Krka National Park – Croatia

The Krka River from above.

The Krka River from above.

So I’ve taken a not-so-brief hiatus since returning home. But between much job hunting and interviewing, and finally job accepting (at a travel company, very exciting!) and moving to Burlington, Vermont, I’ve let the end of my Eastern European travel documenting fall by the wayside.

However, it doesn’t feel right to begin another adventure without completing the last one, so I’m going to finish off with the last few days of Croatia, starting with Krka National Park.

Looking down on the Krka River from the walking path.

Looking down on the Krka River from the walking path.

While not quite as popular as Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park (coming up next), Krka offers similar unbelievably blue water and has little waterfalls flowing everywhere you look along with an added bonus – you can actually swim in the water, not just look.

It was this fact that persuaded Chris and I to take the long bus trip from Zadar to Krka and back again via Šibenik, and I don’t regret it for an instant. Although you would never predict it from the hours of arid coast and foothills the bus ride passes through, the end result is a lush, jungle-like valley with a surprisingly blue river running through the center.

Wooden walkways like this lead visitors through the park without disrupting the delicate ecosystem.

Wooden walkways like this lead visitors through the park without disrupting the delicate ecosystem.

After descending into the valley by foot or by bus, visitors can follow wooden pathways through the greenery as water flows in all directions underneath. Trees, bushes and rocks force the water into tiny pools and falls everywhere you look, making for an unreal and unique setting.

Tiny sections of the river form miniature waterfalls as they run through trees and plants.

Tiny sections of the river form miniature waterfalls as they run through trees and plants.

I think this may be the best place on earth to be a fish.

I think this may be the best place on earth to be a fish.

After about a mile or so of wooden walkways, you come to the main event – a huge, multi-tiered waterfall that visitors can swim beneath. The combination of the cool, clean water, the scorching late-June heat and the awesome scenery made for one of the most refreshing swims of my life. The strong current made it a little more difficult to get close to the falls than I thought, but once you reach the line keeping swimmers from getting too close you can just hang on and enjoy the sound of the rushing water.

The swimming area at the end of the path is definitely the highlight of the journey.

The swimming area at the end of the path is definitely the highlight of the journey.

Somehow we managed to get a picture without any of the crowds.

Somehow we managed to get a picture without any of the crowds.

Although most of the backpackers we met along the way skipped over Krka in favor of Plitvice, I would say if you have time to do both, you shouldn’t miss it. Just be sure to bring some kind of water-friendly shoes as the rocks beneath the water in the swimming area are sharp and uneven (I found this out the hard way), and don’t be afraid to utilize the smaller vans driven by locals between Šibenik and Krka as they were faster, cheaper and more frequent. Finally make sure to get an early start if you want to spend any significant amount of time in the park, because the last bus back to Šibenik leaves at 5:00 p.m.

The falls from the final bridge.

The falls from the final bridge.

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Hiking in the Julian Alps

Panoramic view of Lake Bohinj from above.

Panoramic view of Lake Bohinj from above.

Our kayaking trip in Lake Bohinj was successful for two reason. First of all, it was just a phenomenal day out on the water in one of the most breathtaking locations I’ve ever been to. Secondly, it solidified the area as a jumping off point for a big day hike I had been wanting to take in the Julian Alps.

Surrounded by peaks on three sides, Lake Bohinj has enough trekking options to keep you busy for weeks, if not months. But, with just one day available for hiking, I consulted the Bohinj Visitor Center to ensure we picked a route and peak that would guarantee us some great panoramic rewards for our efforts.

The woman at the center was extremely helpful and pointed us in the direction of Vogel and its surrounding peaks, which are part of a ski resort during the winter. I was completely on board with this suggestion, but couldn’t understand why she kept stressing the importance of taking the cable car to the ski resorts base.

“No, we want to hike from bottom to top,” I insisted, even after she explained there would be plenty of strenuous distance left, even when starting from the ski resort’s base. She shrugged and explained I was adding on at least two extra hours of uphill, but sent me on my way with a map and an advance “I told you so.”

