Last December, I decided to check out Costa Rica. I had read several good things about retiring in Costa Rica. It is a country highly rated for it’s ecological beauty and diversity of species. It is a popular location for expats due to low costs, a great climate and easy life style. A couple of years ago, I spent two weeks in Ecuador studying Spanish and I knew it can be an great way to get to know a country. In the morning, you have lessons for 4 hours and then in the afternoon and evening, you can explore. You are learning the language and have a support system through your school to help things along.
So one day last month, I was browsing through Trip Advisor and found a review for this Spanish program. They have two locations. One is in the central highlands in Heredia and the other on the Pacific coast in Samara. The program had high scores from many reviewers so I checked out their website, thought about it for about a day and booked my flight.
I left Portland, wet and cold, stopped over for a night in unseasonably warm Atlanta and landed last Saturday late at night in San Jose. Weather here in January is like summer in Oregon. The school arranged a homestay for me and my “Mama Tico” met me at the airport and brought me home. The reason I have quotes around “Mama Tico” is that Nuria is slightly younger than me. She’s worked with the school for many years and is well versed in helping us studiantes. I have my own room with an ensuite bath. She feeds me both breakfast and dinner. The meals are typical Costa Rican meals. I believe with all the fresh fruits and veggies, I am eating healthier. Home is a 15 minute walk away from the school so I get some exercise too.
Heredia is a fairly large town and most everything I need is within walking distance. The streets are a bit crazy, a lot of one way streets full of potholes and narrow streets. I have learned to cross the streets with care and a prayer on my lips. Nearby the school are quite a few “sodas”, small family cafes, where I can get a typical lunch for $5-$7. Lunch is normally a small portion of beef, chicken or fish, rice, beans, veggies, fried plantains and a fruit drink. Filling and tasty. I have liked all of them so far.
The school is well run. We had an orientation early the first day and a brief interview to fit us into a class. As I had a little bit of Spanish, I was put in the 2nd level beginners class. The classes are small, only 5 in my group. I liked my teacher and enjoyed getting to know the others in my class. There is a mix of recent college grads and others my age. In the group that started with me one lady was in my class and the others spread out through about 6 different levels. The school teaches both Spanish and also teaches English to Spanish speakers. There are both small groups and individuals attending. The facilities are small, so are the classes and there are activities and tours you can join.
On the first day after classes, new arrivals get a city tour of the area around the school so you get oriented. They give you basic tips for survival and ways to make the most of your stay. Overall, I have been impressed with the quality and support at the school. Classes include humor and some games. Best of all, I passed my first week! I was sure I had forgotten everything I learned in Ecuador.
Yesterday, Saturday, I went to the farmer’s market, which is just around the corner from where I am staying. Pretty cool market, mostly fruit and veg with some fish, cheese and meat. There was little of the manufactured “stuff” you get at some markets. Zero clothes and household goods. I had my first green coconut. They use a machete to chop off the top and give you a straw to drink the coconut water. Then you can get them to cut it in half and scoop out the coconut that we normally see as dried strands. I saw fruits and veggies I had never seen before. I went with my landlady’s maid, really just stumbling behind gawking at it all. She picked up all the produce we need for three for a week for about $25. That’s for the three of us. That included a 10lb bag of oranges that Raquel hand squeezes for breakfast.
Later in the morning, I went to the dentist. I got my teeth cleaned and two cavities filled for $120. The place was clean and modern and the dentist, a nice young woman, spoke nearly perfect English. As I left, she handed me the same free toothbrush and small tube of Colgate that my Livermore dentist always gave me. The only thing missing was the lecture about flossing more. I like it. Or as they say in Spanish, “me gusta mucho”.
I have also been to see a bird sanctuary, “Zoo Ave”, a Walmart and a large modern Mall. The bird sanctuary was good on the birds, they have large aviaries with native vegetation. I have never seen as many turtles as this place. I counted 3 huge ones, like over 300 lbs sized. In another enclosure there was about two dozen and I think I saw two of them trying to make baby turtles.
Today, Sunday, I checked put the local Walmart. Research on prices and availability. You know, just in case I decide to come back and stay a while. Some things are less expensive than Oregon and some things are more. Some are the same items and some are new and different. Overall the stock seems to be sufficient to “muddle along”. That’s supposed to be funny, so you can now. I then took a taxi, ten minutes and $3.00 to the big mall. This one exceeded my experience in both California and Oregon. I enjoyed the people watching the most. The place was packed with families. There is lots for kids there and the whole mall is open until 9:00 pm – and on a Sunday. So as far as I can see, you can get just about anything here that you could get in the US.
This post has gotten a bit long so I will close and save some for next week. I still owe you all my New Zealand adventures and I promise they are coming. Stay tuned and stay safe.
Hi there, this may only be a quick posting to let you know I am fine….cold, but fine. It is wet, windy and cold here in Dunedin, which is on the south island on the east coast. Dunedin is a very picturesque city with several attractions. I am now in a campervan touring around the South Island. The weather has limited some of the places I’d like to visit and to be honest, I’m a little frustrated. And cold, did I mention it was cold here? I packed and planned expecting springtime and while this is spring, it seems like a cold wet March back at home. The weather predictions are less inspiring so it may be a while before I get my desires met.
