Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Hi from Slovenia 21.8.11

Dober Dan (Hello) from Slovenia this time!! 
Slovenia is a small Eastern European Country which is centred within the borders of Italy, Austria, Hungary & Croatia.  This is our third night here in ‘Ribcev Laz’, which is a small village nestled alongside the gorgeous Lake Bohinj.  As we step out of our very nice “Four Star” Hotel we are about 10 metres from the Lake.  This is the life!!! 

We arrived at Lake Bohinj on Friday and after settling into our hotel, we wandered down to the Lake and went for a short swim.  Well, not sure if you can call my ‘effort’ a swim.  If slowly edging into the freezing cold water (whilst complaining about the cold with each step) and then standing still for fear that moving may stir the small warm patch (or less cold patch??) that I was standing in can be called swimming, then swimming it was!!!  Needless to say, it was very refreshing. 
That short swim (?) somehow seemed to create a monster appetite for us all (not sure how, but it did?), so that night we enjoyed the largest pizza I have ever seen.  And yes, that was a pizza each, not a shared one!!!  We all left a small piece behind which I am sure was more to save the embarrassment of actually being able to eat a pizza so large, rather than because we were too full!  I was simply just keeping pace with Melinda and Ros???
The next day, we headed off on a day trip to Lake Bled, the most well known and beautiful lake in Slovenia. The Lake has a small Island Church in the middle of it, which we had to catch a canopied rowing boat to get to it.  We then walked up a 99 step staircase which led to the Church.  Inside the church there was a 15th Century Wishing Bell hanging from a small tower.  Legend held that if you rang the bell to honour the Blessed virgin, you would have your wishes granted.  Well, I wasn’t going to miss out on this opportunity, so I pulled on the long rope and rang that bell long enough to make sure I squeezed in two wishes!!!  Will let you know at the end of my trip if they come true J.  Actually, it was pretty amazing as we could hear the bell ringing most of the day from wherever you were around the Lake. 

We then made our way to Bled Castle which was on a sheer cliff overlooking the Lake.  Just gorgeous views! 

Then we caught a little steam train (with the cutest little carriages) which drove us the 5 km’s around the lake.  Don’t worry after we had worked out which was the most picturesque side of the lake we then walked half way around it taking photos.  But we obviously had to reward ourselves with gelati at the end of our walk. I thought I should at least try and compare how Slovenia matched up with the gelati’s of Italy.  Disappointingly, it didn’t even come close!! 
Today we made more of an effort to work off our breakfast, which continues to be a main meal of at least 4 courses!!!  We decided to walk half way around Lake Bohinj and then up 1000 steps (well, that’s what it felt like) to get to a waterfall.  We worked out we walked about 10 km’s, and with all the photo stops, it took us 5 and a half hours!!!  The girls (Melinda & Ros…I am so blaming them), decided that again we should be rewarded for our efforts.  This time the reward was a triple chocolate/vanilla/nut Sundae!!!  I could so feel the cream just sliding down into my thighs!!!  

That actually ended up being our late lunch.  For afternoon tea, I found the snickers chocolate bar I had to buy to be able to use the toilet at the cafe near the waterfall. I almost gagged using the free port-a-loo at the lake side earlier today, so I would have paid anything to use a normal one. And obviously, the chocolate was a bonus!!  I tried to convince Mel & Ros that the snickers bar could really be considered to be a ‘health’ bar, due to the amount of nutritious crunchy nuts, but they weren’t so sure??
Now, winding back a little, the last time I wrote I was in Prague.  As I mentioned previously, I spent 4 nights in Prague with Ros.  We loved Prague!!  Our hotel was just a short walk to the old town square which was so full of character (and shops J). We caught up with Adriana over two mornings, where she guided us around the streets of Prague to see some of the main attractions (Prague Castle, The old Town Hall, Astronomical Clock, the Charles Bridge, numerous churches and much more).   Gosh, we got quite the work-out.  She was like a drill sergeant.  We almost had to run to keep pace with her.  But she was so lovely.  She even bought me a small book all about Prague.  Was great to see someone so proud of their city.

