Florence – Brilliant food, great times, and wonderful friends.

Ah, Florence, it has always been one of my favourite European cities, and again, it did not fail to disappoint, for many reasons. We were to arrive at 9.30ish on a Saturday night, and I was all excited. I was sooooooooooooo looking forward to seeing my friend Irma again, after having seen her the last time in Australia 10 years ago. This time, however, it would be with a husband and a two and a half year old little boy called Giovanni. As we approached the train station, I began to get butterflies in my tummy, as I was so keen to see Irma again. Although I appeared calm, I could barely contain my excitement, which Alex (who can basically read me like a book!) picked up instantaneously. I had thrown on my backpack before the train actually came to a halt, and when it did, I scrambled off along with the multitude of others. As I “casually” strode through the crowds towards the main platform, my eyes strained to see if I could spot that famous crop of brown curly hair. Irma saw me first, and screamed out my name. As I hurled my the smaller of my two backpacks into the (expecting!) arms of Alex, Irma and I ran towards each reminiscent of that very well known scene from the (now very old!) movie “Chariots of Fire”. We hugged and kissed, and hugged again! We were both overcome with emotion!

As we introduced each other’s families to one another, we kept looking at each other as if we were in a dream, whilst hugging some more! Irma and I met in 1993, whilst I was travelling through the USA, after having worked on a Summer Camp in the country. To cut a long story short, we had both been staying at a Youth Hostel in Washington DC, and when I saw a girl dangling an “expresso bag” (yes, that’s expresso, as in coffee, as opposed to tea!), I figured she HAD to be Italian! I went up and asked her, and that is pretty much where and how the friendship started. Some years later, we would even holiday together in Greece and Turkey. These are without a doubt, some of my most cherished travel memories, as I travelled with someone who was as loud, extroverted and crazy as me!

Irma was also expecting her Norwegian friend, Hans, who would be arriving on Sunday and would be staying for 10 days. The funny thing is that I had also met Hans, all those years ago, whilst Irma and I were in Greece! That two of her dearest friends should be visiting her at the same time was rather incredible. As Irma’s place is rather small, it was decided that Hans would stay with Irma, and Alex and I with her fantastic and amazing mum, Graziella, who lives just up the road. The first night, however, we did stay with Irma, and needless to say, we stayed up and chatted for ages.

We ended up staying in Florence for a week. During the day we would walk to the city centre, go sightseeing or just relax, and night times would be spent catching up with Irma, who works during the day, her husband, Valentino, and Giovanni. As it was rather hot, this included hanging out in the park nearby her home and munching on some local pizza, or bringing some food from home. I repeat, bad food simply does not exist in Italy! From buffalo mozzarella (not to mention all the other amazing cheeses) to the porcini mushrooms made up into a risotto…..it had Alex and I constantly licking our chops! Some of the best gelati we have had to date came from a little gelateria near Graziella’s place, called Arte del Gelato………..and what about the tiramisu? We had many OMG (Oh My God) food moments in Italy.

One day Graziella took Alex and I, as well as Hans, to Carrara , about an hour north west of Florence, on the Ligurian Sea. It is a graceful town, picturesquely nestled amongst famous marble hills. The marble from the area is said to be amongst some of the best in the world. We even did a “Marmo Tour” ( Marble Tour ) which took us through the caves created to extract marble. Considering the weight of even a small piece of marble, the explanations accompanying the extraction of huge slabs was mind blowing! For those of you who have, and have paid a small fortune for your marble-topped kitchen benches, I can now honestly say that I understand why!

On another day Irma took the day off and we all went to visit her sister, Letizia, and her family who were on vacation, at a beach only an hour and a half away from Florence. The last time I saw Letizia…there was only Letizia…..her repertoire now includes her husband, Andrea, and their three beautiful boys, Mattia, Romeo and Dante. We had a very chilled out day, catching up on the last 12 years, absorbing some rays on the beach, and, for something different in Italy…………..eating………albeit at intervals……all day!

The subject of food seems to come up constantly in Italy, so let’s go with it! I cannot properly describe what an amazing cook Graziella is! Whether she took her time cooking or slapped it together, it was good, good, good! Having said that, top quality virgin olive oil is Queen in her house, as in the homes of many Italians. They may skimp on other things, but it will never be on food and top quality ingredients! That would be akin to sacrilegious! Speaking of sacrilegious, can somebody PLEASE tell me about McDonald’s in Italy? This should be a crime demanding a minimum three month jail term! I’m not even going there, except to say…………. “Ma chi ti conosce!!!!!!!!!” (This one is for you Laura, and Isabella too).

Of course, we also took the time to do the centre of Florence and her tourist sights. This included the famous Piazza del Duomo and the Uffizzi Gallery , home to the world’s greatest collection of Italian Renaissance Art. Nothing much had changed…… Due to the long line and security, the Uffizzi Gallery still took forever to get into, as one of the most visited places in the world, and drinking coffee once you placed your butt on a chair in a bar nearly tripled the price! Of course we stood at the bar and drank it……. I should say “them”, as the daily dose superceded one almost immediately upon waking. Don’t worry, I fully indulged my caffeine passion in Italy!

After more than a week of relaxing, sightseeing and indulging…..in many things……it was again time to move on. We were acutely aware that time was a tickin’, and D day approaching. Our ticket expires on the 18th August, and we were wondering how we were going to do the rest of Italy, Spain, Morocco, Paris, Hong Kong, Japan,Vietnam and Thailand in this time….. Watch this space! (Read……..we have no idea either, so keep following the journey, and watch it evolve!)

Saying goodbye to Irma was hard, as I wondered when we would see each other again. Saying goodbye to Graziella, who I truly consider a great friend too, was not as hard, as she is planning to visit Australia early next year. As we hopped on the early train from Florence to Perugia, I thought about my wonderful life, my amazing travels and exploration of the world, and the fantastic people I have met, and remained friends with along the way. This is always a thorn in my side upon my return home, as many of my most treasured friends do not live in Australia.

Ombi

Note: Two more surprise catch ups in Italy!

“The money you have gives you freedom; the money you pursue enslaves you.” – Jean Jacques Rousseau.

(Photos: 1.- Irma, Ombi & Giovanni. 2.- View of Florence from the Boboli Gardens, Pitti Palace, Florence. 3.- Dinner at Irma´s. L to R: Valentino, Alex, Graziella, Giovanni, Irma & Hans. 4.- Pizza in the park. L to R: Alberto, Giovanni, Irma,Valentino, Hans & Ombi. 5.- Marmo Tour, Carrara. 6.- Catching up with Letizia (Irma´s sister) & her family at the beach. 7.- Ombi & Graziella. 8.- Piazza Della Signoria, Florence . 9.- The Egg Mobile! When the going gets tough, the cars gets smaller! One of the solutions to increasing petrol prices, Florence.

Hauntingly beautiful Venice.

They say that Venice is a hauntingly beautiful city. This is very true indeed, but we also found it to be hauntingly expensive! On the train from Pula, we met a lovely young girl, who suggested that we get off at Mestre (which is basically “mainland” Venice), six kilometres from the city centre and have a go at trying to find accomodation there. It is close enough to the main action, but far enough to avoid the prohibitive “island” hotel prices. I should add that we arrived on a Friday, and that there was some type of rock festival on that same weekend, so places were mostly booked out. As I mentioned earlier, that did not deter us, as we were determined to get a glimpse of this famous city, which Alex had never seen before.

Once again, Lady Luck appeared to be on our side. We had armed ourselves, and were awaiting the battle that lay ahead! We were not expecting to find a place quickly nor easily. Once being let off the bus in Mestre, we walked to the information office 50 metres up the road, inside the train station. We could not believe how many people were around, mainly youngsters who had come from all over for the concert. We asked about cheap accomodation and were promptly told that the cheapest option was at a 3-star “budget” hotel close by, which would cost 97 euros per room, including a full buffet breakfast. We were also told us that there were only a few rooms left that were still available. Alex and I looked at each other and promptly accepted! We knew that finding something else at this point would either be impossible, or so time consuming that it would waste enough precious time to write off the day!

It was a short bus ride to the hotel, and we were checked in in no time at all. Was our room worth 97 euros (approximately AUD $160.00)? Absolutely not! But these are the prices here. It was by far the most expensive place we had stayed in since leaving Australia 10 months ago. Although we had missed out on the buffet breakfast that morning, I knew I should not have too much trouble making up for it the next day! Due to the accomodation situation, we had already booked and paid for our train to Florence, which we would leave for the next night. With two full days, we knew we would have a lot of walking to do (so, what’s new?), but we also knew that we would be able to fit in most of the main sights.

