Thursday, September 30, 2010

Split: not just a port town

We weren’t particularly sure why we were going to Split, other than to catch a ferry to some of the islands, but we had connected with a couch surfer (Paula) living locally and our three night stay turned out to be a treat! We stayed in the heart of the Old Town, otherwise known as the Diocletian’s Palace with its labyrinth of stone alleyways and courtyards, originating from ancient times. Although we arrived in the pouring rain, Paula was kind enough to show us to her friend’s apartment where we were staying and by the next day, we woke to hear the bustle of morning activity….local produce and fish markets, children playing as they headed off to school, friends laughing as they met for morning coffee and locals greeting each other as they passed by. We were instantly captivated by the atmosphere inside these enchanting ancient walls and spent much of our time in Split exploring within them, including the rooms built underground.

We heard live acoustic music, while sitting on the steps of a sunken courtyard surrounded by stone pillars and other masonry, displaying intricate detail and enough light shining in exactly the right places to set the romantic mood. We watched as an older couple began dancing on their own without a care in the world and as if noone was watching. This got us talking with Paula about the spontaneity of Croatian culture and how this was something we all loved about it. People here really know how to seize every moment and live completely to the full, seemingly without many cares….or at least they hide them well and exhibit their joy to greater measures. Paula shared the flip side to this moment to moment living which I guess is pretty obvious….apparently, people here are not very good at planning for or making decisions about the future, which is reflected not only in people’s every-day lives, but at the government level as well. Still, it made us reflect on the importance of joy, pleasure and spontaneity, which can only come from living in the moment. Maybe sometimes, it is ok to be a bit less concerned about the future, or at least to balance the scales a little more evenly.

We visited the open air market, where locals buy their fresh produce and were instantly in our element as we were surrounded by so much edible colour and texture. Almost every fruit and vegetable you can think of, lay on the tables exuding their freshness and proudly sold by local farmers. I have completely fallen in love with Croatian figs and knowing they were about to go out of season, I bought some from a beautiful old lady, who gladly handed over some additional freebies. In these moments, I imagined the joy it would bring me to venture out to the market like this every day to buy fresh, organic produce directly from local growers.

We ate out a few times, but began to realise that despite a myriad of ingredients available, restaurant menus were very similar in this part of Croatia and reading them wasn’t helping our choice of where or what to eat. Paula came to our rescue and recommended a tiny restaurant hidden away and run by a husband (waiter) & wife (cook) team where we ate authentic grilled chicken with mushroom sauce, a traditional beef dish marinated in wine, called Pasticada and for dessert, palacinke – traditional Croatian crepes. Mmmmm!

Paula gladly shared a whole heap of recommendations of where and what to include for the remainder of our time in Croatia. This included a must-visit to Vis Island, Croatia’s most remote of it’s 47 inhabited islands, with it’s preserved beauty and limited development. We decided to exclude the island of Hvar, with it’s mass development, high rises and ‘touristy’ feel and go to Vis instead.

The sunken courtyard where we listened to live music

The outside palace walls

Waterfront

Promenade

Buying figs at the market



Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sea-tunes and Salutations

We were only in Zadar, on the Croatian coast for one night, but it was enough to see two pretty unique sights. As we strolled along the waterfront, we saw and more importantly heard, the world’s only sea organ. It was designed by a local architect and is a series pipes and whistles, set into the steps which descend directly into the sea. To the naked eye, the organ looks like simple holes in the pavement, but as the water rushes underneath and air is pushed through these pipes, a random yet strangely beautiful tune can be heard. If you sit there for long enough, the ocean’s music almost sends you into a trance-like state as you listen to what reminds you of the sound of panpipes.

Not far away from the Sea Organ, was the Sun Salutation, a 22m circle cut into the pavement, filled with 300 multilayered glass plates that collect the suns energy during the day to produce a very trippy light show at night. We returned later to discover what looked like a dance floor plucked right out of ‘Saturday Night Fever’…..and of course we couldn’t help ourselves and out came the classic moves. Psychadelic moving patterns, infiltrated with changing colours kept us entertained for the good part of an hour.

According to Lonely Planet, Zadar is one of Croatia’s underrated cities and even after only one night, we can definitely agree. The seaside Old Town is no less beautiful than others we have seen, it has a busy port, which makes it a lively place to be and it also contains some very fascinating ruins. It is famous for the best morning market in Croatia and we were looking forward to visiting the following day, which turned out to be bucketing with rain and no sign of it letting up. Our best bet was to get on the road again.




Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cascades & Communism

The extraordinary natural beauty of Plitvice Lakes National Park is something to behold…..19.5 hectares of wooden hills with 16 emerald green lakes linked by spectacular cascades and waterfalls. We spent a day and a half exploring the park, wandering the wooden footbridges hovering centimeters above, or alongside the rushing water with no handrails or barriers. I was actually surprised by being undisturbed by this…maybe it was because the water looked so inviting, that falling in would have not been so bad. In fact, even though swimming is not allowed, I did at one point contemplate falling in on purpose. The water was so crystal clear, that you could see into its depths, the roots of the trees intertwined and covered in green moss, almost resembling some kind of wreck. We could vividly see hundreds of fish lingering happily along the waters edge, almost following our movements, maybe hoping we would throw them some food. All we wanted to do was throw them a hook, line and sinker, but knowing this was a protected area, we missed out on having those fish for dinner that night. We admired the changing colours and falling leaves that autumn brings as well as the variety of wildlife who had made the park their home. Although we didn’t see any lynx or bears that apparently live in the grounds, we did see frogs, stunning butterflies, birds and interesting species of insects. The most memorable wildlife moment was Tim capturing a photo of two dragonflies, an almost impossible endeavour with them zipping around so fast you can barely catch a glimpse. The fact they were mating meant they remained still for that little bit longer. Insect porn anyone? Lol

Just outside of the national park, we experienced the warm hospitality of a Croatian family, staying in their home for 2 nights. Although we had our own private room and bathroom, they opened up their family area to us where we cooked our own dinner and shared in rich conversation. Not everyone in the family could speak English, but we could tell we were so welcome by all, simply by their gestures. The man of the house, Nedjelko, could speak fluent English, however and invited us to share a glass of rakija, his own home-made plum brandy. Rakija is part of the staple diet here in Croatia and can be made using a variety of fruits or herbs, some sweeter than others. We have learned, that it is cultural for a Croat to welcome you in their home with a glass or two of rakija.

We listened intently, as Nedjelko opened up to us and shared his experience of living under communism and how life was different once the Yugoslav war had ended in 1989. Individual freedom came and provided opportunity for people to do as they wished, without government control, including the chance to obtain a passport and travel internationally in addition to owning your own business. At the end of the war, all Nedjelko owned was one small bag filled with bare necessities and the clothes he was wearing. Today, just over 20 years later, he has built for his family, a 3 storey guesthouse and has a devoted passion for tourism. At first, it was strange for us to hear how for many, the communist way provided a great deal of security and stability….people’s whole lives were organized by the government and many ‘responsibilities’ were also taken care of. The government found people jobs, organized annual holidays and paying tax was unheard of. According to Nedjelko, life was lived simply and happily by many people, but when communist rule ended, there was confusion over how to accept or deal with any responsibility. The very structured and controlling system was all that these people had ever known and living any differently was foreign. Up until this day, the older generations in the local area here still struggle with this new way of life and talk about how much better it would be to go back to when everything was organized for them. There is particular confusion around why paying an income tax is required and only in recent years has there been any support services in place for people to deal with the changes.

It was so interesting to hear Nedjelko talk about these issues and we were surprised to be confronted on our previous assumptions that life was hard and oppressive for everyone living under communism. Without pushing too many political buttons, or to announce that I’m signing up to a Communist Party, it was simply intriguing to hear another perspective. Nedjelko was obviously chuffed about how keen we were to hear his story that he kept going and going, to the point that we had to politely interrupt him as he stood beside our car to bid us farewell. We drove away feeling completely humbled that such a lovely man had opened his family home and life to us.

Our first glimpse of the lakes

One of the many footbridges

The view from a footbridge

You could see fish like this everywhere!!

One of the many waterfalls


The dragonflies....can you spot them? Don't look too close!


