Monthly Archives: April 2016


Something seemed different here. The previous evening, we had crossed the border from Slovenia into the Croatian region of Istria, a triangular peninsula that points south into the Adriatic. After driving south for a little while, Angie and I stopped at San Rocco, a small hotel in the small town of Brtonigla in the triangle’s northwest corner.

Brtonigla

Brtonigla

A friendly receptionist greeted us and helped us check in. The receptionist turned porter and helped us carry our bags to the room. Then, when we came down for dinner, the porter had become our waiter, expertly explaining all the dishes and, to Angie’s delight, how each of them was made. He went on to recommend superbly matched glasses of wine for each course. When Angie observed that had she rarely met a waiter who knew so much about the dishes he served, we discovered that, in fact, our receptionist-porter-waiter, Teo, was also the chef.  And, as it turned out the next morning, he is also the third in a story of four generations.

Over the years, I’ve lived in quite a few different countries: Austria, France, America, Japan, and China. Living in each meant, of course, moving from place to place. There is, as we learned after breakfast, another way of living in different countries.  Teo’s grandfather was born in the same house in Brtonigla, then part of Austria-Hungary. By the time Teo’s father was born, Brtonigla had “moved” to become Italian in the inter-war years. Teo was born in the same place, which was then part of Yugoslavia. His son, net yet a teenager today, came into this world when Brtonigla had become part of Croatia.

San Rocco Familiy

San Rocco Familiy

With the family’s youngest generation playing in the dirt of a shallow pit that is destined to become the hotel’s new swimming pool, as we sat and talked with Teo and his father, Tullio, two things became evident: one, clearly stated, was that the family is more optimistic about the future than they can remember; the other, not stated but felt, was that they were filled with tremendous pride in their homeland, and in particular the produce that springs from Istria’s fertile land and surrounding sea, and the traditions that turn the harvest into culinary treasures.

The sea provides excellent langoustines, oysters and fresh fish; while the land offers asparagus, truffles, olive oil, wine, and ham – all of which are the pride of Istria’s inhabitants.  This strong feeling of pride is tinged with a sense of injustice. Talk to Istrian truffle hunters and they will tell you, without any hesitation, that their truffles are at least as good as the ones from Alba: “In fact, some Piedmontese truffle merchants come to Buzet to buy our white truffles!” Talk to an olive oil producer – in our case, the producer of one of the world’s best olive oils, as ranked by expert Marco Oreggia – and he will say that in Roman times the best olive trees were moved within the Roman Empire from today’s Istria to Italy. Everyone seem to be saying that little Istria has battled for centuries against overwhelming odds to put itself on the culinary map.

Istrian Olive Tree (c) Istria Tourism

Istrian Olive Tree (c) Istria Tourism

Istrian White truffles (c) Istria Tourism

Istrian White truffles (c) Istria Tourism

Istrian Prsut (c) Istria Tourism

Istrian Prsut (c) Istria Tourism

But put itself on the map it will. In preparation for the trip, I read a charming article, entitled “Istria is not the new Tuscany”. It seemed to suggest that Istrians needn’t look to Italy to learn how to attract visitors and that their culinary heritage is worthy of recognition on its own terms. However I disagreed with the author’s conclusion that “No, Istria is not the new Tuscany.” Instead I feel that it’s more like the old Tuscany, devoid of crowds and brand names and redolent of “how things used to be”. Not to mention – though this is a story for another time – the peninsula’s traffic-free roads and back roads are a pure joy to drive…

Peter

 

 

 

P.S. My research was for a new On the Road Experiences itinerary: “Austrian-Hungarian Lands: A driving holiday (Part I)” that will wind through the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. E-mail me (peter@ontheroadexperiences.com) if you’d like to be among the first to hear more about our newest European journey.

 

 

 

 

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When we first came up with the idea behind “Adventures in Yunnan”, we weren’t sure how it would be received. We had a hunch that a family driving holiday in Yunnan could be great fun, but would anyone be adventurous enough to join us with their kids?

We put together a 10-day family-friendly journey that ran from Kunming to Lijiang in short chunks with plenty of interesting stops along as many quiet back roads as possible, and began to spread the word. Four daring families signed up for the first trip and off we went. The question now was how long would it take before the cry of “Are we nearly there yet?” was heard?

