Friday, September 29, 2006

Ljubljana and home

We needed to turn in the car in Ljubljana (capital and largest city in Slovenia) by 10 am on Monday so we left Plitvice and drove close to Ljubljana and stayed in another farm house for one night, then one night in Ljubljana then a six-hour train ride to Munich, one night in a hotel near the Munich airport and then fly out on Wednesday.

The drive to Ljubljana was relatively uneventful except for evidence of the feud between Croatia and Slovenia. None of the freeway exits in Croatia mention Ljubljana even though it was fairly close. We missed the exit and had to double back a little. The freeways have long distances between exits, sometimes 15-20 miles.

We had a little run-in with the Croatian police. When I rented the car the guy showed me where things were in the car and said that I had to have my lights on all the time while I was driving. He even had a little check list: start the car, turn on the lights, put on your seat belt. We had gotten a little careless and we turned a corner and there was a police car parked there and they waved us over. I had no idea what the problem was but it was the lights. A 300 kuna fine, about $45, to be paid immediately in cash. I had two 200 kuna bills and he gave me change out of what appeared to be his own wallet. But, what can you do. I knew it was the law, I had been warned and almost all the cars you pass have their lights on. We figured it was a donation to a war-ravaged country.

Speaking of that, on the road to Plitvice and then to Ljubljana we save lots of lots of newly repaired buildings, and lots of apparently bombed out ones, and buildings with visible bullet holes in the walls. The guide book said the first person killed in the war was a Plitvice park policeman and the Serbs occupied Plitvice Lakes from 1991-1995. It seems kind of strange occupying a national park though.

Ljubljana was a nice city, quite pleasant. We saw the castle and some nice views but didn't have time for much else. We walked to the train station the next day and saw a bit more of the city.

The train ride to Munich promised to be very relaxing. We had a nice new coach and a compartment alone. The seats recline and Wynette was ensconced for the journey. A British couple got on at the Bled-Lesce station and we chatted with them. They were in Bled for two weeks and taking a day trip to Villach. We went in the long tunnel that took us to Austria and the Austrian conductor came and checked our tickets. He informed us that there were repair crews on the lines and we would have to: get off the train at Villach, take another train to Spittal leaving from the same platform, at Spittal go to the front of the station and get on a bus which would take us to some town with a long German name beginning with B and then get on the train for Munich there. Austrian efficiency: the whole thing went off without a hitch. At Villach we got off and the train to Spittal was waiting. It left about five minutes after we got in. On the train the same conductor told us to get the yellow-marked buses in front of the station. At Spittal we all got off (maybe 50 people now) and found the buses in front with the yellow marks. The conductor stayed with us. The buses left in five minutes. We drove 1.5 hours to The B-town and the train was there waiting. We got on and left within five minutes. We got into Munich as scheduled. Buses are not as comfortable as trains but I was impressed with the whole operation.

European trains are, in fact, very nice and quite efficient. A six-hour train ride is no big deal and not an ordeal, nothing like the eight-hour plane rides where you are crammed into a a seat the whole time. Too bad they don't run across the Atlantic.

We stayed in a small, family-run hotel near the airport. We met a nice young woman after getting off the S-bahn who told us about the bus we needed to take. It happened she was getting off at the same stop. She was an accountant in Munich but didn't like living in the city so she commuted.

The trip home was long and tiring but uneventful. We had a great time but are glad to be back.

Plitvice Lakes

UNESCO has named several hundred places as "world heritage sites" ( and the Skocjan caves ( is one. Plitvice Lakes ( is another. One guidebooks says it is Niagara Falls diced up into small pieces and placed inside the Grand Canyon. It is an 8 km string of 16 beautiful turquoise lakes each dropping in altitude by 10 to 100 feet between lakes. Between each pair is a multitude of waterfalls. It is very impressive. The park is well done. They have build miles of wooden decking trails that go all over the park and get you right up to the waterfalls.

Our first impression was not good. We went to the entrance and saw a LOT of tour buses. We took the trail down to one of the lakes and the walkways were so busy you could hardly walk. It was single file each way for blocks.

We stayed overnight at a park hotel and went to some of the upper lakes early (well around 8 when the first boat to take you across starts) and they were lovely, not at all crowded and breathtaking (see pictures).

The hotel was full and so we had to get a "superior" room (about $110). It was a large room, with, get this, two bathrooms, one just a toilet and sink. It had a nice balcony and lots of room. I liked it.

This post is a bit short but I am trying to get the rest of the trip blog done and then I might come back and add more details. We will also be putting up a web site for more of the pictures.

Inland Istria

We got home yesterday (Sept. 28, 2006). I have been pretty bad at updating the blogs but I will try to finish now where it is easier. Maybe not quite the same as on the road though. I'll take this post as a chance to add some general though.

I mentioned how we have not stayed very long at each place. I got to thinking about why I travel at all. I suppose for the reason I do anything, that is, that I enjoy it, but what makes me enjoy it? One commonly given reason to travel is to "get away from it all". We certainly have been doing that. I hardly though about home at all the whole trip and Wynette said she didn't either. When you travel you are busy figuring out where you will eat and sleep and what to see and where to go next. This keeps you busy and can be a little stressful but I actually like it. I enjoy planning a trip in the future but when you are there it is even better, you can decide to go somewhere to see something and be there the next day. Not that my regular, retired life is something I need to get away from but doing something new is always fun.

