Venice and Slovenia: Autumn, 2016

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092116 Eeny Meeny Miny…Venice

This trip had been a long time coming, longer than most.  When my dad passed away he left me some money so I told m’lady we could go on a little vacation and I (well, my dad) would pay for it.  I gave her a budget of up to $5,000 and tasked her with doing all the planning.  It took a few years before she settled on a destination.  It’s not that she wasn’t full of ideas.  Rather, the practical number-cruncher in me kept kiboshing her suggestions.  

Machu Picchu, Galapagos, Madagascar…these were all great ideas but I kept reminding her that a week in Paris could cost $5,000, let alone a costly excursion to one of these planetary landmarks.

So when she suggested maybe Venice and Slovenia? I said “sure” and promptly forgot about it.  She would be internet searching and talking about this hotel or that while I would think she was talking about Vienna or Slovakia.  I was so hands-off with regards to the planning of this trip that I literally couldn’t remember where we were going.  It became a running gag around the house.  “When are we going to Venezuela?” I would ask, and “What will the weather be like in Serbia?” to endless hilarity.

Well, the joke is over now.  I’m in Venice.

And it is unquestionably Venice; there are canals, arched bridges, glass shops and pizza places everywhere you look.  And it’s stunning.

We flew overnight; the plane was half full.  We spied a trio of seats next to us that we were prepared to grab “as soon as we are in the air and after the seatbelt sign goes out”, as per the stewardess’ instructions.  Then a mom-and-daughter team of vegetarians stole the seats before takeoff.  And how do I know they were vegetarians?  Because they had ordered special meals and didn’t tell anyone that they had switched seats.  It was curious watching the mom follow the stewardess with her eyes as she went from one passenger to another asking again and again, “Did you order the vegetarian meal?”  Finally the stewardess got to the mom, who looked at her with a smile and replied “yes, I did”.  I could’ve killed her.

Row, row, row your boat*.  I talked myself down.

Another air annoyance: this was my second time finding no video screens on a long haul flight.  The new deal is you just dial the movies up on your iPad.  Don’t have an iPad?  You can borrow one for $10.

Further proof that cellphones and their ilk are the number of the beast.

I managed to sleep for half the trip (one minute on, one minute off) and we landed in Venice at 11am local time.  M’lady had booked us a private water taxi to transport us to our hotel and after a long, pleasant-ish walk around the airport we found it.  

Our personal water taxi delivered us from the airport almost to the door of our hotel

The water taxi was a fantastic way to leave the airport, flinging us directly into the Venetian world of canal traffic and narrow waterways.  What a wonderful, dream-like ride!  Too bad our hotel wasn’t straddling one of the canals, other wise the boat could have taken us to the front  door.  It got us super-close though; like a few dozen feet.  We arrived at our hotel too early for checkin so we dropped our bags, poured a pair of coffees to go and did some walking about.  Which was absolutely dreamy.  

For real, there are absolutely no streets in Venice; only squares, small alleys, and lots and lots of canals.  No cars, no bikes; only boats and bridges.  Around every corner stands another row of ancient shops selling leather goods, Murano glass, liquor, or lacy dresses, and every alley is staggered with antique restaurants that look like they’re posing for postcards.  And if you take any more than two of those corners without being extremely mindful you will definitely get lost amid the wonder.  Before we got too deep into the labyrinth we turned around and retraced our steps back to our hotel and checked in.  As soon as we got into our room we tried (unsuccessfully) to score presale Gord Downie tickets (yes, even when we’re on vacation we plan vacations) and then m’lady spent the next few hours lapsing in and out of sleep.  I, in turn, spent the same few hours lapsing between our room and the maze of jaw-dropping architecture that encompassed all of the outside.

Eventually she rallied and we did a night-time walkabout, hitting the main square (Piazza San Marco) and staring googly-eyed at the ring of palatial buildings that surrounded us on all sides.  We bought a couple of beers in a tiny variety store and sipped them in the shadows while three different chamber orchestras battled for tonal superiority from their makeshift bandstands outside three different restaurants lining the square.  Touts kept pestering m’lady, offering free roses in exchange for a tip.  She tried to politely decline and they only pestered harder.  Going forward we’ve decided not to stand for such tourist shenanigans so we concocted a few strategies to get them to leave us alone.  My favoured plan is to hold out my hand and say something like, “We don’t need a rose but we’re down on our luck and please, could you spare a couple of euros?”  We’ll see how that goes.

By midnight we were back in our room trying our best to stay up late in hopes of encouraging a swift transition to Venice-time.  We did pretty well.

Speaking of doing pretty well I could already tell that m’lady had done a pretty good job picking our destination.  Who knew that Venice was going to be so awesome?  Oh right…she did.

*If you examine the lyrics to Row, Row, Row Your Boat you may discover that they provide excellent advice on sidestepping the frustrations that arise from sharing your planet with other people.

092216 The Large Cost of Living Large

We slept past noon, which was a surprise and it felt really good.  We were slow getting up and around and when we did eventually leave the hotel we went straight to the nearby square, Piazza San Marco.

We noticed one of the restaurants that had been hosting live music the previous night had a chamber orchestra set up again so we grabbed a table.  We were brought a menu and a card explaining that there was a six euro per person surcharge for the music so we moved on.  Not that I don’t support live music – au contraire – but c’mon, I just wanted a cup of joe to get the day started.

Right around the corner we found a nice outdoor patio overlooking the water so we sat down and ordered a couple of coffees and a waffle to share for a little snack.  The waiter came back and pointed to my empty cup with a questioning shrug so I ordered a second coffee.  Why not?  The bill came and I gotta say I was rather surprised to see that it totalled almost forty-two euros, more than $60CDN.  Turns out our coffees were priced at almost fifteen dollars each.  It makes Starbucks look like a bargain.  A younger me would have had a conniption and surely let it bug him/me all day, frugal as we were.  However, the new me brushed it off with a promise that he would definitely be getting his morning coffees at the hotel’s free breakfast from now on.  

That said, they don’t just plunk down a couple of paper cups around here.  Our coffees arrived on a silver tray with decanted hot water and a side of cookies.  Pretty good waffle too.  Small, but good.

With no plans for the day whatsoever we started wandering, making a point to walk in directions we hadn’t already.  Getting lost was the plan and we succeeded quickly and completely.

Partially by fluke and partially by design we happened upon the Teatro Fenice and stepped inside to enquire about tickets.  I had looked up the opera house online and noticed upcoming performances of Verdi’s La Traviata, which seemed interesting.  According to the website only the most expensive sections remained and unfortunately they were all priced at two hundred euros and up.  We certainly weren’t going to be springing for those.  I had noticed Rossini tickets for this evening were listed online starting at the relative bargain of fifty-five euros, but still.  Once inside the box office I asked about La Traviata and whattya know we scored a pair for the following night’s performance for just twenty-five euros a ticket.  Considering it costs twenty euros just to tour the building it felt like  we had robbed the place.

(We pulled a similar heist at the CN Tower several years before when after balking at the thirty dollar admission fee to ascend the tower we instead made reservations at 360, the fancy-pants revolving restaurant that spins just one level below the observation deck.  The ride up the tower is included with the price of dinner and of course I ordered the cheapest meal on the menu.  It was three courses and absolutely delicious and priced at a mere $32.  I’ll leave you to do the math.  And after an hour of amazing panoramic views from our window-side table we were permitted exclusive after-hours access to the observation deck for as long as we liked.  We liked long time.  Follow this space for more sporadic life hacks.)

I asked the lady in the booth why I didn’t see the cheaper tickets online and was told that they only sell the less expensive seats in person so they can explain the seating situation face-to-face.  Proving her point she explained that our seats were elevated at the back of the room and far away from the stage.  No worries, we were just as interested in the theatre as we were in the opera and we reasoned that seats in the back would afford the best views of the room itself.  Sold!

Pleased with our purchases we pressed on, crossing bridges, taking pictures and just generally being tourists enjoying a relaxing stroll through Venice.  We stopped for lunch and had a curious exchange with the waitress.  She asked if we both wanted a drink.  M’lady said no, I said yes, but we indicated that we would both be having lunch.  Then the waitress gathered up m’lady’s lunch menu and the drink menu and scurried off with them.

So the two of us decided what we’d be having by handing the single menu back and forth.  When the waitress returned I ordered the lasagna and m’lady ordered minestrone.  The waitress seemed shocked and explained that we must both order the same thing: either two lasagnas, two minestrones, or two orders of both.  What???  We said no, we wanted what we wanted and she eventually relented, but insisted that said she could only do it if we were willing to wait.  We told her that we were willing to wait.

And not three minutes later she brought our food; hot, ready, and just as we had ordered it.  Weird.  Very tasty though.

After lunch we wandered more and more, and every turn brought further splendour.  We considered taking a gondola ride but then thought it might be nicer to wait until dusk.  While window-shopping I found a coin store – a recent re-obsession that I had lost as a teenager when my childhood collection was stolen – and stopped in.  I spent the next hour poring over countless ancient Roman pieces.  I was interested in several pre-Jesus coins but they started at three hundred and fifty euros each.  I ended up with a coin depicting Julia Maesa (mother of Alexander Severus) from the year 222.  I selected it because it has a woman on the obverse and it’s in pretty good shape for its age.  I bargained down from a hundred and twenty euros to a hundred and ten and though I suspect I may have overpaid (like I did with the coffees) I’ve decided to not worry myself about it (again, like the coffees).  Besides, it’s both a souvenir from this trip and a nifty addition to my coin collection so it serves double-duty*.

We meandered and perused until about 6pm and then we went back to our hotel room and chilled out for an hour or so, eventually heading out to eat at a place just around the corner that had been recommended to m’lady.  I had the gnocchi bolognese, m’lady had the cheese-stuffed maxi-ravioli, and we shared a half-litre of wine.  It was a good meal, again not astounding (I was expecting to swoon over the food at every turn) but good, with a hell of an atmosphere.  

Strolling back to the hotel it occurred to us that we had forgotten to take that gondola ride.  No matter, there’s still plenty of time.  We’ll certainly do it before we leave.  

