Next stop, Venice!

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Venice is a beautiful and fascinating place. I’ve always wanted to visit, Natalie not so much. It turns out that it’s got a little bit of everything, good and bad. Its beautiful, winding alleys interspersed with canals and bridges and spires are inspiring. The measures taken to keep buildings from falling and the island from sinking are a testament to human ingenuity and stubbornness. Its attitude towards tourists and the costs (and sometimes smells) of living on the island are saddening. In my view visiting Venice is worth it for two things – the history and architecture, and the marvel of engineering that keeps the city alive. Most of the tourist traps should be rightfully avoided, and it’s best to stay away from popular areas at peak hours.

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There are basically two ways to see Venice. The cheaper and arguably more lively route is to stay on the mainland at one of several campsites or large hostel-like buildings, and bus in in the morning. The other way, significantly more expensive, but better for seeing Venice the way we wanted to, is to stay on the island itself. It’s not cheap, but for a very short stay, the value of waking up before dawn and walking the empty streets is worth the extra fee.

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We took the bus out of Sant’Agata, then on to the next bus to Rimini, and finally on to the train north to Venice. Midway through the trip our train stopped and a bunch of announcements came on in Italian. We did not understand them. The train stayed in the station and eventually people started shuffling off. A conductor came by and told us, in slightly broken English, that the train would not be moving again soon, and we should go on to a different track to catch the replacement. We’ve been through worse transportation adventures, but the feeling of an impromptu change of plans in a language we don’t understand is always exciting.

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There is the last station on the mainland, and then the open water. The train tracks cross over a narrow bridge, on either side the Venetian Lagoon. Technically, the mainland just before the crossing is also part of the district of Venice, but what everyone thinks of when they hear the name is found across this bridge.

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Right out the gate, Venice does not disappoint. The church of San Simeon is literally the first thing most people see when they leave the station. It’s gorgeous and only a taste of what’s to come.

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There are a few ways to get to the inner islands – all of them are connected by bridges, with a bus ferry, or with ferry taxis. The ‘bus’ is actually fairly expensive, and the distances are short. With so much to see the natural choice is to walk everywhere. If we were here for a week or more, maybe the bus ferries would have been a more appealing option.

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In the fading hours of the day we made our way to the hotel. Despite the day’s journey and the weight of the packs, we still lingered and turned in all directions staring at the city around us. In short order we were introduced to both the magnificent Italian architecture, the tightly clustered houses and apartments, and the occasional but persistent vendors of tourist things.

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We also found that the city of Venice has an attitude, and the people are not shy expressing themselves on the walls. This was probably the largest demonstration we saw, but there are plenty of smaller ones scattered alone or in clusters around the city. The topics range from banning tourists to saving the planet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, climate change is often on the minds of those living here.

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Night fell and we left our hotel in search of food. To set expectations, hotels in Venice are not very similar to most people’s idea of a hotel. Unless you pay a lot of money, it will resemble something of a walk-up, 2 to 3 stories of three or four rooms on each floor with a shared bathroom. Much like a hostel in any other part of the world. Similarly, the food is not reasonably priced. This is entirely expected in an extremely popular and difficult to supply city, but it’s good to be aware.

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Luckily for us, right near our hotel was a Bigoi. This is a small, almost fast-food version of pasta, where you pick your noodles, sauce, and meat, and they make it fresh for you. It costs about 5 euros and each bowl is enough for a person. Not the best in terms of nutrition, but they taste great and they’re cheap! There are also small grocery stores available, but they still run fairly expensive, and they do tend to run out of key ingredients at night, especially bread. We relied pretty heavily on Bigoi and the snacks we brought with us while we were in Venice.

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Also pastries. We didn’t eat a lot of fancy food in Venice but we did make room in the budget for coffee and pastries in the morning. The coffee is still very affordable – 1.20 Euro. The pastries can be a little expensive but are still around a few euro each. This one is called a sfogliatelle. It’s small, packed with cream and syrup, and somehow amazingly crunchy and flaky. It’s fantastic and we found the one we liked best was in the pastry shop Pasticceria Toletta. The lady working the counter in the morning is super nice, and their pastries and coffee are fantastic.

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Next time – Venetian architecture!

