Saturday, July 21, 2018

Last blog of last few days of the holiday with Lovely Leb

All good things come to an end, including fantastic holidays like this. But the last few days were especially lovely, spent with dear Leb in lovely Croatia. Our time in Split ended on a particular high with a fabulous rendition of Nabucco performed in the center of Split's Old Town at Diocletian's' Palace.

Magnifico Nabucco

This is the last blog post of this 2018 World Cup adventure, so I'll quickly cover the last few days and sumarise the whole trip. I must also write some words about Putin's Russia. This is an especially topical subject as he was center stage at the beginning and end of the World Cup around which this trip was based and his poodle, Trump, visited the EU and UK, before being closed away with him for two hours presumably to receive his instructions on how to behave next.

Day 49 - Monday, 16th July - Museum, Dinner, No Nabucco, Puddings

After the drama of watching Croatia play in the first ever World Cup final here in Split, we had a relatively relaxing day lined up - just pottering around the city before going to see the opera. I'd booked seats for Nabucco, at the Croatian National Theater almost upon our arrival so we were looking to seeing one of our favourite "classic supremos" (the term I embarassingly used on a tape I gave to Edward Craxton at the British Council when seeking his approval and advice on classical music in the early 90s.)

Split Museum

After breakfast we did a bit of shopping and pottering around and I had another very nice fresh fish dish.

Chandelier and ceiling at our hotel

Another great fish dinner

Splitmobile





Split City Center - Got really familiar with this


Museum Visit


After that we went to the Split City museum which plotted it's history from the days of Roman occupation when Emperor Diocletian built his palace at the start of the 4th century. The city was originally totally enclosed within the walls of the palace but then expanded to the east and west.

The original ethnicity the people living here was Greek, apparently, who named the settlement Spalathos or Aspalathos but after the expansion of the Roman empire there must have been a lot of Latin influence. The city and surrounding territory became occupied by southern Slavs in 7th century.  

Split was subject to changing rule from local powers such as Byzantium, Venice, Hungary and Bosnia for the next few centuries  before becoming a significant city in the newly created state of Yugoslavia at the end of the first world war. Since Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia on 25th June, 1991 - just 106 days after Lithuania. Since then, Split has been Croatia's second biggest city.

Split in Roman Times






View from the museum



Nice Dinner

We strolled along the promenade and had a drink whilst watching the people going by...


and then I tried (and failed again) to find a Croatia chequered red & white dickie bow for the opera.

Looking for dickie bows


... before going back to the hotel to get changed...


... and then went out for a nice night out, we went to quite a posh restaurant where we ordered baked fish with home made green macaroni which, I must admit, I thought they were runner beans.

It was a bit too bony (and scaly) for me, so a little disappointing, but it tasted delicious and went down very nicely with a bottle of the local white wine.



Can't beat a bit of Posip!


No Nabucco

We excitedly got to the theater in good time and entered straight in, avoiding a queue of several others at the ticket desk who we assumed were buying at the last minute.

We actually entered into the main hall of the theater and had our tickets checked and ripped in the corner and then were directed to the back of the theater. This seemed odd as the programme on the seats was most definitely not Nabucco. This was odd. The performance here was going to be a local play. No thanks. It would have been in five different dialects of Croatian and the guy I asked about it said even he was doubtful that he'd understand much.

Anticipating the opera



"What about Nabucco"?" I asked.

"It's been cancelled. The Bass singer was ill and they couldn't find a replacement in time. Go to the ticket office and they'll give you a refund or you can buy for a different date."

We concluded that he'd just got pissed watching the World Cup final and didn't feel up to it. 

Oh well. We bought another ticket for Wednesday night. Fingers crossed there.

After that disappointment we visited Leopold's delicatessen (just a cheap craft beer bar) and finished the evening with some lovely puddings at a wine bar.




Day 50 - Tuesday, 17th July - Diocletian Palace Cellars, Bike Ride, Hajduk Split, Players Return

Palace Cellars

Leb had been for a few walks on her own while I either did my blog or did some programming work. Each time, she'd been past the Diocletian Palace at the center of the old city and so it was an obvious choice for us to pay a proper visit there, and go down the amazing labyrinth of cellars which were apparently a mirror image of the rooms above when it was in use. 

