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.

 

 

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.

Hearst Castle

Midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles along the Pacific Coast Highway lies a European castle.  In the middle of nowhere along the coast you arrive at sign for Hearst Castle.  Tired from driving you pull off the highway to see what it is about.  Passing row upon row of parking you arrive at an unimpressive building.  Saddened by what is the worst castle you have ever seen your gaze slowly drifts above this building and onto a large structure towering on a hill far in the distance.  Now that looks promising.  Further investigation reveals that your current location is only the visitors center.IMG_1187.JPG

Entering the front doors you are reminded of a bus terminal.  Walking past a small cafe to your left and a gift shop and restaurant on your right you arrive at the ticket counter.  Here you are presented with an array of tours.  The ticket agents(employees, park rangers, team members?), I’m not sure of their title, are more than happy to take the time to explain the differences to you and steer you to what you want.  Not only do you have to pick which tour you wish to join you also need to pick a time.  Do not be fooled into just picking the soonest slot as there are quite a few activities in the visitors center.  There are the aforementioned shops, a cinema showing the history of the castle and owner, a nice outdoor sitting area(though the birds are extremely aggressive), and I believe some other things.  When your scheduled time gets near you must line up at the proper gate near the ticket desk as buses take you up to the castle and different tours depart on different buses.  I guess the building gives the impression of a bus terminal for a good reason.IMG_1192.JPG

After queuing inside you take a short walk to a concrete shelter outside where you wait until called by the bus driver.  After this you queue again..just kidding.  Once you get a seat on the bus you can relax and enjoy the curving and elevating ride up to the castle.  The views and stunning and the buses audio fills your ears with information about the trip.  Explaining why there are animals on the hills near the road that have no natural business in California.  Such as that Zebra staring right at you.  IMG_1196.JPG

Most people would believe that a castle on the ocean would be right on the sea, but you would be mistaken.  This castle is far back from the sea high up on a hill.  Actually on the top of a hill with a commanding panoramic view and the ocean a tiny blue streak in the background.  You are taking all this in as your bus twists back and forth up this steep, meandering hill.IMG_1198.JPG

Once you reach the top you are ushered off the bus and assigned a tour guide and your journey begins.  Quite a bit of walking is involved as this is a large structure, as the name castle should have hinted to you.  Also there are quite a few stairs, again as the being on a hill should have been a giveaway.  The tour follows along the lines of most other tours.  If you have been to any other castles the format will be familiar to you.  Some interesting architecture, interesting rooms with interesting stories, a garden, a pool, so on and so on.  All very expensive and extravagant of course.  There is quite a bit of truly interesting information about the owner and castle so pay attention to your guide(or get the tour book at the gift shop, $19.95).  IMG_1199.JPG

Hearst Castle is a rest stop for those driving the Pacific Coast Highway.  Out in the middle of nowhere it is not worth a trip in itself, but it is absolutely worth a few hours of your time as a break from driving.  Enjoy this little piece of European aristocracy transplanted to the center of California.  IMG_1202.JPG

Mada’in Saleh – Part 2

As soon as Davis and I arrived home we turned on my laptop and looked at the map. It was easy to tell where we had been driving as there were only a few roads crossing in the middle of the desert. Two cell towers also helped by making perfect landmarks. The road we needed to take was the only road we hadn’t tried off of the badly damaged tank road.

Furry Camel

Early morning the next day we again set off full of high hopes and absolute certainty that we would see our destination. We make it to the familiar tank road and turn onto the correct road.

Total time to make it further than we did the day before, less than twenty minutes.  We drive on, enjoying the scenery and confident in our route. After an hour and a half we stop in a little village for fuel. This village is comprised of a gas station, a tiny market, a police station, and a few houses. I would estimate the population as being made up of a large family. All villages in the Kingdom are identical. So we pull up to the fuel pump and the Indian worker asks “how much?” in Arabic. Here is a man that comes from a beautiful lush country of a billion people, and leaves his family and friends, to work alone in a speck of a village in the middle of a desert. I want to talk to him, to ask him why. What are his motives, his dreams, his desires. But alas, we are unable to communicate. So I hold up all my fingers to signify how much fuel to pump and then wave goodbye to this sad lonely wanderer and leave him to contemplate his decisions and being.

