This year’s trip to Foreign lands – part II

Nearly a month after we came back and over a week since part I, here at last is part II.  If you have not read part I, please click here to get up to speed with the first part of the holiday and, probably more importantly, to see thirty of the holiday photos.

So, as you may recall we went to bed early on the Monday morning as we had booked a day trip along the Croatian coast for Tuesday.  The coach was to leave at 0800 and to get all five of us up and out meant some morning organising and we were supposed to be on holiday!

Nevertheless, we caught the coach at 0800 and it took us the 15 minute journey to, what was to become our favourite little town, Novigrad.  Waiting in the harbour was the boat operated by the Istria Excursions tour group.  We climbed on board and headed up to the main deck to grab ourselves a good seat for the views along the coast.  Health and Safety has not fully visited Croatia as the boat had some very steep steps and a guard rail that a child could easily slip under or indeed climb over.  Lucinda and I had to give the Baguettes a very stern talking to when we saw them leaning over, especially since it was ten seconds after we had just explained the dangers of the rails and falling into the sea.

The Baguettes did not find the boat trip that thrilling.  Éowyn saw a couple of jellyfish but apart from that, wasn’t really taking in the breath-taking views of the Istrian coastline.  After taking on more passengers at Poreč it was a relief (for the Baguettes) when we made port in the town of Vrsar.  We only had an hour in Vrsar so there was no opportunity for a grand excursion.  We debarked and walked along the harbour past restaurants with one pressing task.

As you may recall from last year, mosquitoes seem to love me.  Wherever I am, I will get bitten.  The night I proposed to Lucinda at the Taj Mahal, I was bitten 72 times – the things we do for love!  Last year, I reacted badly to one of the bites and had to pop into the pharmacy to stock up on antihistamine cream.  Thankfully, there was a pharmacy on the campsite and I could get sorted quite quickly.  Again, this year I reacted badly to a mosquito bite on my wrist.  With the car initially out of action and not pharmacy on site, I was not able to get any antihistamine cream quickly and the reaction was getting worse.  (Note to self: next year take some antihistamine cream with you!)  My arm was red from my fingers to my elbow and my wrist was so swollen that I could not move my hand.  It was incredibly itchy and very painful and it was not getting better.  The sun was aggravating it and without too many places to shelter it was not going to be pleasant.

We walked around Vrsar for about 20 minutes (out of our hour) with no pharmacy in sight.  We eventually found the tourist information office and inquired there.  The nearest pharmacy was about 2 kilometres further up the hill.  It was going to have to wait until Rovinj.  So, we settled for the next best alternative: a gelato by the sea.

By the time we had eaten our gelato it was time to head back to the boat.  As we passed the boats in the harbour, fishermen were bringing their catches ashore.  Ezra, started to complain about the fishy smell.  We didn’t take it too seriously, even when he said that it was making him feel sick.  Indeed, we didn’t take him seriously at all until he was sick.  The poor boy has a delicate stomach, when it comes to the aroma of the fruits of the sea.

Back on board, we had our pre-ordered lunch.  Chicken breast with sauerkraut – much nicer than it sounds.  The Baguettes tried the sauerkraut – but unsurprisingly didn’t like it, so Daddy and Mommy added it to their plates.  Then the people sitting next to me asked if I would like some of their chicken breast as they couldn’t eat it all, so I ended up eating about three lunches – well I was on holiday.

We had just over two hours to explore Rovinj.  After locating a pharmacy and picking up some antihistamine cream – an instant soothing – we explored the town.  The Baguettes were very pleased to see a bookshop that sold quality toys, rather than the usual seaside tat that pervaded most of the shops in the tourist areas.  Indeed, Ezra was beside himself when he saw a 1.25 metre high Darth Vader.  He wanted to know if he had enough money, and if he managed to convince his sisters to part with their money, whether he would have enough – the answer was ‘no’.  I explained that even if we bought it, we wouldn’t be able to get it back home, but he was happy to give Darth Vader his seat.  Eventually we convinced him that buying a Darth Vader that was bigger than him wasn’t a good idea.  Undeterred, he spent some of his holiday money on a 12″ Stormtrooper action figure, so that his Darth Vader action figure had someone to boss around.

