Friday, August 27, 2010

Eastern Slovenia (Ptuj, say it like you spit it!)

Day twenty six of my bike trip will be a day to remember. It started off low and finished very high. Between those two, was rain, 102km of riding, a short 8km ride in a police van, and the Slovenian countryside.

Welcome to Slovenia, rumored to be the 'Sunny Side of the Alps,' but I was not so sure when I crossed in.

My day started badly. I had a poor night's sleep. I could not find my bike computer in the morning when I was packing up and my GI tract was more than fired up to start the day. I eventually got on the road and then it started to rain. Before I got to the border, it started to rain harder, but it never turned into a down pour so I was lucky. For the first time on my trip, there were people working at the border, but they were only checking shipping trucks. They waved me right through.

Rural eastern Slovenia.

As I crossed into Slovenia, I did not have a proper map yet. I was just using the edge of my Hungarian map. It showed that there was one small road, a highway, and the autobahn to the town I wanted to go to. When I crossed the border, I did not see the small road, so I stuck with the highway that I was on. Unfortunately, the map was wrong. The highway ended and my only option was the autobahn. In the other countries I have been in, the autobahn is off limits for bikes and signed accordingly. This autobahn did not have a sign. Also, it was only 9km to my town. I decided that it might be legal and to risk it. Two km later, I found out that it was not legal. A police van went by and turned their sirens on. I pulled over. He berated me. He thought I was Spanish. It must be my tan, because no one has ever thought I was Spanish before and there is no way my Spanish is fooling anyone. I asked him how to get off the autobahn and suggested climbing the fence or just biking to the next exit where I was going anyway. He berated me some more before loading me into his police van for destinations unknown. At the next exit, he documented me, figured out I wasn't Spanish (based on the passport), and finally let me out of the van. I felt really fortunate to not have received a citation or free ride to the closest police station. This was my first major experience in Slovenia. It could be seen as bad, but I'll sign off as it being good, especially since he was the first person I met and he made the choice to be more helpful than not in Slovenia (by not arresting me).

A different kind of driveway.

The rest of my ride was pretty uneventful. I was able to find small roads to ride. I had AMAZING peach gelato. I learned that Slovenian gelato is much cheaper than in Hungary AND then give you more. Slovenia earns a bid for best country visited for that. In the town that I got gelato, I was not sure how to dodge the autobahn. I asked a real estate shop where the tourist office was. Instead of giving me directions there, they asked what I wanted and gave me the directions for the rest of my day to Ptuj.


Ptuj is important. First, to say the name properly you must pronounce the J like an I. If you do this correctly, you will be spitting the name out, PI-TU-EE. Say it again and again and smile. It is also an important town because it is the oldest town in Slovenia, populated since the Stone Age. I did not know any of this when I chose to pass through there. It was just a spot on the map and ended up being so pleasant that I decided to spend the night there.

Ptuj, Slovenia from the castle.

The first hostel I checked out had its reception in a bike shop. Very cool. Unfortunately, they were full, so was the second hostel I visited. However, the owner of the second hostel went above and beyond and called around to find me a room. After checking into that room, I asked about laundry because my biking clothes were giving off a pretty bad funk. They did not a guest laundry. I said it was fine and that I would hand wash them. When I came back down stairs later, the woman said that they could do the laundry for me for free as long as it was a small load. That was completely unexpected. This was my first day in Slovenia and their hospitality was overwhelming. All of these people and more turned what started out as a bad day into an amazing day.

Morning in Ptuj, Slovenia.

