Austria, Slovenia

Trip Start Jun 22, 2012
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Trip End Aug 08, 2012


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Flag of Slovenia  , Berlin,
Wednesday, July 18, 2012

NOTE: This was written on July 18 but we have not had access to wifi up until now, which is why I had to delay posting.

When I finished the last entry I was crammed on a storage train car along with fifty other people en route to Vienna. Despite the five-hour uncomfortable ride and the fact that half the people were forced off the train by Austrian authorities at the border because the train had three times the number of passengers allowed, we made it to Vienna.

The best things about our two days in Vienna were the day trip we took out of the city to Krems, which is along the Danube Rive, and our hostel. We had wanted to take a day trip to the Austrian countryside before arriving in Vienna and decided the first day in the country would be the best to do this as we had the train to Slovenia the next night. So we took a one-hour train ride into the middle of the Austrian countryside. We figured our best bet for going up the river was by bikes so we spent an hour locating what was apparently the only bike rental shop in town--a garage in the middle of a trailer park, which could have been out of middle America. Ironically, the bikes were the highest quality and cheapest we had rented all trip so it was easy coasting up alongside the Danube. It's hard to really describe the Austrian countryside but as an attempt, it seemed to be a combination California's Highway 1 roadside cliffs, Yosemite's endless trees and Southern France's open fields all coupled with an enormous river flowing through it. After taking a dip in the Danube, we headed back, making a pit stop at the town's Apricot Festival. This was apparently the BIG event in town and generated excitement among the locals. The apricots were good.

Soon after returning to the city we made the discovery that Vienna is a very hard city to get a feel for in less than 24 hours. Unlike Berlin and Prague, where people only started going out for the night after 11:30pm, most of the neighborhoods in Vienna were dead after 10pm. Our first mistake was our failure to realize that the major evening activities in Vienna are 7:30pm operas and classical concerts. After realizing all these performances were way out of our price range and required reservations months in advance, we turned to the trusted lonely planet for guidance of where the nightlife scene was in Vienna--that was our second mistake. If nothing else, we got a great feel for the Vienna metro system that night because we spent almost two hours going back and forth across the city on a wild goose chase for the obscure night clubs and music venues, which lonely planet recommended that we discovered to either be closed or simply couldn't find and had to give up looking seeing as they were in some of the sketchiest parts of town.

The next day we got a small insight into what the city had to offer, visiting a couple museums and the famous Vienna Opera Hall. We also attended shabbat services at Vienna's biggest synagogue, which was great and very "Viennen" in the sense that most of the prayers were sung by the cantor in a booming opera voice. While the city itself was hard to do in the time we were there, the hostel was great. Do Step Inn Hostel--highly recommend if ever in Vienna.

That night we began the journey to Slovenia. There were no direct trains from Vienna to Ljubljana (pronounced loo-blee-anah) so from Vienna we took a train to Salzburg, Austria and from there made the transfer to Ljubljana. The ride from Vienna to Salzburg was luxurious. We had an entire six-person cabin to ourselves, which provided a rare two-hours of train ride relaxation. Any hopes of having a train ride like this from Salzburg to Ljubljana were dispelled once we set foot on the second train. The good news was that the train had not overbooked by three times; the bad news was they had overbooked by two times. After having to kick two people out of our reserved seats we squeezed into the tight cabin for the four-hour ride, arriving in Ljubljana at 6am.

We had a full four days in Slovenia, which allowed us to have some flexibility with what we decided to do. Ljubljana is a small city (population 270,000) so we figured we could do it in two days. This meant, similar to in Austria, we could do a couple day trips. We decided we would spend the first day getting oriented in Ljubljana, the second day traveling West to the Skocjanske Caves and the Slovenian coast, the third day traveling Northeast to Triglav National Park and the fourth day back in Ljublana.

While the 24 hours in Vienna might have been a bit shaky, they were wholly made up these past four days in what has been one of my, if not favorite, country visited this summer. While the center of Ljubljana is tourist dominated, there are some great hidden treasures. Among these was a restaurant called Skof, which was located in the middle of the Krakov residential neighborhood, only five minutes from the center of town. This neighborhood (along with much of other parts of Slovenia) is COVERED with vegetable gardens. Gardening is big among Slovenes and it seemed every house had a garden in this neighborhood. Another great find was Tivoli Park, which is also only a few minutes from the heart of town (after having travelled in such massive cities the past few weeks, it was a nice relief to be in a smaller city). The park is basically a network of trails that wind around a 500 meter hill in a dense forest with very few people. Walking around there you would have no idea there was a city swarming with tourists one kilometer away. We rented bikes on the last day in Ljubljana and followed part of a 32 km trail called the Trail of Remembrance, which traces the barbed-wire fence the Nazis constructed around the city from 1942-1945. We got lost a number of times (the signage was horrible), which enabled us to see some of the more run-down, stereotypical Soviet-influenced, Eastern-European-esque neighborhoods.

