Apologies for taking so long to update the blog; we have been very busy since our last post and have only recently had things slow down enough to bring the blog up to date. We finally made our way north from Kalamata and the land of the Mani up the western coast of Peloponnesia to the grand port of Patra where we boarded a huge ferry for Ancona on the eastern shore of Italy. It swallowed without effort trucks and cars at an amazing rate and ours was among the last aboard. We then descended a deck to one already full of cars so closely packed that it was almost impossible to get out the doors. In the passenger areas above it was much like a cruise ship complete with a small casino, a number of restaurants and bars, and even a swimming pool (though unfilled). Since the passage took 23 hours, we had a cabin to ourselves which was in the very front of the ship so that from our window (not a porthole) we could see the front deck of the ship with its winches and lines, and ahead to where the ship was headed. Our intention had been to head up the eastern coast of Italy to Trieste, stopping somewhere overnight and then arriving the next day.
But not far north of Ancona we began to see signs for that tiny city-state of San Marino, and since we had never been there and it offered another country to add to our list of those visited, we made a 20 mile detour from the coast to spend the night there. And glad we were for having done so as it turned out to be absolutely spectacular. San Marino is surrounded by Italy and is only 24 square miles in size with a population of about 30,000 citizens. It claims to be the oldest republic in the world, originating in 301 AD as a monastic community atop a hill. It is rich, stable and strongly independent of the rest of the Italian peninsula, let alone the remainder of Europe. Climbing a high hill, so steep that elevators are everywhere not to take you up buildings but the hill itself, it is both beautiful and historic with three battlements which stretch across the top of the city from end to end. And the view from the top across the countryside is breathtaking.
While obviously built to defend the city and provide refuge for its citizens as a last resort in the case of attack, one of them also long served as a prison for the worst offenders and the execution site for those too bad to even imprison.The city itself is a series of wonderfully winding streets which include dozens of hairpin turns as they mount the hill, and are lined by exquisite shops and restaurants. It is hard to recall another city we have visited in all of Europe with the wealth on display to match it; the only spot that came to mind for us was Capri. The seat of their independent government is on the biggest plaza in the city and is ceremoniously guarded by wonderfully uniformed guards.
After a day in San Marino we travelled on around the top of the Adriatic to Trieste, long a pivotal port for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and with a long history as a Roman and Venetian stronghold. Indeed, we were there just after the city had conducted a huge ceremony surrounding the centennial of the death of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke and his wife which precipitated the First World War. They were killed by a revolutionary while visiting Serbia, and their bodies were then sent by ship up the coast of the Adriatic to Trieste, where they were transferred with great solemnity. The ceremonies took place in the Piazza Unita d’Italia, the most important plaza of the city and site of the City Hall at its end. You can certainly see the seating still in place from the ceremonies the day before we arrived. But most impressive was the scaffolding which was part of the stage and lighting support being dismantled by a troop of what appeared to be acrobats. They had a system that was amazing to watch as they took the highest pipes and passed them down from one man to another until they reached the ground, where they were stacked neatly to be taken away. On the periphery of the piazza were large black and white photographs from the day a hundred years ago when the bodies of the Archduke and his wife were brought ashore. Here’s an interesting one of the crowd atop a statue and the statue itself today. We were lucky enough to find a tourist information office close by and they furnished us with audio cassette players which led us all over from the waterfront to the cathedral on the top of the city and then down through a different part of the city and returned us to the waterfront again. We were particularly taken by the ancient Roman amphitheater, still utilized for dramatic and musical events and the plaza with the Stock Exchange to the right, quiet and serene it being a Sunday. The next day we headed off again for Slovenia and Lake Bled, the scene of our first rough camping experience in the yellow tent. You may recall from an earlier blog that we camped at lovely Lake Bled in early May but suffered through a long, cold night of four degree celsius weather and pouring rain. This drove us to head south to Croatia, only to have to spend three days inside as the rains came down and totally flooded out Serbia, Bosnia and parts of Croatia. This time the weather was perfection itself! Lake Bled, Slovenia is simply astounding in its classic Alpine beauty!