Author Archives: Damien

The Emperor Has No Clothes

In Hans Christian Anderson’s tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, a gullible Emperor is tricked into believing that a new suit woven by two weavers has threads so fine that they cannot be seen by anyone who is “too stupid and incompetent to appreciate its quality”. There is of course no thread or suit at all, but rather than appear ignorant the Emperor pretends he can see it and praises the new suit’s magnificence. Even when the Emperor stands in his “suit” (ie. naked) before his courtiers, no one is willing to admit they can’t see the fabric for fear of ridicule, or worse. When the Emperor parades his new clothes through town all the people pretend they can see them too, none of them wanting to be thought a fool. It is only when a young boy – too young to understand why it was necessary to lie – calls out “the Emperor is naked” that the townsfolk start to admit that the Emperor has no clothes. The Emperor finally realises he has been tricked, but he continues his procession through town rather than admit his gullibility.

This fable has been around since 1837, and it has become a standard metaphor for “anything that smacks of pretentiousness, pomposity, social hypocrisy, collective denial or hollow ostentatiousness” (Wikipedia). I recalled this childhood tale while driving through Tuscany on our first big sightseeing day in that area, as I couldn’t reconcile the famous region’s glowing global reputation with what I saw before me. Where were the endless vistas of misty hills, filled with vines and crops and olive groves? Where were the gorgeous and rustically run-down farmhouses framed by verdant fields? There were snippets of all these things, here and there, but they were interrupted all too often by some visual scar of modernity that abruptly shattered the view. It hit me with a rush, and on serious (and extensive) consideration I was forced to admit there is only one answer: Tuscany is not anywhere near as beautiful as it’s cracked up to be. The Emperor has no clothes.

I should clarify from the start that I am only critiquing the aesthetic appeal of Tuscany, not its food or wine or people. Like Kristen I found the food here excellent, the budget wines great value and the people very friendly. But its inability to meet up to expectations of appearance is a pretty big fail for a region that trades so heavily its idyllic reputation. The reality of Tuscany today is that significant parts of it are urban, especially the extensive conurbations around Florence and Pisa. And by urban I don’t mean pretty stone-built villages, I mean urban as in blocky, modern and unappealing. In the countryside many otherwise pleasant vistas are marred by high tension power lines, elevated expressways, train lines, factories or quarries, and the Italian tendency for putting enormous roundabouts at every major road intersection doesn’t help.

Tuscany has been romanticised in English literature since the 19th century, and particularly in the early 20th century by E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence. Forster’s A Room With A View was turned into a very popular movie in the 1980s, and as she’s mentioned previously it was that film that set Kristen’s heart towards visiting Tuscany when she first saw it in her teens. More recently there has been the book and film Under The Tuscan Sun, and numerous books have been written in recent decades about expatriates moving to the region to start a new life.

One of my favourites of this genre is The Hills of Tuscany by Ferenc Mate. I first read it more than a decade ago, and was captivated by his evocative descriptions of the land and its people that he discovered while searching for a Tuscan farmhouse and setting up a new life in Italy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I loved it so much that I’ve read it several times since when wanting to mentally escape to Italy, and I even brought it with me to read yet again on this year’s travels. I thought it would put me in the right frame of mind for our visit, and duly did read it a couple of months ago. Mate writes beautifully of the food, people, towns and countryside, and it’s easy to get swept away in his words.

And to be fair, we did see some beautiful parts of Tuscany on our big sweep of that first day. It’s clear that any enduring falsehood has to have some elements of truth about it to survive so long. From our campsite in the hills above Empoli we first headed south to the World Heritage Listed town of San Gimignano, and the hills immediately surrounding it are picture postcard perfection of the Tuscan dream. The town itself is delightful too, remaining charming and characterful despite being inundated by tourists. But the point is that it was only in the immediate surrounds of San Gimignano that the dream stayed alive. Literally a few hills away the vegetation turned to uninspiring scrub interspersed with occasional olive groves and farmhouses. We carried on to Volterra, an ancient town impressively positioned on a high hill with views to the horizon all around. But yet again the landscape nearby only had glimpses of prettiness, with ordinary scrubland being the norm. The roads we took around this area were marked on our map with green lines, supposedly indicating routes of particularly pleasing scenery, but for the most part we thought the views were simply green and not very scenic.

Our grand loop continued into Chianti, one of the most eulogised parts of Tuscany. While the towns were very nice the landscape was quite angular and again most views were fractured by roads, power lines or other blemishes. One of the main purposes of our trip that day, apart from seeing the area in the first place, was to scout out possible walking routes for the following days. We had purchased Lonely Planet’s guide to Hiking in Tuscany, and several of the most interesting routes were based around San Gimignano and Greve in Chianti. Our original intention was to spend up to a week in Tuscany with the main goal of spending most of those days walking through its beautiful vales. But the assessment of our scouting mission was frankly scathing: we didn’t think any of the walks were worth the effort, and though we ended up staying in Tuscany for about four days we spent most of that time hanging around the campsite deciding where else we could spend our precious days more enjoyably.

