Friday, October 26, 2007

fox beats badger

If you drive the road between Plitvice and Zadar, make sure to stop at a restaurant somewhere just south of Plitvice. I can't remember the name, but it's on the left as you head south. You can use the facilities, get something to eat, and take in the display of taxidermied animals playing cards and accordions.

Taxidermy humor aside, my one gnarly moment during this trip was seeing a fox get shot in Slovenia. I wasn't sure I wanted to write about it, since animal death upsets lots of people, but decided that glossing over the bad is sort of like pretending it didn't happen. I had rented a bicycle from the hostel in Postojna to bike to Predjama Castle, and took a detour down a smooth country road. On my way back up I noticed a hound dog playing with what I originally thought was a smaller dog - they were bouncing around, and the hound was wagging his tail. By the time I had gotten within stone's throw, I realized it was a fox, and the hound had it cowering in the grass. He still looked like he was playing around; I've never seen a hunting hound in action before, so maybe they wag their tails when they have a cornered quarry. Cybele's hound only hunts chew toys and food treats, so he's not really an ideal study. I almost didn't notice the man with the rifle appear. He missed with the first shot, and for a moment I thought perhaps he was just trying to scare it away, but no suck luck. I turned away at the last second, both times. If it's any consolation, the fox looked sickly — it was missing all the fur on its hindquarters. And it wasn't trapped at all by the hound; they were in the middle of a field, and some trees weren't so far away, so a successful getaway dash wasn't inconceivable. Maybe it wasn't long for this world anyway. I thought about saying something to the guy, but what was there to say. It was in the middle of farm country. I just pedaled away, feeling odd. It was such a weird and unexpected thing to see. An ugly moment in a beautiful country.

And now that I have you all thoroughly depressed, I'll try to lift your spirits with the amusing tale of the end of Erasmus Lueger, one of the more infamous residents of Predjama Castle (we're still back in Slovenia for another second). After murdering a relation of the Austrian emperor, this back in the fifteenth century, he holed up in the castle and withstood a siege by receiving supplies through a secret, natural cave passage in the rock. Predjama Castle as a building is rather plain to look at, but it has a rather dramatic location, smushed up into a huge cavern in a rock face. Betrayed by a servant, Erasmus met his ignominious end when the enemy blew him to bits. Did I mention he was in the toilet at the time? That's the funny part.

I also took this picture of a skull while at Predjama, and it's a good visual representation of what the road between Plitvice and Zadar feels like.

I've always been able to read in cars, but about halfway there I had to put away my materials and look out the window, thus keeping my breakfast in my stomach and intestines, where it belonged.

I had planned on staying in Zadar for two nights, but after about an hour walking around the old town, realized I had seen about all there was to see. Zadar is one of Croatia's many towns that has been inhabited since the days of yore, at least back to the Romans. There's usually a condensed old town section with shiny marble streets, old buildings representing different architectural styles, lots of churches, and chunks of city walls. Modern cities have sprung up and spread out around the outside, and businesses catering to the tourist trade have infected the inside. I don't know if it's because I was there on a Saturday, or because the high season is over, but pretty much everything except the cafés and restaurants were closed. Even the tourist office was locked up. Not that I mind empty towns, it just doesn't take very long to see them when no one is in the way. It was the antithesis of my Mediterranean summer experiences. I spent more time parked in a wireless café than walking around.

Arriving back at the hostel, who was sitting in the common room but Janet, the Australian from Zagreb. She was headed to where I came from, and I was headed to where she had been. We swapped information, and watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show on television. Let's do the time warp!

Continuing the southward journey the next day, I went to Šibenik for the afternoon, arriving just in time to see a bit of pageantry. I'm not sure what was going on, but there were several women in Ren Faire-ish costumes, some tables selling handicrafts, and two different groups of guys wearing military uniforms, although I don't know from which period. As far as I could tell, it was some sort of signing ceremony, but all the participants kept stopping to compose their groups for formal photos, and most of the spectators, including me, lost interest and wandered off. Šibenik street are a bit like Venice; it's built up a hillside, and the old, narrow streets wind, turn, and climb in every direction, and sometime just dead end into someone's front door. You can't tell where you'll end up before you turn the corner. It was more of a ghost town than Zadar. Cue crickets and tumbleweeds.

Dare I say it? I was a wee bit bored. I should have done Zadar and Šibenik in one day, they are only a couple of hours apart by bus. I don't want to say they have no value at all, it was just too much of the same. Not only one after another, but also after all the Istrian towns. On the bus down to Split that evening, I ended up sitting next to a guy from Redwood City who asked me if I been in any town where I thought, you know, I don't need to be here anymore. Yeah, Šibenik. The bus to Split was standing room only. Maybe everyone else wanted to get out of there as well.

