Tag Archives: Experiences-not-things


I have been working for On the Road Experiences since 2013. I started as a host…

What does a “host” do? As a journey host I oversee the whole journey from greeting guests on the first day until we all say goodbye on the last. I am responsible the service we provide and for the experiences guests enjoy; our aim is to make each journey enjoyable for all parties involved.

Happy times during hosting!

Happy times during hosting!

My role has grown over the years, and now I enjoy researching new itineraries, enhancing our existing journeys, and meeting guests before they join a trip and developing the German market. Peter gives my colleagues and I the chance to grow – sometimes it seems that every day I find myself with a new project, which makes me busy and happy! 

On the way to Mount Everest Basecamp on our "Roof on a Top of the World" journey

On the way to Mount Everest Basecamp on our “Roof on a Top of the World” journey

Looking back at all the journeys I have hosted, I remember a lot of laughter and happiness, and my hard-drive is full of pictures of sunsets, beautiful landscapes and people. Two things that I can’t capture on film, though, are the hard work and long days that go into making each journey a success.

Explaining my job to friends isn’t easy, because it is not at all like being on holiday, and neither is it “just” being a tour guide. We have to work with the fact that on each journey there will be many unforeseen events along the way – hopefully these will be fun things, such as yaks on the road or coming across a colorful local festival, but they might include road closures or even landslides.

In March, for example, we got held up by market day in a small village on the way to Puzhehei, where all the roads were gridlocked with trucks both big and small. 

Making the best out of the traffic....

Making the best out of the traffic….,

Nobody could move until the stallholders began to clear up two to three hours later. Thinking of it now, the pictures it brings to my mind are of our guests sitting on the side of the road, relaxing – one smoking a cigar, and chatting with the market-goers.

Making new friends...

Making new friends…

Our drivers got stuck in, handling and coordinating the traffic while the policemen lolled about drunk on the pavement!  I love that our guests and my colleagues managed to make the most out the afternoon and still find something good in a situation that wasn’t so good. It was very hot that day. As I tried to get cold drinks to keep us all refreshed, I ended up going from shop to shop as I discovered that none of the fridges were working! Finally, in a tiny shop I found cold beverages and local snacks, which I took back for us all to share.

This kind of experience is a good reminder for everyday life – of course I had all sorts of worries going through my mind: “What if we’re stuck here forever? “How long will this traffic jam last?” “What are our customers thinking?” “Will it get dark before we arrive?” “Are there any short cuts we could use?”, and so on and on… And I wished that we might have had a smoother journey on that day, but the reality is that life doesn’t always go to plan, and sometimes you just have to make the best most out of whatever happens!

Curiously, almost without fail, it is the unforeseen events, well handled, that our guests remember the most after we return home. Sometimes it’s the bends in the road that are the most memorable and meaningful!

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(For parts 1 and 2 of this 3-part series, please see “A holiday? Not exactly…” and “Impatient to run free…“)

In the Vipava valley

In the Vipava valley

“What do you really mean by a ‘Hidden Gem’?” people often ask me. Everyone intuitively knows what we mean, but it’s tricky to put it into words. When I try to describe my idea of a hidden gem, I say that it’s a well-kept secret, found in the most unexpected location at the most unexpected of times.

Still, that’s the kind of answer that, if it came from a politician, might make you roll your eyes and say to yourself “That’s why I hate politicians,” because it feels calculated and inauthentic. And so, often, I end up answering “I know one when I see one.” While this is still unhelpful, at least it has the merit of being completely true.

Whenever we’re researching a new itinerary, the quest is really to uncover hidden gems. From the moment I type a query into Google or e-mail a friend for suggestions to the day I finally program the address of one of my potential gems into the GPS, I am filled with anticipation that we might, perhaps, have found another one.

Majerija garden 1

What’s in the garden goes…

Back on June 23 this year, when I looked at my map of Slovenia the restaurant on our “to-do” list for the day, Majerija, looked like it was right off the highway. Thinking of greasy fast food at charmless service stations, I was almost put off visiting it. Would it be worth our while visiting it? That the restaurant is located in a village called “Slap” did little to assuage my worries.