One of our main topics of conversation around that time was “why are we so different to everyone else?” Surely others must have been here and came to the same disappointing assessment as us? We considered whether we were simply being too harsh on the area, whether our extensive touring had jaded us to Tuscany’s charms because we’ve been to so many other beautiful areas of the world. But on reflection we decided the answer is “no”, it’s simply that Tuscany is not very beautiful! While there are pretty spots here and there, as noted above, it shouldn’t be so hard to find them in a region with this reputation. The fact is you have to travel through a lot of dross to get to the good bits, and that is not a feature of a desirable destination.

We gently voiced our opinions to some friends, and found surprisingly quick support for our point of view. Kristen’s brother Matt said he didn’t think much of Tuscany was very attractive, though he did highly rate pockets of the region such as Barga in the north (which we heartily agree with). Another friend was quite scathing in his review of Tuscany, and calling it “overrated” is a very polite way of phrasing his point of view. This support got us thinking, so I read more closely some of the texts I’d used prior to visiting Tuscany. I found a surprising degree of evidence supporting our negative assessment of the beauty of Tuscany, and from some surprising sources too.

Lonely Planet’s guide to hiking in Tuscany would, you would think, be full of glowing praise for the region. And while it is solidly positive about the area it does include the follow quotes:

Tuscany’s countryside is “less spectacular” than the cities of Florence and Siena … “the landscape here ranges from pretty pastoral to downright weird” … and that further south around San Gimignano the rolling hills of the region “could almost pass for rural France on a clear day, save for the Renaissance architecture and the odd stray Fiat 500” (p.193).

What’s that? Is it really saying that on a good day Tuscany just might look like rural France? Sounds like a glowing recommendation for Provence rather than an exhortation to explore Tuscany!

Even Ferenc Mate in The Hills of Tuscany tells an interesting tale, if you look closely enough. Much of the early section of the book is devoted to his search for the perfect Tuscan villa, and the numerous failed attempts he makes before finding The One. The reasons why some of the other properties aren’t up to scratch are illuminating (Chapter 7 is even entitled Houses of Horror):

A perfectly restored farmhouse in the foothills near Cortona fails because “less than a mile away, rfising from the bucolic Tuscan countryside, in the middle of that perfection, was a small hell in paradise. Poking its giant smokestack to the sky, with stainless steel bands that reflected the sun, was a giant fertiliser plant” (p.47)

Another house was passed because it had “a huge transmission tower bigger than Mr Eiffel’s right before its door” (p.60)

A third house was lovely, until from outside “there rose the steady roar of the hidden freeway below the hill” (p.61)

The fourth place was even better, with a beautiful house, fields and valley views. Until “the earth moved. The windows rattled and lamps jiggled and a jet sound shattered the air as if a bullet train were screaming under the garden at two hundred miles an hour. Which it was” (p.61)

His descriptions of the countryside are equally telling. While he and his wife eventually settle on what is apparently an especially beautiful part of Tuscany near Pienza (sadly we didn’t get to that area), he makes the following comments about some other parts of the region:

“The steep Chianti hills, much less soft and gentle than those near our cherished abbey, afforded only rarely the long, sea-of-hills vistas that we loved. Absent was that infinite, shimmering light that dissolves all matter before your eyes” (p.78)

Near Siena “the hills were mercilessly dry and empty here, then further south they steepened and there were only woods” (p.86)

In the Valdichiana valley “the olives, woods and vines gave way to vast fruit orchards and ploughed fields. Instead of hamlets there were enormous, blocky farmhouses made of brick” (p.45)

And these statements are from someone with an avowed love of Tuscany. It made me realise that the truth is out there, if you look hard enough. Perhaps if we came from an urbanised part of America, and hadn’t travelled much in the countryside anywhere, Tuscany’s flaws might be overlooked. But I don’t come from that sheltered upbringing, and so I agree entirely with Kristen view that Tuscany is trading on its romantic glories of the past that have little to do with today’s experience. On this trip we have travelled in summer through rural areas in Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and now France, and all of them offer more appealing countrysides than Tuscany. Especially France, which has been a longtime love of mine that I’d let fall from mind in recent years. Kristen summed it up best when she saw rural France for the first time last week:

“All this time I’d been imagining visiting Tuscany, when in fact what I was really dreaming of was Provence!”

It’s time to say it loud and clear: the Emperor has no clothes.

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Slovenia Love

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Slovenia always loomed large on our “must-do list” for Europe, even before we got to this enormous and endlessly varying continent. We’d been given the tip from two close friends (Adam and Steve), both of whom stated that Slovenia was one of – if not their most – favourite places in Europe. Tucked away south of Austria and east of Italy, as a component of the former Yugoslavia it flies completely underneath the radar of most Australians when they think of Europe. Armed with our tips we were ready to be wowed, but even so we were unprepared for just how much we would love this little country!

