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Sunday, 10 May 2009

Europe trip 2009 - Kromberk to Novigrad

14th April
We decided to look at the area known to some as "little Tuscany" - Goriska Brda, sunny slopes covered with vines, and small, terracotta roofed villages perched on the top of hills.

Taking the road out of Nova Gorica, across the emerald river Soca, you get a fine view of the world’s longest stone arch bridge - an amazing feat of engineering and masonry.

The bridge in the foreground is built out of blocks of stone!

Dipping very quickly in and out of Italy, we came to Smartno, a tiny hilltop village enclosed by walls or the basements of houses. All around were terraced hillsides covered with vine trellises, dotted with farm houses and apple and almond trees smothered in blossom. Picturesque it was.

A typical view of the Goriska Brda from Smartno

The village itself was utterly deserted at lunchtime and, basking in the sunshine, felt quite special.

Then onto Dobrovo, with its own Grad or castle, and Medana, a place we had been recommended to see.
Bisected by the main road and in the process of major road improvements, Medana was beset by dust and lorries. Though it has a very pretty church, the wine sales outlets were still closed pre-season and there didn’t seem much else on offer.

For another pick from our Womo guide, we retraced our steps a bit to Sveta Gora. On the tip of this peak, and visible on the skyline during our drive through Goriska Brda, there is a beautiful basilica and active monastery.
There is only one metalled road up to it and that is a steep one – a gradient of 30% between the last few hairpins. At the top we discovered a huge two tier car park culled out of the rock, completely deserted and with views to match. Nice one Womo!
After dark a Slovene panel van came to join us. (GPS: 46.0006 N, 13.6546 E)

15th April
The Slovene panel van left at dawn, but we lingered in the brilliant sunshine and took a look at the Basilica Monte Santo. Some fantastic views to be had all round and inside the basilica some wonderful stained glass.

One of many stained glass windows in the Basilica Monte Santo

The lizards were out and suprisingly unflappable

The ride down the hill was a bit of a knuckle biter, but the brakes held out till we reached the gentler gradients.
The drive along the Soca river up to Kanal was a section of road that we would otherwise have missed, but it was a beautiful day and we decided to take this in. The river is dammed for a hydro-electric scheme just above Nova Gorica and thus has widened to form a vivid emerald snake winding down the valley.

Kanal is a bridge town that has done its best to maintain its charm, but the thundering of lorries through its main street really robs it of its best. It has an unusual war memorial to its lost sons.

From the bridge at Kanal

On route to Stanjel we passed some of the many portaloo type toilets you see in laybys in Slovenia, they provide a very convenient toilet dump for motorhomes travelling through. They actually have a huge capacity and one cassetteful is easily accommodated. With our chemical free SOG system, we have no concerns about interfering with the chemical used in these units.
In the season of course, the situation might be different, but we passed many of these units and none we used were remotely full.

Stanjel was picked out of our tourist brochure, it is another fortified hilltop town, but with a few added extras like some ornamental gardens, laid out in the 30’s.

On arrival we parked in one of two public carparks and paid a visit to the tourist office. When asked if it was ok to park overnight, the young woman in the office replied: “We don’t have anything special for you, so yes, of course” – what a refreshing attitude!

A stroll into the old town revealed the pretty ornamental gardens and an old entrance tower hosting an art gallery.

The ornamental gardens at Stanjel

16th April
Wandering back into the old town for a final look we asked in the gallery at the old castle about the ancient Karst house . The attendant promptly said he would close up the gallery and take us for a look, for a fee of €1.50 each.
The exterior, as it turned out, was really more interesting than the inside, as the collection of artefacts in the otherwise bare rooms were not from any particular era, really just a lot of old stuff that they didn’t know what to do with.

Walking along the path leading up to the old Roman fort at the top of the hill, around which the town is built, we were stopped by a member of the Slovenian national TV network, who asked us if we’d take part in a magazine travel programme they were filming.
Gullible as ever, we agreed and ended up doing a short interview with nil preparation – it was all a bit embarrassing really, I guess they are used to young people who are used to videoing each other and doing pieces to camera. Hopefully it will all end up on the cutting room floor, so to speak.

Stanjel from the railway sidings

Down below the town on the valley floor are railway sidings and a platform which is the halfway point between Nova Gorica and Trieste. Here the trains running on this single track emerge from a tunnel, pass each other, and disappear into a tunnel again.
In one of the sidings was a large retired steam locomotive, slowly rusting away.

