17 May 2014

Castle Hunting: The Ones That Got Away

We visited, by my informal calculations, about seventy-five or eighty castles on the trip, and all of them were memorable in some way.  We explored the dungeons by lantern-light at snowy Pils Cēsis, in Latvia, and dodged stray dogs at Soroca, Moldova.  There were floating castles at Kizkalesi and Palamidi, recent ruins in the Bosnian hills (Ostrožac), serene Romanian wonders and brash Monagasque palaces.  Most Impressive?  Maybe Malbork Castle, the headquarters of the Teutonic Order (did you know they were based in Poland?). Maybe Slovakia's Spišský Hrad, even in ruin. Megalomania? Bojnice, the 19th century marriage proposal that didn't work.
There were rebuilds (Macedonia's Zamokot SamuilBelarus's Mirsky Zamak), wonders of engineering (Kamyanets Podilsky), seats of kings (Olite) and brooding, heavyset masterpieces (Serbia's last-stand Danube hulk, Smederevo).
We visited castles at the end of the earth, like the Towers of Svaneti, and tourist-trap museums like Warwick - but no matter where we were, these big piles of old stones always felt exotic.  To an American, castles are Europe.
Inevitably, we couldn't post about all of the forts and towers we poked around, and a lot of worthwhile places got left out of the blog.  Here, then, are some of the best Castle Hunting leftovers from our trip.
It had snowed when we visited Kilitbahir castle, but the day was mild and the air smelled of saltwater and grilling sardines.  The Gallipoli peninsula could lay a legitimate claim to the title "bloodiest place on earth."  What is today a peaceful bit of Turkish coast, dotted with fish restaurants and maritime villages, was long at the tumultuous fissure between Europe and Asia, where Byzantines and Ottomans once clashed and WWI saw some of its fiercest battles.
The name "Kilitbahir" means "lock of the sea."  Built to guard the narrowest point between continental coasts, and to control the entrance to the Sea of Marmara (and the Black Sea beyond, and the Sea of Azov beyond that), it's a sun-baked beauty.  There are gorgeous, spiral brick accents and cannon-ready, round towers.
It was also hemmed-in by ugly buildings, which is one of the more frustrating obstacles to fort photography.  Aside from a few washed out pictures from the sea-facing side, this was the only good picture.  Another memory I have of the place: walking along the snowy walls was pretty terrifying - Turkey's not as litigious a country as the United States is, and they didn't seem to care if you fell off the ramparts. (Actually, no worthwhile castle has guardrails - this isn't just a Turkish thing.)
Albanians will tell you that Gjirokastër was named after Princess Argjiro, a lovely young mother who jumped off the castle tower with her baby instead of surrendering to the Ottomans.  Greeks (and most historians) will tell you that the fortress and city got their name from the ancient Greek word argyrokastron, which means "silver castle."  Doesn't matter who you listen to, Gjirokastër is one of the coolest old cities in the Balkans.
Rebecca put up a post about the museum in the castle, and another about the town and the writer Ismail Kadare.  We had both just read "Chronicle in Stone," which takes place in town, and were excited to look for old landmarks.  We ate frogs legs in a tree-filled courtyard and byrek from a secret, cellar bakery.  The castle was full of communist bric-a-brac, but still managed to feel pretty medieval.
In Novogrudok, Belarus, we stayed in a little guesthouse run by nuns.  They'd never taken in Americans before, and were wary of us. The town was quieted by a deep snowfall. At the local kafeynya, everyone started drinking vodka at eight in the morning.
We walked up to the "castle" but found only this bit of brickwork.
At some point in the 13th century, Navahrudak (as it's called by non-Russian speakers) was the capital castle of the Duchy of Lithuania.  It was a major fortification by the 17th century, with seven towers.  Sadly, the Great Northern War was unkind to the place, and what's left is more monument than citadel.
Belarus has been so often fought over that not much remains from before the 1940's.  Their one real "castle" is a frosted-cake reconstruction in the town of Mir.
Out on Saaremaa Island, in the midst of an Estonian winter, we ate cod liver mashed with onions and visited craters and painted bus-stop/post-offices.  We also made a stop at the square-jawed Kuressaare castle, which sits on a fortified islet overlooking the Gulf of Riga.
There's a story associated with the fort that, at some murky point in its history, there were lions kept in a narrow pit inside the walls.  While I believe in lions, and I've seen the pit, I don't know if I believe that there really were fifteenth century lions in this particular Estonian pit - an alternate myth, perpetrated by some, is that the fearsome beasts were really wolves.  No matter, there's a surprising (as in, it made us jump) audio blast of roaring lions that's been rigged up to play as you pass by the "lions den," which looks suspiciously like a sewage drain.