Sometimes people say they travel or go on vacation is relax and "take it easy". I don't do that. I like to rest some of the time but I keep fairly busy when I am at home and I like to be busy and doing things when I travel too. So taking it easy is good for some people but not for me.

They say that travel "broadens" you and I think that is the major reason I like to travel. I like to see how other people do things and see things I haven't seen before. Wynette and I generally look for things that seem to be done better than at home. It gives us ideas for how we might change the way we do things at home. And it leads to a generally positive attitude about what you are experiencing that makes the trip more fun.

Related to that is figuring things out. That is another thing I like about travel. I like to go into a new place and figure out where things are and how to get around and generally how things work. It is a puzzle.

We have noticed that some things seem more modern that we typically see in the US. I was thinking about that. I read some years ago, when everyone was hysterical about how Japan was surpassing us, that they had an advantage in steel production because they had been so far behind before. They upgraded with the latest equipment but the US steel plants were still functional and it was not cost-effective to upgrade them. It seems like a similar thing might have happened in Slovenia and Croatia. They were pretty far behind under Communism and now they are upgrading everything and things are pretty new.

Except the music. We have noticed this strange phenomenon that we hear 80's music everywhere, David Bowie, Supertramp, etc. etc. This seems to happen almost every place we go. Often it is a radio station. I don't know if everyone is listening to 80's oldies stations or what.

An update on soft-boiled eggs. For a while the breakfasts have only had hard-boiled eggs, but now they all have egg cups. This seems to be a symptom of people who are unclear on the concept. Or maybe people here eat hard-boiled eggs on an egg cup. I find the usual technique of just cracking and peeling them works fine and an egg cup a rather awkward way to handle it. Something to think about.

Every hotel provides breakfast, which I think is a good thing. And they are all fairly similar, there seems to be a convention about it. Except for the tourist farms which all seem to provide: coffee (of course), sliced meat, usually sausage and ham, sliced cheese, bread, butter and jam of some sort. I surmise this is what the natives eat for breakfast. The hotel breakfasts though seem to be a union of the breakfast habits of many nations. Typically they have: scrambled eggs and hot-dog looking things (this is common but not universal), hard-boiled eggs (see above), cereal of usually four types: muesli, chocolate flakes or balls, corn flakes, and sometimes one other. They often have them mixed, like corn flakes in the muesli. We always have cereal with milk. They also have the sliced meat and cheese. And always lots of kinds of bread and rolls. Usually something sweet like a croissant or pastry or one place had what clearly was the leftover dessert from the night before. We started running into these cappuccino machine where you push a button and it mixes it right in your cup. People often complained that there were not as good but they seemed okay to us. The often provide chocolate mix and Wynette started using chocolate instead of sugar to sweeten her coffee. It is pretty good.

Istria is a peninsula in the west of Croatia with a lot of seaside resorts. We had originally planned to go to one of these but we were running out of time and we thought it would be a lot like Piran so we decided to visit inland Istria. One draw was that this is much less touristy than the coastal towns. The Croatia coast is getting very popular and is said to be the "new Riviera", or maybe it was the "new black", anyway it is popular. The southern coast near Dbrovnik mostly but Istria too. Inland Istria is filled with little hill towns, fortified towns with walls, very much like in Tuscany. In fact, inland Istria one book said it was the "new Tuscany" where people are buying houses.

Curiously, the Croatians call it Istra. It seems close enough that we could have just gone with Istra, it was probably the Brits (not to stereotype or anything). The whole area has been losing population for many years. A lot of the Italians left in the 50's for some political reason that I forget now. And of course there was the war in the 1990s. More on the evidence we saw of that in the next post. Anyway, these hill towns were becoming ghost towns and so the Croatian government sold real estate there very cheaply to artists. The strategy worked and now the towns are booming again, and they have a lot of artist's studios and little galleries.

We visiting three of these hill towns, Buje, Graznjan and Motovun, in that order because that was the order we came to them, but each was better than the previous one. Buje (first picture) was nice but nothing to write home about, so I won't. Graznjan, on the other hand, was very nice. It was exactly what you think of as a hill town, with little winding alleys, great views, old houses, artist studios. We walked around and came to a gallery where the artist was sitting in front playing beautiful guitar music. We were looking at the views and feeling that this was as good as it gets. We had lunch in their little square (second picture).

We had made a reservation at Motovun which we heard was the nicest town. I don't see how it could have been any better. It was even more picturesque that Graznjan. It was built on the highest hill in the area. The old town had a wall all around it with amazing views (first and second pictures). Our hotel was in the highest spot and we were in a corner room on the top floor and had amazing views also (third picture). Motovun has a film festival in the summer and the books say you should not try to go then. But if you want to buy there check out the fourth picture, a fixer-upper.

We walked all around the wall and the town, which spills out below the wall. The same narrow alley streets and old buildings. We ate at an excellent restaurant. We talked to the "honey lady", a young woman from a nearby town whose family has hives and she comes each day to sell honey products: honey, honey liquers, beeswax things, etc. She was very friendly.