After a visit to a cake shop and a children’s playground the two hours were quickly up and so we headed back to the harbour to catch the boat back up the coast to Novigrad.

After, such a hectic day we decided that we would spend Wednesday by the pool.  I spend most of the time in the big pool with Éowyn encouraging her to swim, while Mommy and Ezra started a pool-wide water fight and Amélie made friends with a little German boy.  The problem with spending most of your time in the pool is that you are not under any shade.  Couple this with the reflection of the sun off the surface of the water and the coolness of the water itself, giving you a false sense of temperature, the factor 50 that I applied didn’t quite last and for the first time in many years I burnt the tops of my shoulders and my arms.  I would have to try and keep out of the sun the next day.

Fortunately, we had already decided that we would spend a great deal of the day underground.  Wherever you are in Istria and at every tourist information kiosk you enter, one of the main attractions of the area is not in Croatia but just to the north, in Slovenia.

Postojna Cave and Predjama Castle are to be found in south-central Slovenia, in the historical region of Inner Carniola.  So, we packed our passports and with Rock Radio Slovenia on the car stereo we headed across the border.  We found Postojna cave relatively easily, parked up and headed to the ticket office.  Postojna Cave is the most visited tourist cave in Europe.  It is the home of baby dragons (olm, proteus – or indeed, human fish) and the only karst cave with a railway.  When you book your tickets you are give a train time to visit the cave – we had to wait about 45 minutes.  There were a number of attractions and thus a range of ticket pricing; we decided to visit three of the attractions:  the aforementioned Postojna Cave, A vivarium where you can get up close to the olms and the Predjama Castle.

As we only had 45 minutes to wait, we headed to the vivarium.  More than 150 animal species live in the karst caves of Slovenia, and the largest among them is the olm (Proteus anguinus).  An aquatic salamander it is the only exclusively cave-dwelling vertebrate species found in Europe. In contrast to most amphibians, it is entirely aquatic; it eats, sleeps, and breeds underwater.  It can live to be over 100 and with its low metabolism can survive without food for years at a time.  In addition to its aquatic adaptations, it is also adapted to a life of complete darkness in its underground world. The olm’s eyes are undeveloped, leaving it blind, while its other senses, particularly those of smell and hearing, are acutely developed. It also lacks any pigmentation in its skin, which is how it derived the moniker the “human fish’.  When people first encountered them, they thought that they were the offspring of cave dragons and so that is how we tempted the Baguettes to enter the section of the Postojna Cave that has been converted in the vivarium where you can get up close and personal with the strange creatures, and some of the other troglodytes that make the cave their home.

After leaving the vivarium it was time for the train ride into Postojna Cave proper.  After realising that no other country has the same respect for queues as us Brits, we barged our way to the train.  When I say train, it is only because it runs on a track that it could be called a train.  Mini-rollercoaster is probably more apt.  There were a number of times that I had to duck, because that cave ceiling did not seem very high, as I was the tallest person on the train.  After approximately a 4km ride you find yourself 115 metres underground at the start of your tour.  The tour lasts about an hour and you are given insights from the tour guides throughout.  From huge cathedrals to narrow passageways and even narrower bridge it was a magical tour.  Stalactites hung from the ceiling and stalagmites grew from their drops beneath them.  The crowning glory is the 5 metre stalagmite known as “Brilliant”, a pure white limestone deposit, the emblem of Postojna cave and symbol that is a million years in the making.

We caught the train back to the surface and headed off for a spot of lunch.  After which we found ourselves a little confused.  We couldn’t find Predjama Castle anywhere.  After a fruitless search we asked one of the ticket office staff, who looked at us a little confused.  The castle is 9km further down the road.  We weren’t expecting that, and by now it was getting late we walked back to the car and headed down the road.

Predjama Castle is impressive as soon as you spy it.  Predjama Castle is perched in the middle of a 123 metre high cliff.  According to the Guinness Book of Records it is the largest cave castle in the world, a title it has held for the last 800 years.  It is truly amazing how the natural cave and the man-made structure are interwoven; sometimes it is not that easy to see whether you are in the cave or the castle.