And there went our first full day in Venice .  Not too shabby considering we spent half of it sleeping in.

*Doing a little research after the fact I’ve determined that if my coin is genuine then I probably paid a reasonable price for it.  I suspect I will never find out if it’s real or not and that’s fine with me.  It’s still a pretty coin and it’s unquestionably an actual real bona fide souvenir from my trip to Venice, so in that regard it’s clearly genuine.

092316 The Phoenix

Our hotel offered a free breakfast, a pretty standard feature ‘round these parts.  Given the previous day’s wallet-emptying morning coffees I made sure not to miss it on day two.  I pulled myself out of bed at 9:45, fifteen minutes before brekky shut down.  

M’lady wasn’t feeling so great so she tried to catch a few more winks while I went downstairs to the buffet.  I was greeted by a friendly server; I asked for coffee, she said “sure” and I grabbed myself a plate.  The food was well-presented and quite varied.  I selected a couple of small sandwiches, a croissant, and a few of those little foil triangles of cheese and sat myself down.  And oh, the glee! when my server plunked a full pot of coffee on the table, all of it for me.

That pot of coffee had a street value of almost a hundred euro and I drank the whole thing down, save the cup I saved to carry up to the room for m’lady, along with a yoghurt.  Despite the coffee and snack she was still in no rush to run around town so we chilled in the room until 1:30 or so.  

M’lady hanging out (in) our room

When we did go out it was just for a short walkabout.  We checked into train tickets, bought postcards, and just generally swooned around the neighbourhood holding hands and walking slow.  We made it back to the room in time to spend an hour getting shut out of Gord Downie tickets (again) and then we got dolled up in our finest clothes.

We stopped for dinner, our only real meal of the day.  I didn’t really feel like Italian food but whattya gonna do?  I ordered lasagna (again) and m’lady had soup (again, again).  We shunned wine at dinner in case vino had been the vine of m’lady’s morning malady and we got out of there with plenty of time to get to the Teatro Fenice (Phoenix Theatre).

The Teatro Fenice is the most famous theatre in Italian opera.  It was built as a replacement after the main theatre in town had burned down – hence the “Phoenix” name – and it opened in 1792 (Mozart was still alive then though he never played the room).  Unfortunately the name seemed to be looking forward as much as backward: the place burned to the ground in 1836 and then again as recently as 1996 (this time of arson).  It once again reopened in 2003 after extensive renovations brought it back to it’s original design.  

Teatro Fenice

We were seeing La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, a rather famous opera that was premiered in this very building in on March 6th, 1853.  We had our tickets punched and went up, up, up to the 5th level where we found our seats in the astounding thousand-seat room.  Below us the floor only held about a dozen rows; all the rest of the seats were in boxes like ours that formed a massive cylindrical horseshoe that embraced the stage.

Our seats were described as “obstructed view” and they definitely were.  We were seated in the second row so the orchestra pit and the front of the stage steeply below us were cut off from our vision and were only visible when we craned our necks.  Moments before the show started the two empty seats in front of us were taken up by an elderly couple who leaned forward and further obstructed our view for the whole evening.  No big deal though, I’m fidgety anyway so I craned and ducked while m’lady sat zen-like with her eyes shut and we followed along well enough.

At the first intermission we stuck to the 5th level and took some pics.  At the second intermission we walked down to the lobby bar.  That’s when I noticed firemen standing on every level in the stairway.  I guess management at the old Phoenix isn’t taking any chances.

In the end we both had a good time but neither of us were that impressed with the opera itself.  The entire third act was basically the death of Violetta, but c’mon, die already!  There was no mystery nor any surprises, and it had a very thin plot.  I thought it would have had more oomph…more melody.  Matter of fact, I might just go home and write an opera myself just to make sure it’s as easy as it looks.  Anyone got a good libretto they’re not using?

After the show we strolled slowly back to the hotel, window-shopping along the way and detouring just enough to get a tiny bit lost, our favourite Venetian pastime.  I’d like to say we were humming Verdi the whole way, but we weren’t. 

092416 Murano, Burano, Dumbmano

Burano

Ah, another free breakfast in the hotel, and this time m’lady joined me.  We were seated at the first table and I wolfed down on any number of tiny breakfast hors d’oeuvres as m’lady ate almost nothing and a yoghurt.  We drank up all the coffee though, of that you can be sure.

M’lady had planned a fun excursion for us to a couple of neighbouring islands.  We looked at the water-bus schedule and saw that we’d be passing a cemetery island along the way so of course I insisted on a stop.

As usual, we window-shopped along the way.  M’lady found a place where she wanted to buy everything but we decided to check out the wares on the islands first, so on to the water-bus stop we went.

We found the stop okay and noticed that people were scanning passes before getting on the platform.  It looked very much like The Thing To Do.  It seemed like even our innocent neck-stretching peeks onto the platform looking for a ticket kiosk was probably felony trespassing, had we been eyed by the transit authority.

But we couldn’t find a place to buy tickets anywhere.

Eventually a helpful lady directed us to go over the next bridge, we would find tickets there.  And eventually we did, spotting a bank machine-style ticket-dispensing contraption where we bought day passes for the water-bus.  Then we set out to use them.

We were among the few that disembarked at the cemetery.  Suckers.  We were greeted by a sign that said no photography, no shorts, and no lots of other things too.  We put our cameras away and went in, compliant all-around.  

San Michele cemetery island

With much of Venice being an island I’m sure burying people six feet deep is a bit of a challenge so they stepped up to the challenge with the San Michele cemetery island, which must be at least a half-kilometre square.  There were vaulting mausoleums and walls of morgue-like graves, as well as many standard North American-style graves as well.  Several notables are buried in the island but there was one I was quite interested in paying my respects to: Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky.  

It took some time to find his grave despite the clear and numerous signs pointing the way.  I guess it’s because his tomb (and that of his wife who lies next to him) are so very plain.  Each was a slab of stone low to the ground containing just the name of the deceased in plain script and nothing more.  No dates, no homages to the composer’s greatness, nothing but the name: Igor Stravinsky.

We took no pictures, of course.

We hopped on the next water-bus and took it to Murano, an island famous for it’s glass making.  And boy, are they still into it.  Like, big time.  

After tucking into a few tourist shops (including one that prominently featured a sign – in four languages – that read, “You only want information – I only want half a euro”) and quickly found a nice place to stop for a beer.  It was a beautiful day so we sat out on the patio by the water and ordered a couple of local brews.  And – as is the local habit – with our beers they brought us a generous bowl of potato chips.  I love it!

After our leisurely break we sauntered until we found the glass museum.  We hummed and hawed and decided to go in.

It wasn’t the most interesting museum in the world but it laid a solid foundation that informed our afternoon of windowshopping around the island.  Certainly the few euros the museum charged for admission was well spent.  The self-guided walk through the beautiful old building began with a video loop on the history and different styles of glass in Murano.  Get this: clear glass was first invented in Murano!  There was a time when leaving the island without expressed permission would be considered treason, such was the local authorities interest in protecting Murano’s trade secrets.

Really, the building that housed the glass museum could have been a museum on its own.  It was a big, old, fancy house.  Every ceiling had a different painted motif on it, it was really quite a pad.  Out back they had a sarcophagus display with mini-tombs going back to the year 800.  Pretty cool.  

After the museum we then started cruising the glass shops in earnest.  There were a few touristy standards that you would find in 90% of the shops, but every shop had unique stuff.  Some of it was hugely expensive too, and all of it very awesome and ornate.  But how to get it home?

M’lady had read somewhere about Shop 52.  I hadn’t noticed but the shops were all numbered, so we walked along popping our heads into this shop and that shop but we were always on the lookout for Shop 52.  When we finally found it we found it had been closed down.

No worries, there were many more to pick from!  Though truth be told I think the main purchases were the two or three mini-monuments I bought for my rather extensive and long-standing collection.  Like, I have a mini Eiffel Tower, a mini Leaning Tower of Pisa, a mini Neuschwanstein Castle, oh, I got almost a hundred of the silly little things.  It’s pretty much the only souvenir I ever buy though, and one of the rules is they have to be less than $20 (oh, there are rules!).  Now I have a mini Saint Marks to add to the pile, and a mini Leaning Tower of Burano too.  

And speaking of segues, as soon as we found the afternoon beginning to wane we jumped ship and hopped the water-bus to the next island over: Burano.

The leaning tower of Burano

Which was a much nicer place really, and there were about 99% less glass shops.  The houses were all painted in bright colours and it looked extra magical as we meandered during the sunset, though it was a bit dark for the many pictures we took to do it justice.  There was a square (of course) with a church (of course) and we found a nice restaurant within sight of the church tower with a wonderful, friendly waiter.  We dined on the patio in the light of the twilight sun with the cobbled stones under our feet.  It was dreamy.

Our meal was good, and when we asked the the bill our waiter offered us complimentary shots of grappa, which is like tequila with an added kick.  Like I say: dreamy.

We swooned our way through the streets back to the water-bus stop where I almost made us miss our boat when in complete and utter consternation I kept trying in vain to scan my museum receipt instead of my water-bus pass.  If you saw the two pieces of paper I think you’d see that it’s not as stupid as it sounds.  I least I hope you would.  At the last possible moment I realized my mistake and frantically scanned the water-bus pass and leapt on the boat.

We ended up changing vessels on mainland Venice, our only stop after departing Burano.  We were only on solid ground for a moment though, just long enough to walk a few steps from our water-bus to the much bigger boat.  That boat carried us halfway around Venice back our ‘hood where we continued our swooning under the stars and the lights of the spectacular San Marco’s Square. 

On our short walk back to the hotel we had to push through a few guys touting us with free roses, but otherwise it was an excellent day in the books.  Again.

092516 Art, Music, Genius, Pizza

This was our last full day in Venice and though we’d already had quite a bit time to spend exploring the city already we woke up with a long list of must-sees still to see.  So we got up, got ourselves to the hotel breakfast and got on our way with as little dallying as our vacation attitude would allow.

