Friday, December 16, 2011

Kayaking on Lake Bohinj--May 25

After grabbing lunch, we changed and drove back to Lake Bohinj. When we checked in, we discovered there was another guy who had signed up to go on our trip. From England, he was on a "guys weekend" with his son. They had spent the morning "canyoning"--which entails jumping off high places like bridges and cliffs into deep pools of freezing mountain stream water. Later he would tell us that the kayaking was a lot more fun (and warm).

We paddled around the lake a bit, learning how to go forwards and backwards and turn. British guy got it right away. I got it, but was slow and "too careful." The instructor kept trying to help Jon, but after a while just told him that "well, hopefully the current will help you." At one point I thought he was joking around because he was zigzagging so much...turns out he was actually trying.

So we dipped under the bridge (remember the bridge from a few posts ago?). It was really fun. And a LOT harder than I remembered. I've only done kayaking on the intercostal waterway and on lakes. Rivers with rocks and stuff was a whole new game. We went over little rapids, and over little dams. I didn't flip once, although I swore I was. The guide was good about warning us about hidden rocks and currents.

The dams were actually interesting, they put two sticks hanging down from the bridge above which you are supposed to shoot between. There is a ramp there so you don't kill yourself on rocks. If you don't hit the dam exactly perpendicular, you will more thank likely flip and spin top over end at the bottom. Fun. No one did that.

The first set of rapids were tiny. I went down the rapids first and was waiting for the rest to catch up. The British guy came down and told me "I think you're boyfriend's decided to take a swim." It turns out, Jon had flipped. It took a while for them to catch up. When they got there, I learned that his ring had slipped off. That's right! My new husband lost his wedding ring on our honeymoon.

Funny thing is, when we were getting ready, he had stopped and asked me if I was wearing mine. I told him that I never had trouble with it slipping, so yes. He shrugged and said yeah, but he was worried about it slipping, but if I wasn't worried....He was afraid of it falling off, but wore it anyway! He, of course, felt terrible, but it does give me something to hold over him whenever needed :-)

Despite the lost ring, we had a great time. The waters were crystal clear and the air temperature was perfect. Definitely more awesome . . .whatever else we hadn't planned on doing anyway

Driving Around the Alps--May 25

Monday, we woke up and made breakfast at the apartment before setting off towards the Alps. Because we had the kayaking appointment that afternoon, we figured we had time to do about half of the driving tour suggested by Rick Steves. We drove up the Mt Triglav pass and back down again--to go down the other side and around would have taken us until 6PM or so.

Lake Bohinj--May 24

After lunch, we headed about 30km to Lake Bohinj. It was just as beautiful, but considerably less crowded. We (I) grabbed an ice cream before walking a little ways around the lake. There was a nice little paths that led down to the lake, where we sat for a while enjoying the cool water and (I) scared the school of fish with our (my) shadow.

Sitting there, we saw a woman taking a kayak lesson on the lake. After a bit, they dropped under the bridge down the river. We hemmed and hawed about it, but eventually decided to ask about the lessons. As luck would have it, there was only one session open all of the next week--the next day at 3 in the afternoon.

Lake Bled, Slovenia--May 24

The next day, we decided to visit Lake Bled before it got too warm out. The highlight of Bled is its lake, which features the only natural island in all of Slovenia. Tito had a summer home along the lake (now a hotel). The lake was extended to facilitate rowing competitions on the lake. There is a medieval castle on a bluff above the lake.

The church on the island--Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary--was built in the 15th century. After going out to the island, it is good luck for a groom to carry his new bride (ahem) up all of the 99 steps in one go. Hell if anyone was going to tote me up the steps. We decided to forgo visiting the church and enjoy the 3.5 mile walk around the lake alone.

On a complete side note, we were stopped when we were nearly around the lake by some German tourists. When they asked how long it would take, Jon's two years of high school German really paid off. He'll probably kill me for writing that, but I'm sick of him gloating about his incredible language skills. Actually, rudimentary German has come in handy this trip, so I shouldn't complain! (I've only been able to use my 10 years of French to eavesdrop on some Swiss guys in Split).

