Saturday, August 13, 2016

It’s been more than a year since I last heard the hypnotic calls of a million cicadas in the summertime; in fact, besides the years I spent in Taiwan, I hadn’t heard them anywhere else—not in South Africa, not in Russia, not in Hungary—until I arrived in Athens.

Despite the collective hum created by these noisy insects, a summer without them would be inconceivable and indeed would spell disaster for any resident of the island first dubbed Formosa by the Portuguese in 1542.

Camouflaged against the dark hues of trunks and shaded by leaves on branches, cicadas are nothing short of iconic for us, conjuring memories of scorching Julys when pupils gathered in stuffy classrooms across the nation to sit for their university entrance exams. A little over six years ago I was no different, shuffling into a classroom with about 30 others and pretending like the 35° Celsius morning temperature didn’t faze me, when in reality it did.

In the dead silence of the classroom, we were accompanied by the loud mechanical buzz of ceiling fans and by the occasional turning of pages—another pupil racing through the test paper just to make you that little bit more anxious and force you to check the watch on your wrist, which is just about the only personal item you’re allowed to carry besides your minimal stationery. And then there were the cicadas, blaring their short-lived mating calls like they’d done, and will continue to do, for millennia.

Now at the tail end of summer in 2016, two years since I left university none the wiser and three months short of my 27th revolution around the Sun, there are no more textbooks to carry and no more exams to study for, and yet the cicadas return.

It wasn’t until recently, when I saw a quite mesmerising documentary, that I learnt that some species of cicada spend the first 17 years of their life underground, before emerging from the earth for a fleeting summer romance and later—there’s really no better way to put this—dropping dead.

As a nymph the mighty cicada is immortal, burrowing through the soil in which it was born and gathering all the nutrients necessary to mature, simultaneously shielding itself from potential predators until it is ready to breach.

But when it does finally join us on the surface and begins to sound, the cicada announces not only its long-awaited arrival, but also its impending departure. Its call is one of relief and of desperation; it is both its premiere and its swan song, as the transient animal seeks to ensure the survival of its genes before the season’s end.

In Athens, the sweltering, sauna-like capital of Greece, the cicadas persist, despite the inhospitable temperatures, the frustrating lack of rain, and the absence of clouds.

Having arrived in the land of Homer, Heracles, and Angelos Charisteas, I mark my second country of semi-permanent residence since leaving Budapest in mid-April. And while I’m ashamed to admit that it has taken me a full four months to pick up the proverbial pen and document my travels once more, I trust my brain has made full use of the hiatus to filter out all the unnecessary details which would otherwise bore myself or anyone else happening across this post in the vastness that is the interweb.

I was still thoroughly enjoying the continental climate of Hungary when I packed my things and crossed the country’s south-western border into Croatia, eventually settling into the Airbnb flat I had booked just three weeks earlier.

Before my stay in Budapest I knew very little of the city and its comings and goings; similarly for Zagreb, the tiny capital of Republika Hrvatska, I had done no homework and had to discover the dos and don’ts from scratch.

I pay the Hungarian capital a massive compliment when I say Zagreb—even with its bar street Tkalčićeva and stunning, albeit always-under-renovation cathedral—was modest and dare I say even bland, in the very literal sense of the word. Budapest in comparison is not more beautiful or grander by any wider a margin, but it has such a strong identity, and its cityscape sings to you too.

In Croatia, for instance, my hopes of a relationship the Sava, a tributary of the legendary Danube, were dashed on day one of my arrival when I discovered that it did not run through Zagreb, instead serving merely as partition between Stari (old) and Novi (new) Zagreb, splitting the touristic and residential parts of the city.

There were no shops or stalls alongside its wide, green banks, which were frequented by joggers, cyclists, and dog owners. So imagine my despair a few days later, after asking my neighbours if anybody ever swims in the Sava, when I was told that I would positively “dissolve” if I ever touched the water.

Thankfully, I would later be afforded a brief respite when visiting the equally small, yet irresistible Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, where the river of the same name intertwines perfectly with its humble urban settings. But more on that later.

I am also, however, happy to report that my time in Croatia was filled with much positivity as well, though most of it was spent in the comfort of my home on ulica Svetog Mateja: a street encircling a New Zagreb area known as Dugave—“The Pillow of Zagreb”, as my neighbours called it.