And then there were the truffles. This is the BIG thing in Istria. It is starting to rival France as a truffle producing place. All the restaurants feature truffle dishes. We had never had them before but we had them several times. They were interesting but I would not normally pay the prices you have to pay for them. A dish that normally cast about $8 would be like $25 with truffles, and they are cheaper here than most anywhere I think.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

On the Seacoast - Piran

The drive to Piran was quick, maybe an hour. It was mostly divided highway. After WWII the Allies gave parts of Slovenia to Italy. Look at a map and check out where Trieste is. It doesn't make any sense. It was some kind of payoff. Then look at how much coast Slovenia got and how much Croatia got. Slovenia got 29 km of coast. Croatia got maybe a couple thousand. There are just a few cities along the Slovenian Adriatic. Piran is generally thought to be the nicest town. We agree. It is a little peninsula with old buildings and only three hotels. It seems to be the place where the older set goes. It is fairly quiet for a seaside resort town. We were surprised at the number of locals. Most people you see are locals. Lots of kids and lots of mothers with babies, usually in pairs. Nobody rushes much. They do allow cars. Apparently they tried to ban them in the city center but were overruled somewhere in the Slovenian government. Still the cars are unfortunate but not all that bad. We drove into the hotel and dropped off our stuff and the city had a parking around about a km out of the center with a free shuttle but the walk is easy. The hotel covers the parking. One hotel (Hotel Piran) had ocean views and the other (Hotel Tartini) has views of the square. We are there. The square has a lot more life but is a little noisy. The shutters and window shut out most of it but then the room is a bit stuffy. But we like the hotel a lot. The square is full of kids and people all day. One day a groups of four girls was singing songs a capella in a group. Kids roller skate and play with balls.

There are not a lot of tourists. I guess it is the end of the season. We walk around the city and things are not crowded. The restaurants and cafes by the ocean are about 1/10 full most of the time. I guess it is different in July and August. It is a very relaxing city to be in. We were going to stay two days but added a third day.

Piran is a picture-perfect little seacoast town. It is built on a peninsula and the land rises to cliffs and hills right around it. It is an old town with lots of very narrow "streets" which only accomodate foot traffic and are paved with large flat stones. It has a market every day, we love markets. We spent a lot of the time just walking around the town. A lot of people did the same thing.

For various reasons we have only stayed two days at each place so far. The third day here in Piran is the first, 2 in Salzburg, 2 in Bled, 2 at the farm, and from here 2 in inland Istria, 2 in Plitvice and then 1 in Ljubljana. It has been what we want but it adds a lot of overhead to the trip. We find we spend a lot of time called and planning where to go next. But then handling the details is kind of fun too. You talk to the people and find out how the system works. It is hard to say exactly what you want out of travel. At this stage in life I don't really care exactly what I see, that is, I don't have to see the "best" thing and if I miss something I don't worry about it. I just noticed we haven't seen a a single church this trip. Churches used to be the mainstay of my European visits. This time they don't seem interesting. Of course, they don't have the major cathedrals here and we might see one in Ljubljana. We like interacting with the local people and the people here in Piran especially are very nice and friendly. The hotel staff here is one of the nicest we have seen. Wynette did notice that we will spend 1 night in Germany, 2 nights in Austria, four nights in Croatia and 8 nights in Slovenia. A binary vacation.

We have been eating a lot of seafood now that we are by the sea. All the restaurants have about the same menu. We have had fruit of the sea risotto twice and have had a lot of grilled fish. All very good. At the end of the meals in Piran they bring you a sherry and a schnapps, lunch and dinner. We like the sherry and the schnapps a little. We tried to order Teran wine here tonight but they did not have it, they had everything else on the wine list.

Villages and Caves in the Karst

The next morning it was raining but we decided to head up to Stanjel anyway since it was Sunday and there was supposed to be a market there on Sundays. We got on the toll road and then the rain really started coming down. We thought about the fact we were in the Karst whose major attraction is a cave and it is clear that someone up there was saying to us, don't go to walk around a village, go to a cave where it doesn't matter if it is raining. We we turned around and went to the Škocjan Caves which all the guidebooks said were spectacular. It was not far and we got there in plenty of time for the 11 AM tour and even to have a coffee while we waited. It isalwayss about 50 F in the caves and Wynette thought she might be cold but it was Sunday and the gift shop was not open. They called the tour right on time, two guides, one speaking Slovenian, one English. We went as a group to the entrance, which turned about be about 1/3 mile walk, in the pouring rain, luckily we had our umbrellas but we still got wet. Theentrancee was an artificial one into the hill and we went down a long cement hallway to a small cave where we waited about 15 minutes for everyone in the group to straggle down. There were maybe 150 people. They divided us by language and we went first in the Silent Cave which is quite impressive. Then on to the Murmuring Cave, so-called because of the sounds of the river that runs through it. The sound was a more than a murmur because the river was not small and rushing quickly. Not as noisy as you might think though because it issomethingg like 200 feet below you. The river goes through this huge cavern that is 1000 feet long, 100 feet wide and 350 feet high. It was very impressive. The path goes high along the edge and then over a suspension bridge 150 feet above the water. It make me think of the bridge where Gandalf fought with the monster (whose name escapes me now, Balrog?) in the caves who name also escapes me now (Mines of Moria?) One of the books mentioned it felt like the Lord of the Rings or maybe that it would be a good place to film it.

