Marco, Manja, Pedro, me, and the bestia all got up early and busied ourselves to get ready for our long, long day of travel. Since Manja is Slovenian, and since Slovenia is nearby, we had asked her to show us around a bit. Marco was also able to take Friday and Monday off work to give himself a long weekend, and so would all be able to make the trip together.
Since we knew his routine, Pedro and I took the bestia (his name is Fonzie, but I get a kick out of calling him “the beast”) for his morning walk. It was great to get out into the cool morning, and after two days in the car and another ahead of us, the three of us were happy to RUN! Bestia was pulling as hard as he could through the parking lot and I was running fast to keep up but he wanted to go even faster. I reigned him in when we got to the road and kept him at a walk for safety’s sake. Along the way we stopped at a prickly pear cactus and broke off a fruit. I had recently tried it for the first time back home in Oregon, when Pedro told me how he ate them as a kid. We were excited to try one fresh instead. It was not quite ripe but we put it into a bag and carried it with us to eat later.
Speaking of not quite ripe, our avocado was finally ripe! It was time to build sandwiches for the trip, and we opened up and sliced the avocado, which was perfect, to put onto our sandwiches. Marco declined, but Manja took a slice of avocado to put onto her own sandwich. When Manja noticed that I put a heap of arugula onto my sandwich about 2 inches deep, we looked at each others’ creations for the first time. “Will you make only one sandwich?” she asked me, surprised, and said we could have more because they were having more. I wondered why someone would make three sandwiches and she wondered why someone only made one sandwich. Manja’s had one slice of meat and one slice of cheese each. Mine had three slices of meat and three slices of cheese. We laughed when we realized what we were doing: the same amount of food, just presented in different ways. Culture is fascinating and delicious when you slow down and notice it.
I took the back seat to give Pedro a chance to see the world through the front windshield. He had graciously left the front seat to me, the wielder of the camera. But it was my turn to join bestia in the back. My views were noticeably different, but I still had a great day. We made a couple of stops for fuel and bathrooms, and we got to try Autogrill espresso. Prior to the trip my friend Marcus insisted that Autogrills served decent coffee at a gas station. He was correct. Halfway through the day we pulled over at a large Autogrill and found a shady spot in which to eat our lunch. Manja and I, ever with cameras in hands, found things to photograph.
In the afternoon we had to pull over again. Marco was scheduled to attend a meeting via conference call and that required a stop so he could use his phone safely. At that point we were approaching Padova (Padua), so we drove into town and found parking beside a street. I thanked Marco multiple times for having a meeting for us, during our long drive, and he of course insisted that having a meeting right then was not his choice.
While he worked, we played. It was the most enjoyable meeting I’ve ever had. Manja had not explored Padova before, so it was new for all of us. We picked a random direction and began walking. In no time, we spotted a gigantic church (because it’s Italy) and made our way toward it.
The church turned out to be an abbey, and it is on the edge of an enormous round square. (“round” square, haha). We had approached from the south, and not knowing anything about Padova, didn’t realize we were nowhere near the city center. What we did explore was the Abbey of Santa Giustina from all sides, and the enormous 90,000-square-meter ellipse called Prato della Valle. It is the largest city square in Italy and almost the largest in Europe. The square includes an inner and outer ring of 78 life-sized (and some greater than life-sized) statues and is surrounded by a moat, so that we had to cross bridges to get to the trees and the fountain in the center. Statues were on every side, even on the bridges we crossed. This made every photo impressive.
The day was exceptionally hot and humid, and after the big abbey and the elliptical square, we went in search of refreshment. There was only one free table outside, which we needed because of the dog, so I left them at the table and went inside to order. I tried to order but they asked me to go back outside and said someone would bring menus. I did. During our trip, Pedro and I noticed a phenomena over and over, but this place was a more dramatic example, of how restaurant service was too slow for our taste. We sat waiting for nearly ten minutes, and never saw a waiter. In the meantime we discovered QR codes at the table, and found the menu online on our phones. We read through, made our choices, and we waited. Finally we were tired of waiting and I went back inside and asked if anyone would take our orders. “Oh, you want someone now?” was the reply. “Yes, of course!” they said. Someone came out in five minutes and cleared the trash off the table and washed it, and took our orders. For heaven’s sake, what else did they think we were doing out there? Another thing we noticed at restaurants is that once the food was served, we never saw a waiter again. And when we had finished our food, and drained our glasses, and chatted, and picked at the crumbs, and began telling stories… we still did not see a waiter. Even when we tried to make eye contact and gesture to distant waiters, no one would bring a check. Several times during our trip we simply had to get up and go track someone down and tell them we were ready to leave and ask if they would like to receive payment. Contrast that with U.S. restaurants where sometimes the check appears as you are taking your first bite, and a deflective, “No rush,” from the waiter.
As we sat and enjoyed our drinks, Marco messaged Manja that his meeting was over. We made our way back to the car and resumed our journey to Piran, Slovenia.
We hardly even noticed when we crossed the border, except a blue highway sign with a circle of EU stars declaring “Slovenia” in the center.
There is no visitor parking in the tiny town of Piran, so Marco dropped us and all our luggage near the center, and returned the car outside of town to a parking garage. Branko and Meta were standing there to greet us with smiles and hugs and hellos. Bestia jumped with happiness. We all grabbed as much as we could carry and they led us up the hill along narrow stone walks until we arrived at their home. As soon as we had unloaded, Marco returned, and Branko hurried us back down the hill because we had reservations at a local restaurant.
We ate at a place called Pirat (Pirate), a seafood place next to Piran’s marina, in an outdoor patio area where we watched the sun go down as we got to know each other.
The meal was exceptional, and that was partially because of Branko and Meta, who were friends with the staff. The service was fabulous and the food was fresh and perfectly cooked. Meta told me that they do not go out often, because Branko is such a great cook, but when they do go out, they go here. We could easily see why. We took our time with food and wine and conversation and then indulged in desserts. Finally we left the restaurant and went back up the hill. We were being cared for so well. After Marco & Manja had hosted us for three days, Manja’s parents Branko and Meta would be hosting us for two more days at their dream home in Piran on the shores of the Adriatic Sea.