A Travellerspoint blog

Operation Slovenia

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For reasons that will become clear later, we secretly left Salzburg under false passports and aliases. We had a mission to accomplish in Slovenia before heading home at the end of Part One of the sabbatical. Maintaining radio silence, we travelled by train through the spectacular alpine region of southern central Austria which merges into the Julian Alps of northern Slovenia. We were heading for a safe house in Ljubljana, the capital, which turned out to be false intelligence - it was a hostel in a very poor state of repair. After three nights, we decided to retrace our route back up north to Lake Bled. Here, we stayed in “Andrea’s House”, a group of apartments run by the lady herself. She couldn’t have been a nicer host which was just what we needed as being on the run for such a long time had become wearing. She told us all about the surrounding area on the edge of a wonderful National Park with plenty of trees for cover. More than three-quarters of the country is covered in forest and, with spectacular rivers, mountains and lakes, increasing numbers of visitors are discovering its beauty both in the summer and winter skiing months.

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However, the “D-Day” for our mission was Monday 21st September. It was on this day, 60 years before, that my parents were married. To celebrate their Diamond Anniversary, they had decided to go on a cruise down the Adriatic coast and were due to be in Koper, the main port of Slovenia, from 7am to 7pm that day. I had contact with the ship on its satellite phone to find out if they had booked any organised tours for the day, but they had not. How to intercept them but still keep the element of surprise, crucial for the success of the mission?

We found a room the night before in the old town. A quick reconnoitre revealed that, fortuitously, it was just down the street from where the MV Discovery was due to dock the next morning. I was up at 7 am, just after the ship had docked, to make sure that they hadn’t decided to go on a tour at the last minute. Groups of passengers began disembarking to join coaches on the quayside but my parents were not amongst them. I decided to make my move. At 08.00hrs precisely, I phoned the ship again and asked to be put through to their cabin. Fortunately they were still there. My father answered and he was delighted to be wished a Happy Anniversary. I asked what they were planning to do that day. He said that they were just doing their own thing - looking around the old town of Koper then retiring to the boat in the evening before it set off further down the coast. It was at this point that I launched the killer question, “Would you like to join Sue & I for lunch?” The initial effect of this was confusion, followed by bewilderment. What did I mean? Where were we? We couldn’t possibly be…could we?

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Reunion on the quayside followed and we spent a lovely few hours over lunch catching up with the happenings of the previous 10 weeks since we had left home. Despite the uncertainties of the previous week, the mission had been a total success thanks to meticulous training and planning.

This was to be the final act of Part One, for we were keen to get back to base in Blighty for the christening of our niece, Imogen, in Yorkshire the following weekend. We bade farewell to my parents in the late afternoon and caught the bus to Trieste, over the border in Italy. Needless to say, we met with little resistance, and were able to progress from there by train to Venice. Here we caught the overnight “sleeper” to Paris. We were sharing a 6 berth couchette and were treated to the World Premiere of Concerto for Snorers and Hiccoughonist in E flat minor by Insomniofsky. It was a long work, only brought to a conclusion by the conductor announcing that we would be arriving in Paris imminently. A quick coffee and croissant later, we were on another train to Cherbourg, ferry to Portsmouth (disappointingly, no crowds lining the entrance to the harbour) then train back to Dorchester. After 10 weeks on the road, we'd come full-circle. Nothing beats being back in your own bed again.


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Tune in again around November when we will be heading off for Japan and then, hopefully, India for more fun and japes. Roger and out for now.

Posted by dikansu 14:57 Comments (3)

Salzburg

The hills are alive with the sound of ..... Kiwis ??

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Being away for a while makes you reflect on life back home - the things you miss and the things you don’t. In the former category: friends and family; work colleagues; Radio 4 and BBC iPlayer - for copyright reasons, you can’t access it abroad; wandering into town on a Saturday morning for a coffee and read of the papers; singing and music in general. On the negative side, we don’t miss the often drink-fuelled antisocial behaviour of youngsters which doesn’t appear to be anything like so prevalent abroad, although people still complain about it. Young people appear to have more regular exercise than back home. In most of the countries we’ve visited, children are seen routinely cycling or walking on their own to school and seem more involved in after-school sports. The consequence of this is noticeably less obesity in young people in general and the feeling that they are more content, suffering less from computer-induced cabin fever and alienation from the rest of society.
That was a Party Political Broadcast from the Keep Britons Moving Party

But on the whole, there is more to be glad about in the UK than perhaps we realised before. Many people have said how much more friendly the Brits come across to visitors from abroad than in other nations. Although we think of ourselves as reserved, this seemed, in general, to be much more the case especially in Scandinavia. There are always notable exceptions, of course, and we have met some lovely people who prove the exception to the rule.

