Saturday, September 04, 2010

Back home for a week

Being back home for a week was great. There was a little bit of traveling drama (lost bag) and some family flare ups, but these things happen when you travel and when you spend time with family. They were more than balanced out by the the good times with friends and family. The downtime from biking was nice too.

My dad's memorial in Pittsfield, MA was great. It gave me a great look at a side of my father that I rarely, if ever, saw. I objectively knew about that side of his life, but it isn't the same as when people give their subjective opinions of it. It was moving. There were tears. There was laughter. I think it was what everyone was looking for and that my father would have liked it.

Coming home for the memorial gave me a great chance to hang out with my all my siblings in Northampton, MA. We were able to commiserate and share our own memories. Perhaps more importantly, it just gave us the chance to be together. Since my parents divorce, we have been getting closer. However, we live in three different states (if I am even in the country) no less than 250 miles from each other so these opportunities to be with each other are treasured, even under bad circumstances.

After the celebration of my dad's completed life, I went to celebrate two lives still in progress at Kate and Kent's wedding. I had thought I was going to miss their wedding on Cape Cod, but due to the timing of my dad's memorial I was able to catch it and it was the perfect pick me up. I got to spend a little time with the happy couple, meet their families, and even see one of my dearest Denver friends. The only bad part was driving back to my sister's home when I was so tired.

Kate and Kent Martin.

I closed out my final few days in the USA in my favorite big city in the world, New York. I hung out with Betty, as always. We made some biking plans for Jordan and Egypt. Ate a ton of great food that I have been missing. Also, I had a brilliant visit with a high school classmate, James M., that I have not seen in maybe fourteen years. We played soccer and did high school theater together. He also was the one who introduced me to ultimate frisbee way back when. We played 2v2 during high school lunch. He doesn't still play ultimate, but he is acting in NYC which is incredible. He just wrapped up a production of Our Town in SoHo(?). Unfortunately, I can't remember the play he is about to start.

What else . . . I thought I was flying Thursday which was partly true. I had a flight from Paris to Ljubljana on Thursday. My flight out of NYC was on Wednesday which did not leave me as much time to run all the errands that I wanted to run. I got them taken care of, but it was a little more stressful than I would have liked. Also, my passport had not arrived on Wednesday morning. Luckily, it finally came in around noon and everything was set for my trip back to Europe. That flight went off without a hitch. No, I did not check my bag this time.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Škocjan Caves and Ljubljana

I had been biking pretty hard for 10 days straight at this point. If it wasn't a long day, it still had hills. My legs were really missing those rest days. However, I only had two days to get back to Ljubljana. I could take a bus, I could ride it one day, or I could split the big day into two smaller ones. I went with option number three. I would visit some caves on the way and then just make sure I was over half way there. The trick with this was that Piran is at sea level and the caves are not. Time to ride uphill again.

I hope you can tell how vast the Škocjan Caves are from this photo.

These are similar to stalacmites, but the water and minerals come from the overflow from the formation above.

The Škocjan Caves are not as popular or big as the Postojna ones, but I had heard they were better. They don't have as many people and the individual caverns are larger. I have been in a number of cave systems, but this one had the biggest caverns I had ever seen. We started our two hour tour in a dry area of the cave filled with stalactites, stalacmites, and columns. However, then we moved over to where the river currently was and saw a couple caverns that were larger than I could have imagined. You could put large skyscrapers into some of them. They had lights in all of the big caverns, but they could barely illuminate the giant area. I really wish I had my fancy camera to try and take some more photos to show you what it was like. All I can really stress is that they were beautiful and immense. They dwarfed and awed us. No words will describe how awesome they are. Factoid from the tour: Slovenia gave us the word karst. It is the name of the area where the caves are, but also now means ' landscape shaped by the dissolution of layer layers of soluble bedrock, usually carbonate rock such as limestone.'

Škocjan Caves bridge (photo by a professional)

Trying to give a little perspective about the size of the cave.

When I was done with the caves, I wanted to bike for another hour or so to make the next day easier. After talking to one of the guides, I learned that I would be going uphill 300m to Postojna. After that, it would pretty much be downhill to Ljubljana. It hurt, but I just pumping until I made it. When I got there, I looked for the camping in town, but could not find it. I went to the recommended hostel, but it was full. I was directed to camping around 3km out of town. It turned out to be more like 7km and after 5km, I just pulled off into the woods to sleep instead. This was my first freedom camping in Slovenia. I could hear lots of critters running around, but very few cars. I barely even unpacked I was so tired.