Our first taste of Slovenia occurred during our hard slog south to Plitvice Lakes. In one day we traversed half the country, from the far north east to the central south, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that we were delighted anew at almost every turn! The landscape was bucolic, rustic and charming, and even the larger towns were pleasant and welcoming (very unlike Italy, which defied our expectations in the most disappointing way). There were a couple of fleeting moments of urban unsightliness, but they were quickly followed with more rolling hills, roadside chapels and smile-inducing vistas. We departed Slovenia for Croatia that day a little saddened, but comforted by the knowledge that we would return there very soon.

After Plitvice Lakes we headed straight to Slovenia, aiming in particular to Bled in the northeastern corner of the country. We’d been pointed to this destination by specific recommendation, one which was supported by a completely random meeting near Plitvice. While buying groceries at the only supermarket in the area, we got chatting with an Australian couple who lived in Germany with their kids. They were on summer holidays and had recently come from Bled, and they said it was so nice there they wished they could have spent their entire holidays there, as they believed it was the most beautiful place in Europe! That was great news to us, as we had already booked a campsite right by the famous Bled Lake to ensure we had the best possible chance to enjoy it.

After a couple of nights at the very relaxing Camp Smlednik (with a surprising riverside nudist section for those so inclined), just north of Ljubljana, we headed for Bled and couldn’t believe how spectacular it is. Or how perfect our campsite was, just metres from the edge of the lake with a public beach/park right out front where you can take in the view. We’d already planned five nights there but in the end stayed for six – and we would have stayed longer if we’d had the time to do so!

With our perfect base to stay at, enjoying Bled and its surrounds was easy and I can’t emphasise highly enough how special that town is. On our first full day we walked around the lake, viewing its tiny island in the middle and the castle on the hill from all angles. After a coffee in town we carried on to Bled Castle, a beautifully restored site on a promontory overlooking the lake and surrounding valleys. The lure of the castle’s restaurant proved too strong to resist, and we settled down for what will remain one of my most memorable meals in Europe. The food was great: lamb carpaccio with truffle slices and parmesan and rocket, followed by veal in mushroom sauce with truffled polenta, then some of the local cream cake, but it was the setting that seduced even more. With its eyrie viewpoint we could see down the valley towards to Ljubljana in one direction, and to the peaks of the Slovenia Alps (the Julian Alps) in another. Below us the lake was spread open like a flower, the tiny island backed by our campsite snugly in the distance. It was a moment to savour, even more so as the weather was stunning that day and never regained the perfection we felt at that time….

On other days we walked the narrow and twisting Vintgar Gorge nearby, and spent plenty of time basking on the beachfront in front of our campsite. We intended to spend a day hiking in the Julian Alps but the weather took over, with rare rain and wind confining us to quarters for a day or two. We did have enough time to fit in a rewarding short trip to nearby Lake Bohinj, which is another popular tourist site, and with more time we would surely have stayed there too. Suffice it to say that if you want superlative natural beauty in an easy to enjoy setting, the area around Bled in Slovenia is pretty hard to beat!

When the weather relented we escaped back to Camp Smlednik, and used that as a base to explore the pretty capital for an afternoon. Walking through town, having lunch by the river (a sensational seafood restaurant noted by Lonely Planet), then up to the castle on the hill, a coffee by another part of the river, then back to camp. Ljubljana is a pretty capital and entirely doable in an afternoon – if you want to enjoy the food and wine then you can definitely stay longer 🙂

On our final day we headed south-west to Italy, mistakenly assuming that it would be as enticing as Slovenia. That false assumption was even more cruelly underlined by the amazing wine region we passed through as we trickled over the border to Italy. Near the remote border crossing of Gorjansko, the roads were tightly lined with curving hand-built yellow stone walls supporting carefully tended vineyards, some with fine trellising for even more care (and beauty). We both thought at the time “this is how Italy must look!” and marked that fabulous Slovenian region we were passing through as somewhere for future interest. If only we’d known, we’d have stopped right away and forsaken Italy entirely!!

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Touring Europe in Third Gear

[NOTE: Kristen has tried endlessly to upload the video of us in the cathedral in Verden; she admits defeat. The internet will not play at this time.]

Distance to destination: 1,970 kilometres. Time to complete journey: 8 days. We knew it would be challenging and tough at times, but we thought we could do it comfortably. We had no idea how much effort would be required to get from Graepel in northern Germany to central Croatia until we started driving. When we realised the reality of what it would take to get to Plitvice Lakes in time to meet up with Andrew and Kara (Kristen’s cousin and his girlfriend), we had no choice but to knuckle down and do our best to make it. Which we did, just 45 minutes late…

The challenges:

  • Our home for the next nine weeks, an ancient and trusty Eriba Triton caravan, is being pulled by an aging VW Golf with a tiny engine. The legal top speed of this car and caravan combo in Germany (80 kmh) is nothing but a desperate dream, achievable only when driving downhill on smooth roads. With a tailwind.
  • The drivers of this snail-paced contraption have a combined experience of driving on the right side of the road of just two weeks, and that was nearly nine years ago. To add spice to the mix, neither of us have ever towed a caravan on the wrong side of the road.
  • There is a minor obstacle between Germany and Croatia: the Alps. Coupled with the fact it is not legal to drive on Austrian, Slovenia or Croatian autobahns if you can’t maintain at least 60 kmh, we have to detour around the Alps as far as Vienna before heading south, sticking to B- and C- roads the entire time.