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The Truffle Festival of Sant’Agata Feltria

(In Three Acts)

I: Dawn

Though the dorm room of the convent is frigid, our excitement for the festival pulls me from my bed and carries me out to Sant’Agata Feltria’s cobbled streets. The city is bathed in dawn light and the bells of a church ring out across the rooftops. I  can feel the sound reverberate in the air and as we follow the cobblestones street down to the festival tents on the central square.

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Shopkeepers and festival vendors are preparing their stalls and wares for the day by the first light of the sky and fluorescent lamps. They unload boxes, bags, and cartons from tall white vans, carrying their wares to covered stalls, arranging goods and preparing food for the coming crowds. The local café is open early, and between preparations vendors savor a morning espresso. Even with all the work to be done, most prefer to stop for a few minutes and drink at the café counter instead of taking a to-go cup.

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Even after coffee and a croissant, Stoytcho and I are hungry for breakfast and find ourselves gravitating toward rich smells emanating from food stalls at the square’s edge. People are busily chopping, cooking, preparing, but one couple is willing to take an order of fried porcini at the price of 8 euros. They come out in golden breaded strips, fresh from the deep fryer, and taste simultaneously buttery, nutty, and savory. As we’re munch away, one of the hosts passes us a cup of wine with a wink. This one’s on the house.

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Full, slightly tipsy, and lulled into somnolence by the quiet morning, we return to the convent for a nap.

II: Day

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When we return to the truffle festival after our morning siesta, the town center is thronging with dense crowds, browsing shop and stall for local wares, fall produce, and of course, all things truffle. The first business is truffles, and stalls proudly display baskets full of black and white truffles for the eyes of discerning buyers who peer and sniff and gently prod to pick the choicest specimens. While I would love to buy some, we’re here for only an evening longer and there’s little in the way I could prepare, so my interest is the second business of the fair: truffle products, from spreads to premade sauces to salts and honeys. And every vendor has a few jars open with crackers nearby so you can sample. It’s hard to resist buying everything.

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We try to get lunch at the food stall we ate breakfast from, but the sea of people already ordering from them is impassable, so we opt for truffle pasta at a vendor further from the main square. While it’s truffle-flavored, it’s not as rich as it could be, but still satisfying. The highlight is the pasta’s soft texture, worlds away from the feel of boiled boxed pasta in the U.S. We sit in the shade of a tree and eat slowly.

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The festival also offers a cornucopia of other local foods, from fresh fall chanterelles and porcinis to locally produced sausage, cheeses, and olives to fresh baked sweets. We buy a bag of marrones, sweet chestnuts that are freshly roasted in a steel pan. They taste like maple syrup, with the texture that reminds me of marzipan. Before the day is done, we’ll buy a second bag. But for now, once again full and sleepy, we return to the convent with our purchased truffle products to ship back home.

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III: Dusk

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We wake again in the late afternoon to take one last foray out to the festival. The crowds have mostly dispersed and the cobblestone streets are once again navigable paths. We follow a small crowd of people up a path we have not yet explored, up wide stone stairs and through archways to a vista overlooking the town. The sun sinks behind the hills and orange hues fade to reds, purples, and blues. The church bells ring once more.

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Though most truffle vendors have closed their stalls and left for home, others still sell food and snacks by fluorescent lamplight. We buy a second batch of marrones and two sausages – one for ourselves and one for the Father of the convent – and walk slowly through the central square. In one corner we find a woman selling sweet, medicinal-smelling candies. It’s artisanal licorice, because of course Italy has artisanal licorice. Why wouldn’t they?

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For dinner we return to the food stall where we ate fried porcini for breakfast. We find the same couple still working in the stall’s kitchen, now with a few extra women as help, filling the occasional orders from townsfolk and tourists who have stuck around. We ask for another batch of fried porcini and they recognize us, and before long we get another batch of fresh-fried mushrooms and a couple of glasses of wine. We use Google Translate to tell them that their food was the best, and the man grins brightly. He motions one of the women over to us, who turns out to be his niece who speaks English, and we carry on a conversation. We share how long we’ve been traveling and where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. They tell us about cooking at the truffle fair as a family. During the rest of the year, the hold separate jobs in government or teaching, but each year for this festival the family reunites to prepare and cook and celebrate mushrooms. I’m amazed to discover food so good isn’t from a professional chef.