The rest of the time Ros and I wandered around photographing the beautiful coloured buildings and wandering through the shops.  Actually, we had no choice but to visit a number of shops, as it rained for half the time we were there.  They have no eaves on the buildings in Europe, so each time it rains, the only sensible place to shelter is actually in the shops!!  Especially when there was a huge billboard outside one of the lovely looking buildings which advertised that there were 200 shops within!!  Obviously giving us plenty of shopping entertainment to wait out the storm!!
Ros and I also thought it would be a lovely idea to go a dinner cruise to see the river view of all the beautiful sights.  Our booking included a free transport to the wharf and a lovely buffet meal.  All was going splendidly until again it started raining.  Initially we were thinking how lucky we were that we had positioned ourselves under an awning on the front deck of the boat.  Then the boat docked and we ran to the waiting minibus…to find that the free transport was only TO the boat, NOT back to the hotel.  What the???  We didn’t know where we were?? HHmmm…stranded on a wharf, somewhere in Prague, in the rain, with no umbrellas!!!  That about covered it!!  We had to run to a building where we saw others sheltering, then ask for directions to work out where we were (lucky I had a small map with me) then walk all the way back to the hotel in the rain.  We very quickly understood why this dinner cruise was a little cheaper than the others!!
Then it was time for Ros and I to catch a train to Vienna (Austria) to meet up with Melinda.  We spent 3 nights in gorgeous Vienna.  We certainly made the most of our first day together.  After a “power breakfast” which even out-did the breakfast offered in Prague, we headed off at 8am to the Markets.  After a little shop of one small purchase (a delightful little pink scarf which I am sure will get a lot of use in Cairns??), we then headed to the Cathedral.  Thankfully for the ‘power’ breakfast as we had to climb 300 steps to get to the top tower of the Cathedral!!  We then caught the underground train and visited a number of famous sights (Hundert Wasser coloured buildings & Schross Scholobrunn Palace and gardens). 

And after what felt like 15km’s of walking around the streets of Vienna, we made it back to our hotel and rushed to get ready to go and see the Vienna Mozart Orchestra.  Was quite amazing as everyone in the Orchestra was dressed in historical costumes.  Melinda loved it.  Ros and I decided that Opera & classical music wasn’t quite our thing, but the experience was worth the small fortune we paid to go and see it.
The next day we saw the Lipizzaner horses in training (the famous white horses that put on shows of classical horsemanship).   They were the most gorgeous creatures! And then it was decided that due to our extensive work-out the previous day, we would treat ourselves to a leisurely day of shopping! 
Now, Carmelina had emailed me to explain that it was the tourist thing to do to attend one of Vienna’s famous Cafés to taste their famous cakes.  Well, at the slight mention of this, Ros and Melinda’s eyes lit up and we were seated in Mozart’s Café ordering chocolate cake....before I even finished the sentence!!! 

And then to complete a successful day of shopping (which means we all bought something), we ended the evening with a horse and carriage ride around the streets of Vienna.  Just beautiful!!

And that brings me to the end of this email.  Tomorrow we head to Ljubljana, which is the Capital of Slovenia. 
Oh, just one last thing of note.  Melinda and Ros have decided to travel with backpacks for this trip.  Ros arrived in Prague with 11.9 kg’s.  Melinda arrived in Vienna with 9.6 kg’s.  When I flew from Florence to Prague my suitcase weighed in at 22.5kg’s (after having now left a small (?) bag of things in both Sienna & Rome…which I need to collect before flying out of Italy in October)!!!  I may have to confine my purchases to small (shiney?) items or soon I will have to ship home a small crate!!! Oh dear…..
Hope all is well in your corner of the World.
Love, Joy xxxxxxx

