Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Ten things I learned in Austria, Slovenia, Italy, and Croatia...

Travel bridges the gap between civilizations...

If you're a regular reader of my travel blog, you may have noticed that whenever I take a trip, I like to reflect on new things I learned during my travels.  Our most recent vacation involved travel through five different European countries, two of which were new to us.  We had a great time and I think I learned some new things.  So here goes... ten new things I learned!

10.  Croatia is still not on the euro.  But that doesn't mean you have to stop at a "cambio" and trade money when you cross the border.  Apparently, euros are widely accepted in Croatia, even at toll booths.  

9.  Slovenians eat a lot of meats that may seem exotic to Americans.  Ever wanted to try bear?  You can do that in Slovenia.  More than once, I saw bear dishes on restaurant menus, as well as horsemeat.  They are also big on rabbit and venison, though I know that's more widely available than bear is.  I ate a lot of fish when we were in Slovenia, especially trout.  

8.  Hallstatt is often crawling with Chinese tourists.  Actually, every time we go to Austria, I am surprised by how many Asian tourists are there.  Hallstatt is especially popular with Chinese folks because they have created a replica of the town in China.  They really seem to get into the spirit of things, too.  If you visit, be prepared to see a lot of Chinese people in dirndls and lederhosen.

7.  Because Hallstatt is teeming with tourists, it's a good idea to look to other towns for lodging. That is, if you're the type of person who doesn't like to be in the thick of touristy places, which I am.  I can only take so much exposure to crowds before I start to get decidedly cranky.  Gosau was a great alternative to Hallstatt for that reason.  However, Hallstatt is great because it's so touristy.  If you're there on a Sunday, you can go to the grocery store if you need to.

6.  If you decide to walk to Vintgar Gorge (or anywhere else), you should know your route... and bring water and sunscreen!  I have read several articles that claim that it only takes an hour to walk to Vintgar Gorge. Unfortunately, Bill and I ended up taking the detour intended for cars and we walked a lot longer than an hour to see the gorge.  Fortunately, I was able to hang and we found a store on the way.  Next time we get the bright idea to walk, I'm making sure we have some fluids.  It would not have been fun to get heat exhaustion.

5.  It's hot in Slovenia right now.  It's been so chilly here in Germany that it didn't occur to me that Slovenia and Croatia might be warmer.  I should have brought more short sleeved shirts.  

4.  Lake Bled is absolutely lovely, but next time, I think we'll look for a less populated lake.  More than one Slovenian mentioned Lake Bohinj, which is near Bled.  We didn't get a chance to visit there, but my guess is that it's not quite as crowded as Bled is.  

3.  Lake Bled is crawling with American tourists.  There are Asian tourists in Bled, but not nearly as many as there are Americans.  I was kind of surprised by how many English speakers there were there.  We ate dinner in one restaurant and literally every table around us had Americans sitting at it.  I almost felt like I was eating dinner in Williamsburg, Virginia.

2.  Bled is a great place to base yourself in Slovenia.   I originally planned to stay in Ljubljana for a night or two, but realized that Slovenia is a small country.  I correctly surmised that parking in the city could be a challenge, so decided to book four nights in Bled and do day trips.  It was very nice to come back to the lake at night and start off gazing at it in the mornings.  But now that I've seen Lake Bled, I will go elsewhere if I get the chance to visit Slovenia again.

1.  I really need to explore southeastern Europe more.  Yes, a trip to France or Italy is always fun, but eastern Europe is definitely worth seeing.  I hope we'll get the chance to see more of Croatia, Slovenia, and the other countries in the Balkan region.  That means I hope Bill will be a contractor based in Germany for a long time.  

Winding down in an hourlong Stau... coming home

Sunday morning, we got up and packed the Mini with all of our stuff.  After a nice breakfast, we checked out and headed toward Austria with plans to spend one night in Salzburg on the way home.  I was actually looking forward to going to Salzburg.  We were there once in 2012, when we took our very first military hop to Europe.  I ended up getting us a blind booking on Germanwings.  We flew from Cologne to Munich, spent a couple of days there, then took a day trip to Salzburg.  I remember wishing we'd based in Salzburg instead of Munich because I thought the town was so pretty.