Log, log, it's big, it's heavy, it's wood. I believe this is the third village called Log that I found in Slovenia.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Italy and Adriatic Slovenia (Piran)

Adriatic Slovenia looks a lot like Italy.

If someone told me the foundations of this house were from Roman times, I would not bat an eye.

After leaving the Soca Valley, I entered Slovenia's wine country, home of their famous Teran red wine). As most of you know, I am not a wine lover so I didn't really appreciate the area I was in. The scenery was beautiful to look at, I just didn't want to drink it. Each town, seemed medieval. There didn't seem to be a city plan beyond the main road. You could easily get lost in all the wonderful side streets. Just off the main road in one town, I found a street fair. I am not sure what the occasion was, but they had all types of local wine, honey, honey liquor, food, and lots of other local stuff for sale. It was treat, almost as good as the morning market.

This little alley led me to a fabulous street fair.

While I was there, I made the impulsive decision to buy two bottles of wine as gifts. My thought was that I could give one to the people storing my bike and maybe take the other one home. The trick was I have to carry in on my bike and you can't take wine on the plane. When I started biking, I weighed a lot more and was top heavy. As I said, I didn't think it through.

When I was leaving, I got a little bit lost. There wasn't a sign to the next town I was in. She told me to go 5km back the way I came. I showed her my map that said there was a road ahead. She said yes, there was, but it was very narrow. I was on a bike so I didn't care if it was narrow. It turns out that narrow, means gravel. It was an adventure.

Now enterting gelato country.

A flower market down the street from the weekly church festival.

After finding my way back to a paved road, I headed for Italy. I believed I could shorten up my ride AND get some gelato from those who made it first. Unfortunately, gelato was hard to come by. The first two towns that I passed through did not have any, though one had a super busy church bazaar going on that was a lot of fun. Everyone was up there hanging out with this amazing view of the valley and eating. To some of my friends in the states, church means community and this is definitely what this was.

The Italians are kings of making any place a spot to lay out along the Adriatic Sea, but the Slovenians were a close second.

All the roads I was on were turning me towards Treiste, an industrial center, that was out of my way. I tried to use my map to get me back to where I was supposed to be, but I don't think I ever made it. I did end up making the choice to stay in Italy a little bit longer to ensure I found gelato instead of commerical made hard ice cream. I finally arrived at the cute seaside town of Muggia. It had the bright colors, narrow streets, a tiny harbor, and gelato. It was not hanging out the window like normal, but stashed away inside a harbor side restaurant. It was delicious. I made three different orders and had 6-7 different flavors. I was in heaven listening to the music pouring out of the loud speakers by the harbor eating frozen goodness.

Muggia, Italy's inner harbor and castle and my gelato stop.

After Italy, it was time to get to Piran, Slovenia. It is supposed to be a lot like Venice, but without the canals. On the way there, I had my first bike wreck. I was on a car roundabout that has special bike lanes that I hate. I'd prefer to just ride on the road, but I am trying to respect that they have taken the time to build the lane and that drivers respect the lanes. This bike lane had a one inch lip that I didn't see and it took me down. My video camera went flying out of my easy access pocket as my bike, two brand new bottles of wine, and me hit the pavement. Luckily, we were all fine. The only casualty was my back rack. I was able to zip tie it back together though. I'll probably just leave it as it until I get home.

A tunnel just for bikes and pedestrians!

When I dusted myself off, I found a proper bike trail and followed the ocean almost all the way to Piran. When I was a town away, I had to switch to the highway, but soon saw signs for another bike trail that I had been seeing on and off all day but had not taken. I figured I would give it a shot. It took me to this amazing half kilometer tunnel for bikes. I have never been in a tunnel that large just for bikes. Unfortunately, that tunnel took me through the mountain and past the peninsula that Piran is on.

Piran, Slovenia at sunrise.

Piran waterfront and castle.

Piran's harbor.

Venice or Piran? Italy or Slovenia? I knew it was in Slovenia, but kept saying Italy.

The Piran city walls at sunrise.

To get to Piran now, I was going to have to go back north but stick to the water. Before I set out though, I stripped down to my biking underwear and took a swim. I was hesitant at first, but then I remember than every bathing suit in Europe clung tighter and was made up of less fabric than I had on. To dry off, I laid in the grass and then just went biking in my underwear. It seemed weird, but was perfectly acceptable.

The colorful streets of Piran, Slovenia.

I cannot imagine riding a scooter is fun here.

I love the sun at the entrance to the house.

The laundry hanging streets of Piran, Slovenia.

