Thursday, 29 August 2013

Shining Greece: A Portrait

One of the first things I asked myself before starting to plan my trip to Greece was: shall I go to the mainland or to the islands? Do I want to see spectacular ruins or enjoy the idyllic sand beaches and the gorgeous marine landscapes with a frozen yogurt in my hand? I ended up choosing a bit of both.

Santorini sea view

Sunday, 25 August 2013

An alternative itinerary in Venice: Madonna dell'Orto

I have been thinking about it for a while, and I have come to the conclusion that Venice suffers from superficial tourism. The problem is that most tourists spend only a couple of days here, and visit only three or four sights, making the streets that join St. Mark's Square with Rialto and the Accademia Bridge a nightmare packed with people taking pictures in every bridge, lined with endless souvenir shops and restaurants with annoying touts. Now even a trip to the once quiet Burano may turn you down, as it has become quite popular!

Mask stall, also selling aprons of course

Many people don't enjoy Venice precisely because there are too many tourists, but if you just venture off said beaten track, you'll find rewarding things. My favourite part of Venice, and one that is always a winner when my friends come to visit, is Madonna dell'Orto, in the sestiere (neighbourhood) of Cannaregio.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Lake Bohinj, Savica Waterfall and Vintgar Gorge - more Slovenian bliss

Lake Bohinj
If Bled is the pearl of the Julian Alps, and the proud of Slovenian tourism, Lake Bohinj is a more quiet place to enjoy the natural beauty of the country. More than one friend suggested that I should visit Lake Bohinj as well as Bled, so I did. Bohinj Jezero (Lake Bohinj in Slovenian) is only a short bus ride from Bled. I hopped on a public bus and in half an hour I arrived in Ribčev Laz, the first stop on the lake.
View of Lake Bohinj. Picture taken during my hike.
To welcome me a stone bridge over the river Sava in the point where it joins Lake Bohinj, and what is said to be the most picturesque and photographed church in Slovenia, dedicated to St. John the Baptist. First built in the tenth or eleventh century, it contains some stunning frescoes of St. Cristopher, who incidentally I found out to be the protector of travellers!

The lovely stone bridge and the church of St. John the Baptist
The inside of the church, with frescoes dating to the early 14th century

Did I mention that I fell head over heels in love with Slovenian churches? They are tiny, with slender clock towers reaching towards the sky and sometimes onion-shaped roofs. Inside they are very colourful, unlike most churches in Italy which I often find sad because of the dull colours.

Inside the church of St. Martin, Bled
St. Martin Church from the outside (and castle rock at the back)

After visiting this little pearl of a church, I hiked to the other side of the lake (1 h 30 min to a place called Ukanc). Lake Bohinj is less developed than Bled. Because it's inside a national park (Triglav National Park) the rows of restaurants and bars of Bled are out of the question. Instead you will find many quiet spots to have a swim, to go canoeing or paragliding. The water is absolutely amazing. At the end of the hike, I had lunch with trout skewers and roasted potatoes in a nice restaurant. It cost me 15,50€ with lemonade and espresso coffee. Not bad, eh!?

My delicious lunch (and yes, I do food porn sometimes)
Savica Waterfall
From Ukanc I took a path that led me to Savica Waterfall (Savica Slap in Slovenian): I thought it was closer but it took me 45 minutes to reach the car park for the famous waterfall. That hike was very easy, but a bit boring. From the car park I reached the waterfall in about 30 minutes of stone steps into the woods (ok, I was tired and you can do it in 20). The waterfall is really impressing: it's a very high jump, the highest I have ever seen. You can't swim or dive there, if you're interested to know (many backpackers who reach Slovenia are intrepid crazy people who would dive anywhere!). I found a bit strange that in Slovenia you have to pay to see things like waterfalls and gorges, but the fee is never more than 4€. A nice mention to the three guys who gave me a lift back to Bled is in need. I had missed a bus and the next one was in two hours and a half!