The way out was through a large cave open to the outside and into a ravine that the river flows in. The river just suddenly goes underground. The region is called The Karst which either means limestone or has something to do with limestone. In any case, there s a lot of limestone, which makes great caves. It also means the river can dissolve the stone and flow underground, which it does for about 40 km I think they said. At the end you take a small funicular up to the place you started.Overalll a great tour.

The Karst is also rich in iron, maybe that has something to do with the limestone, in any case, it means that the red grapes that grow here are rich with iron and make a special, local wine called Teran wine. That is what we had the first night at the farm, and at lunch the next day. It is very good with an interesting taste that has two or three stages as you drink it. We liked it a lot. You can get it along any of the roads at these wine cellars and they say it is best to get it from a local producer and take it away in your own bottle. I am pretty sure the wine at the farm was local.

The farm breakfast, by the way, we like the dinner, no choices, and, they say, made only from things grown locally. We gave them a pass on the coffee and the tea, it seemed only fair. The coffee though was really good. The first coffee that I could drink black and still enjoy. This European coffee does not seem to have the bitterness I associate with coffee in the US. The breakfast had hard-boiled eggs, sausage, bread,cheesee, butter, some great yoghurt or maybe clotted cream, it was hard to tell, but I spread it on the spread with the jam which was also excellent.

Out of the cave, we found the rain had stopped and there was a little blue sky so we went off to Stanjel. This was billed as a quaint little village, an undiscovered gem. We went there and did like it a lot but there did not seem be any center to it. It was up on a hill and had maybe four rows of about 20 houses and some gardens around that. And some old fortifications. Very nice and we had a great time walking around but we did not find any trace of a market or even a place large enough to hold a market. There was essentially no one around, certainly no tourists and hardly any locals. It was Sunday. We walked all around the town and saw maybe 10 people in all. The town is on a hill and down below are some other buildings, a tourist center, parking, a train station, and a restaurant. Maybe the market was around there. The Rough Guide said is was there but we asked several people and no one knew about it.

We went into the restaurant near the tourist office thinking before we got there that it might be kind of touristy due to its location. Not so. We seemed to be the only non-local people in the place. They sat us at a small table in a room which had a large U-shaped collection of tables full of people who were apparently having a party of some kind. They were all getting the same kinds of food, banquet-style, there were some presents piled up on the side, and one little girl had what appeared to be a traditional costume on. The waiter came over and just asked us what we wanted in Slovenian and then tried German and then told us to wait while he got a young woman who spoke English. She went over what was available, just a few things. We had soup, salad, weinerschnitzel, and vegetarianlasagnee which we were informed, was made with cabbage. The banquet plates all had plenty of meat and we wondered that they had vegetarianlasagnee but it turned out to be very good, better than the schnitzel which was turkey and a bit dry. The soup was hearty and excellent though.

The party went on, there some toasts and the gifts were brought up but I did not see who opened them. There was another small party in the room with maybe 20 people and two other smaller groups. No one seemed to mind that we were there and we thought it was all very interesting and colorful.

After that we went back to the farm and just kicked back the rest of the day and evening, taking the walk I talked about before. In the morning, at breakfast, the cook came out and said we were the only ones eating at the farm that night and would be mind if they didn't have dinner and we get it elsewhere since she wanted to go visit her mother. That seemed fine with us. By the way, the room was 40 euro with breakfast and each dinner was 8 euro additional. We had such a big lunch that we didn't have dinner but we noticed another couple there eating dinner that night so I don't quite understand how that worked out.

The next morning was overcast but no rain. We had checked the forecast and it said a couple more days of overcast and rain but we could not get weather for the coastal areas. Anyway we went off to Piran on the Adriatic Coast.

Down on the Tourist Farm

I saw another Corsa today and it is an Opel. No Opal sign on ours though. Strange. Very nice little car with a good air conditioners which we didn't think would be important in the downpour we rented it in but is very nice here on the Adriatic Coast where it is warm and humid.

Some of details I omitted last time since I did not have my book. The ski town we had lunch in was Kranjska Gora, hard to believe I would have forgotten that. The Slovenes like to sprinkle j's in their words. They sound much nicer when they say the words than when we do. That was at the north entrance to the Triglav National Park. We went over the 1611m Vrsic pass, with accents on the s and c, that is Vršič, it is easy with a Slovenian keyboard! The drive had 50 180-degree curves, each of which is numbered and signed so the guidebook can tell you where things are by curve number. The Russian Chapel, for example, is after curve eight, of the 24 on the way up.

Internet access seems harder to manage on this trip than my previous ones where I had no trouble keeping up my diary. Salzburg had your traditional internet "cafe" which sold no coffee but had 10-20 stations for access and it was always easy to get on. But it was down the street and they always arranged for someone to always be smoking at the station next to mine. And, of course, the keyboards with the y and the z reversed. You might have noticed that in this blog once or twice. In Slovenia they are usually in real cafes but only one station. This hotel in Piran has only one but no one else ever seems to be using it. The farm had a free one but it was always busy.