Down the ribbon of pavement we continue, enjoying the ups and downs and tight turns the hills offer us to break up the monotony of the desert. When my eyes start to close from drowsiness I just reminisce about the utter wastes of Utah’s Salt Flats or Nevada’s deserts and I snap awake with the understanding that this isn’t bad. It could always be worse.

But this time I seem to have awoken to a mirage, for there looks to be a giant mountain covering the road.  Surprisingly Davis sees the same. There truly is a hill of dirt covering the road. Stunned we stop for a moment until I realize a dirt trail with construction equipment littering it climbing the left side of this unexpected roadblock. Against Davis’s wishes I drive up this makeshift road to the top. From the top we are greeted with an fabulous view. High up on the mountain are heavy construction trucks moving dirt around. I secretly hope for one to go tumbling down the mountain since the precipices they are working on don’t look like they could support a man let alone a solid block of metal. Down below us on the opposing side of our roadblock is a beautiful road weaving through the mountain pass. I feel sorry for it as it looks so lonely without any cars.

Now we were at an impasse. I feel that we had driven too far to give up so easily but Davis feels that we have no options. I offer up the idea of driving down the side of the mountain but Davis is a safety minded individual and so is against it. I then offer roaming around the desert looking for a way to bypass this problem. Again Davis is against it saying that we only have a small front wheel drive sedan. I can see that Davis just wants to go home since he is making excuses about my easily executable and perfectly safe ideas, so I humor him and we return to Tabuk crestfallen.

Mada’in Saleh – Part 1

To travel from city to city in Saudi Arabia may appear to be a simple task for the uninitiated, since there are very few roads and long distances between the urban areas, but it is a false belief.  There is a wonderful invention called Google Maps that destroys the need to ask locals for directions or consult a map.  I believe everyone knows how it works so I will skip the dry lecture.  I researched the way to drive which seemed very simple.  Five and a half hours, two turns, and passing three intersections once outside the city.  That was it.  Very straightforward and simple.

Davis and I get in the car and head off to the South of Tabuk.  We have never gone this way before but there are few major roads so our chances of error seem minimal.  We drive on chatting and enjoying the scenery as everyone seems to do when seeing new places.  Soon enough we intersect a road that we do recognize.  It is the main road to the West and Red Sea.  Obviously we had missed our turn.  Being completely honest with ourselves we said we knew exactly what was wrong and that we had missed our turnoff at the last roundabout.  So we happily backtrack and take a different road to the South, or mostly South based on our sun reading skills.

Saudi CountryNow would be a good time to point out that Saudi Arabia does not get many tourists and does not believe in road signs.  So what road you are on is a complete guess.  It adds to the mystery of the culture but can be quite interesting when you have no idea where you are headed and there isn’t a town or crossroad for a thousand kilometers, or thereabouts.

We catch a new road off the roundabout and again head in a generally Southern direction  We continue on this road that runs with military bases on either side complete with tanks and artillery making imposing silhouettes on the hills against the horizon.  Soon enough the road gets rough beyond anything a human being should be able to stand.  To our best guess it is a road for the military’s tanks.  I feel as if I have been transported back a hundred and fifty years and am riding a Wells Fargo coach across Nevada.  It turns out our guess is spot on as we come to an Army gate.  Dead End.  So we turn around and enjoy the free bone rattling massage while retracing our route.

We go back a little ways and turn off at an intersection to a road we have not yet used.  This road goes on for about 20 kilometers and dead ends at another military gate.  So we back track again and choose yet another different way.  This route takes us for another 10 kilometers and then dead ends at a, well, you know the answer.  It felt like we were stuck in some sort of trick.  Every road we chose ended up going to a military gate.

Davis and I do not give up easily, but seeing as we were not soldiers and had no business on a military base we decided to retreat, go home, regroup, come up with a plan of attack, and assault Mada’in Saleh at a later date.

Again we back track, heading this time not for the South but back North to the city.  After two hours of driving we had made it a total of ten minutes outside the city, but at least now we are back to the, what is this, a military gate?  Perhaps it is time to invest in a GPS.