Thursday, August 12, 2010

Butterfly House

They had a huge arching dome sweeping out into the yard, completely made of glass. The glass made the area extremely light and also extremely HOT. The make it even more tropical, they had lots of water in the form of waterfalls and small streams running through.The humidity rivaled what we had in Japan!
Right in the middle of the city, actually a part of the Hofburg palace, is the historical Vienna butterfly house. The butterfly house is actually a part of the palace we had just toured with the back of the butterfly house being one of the outside walls of the castle.

We must have stood there for an hour, attempting to take pictures of butterflies, managing to somehow get only a few decent shots.


The time had come that we finally had to return to Vienna. We continued playing the role of the tourist, taking advantage of the sites and spectacular buildings. First we followed Mozart through the city, taking a walking tour around the old part of town, viewing the buildings he lived in, where he met his wife and halls where he played. While many of the buildings were drastically changed from Mozart’s time, it was a great opportunity for us to tour the city and see many of the different buildings.
We decided to take a tour of the Hofburg Castle, the home of Franz Joseph and Sisi, his wife, the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire. A portion of the castle is still used as the official residence of the President of Austria, though there is, of course, a rather large portion of it open to tourists. Once again, upon entry, we were handed the language players so that we could tour through the castle. There was just one problem with the language tapes – they told you about EVERYTHING in the room in MINUTE detail.

 We started listening to the tape in the kitchen area. There they talked about the cooking pots, the silverware, the wine glasses, the dishes, the dishes, the dishes, the dishes. Some of the sets were for hundreds and they had rooms of them. Then we moved into the home itself. In the first room, documenting everything in the room, the tape talked about the pineapple designed red silk wallpaper, the ceramic heaters in the corner, complete with gold leaf designs, the spectacular pictures painted on the ceilings, most of Alexander the Great and then the various pieces of furniture in the room. It was quite fascinating in the first room, interesting in the second room, remarkably dull by the 8th room. In fact, I discovered, as I was listening to the tape, that I had listened to well over half of it – and I was in the wrong room! The wallpaper was decidedly red, but the tape talked about the blue-green wallpaper in the room! I decided that perhaps it was time that I moved through the rest of the place a bit quicker. To be fair, it really was gorgeous stuff but, enough is enough. 


Innsbruck was a quick stop and we were both sad that we hadn’t allotted more time for this beautiful city in the Alps. Little did we realize the awesome beauty we would find. We had to start our triptay with a trip to the top of the mountains – 3,000 plus meters up! They have built an extremely interesting tram system to take you up the hill – pretty much to the top portion of the “living” section of the city. The tram starts at the bottom of the hill, near the old town part of the city. The cars were very small, about 2m square, with 4 or 5 of them grouped together in a grey “shell”. It seemed a funny way to make the cars, and certainly limited the number of passengers but…we got on. 

As we started up the hill, we quickly learned why the cars were designed that way. Each car was free of the neighboring car and the ascent was so steep, if it were one car we would have been seriously slanted for the ride up. The cars, however, simply rose up, each car successfully higher than the one below. We headed across the river and up the slope, stopping first at the Alpenzoo (the highest zoo in all of Europe) and then the top level of the city. From here we transferred over to a more traditional cable car that took us up one level – a 15 minute ride! The next cable car was much shorter but took us to the top of the mountain.

The view of the alps was absolutely stunning. We could look down over the mountain and into the valley where Innsbruck sprawled below us. It was interesting to watch the clouds forming below us, drifting up and towards the mountain. The other side afforded us a view of the alps. Spectacular views of unbelievable country. Right up there, up on top of the mountain, there was a wedding party, complete with food, wine and pictures being snapped with the alps in the background. What a memory it will be.
We would have really liked to have been able to hike down, this time it wasn’t quite so downhill as the last time. It will sadly have to wait for another trip, we had far too little time in Innsbruck to take advantage of the opportunity.
On our way down we stopped at the zoo to take a cruise through. The zoo is built right into the hill, the paths winding up and down between stunning scenery and animal enclosures. All of the animals here are ones that are native to the European environment. This little guy was a real hit as he roamed through the enclosure, trying to get mom to give him more milk.

