On the ski hills, on the bike trails, and thru life in general

Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Homeward Bound – Oct 26, 27

Today was a travel day for everyone. First to leave, shortly after breakfast, was Lucille. After goodbye hugs, she was off to the airport to catch her flight to eventually get to Tanzania and a week of safaris – on her own again after a month with our company. Alan, JoAnn and I caught the GoOpti bus at 10 a.m., which I had booked months before, to take us to Venice. Chris had a few more hours to go before his ride to the airport and his flight to back to Edmonton. I chose the flight home from Venice because it was cheaper booking a return flight from the same city, even including the cost of GoOpti and a hotel room for the night.

The 8-passenger bus trip was comfortable and fairly quick. We stopped after 2 hours at a truck stop for a wc break and snack, then drove another 1.5 hours to Marco Polo airport outside Venice. We had booked rooms at the Gronda Lagunare hotel in Tessera, a small town about 5 minutes from the airport, because it was way cheaper than staying in Venice and handy to the airport. We caught a cab from the airport, not expecting the driver to be too excited taking us the short distance, but he was ok with that. The rooms in the small 5-room hotel were not ready for us when we arrived so we dropped our bags in the rooms, while the staff made them up, and went for a walk. There is not much to Tessera and we ended up having a nice walk along farm roads then relaxing at the café beside the hotel. At one point we spied 2 women with luggage getting off a bus at a stop near the hotel. We wanted to find out how much the bus fare would be to the airport for tomorrow (the tobacco shop that sold tickets was not open) so we stopped the women. “Do you speak English?” JoAnn asked. The answer was yes and we chatted for a while, finding out that a single bus fare to the airport was €8! They were looking for a hotel that we had noticed just a few blocks away so we gave them directions. Eventually, we asked where they were from. “Oh, Edmonton, Alberta” and “Grande Prairie” were the answers. The world is certainly a small place. We had a nice supper at a nearby restaurant and turned in for the night. Even though the hotel was on the main road from Venice to the airport, it was a quiet night with little traffic noise.

The next morning we went for a walk again, stopping in at a wine shop (a bottle of 1965 Amerone for only €365 – we didn’t get it) and a grocery store. We all bought a wedge of Grana Padano at the grocery to take home.

The hotel manager called a cab for us. We could easily have walked the distance to the airport with our bags but the only road had no sidewalks and it was too busy to walk beside the traffic. We caught a Lufthansa flight from Venice to Frankfurt, had a 2-hour layover, then off to Toronto on Air Canada. The AC flight was far more comfortable than the AC Rouge flight on the way over! After another short layover in Toronto, where we were all questioned by customs for checking off cheese on our declaration cards (it was no problem), we finally caught our final flight to Edmonton. We arrived just after 1 a.m., though our bodies considered it to be 7 hours later. I drove JoAnn to her son’s place to pick up her car, then drove Al home. A long day, but it was good to be home after a very fun 28 days away.

Ljubljana – Oct 25

Today was another day of exploring so Chris arranged to have the car again. At first we considered taking the bus to Lake Bled but Chris found another Rick Steves recommendation for a day trip over the Vršič Pass to get there, so we decided on the car option. Glad we decided to do it this way. Lucille was going to run in the Ljubljana marathon today so she would not be joining us.

The breakfast area was inundated by all the marathoners staying at the hotel. So many lean, fit people eating healthy foods! We still managed to fill our plates with breakfast and lunch goodies, wished Lucille good luck and set off. Al, and Emma – the name given to our wonky gps unit, managed to take us 20 kms out of town in the opposite direction that we needed. Hard to blame Al, with all the road signs in Slovene. I certainly wouldn’t have done any better :(. But Emma should have known better.

After discovering our error and finding an exit off the freeway, we were off in the right direction. Such are what adventures are made of. We stopped in the little town of Indrija for coffee. It was Sunday and the town was pretty vacant but lots of people in the café/pub. It would have been nice to be there on a weekday as it is an old mining town, formerly the second largest mercury mine in the world, and I would have loved a mine tour.