After giving them my laundry, I went to the bike shop to see about getting a new water bottle cage. The guy working in the shop recognized me from Ormoz when we passed each other earlier in the day. We chatted about biking, Colorado, and life. When I was installing the cage, he was putting air in someone else's tires and asked me if I needed help. I didn't, but asked for air if he did not mind. He filled me right up. Then, I went back in to keep chatting and ended up buying a new bike computer to replace my old one. Unfortunately, I had to replace everything. It is not hard to install them, but it would have taken me an hour to be happy with it. The guy kept chatting with me and did it for free in about ten minutes. Brilliant. Friendly. Hospitable. Wonderful. From there, I explored town and got some locally flavored food for dinner. The waiter was super helpful and friendly too. He was only topped by the wonderful girl at the tourist info shop playing Leonard Cohen where I checked my email. I just found wave after wave of amazing people in eastern Slovenia. It was a completely unexpected treat.

A central Slovenian town.

The beautiful rolling hills of central Slovenia.

As I reluctantly left Ptuj the next day, I did not have a definitive plan. I was a little behind schedule and didn't have any spots to visit until almost 200km away in Bled. I had hoped to do a big day to get a little caught up. My morning riding started out alright. I was able to find my route pretty easily and, perhaps more importantly, I was able to stay on that route easily. Often, I lose a lot of time trying to figure out where I am going.

This gas station was different. We don't usually pair them up with bars in the USA.

After an hour or two of riding, an older guy joined me on his mountain bike. When we were done chatting, he cruised on up ahead. I worked to stay with him and it was not too hard. I just had to keep a higher tempo. By doing this, I start going 25-30km an hour as opposed to 20-25km. After he dropped off, I decided to just try and keep moving like that. As long as I focused on my tempo and did not worry about speed, I was able to do it. I made it to the next big town Celje, about 70km away, by late morning. I pulled into their tourist information site to check e-mail (they all have free fifteen minute Internet), find out about my camera, and find out how far I had to go. The women working there were par for the course in Slovenia, unbelievably friendly. They went above and beyond to be helpful and really made me feel welcome.

Is stringing grapes(?) up like this the normal or torture for a bad wine year? I have not seen this before. Maybe these are for olives and I am used to grape.

After leaving Celje, I kept hitting my tempo. The hills were small. The road to the next town that I was looking for was always well labeled. I could not believe how long I was sustaining my higher speed by focusing on tempo. I did not look at my odometer at all, just my speed. I started to wonder if my new computer was off because it was new. I checked it and everything seemed right. Then, I started looking at the road signs and double checking distances. I was spot on again and again. I actually was biking that well. I finally stated to slow down when I was near the Ljubljana airport. I rolled into the town of Kranj, about 40km short of where I would head the next day, not sure what to do. I still felt decent, but I also didn't want to overdue. I checked out my total distance for the first time and it said 153km. I decided to stop and stay in a hotel. However, the tourist information place was closed and it was not a tourist town. I slowly found the hotel with that sad 'where I am going look' upon my face. When I did, a local started chatting me up. He told me about a couple places to eat and offered to join me. I really wanted to get off my bike and shower, but I figured why not. He had grown up in town and took me to his favorite pizza place where he said no one finishes a whole pizza. I did it easily and by the end of dinner, he decided I was innocent enough to offer a room to in his home. This was my first home stay and it was great. The only thing bad about it was my camera payment and delivery drama got started there, but that wasn't Slovenia's fault. Slovenia was offering up more incredibly warm people. My host, William, introduced me to his family and told me about pre and post communist Slovenia and his adventures. He likes to walk. His longest one had been a pilgrimage to Egypt. He travels different each time, but that time he took no money and relied on strangers to give him bread and water. It really made my traveling seem pretty cushy.

After two days, my summary was short. The riding was great. The people are great. Slovenia is fabulous. Go. Visit.

Slovenian hospitality is amazing. They even gave me my very own town to live in.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Western Hungary (Lake Balaton)

My first look at Lake Balaton.

Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe. It is sometimes referred to as the Hungarian Sea since Hungary is landlocked. The lake is huge and draws every single major water sport to its shores. I saw sailing, jet skiing, swimming, water polo, and who knows what else. It is the place to be in the summer. It was jam packed with tourists. Every camp site was erupting with people. I could not believe how many people were there. It a lot of ways it reminded me of Myrtle Beach or the Jersey Shore, but not nearly as tacky. To add to their sophistication level, they even had a long row of nice wooden huts that sold wine and breaded pastries. I think that was the busiest part I visited.