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We said goodbye to Richard, Hildegard and Madeleine in Switzerland headed by train for Salzburg. So borderless is the EU now that the we crossed over into Austria, then Lichtenstein, then Germany and back into Austria again without any formalities.

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The main reason for going to Salzburg was to see our friends from New Zealand, Rob & Clare. We had first met them in the early 80’s when we spent a year in NZ. Rob was a houseman and Clare a staff-nurse in Napier Hospital. They both subsequently came over to work in the UK - in Poole Hospital of all places, and we came down from Lancashire to see them, little knowing that we would ourselves end up in Dorset several years later. They moved back to Hamilton in NZ and we last saw them there in 2003. Other than Christmas cards, we don’t have much communication with them in between times, but it is one of those friendships which just picks up where it left off however long since the last meeting.
Rob was attending an anaesthetics conference in Salzburg and their eldest, Timothy had been travelling with them around Europe beforehand. Tim is having a gap year working in Cambridge at Kings College School, where the famous choirboys board. He is loving it in the UK and after doing a music degree back home, hopes to return for further studies.

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Clare does her Julie Andrews impression

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Emergency services alerted as busker springs leak...

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Talk about off-putting !

Salzburg is a beautiful city to walk around with lots of sites reminiscent of scenes from The Sound of Music. We found a great flat in the suburbs owned by a lady who left us fresh fruit from the garden and home-made tarts on the doorstep. We also took a trip up in a cable car to the highest mountain overlooking Salzburg and decided to walk back down. It’s true what they say - coming down can be much more arduous on the legs than going up - we needed to use Zimmer frames for a good week afterwards. Julie Andrews made it look easy but then she probably had a double.

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Posted by dikansu 03:36 Comments (1)

Alpine adventures

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There was a round of applause from the passengers as the small Gotland Airways plane made it through the turbulence to the runway at Hamburg Airport. At first, I thought it was the reindeer sandwich (true) I had eaten for lunch. (Yes, children - when Santa’s helpers are too old to keep up with the hectic pace on Christmas Eve, they are sent to the knackers yard and end up as the meat in Gotland Airways sandwiches.) Once we had scraped Sue off the ceiling, we disembarked and headed for the city centre. The storm we had flown through had reached there by then and we spent the next 6 hours dodging the showers waiting to catch the overnight train to Zurich.
The 2-berth sleeping cabins made clever use of all available space. They reminded me of those budget hotels in Tokyo for businessmen who’ve had too many sakes and missed the last train home. You slide into a capsule and are cocooned for the night - quite cosy in fact, once you get over the claustrophobia.
We awoke to beautiful sunshine outside Basle. There’s nothing quite so wonderful as being served coffee and croissants in your own cabin watching the Swiss countryside slide past the window.

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We were going to be staying with Richard & Hildegard who left Dorchester 2 years ago to move back near to where Hildegard was brought up. They live in a new apartment with a fantastic view over a lush, green fertile plain to a series of alpine mountain ranges far in the distance, but appearing much closer in the crystal-clear autumn sunshine. Richard & Hildegard are an inspiration in that they love the sourcing and preparation of good food rather than whatever the supermarket has in. They’ve picked the right place to live as there are roadside farmers’ fruit and veg stalls everywhere selling apples, pears, plums, tomatoes, peppers - all unmanned but with honesty boxes. Richard makes fresh bread daily as the base for their homemade jams and marmalade. There’s always something on the go for tonight’s or tomorrow’s meal, lovingly prepared with obvious enjoyment. Very much like the philosophy of our host family in Vaeroy, Norway.

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Giuseppe displays his magnificent potatoes and physique

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Camilla & Antonio's Cafe

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The jewel in the crown of their food sourcing is their allotment. Now allotments in Switzerland are quite different affairs from those in England. No small veg patch with a hut for storing the tools but beautiful wooden cabins which serve almost as second homes with flag poles to announce your presence. There’s a wonderful community spirit there with lots exchanging of gardening tips, gossip and produce. We were introduced to Giuseppe, Antonio and Camilla - all lovely Italians who had emigrated to Switzerland years ago but brought their love of home-grown food and cooking with them. Camilla insisted on interrupting her preparation of pickled aubergines for the winter to invite us all in for the best espresso in the Canton. Conversation was easily conducted in a mixture of Swiss-German, Italian and English but, most of all, with lots of fun and laughter. You don’t read a lot about this sort of life-style in the celeb magazines but I can’t think of anything better.

