hiking

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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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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April Adventures – Part II

Spišská Belá and Mountain Lakes

After an unexpectedly great week in Snina, I decided to head out to meet Chris in Spišská Belá for the weekend before we both headed to Sabinov. Chris had been spoiled all week by two teachers from his school and their hospitality continued on into the weekend. On friday night, after settling into the quaint village for a bit, we went to the Drum Cafe for some drinks and good conversation. The teachers, Dagmara and Katka, spoke English fantastically. We spent most of the night laughing, but made a little bit of time for planning an excursion in the Tatras the next day.

Katka proved to be an expert on all of the nooks and crannies of the mountains. She and Dagmara (Dada, as she is affectionately known) were nice enough to pick us up the next morning and take us to a part of the Tatras we had never seen before.  We arrived in Vysoké Tatry by mid-morning. While Katka is an expert on the mountains themselves, she was a little more shaky on specific directions. But, we still eventually found the first lake she wanted to show us hidden behind the Grand Hotel Kempinski, a place my salary is still several zeroes short of affording. The morning had started out gloomy, but the mountains began to show through the wisps while we stood there, allowing for a great view of the peaks behind the lake.

Hotel Patria and a frozen Štrbské Pleso

Hotel Patria and a frozen Štrbské Pleso.

The beautiful, five-star Grand Hotel Kempinski that I was certainly not staying in.

The beautiful, five-star Grand Hotel Kempinski that I was certainly not staying in.

After seeing the first lake, we crisscrossed around the resort town for a bit in search of a trailhead that would take us between the mountains to another more secluded lake. While it took us a moment to get oriented, when found the trail without too much effort. From there, we started up a casual incline with snow that was luckily still frozen enough to stand on without falling through, mostly. As we hiked, we could see people skiing and celebrating the final days of the season on the other side of the valley, which set a festive mood. As we moved further into the mountains, the scenery became more limited thanks to storm clouds forming overhead. But, even though we were miserably underdressed (it had seemed so nice at the bottom), the light exercise and mild temperature kept us warm enough over the nearly two hours it took us to reach our destination.

The biggest ski jump I've ever seen.

The biggest ski jump I’ve ever seen.

When we first arrived at the second lake, Popradské Pleso, we could clearly see the near side and make out some figures climbing on the mountains above, but I knew we were missing out on the grand experience thanks to the weather. Somewhat disappointed, but eager to be out of the dampness, we hurried into the lakeside hotel and restaurant to lift our spirits with some traditional, cheesy, doughy, Slovak cuisine.

A plate of halušky and a few bites of pirohy did the trick. A half-hour later and seemingly a few pounds heavier, we were ready to make the trip back the way we had came. When we walked out the door, we were excited to find a much more exposed lake with big chunks of blue sky in front of us. Seeing it in its entirety not only made the whole trek more fulfilling, but also added yet another item to my list of things I would like to come back and see again in the summer.

Our destination,  Popradské Pleso

Our destination, Popradské Pleso.

The walk home proved to be even easier than our journey to the lake, and was also more enjoyable with the sun shining down on us. Mountains we hadn’t been aware of on our way in appeared, dramatically white and dark on a suddenly bluebird sky. We made our way back to the village much more quickly than we had come, meaning we fit two mountain lakes, several miles of hiking and loads of sheep cheese all into about four hours.

After a scenic ride home, we took some time to refresh and regroup. We met back up at Dada’s house later in the evening to feast and socialize.  Dada generously fed us some more delicious pirohy and single-handedly inspired my new obsession with bagel chips. She also shared two of her great obsessions with us; ice dancing and Audrey Hepburn. Amazingly, I had spent 23 years in this world without ever seeing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which was something Dada could not allow. After the movie, some World Ice Dancing Championship recordings and a few plays off the Les Misérables, Chris and I headed out into the quaint village streets, feeling considerably more cultured than we had before.

The sun came out in full force on our way back.

The sun came out in full force on our way back.

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April Adventures – Part I

In like a lion, out like a lamb. Although normally March’s motto, this expression applied more to April’s antics in this part of the world. The rough winter weather lagged into first days of April with no sign of stopping soon. But when spring finally peeked out from behind the snow clouds a week later, it was all at once, allowing for perhaps the most action-packed month in Slovakia thus far. Since I haven’t mentioned most of the minor adventures and excursions, aside from the castle visits, I figured I’d put together a little list of highlights. The problem was, once I looked through my pictures and made the list, it turned out to be not-so-little.  So, I’ve divided it into two parts. Part I is mostly lion, so stay tuned for Part II for the green and sunny stuff.

