July 26, 2012

Slovenia’s Little Secret

We were first tipped off about Slovenia by our friends Jill and Kevin DiFalco who were stationed in the Air Force in nearby Italy. Slovenia is a hidden little secret that most American tourists don’t even know to consider, but now we can vouch that it is certainly worth a visit.

Ljubljana is Slovenia’s capital, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. Instead of stately national buildings, it’s full of cafes, trendy boutiques, a waterfront promenade and a bustling daily market. The Town Hall is more grandiose than the country’s Parliament Building. We suppose it’s because Slovenia has only been its own country for 21 years.

Slovenia gained its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, after just 10 days of fighting. Of the former Yugoslavian countries, it's the most Western with the strongest economy and the most efficiency. It was also the first of the former-Yugoslavian country to join the EU in 2004.

Slovenians speak very good English…even better than Spain, France or Italy. They recognize that in a country of only 2 million people, it's not realistic for everyone else to learn their language, so they learn ours too.

Ljubljana (pronounced something like “Lubliana”) is artsy like Barcelona, but has a quaint canal-town feel like cities in Belgium.

We stayed in a hostel that was constructed by the Austro-Hungarian soldiers in 1882 and used as a military prison until 1991. All over town there are all sorts of interesting conversion stories just like this.

Less than an hour’s drive away from Ljubljana is fairytale Lake Bled.

As the rowing center of Slovenia – and devoid of any motorized boats – Lake Bled is a tranquil getaway.

Only 3.5 miles in circumference, this picturesque little lake is capped by a castle on one end and a dreamy island in the middle. Unfortunately we had bad weather in Lake Bled, but we tried to make the most of it. While the weather was good enough, we did some hiking, rowing, and swimming.

The highlight was paddling our wooden swan rowboat out to the island.

99 stairs lead up from the dock to the church on top of the island. It’s a tradition for local grooms to carry their brides up the stairs to see if they’re “fit for marriage”. I spared Steve the experiment.

Inside the church, a rope hangs down in front of the alter. Legend states that if you ring the church bell three times, your wish will come true. From the shores of Lake Bled, it’s standard to hear wishes being made from morning until night.

We were in Lake Bled for only two days, which barely gave us enough time to sample all of their famous desserts like Kremna Rezina, the Lake Bled Cream Cake.

There’s also Cockta…a soft drink introduced during the communist era when Coca Cola was hard to come by. It has such an odd taste. There’s a reason Coca Cola is enjoyed globally and Cockta is not.

Just outside of Bled is splendid Vintgar Gorge. This was our first look at Slovenia's crazy-colored water and a precursor for what was to come...

From the Lake Bled region, we spend a day driving through the Julian Alps and the Soca River Valley. The Soca’s water is as blue as Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon, except that it’s so clear you can see straight to the bottom.

Upon hearing the word “Slovenia” you might immediately think factories and minefields. But this country is full of a rolling green countryside that is quaint and beautiful – packed with hayracks and colorful beehives. Beekeepers once believed that painting the fronts of hives made it easier for bees to find their way home.

This area was also a sobering lesson for us. The Soca Front saw some of WWI’s fiercest fighting…the same valley that we spent the day playing in. This is where a young Ernest Hemingway drove an ambulance for the Italian army and there are WWI reminders everywhere – abandoned forts, guard stations, cemeteries, and this crazy ladder that the soldiers used to escape into the mountains.

Along the drive we stopped in Bovec, the whitewater adventure hub of Slovenia. The high point of our time in the Julian Alps was canyoning down the Susec Gorge. We didn’t completely know what canyoning meant before we signed up, but we sure do now! Sadly we don’t have any of our own pictures to help explain it, but I would describe it as a combination of rock climbing, cliff jumping, and sliding your body down a canyon full of waterfalls.

The adventure began with a 25-minute hike up the canyon in the most ridiculous outfit I've ever worn. Picture this...bikini, neoprene booties, crash test helmet, and a wetsuit tied around my back like a monkey. Having all of that neoprene wrapped around us was heat inducing, and we didn't bring any water. We were dying. When we finally got to the point where we stopped hiking, our guide Peter reassured us that we could drink the water from the river...only in that particular spot and not further downstream. We would never normally do such a thing and jeopardize our trip with waterborne disease, but again, it was a dire situation. So there we sat guzzling and I mean guzzlingriver water. It's been a week and we haven't gotten sick yet.