We then passed through Sezana on our way to Lipica, home of the Lipizzaner horses, an Austrian breed of horse noted for its ability in dressage displays, as well as its friendly nature and expressive eyes.

Lipizzaner horses out for some fresh air

The stud farm here was set up in 1580 by an Austrian Archduke and has been going ever since. (GPS: 45.6685 N, 13.8845 E)
(http://www.lipica.org/ )

The large car park had many notices banning camping in caravans, but Sue in her inimitable fashion went to reception and came away with permission that we could stay one night.

17th April
The dressage display started at 1500, but there is a guided tour available at 1400, and as we found out, once you have brought your ticket and gained entrance you can more or less wander about as you please – we could in fact have gone to watch the showjumping competition that had started early in the morning.

We visited several of the stables with a guide, some of the horses even seemed interested to see us, pushing their noses through the bars. Others didn’t look so happy with their lot, looking dejected or lying down. A couple of the stud stallions showed their appreciation of our visit, showing off in fact, perhaps thinking we were about to make an introduction.

The famous white coat of the Lipizzaner horses takes up to 3-4 years to appear, being brown or dark grey from birth.

Entrance of the dressage display

The dressage display was for the most part impeccable (at least to my eyes) but the horses were spooked by a round of applause halfway through one routine, and certainly by people unnecessarily using flashes on their cameras.

Hold it right there, my beauty

And jump!

Still having some time left we went to watch some of the showjumping, and filled in the lull between competition with a beer and a huge hamburger in the hospitality tent – no one seemed to bat an eyelid that we were just a couple of tourists!
Having said that, on the first day of a 3 day competition for the Slovenia Cup, there seemed to be very few supporters about.

Our next move was to see the Skocjanske Jame or Skocjan caves. We arrived about 1800 as the centre was closing and tucked ourselves into a corner of the carpark. There were signs up showing no caravans or tents, but as ever we had our story ready if anyone questioned us – which they didn’t. (GPS: 45.6625 N, 13.9882 E)
(http://www.park-skocjanske-jame.si/ )

18th April
The Skocjane caves are a world away from the Postojna - for a start, once you have met up with your guide it’s a half kilometre walk along the road and then down a woodland path to the cave entrance. The cave is split up into two parts - what they call the “silent” cave, which we enter first through a man made tunnel, and then the “flooded” cave though which the Reka river flows in a series of cascades and waterfalls.

The “English” group, which we were in, consisted of a handful of French and Italians (no children) who respectfully listened to the guide and kept their voices down. Thus, the atmosphere and beauty of these limestone caves became apparent again, with the steady drip, drip of calcium bicarbonate solution still forming stalagmites around us, some of which were 250 thousand years old.

Soon we could hear the roar of the river and we entered a new cavern high up above the water. The spray created a cloud which rose almost to the roof of the cavern, only a small space above was left where we could see clearly.
Then we walked down into this murky world of 100% humidity, the noise of the river increasing. The tiny ledges on which we were standing looked down 50 metres or more to the floor of the gorge, the thin stainless steel railings running with moisture.

The "flooded cave" at Skocjan

Then to the famous bridge, 45 metres above the torrent. I found it a slightly stomach-churning experience, walking out onto this narrow walkway, which trembled slightly under our footsteps. I lingered to “soak” it all up and get an illicit photo, but Sue was across like a startled rabbit.

Finally, as you weave along the gorge you become aware of a different kind of light…white light…daylight, and the path leads you out into the sunshine through a massive natural stone arch formed in the hillside.

And then there was light!

At €14 per head, it was to our minds a much more enjoyable and exciting visit than the €20 Postojna experience, but if you like underground train rides you might disagree.
For limestone beauty, beautifully and artistically lit, the caves at Nerja in Southern Spain probably come top, but for a sheer, unforgettable caving experience, the Pileta caves near Ronda have it, with the added wonder of prehistoric paintings and crawling over the actual cave floor clutching a storm lantern!

The nearest campsite we could find came from the Slovenian campsite brochure and we headed for Dujceva domacija, 3 km away. However, after negotiating a vertiginous farm track with a hairpin bend, and a narrow steel bridge, into a freshly bulldozed field still littered with building rubble, we changed our minds.

