07 August 2007

Drifting Along with the Jetty Set

It all began at Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, which I am proud to say I can finally pronounce.

Q. But where on earth is Slovenia?
A. In the alps next to Italy, south of Austria, on the Adriatic Sea.

I stayed at my friend Ana's place in the centre of the old city, a stones throw from the slender River Ljubjanica. It was great to hear her distinctive Slavic accent again. Her house was so inviting, some stone walls dated back to the 13th century when the Romans occupied the area, local elderly women tended the back garden that we were free to raid for fresh vegetables, and downstairs was a Bosnian restaurant with the best Turkish coffee in town – sadly discovering it on my last day, noooo.

While Ana was at work for a mere 4 hours each day, I ignored the savage summer heat and walked around the city past animated pavement cafes, their tables spilling out onto courtyards and down the cobbled streets. It was like being at the crossroads of Vienna and Venice, filled with beautiful buildings – a harmonious mix of Baroque and art nouveau architecture. The famous Slovenian architect Joze Plecnik left a lasting mark on the city, as he also did in Vienna and Prague, designing many of the city's beautiful bridges, buildings and squares.

After work Ana would take me out to see some of the lesser known sights, and to meet with her gang of friends at various bistros. The Slovenians definitely like to have fun, and go out and party (well, the fraction that I saw were out every night). And unlike most cities that are crowded with foreigners at that time of year, I really felt like one of the few outsiders, a great feeling, I hate being just another Australian. Ana was hilarious in her introductions, it seemed that everyone we met or she pointed out was a mild celebrity, whether they were a TV presenter, actor, national football couch, eurovision performer, or politician. With a national population of only 2 million people, everyone was someone. In the early hours of the morning we'd walk home in the crisp night air, Ljubljana Castle towering over us, dramatically lit beside the city centre.

One day, a car full of us drove up to the freshwater lakes to the north of Slovenia. There we exhausted ourselves by swimming around the lake, hiked up to a magnificent waterfall, and later sunbaked while I read Harry Potter (oh my, I ended up in the Slovenia newspaper because I lined up for the book at midnight, might I add that was two hours after sunset).

{Find moi!}

Craving a peek at the Adriatic sea, three Slovenian friends and me drove across to the gorgeous Venetianesque gem called Piran with its peeling plaster facades and a dramatic campanile. It's located on the 46.5 km of coastline belonging to Slovenia. Look left and you can see Croatia, look right and there's Italy. Poor Slovenia – after the early 90s conflict, Croatia emerged with a lion's share of the Adriatic coastline (have a look at a map and you'll see what I mean). Piran has an unspoilt medieval structure that we loved to wander around, eventually stumbling across the creamy marble Tartini Square where we ate the local favourite of prosciutto pizza and drank red wine near the waterfront passeg iatta. And oh! the sunset views over olive groves and red roofs! Terribly sad that I only spent a day there.

{Piran, Slovenia}

It was interesting to meet with so many local people and try to grasp even a fragment of their amazingly complex culture. According to the locals, the Slovenians have been influenced by the Italians and their dolce vita lifestyle, but are also strongly influenced by German and Austrians in the north, giving them a strong work ethic. I didn't really notice this too much, but I'll take them at their word! This region has always been controlled other rulers, be it the Austrians, Italians, Napoleon or Tito, but I quickly learnt that the Slovenes are quite stubborn and self-confident, and have always managed to save their own language and identity. It's obvious that their literature helped them achieve this, as Slovenes prize their authors, poets and polymaths more than any European country I've seen yet. Ljubljana is festooned with busts of novelists and playwrights, rather than mere politicians or generals.

Next stop, Hvar. Oh Hvar, my beloved Hvar. How I do love thee, let me count the ways… This place was a PARADISE island, on the Dalmatian coast, Croatia. Hvar town is a car-free haven of Venetian architecture set right on the crystal blue waters of the harbour. Date palms line the marble-paved streets and main piazza. The moment I stepped off the ferry I had a sensory overload of beautiful boys and a vast flotilla of gigantic, shiny yachts, bam! bam! bam!

{On water taxi to Palenki islands}

{Welcome to Hvar}

Twice we took a taxi boat over to the Palenki islands, idyllic and secluded, clothing strictly optional. We hired sunbeds and umbrellas, naively frolicked with "jalebes" and avoided the "mosquitos" *wink*, and spent hours just reading and basking in the sun half naked. Apparently we met some famous DJ that I didn't know, but we went snorkelling together, avoiding the fish that liked to nibble on your feet. Later I got bored after finishing my second book, so swam half way around Jerolim island for the fun of it, stopping only to talk to people on a passing speedboat who ferried me back into shore!

By then I had worked up enough of a tan to walk into a bar without everyone staring at the amazing albino women. "Carpe Diem" was my favourite, albeit mildly pretentious and desperately hard to get into without my local friends, but it had the best atmosphere and music, the craziest crowds and the best cocktails. It was a fresh concoction of young, relaxed travellers just craving fun.

{Speela and me in Carpe Diem}

At this time of the year on Hvar "mosquitos" were to be avoided at all costs, the desperately hopeful Italian boys that pounced on you the moment you glance at them (accidentally) telling you that you are the most glorious creature they've ever set eyes on (even though you know you look like rubbish as you're in the middle of making dinner and have darted out of the apartment to buy olive oil!). On the other hand, "Jalebes" or in English "seagulls" are the local Croatian boys that have a reputation for soaring from girl to girl.

We spent many days on Hvar itself, where families crowded onto narrow pebble beaches and strips of rock. The water was divine and crystal clear. My friend Zvezdra and I took voyeurism to a new level as I borrowed her binoculars and watched people in the distance, entertained by daring young Croatians as they made graceful dives and astounding leaps from the Jetty. Blaring beach parties were scattered along the shores of the island, and we often dropped by them as we walked home from a day of tanning, inhaling the smell of lavender as we went.

After a week it was time to commence my journey back to Copenhagen. I returned to Split again for the day, the main port to the Dalmatian islands. With the help of a vibrant young Croatian called Luka that I met in a hotel lobby, I got to know Croatia's second largest city. I loved its Mediterranean feel, and especially the gorgeously lived in Diocletian's Palace, which conjures up the bygone grandeur of Ancient Rome. Luka told me that the palace was built as a retirement home for a Roman emperor, and pointed out a breathtaking hotchpotch of architectural styles, including Roman, medieval and Renaissance. And I could live on the Croatian ice cream, ledo scoops could cure cancer. Communication wasn't a real problem as most people spoke English, except for once when I finally resorted to performing a locomotive "choo choo" to get to the train station, the taxi driver laughed at me the whole way there.

{Split, Croatia}

{Statue of Bishop Grgur Ninski, in Split - touching the statue's big toe is supposed to bring good luck!}

So that was that, I then made my way back to Copenhagen to my family there. What a brilliant trip! So much extra detail has been skipped in this blog, but I can't write all day and I dare not bore you with more frivolities. Overall, if I reflect openly on the whole trip, what hit me the most was limitless opportunities in life, and the importance of choosing thoughtfully and give weight to the power of chance. Haha, oh yes, that did sound cheesy, but these messages popped up time and time again. I really look forward to returning someday, hopefully soon.