Posts Tagged With: Europe

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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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 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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Trenčín – A Slice of Slovakia

If you venture east of Bratislava or south of the Tatras, Slovakian cities are pretty hit or miss from a tourism standpoint. While the country’s natural landscape is always stunning, the small urban centers spattered throughout its center are as likely to be industrial and harshly practical as historic and picturesque. However, these days most of Slovak living happens in these very places, and to skip over the heart of modern-day Slovakia would be doing yourself a disservice. Fortunately, Trenčín, a western Slovakian city with about 57,000 inhabitants, can provide both your touristic appeal and a taste of typical Slovak life as it exists today.

Trenčín from halfway up the castle cliff

Trenčín from halfway up the castle cliff

Having recently spent five days in Trenčín, I feel like the city is a tiny slice of so many of the best things Slovakia has to offer. Trenčin lies in a valley surrounded by gorgeous almost-mountain hills which serve as the perfect  backdrop for a straight-out-of-a-storybook castle perched upon a rocky craig. The pedestrian old town streets below are frequented by families and university students along with tourists and are dotted with cafes and restaurants. These streets curl around the rim of an extensive forest area where you can find Slovaks getting their typical weekend dose of nature along the wooded trails. And although Trenčin still has the typical communist-era block apartments and industrial areas, they sit quietly on the edges of town, rather than looming over it like concrete giants as they do in so many places throughout Slovakia.

Castle watchtower over the city

Castle watchtower over the city

During my months in Slovakia, I’ve passed by Trenčín’s majestic castle on a cliff several times. Thanks to its location and impressive lighting, it will always strike you long before you enter the city limits. It may only be the third largest in Slovakia (behind Spiš Castle, which lies much further east, and Bratislava Castle, which to be frank, isn’t really a castle in the way you want it to be), but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t vie for a spot as the greatest, at least in the traditional sense. Its light stone exterior, tall towers and high walls give it the classic castle aesthetic. Trenčín Castle proves to be historically impressive too with the first mention of the structure dating back nearly a millennium. The remains of a Slavic rotunda can be dated back to the ninth century. It’s hay day seems to have been in the 13th century when owner Máté Csák used it to control the majority of Slovakia. Most of the remaining structures are from the 15th century and a fire in 1790 made extensive restoration necessary, but the history of the location still long precedes and overshadows many of Slovakia’s hundreds of remaining castles.

Remains of a castle wall

Remains of a castle wall

The views of the town from above are more than reward enough for the fairly steep climb up to the castle and there are plenty of places to stop and take them in. Once you get to the gate, it is necessary to purchase a tour if you want to  enter the castle grounds.  The prices are very reasonable (less than 3 € for a student ticket and a camera pass) for a half-hour mini-tour of the Mathias Tower, which is all you really need unless you really want to see the castle galleries, which takes an hour longer. For us, there were no English guides available, so the tour consisted of a friendly Slovak woman leading us from room to room with a packet of translated information, which was actually quite interesting and more informative than some other castle tours I’ve been on.  Climbing the historic tower with its labyrinth of tiny doors and staircases for tiny medieval people was entertaining. When we reached the lookout deck at the top and saw the expanse of the surrounding valley below us, I suddenly understood why this castle and its vantage point were so important many centuries ago. Continue reading

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Return to Slovakia and the Hills of Nitra

Bratislava Castle from under the UFO Bridge

Bratislava Castle from under the UFO Tower of the New Bridge

After some time at home, it feels great to be back in Slovakia with my expectations even higher and my backpack even lighter than before. My flights from Buffalo to Budapest all went off without a hitch (something unheard of for about the last five years of my life). And although I’ve already passed through it before, I finally got my first view of Budapest’s stunning cityscape before moving on.

Art in the bus station under the New Bridge

Art in the bus station under the New Bridge

From Budapest, I headed to Kosice, Slovakia – one of 2013’s Cultural Capitals of Europe, for those who haven’t heard – to check in with HQ, and then onto my beloved Bratislava for the weekend. Since I’d already been to Bratislava a couple times before, I checked out some places outside of my usually old town rounds.  Chris and I took a bus up to Slavín, which is a looming war memorial honoring Soviet troops who died liberating Bratislava from the Germans during WWII.  The memorial itself was worth seeing, but the view of the city below and the residential neighborhoods we passed through on the ride up were even more interesting. Huge and strangely modern private residences are mixed amongst ambassadors homes and embassies. The American ambassador’s home is actually quite close to the memorial and in a moment of need, we briefly thought about asking to use the bathroom. That’s within our rights as American citizens, right?

A child plays beneath the Slavin memorial

A child plays beneath the Slavin memorial

After returning from Slavín, Chris and I, and our new co-worker Ryan, hit up brewpub and restaurant Meštiansky Pivovar as per a local’s suggestion. The place lived up to its hype with a warm atmosphere, good beer, absolutely scrumptious, reasonably priced food, and exceptionally friendly service, which is something that can be hard to find in Slovakia.