A Sunday morning vacant town square in Indrja.

A Sunday morning vacant town square in Indrija.

Our route followed river valleys, first the Idrijca, then the Soca, through Tolman, Kobarid, Zaga and up to Trenta. A little past Trenta, the road starts climbing up the Vršič Pass, a steep (14%) twisty climb with 26 numbered switchbacks over 9 kms. The scenery was beautiful, with the snowy Julian Alps peaking through gaps in the rounded foothills bathed in fall colours. We pulled off the road at a small parking area to a path leading to a viewpoint in Triglav National Park, the only national park in Slovenia. We decided this would be a good place for a picnic lunch.

The entrance to Tregliv Park, the only national park in Slovenia.

The entrance to Triglav Park, the only national park in Slovenia.

No picnic tables but old fortifications are a good substitute.

No picnic tables but old fortifications are a good substitute.

The view down the Soca valley from the viewpoint. Pretty area.

The view down the Soca valley from the viewpoint. Pretty area.

Snowy peaks and fall colours.

Snowy peaks and fall colours.

The trip down the other side of the pass was just as steep – this time with 24 switchbacks, all of them cobblestone. I couldn’t help thinking about how exhausting it would be to ride that pass. We saw a few cyclists, all on downward legs, and it is supposed to be a popular bike route (especially if one is masochistic).

Cobble stoned switchbacks on the Vrsic Pass.

Cobblestone switchbacks on the Vrsic Pass.

We continued on to Lake Bled, a popular resort and tourist spot and home of the only island in Slovenia (!). We found a paid parking spot and started to walk the 7 kms around the lake. It was a leisurely stroll, with a bunch of photo ops of the Bled Castle perched high on a crag overlooking the lake and, of course, the island. We didn’t have time to visit either places but the walk was nice after sitting in a car for the last few hours.

Bled Castle, looking impregnable from this side.

Bled Castle, looking impregnable from this side.

The island church on Lake Bled, the only island in Slovenia.

The island church on Lake Bled, the only island in Slovenia.

We arrived back in Ljubljana at 6 p.m. and had a lot of trouble finding parking again. So we resorted to what proved to be successful yesterday – re-arranging the construction barriers by our hotel. Not entirely legal but it works. And soon after, just as happened yesterday, a car moved while Chris was watching. So he quickly took its spot, returned our barrier to its rightful position and all was legal again.

We met a tired-looking, but hungry, Lucille and went off to our last supper in town at Spajza, one of the top restaurants in Ljubljana. We were led to a back room, which we shared with 6 Norwegian marathoners. Another night of good food, good wine and great companions. The evening ended with more ice cream (a nightly ritual when we couldn’t get gelato), and our usual game of Wizard. And more wine. Ah…I’m going to miss Slovenia.

Ljubljana – Oct 24

Up early so we could get the car by 8 a.m.. The City Hotel has a huge buffet selection for breakfast so we (me anyway) bulked up and made up a good lunch as well. Europcar was a little late with the car but we were able to get away close to 9 a.m. Chris drove and Al was navigator, with help from a balky gps unit, and we found our way out of the city and to Škocjan, about 80 kms down the A1, in plenty of time for an 11 a.m. tour.

The Škocjan Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are absolutely jaw-dropping in their beauty. The word “awesome” is overused but certainly applies to these caves. We were not allowed to take pictures while in the caves, likely due to the fact that constant flashes from the crowd would lessen the experience of what we were seeing. (The tour guide actually gave one guy hell when he spied his phone turned on – “What are you doing with that phone? There is no reception down here! Turn it off.”). The blackness offset by the subtle path lighting is magical. This cave system is not as long as the more famous, and far more tourist oriented Postojna Caves, but they are bigger in terms of volume. It is not just the beauty of the stalagmites, stalactites and other dripstone formations – the caves are VAST! At one point in the walk we crossed a bridge suspended 45 metres above the Reka River, the underground watercourse that flows through the caves, and there were at least another 50 metres over our head! There were times during the walk, with the path lighting fading deep into the blackness, that I expected to hear hammering and see Orcs labouring away in the depths. I cannot recommend a visit to these caves highly enough.

