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Even the Goats Have Sticks …

Last post from Slovenia - written after returning.  Thanks for following. "How do they harvest the grapes that are planted straight down those steep mountains?"  The wine cellar guide in Ptuj (pronounced Pit-tooey) looked at me like I had tasted one too many of their lovely wines.  "Well they just climb down and pick them." The day before on a loop ride out of Ptuj along the Drava River and into the Haloze wine region on the Croatian border, we had found ourselves at the top of some of these mountains with vineyards planted straight down the steep slopes.  I had stood at the top and looked down those almost vertical lines of grapes, so steep that I had held on to a grapevine with one hand and leaned out as far as I could, only to see the grape-laden vines disappear immediately from sight as they plummeted down the steep slope. As I stood hanging on at the top, I assumed the only way to pick the grapes was to anchor at the top with a rope and harness and essentially belay down.  So I asked the question again assuming she had not understood.  And she just laughed, "Oh no.  They just climb down and pick them.  They are used to it.  There is a saying in Slovenia - Even the goats have sticks." This was the end of a very interesting morning tour of the central wine cellar in the small medieval town of Ptuj in the northeast corner of Slovenia.  Wine has been produced here since the Romans, and consistently in the town for over 700 years when the local royalty chartered a monastery and charged them with wine-making. Since then the area has produced wine consistently, and is particularly known for its incredible white wines. We were touring the old Ptuj wine cellar,

The Acceptable Price for Something Special

"Tree! Tree!"  I looked up and wiped the sweat out of my eyes. A little man was gesturing towards a lovely fig tree hanging over the road where Julie and I are standing in the shade, hanging our head and panting, trying to breathe again. He has watched us push our bikes up a hill so steep that it's taken all my effort to slowly creep up the winding road to our missed turn. Calves burning, feet slipping backwards, face bent almost horizontal to the ground with all my weight leaning into the bike to keep it moving slowly forward and up. We must have looked like we needed sustenance. Or a brain transplant. I was wondering what the heck we were doing up that skinny mountain road, too, and cursing the lack of good through bike routes in Slovenia. So we caught our breath and thanked our benefactor and had a snack from his fig tree before climbing back on the bike and heading down a dirt road back down the other side of the mountain. We were learning that those promising little white roads on our navigation app ... while usually gorgeous and scenic and interesting ... were also risky routes for planning bike rides. This was not the first time we were off the bike pushing up unspeakably steep hills. Or looking at a sketchy dirt path wondering if we dared follow the trail further or should admit defeat and try another route. Unfortunately for us, we are both stubborn and found ourselves pressing on more often than turning back.  The temperatures were nearly 90 degrees in the afternoons, leading to grumpy hallucinations of Slovenian road builders driving a truck to the top of hills and letting the asphalt roll down where gravity took it. Some of the climbs of the

Party under the Loggio … And other tidbits from the last five days of cycling

We couldn't resist. The international bike trail known as the Alpe-Adria was just too tempting. A bike trail that stretched from Salzburg Austria to the Adriatic resort town of Grado, Italy. We had joined the trail after we left Bled, Slovenia as we worked our way around the high Julian Alps of North Western Slovenia. Gorgeous riding through a valley with granite mountains on either side of the trail ... a former railway that has been converted to a dreamy bike trail. Former rail stations now serve as bike trail cafes for snacks and coffee breaks as the trail rolled first west and then turned south. The trail was packed with bike pilgrims all making the journey to the sea. Familiar faces from the trail appeared again at restaurants and strolling the streets in the towns and cities along the way, with waves and conversations. And best of all, after the strenuous climbing through the mountains of Slovenia, the Alpe-Adria route offered a dreamy downhill profile ... Miles of coasting on smooth trail rarely turning a pedal. It was so tempting to continue on through Italy to the sea that we simply couldn't resist and caved to temptation. Italy has worked its magic once again. And so since posting from Valbruna, Italy on the border of Austria, we biked for five straight days working our way to the Adriatic with a few minor detours.  And after reaching our destination when we rolled into Grado yesterday afternoon as the thermometer topped 90 degrees,  we stayed over night and the next morning headed back north to the Italian/Slovenian border town of Gorizia. This trail - The Alpe Adria - would be a fabulous trail for a first time self-supported bicyclist learning how to bike tour. Just make sure you head from Salzburg to the sea not