By midday, we were on our way to the Venetian city centre. Whilst the area around where we were staying was nothing spectacular, absolutely nothing can take away from the point when you reach that first tiny canal, see the first small bridge and that first cobble-stoned road, or I should say alley-way. Whilst there are neither cars nor motorbikes nor scooters on the islands, there are certainly throngs of people. The Venetians go about their merry way, weaving through what seems like a maze to us, but is really their backyard for them. Despite the masses, each new turn presented another exciting little snippet of life in a city which is built on 117 islands, with some 150 canals and 400 bridges.

Throngs aside, and I do not mean to focus on this, but I really do mean throngs (to qualify this, we catergorically had not seen this many tourists in one place, possibly on our entire trip) we had a whirlwind but fun two days in Venice. It is said that Venice receives some 20 million visitors a year. That is Australia’s entire population!

On that first afternoon, I suggested to Alex that we just wander around and get lost! It really is part of the fun of being in Venice. So, we set off without a fixed agenda! In no time at all we had stopped at a local “salumeria” (basically a place where they sell deli goods, such as ham, prosciutto and cheese), and were buying the ingredients for lunch. A smile swept across my face as I recalled having done this many years before, when I had backpacked Europe alone in my early 20s. Alex’s eyes lit up as the plethora and variety of food loomed in front of him and coaxed him to try it! We both agree, without a doubt, that there is no place on earth with the constant excellent quality of food to be found in Italy. It truly is impossible to find bad food! Regarding the coffee, I would be restating the obvious – it is without a doubt the best in the world!

We were soon sitting on somebody’s doorstep, munching on cheese and sundried tomato (add mortadella and proscitto to Alex’s) pannini, and watching the world go by. And there really is no better place to do this than Venice. If people watching is your thang, and it certainly is ours, it can provide hours of free and fun entertainment. The Italians are, without a doubt, the world’s walking fashion statement! It is a world where looks and style rate above all else. Interesting to observe! Sure, when I was much younger brands seemed to be of utmost importance, but at some point I grew out of it. Here the “older” people wear the likes of Gianni Versace like he only started creating two months ago, and Channel like it only became fashion yesterday……whilst the youngsters wear whatever the catwalks dictated last week! I would like to once again reconfirm that midriff and muffin tops are back, and it does not seem to matter if you are 12 or 50! Beware the “mutton dressed up as lamb” look, which when crossed with a muffin top becomes…..a “mutton top” (you can quote me, Ombretta Zanetti on that one!) Oh, and also, knee high boots with micro minis and shorts are oh so very in……trust me, we’re in Italy!

People, mostly visitors, were buying designer clothes, shoes and bags, like the next day would provide us with the Apocalypse. Alex and I entered the Ferrari store, just to try and get a whif of what the hype was all about. As people flocked to the counters, I checked out various garments, their price and where they were made: T-shirt, made in Bangladesh, 85 euros…….cap, made in Sri Lanka, 35 euros…….baby’s tiny t-shirt, made in China, 60 euros. I had to get out!

We walked up, over and down many, many bridges, and admired the multitude of old and beautiful buildings with their distinctive Renaissance architecture. The Grand Canal is obviously the widest of the canls, and it snakes through the entire city centre, imposing and grand, commanding the city’s attention at all times. Whilst gondolas and their “gondolieri” await and lure tourists, the “traghetti” or ferries come and go, taking people everywhere from Murano (Venice’s famous glass-making island) to Burano (where they make lace) and the Lido (the beach area). Venice is synonomous with hustle and bustle, where simply observing is an activity!

No visit to Venice would be complete without strolling through the majestic Piazza San Marco, which is astoundingly big for a sqaure built on a series of islands. Whilst breathtaking, our Lonely Planet guide hit the nail on the head when it described it as….“filled for much of the day with tourists, pigeons, balloon-vendors and policemen”. The reality check is that we are part of those tourists! The piece de resistance is the Basilica di San Marco, an enormous structure that was supposedly built to house the remains of St Mark. Regardless of whether you are into religion, architecture or history, it is a must see, as both the exterior as well as interior embellishments are spectacular. The square really does embody overseas romantic travel, and even I could not help but slip Alex a little kiss or two!

To describe Venice’s churches, both inside and out, would be impossible, as there are so many, most of which are spectacular. As we walked around we viewed and popped into many. I repeat, the architectural design and style, is a sight to behold. Italy was the seat of the Renaissance, and those who had designed and created these places of worship had done a brilliant job of providing future generations with some memorable eye candy! Nothing can really take away from their splendour!

We also visited some of Venice’s most famous sites, such as the Galleria Dell’Academia and the Peggy Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art. The former is set in one of Venice’s most impressive and grand Gothic palaces, and traces Venetian art from the 14th to the 18th centuries. As you wander through, it is not so much the paintings that you admire as much as the very famous Renaissance artists who painted them, such as Titian, Carpaccio and Tintoretto. You cannot help but lose yourself in the past, and wonder what life in this world was really like. The Renaissance played an extremely important part in the history of the world, and I wondered what it must have been like to have lived, worked and created in such a special and important age! The latter (www.guggenheim-venice.it) was a modern art museum. It is probably of no news to most of you that neither Alex nor I are particular afficionados of modern art, but my ears always prick up when I hear the name Salvador Dali, and this museum houses a number of his works, as well as some of Picasso’s. Both of these men worked with the surrealist genre. What attracts me to this genre, is that it works with people and the mind. It is about psyche and what people think. Voila! It makes sense that I would be thus interested!

Although we declined one of the steeply priced gondola rides (which I am sure would have been romantic, despite the fact that I am not really a romantic!), and avoided the stereotypical tunes to the likes of “ La Donna e Mobile” , we did opt for a squashy ride on a ferry, which provided some lovely views of the grandiose gothic palaces along one of the smaller canals. As I closed my eyes, I immagined that Alex and I were alone….and I could almost hear that tune!

Venice had been short but sweet! I was really looking forward to Florence, our next destination, as I would be seeing my Florentine friend Irma again after some 10 years.

Ombi

“Let us not be ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, but ashamed of shabby ideals and shoddy philosophies” – Albert Einstein (It might be one of Albert´s quotes, but it is oft used by one of my best friends, Lizzie Leveridge).

(Photos: 1.- A Venetian gondolier in one of Venice´s many canals. 2.- Making the most of our Venetian buffet breakfast! 3.- A Venetian “street”. 4.- Life in Venice is even more expensive for some! 5.- Ombi and Alex enjoying a gelati………..buonissimo! 6.- A typical Venetian scene. 7.- Romantic Venice, Piazza San Marco. 8.- The famous St Mark´s Square (Piazza San Marco). 9.- Beautiful Venetian architecture. 10.- Cruising the Venetian ¨highway”. 11.- Another typical Venetian scene.)


The endeavour to find my father´s childhood home in Pola.

It’s only three hours from Trieste to Pola, or Pula as it has been called since it became part of Croatia, but very exciting as you have to pass several borders to get there. The journey promptly takes you to the border of Slovenia, which you have to spend some 20 minutes traversing, before you emerge into Croatia. All in the space of a few hours, I personally think that’s fun! As we passed through the Slovenian countryside it looked both peaceful and beautiful. It is yet another country which I wish to explore, but it will not be on this trip.

Now let me tell you a little about Pula. It is a town on the Istrian coastline that has changed its “identity” many times. When my grandfather was born in 1889 it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when my father was born in 1936 it was Italy, after the Second World War it became Yugoslavia and it is now part of Croatia. The language and the people who live there now are as varied as its past. It is a place where Italian and English are also spoken and understood. It is a place where Istrian as a dialect is also spoken. Amongst the older peoples the dialect is a mixture of Croatian and Italian, with the greater component being Italian. The younger generation also speak a form of the Istrian dialect, but as they were brought up with Croatian and not Italian, they have a larger component of Croatian, and less Italian.

Pula is a fascinating place and a little hard to describe, yet the people are helpful, friendly and always willing to lend a hand. I spent a few days more than I planned here, partly because I had a quest to fulfill and partly because I fell in love with it!

We were learning quickly that Europe really was considerably more expensive than anywhere we had been thus far. We thought that Pula, being in Croatia, would be a little less so, but we found this not to be the case. Croatia is becoming the place to be amongst the European glitterati, and thus hordes of Europeans as well as others are following suit. Thus…..prices rocket starwards! We managed to find a room in the house of a helpful and friendly lady who literally lives in the heart of the city, and we were only half a block away from Pula’s star attractian, its remarkably well preserved Roman amphitheatre.