It was cold, grey and unbeautiful on that December day, and we got only a few worthwhile snaps.  That early on in the trip, I wasn't very good at taking pictures of things that weren't perfectly lit.
Narikala fortress is a ruined crumble of bricks and soft stone, high up above the dusty sprawl of Tbilisi.  There's not much left to see, but the feeling of the place is wonderful.  Georgia already feels far away from the rest of the world, and eighth-century Georgia (when the castle really took shape) seems like a fragment from Scheherazade.
It was chilly in the January breeze.  Below us, in the town, generators and car horns coughed and spluttered.  The walk up to the castle passed a pretty little painted church.  Little prayer flags or remembrance tokens had been tied amongst the brush - some made of cloth, others just brightly-colored plastic bags.
Later, in the middle of the Caucasus, we saw some even more interesting Georgian fortresses.
Pazin, Croatia, is best known for its chasm - the funny sounding "Pazin Chasm" - which Jules Verne wrote a story about.  Perched beside the chasm is a very Adriatic looking castle, with a tiled roof and a jaunty little clock tower.  From the street side, it looks like a Baroque post office.  From across the abyss, it looks like an abandoned mill or a prison.
Grad Pazin was closed when we visited, and the town was in the middle of the hot, dry Istrian peninsula - we didn't linger too long before hurrying back to the coast.
Castle hunting was an obsession, but it was also one of the most popular parts of the blog, and we were chasing content as much as fun experiences.  Sometimes, the search brought us to places we'd never have found otherwise.  Sometimes, it meant a frustrating, hot afternoon.  The Bulgarian town of Veliko Tarnovo was much more interesting than the lame, reconstructed fortress of Tsarevets we had come looking for.
Castles bring visitors - or, at least, town officials hope that they'll bring visitors.  Tsarevets, like too many other ruins, was "rebuilt and restored."  This means a medieval-looking stone thing was built with cranes and tractors and outfitted with bathrooms, ticket counters and souvenir stands.  Another name for this kind of thing is "theme park."
In it's defense, Tsaravets was one of the largest and most important fortresses of the early castle age, though almost nothing of the original is still around.  In Bulgaria's defense, we visited two other, much cooler fortresses in the country: Baba Vida, at a broad part of the Danube, and the incomparable, indescribable Belogradchik.
Tallinn is one of Europe's overlooked gems.  Estonia isn't a big place - or a very bright place in the middle of the northern winter - but its capital is cosmopolitan, cool and beautifully medieval.  It was around Christmastime when we slipped and skidded our way through the icy, cobbled streets. There were holiday markets and little mitten stores, crowded beerhalls and friendly locals.
The old town is entirely ringed by an impressive, many-turreted wall.  It's one of the last surviving, well-preserved town walls in northern Europe, and it looked especially good bedecked in festival lights.  We were coming to the end of our first block of the trip, and were probably too worn out to put up a good post.
Away from the sweeping coast, the wine country and the glitz of Lisbon, Portugal's Alentejo backcountry is dry, hardscrabble and beautiful.  Red-trunked cork trees shade skinny cattle and goats.  There are bull-rings and whitewashed towns.
Portugal has a long string of castles along its eastern border.  We did a post about the pretty, tiled Castelo de Marvão, but neglected nearby Castelo de Vide.  It was a little grubby, with trash in the corners and some half-hearted graffiti inside.  But, when the Portuguese sun hit the walls, it attained a fiery glow.
There was work being done on Sümeg castle when we visited.  Battered Unimog trucks rumbled up the steep castle road and scaffolding was set up in the courtyard.  It was overcast and hot.  We came upon the town while driving through the Hungarian Puszta, in the last days before we headed south for Croatia and the sea.
Sümeg was built quickly as central Europe was being swarmed by the Mongol horde. European castles in 1440 - especially this close to the Ottomans - were already being built with gunpowder in mind. Sümeg, though, was constructed in an older, squarer style.  Apparently, it was just horsemen the Hungarians feared, not cannon fire.
Valletta is one of those fortified cities that - like Luxembourg City - should really be more famous. It has some of the most extensive and incredible sea-walls I've ever seen, and countless castles and towers built into the defenses.  All of it is done up in a Mediterranean style using beautiful yellow limestone.
Malta is full of quirks, and it barely surprised us to find the "largest cannon in the world" among Valletta's defenses.  We put up a post about Victoria Citadella, on Gozo, but never did a proper write up on the capital.