Fashion/etymology lesson for the day: the cravat originated as part of Croatian military attire, and the word is a corruption of the words Croat and Hrvat. Ponder that the next time you don a necktie. And the fountain pen was also invented by a Croatian, Slavoljub Penkala, although I think the first syllable of his surname is coincidental. I wonder what his handwriting looked like. Bad penmanship is my pet peeve. Grrraar.

don't speed through grabovac

Because the policija will get you. If it weren't for a bend in the road, you could see one end of town from the other, so not much is happening for the cops to do except hand out speeding tickets. Almost every time I was at the bus stop or the market next to it (five times), they were parked across the street, lying in wait. They made me think of the Keystone Kops, two little goofy guys in neat uniforms and caps, squinting their eyes over that device that figures out how fast cars are going. After hopping off the bus, I went over to them to ask if they were familiar with the guesthouse I was looking for, and I got the clear impression that I was In The Way. The receptionist at the autocamp across the street was way more helpful.

It took me about six hours and two buses to get to Grabovac, so I didn't do much the day I arrived except walk half a kilometer to a bistro for dinner. Rain was starting to fall, and by the time I left after eating a plate of fried squid (looking deceptively like small onion rings, except for the tentacly sections), french fries, a bitter lemon soda, palačinke pancakes with chocolate, and an espresso, it was dark and the rain that was falling was freezing. I knew a cozy room was waiting for me at the end of the relatively short walk, but there were a couple of moments of thinking, boy, this sucks. It wasn't so much walking through the cold rain, it was walking through the cold rain down a country road with barely any walkway, that was full of big trucks going by very fast. Rain doesn't slow down Croatian drivers. In fact, it may make them go faster. And every time a truck went by, I knew a huge spray of water was coming. So on each approach I either hopped further away from the road into dark, soaking shrubbery, or crossed to the other side. Thankfully the place I was staying had a clean shower, lots of hot water, and a heated towel rack. I was lodging for the first time in a private home. Lots of these are in Croatia (also Slovenia, and probably neighboring countries as well); advertised by signs that say Sobe, Zimmer, Camere, or Rooms, proper ones must be registered. If you're looking for lodging, you can just walk around knocking on doors until you find a place you like. In some places, their owners will meet arriving transportation to try to net lodgers, which is always a bit awkward — they crowd the door of the bus, shoulder to shoulder, holding up their Sobe signs. I'd feel bad choosing one over another. Besides, I usually arrange accommodation in advance, so just grab my bag from the hold, tell the pleading faces that no, I don't need a room, and scamper off. There isn't a hostel in Plitvice, so I had asked the owner of Ravnice Hostel in Zagreb if she knew of anything, and got the contact info for House Tina. Like many houses in the area, it's almost brand new, and a driveway was being laid down while I was there. Commenting on all the new houses, the owner told me it was because the area was trashed during the war. I keep forgetting that there was a war here recently. Croatia, from what I can tell, is pretty cleaned up, or maybe I don't know what to look for to see the signs.

Thankfully it wasn't raining the next day, so I could do what I came to do, and see the Plitvice Lakes Park. There's lots of national parks in Croatia, and Plitvice is probably the most popular. It's a string of lakes on different levels that are slowly but constantly changing through time as the travertines between them are built up. Waterfalls tumble down cliffs, the lakes spill from one to another, and fish swim around the clear, clear water. Walkways wind through the park, and visitors can pick and choose which route to take, based on how long it takes to complete a circuit, although the time estimations are fairly generous. You can walk all the way around, or do any combination of walking, boating, and bussing. I chose the four to six hour route, dawdled along the way, taking detours down other paths, and still had time to twiddle my thumbs before the bus back to Grabovac.

The weather in Zagreb had taken a turn for the chilly, but walking around Plitvice Lakes it was evident that the time has come to get some winter accessories. I was wearing a t-shirt, a wool jersey, a bicycling windbreaker, a jacket, and had tied my bandana around my neck, and I was still cold. Maybe wearing my three-quarters trousers that day wasn't a wise decision. And if I had any second thoughts while sitting on the toasty bus to Zadar the next day, the snow blanketing the hillsides higher up was there to remind me that I was wrong. Plus I found out later that it started snowing the day left. Somewhere in the Mediterranean during summer I had considered butchering a pair of my long trousers into a three-quarters pair, but didn't have a pair of scissors. I'm glad now that I didn't get the opportunity, because winter is coming.

Monday, October 22, 2007

the istrian disco snooze

I had just walked through Pula's Triumphal Arch of Sergius when someone said my name. Convinced immediately that I hadn't heard that correctly I kept walking, but there it was again. And sitting next to the statue of James Joyce at Café Uliks was Ilmari, the Finn from Istanbul. It's really not so strange that I ran into him there, since he's one of two people who recommended traveling to Istria. In keeping with the aforementioned tradition of everyone having weirder adventures than me, he had a story about crossing the border (I can't remember which, Macedonia or Montenegro), where he was discovered carrying two two-liters of beer. The permitted limit was two liters total, so he apologized and offered one bottle to the agents who were tossing his luggage. By this point they had discovered that he worked for the police, and were his best friends. Of course they didn't take his beer. They told him to go ahead and drink it, they'd hold up the bus while he finished. So there he was, in full sight of everyone on the bus, downing two liters of beer. I don't think I could down two liters of water on demand. Eating out in Postojna I had ordered a beer by mistake; asking a waiter in a pizzeria if he spoke "Angleško?", he brought me a Laško beer. He had already opened it, and I had sort of ordered it, so I gave it a go. I managed only about half of half of liter.