Many hours and days were spent on the L-shaped sofa or on the wooden-decked balcony of the flat, because it was one of the most comfortable, calming, and quiet environments I had been in. With a row of tall trees right outside the window and so many birds that their singing became something of a nuisance, the small community was a getaway from the standard European capital, which is already an escape compared to its jam-packed East Asian counterparts: Taipei, Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore.

I remember regularly commenting on just how “green” Dugave seemed, especially when compared to my former residence in Hungary. Yes, I haven’t forgotten about you Hernád utca. It was a pleasure to be surrounded by trees once more, like my family was when living in Hurlyvale, the tiny neighbourhood in Gauteng, South Africa.

Enjoyment in Zagreb also came from wine tasting, which seems to have taken on a life of its own ever since Tom, my “brother from another mother”, gave me a book called Wine Folly for my 26th birthday. It’s a creatively designed beginner’s guide to all things wine, and is holy scripture for those eager to learn the ways of the vin snob. The book is full of fun illustrations (because who doesn’t love pictures?) and is penned in a tone that is light and easy enough for all make-believe wine wizards like myself to understand.

Continental, Dalmatian, and Istrian grapes Graševina, Malvazija, and Muškat; or their red siblings Frankovka and Plavac Mali—these are the names of a few notable Croatian varieties, some of which tasted like chocolates, while others rather unfortunately resembled soap. It is all part of trial and error, you see? At least that’s what I say in order to dupe myself. You collect Pokémon; I collect le vin.

A standout winemaker (and this is when you know you’ve become a next-level snob) was one named Bolfan, after its founder Tomislav Bolfan, whom I credit with growing the most delicious rosé. Behind the €6 bottle’s abstract, minimalistic wine label and transparent glass flows a pink liquid that smells like nectar and tastes like cherry. It was stocked at what quickly became my go-to wine shop: Vinoteka Bornstein, which was just up the road from the Zagreb Cathedral, also known by its nickname the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Oh, did I say nickname? I meant its flagrant, unrepentant, and unabashedly full Christian name.)



Perhaps that’s enough waxing lyrical about wine for today… Because late spring and early summer in Zagreb was about much more than that; it was also about the endless rows of wholesome produce at the Dolac famers’ market and the stinky fish and miniature mountains of crustaceans being sold by the neighbouring fishmongers.

The garden-fresh and inexpensive products called for home cooking and experimentation. And there was certainly plenty of that, even when visiting the city of Zadar on the northern coast of Dalmatia. Having journeyed three hours to holiday in Luka Modrić’s hometown by the Adriatic Sea, which was also my first real taste of the Mediterranean, we didn’t just crawl into every restaurant listed on TripAdvisor; instead we turned on the stove at home and indulged in some savoury seafood together with a nice bottle of wine—white, of course. Kitchen adventures started in Europe and soon became a theme which has continued to this day.



Testing Alfred Hitchcock’s sunset theory in Zadar.

Sir Alfred Hitchcock, “The Master of Suspense” himself, once wrote during a trip to the city in 1964 that “Zadar has the most beautiful sunset in the world, more beautiful than the one in Key West, in Florida, applauded at every evening.” I’m clearly not going to argue with that.

Croatia to many is a holiday destination in the form of thousands of islands along the country’s south coast, visited by the collective residents of Europe every spring and summer, but possibly the most striking memory I have of the country is from a day trip to one of its national parks: Plitvice.

Known in Chinese as “the park of 16 lakes”, Plitvice is exactly that, with its terraced glacial pools becoming increasingly stunning and a shimmering blue-green under the sunlight as you make the climb up and then down the region’s hilly terrain. The area is is well-equipped for tourists, of which there are quite literally millions on a year-on-year basis. Thankfully however peak tourist season only begins in the summer, so a trip to Plitvice in the winter or spring is overwhelmingly pleasant and indeed even private.

Having not been raised in a country abound with glacier lakes, I had never before seen the esoteric emerald and turquoise waters, in which there existed freshwater fish species. Plitvice Lakes National Park smelt pristine, looked undisturbed, and felt exceptionally pure, in spite of its ever-increasing visitor figures.



There will be an opportunity as well as an occasion to return—hopefully during a snowy winter—to Plitvice one day, this I knew, so when it eventually came time to leave Croatia and move to Greece, there was no regret.

But before venturing all the way to Athens, I was licking my lips at the opportunity to make a pit stop in the southern Austrian state of Carinthia, on the border with Italy and Slovenia, where Die Elisa and the magnificent Wörthersee awaited. Pörtschach, the cute lakeside resort and Elisa’s hometown, was the destination.