Making the climb. (It's much steeper than it looks, I swear.)

Making the climb. (It’s much steeper than it looks, I swear.)

We set out early the next day with Leedor and Michelle, two new friends from our hostel in Bled. At the bottom of the Vogel cable car we found the path that wraps up and around the mountain for service vehicles and those crazy enough to walk.

Of course, the woman at the visitor center was right, and it was complete madness to walk up the steep, loose gravel path when there was a perfectly good option to avoid it. With 90+ temperatures the whole day, we were panting, wheezing, and of course slipping, the whole way up, but I must say, we would have never had photo opportunities like the one below if we had taken the easy way.

Our friends, Leedor and Michelle, posing at a strategic rest point.

Our friends, Leedor and Michelle, posing at a strategic rest point.

Catching our breath.

Catching our breath.

After about two hours of climbing, and some minor panic that we might miss the exact path that would take us to the lodge at the top of the cable car to refill our empty water bottles, we stumbled upon a group of buildings that serve as a waypoint for hikers and skiers complete with an observation deck for Lake Bohinj and the highest peaks of the Julian Alps across the valley.

It was at this point that I no longer lamented our decision to climb from the bottom. Although we were exhausted, sweaty and thirsty, we had started at the lake that now looked so tiny and far away. I could appreciate the view and the distance a lot more knowing I had earned it.

Triglav, Slovenia's highest peak, shows itself across the valley.

Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak, shows itself across the valley.

The trek lead us through some otherworldly terrain.

The trek lead us through some otherworldly terrain.

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Kayaking on Lake Bohinj

Ideal setting.

Ideal setting in Lake Bohinj.

Slovenia is an outdoor-lover’s Mecca. Rafting, canyoning, paragliding, hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, caving, horseback riding…you name it, Slovenia probably has it. With this in mind, I had a long, long list of all of the activities we had to do while we were there.

Unfortunately, the usual suspects time and money gave me a big slap in the face and reminded me that I had to be careful about how we would fill our limited schedule. For time, we only had less than four days in Slovenia, and as for money, let’s just say we weren’t above stooping over for any Euro cents we found lying around.

Although there were some really great multi-sport tours offered by the various tour companies in Lake Bled, we didn’t feel we could dedicate a whole day to an organized trip when we wanted to do so much independent exploring. After seeing some amazing pictures of kayaking on the Soča River, I was sold on a kayaking excursion, but was turned off by the €50 price tag and eventually found it wasn’t running anymore for lack of interest, which was absolutely wild in my opinion. (Apparently it’s also not really something you can organize yourself in a day without a car.)

Since our kayaking expedition seemed to be a no-go, Chris, our new friend Rodney and I chose to go visit the nearby Lake Bohinj. I had read before that Bohinj was even more stunning than Bled, but was skeptical after seeing Slovenia’s most famous lake with my own eyes. However, after taking the 40-minute public bus ride out to the much less-developed Bohinj, I can honestly say this was even more my kind of place.

The mountains are bigger. The lake is even bluer. The town – if you can even call it that – is smaller. It’s really a cluster of restaurants, hotels and outdoor stores at the tip of the lake. The area is just so natural, rugged and undisturbed. Best of all, it is surrounded by hiking trails (which you’ll hear about in the next post) and, fortunately for us, also has lakeside boat and kayak rental facilities.

Bohinj's unassuming park not far from its unassuming town.

Bohinj’s unassuming park not far from its unassuming town.

So, instead of emptying our wallets for three hours of guided kayaking, Chris, Rodney and I rented kayaks for €10 a piece. The woman at the lakeside rental shop was friendly, helpful and delightfully relaxed while setting us up with our boats. One name and hostel address on a piece of paper and we were off with three great kayaks and a couple of waterproof bags, not-so-gracefully making our way across the lake. (Apparently none of us were as skilled as we had remembered and informed the kayak rental attendant that we were. Oops.)