The campsite, though featured with pictures in the brochure, is still in the process of construction and with no facilities at all in the field apart from a domestic electric cable and socket hanging from a tree, we thought it a downright cheek to ask €16 plus tax. The access is certainly not suitable for large motorhomes either, contrary to their advert. (46.6554 N, 14.0260 E)
(http://www.dujceva.si/ )

So we headed for the Ankaran Adria campsite just above Koper. This is a huge hotel/campsite complex with security guards on the gate. However we did manage to find a pitch on the waterfront with views across to Koper.
Not cheap, €27 a night including electricity and tax. They are presently building a motorhome service point and installing wi-fi. (GPS: 45.5747 N, 13.7347 E)
(http://www.adria-ankaran.si/ )

The weather was still warm and sunny and we enjoyed our first barbeque and alfresco meal of the trip.

19th April
The weather finally broke and we stayed at home.

20th April
A grey day, but the rain was holding off so we caught the bus into Koper, a €1 fare.

I last saw Koper when I joined a ship there back in the 70's, when it was still part of Communist controlled Yugoslavia. Not surprisingly I didn't recognise any of it, the tall grey tower blocks had largely disappeared and the waterfront totally and tastefully regenerated.

Time to have a beer and watch the world go by (get out of the rain actually)

The old town is being carefully renovated and redeveloping its character, though there are still a lot of dilapidated buildings.

The outskirts of the city are looking like they started again from scratch, with major new and temporary road systems and industrial units going up.

21st April
We left Camping Adria in bright sunshine and went to a little spot near the Italian border suggested by our Womo guide. Just a patch of rough ground, with a stony beach and views across the bay to ships at anchor waiting to dock in Trieste, very nice and quiet though. (GPS: 45.5913 N, 13.7199 E)

Sometimes the best things in life are free

22nd April
Another sunny day, we picked up some groceries in Ankaran and headed for Hrastovlje, a few kilometres inland from Koper.

Above this small Mediterranean looking village is a church dating back to the 12th Century. When the Turks invaded the country 500 years ago it was turned into a fortified camp, all that remains now is a ruined battlement around the church.

The ruined battlements

After the last war, part of a 15th Century fresco was discovered inside the church and after ten years meticulous work on all the walls and ceilings, it was fully revealed.
The most famous of the frescoes is the Dance of Death or Danse Macabre - Death leading the Emperor, Pope, kings, nobles, citizens and beggars, even a child by the hand.

It had turned into such a glorious day, we walked around the village a bit and then retired to the van for respite from the heat.

Later, there seemed no point in moving, on so we stayed - in earshot of the church bell...which chimed every quarter of an hour until 10 p.m.

23rd April
The peace of the night was shattered at 0600 by a prolonged peal on the church bell, or so Sue tells me - I slept through it!
Yesterday's hot sun had disappeared, replaced by rain and a chill wind.

We made our way back to Koper, and getting snarled up in their total rebuilding of the road system, eventually found the last Petrol station before Croatia with Autogas.

In driving rain we took the coast road to Izola, a pretty fishing port with a large boatyard and a couple of marinas.
We parked up in a gravel park opposite the boatyard where we waited for the rain to ease, then togged up in our wet weather gear and wandered around Izola’s waterfront and labyrinthine old streets, before succumbing to an Italian ice cream - forest fruit and chocolate - yumm. (GPS: 45.5392 N, 13.6652 E)

The harbour at Izola

The park would have done nicely for an overnight, but our loo was full and in the absence of any public toilets we headed towards Portoroz and several listed campsites.

Kamp Fiesa is a nice little campsite in Fiesa bay, but they had no spaces for motorhomes. They were however very willing to let us empty our loo - try that one in the UK!

Portoroz - so rich they leave the street lights on in the daytime!

Passing through the very expensive looking and casino endowed Portoroz, we found a Womo pitch on a free car park not far from the marina at Lucija. A French van was already ensconced and later we were joined by an Austrian and a Slovenian. (GPS: 45.5043 N, 13.6007 E)

24th April
is an old medieval sea port located at the end of the Piran Peninsula.
Access to this now tourist resort can only be had, by visitors in vehicles, from Portoroz on the seaward side. We parked in the car park on the foreshore and in warm sunshine walked into town. On the way out we glanced at the car park charges and it seemed to be €1 for each of the first two hours.