The goal:

  • Meeting up with Andrew and Kara, which will quite likely be our only rendezvous with folks living in Australia during the entire year. They are currently on a tour of Europe, and their itinerary takes them to the famous Plitvice Lakes in Croatia at about the right time for us to meet them. We resolve to make the effort to be there, because we know it will be a highlight of the entire world trip to do so!

The reality:

  • We can only average approximately 40 kmh for the entire trip. Do the math, and you get a bum-numbing 50 hours of driving time, broken up into what turned out to be seven driving days. Although that’s an average of 7 hours a day, some days exceeded 10 hours on the road and we were certainly over it at the end of every one of them!
  • That average speed is due to the frequency of villages (where speed is limited to 50 kmh) on the secondary roads we are forced to take, and the inability of our trusty car to maintain speed while towing if there is the merest hint of a hill. Which there are a lot of between Germany and Croatia, as it turns out.
  • Almost the entire journey was conducted during a European heatwave. Who would have thought that southern Germany and Austria could record temperatures of 36 or 38 degrees?? Not us, until the roadside temp gauges showed us the score. It was Australian-like in its relentlessness, with temps at 10am or 11am often exceeding 30 degrees and only going up from there. Naturally, our trusty VW steed does not have any air-conditioning.

All of the above is true, and is described the way it is to give a picture of how gruelling the journey south turned out to be. But none of it should be taken as meaning we don’t like the car, the caravan, the weather, Plitvice Lakes or Andrew or Kara! If we had known how long it would take we simply would have allowed more time, but we didn’t discover the truth until we were on the road. And anyway, our epic mission has had some wonderful upsides:

The benefits:

  • We made our rendezvous with Andrew and Kara (and Kara’s parents) at the truly spectacular Lakes. And we met up with them just 45 minutes later than planned!
  • We made it south early enough to spend our intended amount of time in Slovenia and Italy – the main destinations we want to visit during our time with the caravan. Without the goal of making Croatia at an appointed time we would probably have taken up to three weeks to cover the same distance, with a correspondingly shorter time to spend in Slovenia and Italy. And as I write this post, sipping an afternoon wine on the magnificent shores of Lake Bled in northern Slovenia, we’re extremely grateful for making the deadline!
  • We stayed off the autobahns. Knowing we had a deadline did force us to try out the autobahn once. However the speed differential between our contraption and the rest of the traffic (especially trucks) was too great for comfort, and there is much more traffic than the backroads. Plus you have to pay to use them (except in Germany), and the tolls can add up quickly if you’re driving a long way.
  • Driving along the secondary roads of Europe is infinitely more scenic than driving on expressways. I knew this already from my time in France in 2003, and after our failed attempt at autobahn driving we were content to take the picturesque route as much as possible. We drove through some spectacular valleys and vistas, particularly one twistingly beautiful valley in eastern Bavaria and alongside the Donau River in western Austria. Slovenia has a postcard view at almost every turn, and even somewhat derelict (and sometimes bullet-ridden) Croatia has an appealing rustic charm most of the time.

Here’s a day-by-day rundown of our journey south, recorded for posterity and also to give some ideas for our inevitable return to this part of the world in the future!

June 25th – Graepel to Holle

Reality began to set in on this day. We had no intention of staying here for our first night, thinking we’d be able to do around 400 kms on our first day of driving. Not. Even. Close. As it was our first day driving I was extremely cautious (read: slow); and the weather was troublesome, to be fair, with occasional rain and gusty winds forcing us to drive even more slowly. The mood was truly set by our inability to find the campsite at the end of the day’s driving, even though we had a map and instructions. Apparently direction signs are not considered necessary or even helpful here!! It turns out we were a mere few hundred metres from our destination before taking a wrong turn on to the autobahn, which necessitated an hour-plus detour to get back to where we started. A joyous beginning.

June 26th – Holle to Seeburg

We’d intended to stay our first night near the historic towns of Erfurt and Weimar, but due to the slowness of day one’s travels we pushed that back a day. We reasoned that we could still fit both towns in if we got to our planned destination early enough. But once again going was slow, and by mid-afternoon we were still facing another couple of hours of driving. The thought did not fill us with joy… we got slightly lost in the backroads (quite a common occurrence!), but in the process passed through a beautiful looking small town of carefully tended old buildings, a lovely church, and signs to a campground. We both said that if we had more time we’d love to stay there, but as we were on a mission we had to simply carry on.

