Friday, July 08, 2011

Last Three Days: Lake Bled, Slovenia and Venice

Slovenia Day 3:

With our bags packed yet again, we set off north to Lake Bled, one of the picturesque and popular lakes in the northwest corner of the country. A castle and a church in the middle of the lake: that's all I knew and it sounded perfect.

With our handy GPS, we made it into Lake Bled and the picturesque right there. The mountains all around us, the beautiful castle high above, and the little church island. While tourists were certainly there, it was nothing like you'd expect of a place so beautiful. This seems to be the case in most of Slovenia. A well kept secret.

We found an easy parking spot at the castle entrance and trudged up the cobblestone steps and into the castle. Gorgeous views all around, a great museum with artifacts from hundreds of years, a small printing press, a little chapel, a wine cellar, and two restaurants. Everything you need. We spent longer than we thought roaming the interesting castle, enjoying an espresso and drink half way through. (There's nothing quite like having tea/espresso in a church or castle courtyard, in my opinion).

I was most excited to walk into the wine cellar and see two monks in costume showing people how to bottle, cork, and label wines. For 15 Euro you could do it yourself and take the bottle home. How could I refuse? So I tasted, chose red, bottled, corked, dipped in wax, tied the label, sealed the label. Then, voila! My own souvenir and experience.

After our castle visit, we traveled down to the lake where we shopped a little in the market then hopped a boat to the island. A man rowed our boat of 10 people out to the church island. The breeze was light and the water still. We sat in easy quiet, with a great view of the castle, watching men row their women and families out around the lake. At the island, we had a half hour to see the church, meander, and get back in the boat. There had been religious/sacred monuments on this island for hundreds if not thousands of years. In the church, we rang the bell and made our wishes (Mary is supposed to grant wishes if you ring the bell three times). We came across a newly married couple enjoying a small pre-ceremony reception. Then, a quick roam around the tiny little museum and back into the boat.

As we arrived back on shore, the clouds had rolled in and threatened rain. Soon, it did rain as we tried to find a place for lunch. When the "Thai" sign psyched us out (Thai massage parlor not restaurant), we chose the Park restaurant by the lake where we ate in a sea of purple (walls, table clothes, pillars, etc.). Dad and Margaret partook of the Lake Bled specialties, including the cream cake, and I had my first soy cutlet of the trip! Woohoo! Processed soy product always looks good after a few weeks break!

Then, it was too soon time to leave Slovenia and head back to Venice. Experiencing Slovenia was a bit like experiencing New Zealand. The moment I entered I knew I would want to return again. Such beauty.

Venice: Day 1

After a quick return of the rental car in the morning, we caught the boat to San Marco square. It felt so wonderful to return to Venice, to feel the water breeze, to see the towers and domes beckoning in the distance and growing closer.

Soon, we landed in the throngs of tourists at San Marco. We made our way through the crowds and the warm morning sun, up and over the bridges, and not soon after we arrived at our hotel. On a little canal, the Nicolo Priuli hotel was quaint and lovely. We couldn't see our rooms yet, but we could see the breakfast room and store our luggage. So, that's what we did.

Then, off to the Doge's Palace to collect our tickets for the 11:30am tour of the Secret Itineraries, that takes you behind the scenes and into the old prisons and across the Bridge of Sighs. With an hour to wait, we went in search of some espresso, getting a bit distracted by all the pretty glass in the windows. Eventually, mission accomplished and energy returned bit by bit.

The Doge's Palace tour and the Palace itself offered an onslaught of art and history. The judicial system, prisons and torture, the Venice Republic, Casanova, political intrigue, art, art, art. It was a fabulous onslaught, and I felt more than museum fatigue after the tour. In one large room alone there were easily over 100-125 paintings on the wall. Titian and Tintoretto and so many others. If you ever go to Venice, take the Doge's Palace tour because it will be a highlight.

After the Palace, we found a little side restaurant for dinner, where I ate, yes, spaghetti with tomato sauce, which was very good. Dad and Margaret opted for the seafood dishes, which they devoured in happy moans of food satisfaction. Then, off we went to check into the hotel and take a little breather. Then, we went in search of the Poetessa that Margaret had met a year and a half ago, passing the Fenice Theater, and crossing over bridges and bridges and into campo after campo. It was time for my next feeding pretty soon, and we found a cute little restaurant near the Rialto. I inhaled pizza sans cheese, and Dad and Margaret enjoyed the Italian evening spritz.

We meandered through the streets and back to our hotel, where we popped our prosecco, made a plan for the next day, and enjoyed our first sleep in Venice.