Squat

The thin, long-haired young man stopped his skateboard and spoke with Julie while I photographed a red mural that was painted on an abandoned building by the river.  "You should go to Metelkova," he said.  He handed us a glossy postcard of the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum.  "It's only 15 minute walk. "  Then he looked at me, "There is lots of graffiti there." That got my attention.  I love street art if it is intelligent.  Graffiti and murals tell stories.  They can say more about a culture - and its less promoted counterculture - than any museum or tour.  Plus ... I love photographing those colors and the contrast of bright paint scrawled on pompous or boringly functional buildings. The next morning, our geeky tourist maps in hand, we set off north along the maze of streets and eventually found what Ljubljana locals describe as a "City within a City", rows of art-covered walls and sculpture and graffiti sprawling across several blocks and unmistakably our destination. Metelkova is one of the largest squats in Europe.  It is a sprawl of old army barracks and a former prison that were taken over as housing after Slovenian Independence in 1991 when artists moved in to the vacant buildings and started their own community.  The city did not - and still does not - like them.  They are tolerated however - perhaps because people here seem to hold the area as a special place which may be a product of the decades of socialism under Tito and the spirit of a brand new democracy. They have turned their entire community into a creative haven for alternative artists.   Today, over twenty years after moving into those abandoned buildings, they still squat and live there live there rent and tax free.  Metelkova has become accepted enough now by the

Where is that?

Slovenia!   Small, but mighty.  Big Alps.  Good food and wine.  A love of the outdoors. Castles.  I'm here with my bike and a friend for three weeks with plans to circle this small but packed country with detours into some of its neighbors ... Italy, Croatia, maybe Austria and Hungary. But today we are getting organized, building our bikes, catching up on sleep and checking out the fabulous capital of Ljubljana (pronounced Lube JAHN Yah).  As I write this a band playing the salsa street party and lots of Cuban sound has my toes tapping and is doing a grand job of keeping me awake to get on the right sleep schedule for our 9 hour time difference. This town thrums.  The entire city center is pedestrian and bicycle only and the difference in noise and carefree mobility is remarkable compared to dodging cars in my Seattle neighborhood.  It's an old city that integrates the modern and a sense of humor.  A modern metal sculpture of a headless man with tail is profiled by the stately columned buldings lining the river.  And young people sip beer and snack in the dozens of outdoor cafes - looking equally at home in their casual shorts and blue hair as the older generations strolling arm in arm along the river. This city seems to have retained a  unique personality - maybe like Portland , OR has managed to stay unique despite the growth and change around it.  Perhaps because it's still hidden from the tourist throngs of neighoring Italy, Vienna and Croatian coast.   We are looking forward to seeing more as we ride around and roam through this country at the deliciously slow bicycle pace that enables a visitor to really experience a place and meet interesting folks.   And based on the courtesy and

Vino-culture

The smell roasting pork had me looking longingly back over my shoulder at the grill with a gutted piglet spinning over the coals, lovingly basted by a man who clearly took his pig very seriously. At my near-wrecking of the bike as I smiled and waved, the little group gathered around the spit waived me down and beckoned us over.   We just smiled ourselves into something special. We were riding west into Mikulov, a small town in the center of Moravian wine country. I was bored ... the Greenways trail we had been following had spent too many miles on the barren trail through the border no-man's land. The communist government had cleared everything along this strip so they could patrol and shoot whatever moved without obstruction. And they had done such a thorough job I had lost interest in the ride beyond marveling at the difference between the cultural desert we traveled and the rest of this rich country that had amazed. So I led us off the trail onto a little detour into a small town seeking something a little more interesting. Seek and you shall find. As we rode past a little wine cellar road outside of the village my nose let me to roast pig and a wine-making party.   Crates of white reisling and purple cabernet grapes picked that morning waited in a trailer across the road. The cellar buzzed with a family busily shoveling grapes and juice that had just been crushed into a barrel with a screw lid to squish out the last of the juice. A young boy used a strainer to take out debris. A man with a garden hose syphoned the juice into a larger bucket into the lower level of the brick cellar. The walls of the lower cellar are gunky with white mildew and mold.