Outdoor movie theater.

Lake Balaton from Tihany.

One of the nicer parts about Lake Balaton for me is that they had a bike path going almost all the way around the lake. It often shared local roads, but they were quiet roads. This was the first place in Hungary where I saw a very well marked bike path that was quiet. It usually made for easy riding. I wound down my first day at the lake over my possibly favorite dinner in Europe: Wild rice, fried breaded cheese, and cranberry sauce. They usually serve it as an appetizer. I love it.

If you got away from the popular spots, this was typical Balaton.

A courtyard near Lake Balaton.

I left the lake on my third day to head for Slovenia. On the way, I decided to soak in some hot springs and get a massage. The baths in Budapest were amazing and I was hoping for a repeat. However, I didn't get that. I am not sure if I got more or less, but I definitely have more stories. The thermal baths at Heviz are not baths. It is one big pond. I am sure there has been a little bit of man made work but it looks like a natural pond with water lilies, floating moss, and even tad poles sharing the water with you. There were even a few birds that were nesting underneath the main building, but, thankfully, no geese. I was entranced watching the mother fly back and forth trying to feed her greedy chicks. They were all so big they were about to fall out of the nest.

The thermal 'bath' at Heviz.

Another entrance to the thermal waters.

The complex was built on cement stilts above the pond. It included changing rooms, a wellness center with sauna, massage rooms, cafes, and who knows what else. It seemed a little posh and cost a bit more than I would have liked to get in. There were three other entrances to get. I am not sure if they cost more or less. They had their own systems, but you could walk anywhere and use any part of the pond. In the main complex, they had a small part of the pond that was warmer and had a bubble blower. There was only one and everyone lined up to use it. When the bell sounded, people just moved along. I was impressed that it did not need any policing. After a couple hours in the pool, I got a Refreshing Massage, which is the worst massage I have ever gotten. It was similar to what you get after a marathon to flush out the lactic acid, but they applied even less pressure. Oh well. My muscles definitely felt like something was better than nothing. Afterwards, I headed for the border. I didn't make it. I chose my worst campsite yet and ended up losing my bike computer getting into my campsite.

We use the world cultures to make a buck. They should use as well, but I never thought I'd see a piece of Colorado in Hungary.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Budapest, Round Two

Budapest's Keleti train station.

I had hoped to have one more full day in Budapest, but missing the overnight train nixed that notion. I got into my hostel, went to sleep, and was planning to get up and ride late the next morning after a few more sight seeing trips and errands. However, after getting up early to go to the market all of that was pushed back for weather. A huge down pour came blowing through.

Morning rain discouraging me from riding.

I had no need to run my errands in that so I sat tight. After the rain started, I got going but wasn't sure how much I would be able to do before I left. I used the second oldest subway in the world to head to Stu's recommended restaurant. Unfortunately, it was closed which had me searching for something else. I didn't find any great food, but I did find another great garden bar, Szimpla Kert, that seems to cater to the biking crowd. They have a room to leave your bikes inside the bar. I also found an amazing tea house, Sirius Tea House. They had more teas than I have ever seen on a menu, great honey cake, and a jungle gym like atmosphere to explore. There were ladders, floor seating, secrets rooms, and who else knows what. These little finds are what make Budapest so compelling and hard to leave. I want to go back to those places again and find more like them.

Line 1 of the Budapest metro system, the second oldest in the world behind the London Underground.

Szimpla Kert, another garden bar.

Szimpla Kert

Sirius Tea House.

