Tag Archives: sea

Istria – or Slovenia and Croatia to you and me.

I’ve just returned from a trip to the Istrian Peninsula – and learnt a lot!  The Peninsula looks like a triangular pennant suspended in the Adriatic just below Trieste.  A horizontal strip of land at the top of the triangle now forms part of Slovenia and the rest belongs to Croatia. Our visit included some of the towns along the West coast of Istria from  Portorož down to Pula, with its stunning amphitheatre,  at the southern tip of the triangle.
So first  stop – Portorož (Port of Roses) This turned out to be an attractive strip of  hotels stretching in a ribbon along the seafront – no ‘beach’ as such, more pebbles and ladders straight down into the water – would bathers disappear without trace?  Well, no, the water only seemed to be waist deep in most places so perfectly safe, if a bit chilly!
Portorož has been established as a health spa since the late 19th century and boasts some fine architecture – one example of this is the Palace Hotel, built around 1912 in what was known then as the Austrian Riviera. It was extensively renovated around 2008 but retains its magnificent facade and is testimony to the popularity of the area as a health resort back in the day.  There is a real Art Deco vibe about the place and lots of magnificent black and white photographs on the hotel walls illustrate the grandeur of a bygone era, which inspired me to take some sepia photos on my walk along the sea front towards Piran.

Every hotel in Istria has a Wellness Centre, indeed Slovenians and Croatians place a lot of emphasis on healthy living. On our tour I struck lucky every time – my room was right next door to the Wellness Centre! This meant that, unlike other guests who had to make their way along endless hotel corridors and into and out of lifts dressed in their fluffy white hotel robes to get to these facilities, I only had to pop out of my room and round the corner and there it all was – the plunge pool, the sun terrace, the jacuzzi, the  salt water swimming pool and all the wondrous treatments on offer – like mud baths, Thai massage with myriad combinations of lovely infused oils, facials – etc!!
As a linguist I was also interested in trying to pick up some phrases in Slovenian and Croatian – and was encouraged by the fact that all the road signs were in Slovenian or Croatian first and then Italian, and sometimes German too.  As I speak Spanish, the hop over to Italian is not so far – but the next hop over to Slovenian proved more of a chasm – didn’t get much of a toe hold, although the girl welcoming us in to dinner tried to teach me a few things – ‘dobro jutro’ (good morning) ‘dobra večer’ (good evening) ‘volim te’ (I love you !! – that should come in handy!) ‘hvala ti’ (thank you)  ‘molim’ (please) ‘račun molim’ (the bill please) and on the hotel television I even caught an episode of Gardeners’ World with Monty Don dubbed in Croatian.  Even so, progress was slow!!
Back to being a tourist.
Piran is a small town at the top of the Istrian Peninsula. Its links with Italy through the salt trade are evident. On the walk into the town we came across some curious buildings which turned out to be disused salt warehouses, now being used as exhibition spaces and the like.  
Views out to sea from the city walls were beautiful and the town itself is very picturesque.



We were taken on a trip to the salt pans and a museum where we learnt how the salt panners lived and worked.

Our next trip was to Groznjan, which is inland. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t very good but we could still appreciate the beauty of the countryside and sample some delicious truffles and mistletoe brandy – not sure about the brandy! We also learned that Istria has several symbols – one is the goat, one is the dolphin and ……the other will come to me in a second!

The climate as you go further south turns more Mediterranean, with lots of vineyards and olive trees and for the first week of our holiday the weather was pleasantly warm – around 25º. But things changed dramatically en route to our second destination of Poreč – in fact, there was a terrific storm and when we got to the hotel they were busy mopping up – leaks had sprung everywhere – outside the main entrance a little man in waterproofs was standing knee deep in water, pumping out and inside they were juggling guests whose rooms had water running down the walls – mops and buckets everywhere!
Built along the lines of a giant Butlins holiday camp – I don’t think these hotels will stand the test of time – more ‘Lego’ in construction – definitely the cheap and cheerful end of the market.  This conglomeration was built around several lagoons just outside the town of Poreč, which, once the hordes of weekend visitors had died down, felt much more welcoming. As luck would have it, the storm (which was bad enough to make the national television news) had abated by the next day and we were able to see a  medieval fair which they had postponed – so ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ as they say.

Pula, in the far south of the peninsula, boasts a magnificent amphitheatre, with the usual gruesome history of gladiators and blood and gore. Nowadays, the arena is used as an open air concert venue, attracting the greats of the musical world such as Andrea Bocelli, Norah Jones, Tom Jones and José Carreras.  Personally, I found the Roman artifacts in the museum below the arena every bit as interesting as the arena itself.
We barely had time to see Pula and even in late September, towards the end of the holiday season it was very busy. The Venetian influence is evident in its buildings and I loved the little alley ways down to the water’s edge which seemed to drop straight into the sea. Definitely a place to go back to.


Winter Wonderland

Cheesy title but very apt! And I have the photos to prove it!
We set sail from Liverpool on a damp and drizzly November afternoon and two – no, almost three days – later docked in a town called Ålesund, just above the lumpy, expensive bit of Norway. We felt quite at home here:
church       fishnchips
mango     prettywoman

Don’t know whether this fisherman, sitting here


like a little garden gnome,  just happened to be here or he’d timed his visit to try and sell us some fish for tea.