And between our first and last days in Ljubljana were the two day trips. On both of these days we left the hostel before 6am and returned after 11pm. When we were planning the overall Europe trip and looking at videos of Slovenia on Youtube, the Skocjanske Caves (pronounced skots-eeyan) Caves kept appearing. These 12 km stretch of underground caves is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight and over 1 million years old. The caves were formed by the Reka River cutting through limestone over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. The largest cave, which is 120 meters long, 90 meters wide and around 100 meters tall had a bridge going across it that was 50 meters off the ground. These caves put any previous stalagmite/stalactite caves I had visited to shame. The sheer time it takes for these to form is mind-blowing.

Seeing as how we had swam in the Danube a few days earlier, we figured we had to take a dip in the Mediterranean along the Slovenian coast, so from the Skocjanske Caves we took a train to the port town Koper, where we had a couple hours before heading back to Ljubljana. The trains in Slovenia are very inconsistent and don't run frequently so before heading to Koper we had a couple hours to kill in the small, rural town of Divaca, which is where the Skocjanske train station is. While it seemed there was nothing to do in the town in general, it being Sunday, meant that there was REALLY nothing to do. Despite this we wandered around and had a couple interesting interactions with the locals, one of which was with the sole worker at the train station. To get a sense of what kind of work this kind, yet brusque man did, picture a run down Soviet-era, wooden train station with no trains other than a few broken down box cars, and not a soul in sight. To pass the hours he smoked and did word puzzles. After purchasing tickets from him, he motioned to Naftali's bag and mimed taking a picture (he didn't speak English and we of course speak no Slovene). He wanted to see our cameras because he was apparently into photography. He took a couple photos with the camera. We exchanged emails and said we would email him a photo we took of him. In what was such an isolated, and frankly depressing, area, it was neat having an interaction like this.

After dragging ourselves back to the hostel after 12am that night, exhausted and frustrated after having spent 7 euros on a cab from the train station (the buses stopped running after 10:30pm and our hostel was on the outskirts of town) we crashed, and then woke up at 5:45am the next morning for our trip to Triglav National Park. Triglav is Slovenia's only National Park, yet it makes up 4% of the country's land mass at 83,000 hectares and encompasses all of the Alps located in Slovenia. It took an hour and a half to reach the beautiful town of Bled, which sits on Bled Lake at the foot of Triglav. The scenery is stunning, which is why the town naturally attracts many tourists. With this in mind we decided to take another bus further into Triglav to the tip of Bohinj Lake, where there were fewer people. Per the recommendation of the Bled tourist information center we decided to go on a trail called the Seven Lakes trail. This trail, if followed far enough, runs right along the Julien Alps, which fulfilled our goal of hiking in the Alps. We forwent buying a trail map in the Bled information center because it was 8 euros and we figured we would be fine between the low-quality free map, a picture I took of part of the good map with my iPhone and trail signs. After arriving at the tip of Bohinj Lake and looking up at the mountain we were going to be climbing we soon realized it would not be a good idea heading up an unfamiliar mountain in the middle of Slovenia without a trail map, and fortunately we were able to locate one in a nearby souvenir shop (there was a popular water fall near our trail head that attracted tourists). Armed with our map, two liters of water each, a couple loaves of bread, cheese, fruit and no knife (we both conveniently forgot ours the one day we needed it) we began the trek up.

"Trek" is a bit of an understatement. It was more often a literal climb. It was a roughly 900 meter ascent over the course of 2.5 kilometers. While 2.5 kilometers might not sound like a lot, we were essentially scaling the face of a mountain using switchback after switchback. While you could always identify where the theoretical trail was, I would not qualify large stretches of the path as a hiking trail--more like ground multiple people had walked on. As we got farther up the mountain the trails became narrower, yet the views grew from great to stunning to jaw-dropping incredible. To give you a sense of how steep the ascent was, after doing two switchbacks you could look down at where you had come from and you were practically looking over a cliff. As we had read earlier in our guide book, many of the trails were marked with plaques with the names of people who had lost there lives falling off these trails. Fortunately, since then steel cables have been installed to the sides of the more dangerous traverses as safety precautions.

After three hours of climbing the mountain, we reached the top to be greeted by a beautiful small lake (the first of the seven lakes) tucked in between the summit of the mountain we had climbed and at the base of another mountain in front of us. The most striking thing about the lake was how dead silent everything was around it. We had only run into a few other hikers on the way up and there were only two or three other people there when we reached it.

Because of time constraints we had to turn around a little after this, which was a real shame because there was so much that lay before us. The climb down took almost as long as up because it was so steep. The hike was undoubtedly one of the, if not the best, hike I have ever taken and if there is one place I definitely plan on returning to it is the Julien Alps.

After spending another night on trains we are less than two hours from Trento, Italy where we will spend a couple days and then head to Milan where we will spend the last two nights of our trip. From Milan we will be going separate ways, with Naftali flying back to San Francisco and I to Tel Aviv.

Arrivederci,

Elijah Jatovsky
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