Interactive Website Shows Cleanest, Dirtiest European Beaches

beaches, Cyprus
Wikimedia Commons

It’s getting to be that time of year again. People are heading to the beaches, especially around the Mediterranean.

Now choosing one has been made easier by a new interactive website by the European Environment Agency. The agency has released its 2012 figures for water quality of 23,511 “bathing waters.” The website has them broken down by country and region. While most are beaches, popular inland swimming areas such as lakes are also included.

Some countries do better than others. Cyprus may be in economic doldrums, but 100% of their beaches have clean water. Slovenia, the subject of an upcoming series here on Gadling, gets equally high praise for its narrow strip of shoreline.

Scientists examined samples of water over several months in 2012, looking for evidence of pollution. It turns out 93 percent of sites had at least the minimum standard set by the European Union. The worst countries were Belgium, with 12 percent substandard swimming areas, and The Netherlands, with 7 percent.

Vagabond Tales: Eavesdropping On An Elderly Soldier In A Rural Slovenian Café

The great nation of Slovenia has a wealth of many things, but it only has one island.

No, it’s not located off of the coastline that some have dubbed the Mini-Riviera. Rather, it’s set up in the mountains in the middle of a pristine retreat famously known as Lake Bled. It is a teardrop-shaped island in the middle of a placid lake. There are no inhabitants, and the main building is a 15th-century church where it’s popular for a groom to carry his bride up the 99 steps, which lead to the bell tower.

To call the setting of Lake Bled magical is not only a cliché, but also a travesty of justice; this place could be the setting upon which Disneyland was founded – the Magic Kingdom a replica of this sanctuary tucked at the base of the Julian Alps.

As fellow Gadling blogger Meg Nesterov pointed out in her article “10 Reasons To Travel To Ljubljana,” Slovenia is also home to a charming capital city, which features canals to rival Venice or Amsterdam, great wine, tasty food, affable locals and a massive castle, which stoically towers above the city.

Unbeknownst to many people, Slovenia is also reputed to be the birthplace of skiing, a sport which emerged out of the rugged mountains, which blanket the scenic northwest.

More than any of this, however, Slovenia is the site of one of the most intriguing conversations I’ve ever had the chance to be a part of – and I wasn’t even playing a speaking role. Rather, from the corner booth of a small café in Lake Bled, I craned my neck away from my potato rosti in an effort to make out the conversation taking place between two European youths and an elderly American soldier.”This is my 35th year in a row of returning to Europe,” boasted the fully gray and heavily wrinkled man. “Every year I bring my wife to somewhere new and we see what a beautiful place this has become.”

Seated with him at the four-person table were his wife and the two aforementioned youth, two German boys of about 20 years old traveling together on a backpacking tour of Europe.

“It’s good to come back here,” continued the elderly American. “It wasn’t always like this, you know. I first came to Europe when I was your age.”

Seeing as we were the only two tables seated at the café on this misty day in early June – the throngs of summer crowds still a few weeks away – it was easy for me to eavesdrop on their ongoing conversation. At first, I was intrigued simply to hear an American voice; now I was intrigued by his story.

The man explained to his two breakfast companions he had first come to Europe in his early-20s once America jumped into World War II. He spent lots of time in Germany, not far from their hometown.

For over a year, he fought the Germans on a convoluted course across Europe upon Sum waterfall outside Lake Bled Sloveniawhich he admitted to being exposed to a lot of suffering. A lot of friendships were forged, he claimed, but many more were lost.

Surprisingly, despite all the horrors he alluded to being a part of, he exhibited no traces of animosity towards the men on the other side of the line.

“You know,” he nodded with a wink of his eye, “the boys I was fighting against really just looked a lot like you.”

Obviously humbled, yet wholly intrigued, from my vantage point, it was remarkable to see the genuine interest of the two German youth in hearing testimony from this living piece of history who experienced so much of what modern Germans consider to be a shameful past.

They peppered him with questions about Germany during the 1940’s, but at the same time were respectful enough not to pry.

Even if they had, however, it was apparent that enough time had passed in this veteran’s life that wounds had healed, scores had been settled, and in this nearly empty café in rural Slovenia, they were just four humans enjoying a hearty breakfast together.

Standing to leave after finishing half his meal, the traveling former soldier steadied himself with a hand on the table and used the other to push off his knee as he slowly rose to his feet.

“It’s been really nice talking with you boys,” he offered with a wink and a smile. “You two enjoy your travels and be safe. Don’t worry, breakfast is on me.”

Tossing a fistful of Slovenian tolars onto the table (Slovenia changed to the Euro in 2007), the group exchanged final pleasantries and went about their respective lives, almost certain to never meet anywhere again.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.