The search for Dad’s childhood home began as soon as we arrived. I mentally reviewed the little information that I had: When Dad lived there the street he had lived and been brought up in was called Michelangelo Buonarotti, but this would have changed, as it was now Croatia. Dad had also mentioned many times that he could see both the amphitheatre and “a church” from where he lived. I did not have a lot to go with, but my resolve was steadfast, as was my determination! I asked Alex if he was prepared to take this quest on, as I felt, in my heart, that finding Dad’s place was as important for me as it was for him. Needless to say, as my rock and my faith, Alex was behind me all the way! Dad has recalled the horrors of the war many a time, but how could someone such as myself , raised, fed and educated in Australia, ever really understand. I was about to get a sliver of an insight!

I started by asking Aida, whose home we were staying in, if she had ever heard of Michelangelo Buonarotti Street. I explained why I wanted to know, as well as imparting the little information that I had. The only information that she could give me was that the names had changed several times. Not a lot to go with really. Alex has an outstanding sixth sense (definitely my Ecuadorian shaman!) and so he made us take a road that went somewhere behind the amphithetre, up on the hill. He deduced that if Dad could see the amphitheatre , the house had to have been somewhere up on a slope. We knew it was in the centre, and the centre was not that big…..but big enough! I then decided that we needed to ask an older person, someone who perhaps looked and spoke Italian, in hope that they may remember. So, we wandered the local vicinity and I asked a few people, some spoke Italian and some did not! It was those who spoke Italian, that were the most helpful. Over the course of an hour, we had three people (amongst many others who had no idea) who had given us the same or similar information, that the street which was once Michelangelo Buonarotti, was now called Stancoviceva Ulica, and that we were only streets away from it.

I cannot tell you how I felt. A combination of anxious and excited. Fifty five years down the track, and several country changes later, I was looking for a street and a house on the other side of my own birthplace, yet I did not even know if it still existed! The thought that I may find it left me with a lump in my throat and a flutter in my heart! In a matter of minutes we had found the street. To make things even more difficult, underneath the street name, was another street name, Via Pietro Stancovich, which was the name it had been called even before it was supposedly, Michelangelo Buonarotti! We figured that the house numbers must have also changed since 1936, but we made our way to number 33. We were surprisingly close!

Upon arrival, we realised that if this is the place where Dad had lived that it had been knocked down, as a new and modern house now stood in its place. What was I supposed to do, look at it and walk away? I decided to ring the doorbell, and see if I could extract more information from the owners. No one home. There was a cafe bar across the road, our next port of call. I chatted to a sailor there, some of the bar staff, as well as some locals. Although helpful and wanting to be of assistance, they seemed to think that I was off track. Had I hit a dead end? Did I walk away wondering, ” Was that enough¨?

Not sure quite what to do, we decided to do a bit of sightseeing – see the marvellous colosseum, walk the city centre, have some (great!!) coffee and ice cream. As destiny would have it, we would later walk past the “Communita Degli Italiani in Pola” (The Community of Italians in Pola), also in the city centre, and it was Alex that suggested that I go in and ask them a few questions! After all they were Italians, and surely they could impart some information!

As we walked up the stairs, I was confronted with a group of 60 and 70 something year old men drinking beer and coffee. My heart skipped a beat! I felt that this was the place I would get the much needed information I was looking for! Well, at least some of it! Before I knew it I was surrounded by a group of Italian men, telling my story. Within seconds a murmur erupted which crescendoed into a fully fledged discussion about where Michelangelo Buonarotti Street could and could not have been and been! It was the typical Italian scenario! Animated voices, hand gestures and the calling of names, “ Ma non sei stupido (but don’t be stupid) it’s not there……all in light –hearted jest, of course. Alex was quite amused! Out of the corner of my eye, I could see another man on a mobile, who kept waving at me and saying, “Aspetta, aspetta!” (wait, wait). He came over and told me that he had confirmed that Michelangelo Buonarotti was indeed Stankoviceva Ulica, but agreed that finding number 33 would be like locating the Holy Grail. We took some pictures together, and I thanked them immensely! This appeared as close as I was going to get! I had the street, but how could I possibly ever know if the number was correct. I still planned on visiting the current owners of the house later that night!

Again, call it destiny, coincidence or whatever you will, but before we knew it we had been given another huge helping hand. Whilst we visited the ancient Roman temple of Augustus, I rattled my story off to the woman who worked there. Within minutes, she told me that her husband, who happened to be an archaelogist, happened to be outside, and that he may have some information. I chatted to Darko, and he insisted that I go to the Town Hall, across the road tomorrow, on opening, and see if I was able to get some old street maps. He could promise nothing but said that I had nothing to lose! He was right!

We had found a coffee, ice-cream and breakfast pit stop just near the place we were staying called Fortuna. Besides the wonderful things that mum Jilla made, the whole family proved to be warm and inviting, from Lirim (the Dad) and their two sons, Gazmend and Arton. We especially spent a lot of time chatting with Lirim and Arton. Needless to stay, we visited frequently whilst we were in Pula. One morning I had been talking to Alex and crying over part of an e-mail Dad had recently sent me. When Arton came to place my coffee on the table, he asked me if I was OK. I assured him that all was well, and that I was a little emotional rather than angry or upset. I told him about the e-mail that my Dad had just sent. I would like to share some of this with you:

¨How did your trip to Pola go ? Did you find the house that I was born in 71 years ago ? Had I been there I would have freaked out big time , I still think of the old place where I spent a lot of happy times….but let’s blame the war , that took everything away….but on the other hand I would have never met mum and most important I would have not had you or your brother….and that is the most important thing in my life ….nothing else matters.¨

I explained that the whole idea of war simply broke and tore my heart ! It tears so many families apart, and kills and maims so many others. Yet, Dad’s e-mail shows that there are many uncanny and inexplicable twists of fate, in what is the game of roulette that we call life!

We did go back and see the folk at “no 33 Michelangelo Buonarotti”. As we approached the house, we saw a couple of men in the back yard. We soon introduced ourselves, and told our story yet another time, and they introduced themselves as Iviza, and his father-in-law, Vito. We chatted for a while, and again, they were such lovely people. They could not, however, give us an indication as to whether we had our finger on the pulse, or if we were right off target! Were we going in square circles?

We finally made it to the Town Hall, and went to the appropriate department. Again (thank you destiny!!!) we had a fantastic lady help us called Milka. I gave her all the information that I had, and she told me that she would do all that she could to help me. She asked us to come back in half an hour, which we did. She told us that…….Stankoviceva Ulica was NOT the street that had been Michelangelo Buonarotti. What a let down! The street we needed was actually very close by, however, and was called Varazdinska Ulica. She told me that finding the exact number would be more difficult, as I would have to go through a court or tribunal to get the information, and that it would take considerably more time. Milka gave me her details, however, and told me that if she could be of more assistance, that she would love to help. I felt a little bit disillusioned, as I really felt that we had been on the right track. So, we made our way toward Varazdinska Ulica, and looked for number 33……….and as destiny would have it, yet again, we found ourselves at EXACTLY the same point as number 33 Stankoviceva Ulica! Two different streets, one running perpendicular to the other, same point! I sighed a deep, but happy sigh, a sigh of achievement. I felt that this was going to be as close as I was going to get.

So Dad, if this was not the place where your house had once stood, both Alex and I felt in our hearts that we had walked past it, or at least been very, very close! The only and final piece of the jigsaw missing may require you to be here! Never say never! We saw with our own eyes and felt with our own hearts that here in Pola, destiny was not taking no for an answer!

We visited many other places in Pola, including the impressive Archaelogical Museum and the 17th Century Venetian Citadel. This is perched up high on a hill in the centre of town, and the views are outstanding. I have truly run out of synonyms for impressive views, as we have been so fortunate to see so many of them in the last 10 months! There was a tiny museum at the citadel that included an exhibition on the men who worked in the arsenal around about the time of the Second World War, which would have included my grandfather, Domenico Zanetti. I scanned the photos for a recogniseable face……..history is impressive, but also sad! As I looked at those photos, I wondered about all the things I did not know about my family and ancestors.

Our last day in Pola was spent walking along its spectacular coastline, and taking in the spectacular Adriatic coastline. The rocky, wooded peninsulas drop in to water so clear that you can make out the different multi-colored hues of the sand that lies beneath. We bathed and sunbaked in the waters of Stoja, and felt like we had found yet another paradise! Did you swim here Dad? We had heard how touristy and resort-like Verudela, 3 kilometres up the road had become, but felt like we still needed to see it. Not because it’s where the glitterati come, but because Nadia had told me that Dad used to swim here. Did you Dad? Because if you did, boy has it changed! The views are still striking, but it is full of resorts and summer accomodation. As Alex would have once said, It’s just not my cup of coffee!”. Spot on! Too touristy! And my guess is that in the throes of summer the throngs must be akin to those at a rock concert! Next!

