Tuesday 25 September 2012

Albania - A Day Trip from Corfu

Current Location: Corfu Island, Greece
Albanis's flag is a double-headed eagle.

Our guide’s microphone kept cutting out. She tapped it repeatedly and turned the volume up so that when the microphone suddenly reawakened we jumped in our seats. 
Somehow the microphone symbolised the day. Here we were playing tourists on a bus in Albania – a country where the economy certainly doesn’t work, but there are occasional signs of life.
Partly built - derelict. Waiting for a
tourist boom that has never happened.

Rubbish in a side street in Saranda.
This is a seaside town of 35,000 where
the population doubles ove the summer
holiday seasons as tourists arrive from
the capital, Tirana, and Kosovo and
The view was depressing. Apartment block after house after apartment block lay half built – sometimes with people living on a single floor while above and below them was a wasteland of concrete. “When we get the money we can finish them,” said our guide, a cheerful local called Julie. She added, ”this (an investment opportunity) will be of interest to your country.”

The bottom floor is closed in,
the top floor is open to the
weather. The middle floor is
A Vodafone billboard is the only
advertising visible from the water
as we approach Saranda.
The people – from behind the shelter of our bus windows – looked lean, even mean. Not threatening but as if they were in need of three square meals.
Youths – like young males everywhere – hung around the central park in Saranda looking bored and listless. When they did move it was often with a swagger, trying to look tough. Their clothes, at first glance fashionable, looked cheap and poorly made.  

UNESCO World Heritage Site at Butrint. The ruins are
slowly sinking while engineers try to figure out how to
control the flooding that's gradually getting worse.

Traffic is forced to wait while busloads
of us tourists cross the street safely
Our guide, Julie, a resident of  Saranda.
Energetic, cheerful and determined to get across the message that
Albania is beautiful.


Images (below) from bus window 

Road works - Saranda
Saranda waterfront - a glimpse of what may be.
A handful of smart retail shops, but a
lack of customers. To be fair, it was the
end of the summer season.

This building was deliberately bowled
"because they didn't have the right
permits", we were told.
   Itwas depressing. It was also fascinating and I felt like a voyeur, safe in the knowledge that by day’s end we would be back in Greece where despite its own problems, life is comfortable.

Here was the country that has one of the poorest economies in Europe. The 20 year transition from a xenophobic Communist state to a modern democracy remains fraught with widespread corruption, organised crime, high unemployment and a rundown infrastructure. An example of the latter: one source says 35 % of all electricity generated in Albania (most of it hydro) is lost through delivery problems and theft.

Our bus tour began with a stop for coffee (cheap) and then on to the  UNESCO World Heritage Site at Butrint, inhabited first by the Greeks, then the Romans before being abandoned in the Middle Ages when it was struck first by an earthquake, then a flood.

A sudden storm struck towards the end of our visit; sheets of lightning, thunder rumbling and a deluge that sent us scurrying back to our coach.
We bussed back to Saranda, 20 kilometres to the north, where we had a late lunch of meatballs, pork slices, diced cabbage and so on, while outside a woman sold brightly coloured T shirts bearing the symbol of the double-headed Albanian eagle. For her at least, it was a good day. Many of our number had been soaked by the rain and were happy to buy a dry garment for the return boat ride home.
Animals - particularly teddy bears - are
hung outside to ward off evil spirits.
That evening we dined in comfort at our local taverna. The images of Albania were still fresh and disturbing. How could it be, we asked, that a country so close to Western Europe could be so far away?

Prince Philip's Birthplace in Corfu

Current Location: Corfu, Greece

Quotable Quotes

Judy the Stoker commenting on the number of smokers in Europe: "Europe's an ashtray. Rothmans has nothing to fear."
Merran the Rear Seat Navigator comments on a Corfu road:"Wow, this is cool. I hope it doesn't turn perilous."
Judy the Stoker gets her marinelife confused:"And then (divers) dropped down on all these mantra eels." How about manta rays?

Mon Repos Palace - where Prince
Philip was born.
Growing up in New Zealand in the 1950s and 60s I can remember the days when Prince Philip was sometimes referred to as “Phil the Greek”. At the time I thought nothing of it, but reflecting on it now I suspect it was part racial slur and partly an unspoken view that the Queen had married beneath her status. But in those simple days, no-one would have dared to say the latter in public – we were very pro the monarchy and I can remember lining up with all my school mates to catch a glimpse of the Queen during her Royal visit in 1963 (and missing the critical with my Kodak camera).

The phrase “Phil the Greek” came to mind the other day, when I discovered that he was born here on the Greek Island of Corfu in 1921.