We plugged in the GPS and decided to drive through Klagenfurt, Austria to see if it's worth a future visit.  The drive out of Slovenia to Klagenfurt was rather scary, because it involved driving through some very steep Alpine passes.  Poor Bill had his foot on the brake the whole time and was kind of freaking out, especially when we got to the Austrian side of the border.  Incidentally, there was a passport check, though the border patrol seemed to wave through anyone with Austrian plates.

We drove around Klagenfurt, but weren't inspired to park and walk around for awhile.  That doesn't mean it's not a nice town.  It just means we were a bit tired and on a Sunday morning, things were looking pretty dead there.  I was curious about it because when we did our first hop, I was looking at potential blind booking cities and Klagenfurt was among them.  The pictures I'd seen of Klagenfurt made it look like a nice town.  In retrospect, it's a good thing we didn't stop.  Just after we left Klagenfurt, the GPS added an hour to our travel time.

"What the hell?!" Bill exclaimed as he checked the GPS, which I consider the bane of our existence.  Apparently, there's some major construction going on in the tunnels and they have one shut down.  Since it's the main route north and many people were heading that way, we were pretty much forced to endure yet another stressful traffic jam.  I entertained us with old Kenny Rogers songs on the iPod. I don't need to describe what it's like to sit in a traffic jam for an hour, though being on a mountain while driving a stick definitely made it more tiring.  I saw lots of guys casually doing their business on the side of the road, too.  :D

By the time we got to Salzburg, it was mid afternoon.  Bill and I were both exhausted and a bit exasperated as we pulled into Haus Arenberg for the night.  Any thoughts we had of walking into the city disappeared, especially when the sky clouded up and it started to rain.  But we did enjoy a couple of nice beers out on the patio and listened to some fun German folk music on TV while sipping Slovenian wine and eating chips and cookies.  Bill said our evening repast reminded him of Odd Todd.

This is a pretty funny cartoon...  I relate on many levels.  Todd is a fan of making a meal out of chips and cookies, too.

We also watched an interesting reality show about horsey people in their 40s and 50s looking for love.  Since I grew up around horses, that was pretty interesting for me, even if I didn't understand everything.  We probably should have gone ahead and gotten German cable TV again.

Yesterday morning, we loaded up again and headed into Germany.  We were prepared for another delay at the border, since we saw one the week prior on our way to Austria.  German authorities were checking passports.  In fact, on Sunday, they were checking passports and there was a twenty-five minute delay getting across the border.  But yesterday, it was pretty smooth sailing.  I was even pleasantly surprised by the usually perpetually backed up A8.

Bill picked up the boys while I did the laundry and cleaned up some old food we neglected to toss out before we left.  I heard a smoke detector chirping, as they usually seem to do after we've been on a trip.  We changed the battery.  I wrote some hotel reviews and am pretty much done blogging about this trip.  We had a wonderful time and I truly hope we have another chance to visit Slovenia.  If we make it to Croatia during our time here, I will definitely make a point of spending a couple of days there in a different area.  It really is a cool place.

I already miss the views...  This was from our balcony in Salzburg after a rain storm.

Stay tuned for my ten things I learned post.  I think it will be fun to write!  I don't know when our next trip will be, though I'm definitely prioritizing Ireland and Berlin, two places I must see before we move out of Europe.  I don't know when that will be, so we need to take those trips sooner rather than later.  

Monday, May 30, 2016

Ljubljana on Saturday... Hare Krishnas, male bonding, wine, craft beers, and boat rides...

Bill and I decided to go to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, on Saturday.  We correctly surmised that there would be many day trippers coming to Lake Bled on Saturday and it would probably be a madhouse.  As we left Bled Saturday morning and observed the long string of cars coming into the town, we could see our hunch was right.  Making matters more complicated was the road construction going on.  Bled has a two lane road going through it that is currently being worked on, probably in time for what promises to be a busy summer season.

Ljubljana is only about an hour from Bled, so we got there at about noon.  Bill found expensive parking in a garage at a galleria.  There was a Spar grocery store there, which we made plans to visit on the way out.  We're always looking for interesting wines and beers.  After we parked, we made our way into the main drag in the old town.  It was very festive this past Saturday.  There was a market going on where people could buy all manner of fresh produce, gifts, arts, and crafts.  Lots of musicians were busking on busy corners and most of them were skilled.  The air smelled of cheeses, meats, and fruits.  