I'll give up the chatter and leave you with some photos of Lake Bled:

Škocjan Caves--May 23

We took off the next day for Slovenia. The border crossing was laughable. The Croatian and Slovenian guards were sitting in the same little box deal chatting until we drove up. The Croatian guard took one look at our passports, saw they were from the US and handed them to the Slovenian guy. Slovenian guy stamped Jon's passport after glancing at the picture and joking "close enough." Mine, he saw the (long expired) Hungarian residency visa and handed it back. I wanted the damn stamp. Oh well.

Per our usual, we took the um, scenic route to Piran. It is a beautiful town on Slovenia's tiny bit of sea. Unfortunately, between the time it took to park the car and walk the 2 miles to the town center, we didn't have much time left. We had a decent lunch at a little cafe (and my system went into shock from paying in Euro), but sadly, had to leave this bell-tower unclimbed (shucks).

We had to move along so quickly in order to make the last tour of the day for the Skocjan Caves about an hour away.

If you want to know more about them specifically, Wikipedia may prove useful. Basically though, there are two sets of major "tourist caves" in the Krast region of Slovenia. The others are apparently ever so slightly more stunning, but are significantly more expensive and half the time is spent on this train (think Disney World) that whisks you into the hills way too quickly to see anything. And these were on our way. Regardless, these are the ones we went to. Photos aren't allowed in the caves; despite things I'd read to the contrary, the guides really enforced this rule, so I didn't try to sneak any photos. Here are a few I've borrowed (beh. They're giant and I can't change the size right now.):

First off, if it's not obvious enough, that bridge was kind of terrifying. I mean, stability-wise and all, it was fine--I think it was rebuilt just a few years ago. The caverns though, were absolutely stunning. Along the parts near the river, you could see the paths carved into the wall from the tourists paths from the early 1900s. Which was cool...except for the parts where they would dip hundreds of feet down and back up in a matter of a 100 meters or so. Blarg. Near the end of the tour, we were allowed to take photos, so here's the mouth of the cave.
Way to live a stereotype, right?

We paid to go on an extra tour of the area around the caves, so after we exited the caves, we broke off from the English tour group and joined a teacher and some students from Bavaria who had also elected to go on this part of the trip. It was interesting to get to hike around and see some of the other smaller caves. It's almost not visible, but you kind of can see the lights reflecting back up from the river.

This one is technically considered a cave--its roof has just fallen in! As a result, the ecosystem is incredibly unique.

Probably the best dinner I've had

We were pretty exhausted after getting back from Rovinj, so we decided to take it easy the rest of the night. We took a swim, then went back to get dressed for dinner. Having had pizza the night before, we decided to have a nice sit down meal. (Granted, the pizza was covered with procuittio).

Hrast was a restaurant near to our resort that had been recommended by the tour inform lady. When we got there, the place was empty. And not just of guests....I couldn't find a waitress or hostess either. Definitely a good sign. One showed after we poked around awkwardly for a bit.

She sat us out on the deck overlooking the sea as the sun was setting. Beautiful, but I consequentally had the sun in my eyes the whole time.

Man, oh, man was the food good. Probably one of the best meals I've eaten.
As a "starter" we had noodles with fresh mussels in a garlic butter sauce. That was nearly a meal in itself. On top of that, we had ordered calimari. Instead of strips like are common here, it was cut into pieces maybe three inches long and left as rings. I don't know how they did it, but it was lightly pan fried...and tasted kind of like fried chicken.

Somehow the waitress had misinterrpreted our order and we ended up with twice the amount we wanted. It was a little painful to finish, but heck if I was going to leave that behind!

We sat for a while longer on the deck, just enjoying the night. Slowly other people started to show took us til then to realize how early we were--we started dinner around 7 and it was just 9 or so then. Glad the restaurant was doing well.

Full as we were, I decided on dessert...a triple chocolate berry cake of some sort.

Sorry for the lame food post...but man, was that calamari good.

Wine, Olives: Door to door

This post doesn't really fit anywhere in order, but I wanted to be sure to post it.

Croatia is known for several things food-wise.