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Hi from Prague 13.8.11

Hi all,
When I returned from Morocco I realized I had reached the midpoint of my 6 months journey.  Yes, unbelievable to think that three months had already gone by and I had another three to go.  I reflected back on the first day I arrived in Rome back in April and remembered how excited I had been.  This time, initially I must admit I felt a tinge of homesickness.  But it didn’t last long.  I decided that I was going to treat the next 3 months as if I was only just beginning “Part 2” of my incredible adventure.
And very soon I was reminded why this holiday has been so amazing!  The night I arrived back in Rome, I went for drinks with the gorgeous young photographer Carlo that I met during my very first week in Rome.  I could talk to him for hours. His passion for photography is such an inspiration.  I made him promise to take me on a photo shoot before I return home. 
The very next morning, I was having breakfast at the B&B and started talking to a wonderful American lady, Kerry (32 years).  We got along instantly, and ended up spending the entire day wandering around Rome together trying to find some famous crypt (which took us about 2 hours and 10 km’s of walking to find it) and chatting over lunch and dinner.  She was on a kind-of-find-yourself quest after splitting from her long time boyfriend, quitting her job, and losing her father from a heart attack last year.  She was in her third and final month of her trip, and as you can imagine, we (and her too??) had heaps to talk about!! She was just lovely! 
And how lucky is this….she ended up taking a day trip to Siena when I was there and we again spent the best part of the day wandering around the sights of Siena (I was the tour guide) and having another wonderful day together.  Gosh, I am blessed on this trip!!
After Rome, I stayed in Siena for 5 nights and caught up with a number of friends I had made since coming over.  I so loved the familiarity of being back in Siena.  I met up with the teachers from the Italian language school (yes, of course Mauro was one of them), and Vincenzo and Mirko who I had previously met in Siena.  I just read that line back and I wondered whether you were thinking that they had the most unfortunate names in Italy…Mauro, Vincenzo & Mirko??? What were their mothers thinking!!!!
I went back to ‘my’ hairdresser in Siena and had a cut and colour again.  It was so great.  I walked into the salon and she not only remembered me but even remembered my name!!!   The first thing she asked was if I got my visa sorted!!!   I also bought myself a good Dan Brown novel and managed to actually relax and do very little except try and recover from my cold.  I even squeezed in three afternoon naps and…hhmmm….plenty of pasta, pizza and gelati (to obviously build up my strength again)!!!
After Siena, I made my way to Lucca for 3 nights.  Lucca is this amazing little Tuscan town and is the only city in Italy that is completely surrounded by walls.  I had heard so much about how wonderful Lucca was, and the town certainly lived up to my expectations.  There were walkways along the top of the walls and the thing to do in Lucca was to hire a pushbike and ride along the walkways and through the gorgeous cobble stoned streets.  So of course that was what I did!  I have the chaffing on my butt to prove that I hired a pushbike on two of the days I was there!  I am yet to decide what was worse…the camel or the bike!!
The second afternoon I was there, I was sitting on a park bench having lunch when another American lady, Noreen (62 years) sat down beside me.  No surprise, we ended up in conversation which lasted about 4 hours that day and then spent the whole next day exploring Lucca together.  She was one of the most interesting people I have met so far on this trip.  However, I don’t know that I could afford to spend too much more time with her, as every time I showed her something I liked in a shop…she convinced me to buy it!!!!  I scored a lovely dress from the Markets and a very unique silver & Murano glass ornament (which I eyed off for 2 days before she persuaded me that it would be a very special reminder of Lucca? She should be working in the markets in Morocco!!).  Gosh, my suitcase is fast becoming a storage cell for items that bring many fond memories of these lovely towns I am visiting!!
After Lucca, I caught a train to Florence and spent one night there before flying out to Prague (Czech Republic). I was told that the taxi ride from my accommodation to the Airport would take about 20 minutes.  I was a little nervous about almost missing the plane to Morocco, so I allowed 40 minutes to be on the safe side and booked it for 7am.  However, my over-excited taxi driver took only 8 minutes!!!  After driving through three red lights and at a pace like we were in a Formula one race (passing every car in sight and almost colliding with a truck), he said to me that he could still drive like that at this time of the morning??? What made him think I wanted him to still eludes me!!!
Anyway, I made it safely to Prague and was very excited to find that Ros (My new travelling partner from Tasmania) had booked us into a wonderful hotel in the Centre of town….especially as we are here for 4 nights.  Oh My God, I LOVE PRAGUE!!!!!!!! My eyes and mouth were wide open in awe as I walked around last night.  It would have to be the most beautiful city of my trip so far. 
Will add more about Prague in my next email, as I better head off now and get some sleep.  We are being picked up by Adriana (the lady I met in Venice) in the morning.  She is going to give us a private tour of Prague.  Can’t wait!
Oh, one last thing, I have never seen a breakfast spread as huge as the one this morning.  Just doesn’t seem right to be eating chocolate cake as part of breakfast…but it was there in front of me…and must be deemed to be the “Prague” thing to do…so of course I had to eat it…along with the ……..other stuff……
As always, hope everything is great with you!!
Love Joy xxxxxxxxxxxx

Friday, 5 August 2011

Morocco Adventure


I am back!!! Did you miss me?? Did you wonder whether I tossed away my police uniform for a ‘jellaba’ (long sleeved ankle length flowing dress) and rode off into the sunset on a camel with a Moroccan Donatello by my side?????  Not likely!!!  My thighs are still sore from the one hour 45 minute camel ride into the Sahara Desert almost 2 weeks ago!!! 
However, I had such a wonderful time in Morocco and feel so fortunate that I have experienced their unique culture; visited their cities, Mosques & Kasbah’s; delighted in the scenery of the mountains and small villages; and basked in the serenity of the desert (which fortunately had a real toilet set up in a tent…for Princess Joy).  Kumuka tours called it the “Magical Morocco Safari” and it really was!
Our tour took us from Casablanca – Essaouira – Marrakech – Ouarzazate – Todra Gorge – Merzouga sand dunes – Midelt – Fes – Chefchaouen – Tangier – Rabat – Casablanca (and many small villages in between - for 15 days.
We had a Moroccan tour guide who was extremely passionate about his country and was like a walking history book.  And our toothless bus driver was incredible.  He could navigate himself out of any traffic jam in between donkeys, pushbikes, motor bikes, horse & carts…just amazing.  Oh my God, the traffic was worse than Italy in some towns.  Each time we came up to a roundabout, two lanes turned into 4 lanes as everyone just merged onto the roundabout and sounded their horns demanding right of way.
In the larger cities, the family vehicle appeared to be either a motor bike or Van/Ute and the goal was to fit as many people onto it or into it as you could!!  

