Monday September 18, 2017

There’s something extra exciting about arriving at a port or cruise terminal and seeing, for the first time, the ship that’ll be your hotel-on-water for the next week or whatever. And seeing the sleek white-&-grey Agape Rosealongside the dock in Split was no exception. Our long-awaited Croatian Cruise was about to start – yeehaa!

The intimate, well-appointed Agape Roseis pretty much brand spanking new, having left the ship-builder’s yard in May this year. She is rated 5-star, and is perfect for showcasing the historic, scenic splendour of the Adriatic – an easy choice for our Mad Midlife cruise. She’s small enough (48.5 metres long x 8.5 metres wide) to get into bays, inlets and ports that bigger ships can’t approach … fully air-conditioned, with sun-decks, shaded lounge areas, restaurant and bar, free WiFi … plus 18 tastefully-designed ensuite cabins (queen-size or twin) spread over three decks.

Anyway, she’s our home for the next eight days … chartered exclusively for our Kiwi group! (Bet you feel sorry for us – right?)

We wasted no time on Saturday, going aboard, looking around, and unpacking in our cabins. And we’ve been spoilt rotten ever since with gourmet meals, sunshine (most of the time), and several stunning stopovers. Like what? Well, like these …

SPLIT: We overnighted aboard the Agape Rosein this attractive seaside city (largest on the Adriatic Coast). Roman Emperor Diocletian had his palace-cum-fortress built here 1700 years ago, and that still dominates the surrounding Old Town area, with its maze of cobblestone streets. Pre-Romanesque churches stand proudly alongside Gothic chapels and art galleries … and delicious-smelling cafés beckon from every corner.

SKRADIN: Sunday morning saw us out on deck after a yummy breakfast, enjoying the breeze and the watching the coastal landscapes pass slowly by as we cruised to Skradin – a charming small town on the River Krka (something like ker-r-kaa). From there we caught a smaller-boat-ride up that river and hiked to the Krka Waterfalls Skradinski buk – a natural wonderland, famous for its endless series of amazing cascades.

SIBERNIK: Back on board the Agape Rose, we continued our lazy, leisurely cruise to Sibenik, one of many pearls awaiting us along the Croatian coast. It boasts a magnificent, gleaming-white medieval heart, Renaissance architecture, a UNESCO-protected cathedral, a tree-lined corniche, quaint red roofs, excellent food, impressive shopping and eye-popping views. Ahh, yes … what more could one ask for?

After overnighting here, we had ourselves a morning wander through Sibernik’s narrow, twisty-turny lanes … getting an eyeful of Really Old Stuff from centuries long past … learning a little more about the history (ancient and modern) of this fascinating region … and enjoying a classy a-Capella performance within some well-preserved stone walls.

VIS: Later this morning, we stopped for a swim in the warm, crystal-clear sea off the back of the boat – accompanied (as you can probably imagine) by lots of hooting, laughter and general rudeness. Vis, where we finally docked for the night, is truly beautiful little island – reputedly ‘the Mediterranean as it once was’ – its sun-drenched waterfront crammed with posh yachts and launches and relaxing holiday-makers.

Across the bay we could see early signs of movie-making: apparently a sequel to Momma Mia, is being shot in the same place as the original film (starring Meryl Streep and other celebs). Watch this space – we might yet be in it!

COMING UP: More balmy, sunshiny Adriatic days … more luxury cruising … more coastal highlights … more Croatian delights … and more Yellow Ducky awards. It’s awful, I tell you, and it just goes on and on …

PEOPLE-NEWS: The Duck-stampede has slowed temporarily, but two more have managed to flap their way into new hands …