27 April 2014

CRF: The Best Of Liechtenstein

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." It's been more than a year since we returned from Europe, and we've started to get seriously nostalgic.  To give us all an extra travel fix, we're posting some of our favorite photos that never made it onto the blog.  Here are our favorite unpublished memories and pictures of Liechtenstein - a tiny, odd, forgotten place.
These Swiss browns with Switzerland in the backdrop were photographed from a berggasthaus just like the ones we'd hiked to in the Appenzell Mountains.  We were carrying Swiss francs in our wallets at the time and trying to speak Swiss German.  Surprise! Du bist nicht in der Schweiz!
Liechtenstein might not look like much on a map, it doesn't have its own language or currency, but we left The Principality with a real sense that we'd visited a country all its own.  Sure, there are more registered businesses than there are citizens, but this tiny country's identity as an unlikely survivor rings truer than its status as a tax haven.
Not to say you're left to forget that Liechtenstein has the highest GDP per person in the world, the world's lowest external debt and Europe's wealthiest ruler.  It feels moneyed in the capital, Vaduz, even if it also feels like a farm town.
Their National Museum had one of the finest Natural History exhibits we've ever seen, anywhere.  Their Kunstmuseum is world-class and their ski museum and stamp collections are as cluttered and quirky as can be.  The public spaces are filled with art.  If there was a roundabout, it had a sculpture at its center.  The capital's center plaza was sleek and modern, though very tiny.
The food was... expensive and alpine.  There were some great local specialties at the Bauernmarkt, Weinfest Trieson, Sommernachtsfest and at "Oldie Night," but we otherwise had little success eating well.  We did cook some great forellen und rösti, and had plenty of camping picnics, but white asparagus toasts in aspic aren't our idea of inspiring, even if they did come with a squirt of mayonnaise and a bit of pickle.
The heat at the end of August, dusty with the last cuts of hay, drove us to the water.  The Rhine is too swift and sharp-bottomed to swim in, but there were plenty of pools.
Liechtenstein isn't tiny tiny, by microstate standards.  At 61.78 square miles, it's about three hundred and sixty three times larger than Vatican City - but that's like comparing grapes and poppy seeds.  In terms of micro-ness, it's closest to San Marino, though Liechtenstein's still over two and a half times larger.
Still, it's the third smallest place we visited on the trip, and every larger country felt a LOT larger.  You can walk across Liechtenstein in a day.  Luxembourg, which many people confuse with Liechtenstein, is sixteen times larger, and has a functioning train system.
This greenhouse was situated alongside our walking path from campsite to capital.  The walk took less than an hour and covered more than a quarter of the country's length.