Homegrown Produce and Roadside Stalls

Driving through Croatia with our Tom Tom, has often lead us to the more remote, rustic villages where the ‘tourist’ is pretty much non-existent. It is in these places that we have seen the culture so obviously on display. We have watched as older men cultivate their land with handheld tools, so diligently and little old ladies in their black head scarves selling their homegrown produce, cheeses, jams and olive oils at the roadside, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We have learned, in both Italy and Croatia, that buying and selling produce locally is central to the lifestyle here and essential to the livelihood of local growers. We have been to several open-air markets and experienced the flurry of energy, the buzz, the tenacity and passion of the local merchants, willing to barter and bargain with their buyers. You can visibly see the freshness of the produce, so full of life and colour, with a screaming invitation to be eaten.

Up until the last 20 years, supermarkets were non-existent in this part of the world and all food was bought and sold in these open-air markets. It is with sadness that some locals speak about the effects of globalization and the influx of larger supermarkets into their communities. We feel sad too, that another, more commercial and capital driven culture is influencing this very important part of Mediterranean life. Lets hope, that the Italians and Croats can maintain what they do so very well and maybe increase their influence on the rest of the world that little bit more.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

At the Adriatic water's edge

The night we arrived in Croatia, it was still bucketing with rain and although we had hoped to camp by the water’s edge, it was obvious that this was a little ambitious. Instead, we managed to find a cheap room in a nice hotel in a place called Poreč. The following afternoon, the sun reappeared from behind the clouds and totally turned around our gloomy first impression of Croatia into exactly what we had hoped for….Mediterranean Bliss!

We ventured straight for the seaside and were in awe of the white stone buildings lining the shore as well as the gorgeous restaurant terraces perfectly positioned. The sky was definitely the bluest we had ever seen and as the sun shone on the crystal clear water, it glistened like a million stars, almost blinding us with its glare. We sat down at a table on the terrace feeling so blessed to be here and ordered our meal from a menu dominated by truffles. We remembered reading about this region being the homeland of the truffle delicacy and knowing how expensive they are in other places of the world, we were pleasantly surprised to order a truffle pasta for 10 Aussie bucks! Thankfully, truffles are not so expensive here in Istria where truffle hunters and special hunting dogs source them from deep inside the dark woods. We couldn’t get enough of truffles at first, but we discovered quickly, that a break from their very rich flavour is needed.

After lunch, we spent the afternoon strolling the sidewalk along the seafront and all we wanted to do was dive in. For the time being, we simply enjoyed the warmth of the sun’s rays and the tranquility of being by the ocean. We had our first glimpse of a pebble beach, hundreds of smooth stones piled on each other. Although not so comfortable under foot, it was such a novelty compared to the sandy beaches we are used to. Our first amazing day in Croatia was topped off by the most gorgeous sunset with a lighthouse in the foreground.

The following few days were much of the same – wining and dining at the water’s edge as well as wandering the shiny stone pavements in the coastal villages of Pula, Rovinj and Opatija…..yep, it all sounds pretty terrible. We found the perfect camping spot just outside Pula and set up our tent less than 10 metres from the shore. It was another surreal moment as we sat on the rocks in the evening, our gaze fixed on the water and the moon’s reflection. We talked about the obviously slower pace in which Croatians live and we decided we would observe more closely, with the expectation that we might just have something important to learn.

Istria is famous for its fresh seafood, caught locally and driving along the coast we ate it every day for about 5 days, because it was incredible! Chefs here tend to let the flavour of the fish speak for itself, mostly cooking it whole on the grill with olive oil and garlic. Delish! Experiencing the taste of these different types of fish, only caught in the Adriatic, has been a real treat.

There’s only so much wining and dining you can do, before it starts burning a serious hole in your pocket. We figured we were not spending any money on attractions, so we admittedly lived it up for a few days. On our way to Plitvice Lakes, we decided it was time to cook our own dinner.

Strolling along the seafront

A gorgeous scene in Rovinj


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Venice....a wash out

When we arrived in Venice, we were aware that heavy rain was forecast for most of our stay, but we remained optimistic…as you do when you have absolutely no control over weather conditions while travelling. Our first day in Venice was overcast, a little cool and breezy, but we were able to wander the beautiful streets of this very unique city and see pretty much everything we wanted to. San Marco Square was a beautiful sight to behold, despite being partly covered with scaffolding. The Basilica, being the centre point of the square, impressed us with its amazing mosaic art work flooring and the ceiling covered in gold mosaics, carefully placed to create religious images and visual stories. As we meandered the alleyways of Venice and alongside the canals, we gazed upon the houses on stilts hovering on the water. How fascinating it was to see the locals pull up in their boats to their front door. We wondered about how such a city could be built and suspended above water for so long. It’s not so difficult to see however, that many buildings are struggling to stay put, with obvious leans in the structures, peeling plaster and solid stone opening up into significant crevices. These flaws may be disturbing or worrying for the local, but for the travelers eye, they simply add to the character of this enchanting city. We watched in awe of the very fancy gondolas, skillfully steered by the Italian man. We inquired about the price for a 40 minute ride and decided we would leave it until the following day. Again, we were hopeful, but this did turn out to be a wrong decision.