I stole this picture from the internet since we weren't allowed to take pictures. It shows the incredible size of the caves.

I stole this picture from the internet since we weren’t allowed to take pictures. It shows the incredible size of the caves.

The exit of the cave tour. A picture just can't do justice to the size.

The exit of the cave tour. A picture just can’t do justice to the size.

Exiting into the sunlight.

Exiting into the sunlight and a cliff side trail.

Wending our way along the side of a cliff after exiting the caves.

Wending our way along the cliff after exiting the caves.

The trail leading from the exit, the gaping opening at far right. along the side of a cliff.

The trail leading from the exit, the gaping opening at upper right. along the side of a cliff.

After leaving the caves, we drove around the area a bit and stopped in the small town of Divaca for a picnic lunch before heading on to Lipica, the home of the famous Lipizzaner horses. The Lipica Stud Farm is now a government run facility but still breeds and trains the horses for sale and show. Our tour included some of the stables, the museum and pastures. The young horses are allowed to stay with their mothers for 3.5 years, frolicking in the pastures, before beginning training. The few who turn out to be exceptional join the famous show. The rest are used for breeding, pulling carriages on the farm, rider training or sold. These horses have a pretty good life!

Hello there horsie! They are very comfortable with people.

Hello there horsie! They are very comfortable with people.

The mares stable. Lots of room in the stalls.

The mares stable. Lots of room in the stalls.

One of the many pastures for mares and colts.

One of the many pastures for mares and colts.

A happy horse.

A happy horse.

A happier horse. No skittishness there, on the horse's part anyway.

A happier horse. No skittishness there, on the horse’s part anyway.

Our drive back into Ljubljana was disrupted by barriers, still set up for the pre-marathon fun run earlier in the day, blocking off our street. We drove around a bit until the barriers were removed but there was no parking anywhere close to the hotel. Except for a spot in a construction zone 100 feet from our front door. We removed the barrier blocking the spot, drove the car in and put the barrier back. Problem solved! As luck would have it, just then the car in front of ours drove off. So…move the barrier, drive into the vacated spot, put the barrier back and…we were now parked legally!

Our nightly game of Wizard, this time played in a common area near our rooms, was disrupted by another guest who complained that she had to get up early and that we were making too much noise. At 10 p.m.? Really? And we thought that we were being quiet. Some people are just too sensitive. Yes, there was wine involved.

Ljubljana – Oct 23

We came down to breakfast to the sound of accordion music coming from the CD player. I guess there is just no way of getting away from it here. Shortly after we finished, Paul showed up to drive us all back to Ljubljana. Not before we had a look through the Firbas gift shop though. Another thing we discovered about Slovenia, besides having great wine, is that they also provide pumpkin seed oil at every table in addition to olive oil and balsamic vinegar as a salad dressing. Pumpkin seed oil is delicious! So a number of large and small bottles of the oil were purchased to take home. None of us have ever seen it in Edmonton.

It was a beautiful, sunny day and it would have been nice to ride but our tour was over, so we settled in for the 2 hour ride back to the city. Paul dropped us off at the City Hotel and left to meet up with Julie and Steve, who were also staying in town overnight before flying home to England. We arranged to meet up at 7 p.m. by the pink church and go for a group supper.

We were early for our rooms but were able to stow our bags in a back room before setting out for a sunny explore, in contrast to the wet one we had the previous week. The city looks far better in the sunshine and it was much busier and the market square was full of vendors.

A dry and sunny market square.

A dry and sunny market square.

We wandered on the riversides, back and forth over a number of the bridges. Most of the bridges, both pedestrian and vehicle, have some artwork displayed. Eventually, we found a food festival that takes place every Friday during the summer and this would be the last one of the season. Various restaurants had set up tents, kiosks and food trucks and were doing a booming business. Not only food though – you could buy beer and wine to drink with your food preference. It took us a while to find a sitting area large enough for us (almost- Lucille and I had to share a stool, 1 cheek each) and we ate, drank and people watched.