Venice, Day 2

A knock on my door at 8am, and there was dad with a pot of tea. Oh, that's the way to wake up. So, I took my tea and journal and curled back up under the covers. My journal was much neglected on this trip, mostly due to the busy schedule and writing this blog (thanks to the two of you who are reading it :)). So, this morning tea and writing time felt sacred.

Breakfast at our hotel, then out to Murano. We passed by the hospital where Margaret and Carol had spent time in 2009 when Carol broke her arm. I held my breath as we passed it. Then, on to the boat, past the cemetery (on my list for next visit), and into the island of Murano. I have a vague memory of wandering around the island in 1994, but it was cold and shops were closed. This visit, the sun shone, and we walked around, enjoying the Murano glass museum and shops.

The museum, though small and a little light on the goods, gave a great background to how the Murano glass making trade started, its history and expansion, and the varieties of glass and styles over the years. Margaret and I agreed that the old glass from the 1st Century AD was the most interesting. There were many samples of glass trends over the recent five centuries and some unusual modern pieces. I did wish there could have been more. I wanted to be overcome with glass like I was overcome with paintings in the Doge's Palace.

After the museum, we went in search of gifts. Little shops and larger glass makers line the canals. We bobbed in and out, noting where we wanted to return, and what we liked. We ate lunch along the canal with a beautiful breeze, some Italian red wine, pasta, and salad. Are all meals so perfect in Italy? I think so.

As we returned by boat to Venice, Dad worried about his bank card not working, Margaret wanting to get to the Poetessa, and me totally in a daze about what I would do in the afternoon, we landed near San Marco, walking a bit like zombies through the busy streets. Soon, we split up so that Dad and Margaret could enjoy their last afternoon in Venice, and I went in search of something to do. Tour the Fenice? Return to the Guggenheim? Sit in a church somewhere and write? Drink more wine? Take a nap? The options seemed endless.

I started off by going to the exhibit on violins and Vivaldi. You could hear the music coming out of the deconsecrated church, and Margaret had seemed particularly excited that I see this museum when we passed it earlier. So, in I went. The exhibit not only went through the stages of Vivaldi's life and works, but it also documented the history of music in Venice. There were many different instruments on display from the past five hundred years: violins, violas, flutes, oboes, clarinets, mandarins, etc. Of course, Vivaldi's music played overhead the entire time.

I left and meandered the streets, walking in and out of shops, not feeling inspired to buy anything but looking nonetheless. As I neared our hotel, I went on the hunt for entrance into a pretty church near us. I never found the entrance but instead I found a quiet little campo and a cafe. I sat down, opened my journal, and ordered a spritz. A small wedding had just finished in the church, so the group took pictures in the campo. Kids played soccer with each other and against the wall. Families with kids meandered in for afternoon visits with friends. Grandmothers arrived and sat on benches for their afternoon sit. A man read a book under a tree. It was the perfect writing hour.

I made my way back to the hotel to get ready for our last dinner in Venice. The hotel receptionist walked us to the restaurant himself, over a few bridges, down side streets, to a local restaurant where we were surrounded by Italians. Perfecto. Despite the fact that I felt guilty for tagging along on what could have been a romantic private meal with Dad and Margaret, I so enjoyed all that time with them. The Prosecco, the bread, the wine, the pasta, the conversation, the laughter, the sighs of bliss as we took in the reality of it being our last night. After dinner, we made our way to San Marco to Margaret's favorite ice cream shop. We wandered the Campo, listening to the various bands at play, then meandered our way home.

4:45am would come too early as we walked down to the canal and caught our water taxi to the airport. Then, at the airport, we would check in and go through security. Me, in my dimness, and showing how often I bring wine, forgot to pack my wine in my checked baggage. So, even after a last ditch effort to check my second bag, only to find out it would cost me 60 Euro, I made the tough decision. I took the Prosecco from Villa Sandi out of the box. I took my Lake Garda bottle out of the special bag, gently ripped off the label from the waxed seal, and left my wine souvenirs by the garbage can and went back through customs. One always learns lessons while traveling, sometimes lessons that you'd rather not have to learn.

A wonderful, wonderful trip full of friends and family--old and new. A new country. 1,006 photos.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Slovenia: Enchanted

When Thursday morning rolled around, we said our family goodbyes, wishing each other bon voyage and safe travels. We all took separate directions: some home, others to Austria, Rome, Venice and us to Slovenia.

Off to my 26th Country!

Slovenia lies only 2 hours away by car across the curve along the Adriatic Sea. Since Slovenia is in the EU, no passport check was required.

As we made our way to the first stop, Predjama Castle, I looked out in awe at the landscape. Lush forests, perfectly situated villages in valleys with picturesque church spires. We wound our way through the lush forests to the Castle. What a magnificent place!