Apparently, Venice is known for heavy rain and thunderstorms that often lead to flooding. We were there for 2 nights and after the first night, this place definitely lived up to its name, providing extremely wet conditions in which our umbrella did not perform too well. Thankfully, our tent did a little better and apart from a slight leak, we managed to wake in the morning without any soggy feelings. That of course, changed the moment we exited the tent and discovered we could almost swim in the puddles surrounding our home away from home. To give you a picture of how hard it rained the night before….the only thing we could see fit to do before going to bed, was to watch something we had downloaded on our laptop, but with the volume set at it’s maximum, we still struggled to hear the sound over the rain drops pounding our tent. It pretty much rained like this for the whole night and into the morning. We had planned to stay at least 3 nights in Venice, but we knew the weather was going to prevent us from doing anything significant, including a gondola ride. It is not an uncommon dream for a lady planning to visit Venice, to want the romantic sunset ride on a gondola and for me this was no different. Although hopeful, the bucketing rain meant this dream was not going to become reality…at least this time round. We would have had to stay in Venice at least another 2 nights to have any possibility of sunshine, so we decided to cut our losses and move onto our next destination – Croatia. Despite our disappointment, we were thankful we were able to see Venice for at least one day.

San Marco Square & Basilica

One of the many beautiful canals

At least I captured a gondola in a pic...and I can still dream! :-)



Friday, September 17, 2010

Italy....fits like a glove.

Our first stop in Italy was Lake Como….this was not a place included in our original plan, but as we’re discovering, bit by bit, that plan is being turned upside down. I think we read about the lake in a guidebook somewhere and received some extra encouragement from fellow travelers, to visit there. We arrived after dark and so couldn’t really tell how beautiful it was until the morning. We pitched our tent alongside the lake at a very quaint campsite in a village called Dongo. In the morning, we woke to glorious sunshine and couldn’t wait to get out and enjoy it. We drove to the neighbouring village of Menaggio and wandered the streets, admiring the array of textures and colours that surrounded us. We carefully chose the restaurant for our first official meal in Italy and were drawn to a place which was obviously packed with locals….always a good sign. As we sat there savouring our homemade pasta, we were reminded of the simplicity yet outstanding quality of Italian food.

Lunch was followed by an afternoon of village hopping via ferry including a visit to the famous Bellagio where George Clooney lives. We weren’t that fussed about missing out on a sighting, but we definitely overheard some other ladies who were keen on hunting him down! Walking up and down the pebblestone stairwells of Bellagio and along the water’s edge was a treat in itself. It still felt so surreal that we were in Italy and surrounded by such beautiful homes, different shades of colour, just like the ones from all those Italian films. I imagined myself on the balcony, the old wooden shutters flung wide, gazing out over the ocean, onto the horizon. Oh how I could live here!! Tim thinks so too! There’s something about this place that makes you feel so at ease, like you really have no care in the world. And when a feeling like that arises, you never want to let it go. After tantalizing our taste buds at a local wine bar and indulging in some lemon gelato, we caught the ferry across to another Village called Varenna where we proceeded to engage in very similar activities that were such hard work….not!

