Monthly Archives: September 2017

Lake Bled & Begunje na Gorenjskem

Have you ever had a trip just not work out? After all the careful planning somehow the experience just didn’t come out how you wanted? That was my experience visiting Slovenia. Originally attracted by the the beautiful  mountain landscape and great hiking and cycling routes, I worked out how to incorporate it into my summer touring Europe. There are SO MANY long distant through hikes and wonderful places to see it was difficult to zero in on just one spot to use as a base for a few day hikes. While researching the excitement grew when I realized how little I knew about Slovenia. I had no expectations or second-hand travel stories to build a picture in my mind but I liked that and embraces the idea of going somewhere that would really feel new and different.

After leaving Ucka Mountains in Croatia I headed to Begunje na Gorenjskem, a small town in the Upper Carniola region of Slovenia, for several nights. The village is about a 90 minute journey from Ljubljana was easy to reach using a bus to the popular tourist city of Bled and then further with a local bus. The area features incredibly beautiful mountains, green valleys and is a short drive to Triglav National Park. Most homes in the area have apple trees and a few have chickens and horses. I fell in love right away despite the constant rain and thought the local people were very hospitable – one person offered to drive me to my guesthouse after watching me wander around the village, searching for the right road to take.


After one of the many rainy nights.

The original plans for my five days in Slovenia included hiking nearby and making several day trips to Triglav Park. However the constant rains in Central Europe that had begun over a week ago continued. Any break in the downpour produced a near constant fog with poor visibility. Soggy feet, cool temperatures and made staying in with wine and a book seem more appealing than trudging up a slippery mountain with no view so shorted my list of hikes and settled in.

On the nicest day of the short visit I took a short hike towards the west where a network of hiking trails climb up from the Draga Valley into the mountains. Along the way I stumbled upon haunting Grad Kamen, a castle more than 800 years old. With poor visibility and rain I couldn’t make out the ruins until I was up close. With the poor weather the place was deserted, making it really fun to explore on my own.


Grad Kamen

One day I decided to visit Bled and take a walk along the shores of the lake to Blejski Grad (Bled Castle) during light rain showers. The loop is about 6 km and takes about two hours with breaks to take in the view. The picturesque island was barely visible and parts of the walking path had become flooded. I trudged around for about two hours before retreating back to my accommodation with a sampling of local wine, cheese and bread to nibble on while I read up on the local history.

This was when I learned about the long and heartbreaking past of Begunje na Gorenjskem. Kacenštajn Castle, which is now a museum in the center of the village, has been used as a both prison and mental hospital and functioned as a holding place for victims of Nazis during World War Two. Most of the people arriving were eventually sent on to concentration camps but almost 1,000 were murdered on site. Near the castle a series of mass graves of those that were killed by the Gestapo and, later in the war, the Russian Liberation Army. Eventually I would go out exploring the trails to the east and north from the village and see several monuments to these tragedies. 

Too foggy and wet to experience the Julian Alps, I left Begunje na Gorenjskem for Ljubljana after four days of constant rain. I try to be accepting of weather but I felt sad about the time and resources put into visiting and wish I’d come sooner during the drier month of August. I loved what I did get to do and just ran out of time to give the destination the proper time it deserves. I really would like to visit Northeast Italy, South Tyrol and North Slovenia as its own trip. With a lot of ground to cover, I can’t imagine all the beautiful views and wonderful mountain routes. This experience is definitely to be continued.

Thanks for reading!


Lovran and the Učka Mountains

With so many national parks, islands and beautiful cities, I struggled to narrow down where to spend my last three nights in Croatia. After experiencing so much difficulty with transportation near Plitvice Lakes National Park, it made sense to visit a more populated area with a local bus system to use as a base for back to back day hikes. I researched the big northern nature sites and decided on Učka Nature Park and the coastal town of Lovran. I’d never seen the Adriatic and wanted to get more time on the sea before wrapping up my travels. Early September being past peak season meant three nights in a comfy guesthouse and a bus ticket from Plitvice was within my budget. Also, getting from Lovran to Ljubljana (my next stop) via train is easy and straightforward.

