Wednesday 29 August 2012

Diocletian and the 2Cellos

Current Location: Korcula Island, Dalmatian Coast, Croatia
Distance Cycled: 4,050 km from Bridgwater, Somerset, UK

 “Build me a beach house,” the Emperor said. “And make it a big one right on the water’s edge – I want to impress my friends. While you’re at it, put a big fortified wall around it with watchtowers – for we have enemies. And then, when it’s done, we’ll party like there’s no tomorrow.”

Emperor Diocletian
So the Roman Emperor Diocletian might have said – though perhaps not the last bit about partying. He was getting on when he had his palace built in Split, Croatia in the fourth century AD. It served as his retirement home, but was eventually abandoned by the Romans and lay empty for hundreds of years.

When it was resettled, many centuries later, the residents rebuilt and reworked much of the palace. But they ignored the basements or cellars underneath – they used them to store rubbish and junk.
Detail: Ceiling
Part of the basements have been turned into a thriving market

Judy in front of what was Diocletian's Palace. Though much of the upper levels have been replaced there are
still signs of its Roman origins - towering columns built into newer buildngs for example.

No escaping the graffiti
Today Diocletian’s Palace is a UNESCO world heritage site and visitors come from around the world to marvel at what’s left – one of the finest Roman ruins of its kind. The basements have been cleared of all that waste, allowing people to roam through the substructure. Parts have been turned into a street market.
Outside, the narrow streets are packed with people and bars and at the height of the summer season Split has a festive air – it’s party time.

When we were there, the main musical attraction was 2CELLOS. 
What they do with their instruments would have been beyond the wildest imagination of Diocletian ordering up a party.  Luka Sulic and Croatian born Stiepan Hauser take modern pop songs and turn them into frenzied, at times almost unrecognizable versions of the originals. And the crowd we were part of just loved them. Diocletian’s legacy may be Roman ruins, but they provide a backdrop for a city that knows how to party.

To see 2CELLOS perform their cover version of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal, click here:

Sunday 19 August 2012

On the Beach

Italian Summer Colours
We coasted along the coast on the lookout for a patch of free shade – valuable real estate on a day when once again the temperature was hovering on the wrong side of 30 degrees C.

Judy was the first to spot what looked like an old New Zealand outside dunny – a boxlike structure on the footpath between beach and road. As we came to a stop in its small shadow, we caught a whiff of urine – someone had pissed against the side of it. On the ground lay an old hypodermic syringe and Judy pushed it out of the way with the toe of her shoe.

We pulled out our lunch and sat on two plastic shopping bags to insulate us from whatever other nasties were around, grateful to get away from the sun. 
Judy dips a hand in the Adriatic
A fresh breeze was blowing off the Adriatic, half a dozen windsurfers were enjoying the conditions and on the beach couples and small family groups were doing the opposite of us – soaking up the sun. Among them was a topless woman flat on her back. She was as brown as two berries with bikini briefs that matched her bright red beach bag. She clung to the bag with her left hand, as though fearing someone might snatch it away at any moment.

This stretch of coastline was less glamorous than the mile upon mile we’d cycled past over the previous two days. It was low rent, with few cafes and bars and none of the shops selling beachwear and cheap jewellery.
The coastline south of Venice (the Riviera Romagnola)
is lined with resorts,campgrounds and ribbon development
where tackyshops sell all sorts of swimwear and cheap
 jewellery,and excellent food

Behind us on the other side of the road was a kind of mobile home ghetto – most of their occupants inside hiding from the sun. One fair skinned couple emerged to sit in their sunchairs on the pebbly beach – within minutes the woman had had enough and stood up. A gust collapsed her beach chair and she picked it up, turned its back to the breeze and the view and sat down facing us, determined to keep on reading. But you could tell she wasn’t having a good hair day.
Among all the prone bodies a solitary, lonely figure approached. He made a beeline for us, waving a bright square of material at us – a kind of shawl. We declined that and his other tack. As he moved away he hesitated, his attention on the tandem. “Where you from?” he asked. We explained briefly we were New Zealanders and that we’d cycled from Britain.  He seemed a gentle soul as he wished us well and wandered off looking for other signs of life.
We packed up our lunch things and cycled into the heat – 20 kilometres away Ancona promised a night of comfort for a change in a hotel bed.

On tipping in Italy where a service charge is usually included: “I give of my personality.”

“I don’t know how much I should eat out of my crutch,” on having dropped crumbs in the lap of her cycle shorts.

“I see the northern hemisphere’s 57 stars are out tonight,” J expressing her view that the southern hemisphere’s night sky is more spectacular.

