My Travel Map

My Travel Map

20 January 2015

Piran, Slovenia

Slovenia is a country blessed with both mountains and sea.  This second post covers the coast, while the third will be on the mountains.  Welcome to Piran: a charming old city on the short sliver of land pinched between Italy and Croatia that forms Slovenia's Adriatic Sea coast. 

Piran is definitely more popular as a summer destination; it was relatively abandoned when we were there in April.  I'm not complaining at all about that though... it was actually really refreshing to not be overwhelmed by hordes of tourists.  The place was peaceful and quite relaxing; it makes sense that this place was a spa town in the 1800s.

Nowadays, Piran's harbor has plenty of nice boats and yachts.  It is a popular port of call for pleasure cruisers sailing around the Adriatic.

You can actually see three countries from Piran: Slovenia (of course) plus Italy to the northwest and Croatia to the south.  The town's waterfront and harbor are lined with old mansions, several of which have been converted into hotels.  Fortunately, much of the old city is just that, old, and its medieval layout has also been pretty well preserved.  The place itself certainly is charming, though it does seem like it gets swamped by tourists (I know, I'm a hypocrite), and I think that has had somewhat of a negative impact on the locals' demeanor.

Piran was first founded as a settlement and outpost during the Roman Empire. Being situated on a narrow peninsula, the local geography was favored for settlement because of its defensive capabilities. It has continued to thrive since then as a significant port in the Northern Adriatic, surviving as part of several empires, such as the Byzantine, Holy Roman, and Austo-Hungarian, and outliving each in turn.

The water was crystal clear and not terribly cold either, which was surprising considering it was April.  I didn't go for a swim, since I didn't have my bathing suit, but if I had it with me, I definitely would have taken a dip.  I can only imagine what the locals and European tourists would have thought of that though... most of them were bundled up in winter jackets, which I found quite ridiculous.  People's sensitivity to climate really is quite relative.

The view of the Alps across the northern Adriatic was also amazing.  Some of the best scenery in the world combines mountains with the sea...

Along the waterfront, mostly everything caters to tourists with plenty of restaurants and cafes, all of which have patio seating that is perfect for people watching as well as taking in the natural scenery.... it is very European.

There are also several random old statues set up all over the place.  These are leftover ruins from various periods in Piran's past.  The oldest of those may even date back to the Roman Empire.  This feminine bust was craftily transformed into a mermaid with the addition of that little tail, which is obviously newer than the figurine.  My other favorite was an old lions head statue propped up in a garden just off of the main square.

Piran offers up some nice street art too...

This mural was pleasantly bizarre.  It was huge and incorporated a lot of very random components, which were very amusing when combined.

This haunting piece was in the back alleys... I loved the simplicity of it and how it seemed to pop off the wall.

Piran - and Slovenia in general too - has some great pubs... though we found the locals in Piran to be a bit feisty at night at this local place.  The bartenders were not too welcoming or friendly and the locals at the bar clearly felt like we didn't belong in their pub.  It was not the best environment despite the legitimate charm of the pub itself. 

Piran's maze of backstreets and alleys are awesome to explore... if you need to get away from the tourists, just tuck back there.  It really is crazy how seemingly more than 90 percent of all tourists stick to the waterfront only.  Are that many people afraid to explore off the beaten track?

There are some great little touches and details back there too...

The main square and Piran's Venetian clock tower.  The square used to be an inner marina, but it was filled and turned into this public space.  On this beautiful Sunday morning, it was clearly bustling.

Part of the draw to the square was a local market that was set up under the orange and yellow tents.  They were selling a lot of locally sourced products like produce, cured meats, oil, and cheeses.

Driving out of town offered the best views of the Alps... Piran was very nice, and the surrounding area really was quite stunning.  The town itself was obviously a bit of a playground for the rich though... and the locals were not the friendliest folks, but that might just be because they are sick of the average tourist.

09 January 2015

The Karst and Škocjan Caves, Slovenia

My first take on Slovenia is going to be captured in three short posts on three amazing and beautiful locations.  I guess that is somewhat appropriate... Slovenia is a small country and definitely an amazing and beautiful one.  First up, the Karst region and Slovenia's underworld.

Slovenia's Karst region, which is part of a greater region of the same name that stretches into Italy, is a large limestone plateau bordering the Adriatic Sea and stretching pretty far inland.  The natural forces of erosion have slowly but surely carved into the limestone, creating a wonderland of cliffs, gorges, canyons, and caverns in this spectacular region.  Also, due to its own microclimate, the Karst is a cooler, wetter region compared to much of the rest of the Mediterranean, and this allows lush forests to thrive here.  It is truly a beautiful and quite ideal region, and definitely one great for long walks, bike rides, or hikes.

