8 countries, 1 wedding, no funerals.

Vicenza - 04/08/2010

Our road had ended in a flurry of confetti. Suddenly after two weeks it was no longer de rigueur to leave our accommodation in clothes more creased than Nelson Mandela's face. By the skillful location and application of a travel iron my shirt was made smooth (apparently I could also have straightened my hair with it, had I any). My travelling companion had turned Chief Bridesmaid© and my friends had turned wed. The ceremony was short and.........moving, an odd sensation for someone who usually experiences emotional movement of the most glacial sort. I confess that I cast my doubts on marriage; I opine on its sustainability, its compromise, its purpose. And yet, and yet, I sat and envied and awed and smiled broadly and warmly and sincerely. I saw loveliness and rightness and a warm blanket of feeling wrapped my heart. The happiness was palpable and I was grateful to be there to experience it. I have likely used my ration of gushing sentiment now so I shall cease, only remaining to say congratulations R&R, it was a little bit perfect. In Italia wedding ceremonies last 10 minutes and wedding receptions last 10 courses. We thought we were successfully cracking on with the first of these only to be told it was simply an intro buffet and did not have full dinner course status, I quietly removed the canape from my mouth. Our épicurien odyssey began with.........well I can't remember, it was food and it was most pleasing to the palate and the rest of the dinner is lost in a hazy whirl of ever revolving china. Suffice to say it was was savoured and if Old MacDonald had had a farm I believe this banquet sampled most of its hooved and web-footed inhabitants. It put our staples of the past fortnight - bread, meat and cheese firmly into their place. After an inventive raffle to send the Bride & Groom on their honeymoon with a few extra pesos, we began a couple of traditional Italian party games. The first 'groping me, groping you' comprises a line of male or female party guests and the bride or groom secreted amongst them. The other, unsecreted half of the marital couple must then identify their new spouse only by the feel of their now exposed calves. Needless to say Ricky & Rachel should devote a little time on honeymoon acquainting themselves with each other's lower legs. The second game involved a deformed pantomime horse and some whipped cream, more I cannot add.
After an expected (to the participants at least) duet from bride and Chief Bridesmaid© the dancefloor was thrown open.............to me. Word of my creative choreography and frenetic jigging had crossed the continent and there was an Italian clamour for a rendition of 'la canzone del telephono' or in other words the thing they call 'The Telephone Song'. My own recollection of the encircled solo performance is patchy (due not to alcohol but trauma). Thank the stars then that the 'eh, eh, ehs' and akimboed legs were committed to celluloid for posterity and repeated public viewings. The rest of the evening passed in an ensconced blur of vino rosso (e? i? e? i? o?) and inappropriate advances on young Italian men (Mrs. Hartles, not me. I think). Thankfully, enough people retained their strength and senses to wrestle the microphone from Susan Boyle...sorry.......Michael Hartles at the end of the night. The abiding memory is of a most splendid way to end to long trip.

Oh yea of little faith!

Trieste/Vicenza - 03/08/2010

Monfalcano is not Trieste. But Monfalcano is Italy. Our next hire car resided in Trieste which was but a short train ride from the aforementioned location we blearily found ourselves in as the sun came up. Good news after a long night of balkanology, even greater fortune was that the train was complementary, as are all modes of transport when you choose not to buy a ticket. We sat listlessly outside Trieste Train Station watching the town and its denizens slowly come to life as light seeped over the horizon. Eventually, in a side street aromatised with the spicy tang of urine, we were given our automobile and barring police intervention we would be in Vicenza and our final destination within the two hour.
The Autogrill must be an utterly, unfathomably foreign place to the tourist, they must reel at the baffle and the bustle. We citizens of the world, we single, bilingual, peripatetic beings negotiated the disorder with what 'posh twats' call aplomb. And so, expressed we returned to the autoslumber.....sorry Autostrada. <Insert driving>.
The journey was at its end and we had our first recurrent abode since Istanbul and what seemed like both yesterday and an aeon ago. Relief and surprise probably came in equal measure when we arrived in the Vicenzan suburb of Sovizzo but the warm welcome was gratifying. Alas, alack, our time on the road was not ended though as some batty old Aunt and a Whoopi Goldberg impersonator needed an escort from Bergamo. I tried manfully to break the tedium of the drive by extracting conversation from such diverse subjects as clouds and tarmac but cannot conclude it was entirely successful. The Carabinieri must have been dozing as we made it back to Vicenza with our semi-precious cargo unfettered. A quiet gathering of 30 or so in the excellent local pizzeria ensured a clear head for the impending wedding. For all those that didn't drink every glass of wine and every shot of grappa available to them before being stopped by the bride to be. The big day toward which we had strove and...er...drove was nearly upon us and so, after a short bout of the kind of neighbourly behaviour that Birmingham had so missed, we retired.

