Thursday, May 31, 2007

Long Weekend in Slovenia

Long time no see! I know I usually don't post so often, but May was an exciting travel month. About a week and a half ago we got back from a four-day weekend in Slovenia, a country you may need to look up on the map to locate exactly (I know I did). See it there, tucked between Croatia, Italy and Austria? It's one of Europe's smallest countries, but it's got a sweet position in the Alps (the Julian Alps, to be precise, because of Julius Caesar's visit there a while ago), so there's lots of nice hiking and even a tiny bit of Adriatic coastline. The best thing about Slovenia, though, is that it's still largely unspoiled by being a member of the European Union and even having the Euro. Most of the country is still pretty rural, and we saw lots of farmers out working the fields by hand, and even people traveling by horse cart. People were super-friendly, and many spoke English, which really made it too easy on us.

We spent the first day in the capital, Ljubljana, where we were flown on a hot-pink WizzAir plane by what seemed to be a student pilot (low-cost carriers... what can you do?). We stayed in a hotel that was converted from a former prison. The cells were each redecorated by different artists, and the place doubles as a museum during the day. Some say the city is like a more low-key version of Prague, which was a fairly accurate description. The local symbol is the dragon, and you see them everywhere, on lots of old, fairy-tale sorts of buildings, including a castle at the top of a hill, with a great view over the city and a silly 3-D movie about the history of the country (which if you were wondering, was part of the former Yugoslavia).

The next day we went to the country's premiere tourist attraction, Lake Bled, a gorgeous, idyllic lake with a castle and a church, set in front of the Alps. We drove right past it and went on to a lesser-touristed lake, called Bohinj, where we set out to do a day hike, only to be thwarted by a newly-constructed gate cutting off the trail. Instead we got to see some nice waterfalls and the Vintgar Gorge, which had a really nice 1.6km walkway constructed so that you could walk through the gorge, a pretty impressive feat when it was built over 100 years ago.

We then visited the beekeeping museum, which had a very interesting display of the ornately painted lids to apiaries that used to be very popular. It became quite an art, and people had all sorts of very complex things painted on these lids. As well, there were whole apiaries constructed in the shapes of castles, lions and even people. Beekeeping is one of the oldest and most important industries in Slovenia. We also visited an old mansion that had been converted into a museum, where we saw the "black kitchen," which had no windows so that the smoke from the cooking fire could also be used to smoke meats. Good thing they had servants to get the lung diseases for them!

The next day we paid a visit to some baby swans on Lake Bled, and then we headed to the tiny, stunning town of Kropa, known for its blacksmiths. The town was built on the industry of nail-making, but sometime in the last few decades they turned to screws, and they are now Slovenia's largest producer of screws. Go figure. The gates, lampposts, and everything else in the town are made from exquisitely-sculpted wrought iron, and the absolutely silent town is set in an Alpine valley. We visited the museum, where we learned everything you could want to know about the history of nails, or would have if we spoke Slovenian, and saw the best player piano ever - it included two drums, a triangle, and a cymbal, all run automatically off the same music roll.

After that we headed down south to the country's second premiere tourist attraction, Postojna Cave, and what an attraction it was. One of the biggest natural caves I've ever seen, it's full of gorgeous multicolor cave formations and is the only home in the world to the "human-face" Proteus salamander. It also features a rather high bridge built generously by Russian prisoners of war during WWII. Anyway, because it's so popular, they've actually built a train to take you into the middle of the cave, and they have more gift shops than I saw in the rest of the country combined. No pictures were allowed, but you get the idea, or you can look at their website.

The next day we visited the country's other major caves, the Skocjan Caves, which are on the UNESCO list because they are the biggest, even though they are much less beautiful than the Postojna ones. Their big attraction was a 40m tall bridge built over a ravine, plus some very unusual cave formations that resulted from the river flowing through over the centuries. We followed this by a visit to Predjama Castle, which is built into a gigantic cave and famous for that. Inside it was a bit of a maze created by man-made walls joined to natural cave walls, complete with an escape route to the "land of cherries"... but sadly that was closed off after they assassinated the former owner when he was given away by a traitor while he visited the "place that even the sultan must go alone." Extra points for melodrama...