In the smaller villages, the most common form of transport was by donkey or horse & cart.  I just loved seeing the kids and old men on their donkeys!  By the end of the tour, everyone was pointing them out to me as they knew how excited I got when I saw them.

Walking across the road was like playing Russian roulette.  In the larger towns, the trick was to wait until a local crossed the road and then just shelter close beside them.  In the Markets, you had to continually dodge a donkey or motorbike or man pushing a cart.  It really was another world over there!!
As for the local souks (markets)..wow!!  They were AMAZING!!!  Almost everything you could possibly think of was up for sale. They had Jeanie lamps, clothes & shoes (very impressive pointy shoes and those lovely jellabas), ceramic wares, tea sets, carpets, lamp shades, woodwork & leather goods, spices, every type of food stuff you could think of including a camel’s head (yes…camel head!!), jewellery and countless other crafts.  I marveled at their artistic ability to present their wares in such a colourful and creative way.  In the Medina’s (old city) of Marrakech & Fes (which housed the larger two markets we visited), it was like walking through endless rabbit warrens full of Moroccan treasures.  If I wasn’t with the others in the tour group, I am sure I would still be in there trying to found my way out. 

Oh, in the square in Marrakech they also had the snake charmers, where the cobra’s stand up to the sound of the music.  Wow, Wow, Wow.!!!  And in Fes we got to see the amazing leather dye-pits.  You really appreciate the job that you have when you see what these poor men do for a living!!

The tiring part were the Moroccan men who would follow you and continue to try and barter with you even though you had walked past their stall and said you weren’t interested. Hhmm, okay, maybe I didn’t quite run away from the nice Moroccan man at the jewellery shop J.  I mean, he was right when he said I couldn’t possibly leave Morocco without something to remind me of his amazing country.   I was easily convinced that his lovely wide silver bracelet would do the trick!!!  I am sure to fondly remember Morocco as I now glance down at my wrist.
And then of course I was absolutely forced to purchase two Guess T-shirts (with bling on the front) because I had to use up all my Moroccan money (Dirhams) before I flew out.  How fortunate for me that they had a few ‘normal’ clothing stalls at the Markets in Casablanca.  May have been a little warm to wear a ‘jellaba’ in Cairns??  And there may have been just a couple of other minor purchases along the way…….to have more Moroccan memories of course!!
As for the Moroccan food…just wonderful!!  Three course meals for lunch & dinner…full of spice & flavor.  Well, for the first week at least.  My overindulgence may have caused me to get a bout of diarrhea after that, so I held back somewhat in the second week.  Six out of the eight on the tour suffered the same fate towards the end of the tour, so the Imodium (medicine for the runs) and toilet paper (no guarantee of finding any in the Moroccan toilets) were readily being passed around!!!  My heart went out to poor Jill who got her bout of the runs at a point where the only available toilet was the squat one.  And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse…she dropped her roll of toilet paper on the ground as she was about to use it! 

We stayed in nice hotels along the way, except for our one night out in the Sahara Desert, where we stayed in a desert camp. They had a huge tent which was sectioned off with two beds in each section and we had camp stretchers for beds.  Almost like a desert Hilton??  Our Camel ride out there was great!!!  Mind you, I hope never to have to ride one again (my poor thighs), but it was amazing to be sauntering over the sand dunes in a convoy of camels.   Taking photos while one is trying to hang on was a feat but I managed to get a few shots off that weren’t blurred. I didn’t quite get my dream camel shadow photo, but had fun trying.  