We felt that we had done everything that we needed and wanted to do in Pola. Next would be visiting Venice on our way to visiting my great friend Irma, and her family, in Florence. We knew that it would be horrendously expensive (it is the most expensive city in Italy), and despite the fact that only two nights prior we had spent four hours on the internet looking for accomodation to no avail…….we decided to go! I mean, how can you come to Italy and NOT see Venice ? You can’t! We were up against taking a 5.00am bus, which from Pola was the only one which would take us directly to Venice, without having to stop, and transfer in Trieste.

Venice, here we come! With or without accomodation!

Ombi

Dedication: I dedicate this blog to my father and friend, Dino Zanetti, who dedicated his life to my late mother Adiga, and who continues to unselfishly dedicate himself to my brother, myself , Karen, Alex and James. To an amazing human being who does not give himself nearly enough credit. If I could only give 10% as unselfishly as he has! Your family is “small” Dad, but the love we all have for you is enormous! It is about quality, not quantity! I love you very much!

“In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” – Desiderius Erasmus


(Photos: 1.- Ombi infront of the colosseum, her first encounter with her Istrian past.
2.- Beautiful Pula, as seen from the top of the ancient Venetian Citadel; the lightning makes the city look all the more majestic. 3.- The 1st century Roman Colesseum, with the church, St Anthony of Padua in the background. 4.- Sherlock Ombi; one of the first people I spoke to in my bid to extract some information. 5.- Is this the house? The pink one is currently number 33, in the street that was possibly once Michelangelo Buonarotti. 6.- Ombi looking for the street, the house and trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. 7.- Ombi with “the boys” from the Community of Italians in Pola. 8.- Roman Temple of Augustus, Pula city center. Chatting with Darko and extracting some more information 9.- In Cafe Fortuna with (L to R):Lirim, Jilla, Alex and Arton. 10.- Ombi & the guys at the current number 33, on the once Michelangelo Buonarotti Street. 11.- Milka & Ombi in the offices of the Municipal Town Hall, holding a photocopy of an old map. 12.- Did we find the house? Ombi looking forward to finding the very last piece of the puzzle… next time with Dad of course! 13.- Ombi on the beach at Stoja, Adriatic Coast, Pula. 14. “Thinking”, Stoja Beach. 15.- Another view of the sea taken from near Stoja.)

Finalmente, un caffè buonissimo!

In no time at all we were at the appropriate train station, meeting the people who we would be sharing a ride with. Ananda was originally from Sri Lanka, and Mona from India. They were both living in Vienna now, and were off to Padua, Italy for a couple of days. We had organised to be dropped off in Udine, and then whilst they would continue on to their final destination, we would somehow make our way to Trieste. We would find a away! They were really lovely people, and our trip was pleasant. Needless to say, the views of the surrounding countryside as we passed through the Dolomite mountain range was breathtaking. I am not really a snow and cold weather fan, but I could not help but think how truly spectacular this must all look in winter! As we passed the border into Italy, we admired the various and tiny villages dotted around, and nestled at the foot of the mountains. Despite having been to Italy a few times before, this is an area I had never seen, and like all things different and new, there is always that feeling of enchantment. Besides, this part of the world does indeed look like it came out of a fairytale.

Before we knew it, we were in Udine. We had asked Ananda and Mona to drop us off at the train station, where we figured we could get a local train to Trieste. It was as good as done! We thanked them both, and in no time had organised a train. Whilst waiting, we met a lovely local family, also going to Trieste to do some shopping: Marisa and her children Marta and Fabio. As we chatted, I realised that my Italian was a little rusty, and rather infiltrated with Spanish. I was sure that it should not take me too long before I was able to think in Italian and thus speak at the normal velocity with which I speak both my mother tongue and Spanish. After all, I was in Italy, and you know what they say about practice makes perfect!

On our arrival in Trieste, Marisa asked us if we would like to come along with them to have what they beleived was the best gelati in Trieste. Alex whipped out a yes before I could say Bob’s your uncle! So, backpack and all, we made our way to Gelateria Zampolli, where we were offered a gelati. Alex went for the gelati, but I was much keener to have a coffee. Whist Alex’s eyes did a few back flips, as the gelati touched his palate, I found utopia the instant the first drop of expresso touched my lips! I had waited almost 10 months for this. Italian coffee is reknowned for being the best in the world, and I had not been let down! The problem with the coffee being THIS good however (as many of you who have been to Italy before would know), is that you spend the rest of your life comparing (and complaining about) the many and subsequent cups that simply do not cut it. So, I simply revelled in the moment, which was, without a doubt an OMG (Oh My God) one! As my Dad would say, I was as as happy as a pig in sh……..oops, mud!

Next, we had to look for a place to stay, of course. I could tell that it was not going to be as easy, or as cheap, as Central America. Another day, a different challenge! Firstly it is much more organised and the actual range seemed to be less than we were used to. Our first port of call was the Tourist Information Office, where we rapidly learned that our nights of $10.00 accommodation were well and truly over! Cheap in Trieste was a 45 euro room! And I do mean cheap, as most of the other rooms were in excess of 60 euros (1 euro is approximately AUD $1.60). So, 45 euros is what we paid at a place called Bed and Breakfast Lorenzo, with breakfast included, in theory. It was a clean and comfortable place, albeit with a meager and skeletal breakfast.

Our main reason for visiting Trieste was to see Nadia, so we called her up and organised to go and visit her and her husband, Arrigo, the next day, which was a Sunday. They live right in the heart of the city, only streets away from where we were staying. We spent a really lovely day together, reminiscing about old times. This is actually the third time in my life that I have seen Nadia, whilst the last time Dad did was when he left Italy all those years ago! We spent several hours chatting about our travels, life in Australia as well as Nadia telling us stories about my Dad, and how Pola (Dad’s birthplace), was in the old days. Whilst I have been to my mother’s birthplace, near Naples, I had never been to Dad’s. This is also on my to do list on this trip. Knowing your origins and ancestry, I beleive is both important and fascinating. It was, for me, yet another mission that needed to be fulfilled and accomplished!

We spent a further day in Trieste, as its postion in the Meditteranean, nestled between the turquoise Adriatic sea and the hills is very beautiful, and warrants at least a day of sightseeing. We were not wanting to rush, but we were also aware, that due to many reasons, we would have to fly out of Rome on the 30th of June, and there were still other palces to visit and things to see. Antique gothic and baroque buildings, an enchanting waterfront promenade, ancient Roman ruins, the Piazza Unita (Trieste’s heart and also one of the largest squares in Europe directly facing the sea), Miramare Castle and people watching certainly kept us both fascinated and entertained.

Ah, people watching……..one of my favourite pastimes! Italians are indeed fascinating to watch! And the world over knows that to many, fashion and the clothes they wear are almost, if not more important than the coffee they drink! And I could not help but think about how happy I was not only be Australian and live in a culture which is not so obsessed with this, but on a personal level to not feel that designer clothes, make-up and hair maketh the person Ombretta Zanetti!

Our couple of days in Trieste had been and gone rather quickly, but I was excited, as our next destination would be Pola, or Pula as it is now known, as it is part of Croatia.

Ombi

NOTE: I think it´s official! If what we saw in Trieste was anything to go by anyway…. Muffin Tops are back! Well, In Italy anyway! I mean, they ARE infront of us in the fashion stakes! Kath and Kim would have loved it, and Sarah Lee would have been proud, as we saw many style-mongers with layer upper layer!! Do you know that Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary named “muffin top” the word of the year in 2006. Thanks Kath and Kimmy, you put our country on the map! And thanks to you too Australia, you have given us so much to be proud about!

¨Minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open¨- Sir James Dewar, Scientist (1877-1925).

Ombi


(Photos: 1.- Driving to Udine, the Dolomite Mountain Ranges, Italy. 2.- With Mona & Ananda when we were dropped off in Udine, Italy. 3.- At Gelateria Zampolli, with Lto R: Ombi, Marta, Fabio & Marisa. 4.- In the heart of Trieste, near the waterfront, Italy. 5.- With Nadia, Dad´s godmother, and her husband Arrigo. 6.- Reading by the waterfront, Trieste, Italy.
7.- Melbourne is certainly not the only place with trams! 8.- It´s good to see that there are some George Bush lovers in other countries too!! This was a poster we saw in Trieste. 9.- The official ¨Triestina Muffin Top¨shot!)

Recharging our batteries in Vienna.

