Antonio explains.  He also explains the psychology of Croatians who for years have always tried to 'trick' the system.  If you can fiddle your taxes, if you can cheat the rules, you are a hero.  I am suddenly reminded of the man in the supermarket in front of me, weighing his tomatoes.  You have to weigh the fruit and veg yourself, and stick the price sticker on the bag.  We both had tomatoes and I knew the code was 86.  The man in front had almost 2 kilos and he punched in the code number 10, stuck the sticker on the bag and moved off.  I put my three toms on the scales and punched in 86.  But then I also tried 10, which was for onions.  Half the price.  The man was 'tricking' the system.  Folk hero or thief?  And how do you change that mentality for the better of all?

The high heat has cooled off now and it's time we should move on.  But we've had such an interesting and fun time with Ivana and Antonio that we find it hard to say goodbye.  Once again we must give thanks for what we call Spontaneous Acts of Kindness.

Monday, 17 June 2013

A bee-line to Bari

According to the guidebook a survey of southern Italians found that 90% of men had never used a washing machine.   It seems that this part of the world is still quite traditional.  I reflect on gender roles in southern Italy as I fiddle with the brakes on both bikes whilst waiting for Gayle to finish the shopping in the supermarket.  We are now doubling back through the centre of Puglia and up towards Bari where we hope to collect three parcels: a windshield for our stove from Sweden (Primus offered to send one when the replacement we had bought in Nice split in half after only three uses); a replacement Thermarest mattress (to replace the replacement sent to Gayle in December - after only 5 months it developed the same fault, but they didn't hesitate to send a new one); and lastly, two second-hand e-readers ordered over the internet and forwarded on by my parents. Once we have received everything we'll take a ferry across the Adriatic.

The thing is, we have some time to wait and we're not entirely decided on where to go.  I'm also looking for replacement crankset and cassette for my bike as mine is wearing down.  Thus, we fuddle our way from town to pretty town, checking out bike shops along the way.  Only when we descend down to the coast at Monopoli do we find a sensible bike shop owner.  He's very helpful but would have to order the parts for us.  We like Monopoli a lot - a small old centre with narrow streets, archways, whitewashed houses and churches.  On the seafront is the harbour and along the rocky coast a series of tiny bays, mostly sandy, from where we can swim.  The local campsites are lousy though - one with very little shade and the other with only chemical toilets and portakabin showers.   We decide to camp wild close to one campsite within easy reach of a nice beach and then find a field another night.  The Adriatic here is a perfectly clear turquoise colour and the swimming is wonderful.

The beach life is quite entertaining in Italy.  The tan is of all-importance.  On one beach we came to there were rows of people facing the concrete wall behind the beach, backs to the gorgeous Adriatic.  They have to face the sun.  Down at the shoreline people come to stand ankle-deep in the water, deliberating for a long time whether to venture into the bright blue waters.  The young men are very good at this, hands on hips, chest out, stomachs in, hair brushed and cut in a style that makes them look like tropical birds in their bright swimming trunks.  Women are showing both cheeks if they're up with the trend.  Everyone has a mobile phone handy. "Ciao bella, yes, I'm on the beach...."

We move on to Mola di Bari where we Couch-Surf with Franz, who lives just outside the town, on a low hill overlooking the coast.  It's a great spot with some breeze.  Franz is not convinced the summer has arrived yet and has a sweater on. He is an almost-retired physics professor from Bari University who worked for years at Cern in Switzerland. I say almost because he still teaches on a limited basis, but he obviously does this out of love.  He explains the way nepotism and corruption works in Italy - a recurring theme with everyone we stay with - and how those in power are able to keep the system in their favour.  He jokes about it in that way that Italians have.  One afternoon we visit nearby Polignano di Mare for ice-cream and to look out over the cliffs on which the town is built.  The old town here feels less "real" than Monopoli as a lot of it has been taken over for tourism.  We hear English tourists - the season is hotting up.  