Salt Mines

The next stop on our tour was a trip to the Salt Mines of Hallein, some of the oldest salt mines in the world. While in some areas the mine is still working and in production, the area we were in was open to the public as “show” mines.
When you enter, the workers hand you a miner’s set of overalls – with a remarkable eye for coming up with the right size. They also have the ubiquitous portable language players. They lead you from there to the waiting carts that take you into the mines. Once again we were tugged through tunnels, though this time there were no protruding boulders to have to dodge around.  The route leads you through different parts of the mine, with good graphics, and oral information about the history of the mine, and how they mine it. They even have two different wooden slides you get to go down to the next level of the tour, hence the miner’s overalls. In the middle of the tour there’s a boat that is floating on an extremely still lake. The reflections of the light on the salt plays on the water with really beautiful reflections. There’s a boat that sitting at the edge and we silently slipped across the pond. 

Eagle's Nest

If you’re going to be someplace where it’s raining, and predicted to continue raining, you might as well do something that keeps you semi out of the rain so the next day we decided to take a tour up to the infamous Kehlsteinhaus or Eagle’s Nest, a retreat built for Adolf Hitler. It is located in the mountains of Germany, near a city called Berchtesgaden, near Austria, and was a birthday present to him. Besides all the horrible things he was, it was a strange present because it turns out he was afraid of heights! He only used the building about 14 times, and even then he stayed only as long as was necessary. He had a passage built straight to the elevator – the driver had to drop him off and then back out of the tunnel (he didn’t like being in a car going backwards). He was also claustrophobic so he refused to have more than 7 or 8 people with him in the elevator (it holds about 60) because the emergency elevator could only hold 10 people and he was petrified of being stuck in it. The elevator was also made totally of reflective brass, to make it seem much larger than it really is (though it really is quite big).
The entire area, except for the one building, was completely bombed out during the war. At the base of the hill is an informational area about Hitler and his regime so that the world will not forget. They have buses that take people up to the entrance elevator (walking through the tunnel these days) and then up to the Eagle’s Nest. It now has a restaurant, cafeteria and gorgeous views as far away as Austria. We were lucky because it had been threatening to rain all day but the clouds held off until we headed back down the hill. It is interesting…the tours are not offered in German (there were still some Nazi sympathizers when they first started the enterprise) and the money earned is used to pay for the employees, upkeep and at the end of each year, any extra money is donated to charity.
The "gorgeous views" really doesn't do justice to the beauty of the setting. The snow clad mountains in the background, the spectacular vistas, the views of the lake below, all of it was outstanding. 

Salzburg sites

It was time for us to return to Austria, and though we had a week or so left, we knew our vacation was coming to an end. Salzburg was our next place…the birthplace of Mozart and the home of the Sound of Music, both of which are played to the hilt for the tourist. Being the tourists that we are…
We did manage to roam around, picking up pictures of various places from the sound of music – we happen to be watching it right now – and I’ve found a few places that came right from the movie! I didn’t get pictures of everything but I did get a few shots of some of the places. We had walked up to the convent where Maria was and also passed by the field where she and the children sang. Lots of shots in the movie of the castle and various city locations. It was cool to see them and know that we had been there too! The first one is a picture of the convent when she is leaving to go be the governess.
The old town and the castle district were our first tourist excursions. Sad to say, once you’ve seen 20 old towns, they begin looking all the same. Cobbled streets, old buildings, beautiful statues, ornate ornamentation, classic, renaissance, baroque, rococo, all styles of buildings that I now have seen but still couldn’t identify with any authority. It seems that over the years they’ve taken to re-building and remodeling in the current style of the day. Most buildings boast 2 or 3 different styles even in the same room!
Sad to say, the rain came while we were in Salzburg. Our trip up the hill to the castle was wet, to say the least. They have preserved the castle as a museum and have included much of the original structure along with a great portrayal of life during the period around Salzburg. There was more to discover through the courtyard area but the drenching rain drove us down the mountainside and into the relatively drier cathedrals and museums.
If you hadn’t heard before, you would know within 10 seconds of arriving in Salzburg that Mozart was born here. It is proclaimed everywhere you look so, of course, we had to check out his humble beginnings, and humble they were. The home has been “preserved” and is now a museum, sharing information about his early life and his family. The sojourn of his life was continued in Vienna. It was interesting, and dry, dry from the wet outside. 