Basing myself at the somewhat inconvenient hostel in Pula, I spent two days day-tripping to cute little towns in Istria. Istria is the part of Croatia that is closest to Italy, and the influence is everywhere. Town signs, street signs, and sandwich signs are usually always in Croatian and Italian, and I frequently heard it being spoken. And if that weren't enough, the prevalence of pizza is a dead giveaway, although there's lots of pizza everywhere in Croatia, and Slovenia. My time in each town was subject to the bus schedules, but it really doesn't take very long to see each of them. Plus, I caught a disco snooze on almost every bus ride. I got that term from one of my new adventure pals in Bled, and like it a lot better than power nap, which sounds too executive. So power naps are out, disco snoozes are in.

Rovinj: spectral bovines

Okay, so there are a lot of churches in Europe. Despite my aversion to Christianity, I still go see them if there's some interesting nugget of historical information or architectural detail. After Saint Euphemia was martyred in 304 by Emperor Diocletian, the sarcophagus with her body ended up in Constantinople, where it remained for some 500 years. It was a dark and stormy night, sometime in 800, and the sarcophagus mysteriously disappeared, only to reappear off the coast of Rovinj in a spectral boat, where it could only be budged by two spectral cows. Moo. There's an unfortunately amateurish mural by the sarcophagus, depicting Euphemia looking rather put-upon while the lions close in for the kill. Since enough of her remained to be interred in what is a really big sarcophagus, I guess that sport lions don't actually eat the unfortunates, maybe just give them a good chew. Although the mural makes it look like they are going to lick her to death with their scratchy tongues.

Poreč: hot chocolate

I don't know how they make Croatian hot chocolate, but I want to find out. Not to be confused with cocoa, which may also be on the menu, it's like slurping hot chocolate mousse. I missed my chance for a really fine cup of it in Zagreb, at a café called Tolkien's House (yes, that Tolkien), but Janet went and gave me the report. In addition to drinking the best hot chocolate of her life, she also had a funny story about the amount of tobacco smoke billowing out the door. I suppose it's only natural that those frequenting an establishment named after Tolkien would be indulging in vast quantities of pipeweed. Spying a café called Ciccolata in Poreč, I knew my chance had come. There was a moment of trepidation when it arrived in a Nescafé mug, but after digging through the spritz of whipped cream, there it was; really thick hot chocolate. Good thing it came with a spoon.

Oh yeah, Poreč also has a Euphrasian Basilica, from the sixth century, that has some sunglasses-worthy mosaics in tip-top condition.

Pazin: escape into the abyss

The Pazin Chasm (below a castle, naturally) is the setting of an improbable escape in Jules Verne's Mathias Sandorf. Although surviving a 100 meter drop is about as probable as spectral cows dragging a stone sarcophagus up a hill; I think they would only manage it on a flat stretch. Anyway, I haven't read the book, but I did walk through the chasm, down one side and up the other. For the most part I was all alone in there, and there was a magical moment when a rustling breeze came along, and it rained autumn leaves.

The atmosphere back at the bus station was far less dreamy, since the platform was overrun by schoolchildren heading back home. They were like a swarm of honeyed-up bees; for some reason, at least half of them were sucking on lollipops, most of which were blue, giving their suckers a distinct air of oxygen-deprivation.

Motovun: tiny town up a steep hill

Not a whole lot was happening in Motovun except a dinky town perched on top of a hill, looking pretty and feeling deserted. Maybe all the residents were enjoying that most civilized of traditions, the siesta. Getting there was more exciting; a short stretch of road right was being repaired, and, gears grinding, the bus driver off-roaded a city bus over a few hundred meters of chewed up rocks. Twice, since we returned along the same road. Bus rides in Croatia have more often than not been some sort of thrill. Tailgating and speeding seem to be the national pastimes. On the way to Pula we almost rear-ended a gasoline tanker, and more than once during my day trips I have to admit a slight alarm at the speed in which we were headed down the two-lane roads. I fairly had to hang onto the seats going around a couple of bends. And we got a dose of Croatian folk music on one leg. All buses pipe in some radio station, but it's usually at a level that allows people to tune it out. Not the Croatian folk hour; no, that driver really wanted us to share the experience. I for one appreciated it, most of the radio stations here haven't aquired anything new since the 80s. Arriving in Motovun in one piece, it's a steep climb to the top, and if there isn't too much sweat dripping into your eyes, you can admire how some joker included a cast of the Motovun Film Festival logo in with the older stone artifacts on display.

Pula: amphitheater again

I saw a lot of Pula simply because I kept criss-crossing town from the hostel to the bus station to the pizzeria to the cafés. Pula has lot of ruins sprinkled around. All of Croatia has ancient ruins sprinkled around, humanity has been here for a long time. I'm still full from my previous Greek and Roman ruin diet, but the amphitheater (or Arena, as its referred to locally) is pretty neat because it's completely round. Like the Colosseum, except in much better shape. I haven't seen one like it before.

And there's a club for vegetarians.