It billed itself as Camping Tahiti, and they were doing their best to convey a Pacific Island theme. The restaurant was called "Moorea" and the toilet doors were painted with images of palm trees. When we arrived the campground was almost full, but they squeezed us into a pitch in a far corner and charged us E37.00 for the privilege - our most expensive campsite yet.

Swimming pool - early morning

Most of the campers were Italians - in tents, mobile homes, attractive little cabins and caravans. This is the Riviera Romagnola - a 110 km stretch of Adriatic coastline from Ravenna in the north to south of Rimini. It's a region where Italians who can't afford or don't want the more exotic, go on holidays often with their neighours. A place where seaside swimming is less important than other things - the entertainment, the beauty parlours, the food and the campground facilities.

Our neighbours that night incuded two Italian families in separate cabins - the two husbands entertained us as they plugged a hairdryer into an extension lead and blew hot air over the charcoals on the bbq to speed things up. Kiwi blokes take note: here's another use for the wife's hairdryer.

In case we should want to leave the "village" we were issued with paper bracelets so we could get back in. The swimming pool was stunning, but the sea was a kilometre away - rides were offered in a "train" which went on the road.

Squeezed into a corner
Street sign at Camping Tahiti

"Village" scene - Camping Tahiti

Bracelets in case we wished to escape
the confines of Camping Tahiti
Departing Ancona for Croatia - farewell Italy, we will be back

Venetian Blinded

HOWARD RIES 1950 - 2012
Father, husband, best mate


Current Location: Split, Croatia (by ferry from Ancona, Italy)
Distance Cycled: 3,931 km

Longest Day: 106.35 km
Max Speed: 56.4 kph
Flat Tyres: None since Nevers, France when tyres upgraded to Schwalbe Marathon Dureme Tandem

Worst Smells: from a truck pulling out of a mussel processing factory in Brittany, France.
Nicest Smells: Lavender from shops in Italy, coffee everywhere, pine trees, peaches in Split.
Bottoms’ Status: (0 = absolute agony, 10 = heaven on earth) Mike = 9.5, Judy = 9.5. We are having a few days off the bike and hence making a swift return to normal.
Venice is a city under threat from the sea and from the tourist hordes. We came, we saw, we were conquered - by the crowds and the heat.

Despite Venice’s undeniable beauty, culture and history, one day was enough. It was impossible to see past the throng of visitors and we retreated to our campground, preferring the mosquitoes which lay in wait for us on the edge of what is basically a big swamp. 

Our plan on going to Venice was to catch a ferry from there to Croatia but the logistics of getting the tandem on board a ship were just too taxing – a bike ride from our campsite, some form of water transport to the island of Venice, a struggle to push the loaded tandem through the crowds to the ferry terminal and finally to embark.

Instead we chose to cycle down the coast to Ancona where it was a relatively straightforward exercise to board a boat.

Recently, we recounted our cycle ride in northern Italy – following part of the route along which Judy's father made a bid for freedom during WW2. Since that blog some of you have asked, “What happened to Colin, Tommy and Allan?"
Colin and Allan had escaped previously together from a POW camp near Poppi, Italy. On that occasion they were recaptured on the coast after working their way through the Appenines. They were sent to Gavi POW camp (the camp for troublesome POWs). Then this second escape with Tommy from Spittal, dressed in clothing they swapped with three Frenchmen having avoided being put on the “camp role”. Colin and Tommy, whilst recaptured at Chuisaforte, escaped again and got back with their troops for the remainder of the war.
Colin wrote a racy read called “Life without Ladies” on his return to NZ published in 1945. Colin and Allan stayed in touch, especially with Gavi POW reunions in NZ, and Colin ran his legal practice in Whanganui and lived to a good age.
Tommy became Sir Tommy and divides his time between London and Scotland. Tommy has recently written his book “Behind Enemy Lines” published by Random UK.
My father was recaptured in Slovenia and remained in POW camps for the rest of the war years. Forty years later, Allan wrote his book “The Long Road to Freedom” published by Random House. Parts of that book are in recent NZ Random publications called “Escape” and “Behind Enemy Lines”. Allan and Colin’s escapes were re-enacted in a half hour programme called “Allan Yeoman: Escape Artist” by Gibson Group for TVNZ’s series of seven NZers in WW2 called “Kiwis at War”.

My parents’ letters written to each other throughout their six year separation during the war, have been recently archived in Alexander Turnbull Library. Allan died aged 93 in September 2007. Just prior to Allan’s death, Tommy read Allan’s book and wrote to him and then went on to write his own story of his war years.

Sunday 5 August 2012

In My Father's Footsteps

Fording a small stream on the cycleway
above the River Fella

I always thought they were brave, but having travelled part of their escape route – I am now stunned they thought they could escape through this harsh countryside and get back to their troops.