One of the 4 dragons, 1 at each corner of the Dragon Bridge.

One of the 4 dragons, 1 at each corner of the Dragon Bridge.

Adam and Eve exiting the Garden of Eden, one of the sculptures on the Butcher's Bridge.

Adam and Eve exiting the Garden of Eden, one of the sculptures on the Butcher’s Bridge.

 

The crowded food festival. Lots of locals and fiit-looking out-of-towners, likely here for the marathon on Sunday.

The crowded food festival. Lots of locals and fiit-looking out-of-towners, likely here for the marathon on Sunday.

We went back to our hotel and checked in, then back out again to get some info for the next few days and see the castle. We wanted to see one of the cave areas and, based on a Rick Steves recommendation, decided to visit the Škocjan Caves, about an hour south of the city. Combined with wanting to drive to Lake Bled on Sunday, we decided to rent a car for both days. Lucille wouldn’t be able to join us on Sunday as she had decided to be a bandit in the Ljubljana Marathon, i.e. run it without registering (she found out about it too late to register).

We took the funicular up to the castle and enjoyed the views from the top of the walls.

The castle funicular. We could have walked up but...it's a funicular!

The castle funicular. We could have walked up but…it’s a funicular!

View from the castle walls. The snow-covered Julian Alps in the distance. We would be there on Sunday.

View from the castle walls the snow-covered Julian Alps in the distance. We would be there on Sunday.

The fall colours looking down to the Triple Bridge and Preseren Square (centre of picture).

The fall colours, looking down to the Triple Bridge and Preseren Square (centre of picture).

As scheduled, we met the SimplyCyclingSlovenia group and went to a restaurant recommended by Paul. As often seems to be the case, service was chaotic but the food was good. We said goodbye to Paul, Julie and Steve and got back to our hotel by 11 p.m. Again with the goodbyes, this time to Gwen and Stan who were leaving Saturday. We would be getting up early to get the car and drive off and they didn’t want to get up that early. So now we were five.

Cycling Slovenia – Oct 22

Our final day of cycling in Slovenia :(. At only 2.5 km after leaving the hotel, hardly enough time to get our legs warmed up, we had to climb up a 15% hill. Well that warmed us up! We didn’t realize that we would see even steeper hills later in the day. Shortly after we reached the top, Lucille – whose legs hadn’t had enough of a workout, apparently – decided to climb a cell tower beside the road. Only Paul was crazy enough to go with her. She said that the view was fabulous. I was glad to take her word for it.

At the top of the first hill of the day.

At the top of the first hill of the day, a 15% grade.

Lucille and Paul getting a panoramic view of the countryside.

Lucille and Paul getting a panoramic view of the countryside.

After a few kms on the top of the hills, we descended back onto the plains with flat roads and pretty trails. Eventually we reached the Ptuj reservoir, riding beside it for 5 km into the city of Ptuj.

As we have found almost everywhere, the cars are very patient and respectful of cyclists. They rarely zoom past.

As we have found almost everywhere, the cars are very patient and respectful of cyclists. They rarely zoom past.

Riding beside the Ptuj reservoir.

Riding beside the Ptuj reservoir.

We stopped at a café in one of the town squares where we had lunch and then set off to explore the castle on the hill above us.

JoAnn negotiating the narrow street, construction and those pesky pedestrians.

JoAnn negotiating the narrow street, construction and those pesky pedestrians.

Lunch in the town square. The Indian busker (left background, in white) earned a few Euros from us with his entertaining drumming and chanting.

Lunch in the town square. The Indian busker (left background, in white) earned a few Euros from us with his entertaining drumming and chanting.

A sunny lunch in a pleasant town.

A sunny lunch in a pleasant town.