There are many more little towns in Istria, but the five I saw were enough for me on this trip. I still haven't gotten past that thing where I get bored easily if there isn't a whole lot to do. Also, at least a couple people I spoke to praised the beauty of the Istrian coast, and yeah, it is lovely, but I dunno — it wasn't breathtakingly extraordinary. I still have a lot of coast to see before I leave Croatia. But my next stop will be inland, although water is involved.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

zagreb on a sunday

Getting to Zagreb turned out to be a spot of fun. It wasn't fun for some others, but I thought it was a chuckle. Boarding the train in Ljubljana, I was slightly miffed when a young guy came into my otherwise peaceful cabin and started dropping off armloads of luggage, including a bunch of baby items. Uh oh. He must have dropped off five trips worth of stuff before the wife and toddler darkened the doorway. Turned out they were a rather nice Croatian family who were moving back to Zagreb from Munich. The train they were originally on had some sort of problem, and they were told, with no warning, to get on a new train in Ljubljana. Discovering me cramming for a new country with my Croatia guidebook, they gave me the lowdown on where to go, things to see, and a little dose of Croation history. It was like having two free travel agents.

Crossing into Croatia was my first land border crossing on this trip, which all went fine, except just past the border, we were told to disembark from the train and board buses to continue the journey. The Croatian couple were understandably put out by having to do it all over again; I was just glad they were there to explain it to me. I'm not exactly sure why we had to get off the train, but I think it was related to the broken train from Munich — the train we were on wasn't the one that was supposed to cross into Croatia, and Slovenia wanted their train back. Croatia couldn't play with Slovenia's toys, not that day. I helped the couple with a piece of luggage, and then did my good deed for the day by somehow convincing the bus driver to not drive off before the husband finished transferring all their luggage. Everyone safely on board, the husband threw me a big smile. "Welcome to Croatia!"

On the bus I had sat myself next to an Australian girl, Janet, and we were coincidentally both headed for the Ravnice Hostel. We needed tram tickets to get there, and I got shortchanged on my very first Croatian purchase. Refusing to be taken advantage of, I went back to the kiosk, and with a piece of paper and pen gave the kiosk lady a basic math lesson: 100 minus 13 is 87, not 77. She handed me 10 kuna. People who shortchange travelers, like those who steal from the hostel fridges, are destined to be reborn as something bad. Maybe an earwig. Waiting for the tram, it was evident that something soccer was afoot for the evening; the Croatian red and white checkers were everywhere, and a sea of it was outside the football stadium. There was also a large police force present, in full riot gear. I found out later that the opposing team was Israel, and the riot police stood as a barrier around the very small contingent of their supporters. Arriving at the hostel, the girl womanning the reception desk was rummaging through a bag of keys and looking shellshocked. Soccer fans had descended en masse on Zagreb, and there were no free beds in town. Janet and I were in, since we had luckily both made reservations. As it was, I was put into what they considered the emergency room. I don't know why it was an emergency room, it was perfectly cozy and functional. The only odd things about it were a large electical panel and tiled walls; the walls and some other fixtures made me think it used to be a bathroom.

I hadn't planned on staying too long in Zagreb; all the Croats I spoke to from there said that a couple of days was sufficient. I only lingered one day past the evening of arrival, and spent that day ambling through the streets with the aid of a walking tour map I picked up from the tourist office. Akin to Ljubljana, there's plenty of architecture eye-candy. Mirogoj Cemetery is considered one of the most beautiful in Europe. It is beautiful when you stand back and take it all in, but I didn't find so many of the tombstones and markers all that noteworthy. Lots of what I think is laser cut marble, too tidy for my tastes. It's like making death as neat and orderly as a period at the end of a sentence. I prefer my cemeteries overgrown, tangled, and with snaggly tombstones leaning at crazy angles. Zagreb also has many museums that have promising collections, but most of them were closed by the time in the afternoon when I started reading up on them. Traveling alone offers pretty much unlimited freedom, but also means that I have to make time to do all my own research and planning. Sometimes after figuring out where to go next, how to get there, getting there, securing accomodation, and sniffing out something to eat, I can't be bothered to figure out what activities will result in peak cultural edification. I suppose I can always stay put longer, but some persistent wanderlust has been keeping me going every few days. Although, hmm...maybe I should have stayed in Zagreb one day longer. Guess I'll just go again when I revisit Slovenia. Maybe I'll be treated to another transportation adventure.

I do love the Zagreb public transit system. It's basically free. You buy tickets for the tram and bus, which are supposed to be validated in machines once you board, but no one ever does. I took a number of rides while I was there, and saw two people validate their tickets. On our first tram ride to the hostel, Janet and I dutifully tried to validate our tickets. The machine stamped one, but staunchly refused to stamp the other. Janet surmised that, since the machine never gets used in the first place, validating two tickets in a row was clearly too much for it to manage. I should have looked at the one it did stamp; it wouldn't surprise me if the date was sometime in the 70s. I couldn't even validate my ticket on the bus ride to the cemetery, which required me to walk right past the driver. Again, the machine wouldn't cooperate. Holding up my ticket, I gave him an inquisitive look. He gave me smile and a shrug, and waved me on. If the driver doesn't care, why should I.