Sentinels

 Look!  Another castle! Look!  Another bunker! The past three days we cycled from the Western Czech Republic in Bohemia to the East Moravian town of Mikulov, closely following bike routes along the Austrian border. The remnants of centuries of conflict as kings and countries and religions fought and defended this land are strewn everywhere. They are mounted on hilltops like sentinels to command the view and the fortified advantage. They are built to impose power just by their size, as well as to defend if attacked. They are deliberately conspicuous, and scream STOP! To both keep out enemies coming from outside. And later, to keep their own people behind the barriers.  By the third day of riding near the border, the bunkers and castles and look-out towers had become so commonplace they barely warranted a mention as we pedaled east.  Before history and international committees designated this line as the current border between the Czech Republic and Austria, this region was the boundary between the kingdoms of Bohemia, Moravia and Austria. Today castles stand guard at the old borders, built and expanded and renovated as they changed hands as the ruling families intermarried and then died off over the centuries. Each generation building their new fortifications and palaces to mark their territories. And rule their serfs. Collect their taxes. And defend what their entitlement. This borderland was also central in the early efforts to challenge the Catholic Church when the Hussites broke from the church with their own vision of religion, forming an army that eventually disintegrated into basic looting and marauding. They sacked towns in the region in the name of God and wealth. Earlier this week we saw a painting of a beautiful chateau surrounded by elaborate gardens displayed over a mantle at the massive castle at Cesky Krumlov. We asked the guide the location, and

We are Off: Cycling the Prague-Vienna Greenway

We debated staying in Prague one more day. Staying was easy. It's Prague. It didn't matter if it rained. No need to find new hotels.  Or figure out how to ride in a new country. It's always easier to stay. But I'm so glad we pushed passed the inertia that makes staying easy and doing something seem so hard.  I'm glad we started cycling. We left Prague (Praha) after three days in the tourist center and rode out of town following the Prague-Vienna Greenway. We are self-supported, and came with our own bikes and two panniers that are mounted to a rack on the bike with everything we are willing to carry for 3.5 weeks. The Prague-Vienna Greenway is a signed bike and walking path that leads from ... Prague to Vienna ... part of a network of greenways through Europe. In the first two days of cycling 140 kilometers between Prague and the medieval town of Tabor have biked over lightly trafficked bike paths, dirt tracks, forest trails and gravel roads. This greenway is terrific. There are ACTUAL SIGNS with directional arrows pointing you in the correct direction with distances printed on them. There are COMPREHENSIVE BIKE MAPS that - in conjunction with occasional GPS use to save mistaken detours - is a terrific assist to plan and navigate. The route so far has led past beautiful countryside. An accompanying BOOKLET has descriptions in three languages of sites to visit in the villages and towns along the way. And organized CYCLE FRIENDLY hotels are conveniently listed and don't give you dirty looks when you drag your dirty bike through their lobby. I never knew bike touring could be so easy. What I would give to have networks like this in the states. The first day of riding always brings the biggest challenges, most which are

Climbing Mountains

“Impossible!”I’ve told the two gentleman next to me at dinner about my plans to go to Brisighella and then from there to cross the Apennines on the old Roman road.  I’m seated next to two businessmen travelling to Ravenna for work, one from Florence and one from Genoa who both have good English.Mr. Florence sits back, and with a dramatic hand gesture says, “That’s impossible!”  Mr. Genoa says, “How do you know she doesn’t bike 300 Kilometers a day and that it’s not possible for her. “  He turns to me and says, “You send him a picture from the top.”I explain that there is a train that runs parallel to the route so if I need to catch the train I have a backup.  But as much as I appreciate Mr. Genoa sticking up for me, it’s Mr. Florence’s “Impossible!” that has just implanted itself in my head.I’d been looking for a good route back towards Rome over the Apennines.  I’d found other potential routes, but none I felt comfortable attempting.  I wanted a bail-out plan in case something went wrong – with the bike or with my stamina or with my leg strength as I hauled a fully-loaded touring bike through the mountains.  Or if I felt I might be at risk for a lymphedema flare-up and needed to stop.  I’d met a couple of Americans in Comacchio the day before who were taking a self-guided bike tour.  We swapped travel info – I told them about the Cinque Terra trails being closed and the offline GPS navigation apps.  They showed me this route over the mountains between Faenza and Florence.  The climb seemed doable but long – only getting steep near the pass, and there was a train that followed the route offering several opportunities to bail

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