Drive Around The World (Australia)

One family, one car, one year, one planet

Menaggio, Italy – Split, Croatia, Day 209-219, 31 October – 10 November, 2008

Menaggio, Italy – Split, Croatia

Day 209-219

31 October – 10 November, 2008

1,753km

Total: 23,513km

Soundtrack:

‘Tiamo’ – Umberto Tozzi

‘Ciao, Baby’ – Lynne Randell

‘Buona Sera’ – Louis Prima

‘Lido Shuffle’ – Boz Scaggs

‘Nights in Venice’ – The Saints

‘Italian Plastic’ – Crowded House

‘Down the Coast Highway’ – Stan Ridgway

‘Split’ – Klapa Iskon

‘Rest Of The Day Off’ – Neil Finn

DB: The snow in Fribourg, Switzerland, had given up trying to impress us and again returned to rain by the time we steered the truck out towards the highway. While it made driving marginally easier, the rain iced up on the front of the truck. Still, the roads were relatively clear.

We had intended on taking back roads through to Italy but this meant negotiating the Alps, which meant more snow and a lot more time. So, the freeway it was, in all its howling, treacherous glory. Again, trucks trundled along at 80km/h, while cars screamed past at 130km/h or more. With a fully laden truck and rain icing up the windscreen I was in no hurry, but again the choice was either crawling behind an articulated lorry or being bawled out by a mad Swiss driver (or French, Italian, German, Austrian, etc) in too much of a hurry.

Still, we were warm and had some nice tunes on the stereo. We dealt with a number of short tunnels through mountains until it was time to negotiate the massive Saint Gotthard tunnel in all it’s winding seventeen kilometre glory. As regular readers will note, Sandy don’t do tunnels all that well. So, dosed up on some fine Swiss chocolate, we cruised through.

Sandy stopped clenching the road atlas and maps quite soon after we popped out the end of the tunnel, allowing blood to flow back to her knuckles, but not for long. We had climbed enough in altitude while in the tunnel for the rain to once again turn to snow. In fact, blasting out of the end of the tunnel was like landing in another world. All of a sudden the earth was white and rather foreboding. It was here that we had planned to get off the main motorway and cruise the back-roads through idyllic Swiss villages, yet immediately the roads were almost indistinguishable from the white fields on either side. The options were to continue in four-wheel-drive at a rather measured pace, hoping we would find our way along the actual road and not ploughing into an unsuspecting heard of cows, or swing back to the freeway that was only wet, not white. We chose the latter.

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(Pic: The daunting snowy back roads of Switzerland)

Finally, as we approached Italy, we were able to get off the kamikaze motorway and head towards fabled Lake Como on a narrow, twisty lakeside road that was a delight, despite the rain. The road was more like a posh driveway to a fancy villa than a thoroughfare, but soon enough we stumbled upon the Italian border.

And there are some things we love about the European Union, such as bored border guards simply waving us through instead of the giving us the third degree. Our Victorian (state of Australia, not a reference to our desire to wear perfumed wigs and a ruff) number (licence) plates raised a couple of eyebrows, but on we went. Bongiorno Italia!

Onwards along the shore of Lake Como and eventually into the town of Menaggio. We often try listening to local radio for a general feel for a place, and sometimes we stumble across gems like FIP Radio Paris (http://www.radiofrance.fr/chaines/fip/endirect/), but Italy was a struggle. It seems that this is a last bastion of the power ballad. We had hoped to find some old-time Italian classics, maybe even an opera, but everything was big, angry power chords and screaming in falsetto. Oh, the pain! For us and for them! Instead we reverted to Louis Prima on the Personal Listening Device. The rain continued to hum, but the view from our room of the lake was still special. We huddled under umbrellas as we explored town and, after a coffee at a lakeside café, we found a lovely bar in the centre of the old town for an aperitif before dinner. It was here that, for a rather unspecific reason, I became quite sad about the passing of my grandfather. It may have been the music, or maybe the venue in which he would easily have been playing his accordion, or maybe the relentless rain that ran down the windows.