We had heard about agricultural tourism in Italy but it pretty much requires a car. Also, it sounds good but really, who wants to be on vacation on a farm? I can milk goats at home. But we succumbed to the romance of it when Rick Steves described this place. The location is perfect, right around the two big caves and Stanjel.

The trip over the mountains and down to the Karst took a little longer than we had expected it would. There are only two classes of roads in Slovenia, two-lanes-each-way divided roads which are very modern and nice and on which there isapparentlya no speed limit that I could see, and the numerous Mercedes who whisked past me, the cautious tourist, apparently didn't see any either, of course, our whole engine could have fit inside one of their cylinders. But, stereotyping aside, it IS always the Mercedes drivers who do this. I ended up going a cautious 120 km/hr. The other roads are all two-lane blacktop with numerous curves, blind corners, and a little town every mile or two with building that come within a foot of the side of the road. Again, I was passed numerous times. The limit is apparently 70 on these roads but the Slovenes do not adhere to that. We read on one book that Slovenes were the most reckless drivers in the world, but how many times have you heard that about places? It is kind of like being theazaleaa capitol of the world or having the best hamburgers in the world. Anyway, our map distinguished 4 or 5 levels of roads but they all seemed the same to me. The countryside is mountainous and so putting in the dividedroadss must be expensive.Theyy are mostly raised on huge concrete columns, some quite high over a valley.

The countryside and little towns are so nice that you don't really mind going slowly and we enjoyed it but it was getting close to 7 pm and getting dark and we were hungry but we finally pulled into the farm just before dark. It is, they say, a working farm. They had three large buildings and rented nine rooms. It wasn't clear where to go so we went in one building which had the eating tables and said we had reserved a room. The busy woman said "yes, yes sit down" and shooed us to a table and asked whether we wanted wine. More on that later.Aa few minutes later we had some very good soup and then a plate of meat, potatoes and gravy and some vegetables. It was kind of nice not to have to make any decisions but just sit down and eat what they had. Three other groups were also eating.

The place seems to be run by a large family, during dinner a young woman came in and returned passports to another couple eating there. We flagged her down and explained that we had just been sat down for dinner and she made some kind of "oh well"gesture and took our passports. Later she came back with them and the key. No number but with a flower on it, each room has a different flower. After dinner someone showed us to our room. The room was pretty much like the hotel rooms we have had except for the views outside. Just then it was dark but the next morning we found we had a views for a long way of a field and low mountains. It was a nice rural location except for the fact that it was about half a mile from the freeway that went through the area.Andd when I say "freeway" I am just showing my CA roots, it was really a toll road. They say that is the origin of the term toll-house cookies but we went through it the next day and that tradition (which was in New England anyway) seems to be lost in Slovenia.

So the tourist farm was quite charming really. We walked around the next evening on the farm roads leading around. They led into the forests and up the hills and were very nice for strolling although it was still dark and kept threatening rain. We did get rain the first night though and the next morning.

Monday, September 18, 2006

On the road in Slovenia

We rented a Corsa, an Opel I think, the symbol is a Z. It is very cute and quite nice actually even though it is one of the cheaper cars, C level to be exact, they go up to about J. Every car in Slovenia has to have emergency road lights and those red triangles the truckers all have in the US. We checked out and hit the road. Since we had a car we decided to go through Triglev national park, said to be very beautiful, but only accessible if you have a car. It made the drive a bit longer, maybe an hour or so. It is a mountain park and the drive goes over a high pass, about 5000 feet. It is interesting to be in high mountains but to still be fairly low in absolute altitude. In NM we start at 5000 feet. So there were lots of deciduous trees and other vegetation, even at the pass.

On the way up we stopped at a lovely little Russian chapel. This is a shrine for 300 Russian POWs who died in an avalanche building this road during WW I. It is not clear they were worse off than ones who were worked to death, starved to death, or froze to death building the road but the chapel was very nice. It was rainy and gloomy but the pictures turned out very well. It does not seem that anyone treats the Russians POWs very well. I just reread All Quiet on the Western Front and there is a scene in that were he gives food to the Russian POWs who are all starving to death.

It rained the whole day and was cloudy in the mountains but we actually saw a fair amount. It was only cloudy in places. It was beautiful but maybe not so beautiful or amazing as Colorado. We had and excellent lunch in a little ski town at the beginning of the park. It is great having the Rough Guide to Slovenia because the rough guides cover just about every town in a country. It had recommendations for this little ski town for example. Very handy if you are driving.

Driving was very cool because you see parts of the country you would not see on public transportation. The little towns in Slovenia are very similar to the little towns in Italy. You drive through and the main street, the only street, is lined with two story building that come right up to the road. Lots of narrow places. They do a clever thing with these narrow places. They decide which side has the right of way and puts a sign on each side. There is a bigger black arrow for the side with the right of way and a smaller red arrow for the side that does not. Very clear, we figured it out right away. On the freeway they have rain speed limits, a speed limit sign with a dark cloud with rain lines coming down from it.