beneath you

I'm not exactly sure why Slovenia is as it is, instead of just a collapsed pit south of Austria. The ground is riddled with massive cave systems that extend for kilometers. These aren't just caves with little tunnels that you need to wriggle through, these are caves with colossal caverns with ceilings that soar 100 meters up. The word that keeps cropping up is karst, which, if I understand correctly, is referring the geological makeup of the terrain - soluble limestone that has been shaped over the eons by rainwater and running water. Karst also refers to the region in southwest Slovenia where many of these caves are found. And all that water dripping over the thousands of years has deposited calcium carbonate, creating an astonishing variety of stalactites, stalagmites, and other structures that decorate the caves. The growth rate is approximately one centimeter per one hundred years. New discoveries are continually being made as speleologists and spelunkers continue to explore the caves, going where no one, at least not recently, has gone before.

The two most famous caves are at Postojna and Škocjan, neither of which require any special equipment to tour. I took in the Postojna caves tour. They ask that pictures not be taken inside, which I chose to respect. The environment is so humid that prolonged and repeated light causes algae to form over surfaces, and they need to take care to turn off all lights as soon as they are not necessary. Even so, you can still see patches of green on the roofs of some of the caverns. Strange beings live in the cold, dark, subterranean waters, including the Proteus anguinus, the Human Fish. It's actually a salamander, and the "human" part of the name is derived from the fact that they have a similar lifespan — up to 100 years. Unlike humans, they can go for years without eating, a fact that has befuddled scientists. A tank of them is on display during the tour, but like the caves themselves, they are sensitive to light, and the tank specimens are changed every couple of months to prevent damage or trauma to their sensitive skin and eyes. They do have eyes, even though they don't use them. They are also featured on the Postojna city seal. Any city that has a blind salamander with bright red ears on its seal is all right by me.

There are many more caves that require an advance booking or special arrangement to visit, and on a whim I managed to get signed up for a tour of Križna Cave, which can only be visited with a guide. It's not much more expensive to do this than visit the showpiece caves, but since there isn't any public transport there, at least not in the off season, I paid through the nose to be driven there in a taxi. Suited up in hard hats, headlamps, battery packs, rubber boots, three pairs of socks (the interior temperature is a constant 8° centigrade), and bright red overalls, me and three Aussies walked underground with our guide, Milo. Natural light is gone almost immediately, and with headlamps off it's pitch black. Good for the bats we saw hanging around. Many remains of cave bears have been found, so apparently they don't need light either. I guess when you're the biggest thing going bump in the dark, it's up to everything else to get out of your way.

Humans have been visiting for several hundred years as well, and there's a bunch of signatures and dates near the entrance. I'm pretty sure I picked out a date from the 1800s, but evidently there are others elsewhere in the cave that go back even further. Križna is a water cave, made up of a string of lakes separated by calcium carbonate barriers, which usually had water flowing over them from one lake to the next. Paddling a small inflatable boat, we made our way to approximately the midpoint, a cavern named Calvary. At each barrier we had to hop out of the boat, Milo would carry it to the next, and we would hop back in. Traversing the barriers on foot we had to take care to step only on the hard surfaces, and not into the soft depressions. For the smaller barriers, which basically amounted to a speed bump in the water, he only asked half of us to get out, and dragged the remaining two into the next lake. The depth of each varies up to several meters, and as clear as the water was, we were told it can be even more so.

Depending on whether the water drips from above, runs down ridges, burbles up from below, flows in a river, or however else it moves, it slowly by surely creates crazy structures and textures. I'm tempted to describe them as otherworldly, but they are very much of the world. Just not as we usually see it. They're kind of a visual representation of infinity, or as close to infinity as my Proteus anguinus lifespan brain is comfortably going to grasp, that something as fleeting as a drip of water contributes to something so tangible.

Upon reaching the Calvary cavern, we spent some time nosing around before paddling back to the entrance, and emerged into bright sunlight and relatively warmer weather. Milo gave us each a shot of some sort of home brewed rocket fuel to warm us up; Slovenia is giving my liver a workout. And my grizzled taxi driver was waiting to take me back to Postojna. He even had a bag of assorted cookies for me. He didn't speak too much English, but asked "Beautiful?" Yes. it sure is.

I felt like I left Slovenia sooner than I should have; the country is full of peachy things that I didn't get around to seeing. But it would have been like eating the entire triple chocolate frosted cake all at once. Too much too fast. Like all that Renaissance art. Too many lovely lakes and monumental caves and they stop being memorable. Plus, a few museums I wanted to see were closed, not only the forging museum, but also the Dormouse Hunting Museum at Snežnik Castle, which was completely shut up for renovations. Traveling in the off season has the benefits of fewer tourist clogs, but occassionally the disadvantage of seasonal closures. I figure it's just an excuse to come back again later.

my pokey lippizzaner

I think I'm getting better at this horse riding thing. I managed to stay astride a Lippizzaner - that's right, Lippizzaner - going at a canter, after having downed a rather large shot of the local speciality, blueberry schnapps with sugar. It was like a liquid blueberry muffin, only better. There were even three blueberries at the bottom of the glass. My horse, Tim, is also trained in pulling a carriage, and has the distinction of having towed the presidents of both Croatia and Hungary. Maybe he was a little bored with my plebeian presence, since when not on the trot, he was kind of pokey and falling behind the guide, who was leading another rider. And he had the munchies. Whenever we stopped, he immediately started consuming whatever roughage was available, and mid-trek just started stopping along the trail to eat the trees. My guide, Lydia, kept looking back. "Is he okay? Are you okay?" I could clearly benefit from some lessons.