For about three minutes, that is. As we watched the town recede in the mirror we asked ourselves why are pushing on to get to an unknown town when we have a perfect one right there? Especially when we were already tired of driving in the punishing heat? Very soon we’d decided that we’d bin our plans to visit Erfurt and Weimar, turn around and stay at Seeburg for the night. It turned out to be an inspired decision J  The campground was pleasant, but we soon discovered the real attraction of the area was literally next door: a tranquil and very scenic lake called Seeburg See. When we looked closer at our maps it was marked as an area of particular beauty, and judging by the size of the parking area near the lake it’s very popular in summer. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking to the lake, then the long way around the town and back via a gorgeous country lane. Seeing very friendly sheep, enormous pigs and even storks in high nests made this spot an unexpected highlight of the entire trip south!

June 27th to 28th – Seeberg to Bamberg

This was another spot we’d intended to visit as it’s a very historic city (the central church is 1000 years old), and for a change we actually managed to make it there on the day we’d planned. Though only by ditching all the previous plans, of course…. Once again we arrived late in the afternoon and had some serious issues finding the campsite. Over a late dinner in the campground’s outdoor restaurant by the river (very pleasant indeed), we decided to reward ourselves with a day off the following day. There was free wifi there, and one of the semi-finals of the Euro 2012 football was being shown on a large projector screen for a sizeable crowd of guests. We stayed up late and thoroughly enjoyed not driving the following day!

June 29th – Bamberg to Pielenhofen (near Regensburg)

Before heading off to our campsite near another historic city of Regensburg, we made the effort to bus into Bamberg for a quick look around. The centre of the old town is spectacular, with immaculately maintained buildings dating back over 500 years and of course the amazing 1000-year-old central church, the Dom. The Dom is enormous and we were keen to do a tour inside, however on this particular day religious ceremonies meant it was closed so we had to content ourselves with viewing it from afar. We had a couple of missions to achieve (eg. buying maps for Austria and beyond), and wandering the streets was a delight. Bamberg is also a famous brewing town, and if we’d had more time we certainly would have sampled a few of the local treasures! As we visited more pretty towns further south in Austria, Croatia and Slovenia, the unique beauty of Bamberg became even more apparent to us in hindsight. It’s a must-see town if you’re anywhere in this part of Germany.

As is Regensburg, apparently, but we weren’t able to find out this time around. Once again our expectations for the days’ journey were too optimistic, and although we made it to our intended campsite for the night we were very tired. It was here that the reality began to sink in very deeply: we still had all of Austria and Slovenia to travel through, as well as the northern part of Croatia, and just three more nights to do it in! And the heat was oppressive, hitting 35 degrees or more every day with no sign of the heatwave ending soon. We decided that we had no choice but to ditch our plans to visit Regensburg and simply hit the road early the next day to burn through the miles…

June 30th – Pielenhofen to Ybbs a.d. Donau, Austria

A good day overall in terms of distance: we exited Germany (after travelling over 1100 kms in that country from north to south!), and we were making good time through western Austria for the first hour or two as well. And that was despite some lengthy periods behind enormous (and enormously slow) farm machinery that we weren’t able to overtake. The Donau valley just over the border in Austria was stunning, but not as spectacular as one particular valley in eastern Bavaria the day before between Schmidmuhlen and Kallmunz. That narrow valley had jaw-droppingly beautiful vistas at every turn, and it was clearly a popular place to paddle a canoe gently down river. We resolved to return to Bavaria one day to see more of this beautiful place with more time!

Things started to go pear-shaped when we hit the largish town of Linz, however. Crossing cities and large towns had become a bit of a bane of our existence, due to the often confusing nature of direction signs (or their complete absence). Linz set a new standard for Getting Lost, and we were rather frazzled by the time we finally exited it an hour after arrival. We wanted to push on to a campsite on the edge of the Donau, which we did arrive at around 7pm. It was small and located on the edge of the river, and would have been a perfect stopover if not for the one-off concert that was being held literally outside the door of the campground. We had to pass through the concert entrance to get to the ground, and were informed by the organisers that the music would be loud and continue until approximately 1am. That didn’t thrill us, but we checked out the campsite anyway on the off-chance that the noise might not be so bad up the back – anyway, we were very tired after a long day’s drive and just wanted to rest… But the noise was pretty bad everywhere, and the camp manager was Herr Grumpy incarnate, so after some discussion and despite the tiredness we headed off again to another site about 20 kms down the road.

Another right call, as it was nice and cosy and most importantly: quiet! We were shattered by the time we arrived but happy to be somewhere pleasant, and we even met a retired Australian couple from Adelaide who were cycling through Austria (they have spent Australian winters in the European summer for many years, apparently – a tempting idea!).

July 1st – Ybbs a.d. Donau, Austria to Bad Gleichenburg, Austria

If you can’t go over the Alps, you’ve gotta go around ‘em. So we did, heading east almost to Vienna before heading south along a variety of backroads. In Austria it’s illegal to be on the autobahns if you can’t maintain a speed of at least 60 kmh, so we had no choice but to stay off them. And given the underpowered nature of our car we can’t go up steep hills, and many roads in that part of the world were marked on our map as “not suitable for caravans”. Navigating a clean path through all these pitfalls was tricky, but fortunately we didn’t have any major mishaps.