These little towns were all so pretty. There is usually a town every couple of miles along these little roads. We also passed lots of wine cellars which are like microwineries. They are frequent in the wine areas. We were going into the Karst which has iron heavy soil and makes a very dark red wine called Teran. We have had this twice so far and it is very good.

It was a long day but we finally got to where we were going, the agricultural tourist farm. More on that next time.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Lake Bled

Up early and down to breakfast. We love the breakfasts in European hotels. They have some very good muesli-like cereal, fresh fruit (it is the season), rolls, sausage slices, cheese, soft-boiled eggs, and great coffee. I always like the soft-boiled eggs and think I should have them at home. Last time, in Italy, we even bought egg cups, but we never used them. Things done on vacation stay on vacation I guess. I always think about Jonathan Swift's little-endians being at war with the big-endians, terminology borrowed by computer science people to talk about byte-order variations in different computer architectures. In Bled we sat with a English couple at breakfast who tried to teach Wynette how to lop off the end with a quick blow of the knife, an acquired talent it seems. They didn't seem to care which end you topped off. Wynette talked about David Copperfield and egg tops but I don't remember that, but then I don't think I read DC at all. The Italian hotels had special appliances which electrically heated the water and would take up to four eggs in little baskets. Then you had only yourself to blame if they were not the right degree of soft-boiled. The ones in Bled were a bit overdone. In Salzburg, and again and the tourist farm hotel in the Karst, they just threw in the towel and gave us hard-boiled eggs.

We took a four-hour train through the mountains from Salzburg, through Austria, and then a tunnel to Slovenia and on to Bled, only maybe 50 km from the border. The countryside was remarkably beautiful, all high, jagged, rugged, steep mountains and lovely valleys with pleasant little villages only a mile or two apart. The rural life seems very vibrant in Austria and in Slovenia. After the near-ghost towns of rural New Mexico with derelict buildings and closed cafes it is nice to see neatly kept-up villages where people are still living. I'm not sure what they all do. There do seem to be a lot of small farms so maybe that life style is still viable here, unlike in the US. Maybe the "creative destruction" has not arrived here yet. I hope it takes a while. But then these narrow valleys don't seem amenable to large factory farms so perhaps they are safe. Everything in Austrian continued to be neat, clean and well-kept-up.

The train tracks are fairly high up from the valley floors, often hundred of feet, possibly so as not to waste any of the arable land. We see lots of hey rolls in plastic wrap, it rains a lot, and, of course, lots of cows and sheep grazing, and a number of black sheep, or, as the mathematician's joke goes, at least one sheep that is black on at least one side. The ride is very pleasant the four hours go by quickly, unlike the two-hour trip from Munich were we unwisely choose the sunny side of the car and were hot and brighted-out the whole time, very tiring.

We alighted at the Bled-Lesce station in the non-descript (according to the guidebooks) village of Lesce and a 10 euro (or 2400 SIT -- Slovenian-something-tolars) taxi ride to the Pension Mayer. This was recommended and lived up to the recommendation. Very cute, very comfortable, sparkling-clean bathrooms, etc. These people really know how to clean. It was a charming little three-story guest house as they said although it was next (I mean 50 years away) to a 20-story high-rise hotel and surrounded by lots of other Bavarian-style house. But still, it was actually charming and we liked it a lot.

The Slovenians are a serious, matter-of-fact sort of people who don't say a lot, although the taxi-driver was quite voluble, talking cheerily of how we could go swimming in the hotel pool next door even if it rained the next day as it was forecast to do, a potent of ill that we did not pay proper attention to. After claiming we had no reservation he (the desk clerk not the taxi driver) found another sheet of paper and said, yes, we did have a reservation. We are ready to believe it had gotten lost because they were remarkably casual about the reservation when we got it by email, declining our offer of a VISA number saying it was not necessary. And Lake Bled is quite a popular destination, the most popular in Slovenia according to the guidebook, and we asked about extended it to three days and they said it was impossible, they were full, and he made some comments about how most people came for 10 days or two weeks and implying that people staying only two or three days were not worth bothering about. The people with the hard-boiled eggs the next morning, were, in fact, staying 10 days, away from their native Leicestershire, a Scottish widow and an Indian widower who got married and had a raft of children and grandchildren that they were happy to spend 10 days away from, although they certainly loved them and all. They also talked about the forecast rain and how luckily it would only last until Tuesday (this was only Thursday!) and how tiresome it was to have rain on vacation. I breezily said how I, like all New Mexicans, loved rain and would not mind a bit, words later consumed.

So we got the room but only for the originally-planned two days. Lake Bled is an old-style resort of the kind where people do stay for weeks and eat at the hotel. We noticed there were lots of older peoples but then, maybe I was influenced by New York Times reports of the aging of Europe, but it seems in Germany, Austrian and Slovenia there were a preponderance of older people, we are not seeing a lot of young people or children (except at this farm tourism hotel where there seem to be a raft of children, I'm not sure where they are all coming from, including a cute little girl we saw doing rather good somersaults on their trampoline with a net around it).

We walked around the town and it is quite lovely. The lake is small, maybe 2-3 km in diameter, and it has a little fairy-tale island in the center full to the brim with a church and a few buildings. It has a long, broad flight of 100 steps at the boat landing up to the church and newly-married grooms carry their brides up the steps, or try to. Wynette declined in principle but we did not, in fact, get over to the island, only accessible in mini-tour with a gondolier who takes you over, a results of the rain we have so ominously mentioned a few times.