Savica Waterfall
 Vintgar Gorge
My last trip was to Vintgar Gorge, a twenty-minute bus trip from Bled. This is already my second gorge this year, as I have hiked the Samaria Gorge in Crete. Vintgar gorge is a lot smaller, it's a thirty to forty-minute very easy hike to the end, where there is yet another waterfall, larger than Savica Slap but not as beautiful. The water inside the gorge is incredibly blue and the wooden walkways are very cool. Some people managed to dive and have a swim, but I wouldn't dare.
Vintgar Gorge
Goodbye Slovenia, until next time! I hope it's going to be soon!!!
Slovenian Mountains seen from Bled Castle
Ever considered this for your summer vacation house?
Have you been to Slovenia? Have you got any suggestions to my next trip to the fairytale country? Let me know!

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Slovenia - a fairytale country

I have just returned from a short trip to Slovenia, a country I have been dreaming about visiting for years. In spite of being so close to northeastern Italy where I come from, Slovenia is relatively unknown to most Italian tourists, who have already discovered the coasts of Croatia and regularly go to learn English and sunbathe in Malta, but apparently know nothing about this small Alpine country so close to home.
There were Italian tourists in Slovenia of course, but not an awful lot. Most people I talked to before my trip were bewildered by my choice. "Why on earth would you want to go to Slovenia?", "Didn't you mean Croatia?", "What's  there to see or do?".
I'll answer with a picture.

View of Lake Bled

Slovenia has lakes with pristine waters and landscapes  that seem to come straight out of a fairytale, amazing waterfalls and gorges, plenty of possibilities to do water sports and hiking, picturesque villages, caves, historic towns and more.
For my short trip I chose the lakes on the northwestern tip of Slovenia, close to the Italian and Austrian borders. Lake Bled is one of the major tourist attractions of the country, but the less-developed and quiet Lake Bohinj is  also worth visiting. The latter is part of Triglav National Park, whose peak also appears on the Slovenian national flag.
As for Slovenia itself, I found a country full of welcoming people, and very well organized to receive tourists willing to see the natural beauty that it offers. It's a Slavic country with a central European feel to it, but in spite of not being a huge fan of central Europe I fell for it!  


Bled is absolutely backpackers' central to Slovenia. There were plenty of Australian, British and American backpackers, to the point that I felt a bit weird, being one of the few non-native speakers of English in the hostel. The lake is stunning and ridiculously photogenic: incredibly azure waters, a 1000--year-old castle perched on a rock, and a lovely little island, actually the only island in all of Slovenia. It is exactly how I picture a fairytale country, where I would encounter Prince Charming and perhaps even the Evil Queen. In spite of the tourists, the scenery remains unspoilt because only one side of the lake has major buildings and tourist infrastructures, whereas in the rest only the occasional rowing centre or historical villa dots the landscape.

View of the island from the castle, Bled

You can reach the island via a boat trip that takes you all around the lake, then to the island and back (12 €), hire your own rowboat, or even swim to the island from the narrowest point (in that case you'll be walking around the island barefooted and bare-chested, which is a bit weird). I chose the first: it was a very relaxing trip and I took plenty of pictures. On the island you can visit the small museum, the church where you can pull the cord to ring the bell for good luck, and the clock tower (6€).

Rowing boat on Lake Bled
Back on the mainland, you can reach the lovely castle perched on the rock, either by car or on foot via a staircase. From the castle you have breath-taking views, as well as a museum on the history of the region, a restaurant, a forge, and a wine cellar where you can spill your own wine. The castle is open until late in the evening, but if you go there late-ish as I did some of the attractions will be closed, in spite of the fact that you'll still have to pay the 8€ admission price. The castle itself isn't mind-blowing, but I'm happy I took those pictures of the lake. If you are up to it, you can follow a path around the rock without paying the entrance fee, and you'll have one or two viewpoints, but mind that they are not as good as the ones in the courtyard of the castle.

Bled Castle (Blejski Grad in Slovenian)

Overall I found the attractions in Bled a bit overpriced. The food was as expensive as in Italy. Coffee and cappuccino as good as in Italy. The famous Bled cream cake (kremna rezina, apparently known with a thousand different names) is what in Italy we would call a "millesfoglie", layers of pastry with custard and whipped-cream filling, plus powdered sugar on top. The Smon patisserie on Grajska Cesta, close to the bus station, is said to be the best place to have it.

Wait for my next post on Lake Bohinj, Savica Waterfall and Vintgar Gorge! Feel free to leave a comment...

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