Matej in the garden 1

Matej: “from the garden to the plate…”

From Lipica we turned north toward Ljubljana, before turning onto the highway to Trieste. After ascending a gentle pass, the modern highway swoops across elevated bridges and through brightly-lit tunnels into the Vipava valley, one of Slovenia’s wine-growing regions. Descending to near sea level, the temperature had risen to 35 degrees by the time we exited the highway. By this time one thing had become clear: wherever and whatever Majerija was, it wasn’t in a service station.

The road to Slap was so small that I missed the turn-off and had to do a U-turn to get back on course. Once on this little road, we saw a tiny village ahead, its diminutive skyline dominated by a church steeple. The road led through meadows, the air alive with the sound of cicadas and birds. Even though we were no more than two minutes from the expressway, it could not have felt further away. Both Pei Fen and I felt that as we drove we were not only slipping away from modern busy-ness, but also back in time.

Slap’s red, brick houses are situated on a gentle slope, and the village looks neat but still organic. Just 427 Slappers live in here. As we approached, I was filled with a mixture of apprehension and hope. It seemed highly unlikely that a restaurant worth a forty-five-minute drive could be here, in such rustic surroundings.

Dining in the garden 2

Dining in the midst of nature…

We drove past the church of St. Matthew and before we knew it the village was in our rear-view mirrors, and still the road kept rising and winding its way through the countryside as the road gradually narrowed futher. According to the GPS we had just another 200 meters to go to Majerija. We rounded one final corner and turned into a farmstead: if ever I’ve seen a “hidden gem” of a restaurant, this had to be it.

Majerija exists and is what it is because the owners, Matej and his wife, love what they do and because they are who they are: no attempt is made to convince others to like what they like; instead, they welcome those who, by word of mouth, love what they love.

Majerija Dish 1

Boletus pate with wild fennel flower topping and crostini

Majerija is a collection of four 18th century buildings that were and are one home. Dark wood-framed windows, decorated with bright red geraniums, contrast against white stone walls. The buildings are surrounded by vineyards, trees and verdant undergrowth, and festooned by tangles of roses. On the day of our visit, the deep blue sky completed the image of a home completely in tune with the environment that surrounds it.

A curved walkway leads to the entrance of the restaurant. As we turned the corner we see a few wooden table with white tablecloths, crystal glasses and gleaming silverware set in the shade by the side of the house. Shortly after we sat down, Matej emerged from inside the house and handed us his menu. I knew we should order – we had so much to do in the afternoon – but I put down the menu, closed my eyes and felt that I wanted to stay there for the rest of the day.

Eventually I picked up the menu again and ordered: “Boletus pate with wild fennel flower topping and crostini”, “Roasted shank of suckling pig and traditional autumn vegetables” and “Chestnut pave, homemade vanilla ice cream and cinnamon foam”, each one a feast for my eyes and my palate.

We spent one-and-a-half hours in the hands of Matej and the lap of Majerjia, a blink of an eye, it seemed – far too short in any event. When we took our leave it was with great anticipation of the time, in September, when we can share this experience with guests because, in the end, no words can do it justice.

*************

This post concludes a series of three posts about a single day on our latest research trip, June 23. A mad day of research? Yes, certainly. A typical day on the road when we’re putting together a new itinerary? Yup! But above all, an unforgettable day!

Peter

 

 

 

Interested in our new itinerary?  Please see here the Journey Dossier for Austrian-Hungarian Lands I: Vienna, the Adriatic, the Alps and Prague (12, 10 or 8 Days)

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(For part 1 of this 3-part series, please see “A holiday? Not exactly…”; for part 3, please see “I know one when I see one“.)

Spanish Court Riding School, Vienna

Spanish Court Riding School, Vienna

Ever since I was a small boy, I’ve known of the Lipizzaner stallions, the elegant grey-spotted horses that grace the performances of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School.  Perhaps because I spent three teenage years horseback riding, or maybe because I’m more interested in the future than the past, I’ve always remembered Vienna more for these horses than for its historical palaces and art.