So, I did have a great day on Sunday at a place called Larnach Castle. It is located on the Otago peninsula near Dunedin. Sunday was a pleasant day with sunshine and just a slight breeze. The castle was built between 1870 and 1879 by William Larnach a banker/investor/policitian. He is remarkable in that he had 3 wives (sequentially rather than all at once) and that he committed suicide in Parliment in 1898 after suffering financial losses and the rumors of an affair between his third wife and second son. The place was in ruins when a family bought it in the 1960s and restored the grounds and house. The gardens alone are worth the price of admission. While there were several other guests that day, there were many moments when I had the gardens to myself. The birdsong, especially the bellbird, was something I really enjoyed. The castle itself was wonderfully restored and I loved the way the owners curated the rooms. If the offer is ever extended, I could see myself on a long weekend staying in the place very comforatably. The bathtub on the second floor alone would be enticing. It was solid stone and modeled after a tub from ancient Greece.
Yesterday, while the weather was a little colder and cloudier, I managed a visit to the Cadbury Factory. Double yum. I picked up a few edible souveniers in the gift shop. After seeing all the chocolate in the production area, I had chocolate on my mind. I also was able to visit the Dunedin Chinese Garden and that was a real treat. While the area is small, it feels larger. The garden in modeled on a typical scholar’s garden. They started with a large rectangle with four walls and then filled in the middle with a pond, man-made mountain of stones from China and little walkways and bridges around the edges and through the middle. It was very peaceful as there were very other guests for me to share the area. The walkways, windows and angles present a multitude of photo opportunities. If you are ever in the area, this is the place to come.
So, I’m going to post this much for now. I’ve decided to use today as an opportunity to work on pictures and the blog, so I should have move for you soon. Part of me is frustrated at myself for staying indoors instead of exploring. The other part of me is just plain cold and wants to stay warm.
So, you may have wondered where I got to. I am now in Picton, New Zealand. I had planned to spend time on this blog during August to organize and update my posts and add photos. Needless to say, time got away from me and I am very behind. True to my procrastinator nature, I kept thinking I would get to it tomorrow. So I have returned from Europe, finished out my working career, sold my house, moved in with my mother, taken a trip to Colorado and a trip to Eureka California and have been in New Zealand for 18 days already. I finally got my photos copied onto my computer and organized into folders. I having been traveling every couple of days and I need to slow this train done and give myself a couple of quiet days to just work on the computer. I think that will happen next week when I get to Queenstown. I plan to just stay in one place for a bit. In the meantime, I wanted to get at least one post out to let my friends know that I am well and safe. I am enjoying New Zealand. It is a beautiful country and I think I will really enjoy this time. After all, I am retired now!!! The only deadlines are my own and the only decisions are mine.
Arriving in Munich, I was exhausted. I had a couchette bed in a six person berth and I was on the top berth. My feet were wet from tramping around Florence (totally worth it) and I was chilled through and through. It was pretty noisy in the compartment and I had to lean instead of sitting up in my berth.
I had yet to book a room in Munich as my normal websites had nothing listed as available less than $100. I stashed my bag in the train station. I love the ability to dump off my bag for a few hours and the costs is worth it. I found a Starbucks….with free WIFI and kept searching for rooms. Then I started wandering the streets near the station. The third hostel fortunately had a room for me for three days. It was actually one of the best rooms I had the entire trip. Nice big lockers and convenient plug points for charging the phone. I scurried off then to find the famous Glockenspiel in the ceNter of town. Munich was very full due to the Special Olympics and some festival so there was a lot of people around. I found the Glockenspiel and waited around for the performance, which started out kind of slow and then more of the animated pieces started spinning round about. This part of town was pretty developed as a high street with high end shops and tourist spots. I did find a street market full of produce, flowers and beer gardens. The sun was shining, I was charmed by the variety and the people watching potential.
In the evening I located the famous Hof Brau and treated myself to a selection of bavarian bread and a roasted pig knuckle and….a beer. I was only able to finish about half of everything. The portions were huge and it seemed like the beer mug held a gallon. There was singing and everyone was sharing big wooden tables and benches. A couple of guys sat near me and tried to convince me to finish my beer. I am sorry to say, I think I left them with an impression that American women are lightweight drinkers.
The next day, I took a train to where I thought I could get to the Neuschwanstein castle of the mad king Ludwig. I thought it might be cheaper to get a tour from a local town. Well, I outsmarted myself and found myself trying to figure out the local bus map. I was lucky to meet up with a group of four Korean ladies looking for the same bus and we compared notes and banded together. We wound up on a local bus winding our way to the castle and getting to see a lot of the countryside.
The castles, there are two, were amazing. So one castle is the old family palace and the second, more famous one is actually the one that was built by Ludwig and never finish, never really occupied. The wall murals on both were truly amazing. Unfortunately, we were precluded from taking pictures of the inside so I only got photos of the outside. The visit was really a full day excursion, which only got longer on the way home. I took a shorter bus to a different train station. Due to work on the rail lines, we had a train ride, bus bridge and another train ride. Communication about this was pretty much garbled and so a few of the tourists started getting testy. The guy next to me on the bus was really upset at the lack of air conditioning and quite vocal about it.