I was wary about pulling my camera out on the water, but some risks are worth the reward.

I was wary about pulling my camera out on the water, but some risks are worth the reward.

My noble companions.

My noble companions.

Rodney demonstrating his skills.

Rodney demonstrating his skills.

I don't know why I bothered with the waterproof bag when I took shots like this anyways.

I don’t know why I bothered with the waterproof bag when I took shots like this anyways.

The water's warm... as long as you don't go in deeper than two feet.

The water’s warm… as long as you don’t go in deeper than two feet.

Private beach.

Private beach.

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The Lovely Lake Bled

Bled Island in the summer haze.

Bled Island in the summer haze.

Tucked into a valley beneath the rugged Julian Alps, in the middle of a crystal clear lake guarded by a castle on a cliff, there is an island with a little white church that can only be reached by a rowboat.

If this sounds one “Once upon a time” and an evil stepmother short of a Disney movie, that’s because it is. Mountains are wonderful, and mountains that drop into lakes are ideal. Once you add an island and a cliff-top castle to that, it becomes unmissable.

Bled Castle has a pretty ideal setting.

Bled Castle has a pretty ideal setting.

There isn’t too much to say about the area that can’t be said better in pictures. Bled’s town center is charming, but a little built up for my taste. Of course, that’s inevitable with such an incredible place that draws so many people. Fortunately, a walk around the lake can take you away from the crowds and hotels and give you calendar-worthy views of the island. You can also hop on one of the many large rowboats around the lake for a trip out to the island, or rent a boat or kayak to paddle yourself out if you are feeling ambitious.

One of the few truly lakeside hotels.

One of the few truly lakeside hotels.

One of the Bled swans adding to the fairytale vibe.

One of the Bled swans adding to the fairytale vibe.


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Winding Down in Slovenia and Croatia

This round of European exploration has come to a close. Trying to squeeze as much in as possible in the last couple of weeks has resulted in a brief blogging hiatus, but I definitely have a lot of great places and pictures stored up for my first few weeks at home.

For the last week and a half or so, I ventured out of my normal Slovakia/Czech Republic domain for some beach and mountain time in Slovenia and Croatia. Both places were unbelievable and I have lot to share, but here is a little preview of what’s to come.

Perched in Slovenia's Julian Alps

Perched in Slovenia’s Julian Alps

Bled Island, Lake Bled, Slovenia

Bled Island, Lake Bled, Slovenia

Krka National Park, Croatia

Krka National Park, Croatia

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Paradise Revisited

Last November I paid an unexpected visit to Slovak Paradise, or Slovenský Raj, if you will, with a pretty cool collection of people from The Ginger Monkey Hostel. The hike, which took us past one of the most spectacular lookout points in Slovakia, alongside and occasionally right over the edge of the Hornad River and up a waterfall-filled gorge, is definitely a contender for the top spot on my Slovak highlight list.

However, ever since I took that hike, I’d been a little bummed out that Chris, who I’ve been traveling with the majority of my time in Slovakia, hadn’t been there. As a fellow hiking enthusiast and one of the biggest waterfall lovers I know, I felt he completely missed out on one of the best experiences an outdoor lover can have in Slovakia. And so, when we were passing by Spišská Nová Ves, just a stone’s throw from the park, I was ecstatic to be able to give the loop another go with Chris and our friend Jack.

A cliff near Tomášovský výhľad in November.

A cliff near Tomášovský Výhľad in November.

Chris and Jack looking out near

Chris and Jack looking out from the same spot in May.

Slightly senior portrait-esque, but the setting redeems it.

Slightly senior portrait-esque, but the setting redeems it.

Close to the edge at  Tomášovský výhľad.

Close to the edge at Tomášovský Výhľad.

And from the same cliff in November.

And from the same cliff in November.

My maiden journey through Slovensky Raj had been guided by someone familiar with the park, so I was basically on autopilot, gaping at scenery the whole time. Since I would be the veteran this time, I took it upon myself to find the route we took before, worried that any other path might not live up to the hype I’d been creating.

Information about the trail wasn’t hard to find. Although we barely saw another soul during our mid-November hike, it is allegedly the most popular trail in the park and is packed beyond belief in the high season of July and August. (We were lucky enough to bypass the only other large group early on this time around.)

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Terchová, Malý Rozsutec and Jan the Philospher

A shepherd's hut at the start of the hike.

A shepherd’s hut near Štefanová in Malá Fatra National Forest.

After some time in the Czech Republic, a 10-hour train journey took me back to familiar territory near Žilina, Slovakia. I had been to Žilina a few weeks before and had explored some of the expansive Malá Fatra Fatra National Park, but this time I wanted to take on some of the bigger mountains on the opposite side.

The village of Terchová is close to the mountains and has enough lodging to keep up with the peak hiking and skiing seasons, making it the ideal jumping-off point. A page on the town’s website lists all of the available accommodation. Since it all looked pretty comparable and affordable, we picked one called Laurenčík at random and booked it for the weekend. Luck must have been on our side, because when I arrived, I found a lovely apartment with comfortable rooms and a kitchen complete with any appliance or tool I could ever need. As if that wasn’t enough, the owner, Jan, was easily one of the nicest, most genuine, and most interesting people I have ever met. Despite only knowing a few handfuls of English words (although he speaks Slovak, Russian and German, so shame on my for my mostly monolingualism), the older gentleman, who as it turned out to be a published philosopher, was able to converse with us in a Slovak/English combination about nearly anything with surprisingly little confusion.

After an early night on Friday (I don’t know which wore me out more, seven hours of lessons with 13-year-olds or 10 hours of solo train and bus travel), we rose early to take on the mountains on Saturday morning. After gathering some supplies at the grocery store, Jan graciously gave us a driving tour of the highlights of Malá Fatra National Park and dropped us off at our trailhead in  Štefanová. We had found a basic route from here to Velký Rozsutec, the tallest mountain in the area, online. Our only real concern was the fog coming in,which can make the higher peaks unsafe in the spring, but we decided to head up with the hopes of an afternoon clearing.

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After an easy walk out of Štefanová on the yellow trail, we were pleasantly surprised to find the first leg of the hike to be even more entertaining than expected. Instead of an anticipated slow incline up the blue trail to the saddle between Velký (big) and Malý (small) Rozsutec, we found a path through a gorge filled with fun technical aids such as ladders, chains and bridges. Of course, the scenery was pretty sweet when climbing above rushing waterfalls and using chains to scramble up rocky ledges, and the obstacles were so much fun that we didn’t realize how much work it really was until our thighs were burning at the end.

Crossing the gorge by ladder.

Crossing the gorge by ladder.

Even this adventurous dog is a little hesitant about this.

Even this adventurous dog is a little hesitant about this.

But he got some assistance.

But he got some assistance.

Scaling waterfalls.

Scaling waterfalls.

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Soon To Come – Ledges, Ladders, Chains and Waterfalls

It’s been hard to find the time to sit down and write with the pressure to squeeze as much into my last few weeks in Eastern Europe as possible.  May has been a pretty amazing month from a hiking perspective with a big trek in Malá Fatra National Park and a return trip to Slovenský Raj, or Slovak Paradise, which had a completely different character than when I last visited it in November.  Both hikes were heavy on adrenaline with dramatic drop-offs, rickety ladders and rusty chains and proved to be some of the most interesting I’ve done to date. More pictures and details soon to come.

Close to the edge at Tomášovský výhľad in Slovak Paradise

Close to the edge at Tomášovský výhľad in Slovak Paradise.

Ideal climbing scenery in Slovenský Raj.

Ideal climbing scenery in Slovenský Raj.

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The Spectacular Not-So-Swiss Czech Switzerland

Panoramic view of Pravčická Brána (Pravčice Gate), Europe’s largest rock arch.