Lots of boats, lots of older people strolling around, not actually the touristy considering what a bit destination it is. Very nice overall. We stopped at an outdoor cafe (rain-commencement day minus one) and had coffee and a dessert (retsina something) which was recommended in all the guidebooks to have in Bled. The cafe was attached to the Hotel Park which, it turns out, originated the dessert many years ago. It was excellent, crusty and creamy, Wynette can give you the details.

The room was on the top floor and had a slanting roof over the bed and we hit our heads maybe half a dozen times before we learned better. It had a nice balcony, sheltered by a large overhang, which was handy when the you-know-what came. Everything has large overhangs here, clearly it you-know-whats a lot. The bathroom was very nice and now the commode report: instead of big-flush, little-flush it has start-long-flush and stop current flush buttons allowing you to tailor your flush to your exact, personal requirements. European engineering and commode-user-interface design at its best.

The Pension Mayer was said to have the best restaurant in town so we had dinner there and we are not about to dispute this claim, both because it was good the first night we ate there and because we did not get to go to another recommended restaurant for comparison the next night because of the heavy rain and the wet state of my only outer clothes. I had trout, very good and a regional specialty, probably caught nearby. Slovenians have soup at every meal and it seems to be invariably good. We were too jet-lag final stages careful to have wine, too late-caffeine-sensitive to have after-dinner coffee and too full for dessert, what must they have thought of us?

There was a little rain that night and a lot the next day, continued to the day I am writing this at the tourist farm, although not so as-you-might-think-of-farmy as to not have high-speed Internet.

The promising rain came in the morning but it was fairly light. We got up late and did this and that in the morning and then had a nice lunch, more soup and trout for me. I decided to walk around the lake (about three miles) and Wynette stayed in town and looked up weather and schedules. The lake walk was nice, or would have been if the rain had not been getting harder and harder. One reason to walk around the lake was to get the train schedule for the next day. Our plan was to stay in a cute little village called Stanjel which two of the guidebooks praised highly. We could get close on the train but the next day was Saturday and on Saturday none of the small trains run, like, for example, the train to Stanjel. No buses either. I got home around 5 and was completely soaked. I ended up using the hair dryer to dry my pants and shirt, which, by the way, works very well, even in rainy, humid weather, although it is a bit tedious. Even in normal circumstances around here things take 2 or 3 days to dry.

Wynette got home and had made reservations at a private home in Stanjel but the woman there expressed doubts that we could get there on a Saturday. She was right. There was no way. The forecast was for rains the next 3 to 4 days and we started to rethink things. We decided to rent a car which did not turn out to be too expensive and was, in fact, very easy. We went to dinner at the hotel because it was raining too hard to go out anywhere. The car was sounding better and better.

We had some trouble changing money. The transaction kept timing out. I checked with my online bank account and the transaction was made and then cancelled the same minute. Some problem with intercontinental communications I guess. The bank changed the money for us and we got 50,000 SIT (tolars). This is the sunset for the tolar though, on 1/1/2007 (that's 1/1/2007 the way the Europeans write dates ;-) they change to euros in Slovenia. Most places take either SIT or euros, except the post office. There we had to stand in on line to change a few euro and then another to buy the stamps. Short lines though. We were wondering if the people would miss their tolars. Lots of tradition no doubt but having a single currency is pretty darn handy. Croatia also has its own currency. I do not know if they are changing also but I would not be surprised.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Salzburg Day 2

In the evening of the day before we went to the Mirabel Gardens which we liked a lot. They are formal gardens with some parts elaborate patterns of the same kind of flowers and other, less formal parts with a variety of flowers. We well maintained. We liked it so much we came back the next morning and found several parts we had not noticed before, there were extra garden area tucked away all over. I'll let Wynette talk more about the flowers.

Next we went on a walking tour of the city, guided by our Rick Steves' guidebook. The city has strong Italian influences from 500 years ago when everything Italian was in. They say the artists changed their names to sound Italian to get work. The tour goes through a series of squares and by a few churches, including St. Basil's graveyard where the von Trapp family was hiding in the Sound of Music. Wynette says that Lisle's boyfriend saved them from being caught. The guidebook informed us that they actually hid on a Hollywood sound stage that looked exactly like the graveyard. It also said the edelweiss is not a cherished old Austrian folk song but was composed for the movie. Call me naive but I was surprised.

The graveyard was very pretty in any case. Apparently in Austria you only rent gravesites and your relatives have to pay rent every 10 years. No rent and you are out on your coffin I guess. The gravesites were very carefully tended with lots of flowers, just like everything in Austria. The place is, in general, sparkling clean and well kept up.

During the tour a woman on a bicycle with an American accent stopped us and said I looked strong (ahem!) and could I tighten her bicycle seat. I did and we chatted a bit. She was from California and married an Austrian and they and their two children lived in Salzburg and she loved it. Bicycles are very common in Salzburg and it seems like all the locals ride them, a bit too fast in my opinion but we didn't see any collisions. She gave us a tip on a coffee house to try.