Zakopane

After spending a nippy, jam-packed weekend of food, history and culture in Krakow, Chris and I headed south to Zakopane, a mountain town that sits right above the Slovakian border. We had been here once before, desperately seeking Polish Zloty to avoid being stranded in the Polish wilderness (A Quest for the Elusive Polish Lakes can tell you all about it if you want to know more) and had decided it was definitely worth a second full-length visit.

Typical Zakopane mountain scene

Typical Zakopane mountain scene

Since we arrived on Easter Sunday, there were no cabs parked in their usual waiting spot and no buses were running. It was almost snowy, but mostly raining, so we were not picky about how we got to our hostel 5km away, as long as we got there quickly.  After 10 minutes of wandering around in search of transport and older man approached me claiming he had a taxi.  We followed him to a car in the train station lot that was certainly not a taxi. Although I know it’s a traveling no-no to take an unmarked taxi in many places, but sometimes you just trust your gut, and this man’s grandfatherly ways told mine we’d be fine.  We mostly were since the price was fair and he was very talkative for the few words of English he know. The only minor danger was the swerving that occurred as he wiped his windshield with a sponge every 15 seconds so he could at least see a blurry version of the road through the damp flakes falling. Even without a defroster, we made it to the hostel safe and sound  and spent a sleepy afternoon in  heated Uno battles with other hostel guests.

This sign normally stands above eye level. You do the math.

This sign normally stands above eye level. You do the math.

The next morning we headed across the street to the national park for a lengthy hike to a mountain lodge deep in the woods. We were ecstatic to find that our feet didn’t sink through the layer of icy crust on top of the path of footprints from previous hikers, allowing us to float over the multiple feet of the white stuff as we walked. The hike itself was enjoyable enough, winding through snow-dusted pines and past rustic cabins. However, after a certain elevation, just like the last time we hiked in Poland, the fog and mist made it impossible for us to see more than several feet in some places, particularly at the mountain’s summit. While the thick fog did create a pretty cool other-planet-like effect on the top, when you haul your butt up that much mountain, you just want to see some views.

The nearly invisible snowboarder wasn't so far ahead of us.

The nearly invisible snowboarder wasn’t so far ahead of us.

Luckily we found our rewards elsewhere. Not too far past our low-visibility peak we came across the mountain lodge, and therefore restaurant, that we sought. A Polish woman very graciously took the time to translate the entire menu for us, which turned out to be somewhat unnecessary since they had English menus. It was not a complete waste though. Her favorable description steered us towards a new dish of pancakes with cream and powdered sugar and a special Easter soup that no one could describe except for being delicious and having an egg inside.  Both choices made for a perfect hikers’ lunch, and of course we accented them an obligatory plate of pierogies.

Hearty hiking meals are the best rewards.

Hearty hiking meals are the best rewards.

Completely stuffed and somewhat reenergized, we headed back out into the foggy abyss. Since we had already been disappointed by the lack of vistas by the blue trail we had taken up, I suggested that we take a winding yellow trail that would meet back up with it on the way back. Chris was skeptical as this was certainly the road less traveled if the footprints were any indication, and his skepticism proved to be founded. The path was not nearly as wide or spacious as the other, resulting in more than a few full-snow immersions when either of us stepped off the narrow line of packed snow.

Coming across an igloo is always a bonus.

Coming across an igloo is always a bonus.

Despite the initial struggle, in the end, the yellow pick didn’t end up being a complete failure. The fog lifted a bit and we could see the huge pine walls and rocky cliffs that surrounded us.  The trail led us through a completely different valley, making the return journey more of a new discovery than a trudge back.

There isn't supposed to be this much ice in April.

There isn’t supposed to be this much ice in April.

Although the hike officially left us 0-for-2 for actually seeing the Polish Tatras that we have spent over 14 collective hours hiking through, we still returned to our hostel having covered more than 12 km with rosy cheeks, sore legs and a familiar post-hike good mood. Maybe the third time will be the charm for the visibility.

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