But that's on the flats along the Rhine river valley.  Along the Austrian border on the other side of the country - locally referred to as the "Oberland" - Liechtenstein is mountainous and harder to get around.  We spent a sunny day hiking the ski resort of Malbun and watching a falconry show, and another few days on a long, trans-nation hike.  The peaks here are part of the Western Rhaetian Alps. Cowbells clanked on the summer breeze.
One of the trip's wierd animal experiences was at "BIRKA Bird Paradise," a zoo-like aviary that we never really figured out.  There were plenty of parrots and chickens, but who the heck knows why they were there?
In some ways, Liechtenstein feels a bit like a roadstop along the expanse of our trip.  We visited just after returning from a trip back home - we flew back into Ljubljana airport, where we'd left our car, and drove up into the Austrian Alps feeling excited and full of energy.  Two weeks later, we left Liechtenstein bemused and restless, driving on to France and broader horizons.  What had we seen?  What had we done?  Walked, looked at postage stamps, wandered around a garden, gotten confused, felt hemmed-in - and seen some strange birds.  It's not that it wasn't pleasant, it's just that we wanted to get back on the road.
There's a romantic myth about Europe: that it's filled with tiny kingdoms, where princes and kings and queens sit in their castles, ignored by the rest of the world.  Two and a half centuries ago, before Napoleon and the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, there really were little duchies and comtés scattered amongst and beside the major countries - in Germany alone there were around 300 sovereign states.
Today, almost all of those little kingdoms are gone, and you'll find only three micro-states ruled by royal families: Luxembourg (which isn't really that micro), Monaco (which can hardly be called a forgotten kingdom) and Liechtenstein.  In a lot of ways, this little place is a unique throwback.
Approaching Vaduz, a traveler passes through farms and orderly vineyards.  The mountains rise to one side, very green and lush in the late summer, but topped by glaciers and distant rocks. There's a quaint little castle just above town, where a real prince lives.  A few Victorian-Gothic steeples rise above the beech treetops.  It looks, from afar, just like the capital of a fairytale, middle-european, lost-principality should look.
Of course, close up, it's full of Toyota dealerships, pizza places, bank buildings and shopping complexes.  Theres too much traffic and not enough places to park.  If modern concrete is your thing, maybe you'll like it. If you want to visit a peaceful principality town, though, avoid the capital.  You can stay anywhere else in the country and still drive to Vaduz in twenty minutes, if you feel like it.  Better yet, take the bus.
This picture was taken at dusk from a third story window of the one old Inn still left in town, Gasthof Löwen.  The timber-framed building has literally been walled in by roads and development.  On the last night in the country, we went to sleep under the eaves, listening to the grumbling roundabout outside in the night, dreaming of bigger places to explore.

To see all of our posts about Liechtenstein, just click here.

01 March 2014

Congratulations, Kosovo!

It was announced yesterday, or at least reported in the New York Times, that Kosovo has finally been given a chance to form their own soccer team and compete in international "friendly competitions."  This may or may not make them eligible for the next World Cup, but it's still a big step and we felt inclined to post a big congratulations to the country.  We watched the final matches of Euro Cup 2012 in Kosovo - mostly outside on pull down projection screens, on computers, on sides of buildings.  It was fan-demonium punctuated by calls to prayer and we wondered just how into it they would be if they had their own team to root for.  We wrote about the experience here.  Good luck Team Kosovo!

Read Euro Cup Runneth Over from our travels in Kosovo.
Look through our Kosovo archive.

13 January 2014

Our 10 Most Popular Posts

Here's the travel blogging catch-22.  Most people are looking for information about places they plan to visit.  So, millions of people search for things about Tuscany, Paris or Amsterdam's canals.  The most amazing place on earth won't receive much traffic if nobody knows about it.  The problem is, the more popular a place is, the more bloggers there are writing about it.  The chance that someone reads your post about the Acropolis? Slim.