After my long day running around Budapest, it was 5pm. It was past time to go. I was reluctant, but finally got myself out the door into the drizzle. I took a supposed bike route and then lost it outside of town. After asking for directions, I got myself pointed in the right direction and started pedaling. I took a long break at the Memento Park though. They have taken a number of the old communist era statues and put them in one park outside of the city. It cost a little bit too much to go in, but it was still pretty neat. I wish I had been there with a tour to get a lot more information about what each statue meant and why it had to come down after the communists got the boot.

The boots of the former Joseph Stalin statue.

Lenin statue at Memento Park

Republic of Council's monument of a 30 foot tall worker running to deliver a message in Memento Park

Statue at Memento Park.

After visiting the park, it was time to pedal hard. I was behind schedule and stayed that way. I stopped to get some a traditional Hungarian summer snack, langos with sour cream and cheese on it. It is basically fried bread, thick naan, than isn't dried out. Sometimes they serve it up with nutella on it. I ended up calling it an early day. I just was not getting into any good rhythm. I could have pushed farther than the 64km I did, but I ended up on this super quiet bike path that had some perfect camping places along it. There were very few bicyclists going by and no cars. I think it might have been one of my best nights of sleep until the thunder storm came through. First, one of the loudest thunder claps I have ever heard sounded, then the rain started. I had left the fly strapped open to let more air in the tent. This was great for air, but terrible for tired hands to undo in the dark. I got super wet trying to figure it out. Note, leave the fly open, but not tied. Oh well.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Grump, Grump Grump (Working through fiascos)

You can punch harder when standing on solid ground than on a water bed. Your legs can generate more power when pushing off an engaged core rather than a soft one. When you are working from a strong stable base, you can do more. When I am in a foreign country where I know nothing, I am working from an unstable place. It makes uncertain situations seem more daunting. It is why traveling pushes us in so many new directions. In the past couple weeks, I was pushed pretty hard by trying to leave Krakow, trying to get my camera fixed, and getting my bag after flying back to the USA. Here are the rants. They don't convey nearly enough of the ups and downs as I got good and bad news in each situation. While I am getting better at letting go and remaining even keeled, I have a long way to go.

On the way to the train station, I saw this fancy car parked up on the curb. I am used to fancier cars being a little better taken care of. I like it.

After two and a half days in Krakow, I was ready to get back on the road. I needed to head to Slovenia to catch my flight back to the USA so I decided that instead of riding back over the same terrain, I would take the overnight train back to Budapest and continue on my original plan of biking to Lake Balaton and then just head to Slovenia instead of Croatia. Unfortunately, my excellently laid plans were blown away.

When I think of trains, I tend to think of them as buses or subways that you can always just hop on. There is always room. However, trains are usually not like that in Europe, especially with a bike. You have to book it in advance, like an airplane. Because of that, I went to the train station during the day to buy a ticket instead of just showing up. They said that no trains leaving Krakow and traveling internationally could carry bikes. This sounded ridiculous. Trains always cross borders in Europe carrying bikes. Why would Krakow be different? I went back to the hostel and they agreed with me. Then, they called the train station to work it out, assuming I was hitting a language barrier. They asked and were told that I would have to talk to the conductor on the train to buy a bike supplement. I went back to the train station to buy my ticket. There were no tickets left for that night. Apparently, the excellent (sarcasm) hostel staff did not ask that question. It isn't their fault, but I was used to getting great help at each hostel and assumed that question would have been asked. It is my fault for assuming. If you want a job done right . . .

Anyway, I went back to the hostel super grumpy about not being able to go to Budapest. I was going to be stuck in Krakow and their only room cost three times as much. I should have switched hostels. I wanted to leave after the first night because of the noise, but stuck it out for ease. Because it was late, I stuck it out again. How many times do we settle for something because it is the devil we know or takes less work rather that the devil we don't know or something that takes more work? Grrr. It didn't help that the one lady who 'helped' me laughed when she found out why I was still at the hostel later. I almost took a bus back to the Tatras to then return by bike, but finally decided to just take a train in the morning when there was room and would talk to the conductor about the bike. I was extra grumpy after having to pay extra at the hostel and grumpier at myself for being too lazy to switch hostels.