We had hoped to make it all the way to northern Slovenia on this day, but by late afternoon it was clear we wouldn’t make it. There was a campground at Bad Gleichenburg which was just within reach, so we headed for that instead. Just 15 kms away from it I took a fateful wrong turn in Feldbach (sp?) which ended up costing us nearly an hour, and with only a few kms to go to our destination I was so exhausted I could barely stand up, let alone drive. Kristen, who had not done any caravan driving to this point, was forced to take over for the final steps to the campsite. Upon arrival we discovered the gate closed and no one at reception, and it was only 8pm. What was the story?? As we’d assumed we’d be able to enter we’d driven right to the gate, and due to a quirk of the caravan’s braking system we were unable to reverse up the hill to get out of the driveway. In a word, we were stuck until we could find a way in… fortunately someone who was already staying there walked past and showed us the key to the gate that was hanging on a chain just metres away! As I said, we were VERY tired at this point!!

July 2nd – Bad Gleichenburg, Austria to 60 kms north of Plitvice Jezera, Croatia

As we started our final full day heading south, we knew it would be a long one but had hopes that we could make it all the way to Plitvice by the end of the day. We crossed into Slovenia early and found our trip through that country rather easy – and extremely scenic! We’d been advised by friends that Slovenia was a gem and nearly every turn revealed that to be true. During this day we crossed the eastern half of Slovenia very thoroughly, and were making such good time that we felt that we would actually make it all the way! Entering Croatia and the scenery changed, but was rustically charming in its own way and certainly a bit more rugged. We were powering along until the town of Karlovac, where another crossing-town mishap waylaid us for some time. Eventually finding the right road, we had only 80kms to go until Plitvice and I steeled myself for the final leg.

But not far down the road fatigue set in badly, and we had to rest at a café for about half an hour. I felt a little better for it, but as soon as we started off again I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it all the way that night. We had passed countless signs advertising “zimmers”, or rooms for rent, and decided to pull in at the next zimmer that offered food and stop there for the night. We found one only 60 kms from Plitvice, and resolved to get up at 6am the next morning to burn through to the Lakes for our rendezvous. The zimmer’s room was pretty bad (with possibly the worst bed I’ve ever slept in, and the bathroom looked like it had never been cleaned), but the food was decent enough. Next morning we stuck to the plan and got to our campsite early, found a great spot and managed to call Andrew to make a time to meet. We thought we’d be there at 8am and actually met them at 8.45am – not bad at all in the circumstances!!!

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Bangkok

Bangkok was always going to be a transition point. When we began to plan our epic journey all those months ago, the backbone of it was a Round The World (RTW) ticket with stops in Asia, Europe, New York and South America. It turned out that we could get a great deal on a RTW ticket that saw us arrive into Asia at Singapore and exit from Bangkok, taking three months to wander between the two. That fitted our plans perfectly, and avoided any unnecessary and costly backtracking, so we jumped at this option.

As we’d both been to Bangkok previously (separately) we didn’t intend to do much sightseeing this time around, and in fact were prepared to stay just one night if required to maximise our time elsewhere. Like much of the detailed planning for our travels, we were happy to leave the decision about exactly how many days Bangkok deserved until we were closer to the time. In the end we settled on three nights in Bangkok, as that would give us enough time to do two vital things before leaving Asia. In some ways both of those activities were the result of the randomness of travel: One had come from our impromptu Big Day Out in Penang weeks earlier, the other from a chance reading of a magazine in a hospital waiting room!

Meeting CJ in Penang was a great day for many reasons, as we’ve blogged about previously. He lives in Bangkok and we’d made a firm promise to catch up with him when we got there in mid-June. Fitting in with his work commitments required a little juggling, and we settled on a Tuesday night dinner at an Italian restaurant run by a mate of his in the sprawling Sukhumvit nightlife zone. It was great to catch up with him in person, instead of via regular facebook updates, and again he regaled us with some hilarious stories that are too racy to be recorded on the internet! Amongst many things he also updated us on the progress of the Pakistani movie he co-produced, Seedlings, which I’m pleased to say was selected for the NY Film Festival just a couple of weeks after our dinner.

As the night wore on and the conversation flowed, we were all sorely tempted to head out afterwards for some post-dinner drinks and more merriness. But our host, CJ’s mate, brought out a free round of home-made (very delicious and very alcoholic) limoncello. Followed by another one not too long after, then another…. I think? At the end of this another hour had passed, and since CJ had to work and I was nursing a cold we decided to be sensible and call it a night. A great night, might I add, and one I’m keen to repeat when next we hit Bangers 😀

The other “must-do” we planned for Bangkok had its genesis while we were sitting in a hospital waiting room. But not just any waiting room: the one at the Skin and Cosmetic Centre at Phuket’s Bangkok Hospital more closely resembles the foyer of a five-star hotel rather than a hospital, as you can see from the pic above. With smart wooden tables and armchairs, flowers everywhere and staff scuttling softly about it was a world away from the grim, utilitarian ambiance of the average Australian hospital experience.