We had purchased 24-hour water-bus passes the previous day so we decided to take advantage of the money spent and cruise the Grand Canal before the passes expired at 12:30pm.  We walked to the nearest water-bus stop and hopped on, taking seats in the open back area and keeping our cameras at the ready.  We rode until we got bored and hopped off somewhere in the vicinity of a few attractions we were hoping to find.

We scratched our heads and craned our necks as we walked this way and that in search of the Peggy Guggenheim Museum and what do you know, serendipity led us straight to the front door of the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum – which was definitely on the day’s list – as serendipity tends to do.

The Da Vinci museum

There was a good ethnomusic band busking outside for tips, including a guy that played a very curious flute that changed pitch solely through embouchure fluctuations and by taking his hand on and off the hole at the end on the flute.  We listened for a couple of songs, took a couple of pictures and short videos and threw a few euros in their case.

Housed inside a gorgeous old church, The Da Vinci Museum is comprised of recreations of the master’s inventions in an open-concept, hands-on environment, and it was awesome.  You could crank a handle and operate ball bearings yes, Da Vince invented the ball bearing), bicycle chains (mm-hmm, he invented the bicycle chain too, oh, and the bicycle), cam shafts (another very clever invention of his and it was super-fun to make them spin around and do their camming), mock machine guns (it’s surprising how many military devices he invented, including the tank) and countless other creations (like, countless), any one of which would have been enough to immortalize Da Vinci’s name in history.  Taken together they are evidence of one of the greatest minds in recorded history and yet they still amount to just a fraction of why everyone on the planet for the last 500 years has known his name implicitly.  The guy basically invented anatomy and oh yeah, there was that whole best-painter-in-history bit with The Last Summer and The Mona Lisa and stuff. Basically, we’re talking about history’s greatest Renaissance Man (literally).

Leonardo Da Vinci invented almost everything in this picture

The single room was small but all the exhibits held our attention for nearly an hour.

Back on the cobbled street we stopped for a slice of pizza and found a stoop by the canal to sit and enjoy our lunch.  I made the mistake of sharing a bit of crust with a cool little pigeon that was lurking nearby and soon a bunch of his decidedly uncool friends dropped in for a piece of the action.  We shooed them away but like big feathered houseflies they just wouldn’t shake until we finished our slices.  With their meal tickets unpunched the birds scattered and we headed to find the Guggenheim.

Which was right around the next corner or two.  We bought our tickets and shelled out for the audio guides so we could get smarter.  We started in the outdoor garden which contained about a dozen nifty sculptures.  Inside we strolled through the late Ms. Guggenheim’s lovely home and gawked at a mob of very serious art on the walls.  Peggy was a firm believer in buying art only from living artists and she did most of her collecting in the ’40’s so the place was full of work by Picasso, Kandinsky, Pollack, Braque and a host of other modern surrealists.  

We took a break on the divine canal patio which featured a few more sculptures, including my favourite Angel Of The City.  I even bought the t-shirt.

The audio guides slowed us down some and we often lingered over pieces as we took in the narrative but we still got out of there with plenty of time to continue our cultural treasure hunt.  

Next up was another church, this one containing a very cool musical instrument collection of violins, violas, viola de gambas and other oddities that dated back centuries.  Unlike the Da Vinci museum these were the real deal and everything was kept behind glass.  

Then…let’s see now…we stopped into the nearby Teatro Fenice where I looked in vain for a postcard to commemorate our night out seeing La Traviata, m’lady got a gelato at one of the ten million gelato places, we stopped into a small art shop and bought three beautiful prints directly from the artist himself (including one of the Teatro Fenice, which made up for the postcard strikeout), and finally we got back to our hotel and recharged our camera batteries and our weary bodies.  

The Rialto Bridge

After a leisurely rest we headed back out to find a restaurant that m’lady’s friend had recommended.  We crossed the famous Rialto Bridge in the fading light and immediately and unknowingly walked right by the Trattoria Alla Madonna.  We proceeded to walk almost forever through endless winding alleys before we finally circled back and found the restaurant just a few steps from the Rialto.

The Trattoria Alla Madonna has been there as long as Venice has been there.  Apparently they started by serving food under a vine tree and they eventually built a restaurant around it.  That very same vine tree still lives and it grows out of the ceiling.  We had to wait a while for a seat and when we got one it was crowded.  We didn’t have much elbow room but who cares?  The food was good and the service was perfect.  The waiter chastised me for not ordering wine and everything.  

After dinner we walked back over the Rialto, wound our way through San Marco Square and found Harry’s Bar, a very busy and overpriced place famous for having invented The Bellini.  M’lady and I found a table upstairs and ordered a pair of their famous drinks (of course).  

I was taken aback to find out that their “invention” was merely a matter of mixing Champagne with peach juice.  That’s it.  Slap a clever name (I guess) on it, make sure a few celebrities are overheard ordering one in some fancy New York City cocktail bar and whammo for the next forever you get to charge eighteen euros for a 300ml glass of the stuff.

Even without audio guides, at that price we lingered.

I got the bill and tried my best to pay it with a straight face and then we exited the bar and emerged into a gorgeous evening and walked along the fairy-tale cobblestone alleys back to our boutique hotel  holding hands like we were in some sort of romantic fantasy world.

I don’t even like peach juice.  

092616 Gondolas, Trains, and Waterbuses

For the first time this trip I set the alarm clock (the one I brought with me – there was no clock in the room).  This was our absolute last chance at Venice – we had a train to catch – and we were going to use it.

We ate our final breakfast in the hotel restaurant and cameled up on as much coffee as we could.  After we ate our fill we paid the hotel bill and left our bags with the concierge before setting out in search of a gondola for a romantic morning ride through the canals.  We found one, I attached my GoPro onto the hull of the ornate craft, and we sat and swooned as our gondolier prodded us through a myriad of waterways for the next hour.  It was simply dreamy.

Back on solid land I paid the guy the standard fare of eighty euros and we trucked over to San Marcos Square where we got into the ever-prodigious but fast-moving lineup to enter the Basilica.  I suppose that one of the reasons the Basilica is so popular with tourists is because admission is free, although m’lady had to rent a shawl to cover her obscenely bare shoulders and once you’re inside they charge a few euros to see anything beyond the main room.  The only extra fee we paid was to see the tomb of Saint Mark, whose body had been smuggled to Venice in a vat of olive oil or some such liquid about twelve hundred years ago.  Once he arrived he was laid to rest in the sarcophagus that lays behind the Basilica’s altar.  Turns out we could have saved our four euros as the sarcophagus is plainly visible from the main area, but we did get to see a nifty wall of ornate gold flake that would have been otherwise out of our view.

Afterwards m’lady had some shopping to do.  We walked together and rediscovered the glass shop she had found before we went to Murano a few days before.  i left her to sift through their wares while I found a grocers and bought a beer and a bag of chips to enjoy while waiting which I did, very much.  I should have bought two beers.

Eventually m’lady picked out a thousand things and put two back, and I even bought a little something too.  We went back to the hotel and grabbed our bags before hopping on the water-bus towards the train station.  

On the packed boat I noticed an elderly lady sitting a dozen feet away holding a napkin to her arm.  The kerchief was clearly drenched in blood.  She appeared to be alone and though she seemed calm and relaxed she kept fussing with the bloody napkin and I was concerned for her.  

I knew I had a bunch of clean napkins in my camera bag and I started digging them out.  Meanwhile the lady had left her seat and stood near where the passengers wait to jump off the boat.  I had just found my napkins when we pulled up to the next stop.  I expected her to get off with the rest of the passengers but she didn’t, and it was now clear that she was definitely alone.  I approached her and offered her my napkins.  She accepted them gratefully and transferred them to her arm.  

It was then that I saw the wound.

It was deep and it was ugly, about three inches along her forearm.  I don’t know what she did to injure herself so significantly but it wasn’t bleeding very much and she assured me that she was okay.  I went back to my spot and kept my eye on her until she disembarked a short time later at a popular stop that was rife with hotels.  I hope she’s okay.

We made it to the station with little time to spare before the next train to Trieste.  I thought what the heck? and bought tickets in first class for twenty euro instead of thirteen and we rushed to our platform.  We ran alongside the identical cars and couldn’t find a soul that would direct us to the first class cabin.  When we got all the way to the last car we hopped on for fear that the train would pull out without us and settled into a seat.

M’lady asked around and found that the car just ahead of us was first class.  We grabbed our stuff and moved up only to find an identical car.  It was air-conditioned though, which came in very handy at the time given we were were huffing and puffing from our rush along the platform, and due to the inflated price it was much emptier than the other cars.  Even when we stopped to pick up more passengers m’lady and I remained free to keep our luggage comfortably on a group of seats next to us while we relaxed in an adjoining quartet of seats all by ourselves.

A young guy behind us came up and told me not to put my feet up on the seats and being Canadian I obeyed while inwardly cursing him for the remaining duration of the journey.  I’ve gotten the old “hey buddy we don’t put our feet up on the seats on public transportation ‘round these parts” thing several times in my travels and I just don’t get it.  Do people eat off the seats here in Europe when nobody’s looking or something?  Sheesh.

I put my grumblings aside – ain’t nobody gonna steal my joy – and cast my gaze out the window.  After getting shuttled from the Venice airport in a water taxi and spending the intervening days carousing along narrow alleys and arched bridges over endless canals this was my first time seeing the Italian countryside and I was delighted.  Pastures dotted with red-roofed houses and fields of what I can only guess were grapevines zipped by, separated by canals and winding rivers.  I kept my feet firmly on the floor and enjoyed the ride.

In Trieste we found our hotel just a short walk from the train station.  We experienced the easiest and quickest checkin ever and relaxed a bit before hitting the town.  We stopped for some lunch at a sidewalk bistro where I really, really enjoyed a beer and a burger while watching the town flitter by.  After lunch we marvelled at the Roman Theatre that had been unearthed right in the centre of town.  My first Roman ruins!  Pretty sweet.  It was so cool to witness the original design of the arena seating style that I’ve utilized a thousand times inside a hundred different stadiums.