My morning train did not take the direct route over the mountains. It went west to the Czech Republic, then southwest to the far border of Slovakia before heading east into Hungary. The conductors change at each border and on each train. The conductors on my first train were not a problem. They saw my bike and talked to me and then were supposed to come back to sell me the bike supplement. They didn't. At the Czech border, the conductors changed and played a different tune. Bikes were not allowed on the train. They searched the entire train until they found out who had the bike. I begged. I pleaded. I offered money to buy a supplement (though if they took it as a bribe that would have been alright too). I got tossed off. I got grumpy. I would have to take two other trains that would accept bikes to cross the Czech Republic. I caught the first train easily. When I tried to buy a bike supplement though, I was out of luck again. He only accepted Czech krowns and I did not have any in my wallet, only Euros and Polish Zlotychs. He left in disgust, but let me ride. In Perran, I needed to change trains. I hurried over to the platform listed on the board, but there was no train. Then, my destination and platform were taken off the board. I asked around and they said it was already gone, but it had been on the board and no train had gone by. I was confused. I found out when the next one was coming. When it was almost time for it to leave, I, again, didn't see a train. I asked around and it turned out that there are two spots for trains on this platform. The first one is right beside the platform where you normally get on. The second one was past the end of the platform where a ton of weeds were overgrowing the track so much that it didn't look like trains even went there. I realized that was probably where the first train had been, but I didn't know to look for it there. No issues with the bike this time though.

The red dot to the right of the pole marks the hidden train platform, 2.5, that does not go to Hogwarts.

I finally arrived at the Czech border. I had a big layover. I headed into town and was super excited to see Albert's, the grocery store my world's team had used the most in Prague. It was like visiting an old friend. I was also able to spend the krowns that I ended up finding as change in my bag. I bought a ton of dried fruit and left the country with two cents. No more carrying around extra weight in coins that change places won't take. At the train station, I asked about bike trains and buying a supplement. They said there was one last train to Budapest and it did accept bikes, but it was already sold out. I resolved to rely on my experience in Austria where I just hopped on a legal bike train and hope the conductor would work with me. I did not want to spend the night where I was. I wanted to at least get a little closer to Budapest. I hopped on the train and it was an express with only five stops before reaching Budapest. We passed the first one before I even had my ticket checked. I was really apprehensive as I waited to find out if I would get booted. I was hoping to at least get to Bratislava or Esztergom, Hungary where I had been before instead of a new town. I was too tired and frustrated to be excited about the adventure of finding my way in an unknown place. However, all of my apprehension did not matter. The conductor checked my ticket and moved on without saying a word. I breathed such a HUGE sigh of relief I almost deflated. I spent the long train ride talking to some Germans who were going to bike from Budapest back to Germany. Seventeen hours after my train ride started, I was checking into my hostel. I missed going out with friends in Budapest, but oh well. I made it and was happy with that. Throughout most of the experience, you could have called me emotionally volatile. I had not surrendered to my conditions yet and was all types of grumpy. I believed that I could control my fate. Once I let that go during my layover, I was happier.

I am trying to reach the same state with my camera situation, but I don't think that is going to happen. I want to have some control because I want my expensive camera back in my possession and not bouncing around Europe. I think the reason I can't let this one go is because I care enough about taking photos with that camera that it owns me instead me owning it. Anyway, without further ago, the still ongoing camera saga.

