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.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Twelve cities and seven countries on a backpack: Helsinki, Finland

Time to leave now, get out of this room, go somewhere, anywhere; sharpen this feeling of happiness and freedom, stretch your limbs, fill your eyes, be awake, wider awake, vividly awake in every sense and every pore.
- Stefan Zweig, The Post-Office Girl
While I like traveling alone, some journeys are meant to be shared with other people. This is one of them.
And so I went to Eastern Europe with two of my friends, J and R. I returned with infinite stories and awesome memories - of breathtaking views, missed trains, getting lost, sleepless nights, longs treks, kind strangers. Twelve cities and seven countries on a backpack. It sounds like a cliche novel, but this has got to be the most challenging, the most tiring, but definitely one of my most adventurous and most fun trip so far.

People immediately assumed I was going to Paris, or Italy, or London when I told them I was going to Europe. While I also want to go to those places someday, I think there is more to Europe than the usual countries we know. For me, Eastern Europe with its melting pot of cultures, grand art and architecture, and its beautiful natural scenery, is truly fascinating. And yes, my choice was also influenced by a certain movie called Before Sunrise.

Our first stop was supposed to be Dubrovnik, however, due to some problems, we were stuck in Helsinki for a few days. The next flight to Ljubljana leaves only after a few days, so we had to make some urgent bookings and improvise our itinerary on the spot. Although it was not part of the original plan, we are a resilient and resourceful bunch, so we decided to make the most out of our accidental Helsinki trip and have a great time. 

Helsinki sunrise.

Helsinki Central Train Station.

The following morning, we went for a hike in the Nuuksio National Park, located North-west from Helsinki and around an hour by train and bus to Espoo. That day, the forecast was -6 degrees (!) It was really, really cold in Helsinki, cheap hot chocolate drinks became our instant best friend. When we landed the previous day, it was a frosty 2 degrees and at some point, it even dipped to 0 degrees. To keep our fingers from freezing, we first bought some gloves from downtown before catching our train. When we arrived in Espoo, we had to take another bus. The bus ride itself was already enjoyable. We passed by lakes and winding roads of forested areas. The park was very beautiful. I liked how people in Finland enjoy nature. They really go there for hikes with their families. I have read that there are a number of endangered or near threatened species of animals, plants and fungi living in Nuuksio.

Nuuksio hiking trails.

It was a sunny day, but it was too cold that puddles of water had already become frozen. We tried to throw stones at the frozen puddles, but they just crisply rolled on its surface. Leaves and other mossy surfaces were also already forming ice. It was still officially the end of summer over there -- it wasn't even considered autumn yet. I cannot imagine winter in Finland!

We heard it was the season for picking mushrooms, and we saw plenty of them when we were hiking. We were planning to cook pasta in the hostel later that evening and the idea of adding some mushrooms was tempting, but since we were not sure which ones were edible, we just let it go. After an afternoon of hiking, we dropped by a supermarket in Espoo for hot chocolate, and bought some ingredients for our pasta before heading back to Helsinki.

Nuuksio National Park.

Baguette, aka Patonki locally, became one of our main sources of sustenance for a few days.

It was my first time cooking in a hostel! Well, it was mostly J doing the cooking, but I helped cut the hotdogs and wash the pans. And I also helped by using my dashing people skills to borrow cooking oil from one of our Spanish hostelmate. Hah! People skills. On any other normal day my disposition is similar to Daria's, and there I was being friendly for the sake of spaghetti. Haha, well, the pasta turned out great!

We have so many funny hostel stories too -- like how we ran to the grocery downstairs at night with only our flipflops on and how we instantly regretted it; like struggling to wake up very early in the morning being kancheong so we can cook breakfast; like how the people there kept mistaking us for Chinese. My most favorite one was the traveling olive oil. See, there was a box in the hostel where visitors can leave all the unwanted food they may have so that other hostel guests may use them. We, scrimping on money and being PG looked for some cooking stuff that we may use further in our journey. We took this unused and sealed bottle of olive oil, thinking we could use it in the next destination, but we never actually got to. It survived until after we got back in Singapore.

Downtown Helsinki.

The weather was terrible the following day so we were not able to go around much. We were stuck in a BK outlet inside the train station, drinking hot chocolate. It was raining for pretty much the whole day, so we later decided to just take the tram so we can go around and still somehow see the city. While there's not much to see near the hostel where we were staying, the downtown area is beautiful. Shame it was raining. There are a lot of beautiful and interesting neoclassical buildings and bridges. We passed by a lot of parks where the foliage were already turning into a beautiful autumn shade. Later that evening, we attended mass at the Parish of St. Mary (Pyhä Maria).

Uspenski Cathedral.
Around Katajanoka.
Ferry ride to Suomenlinna.

On our third day, we went to Katajanokka to walk around and visit the Uspenski Cathedral (Uspenskin katedraali), an Eastern Orthodox cathedral dedicated to the Dormition of the Theotokos. We walked a bit to explore, before taking the ferry going to Suomenlinna (Sveaborg). Suomenlinna is a sea fortress built on six islands, and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site since 1991. There are a number of museums in the fortress, and the Vesikko, the last surviving Finnish submarine from 1931 can be found here! There are some cosy restaurants and cafes scattered around the islands. The foliage in Suomenlinna was was very beautiful; there were not much people that day, so we took our sweet time admiring the trees. We enjoyed our walk there very much.

We bid goodbye to Helsinki that night, as we were finally flying to Ljubljana. We all felt bad we missed Dubrovnik, but I cannot say we did not enjoy Helsinki. I suppose everything happens for a reason; besides, we can always go there next time. Who knows, maybe next year? :)
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