Years and years of training...

Years and years of training…

Those of you that know of the Spanish Riding School will be familiar with the ritual formality and theatrical perfection of the School’s dressage, where the horses seem to float above the ground as they move through their routine.  As a demonstration of man’s control over nature it’s impressive, but entirely contrived – not that that makes it any less beautiful.

I never knew the Lipizzaner’s history or provenance, so it came as a surprise when I saw “Lipica” on Google Maps, near Slovenia’s border with Italy, and realised that the town’s Italian name was Lipizza – hence the horse breed’s name.  Since we started researching our European journeys I had wanted to visit. We had run out of time twice before, but I resolved that this time would be different!

An outing...at Lipica...

An outing…at Lipica…

At Sezana we left the highway that leads to Trieste, in Italy.  The GPS said we still had seven kilometers to go on the lovely meadow-lined road that leads south from Sezana.  The day had started overcast, but by now we were blessed with a blue-skied mid-summer morning, the sun glinting through the trees as we drove.  A signpost led us toward the Lipica Stud Farm down a narrower road, with white picket fences and linden trees lining it on both sides.  The air seemed soft and gently fragranced.  Almost involuntarily, we slowed down to enjoy the pleasure of entering this equine paradise.

Lipica Studfarm Stables

Lipica Studfarm Stables

Presently, we arrived at the entrance gate. While we couldn’t see many people, it was clear that at times the stud farm draws large crowds of visitors.  We were shown around by two guides. The first, Victoria, welcomed us to view the  horses’ morning dressage training, and then took us to the stables where the stallions are kept, all the while answering our questions with humour and authority.  Second, her colleague, Vid, gave us a glimpse of the network of paths used by Lippizan-drawn carriages to access the farm’s ten square kilometres.  Finally, we explored the farm’s museum and historic stables.  Victoria and Vid were so infectiously enthusiastic about their work that Pei Fen and I found ourselves falling in love with the farm and horses too.

Impatient to be free...

Impatient to be free…

“Next time, when you bring your guests, be sure to arrive well before 10 in the morning,” Vid told us.  “Why is that?” we asked.  “Because there is a spectacle you won’t want to miss…” Vid went on to explain that each morning, the mares are sent out to graze at 10am.  Vid’s animated description conjured up images of a herd of elegant Lipizzan mares stamping their feet, impatient to run free. The gates of their stables open.  They gallop away and the earth shakes.  A dust cloud rises goes up, and twirling, subsides.  Then silence, except for the rustling of the linden leaves in the gentle breeze.  At least, this is how I imagine it to be – the first time I see this sight will be with our guests later this summer

Eventually we had to leave for an appointment at a restaurant in the nearby Vipava valley.  We drove slowly to the exit of the stud farm’s grounds, trying to linger as long as possible in this corner of Slovenia.  After the past couple of hours, anything – even a restaurant that two of our Slovenian friends said “you absolutely must try” – would surely be a letdown?

And with that thought I put the address of Majerija into our GPS.

Peter

 

 

 

Interested in our new itinerary?  Please see here the Journey Dossier for Austrian-Hungarian Lands I: Vienna, the Adriatic, the Alps and Prague (12, 10 or 8 Days)

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In October 2008, my wife Angie and I spent a few days in northern Thailand. While visiting this part of the Golden Triangle, we chanced upon a rusty map of the region. “Look,” I said to Angie, “two months ago I was here,” as I pointed to Xishuangbanna, the southernmost region of China’s Yunnan Province. (‘Xishuangbanna’, 西双版纳, is the sinicised version of the Thai word Sipsong Panna ( สิบสองปันนา) and means ‘twelve thousand rice fields’.)

The Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle

“So close, eh?” Angie mused, “I wonder whether you could drive from there to here. Wouldn’t that be something?!”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I replied, “There’s borders to cross and who knows if there’s even a road.” Having only just managed to organise our first driving journeys in China, the idea of crossing borders seemed, to me, unfathomable. In those days, whenever an idea came up, my brain was inevitably troubled by the question of how to make it happen, and from that often flowed a stream of reasons why it couldn’t be done. Angie, by contrast, is seldom bothered by such details.

Later that day I reluctantly pursued the idea with her. Wouldn’t it be something to drive from the foothills of the Tibetan Plateau in northern Yunnan down through Laos and the Golden Triangle to Chiang Mai, and to see China merge into South-East Asia, turn by winding turn? It was a powerful idea, but “how?”

***

I grew up in another Golden Triangle of sorts, in Bregenz, a small town by the eastern shore of Lake Constance where Germany, Austria, and Switzerland meet. No opium poppies there, I can assure you: the only sources of inspiration are reflections in crystal-clear lakes and the herb-scented mountain air.

Shopping in Switzerland? Lunch in Germany? Dinner in Austria? All in one day? Easy! As I child I regarded driving across borders as an everyday occurrence, but since moving to Asia I have gained a newfound appreciation for the romance – and administrative complexities – that such overland journeys can inspire.

***

Prayer Flags in Shangri-La

Prayer Flags in Shangri-La

Fast forward to April 2009. Angie and I have just landed in Shangri-La. The sky is overcast and snowfall has dusted the hilltops. While eating breakfast we meet the hotel manager and tell her about the journey we are about to make. Her eyes light up, “If you enjoy driving, then you must take the back road to Lijiang – let me show you…” I finish my toast in one bite and drain my coffee cup while Angie knocks back a motion sickness pill. And then we’re on our way.

The main road from Zhongdian to Lijiang is shown on my map as a thick red line. The road that we take is shown as a single pencil-thin line, snaking between the two towns. The hotel manager was right – the road is incredibly beautiful, winding over high passes before descending to the Yangtze at Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the river roars through a deep gorge beneath looming cliffs.

The new Route 3 in northern Lao

The new Route 3 in northern Lao

After arriving in Lijiang that evening, we wander the cobbled streets, bemused at the sheer number of people visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site. From Lijiang we drive south along excellent highways to Dali, on the shore of Lake Erhai, and then to Kunming and south again to Jinghong, the largest town in Xishuangbanna.

By the time we arrive in sleepy Jinghong, with its palm tree-lined streets and Thai-style temples, it’s clear that we are on the edge of South-East Asia. The region’s main ethnic minority, the Dai, are closely related to the Thais and in the countryside we drive past groups of sarong-clad Dai women with flowers in their hair.

We arrive in Thailand...wat's up?

We arrive in Thailand…wat’s up?

From Jinghong we continue our drive on another wonderful road to the China–Laos border at Mohan, where we make a bit of history: Angie and I are, according to everyone we ask, the first Westerners to drive a China-registered rental car across this border. What I had taken for granted back in the “Golden Triangle” of my youth does, indeed, mean making history here…

At the Thailand-Myanmar border...

At the Thailand-Myanmar border…

In Laos, Route 3 connects the China-Laos border with Huay Sai on Laos’ border with Thailand, cutting south-west diagonally across the country. At that time, Route 3 had been recently rebuilt, and the modern road contrasted starkly with the villages it runs through, where villagers’ lives seem untouched by the twenty-first century.

Later the same day we arrive at Huay Sai and take a rickety looking car ferry to Chiang Khong on the Thai side of the border. After a long day – driving in three countries and over 400 kilometres – Angie and I treat ourselves to a stay at the lovely Anantara Golden Triangle resort.

The next morning, wholly refreshed, we drive back up to the map of the Golden Triangle, where Angie had had her idea six months previously. We look at the battered map in its rusty frame before turning and gazing out towards Burma and Laos, shaking our heads and agreeing “Now, that really was something…”

Never, ever let questions of “How?” stand in way of pursuing your ideas!