Soon enough, after my family cheered me up, we indulged in a sumptuous feast of pizza, pasta and vino rosso, and headed home. We intended to have fun in Italy.

Our choice to not risk the back-roads in Switzerland and the Alps in general was vindicated, as staying at the same hotel in Menaggio were an Australian couple who told us they had been ‘stranded’ in St. Moritz for three days while waiting for the snow to abate. It can be tough for some…

Again, a mixture of freeways and by-ways took us to Florence via lunch in Bologna. And again, the benefit of road travel was obvious as we simply headed towards the centre of town, parked the truck and briefly explored some of the lanes and alleys before settling on some pizza and panini. Then, back the way we came and on to Florence. Sandy and I recalled the couple we met in Europe many years ago who told us about the hours they spent trying to drive to Florence, only to be confronted by signs directing them to “Firenze”. Confused and annoyed, they kept turning back and never found their way there. I wonder if they have since found their way…

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(Pic: Negotiating the narrow lanes of Bologna)

As is our wont we searched for accommodation with a kitchen, secure parking and internet access, and we scored all three only a short bus ride from the old city.

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(Pic: Sandy, Raffy and Maddy at the Duomo, Florence)

Even though this was supposedly the ‘off’ season, we needed to jostle with hoards of European and American tourists to get a glimpse of some of the famous sites – the impossibly decorative Duomo cathedral, the souvenir hell that is the Ponte Vecchio and other famous piazzas. We marvelled at Michelangelo’s supreme statue of David, in all its big hands and small schmeckeld glory in the Galleria dell’Accademia, and explored the Jewish museum. Like many Italian museums, though, most objects were displayed in a somewhat ad hoc manner with poor visibility and little context or description. The grand synagogue is still a beauty, despite being pillaged and damaged by Nazi forces during the war and drenched during a later flood.

I also got to catch up with Alessandra, a colleague who has maintained contact since before we left. We enjoyed dinner with her and her family and later she and I spoke about our respective work challenges and successes. I hope to be able to continue supporting her plans in the future.

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(Pic: With Alessandra, Luciano and family after dinner)

We were also forced to confront the spectacle of groups of Roma people. Maddy and Raffy wanted to know why the women wore long, floral skirts, striped socks and gaudy, strappy heeled sandals, and why they were begging. Sandy and I didn’t really know the answers, but it provided us with fodder for some good conversations about ethnicity, diversity and, importantly, persecution.

We also discovered that perhaps the Italians need some encouragement to consider prevailing issues of conservation. At the local supermarket we not only encountered an almost mindless obsession with placing everything in plastic, but also the offer of complimentary plastic gloves in the event that – god forbid – your bare skin should come into contact with raw produce. While our standard practice is to shun plastic for our own reusable bags, the person at the checkout was absolutely horrified when faced with a load of unbagged fruit and veggies. Her comments were in Italian and no doubt laden with unkind references to my mother, but we survived the onslaught to shop another day.

We were also able to have a couple of interesting conversations about Italian politics, and how having more than fifty governments in fifty years impacts on the broader community. No sooner did people shake their heads at the glaring concern around the conflict of interest of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s ownership of a substantial chunk of the media in this country than news came of his comments regarding US Presidential candidate Barak Obama’s “suntan.” Mamma Mia!

The drive to Venice was always going to be interesting, given the city is built on an archipelago of swampy marshland. We knew that parking in Venice itself, let alone driving, was nigh-on impossible, except for a few large and somewhat distant parking lots, which didn’t fill us with a whole bunch of optimism, so instead we chose an old hotel on the island of Lido, to which we shuffled.

We negotiated the industrial town of Mestre and found our way on to the Via della Liberta bridge to the Tronchetto port, and then on to the ferry. A few sideways glances at this strange vehicle (yes, it’s the vehicle that is strange, not its inhabitants) aside, we were able to get our first glimpses of Venezia in the fading four o’clock light. In fifteen minutes we were driving off the ferry and very soon into the driveway of our hotel in the dark.

