Walk through the wardrobe to … Slovenia

April 11, 2015 § 2 Comments

When Lucy first walked through the wardrobe door and found herself in Narnia, it was a world of winter. A world of snow. A world of magic.

That’s exactly how I felt from the moment my plane flew low over snow-covered fields -black trees creating an incredible contrast – into Ljubljana, Slovenia back in February.

Jumping straight on a bus from the airport I headed to Lake Bled – recommended highly by a number of friends who had raved about its beauty. And walking around the picturesque lake, complete with quaint church perched on an island in the middle (an image, I imagine is one of the most photographed in the country), it was quickly discovered that they weren’t lying.

If you’re looking for wild nightlife (heading out with fellow hostel-goers on a Friday night we went to a bar which our host promised would be “pumping”, we found ourselves with a grand total of eight other patrons) and a range of sights and attractions, then Bled is probably not for you. But for anyone craving a few days surrounded by incredible natural beauty and a quiet, peaceful town then put Bled on your bucket list.

I suspect that in summer, with its hiking trails and as a base for many water-related activities, Bled would be much more crowded and touristy. But in winter, it was the perfect place to chill out, mooch around and take in the scenery with hardly another person – visitor or local – around. And for that (and the feeling that I was in some sort of wintery paradise) I am glad that I went in the low season. Somehow, it made the trip that little bit more special.

In retrospect, I would advise anyone visiting both Bled and Ljubljana to head to the capital first. While quaint, with its castle-perched-on-a-hill, cobbled streets and expansive Tivoli Park, it did feel much like many other larger cities in Europe and certainly didn’t hold me as captivated as Bled had. In saying that, it is definitely worth a visit, but a day is more than enough to take in the sights.

With that in mind and on the advice of a Slovenian/Australian traveller I’d met on the plane, I headed to Škofja Loka, one of the oldest medieval towns in Slovenia. Truth be told, it didn’t feel too medieval, save for the tiny ‘old town’ with narrow roads and bridges and a former castle perched high above.

What was worth the visit, were the hiking trails on the hills behind the town. Snow covered and mildly perilous when wearing anything but proper hiking footwear (note: heeled boots are not appropriate shoes), they offered stunning views and the promise of heading to who-knows-where if you kept following the paths. On this occasion, I chose to head back after a brief spell of walking, but in warmer weather I would have trekked for hours.

I don’t know when it may be, but I am sure that one day I will once again step through the wardrobe into Slovenia. You should do the same.

St. Petersburg: A Bronze Horseman Adventure

November 2, 2014 § 2 Comments

Travelling to St. Petersburg this past summer had been nearly ten years in the making. I first fell in love with Russia’s “Venice of the North” through Paullina Simons’ ‘The Bronze Horseman’. A story of war, of love but ultimately of Russia. 

Say to (nearly) any 20-something girl from New Zealand that you want to go to St. Petersburg and (nearly) all of them will say: “oh, because of The Bronze Horseman”. I kid you not, this was the reaction from all of my Kiwi-born female friends.

So, when my best friend (and fellow Bronze Horseman fanatic) said she was heading to St. Petersburg in August, along with her Russian-born other half, I jumped on board. In spite of recent political unrest, it seemed there was never going to be a better time to see this particular dream become reality.

And reality did not disappoint. Six glorious days of blazing sun and balmy White Nights, spending time with my best friend discovering just how amazing a city St. Petersburg. And here’s why….

Sights

No trip to St. Petersburg would have been complete without walking in the footsteps of The Bronze Horseman’s central characters: Tatiana and Alexander: strolling through the beautiful and lush Summer Garden (running round like crazy trying to find the statue of Saturn Eating His Children); visiting the vast, gold-guilded, fountain-filled Peterhof Palace; climbing the stairs of St. Isaacs Cathedral (and losing our minds completely, pretending to be on the lookout for bombers).

But there is so much more to this city then reliving the pages of a novel. For art-lovers, a visit to The Hermitage, one of the oldest and largest museums in the world, is a must. With five buildings open to the public, displaying everything from Egyptian antiquities, prehistoric art, jewellery, paintings and fine art from all over Europe there is no shortage of things to see. After spending five hours walking round and getting ourselves hopelessly lost, we gave up, realising we were only ever going to see a fraction of what was on offer.

If you’re after something a little different, I highly recommend a midnight boat ride on the River Neva. During the summer months, every night at 2.00AM (or so) St. Petersburg’s bridges raise – and it attracts huge crowds. It’s a somewhat bizarre experience as there is no fan fare: no alarms, no announcements or lights nor entertainment. Yet, a flotilla or ferries (when we went there were at least 20 rushing past each other) cruise the river and thousands line the embankment. If you can keep your eyes open long enough, make the effort and enjoy the almost festival-like atmosphere.

The highlight for me (which came as a surprise) was the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. Having traversed a reasonable amount of Europe, I’ve set foot in a fair number of churches – but rarely has my jaw, literally, dropped. The entirety of the church is mosaics, from the floor to the walls to the ceiling. For sheer splendour and magnificence this is hard to beat.

History

Founded over 300-years ago by Peter the Great, St. Petersburg has accumulated quite a history: industrialisation, revolution, a 872-day siege to name but a few of the monumental events experienced by its citizens. It should come as no surprise then, that history buffs can revel in the past: the Peter and Paul Fortress, originally built as a citadel is has since been used as a garrison and a prison and now holds the remains of all of Russia’s tsars (Romanovs included); the Siege of Leningrad Museum – small, but extremely moving (and entirely in Russia – use of the audio-guide is highly recommended), the museum details one of the most harrowing period of the city’s history.