Peter

 

 

 

Since that first trip, we now have multiple crossing-border itineraries in Asia allowing you to step into our footsteps:

  • Yunnan via Laos to Thailand
  • Yunnan via Laos to Vietnam – Our Summit to Sea itinerary takes you from one UNESCO World Heritage old town, Lijiang, in Yunnan to another, Hoi An, right by the South China Sea.
  • Burma – Our From the Golden Triangle to the Bay of Bengal itinerary is a magical exploration of Burma, including out-of-the-way, hidden gems and well-known, must-see stops.
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In November 2010, Peter and I spent a few weeks in Qinghai and Tibet researching new itineraries – routes that became Roads on the Roof of the World and the Qinghai version of Tibetan Highlands.

Lovely day for a picnic

Lovely day for a picnic

We had enjoyed an adventurous start to the trip, including an attempt (quickly abandoned) at winter camping in Tuotuohe, and what must have been one of the longer picnics in Qinghai’s history as we waited for an over-ambitious lamb stew to cook 5,000 metres above sea level. But, as we arrived in Lhasa, fatigued but at least thoroughly acclimatised, the trip’s highlight – Mount Everest – still lay ahead.

After a few days in Lhasa, we set out for the mountains. As we drove west of Shigatse, human settlements thinned out dramatically and the landscape grew steadily more otherworldly. Bands of ochre sediment jutted out at strange angles, hinting at the violence of the collision that forced the Tibetan Plateau three miles into the sky – and pushed the mountain peaks higher still. Eventually, we came to Baiba.

Baiba is a rugged little town that sits beside the highway to Nepal. Nobody would choose to stay here, except for the fact that it is conveniently close to the turn-off for Mount Everest’s North Base Camp. We stopped here one evening, four days out from Lhasa. After looking at hotels and restaurants and an hour spent sitting wrapped in blankets, talking and playing cards by candlelight, we called it a night.

The following morning our alarms rang well before dawn. Bundled up like onions in thick layers of clothing, we loaded the cars and set off. The beginning of the journey was stop-start as we passed through checkpoints and turned onto the gravel road (now paved) to Base Camp. As we climbed through a long series of switchbacks, suspense grew. We were climbing up to Pang-La, the first pass from which Everest is visible – would the peak be clear?

Dawn breaks...

Beautiful, but where are the big mountains?

I was sitting in the first car in our two-car convoy. As we crested the pass, I used the walkie-talkie to report, incisively, that, “Oooh,it’s beautiful!” Dawn had painted the smaller peaks with a rosy glow, and there was a gorgeous arc of white-capped mountains before us. But the larger peaks were shrouded in thick cloud, as we used a signboard to work out where Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu ought to be.

Good thing there's a sign post...

Good thing there’s a sign post…

It is a long drive from Pang-La to Everest, and it seems even longer when you can’t see the mountain in question. We drove on in hope that the weather would clear, but the mountains stayed locked in behind the cloud as the morning wore on. Early that afternoon we arrived at a deserted Base Camp and scrambled up a huge and crumbly lump of moraine that is used as a viewpoint when there’s something to view. A wall of mist swirled before us, as we tried to imagine how huge the mountain would be at such close quarters.

Eventually, even Peter – usually the most optimistic person in such situations – conceded that we might as well turn back. So we turned around and began to drive back to Baiba, disappointed and empty-handed, for we had hoped to come away with some photos of Everest for our new journey dossiers. Seeing Everest was one of my top travel ambitions, and it seemed such a pity to have been to Base Camp without getting so much as a glimpse of the north face.

Finally! A glimpse!

Finally! A glimpse!

Late that afternoon, as we were climbing back up to Pang-La, my car’s walkie-talkie crackled into life. “I think the clouds are clearing,” came the message. And they were. One by one the mighty 8,000 metre peaks emerged, looming twice as high and more massive than we’d imagined. My disappointment evaporated and – just as suspense had mounted that morning – excitement began to mount as we zig-zagged back up to the pass.