The Karst even has its own unique style of architecture.  Taking advantage of the relatively soft limestone that is so plentiful in the region, most older buildings are constructed from stone blocks.  The most impressive (predominantly churches) employ dry-stone architecture, masonry using perfectly cut stones with no mortar!  That remarkable fact really sinks home when you look at the height and complexity and stone spires of most of the church steeples in the region, like shown above and below.

Every town and village has a church, and they all seem to be constructed using that amazing stone work.  There was a similar stone masonry church in Trieste, Italy... it really is the style of the region.  Also, there are those red tile roofs.  The combination is pretty neat... the stone has a ghostly quality to it, but the red adds that touch of vibrancy and life.

The Karst is sprinkled with small villages, and it is pretty straightforward to make a day hiking from village to village through the surrounding countryside.  The people here seem to live quiet and peaceful lives, which is a true thing of beauty in this modern age.  While there, we got to explore the tiny village of Škocjan, pictured here, near the World Heritage caves with the same name.

After a short but pleasurable hike to the village from the main entrance to the caves, we ate at this rustic little restaurant that caters to visitors of the national park.  The restaurant was part of the owners own home, with linen covered tables set up outside on the patio.  The house itself was the definition of rustic and quaint.  We only got to see the pub and indoors part of the restaurant, which is setup in the cellar, but it was a cozy little place.  I can imagine it taking on a very special beauty during a snowy winter too... or a sunny summer too.  We were there on a cloudy and wet day in early spring, and it was still great.

For lunch, I had a Slovenian gnocchi with a local mushroom cream sauce that was perfectly seasoned with a complex variety of herbs and spices... it was an amazing fusion of the major local cuisines: Italian, Viennese, Hungarian, and Slavic.  I got it served up with a local beer, the many varieties of which Slovenians are very proud.  The beer was good, and this was easily one of the tastiest meals I've ever enjoyed.  The hearty gnocchi and savory mushrooms were just perfect to warm the soul on an otherwise dreary day.

This dog and a small child also kept us entertained while we ate.  The dog kept playing with this plastic bottle while the little girl danced and hopped happily around it.  Eventually, the dog tired out from all the excitement.  Like I said, the place was pleasant, sleepy, and really quite idyllic.

On the walk back to the caves, we passed by this old house, which is supposedly done in the traditional style with the heavy, thick stone walls and thatched roof.

Back at the caves and looking over the valley to Škocjan village. I can't say enough how beautiful this region was. The bright green of the forest and the ghostly pale grey of the limestone contrast wonderfully, while the rolling hills provide a picturesque backdrop. Add the village and its picture perfect church in for a scene right out of some fairy tale.   Most of the forests in the Karst region used to be oak, but those trees have been largely cut over the centuries for timber (supplying the shipyards and construction of Venice since the Middle Ages) or cleared for pastureland.  Sadly, where people have actually allowed the forests to remain or return, faster growing species like pine has replaced much of the original oak.

And here is one of the reasons this region is so amazing: rivers, such as the the Reka River that flows under Škocjan, along with the soft limestone are responsible for the regions network of caves and caverns. Over millions of years, the flow of water has carved its way through the limestone, forming deep canyons and underground caverns out of what was originally a broad, cracked base plane of limestone. It is the caves that Škocjan is so well know for though, and for good reason, the network of caves under the area is immense and still not fully explored.

The river surges out of the ground into this little valley before disappearing again under another rock wall downstream.  This natural wonder has intrigued people for ages... and many explorers have bravely tried to map the subterranean course of the river.  That has led to many amazing discoveries hidden below...

Anyone can now tour the caves at Škocjan. There are two systems, the small and the big. The small part, pictured here, is a tall tunnel that follows the river under the village of Škocjan. The big part is where it gets really interesting though... those caverns are something out of some fantasy realm. They are enormous and make you feel like you are tiny and insignificant and can be easily lost in the maze of open spaces under the world you're so used to. To be down there brings a feeling of excitement mixed with disquiet and discomfort; in the big caverns, where you are more than 100 meters below the ground and more than a kilometer from the nearest access to it, your mind, both conscious and subconscious, knows you really are exploring a place that is not meant for human life. People really are alien to that underground world...

The evidence for how the water carves through stone is so immediately apparent all around you.

Early explorers of the caves did so without the luxury of the carved and suspended walkways and electric lights that are now available for scientists and tourists.  They explored the caves without electricity (no flashlights!) and were forced to use the river to do so.  Imagine, taking a small raft or personal float for a river ride that plunges you into a deep, dark unknown.  The theory was: they knew where the water went into the ground and where it came back out again (many kilometers away), so they figured they could just follow the course as it went underground.  That of course fails to recognize places where the water completely fills the cavern or tunnel around it, leaving no open space for air. Anyway, several explorers died deep underground on endeavors like that... 