Spittal an der Drau, the Carnic Alps, Hermagor, Pontebba, Chiusaforte, the River Fella, Venzone, Gemona di Friuli, Montemaggiore and Caporetto (Kobarid in Slovenian), these names, but particularly Chiusaforte, have been like Folk Law in our family.

During WWII when Italy switched sides to join the Allies, my father with his Prisoner-of-War ‘in-mates’ from Gavi Castle, were moved by the Germans by train in September 1943 via Villach to Spittal.  Within 24 hours he’d escaped from Spittal with fellow Kiwi Colin Armstrong and Scottish Tommy McPherson and were faced with the Carnic Alps, narrow steep sided valleys and in Italy, the River Fella racing through the deep valleys below.

In Chiusaforte (NE Italy), Colin and Tommy were captured,  my father Allan pushed on alone.  He was encouraged near Gemona di Friuli to head East towards the Yugoslavian Partisans, being re-captured some 3 months later.

Pontebba - we cycled through it but
during Allan's escape he skirted
this village.
At Chiusaforte - where Allan found
himsef alone after the capture of his
two companions in this village.
Our goal was to try to find these villages and extraordinary luck was with us.  A fellow cyclist gave us his map of a cycleway from Villach to Venice, and from Tarvisio to Gemona del Friuli we dawdled along a gentle decline on the cycle route on the former railway line through the villages of Pontebba, Chiusaforte and Venzone, all the while running beside the River Fella.

Chiusaforte - today a sleepy village, many of the houses renovated, others not.

I kept saying to Mike, this is a cycle trip of a lifetime.  The sheerness of the mountains on both sides of the valley, the breathtaking beauty of the terrain was enough in itself, but to see for myself the terrain my father and his pals escaped through, was of such historical importance to me, it truly was a cycle trip of a lifetime.  
Allan’s route took him East into what is now Slovenia but we head South to Venice.

Grinding in Granny Gear

Most cyclists regard Granny Gear as the last spin of the sprockets before defeat – after Granny Gear there’s nothing left but to get off and push the bike up that hill.  The humiliation is enough to keep some cyclists grinding away in other low gears – second or third but never that first cog.

However, over the last couple of days we’ve come to appreciate Granny Gear – the lowest of the 14 gears on our Rohloff-equipped tandem.

Judy plans the route
We’ve climbed 1,000 metres to 1,359 metres above sea level – not much if you are a Tour de France professional but for us it’s been a challenge. It’s by far the biggest climb we’ve done in the 3,000 plus kilometres we’ve travelled since setting out from Britain, and we knew if we could achieve this climb it would give us a benchmark for the future.

The route was over the Kor Alps in Southern Austria, near the border with Slovenia. No separate cycleway here, instead we shared  the road with Sunday motorcyclists hell bent on shortening their lives.

Stunning machinery travelling at stunning speeds
We clung to second and third gears as the road steepened and faraway mountains came into view. Then as the gradient neared 15% a twist of the wrist dropped the Beast of Bridgwater into Granny Gear. Maybe it’s the experience we’ve gained on the tandem, but instead of wobbling all over the road as our speed dropped to walking pace, about 4 kph, we managed to maintain a reasonably straight line and stay near the verge as those motorcyclists tore by. It was hard work but we were going uphill by bike – no walking required.

We planned to stay part way at a campground shown on our map at  Soboth (1,065 m) but when we arrived there was no sign of it. In one of those “what now” moments we pushed the door open at a hostel and stepped inside. We found a group of children and minders – all members of a Catholic church group from Graz.
Private hostel where a Catholic
church group allowed us to stay
Hostel campsite at Soboth,
southern Austria

We explained our predicament and eventually they agreed we could camp outside and use their showers. We were extremely grateful as the next campsite   was hours away. A sudden thunderstorm swept through the hills and once it was over we lay in our tent listening to the children singing until we fell asleep.

The next morning we left a small donation for the church funds and slipped away early – we still had 300m to climb. Once again, we found a use for Granny Gear but this time the motorcyclists were either back at work on a Monday – or had all killed themselves.

Pausing for a breather as we reach our highest point - 1,359 m above sea level
Over the top and an opportunity for coffee
Roadside water wheel
Our descent brought another issue – within a couple of kilometres the brakes were overheating to such an extent that it was impossible to keep our fingers on the wheel rims without getting burnt.  Overheating brakes are a particular issue for tandems – with two up plus luggage they fly down hills as gravity takes over. In a worst case scenario, the heat generated from four tiny little brake pads can cause the air in the tyres’ inner tubes to expand until they burst – with potentially disastrous consequences.

The only option is to rest the brakes by getting off and walking every half kilometre or so. It took us a couple of hours to lose the 1,000m in altitude we’d gained, but at least we were in one piece.
And it was a change from Granny Gear.