Now that I’m wrapping up my series on Slovenia, there are a few bits and pieces that are worth sharing but didn’t fit in any articles. While these observations won’t be surprising to anyone familiar with the country, they were amusing to this first-time visitor.
1. As this photo shows, guys will always know where to go. Luckily the urinals are much more modern than the sign indicates, and you don’t have to be naked to use them.
2. When you buy a return bus ticket, it comes with a little schedule of the return buses for your route. Brilliant! Why don’t all countries do that?
3. Maypoles are popular in Slovenia. You see them in most of the smaller towns and villages.
4. Slovenia has the weirdest drug laws I’ve ever encountered. It’s illegal to buy, sell or possess marijuana. Pretty standard, you might say, but get this – it’s legal to smoke it. How you can smoke it without possessing it is anyone’s guess. Also, it’s legal to buy, sell or possess seeds but you can’t grow them into plants. Huh? Wait, let me rephrase that – HUH????
5. If you hike to the top of Triglev, Slovenia’s highest mountain, you are considered a “true Slovene,” but not before you are spanked by birch twigs to celebrate the occasion. It’s not clear if this is a real tradition or something invented by Slovenia’s S&M community.6. Slovenians love ketchup. It’s served with practically everything, even pizza. Apparently the tomato sauce on pizza doesn’t give it enough of a tomato flavor.
7. Slovenia’s national anthem was adapted from a poem about drinking wine. It’s perhaps unique among national anthems in that there’s no nationalistic chest thumping. Instead it calls for world harmony.
8. Don’t call it Slovakia, and don’t call the region the Baltics. I managed to avoid these common errors, but once when I was in Estonia I flubbed it and called the Baltics the Balkans. This slip of the tongue will get you razzed by the locals in either region.
9. If you’re going to have a food festival, why do something boring like celebrate wine or cheese? The Slovenians get creative with Bean Day, Chestnut Sunday and a Cabbage Festival.
10. As you can see below, if you’re entering the loading dock of a Slovenian supermarket, make sure you have some stuff.
We’ve been talking about Slovenia for the past week here on Gadling. It’s got everything you’d expect from a European country: beautiful architecture, medieval churches and castles, world-class museums, a distinct cuisine … but every European country can boast these things. What really sets Slovenia apart?
The countryside. The Julian Alps take up a large part of the country and are full of incredible trails for all levels of hiking ability. You can stroll around Alpine lakes or slog up sheer mountains, have a picnic by an emerald stream or explore remote valleys. Add to this the fact that Slovenia is considerably cheaper than other Alpine countries and you have a hiker’s dream.
The best place to see Slovenia’s nature is Triglav National Park. Slovenia’s only national park takes its name from the country’s highest mountain. Triglav is 9396 feet (2864 meters) tall and offers a challenging climb. Sadly, I went too early in the season to make it up there. It was still snow bound and dangerous without proper equipment.
Instead, I picked an easier but scenic hike to Savica Waterfall. Part of one of the many streams that feeds Lake Bohinj, the largest lake in the park, the waterfall cascades down a steep cliff some 256 feet (78 meters), making it the tallest in the country.
%Slideshow-636%Setting out on a typically rainy day (Ljubljana gets twice the annual rainfall of London), I passed the tranquil Lake Bohinj, a serene alpine lake with fine views of the mountains. Several little chalets and B&Bs sit around its shores, making it a convenient place to base yourself. It’s much less touristy than Lake Bled and has the advantage of actually being located inside Triglav National Park. Lodging can also be found in the many villages scattered throughout the park.
Getting on the trail, I worked my way through a dense forest. The trail, like most in the country, was clearly marked. It was also nearly abandoned. Granted it was raining, but this was one of the most popular hikes in the country and it was already on the cusp of the high tourist season. Except for central Ljubljana and Lake Bled, Slovenia is surprisingly undervisited, yet another advantage to this lovely country.
While the rain hardly let up for the entire day, in one way I was grateful for it. Low clouds rolled over the mountaintops, making for a constantly changing scene. At times all but the verdant slopes would be hidden from view, and then the clouds would suddenly lift and the snowcapped peaks would glint in a brief patch of sunlight. Clouds lingered in the steeply cut valleys, rising like curtains between the forested ridges.
The trail crisscrossed an Alpine stream that was a bright, stunning shade of green. Passing by a few farms set amid fields full of yellow wildflowers, the trail began to ascend. After a rough mile or two it ended at a vista point overlooking the waterfall.