My camera broke in Krakow. It is under warranty so I could try to fix it in Europe while I was there or try to do it for the week I was going to be in the states. The only trick with doing it in Europe is that there is usually only one place to fix it per country. There was not one in Krakow. There was one in Budapest. I took it there. My US Canon warranty cannot be used in Europe. Boo, but since they say they can fix my camera and mail it to me within a week, I decide paying for it will be worth it. A week will put me at day one of the Julian Alps in Slovenia which should be spectacular. I try to pay the estimate before leaving to simplify things, but they won't let me. Instead, I am told they will contact me Monday for an address and payment. Monday comes, nothing. I decide to take the initiative and email then with my hostel address in Bled and credit card information. They contact me back late Tuesday to tell me they don't accept credit cards and won't ship it until I wire them the money. I start to get irritated because I tried to pay them at the shop to avoid this and can't figure out how a camera shop that sells things costing over $1000 does not take credit cards. In the morning, I try to wire money which is pretty common in Europe. It will take 2-3 days to do which I don't want to do because I want my camera to ship ASAP. I go to Western Union. Just as I am about to send the money off to be delivered ten minutes later, they inform me that they can only deliver to specific people, not businesses. Grumble, grumble. My camera should already be in the mail. I go back and wire the money.

Luckily, the money arrives the next day. They contact me for an address and let me know they have 2 day delivery lined up to get it somewhere on Monday. I give them an address in Ljubljana where I am going to fly out of. I will arrive there Tuesday and fly out Wednesday. I am settled that I am done with this mini-drama. I'm not. When I check in on Tuesday, there is no camera. I contact the camera shop who contacts the courier to find out that it should arrive by 6pm Tuesday. At 3pm, it hasn't arrived. I have my hostel call the courier. They say it will arrive on Wednesday, after I am gone. I start to grump. I contact the camera shop who contacts the courier to find out that my camera is actually still on its way to Slovenia. Apparently, 2 day delivery means . . . . I have no idea what. The hostel can accept my camera while I am gone, but won't be held responsible for it. Grump, grump, give me my camera back, grump, grump. I leave Ljubljana without a solution. The camera company contacts me about forwarding the camera somewhere else. The courier company will not forward it to the USA and is saying I need to be in one place for five days for them to forward it somewhere else. Grump, grump. While I am waiting to respond to that email with an address, the courier company apparently decides to deliver my camera even though they are supposed to be waiting for a new address. It is now sitting at a hostel in Ljubljana waiting for me to return. I can only hope it doesn't disappear. Grump, grump, grump.

A statue in Breclaw, Czech Republic from my train day that explains how I felt during a lot these fiascos.

This last bit is an addendum. I thought being back in the USA would alleviate working through some of these issues, but it hasn't. I had expectations and they just weren't met. When I flew home, the airline lost my bag. I did not need to check it. I did it for leisure so it is my own fault. I had a 4 hour layover in Paris for my very small backpack to be transferred to the next plane. It didn't make it. They said they would deliver it the next day by 10pm which would not help with my dad's memorial service, but at least I would get my bag. It didn't show. I called the next day to ask where it was. The first person could not give me any information about where it was. The second person said they called to confirm the address, but no one answered so they did not deliver it. I don't believe that. They had a primary and secondary number. Neither one had a missed call or a voicemail. They also could not deliver if that day and it was the last day at my sisters. They said they could get it there the next day so I chose to change my plans and hang around one more day to get it. On my way to a wedding on the third day, they called to confirm the address. Someone had changed Northampton, MA to a Northampton, NY. Ugh...grr...grumble. In the afternoon still no bag. My sister called and eventually made the bag appear. Yeah for family!!! Yeah for Jen!! Boo for Air France. Why is it so hard? It would help a lot of I wasn't a moving target, but having my bag delivered the next day or with my original flight shouldn't be a big expectation or deal to make happen. Oh well.

Anyway, lots of good these past few weeks, but that is the worst bad all in one place. Every time, it amazes me how grumpy I can get about it. These are all a lot of chances for me to practice letting go and accepting my situation, but man it is hard sometimes. The fortune cookie I got the day I wrote this said, "The world belongs to enthusiast who keeps cool."

The calm center I hope for as I remind myself to breath the next time things go wrong.