Bhinj Jezero

We still hadn’t had much opportunity to really hike in the area so we took off to the more remote lake called Bhinj Jezero. They have so many buses here that it was really simple, and cheap, to catch it and head out to the local village. They have a chairlift in the village of Ukance, obviously for skiing in the winter but useful for hikers and tourists in the summer. Now, some people will hike to the top and then use the lift to come down. We thought we were doing it the easy way, taking the lift to the top and hiking down. I’m not so sure it was.
The view from the top was stunning. The Julian Alps towered above and around us, majestic and gorgeous. The wind was whipping through us and we began to wonder if we had enough layers with us. We spent quite a while roaming the top before setting off for our path down the mountain. Now, they have a few lifts in the area, I think we started off at about 1480m, not the highest one available but the only one open in the summer months.
The path was fairly well marked, once we found it. They had signs and red bull’s eyes for us all along the way down. It started off, downhill, of course, wending its way through the rocks. We stopped to enjoy the changing views of the alps and to get pictures of the great alpine meadows, dotted along the path down. We found lots of broken rocks and matted leaves and still the track went down. Now, I keep mentioning down because this path was DOWNHILL! It was not relieved with rolling terrain anywhere, no flat spots, even taking pictures we were perched on a downhill slant. It was totally unrelenting in its downhill approach to getting you down the mountain. The wet leaves (it had been raining the day before) made the area slick. The rocks were mixed sized and not packed into the earth, the rolled and turned. We went down and down and down and down. We passed one couple on their way up the hill and wondered which of us had the harder route (I still think they did but my legs were not in agreement with me). We were down to probably the last 30 minutes of our hike before we came along a short road through a meadow that allowed us to walk for a bit on a semi-level path. By the time we made it to the bottom, I didn’t think I ever wanted to go downhill anywhere again! Thank goodness the bus wasn’t too far away from where we came out. 

Vintgar Gorge

As if we haven’t seen enough waterfalls (and I know… I need to get my waterfall pictures up) we took off to see yet another spectacular site. One of the “must sees” here in Bled is Vintgar Gorge. Not to leave any site unseen, we rented bikes and headed out for the gorge, about 5km from town. It was a gorgeous ride out through the countryside, cows chewing their cud, corn waving in the fields, farm houses dotting the landscape, castle on the hill, blue skies…really an idyllic trip. The road was relatively easy for the most part and they had a walking/bike route separate from the cars so we really didn’t have to deal with many cars at all. Well…it was easy up until the last part…we came around a corner to discover a downhill…a REAL downhill. Not bad that direction but I knew I wasn’t looking forward to the return trip…but that was yet to come.
As I mentioned from our trip to the national park in Croatia, they are masters at artfully creating paths for people to wend their way through to enjoy a trip through “nature”. The gorgeous scenery through the gorge with the rushing water and cascading waterfalls and rippling rapids were delightful. (hmmm…I think I need a thesaurus just for describing waterfalls…it’s getting redundant.) The narrow, winding walking route was amazing…even more so since it was originally created for tourists more than 100 years ago (fortunately, it has been upgraded over time). The trail meanders through the 1600m gorge, carved into the rock face, protruding from the rocks, crossing on bridges, all designed to give the visitor changing views of the rushing Radovna River. The river surges through the confines of the gorge with the water cascading over boulders or surging and bubbling through the rapids. (now I sound like I swallowed a thesaurus)
The sun cooperated with us, sending shafts of light into the gorge, highlighting the turbulent water or just causing it to twinkle off the surface of the smoother ponds. Everywhere you turned, there was another breathtaking view. While the path really wasn’t that long, I think we spent well over an hour hiking to the end, stopping, with everyone else, to snap pictures, wait for someone else to take one, or do the shuffle dance to get by people coming back.
At the end there is yet another waterfall, though the river had been partially dammed so the falls were not as full as they would have been in the spring. We sat among the rocks below it and had lunch, enjoying the spray and watching the young boys brave the freezing cold water.
Ah yes, the road back…the hill was quite steep and while I did get up a little ways, it proved to be too much. I ended up walking back up the hill to our road. Once again we were able to ride the bikes back to Bled and, around the lake yet again to take just a “few” more pictures of the castle and island. 

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Sometime during the Middle Ages, the castle began, most likely with a single tower. Over time, a long time, more towers were built and the walls and fortifications were improved. The castle even included a moat, up there perched on that rock, complete with a drawbridge connecting the entrance through a gothic arch. If you look carefully at the picture, you can just make out the drawbridge - no more than a meter in length. The moat ends at the cliff's edge. 
The castle was continuously added to throughout the ages, with various architectural styles, Gothic, Baroque, and others I couldn’t ever identify. The whole castle has been restored and the frescos and churches and stone carvings are quite beautiful. It has been made into a museum that gives you a view of life during that period of time.
This seemed to be a good time to be at the lake to see the swan families. Every corner seemed to have at least one baby with a parent hovering nearby. This family just posed nicely for their picture to be taken…

Now…I can’t seem to find out why but…there is a local tradition called “Bled Days” that has been celebrated every summer beginning in the year 1876. The cool part about this festival is the candles. They have a bunch of boats out on the lake as the sky is turning dark. They are busy lighting candles and setting them on the water. By nightfall, around 10:00, the lake is filled with thousands of floating lights! Spectacular vision! A few boats were making small hot air balloons. The successful ones would drift out over the lake, climbing higher and higher until they would finally wink out. The castle and church were all lit up and the pletnas were taking people out for a brief tour of the candles. And then…the fireworks! They had a spectacular display over the lake – a perfect ending for the celebration.  