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(Pic: The ferry to Lido, Venice)

OK, the beds were lumpy and the promised internet access didn’t work the entire time we were there, but we were blissfully happy. Over the next few evenings we found increasingly better meals for dinner in Lido town and spent the days wandering the mesmerising lanes and alleys of Venice, matched with home-made sandwiches for lunch to replenish the body and soul.

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(Pic: Venice)

There were a few specific sites we wished to visit, but it was the act of packing away the map and just wandering around – particularly in districts usually avoided by other tourists – that made our time here so special. We didn’t succumb to being right royally fleeced for a paddle on a gondola, and the famed Bridge of Sighs, or Ponte dei Sospiri, had huge advertising hoardings on either side, portraying it as more of a gimmick than a thing of beauty. Still, the Basilica di San Marco and Palazzo Ducale were duly impressive, and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection was not only fascinating for the extraordinary collection of modern art but also for a glimpse at what living the high-life in 1950s Venice may have been like.

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(Pic: More Venice)

We also spent some time wandering around what was the Venice Jewish ghetto – the world’s oldest and still today a centre for local Jewish culture. We were told the word ‘ghetto’ was coined from an old Italian slang word, and we spent some time reflecting on 500 years of Jewish presence and the area’s role during various times of incarceration, deportation and persecution. A number of old doorways had visible scars from ‘mezuzot’ (small containers often found fixed to doorways of Jewish premises) since ripped from the stone, and stood for a while at the landing next to the nearby canal where, not so long ago, Jewish people were forced to board boats that would take them to depraved incarceration and death.

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(Pic: The old Jewish Ghetto, Venice)

What was vividly apparent, though, was the small community’s capacity to reclaim the area and revive it as a centre of celebration and freedom.

Venice is a city we could – and maybe will – spend weeks or months exploring one day, but no sooner had we found our bearings that we prepared to continue on our journey.

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(Pic: The Bridge of Sighs – really!)

Initially, in the good old days of pie-in-the-sky dreaming we had planned to visit such legendary European cities as Prague and Budapest on our way east to Turkey, but again time conspired against us. Not only that, but we four, individually and collectively, were getting a bit weary. Maddy and Raffy particularly were not backwards in coming forwards, telling us that the constant movement and changes of location were taking its toll. Maddy had come down with a cold that would eventually afflict the rest of us, so, between plans to reduce the mileage and provide a bit more stability, we decided to cut back a bit on the time spent on the road and invest a bit more of it in particular locations.

And so, instead of heading north to go south and east, we just went south-east.

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(Pic: On the way to Trieste, Italy)

Next stop was Trieste. We had assumed that this final frontier of Italian sovereignty was another quaint, small town, and I was interested in this place that was the embarkation point for my father as a boy when, after years of trawling around Europe and north Africa, he and his parents would head for the distant and exotic Australia.

Trieste turned out to be yet another large yet grand and inviting locale, with history, culture and architecture to keep us occupied for days. Alas, like many such towns, accommodation in its centre was expensive and provided no car parking. A kind tourist information worker spent a great deal of time covering the options and finally booked a double room in an historic building just outside Trieste in Miramare. The more time clicked on, the fewer tourists were around, meaning that many restaurants and hotels had simply shut up shop for the winter. Still, even though our repast options were few, we found ourselves in a swanky restaurant looking over the sea, and we essentially had the place to ourselves.

From Trieste we bade farewell, au revoir, ciao, arrividerchi, aufweidersehen and “tschüss” to western Europe and prepared to embark on the east. We had, in truth, tired a little of western Europe’s large and often polluted cities, psychotic motorways, madding crowds of dazed tourists and an exchange rate that had its arm around our neck and its foot planted sturdily in the middle of our back. We yearned for a bit more adventure and discovery, and were keen to immerse ourselves in countries and cultures that had until recently been hidden and locked away.

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(Pic: Hello Croatia!)

Heading south-east from Trieste we crossed briefly into Slovenia – more bored border guards raised begrudgingly from their collective doze – and immediately the landscape changed dramatically. Small, rustic villages, stone barns and houses with wisps of grey smoke from chimneys, narrow roadways interrupted by clunky tractors. The roads were mostly deserted and we had the distinct feeling of exploration and discovery once again. And, it occurred to us that by leaving Italy we had left the last traditionally ‘western’ nation before we got home again.

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(Pic: From our window, Lovran, Croatia)

In a short time, another country. This time, Croatia – a country steeped in history and conflict that is frighteningly recent. Perhaps symbolically, the sun came out after we badgered another tourist information worker for suggestions for a place to stay for a couple of days. He eventually pointed us towards the town of Lovran, on the Kvarner peninsula, which satisfied the eyes and the soul. Perched right on the edge of the ‘Adriatic Riviera’, Lovran provided a small old city of twisting lanes and stairways, a number of small bars, cafes and restaurants serving fresh fish and seafood, and an old stone boardwalk that seemed to continue the length of the country. Maddy’s cold had well and truly settled in, so we didn’t attempt anything more adventurous than walk a little, eat and rest.

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(Pic: Beautiful Lovran)

The Hotel Park’s owner, Tony, had lived in Australia for twenty years and returned after the most recent war, and provided us with his mobile phone number in case we needed anything while in Croatia. We were finding that the locals were as warm and friendly as the big blue skies reflected in the impossibly clear Adriatic Sea.

We were introduced to current conversations about Croatia’s potential inclusion in the European Union in two years’ time, and the substantial movement internally to reject it. A local response is along the lines of ‘What do we need it for?’ As many Croatians argue, they have a good life with a reasonably strong economy and are not shut out from the rest of the world any more.

Croatians are particularly concerned about foreigners buying up idyllic villas overlooking the sea for use as holiday homes, forcing locals out for lack of comparable access to funds. At the same time, it seems there is little shortage of locals willing to part with their crumbling stone cottages they don’t really want in exchange for some serious hard currency. EU membership is dependant on, amongst other rules both important and seemingly frivolous (how bent a cucumber is allowed to be?), a commitment to a free market economy, meaning anyone should be able to participate. In fact, it is illegal for Italians to own property here. It seems that there is serious concern about the quiet invasion of Croatian soil that could, it is argued, irrevocably damage local culture and tradition – a local description reads “The Mediterranean as it once was” – with the memory of the resistance to armed invaders from the other direction still very fresh in local minds.

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(Pic: On the way to Split)

We dragged ourselves away from this little bit of paradise and embarked on what we would consider one of the great coastal drives of the world. We’ve experienced Victoria’s Great Ocean Road and California’s Big Sur, but the drive along the Dalmatian coast was extraordinary. A beautifully paved road climbed and fell gradually along the cliffs, and wound its way through and past small fishing villages and towns in the glittering sunshine. We stopped in Senj (we thought maybe it was French for ‘monkey’, but maybe not) for lunch and a brief meander and continued on to the historic port town of Split.

We spent slightly longer in the truck than originally planned, as some of the initial drive from Lovron towards Rjeka was spent diverting around the coast on an almost deserted motorway. Still, once we got back to the coast we were very much rewarded, and we planned to stay in Split for three days. “That was one of the best drives we’ve done in ages,” Maddy remarked.

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(Pic: Split overwhelms)

The apartment we booked was on the doorstep of Split’s fabled old city and Diocletian’s Palace. We would spend almost all our time exploring the remnants of the enormous Roman palace that has, over time, been adapted and transformed into a centre of culture, commerce and beauty. Maddy and Raffy were particularly happy to stay put in a place where we could prepare our own meals and that felt like home for a while. Adding to the cultural experience was the restaurant kitchen across the lane where, at around 5am every day, cooks would arrive to begin preparing the day’s goulash or variant thereof. The smell of frying onions wafting through the old timber shutters of our elevated flat added to our sense of being in a very different, but somehow very inviting and familiar place.

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(Pic: A view from our apartment, Split)

A wet night gave way to a dazzling and balmy day which was spent roaming the Roman splendour of the palace precinct and dodging the posses of sleeping stray cats that would often camp out around restaurant and café kitchen doors looking for scraps. An open-air produce market provided cheese, vegies and fruit, and I scored a couple of second-hand watches from another market nearby. We also trawled the local fish market and bought some lovely fillets for dinner. All of the fish and seafood was caught off the coast here only a few hours ago.