The cellars had originally functioned as utility rooms to make or press wines and the like but after the Romans left they were used as places to put rubbish which gradually built up to the extent that the cellars became inaccessible. In the 1950s the decision was made to clear the debris and renovate the cellars.

Our hotel breakfast room


Fish Market

Roman Gate








Cellar Plan






Cheap new watch after that "waterproof" one died

New Watch 








Bike Ride

After this, we hired bikes and went on a fantastic ride around the peninsular to the west of Split. We had thought about getting a ferry across to Brac and hiring bikes there to do something similar, but this was much nearer and much more doable. We even found a nice beach to go for a dip.


















Right at the tip of the peninsula

















Bike tour

Hajduk Split

This couldn't go on. I'd been in a new city for four days and still I hadn't visited their football stadium. In the case of Split, it's another famous "east" European club, Hajduk Split.



As it was so close to our route back to drop the bikes off, it wasn't difficult to persuade Leb that she needed to come with me to take a quick look.

"Poljud" is a very impressive stadium, with a magnificant backdrop, despite its running track style.

Poljud







I was thrilled to learn that Hdjuk Split was formed by a group of students from Split who were living in Prague, who frequented a pub there called U fleku. It's the one spot in Prague I always remember as they serve just one type of drink and one typr of food - but do so very efficiently. It's the only time in my life I've managed to order, and pay for a beer, whilst finishing my previous one by a simple nod to the strapping barman in lederhosen.

U Fleku - where Hajduk Split started



Hajduk Split have quite a long history, then, and reached their "golden" period in the Yugoslav league, winning it several times, including 1979, which earned them a place in the same European Cup that Forest won in 1980.

Yugoslav champions, 1979

We could have played them in the final but they were beaten by the finalists, Hamburg SV in the quarter finals.

Hajduk Split 3 Hamburg 2, 19th March 1980. Forest were beating Dynamo Berlin 3-1 away the same night. Hamburg had won the first leg 1-0 so went through on away goals.



They won the first Croatian league after independence but have struggled in recent years.

3rd in the Croatian league last season

Players' Return

We dropped the bikes off after about 12 km or riding with an hour spare before the World Cup players were due to pop into Split to meet the fans. I'd watched the TV images of the return to Croatia in Zagreb, the night before, and the scenes were incredible with the streets packed there to see their heroes.

 Not all the squad came to Spit, only the five or six from the area, I was told, including captain Luka Modric. Still, the enthusiasm was still there and by the time we went down to the temporary stage, around 6pm, it was already dangerously packed.

Leb decided she didn't want to see them that much and sensibly left the scene before it got really hectic. Myself, I stayed to get a glimpse of one player (I think) before deciding to head back.

There were endless red flares being lit which made it impossible for people at the back to see anything through the smoke.








Patriotic song No 102...




Leb had gone by now


Spot the Croatian player?



I must admit I have mixed feelings about this kind of unrestrained nationalism. For almost an hour, the guys on the stage whipped up the fans fervor with what I presume were pro-Croatia statements, always followed by another mass rendition of a patriotic song.

Of course, I have no idea what they were singing but it did feel a little too much to me.

We had a nice meal out at "Mad Dog" - a very nice gnocchi but we had an early night because the next day we were getting up at the crack of dawn for a long boat trip, starting at 7 am. We didn't want to be riding the waves of the Adriatic sea with a hang over.

Mad Dogs - good beer and food


Gnocchi with Truffle


Day 51 - Wednesday, 18th July - Blue Cave, Vis, Secluded Beach, Hvar, Nabucco.

Toto Tour

We were up and out of the hotel, with a packed "breakfast" (actually mainly just packets of biscuits)  by 6:50 am and were on the boat by 7:15. I must admit I was a bit apprehensive as the speedboat bobbled and bounced across the water for the first hour and a half.

At one point I had one of those burps with a bit of sick in it that Ben Elton made famous in his hilarious 1997 stand up comedy about "New Labour... all style and no content." set in Leeds.

No further travel sickness though. We got to the first destination, the small island of Bisevo, ok with the biggest problem being a full bladder.

I asked our first pilot, Petar, if I could go to the toilet.

"No. Wait" he chirped.

"After the blue cave boat, you can go then."

