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Posts Tagged ‘Slovenia’

I first discovered the tales of ancient Greek gods and goddesses as a child; right from the start, I was engrossed (and I continue to be long into adulthood). Many stories revolved around the Underworld, the realm of the dead which was located directly under the ground. For most, there was only one way to enter the Underworld, but on a few occasions, people from the “upper world” travelled there by way of a special passage.

During my visit to the cave system located in Postojna, Slovenia, I couldn’t help but imagine that this was what the Greeks had in mind for their Underworld. Equal parts spooky, fascinating, and otherwordly, these caves are like nothing I’ve seen before or since.

The entire cave system stretches about 20 km, but only a fraction of that is accessible to the public. Its existence was known locally for hundreds of years, but beginning in the early 1800s, explorers discovered new and more amazing caverns within and Postojna started a new life as a “show cave”. Railway tracks were installed inside the caves later in the century and then electric lights, making it even easier for visitors to come and it soon became a popular tourist site for travellers.

The various caverns are huge (so claustrophobics need not fear entering this Underworld), with stalactites fairly dripping from the ceilings and great stalagmites rising up like pillars from the ground. Over millenia, water from the nearby Pivka River has dripped into the caves, despositing new layers of limestone upon existing ones, and the result is that much of the rock looks like it’s been frosted or like puddles of melting ice cream (in fact, I had a desperate craving for some gelato as I picked my way along the trail). Considering all the moisture required to create these caves, most find it quite cool and damp inside so a sweater is essential to have on hand for exploring.

One large cavern within has become home to the Concert Hall, with standing room for literally thousands of people. The accoustics in this cave are stellar and there are regular performances by various symphony and musical groups.

Surprisingly to me, the caves are also home to quite a thriving ecosystem, including fish, bugs and small rodents. The most famous inhabitant is the olm, otherwise known as the “human fish”: a type of blind salamander with no pigment in its skin, who survives on shrimp (though apparently can live for years without eating anything) and with a similar life expectancy as humans (check out the link for a great photo and an interesting article from Wired magazine about these unusual animals). I’m sure if Hades, god of the Underworld, had kept any pets, the strange and creepy-yet-cute olm would have been his favourite.

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I never did the whole backpacking trip around the world thing after university, as so many do. In fact, I was well past the age of thinking that kind of travel was fun when I stayed in my first hostel.

Admittedly, the only reason we stayed there was because it was touted as one of the best in Europe: Hostel Celica, in Ljubljana, Slovenia, is the “hippest” hostel according Lonely Planet. It’s a former prison that was renovated, and single rooms are former cells that have been revamped by some of Slovenia’s most creative interior designers. I was with friends, so we stayed in multi-bed rooms on the top floor (formerly the attic), which had slanted walls on one side with skylights. Those rooms were not as (i.e., at all) artistically decorated as the singles, but since we were a group, they were cheaper – and with private bathrooms.

The back of the Hostel Celica

Affordability is the main attraction when it comes to hostels. Some cities are just plain expensive, and frankly, I just don’t have the same connections as Paris Hilton when it comes to accommodations in cities worldwide. Hostel Celica was not the last hostel I stayed in, though I have never stayed in one of the dormitory rooms, sharing with strangers with eight to a room. If I’m travelling alone, I shell out the extra for a decent room of my own for peace of mind.

Hostels are not my favourite way to go: am I a bit of a princess? Maybe. I met a couple on one of my trips who, well into their 50s, stayed in hostels where they had the choice. They didn’t see the point of paying for a better hotel, when they spent so little time in their room (they weren’t bothered by shared bathrooms, which is my main sticking point with any hostel). At a minimum, I expect my accommodations to be clean and safe, and every hostel I have stayed in so far has met those criteria so I can appreciate their devotion to affordable travel.

I found this weird building further down an alley behind Hostel Celica

However, judging from my stay at Hostel Celica and other less-renowned locations, the best thing that hostels have to offer is the sense of community when you are away from home. They aren’t the kind of places where you can easily hide away in a room, so you inevitably make new friends bonding over misplaced toothpaste or the lack of t.p. in stall #1. Common rooms are generally hopping, and the parties can go into the wee hours of the morning.

Here’s where the romance of backpacking comes into play, when you can meet other travelers from all parts of the world: drink together, share stories, and hang out before moving onto the next destination and a new community of world explorers.

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There are a few cities in this world that are so vast, with so much going on in them, that thick guidebooks are published every year with the sole intention of helping you orient yourself and decide what you want to see in the amount of time you have there (because you couldn’t possibly see everything). Then, there are the other 99 percent of the world’s cities – are they any less worth seeing because they aren’t filled with renowned historical sites, museums and art galleries, or architectural wonders?

World geography has never been my strong suit, and so I had never heard of Ljubljana before we decided to spend a few days in Slovenia. Guidebooks pointed out a few local attractions, but nothing that appeared to be must-see, merely interesting. So how do you best spend your time in a city like this?

Well, you walk around and explore. We didn’t plan a route; we just took to the sidewalks and wandered. We cheerfully browsed through a farmer’s market we happened upon; we poked our noses into stores lining the streets, looking for cool mementos to take home; we stopped for gelato and slices of pizza, munching our way down yet another block. If we came to a fork in the road, we decided left or right, and let the streets take us wherever.

We didn’t seek out a lot of things, but instead allowed ourselves to just find things: a cool bridge with copper dragons at each end, or the pretty waterfront by the river that winds through the city. Because we weren’t expecting anything in particular, we were delighted by all of Ljubljana’s charms.

One of four statues on the Dragon Bridge

And when we got tired, we plopped down at a table on an outdoor patio and ordered drinks, and soaked up the summer sunshine in the company of friends.

We weren’t frazzled by line-ups or stressed by trying to pack too much into one day. We were relaxed and just enjoyed being in a place that was away from our everyday lives. There are museums and things you can make a point of visiting in Ljubljana, even a castle, but I don’t think that’s the value in going there. In fact, I’ve come to think of places like this as the urban equivalent of the Caribbean beach vacation: no worries, just pleasure in being right where you are.

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