Predicting which of our 700 (plus) posts would get read was almost impossible.  Some of the best things we wrote didn't even get read by our own parents.  Some of our silliest or worst-written bits have became enormously (and embarrassingly) popular.

Our 10 most popular posts (based on Google analytics data and Blogger.com traffic reports) are a mixed bag.  Some are good (number one, thankfully), some began their online life as throwaways (see number nine), some are just weird (number five).  Only one of these posts was specifically designed to attract traffic (number two).
Sometimes we just hit upon something. Cihangir is a hip, young Istanbul neighborhood.  It reminded us of a Turkish Williamsburg and confirmed our belief that renting an apartment is the best way to see a city.  The best neighborhoods are often the best because they don't have any hotels.  Don't get us wrong, the center of Istanbul is as gobsmacking is you'd expect and we never tired of tooling around in search of balik ekmek or The Mussel Man (who we wind up finding in Cihangir anyway).  But the best cities are great because of their ever-changing qualities, their momentum and the neighborhoods defined by the young people there at a given time. 
As bloggers, we found ourselves in a jam.  Here we were in Vatican City, two whole weeks of posting about a very, very small microstate and the pièce de résistance was off limits.  No photos in the Sistine Chapel.  Seriously?  If this were a rule decreed by the pope, the security guards would probably have worked a little harder - or at all - to enforce it.  As it turns out, a Japanese TV company owns the exclusive rights to some of the art world's most famous images because they funded its restoration. (This is after NBC turned down the deal.  Probably because they were too busy fine-tuning  Joey, the Friends spin-off).  Anyway, the whole thing was ridiculous, made only more so by the fact that everyone. was. taking. pictures.  So, we decided to half break the rules and snap some shots, too.  Just not of the ceiling.  We're sure this gets traffic because people are searching to see if photos are allowed in the Sistine Chapel.  Not that finding out is going to stop them.  
8. Georgian Food
We can vouch for the fact that it is very difficult to search for anything about Georgia, in English, without being directed to the state instead of the country.  Using the word "Georgian" helps matters a lot.  This one makes us happy because Georgian food really did feel like a revelation.  The textures and flavors were consistently surprising and delicious.  Pomegranate seeds, crushed walnuts, cilantro,  the best bread of our lives.  And then there were khinkali, the soup dumpling like concoctions pictured above.  In the tiny town of Mestia, at the time the most remote place we'd been, the only restaurant in town basically only served khinkali   We discovered, quickly, that they are so delicious you don't need anything more.
Amazingly, this is only our second most-popular Albanian post (see below!)  
Sometimes we know exactly why people are reading a specific post.  After a TED Blog writer used our photos of Tirana's painted buildings we got a sudden surge of visitors.
The story of Edi Rama (painter turned Minister of Culture turned mayor) and his brilliant idea to transform ugly communist-era cement blocks into bold, bright works of art is a great one.  It's no wonder it's garnered some attention.  We're just happy that our own piece focuses more on the story of the city today and of Malvin, a young man who served us dinner one night and was showing us around the next.  Maybe he'll stumble upon the post himself and shoot us an email.  We wonder if he ever made it to that bioengineering school in Canada.
6. Castle Hunting: Trakai Castle
Island castles are a little bit of a trend (see number 4).
We remember this castle most for the speeding ticket we got nearby.  Lithuanian police take road safety very seriously.  For the record, if you should ever find yourself stopped by an officer in Lithuania, be prepared to pay your fine in cash on the spot.  If you don't have the money, he/she will drive you to the nearest bank to withdraw the amount.  Don't be scared.  This is absolutely normal.  Well, you can still be scared.  As we were.
5. Sleeping In Soviet Style
This little Belarusian piece has always baffled us.  For almost a year it was our number two most-viewed post, second only to this, about Belarusian tractors (which now ranks about 12th).  It would make sense if people were only landing here while looking for lodging in Belarus - which is hard to find - but that didn't seem to be the case.  Inexplicably, thousands of people showed up after searching for "armenian elevator buttons."  The internet is a weird, weird place.
(Thanks to one visitor, we learned that what we thought was a very cool smoke detector was actually an even cooler single-channel radio from the Soviet age).
We were never even supposed to be there in Kizkalesi, but we were finding it a little difficult to catch a boat to northern Cyprus, and we needed a place to stay.  For a Turkish seaside town, it's a little drab.  People visit for the "floating" castle (and visit our blog for pictures of it).  We stayed in an empty hotel, run by a very nice Kurdish man who took us to the nearby Caves of Heaven and Hell and invited us to watch a televised NBA game with him in the evening. 
3. Lithuanian Food
For a long time, Lithuanian Food was the most viewed post on the blog.  It features grainy, unappealing photos of cepelinai, blyneliai and various other cheesy, gloppy dishes.  This is a poorly-lit shot of kiaulės audis, which is smoked pig's ear.  We had no idea - as we crunched cartilage on that dark night in the Žemaitija National Park - that so many people would find this stuff interesting.  Then, again, we may not have ordered the smoked pig's ear if we didn't at least hope they would.
2. Montenegro's Best Beaches
Some day soon, this will be the most read merlinandrebecca.com post.  It's been popular since day one, and it does really well around every vacation time.  Montenegro is newly independent and popular, so there isn't as much written about it as, say, Croatia.  We think that's why readers end up on our site.  This one feels a little bittersweet, though, because we created it while thinking "this will get so much traffic!"  But, hey, the hope is that then you stumble upon something like this.  The other hope is that more people will look beyond the big resorts that are threatening to destroy the coastline and find those little places that remain untouched… for now.
While it's not too surprising that 3 of our 10 most popular posts are about food, Albania sneaking in for the win is a bit of a shock.  Here's our theory:  there's simply not much information available online about Albanian food.  So, unlike a search for "Italian food," you're more likely to stumble upon us.  In fact, googling those two words right now, we're right there behind wikipedia, food.com, ask.com and pinterest (which may or may not have even existed when we published this post).  If the title had been "Frogs Legs and Lamb's Head" - as I'm sure at least one of us wanted it to be - there's no way this would be our number one.  But… hey… we learned a few traffic tips along the way.  Now, add the fact that Albania was named Lonely Planet's Top Destination for 2011 and you've got yourself a winner!