  • LESLEY scored our ‘Knock Three Times’ Award the other afternoon when asking our barman, Ranko, for a sparkling wine. Going around behind the bar to have her photo taken with him while he poured it, she posed with her arm around him, and said coyly, “By the way, my cabin number is three …” (so he could put the charge on her tab). Then realising what she’d said, she blushed with embarrassment (while everyone roared with laughter). “Oh, I’ve already got a roommate!” she added … but that didn’t really help!
  • ALLAN romped home with our ‘Kreuzfahrten’ Award for his behaviour yesterday. Kreuzfahrten is a German word we’ve seen several times on the side of other boats, and I’m not exactly sure what it means. But Allan gets this award for dropping a noisy one out on the top deck yesterday within the hearing of other Mad Midlifers. Nice one Allan!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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Saturday September 15, 2017

The past couple of weeks have been packed with delightful surprises. And one very special surprise was the oh-so-luverly route we took on Thursday through a tiny country to the north of Italy. You’ve probably heard of Slovenia – right? But, like us, you probably know next to nothing about it – right? Well, next time you get the chance, go and visit!

We sang Venice a fond “Arrivederci!” (goodbye) on Thursday morning … crossed the Italian border (eventually) … then drove for ages through the neat-as-a-pin Slovenian countryside, passing untold patchwork-perfect farms and picture-perfect villages, before stopping en route at some fantastic subterranean caves in Postojna (pos-TOY-nyah) – where we rode an electric train and eyeballed stalactites, stalagmites and amazing 22-million-year-old rock formations.Later, we reached Ljubljana (loo-bil-LEE-arna), where we shared a short walking tour with one of the funniest, most entertaining old guys you can imagine (“I don’t understand why the Romans built so many ruins!”) … visiting the medieval city centre, a picturesque open-air market, the famous Three Bridges, the Baroque Town Hall and several other things I’ve already forgotten. With a population of just 300,000 Ljubljana is small, as capital cities go. But it has an impressive hilltop castle, the winding green Ljubljanica River, and café tables spilling into narrow streets.

We all agreed we wanna go back …

Come Friday morning, we covered more serious kilometres in the rain (check out the map), crossing eventually into Croatia and detouring to some must-see turquoise lakes at Plitvice (pleet-weet-cha – come on, try it). This wilderness area is a World Heritage Site that features thickly wooded hills, tumbling streams, silvery falls, and a network of trails and wooden walkways.

Finally, we hit the road again, overnighting in the ancient seaside town of Zadar, which boasts a history that goes back 3000 years, with Roman ruins, a city wall and moat, plus a Very Old Church (St Donat, built on top of Roman rubble).

Following an all-too-short night in a fantastic new resort/hotel, we did a quick walk-thru in the old town, and listened to a fascinating ‘sea-organ’ (underground pipes along the waterfront, played tunefully by the wind and waves). But we couldn’t stay long. You see, we had a rendezvous in Split we didn’t want to miss. Waiting for us in that busy Croatian port was our floating hotel, the Agape Rose – and, although it meant saying a sad goodbye to Elisabetta (our much-loved Italian Tour Guide), we were itching to get onboard.

05-43 Elisabetta-Mother Duck Award (769x1024)

COMING UP: Our long-awaited Croatian Cruise is finally underway, so stay tuned for more pix, info, blah-blah-blah, and awards …

PEOPLE-NEWS: There’s been a rush on Quacky Yellow Ducks, with women taking home more than their fair share …

  • JEANETTE won our ‘Road Less Travelled’ Award – for being easily led, following the wrong crowd, and getting herself somewhat lost at the Plitvice Lakes. She found us again, but not before the ever-watchful Duck-Spotter had duly noted her misdemeanor.
  • JANICE won our ‘Chocolate Extravaganza’ Award at dinner last night. She asked the restaurant staff if any more cheesecake was coming out, and the answer was, no, sorry. However, five minutes later, they bought Janice a large plate with wall-to-wall chocolate cakes on it … and Janice ate the lot! (Well, with a little bit of help …)
  • TRISHA won our Truly, I Haven’t Been Drinking’ Award – for asking the tour leader, over dinner last night: “Do we order our glass by the wine?”
  • ELISABETTA won our ‘One of those Nights’ Award – for, firstly, wrecking the curtain in her Ljubljana hotel room, pulling the entire arrangement off the wall when trying to shut them … then, second, for losing her cell-phone. She went to sleep, too tired to look for it, then woke in the night, searching in vain for a couple of hours, finally discovering it next morning in her bed! Elisabetta was also honoured with our farewell ‘Mother Duck’ Premium Award – for taking such good care of all her Kiwi ‘ducklings’ (that’s us) over the past fortnight.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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Wednesday September 13, 2017

You may or may not be interested, but I can tell you for a fact: there ain’t nuttin’ quite like Venice!