In fact, the day after we leave Franz it really does hot up.  I think Franz might be out of his sweater by now.  We circle Bari and head inland and uphill to the Castello di Monte.  This is, as the name implies, on a hill and can be seen for miles around.  Built by Frederick II back in the 1100s in a perfect octagon but never occupied, never used as a castle, it remains a mystery.  Now when you read about Freddy he sounds like a real lark and I can't help wondering whether the castle is just a bluff - you can see it from the coast - or was he really striving for perfection?  We don't know, but the place has a regular trickle of visitors and as there's little free parking on the surrounding hills, so someone is making money on the mystery.  Here we change our route and turn around back to Bari.  We have a glorious ride back down to the coast and then mooch along the coastal road towards the port.  There's a campsite before it, so we take advantage of showers and do some laundry - spick and span for the big city tomorrow.

It's a good feeling riding into a big city on a coast - you can't get lost for a start, with the sea on one side of the road. The old town sticks out on a promontory.  We ride past the port and find our way to the post office where we each hope to collect a parcel.  Gayle goes in first, but the guy at the counter shrugs dismissively and says there's no 'fermo posta' here.  Gayle presses him. He rolls his eyes and shouts across the post office to a colleague at the far end.  There are a few more histrionics before a parcel is presented with Gayle's name on it.  She has a new Thermarest.  When it's my turn I begin to suspect the guy has a pyschological problem.  "No, no more parcels, (this is all in Italian so I didn't grasp it all, but I always get a lot from the hand gestures) there is no fermo posta, where do you come from? England? (a man in the queue behind echoes this with amusement: England!) Are you serious? (hands waving in the air) Do you think we are here just to please you idiot foreigners who expect to receive mail that comes in here each morning in these sealed yellow boxes, yes, like this one (he picks up the one at his feet), and when I can get it open, (struggling with the seal) you expect me to pull out your goddamned stupid little......(he looks heavenwards).......Burnham is the name?" He hands me a packet with our e-readers inside.  I thank Basilio Fawlty and clear off before he starts to punch the wall.  2 out of 3.  We go to a different post office to see if our windshield has arrived. I gave Primus the post office listed in our guidebook, but later found on the Italian post office website that it does not have 'fermo posta'.  When I ask at the counter the friendly man pulls out a shoe box from a cupboard behind him.  On the box is written 'fermo posta'.  Sadly there's nothing for me.  We will have to wait a bit longer.  So we enjoy some time in the old town, have our lunch and decide to head back to Monopoli for the weekend.

We have almost become blase about the lovely old town centres we are passing through, but when we arrive in Monopli the next day it feels good.  We know where we can camp nearby and the old harbour is a peaceful shady place to have our lunch and watch the people walking around.  In the evenings we return to our previous camping spots which are handy for early morning swims.  On one morning I head off to get the shopping and when I return Gayle has been adopted by a family who come to the beach every Sunday, complete with barbecue, table and benches and paddling pool - it's a big family affair.  We stay there all day and they are the last to pack up and leave.  We wonder what they think about us, cooking our pasta as the sun sets, no home to go to, just a corner of a field tucked out of sight....... 
homeless bums or free souls?

Monday, 10 June 2013

Today's Pasta: No.16 Millerighi

for some reason these make me think of inner tubes


"You're blooming joking" (or words to this effect)
"What is it?"
"Flat tyre."

These two little words send shivers down my spine.  A twitch begins in my left eye and a tremor commences in my hands.  Blurred vision shortly follows.  Am I having a migraine?  Gayle unloads her bike and we turn it upside down.  I recall three years ago in Laos meeting a young Australian on the road who was cycling in SE Asia.  He carried a ready supply of inner tubes and when he got a puncture, he just threw away the burst tyre and put a new one on.  He didn't bother with a puncture repair kit.