Lake Bled

Lake Bled is one of the most picturesque lakes I’ve ever been to. The basin was carved out by a glacier and then filled in by the glacier as it melted. It is unusual because it has no natural tributaries leading into the lake and its only source of fresh water is a few springs deep under the lake. The water is a beautiful shifting, shades of blue and, of course, perfectly clear.
With the potential of taking the perfect picture, we began walking around the lake, stopping every ten feet to snap a picture of the Disney like island church, the towering alps, the castle perched on the rocky outcrop…you get the picture. With any number of cafes and bars available, we stopped periodically to review those shots, decide which were worth keeping, which to try for again.
For a fee, of course, you can go out to the island on a pletna, a covered boat that holds about 18 people with the “rower” standing in the back to row. (In the right back of the picture you can see a pletna at the dock.) In the process of doing this, we discovered, however, that there’s a protocol for the boaters and getting some of them to work was difficult. Like taxis, they take turns and our guy was, well, not all that interested in working. A couple came down to him and asked about going out to the island and he said yes, but he needed more people. We said we wanted to go. That was fine but …he needed more people. We sat on the boat, looking at pictures and talking with the other people when two more came up. Once again, yes, but he needed more people. Fortunately, one lady spoke Slovenian so she asked…he wanted 10 people. We stuck it out for about 15 more minutes and decided forget it…ALL of us left. He ended up with nothing but the worse was that no one else could take us because it was his turn. However, we walked on a little ways further, snapping more of those pictures, and came upon another small dock with more pletnas waiting. This time the guy had about 6 people on the boat and was getting ready to leave. He stopped to wait for us and we all headed out to the island. Obviously, only one person was hung up on having 10.
The picturesque church on the island was built in the 15th century and is now regularly used for weddings. The altar decorations are all completely covered with gold – undoubtedly gold leaf – things get lost in translation here. The statues and settings are beautiful. They have a bell, and in the Japanese tradition, everyone is invited to pull the bell pull to ring it. (In Japan you ring a bell to attract the attention of the gods.) You can hear the bell pealing the entire time the island is “open”.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Skocjan Caves

Skocjan Caves Being the spelunkers that we are, particularly since these caves are very well lit, we headed off to the Skocjan caves, these formed by the Reka River. These caves are considered to be of “global significance” and compared to other natural phenomenon such as the Grand Canyon and the Galapagos. I will agree, they are indeed spectacular, and, unbelievable, even larger and grander than the first caves we visited.
The Reka River was extremely busy in developing this cave system, having a long above ground presence before it plunges underground. The river has dug out a canyon that is around 4 kilomoters long, 60 meters wide and over 140 meters high. In some places you find yourself in huge underground chambers where you are totally dwarfed by the structures in the caves. The river is still affected by rainfall and damming…they have had flooding in the caves where the water raised by more than 100 meters! It didn’t seem real until we passed the spot that was marked on the side of the wall…and we continued hiking down and down, and down, well below that to follow the trail. Massive flood!!
We mere tourists were only able to explore a very small section of the caves – about 3 km. The labyrinth extends far beyond the areas we saw. The path took us through various caves, again with spectacular beauty and breathtaking vistas (wouldn’t want to have issues with height in this place). We could see an earlier path that wound closer to the water that used to be the tourist route. Now we were kept up higher and crossed the Cerkvenik Bridge into another channel continuing to wind through the caves. 
The cave area has been known and about and inhabited since prehistoric times. Archeologists have found evidence of living and rituals in the caves. A great many people have documented their travels through the cave systems, in boats that looked totally unlikely to even begin to float with lighting systems that were unusual at best. They have discovered that the cave system has been around for so long, it has developed its own ecosystem, including a salamander type animal that is totally white with no eyes and very hand and feet like appendages.
Check out the website that is linked at the beginning. Sadly, we were not allowed to take pictures in this cave…and this time no one did. The picture came from Kompas tours (we used their services on this trip) and the website will give you more views. Absolutely spectacular!