It all started in 421AD, when the people of Veneto fled their mainland homes ahead of the invading Goths. They founded this extraordinary city on flat, flooded, marshy islands, using wooden pilings for foundations (millions of them, eventually, which are still quietly petrifying in the oxygen-free mud) – an astonishing feat of engineering. By the 13th century Venice was the third most populated city in the world (after London and Paris). The wealthy merchants of Venice were making fortunes in salt and spices – and spending fortunes on their mansions (which still line the canals today). The formidable Venetian navy was turning out a wooden warship a day. And for some 1000 years it was home to big names – like Casanova, Vivaldi, Monteverdi, the sculptor Canova, and the explorer Marco Polo.

We celebrated our first night on the town with a lovely, leisurely Gondola Serenade … drifting along the canals of Venice as the darkening waters lapped against the sides of our boats. Stripey-shirted gondoliers leaned and pulled on their poles … musicians with piano-accordions, guitars and magnificent voices serenaded us in traditional fashion … and we Kiwis sang along at the top of our lungs: “Volare … oh, oh …!”

Afterwards, before heading to bed in our hotel, we lost ourselves in the narrow streets, crowded squares and countless bridges, sampling the food, and making unforgettable memories in this romantic setting.

The heart of Venice is St Mark’s Square – with its looming, onion-domed Basilica di San Marco (crammed with incredible marble mosaics and colourful frescos) … its magnificent pink-and-lacy Doges’ Palace (Palazzo Ducale, rich with gold-encrusted ceilings and priceless Renaissance art) … its 15th century clock-tower … its colourful carnevale masks … its ever-present pigeons … its ever-threatening flood-waters … and its wall-to-wall tourists. Yesterday morning, we explored all this on foot, crossing the lagoon via the Bridge of Sighs, and watching gondolas bobbing at their moorings along Venice’s world-famous waterfront.

It’s a crime to hurry through Venice – this is one place in the world that should never be rushed. So we spent that afternoon doing what the Venetians seem to do: wandering, meandering, strolling, sauntering and soaking up the ambience on our own – eventually sitting down to a yummy dinner together at the Taverna la Fenice.

We did pretty much the same thing this afternoon – but not before we rode a private boat out through the main Venetian Lagoon to two fascinating islands. Murano has been the region’s glass-blowing centre since 1291, and tradesmen still practice their jealously-guarded craft today. We visited one of the famous glass-blowing factories and did some ogling-plus-shopping in a showroom filled with gorgeous glassy creations.

The equally famous island of Burano has a well-earned reputation for exquisite lace-making – and those who were interested admired this handwork, while those who weren’t roamed streets and canals lined with quaint multi-coloured houses, or sat under umbrellas drinking coffee and eating some of the freshest, tastiest pastries on the planet.

COMING UP: Following an early breakfast tomorrow, we leave Italy (sob) and embark on a detour through tiny Slovenia – which most of you have never heard of, right? Or, if you have, you know next to nothing about, right? Well, brace yourselves, because you’re in for a surprise …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Just one Quacky Yellow Duck has taken wing since we last spoke …

  • ALLAN took away our ‘Shoe-Shine’ Award – and, according to those who watched this unfold, it was hilarious! A group of Kiwis were out and about yesterday when they came across one of those automatic shoe-shine machines – you know, you shove your shoe into the guts of the thing, and those wildly spinning brushes apply a clean-and-polish in no time at all. Well, Allan decided to try it with his jandals. He shoved his foot in, and the machine promptly grabbed his jandal and swallowed it, leaving Allan down on his hands and knees trying to retrieve his precious jandal as it flew round and round in vicious circles.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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Monday September 11, 2017