Finally we were on the plane and away, flying off to yet another destination on yet another continent. My friend Silvia had asked me several times earlier in our trip if we would make it to visit her in Vienna, but with all that we had booked and organised in our year long travel I could not possibly see how we could fit it in! However, I had to marvel at either the coincidence or the destiny that was taking us to Austria, as only days earlier the name of the country was not even in our vocabulary. The flight over was very comfortable, and I must add that Egypt Air proved to be an excellent airline. We were both suitably impressed with the comfort, cleanliness, food and customer service.

Although we did not get a chance to see Greece on this trip, we did get to fly over and visibly see the islands, and we could see them clearly, I might add. Does that count? For me this brought back a multitude of vivid and happy memories, as I recalled being in my early 20s and taking various ferries between the islands. I closed my eyes recalling and then revelling at the sight of the irridescent turquoise sea, as I sunbathed on the deck of the ferry. I was young, I was free and I was embracing and loving my life with an unbridled passion! Nothing has changed…except now I have a partner whom also shares this passion with me! Travel, for me, has opened up many doors, not just physical, but mental, spiritual and emotional. It has changed and continues to change my life in a profound way, that is for the most part, quite inexplicable.

I was snapped back into reality by the announcement that we were arriving in Vienna. “We are in Austria, we are in Austria”, I kept repeating to myself. When was the last time? Perhaps, 1995, or was it ’94 or ’93? It doesn’t matter……a long time sine I had seen Silvia anyway. As we landed, I smiled secretly to myself. Despite the fact that I am the first to say that I love a challenge, gee it was nice to be back in a land of cleanliness and organisation. I was rather looking forward to a few days of “easy” after so many months of “tough”.

The “ easy” began immediately as we waltzed (now, was that pun intended?) through immigration with the officer barely looking at our passports. I think it was at this point that Alex truly realised how valuable an Australian, as opposed to an Ecuadorian passport, really is. Yeh, this was going to be easy!

On the other side, there was Silvia waiting for us, just like I rememberd her, but with much shorter hair. We greeted each other warmly and I introduced Alex. Silvia actually holds a very special place in my heart as she is really my very first overseas friend and the person I credit my travelling passion to. At age 13, Silvia and I were matched up as “compatible” friends, through programs at our high schools. This was almost 30 years ago, when there effectively was no internet and snail mail and the occasional phone call was the modem operandi. As the years went by and we exchanged mail, gifts and ideas, I realised that there was a whole other world out there and that I wanted to be part of it! Thank you Silvia! Needless to say, at age 21 or 22, she and Austria were one of the first places that I visited. Over the years we have faithfully remained in contact, and I was excited at the prospect of meeting her husband Paul, and children Philipp (5) and Mara (3 and a half), who I had seen pictures of and heard so much about.

Silvia lives very close to the city centre, which we arrived at easily and efficiently on the excellent bus and train services. We would soon meet all of Silvia’s beautiful family. First there was Mara and Kahlia (the children’s Australian nanny), then Philipp, and finally Paul. What a wonderful family you have Silvia. A superb husband and gorgeous children. Paul and Silvia have a wonderful parenting style, which was a pleasure to watch. The result was disciplined children, who yet still knew how to have fun, and entertain themselves. I must add here that both Paul and Silvia speak English and that they are raising their children bi-lingual. It was quite remarkable to watch, and actually quite simple and uncomplicated. The children always speak English at their English speaking kindergarten. At home Silvia always speaks to them in English as well whilst Paul speaks to them in German, which they continue to do when speaking as a family. Silvia nd Paul speak German between them. They are constant in their resolve, and the results are remarkable. In the 8 days that we spent with them we saw the children oscillating between the two languages effortlessly. As a native English speaker, I might add that for children of their age, their English is perfect! Congratulations Silvia and Paul!

We really did have a cruisy eight days, relaxing, sleeping, going for runs (Ombi), sleeping in (Alex) using a washing machine to wash our clothes (much more “fun” than washing by hand!), catching up on e-mails and blogs, and generally just recharging our batteries, which were rather depleted on both ends! Both Paul and Silvia worked during the day, but we did some fun things together on the weekends. One of our outings was to a place called Leopoldsburg, just on the outskirts of Vienna, in the forest. We all took a bus out there, and after ascending a hill with magnificent views of the Danube River and Vienna, which is remarkably big, we enjoyed a picnic lunch, and later coffee for the adults and ice-cream for the kids. Great coffee in Vienna, I might add! Another day was spent in their swimming pool outside, splashing around and having fun. This really is the life!

I should add all the wonderful coffee, food and meals we had. Not only is Silvia a vegetarian, like me, but she also has a similar eating style. I cannot remember the last time we had that amount of good food in so few days. For that too I would like to thank you Silvia!

Speaking of coffee…….we may have just about had coffee overload at Silvia’s house! And that is NOT necessarily a bad thing. Paul was the one mostly responsible for the constant flow from the percolator! And being a huge fan of (good!) coffee, I found myself with a slight problem, of hand to mouth disease! A good coffee (or two, or three or four….) is a good……..right?!

We were rather getting into the whole relaxing thing in Vienna, and our bodies were beginning to thank us for it, but surely you cannot come to Vienna and not see the city centre and the main sights. So, we spent a couple of days doing just that! To be honest, the first few days were “difficult”, in fact because they were so easy. We had almost become used to doing it the hard way, as there had been no other option. I personally think that the way to go is to do the more challenging counties when you are younger (like me!!!!) as places like Europe, especially northern Europe, are so “doable” and could be done effortlessly as one gets older. Did I say old? Does one actually get old?

No trip to Vienna would be complete without a visit to Schonbrunn Palace (www.schoenbrunn.at), right in the heart of the city. It was once the residence of various individuals from the Hapsburg Empire. The palace is indeed imposing with its many and ornate rooms and the surrounding gardens, besides enormous, are impeccably well kept…..really, just as you would expect of Vienna! Take the time to investigate why this palace even came into being. I will give you a hint…it was a gift! And obviously an extremely expensive one at that. Strolling through the centre presented us with some buildings of spectacular architectural heritage, and I could not help but ponder at how very differnt they were to the other things we had seen recently. The world truly is a remarkable place, and I wonder whether I will be able to visit it all in this lifetime? I am sure that I will die having tried! Perhaps if I do, and I live to be old enough, they will have devised transport and the possibility to see other planets!

The adage is old, but true…all good things must come to an end! After a brilliant, relaxing and restful time in Vienna, it was time to move on. Our next destination would be north-eastern Italy, to visit Nadia, my Dad’s godmother, who he has not seen since he left Italy, some 55 years ago. Long distance public transport is one thing that has certainly gone up considerably since the euro was introduced, so Silvia jumped on line and helped us find a car share, which is cheaper. This is where someone is driving to a particular place, and you pay them for being able to ride with them in their car.

On the last night we all said our goodbyes, as we would have to get up early the next morning in order to meet the driver of the car we would be travelling in at 6.30am, at a station not so far from Silvia’s. We thanked them all for allowing us to have had such a great and restful time. As usual, such goodbyes always leave me with food for thought. Very early the next morning, Silvia got up to say goodbye again, and we were off. The next adventure awaited us!

Ombi

Dedication: To you Silvia! My very first international friend and the person whom I credit the beginnings of my interests in travelling, discovering the world, and different cultures to!

“If I die whilst travelling, it will be doing the thing I love best with the person I love most” – Ombretta Zanetti.

(Photos: 1.- Street performer, Vienna. 2.- Parliament House, Vienna. 3.- Ombi & Silvia, Leopoldsburg, Vienna.
4.- Dinner with the Kassar – Hoechedlinger family. L to R: Silvia, Mara, Philipp, Paul & Ombi. 5.- Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna. 6.- Philipp enjoying an ice-cream at home. 7.- Mara & Ombi sunbaking by the poolside at the family home, Vienna.)

Relaxing in the Red Sea.

There are several ways to get from Luxor to Dahab on the Sinai Peninsula, and there are also several prices, depending on whether you fly, take part of the ride on a ferry, or simply take a bus. The latter was the cheapest, as well as the longest option. Needless to say, it was the option we took! When one travels for a year, cost is always a factor and consideration. Besides, we would be undertaking the 15 or 16 or 17 or…….hour trip with our new friends, Steph and Seb. Bus travel times are always only an estimate in Egypt, as it depends on how many times the bus stops, and for how long. This does not include the several police checkpoints, which constitute the bus coming to a screeching halt, lights on and passports checked, apparently some of which can take place under the influence of “tiredness”. Alex tells me that he showed my passport to a policeman on oen of the stops, whilst I slept through, oblivious! What is the saying? Ignorance is bliss!