Roman Theatre of Trieste
Teatro Romano

We strolled up up up through a war memorial park and checked out a church that sat perfectly atop the hill.  I stepped inside briefly and was thrilled to hear an organ player warming up the pipes for a concert that very evening.  I ate up the decor and feasted on the ancient sound before joining m’lady back outside.  I bought a beer at a little curio stand and we sat placidly overlooking the city.

We took a few pictures of the sunset from up there and finally descended through a lovely park and the usual mishmash of cobbled streets to the ubiquitous town square.  The square was quite magnificent in the fading light so we marvelled for a while.  Afterwards we crossed the road and sat staring blissfully out at the sea.

Sigh.

We ended our night by finding the bus station (right next to the train station and very near our hotel) where we were just minutes too late to enquire in person about tickets for the following morning.  We managed to decipher the posted schedule and, comfortable that we had our pending departure safely mapped out, we went back to our hotel (after a quick stop at the grocers along the way to stock up on water and beers).

Trieste’s Piazza Unità D’Italia

092716 When in Rome…err…Piran

Piran

I just love that breakfast is always included with the hotel stays ‘round these parts.  The restaurant was up on the top floor of the hotel and it had a pretty nice self-serve spread, and I spread a lot of it directly into my mouth.  

Before breakfast I had run over to the nearby bus station and purchased a pair of tickets to Piran, Slovenia for like, no money.  I don’t recall what it cost, but it was barely even a pittance.

After we ate we packed everything up and went over to the station and waited for the bus.  I pulled a beer out of my carry-on and sipped on it as we sat twiddling on the bench.  Drinking in public is just so darned civilized.  I’m really surprised that hardly anybody else does it, though it was rather early I suppose.

By the time I finished my second beer the bus was ready to go.  Of the forty or so passengers only three of us were men.  M’lady and I guessed that there might be a shopping mall across the border and sure enough, shortly after we crossed the invisible line separating Italy and Slovenia the bus pulled into a large, busy shopping centre and three-quarters of the bus emptied.

The views of Slovenia during the next hour-and-a-half ride were stunning.  In Piran we got off the bus and walked literally a few hundred metres to our hotel, which sat right on the Adriatic Sea.  We decided against upgrading to a sea-view room and when we checked into our room and opened our double-wide window to find a beautiful church bell tower poking above a stunning sea of red-tiled roofs.  We were well-pleased with our decision.

We stepped out the back door of the hotel and walked along the concrete waterfront, feasting our eyes on the many restaurant menus and amazing old stone buildings.  We rounded a corner past the ancient monastery and strolled until the cliffs stopped us from going any farther.

We decided to save the city walls for another day and headed to Tartini Square, centred with a scaffolded statue of the namesake locally-born composer and violin virtuoso that was undergoing renovations.  

We found a place for dinner and I had the best ravioli I’ve ever eaten.  M’lady raved about her salad for the next two days.  We lingered over wine, dessert and beers and when we could linger no longer we walked perhaps two hundred feet back to our hotel.  

The hotel didn’t have a power converter that I could borrow so without the internet to eat up my time I gathered all my dirty clothes together and went to a very efficient self-serve laundromat just a few alley twists away (m’lady had no use for the laundromat – she had somehow brought enough clothes with her to last for the whole trip).  There was a grocers just across the way so I bought a couple of beers and enjoyed them as I relaxed on the stoop of the laundry.

It was glorious.

When I took all my fresh, clean clothes back up to the room I found m’lady laying in bed reading a book.  I was still vibing on a drink-beers-in-the-streets thing so I grabbed a couple and went out behind the hotel and sat along the sea wall.  

Toddman along the seawall

I parked myself on the waist-high wall a dozen feet away from a young man who was sitting under a streetlamp.  I noticed that he was fiddling with something in his lap and glanced over just as he raised his head.  Our eyes me and he gave me a quick, wide smile.  He held up a joint that he had just finished rolling.  “Would it bother you if I lit this?” he asked me politely.  “Does it bother you that I’m drinking this?” I replied with a laugh, holding up my beer with a cheers-like flourish.

Marej invited me to join him and soon three of his buddies came by.  They were all young as well, in second and third year of university.  The new school year was starting up in a few days and they were killing time before returning to school in Ljubljana after a summer working in the busy tourist industry there in Piran.  

I ended up spending the rest of the evening with Marej and his friends and I had a great time.  I popped upstairs for more beers and told m’lady what I was up to; she patiently kept at her book.  Back downstairs more and more friends gathered until there were more than a dozen of us talking and laughing under the streetlamp.  I’m quite surprised that there were no complaints from the hotel.  Marej’s dealer came by and half the kids lined up to buy a couple of grams each, the acceptable amount that the cops would let you get away with possessing.  By this time I was ready to retire so I bid my new friends goodnight and shook hands all around.  Marej offered to show me around town the next day so we exchanged emails.

Then I finally joined m’lady upstairs and after one more droopy-eyed drink I joined her in the big king-sized bed.  It looks like Slovenia is going to be a lot of fun!

092816 Our Man in Piran

After enjoying a very nice, leisurely breakfast on the terrace overlooking the Adriatic m’lady and I lingered over coffees and thought up a relaxed schedule for the day.  Our plans involved shopping a bit, swimming even less and checking out the city wall, and that’s exactly what we did.

I went down to the front desk (again) and asked if there was a power adaptor available to borrow (again) and (again) I was told theirs were all loaned out.  I enquired again and again (sorry) throughout the day with similar success.  I wouldn’t normally be so hung up on electronics but my computer was completely out of power to the point that it refused to turn on and I was expecting an email from the guy I had met behind the hotel the night before.  Marej had offered to show us around town and here I was, stuck without the ability to respond.  

I felt bad about standing him up but I refused to let it ruin my day.  Ah yes, to the day:

Our shopping was rather light: m’lady bought some salt at the salt store, both healing and eating varieties.  Apparently Slovenia is known for having good salt, such that they have salt stores.  Who knew?  She tried on several white cotton skirts and pants in another store, eventually making a few purchases while I sat on a park bench in Tartini Square admiring a statue of the locally-born composer through its reparative scaffolding.  

Tartini Square

The swimming component of our afternoon was short, for me at least.  I’m not crazy about swimming salt water but I relented and jumped in for ten seconds or so.  It was a short dip but enough that I felt like I needed a shower to rid my body of bothersome brine before walking up to the city wall.

And walk up we did (after I showered and asked again about the adaptor).  We started in the courtyard of the church and the bell tower, but decided not to go in.  The cobbled street behind the complex wound up and out of sight at an impressive angle but the city wall turned out being just a short walk, albeit steep.  It was nearly closing time but we managed to squeak in a quick self-guided tour.

The wall (which had been moved several times over the centuries as the town behind it grew) is a stone facade.  If you were attacking it you might assume that it was the side of some great fortress but in reality it was just a flat wall with narrow walkways near the top and several deceptive half-turrets.  To explore the wall we clambered up thin, winding staircases and ladders and wow, there were some great views of the city from up there.  Being so late in the afternoon it was pretty deserted up there.  We zigzagged inside one of the barren towers where we felt very, very safe from intruders.  

Though we couldn’t help but to take a bunch of pictures we both agreed the light would be infinitely better in the morning, so we made loose plans to maybe perhaps possibly perchance come back up to the wall the next morning and descended back to the town square.  Along the way I struck up just the nicest conversation with two elderly British ladies.  It wasn’t the content of the conversation that I enjoyed so much, but the sound of the speech and the hilarious colloquialisms.  British accents can be so musical.  I could have listened to them speak for hours.

A short stop in the square led us back to the hotel where we dropped off our cameras and walked the waterfront twice exploring the restaurant menus before deciding on a pizzeria/spaghetteria for dinner.  I had a really good pizza and a great salad and we waited absolutely forever the waiter to bring our bill.

But I didn’t care.  In between overt glances cast in the direction of our comically oblivious waiter we easily passed the time gazing deeply into each other’s eyes and swooning over the excellent vacation we were having.  

Then a short hand-in-hand stroll listening to the waves crashing into the pier and just like that we were back in our lovely room.  I cast open the shutters and we laid in bed basking in the subtle glow of the moonlight reflecting off the town’s bell tower just outside our window.

092916 The Ljubljana Cannonball

We managed to get out of bed in time for our lackadaisically-planned return visit to the city walls of Piran, so we did it.  We laid there for a while dreading such a steep early morning climb up the hill but in reality it wasn’t so bad, and as a reward the guy in the ticket booth let us in for free when m’lady showed him yesterday’s ticket stubs and explained that we just wanted to get some pictures from the tower in the morning light.  

The rooftops of Piran

It was worth it.  With the city laid out the way it is the pictures came out much more vibrant under the glean of sunrise than they had during twilight.

Back at the hotel we enjoyed another breakfast overlooking the sea and checked out.  A short stroll away we opted to wait for a free tourist bus that dropped us a few hundred metres down the road at the actual bus stop.  

After about forty minutes (during which m’lady received a burning evil eye when the gelato lady came to open her shop for the day and found a cute little tourist and her luggage standing in front of the side door to her gelato stand, a move that definitely cost her her first sale of the day) we got on the bus to Slovenia’s capitol city, Ljubljana (roughly pronounced “Lubbly-Anna”).  When we started off the bus was almost empty.  We stopped here and there and took on a few more passengers but after stopping for a group of students the bus packed out, standing room only.  Full or not, the scenery outside the bus was absolutely lovely as pleasant landscapes dotted with red-roofed houses slid by.  Slovenia sure is beautiful.

In Ljubljana we got off the bus and piled our bags on the sidewalk.  As we were flagging a cab a guy approached us looking to bum some change, the only time that would happen on the whole trip.  Our taxi driver was super-friendly and even gave us a pass for the city funicular that a previous passenger had left in his cab.  He surprised us by asking, “So, you will be visiting Ljubljana for just one night before vacationing in Croatia?” and we surprised him right back by telling him no, we were excited to be spending the remainder of our vacation exploring his beautiful country.  He smiled broadly and thanked us generously before grossly overcharging us for the ride to our hotel (17.5 euros + tip; I’ll never understand tipping).

