Saturday, June 26, 2010

Summer Reading

Traveling by myself always allows me to read a lot, and I can recommend the following four books I finished on this trip:

"Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution" by Nathan Winograd (the title is self-explanatory!);

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Steig Larsson - pulp fiction page-turner that was a good antidote to the previous powerful read ( a couple people on my Patagonia trip were reading it);

"The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine" by Michael Lewis - the author who brought us "Liar's Poker" about 80's Wall Street, does a GREAT job of explaining what went wrong on Wall Street this time, and what led to the collapse;

"Northanger Abbey" by Jane Austen - not her best work, in my opinion.... I am enjoying "Mansfield Park" much more. Let's hope I find the time to finish it now that I am home.

I highly recommend getting an Amazon Kindle or another electronic book reader if you travel a lot. On Amazon, you can download most of the literary classics for free or less than $1, and new hardcover books are usually less than $10. Most importantly, you can carry a who library with you in a little package!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Say Goodbye

Yesterday was a glorious day in the Julian Alps. I joined an organized tour that took me and 7 others for a day around the alpine area of Slovenia, close to the Italian border, and over the highest mountain pass in the country. Luckily, the rain had stopped and the sun peaked through for our short hikes and explorations, including a hair-raising climb to the source of the Soca River (the main river in Slovenia).

At the end, we were presented with the option of jumping 40 feet off a bridge into the Soca River. I wasn’t going to jump, but one of the 22 year old American girls said to another “How many times in your life will you be standing on a bridge in Slovenia with the opportunity to jump?” and I thought to myself, well! I had better do it (despite my intense fear of heights). Nothing could prepare me for the shock of the cold water (41F) upon the somewhat brutal landing. A good portion went up my nose – I guess that’s why people were holding their noses!

I can’t say enough good things about Slovenia! GREEN, modern, multi-lingual (in school they learn Slovene, English, German and Serbo-Croatian!), friendly, sport-loving, historic..... And everyone seems to have a vegetable garden!
I head home tomorrow, feeling very happy to have had a chance to experience Slovenia.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Fairy Tale Place

After a rainy afternoon in Ljubjlana (pronounced “Lubiana”), where I caught a Serbian brass band in the main square reminiscent of Gogo Bordello, I took the bus 1 ½ hours north to the little town of Bled.

Bled is the No. 1 tourist destination of Slovenia, but I have found it to be quiet and empty – it is still early in the season and quite cool (with rain off and on), but I can imagine the hordes that descend in the very warm months of July and August.

I am housed in one of the many villas from the 19th century that have been converted to hotels; mine has only 6 rooms. It is quite comfortable and big change from my hotels thus far. My back thanks me.

This afternoon was a 6 km walk around the lake, and climb to the castle on the hill, which contains another excellent museum detailing the history of Bled and the castle. The earliest artifacts of the area date to 3,500 – 3,800 BC, and the castle to 1011 AD. Wow. I guess all of this Old World history has so impressed me after the last year traipsing around the New World.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

More Rain and No Photos

The photos from yesterday show sun, but it was brief - a few hours before the black clouds rolled in again. Today, from coast to mountains, it has been nonstop rain. And cold! Until a couple days ago, I had been kicking myself for packing jeans and a sweater on this trip, and even long sleeves - thinking my bag could have been much lighter, but I am glad I did. My rain jacket, sturdy umbrella and a rain cover for my bag have also come in handy!

Since all I have with me is my Nikon SLR camera, I didn't bother trying to take photos in the rain. Hopefully tomorrow will be clear, and I can show what Ljubljana looks like, because it is quite lovely, even in the rain. (I included a photo of the resident cat at my B&B in Piran just for flavor).

The bus ride here was not long (a little over 100 km), but it took us through lush green valleys, and over a pass that advertised skiing in the winter. Ljubljana is in a little valley, below a medieval castle on a hill, and even though it is the capitol of Slovenia, it is home to only 236,000 people.

The city has a rich history, dating from at least the 7th century BC. There is a myth that Jason and the Argonauts may have originally founded the city, which would make it much older. In 15 AD the Romans founded the city of Emona on the site, and occupation has been well documented ever since.

I had time for one museum, so I tried the City Museum of Ljubljana, housed in a 15th century palace and it turned out to be one of the best museums I have ever visited. The displays covered early periods, but also the rule of the Hapsburgs of Austria, the city’s brief role as the capitol of Napoleon’s Illyrian provinces, all the way through the creation of Yugoslavia and Slovenia’s declaration of independence.

Over time, this city and Slovenia generally has often been at a crucial point in the continent, and has suffered the consequences.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


It started last night with a lightning storm like I have never seen before. Then thunder and rain all night. And more rain today off and on and then tonight – rivers of water flowing down the cobbled streets! I guess this is why June isn’t considered the high season here!

Today, in the middle of the rain, I took a ferry to Rivanj, Croatia, just 1 ½ hours down the coast. It was described by the Lonely Planet as the star of the Istrian coast, but I failed to see it. What I saw was a town geared towards tourists, and full of tourists, and it isn’t even high season. The stretch of coastline is beautiful. There are no sandy beaches, just rocky ledges, adapted into bathing areas but the water is clear and warm, and I can see how it is popular with the sunbathing and party crowd.

Tomorrow I head up to Ljubljana, the capitol of Slovenia, for a day and then on to Bled in the Julian Alps. I am a bit sad to leave the sea, but I will back to my own cold grey Pacific in a few days!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Piran - Pirano, Slovenia

Best day yet! A short ferry ride from congested and dirty Trieste (I saw more cigarette butts in that city than any other place I have traveled) took me across to Istria, an area of the Adriatic coast that includes parts of Slovenia and Croatia. I landed in Pirano, a fairy tale town on a small, hilly peninsula. It is warm, breezy, and dry, blessed by mild ocean breezes (not the stagnant humidity of Trieste - which is only 45 km away!) I enjoyed the brilliant sun, and a swim in the Adriatic sea, with Roman ruins visible under the clear water.

Later, I watched the USA vs. Slovenia in the World Cup at one of the many cafes in the main square. Luckily some other Americans were there to cheer with me when the Americans made a comeback from 0-2 to tie.

My hotel is a small B&B in the old town – well, it’s all old town. The town was developed out to the sea on 3 sides by the 15th century, and it remains to this day, with some renovations, of course. The hotel is utterly charming, as is the whole town. Relaxed, quiet, charming. I am content

More of the Fallen Roman Empire

I am getting a good feel for the transportation system in northeastern Italy! Today I took the train and the bus to an important Roman site, the oldest in this part of Italy, approximately halfway to Venice along the cuff of the boot. Aquileia was the ninth city founded by the Romans (founded around 150 B.C.), and was at one time one of the most important in the empire. Now there are just the ruins, and the medieval buildings constructed from the blocks of the ruins, but the most impressive parts are the mosaics left behind from the 4th century (see photo). There were even a few from the 1st century that had been uncovered. There is still a small town there - another site which was been occupied continuously for 2,000 years.

After that I spent a frustrating afternoon trying to find a place to do some laundry. I asked my hotel, and the tourist office, and a local dry cleaner. I got sent off in all directions, walking for miles around the city, never finding a laundromat.

No laundromats, no wi-fi. I was told the only wi-fi available was in the lobby of the Continentale Hotel – order an overpriced coffee and you can use it. I think I will wait until I move on.

Next up, Piran/Pirano in Slovenia.

Trieste or Trst

Next stop, Trieste. I took the train southwest from Udine to Trieste, a large-ish port city to the southwest. It is right on the border of Slovenia, and has a much more Central European feel than other Italian cities that I have visited. Part of this is due to it being part of Austria from 1482 until 1918, serving as Austria’s one and only seaport. The Hapsburgs of Austria created the current layout in the 18th century and it retains that imperial feel. Of course there are Roman ruins scattered throughout.

My tiny 6 room hotel was located in the medieval quarter of 500 year old buildings that have been renovated over and over again. Think tiny winding alleys too narrow for cars or even carriages (see photo above). Unfortunately, I had the cubby room under the stairs, with one small window for air, but not much light. Needless to say, I didn't spend much time there.

It’s been hot. Hot. Punctuated by thunderstorms and pouring rain. I don’t mind the rain – it usually passes quickly and cools things a little.


From Udine I took the train for a ½ day side trip to Cividale, a little town that was first a Roman settlement (founded around 50 B.C.), then settled by the Lombards, and continuously occupied for around the last 2,000 years. There are some remnants of the various periods, the most striking being the castle, houses and other buildings built right on the gorge (see photo).

I had forgotten about Italian working hours….. Everything (except food and coffee places) closes at 12:30 or 1, and doesn’t reopen until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. This includes museums, shops, banks etc. At least coffee and gelato can be had. They are, in my opinion, the best value at 1 euro per shot of espresso or scoop of gelato.

Unfortunately, after less than a week of traveling, my back is wrenched. I have been going the budget route with hotels, and while it is not quite hostel heaven, the beds have been one step above cot.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bear With Me

I have heaps to write but have been thwarted by no wi-fi connection since I left Udine on Monday morning. I am now in Trieste, Italy, on the border with Slovenia (in the northeast cuff of the boot). Tomorrow I move on to Slovenia, but have waited so long to book accommodation that I am not sure yet where I will land. The goal is Piran, just down the coast before going to Ljubjana. Will post all soon!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Czech-Austria-Italy in a Day

Yesterday was a looooong day. I was misled into believing the bus was a good idea. It was comfortable enough (and compared to buses in Asia it was pure luxury), but it was nearly 11 hours crossing three countries from Prague to Udine, Italy. Food options were limited, and the only thing I could grab at the stop in Brno was a fried cheese sandwich. I had thought I was going to escape the Czech Republic without having sampled fried cheese - a local favorite - but no such luck. The ride was interesting nonetheless, as we also stopped in Austria at a truck stop not far from the Italian border, and one could see the complete difference between the grittiness of an Eastern European town, and the polished orderliness of an Austrian truck stop (I couldn't help but compare it to California truck stops, which are decidedly icky).

After crossing over the alps, we descended into the northeastern corner of Italy amid thunder, lightning and rain. Luckily, the weather in Udine has proved to be perfect: warm, but comfortable, with a nice breeze. I am here for 1 day, then off tomorrow to see one of the oldest settlements in the area (Cividale de Friuli), which was established by Julius Caesar in 50 B.C.

As for Udine itself, it is a pleasant old former market town that changed hands many times over the centuries, but it was the Venetian rule in the 18th century that left the most distinctive architecture (see photo of the Piazza della Liberta - supposedly one of the nicest in all of Italy). Unfortunately, the city was heavily bombed in the world wars, and buildings were reconstructed in the 1950's, with the architectural style of that time. What a contrast! Udine is all but deserted at the moment as it draws few tourists, and the vast majority of the population has already left for the coast (only 60 km away). However, I am enjoying the lack of crowds and easy pace after the crush of Prague.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Crossing the Continent

After full day of Prague yesterday, I am ready to move on. My target destination was Slovenia, but getting south to the other side of Austria proved to be a challenge. There were no buses, trains or flights to that country. Detour: Italy. Oh darn. It's only my favorite destination in the whole world. So today I have a very long day on a bus to Udine, in northeastern Italy, not too far from Venice (where I went with my sister in 2006). Two nights there, then on to Trieste, Italy, which is on the border of Slovenia. I don't think I will make it to Croatia after all - just not enough time.

The oppressive heat here in Prague finally broke last night with a downpour around 11 p.m. I was tucked away in bed, so I can only imagine the throngs on the streets running for cover. I had taken in "Aida" at the Prague State Opera, and was surprised to see how many people were out at 10:30 p.m. when the opera let out. The 2 previous nights I had been in bed by 9 p.m.!

Friday, June 11, 2010


I had a classic day in Prague. Started out in the morning at Prague Castle, the largest castle complex in the world, according to Lonely Planet. I won’t bore you too much with details – I believe I am the last person to get to Prague, which is kind of why I had to do it by myself! Speaking of traveling by oneself, one of the downsides is not having another person tell you when you have dropped something (castle admission ticket), or have something stuck to your clothes (both of which happened to me today).

I found the best part of Prague Castle to be the Royal Gardens, with the huge shade trees, especially the horse chestnut (which we don’t get in California). I got to the castle early, before the crowds - which surprisingly didn’t get that bad, but I think it is still early in the season. After the castle, I wandered the streets to the astronomical clock, and climbed the Old Town clock tower, ate ice cream, and looked in the windows of shops along the pedestrian shopping streets.

Given the large number of tourists in Prague, most people I have run into speak at least a little English, which is a great relief as I have only managed to master “hello” in Czech.

Tomorrow is the famous Charles Bridge, the Franz Kafka museum and seeing Verdi’s Aida at the State Opera.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


With as much traveling as I have done, I was surprised to find myself not very excited as my plane approached Frankfurt. I was again going to be alone in a foreign country. It’s been 3 ½ years since I was in Europe (Spain, Italy and Austria), but it feels like a lifetime, what with 4 months in Southeast Asia, 2 months in South America, and a month in India and Bhutan stuck in between (besides Alaska, the Jack Johnson tour, and various other trips).

I now wait in the under-construction train station at the Frankfurt airport for my train to Prague. I got as far east as Frankfurt using miles, so the train was a logical way to see some of the countryside and make my way further east. Slowly, the few German words I learned from my many trips to Vienna to see my sister are coming back to me, and with a little hesitation I manage to utter “danke” to the nice man who gave me coffee for the 2 paltry euros I had scavenged from my spare change drawer. Seems the network is down and there is no cash or credit to be had (there was an embarrassing moment when I almost handed him an Australian five dollar bill, which I had grabbed at home thinking it was a five euro note!)
Turns out the train took me only as far as Nuremburg. Then it was a bus to Prague. How did I miss that when booking? Maybe it was because it was all in German. It was a nice bus, on the nice autobahn, and I curled up into a ball on the bus seat and fell asleep.

I awoke to brilliant sun over rolling green hills, greener forests and small red-roofed hamlets in the Czech countryside. In Prague it is 35 degrees Celsius – HOT- and everyone seems to enjoy a cold glass of beer at the outdoor cafes. The heat also seems to bring out the worst in people’s wardrobes. Yikes!