Friday, July 29, 2011

Slovenia: Soča River Valley and Lake Bled

By Brian at 4:13 AM
July 5 - July 8

With sandwiches and snacks packed, we left Ljubljana for picturesque Lake Bled on an all-day journey that would take us along the Western border with Italy through some incredible scenery.

Brian, Melissa, and the VW Polo
From Soca Valley, Slovenia

About one hour west of Ljubljana we hit the beginning (or rather, the end) of the Soča river that forms the Soča River valley. The river is crystal clear at its shallow points, but at deeper sections it takes on a radiant turquoise color that neither of us have seen a body of water take on. At first you think it can't be real--that someone dyed the river, but it indeed it is. As we follow the road along the river we pass through tiny, cute villages, some with fewer than 25 people, each with a charming church steeple rising from the middle of the town.

The vivid turquoise water of the Soca river
From Soca Valley, Slovenia

The scenery becomes more dramatic with larger, more craggy mountains as we approach the Julian Alps. We stopped at a pedestrian bridge to grab some shots of the river below and noticed a large waterfall in the distance. Boka waterfall is one of the largest in Slovenia and approachable by a somewhat intense 1.5 hour hike. We only made it one third of the way through before deciding that we had a good enough view from our current position and headed back to the comfort of the car.

Soca river and the Julian Alps in the background
From Soca Valley, Slovenia

Canoes ready to embark
From Soca Valley, Slovenia

Soca river closer to the Julian Alps
From Soca Valley, Slovenia

View of Boka waterfall
From Soca Valley, Slovenia

We passed through several towns, including Bovec, a center for skiing and other outdoor activities, and then made our way for the storied Vršič pass that will take us over the Julian Alps into Kranjska Gora. The pass, along with the rest of the Soča valley, played a significant role in World War I. Over 600,000 Austro-Hungarian and Italian troops died over the course of two years, fighting along what is called the Isonzo Front. The Vršič pass was built by the Austro-Hungarians to supply the troops fighting in the valley below. The road contains around 50 hairpin turns to climb the steep mountain, but the effort is rewarded with sweeping views of the mountains, valley (on a clear day) and passageway to Kranjska Gora, another ski resort that is stunningly beautiful in the summer. From Kranjska Gora we made our way to our final destination of the road trip: Bled.

Soca Valley looking south near Bovec
From Soca Valley, Slovenia

The Julian Alps from the top of Vrsic Pass
From Soca Valley, Slovenia

Julian Alps on the other side of Vrsic Pass
From Soca Valley, Slovenia

Brian and Melissa in Kranjska Gora
From Soca Valley, Slovenia

Lake Bled was meant to appear on postcards. The perfectly clear lake is surrounded by large hills and the Julian Alps. A medieval castle on top of a steep cliff watches over the lake, while a cute church sits on a tiny island in the middle of the lake. We were blessed with two clear and sunny days, which made for excellent picture taking.

Bled castle
From Bled, Slovenia

Island church from the front
From Bled, Slovenia

Bled Castle and island church
From Bled, Slovenia

Julian Alps over Lake Bled
From Bled, Slovenia

We spent our time strolling around the lake, relaxing at the beach, eating lemon sladoled, stuffed peppers, grilled local sausages, giant hamburgers, and discovering the local sweet delicacy, the Kremsnita, a vanilla cream cake topped with hard, flakey shell that makes it impossibly hard to eat. Oh yeah, and Melissa rescued a poor Jack Russell Terrier from the lake that somehow found itself in the lake but with not enough energy to climb over the stone wall surrounding the lake onto the shore. The dog didn't repay the favor with a slobbering wet kiss--he just ran off in search of his owners.

Small beach on Lake Bled
From Bled, Slovenia

Brian eating the biggest burger of his life
From Bled, Slovenia

The local pastry - Kremsnita
From Bled, Slovenia

After two days in Bled we reluctantly said goodbye to Slovenia and boarded a train for Zagreb in Croatia.

Melissa, Brian, and the island church
From Bled, Slovenia

More photos of Soca River Valley and Lake Bled.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Slovenia: Ljubljana and Piran

By Brian at 8:31 AM
June 30 - July 5

When we started planning our trip, we quickly identified the countries of former Yugoslavia as a part of the world we both were excited to visit and learn about. Both of us were pretty clueless about the details of the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia and visiting this region gave us unique opportunity to learn more about what happened as well as the progress since then. Our ex-Yugo journey will take us through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and finally Montenegro. Our first stop was Slovenia, the first country to split away from the republic, the one left the most unscathed by that decision, and the most prosperous so far.