After reaching the desert camp, we stood on the sand dunes and watched the sunset.  Was just lovely!  We were again provided with a three course meal and entertainment. There was no shortage of food on this tour!!  Gosh it was so quiet and dark when all the lights went out and everyone went to bed.  But don’t you just hate it at times like this, when you have to go to the loo in the middle of the night!!!  Thank God I had a small torch because finding the toilet tent by star light was never going to happen without waking everyone in the desert and peeing in someone’s tent!  Did I mention a shower….no…we apparently didn’t need one because we all just looked lovely in the same clothes we had worn all day, on the camel, then to bed, and then the next morning until we made it back to civilization.  It’s these wonderful cultural experiences that make you appreciate the little things like a long hot shower and a flushing toilet!!
As part of our tour, we were also taken to a small village where we shared a meal with a local Berber family as another ‘cultural’ experience. They accepted us into their home and made us feel extremely welcome.  All was going wonderfully until they brought out a large dish of cus cus and chicken for the second course.  We had been seated in two groups and they handed out spoons to eat with, but at our table we were short one spoon.  I hadn’t been feeling well, so I handed my spoon to one of the others to use as I was opting out of the meal.  When the lady saw that we were one short, she went away and returned with a spoon, which I just placed on the table.  The lady then sat down beside me and used her hand to dip into the large dish of cus cus and proudly showed us how she could roll a handful of cus cus into a ball, all the while using the palm of one hand. Most ingenious!! She then popped the ball of cus cus into her mouth and ate it.  She repeated this several times as we sat watching ‘that hand’ continually being dipped into our meal.  We all thought, oh well, at least she is grabbing it from the same area…..until she decided to flick the remains of the cus cus from her hand back into the meal.  Oh but wait…she also had some cus cus stuck to her mouth, so she wiped that with the same hand and again flicked the bits of cus cus back into our dish.   After a few more mouth fulls, she then left the table.  The rest of us just stared at the cus cus meal not knowing what to do next.    I was thinking how fortunate I was that I hadn’t intended eating it anyway.  The others were grateful that they had eaten plenty during the first course.  It was maybe not a cultural trait that we wished to take back home with us.  Needless to say, there was quite a large amount of cus cus which remained uneaten! Oh, and about that spoon.  Apparently the ladies husband had been eating with it at the other groups table and she just grabbed it out of his hands and took it over to our table for me to use.  Obviously a very generous and caring family.  Happy to do without for the sake of their guests?? So again, it was fortunate I wasn’t eating cus cus that day!!
Of all the cities we went to ‘Chefchaouen’ (the white washed mountain village) was without question my favourite.  It was reported to be one of the prettiest towns in Morocco and it most definitely was.  I fell in love with the bright blue buildings and narrow lanes and the friendliness of all the locals.  We were only there for a day, but I could have easily stayed a week.  The amount of photos I took could indicate I stayed a week, but it is just remarkable how many photos one can take within a 2 hour period??

I found out quite early in the trip that the locals didn’t like their photos being taken.  After being yelled at a number of times, I very quickly learnt that if I wanted to photograph the people, I had to either pay for the privilege or do a sneaky sneaky one!  It was a little disappointing that I wasn’t able to photograph all the amazing characters that we saw walking around the villages & sitting at the markets, but still so wonderful to see. 

As for my tour group, I consider myself to be very fortunate.  We all got along great and spent most of the two weeks doing everything together.  The eighth person, Rosie (from Melbourne) ended up making it on the tour.  Can you believe she missed her plane in Paris on the way over!!!  It reminded me of how lucky I was that I actually made my flight to Morocco!! 
And once again I consider myself lucky to have made the flight back to Rome.  I decided to do that last minute pee before hopping on a plane and went to the public toilets at the Casablanca Airport.  There was a short line up, so two cleaners that were at the toilets indicated for me to use the disabled toilet.  All good until I tried to get back out of the cubicle.  The lock on the toilet door became stuck and no matter how much I wriggled, pulled, pushed, turned it…nope…I was locked in solid!!  So I prayed that the cleaners were still outside the door and started knocking on the door and calling out that the door wouldn’t open.  I figured that they couldn’t understand what I was saying, but the knocking may indicate some assistance was required???  So, after much effort on their behalf to bash at the door, they finally got me out!!!  Yes, for a few minutes there, I was a little concerned!!
And in a nutshell, that was my Moroccan experience!!  I saw heaps, ate heaps, photographed heaps, pooed heaps and um…bought heaps??

After Morocco, I returned to Rome for 3 nights and am currently in the middle of my 5 night stay back in Siena.  I’ll send another email soon to update you on the past week and the week ahead.  Sorry this email took some time in coming out but I caught the dreaded chest cold in Morocco and my poor head is still not thinking as clearly as I would like.  I have gone through a course of antibiotics, a bottle of cough medicine and three boxes of tissues and shortly I am about to go out and buy my 4th box of tissues!!!   Apparently, it is all part of the holiday experience…collecting other people’s germs (oh, and spreading them)!!
Hope all is great with you.  Yes, I miss you all!!
Love Joy xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx