Kobarid, Slovenia

Tucked in the mountains on the extreme western edge of Slovenia is the tiny town of Kobarid.  You may be familiar with the town without knowing it as it featured in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.  During World War I it was the front line between Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces. You should read up on it as the history is interesting.  After many battles the Italians retreated but were given the area after the war(Spoils to the victor). In the hills surronding the town you can still find trenches and embattlements, but those days of fighting are long past.  Now this beautiful area is a nature lovers and adverturers paradise.

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The town proper has a small main street with a hotel and restaurants.  There is the Kobarid museum, a school, quite a few guide shops(one selling my favorite outdoor wear, Prana), and of course, houses.  Surrounding the town are a few campgrounds and mountains full of well marked trails, both hiking and biking.  But the main attraction is the Soca River.  This colorful river hosts kayakers, swimmers, and rafters.  There are a few bridges offering fantastic views.  By following little crystal clear streams that enter into the Soca you will come to some impressive slap(Slovenian for waterfall, perhaps named after the sound they make).

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Make Kobarid a stop on your trip through Slovenia.  The campgrounds are fantastic(Detailed in another post), the pizza at the restaurants delicious, the river and waterwalls beautiful.  There is nothing not to like.  Kayak or raft down the river, hike or bike up the mountains, travel back to World World I by standing in the embattlements and visiting the museum.  Then spend a day relaxing , just staring at the mountains and breathing in the fresh air.

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Ljubljana, Slovenia

You know that you are approaching Ljubljana courtesy of the roadsigns, but you find no other evidence of a capital city approaching.  Most cities announce themselves from afar, with tall buildings, some industry, or at the very minimum a water tower.  Not Ljubljana, which I shall now refer to as the hidden city.  It goes from forest to a city in an instant.  One moment you are looking at trees and the next you are on the off-ramp into the center.

As you leave the motorway and drive through the city you cross nothing special.  There are some clean and modern glass offices and some old grey concrete blocks of flats.  It looks and feels like like most other Eastern Bloc cities.  Hopefully the center will be interesting.  Looking for a parking space you are unable to spy any of the pedestrian area.  Doing a few loops you are amazed to find that there are no spots, which seems old on a weekend.  Giving in you pull into a garage and park right next to the elevators.  Why the spot is painted red you don’t understand.  Another car parks next to you and asks in English why the spots are painted red.  You answer that you have no idea.  They decide to drive higher into the garage but you decide to risk it.  IMG_20170917_124448.jpg

Leaving the garage you enter an empty and dark plaza.  In the corner is a casino, which is the national icon of Slovenia.  Walking towards the center you start to see people wearing hiking packs and other obvious tourists.  On your walk you pass a little fountain decorated with many cute and fat horse statues as well as a very colorful building that would be more at home in Barcelona.  IMG_20170917_124551.jpg

Arriving in the old town surprises you.  The city opens up and a beautiful view presents itself.  A large predestrian area complete with river and bridges fills your view.  To your right is a church but you skip it.  You cross the river and walk along beautiful shops and restaurants.  In front of you rises a castle up on a cliff face.  You would love to go up there but time is not permitting, so instead you roam up and down the little alleys of shops.  All clean and beautiful as you have come to expect from this country.  IMG_20170917_125249.jpg

After ducking into a few of the shops you settle down at a restuarant on the riverside and get a coffee and nachos.  The river is flowing heavily due to the recent downpours.  The water is not the crystal blue you hope for but for some reason the brown water doesn’t bother you.  Your view upriver is fantastic and the one downsteam isn’t too shabby.  After finishing your meal and watching all the well behaved dogs being walked, it is time to explore some more.  Crossing to the other side of the river you stumble across a little market.  Vendors are selling what would best be discribed as junk.  Toys from your childhood, old books, posters, and kitchenware.  You wonder to yourself if anything might be a collectible, but are there really such finds these days? IMG_20170917_130349.jpg

Loving this city you are sad that you have to get to the mountains in the west before nightfall to set-up your camping tent.  A shame that you haven’t gotten to see more of the sights.  A castle on a hill, a huge park, and even dragons on a bridge.  If only you could spend a few days here, but no worries.  You make a mental note to return as soon as possible.

Walking a zig-zag back to the parking garage you stumble across more shops, plazas, government buildings, and restaurants.  All of it looks wonderful.  Lucky Slovenians you mumble to yourself.  IMG_20170917_134519.jpg

Arriving back at your car you are happy to find that the red spot apparantly doesn’t mean anything, as your windshield is free of any papers and the tires are free and clear.  Exiting the structure and driving to the motorway you bid the hidden city farewell.  You will return, given that the road signs stay up and you are able to find it again.

Maribor, Slovenia

Though it was cold and damp outside I awoke to a toasty bedroom thanks to a little space heater sitting near the bedside.  Getting dressed I walked through the kitchen to the living room of our rental house.  Here I stood with my face nearly touching the window.  Beautiful green hills lightly covered by mist unfolded before me in this tiny village just south of the city.  Unable to move I take in the sight for twenty minutes, watching a colorful police car drive up a small lane to a school, turn around, and return from where he appeared.  Everything seems so peaceful and simple.  It is simply perfection. What a heartbreak that we have to leave today.

After showering and packing up we leave our wonderful rental house.  A gigantic spider appears near the top of the bedroom wardrobe to wish us goodbye.  Thankfully I did not see it earlier or I might have had a different opinion of our night there.  After taking in one last view as I finish putting our luggage in the car we head off to downtown Maribor for breakfast.

It is a drizzling weekend morning and traffic is light.  A perfect road without a single defect takes us into the city.  Driving in we pass many large Ikea-like stores and other modern construction.  It all looks new and clean.  A bridge spanning a river near the center appears to separate the old area from the new area.  The south bank has modern glass construction while the north gets much more Communist.  Here we decide on sightseeing by car has it has begun to rain.  We drive a couple of laps around the center but cannot find anything of interest.  Coming to a small park with parking areas around its perimeter, which the GPS seemed to think was the center of the city, we pulled in and discussed our next move.  As we talked the rain suddenly stopped, as if inviting us out.  Not one to argue with nature we quickly evacuated our car and walked towards a large pedestrian area.  Around were decent buildings but the communist hand was everywhere.  From the mandatory giant statue depicting war and sacrifice to the ugly concrete squares they call buildings.

The rain starting again we ducked into a corner cafe.  The outside was not inviting but inside was beautiful.  A large area opened in front of us and a fantastic heavy timber ceiling above.  A waitress smiled at us as we took seats by a window and came over to take our order, in perfect English, as we dressed down and got settled in.  Outside a fruit vendor and kebab shop were making preparations to open.  Across the way a Communist looking shoe shops eaves protected a lady and her dog from what had become a downpour.  Dreaming about the beautiful view we had just an hour before, and comparing it to what we saw now, we felt quite against Maribor.

Turning our attention to the table, we drank our mediocre coffee and ate our tasty tost and apple pastry.  With the rain stopping again as we finished our meal we briefly explored the area before giving up due to lack of interest.  Safely back in our car we headed for the motorway and onward to Ljubljana.

Perhaps Maribor is a beautiful city and we just happened to be in the wrong area with drab weather and negative attitudes. Or perhaps it truly is the ugliest part of Slovenia.  I will leave my judgement open until the next time I visit, for I will most certainly be back.

 

 

A Blonde Eastern European Travels to Saudi Arabia

It was early in the morning when I got on the plane in Budapest.  Excited, but already tired, knowing that I have a twelve hour of journey ahead of me.  I was traveling alone(like usual), which generally does not make me feel worried or anxious.  However this time it was a completly different story.

I am an Eastern-European blonde and blue eyed women looking forward to be reunited with her American husband in the Kindom of Saudi Arabia, where he worked instructing new Saudi firefighters.

I had to change planes at Frankfurt airport, where the culture difference became crystal clear. It was amazing how different the crowd getting on the plane was from my last flight. This was my first time seeing a man in a thobe, the traditional Saudi attire, and women wearing the abaja, covering their whole body and head in black fabric, though not all were dressed like this.