We pretty much knew we would instantly fall in love with this country and everything it has to offer. The food is amazing….since arriving here, the smells of garlic, cheese and other culinary delights literally waft from restaurants and homes, surprisingly from significant distances away. We were on the ferry, at least 100 metres from the shore and our salivary glands kicked into gear, all due to the smell of garlic in the air. So it’s pretty obvious that we like authentic Italian food….just a little bit. There are other reasons we find this country so alluring, like the incredible fruit driven, smooth wine, which is really no surprise. The afternoon siesta, although a bit inconvenient for shopping, is such a great idea and I think working full time might just be a bit more tolerable if it incorporated an afternoon nap. The people here really know how to live life at a slower pace, which is very likely much better for your health than what we’re used to. I also have to give a plug for Tim who is a bit keen on Italian cars and motorbikes….we were planning to visit the Lamborghini or Ferrari factories in Modena, but for various reasons, we have no access to any tours. He is nonetheless impressed with Italy for producing top quality motor machines. Even though Tim may never own an Italian car (don’t tell him I told you), at least he can drive like an Italian….completely erratic and aggressive….or maybe a more positive slant is ‘assertive’. I am actually glad that he’s behind the wheel in this country….Italian drivers seem to be a little crazy. They appear to enjoy tailgating and travelling at least 20km over the speed limit as well as beeping you from behind if you decide you would like to obey the law. Parking is also an interesting activity….if there are no spaces, why not create them!? Blocking other cars doesn’t seem to bother anyone else! We have found though, that people are very polite and apologetic when they realize you can’t get out of the car park because of them and they quickly rectify the situation. I am speaking of course in general terms and purely for the purpose of amusement.

While I have just described Tim’s fettish for Italian motor vehicles, I have discovered that my growing fettish is for the Italian man, or maybe it’s just the two brothers who were running the campsite in Lake Como. I can’t help it if they were just too cute…..or maybe dreamy is the better word! Lol. You don’t have to worry though, I am completely satisfied with my own dreamy man and therefore won’t be taking this fettish any further.

In describing the many delights in Italy, we can probably say that we will be spending as much time here as possible, simply because everything about this culture resonates with us and we seem to fit in so well. All we need to do now, is grasp the beautiful and mesmerizing dialect….maybe words that go beyond decriptions of food.

Lake Como

A Bellagio Alleyway

Varenna

Keeping the romance alive :P

Mmmm, the Italian man

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A guest post....through the eyes of Sal

We met Tom in Gryon, Switzerland at Chalet Martin - the gorgeous hostel we stayed in for 4 nights. Such a genuine dude from California and we hit it off instantly....so much so, we ended up making room for him in our car to give him a hitch to Italy. I happened to tell him I was a bit behind in our blog writing and jokingly said "can you write me a blog post Tom?" And so he did! And it's a good one! Thanks Tom! :-)

Here it is:

Friday night we crashed landed in the eclectic mountain town of Gyron. Our Tom-Tom didn't fail us, but it was no match for the unexpected road construction, luckily Tim remembered how to use a map and guided us to our hostel, Chalet-Martin. The warmth of the hostel matched warm tones of the interior oak, and the people follow suit. Its more communally orientated than most places; instead of the awkward, "I needed that pot..." while cooking, you'll get, "Please join our meal!" Don't exactly expect free meals, should you visit, but you'll probably get a free beer upon arrival. The first night, standing from the deck we peered into the darkness catches the jagged silhouettes that hover above the valley floor like crag guardians. The stars were speckled above us, but illuminations from the valley town below were a spectacles of themselves as they attempted to mimic the milky way. We knew we had arrived in another glorious location, and the smiling faces of fellow travelers confirmed it.

Gyron is a small, french speaking, Swiss paradise, surrounded by an arena of rocky splendor and lush green decor. It is no doubt a tourism-fueled location, but the residents seem to have accepted it, respect it, and be-friend the idea. It is still one of the few places where hitch-hiking is safe, and actually received!

Every night we delighted in some delectable foods, and even more palatable company. After filling your day with our various activities, the pinnacle physically and emotionally being the peak we hiked to one afternoon, you were able to lay the sweet caramel topping of community at night. There were a number of ping-pong matches that took place, some fire side chatting, and we even watched a favorite Aussie classic, "The Castle." There were many surrounding activities promoted for the mild to extreme adrenaline fiends, but we remained in our meek interests, and reveled in our own amiable character. We no doubt picked an excellent spot to soak up enticing views, but we remained unenticed but nothing but each other and company. Time managed to pull off a few ping-pong games, humbling winning and loosing, and I managed to again try my cooking and gift of sharing.

We had a few glitches with the car's brakes, but its not too much to worry about since it is budgeted for. On our journey we managed to pick up some lively cargo (we are giving our new found friend Tom a ride to Milan) and continue to share the good glory of God with our new neighbor. Overall, the Chalet Martin was a wonderful landing pad and launching point for our next destination, LAKE COMO!!!!