First of all truffles. I didn't know much about truffles before we visited. Like how ugly they are. Or that they grow underground. Or that they are more often hunted with dogs than pigs. One of the guide books we read mentioned that one of the restaurants we ate at is often visited by the family's truffle dogs. Unfortunately, there were no pups to be seen. Also, Jon doesnt think Josie would make a very good truffle dog. His loss.

Truffles are awesome. But the real thing I wanted to write about was wine (and to a lesser degree, olives, but those are gross). Croatia's climate makes a lot of the country, in particular Istria, perfect for growing grapes. This means that lots of families own vineyards and bottle their own wine. However, instead of selling it in stores, many sell out of their homes. Same goes with olives (and olive oil).

Which is awesome. And weird. You're driving down the road and there are signs with arrows pointed down little lanes and rutted tracks that just say "vino" or "oliva." To get to said wine, you just turn down the lane and hope to find it. We were nervous to do this at first. I mean, what if the shop was closed. Shop? Regular hours? What was I thinking? More often than not, you pull up to someone's home and knock on their door, hoping you don't catch them in the middle of dinner or something.

The first few places we found were closed (?) one was home. On a whim, we stopped off on our way back to Porec from Rovinj and followed a small dusty road. It looked about as open as the other places we had tried, despite the cars out front. But then a little girl (maybe 6 or 7) appeared. She kind of stared at us for a second...who am I kidding with "us"? She stared at Jon because I was too chicken to get out of the car. He shrugged and stuttered "uhh....vino?"

The girl turned and ran. From inside the house we heard her yelling "Paapppiiii!" Oh dear.

Before long a man appeared. We shook hands and he invited us into their cellar. We learned that they didn't hear us pull up because they were cleaning up the results of a failed champange bottling experiment. It was actually quite the set up. (There were another four vats on the other side)

They let us sample all of the wines, explaining the types of grapes that went into each and telling us about the family's business. As we debated which to buy, the wife appeared and set out olives for us to try. We put on our best smiles and ate a couple. You know, they weren't that bad for olives. Still not something either of us would eat willingly. The olive oil was so-so. We washed it down with more wine.

We passed as politely as we could on the olives, but bought a few...a half dozen bottles of wine. I was the perfect amount to fit in the box. How could we not?

Rovinj--May 22

After we finished walking around Pula, we headed back up the coast to Rovinj. The town was bustling and well set up for tourists.

It was early afternoon, and we still hadn't eaten, so we decided to grab lunch and relax for a bit. We found a restaurant overlooking the sea from dozens of little restaurants overlooking the sea. It was hot out, so it was nice to sit and relax in the shade for a bit.

After lunch, we were off, up the hill to the oldest parts of the city. I loved wandering the narrow, crooked, cobblestone streets. . .until cars needed to squeeze through.

At the top of the hill is the Cathedral of Saint Euphemia, built in the 18th century. The church holds the remains of who was fed to the lions in the 4t century for her religion.

Of course, another church means another tower Jon wanted to climb! Up we went. These stair were made of wood, worn smooth and slightly round by thousands of feet each year. BUT they did not bend like the mental stairs in Split, so, in spite of each tread being only a few inches across, they felt relatively safer.

Looking down from a hole in the top.

What a view!

We traded pictures with a group from New Zealand

Pula--May 22

Sunday we set out again. This time, we headed south to the cities of Pula and Rovinj.

Pula, the largest city in Istria, is very industrial and busy with port traffic. It is, however, also a huge tourist draw due its the well preserved Roman ruins.

We got to the city with no trouble, but got turned around in the city. We kept driving around tryin to look for a street with a familiar name, when we turned a corner and saw this:

Pretty cool, huh? Well, we weren't lost anymore. Built between 27 BC and 68 AD, the amphitheater is the sixth largest in the world and is one of the best preserved. Originally, it held 23,000 people. When Venice took over the area, senators proposed deconstructing the whole things and moving it to Venice. The stubborness of one senator prevented this from happening. It didn't prevent people of the city from using the limestone blocks to build the foundations of their own houses. While gladitorial combat was outlawed in the fifth century, combat between convicts sentenced to death continued into the seventh.

The arena has been slightly renovated to accomodate modern crowds. (Up to 5,000 people.) Artists from Marilyn Manson to Luciano Pavaratti have performed here. Loud concerts are now banned to protect the stucture's integrity.