12 January 2014

CRF: The Best of Slovenia

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." It's been more than a year since we returned from Europe, and we've started to get seriously nostalgic.  To give us all an extra travel fix, we're posting some of our favorite photos that never made it onto the blog.  Here are our favorite unpublished memories and pictures of Slovenia - truly one of our favorite countries.
Slovenia held a special place in our heart years before this trip and we were a little worried about tarnishing it.  You see,  it was the first "weird" place we had ever travelled together.  Our former trips included the post-collegiate trifecta of France, India and Amsterdam.  One of us had read an article about Slovenia in a magazine and the idea of the place stuck (along with Lake Baikal in Siberia, which seemed a little less doable).  We went, in 2006, without knowing how to pronounce the name of its capital and came back its biggest ambassadors, dubbing it "The Vermont of Europe" and encouraging everyone we knew to visit.
It was both more "European" than we'd expected (what does that word mean anyway?) and quirkier than we could have imagined (a doormouse museum?).  It felt like a discovery, a magical place.  One day we were driving through foliage that could rival New England, the next we were eating shellfish on a blip of Mediterranean coast.  There were gorges and caves, castleshorse burgers.  Our farm stay had a pet bear, the capital had parking spots dedicated to electric cars ("way back" in 2006) and a Sunday flea market that finally served up that slice of Slav we were expecting.  Revisiting the country, after traveling to places even further afield, we worried it would feel…. predictable.  Or, dare I say, average.  And then, this happened...
The water caves of Križna Jama are special.  They really are.  They are that solitary, unknowable, ancient thing that lurks at the edges of human existence.  There are human remains in the entryway that date back ten millennia.  One travels for hours by headlight, in blowup rafts, past the oldest of earth's rocky bones.  There are creatures there, in those depths, that exist literally nowhere else in the universe.  No more than eight people a day are allowed in.  All of this, accessed through a rock in the deep Slovenian forest.  By some wonderful twist of fate, our guide was a photographer himself and the photos he prompted us to take are some of our favorites of the trip, inextricably linked to the memory of snapping them.
When we're asked that inevitable question - "what country did you like best?" - we have no idea what to say.  Phrased: "what was the most memorable experience you had?" the answer would be easier.  Križna Jama is the experience we call up when we mean "unbelievable."
The Slovenian karst is full of caves - there's the theme-park-like Postojnska jama and the outlandish cave-castle of Grad Predjama, with hundreds of other caverns in between - but there is none to match the grandeur of Škocjanske jame.  We've been twice, but photos aren't allowed in the main caverns, so we never blogged about it.  This is a picture of the exit, which actually feels small at the end of the tour.  Notice the full-grown trees being dwarfed by the archway.
The main cavern in Škocjanske jame is so large that standing inside, with the lights off, feels like standing outside on a dark night.  You can hear a river flowing, a hundred feet below the walkway.  You feel damp cave-breezes and gusts.  It's the largest enclosed space you can imagine.  A friend brought along on our second visit was nervous.  "I'm claustrophobic," she explained, logically reasoning that this would make spelunking unpleasant.  Škocjanske jame conjures the exact opposite feeling.  All you feel is the expanse, your own smallness.  You feel anything but trapped.  You feel like you're on the edge of something that is somehow even bigger.  