And if military prowess is of interest, the warship Aurora (the most popular attraction in St. Petersburg, so be prepared to queue) and the Artillery Museum displaying weapons from throughout the ages (us girls took a pass on the latter) are also worthy of mention.

Food 

Oh my god, the food. Culinary delights were not high on my list of expectations of Russia. Stunning architecture, a wealth of history, but food – not so much. It was then a sensory surprise to find that I love Russia food – in no small way due to what I consider the dish of the Gods: potato pancakes. Meat wrapped up in deliciously salty, shredded friend potatoes. Heaven on a plate for this starch-obsessed, spud-loving individual.

If potatoes aren’t your thing, then soup, dumplings, meat-on-a-stick, apple-filled desserts and much more are there to tantilise your tastebuds (but really, when you have potato pancakes on offer, what more do you actually need….)

Should you have made it this far (and I applaud you and apologise in equal measure – I swear it was not intended to be this long – there are a final few note-worthy things to mention about visiting St. Petersburg ….

Find a Friend 

If you’re able to find one, a Russian-speaking guide is invaluable. I was lucky enough to spend my time in St. Petersburg with a ready-made translator in the (very compliant, patient) form of my friend’s Russian boyfriend.

Although I’m sure you can get by without having a Russian-speaking native, it certainly makes touring the city simpler. Signage – even in the subways and tourist attractions – is almost entirely in Russia, with the odd English word here and there. Aside from the language barrier, it was handy having a local to pal around with, as the prices for tourist attractions are significantly higher for non-Russia. My friend and I spent much time smiling politely, nodding and steadfastly not speaking English any time we were near a ticketing office.

Russian People 

As much as I would like to debate this, when travelling you very quickly realise that generalisations about other cultures exist for a reason. At face value, Russian people are not overly warm and welcome, perhaps residual from the days of Communism and the Cold War where clouds of uncertainly and distrust constantly loomed. Do not expect smiles from the lady selling your tickets at the museum, or the waiter serving your food.

But … get to know them a little bit and you’ll find Russian people to kind and incredibly hospitable. After spending less than two days with my friend’s (soon-to-be) in-laws I was being chastised (in Russian, of course) for not visiting them in Moscow and being made to promise I’ll visit the next time I head over. An easy promise to make.

So. Petrograd. Leningrad. Saint Petersburg. No matter what you call it, one thing remains the same – it’s a city that should be on your travel bucket list.

Touring Tallinn

August 15, 2014 § 2 Comments

I headed to Tallinn with very few expectations or notions of what I’d get up to. The only thing I had to go on was a friend’s trip to the UNESCO World Heritage City a few years ago and her description of it as “very pretty”. She wasn’t wrong.

Cobbled, often narrow, streets (quaint but totally impractical for wheely suitcases and high heels – an attempt with the later was not even considered by this not-so-intrepid traveller). Fortified walls separating the old town from the new. Pastel-coloured houses and churches galore. In short, an ideal weekend getaway if you are a lover of history and charm.

The old city itself is compact enough that a day and half is more than adequate to soak up the sights, snapping happily away with photos that are bound to make friends and family back home jealous. Further afield are the old prison (now disbanded and a end-of-the-night stop-off for hostel pub crawls) and Pirita Beach complete with white sand and half of Tallinn soaking up the sun.

And so to the essentials…..

To Stay: Tallinn Backpackers

While hostels are not everyone’s cup of tea, when travelling on a budget (and on your own) they are an ideal solution for a cheap place to rest your head and meet up with like-minded people. This time around it was Tallinn Backpackers – staffed mostly by Australians (ubiquitous no matter where you are in the world) and New Zealanders, there is a casual, friendly atmosphere, encapsulated by the “shoes off” policy and open common room. There is an 11PM curfew in respect of the neighbours, handy if you like a good night sleep, but if you want to party, there are pub crawls and it’s sister hostel, The Monks Bunk is not too far away.

I stayed in the top dorm (eight beds, mixed), complete with both a jacuzzi and sauna in the en suite bathroom. Though during my stay it was a tad too hot to contemplate either, it earned major brownie points, none-the-less.

To Eat: Von Krahl Aed

There is no shortage of places to eat in Tallinn, particularly around the Town Hall, but they tend to be very touristy and priced accordingly. My favourite eatery was Von Krahl Aed – a well-priced restaurant just a few minutes walk from the Old Town centre, with great food.

I had the lamb with pearl barley (I’m now a convert), fennel, cauliflower and blackberry sauce. If it were socially acceptable to literally lick your plate clean, I would have lapped up every last drop of the blackberry sauce (in fact, I would have been happy to eat a pot of it, on it’s own). That was followed by a trio of sorbets, which were the perfect refreshing end to the meal – anything heavier would have been over bearing in the heat. I was also pleasantly surprised to find New Zealand wine on the menu (Misty Cove, 2011).

To Do: Sights

Head to each of Toompea Hill’s three viewing platforms, which give you unobstructed, panoramic views of red-tiled rooftops, green parks and further out the enticingly blue harbour (a piece of heaven for this water-deprived, London-based New Zealander).

Walk through the churches or visit the Old Town Centre, but really the best way to see the city is to just meander. Take your time. Try to forget about the map and get yourself lost among the city’s streets – you’ll eventually find your way back to the crowds of tourists.

I’ll be the first to admit that it is easy to wax lyrical about a place when you’re blessed with pale blue, cloudless skies and temperatures nudging their way towards (and over) 30°C. But even if it were covered in snow and chilly, it’s clear that Tallinn is an easy city to enjoy and fall that little bit in love with.

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