I finally got to Piran and it was great. I was bordering on too tired to enjoy it, but some pizza and a quick nap took care of that. While I was eating, there were more great people and more great hospitality. Afterward, more gelato. Even though I can tell you that Piran is in Slovenia, it felt like Italy. I am not sure if that was because I had been in Italy just five hours earlier or if it just looked like Italy. When I was captioning my pictures for this blog, I was still writing Piran, Italy instead of Piran, Slovenia. It just had that feel and it is a great one. That night I caught part of their Ms. Adriatic Alps beauty contest. The little bit I saw was the same as the US, though I have never seen one in person in the states. In the morning, I caught sunrise on the old city walls and then wandered the streets some more. After a long chat with a fashion designer from Portugal, it was time to hit the road. I had two days left to catch a flight and get my camera back.

This is the first bicycle roundabout I have ever seen, located in Koper, Slovenia.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Vrsic Pass and the Soca Valley

My morning weather outlook looked favorable.

The next morning, they assured me it was still going to be wet and miserable. One man said it might even snow. I went with eternal optimism and swore the sun would be out. At 5am, I could see a single star in the sky between the clouds. That was enough for me to hit the road. I might not get the views, but I could at least get a chance at staying dry.

200m from the top and 17 cobble stone switch backs in, it was still cloudy, but dry.

I got to town, took a right, and started the 800m ascent over 12km. There were no other bikers and only a few cars. Mostly, it was just the birds, clouds, and me. It was very peaceful until I got to each cobblestone switchback. I have no idea why they have paved the road but left the big curves as cobblestone. Some of them looked like they had been paved, but then had reverted to cobblestone. I feel like that would be terrible in the winter, but I have never tried it so I could be wrong.

A unforeseen break in the clouds at 1500m!

The day before, I had been pretty bummed about not getting to cross Vrsic pass in good weather. I had heard so many people rave about its views. However, this morning I was not bummed. I was just happy to not be wet and cold on the ride. I was also trying to replicate the peaceful riding of my previous day's climb. Somewhere in the acceptance of what is instead of what I wanted though, the sun broke through. Up until 1400m, I had no idea the sun would come out at all. Then suddenly, I turned on a switchback, was above the clouds, and could start to see the mountains. I was so excited to get such an unexpected treat. There were so many clouds pushing in on all sides though that I decided I better hurry to the top to get a good look around. That last for about ten seconds before my legs said they were tired and I went back to my slow, soak up view, pace. That worked a lot better.

1611m there less clouds, but there were plenty of dark ones near by.

At the top, there were a couple cars in a pay parking lot. I asked the attendant why they were there and she pointed a couple hikes. I had really wanted to do a hike in the area, felt I had the time since I started so early, and thought the weather might hold so I went for it. I went towards the shortest one she pointed out which was Mala Mojstrovka (2332m). When I got to the back side of the rock and started the real ascent, you had to use metal hand and foot holds that had been placed by climbers. There was even a cable to hold on to or clip into. I quickly caught up to some people in full harnesses and helmets. When I saw that, I turned back because I didn't have the equipment for a serious climb. I assumed it would get harder and didn't have a guidebook to confirm. However, on my way down I ran into a couple who did have a book and said the climbing should be easy enough. The steel cable was for added safety. I trusted him and started climbing again.

A view from the top of Mala Mojstrovka (2332m).

A view from the top of Mala Mojstrovka (2332m).

Without having to clip in every 2 meters, I was able to move quickly. Even if I had the safety equipment, I would have used it for the entire climb. I would have gotten impatient. I would have just used on the places were a long fall was the only option if you made a mistake. I was surprised they had a public trail there. I have not done rock climbing enough to fully appreciate the difference between sport (where they leave stuff in the rock to make it climbable) and traditional where you don't leave anything in the rock to create handholds, but this felt like what sport climbing might be. There was no way I should have been on that mountain without the extra stuff in the rock. I don't think I liked it. Sure, it was great to be able to go somewhere on what turned out to be a beautiful day, but I think I'd avoid a hike like that in favor of one I can traditionally in the future. Of course, this might just be me not wanting to have so many places to fall to my death from.

360 view from Mala Mojstrovka (2332m).

The view from the top was great. It wasn't the largest peak in the area, but it gave a great view of where I had been and where I was going. The entire time I was climbing, it looked like the clouds were going to roll in. Luckily, it didn't. The weather held the entire time I was up there and descending. On the descent, I met entire families with their kids clipped in climbing up. That was pretty cool.

The descent was a lot scarier than the ascent.

In the states, I don't think we would make a trail like this these today, but maybe back then.

A view to the south where I was going.