After leaving Kunming, our first stop was at Yunnan’s Dinosaur Valley, the site of a “dinosaur graveyard” where palaeontologists have unearthed hundreds of complete dinosaur skeletons since excavation began in the 1930s. Armies of reconstructed dinosaurs seem to march across the main hall, while scientists work away below, discovering yet more ancient bones. Exciting enough in its own right, when coupled with the small theme park that surrounds the museum, we had a hard time persuading anyone to leave – even with the promise of lunch ahead.

Xizhou Scenery - photo by Sean Meng & Leon Meng

Xizhou Scenery – photo by Sean Meng & Leon Meng

That first day’s drive ended in Xizhou, home of the Linden Centre, one of our favourite hotels in the region, and – it turns out – a great place for families with children. The second morning saw us walking through the rice fields and into the village to see the daily market, where our guests practised their Mandarin as we stocked up on Xizhou baba, a delicious local snack of fried dough smeared with rose jam. The region around Xizhou and Dali has plenty of other activities on offer, and that first trip saw us riding a cable-car up into the Cangshan Mountains to visit a Taoist temple, cycling down quiet village lanes and eating cream cakes in a German-run bakery – making it well worth the two nights we spent there.

Biking in Xizhou Village – photo by Ron Yue

From Xizhou we drove on to Shaxi, a small village packed with well-preserved examples of traditional Bai architecture. Our group walked out into the cornfields, picnicked and happily poked about the village streets – really a world away from the choked city streets of Beijing or Shanghai that often spring to mind when thinking about travel in China.

Golden Snub Monkey - photo by Sean Meng & Leon Meng

Golden Snub Monkey – photo by Sean Meng & Leon Meng

On leaving sleepy Shaxi, we drove up the Yangtze Valley to the tiny hamlet of Tacheng. The upper reaches of the Yangtze Valley (where the river is known in Chinese as the Jinshajiang, or “River of Golden Sand”) are wonderfully scenic, with thickly forested slopes dropping away to the sandy riverbanks. Tacheng lies at the edge of the Baimashan Nature Reserve in an area famed for its biodiversity. We made time here to drive up into the reserve to spy on its most adorable residents – troops of Yunnanese snub-nosed monkeys munching on the moss that festoons the reserve’s ancient trees.

Photo by Ron Yue

Beyond Tacheng it was a steep climb to the Tibetan region around Shangri-La, where we petted yaks and visited a Tibetan family in their home. There, our guests had the opportunity to try tsampa, a dish of ground roast barley mixed to a paste with tea and butter. Younger members of the group announced it was “just like Play-doh” and spent a happy half hour moulding it into animal shapes, before heading off for a more spiritual stop at the huge Ganden Sumtseling Monastery.

Our last few nights were spent in the bustling city of Lijiang. One of Yunnan’s most popular destinations, this town lies in a beautiful valley dotted with pretty villages and headed at its northern end with the 5,600 metre-tall (18,360 feet) Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Between horseback riding and watching a fantastic open-air show in the mountain’s shadow, trying to find our way through the labyrinthine old town and playing in the hotel pool, before we knew it the trip was over and we were on our way to the airport to fly home.

photo by Jane Yong

Did anyone – parents or children – ever ask if we were nearly there yet? No, not to my memory! As a host, this itinerary really was one of my favourites. Our younger guests revelled in being taken out of their everyday environment and exposed to so many new and interesting things. Every day my colleagues and I were asked a slew of new questions, every day we staff saw something afresh through the children’s eyes, or had our attention drawn to something we hadn’t noticed previously.

Photo by Ron Yue

“Adventures in Yunnan” has gone on to become one of our most popular itineraries, with multiple departures each year timed to coincide with the school holidays. Recently we’ve added a photography-themed version of the journey, where our photographer Ron coaches guests through a fun series of travel photography field workshops.

One of the fathers from that first trip later told me, “Because your team took care of everything, we were encouraged to do something more daring than we would have attempted on our own, but now we’ve been inspired…” Since then they’ve been travelling all over Asia as a family – be warned, adventures as a family can become addictive!

Jo_white (1)

 

 

Our family-oriented journeys include:
Adventures in Yunnan
Family Adventures: Travel Photography in Yunnan” (with Ron Yue)

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