[Image credit: globalclaire on Flickr]

Knocked Up Abroad: Lessons Learned From Traveling With A Baby

travel with a baby
Long before I became a mother, people told me that the first six months is the easiest time to travel with a baby – before they walk, talk or require children’s activities. Others told me to travel as much as possible before you have children, as it’s too difficult to go places for the first few years. I can confirm that you don’t have to turn in your passport when you have a baby, as my daughter Vera turns one year old today (they really do grow up so fast), and I’ve traveled with her extensively since she was six weeks old, as well as frequently when I was pregnant. As she was born in Turkey, far from our families and home country, I knew travel would be a factor in her life, but never expected I would love traveling with her and try to fit in as many trips as possible (nine countries and counting).

I’ve written here on Gadling a series of articles on planning travel, flying and international travel with baby, and expanded on these topics on my blog, Knocked Up Abroad Travels. I still stand by all of those tips and tricks, but below are the most important lessons I’ve learned from traveling with a baby in the first year.

Do a test run trip
Just as a baby has to learn to crawl before they can walk, start small with your explorations. Before you plan a big trip with a baby, take a shorter “test run” to see it’s not so hard and learn what your challenges might be. Taking a short flight to an unfamiliar place, especially with a time change, language or cultural barrier, is good practice before you take a bigger trip. If you live in the U.S., a long weekend in Canada or the Caribbean, or even Chicago, could be a nice break and a useful lesson on traveling with a baby. While we live in Istanbul, travel in Europe is (relatively) cheap and quick, so taking a vacation in Malta with Vera at six weeks old was an easy first trip. For our first trip home to visit family and friends, I flew to and from the U.S. by myself with Vera. If I hadn’t traveled with her before, it might have seemed daunting to fly 10 hours solo with a baby, but it was smooth sailing. Confidence is key, especially when you learn you’ll do just fine without the bouncy seat for a few days.Stay flexible
Parenting experts may say that babies need structure and routine, but recognize that they are also very flexible, especially in the early months when they mostly sleep and eat. As long as you can attend to the baby’s immediate needs, it doesn’t matter much where you do it; a baby’s comfort zone is wherever you are. Babies also make planning near impossible. You may find that just as you planned to visit a museum, you’ll need to find somewhere to sit down to feed the baby, with a decent bathroom for changing a diaper. You might eat dinner later than expected as you walk the baby around the block a few more times to get her to sleep. We kept our first trip with Vera to Malta simple, relaxing by the sea in Gozo and wandering around the old city of Valletta: no itinerary, no must-sees, no ambitious day trips. We missed out on a few “important” sights and spent a few days doing little more than reveling in the joys of cheap wine, trashy novels and ham sandwiches, but it was stress-free and helped us to connect with the place as well as each other.

Re-consider where you stay and how you get around
Once you start planning a trip with a baby, you might be spending more time on AirBnB than Hotels.com. When you travel with a child, you care less about hotel design or public amenities like a gym (ha!) and more about in-room comfort and conveniences like a separate bedroom space or kitchenette. On an early trip, we stayed in a friend’s home in Trieste, in a vacation apartment in Venice and in a room above a cafe in Ljubljana, and each had their advantages. In Italy, it was nice to have access to laundry and space to cook a meal with friends when we were too tired to go out; while when I was on my own in Slovenia, it was handy to go downstairs for breakfast or a much-needed glass of wine, and someone was always around if I needed help with the stroller. You’ll also have to think differently about how you get around town with a stroller or carrier and plan some routes in advance. In London, I spent a lot of time on the excellent Transport For London website mapping out which tube stations had elevators and what days I would use a carrier only (I love the Boba wrap). In Venice, I didn’t bother with a stroller at all for the city’s many stairs, bridges and cobblestone streets, but needed to stop more frequently to rest my tired shoulders and was grateful for extra hands to hold the baby while I ate pasta.

Everywhere is nice in a “baby bubble”
You should be prepared to be self-sufficient when traveling with a baby, from boarding a plane to getting on a subway, but you’ll be surprised by how helpful strangers can be, especially outside the U.S. Not touching strangers’ babies seems to be a uniquely American concept, while in Mediterranean Europe, waiters will often offer to carry your baby around or give them a treat (say thanks and eat it yourself). After Istanbul, I found Budapest to be the most baby-friendly, and even trendy restaurants had changing facilities and bartenders who wanted to play peekaboo. I expected Londoners to be rather cold, but their stiff upper lips were more often smiling and cooing. A tube employee helped me carry the stroller up several flights of stairs when an elevator wasn’t working, and I got table service in a cafe that normally only had counter service. Don’t expect special treatment because you have a baby, but enjoy it when it comes.