Once the monkey was off our backs and we were suited up, the final piece to our ensemble was a thick plastic “diaper" that aids you in sliding down the rocks. There are all sorts of ways to take the slides…feet first on your back, feet first on your stomach, head first on your stomach (“Super Man”), head first on your back (the most fun).

At the beginning Peter warmed us up on cliff jumps that measured anywhere from 4-6 meters. Steve and I were both shocked when I went for it down the last waterfall slide measuring a completely vertical 12 meters or 38 feet. This girl has come a loooong way in her battle against fear of heights.

We joked with Peter that having a company take people down 38-foot waterfalls without ropes would never be possible in the US. There are just too many regulations. Come to think of it, when we signed up we never signed a waiver and they didn’t even ask us if we could swim. Hmmmm…canyoning in Slovenia…highly recommend.

We’ve had great pizza in Slovenia. Dare I say even better than in Italy? That’s what I’m feeling and thinking, but I’m almost apologetic to write it. Slovenia is also known for burek – I’ll just describe it as a big yummy fast-food meat pastry.

Beer is straightforward here. You get the option of (1) light (2) dark (3) mixed. It’s almost too simple so we had to ask. “What is mixed?” The server looked at us like we were stupid and said, "That would be light and dark mixed together". It ended up being our favorite. Oh, the simplicity.

Come to Slovenia! It’s worth it. But please just don’t tell too many of your friends. Let’s keep it our little secret for as long as possible.

July 22, 2012

Farewell Italia

For our grand finale in Italy, we headed from the Dolomites to the sinking city of Venice. It was not lost on us that we spent the morning in an alpine hut at 8,000 feet and the same evening cruising the Grand Canal. We traded one type of gondola for another…a very surreal moment.

Before we got to Venice, we had a little talk with ourselves that went something like this…“Dear Steve and Katie; do not be annoyed with Venice. Despite the horror stories of American tourists, pigeons, heat and stench, just take a deep breath and everything will be okay.”

 We had our expectations very low, but in the end, we didn’t find any of these to be a problem at all! By avoiding the tourist traps during the day – and taking full advantage of the city at its quietest moments in the morning and at night – we left with really good memories.

Stepping off the train for the first time in Venice, you walk 10 feet out of the station and you’re dumped right onto the Grand Canal. What an exuberant feeling to finally reach this incredible city.

Besides being bigger than we imagined, Venice is pretty much what you would expect. That’s not a bad thing, because it also means it’s everything you dream of.


Venice is one large island made up of 100 smaller islands built on top of wood pilings driven into a clay foundation. It’s laced together with 400 bridges and 2,000 alleyways. As my good friend Joe perfectly summarized, “Wheelbarrows are the only wheeled devices around”.

We saw ambulance, fire, UPS, garbage, and police speed boats.

With dueling orchestras, water seeping up through the drainage grates, and children chasing pigeons, St. Marks Square is the heart of the city. On our first night in town, I looked up at the square's Campanile Tower with a déjà vu sort of feeling. I knew I had seen it somewhere before, and then it hit me…Las Vegas. I felt a little jipped.

There are only half the number of Venetians now that there were three decades ago. In fact, city planners believe that eventually Venice may not have any local residents at all…it will essentially just become a museum.

In any other city, decay like this would be seen as run-down. In Venice it is charming and elegant.

There may be other cities in the world that are just as beautiful as Venice, but certainly no city exists that is as unique.


We have spent 28 days in Italy. It has felt like a long time, and I don’t mean that in a good or bad way. I just mean that we have enjoyed taking a lot of time to visit roughly 20 different cities and regions in a country the size of Arizona.

Italy is the land of accordions, church bells that ring whenever they feel like it, graves that look like flower gardens, and green shutters. It seems that 99% of Italian homes have green shutters…we have no idea why.

We’ve been to the South, to the North, and everything in between. In much of the same way that you’d compare New York vs. Texas vs. California, there are very different Italys.

There’s something so familiar – and then at the same time so unfamiliar – about Italian food. We felt fairly knowledgeable about pasta before coming here, but then we tried all of these: fettuccini, gnocchi, spaghetti, fusilli, ravioli, tortellini, tagliolino, pappardelle, penne, tagliatelle, rigatoni, trofie, pansotti, and lasagna. It’s been served in many different forms, including squid ink, pesto, and chocolate.