After our Debacle Day on the Amalfi coast we bought new patches and glue, and got new inner tubes.  The punctures are not coming from through our German- branded Schwalbe tyres but from the inside of the tube.  It's taken me a long time to realise I should have replaced the rim tape on our wheels.  As it happens the damage to the tube looks unrepairable.  I can't bear it - I can't even repair the puncture.  I have to lie down. I have to close my eyes. Om mani padme hum and all that.  Just give me a moment......

I dream of roads in Italy with sensible drivers and sensible road signs.....

Monday, 3 June 2013

a hoot

To find Cosimo and Daria's place in Lecce Gayle had taken a sketch map of the way from the train station using Google maps.  Once we found the train station it was easy to follow the roads to their house.  And as we explained this to Cosimo later he started to laugh.  For he knew that those roads were all the opposite direction.  In the rush-hour.  We decided it didn't matter.  If we were stopped by the police we would say "We're British" and hopefully this would get us off the hook.   Cosimo's infectious laugh started again and he never let us forget this notion - the idea that we could do anything we liked and just say "Hey, we're British".  "How about a tattoo of the Union Jack on your belly, or the Queen's head?" he joked, "Then you could just lift your tee-shirt up!"  We are sitting in their backgarden, full of fruit trees and climbing plants, having a lovely meal with their friend Elisabeth and another visitor, a chatty woman from Poland.

Lecce, a university city, has a baroque old centre with churches and palazzos decorated in the now familiar over-the-top decorative stonework that we know from Sicily.  The streets are a wonderful maze to get lost in.

Daria and Cosimo very kindly take us to some of their favourite special places near the city such as an old 13th century abbey, now restored, with lovely frescoes and an assortment of ancient graffiti carved in the stone by previous visitors.  Lecce was on the pilgrim and crusader route to Otranto, from where ships sailed to the Holy Land.  

Daria at the old abbey
Inland are a collection of small towns settled by Greeks who came to avoid religious restrictions in the orthodox church and avoid trouble on the coast.  They built their own orthodox churches and we visit one on a Sunday afternoon with Cosimo.  His friend, Francesco, a local guide, kindly comes in the siesta to let us in and explain about the frescoes that fill the walls of the small chapel. On one side the story of Christ and on the other the story of Saint Stephen.  Behind the altar in the centre is Jesus Christ, but as a woman - a unique stylised combination of Saint Sophia and Christ. Nearby, in Galatina, we visit the elaborately decorated church of Saint Katherine, with frescoes on all the walls, decorated columns and a huge vaulted ceiling.  The church had been closed when we passed through here a fortnight earlier so it was a great chance for us to get a look in.

we assumed they were making a porn film...

There are times when we are not so interested in churches and monuments, but with Daria and Cosimo their knowledge and enthusiasm is an added bonus for us, and besides, Cosimo can't stop making jokes, so we are always having a hoot. Daria, who comes from Ukraine, describes a little of her experience as an outsider coming to live here in southern Italy, and the frustrations of trying to work in a society quite unlike the one she comes from.  The stories of nepotism and small-time corruption in the job-market are echoes of what Italians have told us.  Daria does translating work (Italian to English or Russian, which is her first language) and is studying the religious history of this region.  With the strong Orthodox influences, and the tourist potential of Puglia she has talked to locals about the possibilty of organising tours for Russians, and although they all think it's a great idea she can't get anyone to turn it into a reality.  

Cosimo shares with us some of the suffering he has endured as the result of a brain haemmorhage which left him in a coma when he was 23.  His recovery is remarkable and despite loss of movement down his left side, he obviously still lives a full life.  He works in the council finding social housing for those in need.  Whilst we share lots of laughs he also shares some poignant reflections on his life with us.  To most people I think it would be hard to imagine what it would be like to feel your whole life turn on this single moment when your health fails so dramatically.  Cosimo loved his job in the armed forces as a driver.  And yet he is a determined man and obviously is committed in his work helping others.  It seems that through Couch Surfing we have once again met some lovely people whose lives have touched us in an unexpected way.
Gayle, a ruddy English cyclist & Cosimo, a rare redheaded Italian