The hotel was nice, very eco-friendly with hallway lights on motion sensors and the room electricity running only when you slid your key into the appropriate slot.  They even had a power adaptor available for us so I was able to power up and I immediately sent an email apologizing to Marej for semi-standing him up on his offer to show us Piran the day before.  After we settled in we had the desk clerk call us another cab and we rode back in to the city centre (for 3.5 euros; this is when we discovered our first cabby’s lack of scruples).

My goodness, downtown Ljubljana is so very, very nice.  Like, amazing.

The entire downtown core is pedestrian-only with wide, winding cobbled streets running over and around a canal rich with ornate bridges.  There are lots of cool statues and architecture anywhere you look and people are out in droves having a good time everywhere.  And all of it is overlooked by the stunning Ljubljana Castle perched high up on a hill overlooking the city.

Ljubljana Castle overlooks everything in Slovenia’s amazing capital city

It was all so very beautiful.  I can’t even…

We stopped at one of countless restaurants and though the temperature was dropping we opted to sit at one of the tables outside on the sidewalk.  Cyclists whizzed by and pedestrians carried bags from the shops as we sipped beers and casually pored over the menu.  I had all but decided on the goulash when m’lady asked the waiter, “What is this thing called a ‘Ljubljana Cannonball’?”

When the waiter explained that a Ljubljana Cannonball was a deep fried ball of crumbled chicken stuffed with bacon, peanuts, and a local cheese called kajmak and held his hands in front of him like he was holding a small bowling ball, well I just had to change my order.  I can’t believe I ate the whole thing and survived to tell you about it but it was so good I just couldn’t let even a crumb escape my gulliver, even if it meant barely touching the also-amazing roasted potatoes.

(I just searched google hoping to find a photo of a Ljubljana Cannonball and discovered that it was the signature dish at Mediterraneo, so now I know the name of the restaurant.  Unfortunately I also learned that Meditarraneo has since been shuttered, and that the Ljubljana Cannonball is no more.  No photos exist of the astounding entrée but I will cherish the memory forever.)

Add in a generous sheep cheese starter and way too much bread (of course…curses to good bread before a great meal) and by the time the bill came I could barely move, though I was quite chilly by then so I had to.  We followed dinner with more walking through the pretty streets and when it came time to get a taxi back to our hotel I was still so full that I suggested we walk the two or three kilometres back instead – anything to work off some of that wonderful food that was seriously stretching my stomach lining.  Thank ye gawds I somehow had the good sense to leave some of the potatoes.  Having good sense and not eating all my potatoes are not generally in my nature.   

And what a pleasant, relaxing walk it was too.  We zig-zagged a straight-shot along the main drag that brought us past scores of nifty statues and engaging architecture which, combined with the beer, food, and wine rocked us pretty hard.  Despite the walk I was still too stuffed for a nightcap when we got back.

But I suppose that’s what I get for eating an entire bacon-stuffed chicken cheese cannonball.  With nuts.

Ljubljana Castle

093016 Cycling Ljubljana

Breakfast at the hotel was quite tasty which was good because we needed to fuel up for a calorie-burning day.  Our hotel offered bicycles for rent so we booked a couple for the day.  After we ate we gathered our cameras and such and hit the road.

Or more accurately we hit the pathway, though we did end up on roads – albeit very narrow and nearly empty roads – for most of our ride.  We initially headed away from the city and followed our rudimentary pocket map until we were absolutely sure we had no idea where we were.  Out in the country passed quaint houses and expansive fields, small stands of trees and stout mountains topped with churches.  

When there was traffic it was very conscientious, giving us plenty of room on the side of the road when there was no bike path to be found.  We ended up going farther afield than we intended to, and as we were attempting to work our way back to the hotel we found ourselves instead in a dead end that proved to be a very industrial-looking city dump.  As an employee at the gate gave us directions he made small talk, asking about our intended travels around his country.  He grunted at this and that, finally telling us that we must go and find the Socha River in the country’s north-west.  In his opinion the Socha River was the most beautiful thing to see in all of Slovenia.

“The water runs the colour of a soldier’s tears,” he stated.  Duly noted.

His directions led us back to the hotel where we rested for a short while before setting out once again on our rented steeds.  This time we headed straight into the city.  We wound our cycles along the pretty bike paths to Tivoli Park, stopping to take pictures of several impressive mansions that have been converted into museums.

We stopped for lunch at Hot Horse, a popular foodstand that sells nothing but horsemeat (and fries and drinks).  They have hot dogs made out of horsemeat, horsemeat kebabs and horsemeat wraps too but of course I had the horseburger, and a beer.  It was pretty okay – it tasted kind of like a Harvey’s burger…almost suspiciously so – and it was huge; big enough to choke a horse (too soon?)!  Even with m’lady helping me with a few bites I still couldn’t finish it.  To be honest it’s not that I was full, but I eventually lost my appetite and I didn’t finish the burger (when have you ever heard me say that before?).  I ultimately found it too difficult to get past the weirdness of eating a horse  (though it’s interesting to note that it’s rather common to see horsemeat for sale in Quebec supermarkets) and just enjoy the food for what it was.  But I’m glad I tried it.

After lunch we rode through a nice park and made our way to the very nifty Dragon Bridge that serves as the central focus of the city.  We half-rode and half-walked through the busy old town, time and again passing by the restaurant where I ate my beautiful Ljubljana Cannonball.  Sigh.

We eventually parked our bikes and did a little souvenir shopping, took a bunch of pictures and happened upon a square full of international food and craft beer stands.  It was like a culinary Shakedown Street tailgate party and it was busy.  We grabbed a couple of beers and strolled through half of it, vowing to come back for dinner.

Armed with a single funicular ticket gifted to us by a cabbie we headed towards the base of Ljubljana Castle.  I purchased a second pass for the mountainside elevator and the two of us slid up the steep cliff to the front door of the grand structure.  The castle is comprised of a rather large compound with a large open square in the middle and it was stunning.  We wandered here and there before we finally found the ticket booth at the base of the tower.  

We paid our fees and walked a hundred steps up and around a steel spiral staircase, ultimately joining a handful of tourists at the top.  The views of the city from atop the highest point of a castle that is itself perched upon a mountain…well, they were just spectacular.  After a minute or two the other tourists disappeared back down the lengthy staircase leaving us alone on top of the world.  We gaped and gawked, held hands and took pictures and generally wallowed with impunity, utterly safe from surprise intrusion up there in our perch of lofty isolation as a giant Slovenian flag flapped in the crisp wind o’er our heads.

Dizzied with our milieu, when we finally descended we did so carefully.  When we reached the bottom we noticed that the info film had started.  So that’s why we had been left alone; everyone had come down to watch the film.  Now that the film had started we weren’t allowed to go in which was a-okay with us.  Instead we sat outside the little theatre gazing out the perfect turret windows and listening to the castle’s history through the closed doors.  We leaned back with a sigh, held hands, and fully appreciated the opportunity to enjoy the cozy experience all on our own.

We learned that the site had been occupied since the 1100’s, with the present castle being built in the 1400’s.  It was eventually turned into a prison – twice (but then, aren’t all castles self-imposed prisons?) – until the complex was ultimately purchased by the city and turned into a collection of museums and public places, such as it is now.

And speaking of museums, we did it all!  We went through the small and slightly creepy prison museum, I fell down some stairs in the poorly-lit modern art gallery and somehow didn’t break my leg, we visited the small but impressive chapel, but my favourite by far was their interactive puppet museum, which we had literally all to ourselves.  I put on a silly marionette show for m’lady and she put on a shadow-puppet performance for me; it’s good that we were alone ‘cuz we were laughing our heads off.  There was all kinds of things to pull, push and play with in there, and it was a whole lot of fun.  All-in-all our afternoon at the Ljubljana Castle was a great time.

With gravity on our side we shunned the funicular for the trip down and walked the very, very steep path back down to the city’s Old Town.  After witnessing first-hand what the walk up the mountainous hill would have been like we realized just how much of a bargain it was to have taken the funicular up for just 2.2 euros.

We went back to the food fair (passing my Cannonball place again on the way) and checked out every booth before we both decided on Zimbabwean food.  We found a spot in the still-crowded table area and enjoyed our dinner with a few beers.  The temperature was much warmer than the previous night and it was just a great evening to be out and about.  Obviously the hundreds of people eating, drinking and socializing around us agreed.

After dinner we meandered and stopped on one of the many canal bridges where we sat for a spell under a life-sized statue of Satan.  Who puts up a statue of Satan?!? 

We eventually retrieved our bicycles and rode again through the Old Town, this time with significantly less foot traffic we were free to concentrate on the beautiful architecture that constantly surrounded us.  We stopped in the main square and I almost went to the Illusion Museum but balked when m’lady was concerned that it would make her dizzy.  She took more pictures of the gorgeous town and finally, turning on our headlights and finding m’lady’s broken, we slowly cycled back to our hotel.  When we arrived well after nightfall one thing was certain: we had bled about as much as we could out of one day’s bike rental.

It had been a long, full day and we climbed the stairs to our room tired and happy.  The few drinks we had before bed probably weren’t necessary to help us sleep soundly but we didn’t let that stop us.

100116 Arches and Turrets

Otočec Castle

Packed everything up after breakfast and checked out of the hotel.  Got a cab down to the difficult-to-find car rental agency and when we found the door we found it locked, with a phone number taped to the window from the inside.  The main frustration that arises from travelling without a cellphone: everyone assumes you have one.  Fortunately another customer came up to the locked door and whipped out her cellphone (which is how these problems are always solved).  Five minutes later the man was handing me our car keys.

(Because I declined insurance the guy ran a 5,000euro deposit/charge on my Amex.  Good thing I recently upped my limit!)