It was a good call. We had bombed across as quickly as possible to get to the island before the rush. By the time we'd got back the queue had grown much longer and would have taken an hour and a half to go through then.








Blue Cave

The Blue Cave was every bit as beautiful, if even smaller, as we'd been led to believe. The local captain Birdseye navigated us in and out of the cave and told us its history.









Leaving the Cave

Komiza Fishing Village

After that it was a quick 15 minute speedboat ride to the next destination, a cute fishing village on the island of Vis, called Komiza. We had their local speciality, a kind of fish bread and went for a stroll up and down he main street. Then we decided to stop for a bite to eat.

If you can't get a decent piece of fish in a cafe in a village such as this you might as well give up but this was the best fish I'd had in years.



Monk Seal Cave - where the Monk Seals used to live before the local fishermen killed them all







Komiza "fish bread"






Beaches

After that it was off to two beaches. The first was a magical little beach, called Stiniva. To get access to it, you have to swim from the boat, through a narrow rocky channel. Stunning, if a little pebbly.

Leb has photos for this which I haven't had access to yet. We only stayed there twenty minutes or so.

Stiniva Beach

The second was a secluded cove not far away where we stayed for an hour and a half - including a nice snorkel in the shallows.



Man and his two dogs




Hvar

After a brief stop there, we were off to the town of Hvar on the island of Hvar. Some of our younger fellow travelers, a couple from Sweden, hiked up the hill to the big fortress but we bimbled around the harbor and had a coffee and then another nice fish and salad.

Hvar got news for you? 

Hvar is it to the bar?





Lazy time in the shade

Hvar got any fish? Yes!





Petar had warned us that the wind might kick up around 6 pm so advised that we should leave a little before. So at about ten to six we headed off from the port of Hvar, round the corner and then north back to Split, through the narrow gate between the islands of Brac and Solta.

It was an invigorating ride on the speedboat and it quickly became more fun than fear. Towards the end I actually stood up, holding onto the rail, so that I could see over Peter's tall broad shoulders at the open water ahead. It felt like I imagine jetskiing feels like. 

Boat Trip to the Blue Cave

Thanks to Petar and Toto Travel for a great day out.




Nabucco

After getting back, having a shower and getting changed it was time to get ready for the opera. My attempt to buy a red and white chequed (i.e. Croatia styled) bow tie had failed but I dressed as smart as I could as we headed back to the theater hoping for no more surprises.

After we arrived, albeit early, it was a bit worrying that no-one else seemed to be around so we went in to the ticket office where the guy that had seen us on Monday was sat.

"It is summer season. We always have performances outdoor in the summer"

At first my heart sank but then I realised the place where he was pointing to on the map was right in the center of Split in Diocletian's Palace. We trotted off to find it but the guy on the gate was not letting us in.

"Too early. Please come back in ten minutes. My boss is very angry."

So we went next door into a cafe which had a big fridge marked "Special Beer".

I had a local Pale Ale while Leb had a Belgian Cherry Kreik.

By the time we'd finished the queue for the opera had grown very long and we took our place at the end of it, to be joined, a few moments later, by a German couple who seemed very annoyed that they had to queue at all. There was a slight guilty look as he realised that we realised that they had jumped into the queue at our point but there was no point saying anything.


Another abortiv e trip to the theater

Special Beer


Waiting for the opera

Magical Scene




The opera was due to start at 9 pm but by ten past we were still all waiting outside with no hint of movement. After a few moments of stress they let us in and we took our seats in the magnificent Roman palace and by twenty past the conductor was striding onto the stage to applause.



The performance was fantastic. The orchestra played it beautifully and some of the singing was sublime. I particularly like the chorus parts as I find the more warbling style solos a bit irritating.

I wrote before about the analogy between opera and football, in that a lot of both spectacles can be boring but they're both punctuated with beauty. In the case of football, it might be a great goal. In opera it might be a aria or, in the case of Nabucco, a fantastic chorus.

The chorus of the Hebrew Slaves had long been one of our favourites and they did not disappoint.

  

This is the best tune in the opera, in my opinion, but there are several others that are not far behind.



In football terms, it's like a belter of a 4-3.