Much of the Mon Repos Estate looks
in need of a wealthy benefactor
His birthplace was at Mon Repos Palace, not far from Corfu’s old city,  and with a rental car and a drive in mind our party of three (my daughter Merran was with us) we set off to visit the south of the island and maybe find the palace. It wasn’t to be that day – although at one point we were close enough to see what looked like a long pedestrian causeway which might have taken us there.
Interior Mon Repos Palace

A couple of days later, we were thrown off the scent when a waiter at a restaurant where we were dining in the heart of the old city claimed that the Palace of St Michael and St George - a stone’s throw from where we were seated - was Prince Philip’s birthplace.
We lost interest until Judy and I were returning from the airport, having delivered Merran there for a flight to London. We took a wrong turn and suddenly there was a sign – Mon Repos Palace.

Did Prince Philip's older siblings ever
come home with handfuls of treasure?
The Palace's atrium serves
as a reference point for the
botanical gardens at Mon Repos.
The gardens were badly in need of a prune, some replanting and a major tidy up but it was a pleasant walk – lizards rustling through the leaves, the smell of pines and a lone snorkeler floating on the blue Ionian waters below us. It would have been the perfect place for a game of hide and seek, if members of the Greek Royal family ever indulged in such frivolous pastimes.  There is a Doric temple lying in ruins, and archaeologists have been at work on several sites in the grounds unearthing treasures – some of which are now in a museum inside the palace. Philip would have been too young, but did his older sisters ever come home with handfuls of silver coins they’d found while fossicking?
Part of a permanent photo exhbition,
the work of a British naval officer
stationed in Corfu.

Sir  Frederick Adam, High
Commissioner of the
Ionian Islands
The palace itself was built in 1824, on the orders of the British High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands, Sir Frederic Adam, who seems to have been prepared to go to considerable lengths to satisfy his Corfiot wife’s desire.
When Corfu and the other islands were returned to Greece in 1864, the Greek royal family were given it to use as a summer home, and that’s how the baby Philip came to be born there. However, his holidays there were short lived.  Within a year or two, his family went into exile.


Some Other Stuff about Prince Philip – from Wikipedia
He was the fifth and final child in his family, the others were girls.
When his family was exiled, he was transported to safety in a cot made from a fruit box.
He began corresponding with Princess Elizabeth when she was 13 and he was 18. Love blossomed.
His three surviving sisters were not invited to the wedding. They had married German noblemen and in 1947 in post-war Britain their presence would not have been acceptable.

His mother was placed in an asylum after being diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Monday 24 September 2012

Corfu - A Culinary Adventure

Coffee over the water
The 2xtandem’s holiday from cycling has now reached the Greek Island of Corfu, where we have been joined for a few days by Mike’s daughter Merran - aka the Rear Seat Navigator. We’ve invited her to share a few thoughts on the subject of food, but first some:
Food Facts

There are more than 3 million olive trees on Corfu
Some are said to be more than 400 years old
A local culinary speciality is sofrito, a veal rump roast of Venetian origin
In modern times, specialist cultivation has seen the introduction of the kumquat, which is used to make an orange flavoured (and somewhat sickly) liqueur which is sold all over the island
Merran Brockie

Dinner day 3 at our local taverna
The three travellers have decided that you can record your travels equally as well by using photos of food as opposed to snapshots of landscape and the like. It is a well-known secret that Dad, Judy and I love our food and have therefore spent a great 8 days together trying out the local Greek cuisine on Corfu. The following are some excerpts from the food diary.

Day One – Our Local Taverna
Birthday lunch starters
Our first night on Corfu, we decided to have a quick bite locally, and stumbled out the gate of our campsite to the local taverna. We decided it would be rude not to have the full three course meal, so I chose the dolmades (vine leaves stuffed with rice and minced meat) which were 100 times better than the ones you can sometimes find at home. They were warmed and came with fresh lemon to squeeze over them. Next up I tucked in to the stuffed peppers and tomatoes, which were hugely filling and so tasty. Dad had the ‘special family recipe chicken’ which was a whole lot better than KFCs, while Judy decided to stick with tradition and fill up on the delicious moussaka. Following this, our lovely tavern owner brought us some of his special ‘bloody pudding’ which he told us was another specialty here, and was on the house – even better! The litre of house wine also went down a treat.

Day Two – The Opposition
We decided we couldn’t go to the same place two nights in a row, so ventured across the road to the other local Taverna. I was introduced to my new favourite dish, baked feta, and had mussels in wine sauce for a main. Deilsh. We had also been told that we MUST try Retsina, the local Greek wine. I must say, I was expecting the worst but the three of us actually enjoyed  a bottle of it together here!