The car had GPS, something I am normally loath to use but with no maps available (another thorn in my luddite craw) it would have to serve as our primary directive.  As we started out of the city I quickly noticed that the car would shut off its engine when we were stopped at a traffic light.  All I had to do was take it out of gear and take my foot off the clutch and so long as we were fully stopped the car shut down; as soon as I touched the clutch it started up again.  The traffic lights in Slovenia give out a quick amber before the green light which gives plenty of time for the car to start up.  I loved it, and the next car I purchased had this eco-feature, though it seemed like pretty much everyone in Slovenia was already on board because I saw/heard/smell basically no idling anywhere in the city.  Just one of the many reasons why Ljubljana is considered the Green Capitol of Europe.

Out on the highway we found the roads good and fast.  The speed limit was 130kms/hr on the highways and most people stuck to it.  I noticed little or no speeding at all.  If there was any deviation it was the occasional car that drove a little slow, but most vehicles stayed locked on the limits.  Mine did.

When we crossed the border into Slovenia the previous week I had noticed a sign that listed the country’s speed limits: 130kms/hr on highways, 90kms/hr on roads, and 50kms/hr within town and city borders.  It was lucky I saw that sign because speed limit signs were virtually non-existent on the roads.  Rather, there would be a sign indicating when a road would become a highway and the same sign with a line through it to indicate that you were leaving highway status.  This would be the only indication that you were allowed to speed up from 90kms/hr to 130kms/hr and vice-versa, though the differences between roads and highways was generally pretty obvious.

What was less obvious were the signs indicating a slowdown to 50kms/hr.  It took a while for me to realize that whenever I saw a sign with the name of a town on it, that sign was also (rather secretively) telling me that the speed limit had now decreased from 90kms/hr to 50kms/hr.  And just like the highway signs, when leaving said town there would be the same sign, this time with a line through it, telling me I could speed back up to 90kms/hr.

What took even longer to figure out were the occasional speed limit signs that I would see on the roadside.  Occasionally I’d notice a sign telling me to slow to 60 or 70kms/hr and and before you knew it I would have a line of impatient cars trailing behind me.  I would never, ever see a sign telling me I could go back to my previous speed.

Finally I noticed that all of these speed limit signs also included indicators of why we were slowing down, like an upcoming bridge, a school zone, or maybe a sharp curve ahead.  It finally dawned on me that once I passed said thing I was free to resume my speed, no sign needed.  That was a big “Aha moment”.

That said, I rarely hit 90kms/hr even when it was allowed to; the roads were just too winding, narrow, and picturesque. 

Our first stop was the town of Celje.  We parked and walked through their Old Town and stopped at McDonald’s for a snack, of all places.  I had seen ads everywhere for their new 1955 burger and I wanted to try it.  The main feature was caramelized onions and it made a significant difference.  Most notably, after ordering at the counter as per usual, the food was delivered to our table, restaurant-style.  Another difference: packs of ketchup were quite large – at least triple the size of the ones I’m used to – and they cost extra; you had to order them.

(Maybe it’s because my first legit job was a short stint at a McDonald’s in Richmond Hill when I was fourteen years old, I don’t know, but I’ve always been interested in the consistencies and differences between different McDonald’s’s.  Some serve beer.  I’ve seen McSquid on a menu, and poutine and lobster rolls.  In Russia the Happy Meals still come in a box.  I once had a hot dog at a McDonald’s.  There’s still an outlet in Florida that makes McPizza.  Big Macs can vary significantly in texture and taste and yet the McChicken tastes the same everywhere.  It’s fascinating research and it comes with lunch.)

We strolled through town and checked out some cool graffiti, stopped in a shop and bought some souvenirs and drove up, up, up the hill to visit the town castle.  With such amazing vistas we hummed and hawed about whether or not to even get out of the car to check out the fort-like castle and in the end we poked our heads inside for a quick lookabout.  The castle was small but nifty.  It had been converted into a community centre and included a fun sound installation and a small concert/theatre space in the courtyard.  

Soon enough we were back on the road, and what a road it was.  The drive was just a spectacular experience from start to finish, winding hither and nither over hill and dale through countless picturesque villages.  When the road came to a town it would inevitably snake through and around buildings that often jutted out into the road itself.  Clearly the houses, barns and shops have been around much longer than automobiles so when roads were eventually built they were forced to find a meandered path through every town and village they encountered, which is all of them.  The end result made me swoon with every community we slowly traversed.

At one point between villages we were following endless curves through the lush hills when I thought aloud, “What a great place this would be for a little swoon break”.  M’lady responded that she thought we’d find somewhere to pull off “right around here,” and around the very next turn we discovered a marble bench and table sitting in an immaculately manicured clearing surrounded by forest.  It was almost Disney-esque – made even moreso when we noticed that the marble was engraved with local animals and scenery – and eerily perfect.  We pulled in and swooned.

When we resumed our stellar drive our target was the castle at Otoçec.  As we drove over the bridge to the castle a collection of white swans swam underneath.  We parked at the castle’s front gate and walked in, our necks craning at the wondrous ancient walls and perfect turrets.  We found the front desk and stated in eager unison, “Checking in, please!”

That’s right: we were booked to spend the night in a 15th century castle that had been renovated into a five-star hotel, m’lady’s treat.

The woman at the desk smiled broadly and poured us each a glass of sparkling wine while she booked us in, then she walked us up to room 28, one of just fourteen rooms in the place.  We insisted that we could retrieve our luggage ourselves and she left us.  I cast open the large window to the back half of the gorgeous island outside.  Oh, did I mention that the castle had been built on a man-made island?  It’s the only “water-castle” in Slovenia and it’s on one of only four islands in the entire country.  Matter-of-fact, “Otočec” means “small island”.  The bottom line is that there was basically a moat around the castle and everything.  In the bathroom I cast open the other window which showed another side of the island – we had a corner room.

We went to the car and grabbed our luggage but before we went fifteen feet our desk lady was on top of us, insisting that she carry our bags upstairs.  She did; she was strong.  She must have seen us struggling with our bags on a closed circuit camera.  I made a mental note to watch out for them.

Back in the room I opened a beer, basked in the view and revelled in the fact that we were staying in an actual castle.  I was absolutely thrilled and I tell you, I enjoyed every minute.  

The room was as elegant as you’d imagine, as were the grounds within the castle walls, which were perfect for drinking, dining, or just relaxing.  Outside the castle we walked the entire island, first slowly walking the waterline that is in view of our room, and later crossing the road in front of the castle and along a path under the more-treed and larger other side of the island.  We sat on the sole bench that we found at the tip of the island and and swooned yet again as live music wafted over from a campground that sat just over the water, not 300 metres away.  

The sun started to set as we watched the swans puttering around in the distance.  We held hands and sighed together as the accordion music drifted to us through the warm evening air.  M’lady had just uttered the words “It’s magical” when three swans flew by not fifteen feet over our heads..  I’m not sure I even knew swans could fly.  Eventually a pair of swans swam right up to us and drifted around in the water just a few feet away.  

A flying swan.

When we couldn’t take the bliss any longer we rose from our bench and walked back to our castle, just a few hundred feet behind us.  We arrived back at our room and I called for my fiddlers three, I joke I would use freely for the ensuing hours.

We had dinner reservations at 8pm (again, m’lady’s treat) at the castle’s very, very fancy Grad Otoçec restaurant.  We were escorted to our table – which sported a placard with our names written in perfect calligraphy – and were presented with very exciting menus.  

After much consideration m’lady ordered the smoked salmon with leeks for her starter and beef and mushrooms with roasted potatoes for her main.  I went with a pumpkin soup and chicken fillets with bacon, tomato and zucchini.  M’lady and our extremely professional waiter consulted deeply on the most appropriate wine while I gaped around at the 500-year-old walls.

Soon a woman (not our server) brought out a plate and set in front of m’lady.  At first glance I was quietly horrified, thinking that this was her entrée.  In the centre of the large, white plate sat the tiniest, I mean one little sliver of flesh and a one-inch round of…was it cheese?  A moment later she plopped the same in front of me – it turns out these were our welcome-palette warmer uppers of ham and truffles.  It was tiny and it was delicious.

My soup was amazing, and along with the chicken and roasted potatoes it made for a pretty super supper.  We shared a traditional nutty cheesy dessert that was also really great.  As was the bottle of wine.

After dinner we grabbed beers from the room and walked the grounds some more.  Though the band at the nearby campground was done for the night we could hear the musicians jamming so we walked over to see if we could inject ourselves into a campfire sociable.  Just as we arrived at the closed gate (that we could have easily gotten around) the music stopped.  We waited there in the dark for about ten minutes but it seemed like things had shut down for the night so we opted not to trod in and try to make friends.

More strolling the castle grounds, more mead…In the end I went to bed a wee bit drunk and slept like a king.

(As if our stay at the castle wasn’t great enough, it was basically free.  Several months before m’lady had spent an inordinate amount of time on the phone resolving an issue with the booking site she uses.  After significant frustration she finally found a customer service representative on the line who not only resolved the original problem, but who also tacked on an extra couple of hundred dollars worth of hotel credits to make up for all the time m’lady had spent trying to make things right.  The credits covered our entire reservation.)  

100216 Castles, Caves, and Near-Crashes

I woke up in a castle.

Breakfast was amazing, and how could it be any less so?  I was a bit taken aback with what was probably the best omelet I’ve ever had, but not so much that I couldn’t get down some excellent chocolate cake for dessert.

Checking out of Otočec Castle was a bit sad but we managed.  We tempered our disappointment by starting our journey with a drive through a nearby and very lovely city called Novo Mesto, then on through the rain another twenty kilometres to the very picturesque Žuženberk Castle where we walked around a bit but didn’t spend near as much time as we would have had the weather been better.

It was a very neat castle, a thousand years old and very accessible in the middle of the town that grew up around it.  Now transformed into a community centre, inside the castle walls stages and workshop areas had been installed throughout.  The courtyard was Escher-esque with odd and angular staircases and platforms jutting from all directions but alas, it was all open to the dripping sky.  So after the briefest of look-arounds we found ourselves back in our little rental car careening along the winding country roads.

We came upon a town in the driving rain; the smooth road was slick with water.  Though the speed limit was 90kms/hr until we hit a town I was only doing 70kms/hr, trying to be safe.  When I saw the sign for the town (which automatically indicated a speed limit change) I pushed in the clutch, figuring I’d slow-coast to 50kms/hr instead of braking.  Hey, I’d save a millilitre of gas, wouldn’t I?