It was truly defensible.  One former owner, Erazem of Predjama kept an army at bay for a year and a day and the siege only ended because he was betrayed by one of his servants, who placed a candle in the window when his master visited the weakest part of the castle: the garderobe (the toilet to you and me).  As soon as he had sat down the enemy reigned cannonballs on his throne and he left this world in a most undignified way.  The karstic terrain beneath the castle had provided Erazem with a secret way out, a source of drinking water, further hiding places and food storage – everything to outlast a siege, if only he had used a chamberpot!

The holiday was nearly over and there was at least one place that we wanted to visit that we had not managed thus far this week and that was the town of Poreč.  Poreč is a beautiful Romanesque city build around a natural harbour, indeed much of its street plan still owes its structure to the Romans and the main streets of Decumanus and Cardo Maximus are still preserved in their original forms.  Built upon these Roman foundations you can see the influence of Venetian rule in many of the buildings.  It is a beautiful city.

The pink walls of the Church of Our Lady of Angel dominate the main square but that is not the most important religious building.  The Euphrasian Basilica or the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of Mary holds that title.  It is an excellent example of early Byzantine architecture and includes a sacristy, a baptistery and a bell tower in addition to the basilica itself.  It also still retains a mosaic floor from its oratory preserved in the garden.  It was originally part of a large Roman house that previously stood on the site.

Unfortunately, the closest we got to the basilica was the triumphal arch at the entrance.  The Baguettes had been so good visiting many a historical building on this holiday – and in fairness, they had enjoyed them – we decided that perhaps a basilica was probably a step too far, especially since they had been on their best behaviour while Mommy hummed and harred over mosaic crockery (a teapot was the final winner) and Éowyn was desperate to spend the rest of her holiday money.  After a fruitless search, for Éowyn, we headed back home but decided, on a whim, to stop off in Novigrad for dinner.

That whim turned out to be a very fortuitous decision.  We parked the car in our usual place and commented on how busy it was.  As we walked round the harbour, we noticed that there were stalls and tables set up.  We had walked into the Gnam Gnam festival: a celebration of all things Istrian.  There was local food and wine, live music and entertainment including traditional Croatian dancing.  It was a perfect way to end our time in Croatia.  Indeed, it was with heavy hearts that we returned to Camping Park Umag to begin packing for our 1000 check out.

Although the check out was at 1000, our flight wasn’t until 2100, so we decided to take a leisurely approach to the day.  We spent a couple of hours by the pool, then decided to head to Umag for lunch.  We were slightly disappointed by Umag, it wasn’t quite as pretty as many of the other towns and cities we had visited on our holiday, which made us pleased that we had not visited it before today.  As we drove through the border into Slovenia we noticed that there was a bit of a queue coming into Croatia – it must have been the start of the European holidays.  Indeed, the queue that we thought was big never seemed to end.  Indeed, it was two towns further down and at least 5km before there was open road.  It was going to be a long, hot wait for those people.  We were thankful that we had been fortunate on each of our crossings.

Despite, taking it leisurely and getting lost in Trieste we arrived at the airport in good time.  So we took a chance and asked if we could check in early.  The check-in agent took pity of us and did so.  This was fortunate.  As we went to go through security the agent told us that Amélie’s skateboard was not allowed to go as hand luggage!  This led to attempts at booking a fourth check-in suitcase, too prohibitive, to Lucinda trying to give the skateboard to bemused Italians, all the time Amélie was sobbing her heart out.  Then the beauty of travelling from a small airport, coupled with the Italian love of children played a part.  The check-in manager saw what was going on and asked the baggage team to retrieve one of our suitcases from the holding area.  She bought it up to us, allowed us to put Amélie’s skateboard in and took it back ready to put it on-board.  We were extremely grateful and it was the perfect ending to a fantastic holiday.

I have bored you long enough (this is an epic write-up, apologies), so please enjoy the photos below and remember that there are at least 600 sitting on the Flickr page.

Peace and Love