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As we talk the matron of the stall brings over samples of more food and drink. There’s a few kinds of local cheese, three types of wine, sandwiches, fried potatoes, and of course, more fried porcini. When we try to pay, the family warmly refuses our cash. But I want to leave them with something so I dash back up to the convent to rifle through the treasures we’ve found on our journey. I settle on a sweet cloudberry wine we picked up in Estonia, and dash back down to the central square with it in hand. The Italian word for gift is thankfully the same as Spanish; “regalo” I tell the family, as I hand it to the matron, “di Estonia.” The woman grasps it excitedly, and then turns back to us and asks a question we don’t understand. The niece translates for us, “Will you come back again next year?”

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Afterward:

A generous chap who speaks English (and Russian!) and runs the local produce store insisted on giving us a beer to take home that night, on the house. When we saw him in the morning, he also insisted on giving us apples to take on the bus for breakfast.

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Ancona to Rimini to Sant’Agata

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Early in the morning we hopped on a train headed north to Rimini, the nearest city to our eventual goal of Sant’Agata Feltria, and its famous truffle festival!

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But first, we had to timestamp our tickets. In case anyone is thinking about taking a train around Italy, these are the ticket stamping machines – you put your ticket in the slot, it gives you a stamp with the time on it. No stamp, no valid ticket.

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A few hours later we arrived in Rimini. There a helpful info-clerk pointed us towards the bus ticket booth, which gave us a bus time table book and sold us some tickets. It took a while to work out when each bus was leaving, and to make sure that we’d have a bus to take us back after the festival. The schedule varies by weekday, weekend, some specific holidays. Thank goodness for basic words translating across most languages, and also google translate.

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There wasn’t much to do in Rimini without leaving the area around the train station, so we found one of the few cafes that had wifi available and camped out for a few hours. The owner was pretty happy to have someone to practice English with, so we chatted a bit about our trip and the surrounding Italian countryside.

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As the sun was just barely starting to make its way down, we headed back to the station and waited for our bus. This was the first of two that would take us to Sant’Agata. The first dropped us off in Feltria, the city hub near Sant’Agata, and from there we would take another bus for the last leg of the trip. This is not a destination that’s easy to get to.

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Beautiful Italian countryside passed by while we stared out the window.

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We passed a few towns along the way.

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And some farms near the tracks.

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But mostly it was countryside.

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Fun fact – every hill in Italy has a castle on it! That’s not actually true, but it sure felt that way where we were. As we rode the bus we would point out castles as we saw them – and after a while we stopped because there were so many. I am a little bit jealous of their castle topped hillsides.

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Eventually our bus rolled into Feltria. It turns out this is the only inter-city bus stop in town, so we would come back here an hour later to catch our last leg.

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In the meantime though, we wandered around trying to find food. After a false start, we stumbled in to the town center.

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I found the nearest pizzeria!

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And we had delicious thick crust pizza for dinner!

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Also the town was having a fair! There were toys, fossils, and handwoven baskets for sale in the central square.

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Around the corner there were tents set up selling all manner of crafts – mostly jewelry and clothes, but also soaps, carved decorations, ceramics, and of course food.

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We made our way back to the bus stop and loaded up on the bus. This route is the only bus in to Sant’Agata all evening, so it makes a whole bunch of stops in the middle of nowhere, picking people up who want to go home or make their way to a larger town. The transit network outside the train-connected cities is all by bus, and it’s fairly reliable. The downside is, many of these buses only run twice a day at most.

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At one point our bus had to go through a small town. This town had streets only a hair wider than the bus itself. With walls on both sides. We held our breath.

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The bus driver was running on expert mode, and got the bus through without a scratch. I can’t imagine what the first day on this job looks like.

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Darkness had fully settled by the time we arrived in Sant’Agata. The fair was still only setting up so the town was quiet – anyone up at this hour was hanging out at the cafe. We asked for a hotel in town and were directed up the road and up a hill to the very nice hotel at the top. When we got there it became pretty clear we couldn’t afford the rate, but the hotel owner pointed us to a tourist site for the city and let us use their wifi. He also called the local convent and asked if they had room available. A short walk back across town and up another hill, some bungled Italian with the father of the convent, and we had a room for our stay!

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Why didn’t we have a hotel booked for a very popular local festival in a small town? Not a lot of internet information is available in English sadly. We’re very grateful to the hotel owner who called the convent. In Italy convents act as hostels in smaller towns, taking in travelers, boy scouts, and any other visitors for a very small sum. At this point we were thoroughly exhausted and ready to sleep. But wait!