When I first got there, the clouds were hanging low and the water looked like it was spouting from the sky itself. Then the clouds broke up and I could see where the waterfall was cutting through the top of a cliff high above. Savica waterfall is set in a narrow cleft in the side of a mountain, and looking out you have a good vantage point to see several other mountains.
As I headed back the clouds finally broke up for good. The sky cleared and I got to see the Julian Alps in all their glory. I only wished I had more time in Slovenia to explore more of them.
If you don’t already know that Lake Bled is the most popular tourist attraction in Slovenia you’ll know it the moment you arrive. There’s a casino. There’s a Shamrock Irish Pub. There’s even one of those tourist buses made up to look like a choo-choo train. It’s horrible.
But look out across the emerald-green water sparkling in the sunshine and all that disappears. Instead, you see a storybook landscape – a lush little island with a church spire peeking out over the greenery, snow-covered Alps beyond and, on one shore, a steep cliff atop which looms a formidable castle. It’s like something from Wagner.
The best way to see Lake Bled is to take a slow stroll around it. A path makes the entire 3.7-mile circuit. Most of the hotels and nearly all the businesses are clustered into one small town, so you soon leave the noise and people behind. Much of the walk is shaded and you can admire the lake from all angles. At one point there’s a sign for Osojnica hill. A moderately challenging 15-minute climb will reward you with fine views of the island and its church.
Most visitors head up to Bled Castle, one of the most impressive of Slovenia’s many castles. It’s a 16th-century fortress/manor house built on 11th-century foundations. While picturesque from afar, I’d recommend not visiting it because you’ll spoil the illusion. As soon as you enter the front gate someone shouts, “Smile!” and snaps your photo. When you leave they’ll offer you an image of yourself looking slightly surprised and confused for only €6.50 ($8.60).
%Slideshow-599%Once you make it past the photographer, you can visit an old-style print shop, where you can buy handmade prints; or you can visit the wine cellar, where you can buy wine; or you can visit the smithy with its fake forge and array of metalwork for sale. The only redeeming spots are the fine little castle church with its 16th-century frescoes and the views over Lake Bled. Since you can get just as good views from Osojnica hill for free, there’s really not much need to come here.
While Bled Island and its Church of the Assumption are equally touristy, they feel slightly less spoiled than the castle. At least people aren’t trying to sell you something all the time. The approach is nicer too – instead of slogging up a steep hill, you’re rowed across the lake on a gondola. When I went to the lakeside to catch a boat, a tour bus pulled up and disgorged a huge crowd of South Koreans, mostly women in their 50s with a couple of camera-toting husbands in tow.
We all piled into three gondolas and set out. The women in one of the boats started singing and their voices carried nicely over the water. I shared the stern of my boat with two ladies. Everyone thought this was funny for some reason and started snapping photos of us. The lone Korean man in our boat stood up to take a shot and, figuring I’d give him something to talk about back home, I put my arms around the two women. They started giggling. For them, at least, I’m still a young man.
The photographer gave me a wide grin and took our photograph. After he sat down one of the women turned to me and said, “That’s my husband.”
The man must have overheard because he laughed. Then he pointed at me and said, “You kimchi.”
Once we got off the boat, the oarsman grumpily announced that we only had half an hour. That’s plenty of time because the island is tiny. A quiet little path goes around the edge. It took me barely five minutes to make the circuit even though I kept stopping to take pictures. Then I rejoined my temporary travel companions in the church.
The church has some lovely 14th-century frescoes but that’s not why people come here. They come here to ring the bell. There’s some local legend about how it gives you luck for some reason or other. I didn’t bother to write it down since it was probably made up for tourists anyway. Still, I wasn’t about to pass up the chance for some good luck and I got in line with the rest. A sign on the floor gave strict instructions not to swing from the bell rope. Most of the women did anyway.
That bell rang and rang. Since a steady stream of visitors passes through the island, you can hear that bell ringing from early in the morning until sunset. It hardly ever seems to stop. Lake Bled has a lot of luck to give.
The women thought I was very strong because I could ring the bell without swinging from it. Thanks, ladies! Maybe that was the luck the bell had for me – the admiration of a crowd of middle-aged South Koreans. It’s not much, but how much magic do you expect from a tourist trap?
Despite all this nonsense, is Lake Bled still worth a visit? Oh yes. It is simply beautiful. Even in a steady downpour it had a majestic quality to it, and when the clouds broke it became one of the most beautiful spots I’ve seen in 25 years and 34 countries of travel. I would suggest visiting Lake Bled but actually staying at the less-visited but equally beautiful Lake Bohinj in Triglav National Park. More on that in the next post.
Not feeling healthy? Go hiking. Two new studies from the UK show that a hike, or even a good walk around the city streets, boosts mental and physical health.
A new survey by Ramblers, the British walking charity, found that a quarter of adults in Britain walk for an hour or less a week. And when they’re talking about walking, they don’t mean hitting the trails in the local nature reserve, they mean all types of walking, including walking to the shops, work or school. Presumably walking to the fridge to get another lager isn’t included. Of the more than 2,000 people surveyed, a staggering 43 percent said they walked for only two hours or less a week.
The Ramblers cites government health advisers who recommend that you get 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week. Walking counts in this, and is one of the easiest ways to get fit. Not only does it reduce the risk of several physical ailments like heart disease, it reduces weight and improves mental activity and emotional well being. It also saves money on gas and public transport.
The British Heart Foundation has more details on their webpage.
Another new study shows that being outside more is more beneficial than we generally think. While many people worry about the harmful effects of the sun, a new study by Edinburgh University has found that UV rays cause the body to produce nitric oxide, a compound that reduces blood pressure. Researchers suspect that the benefits of exposure to the sun may outweigh the risks.
Green Spain has finally emerged from a miserable winter into a glorious if unreliable springtime, so it’s time to get out and enjoy the region’s natural beauty.
The northern coastal strip of Spain consisting of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Region has the best outdoor and underground adventures the country has to offer. Its combination of scenic hikes and extensive caves is thanks to the predominance of karst, a type of stone the weathers quickly with water. As you can see from the picture above, rain turns exposed karst into strange, picturesque shapes. When water flows underground it carves out long caves.
One of the best places to see this at work is the Parque Natural de Collados del Asón in Cantabria. Less than an hour’s drive from both Santander and Bilbao, this 11,700-acre natural park is cut through by the Asón River and several smaller streams. Those and the frequent rainfall have scoured the terrain into a series of gorges and cliffs. A network of trails provides lowland rambles past traditional farmhouses and challenging climbs up to rugged and snowy peaks. The dark mouths of several caves beckon to you from the trailside, but these aren’t places to explore without training and preparation.
The weather was glorious the day we went. When you have a fine day here in the north, you get outside. Luckily, you don’t need good weather to get some exercise. The next time I went out we were pelted with a chilly northern rain, perfect conditions to explore Green Spain’s other outdoor attractions – its caves.
Caving is big here, with several organizations and adventure travel companies ready to show you the ropes. And for many caves, ropes are what you’ll need. As water cuts through the stone, it often finds fissures and plunges downwards, gradually widening them into vertical shafts. Rappelling into Stygian darkness is one of the best thrills caving has to offer.
One cave where you don’t actually need ropes is Cotera Cave, not far from the famous prehistoric painted cave of Altamira, 20 minute’s drive outside of Santander. The entrance isn’t terribly inviting – an almost invisible trail snarled with brambles leads to a low opening where cows take shelter from the rain. Cows, being cows, have left more than their hoof prints behind.
%Gallery-186970%Picking out way past the cow patties we turned a corner and entered a large chamber. Sadly, the walls were covered with graffiti. The vandals weren’t very adventurous, though, and we soon left their ugliness behind.
Cotera is a wet cave. For much of the route we sloshed through ankle-deep water as more dripped on us from above. This action creates the formations that make caves so alluring. Cotera appears to be a fairly young cave since there aren’t many large stalactites or stalagmites. Instead, we had baby formations in the form of soda straws, which with enough water leaving mineral deposits on them will eventually grow into stalactites.
At times, the cave narrowed down into tiny crawlspaces we had to worm our way through. Often these shafts took lung-crushing right turns or plunged down at 45 degrees so that we scooted down slick clay into a welcoming puddle. In this sport a “taste of adventure” tastes like wet clay, and the grit gets stuck between your teeth.
Once the cave had covered us in grime, it decided to wash us off by making us crawl along an underground stream with a low roof. There was no choice but to get on our hands and knees and splash trough chilly water. We spotted a couple of underwater passageways leading off into the unknown.
We let them stay a mystery. Cave diving – a combination of spelunking and scuba diving – is extremely dangerous and best left for the truly crazy.