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During our week with them, Richard & Hildegard took us on various excursions, which included a barbecue above Lake Lucerne and a night in their daughter’s flat in Andermatt, half way up the St Gotthard Pass to Italy. There, we met a lady from a family who owned several hotels in the area for generations. Ostensibly, she ran an antique shop selling lots of amazing artifacts from the hotels but this was only really an excuse for her main hobby which was as a mine of information about the history of the St Gotthard. Merchants discovered the tortuous route centuries ago as one of the few ways through the Alps for transporting prosperous goods between central Europe and Italy. You can see glimpses of the original track from the modern road and it’s incredible to think of the lengths people went to in order to get the goods through. She even told us of how fresh trout was available all year round on the hotel menus for the gentry courtesy of men that carried the live fish in water-filled tanks on their backs all the way from Lake Constance, 90 miles away. Especially because of the harsh conditions in the winter, several hospices were established as long ago as the 13th century at various strategic points on the route. These were refuges for travellers but, with their obligatory priest and St Bernard dog, also had responsibility for locating and repatriating those who had perished in avalanches.

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There’s good news for would-be future fellow travellers - I’ve finally got a new T-shirt! This was courtesy of Richard & Hildegard’s lovely daughter, Madeleine, who works for UEFA, the organisation based near Geneva that organises the Champions’ League football tournament and has various items of promotional merchandise. Among Madeleine’s responsibilities on match days is signalling from the touchline to the referee the exact time the game should kick off so that all the companies who have bought the television rights can time when to finish their adverts. She has a special satellite-controlled watch to do this which, ironically for the country which is world-famous for time-keeping, is made by Casio. What next !

Posted by dikansu 05:47 Comments (4)

Basking in the Baltic

Gotland & Faro

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There was no getting away from it - all this Scandinavian air was turning him into a Ken Dodd look-alike ...

It was a 3 hour ferry journey from Stockholm to the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. The boat was packed and we were getting anxious that we might, again, find it difficult to find accommodation when we got there so we rang ahead and booked a room - big mistake. It turned out to be in the basement of a house, with all the charm of a World War 2 bunker but without any decorative wall-maps. A rapid rearrangement of campaign tactics was called for. Ingergerd in Stockholm had told us of the small island off the north-east tip of Gotland - Faro. It was where the Swedish film director, Ingmar Berman, had settled and died just 2 years ago. He was attracted by the stark but beautiful scenery which suited his dark and moody films.

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We had a night in a hostel just before the Faro ferry in what used to be an air-force camp on the edge of an airfield. Sleeping in the well-kept billets felt like we were in a Biggles novel, the only scramble being for breakfast in the canteen the next morning. We hired bikes as there were no buses on Fora and set off the next day.

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The island has a very strange beauty. Very flat with a lot of scrubby wasteland suddenly punctuated by lovely forests with purple heather between the trees which makes them seem like perennial bluebell woods. There are a few sandy beaches but most are of rocks and pebbles with wooden fishermens’ huts perched on the end of the barren land. And sheep - thousands of the grey-black Gotland breed which are housed in well-maintained thatched huts during the winter months.

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The huts have what look like a wooden crosses erected on the ridge but which pre-date Christianity and are more akin to a Celtic cross depicting the sun and the seasons. The other odd adornments are the long branches at the gable ends of the roofs which stick out at an angle. The story goes that these are to repel trolls from landing on them and, as everyone knows, trolls are the enemy of Thor, the God War. Thor’s murderous weapon is the lightening bolt so, in a round about way, these are akin to ancient lightening conductors.

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So far, we’ve managed to travel around by train, boat, bus or bike. Where possible, we wanted to avoid flying in order to experience more through the actual journey. However, the temptation of seeing flights to Hamburg from Gotland proved too much and so our carbon footprint is going to have to temporarily take a knock. It has allowed us more time in Faro before meeting the deadline of getting to our friends, Richard & Hildegard, in Switzerland before the end of the month. They’ve promise us breakfast on Sunday morning after our overnight train so best get cracking …


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Posted by dikansu 12:49 Comments (1)

Abba, Ikea, Saab, Volvo ...