Day 52 - Thursday, 19th July - Back to Bighty, Hounslow West

Pack and Go

After a bit of a lie in, we had our last breakfast at the hotel. They were nice, but a bit predictable. Ham and cheese, followed by some variety of eggs (that were always cooked to perfection) followed by fruit and yoghurt.

Then it was simply a matter of packing and checking out.

We had problems checking in on line as the British Airways we site was down so we decided to get along to the airport sooner rather than later.

We were ready (and quite happy) to walk across the old town to the bus terminal with our bags but the tall, elegant, funny (and very camp) man that works at the Palaca Judita Heritage Hotel in Split was having none of it.

"Give me your bags." he commanded.

"Flight" to the bus stop

Andrija had cracked us up all week with his very pleasant wit and humor.

Imagine a camp voice in a Croat accent... (It was funnier than it reads here.)

"Eggs. You must have eggs. They are very good for you."

"I don't understand how people can get up so early" as another group come into the restaurant for breakfast.


Me: "You're going to ask me if I want some eggs, aren't you?"

Andrija: "No, I am going to ask you what kind of eggs you will eat!"


{Crash bang wallop} comes from kitchen.

Andija's head pops round the corner.

"It wasn't me!"

Andrija insisted that he drive us to the bus station in the hotel's little golf trolley.

He had a witty (probably very well practiced) line of patter as we walked across to the motor parked on the other side of the square.

"Ladies and gentlemen. We are about to commence boarding for the flight to the bus station. Please follow me".

"The flight will take approximately five minutes. There may be some turbulence."

He drove us straight to the bus and put our bags on it for us.

Hvala, ti, Andrija!!


Goodbye Tblisi shoes. $5 well spent, but too worn to bring back

Splitting with Split

Andrija was a real hoot












The bus man was also a friendly type, no doubt high on sugar as he swigged his Coke and ate a bar of chocolate as he drove us back.

Airport Wait

We got to the airport far too early but better early than late. Check in turned out to be a sinch as there was a row of check-in terminals waiting for us as we practically got off the bus.

Flight

Apart from temporarily losing my reading glasses and ear phones (with a screaming baby letting rip the whole journey) it was lovely. I got great views of the Adriatic coast for the first part and stunning views of the eastern Alps for the middle. Those on the left of the plane would have been able to see Venice down there but I missed out on that.











After an hour's snooze we arrived back in blighty.

Cleverly, we had booked to stay in a cheap hotel just near Hounslow West tube station.

Two stops on the tube to Hounslow West

Hounslow West - 32 years on

I lived in Hounslow in 1985 for a coupe of years when I worked at British Airways as a Pl/1 programmer. So going to Hounslow West tube station brought back lots of memories, especially as it hasn't changed at all.

Daily (short) Tube  Journey to/from here to British Airways in 1984/5



Our hotel, "The Skylark Hotel" is about 250 meters away, down Bath Road. After checking in and dumping our bags we were off for one last night in London.

Skylark Hotel is 250 m from Hounslow West Tube Station

Fish & Chips and a Pint

Professor Google selected Ben's Fish & Chip Restaurant as the one closest to a pub that I wanted to revisit, the Lamb & Flag in Covent Garden.

The fish was nice (I'd give it 7.5 out of ten) but the chips were a bit disappointing to me (6.5). It seems that the fish & chips culture in England is slowly dying so I was pleased to at least be able to support it in some small way.



The Lamb & Flag, too, was a little disappointing. They didn't have much choice for Leb and the pint of Fuller London Pride tasted a bit dull. Maybe I'm finally losing my British beer taste buds.

Anyway after a 19 stop tube ride back to Hounslow West we crashed out and had a great night's sleep.


Day 53 - Friday, 20th July - Back Home

Brekkie in Hounslow

The breakfast at The Skylark was fine for me - a full English - but not for Leb as her eggs were too well done.

Airport Check-In

Then it was a matter of walking to the tube station and getting off the tube after two stops. Too blady easy! This is definitely the thing to do for an overnight stop close to Heathrow.

Bye bye again, blighty!



The first leg of the flight was very comfortable. I really appreciate it when airlines provide a power socket so you can use a computer on a long haul flight without fear of it running out of battery. There are also many films and TV programs on their entertainment system and the flight maps are fantastic for me.