Well, right after the town sign there was a curve in the road, and at 70kms/hr we were going into the curve too fast.  And there was a car coming the other way.

I touched the brakes and we immediately started to hydroplane into the other lane, into the path of the oncoming car.  I took my foot off the brake and gripped the wheel tight.  We were still going too fast to hold our lane and the centrifugal force was pulling us over the line of the very, very narrow road while I held the wheel tight, trying to gauge how much I could turn it without spinning out of control.

In the three or four seconds that we were in danger I touched the brakes perhaps five times, just milliseconds of pressure trying to balance the danger of hydroplaning into that oncoming car against the need to slow down and try to recapture our lane.  It was an extremely fine line, a tightrope without a net.

I forget what I said out loud but I said something.  To m’lady’s extreme credit she didn’t scream or cry out or distract me in any way.  She saw what was coming and she was completely silent, and I needed silence to concentrate.

As we incrementally slowed I battled the car back from hydroplaning well over the yellow line to bringing us just about even with the line.  We passed the other car at a relative velocity of around 120kms/hr with just a few inches between us.  I think it was the closest call I’ve ever had driving a vehicle.  You can be sure I used my brakes to slow down for the rest of the day.  No more slow-coasting for this guy.

We thanked our lucky stars and continued on towards Sneznek.  We decided to venture off the GPS-recommended route for the first time and got lost, but we backtracked, retracked, head-scratched and somehow got ourselves found again.  Just as we finally pulled up to the Sneznek Castle it struck my memory that this was where the annual Dormouse Festival was held, and it further occurred to me that it was held just yesterday.  What an almost coincidence.

I had noticed it online months before – how could a festival dedicated to a particular and rather fairy tale-esque rodent not catch my eye? – and had completely forgotten about it until the moment I laid my eyes on the place.  We stepped into the gift shop and verified that yes, the one-day-a-year Dormouse Festival had indeed been held on the castle grounds the day before, a celebration to mark the opening of dormouse season (really; Slovenians hunt and eat dormice) where they had music, served beer and dormouse burgers, and everyone wore hats made from the skins of the cute little rodents.  Feed your head.

Crossing the bridge of disappointment

I can’t express how disappointed I was that we had missed it – so much so that I suddenly had little interest in buying a ticket to tour the castle – although m’lady was quick to remind me that we had just slept in a castle, and that made it a bit better.

And though we didn’t tour inside the beautiful, moated castle we spent a half-hour or so tromping the immaculately groomed grounds outside.  It was quite a place.  I didn’t see a single mouse.

By this time we were running too late to give adequate time to both the Castle In The Rock and the Škojkan cave so we let the rainy day decide for us and headed for the cave, saving the castle for the following morning.

Škojkan cave contains the largest underground chamber in Europe.  After an hour or so wait that we filled with coffees and gift shops we joined about two hundred others for a guided tour.  We all walked, walked, walked down to the cave entrance where we were split (based on language) into five groups of 30-60 people each.  M’lady and I joined thirty others in English group #1 and then spent the next two hours gaping at the wonders of erosion.  

Though the whole cave tour was great the best part was the subtly-illuminated path itself, which just looked so very cool winding along the seemingly endless pit and lighting up the sheer walls and crevices that it clung to.  

A definite highlight was when the path crossed over a narrow footbridge towering ninety metres above the impossibly jagged floor of the cave.  It was cool, dark, quiet, and very, very exciting.

No pictures were allowed until we reached the mouth of the cave on the other end, which speeded things up considerably and really helped to focus one’s attention on witnessing the ancient formations instead of trying to catalog them all with a thousand pictures.

Outside we were happily surprised to discover that there was a funicular to take us back to the visitor’s centre, though before boarding we veered off to a lookout at the top of the canyon which turned out to be really worth seeing.  The sign pointing us there did, after all, claim it was “Worth Seeing”.  Actually, that’s all the sign said.

The view Worth Seeing

Back in the car we rested our sore legs and hummed and hawed about where to head for the night.  M’lady wanted to go to some town famous for a particular style of dumplings which sounded good but would require that we make a fifty-minute backtrack the next day in order to see the Castle In The Rock.  I suggested we find something closer and we did, stumbling upon a pretty cool hotel in Postojna, very close to the even more famous Prostojna Cave, which we would be skipping.

The check-in girl suggested a restaurant nearby for good, local food so we went there and were rewarded with a great meal, which started with some of those special dumplings from the town we didn’t go to, and they were fantastic (stuffed full of bacon and cheese, how could they be otherwise?).  For my main I ordered a wide pasta with beef and tomato sauce.  I was expecting a red sauce with ground beef blended in but instead the delicious sauce was laden with big, tender slabs of beef, like spaghetti and meatballs except the meatballs were chunks of roasted beef.  It was so very good, so much so that m’lady was jealous even though her food was great.

After our meal we went back to the tall, modern hotel, which fronted onto a large town square.  Things were very, very dead, verifying the firmly negative prediction of our check-in girl when I had asked her earlier if we’d be able to find any entertainment after dinner.

Nope, not much going on in this town after dark so up to the room we went, where I pulled the couch around so we could gaze in comfort through our wall of windows that overlooked the square below.  We had a nightcap or two to accompany our gazing and – having taken in three castles, a massive cave, a near-death experience, and a meal that could hardly be beat -we felt the day had adequately filled itself and were soon to bed.  

The square below

100316 Castle Cave Human Fish Lake Bled Church Island, and Dinner

There had been a storm in the night, with wild rain and strong winds battering our hotel room’s impermeable wall of windows.  I woke up and took my place on the repositioned couch and gazed down at a Monday morning in Prostojna.

We enjoyed our breakfast and got moving to our first stop: Predjama Castle, the Castle In The Rock.  The Guinness World Record holder for the biggest castle built in a cave, Predjama is instantly impressive.  Stark, four-foot thick walls and turrets tower above the river below, and all of if built into and out of the mouth of a huge cave.  The many rooms and chambers snaking through the unique structure were half cave, with bare, rounded walls on one side, and half man-made.  It’s just so…castley.

We took the tour and marvelled, clicking endless pictures.  There’s a lot of stories attached to the place but the best involves a siege on the castle that lasted for a full year, with the frustrated forces outside ignorant to the fact that Predjama backed onto a cavern system that allowed access to the outside world, and were thus unable to understand how the rebel-prince supposedly trapped inside the castle was getting supplies, including fresh cherries that he would sometimes toss out the windows to tease his tormentors. 

After a year and a day one of the prince’s servants sold him out, informing his master’s enemies that the royal toilet was the most vulnerable part of the castle, built with relatively thin walls and sticking out conspicuously on one side of the large complex.  That evening the servant signalled to the forces outside the moment his boss skipped to the loo and one catapult strike later the siege was ended.

But you know, all of the castles would have been so cold and dreary back then.  They were all nothing but self-imposed prisons…it’s no surprise that they often get converted into actual prisons (like Ljubljana Castle for example).  Most of them wouldn’t require much in the way of renovation.

On our way back to the car we stopped at a gift shop and bought a little stuffed humanfish we called Huey.  Humanfish (or olm) are, of course, small pink blind cave-dwelling salamanders that rarely mate, can go years without eating, and live for up to a century.  When humanfish were first discovered people thought they were baby dragons, and with their four little legs and winding body that’s exactly what they look like.

Next we drove towards Bled.  It was a great drive, mostly along winding country roads that took us through amazing fairy-tale villages, although the ride was peppered with occasional strips of fast-moving highway that allowed me to get the car up to 130kms/hr for the first time in days.

(And you know, all the roads great and small look like they were built yesterday, so well maintained is everything.  I could count the potholes I’ve seen in the whole country on two hands.)

And then, Bled.  Wow, what a picturesque place!

We started our visit to this, one of Slovenia’s most popular tourist towns, with a drive around the town’s famous lake.  After we wound past several hotels and restaurants and went through a hole in the rock we were in sight of one of the country’s most amazing sights, the church on the island in the lake in Bled.  And what a sight it is too.

And amazingly this is the only naturally-occurring island in the whole of Slovenia!  I wondered if by building such a church on the only island in the nation if they were really just trying to test people’s faith.  Like, could you make it any harder to get to church?

I was only able to steal quick glances though, trying as I was to spot a spot where I could pull over and better take in the scene.  I spotted nothing.

There was a castle up on a rocky perch overlooking the large lake.  It looked just perfect looming up there and looking menacing and everything so we drove up there and did a quick walkabout.  Then we drove back around the lake and decided to bite the bullet and pay five euros to park and do a hike.  The friendly guy at the nearby restaurant who gave me change for the parking machine told me they weren’t very busy and I could park at his restaurant for free.  I moved the car while m’lady busied herself taking pictures of the amazing view.

The hike took us up a pretty far ways.  A British girl who had gotten turned the wrong way around walked with us for a while until we were all absolutely sure we were indeed on the correct path.  Once confirmed, her long, strong legs bid m’lady and I farewell in a hurry as as we slowly huffed and puffed our way to the peak.  

When we got up there it was instantly and obviously worth the strenuous effort.  The view of the looming castle and the island and the church on the island and the lake reflecting the church on the island and all of it perfectly framed by the likewise-looming surrounding mountains…well, it was just completely breathtaking (though the arduous climb certainly helped with the breath-taking).  And even better, we got up there just in the nick of time to catch the evening’s sun beaming off of the church (on the island, in the lake).

We sat and enjoyed the view along with eight or ten others who had made the climb.  There was one bench up there and m’lady and I took a nice leisurely turn on it looking down on the sheer beauty below us.

Finally we climbed back down to the car and looked in vain for a place to park even just to buy a postcard.  So we moved on to Kranjska Gora up in the Slovenian Alps, passing by hundreds of trucks along the way that were lined up to cross the nearby Austrian border.

We nabbed a beautiful room with it’s own little balcony at the first place we stopped at, a quaint little hotel with a distinct chalet vibe in the shadows of the towering Alps, dark and looming in the early evening twilight.