We took an elevator up one of the little mountains and walked along a path to a coffee house. It had a beautiful location looking over Salzburg and was very pleasant. We had a very efficient waitress. In Europe I sort of expect slow service but she was a wizz. The waitpersons in most places collect the money also. They have these bulging wallets with lots of change on bills and you pay your bill right there, very efficient. We had our first cappuccino and they were excellent. And we had an apple strudel with "vanilla sauce". We asked for a translation and she shrugged and said "vanilla sauce". It turned out to be custard, makes sense. The strudel was great with wonderful crust.

After that I took a walk up one of the "little mountains" they have, a lot of steps up to an abbey and then a walk along the ridge, maybe 5 km in all. It was a lot of up and down. I didn't get tired because I still have the 5000-foot Albuquerque red blood cells (that seems to wear off in 3-5 days) but I did get very sweaty because of the humidity. Even when it is only 75 it seems hot, al least to me not being used to humidity. It was a pretty, forested route with views of the river that goes through Salzburg. As I was walking I passed a number of small fortifications, guard houses really with some walls. One of them was decorated and seemed to be a homeless person's house. Around the next bend I encountered the homeless person (actually two persons), not directly but a bit away by the wall. I walked on quickly but I have a nice picture of the dwelling. We had just been saying we hadn't seen any homeless people.

Dinner that night was a natural food style restaurant they said it was a "slow food" restaurant. The slow food movement started some time ago in Italy. You can google it to get more information. The basic idea is to use local foods and they claimed everything they used was locally produced. The food was very good, almost excellent.

That night was hard, jet lag is not conquered so easily. We kept waking up and got maybe 4-5 hours of sleep.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Munich and Salzburg

FIRST DAY: The trip over was as expected, 3.5 hours to DC, 8.5 hours to Munich, trying to convince yourself it is morning when it is really midnight. We flew to Munich and took the train to Salzburg. Our first impression in Munich airport was good, the lady at the coffee shop was tolerant of our bad German, I had two and three mixed up, and was happy to help us pronounce things more correctly. In fact, the first four people we encountered were very nice and helpful. The cash machine rejected three of our cards with the error message ínvaid card´and we were starting to get worried when I realized that my bank has a limit of $300 a day and I was trying to get 400 euro (about $500). I switched it to 200 euro and it worked much to our relief and the relief of the people behind us in line at the cash machine. It is so easy to get cash now, much better than going to Europe in the old days where I literally got writer´s cramp signing all the $10 travelers checks I bought.

The airport bus took 45 minutes and then we waited about 1.5 hours for the Salzburg train. We got a "Bavaria pass" which allows up to five people unlimited local trains in Bavaria for one day for 25 euro ($32), a very good deal. Going from Germany to Austria is like going from New Mexico to Colorado these days, no border check, nothing, not even aacknowledgementent we were going into another country. In fact, getting to Europe was not much different. We showed our passports to the gate agent Albuquerqueque and then again to a young German official who glanced at it for a second and we were in the Munich airport.

The local train was electric and quite smooth. It took two hours to go about 80-90 miles, not that bad really. We went the wrong way out of the train station and had to double back so we were tired when we got to the hotel after close to 22 hours of travel. It amazinging how simple instructions look after you learn about a town and how hard they are to follow when you arrive tired and jet-lagged. Of course, one of the best parts of travel is learning how to manage in a new town. It is fun to figure it all out and learn your way around.

The Hotel Berglund was very nice, 90 euro a night. We checked in with what appeared to be the head maid and she just said "the room is on the second floor". After lugging the suitcases up one floor I remembered that Europeans use zero-based floor numbering where the floor number is the number of floor you have to go up to get there. Something computer scientists love but people lugging suitcases, not so much. I was in both groups and so was in the middle.

On the way up I noticed a little patio (between floors 0 and 1) which I sat in the next morning for a while. The room is good-sized and airy. It looks out on the side of one of the "little mountains" Salzburg is sited around, a nice view.

One of the fun things about traveling is learning about how other people do tordinaryarz things of life. The bathroom was typically European. The toilet and the "little flush" and "big flush" buttons, which seems very sensible to me. The toilet paper is soft enough but looks like reused newspapers, which it probably is. It would be just like the Europeans to require that toilet paper be 100% recycled.

We went out to get some food but it was around 4 pm and most places were just serving coffee, beer, desserts, etc. But we found a place with a nice patio and serving actual food, and mentioned in the guidebooks. We have found that it is worth the trouble to always go to a place with a recommendation. Even in can´t-miss-on-food Italy, the recommended places turned out better. We always copy the food the hotel sections out of four or five guidebooks and bring them along. I got a noodle and mushroom dish which was excelleThesehese Germans and Austria know their noodlThe the big shock was the price of the water. Prices here are high and you have to get used to that but the water was 2.70 euro for 0.25 liter, more than $3 a cup! Water was more expensive than beer or wine or soda. We got spritzer and fruit juice thing that was quite good.

We forced ourselves to stay up until about 7:30 and then went to sleep. We were lucky because we did not get up until 7:30 am the next day. We only work up once and had to read for 30 minutes. So we were feeling pretty good the next day and made the 7 to 9:30 breakfast with ease. More on the second day later.