Then, it had to happen…first sniffles and then coughing. Yep, I was getting a cold. I felt bad for my roommates, four very cute, charming young men from Portland Oregon. Just my luck to be sharing a room with some hotties and I have a red nose and sneezing fits. They were very cute and very nice. Know some women might cringe at sharing a dorm room with guys, me, I just enjoyed the view.
I used my last day of my Eurail pass to get to Brussels where I treated myself to a room of my own. It was a bit of a nightmare finding the place. Supposedly it was a 10 minute walk to the hotel and I suppose over flat ground and in a straight line it would have been 10 minutes. Since I made an abortive attempt, came back, tried to get a taxi…15 Euros??…forget it!!, tried to find a map in the train station….no we don’t have information here….but why is your desk under an information sign????…found a newsagent and bought a map of Brussels, found the street on the map, back out of the station, yes I originally was going the right way, it really is up this steep hill, finally found the place about an hour later with a bus stop right in front of the door…..and the next stop was the train station. Arrggggghhhhh!!!
It was a good thing I packed light. The elevator was so small that I walked into it and couldn’t turn around. As the elevator rose to the third floor, I could hear my pack scrapping against the walls. I backed out of the elevator and squeezed down the hall to my room, my own room with my own bath and TV. Yeah! I watched TV most of the night, mostly news from the UK.
My Eurail pass was finished and I bought a bus ticket from Brussels to London. Two things of note. A kid had left his gum on the seat and I first noticed it when we got to customs just prior to the channel crossing. Nice! Second, the bus drove onto a train and then the train went through the Chunnel, the undersea tunnel between France and England. Wow, that was fun. The train car sort of comes apart, opening up so the bus can drive on and then the sides fold back up around totally enclosing the bus. It seemed like a cross between being swallowed by a whale like Jonah and being in a transformers movie.
I got into London early evening and my flight left early the next morning. I decided that rather than check into a hotel or hostel, I would spend a few hours in town and then take the Underground out to Heathrow about midnight. My flight left at six am which means a check-in time of 4 and the associated hassle of getting to the airport from the center of town early. I would have needed to check out of a hostel about 2:30 am. So, the best part of spending the night at Heathrow is that there is little competition for using the outlets to charge my electronics. The worst part is there is little seating to be found near those outlets and the floors are really hard and cold. They are very clean though at that time of the morning.
So, my trial run retirement was over and I was headed home. In many ways I was eager to be going home. I was tired of sharing a room and tired of moving on every three days. In other ways, I was just getting in the groove of traveling and starting to see it as my norm. I learned a lot on this trip. I just hope the learning sticks and I can convince myself to slow down and enjoy the journey rather than racking up cities/countries.
I have written this installment several months after my return. My mind has softened the edges and colored all the memories in rosy hues. I am sure that it was both better and worse than I remembered which is the blessing of time.
I am combining my Italian stops into one post as I spent only an hour in Ancona, 8 hours in Florence and just two days in Rome. When I left off on the Split story, I was taking the overnight ferry from Split to Ancona. Being the bargain hunter that I am (some things) I opted for a seat instead of a shared cabin which would have been twice the price and a 100% more comfortable. The trip was 12 hours and I spent it reading in the nearly empty lounge of airline like seats. I managed to nap a little by propping my bag up to rest my legs and reclining as far as I could in the seat. It was other than restful and I was happy to get off the ferry, so happy that I was one of the first in line and the first walking passenger to pass through Italian customs. After that, I checked in at the taxi stand to see how much it would cost to get a ride to the train station. They said 15 Euros and I started walking. The guy I met in Split told me it took about 20 minutes to walk and I had used Google maps to look for diections earlier. So loaded with the backpack, I headed off, hoping to arrive in time for the 8:35 train to Rome. I made it with 4 minutes to spare and zero cost to me. It turned out to be a thirty minute hike for me, in the fresh morning air and I felt great.
It was a nice trainride and I enjoyed seeing the Italian countryside,very green and clean. Arriving in Rome was another matter. I first stopped at the ticket office to arrange my next train ride as I had read the trains were full in Italy and you need to reserve in advance. The guy at the Eurail info desk was rude and short with everyone and directed me to one of the long lines at the ticket windows. It took about an hour and a half to get to the front of the line and everyone there was starting to frazzle. I had a very nice lady that got me a reservation to Florence and then a couchette to Munich. I then set off to find my room for the next two nights. When looking online, I found few options and the cheapest was a camping site on the outskirts of town. It was a metro ride and then train ride to a suburb and then the camping site had a shuttle to take you the last bit. The metro was torn up and under construction and the regional train was covered in graffitti. The graffitti covered the windows so muchthat it was hard to see the station name signs, those that weren’t covered in graffitti themselves. Luckily, I had downloaded a Rome metro app to my iPhone before I left Split.
