London -> Trieste -> Piran

Trip Start Aug 15, 2006
Trip End Sep 19, 2006

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Monday, August 28, 2006

My mission this morning is to catch an 11.10 flight from Stansted Airport, located about as far from Hounslow as one can go while still being in London. To be at the airport the required two hours before departure, I need to catch the 7am coach from Victoria Station. To ensure I am at Victoria Station by 7am, I must catch a subway at around 6am. To get to the subway station by 6, I have to get up at 5.15am. By design or fortune, all of these timeframes work very nicely and I reach Stansted with time to spare.

For some reason I have had difficulty being understood on this trip. I would have thought I would have more trouble in Canada but I get by just fine there. However, in London my New Zealand accent (ironically, often mistaken for an English accent in Canada) seems to come across as Martian. I pop into Pret a Manger, the ubiquitous sandwich and coffee store for, you guessed it, a sandwich and coffee. I approach the till with my £2.40 sandwich and plonk £3.65 (my remaining English change) on the counter.
"Hello, I have this much money." I announce, pointing at the coins. "I would like to buy this sandwich and a coffee. Do I have enough for a coffee?"
The dimwit behind the counter looks at me for a moment. "You want a coffee? White or black?"
"No, I just want to know how much it is."
Long pause, accompanied by a look of complete bewilderment.
"Um, what do you mean?"
"Ahem - how much for the coffee?!"
"Yes, one coffee, okay", he says, turning towards the machine.
"Wait! I need to know how much it costs." As the guy looks at me with more bewilderment and a furrowed brow, I summon up all my patience and think back to my elocution lessons. Enunciating each word, I say slowly "HOW. MUCH. MONEY. DOES. IT. COST. TO. BUY. A. CUP. OF. COFFEE. PLEASE?"
"Oh, £1.25", he said plainly, as if I was asking him the most obvious question in the world.

So I sit down, take a few deep breaths and enjoy my over-priced breakfast. My next task is to exchange my £ notes into whatever the currency is in Slovenia. The chap at the exchange desk seems normal enough. "Hi, how are you?" I ask as I pull out my wallet. No response. No problem, be cool. "Hi, do you have any Slovenian currency?"
"PARDON ME?!" the guy shouts back.
Catching myself, and mindful of the stresses of my previous customer/retail experience, I try again.
Oh come on. I move my hand around in front of me just to be sure that there is no invisible glass shield between me and the guy eagerly staring back at me.
"Oh, righto, yes. Sorry, I'm having trouble hearing today."
I start to feel guilty now for having raised my voice, even though this is the only way to be heard. I wonder if the guy is in fact permanently hearing-impaired because he does speak kind of like a deaf person. You know what I mean.

Nevertheless, our interaction continues at high volume until I have exchanged all my money, hopefully into something I can use in Slovenia. Thoroughly exhausted from all the shouting and communication issues, I head off to Slovenia, where I hope my English will be more easily understood.

Ryanair, with whom I am flying today for the first time, is one of these new discount airlines that have popped up everywhere recently, particularly in Europe. Just the term 'discount airline' may inspire anxiety in many people, suggesting they skimp on fuel, qualified pilots and other seemingly important areas. Without having reviewed the crew's CVs or pushed a dipstick into hte fuel tank, I shall have to have faith that my £60 flight will be as fatality-free as a regular flight.

Boarding is an interesting experience. Everyone races on to the plane, using both front and rear entrances and claims their choice of seat, first-come-first-serve. Accustomed to assigned seating, I take my time to board and am left with only aisle seats to choose from. There is rock music playing in the cabin and the whole interior is a garish bright yellow and navy blue. All along the aisles are adverts for Ryanair, including frequent repetition of their slogan "The on-time airline", which I read just as the stewardess announces a one-hour delay. The captain follows up by saying he hopes to make up the delay by taking some "shortcuts". I spend the next few seconds wondering if he means geographical shortcuts, in which case I wonder why they wouldn't take the shortest possible route anyway, or shortcuts such as exceeding speed limits or dropping baggage from the hold to lighten the load.