When I was a kid, my family didn't have a television. Every Saturday, my mom would take me and Cybele to the library, and we could check out as many books as we wanted. We always took a picnic basket along to haul home the day's pickings. I have a memory of a book on Lippizzaners, sporting a red cover with a dancing horse. When Olivia mentioned that she was going on a horse ride, I jokingly asked if it would be on a Lippizzaner, never thinking that it would be. She didn't think so either, but came back that evening with the news that it had been. I quickly decided I needed to spend another day in town.

This trek was only two hours, and far less punishing than the Cappadocia trek. I didn't even get saddlesore this time. We meandered up to a lake, passing a memorial to Slovenes killed in World War II. On our way back, Lydia showed us two caged indigenous brown bears, both of whom were born in captivity. She pulled up some leaves to pass through the bars, and they were snatched up right away. Brown bears like their greens. If confronted by one in the wild, immediately proffer a bouquet of fresh flowers, and it will leave you alone. Nah, just kidding.

Contrary to what I thought, Lippizzaners aren't terribly expensive. Bred, among other things, for brains, only the smartest and whitest make it to showtime (well, I think they are actually grey. See the sweaty grey stripe where the saddle was?). Tim's coat is speckled, and will be for his whole life, and he's also too short and fat for show. But he's a good riding horse. If you want a riding Lippizzaner, be prepared to shell out around only €1000. It may sound expensive, but I though they would be a lot more. There's a nice farm in Žirovnica, Slovenia that will take good care of it for you.

dandelion leaves only

Slovenia is real pretty. Like, fairy princess pretty. Lots of things make it pretty. Forests of trees with leaves turning fall colors. Deer bounding through the meadows. The snowy Alps looming in the distance. Well-groomed cows munching emerald green grass. Sparkling clean toilets. Little bitty bats flitting around in the dusk. Misty mornings. Castles perched in rocky outcroppings over serene lakes with quacking ducks paddling around while rowers slide silently by. Fluffy white clouds filling the sky. Chubby, spotted horses grazing in pastures. Frothy cappuccinos. The Slovenian word for 'thank you' sounds like molten silver: hvala. A unicorn prancing through the bus station wouldn't have seemed out of place.

But there's an ogre in this fairy tale. He was the guy in our hostel dorm room who kept us awake for two nights straight with his snoring. He was like a wild boar with asthma. As if the regular snoring wasn't enough, he would then blow out air through flubbery lips. Unbelievable. Other than me, two Brits, and a couple other unknowns, one of the hapless victims of this aural assault was a little ginger-haired, sensitive Frenchman, who one night burst into a bought of sleep talking, the stress of enduring the thunderous snoring obviously too much for his tender constitution. He was an odd little frog. He kept offering us chocolate, of which he had a lot. Later he told me he that, finding the Slovenes somewhat on the standoffish side, he purchased six loaves of bread to feed to the ducks, preferring their company to the locals. Someone else at Hostel Celica commented that it was perhaps a Slovenian trait to be a little reserved, and one evening a group of us watched a German street performer who more than once commented on the less than enthusiastic reception he was receiving for his antics. It's like the crowd didn't know that it was okay to laugh and applaud. I suppose I did meet a few Slovenes who were reticent and slow to smile, but since I can be the same way, can't really find fault with that.

The centerpiece of Bled is the lake. It's got a little island in the middle, and would be picture perfect if it weren't for the building development at one end (for complete picture perfectness, Lake Bohinj nearby does not allow development along its shores. I kind of regret not going there). It takes only a couple of hours to stroll around the perimeter, taking care to feed the swans only dandelion leaves. I guess you can feed the ducks anything. The castle on the rocky outcropping isn't terribly remarkable, but seen from below, its position on top of the cliff is something out of fantasy.

There are also two gorges in the vicinity. Vintgar Gorge has wooden walkways that allow you to walk just a few meters above what was a bit of a raging river on the day I was there. Other than the heavy rain in Ljubljana, there had been flooding a couple of weeks earlier, so the environment was more watery than usual. I got a late start walking to the gorge, and was mildly concerned about being stuck on a country lane after dark. I had gotten stuck on a country lane after nightfall in Turkey waiting for a dolmuş that never arrived, and facing a four kilometer walk through the dark, got a lift from a businessman. I wasn't hitchhiking, he just saw me and pulled over. You may (quite correctly) question the wisdom of getting into a car with a strange Turkish man, but sussing out the situation before proceeding, I noticed his car was a complete piece of crap. One swift kick and the door would have popped off. Anyway, back in Slovenia, I got to the gorge in good time, walked the kilometer and a half along the river to the end, and made it back to town not long after sunset. The next day I took a bus to Pokljuka Gorge, which is slightly further away, but was foiled by it being closed. Normally dry, it had an icy cold river running down it, and the ground was soggy and littered with downed trees. I contemplated my options while eating a Toblerone. I had a wad of Turkish lira when leaving Turkey, so I did what everyone is supposed to do in duty free — bought chocolate. Since no one was actually there guarding the entrance, I briefly considered trespassing, but really wasn't wearing the proper clothing for a potentially wet hike, so instead just meandered around the drier bits of the countryside, all the way back to Bled. I stopped at a café for a coffee, and while I was scribbling in my journal, an old guy kept smiling and waving at me. See, not all Slovenes are cold.

