Friday, February 20, 2015

Twelve cities and seven countries on a backpack: Bled, Slovenia

Picturesque Bled is considered as one of the most romantic places on earth, according to the TripAdvisor forums. It is located in Northwestern Slovenia, around one and a half hour away by bus from Ljubljana. The town is best known for Bled Island, a small island in the middle of Lake Bled, where the Church of Assumption stands. For me, Bled is a good combination of dreamy and adventurous.

Lake Bled and Bled Castle.


On our first day, we took a stroll around the lake. Bled is a laid back town. People were having picnics, or sitting on the park benches, relaxing, reading books. Some were feeding ducks, or walking their dogs. The lake is relatively small, and according to the hostel-keeper where we stayed, the shore area is around 6 km only, can can be explored by foot.

Pletna to Bled Island.

Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church.


We took a rowboat (pletna) at 12 euros per person to get to Bled island, where the Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church stands. The island has 99 steps leading up to the church. We found out that it is a local tradition at weddings for the groom to carry his bride up the 99 steps. It is believed that doing so will result in a happy marriage. And that is why either the men are fit, or they choose small wives, one of our newfound local friend joked. Ringing the church bell is also believed to bring in good luck. My friends and I had some time to explore the island and the church before going back to town. 

Autumn in Slovenia.

That night, we had pizza from a highly recommended local restaurant -- Pizzeria Rustika. I think it may have been the best pizza I have ever eaten! The toppings and vegetables were very fresh, the pizza fire roasted in a stone oven! It's very affordable too.

Pepperoni, cheese, and pepper!

During breakfast the following day, we met two nice ladies from Singapore who were also visiting Eastern Europe. They were actually based in the UK, but they were originally from Singapore. One of them amazingly lives on the same block as R! Small world. A little after breakfast, we left for hiking with some of our hostelmates. Our first destination was the Soteska Vintgar (Vintgar Gorge), a 1.6 km canyon, carved by the pristine Radovna River, and ends at the Sum Falls. We walked through the wooden pathways and bridges, with the rapids below us.

Great weather after the previous night's rain.

Soteska Vintgar.

With our new friends!

After Vintgar Gorge, we hiked one of the hills along Lake Bled, for a good view of the lake and the island. We took the Ojstrica path. The ascent was a bit difficult for me, probably because I rarely hike at all. It rained the previous night, so navigating through the wet leaves and muddy ground was challenging, and the rocks leading up to the peak can also be slippery. But the view was well worth it! The panorama view of Bled was really stunning. In the distance, the view of the snow capped Karavanke Mountain ranges on the border between Slovenia and Austria was astonishing.

After enjoying the view, we headed down back to the hostel and said goodbye to everyone. We had late lunch at Rustika (again!) before hiking to the castle.

Lake Bled and Karavanke Mountain ranges behind. Stunning.

Bled Castle is one of the most prominent attractions of the town. It is built on a cliff overlooking Lake Bled. I have read that it is the oldest medieval castle in Slovenia.

On the way up to the castle, we saw one of our hostelmate walking with a tree branch and was all dirty. As in really dirty, with twigs on her hair and bits of gravel on her face and jacket. Alarmed, we asked her what happened, so she told us her crazy amazing story. She said, earlier that morning she went to the castle to watch the sunrise. Unfortunately, she wasn't careful enough that her camera slipped and fell down the cliff. Since we had a hike that morning, she decided to come back for the camera later. Come afternoon, she went up again to the cliff to look for her camera. She said she climbed down the cliff to look for her camera, hence her appearance. How she went down the cliff, I have no idea, because it was really steep. When my friends and I were there, we tried to figure out where or how she got down, but there was no path at all, just a steep rock, leading to an instant broken back with one wrong footing. My goodness, if it were me, I would not even think about going down a cliff to retrieve my camera. I would just let it go. Maybe cry a bit, but I will NOT go down a cliff for a camera for I value my limbs. She said she had already been searching for some time and that she had already given up when she saw the branch. She thought she'd take it to help her walk back, and surprise, there just beside it was the camera. Unscathed! We were like, whoa, that's crazy. But amazing.

Bled Castle.

This is a great front row seat for a Slovenia sunset.