No sleep till Monfalcano

Zagreb/Somewhere in Slovenia - 02/01/2010

The 5:30 bus had ceased to be an option so our only way of reaching Italy was now the late train, really late. We had purloined a map of Zagreb with walking tours but Budget Rent-a-Car were kind enough to give us a driving tour of the city during the dropping off of their car. After returning the vehicle in more or less the same condition as we received it (missed calls suggest they may have discovered the wheel), time was our most voluable friend. And so we walked. We took in scaffolded cathedrals (and came out the richer, thanks God) and colourfully tiled churches. We promenaded endless, repeating, boatless waterfront and still the hour of departure did not come. We enlarged Zagreb's 'free tram' zone to cover the greater part of the city and still our time here was not done. The theory of relativity states that a being's perception of time is relative to the list of available activities in the city in which they are stuck. All that being said the only city I can think of that begins with a Z proved to be an attractive if unnavigable place, fortunately spared from the worst of the Balkan ravages in the 90's.
We counted down the final few hours drinking Macedonian red wine on a bench in the park in the finest hobo style. Our train was not a sleeper, in every sense. Wedged into a six seater room with a morose and teary English couple, a silent Slovene and an amiable Bosnian Serb we relayed the stories of our adventures to a rapt audience of one. Jovanna (the Bosnian) in turn told us of the Eastern European countries she likes (at last count none) and the difficulties of free movement imposed by suspicion of her country of origin. This was duly borne out by the intense scrutiny given to her passport by the border police. The pleasant discourse went someway to mask the debilitating effect the day had had on our bodies and our final country lay ahead of us over the pitch black Slovenian horizon.

One way, not another

Plivice/Zagreb - 01/09/2010

No swimming, no fishing, no straying from trails, no wrestling the bears. Simply shuffle round in tightly packed column taking the same pictures as those that went before you, leave. The Plitvice Parks are an eden but a tightly managed one. I cannot decide if this is the only way they could remain as they are or have had their natural beauty somewhat diminished by the railings of man's modern impositions. One cannot deny the sumptuous visual banquet they present though. The lakes are aquamarine at depth to clear, crystalline purity in the shallows. If a person were permitted to plunge into the deep blue they would surely hesitate lest it all be the flat, paint-daubed canvas of a master artist. The fish, their fins tinged with cornflower blue, bathe in the sunshine in perfect awareness of their protection. The flora and fauna seem oddly monocultural, is this a place of preservation or presentation? What primordial force draws us to water, causes us to wonder at waterfalls? Two hydrogen, one oxygen and the genesis of life I suppose.
The force of time drew us back to the car and our tarmaced trail, Zagreb lay ahead. Another city, another hostel, quite the pensioners we are. Hoping to get ahead of our curve through Eastern Europe for the first time since leaving Istanbul we needed to ditch the wheels (in a non literal sense, again). Zagreb's road system is a crisscrossing morass of one-way roads bespeckled by trams and bemused foreigners. There are no straight lines in this city, not between a person and their destination, left turns are banned. We were thwarted in our attempts to return the vehicle and there would be no absquatulation on the early bus out for us, time to tarry. Our last meal had been eaten too many hours ago on the roof of a car in a layby so we decided a dinner involving chairs, a table, cutlery and plates would be something we could stomach. My baby Octopus drew a grimace from Mike but he tried one nonetheless, you next Clarke. Fin.