At the very top of Rogla Ski Resort, in the Zreče region, we came across this funny group of schoolchildren filing onto a down-slope chairlift.  Even though it was midsummer, it was cold and blustery in the Julian Alps.
We had hiked up from the endearing, bizarre deer farm that we were staying at, Tourist Farm Arbajter.  Our hosts cooked us venison dinners and gave us homemade borovnica (blueberry schnapps).  We loved it there and promised to return with our family one day.
Slovenia's glamor spot is lake Bled.  It's the Slovenian stuff of postcards.  The rolley-bags outnumber backpacks and footwear gets noticeably less clunky.  It's easy to see how one could be content dropping in on Bled and being whisked back away without ever setting foot in the more rugged landscape surrounding it.  Retirees rent rowboats by the hour.  Young, fashionable people sunbathe on the grassy shores.
Slovenia is very much a tale of two lakes, Bled and Bohinj.  Both are beautiful, but we actually prefer Bohinj, nearby, which has zero luxury hotels.
At some point in our trip, we began taking photos of local candy.  It's the little things.  These were a cross between Necco wafers and hole-less life savers.  We just liked the packaging, really.
We considered doing a post about the unusual and emblematic Slovenian roofed hayracks (called toplarji), but never got all the pictures we wanted.  Here's an old toplar surrounded by modern digging equipment.  It's not easy to find prime examples of the old Slovene way of life, because the country doesn't dwell on its past.  History in Slovenia has been relegated to the national parks, culinary tradition, a few quaint castles and their excellent museums.  Everyone looks forward.
Despite its diminutive size, Ljubljana (pronounced "loob-lee-yah-na") easily feels the most modern of the former Yugoslavian capitals.  It's demeanor mirrors the national spirit: lighthearted, friendly, unpretentious.
Slovenia was the first republic to gain independence from post-Tito Yugoslavia, and there wasn't much violence during the breakaway.  Compared to Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia or even Croatia, the country has few scars and better memories.
We love this red picture of a tiny, communist-era Zastava (nicknamed "Fičo" in Slovenia and "Fikjo" in Macedonia, where we posted about them) against a high-tech construction site. About a block from here, we saw a tractor pulling bales of hay through downtown Ljubljana.
Like Slovenian food, Slovenian wine is pretty basic.  It's also cheap, tasty and plentiful.  For a while, we were working on a vini-post that didn't get finished.  It was going to be about the vineyards of the Vipava and Štájerska regions, but we never got the cornerstone picture or experience that a good piece needs.  It was still fun to try.
We took this picture at a  courtyard "vinotok" in the colorful wine town of Slovenska Konjice. Underripe grapes hung from an arbor over our heads.  If it had been September instead of July, we probably would have had a great, boozy post.
We're still crazy about Slovenia.  Comparing it objectively to its neighbors, it might seem a little boring.  It has nothing to rival the history and cuisine of Italy.  It's mountains aren't as impressive as Austria's.  Ljubljana doesn't hold a candle to Hungary's Budapest, and it's tiny bit of coast is barely a blip next to Croatia's sprawling seafront.
But Slovenia has a bit of everything, and also possesses maybe the most pleasant vibe of any European country.  It's always at the top of our list of recommendations - especially because of all those caves
To see all our posts from Slovenia, just click here.
To see all the Cutting Room Floor posts, with great pictures from the other 49 countries, just click here.