Like I just said, nowadays, we benefit from a system of walkways that have been carved out of the rock or suspended above it.  Though purists will argue that these are hideous disfigurements and scars on the natural landscape (cavescape), I have to admit, without them, we wouldn't be able to appreciate the system nearly as easily (which purists would also say is a good thing, since it strictly limits damage that inevitably comes from human contact).  Deeper in the cave system, there is a bridge, the Cerkvenik Bridge, which is just like something out of Lord of the Rings!  It is perched 45 meters above the river below, with another ~40 meters of open space above your head in a cavern so deep underground that you really have no sense for which way you could find an exit again.  One of the things I found most amazing was the system of pathways that have been carved into the limestone... the one that tourists now follow winds its way off into the distance and is eerily lit by little lamps along its side... but even better are the old paths, which look quite otherworldly, like something that were carved and used by goblins or dwarves.  Being in those caves is an incredible experience to immerse yourself in!

Seriously though, these pictures from the smaller tunnel/cave are nothing compared to the main caverns further below... I highly recommend doing your own image search of "Škocjan Caves Slovenia"... they are amazing but still do no justice for being there yourself.

The caves are stunningly beautiful.  The walls are deeply furrowed and complex and scatter whatever light is available in all different ways.  The height of the caverns is hard to comprehend as well... these places are huge empty spaces embedded within enormous amounts of rock.  Our guide told us about times when the river is in flood, causing many of the caverns to fill completely!  That is difficult (if not impossible) for the brain to grasp given the grand scale of the spaces involved.  However, from a scientific standpoint, it is an awesome case of flow rates and fluid mechanics...

The Škocjan Caves were easily one of the most spectacular natural wonders I've ever experienced. Like any great natural wonder, they evoke a strong and unique emotional response in addition to providing such amazing and wonderful sights to take in. These caves, and even the surrounding Karst region, transport you to a completely different world... a place that conjures fantasy and fairy tales... they make you feel somewhat like you are a child again, exploring the great unknowns of the huge and wonderful world around you. And honestly, experiences that make you feel like that are truly priceless.

04 January 2015

Trieste, Italy

On a great mini-road trip through Slovenia from Austria, two good friends and I took the opportunity to spend an afternoon in Trieste, Italy, which is only 20 minutes or so from the Slovenian border.  According to a guide book I read, Trieste is considered an ugly Italian city... well, if that is true, then I really need to see a pretty one.  This was my first taste of Italy, and it was only a very, very small taste.  However, it was a true amuse-bouche that did its job and left me wanting so much more.  The trip involved a wander around the city center, which was quite different from every other European city I've been in, and one of the best meals I've ever eaten, which was even more beautiful for its shear simplicity.  Like Italy itself, true Italian food left me wanting to return (to eat) too.

I often forget that Italy is one of the wealthiest nations in the world.  Trieste's architecture reflects that, as well as its imperial history.  Take this building for example: it is grandiose with Romanesque features, right down to the statues from the Roman pantheon at the top of the columned facade.  Even the lampposts were fancy.

Trieste is a port city, and it has served as such since the times of the Roman Empire.  During the era of the Habsburg Empire, Trieste was the main Austro-Hungarian port and grew to be one of the largest cities in the empire.  Since Trieste was a major trading city between great powers and city-states from Italy, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, it bears distinct influences from many of those places.

I was shocked by the density of fine and monumental architecture around Trieste.  Though, a lot of it did seem like it was lost in time and somewhat out of place in what is now the modern, industrial, Italian city.  I'm not complaining about that though; it was actually really neat and completely unexpected.  

Like I said, we were only there for an afternoon, so this is going to be an architecture heavy post, as I was busy snapping away while wandering around and popping into the odd cafe or market.  The domes on this church reminded me a lot of those on the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.  This is an example of Serbian Orthodox churches, which often incorporate such domes into their designs, and the resemblance to Turkish domes is thanks to the influence of the Byzantine Empire, which ruled from Constantinople, a.k.a. ancient Istanbul.  Trieste was part of the Byzantine Empire during the Dark Ages and still bears some evidence from that period.

And stepping back even further in time, here is a church with very classic Roman-style architecture.  Note the Latin inscription across the top too.  This relates to one of the first and most bizarre (to me) things I noticed about Trieste: the streets are in a grid.  Having traveled pretty extensively in Europe now, I'm quite used to cities laid out in seemingly random, maze-like and quite organic forms.  However, many Italian cities are quite different... they are laid out on orthogonal grids, thanks to the order of the Roman Empire.  This was unlike anything I've encountered in old European cities so far in my travels. Roman architecture was all over the place too.

This building along the Canal Grande is a great example of Venetian architecture, which also featured prominently around town.  Combined with the canal, this shot might be right out of Venice.