One of the first things we happened upon was a bunch of Hare Krishnas dancing to a young woman's surprisingly lovely vocals.  Bill and I stood and watched; it was happening right where the boat tours start and some woman asked me if we wanted to take one.  I declined at that time, since we'd only just arrived.  Really, what I wanted was lunch.  As we rounded the corner, we were delighted by the sight of bubbles everywhere.  Some guy was blowing them by the dozen and kids were chasing them in the sunshine.  It made for quite the whimsical scene.

Raw footage of the Hare Krishnas and the boat tour we took in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

One thing I always do when I check out new cities is look down alleyways and in alcoves.  I try to get out of the tourist drags, especially when I'm looking for a meal.  I find that a lot of the better restaurants aren't necessarily in the thick of the action.  Not only do the out of the way restaurants tend to have better food and service, they also tend to have more reasonable prices.

We rounded a corner, where I heard the majestic sounds of a flute, a violin, and a harp.  Three young ladies were playing beautifully as we passed and I noticed a tiny wine shop that I made a mental note to visit later.  We got to a corner of a cafe that promised food, beverages, and speedy sewing jobs (it seemed to be paying homage to Singer sewing machines).  Then I spotted an open door, wine bottles, and corks.  I headed across the street, well away from the tourist action, and spotted where we'd be having a leisurely lunch.

I see that according to TripAdvisor, Spajza is ranked ninth out of 407 restaurants in the city.  Having chanced upon it Saturday, I can agree that the food at Spajza is indeed excellent.  So is the service.  When we arrived, we were among the first there for lunch.  We were ushered to a two top in the restaurant's charming terrace area.  I could see several large tables set up and knew that the peace and quiet wouldn't last.  Clearly, there were going to be a couple of big groups joining us.

Spajza has a number of dishes that might seem exotic to the average American.  They serve "young horse" there, which I would never eat for many reasons.  At a less American friendly Slovenian restaurant, I saw the "young horse" billed as "foal", which is even creepier to me.  I didn't see any bear on the menu as I did in other Slovenian restaurants, but there was also rabbit as well as a host of seafood dishes.  I wasn't feeling too adventurous and the beef dishes mostly included mushrooms, which I don't eat.  I ended up having a couple of starters and Bill had a shrimp salad.  Bill and I started with three scallops au gratin, which were served in the shell.  Then I had a shrimp and asparagus risotto.  We also enjoyed the awesome rolls and fish paste amuse that came with our meal, which we washed down with two bottles of local wine and sparkling water.

We might not have stayed as long as we did, but I got a kick out of one of the groups.  It was a large group of guys who were obviously bonding over good food, beer, wine, and cigars.  They were fun to watch.  I think the waiter was surprised when we ordered more wine... and maybe even more surprised that I didn't fall out of the chair.

After we enjoyed lunch, we stopped at the tiny wine shop-- seriously no larger than a closet-- and bought a couple of bottles from a guy with excellent taste in music.  He was blaring Dire Straits and every time I hear certain Dire Straits songs, I'm reminded of a wonderful long weekend Bill and I enjoyed in Barcelona back in April 2009.

Further into the tourist district, I saw a sign that read "Beer".  Not being able to resist such an advertisement, I followed the sign into a little craft beer shop.  The very friendly and enthusiastic lady who was running the store chatted with us about beer and nodded approvingly when I picked up a few Belgians I haven't yet tried.  Next, we picked up some Slovenian honey at the farmer's market.

We pressed on to the parking garage and entered the grocery store, where we found a few more bottles of wine and a bottle of chocolate liqueur.  Then, something funny happened.  A couple of weeks ago, an acquaintance I know from Stuttgart Vents introduced me to a hideous disco song called "Lady Bump"...

Penny McLean, who was a member of the Euro disco group Silver Convention, sings "Lady Bump".  Turns out she's from Klagenfurt, Austria, which we passed through on our way back to Germany.

I happen to be a serious music nerd and I especially enjoy crappy music from the 70s and 80s.  But I had never heard of "Lady Bump" until my venting friend introduced it to me.  Sure enough, while we were wine shopping at the grocery store, that song came on!  It was kind of surreal.  After we bought the wine, we dropped it off in the car and went back to the boat tour dock.  Bill needed some time to sober up and it was a really gorgeous late afternoon.  