I wanted to take a day trip to Kropa, which has an iron forging museum, an operative forge, and a fourteenth century smelting furnace, but no one was answering when I called to check if they were open. They may have been closed indefinitely, since the recent floods went right through the town. I'll have to catch them the next time I visit.

Jaw-dropping nature aside, Bled was as good as Istanbul for meeting and hanging out with people. World champion snorer aside, my dorm-mates were far less wacky than the Ljubljana bunch, and each had some sort of family distinction. Olivia (British) seemed to have at least one relative in each European country, and Kelly's (Australian) forebears stretched back to the convict days. I also met a bunch of people at a local excursion outfit, 3glav Adventures. Stopping in one morning to take advantage of the advertised free internet, the guy running the place, Domen, told me that the first ten minutes was free, and anything after that was charged. It was a better deal than what the hostel offered, so I said okay. A couple of minutes later he asked if I'd be at least ten minutes, because he wanted to run to the grocery store. During his absence someone wandered in and dropped off a set of keys on the desk. Drawing Domen's attention to the keys when he came back, he told me I got another ten minutes of free internet, and offered me a coffee. Expecting a cup of instant coffee, I instead was presented with a perfect cappuccino and a jar of sugar. Explaining that he travels for six months out of the year, during which he can't always find good coffee, he figures that he deserves as much when at home, and has a fancy espresso machine tucked into a cupboard in the office. Makes perfect sense to me. I spent a few hours over a couple of days warming their office couch, drinking cappuccinos and using their wireless, for which they never charged me. The place was usually bustling with people, and I could never figure out who worked there, and who was just hanging around and helping out. Most of them are, or have been, tour guides in various countries. Talking to them made me remember how much of the world I have left to see. Better get moving.

resume normal coffee consumption

Ljubljana is such an enlightened city. They want you to ride your bike on the sidewalk.

The intersections have one crossing signal for pedestrians and another for bikes. Everyone obeys them; no jaywalking here. There can be no traffic in sight in either direction, and pedestrians wait patiently for the signal to turn. Walking around on my first day in the country, I wondered if anyone was working, since most of the people I saw were drinking in cafés. Sweet Athena, Slovenia has good coffee. Why wouldn't they, Italy is right next door. As much as I drank Turkish coffee, I never developed a taste for it. A month in Greece and Turkey can't break the tastes petrified after a lifetime of slurping drip coffee with lots of dairy and sugar mixed in. And for some baffling reason, Nescafé is alive, well, and thriving in both Greece and Turkey. Ask for a coffee in a café, and they'll assume you want Nescafé. I'll have to find a eunuch priest to divine the reason for me, it tastes foul.

Beside coffee that tastes like coffee and traffic law-abiding citizens, Ljubljana is an artful town full of gorgeous buildings and classy graphic designs. It shares a coincidental similarity with Istanbul in that both cities have been significantly shaped by key architects, albeit from different time periods — Mimar Sinan in Istanbul and Jože Plečnik in Ljubljana. Plečnik's house is now a museum, showcasing the details of his daily work life more than his architectural oeuvre. A large table in his studio has the tools of his trade arrayed on his desk, as well as personal items, like Drava cigarettes (which used to be manufactured in Ljubljana, you can learn all about it at the Tobacco Museum in the former factory), and the tennis ball for his dog. I should have asked the guide what kind of dog he had. The house can only be visited on a guided tour, but it's limited to small groups, and the girl who took us through fed us all sorts of interesting info on Plečnik, the house furnishings, and also some city history. I recommend a visit for anyone looking for something to do in Ljubljana. Even if you're not interested in architecture, it's hard to not appreciate a guy who went through the trouble of designing a chair that fit exactly into one particular place in his kitchen, next to the stove. Eat and work at the same time. His house is full of clever creations designed to function well, look good, and, usually, be comfy.