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Jimi Hendrix was right when he said life on the road wasn’t always a bed of roses. I may not be reporting him word-for-word but you get my drift. Relying on public transport has its ups and downs. On the one hand, you are at the mercy of the rail, ferry or bus timetables and there may be only one service a day. You can be hanging around frustrated, wondering whether you’ll find any accommodation at the other end when you get there. But it also means that you slow down and discover things you wouldn’t have whilst waiting for the next leg of the journey. There’s time to contemplate things going on around you and philosophise over the important questions of life like, “I wonder why that man over there doesn’t make a feature of his nasal hair and make plaits of them?”

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One of the things Sue was most looking forward to in Sweden was their design and textiles. On our way south, we noticed that one of the famous linen weaving companies, Faxbo, had its factory and museum not too far off our route. It meant a bit of a deviation off the main rail-line to Stockholm to a town called Bollnas. A Swede Sue mentioned this to turned up his Nordic nose and said, “Why would you want to stay in Bollnas? They didn’t have enough things interesting enough so they had to build their own artificial lake.” A bit like coals to Newcastle. Indeed, at first sight, Bollnas did look dull. The town centre was a celebration in concrete. The Tourist Information lady was ever so helpful but you got the feeling that her talents were wasted through lack of raw materials to work with.
We booked in to a “hostel” which was actually a cosy small house with 3 bedrooms which we had to ourselves. Ingred, the owner, lived in the big house next door and was very welcoming. There was only one bus a day on the 15km route to the Flaxbo mill which didn’t leave much time to look around but she found out for us that the local camping site hired bikes. So off we set the next day.
The road was deceptively ever-so-slightly uphill most of the way and the bikes only had 3 gears with saddles of concrete left over from the town centre. This, plus the fact that we took a wrong turn and had an unnecessary extra 6km detour meant that a sense of humour failure pervaded the atmosphere by the time we finally got there. Thankfully, the restaurant was still open for lunch which turned out to be one of the best we had experienced so far. The complex was very well designed with the original mill and supporting buildings wonderfully restored in the beautiful river valley that supplied the water power and flax in the old days. The current factory was higher up the hill and employing just 8 people now. The exquisite linen cloth is still woven on traditional machines which were manufactured by James Mackie & Sons, Belfast - the firm that my Uncle Sammy worked for in the days when Belfast was king of the linen industry.

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From Bollnas, we headed to Stockholm by bus. Up until now, we had got used to just turning up at the Tourist Office and finding accommodation there and then. Stockholm was different. Everywhere in town was full. We spent ages ringing around various agencies, all to no avail. Park benches were beginning to look like the only option when, finally, at 6 in the evening, we found a cabin in a camp-site on the outskirts of the city. Not exactly luxurious but we had our own kitchen bathroom and bunk beds. It was a suburb of medium-rise flats with lots of immigrant families. Lots of football being played in the plentiful green spaces around. As elsewhere, everything was very clean and tidy. No graffiti in the pedestrian underpasses - instead, public art including large paintings by local children. I daresay that graffiti was quickly removed by council employees, but you got the feeling that there is more respect for public places that you wouldn’t get in an equivalent housing estate in the UK.

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Stockholm looked resplendent in glorious sunshine for the whole of our stay. With the inlets and canals of the Baltic Sea lapping the historical buildings with their many spires, it is a unique city.

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As soon as they started taking their kit off, you just knew there was going to be trouble ...

During our stay, we visited Ingegard. For many years now, she has been working as a nurse in the hospice on a voluntary basis for 3 months every year. Like the swallows returning from South Africa, we know that summer is here when Ingegerd’s Swedish-registered bright red Alfa Romeo Spider (convertible) appears in Dorchester every June. She lives in a beautiful apartment in Stockholm’s equivalent of Knightsbridge with many beautiful paintings surrounding the rooms. She is a very interesting lady - adventurous, well-travelled and with a real zest for life. We sat drinking tea and eating Digestive biscuits English-fashion whilst she brought us up to speed with various aspects of Stockholm life. It’s fascinating to visit someone you have known for a while in their own surroundings and be better able to see their life in context.

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We asked her about the many islands near to Stockholm which we might visit and she recommended Gotland and Faro to the south-east in the middle of the Baltic. So that’s where we will be reporting back from next.

Posted by dikansu 12:51 Comments (2)

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