We finally arrived in Dahab, some 16, 17 or was it 18 hours later! The landscape in this neck of the woods is quite dramatic, with mountains of sand cascading into a turquoise sea. My mind was trying to wrap itself around the desert and sea combination. An odd combination for me, but marvellous. My mind boggled as it kept trying to tell me that desert and sea were mutually exclusive.

No sooner had we jumped off the bus than we were bombarded with several touts trying to “sell” us a room for the night. Sometimes this too can be overwhelming, and we ended up going with a guy called Momo, to the Jasmine Hotel. The contact had been given to us in Luxor. Although we also checked out several other places, we ended up back at the Jasmine. It was clean, comfortable, had a balcony, and it was right on the waterfront, with exquisite views of the Red Sea.
Dahab is, well, basically one of Egypt’s top coastal destinations. It is not supposed to be as touristy or resorty as some of the other places, but we felt that it was well on its way. Whilst it is a great place to relax, dive and snorkel, we found the waterfront area to be one continuous line of touristy (and often over-priced!) restaurants and shops. Having said that, sitting on the cushions on the floor of any given restaurant, whilst sipping on a (very average!) coffee is really not a bad way to pass the time whilst shooting the breeze! We did manage to find some great little places to eat in the back streets though, and as usual, the food was pretty good and the price tag reasonable. Needless to say, none of us were interested in falafel! The word sent a shiver down our spines!

There is a Bedouin village close to Dahab, which we passed one day, on our way to go snorkeling. It was explained to us that although they “live ” in the sandstone huts that we could see, many Bedouin still pitch up their tents inside! Odd? I do not think so. The Bedouin are basically desert dwellers and nomads, and tents are really their life.

We went snorkeling a couple of times, and were flabbergasted. Absolutely stunning! The beaches of Dahab are not sandy, but rather pebbly. You only have to walk or swim out 20 metres or so, to find that the pebbles become coral and then that coral wall dramatically drops away, and invites you to see not only spectacular marine life but an array of colourful water formations as well. It was certainly excellent competition for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef! On another day, we visited a site called the Blue Hole , where we also did some snorkeling. More spectacular underwater eye candy!

How could we come to Dahab, and not go diving? We couldn’t! We went with an extremely professional company called Big Blue Dahab (http://www.bigbluedahab.com/), owned by the hands- on and competent Mohamed, as well as managed by another Mohamed. After chatting with a few people from different places, we realised that these guys had the professional and safe edge that we were looking for. Our first dive was in a place called Eel Garden. Olivier from France took us out and he was excellent. Apart from seeing the obvious (eels) we also saw yet more interesting coral and marine life. I have said this before, but it is absolutely another world down there! The colours are different, the feeling is different and the vibe is different. Later that day, Tim (an Australian) took us out to another dive spot called The Island. Wow! I felt like I was in an underwater maze – we began by descending through a hole in the coral, and then continued to slither and slide over coral formations that I had never seen before……..one of my favourites was a gargantuan brain coral with some sea anemone tucked into the top…..and its guardians, two “Nemo ” fish. The sight was wondrous to behold!

The other “must do” on the Sinai Peninsula is, of course, climbing Mt Sinai. At 2285 metres, Mt Sinai, or Gebel Musa as it is known to the locals, is the place where God is purported to have delivered his Ten Commandments to Moses at its summit. It is thus revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews alike. Along with Steph and Seb, we did a night walk. We took a mini-van from Dahab at 11.00pm at night, and arrived near Mt Sinai, at around 12.30am, then a group of us (there were various groups, some even taking camels) began the trek up to the summit. It is rather an easy walk, but I must admit that I struggled. I think that 9 months on the go is finally taking its toll! The reality is that I need a rest! But, I soldiered on! Thanks for helping me with my backpack Alex! We reached the top at around 4.00am….along with a multitude of others, where we hired a blanket and mattress and snuggled down for a few hours, before waking up to the sunset. Well, Steph and Alex did, whilst Seb and I slept on….a little. But we still saw the colours , right Seb? We got the picture!

No sooner had the sun risen, than there was a mass exodus of people descending the slope, towards the Monastery of St Katherine. The walk down was actually harder than the walk up, which consists of the 3750 “Steps of Repentance”. These steps are made of roughly hewn rock, and are said to have been laid down by a monk as a form of penance. If I was exhausted during the walk, I was shattered after it! We reached the monastery just after 8.00am, but had to wait until 9.00am for it to open. We sussed out the surrounding and inviting rock scenery, picked a flattish space, and collapsed for an hour or so.

By the time the monastery opened, we felt like the living dead, like walking zombies! The aspect which makes this Christian monastery so spectacular is that it’s tucked into a barren valley at the foot of Mt Sinai, with absolutely nothing else around it. Walking down the mountain, as it comes into view, it almost looks like an apparition, as its sandstone colours and hues blend into the surrounding countryside. It too has been a place of pilgrimage since the 4th century AD. ” It traces its founding to about 330 AD, when the Roman Empress Helena had a small chapel and a fortified refuge for local hermits built beside what was believed to be the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses” (Lonely Planet guide on Egypt). It was very interesting, but I think I was too tired to properly appreciate it. We drove back to Dahab at around 10.30am, and upon our arrival, we showered and went to sleep, waking up several hours (read 7.00pm!) later. Holidays should be for relaxing……right?!

Who should we bump into in Dahab, but Mary, Gerald and Torin! Well, OK, Gerald had e-mailed me , so I knew that they were around! Remind me…..WHAT would we do without e-mail, and HOW did we cope before its advent? On our last night we all went out to dinner, including Stephanie and Sebastien. This group of people are, without a doubt, some of the nicest we have met on our travels!

The Egyptian chapter was coming to a close, but where to next? Originally, we were supposed to go to Turkey, via the Middle East, perhaps Israel, perhaps Jordan. Apart from Cuba, this was the only part that was not included on our around-the-world ticket. Without getting into detail, we must fly from Rome to Barcelona on the 30th June, which does not give us much time. So, after several hours of internet research, we decided that the most feasible option, both cost and time wise would be to fly to Austria.

Once the decision had been made, I was on the phone to my very special and dear friend Silvia in Vienna, asking her how she felt about having visitors that very weekend! Keep in mind that it was Wednesday night when I called. Once I got the go ahead, we booked the ticket, through Egypt Air, on-line, and we would be flying out on Friday.

A bit on my friend Silvia. Silvia is from Austria and was my very first international friend. She became my pen-pal, whilst I was at high school, at age 13, and we have written, phoned, e-mailed, and stayed in contact ever since. More on this later!

At midnight we caught a mini-bus back to Cairo. In the early hours of the morning, on the outskirts of Cairo, we found ourselves hugging Seb and Steph saying goodbye. They would continue on to the city centre and we had to catch a taxi to the airport. We all had tears in our eyes a s we waved goodbye! We will really miss you both Stephanie and Sebastien!

It was just after 7.00am when we arrived at the airport, and we went directly to pick up our e-ticket! “Your ticket has not been paid for and your reservation has been cancelled”, we were told by the guy behind the customer service desk at Egypt Air. “Whaddayatalkinabout“, is the first thing that came to mind, and the second is why is customer service sometimes called customer service, when there is no customer service! The guy helping us was so apathetic – as we freaked, he yawned and told us, whilst biting his nails, that we would need to come back in an hour and speak to the appropriate personnel. I urged him to give me a hint as to what he thought the outcome might be, but he was seriously in “Talk to the hand” mode. I heard myself thinking out aloud, breathe in, breath out! He did tell us that we were still in the system, however, which was had to be a good sign.

Some two actually great coffees later, we went back, and luckily were able to fix the problem. For some reason payment had not gone through and our reservation cancelled, but as we were still in the system, once we paid, we would be fine and dandy. The forces that be were obviously guiding and watching us, as in a few minutes we were ready to rock and roll again. As we went through the check out counter, we met an Egyptian woman, who was travelling. She was stunned that we would have even attempted to book a ticket on line through Egypt Air. ” This is Egypt. These things just do not work here! “, she proceeded to tell us. Thanks, I thought, we had kid of figured that out!

Before we knew it, we were on the plane , flying to Vienna!

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable” – Clifton Fadiman (1904 – 1999).

Dedication: To all the wonderful people we have met on our travels. Some of you have had a huge impact on our lives. Meeting people like Gerald, Mary and Torin, and Stephanie and Sebastien has enriched our lives. We have learnt, laughed, experienced and shared, and we feel that we are better human beings for it. Thanks to you, and to the many others that are forming us into the people we are, and will continue to become!