The campground was tucked into a valley among some apartment blocks and was kind of cute. I had a little wooden hut on a trailer base. They had a cluster of these huts, rustic wood cabins with just enough room for two single beds. The bathrooms were in a common area and looked like a campground. The room was only $12 for the night. They had a little store, restaurant, pizzaria and a pool area. In order to buy anything at the store, you had to buy one of the camp cards for 30 euros cash. I had neglected to pick up some cash while I was in Rome and had neglected to pick up any food or water. So I am stuck in the boonies with just 10 euros, no food and it has been nearly 24 hours since I last ate. I am fed up and near tears so the recptionist gives the store guy permission to take cash from me so I can buy a bottle of water and some snack cakes. I sit down in the only area where there is wifi and look for a new hostel. I couldn’t find anything for that night, but I do find a bed for the next night back in the center of Rome.
The next morning I get up early and I am on the first shuttle back to town. The regional train is packed, standing room only. The metro is almost empty at quarter to nine. My new location is easy to find and I go there just to drop my backpack off. There I meet the manager and she is very helpful, assigns me a locker to store my bag, explains how the hostel works, gives me a map and directions for a walking tour of the highlights. I perk up and start to think this is going to be good.
It was walking distance from the Coleseum and so I head there first and run into a group watching a marathon, some runners/walkers are in “Race for the Cure” tee shirts and part of the street is blocked off for a girls volleyball tournament.that was fun to watch.
I then walked over to the entrance to the coleseum where individuals are standing in a long line for tickets. Instead of waiting for an hour for a ticket, I joined a group which cut through the line. The tour leader was an Italian lady and her middle name must have been Tedious. She repeated everything three times, drawing everything out. It was nice to walk through the ruins. I am a fan of all this ancient and I expect to love it. There were just so many people that it was difficult to move around. I walked back up to the central train station and bought a ticket on one of the hop-on, hop-off buses. First I stopped for some lunch….which was a mistake. Half way through the bus tour, I realize I needed a bathroom and fast! At the stop for the Vatican, I hopped off and started looking. I found some kind of bus garage that had what I needed…relief.
I still felt miserable so I just hopped back on the bus, now it was raining and rode to the stop closest to my hostel. When it rains in Rome, the umbrella salesmen bloom and I picked my third umbrella of the trip, a purple one. I stopped at grocery and picked up some bread rolls and water and snacks for the evening and then scuttled back to the hostel for the evening. There I was in the city of Rome and I am holed up in a dark hostel room feeling sorry for myself and ready to leave.
I really wanted to love Rome. I studied ancient Rome so much and was looking forward to seeing all the historical sights. Whether it was the weather or the pervasive graffitti or just travel burn out, I was eager to leave. My love affair in Rome will just have to wait for another trip.
I took an early train out the next morning to Florence. I only had 8-9 hours to spend there before my night train to Munich. And what a difference a day makes. I loved Florence, or Firenze as they call it in Italy. I stashed my backback at the station and bought the hop-on, hop off bus ticket. They had two circuits and for the price of 16 euros, I could ride both circuits all day long. They gave you earphones and you can plug into the audio guide and select your language. I first did the blue circuit which takes an hour and I was enchanted by all the streets and sights. At the end of that circuit it was starting to sprinkle a bit and I wandered off to find lunch. I found a picture perfect trattoria a few blocks from the train station and decided to treat myself. This place has been in business since the year I was born (I am not telling, don’t ask) there were breadsticks on the table and I had spaghetti bolonese, Osso Bucco and Fagioli (white beans) Tuscan style. Best meal ever and the waitress was great. I will remember that meal for years to come.
I then went back to the bus and hopped back on for the Red line which was a two hour circuit that went up into the hills on both sides of the town and up to the village of Fiesole. I sat on the upper open desk and the air was brilliant. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining. The hills were so green and the bus drove through tree shaded lanes, the wind from the bus blowing the branches up out of our way. About 30 minutes before the end of the circuit, the rain started again and all of us on the upper deck scrambled down to crowd into the lower deck. I had loved it, so I stayed on and went again for another 2 hours.
I want to live in Florence for at least 2 months sometime. I want to come here and study Italian and learn to cook Spaghetti Bolonese.
After I got off the bus, I wandered around town in the rain some more. I was wet and happy. My camera battery had died,and I was using my iPhone to take a few,”got to have”shots as I made my way back to the train station.
For my next train stage, I had a couchette, which is a compartment with 4-6 bunks. They give you a sheet, blanket and pillow and you sleep in your clothes. I shared the compartment with 3 others and had the top bunk. I could almost sit up in bed if I hunched over. Needless to say it was a long night and I only got a little sleep. My feet and pants were damp from walking in the rain and were still damp by morning which was kind of icky to put my shoes back on. Still it was more comfortable than stting up all night.
So that brings me up to Munich and arriving with no idea of where to stay….
Stay tuned to find out if I find a room…..
I arrived in Split refreshed from my overnight on the train in my own compartment. It was a short walk from the train station to the old part of town, the Diocletian Palace. In Split, I saw my first group of pension touts. People were holding up signs advertising rooms for $10-15 Euros. I had already booked my hostel room and located it on the map. To get there, I walked through part of the market and then entered the palace zone through the Silver Gate. I immediately was popped back in time as I slid over the smooth worn marble pathways. I deliberately skidded my feet to feel how smooth they were.