Predjama Castle

If you’re in Slovenia and in the area of the Postanja caves, you have to go check out the Predjama castle, a castle that was built, somewhere in the 11th century, under a natural rocky arch that was high in a stone wall, obviously making it quite difficult to get to. According to legend, Ezram, the owner in the 15th century ran into a spot of trouble when he killed a commander in the army. He apparently ran away to hide in the castle and then proceeded to become something of a Robin Hood, robbing from the rich and keeping it for himself. The castle ended up being under siege for a very long time by the quite unhappy Hapsburgs, finally ending when Ezram was killed while on the commode. The latrines were on the outside edge of the castle for obvious reasons and they blasted it away when someone on the inside let them know he was indisposed…
The castle had some ups and downs, being partially destroyed in an earthquake. Another family, obviously wealthy, used the castle primarily as a hunting lodge. It is still in a remote part of the country and while there is a path up to it, and a tiny drawbridge connecting the road to the castle, it is still remote and not an easy place to get into. 

Postonja Caves

This portion of the world is built upon limestone – in fact I don’t know how they even managed to ever put in a crop in some areas, so plentiful are the rocks. There’s one thing about limestone – it is easily dissolved and this feature allows for many caves, and sinkholes, to be created. We kept hearing about all of the gorgeous caves that can be found near Ljublyana so we figured we should go explore some for ourselves. Of course we headed out for the largest caves, Postojna Cave, carved by the Pivka River. The caves are found very deep underground – can’t be conveniently located to just walk into, oh no. Fortunately for us, they have this tram system that they use to get people down to the interesting cave area. The really interesting thing about the trams is that the cars the people ride in are almost identical to the ones used about 80 years ago, only the engine has changed. As you sit on the car, weaving back and forth, and ever downwards, you have the uncanny feeling that at any moment just one of those jutting rocks is going to hit you on the head. While none of them did, we sure ducked and bobbed a lot, just in case.
Once we made it to the lower reaches, a few kilometers in, we were let out. I had at first wondered about the rather large group of people – about 100 – and had tried to figure out how in the world they were going to talk to such a large group of people, particularly since we didn’t all speak the same language. Not to worry – they had it figured out. At the drop off  point, they had a number of signs with different languages written on them. You simply moved to one of about 10 different languages offered and, when we were all divided up, different guides appeared, ready to take their group around.     
The first thing you need to know is that they said that we weren’t supposed to take pictures. The second thing to know is that everyone took pictures anyway. At first we avoided taking them but after a while….we did too.  The porous nature of the rocks allowed the surface water to filter through the stone, carrying the limestone and other minerals into the caves below, creating a spectacular collection of columns, ribbons, stalactites and stalagmites in a dazzling array of formations and colors. The few pictures I have here barely scratch the surface of the beauty of the caves. (Be sure to check out Jeff’s pictures – he has posted some on Facebook and more will be coming, I’m sure).
We wound our way up and down the caverns, finding new combinations at every turn. Towards the end of the walk we arrived at a chamber known as the Concert Hall. This area is huge – large enough for 1,000 people to gather in the area. It also has such exceptional acoustics that they have actually had concerts in the hall, featuring symphony orchestras and a variety of singes.

Tourist Farm in Ljubljana

Ljubljana has hundreds of farms across the gorgeous countryside. The hills are absolutely pristine with manicured fields everywhere you look, peaceful cows grazing, corn growing, sheep, pigs, chickens, just perfect, ideal country life. Most of the farms are very small, allowing for self sufficiency and the sale of produce, and farm products. Many have family who might also work in the towns to make ends meet. Some of the farms, however, are offering “Tourist Farm” stays where they rent out some of the rooms in the old farmhouses to tourists and then providing various meals and drink to them. We decided that it was a great way to explore the country and meet the people.
The place we stayed was wonderful. We had a great view of the land and the three homes that made up this “farm”. The cows were brought home up the driveway and into the barn connected to the house, neighbors came to buy fresh milk and the family made their own cheese and produced just about everything; jams, meats, various veggies and breads. The meals were delicious – they had lots of fresh veggies that were cooked crunchy and wonderful. Course the fresh bread could have carried any meal! The room had the look and feel of a farmhouse (I thought of the Littzleman’s home from long ago), although multiple baths had been added, I suspect, to accommodate the tourists.
I know that there are recycle friendly towns all over the US and many places and people are passionate about making sure  we reuse / recycle everything possible. Slovenia has taken it to the countryside…walking down the small road from the house we happened upon the recycle bins…at least 30km from the city! They could be found everywhere – and you frequently saw people dividing their stuff between the various bins.