When I reached the bottom, it was a very different scene that I had left. There was not a single place left to park. There was a herd of sheep passing through. It was warm. The sun was out. It was a beautiful day. I hopped on my bike for the descent and had hope to go whipping through the turns. Unfortunately, I was thwarted. There were too many slow cars in front of me and I did not feel comfortable passing them. I should have. I was flying. I don't understand why bicycles can handle switchbacks so much better. Maybe it is because we can lean into the turns more.

I have no idea what this sheep was trying to eat.

A view from the Vrsic Pass descent.

I love this sign. I am not sure if it is warning bikers or drivers.

A video of part of the Vrsic Pass descent.

Other than getting held up by cars, the descent into the Soca Valley was fun. As I got to the bottom, I took a quick side trip to the spring that the Soca River rises from. It is weird because there is so little water coming out at the spring, but just a kilometer away is a full river. The Soca river is supposed to be the most beautiful in Slovenia due to its turquoise color and great surroundings of Triglav National Park. I am inclined to agree, especially since I expected to be riding in clouds.

The Soca river.

I stopped to check my map and this tom looked like it was going to get territorial on me.

A farm in the Julian Alps.

Soca River footbridge.

Soca River bend.

Soca River troughs.

A town in the Soca River valley.

A waterfall springs from the side of the mountain.

I basically followed the river all the way until it entered Italy. Around 3pm, it started to rain again. I dodged the one down pour by hiding in a bus shelter for an hour and taking a nap. After that, I saw the two Spanish guys eating pizza. I could not believe I had caught up to them. It was great to chat with them again and see how their ride had been. At I got to Nova Gorica, I decided to possibly call it a night. I had hoped to bike enough to get my rest day back, but the double ascent on bike and on foot had put a hurting on my legs. The rain was not helping either. Unfortunately, the tourist center was closed and the roads out of town were also not clearly marked. Luckily, just as I was just about to start making some clever mistakes a tipsy German lady approached me who was on the first day of her bike tour. She showed me the way to the hostel, which is or was a college dorm during the school year. They made the decision to stay the night a lot easier. I have definitely been choosing the path of least resistance more and more on my trip. My hostel host, Dasha, was once again brilliant. The only thing she knew about America was Yosemite because she wants to go climb there.

Kanal, Slovenia in the Soca Valley.

Kanal, Slovenia

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj, Slovenia in the Julian Alps

When I was going through my Tatras mountain pictures, I was not sure if I picked so many to share because they were all so good or all so average. For this set, I had the same problem picking out a few great pictures because the Julian Alps are gorgeous. A monkey with a throwaway camera would bring home great images. Enjoy!

Glacial Lake Bled

I did not get out of Kranj as early as I would have liked. I was figuring out the European financial system to wire money for my camera. Once I got riding, I just couldn't get the same kind of tempo that I had the day before. I think I was a little tired, but I also think I had let the camera stuff carry over mentally because I love to dwell on the things that I cannot control. It didn't help that I was busy fighting against getting lost the whole morning too. The roads just were not as clearly marked unless you were taking the autobahn. Oh well. I made it and it was stunning.

I thought once birds left the nest they usually fed themselves. This chick would wait for its parent to pick the bread up and put it in the chick's mouth. It would not forage on its own at all.

Lake Bled, Bled Castle, and Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church.

When you roll up to Bled, it is like rolling up to one of the towns on Martha's Vineyard in the summer. It is overrun with cars and people. You can't quite figure out where to go. It is a bit overwhelming and not clearly laid out. However, once you get into town a little farther and understand where you are, it is amazing. Lake Bled's color is amazing. Bled Castle looks like it could tumble off its 460 foot cliff at any moment and fall into the lake. The Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage church steps cling to the water of its small island. Put it all together and the view is breathtaking. I sat down and had my lunch to soak it all in. I also needed time to soak in the heaviest pastry I have ever had in my life. Instead of 3" by 3" fluffiness, it was a quarter pound of oily cottage cheese and bread.

Lake Bohinj.

Boating on Lake Bohinj.

I did not stay in Bled as long as I expected. It was beautiful, but the sheer number of people scared me off. A Slovenian told me Bled makes a good kremne rezine (cream cake) which is supposed be a backhanded compliment about how well put together Bled is for the tourist. That same person recommended heading over to Lake Bohinj, which is quieter, closer to nature, and a little better for my schedule. I followed their advice and was very happy.

This is brilliant for boaters without a trailer.

Lake Bohinj rowboats on a foggy morning.

It took me two tries to find my hostel but as soon as I did I was in the lake swimming around. It wasn't crowded and it was incredibly warm for a glacial lake. There were ten people sharing the dock and if I had walked a hundred meters away I would have been alone. I guess my shoulder didn't really let me swim around much, but just jumping in and flopping about felt wonderful. I got to wash the day's sweat off, cool down, and relax. I finished off my relaxing with a great nap. I have not spent nearly enough time on R&R this trip.