I found my hostel in a narrow back alley and walked up the four flights of marble stairs. I was able to check in early as my bed was available. I used the wifi to catch up on mail and do some research on the area. Adam from the hotel gave me a map and orientation and I set out to explore. I walked right into a walking tour for two. Our guide was very enthusiastic and pointed out where parts of the palace have been rebuilt overtime. In some buildings you can see windows from Roman, renaisance and gothic periods, all in a row, one on top the other. What was amazing to me was the oldest windows were on top and the newer ones on the bottom.
So who was Diocletian? A roman emperor, who actually governed well for 20 years and then retired from office….instead of being assasinated. He built the palace that is Split as his retirement home. The palace has been ruined and rebuilt and has been continuouslu occupied since the 4th century.
The old part of town is full of narrow twisting alleys. One alley is so narrow that two people can’t pass each other, so the name of the street is “Let me Pass”.
So I really liked my hostel. They introduced guest to each other and organized dinner out. Aside from Prague, this was the only place that really seemed geared to individual travelers. I got to know several of them and was able to exchange reviews and recommendations. The owner was a lot of fun and spoke English excellently. She has traveled herself and knew what travelers like. On my second afternoon, Adam gave us a short walking tour pointing out good places to eat and drink. He also pointed out the big bronze wizard just outside the north, Gold Gate of the palace. We all rubbed his big toe for luck. His toe is shiny gold while the rest of him is a deep vertigri green. What was unexpected was the nail polish on the rest of his toe nails. Kids!!!
Split is kind of small and I was able to see most of it in about a day and a half. I visited the ethnographic museum and the Vestibul where the Klappa signers were performing. Klappa is Dalmation folk singing, sort of an acapella harmonizing. I got their CD on one pass through. The next day I stopped by and there was a school group there of 9-10 year old and they were signing along with the group. Very touching. Because the palace area is small, I had plenty of time to sit in the old square and the sea promenade to people watch. It was very relaxing. The sun was shining and there was a nice breeze to keep it from being too hot.
The second night I was there happened to be the second anniversary of the hostel’s opening so a group of us went out for dinner and then drinks at their local pub. It had been since Prague that I had as much socializing and intelligent conversation. At the pub, I got to meet Baca, a huge chocolate brown lab mix. He had to be the mellowest dog ever. Someone had tied a balloon around his tail and he wasn’t bothered a bit. Of course all the beer he was drinking might have had something to do with it.
One of the guys in my room had just come from Italy on the ferry and after quizzing him, I decided that instead of backtracking to Zagreb, I would take the night ferry across to Ancona and then the train to Rome. I picked up my tickets and then scoped out the ferry building so I would know how long it took to get to the embarcation spot. I also induldged by getting my laundry done for me. Instead of sweating in the laundry. I got to people watch and throw bread crumbs to the pigeons and sparrows, always a relaxing thing to do.
So, Croatia makes my list for a reurn visit, maybe next time, I will take a week to cruise the islands like some of the other guests. Now, I need to keep moving so I can see Rome and Munich and then get back to London for my flight home. I am on the down side of this trip and now counting the days left. About seven before my flight home.
Next installment will be Rome. Spoiler alert…it will be a short visit.
How many of you know where Ljubljana is? Did you have to Google it? Well let me tell you this could be one of my favorites and is definitely on the list of my “got to return to” places. This trip is turning out to be a sampler that is whetting my appetite for more European travel. So how am I going to fit in the rest of the world?
My train from Budapest arrived about 9:00 pm. During the Hungarian part of the trip we were behind schedule and I was worried about arriving late to find my room had been given away (needless worry it turned out). When we crossed into Slovenia the train got back on time and each stop was to the minute of the printed schedule. Still it was dark by the time I got off the train so I was glad that I had taken time prior to leaving Budapest to find the hotel on my map application on the iPad and familiarize myself with the route to my hostel. I was only a 10 minute walk and the streets had enough passing cars and people that I felt safe. Actually, everywhere has seemed pretty safe.
The hostel was actually two floors of a twelve story hotel and I had a shared room with two other girls on the twelfth floor. The normal room had two bunk beds crammed into it and they left the sheets for you to make up the bed yourself. These were kids bunk beds so the lower bunk was too short to sit up while you were in bed. I have to say that they were the worst beds so far. The good news about the room was that the two Spanish girls who were in the room only stayed one night and I had the room to myself for the next two nights. The first night there were several young people having a party in the hall until 3am so it was pretty loud and hard to sleep.
My first full day was a Sunday and in Ljubljana most of the stores were closed. I did a walk round the old city center on my own, taking lots of pictures and getting the lay of the land. There is a river running through the main part of town and Ljubljana has some interesting bridges crossing it. There is the Dragon Bridge with 4 bronze dragons. The 3 bridges which are grouped together in the center of town. There is a middle bridge that was for traffic and when cars started being used they added pedestrian bridges to either side of the old bridge rather than widening it to allow both people and cars to cross safely. Then there is the Butchers Bridge which has glass floors on each side and boys used to sit in boats under the water to watch for girls in skirts going by.