There is a path on the side of the castle which leads to the castle backdoor. There is a great unobstructed view of the lake, the church, and the hills behind it. We actually did the hike for that view, and not to enter the castle. We sat there for a while waiting for the sunset. "I live for moments like this" I remember telling myself as I sat there. I imagine myself backpacking for months to see more places like this, rather than being stuck in an office desk typing my life away. I remembered something I overheard in the hostel. Someone was explaining why she went backpacking the world immediately after graduating from university. "There's plenty of time to work for money for the rest of my life." Unfortunately, practicality dictates otherwise for me. For now, I am happy and content with slowly exploring the world at my own pace -- a few steps, a few weeks, a few cities at a time.


We went down from the castle hill, and walked back downtown. We went to Park Hotel where we tried the famous Bled Cream Cake. We tried 2 flavours -- original and chocolate. I liked both, but my ultimate favourite was the original one. It's like brazo de mercedes, but not too sweet. We then headed back to the hostel afterwards to pickup our stuff before heading to the train station to catch our overnight train to Salzburg, and then to Vienna.

Bled Cream Cake at the Park Hotel, Bled.

 Catching our train to Salzburg! Goodbye, Bled.
PS. It was freezing that night, haha!

Friday, January 30, 2015

Twelve cities and seven countries on a backpack: Ljubljana, Slovenia

I didn't know what to expect from Ljubljana (let alone pronounce it!). All I knew previously about it was that it is the capital of Slovenia. Unlike most of the places on our list, it has no famous attractions or UNESCO sites, and based from what we had gathered online, a 2-hour walk around the city center is enough to explore the place. Hence, from our original itinerary, it was supposed to be just a short stopover while waiting for our bus to our main destination in Slovenia, Lake Bled.

In hindsight, I wish we had stayed longer. It may not be one of the world's most famous destinations, but Ljubljana is in fact a very beautiful city. Laidback and artsy, I fell unexpectedly in love with her.

Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport.

(Fortunately) Due to our missing Dubrovnik, our plans changed and we ended up spending a little more time in Ljubljana. We have always thought that maybe we missed Dubrovnik for a reason, and I had thought maybe Ljubljana was partly why.

We arrived from Helsinki at around 7pm. It was almost a three-hour flight. The airport is a bit far from the city, but there are hourly buses which depart for the Ljubljana Railway Station (Železniška postaja Ljubljana). We missed the bus by a few minutes so we spent the rest of the hour sitting on a bench outside, recalling our mishaps from Helsinki, making fun of the whole unfortunate incident, and at ourselves. Over kulitan and conversations, we ate our dinner, which was the salad from the plane we decided to keep earlier as baon for practical reasons. Sitting on a bench while waiting for the bus is probably one of the mundanest things in the world, but with friends, even it became a blast.

The bus finally arrived. It was pretty uneventful. There were only five people in the bus, and there was nothing to see on the dark highway, save for the occasional street lamps. With no TV or wifi, we had nothing but the radio and each other. The radio station was noticeably playing mostly English songs from the 90s. We shamelessly sang along to Natalie Imbruglia's Torn when it started playing. I still proudly know the lyrics by heart! It was all good. We've had a long day, so I was looking forward to an uneventful night, anyway -- reach the hostel early and sleep.

However, as soon as we alighted the bus, R realized his wallet was missing. It might have slipped unnoticed in the bus when he was trying to take something out from his pocket. He ran trying to catch the bus. He actually almost caught up with it when it stopped on a red light, but lost it when the driver didn't see him, and made a turn. We went to the bus station information center to seek help. The attendant told us he is not able to help us, as he has no information nor direct contact with the driver. He advised us that we would have to contact the bus company the following day, as it was already 9pm. Defeated, we had already began walking away when the phone at the information center started ringing. Moments later, the attendant was calling after us. Guess what, it was the the bus driver on the phone looking for us!! The bus driver asked us to wait for him, as he would be there in 20 minutes to hand us R's wallet. You cannot imagine how relieved we all were. It's also unbelievable how the timing was just perfect. What if we had already left earlier? R tried to give him a small amount of money to show our gratitude, but the bus driver did not accept it at all. All we could do was just thank him profusely. He told us to take care, and enjoy our stay. My faith in humanity was once again restored.