We went downstairs to the restaurant and had one of the best meals ever.  We later discovered that the place was famous for it’s food, due mostly to the size of the portions.  I didn’t feel like I needed a starter but m’lady was having one so curiosity got he best of me and I ordered the fried cheese.  Large, battered wedges of, well, cheese came along along with my main dish, rustic potatoes (a deep, wide pan of sizzling fried potatoes topped with mouth-watering onions, bacon, peppers, and other assorted goodies).

It was all so very, very good and so very, very filling.  I waddled outside for some extremely fresh air and to extremely stare at the stars and then I remembered our room had a balcony so I relocated my shenanigans up to the room and enjoyed the stars from there.  I was too full to even sit down for almost an hour.  Literally.

100416 Over the Hills, Far Away

I woke up still full from the previous night’s wonderful and prodigious meal.  Lesson learned: I will shun starters from this point forward, a vow that will do me little good as we are scheduled to fly home just one day hence.

A quick glance out the window of our hotel room and I all but ran outside.  The mountain chalet town was shrouded in a thick fog that was illuminated by a basking sunlight that was just beginning to hit the mountaintops towering overhead.  It looked amazing and I wanted to explore a bit before the sun burned the mist away.

Out beside the hotel I was gaping up at the mountains when m’lady hung her head out and over our balcony.  “Wait for me!” she yelled, ducking back inside and pulling on the super-cute toque she bought when we were at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

We went for a short walk around the tiny town in the chilly morning and as the fog began to lift in favour of a sunny day we looped back to our hotel and sat down for breakfast despite our still-packed tummies.  With the dinner we had last night I had high expectations for the breakfast but no, it was the usual European breakfast of buns and cheese with cold cuts, jam, and yoghurt.  I ate what I could hoping to stave off lunch.

We checked out and got on the road, which in this case was a winding mountain pass over the Julian Alps.

Driving the Vrsic Pass – a forty-something kilometre long mountain range – was one of the main reasons we came up this way, and as a lover of driving and especially of cool, unique routes I was excited to get started.

Which took no time at all.  Leaving our tiny village we stopped at a lovely park that featured a swimming hole and a statue of a ram, after which the road immediately began to climb.  The road was amazingly well-paved, and curiously at each hairpin curve (of which there was many) the road would turn to cobblestone, returning to flat tarmac for the straights.  

Sped up 8x and set to Phish’s Chalkdust Torture

At my first opportunity I attached my GoPro to the hood of the rental car and at the camera’s first opportunity it fell off.  The things are so durable I wasn’t for a second concerned that the GoPro would be damaged, and it wasn’t.  I had applied the suction-cup holder to a part of the hood that had a stylized curve in it, which had compromised the integrity of the sucky-stickness.  I attached it to the windshield this time and we continued upwards.

The road was built exactly one hundred years earlier by Russian POW’s.  During construction an avalanche struck, killing hundreds of the prisoner/slaves and several of their captors.  The surviving POW’s built a Russian-styled church out of timber next to the road as a memorial to their fallen comrades.  It still stands, it was our first stop along the mountain pass, and it was quite nice too.  We encountered a busload of students there and we would be re-encountering them for the rest of the drive; I was amazed that the full-sized coach they were riding in could even make it around the tight, hairpin switchback curves.

Up-up-up we drove and what an incredible drive it was!  The view was consistently astounding.  I don’t think I once got the car above 2nd gear.

We stopped at the peak; well, we drove by the peak and quickly realized it had been the peak and after a daring seventeen-point turn on an impossibly narrow curve we went back to the peak.  As I say, we stopped for a bit but the elevation brought with it a bitterly cold wind.  We didn’t linger and in leaving after such a brief stop we once again got ahead of the busload of students.

View from the peak

Down-down-down we coasted.  I had the car in neutral but I should have had it in low gear.  The ‘check engine’ dash light came on and the car told me “Check Hill Start Assistance”, whatever that meant.  I guessed that the brakes were overheating so I stopped to give them a rest, twice.  We could smell burning steel.  Even though I started relying on low gear instead of constant braking the light stayed on for the rest of our downward journey through the Alps.

Besides the Russian church, one of the only sights to see along the pass (besides the pass itself of course) is a statue of a doctor who had lived and worked in the area.  The statue stands at a dramatic curve in the road, facing one of the endless magnificent mountains.  It seemed like wonderful spot to stand, stare, and rust.

At the statue stop there was a trail that led to the Soča River!  I had been dying to see the Soča River since a guy working at the dump in Ljubljana told me that it was “the colour of a soldier’s tears”.  We started down the path but soon realized that we just weren’t up for a hike the length and grade of what we were coming up against.  After just a few hundred metres we turned back and returned to the car.

As the car crested the next hill we saw the path that we hadn’t taken crossed the very road that we were driving upon and lo, there was the Soča River!  We pulled off at a stone bridge crossing the river and checked it out.

I instantly got what the guy had been saying.  The water was crystal-clear but wherever it pooled the sand-and-pebble riverbed caused the river to alternate between a deep blueish and an emerald greenish mixed with a rusty, hazel undercoating, lending the river a hue akin to drops that might drip from a statue that has tarnished with age.   The Soča River ran exactly the colour of a soldier’s tears. 

As we drove on we discovered that the road hugged the Soča River for the rest of the pass.  We stopped and crossed one of countless footbridges and took some pictures.  The chameleon-like water was pretty cool, and a bit of a head-scratcher.  

After the pass we went towards Bohinj and – I could hardly believe it – the drive became even more amazing, snaking up and down through forests and towns and winding around almost as much as the pass through the Alps had.  Well, okay, the road didn’t twist around nearly as much as the Alpine highway, but it was a truly astounding drive past some incredible scenery and through just the most heart-melting little villages.

Half-starved, we stopped for pizza in some town that helped to inspire Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms.  We sat on a patio and ordered a large pie each (no starters though), and of course neither of us could finish our food.  

I ordered a coffee.  M’lady was going to get a Fanta until she realized that a glass of wine was nearly half the price of the soda.  At that rate I reasoned that she should have ordered herself two glasses of wine but she didn’t.

When we got to Bohinj we stopped in at a hotel before we even got to the lake (the lake being the main reason for coming to this area)  They were charging sixty-four euros, or eighty euros with a balcony (which we were preferring).  We hummed and hawed and decided to drive on and check what was available closer to the lake.

What we found wasn’t at all promising.  We went around the lake and pulled into a large hotel only to find it was closed down and boarded up.  It looked like it had once been a pretty nice place too.  We followed a sign to another spot that was more of a country farmhouse about 500m from the water.  It gave off an unwelcoming and somewhat spooky vibe so we sat in their driveway and decided we’d better drive back and book that balcony room a few kilometres from the lake.

And like a miracle we noticed a hotel right next to a picturesque church at the very beginning of the lake.  We had passed by there earlier but somehow we had missed it.  I ran in and found a room (with balcony, and breakfast of course) for only seventy euros, with balcony, and our first swimming pool taboot (which we didn’t use).

We checked in, poured ourselves some welcoming drinks and high-fived for doing so well on the hotel room in the face of obviously inferior options.

We walked around a little and checked out the lake which, like I say, was just across from our hotel.  With a stone bridge and the church right there it was undeniably the nicest part of the lake and – did I mention? it was just a few dozen metres from our hotel.  We found a small dock with a nice park bench on the end that was perfect for sitting and holding hands and sighing.  Then we took a bunch of pictures.

After it got dark we went back to the room and packed for our looming departure.  I ate leftover pizza and chips for dinner while m’lady went without.  In a good fit of timing we finished off the bottle of Jack Daniels that we had purchased at Duty Free in Canada so long ago.  To do so I returned to the bar to get some ice.  On my second ice-run instead of putting the ice in a plastic bag the bartender just filled a beer mug full.  It was an Union beer mug, and Union (pronounced “onion”) was my favourite Slovenian beer.  My morals were tested and they lost handily.  I stole the mug away in my suitcase as soon as the ice was gone.  (I currently use it as my stand-in for a wine glass.  I prefer wine served in anything but a wine glass.)

Once the moon came out we went to see the church again and while we were out there we found absolutely nothing going on in town whatsoever.

We went back inside and watched a dumb movie on TV (I believe it was the only time in the trip that we turned on our hotel television set).  We were asleep before 11pm.  

Sometime in the middle of the night m’lady reached for her water and broke a glass.  Luckily the Union mug was already safely packed away.

100516 A Misty Farewell

Last day!

I woke up super-early and saw nothing but fog outside the hotel window.  I snuck quietly into my clothes, grabbed my camera and went out for a look-see.  I looked and saw some nifty Monet-ish shots of the church and the bridge.  Just as I was getting cold and turning to return to the room m’lady showed up looking overtly cute in her toque and she warmed me right up on the same bench on the same dock where we had watched the sunset from the previous night.

We went in and had our last included breakfast of the trip and checked out of the hotel.  We drove across the stone bridge and got turned around in a little village looking for a town known for something called hayracks, before a construction vehicle that was blocking the narrow road turned us away once and for all.  We turned back, got lost in the same tiny village again and eventually headed on.

Our trip back to the Ljubljana airport brought us once again through the pretty little town of Bled and this time we managed to find a parking spot (free, even) so we stopped to buy a few postcards.

We made it to airport at 11:05am, returned the car easily enough and checked in for our flight.  We toured the gift shops, bought several beers and sat on a bench in front of the airport and drank them.

I enquired about getting our tourist tax back and found out we would have received an instant refund at the airport of 20% or more in cash had we been given the appropriate tax form at the shop where we bought our souvenirs.  Lesson learned for next time I suppose, but darn, I should have known that.  

Ah well, no sense putting something so trivial and negative as a closer to the logs for such a wonderful trip.  Instead: Slovenia was just so surprisingly amazing it almost made me forget how astoundingly awesome Venice was.  In all, this vacation was nothing short of dreamy.  It was a trip I’ll never forget taken with a person I’ll love forever.  

And forever we’ll always have this trip to share.  

Sigh

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