A small vacation town west of Rijeka, Lovran has no grand old city center or major attractions. It’s a place you go to rest by the sea and maybe head into the mountains for the day.  This stretch of coast is beautiful and quiet enough to have peace after a day of hard activity. The salty smell of the Adriatic Sea hangs in the air and the sky puts on a nice show of pinks and blues every sunset.

I stayed uphill from the coast with a nice sea view and a 15 minute walk down to the coast where cafes and shops are clustered. After checking in I headed down to the supermarket and picked up my day-hike usual: yogurt, fruit and a local beer to have in the evening afterwards. Although much warmer than the inland, the weather was still rainy. I got pretty sick of sitting indoors for several days during storms in Plitvice and decided to hike whatever the weather happened to be on my first full day. I picked out a basic route up Mt. Vojak with the goal of beginning at the sea shore in Lovran front and climbing the 1,400 m to the top of Croatia’s third highest peak.


Učka park can be reached on foot or bicycle from the city, no map required with regular signage marking the route. A paved road goes all the way to the summit and would be one hell of a bike ride on a nice day. Once at the park, the maze of trails within offer wonderful views of the sea, several islands and Istrian Peninsula. Supposedly in clear weather you can see Venice but I wasn’t so fortunate although I loved the view. 

The hike up was brutally steep yet fun and beautiful in some ways. Remnants of old settlements are hidden in the forest and rock formations form obstacles as you go. The mountain range has more vegetation than other coast mountains of Croatia. The forest is thick and there is no view of the sea until over 1,000 m. I loved seeing all the colorful newts crawling under leaf piles or poking out from mossy tree roots; on a rainy cool day the wooded slopes where full of flashes of bright orange and yellow.

Morning on the beach before climbing Mt. Vojak.

At the top fog wrapped around me like a chilly blanket and hid anything more than 3 meters away. I was happy to be at the top anyways and proud of finishing such a tough grade. Sweaty, wet and cold, I bounded almost all the way down – and experienced my first hiking injury. A slip that bruised up my right forearm pretty badly. Turning 30 on this trip, I’ve realized hard physical activity isn’t as easy as it used to be and it really need to make time to recover and rest when needed (like sleeping 9-10 hours most nights). 

On day two I decided that since I’d enjoyed the hike so much that I would walk up the same mountain but along a route with a less severe grade and longer distance. The skies were clear with Cres and Krk islands visible from summit lookout point. It may seem silly to visit the same point twice but the hikes were two totally different experiences. One was physically intense and focused on the nature of the forest. Up and down I was completely engaged in what I was doing. The other was slower and more about the destination and view points along the route. Day two was probably the toughest hike I’ve done just because I was so sore and tired from day one and it look look a lot of mental work to remain motivated. The fog had masked some of incline the first time up and the second day I was painfully aware of how steep and long the climb really was.

Aside from hiking, the people seemed nice and language wasn’t an issue. Bus drivers, grocery workers and people working in tourism know some English or German and are willing to communicate with you using multiple languages in one transaction if needed. Croatia uses it’s own currency, the Kuna, and I stuck to budget drawing from the same 600 Kuna (about $93 US at the time) that I withdrew upon arrival in Zagreb. This covered groceries, meals, park entry tickets and small souvenirs for the week while I used my credit card to book accommodation and regional transportation.

I must say wasn’t impressed with the restaurants I visited in Croatia; the food always felt  overpriced for the quality, granted I was in the tourist hot spots. The routine of enjoying a local meal for dinner after a long hike wasn’t the usual highlight. The best dish of the trip was black risotto. I ended up having pizza more times than I would have liked but it was easy to find and familiar. On a happy note, several Croatian beers are pretty good! I brought an amber beer back home with me to share with friends.

Thanks for reading!

Central Europe: Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia 

After four weeks traveling around Central Europe I finally found time to share what I’ve been seeing and doing. My plans have undergone numerous changes, most notably skipping the Tatras, but I have been having a great time with most days spent hiking or wandering cities. Either way, a lot of time spent outside!