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During boarding I found my assigned seat occupied by a Saudi man. No problem I thought, it is alright and happens fairly often. I will just ask him to move.

Oh if I had only known…

The man immediately called a hard-working Philippino stewardess to his rescue, explaining to her that he wanted that seat and refuses to sit next to me so they will have to find me another seat. I felt a bit embarrassed, but was ready to find myself a new seat and avoid this rude man. Here I came across some more difficulties and learned a bit about their culture, as more and more Saudis refused to sit next to me, regardless of their gender or age. At the end, as the outcast of the plane, i found peace next to an old Indian man who was more than delighted to have me as his traveling companion for the hours to come.

After listening to the “Prayer of the Travelers” from the Holy Koran, which played on the monitors, the plane took off and I was finally on my way to the amazing Kingdom of sand, camels and terrible coffee…which all deserve their own story.

Vrsic Mountain Pass

Vrsic mountain pass is the most amazing road I have ever been on.  Full stop.

Between Kobarid and Kranjska Gora is a massive mountain range.  To travel between the two our GPS wanted us to go through Italy and avoid the mountains, but halfway along we came to a road sign that had a different opinion of which road to take.  Trusting physical items over modern technology I, to the disapproval of my misses, turned off our GPS blue line.  IMG_20170919_114245.jpg

Towards the mountains and away from Italy we go.  A light rain accompanies us on our journey.  All is well and good as we drive through a narrow river valley between two mountain ranges and driving towards a third.  Just as it looks like we will end up driving into the mountain we come to a hairpin turn.  Then another, and another, and another.  All the while climbing nearly vertical.  IMG_20170919_121612.jpg

Apparently there are 49 of these hairpins.  After about thirty of them we came to some construction workers.  At this level the rain was turning into slush.  No worries.  It is only September and I’m used to driving in snow, so a little slush is childs play.  Past these workers we climb and climb at about 20kph.  Slush turns to light snow and then quickly to heavy snow.  Within two minutes our view has turned completely white.  Gone is the green from the trees and black of the road.  I can see the summit in the very near distance but make the difficult decision that we cannot make it in our little car with summer tires.  It hurts but better same than sorry.IMG_20170919_121741.jpg

Looking for a place to turn around we are waved down by a man coming down the mountain.  Stopping and getting out to talk to him he informs us that around the corner about eight cars are stuck in the snow.  He recommends turning around.  Not one to argue we slowly make an about face and retrace our path at a crawling pace.  Testing the brakes to see if ice is forming I am taking by surprise as we start sliding.  It appears there may be a teeny bit of ice.  Slowing our pace to that of a snail we decend and in about ten minutes time are back in the slush and rain.  It was a close call but made for a fantastic memory and a beautiful view and experience.  Plus because of the snow we got to take the long way and see a small bit of Italy.  IMG_20170919_122030.jpg

Vrsic Mountain Pass is a fantastic piece of tarmac, built by Russian prisoners of war during the first world war.  There is a Russian church at the summit built by the prisoners in memory of those killed while making it.  Credit is due to them for being able to build a road straight up the side of a mountain.  The views are also supposed to be spetacular.  There are pull-in and picnic areas, as well as many hiking paths(From what I read as we never made it).  Do bring a four wheel drive or winter tires for late Autumn and early Spring(and of course Winter)!.

Szeged to Maribor

It is well known that the idiom “All roads lead to Rome” was actually stolen from the original “All roads lead to Budapest”.  If you wish to travel from Szeged(on the Southern border of Hungary) to Slovenia(on the Western border), you must first go to Budapest, which lies near the Northern border of the country.

First thing in the morning we went to Bor Ter(wine festival) in Szeged to get wine glasses that we have collected most years.  Sadly it was early and the booths were not yet open so we couldn’t enjoy any delicious wine, but it being illegal to drive with even a drop of alcohol in your system it was probably for the best.

After purchasing our motorway pass we settled in for a long and boring drive through the Hungarian farmland.  First we would head North, then South-West, and finally West to reach Maribor, the start of our Slovenian vacation.  Not a bad days drive at slightly under five hours.  Heading North was uneventful, as was our South-West journey.