Melissa and I were looking forward to seeing Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, almost as long as we were planning this trip. Leaving everything behind and hitting the road for the year takes careful planning, which included reading lots of round-the-world blogs. One of the best we discovered was 13 Months, which described Ljubljana as a "perfect little town." We decided early on that our 12 months would take us through Ljubljana, even though for longest time we couldn't properly pronounce the name (roughly youb-yana.. the l's are silent and the j's are like y's)

We arrived in Ljubljana on a late-afternoon train ride from Balatonfured, Hungary through scenic Eastern Slovenia. Ljubljana is not packed with hotels/hostels/guesthouses, so we elected to use Airbnb.com for accommodations--what an excellent choice! Marija, our host, was perfect--kind, knowledgable about the region, and she didn't mind my stupid questions.

We spent our first three days just strolling through the city and casually seeing the sites. The city center is pedestrian-friendly, compact, and cute. The architecture is mostly Austro-Hungarian Baroque influenced, which we've grown to really appreciate after visiting Vienna, Sopron, and Budapest. Several rivers run through Ljubljana, of which the Ljubjanica cuts through the heart and separates the old town from the newer center. It also sets the stage for iconic bridges and picturesque landscapes.

Wooden bridge
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

Melissa in front of the Plecnik Colonnade
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

Apartments in Center
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

The old town has been inhabited from before Roman times. Later, generations of inhabitants built and expanded on a castle perched on a steep hill overlooking the town. There's a tram to the top, but we needed the exercise, so we walked instead. The castle entrance is free, but for a little extra you can enjoy the rotating art galleries; museums of the castle, Ljubljana, and Slovenia; and a climb to the highest tower for sweeping views of the city and surrounding suburbs. Below the castle are medieval, pedestrian-friendly, winding streets and odd-shaped squares packed with outdoor cafes, restaurants, ice cream stands ("sladoled" in the local language), and boutique shops. The old town also hosts a large outdoor produce market, where I found the most delicious table grapes I've ever tasted.

Inside the Ljubljana Castle
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

Hercules fountain in Stari Trg (old square)
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

Mestini Trg with Cathedral of St. Nicholas in the background
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

The center part of town is newer, but almost as attractive. Separating the old town from the center are several bridges, of which two of the most famous are the Triple Bridge and Dragon Bridge. This part of town was more centrally planned, so the roads are less windy, the squares are more square, and the shopping is more higher-end. Also on this side was Tivoli park where we spent an afternoon lounging around.

The dragon on dragon bridge
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

Preseren statue in Preserenov Trg
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

Melissa relaxing in Park Tivoli
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

And then there's the food. Slovenia's cuisine is an amalgamation of neighboring Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Bosnia, so we spent a lot of time being lazy and drinking coffee, eating ice cream, and dining on fresh fish, pastas, sausages, and salads. We tried our first burek, a doughy pastry that can be filled with meat, cheese, or other savory items and is prevalent throughout the Balkans. Melissa fell in love with Raffaello flavored sladoled and has been ordering it ever since. And I've been drinking lots of coffee and cream, which contains a shot or two of expresso topped with chilled, whipped cream and chocolate powder.

We scheduled five days in Ljubljana to leave room for day trips. At the top of my list was Skocjan Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site and some of the most remarkable underground caves in the world. Originally we planned on taking a bus, but on Marija's insistence that you can see much more in a car, we rented a VW Polo. Although I had excellent training driving stick (thanks Danny, Sadie, and Kramer!), I chickened out and went with an automatic model instead. It was the first time we rented a car on our trip and it turned out to be a great decision because we had the freedom to enjoy a prolonged, scenic ride to our next destination, Bled.

You can drive from one end of Slovenia to the other in 3 hours, but what blew our minds is in less time you can be in Venice, Italy. But we decided to stay in the country, so after the caves we carried on west and visited Piran, a small beach-side town heavily inspired by the Venetians. Slovenia's exposure to the Mediterranean via the Adriatic sea is less than 50 km, but that tiny strip of land is hilly and scenic. We wandered around the old streets, ate risotto with mixed seafood and more sladoled, and made fun of how the Europeans will tan next to any body of water, even in the absence of a proper, sandy beach.

Brian in front of the sign that proves he went to Skocjan Caves
From Piran and Skocjan Caves, Slovenia

Tartini statue in Tartinijev Trg in Piran
From Piran and Skocjan Caves, Slovenia

The promenade in Piran.  Notice the tanners next to the rocks.
From Piran and Skocjan Caves, Slovenia

Brian on the promenade in Piran
From Piran and Skocjan Caves, Slovenia

Piran marina
From Piran and Skocjan Caves, Slovenia

We drove back to Ljubljana that night just in time to catch an outdoor concert of the Slovenian and Croatian philharmonics playing together to celebrate 20 years of independence. The next morning we thanked Marija for her hospitality and made our way back West along the Soca river, over the Vrsic Pass through the Julian Alps, into Kranjska Gora, and finally to Bled where we spent a few nights. But I'll cover that in the next post.