Piran's crowded waterfront

Home to the famous violinist Giuseppe Tartini, Piran’s narrow streets have a Venetian feel, the main square was formed by filling in the old port and is named after Tartini.

The town’s wealth came from the nearby Piran saltpans, which are still in operation today. It's not a large place, with a small marina and waterfront lined with bars and seafood restaurants, a hint of serious money around though.
There is also a naval museum and a diving museum.

Having strolled the perimeter, glanced in the run down little chapel at the tip and checked out Tartini's statue in the square, we decided to forgo the usual beer or coffee and returned to the van.

By the time we were ready to make our move the kiosk by the barriers had a little man it, and passing him a couple of euros he shook his head - there was a special charge for motorhomes….wait for it....€5.50 an hour! (five times that for a car). Hence our casual wander around this wealthy person's playground cost us €11 in parking charges. Sometimes you know when you're really not welcome.
After lunch we drove a few kilometres, almost to the border, to look at the saltpans at Lera, which also form part of Secovlje Salina Nature reserve. Entrance is €3 and it’s a kilometre walk or so to the visitor centre where you can watch an interesting 20 minute film and look at an interactive large scale model.

The whole saltpan setup is more mechanised and less visually attractive than those on the Ile de Ré - the process is split into two - with the salt fields used for crystallisation of salt separate from those used for concentration (by evaporation) of the sea water.

Strangely, in the list of active evaporated salt producers world wide, the Ile de Ré doesn't get a mention, though Piran claims production of the same "Blossom of the Salt" or Fleur de Sel.
Unlike Ré they haven't got around to mixing dried herbs with salt, a marketing ploy that the Ré producers do very nicely out of.

In the car park for the saltpans was a Slovenian motorhome, though we hadn’t seen anyone in it. As the sun started to set we thought that if it was good enough for him it was good enough for us. However at about 8 p.m. a young man in an official looking car turned up, first banging on the Slovene’s door and then ours: “you can’t stay here”.
Sue was in the middle of cooking the supper, which was a bit of downer, but we upped sticks and retired to our previous night’s location in Lucija, a few minutes drive away. Our French friend had returned as well, later it filled up with two Italians and a Slovene.

25th April
Our plan was to visit the other half of the saltpans, Fontanigge, where salt harvesting was abandoned in the 1960’s and there are far more diverse habitats for wild life. 270 bird species are said to be established here, being at their most diverse in the spring and autumn.

For some reason, even though it is part of a Slovenian nature park, you have to go through the border crossing to get to it. We got swept up in the heavy traffic between the Slovenian and Croatian border posts and missed the entrance, it must be somewhere between the two. Probably the thing to do is park at the Slovenian post and walk to it.

Croatia is not part of the EU and we had run down our stocks of booze and meat in anticipation of the restrictions we had read on the FCO website.
After a glance at our number plate and the passports in Sue’s hand the Croatian customs officer waved us through with a flick of his head.
First stop was a “hyper-market” – more of a food store in a warehouse, an altogether different shopping experience from what we had been used to, though the assistants were very friendly.

We headed for the coast and in bright sunshine we suddenly felt we might be back in Greece, the partially broken roads with white limestone gravel at the sides looking the same.

We took a small detour to Savudrija which turned out to be a charming little fishing port. Seeing our way to the harbour blocked by a bicycle outside the grocer’s store, a passer-by called into the store and moved the bike for us – so far, so welcoming.

Savudrija's little fishing port

There is actually a small campsite here on the headland and we were tempted, but being the weekend it was full of Italians and cramped. Instead we treated ourselves to a seafood lunch, Calamari Adriatica, which turned out to be baby squid, lightly stuffed with white fish and served with boiled potatoes and spinach – very nice, 80 Croatian Kuna or around £10 a head.

Boat storage on the beach at Camping Pineta

Back on the “main” road heading south the atmosphere changed completely - from suckling pig being roasted by the dusty roadside, and boats hung on timber racks, we were suddenly into Holiday Resort complexes with a Spanish flavour (well almost).

Our choice of campsite was Kamp Mareda, and ACSI site 4 kilometres north of Novigrad, 86.57 HRK or around £11 a night including electricity.

It’s compulsory to register your entry into Croatia within 24 hrs and the campsite will do this registration free with the ACSI card. (GPS: 45.3404 N, 13.5454 E)
(http://www.laguna-novigrad.hr/ )

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