Nearing the border with Slovenia things got interesting.  Dark clouds blotted out the sun and brilliant flashes of lightning took its place.  I was enjoying this wonderful display of nature until we entered a downpour.  Glad we had decided to take the Rolls instead of the convertible we quickly fogged up and both scrambled to fix the issue.  Thanks to our quick reaction we cleared the windows and were greeted with exactly the same amount of visibility, courtesy of the intense rain.

Driving by following the reflectors on the painted lane directly in front of the car we soldiered on, stopping at a petrol station on the border to purchase a Slovenian motorway pass and give my eyes a rest from not blinking for the past half hour.  Waking my eyes up we continued through these cats and dogs.

Nature did not loosen her grip until we found our rental house just outside the city , when we rewarded with a drizzle while escaping our car for a more comfortable structure.

We saw nothing of the Slovenian countryside or of Maribor that first day due to the wily combination of weather and darkness.

Slovenia-Overview

Toast and coffee in hand(and mouth), I stare out the window of the cafe pondering if Slovenia is the most beautiful country I have been to.  Not this exact location per se, as this area of Maribor, the second largest city of a whopping 90,000 population, is drab communist concrete and grey.  The overcast skys and rain don’t help raise the atmosphere.  My current view aside, the country on a whole is in league with New Zealand and other top players.

This tiny country of two million sits comfortably between Italy, Austria, Croatia, and Hungary.  The Eastern portion is made up of rolling hills that flatten out as you enter Hungary.  The West is full of majestic mountains, there is a beautiful lake near the center, and for beachlovers there is a tiny coastline in the Southwest.  The Soca river is a beautiful glacier color.  As far as nature goes the country is perfect.  Tunnels and bridges are commonplace and offer fantastic views of the countryside.  The roads are perfect, like pretty much everything else.  Slovenia is using EU money extremely well, unlike some other recipients(I’m looking at you Hungary and all your missing EU cash).  2017-09-17-1053.jpg

The people are fantastic as well.  Most speak English as well as a few other languages.  Croatian, Serbian, Italian, German being quite popular.  They are nice and service was top notch.  The service industry doesn’t ignore you as Eastern European countries do and they aren’t begging for tips or sales as Americans do.  My number one compliment to the people is to acknowldge their cleanliness.  There was no rubbish to be seen.  Not in city centers, roadsides, or on mountain trails.  I take that back, I did see rubbish in dumpsters and trash cans.  I was amazed.  I have never seen such a well taken care of country.

Slovenia is not just for nature lovers, though it is a paradise for hiking, biking, camping, skiing, motorbiking, paragliding, kayaking, climbing, and all other outdoor pursuits.  It is also rich in World War I history.  The mountains were the setting for massive battles between the Austo-Hungarians and Italians.  You can still walk through the trenches and see the defensive lines. Russian prisioners of war built the most impressive road I have ever been on.  It climbs straight up a mountain with dozens of switchbacks.  Many were killed building it and so the survivors built a pretty memorial church at the top of the pass to honor them.  My apologies to owls and partiers, I have no idea about Slovenian nightlife.  2017-09-17-1055.jpg

Food is a mix of neighboring countries.  Slovenia does not have its won food culture.  Sorry foodies.  The pizza is delicious and the local beer, Lasko, tastes like an IPA to me.  I wasn’t a fan.

Even the small things are awesome.  One example is that speed cameras are everywhere but there are multiple warning signs well before all of them.  It appears to be impossible to get a speeding ticket even if you drive with blinders on.

It does rain a lot, but that is to be expected in any green country.  I love the rain and having coffee on foggy mornings so this isn’t a negative to me.  Bring a jacket and remember that water dries and doesn’t hurt.

Visit Slovenia as soon as possible.  See Lake Bled, camp in the mountains, kayak the Soca, and take a city break in Ljubljana(just hope you never need to spell it).  Hell, if you pay my way I’ll join you and be your personal guide.  You will get a small amount of information wrapped in layers of sarcasm and wit.