Ålesund boasts some beautiful Art Nouveau architecture and was a gentle introduction of things to come.
But before all that, on Nov 11th the Cruise Director led a Remembrance Day Service invited us to join him to float a wreath of poppies out onto the ocean to remember all those who perished in the 1914-18 war. There is a great community spirit on board this ship – as the captain reminded us every day in his report,  you’re exposed to many dangers at sea and you must be able to depend on each other.
Onward and northward, but before we reached our next destination I had a chance to wander round our home for the next two weeks – the impressive cruise liner ‘Boudicca’.
A few specs: she has 462 cabins, length 205 metres, beam 25.20 metres, has a maximum speed of 18.5 knots, can accommodate 880 passengers and 364 crew and in charge of all this was Captain Lars Juel Kjeldsen, a Dane with a great sense of humour and whose intonation seemed to go up and down as much the ship. Most of the crew were from the Philippines and I didn’t envy the ones who had to brave the icy wind to paint, clean, drop or weigh anchor and do other ‘shippy stuff’ to maintain this immaculate vessel.
crew1 tiedup
We awoke on our 6th day on board to a view of Tromso, a bigger more industrial looking place
but where I would get the chance to do what I was most looking forward to – go husky sledding! dogs4We travelled to the Wilderness Centre to meet the dogs – all 300 of them, chained to their kennels on stilts, each with a flat, snow covered roof which they love to sit on – each sled had eight dogs – smaller than I’d expected but these were the marathon runners of the husky world. The lead dog is female (naturally!)  and as soon as they saw us they set up howling and barking in unison – excited to be off!!
dogs1They are very competitive animals and s they pulled us along – 2 people to a sled, plus musher of course, they tried to overtake each other whenever they could. Our musher ran alongside on the slightly uphill, straight bits –  to keep warm – or so he said! As we rounded the last bend the view was breath taking – a beautiful lake edged with snow capped mountains bathed in a surreal pink glow (it was around 11 am by then – must be the sunrise!)
dogs3That evening we had a taste of the indigenous Sami culture at a concert held in the Arctic Cathedral, a church whose exterior is reminiscent of the Sidney Opera House and whose interior boasts a striking triangular stained glass window.
The acoustics were exceptional and allowed us to enjoy the haunting sounds produced by just three people –  a female vocalist, a flautist and an organist.
By now we were experiencing minus zero temperatures and still going north. In Alta, which is about as far north as you can go in Norway , it was -9º and we were about 250 miles inside the Arctic Circle – brass monkey territory and no mistake!
Why were we there? to see the Northern Lights of course! and did we see them?  We sure did. In fact, those who braved the freezing temperatures on deck saw them four or five times in various colours and shapes without needing to disembark at all, but I think I speak for most people when I say we relied on the ship’s photographer for some decent shots of them.
Nevertheless, we set off to a Sami settlement, togged up to the eyeballs in umpteen layers of thermals, equipped with cameras and tripods to see if we could capture the magic. Our trip organiser promised a roaring fire inside a lavvo (big Sami tepee type tent), lots of hot chocolate and cake and …there the promises ended! He wouldn’t commit himself any further, the lights being a natural phenomenon and a bit on the unreliable side) but the trip was a resounding success and we oohhed and aahhed at the changing shapes above us in the night sky – absolutely stunning! But I still didn’t get any pictures – frostbite – yes!
Without the shelter of this tent and the fire and hot drinks there would have been a lot of unhappy campers!
Of course, in between trips we had delicious food prepared for us on board
BritishNightas well as some entertaining demonstrations and lectures – the chef responsible for these vegetable carvings said he gets his inspiration from cartoons.
And to work off all that food you could – if you so desired – jog, go to the gym (funny! never found that!) learn to dance, play deck games or go for a brisk walk.
Bit of a head wind here!
No swimming though! There was a pool but it was empty – ‘elf and safety, see?

Thankfully, on day 10 of our holiday we turned south, heading for the Lofoten Islands – I was beginning to see that Norway has an awful lot of tiny islands, some inhabited and some just with a flashing beacon on them so your unsuspecting seafarer doesn’t bump into them in the twilight!
The bigger ones are linked by bridges or tunnels and there are brightly painted houses on many of them where the Norwegians spend their summer holidays.
Warmed by the Gulf stream the Lofoten Islands felt much milder and – stop press! we saw no snow there! We were back to plus 9º – positively balmy!
Our last port of call was Kristiansund, on the mainland, where again the temperature was allegedly 9º,  but it felt a lot colder. Kristiansund’s wealth is based on the oil industry – and even an oil rig looks attractive in that strange pink and orange half light they call sunset.
Our last excursion was along the Atlantic Road – a spectacular stretch of highway which was constructed to link island communities and financed by tolls (that’s tolls, not trolls!) We experienced it when the water was calm but photos show that it can be an exciting journey sometimes.
It also provided an interesting toilet stop! The door is built into this unusual wall and is quite difficult to see at first.
toilet2 The Norwegians are also very eco-minded and a long path built around the hillside at the ‘pit-stop’ is made from recycled rubber.
StaveCrossOn our way home we visited a stave church – a traditional wooden church which takes its name from the load bearing posts used in its construction. Our guide, pictured below was wearing wrist muffs she had had made from the  coat of her elk hound woven with sheeps’ wool which along with three layers of thermal underwear,  she said kept her toasty warm – a must here as the church is not heated – they attribute its high state of preservation to that – and hand out blankets to visitors instead!
It was a beautiful sunny day, the views across the nearby lake were stunning and to top it all, a sea eagle gave us a fly past – apparently, people get them in their gardens like we get robins or finches!
StaveGuide StaveLake
A tradition I love on board a cruise ship is the sailaway. People gather at the bow (or the stern, depending on which has the more interesting view)of the ship to watch as the crew cast off and we all take in the surroundings one last time.  The last images are of Kristiansund and the sunsets that I saw along the way. The captain informed us that the ship would be clearing the bridge in the picture below by a couple of feet – it’s a shame we couldn’t be on the ship’s bridge to see it !
sunset1    yellowboat