Ptuj castle is yet another Roman relic, though it was expanded and rebuilt many times over the centuries. We climbed the narrow alley and stairways leading up to the courtyard. On a whim, Lucille and I dropped a stone down the well in the courtyard. I couldn’t see the bottom and wondered how deep it was. The count was 4 seconds before we heard a plunk – over 250 feet! I’m glad the well has a substantial metal grate over the top.

Narrow alley leading up to Ptuj castle.

Narrow alley leading up to Ptuj castle.

Another trail up to the castle, displaying the fall colours.

Another trail up to the castle, displaying the fall colours.

Paul had a few more hills in store for us, including 1 at 18% and another short 20% brute. Chris and Paul were the only ones to make it to the tops of those without stopping. Even the ebikers had to get off and push on the 20% one. (Note: the elevations on the ridewithgps map are NOT accurate, since they do not show the true grades of those last hills. I also uploaded the same file to Strava and it does show the steep grades.)

Back in wine country. And more hills.

Back in wine country. And more hills.

Al did not enjoy this 18% grunt. He wasn't the only one who had to push the bike up.

Al did not enjoy this 18% grunt. He wasn’t the only one who had to push the bike up.

We ended our day at the Firbas family farm, another working farm that takes in guests. They are not a winery – they get the wine they sell from their neighbors – but they do grow other produce and meats. They welcomed us, as usual, with wine and homemade apple juice. The owner, Bojan, turned on his CD player to serenade us with Slovenian accordion music. It ran continuously for hours, through supper, until I couldn’t take it anymore. During our nightly game of Wizard, which we played in the dining room, I switched off the CD, retrieved my phone and turned on one of my playlists. Enough with the accordion music!

Domacija Firbas, our home for the night.

Domacija Firbas, our home for the night.

Total distance for the day was 59 kms. And some beauty hills.

Map of our route here.

Cycling Slovenia – Oct 21

After yesterday’s long ride, Paul said that today was going to be a short day but a hilly one. He was right. We left Hlebec’s, sadly, and started with the hills right away. We were still in wine country after all! There were a few 10-12% climbs that made our lungs and legs pay attention but they were short, less than a kilometre, and Paul always stopped at the crests to let the stragglers catch up. At one particular crest, we stopped outside a house where a farmer was working in his garden. It was a good hill and the group was pretty spread out, so we ended up waiting for longer than usual. All of a sudden, the farmer comes out to the road with a bottle of wine and a bunch of glasses! Slovenian hospitality strikes again! If you linger too long in any one place, someone will offer you wine!

Back to grunting up the hills.

Back to grunting up the hills.

Slovenian hospitality knows no bounds! Offered wine by a complete stranger, we could not refuse.

Slovenian hospitality knows no bounds! Offered wine by a complete stranger, we could not refuse.

The views of the countryside were breathtaking. The vineyards, the fall colours, and the rolling topography (breathtaking in its own way) really make this a special area to ride in.

Neat vineyards, fall colours - a lovely area.

Neat vineyards, fall colours – a lovely area.

Hill after hill after hill in wine country.

Hill after hill after hill in wine country…

...but the views are worth it.

…but the views are worth it.

And vineyard after vineyard.

And vineyard after vineyard.

We stopped to peruse the souvenir items in a tourist office after 12 kms. and stopped for lunch after 15 kms, so got lots of breaks on this hilly day. The tavern at which we ate, at the top of a hill of course, had great views and a nice comfy atmosphere. A fellow was setting up musical equipment for a birthday party later in the day. “Whose birthday?” we asked. “Mine!” was his reply. He asked where we were from and knew of Edmonton as his aunt had moved to Calgary many years before. True to form, the owner gave us complimentary glasses of his wine with our lunch. Slovenians are rightly proud of their wine!

Nice restaurant for lunch and more free wine.

Nice restaurant for lunch and more free wine.

After leaving the tavern, we had a few more kilometres of rollers followed by a 4 km exhilarating downhill onto the plains again. Woohoo! We rode on for another 9 km to the Bioterme hotel and spa, our home for the night.