The lady who sold us the tour was trying to chat us up and coming off as a bit disingenuous, especially when her machine malfunctioned and she had to handwrite us tickets.  But we got on the boat and enjoyed a lovely little cruise, especially when we ran into a regatta!  A bunch of kids, no doubt learning how to sail, were having a race on our route.  You can see the footage in the first video I posted.  They were pretty awesome.

Ljubljana is a great town and I'm glad we visited.  I'm actually glad we stayed in Bled instead of the capital city, since I have a feeling parking can be a challenge there.  However, if you want to go shopping or eating, I think Ljubljana is a great bet.  I hope we can visit again, if only because I want to find more awesome restaurants and visit the castle.  We spotted it as we drove into the city, as well as the handy funicular that takes people up the hill.  Had we arrived a bit earlier, maybe we would have toured the castle, although we were both a bit tired of tour groups by Saturday and we knew the castle would probably be teeming with them.

Farmer's market!

Hare Krishnas


This is why I always check alleys...  really cool art here.

A church near where we had lunch. 

Food and sewing...


Our spot for lunch!

Bill's tiger shrimp salad with delicious wasabi dressing...

My risotto with shrimp and asparagus...

Scallops and mild cheese.

Awesome bread and amuse.

Our first bottle of wine...

The terrace before things got busy!

A good spot for beer!

Our boat cruise.

I snapped this shot of the mural on the building.  It must have taken forever to do that...

On the way back into Bled, we saw yet another stream of cars.  They were headed in the opposite direction.  Yep, day trippers!  I recommend for those wanting to visit Bled, go somewhere else on Saturday.  Take a trip to the city to avoid the crowds!  Saturday is fun in Ljubljana!


Sunday, May 29, 2016

Cool show caves, the biggest in Europe...Postojna Cave Park...

I could write about what Bill and I did after our walk from Hell to Heaven, but I think I'll save that story for when I review Hotel Vila Bled.  Instead, I think I'll write about what we did on Friday.  You see, I happen to love caves.  When I was in high school, my advanced biology class took a trip to the Shenandoah Valley to go spelunking in wild caves.  Since my family is from the Shenandoah Valley, that was quite a treat for me.  We visited a new wet cave in Harrisonburg and an old dry cave near Lexington.  Neither caving expedition involved admission tickets, tour guides, or trains.  I had a great time in my lighted hard hat, even though I ended up with a minor injury.

Aside from that, I think the only other cave I visited was at the Natural Bridge Caverns in Virginia.  It was pretty cool, especially since we got to go for free ;) (two of my uncles used to run Natural Bridge).  Let me just say, the Natural Bridge Caverns (in VA, not TX) couldn't hold a candle to the incredible Postojna Cave.  I had seen some ads for the caves when I was researching our trip and on the way to and from Trieste, we saw plenty of billboards.  It looked a bit touristy, but hell, we had nothing better to do.  So on Friday, I suggested to Bill that we drive about 80 kilometers from Bled to Postojna to see the famous show caves.

We arrived at the impressive park after noon.  There was a lot of parking... so much that I was reminded of the four summers I spent working at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia.  You can tell the place gets huge crowds, probably especially in the summer.  They weren't terribly busy the day we visited.  We saw lots of Asian groups and a few school groups, but otherwise it wasn't bad at all.

We were there in time for the 1:00pm cave tour.  When you get to the park, someone explains how the park works.  There are four attractions and you can do any combination of the four or all four.  If you choose to do all four, it helps to have a car or access to a tour bus.  Attraction #4 is located 9 kilometers from the main cave park.  Bill was leaning toward only doing a couple of the attractions, but I reminded him that we had nothing else to do.  For the two of us, it cost about 79 euros.  That included parking and 10% off lunch.

Park employees assign you a time to visit the cave.  You have to go at that time.  If you miss your time, I imagine you have to get another ticket. We were in time for the 1:00pm tour, so that's the one we took.  We had just enough time for a quick pizza in the food court at the Cave Park.  I was actually kind of impressed by the food.  You can get a sandwich, a schnitzel, fish, or a sandwich without spending a whole lot of money.  They also have sweets, which we did try after we toured the three exhibits at the park.

We got to the cave at about ten minutes before 1:00pm.  We were separated into different groups.  When we bought our tickets, we were asked where we were from and a code was put on our ticket directing which group we should be in.  I saw groups for German, Italian, Slovenian, and English speakers.  I think the English group might have been the largest of all of them.