While waiting to see a doctor, we were perusing the luxury-minded magazine Thailand Tatler (how appropriate for the surroundings) and came across a restaurant review that immediately captured our interest. We’d been musing for several weeks about having one last fine dining experience in Bangkok, because once we hit Europe such extravagances were going to be almost entirely off the menu. The restaurant in this review, Gaggan, hit all our buttons and we knew immediately that we’d found “The One” for Bangkok. It was newish and aimed high by offering the unique fusion of molecular gastronomy and Indian cuisine. We are both fans of the “molecular” cooking style – when done with restraint – which uses various powders, gels, liquid nitrogen and other strange options to play with the texture and presentation of dishes. Some of the most memorable meals we’ve shared have cleverly incorporated these techniques (Royal Mail Hotel in Victoria and Iggy’s in Singapore), and we are greatly looking forward to our pilgrimage to the high temple of this style of food: The Fat Duck in London on August 29th. The restaurant’s chef-owner, Anand Gaggan, had honed his skills with Ferran Adria at the legendary El Bulli in Spain, and like most of the planet we love Indian food. How could we not try this place out?

Though we both thought the meal was very good I enjoyed it more than Kristen, who had some reservations about the overall value and memorable-ness of its 12 courses. The obvious use of molecular techniques was wisely limited to just a couple of dishes, with chef Gaggan letting the sublime flavours of each dish shine most of the time. We both agreed the tranquil and spacious setting of our table – facing as it did out through the window into the plant-filled courtyard – was  lovely, and a nice touch was that Gaggan himself visited our table twice during the meal to see how we were enjoying it.

We also had a very friendly and camp waiter, an older Thai man who was very playful throughout the meal. He took a particular fancy to the makeshift camera case that I use for my pocket camera (a woven pink, blue and grey glove that fits my camera well… like a glove!), at one stage borrowing it to drape over his shoulder and parade around the room. He then proceeded to greet newly arriving guests, not remembering until halfway through that he was still wearing the glove!

The sommelier recommended an excellent wine match, Discovery Point sauvignon blanc from NZ, and for the record here is the menu with some comments noted in blue:

Degustation menu, Gaggan, 13th June 2012

Yoghurt – our signature, we can’t take it off the menu

Served in a spoon, this is the size and shape of an egg yolk but white. Texture on the tongue is exactly like a soft-cooked egg yolk, until the warmth of your tongue melts the surface and an explosion of yoghurt flavour ensues. Gimmicky but good, we both really enjoyed it

Non-Fried Samosa, and Papadams two ways – reconstructed chutney chips with potato filling and fresh fennel seeds; spiced glass of carrot crisps air-dried, and homemade rice crackers

Tasty, but didn’t quite work as well as the other dishes

Liar Liar – an artificial Bellini with fresh royal farm peach and cheap chardonnay carbonated together

Truffle air – pressurised truffle espuma with green chilli oil

the truffle flavour was very strong and the green chilli offering a spicy accent. The “espuma” was foam, which didn’t stay foamy long before melting into a watery truffle soup. One of the top dishes for both of us

Goose liver – foie gras with spiced red onion chutney on a naan bread

Eggs and greens – 62 degrees slow 2-hour cooked eggs with funny tasting greens and moilee curry

One of Kristen’s favourite dishes, the “funny tasting greens” somehow having the flavour of oysters!

Matar Paneer – Indian cottage cheese tortellini in a curried green peas sauce

Delicate, tasty and very carefully spiced. No fancy technique here, just great flavours

Back to Indian – minced chicken sheesh kebab with green chutney foam

The presentation of this dish left something to be desired (see pic above), but Kristen especially loved the samphire on the side. It was like “saltwater explosions in your mouth”

Go Goa!! – choice of fresh Spanish alaj or prawn and crab meat in spiced vindaloo curry

We both went with the prawn and crab option, this dish was very hot but balanced. Served with a superb naan bread

Lamb grilled with whiskey smoke – optional, cost approx. $10 extra p.p.

A worthy addition, this dish consisted of New Zealand lamb cutlets perfectly grilled and served with garlic cream and garlic chutney. A theatrical flourish was provided by it being served underneath a large glass bell filled with the smoke of burnt shavings from a Jack Daniels whiskey barrel. It added a definite (and delicious) whiskey flavour – our favourite dish of the night

Garden of Eden – Iranian pistachio 50-second cake with pacotized pistachio ice cream and edible flowers

Kristen loved this, I thought it good but not as great as the next dessert

I Love Chocolate – chocolate crisps, milk chocolate water mousse and cold chocolate powder

This had a wonderful golden “Crunchie” bar flavour, light with white chocolate foam underneath

We didn’t do any sightseeing at all over these three days in Bangkok, as the rest of our time was spent preparing for the next phase and simply relaxing around our excellent hotel, the Royal View Resort. We had masses of laundry to wash, blog posts to write and photos to upload, plus some shopping to be done. And we were both in various stages of dealing with colds, so there was plenty of down time too. We did everything we could to ensure that we entered our next phase as ready as possible: bring on Europe!!

