Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Triglav National Park and the Julian Alps (Slovenia)

Triglav Mountain, the highest mountain in Slovenia at 2864 m (9396 ft), is so emblematic that it features on the national flag. The park that bears its name is difficult to see via public transport so we joined an organized trip. Another reason not to drive yourself is that the road into the Julian Alps climbs steeply and winds through 50 switchbacks. Our first stop was a short but steep hike up a mountain still covered in snow... in our sandals. Near the top, we could see for miles: in one direction lies Austria, and in the other, Italy. The shifting fronts of World War I could still be seen in abandoned concrete bunkers and empty lookouts posted along the ridge. Part of our drive was through the Vršič Pass on the Russian Road, so called because of the many Russian prisoners of war who built it. A chapel commemorates those who died doing so.

Much of our route followed the Soča River. We hiked to the source, climbing boulders, and in some cases, clinging to cables anchored in the sheer rock walls. The water gushed out of the rock, flowing over a giant snowball, probably several meters in diameter, the last remnant of the winter snow melt. More cables and narrower rock bridges also brought us to a lovely waterfall cascading into a secluded cavern. There are many opportunities along the Soča for postcard pictures of alpine forests and dramatic limestone landscapes.

For a more active river experience, whitewater rafting was an excellent way to get the juices flowing again, especially after a long time in a minibus. The water of the Soča is a surreal turquoise hue and an invigorating 7 °C, making us glad for the thick neoprene wetsuits we were wearing. While the class III rapids weren't the most extreme we've done, there were sections that required some hard paddling and all hands taking cover in the center of the boat. No one fell out, although when the opportunity to voluntarily jump off a big rock into the whirling waters presented itself, I misjudged it, of course. Rich was a little nervous watching me swim hard against the current to make it back to the extraction point!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Lake Bled (Slovenia)

Lake Bled has been a popular holiday destination for over a hundred years... and deservedly so. A pristine lake with a small island in the middle, evergreen forests surrounding, and a castle atop a cliff thrown in for good measure - it is what the word picturesque must have been invented for.

A short, steep hike brings you to the castle, where we found the beginnings of a medieval camp, complete with tents with streaming banners, armor, and archery targets. Alas, we were a few days early for the festival! Hence the only activity we saw were the costumed docents grilling sausages over the fire for their lunch. The interiors of the castle contained a museum detailing who had occupied it, descriptions of the region at different historical and geological times, and several slightly creepy mannequins dressed based on local archaeological, burial finds. There was also a medieval printer's where you could press your own bookmark on handmade paper.

An easy walk around the lake takes but a few hours. However, should the romance of the setting take you, you can hop into a traditional pletna boat with a local man to pole you to the island, gondalier-style... or row your sweetheart yourself in a rowboat for two. On the island, 98 stone steps rise to a small church. Legend has it that grooms who manage to carry their brides up this ascent will have good luck, and the custom is still alive today.

Lake Bled was also where we got our first taste of ćevapčići and pljeskavica. These were, respectively, minced meat sausages (served in a hefty portion of 8 or 10 to a person) and giant minced meat pancake (accompanied by a scoop of local soft kajmak cheese more akin to butter). We found out later they are originally from Sarajevo but were so popular that variants could be found throughout the countries formerly part of Yugoslavia. Both dishes are delicious and very cheap, making them appear frequently on fast food menus. The most iconic dish of Bled, however, is a dessert, the kremšnita. Sandwiched between two layers of puff pastry is a thick layer of custard under an even thicker block of whipped cream. The concoction has been made fresh daily by chefs in the local grande dame hotel for over 60 years although every place around the lake seems to be well-equipped to serve it al fresco.  

Monday, June 16, 2014

Ljubljana (Slovenia)

The man in seat 61 (a most helpful website for all things locomotive) highly recommended doing the journey from Zagreb, Croatia, to Ljubljana, Slovenia, during the day. The 3 hour train ride follows the Sava river as it winds lazily through peaceful farmlands framed by mountains. Neat vegetable gardens abut alpine cottages, and wooden hayracks in the traditional Slovenian style (like very wide ladders with little roofs) stand upright all over the landscape.

Our accommodation in Ljubljana was unusual - a former penitentiary turned hostel and art gallery. Our room was a cell, complete with bunkbeds, bars on the doors, a narrow window set high... and tiny sculptures backlit under the glass floor (the arty part).

Arriving late into the city, our only option for food was, happily enough, a restaurant serving traditional Slovenian cuisine. Gnocchi in a game meat sauce was a good stick-to-your-ribs meal. Rich opted for the country feast: a meat extravaganza featuring roast pork, sausage, ribs, black pudding, and a sort of buckwheat hash with pork crackling. Portions in Slovenia rival American ones so we were stuffed!

Ljubljana has been touted as "the next Prague." Having never been there, we can only assume they are referring to the paved stone streets, cheerily colored Baroque buildings, and tall spires. Strolling along the river front, open market stalls sell vegetables and handicrafts, including the intricately decorated red, heart-shaped cookies to be given for special occasions (but not for eating although technically edible) and wooden boards from bee hives hand-painted with strange rural scenes (for example, medieval peasants being chased by a giant snail). The castle above the city itself is also a slightly odd mixture, with its ancient walls and modern design, where ramparts overlook a trendy cafe. However, there's no arguing that the vantage point does offer the best views of the city!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Zagreb (Croatia)

The former Yugoslavia had been a vibrant holiday destination in southern Europe. Years after the collapse of communism and civil wars, the tourism industry is booming again. The region, as a delightful plan to go leisurely along the Adriatic, had made our short list of where to spend our gloriously long summer vacations in Spain. The American move has dictated a far more truncated version.  

We had intended to get off our flight to Zagreb and head overland straight for Slovenia, but the airport shuttle and train schedules did not agree with that plan. Stowing our packs in the main train station was amusing as a couple of older Indian ladies in socks and sandals and with fanny packs around their waists evidently took us for experts and peppered us with questions about it. Killing time before the next train did allow us to walk around quite a bit of the Lower Town and Upper Town of Croatia's capital. St. Mark's Church gets top marks for fanciest roof with the medieval coats of arms of Croatia, Slavonia, Dalmatia, and Zagreb worked in elaborate tiles.

We were particularly curious about the award-winning Museum of Broken Relationships, which started as an exhibit before expanding into full-blown museum. Contributors submit art, mementos, and stories about their broken relationships. It's a theme people the world over can relate to: the ultimate breakup mix tape. Pieces dedicated to ephemeral first crushes, the crash and burn of passionate romances, and the slow crumbling of long-term marriages all feature. The tone ranges from lighthearted humor to disturbing and tragic. There's the "toaster of vindication," a mundane appliance stolen in a final passive aggressive act by a man moving out of their shared apartment: "How're you going to toast anything now?" ... A woman who'd helped her addicted lover stay clean for months shared a home drug testing kit showing a devastating result of positive  ... One stiletto from a dominatrix prostitute reuniting unexpectedly with her first love as a john. Not all of the submissions were romantic or sexual in nature. A whole room was dedicated to broken relationships with parents, from separations both natural (time, distance, absence) and unexpected (divorce, death, even suicide). Reading these stories of heartbreak could have so easily felt voyeuristic, but somehow, the museum strikes the right balance. Visitors are witnesses to the pain and can empathize with them, and contributors get cathartic release, freeing themselves from the hold these love tokens and memories have over them.