On the way to Mala Nedelja and the Bioterme.

On the way to Mala Nedelja and the Bioterme.

And nice flat roads for a change.

And nice flat roads for a change.

After getting our room reservations sorted out, we all had a bite to eat in a mediocre, at best, cafeteria, then ventured into the hot pools. Or, I should say, warm pools. Neither of the spas we stayed in had pools even remotely as hot as the ones in Jasper or Banff. They still felt good though and we soaked for an hour, joined by Paul and Julie. Lucille, JoAnn and I went up to the coed sauna area but on seeing the sign saying that bathing suits were not allowed, we chickened out. Unknown to us, however, Al was already in one of the saunas! He didn’t stay long though, not being that comfortable with the nudity.

After leaving the sauna, Al went for a half-hour walk up the hill to scout out the small town of Mala Nedelja. We didn’t want to eat at the hotel cafeteria – the only choice there – and Al reported back that there was a restaurant in town. So we all trooped up the hill, found the place and had a tremendous meal. There was only one employee there when we entered, and no other customers, but she must have phoned for reinforcements. Soon there were 3 of them providing us with jugs of wine, cooking and serving. I think the place was the Gostilna Slekovec Marija. We walked back down the hill in the dark, happy and full from the meal and the company.

Total distance for the day was 30 km.

Map of today’s route.

Cycling Slovenia – Oct 20

It was cool in the morning but no rain so it’s a good day to ride! All the wine last night didn’t seem to affect our riding. Paul’s plan was to do much of our riding in Croatia today and we soon crossed the border. A migrant processing camp had been set up at the crossing and there were a bunch of cops there as well as a few migrants milling about. It looked like they were preparing for further arrivals. The UN or other agencies must donate clothes because there were piles of discarded clothing and other refuse scattered around waiting to be picked up by a garbage truck.

Paul being Paul. Energetic and slightly batty tour guide.

Paul being Paul outside Hlebec’s. Energetic and slightly batty tour guide.

Slovenia/Croatia border migrant processing camp.

Slovenia/Croatia border migrant processing camp.

One of the piles of discarded clothing and other items at the border crossing.

One of the piles of discarded clothing and other items at the border crossing.

Croatia is a poorer country than Slovenia and isn’t quite as well kept, though most of the areas we rode through looked no different from over the border. They are now part of the European Community but not yet on the Euro. We rode past a large reservoir for 8 kms but it was surprisingly low on water, even after all the recent rains and flooding in other parts of the country. There must be other controls further upstream. Paul even had to make a 7 km detour at one point because he feared that the cycle path would be washed out by swollen rivers and streams.

On the open road again, this time in Croatia.

On the open road again, this time in Croatia.

Nice assortment of trails, both paved and dirt.

Nice assortment of trails, both paved and dirt.

Riding along the reservoir east of Varazdin. Pretty low considering how much rain we've had recently.

Riding along the top of the reservoir east of Varazdin. Pretty low considering how much rain we’ve had recently.

We stopped for lunch at the Prepelica restaurant in Prelog where errors in communication scored us some wonderful apple cake along with our coffees. Later on, we passed through the much larger town of Varazdin. After a few wrong turns, Paul found the main square and we stopped for a coffee which he paid for as penance for his misdirection. Even though we had gone 70 kms so far, most of the day was flat and no one was tired, especially since we hadn’t ridden yesterday.

Had lunch at this restaurant in Prelog, Croatia.

Had lunch at this restaurant in Prelog, Croatia.

A large corn crib beside the road. Most of the corn is used for biofuel and the rest as animal feed. I suspect this is the latter.

A large corn crib beside the road. Most of the corn is used for biofuel and the rest as animal feed. I suspect this is used for the latter.

We returned to Hlebec’s late in the afternoon, having to climb hills to get there of course. It was a good day of cycling.

Vineyard views on the way back up to Hlebec"s. Very pretty area.

Vineyard views on the way back up to Hlebec”s. Very pretty area.

Total distance for the day was 101 kms.

Map of our route today.

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