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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,

Piran

"Sorry. Do you speak English?" This comes from one of three grungy and slightly odiferous young men sitting on a bench overlooking the Aegean Sea. "Do you like Rock music? We are a rock band from Estonia." We play rock and roll, blues guitar, Jimi Hendrix ... He hands me a CD with eighteen songs, one named "A Stairway to NO Heaven". "We wrote the songs ourselves." They are dividing their time trying to sell their CD's to everyone who walks by and watching the naked young woman swim in the clear waters of the sea below. The young woman is proving an effective distraction from commerce. They say they are selling these CD's to support their music tour around Europe, which will ultimately end in a show in Bulgaria. They are surprisingly persuasive, and I see people holding their CDs as they walk up and down the promenade of the ancient seaport town of Piran, Slovenia. They assure me that I can buy the CD for good karma, if not for the music. I have to admire their tenacity. But hauling everything on a bicycle has a way of making saying No easier ... Even to charming young rocker wanna-bes who assure me they will make it big and come to the States one day. Plus, sadly experience has taught me to be wary of charming people speaking perfect English with a grand tale to tell and a request for money ... Especially in a place that attracts tourists. There is no telling what's on that CD. I'm in Piran, Slovenia, a former walled city on the very tip of Slovenia on the Aegean Sea. The City was part of the Venetian sea empire for five hundred years, and the walls and cramped old city with winding streets and Venetian styled windows and

Fences

"There is no end. There are no jobs here for Italians, much less for immigrants." Our Goritzia hotel clerk is visibly agitated as she quizzed us about the United States and tells us how she wants to move to America but can't find a job even though she travels there twice a year. She speculated that the biggest influence on Italy's liberal immigration policy was the Pope - especially this Pope who is so inclusive of everyone. But she says the people are angry. Then she asks us about Donald Trump - whose anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stance and promises to build a wall between the US and Mexico has gotten the world's attention. We tell her we hope he does not become our President. We don't believe he will win. But I am not so sure she sees Trump as the same extremist we do. She has been living under a government that she blames for the immigration policies that she believes threaten her - and her country. She believes Italy has operated with the completely opposite philosophy and immigration policies that Trump touts, though my limited research into the asylum rules seems to indicate that asylum is dictated by European Union rules rather than Italian policies ... Though I'm sure the reality is more complicated. But regardless of the policies that actually govern asylum and immigration, it's clear that this woman finds them threatening to her way of life and she fears the consequences of more migrant immigration as her country becomes the gateway. It is also clear is that all of Europe is struggling under the weight of the exodus from North Africa of war and economic refugees that now fill their cities with different cultures and religions and dress and economic dependents. Immigrants come from Libya, Syria and other beleaguered countries

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

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

Heritage

"I learned English because when I was young I was infatuated with Jon Bon Jovi." We have stopped in the small village of Kojakovice on our 50 mile bike between Cesky Krumlov and the Bohemian town of Trebon to the east. After steep hills and miles of rocky dirt roads and grass paths as we cut our way east, we were ready for a break. Stephanie (as she explained was the English version of her name), greeted us as we pulled up to the Czech Immigration Museum in this tiny village with a warm smile and a welcome offer of coffee. "How did you hear about this place? Do you have Czech relatives?" I explained that I had found a website with very helpful explanations about this area, and we had detoured here to visit in person. She took us inside an old building filled with an assortment of tools, kitchen gadgets, and cardboard wall displays. And, as we admired some of the finely decorated gingerbread for sale along with packaged cookies meant to feed hungry cyclists who ventured through this town as part of the extensive bike trail networks surrounding the town of Trebon, she invited us to see her workshop. Stephanie makes this local gingerbread art, and like learning English, this is also self-taught. A tiny bag of icing and a needle is all she needs to trace intricate designs on gingerbread hearts and hedgehogs and pumpkins and other creations. She tells us that she has been invited to sell her gingerbread at a local fall fair, and so she is making her inventory to be ready. Last time she sold out in two hours. She can sell them for a decent profit ... they are prized as gifts and can last four years. I tell her how honored I would be

Living Through Normal

When I was very young, I believed that Olympians from the Soviet Union or Soviet block states would be punished if they failed to win a medal. This was the late 60s and 70s. Back then, I would still play in the occasional bomb shelter dug in the occasional family backyard. I remember nuclear attack drills in grade school. The news was full of disarmament talks and Soviet military aggression and nuclear war and communist threats spreading around the world. For many Americans during the Cold War, the televised Olympic games offered one of the few glimpses behind the Iron Curtain. And this made the Olympics mean much more than a simple athletic competition. It seemed that the entire superiority of nations, culture and values hinged on whether the Soviet Block countries beat the US and Western countries in these games. And my child's logic reasoned that with so much at stake for civilization as we knew, it must be especially bad for communist state athletes if they lost. Because surely those scary, militant authorities behind the iron curtain would be looming and punish anyone who did not win and bring glory to their country. I truly had no idea what life was like behind the Wall. I suspect very few Americans then understood more than we were led to believe. Forty years later, as I travel behind the Iron Curtain for the first time to the former Soviet Satellite state of the Czech Republic, I'm slowly catching glimpses of a history and the upheaval that people survived in the last century. We are in the town of Cesky Krumlov, deep in Bohemia near the Austrian and German border. This town is a Unesco World Heritage Site ... dominated by a massive castle and preserved as it was in the 15th century. Truly beautiful. Truly

Beer … and other Czech Priorities

"My sister lives in Oklahoma." He says this with a slight crinkle of his nose ... We are talking to Ludvik, the chef and owner of the best (maybe only?) restaurant in Tynec Nad Savazou, a small town on the banks of a river 50 km south of Prague where we spent our first night. I say, "Oklahoma! They stole our basketball team from Seattle." His face lights up. "Ah ... you know (insert some basketball player I have never heard of). At my blank look he mimics shooting a hoop. I'm busted. That's the end of my basketball talk, but obviously Ludvik is a fan. We met Ludvik when he came out of the kitchen in his chef's apron at the bequest of his staff, who immediately called him when they saw two non-Czech speaking hungry people walk into the restaurant. Ludvik had welcomed us and took us to a table and then personally translated the entire 5 page menu. All of it. I tried to ask him just to recommend a dish, figuring he's the chef and probably had other things to do running a kitchen at dinnertime, but nope. We needed to know all of it. Ludvik was magnificent. There is a lot to like about the Czech Republic. The most immediate "like" coming to mind is the 15 Kronar (75 cent) glass of very drinkable local vino I'm enjoying as a write this post at a Vinotecha at our next stop, Tabor, CZ. Here, the beer and wine cost less than juice, water or soda. The local wine ... still learning about the wines here but I've been very surprised at the quality. And the beer is great and a national pride. The sanctity of that beer is taken very seriously. In fact, our third day of cycling took us to the Bohemian town

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