After seeing the amphitheater, we took a short walking tour to see the city's other sites. There weren't many, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Silvia Sergius had this arch built to honor her brother, father-in-law, and husband. The inscription reads "Silvia of the Sergius family paid for this with her own money." Talk about customization.

The Arch of Sergii:

The other site I really enjoyed was the Temple of Augustus, completed about 14 AD. Under Byzentine rule, it was converted to a church (which is why it still exists), and later, it was used as a granary. It was struck by an Allied bomb during WWII , nearly destroying it, and rebuilt in 1947.

Temple of Augustus:

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Porec, Croatia--May 20

I've had these typed up since we got back, but have kept forgetting to post them. So...7 months later, here goes.

We set out the next day early (ish), headed for northern Croatia, Istria. The drive was relatively uneventful. We stopped for pretty a pretty mediocre lunch and had to suffer through miles of hideous scenery:

We reached our destination, the coastal town of Porec in the mid afternoon. I was actually kind of proud of this find. Porec is a town that was written off by a few travel guides I had read as focused on resort-culture (a cheap escape for Germans and Austrians) with relatively little culture of its own. Which meant in low season, rooms were cheap and abundant. I was able to book an apartment for less than $20 a night. Granted, it did look like it hadn't been renovated since Tito's rule, but it was clean and comfortable. We were able to watch movies on the deck during the evenings and cook up our own breakfast each morning. While it was too cold to swim in the sea, the pool was warm enough to justify having brought our suits

The town itself was adorable. There wasn't a lot to do, but the TI was friendly and informative, there were some nice little restaurants, and a nice board walk (well, concrete, but the point still stands)

Porec as we walk from our apartment:

The Italian influence was definitely noticable here:

The highlight of the town is the Euphrasian Basilica. There has been a Catholic church on the site since the 4th century, however, the structure of this one only dates from around 554. It is a UNESCO site because of its intricate mosaics, considered some of the best preserved in the world The light made it difficult to capture, but everything above the lower roofline is mosaic.

Under the current floor, there are well preserved mosaics dating from the 5th century that was part of an earlier structure:

There were others scattered around the church, but the highlight was the atrium, which was completely done in mosaic:

A different angle of the atrium:

Istrian Hill Towns--May 21

That evening, we sat down with guide books, maps and brochures to plot out our next few days. We decided to take a day to visit the Istrian "hill towns" and one to visit a couple of larger cities with some bigger "touristy" type sites.

The next morning, we ate breakfast and headed for the hills. Istrian hill towns are small, medieval towns built on the tops of hills (shocking, no?); they were fortified to protect against attack. At various times, the towns have been ruled by individual families, and parts of the Roman, Venician, Austro-Hungarian, and Italian empires.

We enjoyed hoping between towns for the day, zooming past acres of vineyards and olive groves along the way (more on that later). It was interesting to be driving and see these little towns just perched on top of hills.

We stopped first in Buij, which was more or less a sleepy little town known for its truffles. After grabbing a pastry, we followed signs that led to the most important sites, like this 16th century church:

We couldn't go all the way inside, but were able to get a good look from just inside the doors.

Next, we headed to Motovun and parked as close as we could to the top (only residents can drive in the town) and hiked up the cobblestone streets to the town. The city is protected by two gates--an outer one from the 15th century and one from the 13th century that leads to the oldest a parts of town. We stopped for lunch here, taking advantage of the local specials--prucciutto, wine, and truffles.
The oldest part of Motovun:

After lunch, we headed to Grožnjan, the only place in Croatia with an Italian majority.After switching hands so many times, the town was nearly deserted until 1965, when artists started moving into its crumbling buildings. Now, artists have thriving studios in the centuries-old buildings and it is home to world famous music programs. I bought some necklaces from the artist who has his glass shop in this building, the former notary

Looking down from the walls of town:

Our last stop was the town of Hum, which claims to be the smallest completely incorpoated town in the world. For just 16 people, there is a school, post office, and town hall.

There was a runic language that thrived in the area. There examples of artifacts in Hum. It is said that the language was used up until the 1970s. Reality says that is a stretch. But, people are trying to revive it.