To reach the little municipality of 2,600 from Zagreb, it made sense to first pass through neighbouring Slovenia and then slowly creep up from behind the chicken-leg-shaped (or guitar-shaped if you’re a romantic) country. And so it was that we got to see Ljubljana’s vibrant Open Kitchen and sip on a glass of Slovenija’s own rich Sauvignon Blanc while listening to Erlend Øye sing for The Whitest Boy Alive.

The food market, hosted every Friday from mid-March to October in front of the Plečnikove arcade, is a public invitation to try some of the city’s best dishes: anything from spare ribs and steak to Pad Thai (super) and Chinese fried rice. The meals are a bargain and the square booms with music and foodies from the world over.



It was also because of this rather fortuitous detour that we go to see Lake Bled, which was beautiful in its own way, but it really didn’t win me over like Wörthersee in Kärnten, which did so in a heartbeat, and in such a convincing manner, on a chilly winter’s day in 2014. Still,  Bled Castle was a joy to behold—and a relief to reach following a brief, steep uphill trek.

The shortness of our stay in Ljubljana notwithstanding, the city has my nod as one of Eastern Europe’s very “liveable” cities, not that I plan to compile a list. While strolling through town, we also found a tiny wine shop whose owner had the Slovenian-language version of Wine Folly—the man has taste.

Our eventual arrival in Pörtschach, via the second-largest Carinthian city of Villach, was one of sheer delight and no small amount of nostalgia for me, having visited Rauterstraße for the first time more than two years prior. Doris and Christian, Elisa’s parents, hadn’t changed a bit: she still the kitchen commander-in-chief; he still enjoying his post-work tennis games.

This time around, though, the spectacular view of the humungous glacial lake was made significantly better by the fact that we got to swim in it—a much needed bit of rest and recreation in what was the hottest month of the year. Elisa also ended up driving us to the observation tower atop Pyramidenkogel, a little hill overlooking Wörthersee which is also flanked by the lengthy Karawanks mountain range.

When we eventually said our goodbyes, I was filled with an enormous sense of happiness at having fulfilled a promise I made during my only previous stay in Pörtschach: to see Carinthia in the summertime and swim in that lake.

Naturally, no visit to Austria, especially to southern Austria, would be complete for me without a stop in Graz, which as I noted in the past is my home away from home, away from home, away from home. The city was almost deserted this summer because of the annual student exodus at the close of the academic year, but a customary wave and hike to Schloßberg hill is always, always necessary.


The Schloßberg clock tower.

As usual, it was great to see the girls again and to know that our friendship lives on. They are, whether they know it or not, indirectly responsible for my being in Europe in the first place, having hosted me in their homes after our studies in Russia.

Now in Athens, my country of residence has changed, but my patterns and routines remain. I’m still waking up at the crack of dawn and going to bed at the same time as Greek toddlers, and my curiosity for wine is as strong as ever. In fact, under the enchantment of Wine Folly’s recommendations, we have already sought out one variety of local grape known as Moschofilero (Μοσχοφίλερο), which smells deceiving sweet and is actually dry to the palate.

Moschofilero grows primarily on Peloponnese, not far from Athens, and is the first of three grapes I hope to get to know before leaving in October, the others being Assyrtiko (Ασύρτικο) from Santorini and Malagousia (Μαλαγουζιά) from Macedonia—that’s the region in Greece bordering the Balkan namesake.

And like in Croatia, one winery has already been singled out for praise: Seméli, in Peloponnese near the town of Nemea, where Heracles (later Romanised as Hercules) is said to have slain the terrorising lion, completing the first of his 12 labours. I’m looking forward to visiting the estate’s private vineyards next month in what will be my first such tour since doing the same along South Africa’s Garden Route a lifetime ago.

Despite already being in Athens for three weeks, I’m both surprised and a little confused to say that we have yet to visit the Acropolis, the fortified citadel where the Parthenon sits. (This sentence reminds me of this QI segment.) And there is a very good reason for this, you see: it is simply too damn hot (sorry, grandma).



In September, in the month of Virgo, when summer finally subsides and when the residents of the city named after the Virgin Goddess Athena finally come flooding back from their island holidays, the Acropolis will be conquered, by hook or by crook. JSF.


A short gallery of my time in Croatia can be found here.

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