I took the free walking tour that morning as per my routine to get oriented. On the tour we went into the St. Nicholas church and stood at the back briefly during a mass. Wow! The inside was phenomenal. Completely covered in painted frescoes and gilded cornices and flourishes. It was inspiring as well to hear part of the service. The pews were filled with locals so I was a bit awed and only stayed a short minute or two. Our guide told us about the entrance doors which were cast bronze with a relief of the story of the Slovenian people from pagan times up to when they were visited by Pope John Paul.
Most of the downtown is closed to vehicles, so there is almost an air of a theme park as you walk around. I found a nice small restaurant for my main meal, a selection of grilled meats and fresh green salad. As I was walking back to my hostel, the waitress ran after me to bring my camera which I had left behind by accident. Close call and I was so thankful that she came after me.
I have found the Slovenian people so very friendly and helpful. It seems they all speak excellent English…more on that..
I visited the castle high on the hill above the old city, taking the funicular up to the top. There is a museum there which had some fun information along with some replicas of old finds. The thing I like was that since they were replicas they encouraged you to touch them. One of the items was a bone flute, supposedly the oldest musical instrument found in Europe. I also climbed a double spiral staircase (one spiral for going up and one spiral for going down) up the tower to the highest point of the castle and where this giant flag of Ljubljana was whipping in the breeze. It was a clear day so I got some good shots of the city.
They also had a photo exhibition of Steve McCurry, the photographer who shot the Afghan Girl. It was well worth the 10 Euro price to walk though his pictures. He is one of my favorite photographers and when I got to his 9/11 photos I got a bit choked up.
Later that afternoon, I got help from the desk at the hotel to rent a car. They had a special of 31 Euros for a Swatch car. What a fun car to drive! I picked up the car about 4pm and decided to run up north of the city to Bled, a pictures town next to a lake with a small island that has a church on it. The church is famous for weddings and grooms are supposed to carry their new bridge up all 99 steps from the boat dock to the church.
I had heard about Bled and also there was a famous waterfall near Bled. There were several tours listing visits to Bled, however I decided that for about the same cost, I could drive myself and have a little more freedom to explore. I decided to run up quickly on Monday afternoon to find the place and look around…and to be perfectly honest, I was eager to try the famous Bled cream cake. Google it. I will post a picture here when I get home.
So I had a fun ride up to Bled. Getting to the highway turned out to be easy and then I came to a toll booth. I got in to a lane that was automatic, like a Fastrack lane and it looked unsafe to try to switch to one of the lanes that had an attendant, so I drove on through and started worrying about getting a fine for avoiding the toll. On the way back from Bled I used a manned lane to go through and was pulling out my change for the toll. The attendant leaned out and informed me that the car had a sticker on it good for the year and so it was free for me. She spoke perfect English….this is why I say the whole country seems to speak English. Amazing and humbling to me. In the US so few people have more than one language at our command. This reinforces my goal to be fluent in at least one other language. I just need to pick one to focus on. I have dabbled in German, French, Spanish and Turkish so far and I want to learn at least some Russian.
So back to Bled. I found the town and drove around the lake just enjoying the scenery. Green hills with alpine style houses and farms. I stopped in Bled at the tourist information office for a map and a recommendation for a spot to get the cream cake. The lady there directed me across the street to the Park Hotel, which is where the cream cake was invented. I sat in the hotel bar/lounge and had the best ham sandwich, yum and the famous cream cake, triple yum yum yum.
I returned to my hostel, got packed up and ready for an early start and return to Bled. I got to the castle above the town just at 8am when the museum opened. I practically had the place to myself. It was a clear cool morning and I got some great photos of the lake and town. I had fun walking around the castle museum where they had some recreations of people and their dress of the different times. They had a little printing exhibit with a hand press. It was like a Gutenberg press. For a small fee you could choose a sheet of hand made paper, a wood cut scene of the area and have you name added to the printing plate and press a souvenir page on the press. The printer, in middle age costume, set up the press and inked it up, put in the paper and then let me pull the handle of the press. It takes a lot of force to pull that handle. It was a geat souvenier and the printer was pretty cute to boot.
I then drove about an hour east of Bled to the waterfall of Slap Savica, near the Bohinji Lake. It was a pretty drive and there are lots lof little villages and small hotels. I think this area is kind of like a holiday area for summers for Sovenians. Closer to the falls the road got narrow and I drove through forests of beech trees and lots of white karst bolders. You eventually get to the end of the road and where you have to get out of the car and climb. It supposedly takes about twenty minutes to climb up the steep rocky hills. I took 30 minutes and was huffing and puffing by the time I got to the observation hut. The waterfall was beautiful and I got lots of photos. You could only get within 50 feet for the pool/falls. So my 30 minute hike up resulted in a 15 minute rest and photo op and then a 20 minute return trip down the rocky steep hills. Was it worth the long drive and steep climb? You bet! Not only did I see a cool waterfall, pictures of which I will add as soon as I can, but I burned enough calories climbing to enjoy another piece of Bled cream cake guilt free. And so I did.