The Castle was built into a large cave network almost 600 years ago. It went through various stages of growth but became a major stronghold due to the caves under the castle that led through to the other side of the mountain.

Before venturing into Helm's Deep, I mean Predjama Castle, we ate at a great restaurant with a castle view. Thankfully, English is spoken most places we've encountered, so ordering has been easy. A glass of wine, polenta, potatoes, and salad, then up to the castle. Five flights of stairs up and down, through recreated rooms and marvelous overlooks. Stone and wood perched carefully along the cave. Ferns and moss grow, water drips though, and you smell the earth. No living history, ie people in costumes, but there were models posed, so that appeased me. (See my entries on Hampton Court + Helsingor Castle back in my July 2008 blog about my childlike joy for people in costume...)

We then made our way through various photo shots and made our way back to the car. Next stop: Prestranek. Margaret had visited a horseriding school there back in 2001 , and she wanted to see us again and show us. I was the 13 year old girl who loved horses, so I loved it. While more aged and run down than it was 10 years ago, it still held its charm. A few kids brought their horses to pasture after their ride. Beautiful creatures...

Then, off we went to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. We are staying at this cute little hotel in a quiet area north of the center. We checked onto our rooms, and I immediately fell asleep. A few hours later, we drove into the city centre, where finding a parking spot was like being in Wrigleyville. We finally found one and made our way to The Three Bridges.

As we walked, we saw a jazz band at an outdoor cafe, crossed dragon bridge, meandered past busy cafes along the river, all as the sun set and lit up the buildings and sky. Finally, we made it to three bridges, a great convergence of three little bridges in front of the church. A big festival must have happened that day as red streamers were hung all around and a band looked to be packing up.

Such a romantic place to be without my amore. I felt sad and wistful all at once, mingled with a little guilt that I was infringing on the romance for Dad and Margaret. So, if you are looking for romance to surround you, bring your love here to Slovenia. The country just evokes romance at every twist and turn.

We then enjoyed a gorgeous meal along the river. We sampled some wonderful Slovenian red wine, and I enjoyed my risotto with mushrooms (the orange ones, chartrelles or something) and fennel, while dad and margaret each enjoyed different raviolis with local mushrooms. Such a perfect meal by the river with people enjoying the beautiful summer night.

Day 2:

Margaret finally heard back from her friends Mehmed and Monika in Metlika, so we left bright and early to drive to the southwest corner of the country. Another beautiful drive as we passed through village after village worthy of photo adoration. This country is so small that it takes only an hour to get from the center to the edge.

We arrived in Metlika and were once again flooded with hospitality. We had turkish coffee with Mehmed as we waited for Monika. He showed us photos from his daughter and son's weddings. His English is not great, and as our Slovenian + Serbo-Croatian is nonexistant, we were thrilled when Monika came.

After some snacks and morning coffee, off we went to explore Metlika. They took us up to the castle and center, only a short walk from Mehmed's house. The castle had been burned down or partially destroyed 15 times by the Turks, which led to the formation of Slovenia's first fire brigade. The simple museum was a treat. Wonderful video on the area in English and great displays about Slovenian history for over two thousand years. We then drank wine in the castle restaurant/bar. Margaret had loved the ice wine she had 10 years ago, so I joined her in it.

Then, off to lunch at a wonderful local restaurant for another full meal. On my end: red wine, grilled vegetables, mixed salad, fruit in moscato, then a dessert wine from walnuts. Everyone else had meat and cheese, so they were probably even more full. The waiter brought us out the dessert wine on the house, which was lovely but none of us finished.

Then, Mehmed drove us to Monika's plot of land where she has the most delightful plot of land where she has planted an orchard. She also has a tiny one room cottage where I'm sure I could hibernate for a few days and write. We picked ripe cherries from her tree, the sour cherries soft and warm from the sun, melting in our mouths.

Then, it was back to her house for some more turkish coffee and to taste her homemade liquoure from her fruit trees. Sour cherry was my favorite. So more chatting and then time to go.

As we wanted to head to Otocec Castle just to see it, we made our way on the 40 minute or so drive. When we arrived at the castle, we couldn't get anywhere near it. We had stumbled across Rock Otocec, which I can only say looked a lot like the Slovenian version of Lollapalooza. People were parked and tailgating, many were making their way to the castle, music not wafting but pulsing from beyond the castle walls and trees.

So, back in the car after I tried a photo and came back to Ljubljlana for a quiet night at the hotel.

Tomorrow: north to Lake Bled and maybe a bit further north. Then, to Venice in the late afternoon!