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What’s that up there in the corner?

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It’s our old friend, a scorpion! After spotting him Natalie put him in one of our camping bowls and we took him outside. After that last bit of adventure, we collapsed to sleep.

Ancona, Intro to Italy

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Ancona is an interesting place. It’s definitely not touristy, but it still has the charming attractions of an Italian city – beautiful old architecture, a lovely promenade, coffee.. pizza.. really we didn’t know what to expect. Neither of us had ever been to Italy, and we came because I had always wanted to see Venice and Natalie had always wanted to go to a truffle festival.

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Ancona was our crash course in how to get around in Italy. First – mediocre Spanish will not cut it. Some people might humor you and try to understand, but by and large we had more success with English and a tiny bit of Spanish than full on Spanish. Maybe if we had tried Spanish with an Italian accent?

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Second – Italians love their mid day break. Everything, and I mean everything, excepting cafes, restaurants, and maybe hospitals, shuts down for the hours of 1 to 4, give or take. It’s fantastic and infuriating at the same time. We’re so used to 24 hour on demand everything all the time. When it’s not available we’re not sure what to do. I think the Italians are on to something though.

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Third – do ask for help. As with many countries on our trip, Italians seem interested in travelers and asking politely (if plainly) is very often the best way to get what you need or find out where you need to go. We haven’t mentioned this much, but post offices around the world are full of some of the nicest and most helpful people imaginable. Maybe we got lucky? The Ancona post office staff took great care of us and got our package through the relatively complex shipping procedure in no time. In a related act of kindness, we needed packing material so I went to a nearby newstand and did my best to ask for the cheapest newspaper they had. The vendor said “it’s Italian, can you read?” I told him it was for mail, for a package. He dropped a pile of newspapers in my arms and said they were free, yesterday’s lot.

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Ancona itself is split into two parts – a lower section near the water, and the remainder atop a massive cliff. It’s a hike to get to the old town, and the metro system was unintelligible to us the first day. The streets are tiny, especially in the old town – this will become a running theme in Italy. Vespas and tiny cars are popular for a reason.

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Beautiful,

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ancient,

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architecture.
Italy does not disappoint.

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When everything’s closed and you have no plans, what to do but get coffee? It turns out fancy drinks like this are a bit unusual for Italy. Everywhere else so far the coffee has been plain espresso, or maybe with a dash of milk (steamed, foamed, straight). A regular small cup costs 1 euro and almost everyone has one for breakfast. It’s like a natural right here, and the coffee is almost always excellent.

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Ancona even has a bit of a fashion district on the promenade.

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On our way back to the hotel we passed this intriguing restaurant. It was closed when we passed. We wanted to come back but still couldn’t figure out the buses, so when it came time for dinner we decided to eat local. I think if we had more than a day and change in Ancona the public transit would have eventually made sense, but there’s not much in the way of tourist information when it comes to riding the trams.

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What does eating local look like? A random pizzeria near the hotel. Full disclosure, this was the third random pizzeria near the hotel that we looked at. The other two were not nearly as appetizing. We asked the lady at the front desk of our hotel if a single pizza was enough for two. It turns out sharing a pie is uncommon here – they’re very thin crust and designed to be eaten by one person. That may be the intent, but we were full pretty quick, even with the thin crust. We finished it though – it was too good!

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Next time – we head to Sant’Agata Feltria for their truffle festival!

Goodbye Croatia, Hello Italy!

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Boots repaired, our bags repacked, we made our way down to the port one last time. This big behemoth of a boat is not the ferry that would take us to Italy.

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This one is! It’s pretty big as ferries go, fairly small by cruise standards. We had a bit of confusion getting to it – there’s a passport checkpoint around a corner in the terminal that takes some finding.

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We made it through and boarded through the absolutely cavernous garage. We ponied up for a bedroom for this ride. It was comfortable enough for the slightly higher price. The other option that a lot of travelers take is to buy a boarding ticket only and sleep on any available surface – the crew don’t seem to mind.

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As soon as we put our stuff down in the room we headed upstairs and outside to explore the deck. The ship itself was pretty cool, but the real selling point is the view.

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We stayed outside and ate our sandwiches – dinner is pretty expensive onboard. Lots of families had packed entire cases of food and were having their own dinners along the deck and in the small seating area inside. Soon enough the boat started to move!