Overlooking Bratislava from Slavin

Overlooking Bratislava from Slavin

The next day we headed to Nitra, where we would be teaching for the week.  Although it is the fifth largest city in Slovakia, I didn’t know much about it beyond its emboldened name on the west side of Slovakia’s map.  It turns out Nitra is one the oldest cities in Slovakia.  Sprawling down and around Zobor mountain, Nitra has anything you could possibly want as far as modern conveniences, from malls to cinemas to bowling alleys, in addition to a church older than the United States around just about every corner. This is quite logical seeing as the first Christian church in the Czech and Slovak Republics was founded here in the 9th century.

Nitra and Calvary Hill from Nitra's "Castle"

Nitra and Calvary Hill from Nitra’s “Castle”

While the town proved to be a very pleasant place to spend a week teaching (and this, of course, is largely due to the students and teachers at the school) it might only be worth a day-long stopover for backpackers or tourists. Beyond the churches and the city’s castle which is basically, surprise, surprise, a church, the two biggest attractions are Nitra’s hills: Calvary and Zobor.

My fellow teachers on top of Calvary Hill

My fellow teachers on top of Calvary Hill

Calvary immediately grabs your eye, easing gently upwards through the stations of the cross on one side with a jutting, rocky face on the other.  A small chapel and three crosses sit atop the hill, making for dramatic silhouettes with the right lighting. It takes only a few minutes to walk up after you reach the base, but provides an excellent view of the city.  The best views, however, are taken in from the city’s other hill.  The center of Nitra lies in the shadow of Zobor mountain, or perhaps more accurately, Zobor hill, while some of its nicer residential areas creep up the side.  If you take bus number nine from the center you will be taken about halfway up the hill to where a network of trails begins.  Take the blue and then the green to Zobor, to reach the summit of 588 meters.  From here you will get a close-up look at the mountain’s transmitter, which looks like it could be something more exotic from a further distance.  You’ll also see the whole of the city, the course of the Nitra River, expanses of farmland and a nearby mine.  I’ve been told, on a clear day, it is possible to see 40 km or more, but we were just fortunate enough to get some golden haze through the previously overcast afternoon. The views were fantastic none the less. While you can hike to the summit of Zobor and back to the bus stop in about an hour and a half, a network of trails on the hill could easily keep you busy for an afternoon or longer.  Continue reading

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In the Heart of Slovakia: Bojnice

Spending the last two weeks in Bojnice confirmed what I already suspected – I am falling in love with Slovakia.  The small town beneath Bojnice Castle is bursting with charm and we were overwhelmed with hospitality. Our hosts here made sure to not only make us feel comfortable, but to show us what daily life is truly like for the people of Slovakia. Here we were graciously invited into several homes for great conversation and our first tastes of authentic, homemade Slovakian meals.  I also got the chance to horseback ride for the first time since I was 12, hike through the autumn-colored hills surrounding the town, explore a castle fit for Cinderella, visit one of Slovakia’s four zoos, witness an intense hockey practice, and, most notably, try Zumba for the first – and then the second –  time (which was most necessary to off-set my high intake of Slovakian cuisine). Even after staying a weekend beyond what my teaching duties called for, I was very sad to see Bojnice go, but it will be remembered as the place where I began to understand what it means to live in Slovakia.

Bojnice Castle from the hills above

Fall foliage finally comes to Slovakia

Celebrating the big 23rd birthday with a hike, the best way to celebrate if you ask me.

Generally being in love with life and fall.

My little rambunctious students on our trip to the zoo. They are completely oblivious to how cool it is to have a castle in your town.

They do know how to draw a mean giraffe though. This adorable poster made up for all of their eight-year-old antics.

Paragliding. The new number one item on my Eastern Europe bucket list.

As far as silhouettes go, Bojnice Castle pretty much takes the ideal-castle cake.

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Views From the Wonderous Wolkersdorf Wanderpuzzle

I’ve liked Wolkersdorf from the start. From the moment Chris and I stepped off the train, people have been extremely friendly and have gone out of their way to be kind and polite. (A free ride from the train station is especially appreciated after nearly 24 hours of travel with 50-plus pounds of luggage.)  The quaint town is impeccably clean with the perfect combination of preservation of the historic and introduction of the modern.  The scenery, both in the village and on the countryside is stunning, and you can’t help but notice that none of the bicycles contributing to the high cycling-to-driving ratio in this town are ever locked up.

As though I wasn’t already contemplating ways to make a semi-permanent move here, we came across Wolkersdorf Wanderpuzzle, a network of biking and walking trails throughout the Wolkersdorf village and countryside. The trails led us through charming neighborhoods and up hillside vineyards to a view of Wolkersdorf’s pride and joy: their windmills.  Although I’m not normally a fan of the rotating steal monsters, in this setting I see them for the majestic, powerful, looming giants others claim them to be. It may be partially because clean energy they provide fits in so organically with this pedestrian heavy, environmentally conscious and seemingly pollution-free town.  While I know this first location is setting the bar high for things to come, it is always nice to start out on a good foot.

View of Wolkersdorf and its windmills.

Victoriously biking up the giant hill

Chris becoming one with the willow tree.

Apparently what Austrians keep in their garages?

Practically an Austrian Hobbit Hole 🙂

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