I thought we had already reached our adventure quota, but the events of the night didn't end there. When we reached the hostel which shall not be named, we were stunned to find out that we were the only guests. Oh, because it's off season, nothing unusual, I told myself. But we also later found out the keeper does not actually stay in the hostel. We were the only people in the building! The place felt a bit creepy to me, and that's coming from someone who actually does not believe in those stuff. I thought I was the only one, but my friends validated it for me too. Perhaps because it was a big old building with dark hallways and dim lighting, that it felt like somebody was watching us. We were so paranoid, we agreed to take turns watching out for each other while one of us goes to the shower or toilet. We didn't get much sleep, but we made fun of the situation a lot. In a way, it was fun and a heck of an experience. In the end, we just dismissed it as us just scaring ourselves. The building was actually nice during daytime. There were lots of photographs and artworks, and despite the unholy big gap between the stairs, the circular staircase was actually lovely... *wait, are those bloodstains on the wall, jk, haha*

Since we were leaving for Bled, later that day, we decided to start the day early. We headed out, just before sunrise to enjoy walking without the crowd. The historically important Ljubljanica river flows through the center of town. We walked along the riverbank to see many of the old Baroque buildings. We crossed the famous Triple Bridge (Tromostovje) to get to the east side of the river. Designed by Jože Plečnik, the Tromostovje consists of three separate picturesque bridges located next to each other. We also passed by the Prešeren square with the statue of Slovenian greatest poet France Prešeren. A little bit after sunrise, the people started heading out to begin their day.

The Tromostovje.
 
Walking around Ljubljana at daybreak.

Sending epostcards from the Ljubljana Tourist Information Centre.
 
Franciscan Church of the Annunciation behind.
 
The Ljubljanica River.

We explored the Old Town and stopped by the City square, Mestni trg. The city hall is located around this area. It's nice walking around without a real itinerary as the narrow cobbled streets always led to interesting places. There were lots of medieval buildings which has now been transformed into shops and cafes. I love their cafes, so cosy and so artsy. I also liked how there were a lot of graffiti around. They were artsy ones, most of them well thought of -- not just random slashes of spray paints. That's what I thought, at least. They were colorful drawings, social commentaries, and even jokes. There was one which read: Love donuts, hate cops, which made me think of Chief Wiggum of the Simpsons. Some interesting ones can be found here, here, and here.

Mestni trg, City Square.
 
Cosy cafes!
 
Street graffiti.
 
Shoes hanging on a wire.
 
Noticeable were also the shoes hanging on wires located on some of the streets in Ljubljana. According to stories, the shoes were originally hung to wish for positive life altering events, like a new job, successful ventures. Pairs multiply day by day possibly hung by both locals and visitors. I looked closely at the shoes and some were actually still quite nice. I was tempted to throw my pair too, but I'd probably get fined, and also, I remembered I only have 2 pairs of shoes with me.

Food in Finland was relatively more expensive, so when we went to a small grocery store to get some sandwiches, we almost jumped in joy. A sandwich in Finland can cost up to 6 Euros, whilst in Ljubljana we managed to get a sandwich AND bottled water for less than 2 Euros. We also had gelato in one of the riverside cafes. It was nice just hanging out. If we had more time, we probably would have stayed there longer. The weather was nice, still cold, but did not warrant four layers of clothing like Helsinki.

"Begin to look at maps with the narcotic tingle of possibility"


Our last destination for the day was the Ljubljana Castle, located at the Castle Hill (Grajski grič) overlooking the old town. We did not take the funicular up the hill because we preferred to hike. And we wanted to avoid unnecessary expenses where possible :P There are many paths going up to the castle. Depending on which you choose, it could be slightly steep. The castle has a long history going way back to 1200 BC. It was renovated in the 1960s, and since then has become of the most popular spots in Ljubljana. The views from the top were magnificent; You can even see the Sava River and Kamnik Alps in the far distance.

After visiting the castle, we dropped by the local open market to look around and buy souvenirs. The open market was very colorful and interesting. There were a lot of flowers, fruits and vegetables grown by the locals. There were also many kinds of food like bread, cheese, and various herbs and spices. They also sell local arts and crafts and souvenirs. Noticeable is the dragon theme in most of the souvenirs. Ljubljana's city emblem is the green dragon, also part of it's city coat of arms. They say that it symbolises strength, courage and might. I have read that it may have come from the legend of Jason and the Argonauts, where Jason killed the dragon living in the marsh (supposedly the Ljubljana Dragon). There are other versions of the story, but this is my favorite. (Where are my dragons?)

It's nice to bike aound the Old Town.

View of the city from the castle hill.

Ljubljana Castle.

Souvenirs! Those lovely boxes :3

Open market.


Sadly, we had to leave soon. We made a run for the hostel to take our stuff, as we were supposed to catch a bus for Bled in 15 minutes. The hostel was around 10 minutes walk to the Bus Station. It was challenging running with big backpacks, but we managed to make it just in time! Our stay was short but sweet. Ljubljana is definitely one of my most favorite cities in this trip.
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