We arrive safely in Trieste, Italy and not much later than planned. I am starving though, not having had anything to eat since the breakfast incident so the first item on my agenda is a snack. However, the first thing I see as I enter the arrivals hall at the airport is the bus stall offering buses to Piran. "Ooh, that's where I'm going", I say quietly to no one in particular. It turns out the next bus is leaving in five minutes, so I have to weigh up the importance of food over arriving early in Piran. Surprising myself, I opt for the bus. It turns out to be a minivan, with most of the seats already occupied, two by a middle-aged New Zealand couple, fresh from a week in Germany watching the World Equestrian Games.

The bus takes about 90 minutes to reach the Italian/Slovenian border and suddenly we are in Piran. Piran is a classic coastal fishing village that curves itself around a jutting peninsula in the northern Adriatic Sea. Marinas merge seamlessly with attractive outdoor restaurants, old women push open their wooden shutters and watch the world go by while men in blatantly too-small speedos play a version of petanque with plastic discs on the coastal sidewalks. A tall, thin clock tower oversees proceedings from above the town square.

Although this is enough of a tourist destination for tourism to be one of its major industries, it is not overrun with souvenir stores and hawkers as it could easily have become. It gives the impression of being a genuine fishing village where men get up early and catch a boatload of fish as they have done for hundreds of years.

The Val Hotel is situated at the other end of town from the bus stop near the tip of the peninsula, so by the time I walk there in the afternoon sun, I have a definite odour about me. The hotel/hostel is great. I am in a two-bunk room but I can't remember if I booked the whole room or if I might be getting company later. The room is comfortable and has a view of the next building, only about three metres away over the narrow walkway below. The shower is excellent, in fact it is arguably the best shower I have ever had in Europe (a continent with generally awkward and unsatisfying showers). It also has laundry facilities that I enthusiastically avail myself of for my accumulated unmentionables.

The laundry process takes all of an hour and a half, thus delaying my dinner even further. Instaed of taking the smart option and using this time to explore my surroundings, I just sit around in my hotel room waiting for the clothes to wash. As soon as they do, I hit the pavement, stomach grumbling.

The town has transformed. The Eastern Europeans who spent the afternoon sunbathing and lolling around have changed out of their speedos and come out in their glad rags for dinner. The sun is setting beyond the western tip of the peninsula, casting a fading pink light over the rocks that separate sea from boardwalk, and the many restaurants along the boardwalk are filling up with romantic couples.

My guidebook had recommended a place called 'Barka' where all the locals go for good cheap meals but I couldn't find it anywhere. I end up wandering, hungry and misguided, through narrow, unlit sidestreets with the occasional cafe or pizzeria. I resist their siren call, however, and return to the central square, settling on the potentially exorbitant but sumptuously located 'Taverna Tartini'. As I look up from my stein of local beer, the town hall stares solemnly back at me across Tartini Square, the centre of town. In the square, children scamper around the shiny surface as the modest statue of musician Giuseppe Tartini looks on in silent disapproval. Candle-shaped streetlights illuminate the square (really more of an oval) and the church clock rises above everything, like an imposing headmaster overlooking an assembly of seated pre-schoolers.

It really is picture postcard stuff, this, but something is missing - my lovely wife Jane. Until today, I have had company in one form or another this whole trip. Now, as I watch couples saunter by hand-in-hand or share a candlelit dinner, I especially miss my Jane's happy smile and comforting touch. A scene this magical truly deserves to be shared. How true that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

My meal is rather tasty. I order the soup of the day with no idea what it is, and it turns out to be leek and potato - yum. My main course, čevapčiči (pronounced čevapčiči) is a plate full of little beef kebabs, served with a mysterious red paste - also yum.
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Where I stayed
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