A Pang-La sunrise at its best

A Pang-La sunrise at its best

Since that first trip I’ve had brilliant luck with the weather in these mountains. And while it’s an incredible experience each and every time – I always end up gazing at the highest peaks for minutes on end – nothing compares to the thrill of that first sighting. The clouds never completely cleared and we only had a short while before the weather closed in again, but it was enough to create an indelible memory of just how magnificent our world is. And that is the point of travel, is it not? Well, that and being able to say you’ve eaten lamb casserole at 5,000 metres above sea level…

Jo_white (1)

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Batelina. The restaurant’s name came up three times in the span of three days while we were preparing for our research trip. A wine maker, an olive oil producer and a business school friend from Croatia, had all mentioned it in response to our enquiries about where we could enjoy the finest seafood in Istria. “Book well in advance”, I was told. A month before our trip, I dialled their number from Hong Kong. Greeted by a recording in Croatian, I decided to call back later. Which I did on the same day, the next day and quite a few more times. Never did I succeed in speaking to a person. “I can’t reach them,” I told one of the referrers. “They’re only open in the evenings,” he told me.  Given that “in the evening” in Istria means midnight or later in Hong Kong, for me, a morning person, that wasn’t going to work out any time soon. I could have asked referrers to help, but they had helped enough already, so I didn’t want to bother them further. I decided to wait until I was in Europe.  When eventually I called around 6pm Croatian time, I was greeted by a friendly voice, “How can I help you?” “I’d like to make a reservation,” I said, adding that there would be two of us on April 4th. “That’s a Monday night,” I tried to be helpful. “At night we sleep,” came the reply, “but in the evening we’re open. Would you like to book?”

Konoba Batelina

Konoba Batelina

While I still love printed maps, when it comes to finding a specific place, GPSs beat maps hands-down. When the GPS said “you’ve reached your destination”, we didn’t concur: finding ourselves on a residential street, we didn’t see anything that looked like a restaurant. We circled the “destination” once. With still nothing obvious in sight, we called Batelina and described what we saw around us. “Park your car on the lawn in front of you and walk around the hill to the house with the lights on…that’s us.” We did as we were told, trudging up the hill, still slightly doubtful that we were heading in the right direction until we spotted a sign leaving no doubt that we had arrived.

Batelina StartersSince it was a chilly evening, we opted for a cozy-looking dining room with a fireplace.  We were served by Ilya, who spoke excellent English. This came as a surprise – we had thought that we were coming to a very local restaurant – and almost put us off. Perhaps Batelina was no hidden gem after all, and that perhaps we were in for a meal of “tourist fare”. As became quickly apparent, this was an unnecessary worry: we had the finest seafood dinner of our lives.

I believe that one’s enjoyment of any experience in life depends at least as much on the setting, the circumstance, and your expectations as it does on the raw nature of the subject itself. The subject in this case was, first, the recommended starter selection – on this day, ten small dishes featuring the day’s catch, each one a culinary jewel coming out of the treasure chest of the chef’s imagination. For our main dishes, we chose scallops and clams. For desert, we picked mascarpone cream with wine-cooked figs and homemade biscuits.

Batelina - MainWhat made this evening such an utter delight? Was it that every bite enchanted our palates? Yes, indeed. Was it the complete absence of pretension? Was it that there was no Michelin, no Gault Millau, no Falstaff, no accreditation whatsoever in sight?  Was it the story of Danilo, the fisherman owner of Batelina, and David his motorcycle-loving son and the current chef who joined us after dinner for a chat? I don’t know except that this evening has engraved itself forever in my memory.

“How do you find a place like this?” I’m often asked. In our world of search engines, there is a belief that “you can find anything on the internet”. By now, I assume you will have googled “Batelina” and, voila!, there it is, you found it and with that “About 46,700 results (0.73 seconds)”. But Donald Rumsfeld comes to mind:

Batelina - Desert“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

The magic of travel is that of turning some of the world’s unknowns – whether known or unknown – into knowns, the process of discovery that begins with a hunch, stops along the way at points of reference, and ends with an experience you’re dying to share. It’s that feeling of wonder about what “lies around the corner.” The hunch gives you the feeling that there is something out there waiting to be discovered. The points of reference, otherwise known as “friends”, are lighthouses that guide you along.  And the discovery ends with your personal experience, which is when you know whether your hunch was right, whether your friends know you well. Sometimes, the answer is no and you move on. At other times – at times like Batelina – the answer is a resounding yes and you linger to tell the story.