We arrived back in Australia on Saturday, 21st July 2018. As we waited for out bag to come through Lesley started experiencing a lot of buzzing on her mobile phone as it reconnected to the Telstra mobile data network.

What was this?

"Congratulations, Lesley!"

It couldn't be, could it?

Yes! it could.

Lesley had been so convinced she wouldn't win the Australian College of Midwives annual "Midwifery Education Award" for 2018, that she had been nominated for, that we didn't change out flight plans to include Melbourne as our last destination. But as we arrived in Perth, and the conference over east was finishing, it turns out that she had won it it - at least jointly.



What a great way to end the trip. The cherry on the cake!

World Cup Summary

OK. So time to draw a line under this World Cup. Compared to four years ago, this one was immeasurably better, and not just because England reached the semi-finals rather than getting knocked out after two games. Australia, too, did much better.

Great World Cup

By almost any measure, I think, this was a really good World Cup. There were some real shocks - such as South Korea beating Germany and Russia beating Spain. There were some truly great games, such as Belgium's fabulous come back from 2-0 to beat Japan, France's 4-3 win against Argentina and the 3-3 draw between Spain and Portugal early one. 

Here were my top six games.


2.63 goals per game is about average but there was only one 0-0 and the modal number of goals was 3. 

2.63 goals per game



It was good to see the big teams fall. Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Germany and Brazil. And the biggest names too... It was "adios" Messi then "todo bem" Robaldo and Neymar.

In the semis, the same fate was waiting for Belgium, Hazard and De Bruyne.

Of course France are a big team too and they also had a new name in Mbappe. Croatia made their mark with the way they brushed Argentina aside early on and then showed immense resilience in edging three knock out wins after extra time (and twice on penalties). 

But, of course, for me the best thing was to see England compete and play really well in pretty much every game. Hopefully, this is a sign that their fortunes on the World stage have finally changed.

Best team effort since 1996

We await Euro 2020 with some optimism now.

Trip Summary

This has got to be the best trip I've ever done. Almost eight weeks spent away in 16 countries and 27 places. I went to seven new countries taking me up to 62.

My average length of stay was 2 days. The longest was Split, Croatia.


Best Days

There were so many great days, the only way I can choose is to go by my "mood score" technique. Anyone who knows me will tell you I have been known to get into a bad mood from time to time and so to combat this (or at least keep track of it) I devised a football-related way of recording my mood switches.

Every incident in a day that cheers me up or just makes me happy counts as a goal for, and everything that gets me miffed of puts me into a sulk counts as a goal against. So the idea is to "win" every day and, ideally, keep a clean sheet.

Going by this, I gave some absolute thrashings!

The best day has to be that last one in Split with Leb described above. The fantastic boat trip followed by Nabucco. A 29-0 overall "win" that day.

Next was my day in Parnu. So many great things happened that day, even England's defeat to Belgium was good. 28-0.

In joint third place, maybe, was the first day in Helsinki and the first day in Oslo when I met up with dear old Jeffrey... both merely 20-0 thrashings.

Fifth, perhaps the second day in Tallinn which included France v Argentina and seeing that lovely folk dance concert in the town square. That would be on "goals scored" - 21-2.

Sixth, by this reckoning would be the last day in Lithuania (and first in Riga) 20-1 and seventh the day I went from Kaliningrad to Klaipeda stopping in Nida. 19-1.

But honestly, there were so many great days. I can't understand why seeing Boro in Odessa didn't come higher in this list. "Only" 12-0, 13-0 and 11-0 "wins" for those three days.


Worst Days & Lessons

There were no bad days, really. But I didn't record many "good mood events" in a couple of days Tblisi and Yerevan and the rainy wash out of my Estonian island cycling trip was a bit of a downer.


Alcohol

Of course, it goes without saying that I drank too much.


Those two peaks - consecutive double skinfulls - coincided with dear old Jeffrey coming to Oslo and other peaks were in Odessa, Parnu and Riga.

Ok. I just want to finish now with some thoughts about Russia and where we're at in the world politically.

Let's not forget that at the opening ceremony it was Vladimir Putin who hogged the stage a little too long (without any sign of discomfort) at the opening ceremony and it was he who was so special he was the only one who needed an umbrella servant to protect his bald head from the rain.