If there was one pasta that we were disappointed by every time, it was lasagna. You come to Italy expecting the best pasta on the planet, and the lasagna just always seemed microwaved.

The good news is that we were really surprised to visit grocery stores and see the same brand of pasta that we purchase back in the US! Now you can buy with confidence.

Several people have asked us where we had the best pizza. To be honest, we had so many that they all seem pretty similar in our memories (with the exception of Sienna, which was all together different). We've never met a pizza we didn't like. One surprising thing is that we never came across our favorite American ingredient, pepperoni. In Italy it's either salami or prosciutto.

Besides pizza and pasta, there have been other recognizable food groups, too: facaccia, pannini, bruschetta, caprese, risotto, spumante, limoncello, bellini, spritz, canole, and tiramisu.

Italian stomachs seem super human. While we gladly share a pizza, tiny women eating next to us finish off entire pizzas on their own. Then they might have a second course!

Italians deserve an award for the most appetizing ice cream displays. They spruce them up by throwing hunks of candy bars, vanilla beans, coffee beans and fruits into each bin. So if you can't read the flavor, you just look at what's been thrown on top.

We had fun trying chocolate chip, vanilla, coffee, nutella, lemoncelllo, nuts, chocolate, dark chocolate, honey, mint, nougat, cream, caramel, butter crunch, ricotta with figs, hazelnut, and toffee. Lots of towns also have their own special concoction like Crema Cinque Terre. Europeans love fruit flavors, but our American taste buds kept craving the candy bar flavors.

We’ve laughed that throughout the world, countries outside of the US do not seem to understand economies of scale…that is until we got to Italy. Italians understand it so well, that they’ve worked themselves right into an economic crisis. For example, the other day we could have bought a 33 centiliter beer for 3.50 Euros or a 66 centiliter beer (the same brand) for 50 cents less. Figure that out! We feel that we've done our part to contribute to the Italian bail-out. We managed to rack up $80 in toll fees on a 3-hour drive from France to Italy.

Biggies like Rome and Florence are places that you have to see once. But now that we’ve been there, we feel that we don’t really need to go back. The Roman ruins aren’t going to change much. If we ever visit Italy for a second time, it will be to some of the quaint water communities like the Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre. But don’t take our word for it…go and decide for yourself!

July 20, 2012

Yodelayheehoo! We’re In Italy?

The Dolomites are a section of the Alps in Northern Italy and are considered some of the most beautiful mountains in the world. For this reason, and to see a completely different side to Italy, we stayed 4 nights. This is technically Italy, but it’s so close to Austria that it feels more like Germany.

People generally speak 3 languages – German first, Italian second, and English third. There are micro-breweries, sausages, dumplings, strudel, and the best pickles I’ve ever tasted. We immediately noticed that the overall level of efficiency had sky-rocketed, and as one local girl told us, “Things run sharp here.”

The moment we stepped off the train in Bolzano it was like BOOM! Mountain culture!

There were people walking around with backpacks, hiking poles, big dogs, and muddy shoes. We saw several people walking around with their arms full of maps. Normally we are embarrassed to be seen with a map in our hands. Maps are cool here.

Bolzano is the gateway to the Dolomites and a great town. It’s just big enough to be interesting. They have 4 different multi-level Sportler stores – the Alps’ version of REI – with an entire floor dedicated solely to hard-core hiking boots. We could have spent hours in there. 

Bolzano has nice shops, restaurants, playgrounds and wooded river paths for biking and running. They also have Otzi, the frozen mummy from 5300 BC, who was discovered along with his hiking gear in 1991. It was incredible to see the similarities between the mountain equipment of today versus 7,000 years ago. Otzi had a backpack, beanie cap, hatchet, knife, hiking boots, and first aid kit.

Just a gondola ride away from Bolzano in the towns of Oberbozen and Klobenstein were sets of glacial formations called Earth Pyramids...and views to the mountains we were set to hike a few days later.

After Bolzano we started to climb higher into the mountains to a small village called Castelrotto, where the townspeople wear traditional dress and live by the chimes of their overactive bell tower.