We’re in Venice. But I’m not gonna talk about it – okay? Just two hours ago, a couple of speeding open-top water-taxis zoomed us through the Grand Canal to a jetty-of-sorts where we clambered over a metal gate and came ashore just a short distance from our very old, very atmospheric hotel in this amazing, enduring city. But I’m not gonna tell you anymore right now, because you’ll be wanting to know about yesterday – right?

First, I need to ask you: have you read books about Tuscany, watched movies about Tuscany, seen photos of Tuscany? Well, sorry if this makes you feel jealous, but yesterday we got to sample Tuscany for ourselves!

Leaving the orange-roofed cityscapes of Florence, we motored south through hilltop vineyards, olive groves, Cyprus rows and intermittent rain to the 700-year-old tower-filled skyline of San Gimignano (pronounced ‘San-jim-in-YAH-no’ – come on, try it). Known as the Tuscan Manhattan, San Gimignano owes its trademark silhouette to rival medieval families who tried to outdo each other by building taller and taller towers, and generally showing off.

It was a treat, I tell you! And stepping back in time down those cobblestone streets, surrounded by 13th and 14th century mansions – plus more brick-and-mortar towers than you can shake a stick at – helped create yet another unforgettable highlight.

We then left the main highway and motored along ever-narrowing (unsealed) country lanes, before stopping, finally, at a ‘country resort’ for a tasting of wine plus a posh Tuscan-style lunch (ravioli followed by duck-breast followed by chocolate cake with a melting chocolate heart).

If the owners had offered us beds or couches for an afternoon siesta, we would’ve succumbed with pleasure. But when no such offer was made, we climbed back onto the coach and drove further south to Siena, the region’s best-preserved medieval city.

We explored its ancient walls, steep steps and winding alleyways … admired the Duomo, Siena’s imposing cathedral, with its striking striped architecture, marble-floor-mosaics and gorgeous frescoes … and emerged, eventually, in the atmospheric Piazza del Campo, where we did our best to imagine Il Palio: Siena’s legendary horse-race, where rival contrades (districts) compete with colourfully decorated banners. This twice-yearly spectacular has taken place for the past 300 years, and today draws bigger and noisier crowds from all around the world.

As you can probably tell, we’re having an AWFUL time – and we’re not even halfway yet! I don’t know how we’re gonna cope with another two weeks like this …

COMING UP: Unique-in-all-the-world Venice, with its onion-domed cathedrals, priceless Renaissance art, criss-crossing canals and hordes of adoring, camera-toting tourists – just like us! Dust off your piano-accordions, folks, and stand by for the signal to sing along: ‘O Sole Mio …’

PEOPLE-NEWS: Our hotly-sought-after Quacky Yellow Ducks continue to leave the nest …

  • WAYNE F won our ‘Hard of Hearing’ Award – for (i) climbing over the chain fence at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa so he could check out the bells. Wayne was promptly grabbed by two armed guards and thrown from the Tower. (Okay, slight exaggeration. But he was growled at.) Then (ii) Wayne happened to be walking with me through the grounds at yesterday’s lunch-stop when I happened to remark to my wife (who happened to be walking in front): “This is lovely, isn’t it Darling.” And Wayne replied, “Yes, it is.” So l told him, “I was actually talking to my wife, Honey!”
  • SUZANNE ran off with her second duck, winning our ‘Duh! Technology’ Award. She came to me yesterday complaining, “I can’t get my camera to work …” and showed me her blank screen. “Have you turned it off and on again?” “Yes,” she said. “I’ve tried everything I can think of.” “Well,” I suggested, “Do you want to try taking off the lens-cap?”