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(Pic: Exploring Split, Croatia)

Again, we sought out remnants of a local Jewish community, and were thrilled to find a small synagogue tucked away within the palace precinct and up a flight of stairs. There, centuries old benches, ‘aron hakodesh’, ‘bimah’ and torot,  were beheld. In a nice twist, the ark was built into the western wall of the Roman palace. Our guide told us that this was the third oldest synagogue in eastern Europe. While a traditionally orthodox religious presence had not existed for quite some time, the small local Jewish community met there every Friday night for prayers – transliterated in Croatian and nobody could read Hebrew – and a traditional meal. We were extremely tempted to extend our stay in Split just to join in but again the clock ticked, and we had to move on.

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(Pic: The moon over Split)

We also walked a long, steep and winding path up to the old Jewish cemetery. Sandy and I have often wandered around old cemeteries to get a bit of a feel for the history of a place, and the Split cemetery satisfied this criteria. Not only was there evidence of a community centuries old, but also a rash of burials in the early 1940s spoke of a time of significant hardship and persecution. Still, perhaps all’s well that ends well: while the old chapel is now a bar, the cemetery still has the best view of the city possible.

SK: We reflected on being part of a people, a community steeped in migration and dispersal. From the Jewish cemetery in Penang, Malaysia to the cemetery in Split; the names are different, as was the lifestyle and experiences, but there is something intangible which unites us with both places. 

After a steady diet of pizza and pasta for the last week, we were impressed when Maddy and Raffy took with gusto to the change in food as well as country. Enjoying and experimenting, they have worked through numerous varieties of squid, fish, mussels, scampi and other delights from the Adriatic. The Split fish market presented them with a vivid, and at times overwhelming, panorama of life beyond the waves. We admired the colours and textures, and marvelled at the diversity of sea life destined for the table.

DB: Like much of southern Europe, this area of Croatia still upholds a most noble pastime of the siesta. Most businesses would close for a couple of hours at lunchtime, lending an even more sedate sentiment to life in general. We reflected on a lifestyle that involved learning and working within walking distance of your home, of time being marked by the local church bells, of eating foods grown, caught and sold locally, all within sight of a landscape of significant beauty and at a pace that demanded time to stop and gossip with friends and acquaintances. No wonder so many people want to live around here.

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(Pic: Onwards to Dubrovnik…)

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4 Comments»

  Wally & Eleanor wrote @

Hi D S M R I just read recently about the Bridge of Sighs Do you know why it was called that? I spoke to johnnie yesterday and he was quite excited about his forthcoming trip. Why is your blog written down one side ? How is Maddy I hope her cold is better. As I mention in jon faine blog I feel like I am sitting next to you in the truck enjoying every mile of your travels A big hug and a kiss to Maddy and Raffy Love you all Wally & Eleanor.

  Nene wrote @

Hi kids, loved reading your latest news, really felt as if I was with you driving through those narrow snow-covered roads, walking through lovely Venice, exploring the sights of each little town … And the photos are great!

We’ve got big storms coming over the weekend so hope your weather is better than Melbourne’s.

Love, Mum

  David Taylor wrote @

Wow Guys, this would have to be the best blog so far, beautifully written, & photo’s, just magnificent. Glad Maddy is better, & also glad you are slowing down a bit, not just for the kids, but you also. Having followed all of this, I’ve often thought, “just stop & smell the roses”. I know that sounds like an old cliche, but true.
Glad you’re all sounding so well & happy.
Luv & peace, David.
We are supposed to be having storm & tempest this weekend, so will keep fingers crossed. It has turned very cold again, after the mini heat wave, a couple of weeks ago. Talk soon.

  Hilary wrote @

saw anna on sunday at a book launch and she reminded me to keep up with your latest. i must say the photo of florence quite caught me with a sharp moment of nostalgia. you do convey the rather oppressive feeling of too much speed and pressure in EU europe (possibly also linked to the weather?), and the relief of a kinder, slower pace of life off its edge.

then i think about the kids toughing it out, and knowing that their memories of this year will be full of their own collection of snapshots.


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