Quotable Quote
Merran emerges from restaurant: "Oh no, I think I'm having a food baby." 

Day Three – Back to the Local Taverna
Dinner day 3 - fried cheese and
zucchini balls
We couldn’t help it, with smells drifting down the driveway towards our campsite; we were drawn in again to our lovely man at the end of the driveway. This time he decided to help us order a bunch of small plates to share, and we tried his baked feta (definitely the best so far), fried local cheese, Greek salad, potato and garlic dip and zuchinni balls. Shortly after the photo was taken, I happened to get acquainted with the biggest flying bug I have EVER seen. Something that felt like a little bird flew in to my lap, and I screamed ‘there’s something in my jumper!’ The Chef could not explain to us what it was, and had to fetch his elderly parents, who claimed it was some sort of onion bug, which burrowed underground. Why did it need wings we asked? Naturally, that one was lost in translation.

Birthday lunch view
 We suspect we offended the chef when he suggested we have fries as one of our dishes, and we disagreed. He looked at us, baffled. Corfu has completely set its menus to please the flocks of British tourists who come here every summer. On blackboards everywhere you see ‘English breakfast – sausage, egg, toast and tea’. Fries come with every meal, and the waiters assume when you ask for coffee that you would like a Nescafe. All the comforts of home have been transported here for the British.

Day Four – Birthday Lunch
Birthday lunch beef stifado
A special day for us – we went out for lunch instead of dinner! Judy had received a special gift of money from her book club for her birthday last year, with instructions to spend it on a meal. As Judy was shouting, we went for broke. First up, sardines for Dad, baked feta for me (I know when I am on to a good thing) and fried eggplant with garlic aioli AND fried calamari and octopus for Judy (we may have helped her with this). After a ten minute breather to drink more wine and beer, all three of us tucked into beef stifado (slow cooked, in a juicy tomato sauce and onions) with fries.

 Being so full, we retired to the most beautiful beach out in front of the taverna, and spent a couple of hours dozing and swimming in the crystal clear, blue water, then ventured back for dessert. We all downed ginormous pieces of baklava, dripping with honey and accompanied by ice cream. YUM – thanks Judy!

Day Five – Ipsos
Tonight we decided to let our hair down, and move five minutes up the road to a beach called Ipsos for dinner. We found a wee touristy looking taverna that also had Greek food and managed more baked feta, delicious chicken with tomatoes, olives and feta with more wine and baklava! 
Day Six – Local (Again)
A quick but beautiful stop for Greek
salad and beer

We were getting separation anxiety after not being to our local tavern for two days, and were a bit weary from our day trip to Albania, so headed back for yet another amazing meal with more baked feta (I know, it has now become a theme to my day, I am 100% addicted), moussaka (delicious with eggplants) and more bloody pudding. Dad and Judy copied my early lead with stuffed peppers and tomatoes. More ouzo and wine – we decided we really could get used to living here!
Day Seven – Town
Dinner day 7 - dessert in
Corfu town
A week had passed and we still hadn’t ventured into Corfu town for dinner.  After a quick scope of the main eateries, we settled for a delightful restaurant in the main square,  amongst the gardens. We were told that Prince Philip had been born at the palace close by – this was a shock as we had spent a day driving around trying to find the blinkin palace and had given up! A great night ensued, with more baked feta (still my favourite food EVER), local fresh fish with tomato stew, GINORMOUS icecreams for Dad and I, and a litre of rose
Dancing girls at dinner
We then were treated to a performance by the local dance company right by our table – with girls ranging from 4 or 5 years up to adults dancing to all sorts of local and international songs! I almost joined them when one of my childhood pop songs came on. A great night out in Corfu!
A window display of kumquat
liqueur - a drink we enjoyed
on our last night together
So, as you can tell, Corfu may be pretty, the beaches beautiful, the water warm and the ruins interesting, but really, the most important part of the trip has been the food. When I get home I will be on to the task of recreating some of the amazing food that we have experienced here!


Friday 14 September 2012

Dobar Dun (Hello) from Croatia

Sleeping under the stars - deck passage
on our return to Italy after amost a month
in Croatia.
Current Location: Bari, Italy having crossed by ferry from Dubrovnik, Croatia

She was short, stout and shrewd. In her hand she clutched a card that said “apartment”. She saw us hesitating in the crowd emerging from a coastal ferry – we couldn’t decide whether to camp or try to find a roof over our heads. As we dithered, she cast her line calling “apartment” in our direction. With perfect timing she looked at the loaded tandem, then at us and planted the hook,” no steps, walking distance.”