Chalet Martin (hostel)

The view from the deck

fun and games in the kitchen

Saying goodbye to Tom in Italy


Monday, September 13, 2010

Discovering what you're made of

Today we hiked to the peak of a mountain in the Swiss Alps. It was so steep, that each step was like climbing a set of stairs and we did that for about 45 minutes. It was the most grueling walk I have done since before my hip surgery, maybe for a few years actually. We were hiking up to the top, picnic in hand, to sit and eat alongside the huge wooden cross placed on the peak. About 50 metres from the top, I was utterly exhausted and I began to doubt if I had any strength left to make it there. Tim was tired as well, but obviously not struggling as much as I was. I stopped for a few moments and thought about how it was probably more of a mental barrier that I needed to push through, rather than a physical one. I was completely capable of getting to the top, but whether I believed that would probably be the determining factor. Sure, I was experiencing some pain in my muscles and soreness in my hip, but all of that was only because I hadn’t put myself under any strain in a while. Looking up at the cross as my final destination, I considered the journey Jesus took to calvary and how much pain he would have been in….and yet he still carried his cross. His physical stamina would have been stretched beyond comprehension, but it was probably His mental stamina that caused him to keep going.

I haven’t really liked hiking all that much in the past, especially slopes, and I have discovered that it’s because the activity is way too uncomfortable and challenging. I would rather admire the view from a more easily accessible place…like the deck of our hostel in the alps. What I have realized though, is that sometimes being in ‘uncomfortable’ situations brings out the worst in you and this is not necessarily a bad thing. For it raises your awareness and brings you to a crossroad where there is a decision to be made…. ‘will I move forward and push through this mental barrier, or will I turn back in avoidance?’ It is at these crossroads where we have the opportunity to discover what we’re truly made of.

Thankfully, I decided to push through that day and when I made it to the peak, the exhilaration was indescribable. The 360 degree view was spectacular and we sat down by the cross to enjoy our picnic lunch. We couldn’t help but give thanks to God for everything He has brought us through and especially for my health because 12 months ago, a hike like this was inconceivable. As we gazed out to the horizon, we were feeling pretty satisfied with ourselves indeed.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Arriving in the dark

Getting to our hostel nestled in the Swiss Alps in a small village called Gryon definitely made us appreciate the daylight. Tom Tom doesn’t usually let us down, but unfortunately this handy gadget didn’t prepare us for a slight predicament.

Coming from southern Germany, the drive was long and we didn’t particularly know what to expect when arriving in Gryon. A couple we met in Cesky Krumlov had told us if we didn’t go anywhere else in Europe, we definitely had to come here and enjoy the homely chalet hostel as well as the exceptional views of the Swiss Alps. Winding our way up the hill with very little street light, we managed to make out nothing but vines on the side of the road. There was wine here!! Yeeew! We definitely knew we were going to love the place now! After travelling at least 20 minutes up the hill, our excitement quickly turned into that sinking feeling as we pulled up in front of a complete roadblock 5 minutes from the hostel. If we had of kept on driving, we would have ended up in a great big hole. It was 9:30pm and we were ready for bed after a long day, but Tom Tom was not helping. It was another reminder of the reliability of technology…or lack of. This is where Tom Tom AND a map definitely comes in handy. It was the map that got us to the hostel that night….just.

We discovered that the hostel has no carpark, so finding it at the end of a long walkway up the hill was slightly stressful to say the least. I think we managed to refrain from completely chewing each other’s heads off, which was positive. It was a relief when we finally walked through the door of the hostel….only to find out that there was no record of any booking we had made online. We glanced at each other with a roll of the eyes. Thankfully, there was space for us and our lost souls had found a home.

Moral of the story….arriving at your destination in the day time is definitely easier, especially if you’re accounting for any type of hiccup, including road blocks! However, the view that was revealed from the front windows and deck in the morning made arriving in the dark with all the headaches so worth it. The amazing alpine scene was all the more striking because it was the very first time we were seeing it. The hostel is nestled high into the alps, overlooking the vast mountainous landscape, a panoramic picture that made me never want to look away. Thankfully I wouldn’t have to for the next 4 days.