The people of Castelrotto seem high on life. Breakfast consists of a hard-boiled egg, yogurt, meat, cheese and weak coffee. I have a theory that their coffee is so weak because they only need the promise of a new day to get them going in the morning. Life’s simple pleasures seem enough here.

After dinner, we decided to take one last lap around the bell tower and we stumbled upon this…

Apparently every Tuesday night the town puts on a festival with music, dancers, children’s games, strudel, and witches. Castelrotto used to be the Salem of the Alps, and so witches are the town symbol.

The culmination to our time in the Dolomites was up on the Alpe di Siusi – Europe’s largest alpine meadow.

It's so rare to find a mountain region with so much green mixed with craggy gray peaks. The beauty is complimented by the charm of the cows, who use the Alpe as their summer home. Their cow bells are so loud so that it constantly sounds like a symphony of wind chimes.

In the Alpe de Siusi we based ourselves in the town of Compatsch with two big days of hiking to the nearby mountains.

Our first day in the Alpe was a travel day, so we and didn’t start our hike until 1:00pm. It was supposed to be an easy 6-hour walk through the meadow, but in an last-minute audible, we decided to hike a mountain called The Plattkofel (2,955 meters or 9,695 feet).

In hindsight, the day was a string of bad decision-making.

The first 4.5 hours of the hike were great…scenic, challenging, interesting and fun.

We knew we were going to be cutting it close to make it back by our hotel’s dinner call at 7:00pm, so we even did some trail running to make up time. 

Mistake #1 was earlier in the day when we wanted to ask the tourist information office about details for our hike, but we missed their closing time by 5 minutes. We had a map and a guide book, so we figured we could piece the information together.

Mistake #2 was when we misread our guide book and thought it said 2 hours to the TOP of The Plattkofel. In actuality, it estimated 2 hours to the BASE of The Plattkofel. The base is called Plattkofel Hutte…the slight variations in German names confused us. Dang…that was a big mistake.

Oblivious to Mistake #2, we made it all the way to the summit of The Plattkofel. Good times…we were happy!

Then things started going awry very quickly. The trail we were supposed to take down from the summit disappeared and we ended up navigating a cliff face of scree (loose rock) for 2 hours. 

It was 7:45 and the sun was setting by the time we got back to the base of the mountain. Mistake #3 was when we didn’t account for the buses and chairlifts closing at 7:00, which left us with a 3.5-hour hike back to our hotel. During that first 30 minutes of our walk home, our spirits were pretty low.

Then out of nowhere, a car appeared. Yodelayheehoo! A very nice young man named Daniel had just come from tending to his cows and offered to drive us back to our hotel. If we had kept walking, we would have gotten home at 11:00. Thanks to Daniel, we arrived at 8:30…just in time for a sympathy plate of food from our hotel.

The next morning we were sore and tired but we dragged ourselves outside for what was originally supposed to be our “big day” of hiking up The Schlern’s summit of Mount Pez (2,563 meters or 8,409 feet).

Right before the start of the big climb, we met a Norwegian named Krishna who was running up the trail. He liked the pace we were keeping, so we did the hill together…us hiking and Krishna running.

He was fantastic company, and the next thing we all knew, we were at the summit!

We took it easier this day with a mid-hike nap, the gorgeous Rosengarten mountain range in the distance, and the cow bells ding, ding, dinging.

From The Schlern it was a simple 1.5 hour hike to our lodging for the night…Tierser Alpl.

From another view, can you see it perched towards the top of the green?

Spending the night in a mountain hut is a wonderful experience. You don’t have to rush to get down off the mountain. You are free to take your time and enjoy the day.

It’s also a fun vibe in the hut at night. After about 6:00pm, the people who are there are staying for the evening. Everyone eats dinner together in a big dining room. After-dinner activities consist of board games and planning the next day’s hiking route with humongous maps spread out on the dinner tables.

We have technically been in Italy for the last four days, but it has certainly felt like we’ve been on the other side of the Alps. From a cultural perspective, these feather-in-their-caps, yogurt-loving outdoorsmen have been such an interesting compliment to the rest of Italy that we’ve seen.

From an adventure perspective, The Dolomites are breathtakingly beautiful. If you’re into hiking, we highly recommend coming here. And please invite us so that we have an excuse to come back!