Come and visit Istria while I feel it to be true that “rarely have so few known so little about a place that offers so much.”

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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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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Recently, I watched a documentary about Gwen Moffat, a redoubtable British climber who kept climbing into her 70s. The filmmaker asked Ms Moffat, now aged 91, if she missed the mountains. She answered, simply, “No, I don’t – they’re part of me you see, I had my time and now the hills are part of me.”

This idea – that some experiences become a part of us – is something that resonates with me, particularly this year. After years of fairly adventurous travel for work and pleasure, 2015 and (so far) 2016 have seen me on “home leave” after having a baby.

Nomads, Tibet

Going the same way, Tibet

During that time, I’ve found my thoughts returning repeatedly to past travels, to places I’ve visited and people I’ve met. After writing last year about how anticipation heightens an experience’s pleasure, I’ve realised afresh that remembering a journey enables one to experience the joy of it all over again.

Of course, a memory can be sculpted into a superior version of the lived experience. I can omit the leech bites from an impromptu jungle trek in Malaysia, I can forget the physical pain of the bumpy journey to and from Indawgyi Lake in northern Myanmar, and I can delete my sweaty panic from a bike ride along New Zealand’s beautiful Queen Charlotte Sound to catch a ferry.

Mr Wu, Tibet

Mr Wu on a memorable journey, Tibet

But instead, the memories that I recall most fondly aren’t the ones that I’ve manicured to remove the ragged edges from – they’re memories that involved some measure of personal challenge, difficulty or plain ridiculousness. That’s because they make better stories (whether I’m telling those stories to myself or to others), but also because those experiences shape my idea of what I’m capable of – even if it is a level of previously unthinkable idiocy…

As Ms Moffat says of the peaks she’s climbed, the memories of roads taken and journeys made have become part of me, and enable me to “travel” even when I’m sitting at home on a rainy afternoon. That’s what I call a souvenir…

Jo

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The small Yunnanese town of Yuanyang is famed for the steep tiers of rice terraces that snake across hillsides around the town. In winter, dawn light sparkling off the watery fields attracts legions of photographers eager to capture the sight on film – a group of On the Road photographers is about to leave for the region next week.

Yuanyang Rice Terraces

Yuanyang Rice Terraces

While many visitors come for the landscape, Yuanyang’s human side – the Hani farmers have worked the terraces for generations – is well worth exploring too. A few years ago, we were searching for a way to incorporate more contact with local communities into our itineraries. One of our guides, Zoe, had befriended the bellhop at Yuanyang’s Yunti Hotel, and he offered to introduce us to his uncle, who was the headman of a village amongst the rice fields.

Hani Minority in Yuanyang

Hani Minority in Yuanyang

One day in May, we set out from Yuanyang with a group of Swiss guests to meet the uncle and visit his village. The wisps of mist that enshrouded the rice fields slowly burnt off over the course of the walk to the village as our guests peppered the uncle with questions about village life.

The uncle took us to a house in the centre of the village. We had to duck to get through the door, and groped our way up a steep, dark staircase with a rope for a railing. The upstairs room was dark and smoky from cigarettes and an open fireplace, with a single window that allowed a cone of light to illuminate the room. Eight low stools were arranged around a small table for us. Our guests’ faces betrayed a mixture of delight – oh so exotic and friendly! – and fright – where had I taken them to?

In the mayor's home

In the mayor’s home

We took our seats and while the Q&A session continued – what is the main trade of the village? Do you have a school? How many inhabitants are there? What’s the average income? What do you think about the future? How many people live in your house? — lunch began to be served. The plates gradually accumulated – at first two dishes, then four, then eight, then twelve, they just kept coming.