The morning view

Germany's best kept secret

Is definitely the wine! Ok, so it may not be a secret for some Europeans, but good German wine is unheard of in Australia, which is definitely a pity. In the last couple of days, we stayed in a small village called Heinsheim in southern Germany especially for the Audi R8 factory tour. What was an added bonus, was the food and wine we tried here – at a restaurant which had been recommended by a local guy, Tim had steak served traditionally, with caramelized onions and a special dark sauce (no idea what was in it, but it tasted so good!). I ate delicately spiced white fish cooked so perfectly it literally melted in my mouth. The thing to utterly rave about though, was the wine that we tried. Firstly, we could not believe that ¼ litre glasses were all under 3 Euro and so we tried 2 whites, a red and a rose. Every single sip of all four wines was different, but equally delicious. The two reislings were fragrant, fruity, smooth and refreshing with a flavour different to what we’ve tried before. The red was full bodied and so easy to drink while the rose was what surprised us the most….shocked us actually. On the nose, it smelled exactly like a really strong blue cheese. Although we really like most blue cheeses, a wine that smelled like it was so strange it was almost off putting at first. The moment it slid onto our palate however, was when the shock hit. WOW!!! I wouldn’t say it was an outstanding wine, but it was completely drinkable and so interesting that it made you want to keep drinking it for that fact alone. We were stoked to find out that we could buy the wine by the bottle at an absolute bargain, so we walked away with the red and a reisling.

Before this road trip, we tried a German Riesling in the UK through our jobs with Laithwaites as well as a Gwertztraminer (German grape) when we were in California. The quality and amazing taste of German wine has never really hit home until now. I think we may just be announcing this secret to the world.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Audi R8 Experience

Being the car fanatic that I am, one item on my ‘must do’ list was to visit a car factory or two as well as a motorcycle factory. Lamborghini was number one on my list and before we left Oz, I was gutted to find out they were closing the factory for a refit. Yep I even lost sleep over it. So after getting over my boyish dream of visiting the Lamborghini factory, I went to work, trying to find an alternative. Next on the list was Ferrari and sure enough they had a tour available and the best feature…it’s free! The worst part….you have to be a Ferrari owner to even get a look in. Doh! Not sure a matchbox Ferarri would count. Running out of options I decided to look into the Audi R8 or Porsche tour. Looking over forums and websites, it was obviously near impossible to get one with Audi and Porsche were not commencing tours until after the 6th of September. Appreciating the Audi R8 more and being one of top 3 cars I would love to own, I decided to send out an email via the Audi website and see what my chances might bring. As it turned out, my persistence paid off and what I thought was impossible, was not so impossible after all! A top bloke by the name of Stewart emailed me back, telling me it will cost me €150 for a tour and he went about organising a date for us. Now I know many of you might be thinking €150 is a lot of money just to go see a car being built and yes I do agree that it was a little on the extortionate side but after learning about Lamborghini and Ferrari I was determined to see this car being built and not many people get this opportunity.

The day finally came for us on Sept 10 and when arriving to the factory, the place was as big as the village of Neckarsulm itself. First impressions when walking into Audi Forum were – wow! After a short scan of the 3 story showroom we were met by Peter, the director of the tours team who went on to give us a personalised tour – I felt veeeeery special. We hopped onto an empty bus and drove around to the R8 body shop. On the bus we were about to get the camera out to take a self-portrait but were quickly interrupted by Peter as no photos were allowed within the premises. Disappointed but not surprised.

Walking through the factory doors, the first thing you notice is the place is absolutely immaculate! A place for everything and everything in its place. Guys and girls (yes there was one) were cranking away welding the front, middle and rear sections of the framework ready for a final weld to make it one complete chassis. What makes this car really impressive was that the whole body is 100% aluminium – not the easiest material to work with. Equally as impressive is that the 80% of the R8 is built by hand….hence the high price tag.

All I can say is that it was one of the greatest things I enjoyed taking the time to see. Everything from the body construction, the engine being systematically placed into the car and even getting to hold a set of ceramic brakes was like all my Christmas’s coming at once! I was definitely like a kid in a candy store. We even got to take away some small component souvenirs. Unfortunately no test drives were allowed but after seeing how much effort and detail Audi put into building the R8, they had me sold! I would love to own one. A far stretch at the moment but you never know, we’ll have to wait and see. I think I may have succeeded in converting Sal at least. We spent the last few moments soaking up what we had just seen, looking at all the cars from years past and present and we concluded the tour with a gastronomic experience in their very fine restaurant.