Ombi

(Photos: 1.- Highway through Sinai Peninsula, on the way to Dahab. 2.- Four-wheel driving, on the way back from snorkeling in the Blue Hole, near Dahab, close to the shore of the Red Sea. The mountains you see on the other side are actually in Saudi Arabia. 3.- Bedouin people & their camels, near the Blue Hole. 4.- Red Sea, as seen from the Blue Hole. 5.- View from our hotel room, Dahab. 6.- Ombi & Alex underwater…..this was actually taken by our dive instructor, Laura, when we did our Open Water Diving Course in Honduras, a few months back. 7.- Sunrise on top of Mount Sinai (lucky Alex takes good photos, as I was sleeping). 8.- St Katherine’s Monastery. 9.- Ombi & Alex on the top of Mount Sinai. 10.-Stephanie, Sebastien, Johnny Depp (oops, Alex!!!) and Ombi relaxing in a Dahab resturant. 11.- Steph, Seb, Alex ,Ombi, Mary, Gerald and Torin, eating out in a restaurant, on our last night in Egypt, Dahab.

Heat, hassle and hieroglyphics!

The trip to Aswan, at the southern end of the Nile, would be a long one! Some 28 hours, to be exact! We had to get up early, and catch the bus back to Marsa Matruh, and from there change, and catch another bus to Cairo. Small problem…….possibly an hour into the 5 hour journey back to Cairo, the air-conditioner broke down! As Kath and Kim would say……….NICE! It so was not! We were hot and sticky, and I was having a good ol‘ whinge! I kept reminding myself of all the people I had seen on this trip who were so much worse off than me, and it helped me to stay somewhat focused. By the time we arrived in Cairo, I was truly hot and bothered. Having been let of in the wrong spot, we then had to make our way to the train station. Step 3 would be catching the overnighter to Luxor. It would not be leaving until 10.00pm, so we had plenty of time to arrange things, or so we thought.

Aswan or Luxor? Luxor or Aswan? We decided on Luxor. No sooner had we done this, than we met a guy who insisted that we go to Aswan. Yes, Luxor was amazing he said, but Aswan was less touristy and equally as spectacular. Small problem. We had already bought the ticket! Without going into specific details, we were able to change it, but it took a lot of time and hassle. The guy had said that it was too late, that the ticket had already been bought and blah, blah, blah! I had one of the many tourist police help me out, but for a while it seemed that despite my determination, the operation was doomed to fail! Finally, the policeman got me to go into the ticket office, and in what I presume was Arabic small talk, he also got the man behind the desk to change our tickets! What I did next went against the grain of all that I usually stand for! I slipped the policeman a 10 pound Egyptian (about USD $1.40) note. He did not expect it and was truly grateful. Should I have done it or not? This was my dilemma: These people get paid appallingly, and in this case, no money was expected whatsoever. The policeman had spent almost an hour with me, which by the way, he was not obliged to do. I gave him the money, blessed it, and hoped that he would be able to give his family the little bit extra that I am able to afford every day!

The train left at 10.00 pm and arrived the next day at around lunchtime. We managed to sleep somewhat. We shared a compartment with a couple of supremely nice guys, one of whom spoke excellent English. Although thirsty, I drank little, as that would force me to use the toilets (yuk!!) at the end of the carriages. This area was also consistently used by smokers, and was thus engulfed in a constant lung wrenching smoke screen (double yuk!!). Speaking of which, I am amazed by how much they smoke here in Egypt, especially the men. I make no lie about how anal Alex and I both are around cigarette smoke, but avoiding it here has been virtually impossible.

What we did over the next several days, basically consisted of temples, temples and more temples. Oh….and ancient historical sights! Having said that they were impressive and spectacular, to say the vey least! In this case the saying that you need to see them for yourself to appreciate the enormity and majesty, is truer than ever! We actually saw so many, that it would be impossible to describe them all in detail, so I will aim for the highlights. There were also our three nights and two days on a felucca, cruising down the Nile, but more on that later.

The El Salam Hotel (elsalamhotelaswan@yahoo.com) in Aswan proved to be our little piece of paradise. The place was clean, and air-conditioned (and I thought that I did not like nor need air-con……….enter Egypt!)) , and the owners kind, helpful and friendly. It was seriously hot here, and we relied on lots of water and freshly squeezed sugar cane juice, to keep us hydrated as well as energised.

Although we stayed on the east bank of the Nile, it was only a short ferry ride across to the west bank. We did not make it across , but the area is home to many of the areas Nubians, who mostly live in southern Egypt and northern Sudan. They are easily recognisable by their dark skin, yet Arabic features. We did however make it to Elaphantine Island, a fascinating little Nubian island nestled between the east and west banks. Very easy to walk around, its major attractions are its impressive museum and the Ruins of Abu (the oldest structures which date back to 3000 BC), as well as its two Nubian villages, Siou and Koti. Here it is like time has lay dormant, where the houses are made of mud, the floors of dirt, and where the streets are simply dusty trails. There are no cars on the tiny island. And the Nubians go about their business as I assume they did millennia before we found them.

No trip to Aswan would be complete without an outing to Abu Simbel, which lies at the southern end of the Nile, only 40 kilometres away from the Sudanese border. The easiest way to get there is by taking a tour via mini van, as apart from the colossal temples for which it is justly famous, there is not much else to see or do. Most excursions along the Nile include police convoys, which are really in order to protect the tourists, as there have been several terrorist attacks in several places along the Nile in the past. The police convoys consists of tour buses and mini vans meeting at various times, and all going off together, obviously following the police.

Nothing could prepare us for the Great Temple of Ramses 2 and the Temple of Hathor. These temples were carved out of the mountain on the west bank of the Nile between 1274 and 1244 BC. The former temple’s imposing statues are majestic. As you come around a corner, there they are, four bigger than life statues of Ramses 2. I would imagine that the view from the Nile, especially in bygone years would have been spectacular. What did the ancients exclaim, as they sailed past? The temple of Hathor, is dedicated to Queen Nefertari and is really just a smaller version of Ramses’ own temple. Inside both temples are a series of rooms and chambers, many with exquisite sculptures and drawings, and hieroglyphics on the walls. In some areas the paint work is still intact. On the way back, we stopped at a few other sights including the High Dam and the Unfinished obelisk , which is the largest known ancient obelisk in the world. Our stop at the Isis Temple Complex on the island of Philae involved getting a ferry to the tiny island, whose entire space is dedicated to the temple, which once housed the cult of Isis and her subsequent worship. The space was serene and tranquil, and it was perhaps due to the very fact that it was not overrun with tourists that made it so striking.

It was from Aswan that we organised our felucca trip down the Nile. This is almost a rite of passage amongst the backpacker set. Feluccas are the small sailboats you can see going up and down the Nile. There are no toilets or showers, and multi- day trips consist of lazing on the deck, and watching the world go by. Toilet stop? Pull up onto shore and duck behind a bush or tree? Showers? Why do you think that baby wipes were invented? It was on this trip that we met Stephanie and Sebastien, a great Swiss brother and sister whom we would then spend the next week travelling with. We were so lucky, as there were only the four of us, as well as the captain, Ruby, and cook/helper, Rambo (Ramadan). Needles to say, we had a totally stress free, complacent and relaxing time. It was excellent for Alex and I as we were almost forced to take a much needed break.

After leaving the felucca on day three, a bus had been organised to pick us up. We stopped to see both the Temple of Kom Ombo as well as Edfu, and then it was another hour and a half on to Luxor. We had seen so much that we truly wondered if we could take in any more!

As far as being hassled went, it happened all over Aswan, especially in the market paces, and continued on in Luxor! It drove me to distraction, and I almost lost it on several occasions. On other occasions, well…….I did lose it! Like Aswan, there is so much to see and do in Luxor, but by this stage, I was wanting to see it and get out, as I was finding it difficult to control myself and my tongue. Stephanie and Sebastien were great to have around, as we could laugh and cry together over the things that annoyed and bothered us. There was much more laughing than crying though. Seb, I do not think we will EVER forget the Australians that took the camel ride at the Pyramids of Giza for 1500 Egyptian pounds!!! (Sorry guys, in -house joke!)

In Luxor, we visited the famed Valley of the Kings. Set in amongst its scorching cliffs, are a series of valleys containing a multitude of ancient burial sites; the majestic domain of the pharaohs who once lay there in great sarcophagi, awaiting immortality! Some 62 tombs have been excavated, but not all belonged to the pharaohs. Also, most are actually not open to the public. The famous tomb of Tutankhamen was actually the most recent discovery, by Howard Carter in 1922. Alex and I had to wait a while to enter it, as a British crew were filming for the Discovery Channel. Unlike, the other tombs, which are chambers with several sculptures and countless depictions , King Tut’s tomb has been cleared of the breathtaking riches that it once contained. Having said that, the fact that he still lies lies in there in his gilded wooden coffin, gives the place a special vibe and atmosphere.