I have fallen in love with almost every country I have ever been to. But, after a detour to Zurich on a family trip to Germany, a semester on the shores of Lake Lugano and a ski trip to the majestic Alps of Davos, Switzerland securely holds the spot of my favorite place in the world.  Between the mountains, the meadows, the lakes, the chocolate, and of course, the cheese, it has almost everything I love in one place. So of course, when I found myself teaching in the north of Czech Republic, just two hours from České Švýcarsko, or Bohemian Switzerland National Park, there would no questions that I would check it out.

I had sort of hoped the name had drawn its inspiration from some little-known mountain range that I didn’t know about, but with an elevation under 200 meters, this is clearly not the case. It turns out, the name Czech or Bohemian Switzerland refers to two Swiss Romantic artists who moved here from Dresden after being enchanted by its painting potential as well as the slightly Swiss characteristics of the chalets and cabins in the area. Even though you aren’t likely to see any cows with big bells in the pastures or old men yodeling off the non-existent mountain peaks, the park has some unique features of its own. With the largest sandstone arch in Europe, a crop of rock formations known as “The Sandstone Rocks of Labe,” a other-worldly gorge complete with boat rides and thick forests and meadows as far as the eye to see, I’d say Czech Switzerland is pretty darn impressive itself.

My intended route through the park.

The walking tour I took through the park (minus some additional detours).

The park is easily accessible by bus from Děčín. I chose a route through the park that would take me past a few of the major attractions, including the rock arch and a boat ride through the Kamenice River Gorge. I was advised to get off the bus at the first main stop in Hrensko for this route, but I would recommend taking it a few kilometers further into the park to avoid a half-hour walk along a heavily travelled road, and more importantly, the touristy Vietnamese stands along the Hrensko streets selling nothing that is remotely Swiss, or Czech for that matter. From the trailhead (you can’t miss the red markers leading you to it on the road), a fairly leisurely 2 km walk takes you up to the giant rock arch, Pravčická Brána. Upon reaching it, you can walk far enough up the switch-backed path to snap a photo without paying the 3 € entrance fee, but the buying your way in gives you access to some pretty amazing lookout points. (So amazing in fact, I stooped to snapping a few selfies. When you are solo hiking to epic rock arches, what else is a girl to do?) Not only can you see the arch and the other rock towers, but there is an alternating light and dark green forest stretching as far as the eye can see, unspoiled by any distant smokestacks or apartment blocks. You learn to appreciate this as a rare thing in this part of the world.

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Impromptu rock sculptures along the path.

A rock tower near the rock bridge lookout.

A rock tower near the rock bridge lookout.

Rocky cliffs

Rocky cliffs jut out of the forest.

Pretty prime picnicking spots under the rock bridge.

Pretty prime picnicking spots under the rock bridge.

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Biking Through the Old Iron Curtain

Ever since I saw it suggested in a hostel’s guidebook, riding my bike from Bratislava to Austria and back earned a spot on my Eastern European bucket list. I think transporting yourself over international borders with your own two feet is always pretty neat, but it’s even more intriguing when that line is as significant as the one between Slovakia and Austria. While the infamous Iron Curtain may have fallen nearly a quarter of a century ago, the separation of East and West Europe during the communistic era still accounts for an obvious divide today.

 The Carnuntum - Schloss Hof - Bratislava passing through Austrian Fields.

The Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava passing through Austrian Fields.

May 1st, or May Day is a national holiday in Slovakia. Since we were teaching near Bratislava, it was the perfect day to execute our international cycling plans. A half-hour train ride took us from Senec to Bratislava’s main station. The day before I had called Bike Rentals Bratislava and reserved two bikes for 12 Euros with a 30 euro deposit a piece, which is pretty reasonable in my opinion. When we arrived at the Tesco near the Old Town, I just called the guy up, and five minutes later we had our bicycles. The man and his partner were extremely friendly and organized. After taking our information and money, they showed us the main features of the bikes and allowed us to be on our way.