Lake Bohinj sailboats on a foggy morning.

Lake Bohinj.

After I woke up from my afternoon nap, I hiked around the lake and finished up in town, which included about three restaurants and a bar, but a canal converted into a stage with a live band was dominating the non-dinner scene. I don't know who they were, but at some point I swear they played a version of the Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane in Slovenian with an accordion. That was unique. The 2km walk home in the dark under the bright stars was wonderful. They were so bright someone might have been reaching down with the Big Dipper to get a drink out of the lake.

Straw drying rack make up the walls of these 'garages'

The great view from the start of the mountain road back to Bled.

Mountain village.

My original plan was to bike from Lake Bohinj, back towards Bled, and then up over Vrsic Pass in one day. However, there was a second road from Bled that cut across the national park that was supposed to be gorgeous that had a ton of vertical. I thought it would be a treat to see some new terrain (instead of going back on the same road) and get up into the park since I was not going to have time to do a backwoods hike. I had no where to be, went slow, and just soaked up scenery. Going so slow made the day a whole lot easier and enjoyable. I did not know how far I needed to go and didn't car. My only plan was to make it to Bled by nightfall to hopefully meet up with an Ice friend who was living in Germany.

Mountain farming is gorgeous farming.

I refuse to believe that whoever named this company does not speak English.

A nice way to fancy up your security bars. We should do this in the states.

For my second visit to Bled, I went to Vintgar Gorge. The clear turquoise water has cut an path through the rock to form the 1.6km gorge. About a quarter of that length is steep walls. The rest opens up more into a stream than a steep walled gorge, but it is still beautiful. Even though there were so many of us walking through, it was very serene. I wanted to stay there for hours and just listen to the water passing by. They had a wooden walkway down the entire gorge, but it didn't ruin the experience. It worked. I do not know how deep the water was, but you could see to the bottom for most of it. The gorge was windy enough that you could never quite see what was ahead. There was always a new surprise around the corner.

Vintgar gorge.

Vintgar gorge.

A slap (waterfall in Slovenian) at the end of Vintgar gorge.

A video tour of Vintgar gorge, just outside of Bled.

After visiting the gorge, I tried to find milk. This was not as simple of a task as you might think. First, I had to find a grocery store. Normally, there is one every couple blocks but in Bled the tourist shops have pushed out the markets. Once I found one, I went in looking for a carton with the mleko on it. I got kislo mleko opened it up, took a swig, and had to fight to not spit the partially curdled liquid back out. I went in and got something else with mleko on it from the cold section. No swig, but same problem. Finally, I found something on the shelf that was passable.

I biked over to my campsite and wanted to eat before setting up camp because I was so hungry. As I was finishing, it started to drizzle. As I checked into the campsite, it started to pour. I just waited until it rained itself out and then spent a half hour finding a campsite. They never sell out of tent sites, but you could have fooled me. I settled into sleep and hoped that the storm had blown itself out so rest of the night would be dry. I hate putting away a wet tent.

River in the Julian Alps.

In the morning, I put away my tent quickly. It was mostly dry, but it looked like more rain might be on the way. As I was getting ready to leave camp and start my ride to Vrsic Pass, that rain came as a down pour. I turned around and hid in the registration lobby instead. Luckily, it let up and I got on my way. I was taking another mountain route instead of the main road. It was cloudy the whole day, but it was still beautiful. Unfortunately, the rain was still coming down when I got to Vrsic Pass. I had the choice to go up and descend in the rain which would probably be pretty dangerous or just wait it out. I chose to wait. I saw two Spanish guys choose to ride up because they did not have any extra days left.

Mountain agriculture.

Another mountain village.

I started out my wait in a wood fired pizza joint. After an hour, the rain was still coming and the weather forecast said it would hang around with a possible break in the morning. I was really torn. I had already lost one rest day and this would eat up the other. Eventually, I decided to stay the night and hope for the best in the morning. It couldn't really be worse. I checked into the Pr' tatko hostel, drank a couple cups of Oregon Chai, and watched the rain come down. It cleared up for two short hours, but other than, wet, wet, and wet. It was the perfect movie and nap day even though I didn't do either. The staff at the hostel was brilliant. I was one of two guests for most of the night and we spent the evening talking about running a hostel, politics, hiking in the area, and anything else we could lay our minds to. They gave me some home made honey wine that was so sugary even I liked it. It was a great night. I'd go back.

Bee keeping in style.