We also visited the Valley of the Queens, in which there are some 75 tombs. Only 3 were open, and to be truthful, they pale in comparison to the alley of the Kings. The temple of Hatshepsut, was also astonishing. It is partly rock-cut and partially freestanding. As it rises out of the desert, it seems to merge with the adjacent limestone cliffs. Again, and again, I kept asking myself the same question that has run through my head a million times in this country…..HOW did they do it?

Karnak Temple was the last temple we saw in Luxor, and I must say, it was good timing! We had all reached temple saturation point, and were all finding it difficult to concentrate! It really was spectacular, but we were all a little too over-it to properly appreciate it! So, along with Steph and Seb, we decided that it was time to go to Dahab, on the Sinai Peninsula.

Up until now, I have mostly been able to keep illnesses and the revenge of the gods at bay. I have not been traumatised by Bali Belly, Montezuma’s Revenge, nor with Guatemalan gut. I am not sure whose revenge it was, but I copped it in Luxor! My guess is that the culprit was falafel that had been fried in used and reused cooking oil! The result was several trips to the bathroom over several days. It was my turn first, and then it went through the others….one at a time! But, we all lived to tell the tale!

Next: The Sinai Peninsula – Diving & snorkelling in the Red Sea and climbing Mt Sinai.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Ombi

(Photos: 1.- Great Sea of Sand, Siwa Oasis. 2.- A felluca sailboat, near Aswan. 3.- Landscape near Aswan, with the mausoleum of Aga Khan in the background 4.-Nubian house facade,Elephantine Island 5&6.- Abu Simbel. 7.- Philae Temple, main entry. 8.- On the felucca, L to R: Alex, Ombi, Rambo, Stephanie, Ruby and Sebastien…..cruising the Nile. 9.- Philae Temple, Aswan. 10.- Light! Taken in one of the chambers of the Ramses 2 Temple in Abu Simbel. 11.- Fresco, Philae temple.

A mirage……..no, an oasis!

Cairo was full on, and we felt that we needed a little tranquility! We scanned our guide book and decided that Siwa Oasis (in the Western Desert) heading out north-west, near the Libyan border, sounded both exotic, and distant enough to provide us with some rest, relaxation and fun! Besides, we wanted to see a mirage! Heading out towards Alexandria by train, we then caught a bus on to Marsa Matruh, where we would spend the night. I must say that neither the buses nor trains here are particularly clean, and on several occasions, a plastic bag slipped over the top of the seat became my headrest, and several sheets of a (discarded!) glossy magazine became my cushion (the one I sat on!). That worked! We only spent a night in Marsa Matruh, before getting up early the next morning to catch another bus on to Siwa Oasis. Not much to report in Matruh……except that the food we ate was nice, and the hotel we stayed in was awful!

We arrived in Siwa by about 11.00am, and it was scorching! If you think it’s hot in the city, try mid-desert! I felt like I was in a dream. Everything was a beigy-sand colour, from the roads (which actually were sand!) to the buildings. The small township is nestled in amongst sand dunes, and has a series of eroded sandstone hills as a backdrop. It truly does appear as the proverbial mirage. We found a lovely little place to stay, and then we were off……………or, so we thought!

We have pushed ourselves through a multitude of barriers over the last nine months, but constant and searing heat (and remember, long pants!) is altogether another story. Long lunches are normally not our thing when we travel, but in that scathing heat, the option was surprisingly tantalising. East-West Restaurant, by the way, had great food at reasonable prices. Highly recommended if you end up in Siwa. It was here that we met Gerald, a Canadian guy. We spent several hours chatting, and relaxing (as we hoped we would). As it works out, Gerald is travelling around the world for a year, with his wife, Mary and 14 year old Torin. Aye, aye and cheers to them! We would later meet both Mary and Torin, and I want to say what a truly wonderful family they are. Torin, you are one of the luckiest 14 year olds that we know!

Apart from relaxing, we were able to fit in some other interesting activities…..like eating fresh dates and olives, for which the area is renowned. Strolling around the palm gardens is also very soothing. And it really is like a postcard…desert, desert, desert, and then plonk, a group of palm trees….which of course, are only there due to the existing water supply. The remains of the 13th century mud-brick Fortress of Shali, dominates the centre of town. It was fun to walk around and explore, as well as providing us with a brilliant sunset. It was on the highest peak that we met Adnan, who was here on business from Cairo. What a truly lovely and genuine person. Along with him we met some of his new found Siwan friends, who were also gentlemen. Sitting up on top of the world, and chatting…..living and learning. Could there be anything more to life!

I would like to include a poem (exactly as it was written), which Adnan sent via e-mail, and which I received in Austria several weeks after our meeting:

Ombi is amazed”

Why,why is Ombi amazed?
Is it because the faces she traced?
Or perhapse the places she faced,
So let her eyes gazed and gazed.
Ombi is nice,delicate and sweet
With siplicity,she tries to treat,
Look at her,your heart will beat,
You’ll lose your way or the street.
Alex to Ombi is a soul mate,
He is her love and only fate,
Look at them,what you state?
Hand in handand never be late.
Did you see Ombi contemplating?
For something,she was waiting
To know the meaning without hating,
In Siwa we met,fate not dating.

(A lyrical poem that can be sung one day in school. Dedicated for a dear friend met by destiny. By Adnan Kotate.)

Even the locals differ to those in the rest of Egypt, not just physically, but linguistically. The inhabitants of Siwa are predominantly Berber speaking , although many also speak Arabic, which they have mainly learnt due to tourism. The married women are known for their particular dress, which constitutes being totally covered , from head to toe, in black. This includes their feet, hands, and eyes. A black gauze covers their eyes, so that not a thing can be seen. On top of this sea of black, is often a beautifully embroidered blue coloured cloth, particular to this area. Before marriage, the women bare all but their faces, and some of them are striking. Perhaps due to earlier invasions, such as those by France, we saw the likes of women with coffee coloured skin and striking blue or green eyes.

Siwa has no shortage of natural hot and cold springs. After all, this how an oasis comes into being. We walked to Cleopatra’s bath, which we decided not swim in. As a local told us, the name was chosen as they knew it would be a crowd puller! Bingo! Close to this spring, we also visited The Temple of the Oracle. Similar to the Shali Fortress, it is a labyrinth -like structure that sits at the edge of Aghurmi township (only 4 kilometres from Siwa), and upon reaching the top, the views of the sand dunes, palm trees and surrounding desert are brilliant. The structure was built in the 6th century BC, and it is said that it was in this place that Alexander the Great consulted the oracle (thus the name of the temple). It is one of the most revered oracles in the ancient Mediterranean.

The highlight of Siwa, however, was the afternoon “Sand Safari” we undertook with Abdu, of Abdu Safary(he can be contacted on azmy_safary@yahoo.com and his English is great). This consisted of four wheel driving over some impressive sand dunes and then relaxing in some hot as well as cold springs. Abdu’s sand burnouts were phenomenal, and I heard myself scream a few times as we flew down some with near 90 degree drops! You rock Abdu! Again, I felt like I was the moving object in a postcard…there we are flying over the sand dunes, when, all of a sudden, we drop over a really tall one, to be confronted with palm trees, and a bubbling hot spring! No, it’s not a mirage, it’s an oasis! We plonked ourselves in paradise, and soaked in the sulphurous water bubbles! After a little while, we dried up, and jumped back into the jeep. And just when we felt that it couldn’t get any better, as we topped another magnificent crest on the edge of the Great Sand Sea, there was Bir Wahed. Bir Wahed is a cold freshwater lake, which like its warmer sister, the hot spring, seems to jump up out of nowhere! As we drove towards it, I rubbed my eyes like the children in the Tales of Narnia……….could I be seeing what I was seeing? Sand, sand , sand and more sand, and then………… all of a sudden palm trees and a huge pool of water! We had found heaven.

Like all good things, they come to an end, and in a quest to see some more of Egypt’s world renowned sights we decided that Luxor and Aswan would be next. The trip to get there is a story unto itself!

‘There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged, to find the ways in which you yourself have altered’. – In the words of Nelson Mandela, in his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom.

Ombi

Photos: 1.-The ancient town of Shali, Siwa. 2.- One of the lakes around Siwa. 3.- A typical mud brick Siwan house. 4.- Ombi, “The poet” (Adnan) & other Siwan friends, on top of Shali. 5,- Ombi talking with the locals………for a change! 6.- The view as seen from The Oracle. 7.- Abdu & Ombi on the top of the Great Sea of Sand. 8.- Moi! 9.- Meditating……Abdu at the foot of the cold lake, Bir Wahed, Siwan desert.