Categories: food, Thailand, travel | Leave a comment

Home away from home

We love Phnom Penh. There’s something about the energy of this city, its vibrant alive-ness that somehow walks both sides of the line between relaxed/carefree and anything goes/buzzing, that keeps us coming back. Even though our planned journey through Asia was severely interrupted, we still ensured we would have at least a couple of days in our home away from home to enjoy its charms before heading onwards to Europe.

Like everyone else, on our first trip to Phnom Penh we did the obligatory (and very moving) visits to S-21 and The Killing Fields, went to the Russian Market and walked along the waterfront. It was on the second visit that we delved a little deeper into the less-touristed (but still very western) parts of town and discovered the joys of 240 Street and 278 Street. This time around, with only two days and nights to fill, we knew exactly what we wanted to do.

First up: accommodation. A tuk-tuk driver had introduced us to the Phnom Penh City Hotel last time, and its convenient location on 278 Street coupled with decent rooms at a great price made it a winner. This time around it’s even better, offering the same low price ($15 a night) and now with added wifi.

Second up: Red Apron on 240 Street. What a purler of a wine bar/restaurant this is! Offering an excellent range of fine wines at very low prices by world standards, coupled with superb food and service in a flashy modern setting, dinner here was one of the main things we were looking forward to in Phnom Penh. Okay, who am I kidding… it was THE main thing we were looking forward here, and the mere idea of it kept us focussed during the long weeks before arrival! The wine list is strong on French wines, including a good number of top shelf choices at prices less than half what you’d pay at a comparable place in Australia or Europe. Last time we went a little nuts on some of the finer choices, this time we set a lower (but still generous) limit and our first night’s meal was a winner. A glass each of Planeta chardonnay followed by a bottle of Chateau d’Issan 2004 from Bordeaux went brilliantly with the succession of small plates of food chosen from the extensive menu. We even met a Frenchwoman who might let us rent her Paris apartment when we visit there in September. Un nuit par excellance!

Third up: Bliss Boutique. After extensive field trials, this massage and spa boutique on 240 Street comes up trumps as one of the best places to get a laying of the hands in Asia. Of course the massages are excellent – especially the extravagant four-hand number, where two masseuses work in unison – but the whole experience is enhanced by its location in a luxuriously restored and tranquil French villa. We had wanted to save this pleasure for the day we left, but as they are closed on Mondays we settled for a Sunday treat instead. Yep, sometimes you’ve just gotta take the knocks and keep smiling…

The rest of our two days was filled with smaller tasks that we knew could be completed here. Kristen has obtained her supply of sunglasses here annually for the past two years, so we knew exactly where to go to get some more. Getting our tuk-tuk driver – who was on retainer for several hours on our last day of rushing around – to stop near the FCC, we walked slowly to the corner knowing that within seconds a sunglasses seller would approach with a tray full of goodies to choose from. Sure enough, said seller did indeed approach and within minutes Kristen had two new pairs complete with extra carry case, all for $10. A year’s supply? Perhaps not, but it’s a start!

To round out our lightning visit we revisited Japanese-Cambodian restaurant Happa for lunch (on 278 Street, still good), tried to go to the Pool Bar on 278 Street only to find it closed for renovations, and made a late night journey to Equinox bar (again on 278 Street) for post-dinner drinks. No visit to Equinox is complete without a completely random meeting with a wacky stranger, and we hit the jackpot with a 52-year-old Korean man called Song. His greying hair, pulled back with a headband, and open face made him look very Japanese, and we made the early faux pas of asking him if he was indeed from Japan. He replied no but very good-naturedly, explained his origins and within seconds had somehow segued into how he is a drummer and that his Dad beat him so hard for being a drummer when he was a teenager that his arm was permanently damaged. Complete with a demonstration of how his arm doesn’t bend properly anymore. He was proud of his perseverance as a drummer in the face of such opposition (it was apparently an hour-long beating); clearly South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s was a very strict place to grow up!

Song then talked a lot about his favourite drummers in between asking us about our travels, and he was depressingly insightful about the conditions of the average working person in Cambodia today. He’s involved in the production and export of fashion garments and has lived in Phnom Penh for several years, so his comments had the weight of truth about them. Suddenly more than an hour had gone by, and Song was up and off with a smile.

We would have loved to have spent longer in Phnom Penh, but we left happy in the knowledge that we’d done everything we wanted to this time around. More than enough, actually: did I mention that we made a second dinner visit to Red Apron because it’s so bloody good?!?

Categories: Cambodia, food, travel | Leave a comment

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