20 December 2013

CRF: The Best of Croatia

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." It's been almost a year since we returned from Europe, and we've started to get seriously nostalgic.  To give us all an extra travel fix, we're posting some of our favorite photos that never made it onto the blog.  Here are our favorite unpublished memories and pictures of Croatia.
More than any other country, we associate Croatia with hedonism, sun and the scent of saltwater.  Our trip never felt like a vacation, but Croatia is a vacation by definition.  Everyone there was on holiday in one way or another - it was the same for the naked Germans and drunk Russians and sunburned Brits that joined us on those rocky shores.  It was July.  The sun never seemed to go down.
For a few happy days, we stayed at a huge campsite on Cres Island.  There was squid to eat in town and beer to sip on the long oceanside promenade.  When we swam, we were stung by tiny jellyfish.  When we walked in the balmy evenings, we listened to cicadas and waves.  Nearby, in a pine forest, a rusty amusement park spun its blinking, neon magic.
At home in the US, not long after the trip, someone told us that Croatia sounded "scary and Russian."  It's true that in some places, like Zadar, one can find bomb-scarred buildings from the Balkan wars - but you have to look hard.  The scariest thing about Croatia today? Probably the spiny sea-urchins that lurk in the shallow water.
The Dalmatian coast is mostly rock, and some salt-scoured islands feel almost entirely dead.  Real, comfortable, sandy beaches are rare.  Most people sunbathe on concrete slabs.
In Opatija, a city where seafood approaches perfection, we had a barbecue of squid and blitva.  The market where we shopped for our supper was made of Tito-era cement and seemed like the only cool place in the sun-baked city.
The heart of the summer - no rain, mild air, a sense that nothing bad can possibly happen - is best spent in a tent.  We soaked up the sun and got into our sleeping bag coated with salt.  We never went inside.  We ate by the ocean, we napped in the shade, we swam and walked and came home to a crowded camping city that smelled always of grilling sausage and suntan oil.
This was the semi-permanent home of one of our neighbors there at Camping Kovačine - grandparents, small children and at least two couples used this one camper as a base.  Did they all sleep inside?  Hard to tell.
Late one night - well past midnight - we were returning to our campsite in Ičići and came across this streetlight game of volleyball.
These scales always remind us of communism.  Every market from Minsk to Budapest to Sarajevo is full of them.
We spent a lot of time near the Mediterranean on the trip, but almost always during the colder months.  The summer seashores are too crowded in Malta or Greece or Provence.  At least, they're too crowded for serious travel.
But there we were, in Croatia during the high season.  We succumbed because there was no other choice.  It's Croatia that we think of first when our minds turn to sunny saltwater.  It was unavoidably perfect.  It was a vacation.
To see all our posts from Croatia, just click here.
To see all the Cutting Room Floor posts, with great pictures from the other 49 countries, just click here.