Split, toe and sun

Split/Plitvice 31/08/2010

We stirred from dreams surrounded by our belongings which we had neatly strewn around the camp. After collecting the chaos the road called once more. A short drive brought us to Split and the Roman Emperor Diocletian's retirement home. His palace has been built on, in and around over the centuries and makes for a curious, amalgamated piece of architecture. We ate breakfast (byrek) and stumbled upon a giant man with a well worn toe. Gregory of Nin was a man who had some affiliation with a place called Nin, er...that's all I know. I do know that his big toe is reputed to bring luck to the rubber. After the calamities of the previous day a simple stroke of a digit was a superstition worth indulging.
The day had brought precisely zero auto incidents thus far. But that is not how we roll so Mike smacked the car into a kerb upon entering a tunnel and we were only saved from a head on collision by his excellent driving (note, part of this statement is b*llocks). We came to the conclusion that his remaining behind the wheel endangered our lives, those of the road users around us and our rental car deposit, plus we didn't have another spare tire. Therefore I should give it a bash. It turns out that I am an excellent driver cruelly deprived of a license by one way street facists. My time in the driver's seat was the safest on a road all holiday and Mike agreed. There is a roadside memorial roughly every 30 centimetres in Croatia, obviously not all have been gifted with my skill. We pulled into Plitvice in the early evening, located a campsite and cracked open a bottle of dreadful red wine. By faint, flickering candlelight I gave a masterclass in the game of blackjack, Mike you owe me £50.

Back in Hrvat(ska) or a comedy of errors

Sarajevo/Mostar/Split - 30/08/2010

In parts of Sarajevo you could be forgiven for thinking you were in some quaint Bavarian town such are the pockets of picturesque to be found there. Its sights are few and pockmarked with bullet holes and even having seen them there is a sense you are missing something of the place. The real gem lay to the south. Constructed by the Turks in the 1500s, blown up by the Serbs in the 90's, it stands over the Neretva river fully restored and fully worthy of a visit. Solid towers suspend a high, arcing bridge 21 metres up. Locals will cheerfully throw themselves off it after a whip round has produced sufficient Kuna (I think they accept euros too, no cards.
Heading again for the border and the rest of our Croatia leg a couple of nice gentlemen with 'Polizi' on their uniform flagged us down, "Documents". Speeding apparently. Michael 'James Bond' Hartles was diplomatic and admonishment delivered we were let go without a fine, fortune smiled on us (or so we thought). The Croatian police proved more intractable. A seemingly safe overtaking move fell foul of their road markings and once again we had the long arm of the law beckoning us to stop. No amount of innocent tourist charm could persuade these guys to let us off and a 500 kuna fine was duly levied. Nearing Split we pulled over outside a campsite. Deciding that this would be our home for the night a minor misjudging of kerb location induced a scraping, grinding halt. And one flat tyre. As Mike got handy with his jack (once I had established the correct orientation) I supervised and mused on what other tricks fate's cruel hand might play. The spare tyre needed air and the campsite owner directed us to a garage a curiously long way up the coast. I got started with tent erection while Mike sought air. As the rain really started coming down he returned having inflated the tyre and had (from the directions) also located our nearest compressed gas distribution centre. Quite why the camp owner thought we wanted to buy gas canisters wholesale is a mystery I will never solve. We sheltered from the rain under a sun shade savouring our dinner of red wine and peanuts. Once sufficient quantities of the vino been imbibed the lure of the sea was too much. Swimming out to the nearest anchored boat we laboured to climb aboard and, bobbing gently in the Adriatic, could only smile at our day of mishap. To complete the circle on returning to shore it appeared our clothes had been half-inched from under our noses. Extensive and frantic searching revealed that someone had left them by the tent, likely us. Still, on the bright side my bag is now lighter given that I threw my shoes into the sea.