Tim.

Dreams don't cost anything

Polished aluminium body, no paint and no clear coat. Not for sale.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Stelvio Mountain Pass

Top Gear being the best TV program ever produced has had a serious influence on me. Watching it for a while, has made me more of a Car/Motorcycle fanatic than I originally was. Jeremy Clarkson once declared this piece of road as one of best driving experiences ever! (that’s until he discovered something better in Romania). Knowing I was going to be close to the area I was determined I was going to give it a crack albeit tackling it in a diesel Astra! Sure enough it was fantastic! Starting from the bottom (as you do), we zig-zagged our way to the top (about 50km), with brilliant views to complement the drive! Absolutely great experience that I must highly recommend you do despite what you ride in. I will do this again but hopefully in a ride that’s a little more decent.

Tim.



Wednesday, September 8, 2010

On top of the world

After Austria, we visited Interlaken, Switzerland and were keen to venture high into the mountains. Because of my hip, I haven’t been quite ready for hiking at a strenuous level, so we opted for the number one cable car ride in Switzerland instead, to the top of Shilthorn at 10,000ft (3km above sea level). The revolving restaurant on the peak called Piz Gloria, was made famous by the filming of scenes from ‘007, Her Majesty’s Secret Service’. We however, were mainly interested in the food (as usual).

The half an hour ride to the top was an expensive 91.80 Swiss Francs, equivalent to about 100 Aussie bucks each. We haven’t spent that much money on anything since we started the trip, but we figured this experience was probably worth it. While we were looking at the website, we noticed something about a 007 buffet breakfast. It was a little bit strange to discover that for only 92 Swiss Francs, you could buy a combined ticket and have the brekky included as well!! Sweet!

The morning came and we, along with a couple of other people thought we were going to get our romantic ride all the way to the top. As we were contemplating the serenity of it all, along comes a tourist bus to ruin our idealistic image. We were now reduced to a sardine, jammed into a very confined space….there were at least 40 people wedged in and trying to find the best spot for photos on the way up. We figured that getting any decent pic from the cable car was pretty much out of the question. So, despite being a little bit peeved that we had paid so much, we accepted the fact and waited until we got to the top.

Any ounce of angst quickly disappeared with the 360 degree panoramic view at the peak, towering above every other mountain. We got stuck into our breakfast, accompanied by some bubbly like it was the first one we’d had in a while. The revolving restaurant with floor to ceiling glass windows enabled us to savour the view as well as the food.

After breakfast, we ventured outside to get a good look. I feel like I am constantly describing how beautiful things are, while not really doing the description justice. All I can say is the rugged edges of the peaks capped with ice made you want to stare at them for hours just to take in the wonder of it all. We decided to get away from the crowd and take a hike part way down the mountain, out onto another peak. The path was a little hairy at times, with long drop offs either side. I had a bit of a panic at one point and needed to stop to get my head together. Tim, being the more daring one, tried raising his voice in a very firm manner, to tell me to keep walking, that I was fine. All I needed was a few moments to mentally prepare….after all, I just thought we were taking the cable car up and back. So in the end, I faced my apprehension head on and walked out onto the peak. I stood there, feeling so free, like I could step off the edge and fly away, free as a bird. The hike up and back took us about 45 minutes and was extremely steep. I was so stoked that my hip coped with the difficulty of the slopes and I might just think about conquering some more.

Sal.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Camping Royalty

Camping in Innsbruck for 2 nights was like staying in a 5 star hotel, but sleeping in a tent outside. Yeh, I realize that sounds like an oxymoron, but the facilities at this campsite almost made us feel like royalty…apart from having to do our own dishes of course. Seriously though…a brand spankin’ new building with automatic doors to toilets, personal basins inside shower cubicles, a bench to sit on while in the shower, hairdryers with huge mirrors and chairs and a plasma screen to tell you the weather forecast. Sleeping outside was not a problem, especially when we were greeted by views of the Austrian Alps tipped with snow as we peered from our tent in the morning. Who needs a balcony in a 5-star hotel when you can eat, sleep and play right in the middle of the view. As far as we were concerned, we were royalty! Well…almost.

The royal campsite