This was accommodation Dubrovnik style – Croatia’s most expensive city has a thriving private rental market in which residents with a spare room or two tout for customers among the thousands of tourists not prepared to pay stiff hotel prices.

On the fortified wall of Dubrovnik's old city.
 The city was  without water and electricity for three months
during the fighting in 1991/2. It was badly damaged,
 but the restoration is almost complete.


Stray cat emerges from the rubble of a derelict building.
Summer evening sun and the residents of Dubrovnik
look a bit like seals on a rocky headland.


 Within moments we’d struck a deal –the cost was the same as we knew we’d have to pay at the local campground, but we wouldn’t have to erect our tent and could sleep in the luxury of a double bed. And Dubrovnik’s famous old walled city was within walking distance, we were promised.


In several European cities we've spotted
these padlocks on fences. Maybe we're
slow on the uptake, but here in
 Dubrovnik the lovers have added their
names as well- a public declaration
 of their affections.

Mrs Plenkovic (the introductions came later) led the way to the family home – up a steep street that climbed away from the port. Arriving at the house was a bit like a lottery – we weren’t sure whether we were onto a winner and if we were not, how we would get out of the deal. But Judy took a quick look at the apartment with its terrace, big double bed and separate bathroom and gave it the ok.   
What cyclists do on a day off. Mljet Island.
What cyclists do every day.

We’d barely unloaded the bike before Mrs Plenkovic reappeared full of good spirits and with her husband in tow. She was carrying a silver tray on which were four small glasses and a bottle of Rakija – a clear, homemade alcohol that packs a punch.

Camped under an olive tree - Mljet Is.
We toasted each other, drank a round and then another as the evening drew in. Mr Plenkovic picked several bunches of grapes and presented them to us, and showed us where we could reach from the terrace to collect figs from a large tree for our breakfast the next morning. Their English wasn’t good, and our Croatian was zilch but we felt we were being given a particularly warm welcome which couldn’t all be attributed to the alcohol. Afterwards we put it down to being New Zealanders, and that despite the language difficulties we’d talked about the early Dalmatian settlers who’d arrived and found work digging out kauri gum and had begun New Zealand’s wine industry.

Judy's "39 Steps" as in the John Buchan novel. They led to
a rocky cove near our campsite on Mljet Is. The cove was
not the most attractive spot, it had a few tired fishing dinghies
and the occasional topless German sun worshipper - and a hint
of mystery.
 Our reception in the Plenkovic home was in marked contrast to some of our other encounters in Croatia. On occasion people have been abrupt to the point of rudeness, and even Judy’s winning ways have been unable to thaw the grumpy checkout operators in the supermarkets.

Overlooked by most of the tourists in Dubrovnik is
War Photo Limited, which as the name suggests exhibits
photos by renowned war photographers. When we visited
there was an exhibition by Emmanuel Ortiz, who covered
the fighting that followed the death of Tito and the break
up of Yugoslavia. The pictures are stunning - especially
his use of light and sense of timing. And there is nothing
sensationalist about his work - along with the battleground
scenes he captures quieter moments - a Bosniak soldier
crying, refugees washing their clothes in a river in no-man's
land, a man powering his radio with a bicycle dynamo and
Mostar's destroyed old bridge with a wild-eyed dog peering
into the lens. Check out Ortiz's work at:

But then a travel guide*reminded us that Croatia is still living in turbulent times. It struggled under years of Communism, then less than two decades ago was involved in a war in which as many as 20,000 people died.  Now it’s under siege again – this time from tourists who have made it one of the Adriatic’s hot spots and have forgotten (or don’t know) about its past. No wonder those shop assistants give the “Croatian shrug” (don’t know, don’t care) occasionally.

We’ve spent almost four weeks in Croatia, and the good news is that we’ve discovered that those same checkout operators do thaw after a while – a familiar face (even a foreign one) and a friendly smile can break down the barriers.

But it hasn’t been easy, and while we’ve enjoyed our time in Croatia it feels very much like a young country finding its way in the wider world. It’s on the verge of joining the European Union – forming a closer relationship with some of its much bigger and more economically powerful neighbours.
Many Croatians are unhappy at the prospect, which is hardly surprising given the rifts in the EU at present. It’s a country which has had a tragic past, and we can only hope that its future is a lot brighter for people like Mr and Mrs Plenkovic.

*Rick Steves’ Croatia and Slovenia