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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Saturday September 9, 2017

It was sad saying goodbye to the Italian Riviera yesterday. We’d got to like strolling the narrow streets and wandering the stony beaches and admiring the colourful house-fronts and lying around the pool. But, as I keep reminding our group: we’re not on holiday, for goodness sake. This is a LEARNING experience … it’s ADULT EDUCATION … and we’ve got WORK to do!

So, despite threats of tears and even violence, our Mad Midlife Kiwis vacated their rooms, handed in their keys, and climbed, reluctantly, aboard our coach.

However, it wasn’t long before new highlights were tickling their travel taste-buds!

First stop was Pisa ­– which draws its fame today from an architectural project gone horribly wrong, but was once a maritime power to rival Genoa and Venice. We began our tour in a wide walled area known as the Piazza dei Miracoli (the Square of Miracles). And, believe it or not, the real masterpieces here were the impressive Duomo di Pisa (Pisa Cathedral) dating from 1093, and the ornately beautiful Baptistry (completed in the 1300s) – not the smaller, eye-catching bell tower, which was built later and decided soon after to tilt in a rather alarming fashion.

You can’t help noticing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, of course, because it really does lean – ominously – despite the endless, ongoing attempts to straighten it up. But, lucky Kiwis that we are, we didn’t just notice it – we got to CLIMB it (well, the fitter amongst us did), and enjoy the spectacular views from the top!

Next stop, less than an hour down the road, was Lucca, a lovely pearl of a city that visitors go gaga over. Hidden behind imposing Renaissance walls (the only town in Italy entirely surrounded like this), its cobbled streets, handsome piazzas and shady promenades make it a perfect destination to explore by foot – which is exactly what we did. And the gelatos (ice-creams) are to die for.

Final stop on yesterday’s agenda was the regional capital, Florence – a bustling cultural centre much-loved by Florentines and much-envied by the rest of Europe. And we got the feel of the place last night when we walked through the crowded streets to dinner at La Cantinetta del Boccanegra.

With a name like that the food’s gotta be good, eh – and it was superb!

Florence is home to the greatest collections of Renaissance art and sculpture in the world – and, this morning, we explored its highlights on foot and on horseback. (Okay, I’m lying about the horses – although that would’ve been fun! Maybe next time?)

This city of over 300,000 people is sliced by the gleaming River Arno and dominated by the vast Duomo of the Cathedral – still (600 years on) the largest brick-and-mortar dome in the world. The Galleria dell’Accademia has wall-to-wall paintings by the greats, and the city’s many piazzas feature stunning marble creations – including Michelangelo’s massive naked David. Around every corner are churches, markets, shops … and, on every street, throngs of tourists.

Florence (according to the travel-books) is the “beating heart of Tuscany” … a “medieval jewel worshipped by writers and artists throughout history as an escape for the soul”.

Escape for the soul? Having quickly fallen in love with this lovely city, I think we’d all say “Amen!” to that …

COMING UP: We’re off to eyeball Tuscany’s best-preserved medieval city: Siena … plus a famous tower-filled hilltop-town: San Gimignano. Try your hand at pronouncing that. And don’t change channels, whatever you do …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Our internationally renowned Quacky Yellow Ducks are already finding new homes as people get caught doing silly, embarrassing or hilarious things …

  • TRISHA ran away with our ‘Kiwi Ingenuity’ Award by using her bidet to take the swelling out of her feet. (I’ll leave you to picture the scene …)
  • WAYNE M took home our ‘Pole-Dancing’ Award following a head-on altercation with a rather solid pole in the Cinque Terre. Both Wayne and the pole are recovering nicely.
  • ROSS earned himself our ‘Don Juan’ Award ­while eating pizza tonight in a local Trattoria (restaurant). Someone was going around the tables selling red roses, and Ross (romantic to the core) bought one, much to the surprise and delight of his wife. But instead of giving it to her, Ross gave the rose to the waitress. Whoops! (Watch this space …)

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Keep it brief – and be sure to say who it’s for and who it’s from.)