Once you're separated into the appropriate language group, you get on a train.  It goes about 2 km into the cave,  I saw people taking flash photography, which is prohibited because the lights cause photosynthesis which harms the ecosystem within the cave.   Despite being asked not to several times, there were a few stubborn folks in my group who kept using their flash.  You're also asked to stay with the group so you don't end up in the Slovenian group.

We had a guide named Anna who spoke into a microphone in excellent English as she explained the cave.  Since there was a large group, she was only able to address the group at stations where there were microphones.  I actually didn't mind that too much, since it gave us the chance to walk through the cave at our own pace and check things out.  There were a few people who got on my nerves.  You know how it is when you're in a big group and people have to be in front of you as they engage in public displays of affection?  That's how it was on Friday.  There was a couple in front of me who didn't seem to want me to pass them, yet kept grabbing each other, taking selfies, impeding everyone behind them and otherwise being obnoxious.  I just kept reminding myself that I was once young and horny...

After we checked out the very impressive cave, we got back on the train and headed back to the entrance.  The front of the cave is black because back during World War II, there was an explosion there.  The cave burned for a week as munitions stored there were destroyed by Slovenian Partisans.  If you get the chance to see the Postojna Cave, you'll get the chance to see the blackened area, which is pretty extensive.

We visited the Proteus Cave, which was not very extensive and took less than twenty minutes.  In there, you can see some typical cave creatures.  Then we went to the Expo Center, which was very educational.  The other exhibits all had English translations and covered the history of the museum as well as natural history.

When it came time to leave, Bill had some trouble with the parking machine.  He paid for parking with our ticket, but the ticket wasn't recognizing that he paid.  Some Bulgarian guy was very impatient and drove up to Bill's side, yelling at him that he needed to pay.  But Bill had already paid and the Bulgarian guy didn't know what he was yelling about.  He was also an asshole who had to wait just as long as he would have otherwise waited had he just kept his trap shut.  Sorry... people like that guy piss me off.

I was in a fine mood when we got to the fourth exhibit, a castle in a cave in in Predjama...  Indeed, the castle is called Predjama Castle and it's probably the most interesting castle I've seen yet.  I've seen Neuschwanstein and Linderhof, as well as Hohenzollern and other castles around Europe.  Predjama Castle strikes me as the coolest.  We took a self guided tour with a handheld phone.  The tour is very well done and I actually enjoyed listening to the explanations about each room.

Bill and I were pretty tired after our day in Postojna.  I would recommend anyone tempted to visit the Cave Park wear comfortable shoes.  I would not recommend the Cave Park for people who have mobility issues.  The cave tour is pretty strenuous, even though you take a train into the depths of the cave.  Predjama Castle is definitely not a good tour for those who can't climb up and down stairs.  For those who can climb, though, the castle is well worth seeing.

There is free WiFi at the Cave Park and some decent shopping, as well as good food.  I finally tried Slovenia's famous cream cake there, even though it was served at breakfast at our hotel.

Big map as you enter the park.

And painted geckos (er, proteus) to show you the way...  The guide will tell you about the proteus, but to be honest, I found it hard to hear her over the noise and echoes in the cave.  Apparently, one or more of the proteus (cave salamanders) is expecting and may or may not make new salamanders in June.   

Pizza for lunch.  This one had asparagus and tomatoes.

Note the groups.  

The train.

Mr. Bill settles in.

Russian Bridge.  This was built by Russians.

Slovenian cream cake at the top and a very yummy chocolate cream cake at the bottom.  The cream cake could be addictive.

Castle in a cave...

Predjama Castle...  I was a bit over it by the time we got here, but I must admit I enjoyed our tour.

The view of the countryside from the castle.

At the very top of the cave...

Some of the furniture in the castle.

These next shots are photos in the cave I took with my camera as opposed to my phone.

There is a gift shop and WC at the end of the tour before you get on the train.

Better look at the signs for the language groups.

Having once worked at a true tourist trap, I'd say Postojna Cave Park isn't really a tourist trap.  For what you pay, you get a good deal of entertainment.  It's also a very educational place to visit.  I recommend seeing the castle.  It's very cool and the drive there is pretty.  In fact, I think I might have even liked the castle more than the cave.

All in all, I recommend Postojna Cave Park if you're in the area... or even if you just visit Slovenia.  It's a really neat place to spend a few hours.  In the summer, I would bet the caves are very refreshing, though probably very crowded!