I returned to Bled, had another delicious ham sandwich and cream cake sitting ouside next to the beautiful clear picture perfect lake and got a little sun along with enjoying some free wifi to check train schedules and email. I took a little time to mail a package home with some of the brochures, ticket stubs, receipts and small souveniers, which lightened my luggage by a couple of pounds and cubic inches.
I turned in my rental car and got a lift to the train station in time for my train to Zagreb. It was only a couple of hours to Zagreb where I was able to book a sleeper seat on to Split. It was about $50 for the sleeping compartment and I wound up with a compartment to myself. We left Zabreb just before midnight and arrived in Split at 8am the next day.
And Split is a story for another day. Spoiler alert….I sleep within the walls of an old Roman palace.
Three days is too short for Budapest. Oh well, I will just have to come back. What’s a girl to do when there is just so many sights to see? Needless to say, I had a lot of fun in Budapest, the Paris of eastern Europe. There is a lot of similarities between Paris and Budapest, a lot in terms of the architecture and culture. My trip from Bratislava was only memorable in that there was only second class carriages so instead of traveling in first class, I traveled with in a barely noticeable different carriage. The trip was quiet and I found my way around the train station fairly quickly, found the ATM and got 50,000 Hungarian Florints, about $249. I set up alerts through my bank so that I get a notice for every foreign transaction so it is easy to get the exact conversion rate.
I bought a single metro ticket to break my first 10,000 florint bill and get some small bills and coins. I have decided against getting the tourist recommended multi-day passes as so much of these cities, I wind up walking instead.
I navigated the metro according to my hostel confirmation email and came up…outside a huge shopping mall. A seriously huge modern mall next to a 100+ year old train station. I was turned around for a little while until I pulled out the iPad on which I had previously pulled up a map of the area. I found it pays to do my homework and find my next hostel on the map and mentally plot the route to the hostel. When you come up put of the metro or train station, it is hard to tell north from south or right from left.
I found my hostel, checked in and armed with the free map, started wandering around the old part of the city. It was a gorgeous day and I had my camera, map and sunglasses, all you need to explore. I passed churches, parks and found a pedestrian shopping district full of tourist shops, cafes and street performers. I managed to find my way to the central market. This is a huge hall that I first thought was a converted railway station. Actually it was purpose built along the Danube River for easy access to shipping. The downstairs was full of food stands. I have never seen so many sausage sellers. The sausage and meat sellers outnumbered the fruit and veg sellers by about 2 to 1. Upstairs were the textile and souvenir sellers with a few food sellers with stand up tables. The hard part about traveling the way I do is that I have to constantly remind myself NO SOUVENIRS.
The next day, I joined the free walking tour. These have turned out to be good orientations for each city. At first I was worried about hours of walking. The walking part is fine, we stop several times for explanations and photos. The guides for Budapest were the best so far. Emma was the main guide and she had 2 helpers. Emma was very charming, dynamic and fun. I learned a lot about the history of the city. Most of the city is less than 150 years old. That is because there was a huge flood then that pretty much wiped put every thing there at the time so all the major places were rebuilt. After walking around the Pest side, we walked across the chain bridge over the Danube into the Buda side, which is older and built on hills. We climbed up to the castle, a steep climb and fortunately stopped midway for a break. At the top, we had a great view of the city, very photo perfect day. We wandered past the castle, now a museum, the presidential palace and a huge church and then found some shade for our final lesson in Hungarian customs. At the end of the tour, the guides showed us a self serve restaurant with Hungarian dishes and reasonable prices.
I stayed on the hill to look around some of the shops and visit the museum. I really enjoyed the second floor of the museum that had the 18th century paintings of Hungarian artists. In particular, my favorite painter was Miklos Barabas. The third floor had 20th century, prior to 1945 art. I am learning that I prefer the older masters to modern art.
That evening, I attended a performance of Hungarian music and folk dance. I really enjoyed the performance and picked up a CD of the music. The orchestra was 4 violins, 3 violas, a clarinetist, cellist, bass player and some kind of stringed harpsichords. There were 4 men and 4 women dancers and they did 6 dances, many of them singing as they danced in traditional costume. Most impressive was the women who danced with bottles on their heads.
The next day, I headed out to the baths. I will insert the name later. I walked there. Took about 30 minutes to walk so I worked up a healthy glow. Along the way, I saw a bicyclist hit from behind by a car. He seemed OK, he got up briefly until the van driver and others urged him to lie back down and wait for help. I was encouraged by how so any people stopped to help. By in large Budapest and much of Europe is great for cycling. There are special bike lanes on the wide sidewalks in many places and lots of pedestrian crossing lights.
Closer to the baths, I stumbled upon a ceremony. The was a new statue being unveiled. There were representatives and a flag from Korea, so I guess this was a present from Korea. They had a full orchestra and choir, almost as many people in the orchestra as attendees. I stayed for a few of the speeches and understood neither the Hungarian or Korean translations.
I went on to the baths, which are swimming pools/thermal pools. The Ottomans invaded Hungary and left behind the public bathing concept and the water here is great. They have three pools, all about 4.5 feet deep. Each pool is a different temperature, medium, hot and cool, some with pulsing jets to give you a massage.. I only managed to get up to my knees in the cool pool. They have this cool locker system. When you get your ticket, they give you a watch like electronic key. Instead of the watch face, it is a near field electronic ID. When you close your locker, you touch the watch to the button and it will lock and then when you come back, you touch it again and it unlocks.