Melissa and Brian on top of Ljubljana Castle
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Hungary: Sopron, Budapest and Balatonfüred

By Melissa at 11:48 AM
June 19 - June 30

We spent 11 days in Hungary basically eating non-stop. This of course was the plan all along, but it worked out even better than we had imagined. The downside of this plan will be obvious when you see pictures of us in our bathing suits in a few weeks. But I don't get to spend 11 days in Hungary very often, so we reveled in our gluttony. Let me paint a brief picture before I get into the details. It's possible that I ate something during our stay that didn't have bacon, cheese or sour cream in it, but if I had to bet, I would say it was the sparkling water I was drinking.

We started our eating tour in the cute town of Sopron near the Austrian border. Sopron is small, but one of our favorite towns we've visited so far. We spent our days just walking around for the most part and taking pictures of the many old and beautiful buildings. The town has many great public spaces, including a fountain next to the Ference (Franz) Liszt Cultural Center that spurts out water in time to classical music playing in the background.

St. Michael's Church
From Sopron, Hungary


One of the inner town streets
From Sopron, Hungary

Melissa in inner town
From Sopron, Hungary

Szechenyi Square
From Sopron, Hungary

Kids going nuts over the musical water fountain
From Sopron, Hungary

Our favorite restaurant in Sopron, which we frequented three times in as many days, was Étterem Jegverem. They served huge, and I mean huge, portions of food for rock bottom prices. And boy was it good. The beef goulash tasted like it came straight out of my mother's kitchen. And the good food just kept on coming.

Melissa and goulash soup
From Sopron, Hungary

Brian's fried potato, mushroom, onion, bacon, and pork dish
From Sopron, Hungary

Beef stew and nokedli
From Sopron, Hungary

In Budapest we stayed with my cousins and saying we were well-fed is an understatement. Our first meal consisted of bableves, a bean soup with ham and sour cream; and langos, fried dough rubbed with garlic and topped with sour cream and cheese. After we had stuffed ourselves, we still managed to fit in two pieces of Tiramisu for dessert. Later in the day we went to this amazing bistro and deli and were served plates of delectable sausages, veggies, cheese and spreads accompanied by many glasses of wine. We finished the meal with passion fruit and mango ice cream. They normally only serve food during lunch, but the owner told us that they periodically schedule dinners in the deli where you can have a 9-course dinner for $45 a person!

Delicious deli meats
From Budapest, Hungary

Delicious spreads and fresh veggies
From Budapest, Hungary

Langos
From Budapest, Hungary

Brian eating a poppyseed and honey pastry
From Budapest, Hungary

Thanks to my cousins, who drove us around to many great places, we were quite busy in and around Budapest. We visited St. Stephen's cathedral, the Buda Citadel, Hero's Square, Liberty Square and Parliament to name a few. We also spent a day touring Skanzen, and open air cultural museum and the cute town of Szentendre. One of the best museums, but also one of the saddest places we visited, was the House of Terror in Budapest, with exhibits documenting the fascist and communist regimes in Hungary. The museum is housed in the former headquarters of the secret police and you can even view the cells where people were tortured.

View of Pest and the Danube from the Citadella
From Budapest, Hungary

The base of the Millenary monument in Heroes Square
From Budapest, Hungary

Szechenyi Chain Bridge
From Budapest, Hungary

Holocaust Memorial through the gate
From Budapest, Hungary

White flowers in the Skanzen (outdoor museum)
From Budapest, Hungary

Pig, supposedly the tastiest
From Budapest, Hungary

The final stop on the culinary tour was a relaxing few days in Balatonfüred, a town on the shores of Lake Balaton. We found another restaurant there that served huge portions at very reasonable prices (you should be noticing a trend here), and ate fish soup, beef stew and pork roast to our stomach's content. Being a beach town, there were also plenty of ice cream stands to finish off our meals. Aside from our aforementioned eating, we enjoyed strolling along the lake-side promenade, which was lined with wine tasting huts, snack foods stands and restaurants. We also spent two days just relaxing on the beach and catching up on plans for future travel.

Relaxing on the lake
From Balatonfured, Hungary

Melissa and the lake
From Balatonfured, Hungary

Sailboat coming in
From Balatonfured, Hungary

The promenade along the lake
From Balatonfured, Hungary

Pork, mushroom, and onion thing
From Balatonfured, Hungary

From Hungary we took a train to Slovenia, a small country that seems to have everything; mountains, river valleys, a lovely, walkable capital city and the most delicious ice cream. Yes, it even rivals Italian gelato. But more on that in the next post.

More pictures of Sopron, Budapest, and Balatonfured