The special one


Putin's Russia - My Current Humble Opinion 

This was a particularly fascinating trip for me because it beautifully combined two key passions of my life - football and "Eastern" Europe.

When I became a "born-again" Lithuanian in my early 20s, I became fascinated with (and loathing of) the Soviet Union and their "East" European satellite states. So when Russia was chosen to host this world cup I knew it was one I had to attend to some degree.

This "customised" map of Europe adorned my bedroom for years in the Soviet days

However, as much as I hated the old Soviet Union, I still really don't approve of Putin's Russia and I didn't want to be one of the thousands of fans who poured their cash into the Kremlin's coffers and gave the government there any additional legitimacy.

I suppose by even going to a single match I was doing this to some degree but in 55 days I only actually spent three in Russia itself and my focus (and most of my tourist dollars) was really spent on visiting those countries that used to be ruled by Moscow but are not any more.

My visit to Königsberg (in Lithuanian Karalaučias) - Ok, realpolitic dictates I call it Kaliningrad - was particularly galling for me. I was very curious to see what the Russians had done to this formerly beautiful, prosperous, artistic merchant port and it made me sick to be legitimising Stalin's ill-gotten gains by staying there even one night.

Before the war, the whole area was called East Prussia, an area of some 37,000 km2  about the size of  the Netherlands today, with a population of about 2 million.


When the Red Army pushed back the retreating Nazis, in the last year of the war, they were in no mood for forgiveness and these German people were the first to experience their brutal vengeance. Luckily for my dad, he'd already been captured by the Germans five months earlier, and was, by then "safely" imprisoned in a German Prisoner of War Camp to the west.



If you are in any doubt about what this actually meant to the people living there, do a Google search on "Soviet genocide Kaliningrad" to find out about the mass rape and ethnic cleansing that occurred there. If one is tempted to think that Hitler's crimes deserved severe punishment, one should remember that it was both Stalin and Hitler that started the war. (Germany's invasion of Poland was just the half of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) and that Stalin murdered for more people than Hitler did, for a far longer period

It's no exaggeration to say that, the new stadium apart, what's beautiful about Kaliningrad was built before 1940 and all that's ugly was built since the war.

Old Koenigsberg Castle (1255-1944)
Replaced by this (Dom Sovetsk) after the ground was levelled on Brezhnev's orders in 1967.

Even St Petersburg (how come that was changed back from Leningrad, but not Kaliningrad? ) was pretty grim for me. These were the two grottiest hotel stays in the eight weeks.

One shouldn't be surprised. Russia is geared towards the military, exporting oil, nuclear technology and cybercrime, not tourism.

Don't get me wrong. All the Russian civilian people I met were all very friendly and could not be faulted. It's their leader and his very clever, but quite dastardly, immoral policies which deserves our constant attention and contempt.

It's my opinion that he's behind the current shambles with both the US presidency and the Brexit fiasco in the UK.

It was ironic that during the last part of my trip, The Donald met the NATO leaders, the Queen in England and Putin in Helsinki.

I shake my head in despair at the situation the world now finds itself in. The President of the United States of America, leader of NATO and therefore the moral guarantor of freedom for all the countries that were formerly under the fist of Joseph Stalin is now a man that, seen in the most generous light possible, is nothing more than a total buffoon but probably, much worse, a poodle of the ex-KGB officer who now runs Russia with a view to regaining their old empire back.

Trump probably wouldn't know were Macedonia was on a map but his disgracefully disrespectful comments the other day were probably written by Kremlin stooges.


His disrespect for the USA's long held European allies, when contrasted with his sycophantic  cooing over his boss, Putin, makes my stomach turn.



Putin's had a glorious twenty years when everything he's wanted has gone his way and I'm sure it's not just been luck.

I hope I am being naive and am completely wrong about this but Putin is in the strongest position he has ever been in. The West are in total disarray and he's just been treated like royalty by the world's media over an undeniably successful World Cup. It must be very, very tempting for him to think that this is the time for Russia to make a move to strengthen its position still further.

I really fear for what might happen in the Baltic States in the next few months and, especially, in Lithuania. If Trump isn't replaced soon by someone who puts democracy and freedom first I think we're in for a very scary few years.


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