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We watched until Split just about disappeared.

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And then went to sleep. The trip is pretty short and we wanted to get as much shut-eye as possible. From what I gather some people make a night of it and just party into the morning.

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Speaking of morning, the tickets come with a free breakfast. Mediocre as food goes, but decent for ferry food.

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Back out through the garage, this time smelling of car fumes.

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And we’re in Italy!

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The Story of Boots

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Natalie’s boots are one of her signature things – she wears them year round, and has almost for half a decade. They wear out every year or so, and another pair replaces them. Unfortunately on a trip like ours, it’s pretty hard to find a replacement pair. In Croatia we really ran out of options.

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This particular pair of boots has seen a lot. They started out fairly waterproof in Mexico, held up reasonably well through Costa Rica, and started showing a bit of wear in Peru. We tried to keep them in reasonably good shape – a leatherworker in Arequipa showed us how to rub leather product into them to keep them supple. It worked.. mostly.

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Unfortunately, as the photos show, it wasn’t enough. They long ago lost their waterproofing, and come Russia, we spent some time stitching the heel back together. Day in and day out, they tread pavement, dirt, and water. Sometimes entire rivers, or occasionally even the salt water of the ocean. They held, but at a cost. By the time we got to Macedonia, they were starting to show holes in the cracks around the toes. We tried to get them fixed in Sarajevo – nobody would take them, except for a heavy smoking shoe repairman, with whom we managed to miss our appointment. It was never entirely clear we had one, since we only managed to speak broken Russian together, neither of us really knowing the language.

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In Split, we found this tiny shop. We knew the boots were on their way out, so we spent a day hunting for a repair shop. We found a few scattered around town, but the ones who were dedicated to fixing shoes would not take us on. The boots were too damaged they said. We were really hopeful that they would be able to patch them, just enough to last another few months. Sadly, no luck. Until we found this lovely lady and her hardware/repair shop.

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She too told us they were broken, but she took them and said she would do her best. Wow did she ever! In two days we went back and this is what she showed us. She had even stitched the heels back together. Waterproof? No. Solid and fashionable? Absolutely! We are ever grateful to her for agreeing to try repairing them, and for doing such a great job. With these boots now, we carry on!

Olive Oil on Brac

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Half olive oil producer, half museum, Muzej Uja (Museum Uja) is in the outskirts of Skrip, itself south of Splitska. The towns here are tiny so ‘outskirts’ means a whole five minute’s drive. It’s been in town for a long, long time, and the man who runs it told us his great grandfather had started it.

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He spent some time showing us around, pointing out interesting bits and bobs. This is the main attraction of the museum, the old fashioned olive press. It’s pushed and pulled around over and over, squeezing the olives down into pulp and oil.

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From above we got a great view of the massive stone slabs that it was made of. Quarried right here on the island no doubt. It was in use for almost 100 years, until the industrial revolution caught up in full with the oilery business and hydraulic presses replaced the old fashioned turn-wheel.

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The upstairs of the museum used to be a residence, but they turned it into a sampling room.

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The interesting part here is the piled stone roof. Nothing holds it together except pressure and the skill of the craftsman who created it. The owner told us it took forever to find someone skilled enough to repair the roof when it broke, and he thinks soon enough no one around will know how to.

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The view from up here is pretty fantastic too!

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Back downstairs, the new cold press machine takes on the duty of making olive oil for the family. They’re hoping to expand with a second machine sometime in the future, but in the meantime this is apparently as good as it gets in terms of oil presses.

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When the owner found out we were traveling around the world, he asked us to sit and eat a bit with him. Before we could even thank him, a small assortment of home made spreads was in front of us, and we were enjoying the just-around-noon sun. Thank goodness for hats. We talked for a long time about our trip, his business, it’s history and plans, his family – especially the education of his kids and their hopefully bright future. When the afternoon tour group came by, we said our goodbyes and wished each other luck and happiness. This is really the best part of traveling. Meeting people and making a connection, despite the vast distance between our lives. We hope everything goes well for Kruno and his oil museum – we’d really like to come back someday.

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P.S. The tasting is well worth it. Their olive oil is fresh and delicious, and they sell a fantastic sort of cherry liqueur that we took on with us. Plus, right outside the oilery, kittens!