Arriving from Turkey was the biggest culture shock I've received on this trip. My last glimpse of Istanbul was people smoking water-pipes in sidewalk cafés in the middle of the night. Barely anything was moving in the misty morning in Ljubljana. Since I was in town for three days, I purchased a Ljubljana tourist card, which is good for lots of discounts, including free entrance into several museums, unlimited free bus rides, and a free, four hour bike rental. I took advantage of the bike rental on a sort of sunny day, merrily pedaling down the sidewalks in the crowded main shopping district, watching pedestrians scatter out of my way. Ljubljana is big enough that having something faster than two feet to see it was handy. I stopped for lunch at the Hot Horse stand in Tivoli Garden; I had no desire to eat a horse burger, so got one of their veggie burgers. They're basically the same as an In-N-Out Burger grilled cheese, except about three times bigger. Ljubljana has at least two horse burger joints, which I thought a little odd for such a horse-loving country; the birthplace of the Lippizzaner breed is Lipica, Slovenia. Also in the Tivoli Garden is Tivoli Castle, which has four cast iron dogs out front. Word on the street is that the guy who made them was so upset about their lack of tongues that he shot himself, but it looks to me like their tongues could just be in their mouths, not lolling out. So I'm not buying the story, even though I want to. I like the idea of an artist who is such a perfectionist that they'll do themselves in over a minor detail.

In Turkey, the evenings were getting cold enough to require a jacket, but in Slovenia it's undeniably fall and practically winter. Jackets are needed all day, and I finally busted out the cozy wool jersey I splurged on before I left. I'm looking forward to losing my Mediterranean tan, which I detest. On the third day, it poured freezing rain for half the day, so I spent my time splashing between museums and leaving puddles on their floors. I stopped in at the National and University Library (a Plečnik creation) to photograph the main staircase and vestibule, and ended up being chased out after fifteen minutes by a guard, who was too busy chatting on the phone to notice me come in. I got a few pictures, although most of them are blurry since the light was quite dim.

The National Gallery displays some dramatic statues and and eighteenth century paintings with a distinctly modern flair. I can't really qualify that statement with any academic argument. It's just that some of them seemed hyper-real, with vibrant colors and high levels of detail. Several portraits of aristocrats (male) had them wearing earrings, which I'm pretty sure I've never seen before from that time period. Others bordered on cartoonish, at least when it came to life forms with faces My favorite was a still life with a cat. The still life was rendered okay, but the cat had a frozen face with buggy, staring eyes. Of course there wasn't a postcard. The Natural History Museum has a nifty collection of taxidermied animals, although some of them could use a bit of grooming, perhaps a little extra stuffing, and setting their eyeballs back into place.

The narrow, green Ljubljanica River winds its way through town, and is spanned by a few landmark bridges. The Triple Bridge is exactly as described, three bridges side by side, connecting the picturesque Old Town with Prešeren Square. France Prešeren was a nineteenth century Slovenian poet, and a stanza of his poem Zdravlijca was adopted as the national anthem when Slovenia became an independent republic in 1991. A short walk away is the Dragon Bridge, four dragons guarding the two sides. The symbol of Ljubljana, legend has it that their tails will swish if a virgin walks across the bridge. At least, that's what someone at the hostel told me, it could be bogus. I didn't see any swishing, but they do have mighty fine tails.

There's a castle up on top of a hill, which is fairly devoid of anything of interest, but its hilltop location offers a good view of the town. Here's a picture of a cat that I took on the way up. I kind of like the composition. I'm not sure it totally captures the misty morningness of the setting.

For accommodation I had booked myself a dorm bed at the Hostel Celica. A former prison renovated specifically to be a hostel, it's located in an interesting little area called Metelkova, which is a bit of a alternative, artsy hotspot, established in the early 1990s by students and squatters. The hostel always gets top ratings, and I was looking forward to staying there. Some of the rooms are in what used to be cells that have kept their bars, although I wasn't able to stay in one of those. It's definitely a nice hostel, since it's been tailor-built to be one, but left me disappointed; it's as if all their effort went into making it look slick, but they forgot to give it any character. The large dorm that I slept in was a cramped affair - at one end of the attic level under the peaked roof, half the people in there couldn't even sit up in their bunks because of the sloping ceiling, and navigating through the room involved ducking under support beams while trying to not trip over beds and luggage. It would have been fine had it only cost half as much as it did, but as it is, didn't live up to the hype. Not for me. There was also a bizarre group of people there. One Brit, distinguishable by a pronounced lazy eye, and clearly on the trawl for a girlfriend, chatted up each new female lodger, including me. There was a Swede who I later found out had been there for months; I can't imagine why, a room in an apartment would have been cheaper and nicer. And the backpacker from Malaysia, who was nice enough, but with a bit of a happy puppy personality. Being sleepy quite early on my first night from traveling, I lay on my bunk listening to him hit up a German girl for travel advice for hours. "Sorry, are we keeping you awake?" Then there were the two Asian guys who never said anything, but stared a whole lot. And on the final night, the two people who had a whispery conversation at some point very early in the morning about one of their girlfriends. Plus, someone broke the hostelers code and stole some of my spready cheese. Please, do not steal spready cheese from the common fridge. You will be reincarnated as a curd. And there was no wireless there, although I found out that the information office at the train station will freely hand out two hours of wireless access to anyone. I spent a couple of hours camped out in there, absorbing train schedule information that was being handed out by a super friendly guy sporting long hair and a hairband. I'm not sure I've seen a guy wear a hairband before, but he was pulling it off with aplomb.

There is a vacant lot next to the hostel that's been decorated with some outstanding graffiti.
And this more traditional application also caught my eye, on an underpass near Tivoli Park.

So thumbs up Ljubljana. I could live there.