So I got a little sun and relaxing, stopped into the sauna for a little and came out feeling refreshed and clean. By then the statue had been unveiled, the orchestra packed up and gone and there was just a few platforms left to pack up. I stopped to check out the statue, which was a composer who wrote the Korean national anthem and who had studied in Budapest.
That evening I attended the ballet at the Opera House. Ooohhhh, beautiful building, very photo worthy. I got a seat in the third/top balcony in the first row. Aside from my fear of falling off, the view was grand. The ballet was Rachmaninov’s The Brothers Karamanov, The main dancers were male and having yet to know the story, I tried to figure it out as the story progressed. Later I looked up the story on Google and I was amazed how close I got.
It was really nice just walking around the city, there are lots of people out and I felt comfortable walking around, very safe. Aside from seeing the guy on the bike who was hit, this seems like a place easy to move around. There is a bus or tram every few blocks so if you are in a hurry, you can take public transport too.
I’ll be back I know, and now it is time to move on to Ljubljana Slovenia.
Bratislava was a change from Berlin and Prague. Coming off the train and out of the train station, I could see it was much smaller and less modern. It took me a while to get oriented and find a place to buy my bus ticket into town. A young beggar woman approached me at the ticket window and stayed next to me for several minutes asking for money. I was a little nervous about her and kept saying “No” until she left. All the guides tell you to refrain from giving money as it encourages the practice of begging and keeping kids out of school. I located my bus, however the driver would not let me get on there. I guess there are “rules”. He then pulled around to other side of the terminal and passengers loaded up including me after a jog to get there. In Bratislava, they use a paper ticket and activate it by punching the ticket on the bus which adds the time and date.
I got turned around a little on the directions, normally the website, Hostelbookers, sends you great directions in your confirmation email. However, I eventually found my hostel. It was a little spooky walking around though as there were a lot fewer people around than I had seen in my prior stops. The city has a general run down look to it. I saw more graffiti here and dirty streets than in any of my other stops.
The Hostel Blues was a nice place, close to downtown, just on the edge of the old city. The staff was nice and there was an elevator which was great as my room was on the fifth floor. They had a great kitchen for guests to use, which I took advantage of during my stay. Close by the hostel was a large Tescos, think Walmart with food. I had a great time wandering around the store checking out prices and the different kinds of foods. They had about 30 feet of deli cases just filled with sausages and different kinds of ham and other sliced meats. Some of the sliced meats I had never seen before. Prices seemed to be close to what I see at home on average. It is hard to tell as I was trying to convert from Euros to dollars. Their bakery was huge and I spent about 15 minutes just wandering in that section. This was late in the day and so most of the shelves and bins were picked pretty clean and still there was more than the average Safeway at home.
I got some soft rye rolls, ham, cherry juice, milk, cereal and chips and it came to less than $10 and it was enough for 2 meals.
I took a day off from sight-seeing, sometimes you need to just catch up on sleep and laundry. I did wander around the old quarter on my own for a few hours though and just kept wondering where were all the people. I saw quite a few nice old buildings and the old town gate. Snapped a few photos here and there and decided to wait until the next day when I would take the free walking tour.
The walking tour was led my an Australian who was pretty informed about the history of Slovakia. I got a lot out of his talk. Seems that when the Soviets were running all of the countries behind the iron curtain, they decided to keep some older cities and modernize others. They chose to keep Prague in its historical condition and maintain it and they decided to modernize Bratislava. Poor decision in my mind. They only kept a small section of the old town and put this massive highway and modern bridge running right through the city, next to a beautiful old church. The vibrations from the heavy traffic are constantly damaging the foundations of the church as it runs less than 15 feet from the front door.
The part I liked the best was the Blue Church. It was immaculately maintained and an art nouveau style. It is pale blue with bands of dark blue mosaic tile and white trim. Even the inside is blue. Needless to say, they have a long waiting list for weddings and baptisms. Next door is another art nouveau building in pristine condition, a high school and across from the church is an abandoned Soviet built hospital in ruins.
According to my guide Slovakia has some of the best growth in Europe, due a lot to incentives they have to invest in the country, low wages and a low (17%) tax rate. He told us that Slovakia is the number one in car manufacturing in Europe. To me though, from what I was able to see, Bratislava is rundown and still has the look of Soviet style. I walked around wishing for a bottle of windex and some paper towels so I could just wash the windows. Even that much would help.
The day I really looked around was a national holiday so many of the shops were closed which added to the quiet streets. I lost count of how many travel businesses I came across, most of them including the english phrase, “Last Minute”, in the shop sign. I wondered if that meant a lot of Bratislavans want to get out of town. I also saw a higher than average second hand clothes stores.
Overall, Bratislava was disappointing for me, I did see some interesting things and I hope my guide was right when he told me that in 7-10 years time, Bratislava will look very different. I hope they invest in their infrastructure and develop their sites, right now it is a little shabby and less than chic.
Oh well, on to Budapest…stay tuned.