Then there was this church, featuring architecture of the neighboring Karst region in Slovenia.  As I'll discuss in more detail in my Slovenian posts, this architectural style uses near-perfectly cut stone blocks without mortar, or dry-stone architecture.  Limestone from the local Karst region is used, lending that ghostly pale gray color to the structures.  The stone steeple, shaped like a bishops hat, and red-tiled roof are also touches that are very familiar in neighboring Slovenia.

But I wasn't in Rome or Istanbul or Venice or Slovenia... I was in Trieste, an interesting, lively, and not-so-little city that I had never really heard of before this trip.

Despite the lost-grandeur-of-eras-long-gone feeling, the people of Trieste were seemingly all about one thing: enjoying life.  The streets were packed with pedestrians, people out shopping, eating, drinking, and relaxing in public spaces, markets, restaurants, cafes, and bars.  It made for a very lively atmosphere, despite the overcast and dreary weather.

Italy is part of the Group of Eight (G8)... an economic group of eight of the world's strongest - and dominant - economies.  This is something that I hadn't really appreciated before visiting.  It was quite obvious that the locals had relative wealth... people were dressed well (very well), many of the stores were high-end, and there were plenty of locals eating out in the many, many restaurants around town (so many in fact that it was tough for us to get a table without reservations!).

This is the showpiece of the Piazza Unita d'Italia, the main city square opening onto Trieste's waterfront.  Like much of the rest of the city, the buildings along this square were also quite grandiose and heavily ornamented.

Looking out from the square onto the waterfront.  There was a market set up in the tents across the street from the square.  That street was one thing I would definitely change about the city layout... it is big and crazy busy and effectively disconnects the square (and the rest of the city) from what could be a much more atmospheric waterfront area.  I found the same along the Canal Grande actually... the presence of vehicular traffic really kept the place from being truly charming and inviting.  I was surprised by the amount of pedestrian only ways in the city center, particularly right around the Piazza Unita d'Italia, but then there were places like the waterfront and the Canal Grande that were just begging for pedestrian-only spaces but were held back by cars and trucks on the roads adjacent to them.  I understand the practical reasons for keeping such a street open to traffic, but it really did take away from the appeal of the place, for both tourists and locals I'm sure.  I genuinely hope that the future of great city centers is pedestrian only, with maybe some acceptance and access for public transport like street cars, buses, or light rail (and definitely subways); there is nothing like walking around a charming place unhindered and unmolested by vehicular traffic.

In the backstreets, things started to remind me a lot more of the Europe I'm more familiar with.

Trieste had plenty of smaller, finer details hidden all over the place too.  It's these details that are what make a place truly brilliant in my opinion.  They add those little touches of character that make you appreciate wandering and make random wandering so much more rewarding.

Check out this random relief too... I say that, in general, we need more public works of art of all types around the world.  They add so much to a place's character and charm, but more importantly, they tell visitors that the citizens of a place appreciate their city and take the time, effort, and money to showcase that appreciation and make it so that they and visitors can enjoy that city more.

We ended up eating dinner at a random place that actually had a table available when we got there.  We spent about 40 minutes trying to find a restaurant, and despite having plenty of options, all the rest were packed full and did not have any available tables without reservations.  The place we found was tucked away down a little alley between two main streets east of the main square.  It was also busy, but there were two tables left, and we got one of them.  I ended up getting a clam and asparagus pasta (like linguine but more square shaped in cross-section) and seafood medley fried in olive oil with lemon and pepper and house white wine.  It was one of the best meals I've ever eaten.  The ingredients were all obviously fresh, and each was cooked perfectly.  The thing that blew my mind the most was the pasta... it was al dente and seemed infused with the perfect amount of salt and the dish's light white wine sauce.   How the pasta ended up infused with flavor like that while still being so perfectly al dente remains a mystery to me... but it left me hooked and requiring more, like a habitual drug addict after their first hit of heroin.  The clams and asparagus served on top of the pasta complemented each other and the pasta and sauce perfectly too.  The fried seafood medley was fantastic as well... salmon, sardines, calamari, some type of flaky white fish, and prawns each fried to light, delicious lemon-peppery perfection.  Each one had to be in the oil for a different amount of time, and each was in for just the right amount of time.  To top it all off, the inexpensive house white wine (about the same as the price of bottled water) was delicious and went great with the dishes.  My first taste of Italy left me begging to get back and eat more... I'll do what I can to return as soon as possible and spend some legitimate time exploring and eating in that country.

The view north and west over the northern Adriatic, in the directions of better-known Udine and Venice, from Trieste's waterfront.  Those are the Italian Alps in the distance... another sight that left me drooling to return.  I can't wait to get back to Italy, though I already feel like no amount of time will be enough to explore that country.  If Trieste peaked my interest so much, I can only imagine how overwhelmed I'll be by the rest of the country.  Like a few other choice places,  Italy already seems like a place I will have to return to multiple times throughout my life, and I hope to return again to explore more soon.