I avoided coming to this part of Europe before because the language is really different from what I know and have studied. However, like most languages, you start to notice patterns quickly and it’s not impossible and depending on what you’re up to, your vocabulary might work across a few borders in the region (Vodopad is used in multiple languages in central Europe for the noun waterfall, pivo/piwo for beer,  and good sounds similar, so greetings like good morning, good day etc will sound similar). I would advise against relying on a general translation app, like Google for more than individual words because it’s incapable of changing grammar structures so a full sentence will come out a little weird. Young people are always helpful as the younger a person is the more likely it is that they will have studied English or had some informal exposure to it. There seems to be very low expectations for travelers’ Polish, Czech, Slovak or Croatian language skills but per usual, a good rule is to learn how to say please, thank you, hello, goodbye, yes and no.  I noticed that culturally, the people in Central Europe appreciate a modest and polite traveler; if they interpret your behavior as condescending they will not do anything for you, even if they are someone who would generally helps strangers.

I haven’t run into any safety issues. I see less other women traveling alone in these areas than Western or Southern Europe but we cross paths from time to time. For the most part getting around is easy using public transportation apps. Actually, I’m really impressed with the public bus networks of Poland and Czech Republic! It’s possible to stay in one central location and take a bus, quite cheaply, to any number of national forests, national park or other nature areas. Sometimes it takes one to two hours but the time goes quickly with a book or at the end of the day, just recovering. This is a great service and you see all kinds of people out hiking or biking – because wonderful natural areas are so accessible! What a dream it would be if I could do this at home and hop on a bus in Minneapolis and end up 40 miles away at one of the Minnesota state or regional parks! 

August was a heavy hiking month with about 400 kilometers covered in three countries. Forest, wetlands, mountains and sandstone labyrinths were my playgrounds. All the hiking meant an excuse to try a new beer almost every night and a wide variety of traditional and contemporary fusion dishes. My favorite things included blueberry ice cream and roasted duck.

Adršpach-Teplice Rocks National Park in Czech Republic is full of gorgeous blue lakes and sandstone formations (I loved the polar bear rock). This was one of the most crowded natural areas I visited but it was definitely worth seeing. I visited on a day with on-and-off rain which made all the colors of moss and lichen throughout the park pop.

View from the top of Sněžka (1602 m) which is the highest mountain in the Czech Republic. Located in Krkonoše National Park which is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve it offers sweeping views over both Czech Republic and Poland. The mountain range and park offer numerous (and absolutely free) hiking opportunuties and I covered about 75 kilometers in three days on the lovely trails.

Enjoying the view after a 1,000 meter ascent. Turning 30 at the end of August meant an interest in abusing my knees and hips while they were still “young.”

A view of Cesky Krumlov, UNESCO Heritage Site and the number two tourist destination in Czech Republic. A very beautiful and charming city with a castle set on a winding river. This was the perfect setting for relaxing outside after a long day of hiking the nearby wood trails.

The castle tower in Cesky Krumlov with beautiful coloring and ornate reliefs. It apparently has the nickname “Birthday Cake.”

A picture from the Wawel Castle grounds in Krakow. I have avoided this city in the past do to its popularity; I feared it would feel very crowded. The old town is heavily trafficked but there is much to see, do and eat while still feeling like you’re getting a modern, authentic experience. The older parts of the city are nice for wandering and have a rich yet disturbing history.

A view of Bratislava Castle. I spent a long weekend in Bratislava, Slovakia and found it to be more enjoyable than some of the other major cities I’ve visited. Notably the smaller crowds, cleaner streets and very efficient public transportation. History blends perfectly with modern urban life here. Also the surrounding forests are a nice place to spend a day getting lost on foot or cycling.

Right now I’m in Croatia waiting out a long rain spell and recovering from 19 hour travel marathon to arrive at Plitvice Lakes National Park. I’m beyond excited to visit this park and share the experience.

Thanks for reading!