Stay calm and carry travel insurance
Having a sick baby is scary for anyone, especially when you are in a foreign country far from home. Statistically, it’s more likely that your child will get sick or hurt at home, but it can happen on the road as well. Before you take off, figure out what you will do in an emergency: can you get travel insurance that covers a visit to a pediatrician? Can you change or cancel travel plans if the baby is sick? If you rent an apartment, do you have local contacts in case something happens? In Budapest, by myself, I had a few incidents getting stuck in an elevator, locked out of our apartment and having the baby slip out of a highchair. Everything worked out fine, but staying calm was key as upsetting the baby would have just added to the stress. Coming back from Belgrade last month, our daughter woke up with a cold and a mild fever the day we were supposed to fly home. Our wonderful AirBnB hostess got us medicine and we ultimately decided to fly the short trip as scheduled, but if it had been more serious, I could have paid the change fee to delay our flight and visit a local doctor. The baby was fine the next day, though I still have some Serbian fever reducer for her next cold.

Don’t let the turkeys get you down
Perhaps I’ve become more sensitive to the idea, but I’ve noticed recently that screaming babies on airplanes have become the catch-all complaint for everything that’s wrong with air travel (though in Gadling’s Airline Madness tournament of travel annoyances, children didn’t make it to the final four). Look up any news story about children and airplanes and you’ll find a long list of angry commenters complaining about how they don’t want to sit next to your “brat” on the plane, and that you shouldn’t subject other people to your lifestyle choices. A crying baby is not an inevitability, and planes are still public transportation, so don’t get psyched out by the looks and comments from other passengers. After 22 flights with Vera without a tantrum or crying fit, I’ve learned that the most important thing is to pay attention to your baby and be considerate of others. I still tell my airplane “neighbors” that I’ll do whatever it takes to keep her quiet and happy, and by the time we land, we’ve made more friends than enemies.

Enjoy it while it lasts
The first two years are the cheapest time to travel with a child: domestic air travel is free for lap children, international tickets are a fraction (usually 10 percent) of the adult fare, and most hotels and museums allow babies free of charge for the first few years. This time is also the most “adult” you’ll have for awhile, before you have to consider the whims and boredom of a child. Vera’s first year has been delightfully kid-menu and Disney-free. In a few years we may have to rethink our itinerary and even our destinations, but so far, not much has changed. We still love going to post-Soviet cities, wandering around oddball museums and sitting outside at wine bars to people watch, though our bedtime might be a bit earlier.

Share your lessons learned while traveling with a baby, or tell me what I’m in for in year two in the comments below.

Photo Of The Day: Pink For Peace

photo of the day - pink tank in Ljubljana
It’s not often that you see a cheerful military tank, but this pink-painted tank in Ljubljana, Slovenia, is almost cuddly. According to Flickr photographer Bob Ramsak and his blog Piran Cafe, the tank was made over in March by some anonymous artists, who also placed some flowers inside the barrel. Parked outside the National Museum of Contemporary History as part of its collection of military equipment, the newly rosy tank now matches its surroundings. The museum director said in an interview: “Since we don’t know how we’re going to return it to its original color, we’d like to thank these guerrillas, or vandals, that they at least chose a color that matches the museum’s facade.” The public art statement is just another reason to love Ljubljana.

Seen some unusual public art? Share your pics in the Gadling Flickr pool for a future Photo of the Day.

Stay at a former military prison turned art hostel in Ljubljana, Slovenia

hostel celicaRecently, Gadling’s Meg Nesterov talked about 10 reasons to travel to Ljubljana in Slovenia. The country has a lot to offer to visitors, and for those looking for an affordable and historical place to stay, a unique hostel experience, as well.

Hostel Celica, currently an artsy youth hostel, was once a military prison within the military barracks of Metelkova Street, dating back to 1882. Once Slovenia gained independence and the barracks were no longer needed, the Metelkova Network planned to turn the site into a multicultural center. The vision never came to be, and when the city tried to demolish the barracks, the network and its supporters used their bodies to protect the building. They occupied the site, and when the city turned off the electricity and water, a new plan began to form in their minds.

The group decided to make the place into a welcoming space for international travelers, and with the help of architect Janko Jozic and over 80 artists, Hostel Celica opened its doors to its first guests in 2003.

While the space is now a hostel, that doesn’t mean it’s lost its essence of history and culture. There are 20 prison cells that act as rooms, and one of the former prison cells has been converted into a Point of Peace, a space where visitors can pray and meditate. There are alters for the five major world religions of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, and the highest religious representatives from each have come to bless the space. Moreover, an art gallery resides on the first floor of the hostel, and workshops, debates, concerts, and cultural events take place on a daily basis.

For more information or to book a room at Hostel Celica, click here.