The bikes themselves were in great shape and came with saddle bags stocked with a helmet, tire repair kit, pump and first aid kit. After ensuring everything was in working condition, we whizzed around the Old Town a bit to warm up our rusty legs. Before long we we’re zooming over the New Bridge, affectionately known as the UFO Bridge because of its questionable communistic design, and turning onto a path we knew ran along the Danube.

Chris strikes a pose on his snazzy bike.

Chris strikes a pose on his snazzy bike.

Before we had come to Bratislava I tried to look into different bike routes to and from Austria. I had almost no luck besides a blogger who described a very highway heavy route to Heinburg, a small city a few kilometers over the border, and back. I’m not a big fan of highways, or returning the same way I’ve come for that matter, so I did some map research of my own. I decided we could from this starting path, we could definitely veer into some different villages in Austria and cross back into Slovakia in order to return on the opposite side of the Danube.

When we first merged onto the bike trail, two things became very apparent. First, some highway riding was unavoidable if we wanted to stay on the main bike path. Second of all, based on our fellow riders, we were severely underdressed for the occasion.

I’ve come to realize Europeans are all about their active gear. You will never catch any Slovaks in the mountains without trekking poles or coordinating waterproof pants and jackets and the same seems to apply for the cycling world. While I had just barely opted for running shorts and a t-shirt (jeans seemed like a good idea if we were going to hang around the city after), everyone else we passed was decked out in spandex, cycling jerseys, sleek sunglasses and fancy helmets. I expected this from the elite, hardcore Tour de France trainees, but when we were flying past people huffing and puffing through the first two kilometers in their intense gear, I was slightly amused.

We continued along the masses of professionally clad cyclists for 15 minutes or so before we came to the border crossing. It actually didn’t hit me that the bar and abandoned building we passed indicated the Slovakian-Austrian border until we were several minutes past it. It seemed too fast and anti-climactic to have already crossed into another country, let alone another country that was completely off-limits two decades ago. But, no matter how quickly it had happened, we were in Austria now, meaning that, as long as we made it back to Bratislava, we would have accomplished our goal.

At this point, however, we knew we wanted to go much further than just the border. The temperature was perfect for biking, and the path moved into a quaint Austrian Village, Wolfstahl, soon after the border crossing. It was here that we started to see purple signs indicating some bike path called the Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava Tour. We figured if there were going to be trail markers  around, we might as well follow them. It turned out to be a great decision, as it led us off the main road and snaked through the village.  I would like to note that, as the first village we encountered after crossing the old “Iron Curtain” line, Wolfstahl was a world away from the suburbs of Bratislava a few kilometers to the east.  The winding streets marked by German signs led to charming houses with large gardens. Most importantly, there was not a block of apartments in sight.  Of course, we are comparing city and village, but Wolfstahl looked distinct from any Slovak village I’d ever seen. The truth is, the technical divide between East and West may have ceased in 1989, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still feel it.

A map we came across documenting different cycling routes in the area.

Our Guiding Light

Since the Purple path served us well at the start, we decided to keep with it as long as it took a fairly logical route. Before long, we ran across a sign that showed what a jackpot we had hit with the purple path markers.  The Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava trail actually took us upon almost the exact route I had been trying to research before, with a bonus section that traveled through some extra sections of the Austrian countryside.

It was quickly settled that we would follow this, and we did, through over 20 miles of Austrian towns, villages and countryside. The scenic route even led us past golden yellow fields, underneath a castle, over the Danube and through a national park. At one point we could have easily continued to Vienna, and the only older man on the bike path not decked out in spandex from head-to-toe was eager to direct us. But alas, we had class to teach in the morning and couldn’t guarantee we could return in time.

These fields of yellow surrounded us when we first crossed the border.

These fields of yellow surrounded us when we first crossed the border.

The Danube as it flows past Heinburg.

The Danube as it flows past Heinburg.

Looking like a bit of a dweeb crossing over the Danube.

Looking like a bit of a dweeb crossing over the Danube.

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