Hospitality

Hospitality

Eventually, the mayor motioned for us to begin eating when Zoe suddenly started crying and burst into almost uncontrollable tears. We all looked at her, unsure what to do. I patted her on the shoulder and asked, “Zoe, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, it’s nothing, really,” she managed to say between sobs, “it’s just that, look, look at all this food! These poor people are serving up all this for us, but maybe they would only eat like this once a year themselves, maybe never in their lives…” As Zoe spoke, a guest, Edith, got up and walked to Zoe, pulled her to her feet and gave her a warm hug.

A meal together

A meal together

No words were spoken while Zoe and Edith stood there hugging, but perhaps for a moment we all felt linguistic and cultural barriers giving way to a moment of shared emotion. At a time when nationalistic fires are being fanned around the world, it seems a timely reminder that behind the headlines there are millions of ordinary people, like the bellhop’s uncle, and like Zoe and Edith, who are making their way through life, trying to do the best for their families, and trying to lead good lives. Travel is one fantastic way to remind ourselves of this, and as Mark Twain put it in The Innocents Abroad, adapted somehow for this story:

“People need travel sorely. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime. Travel, then, is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”  Let us celebrate these fatalities!

Peter

 

 

 

On the Road takes you to Yuanyang rice terraces on these journeys:

 

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My mind wanders terribly. While I might look as though I’m sitting at my desk or riding the subway, in my head I’m watching crowds celebrate Saga Dawa in Gyantse or cycling across New Zealand’s Southern Alps – remembering long-ago trips and planning future travels.

Spectators enthralled by...

Spectators enthralled by…

While I’ve always thought of these daydreams as being one small step away from procrastination, recent psychological research shows that by reliving fond memories and anticipating future experiences I’ve actually been enjoying one of the few ways in which money can buy happiness.

The relationship between money and happiness has long been a source of debate. Reams of psychological studies have been produced on the topic since the 1970s, when a group of Californian academics discovered the Easterlin paradox – that money does make people happier, but only up to a point. Once our basic needs have been taken care of, it seems that it’s up to how we spend any surplus that makes the biggest difference to our happiness.

Research has found that the best way to do this is to invest your money in experiences – whether that means concert tickets or cooking classes, the holiday of a lifetime or a daytrip – rather than material possessions.

Logically, buying something would seem to make more sense – a hi-tech watch or a beautiful book will be around long after an experience has ended, after all. However, this logic glosses over several facets of human nature, which combine to turn that thinking on its head.

... Saga Dawa festival

… the Saga Dawa festival

For one thing, we easily take things for granted. It’s not long before we get used to a shiny new toy and it becomes part of the background. Our levels of happiness soon return to where they were before, a process psychologists call hedonic adaptation.

While material goods deteriorate with time – getting scuffed and scratched – the memory of a pleasant experience improves with age. Even a bad experience can become a good story with enough retelling and time, and in this way fleeting experiences can become an ingrained part of our identity in a way that a possession rarely does.

Apparently even the way we anticipate experiences and purchases is different. Psychologists found more positive interactions amongst people queuing for concert tickets than among those queuing to buy smartphones, for example. Waiting to buy a new gadget tends to fill us with impatience, rather than anticipation, as I’m sure many of us have found!

Instead of giving in to the desire for impulse purchases and instant gratification, we can wring more enjoyment out of spending our hard-earned money by planning purchases far in advance. As the saying goes, “anticipation is the greater part of pleasure” – especially when it comes to experiences.

Shared experiences also bond us to others in a way that a mutual preference for a certain brand does not. While owning a 4K TV might give you something to talk about with another 4K TV-owner, it won’t make for an instant connection in the same way that, say, having climbed a mountain together would.

So, the lessons seem to be: buy experiences, not things; plan far in advance to maximise the pleasure of anticipation; enjoy recalling past pleasures – and keep daydreaming.

Jo

 

 

 

To read more about this topic, visit:

The Atlantic: By experiences, not things

Fastco: The Science of why you should spend your money on experiences not things

 

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