By then we had to return for our flight home, and we were both sad to leave this beautiful country. We found the people to be very friendly and the atmosphere very relaxed, the food was great (though very heavy and creamy), the scenery can't be beaten, and the strange museums (we almost went to a dormouse museum, but it was closed) were an extra bonus. We'll be back, tents and sleeping bags in hand, someday soon, I'm sure.

I'll be in New York next week - hope to see some of you very soon!


Thursday, May 24, 2007

Italy - Parma, Modena and the Cinque Terre

Hello again!

We've had two trips since I last wrote, and I didn't want to bombard you all with blog updates, so I was planning to squish them into one entry. However, I realized that would get really long, so I'll be sending out another update in a week or so with pictures from Slovenia.

Anyway, it seems Europeans really don't like working, so there is at least one day off (usually for some Christian holiday) every week in May. Combine with low-cost European airlines and you get nice 4 day weekends.

At the end of April we headed to Italy, the northern region around Parma, Modena and the Cinque Terre. We had heard nothing but glowing reviews of the Cinque Terre park, and I was excited about the food touring options. Our first night we stayed in a charming old converted farmhouse in the country. We started out by going to a small town near Parma, home of Parmigiano-reggiano cheese (also known as parmesan in the English-speaking world), to visit a Parmigiano dairy. They spoke only Italian, but we were able to get a tour of the facility, where they are still making the cheese the way they have for centuries - all by hand. We watched as the fresh cheese was turned in cheese cloth while dipped in giant vats of hot water, and then we saw the various stages of the cheese-making, all the way to the storage room where 12,000 large wheels of Parmigiano were aging for 24-30 months. The quality of this cheese is serious business. There's a consortium that controls all the authentic Parmigiano, and once a month (I think) they come to check all the cheeses. Any that don't meet the quality standards have their Parmigiano rinds scraped off them on the spot so no one gets any ideas about trying to sell them as "real" authentic Parmigiano.

After this we went to nearby Modena, which any of you cooking buffs out there will recognize as the home of "Aceto Balsamico di Modena", otherwise known as balsamic vinegar. We toured a farm where they have been making the vinegar for centuries, and we found out that it, too, is a very serious process with many rules and its own consortium that has to approve every single batch of balsamic vinegar that is sold. Even the barrels in which the vinegar ages have to be registered with the consortium, and if you want to change one or get a new one, it's a big hassle. The vinegar is aged for a minimum of 12 years, and the barrels can be centuries old. We also learned that the name "aceto balsamico di Modena" is not protected - so look on your kitchen shelf... your balsamic vinegar could be made anywhere and is probably mostly red wine vinegar mixed with caramel coloring. Only if it says "aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena" is it truly a protected name, and in this case a tiny bottle will run you $50 or so. Once you've tasted it, though, you'll see it's worth every cent.

What I didn't know about Modena, but which apparently every straight guy on the planet knows, is that it's also the home of luxury cars like Ferrari and Lamborghini. So of course we had to visit the Galleria Ferrari, which was quite a sight to see. It was a collection of Ferraris and engines from across the years, plus pictures of Ferraris in different places throughout the Americas. All in all, the most boastful, self-aggrandizing museum I've ever seen. But it was worth it to see the audience - 99% men plus a few very bored-looking women, and EVERYONE decked out in Ferrari clothing - shirts, caps, pants, even shoes. And those who didn't have actual Ferrari merchandise were at least wearing red, the official color of Ferraris. It was very amusing.

So anyway, the main attraction of the trip was the Cinque Terre, five towns perched on a seaside cliff in a national park. The towns were, as everyone had told me, gorgeous, and we had some great hiking opportunities between and outside of the towns. They were a bit overrun with tourists, though, so we tried to find hiking trails that were a little more challenging in order to avoid the crowds. In any case, we enjoyed the food (the region is the home of pesto) and the towns were really quite lovely, especially in the evening after all the day-trippers went home. We spent about 2.5 days there, walking between the towns and relaxing, before heading back to Milan to fly home.

Well, I suppose someday I'll learn to write a short trip summary, but so far I'm not doing so well. Look for an update on the Slovenia trip pretty soon, and I'll see you in a couple of weeks!

Happy Spring!

Adventure map for 2009...