SlovinIt19: Ljubljana

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After our exercise-filled nature holiday in Bled and Bohinj, it was time to move on to Ljubljana, where the wild mountain scenery made way for carefully maintained parks and impressive architecture. As we were only passing through, our brief one-day visit barely allowed us to scratch the surface of this beautiful city. We were originally supposed to meet a Slovenian friend of mine while in town, but the plan fell through due to unforeseen circumstances. (Hey D, I’ll be back for those drinks later!) We ended up spending the day wandering around aimlessly and just taking in the sights.

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At the time of booking the trip, I wasn’t aware that our timing collided with the Slovenian Statehood Day on 25 June. Many shops and other establishments closed early that day and the streets were surprisingly quiet, which of course made walking around easier but also meant that the atmosphere was a bit strange – most of the locals seemed to be celebrating out of town. But hey, at least we got to admire the architecture close up without always getting blocked by other tourists. I simply adore those colourful buildings! And how about that daycare playground with its green wall and cloud ornaments? For a capital city, Ljubljana seems surprisingly clean and charming.

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We also spent a good chunk of time in the lush Tivoli Park, which offered us some much needed shade and refuge from the afternoon heat. In addition to enjoying the park’s floral splendour, we also found an outdoor art exhibition and a small botanical garden whose collection of exotic trees was grown in pots out in the yard. However, my favourite Tivoli memory is from the water lily pond, where a plump duck was straining to park its behind on a floating water lily leaf. After making considerable effort and trying many strategies from straight-up climbing to backing up rear first, the duck finally succeeded, but the leaf couldn’t support its weight and dipped underwater. The duck still kept proudly chilling out on its freshly conquered, semi-sunken leaf pontoon. Obviously, I have a soft spot for chunky animals, but I never seem to have the time to pay attention to these details in my everyday life.

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When it comes to food, I can recommend the Icy Bobo ice-cream roll stands and the restaurant Druga Violina, which employs people with special needs. Druga Violina is located in a quaint old square near the Ljubljana Castle. The portions are big, the food is tasty and the prices are very affordable. For a quick snack, it’s also easy to grab a cup of fresh berries from the riverbank market.

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After dinner, we (among many others) climbed up to the Ljubljana Castle to watch the sunset. The castle hill has great views over the old town rooftops, and as an added bonus, there are mountains shimmering on the horizon. Not a bad way to finish the day.

Prices (June 2019): Ljubljana

At this point of our holiday, I had already gotten lazy about writing things down, so I’ve only got a couple notes on prices.

  • Accommodation, Guest House Stari Tisler, room for 2 with shared bathroom: 50€/room/night + tourist tax 3,13€/person
  • Three-course dinner and drinks for two at Druga Violina: 35€ in total

To read all my posts on this trip in English, use the tag SlovinIt19EN.

SlovinIt19: Lake Bohinj and Triglav National Park

IMG_20190621_194221Welcome to Bohinj!

The third day of our holiday began in typical Bled fashion, with a refreshing bout of hail and rain. Naturally, it only started to pour down while we were outside waiting for the bus to our next destination, Lake Bohinj. Always fun to travel with your hair and clothes dripping with rain water, but at least the trip took less than an hour. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t leave behind some suspiciously damp bus seats – so sorry for the unsuspecting travellers who caught the bus after us! It wasn’t what you probably thought it was.

Bohinj

Sobe_CuskicSobe Ćuskić, Ribčev Laz

In Bohinj, we spent a total of four nights at B&B Sobe Ćuskić, located in the village of Ribčev Laz. The lovely hostess didn’t speak much English, but everything went smoothly anyway. Our top floor room was clean and spacious with lots of natural light. We also had our own balcony with views to the mountains, as well as free access to a shared kitchen. The location was very convenient: right next to a bus stop, about a ten-minute walk from the head of Lake Bohinj with shops and restaurants. Our room for two cost 50€/night, which in my opinion was excellent value for money.

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While Bled is known by “everyone” and has the crowds to show for it, Bohinj remains a relatively unknown oasis. An American man we met at the Bled bus station was puzzled about why we would, after Bled, bother to go see “another lake”. Well, Bohinj isn’t just another lake, Sir. I’d even go as far as claim that Bohinj is just a bigger, calmer and more affordable version of Bled. Anyone looking for peace, quiet, mountainous scenery and endless hiking opportunities should feel right at home in Bohinj. Kayaking, parasailing and paragliding opportunities are also excellent there.

st_johnChurch of St. John the Baptist, Ribčev Laz

We started off by investing 27€ each on the Mini Bohinj Package, available at the tourist office, which included a boat tour on the lake, a return trip on the Vogel cable car, a drink at the Vogel restaurant and a visit to the Church of St. John the Baptist, which is probably the best-known historical monument in Ribčev Laz. There were many different packages to choose from, but the mini was best suited to our purposes.

IMG_20190621_202716 Midsummer dinner at restaurant Kramar

We arrived in Bohinj in the afternoon on Midsummer’s Eve. Unlike in Finland, where Midsummer is celebrated as “the nightless night” because the sun doesn’t set at all, in Slovenia it gets dark quite early even in summertime. So, the first day, we only had time to unpack and wander around in search of a meal. We found the perfect restaurant a short stroll away from the village centre, located right by the water’s edge. The food at Kramar was simple but tasty, however it was the views from the outdoor terrace that really won us over and got us in the right Midsummer mood.

IMG_20190621_195938Bohinj blue hour

Savica Waterfall

IMG_20190622_104858Gloomy morning view through the window

The next morning was rainy and foggy, so we didn’t feel bad at all about lounging in our room until late in the afternoon. When the sun suddenly appeared from behind the cloud cover, we decided to make a quick visit to the Savica waterfall, which is one of the most popular natural sights in the Bohinj area.

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The boat tour included in the Bohinj Package is very convenient in that you get two separate tickets, each good for a one-way trip from one end of the lake to the other, and they don’t need to be used on the same day. So we took one of our tickets and travelled by boat from Ribčev Laz to Ukanc. The boat stops by the docks next to Camp Zlatorog Bohinj, and from there you can either walk or hitchhike to the waterfall entrance. During high season in July–August, there is also a bus that goes all the way up to Savica, but we were there a bit too early in June. We picked the easy one-hour walk instead of hitching.

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Our sporty choice kind of backfired once we made it to the ticket booth and found out there were still around 550 stairs to climb to even get within ogling distance of the waterfall. But none of that bothered us once we actually made it to the top, as it’s always pretty cool to see the most famous postcard views of your travel destination in person, rather than in the card rack of the nearest corner shop. The only bother was having to go back down to Ukanc the same way as we came, since the trail can get quite boring and there aren’t any sights along the way. At least the buses were still running, so we didn’t have to walk all the way to Ribčev Laz.

Vogel Hiking Trails

IMG_20190623_085605Orlove Glave chairlift

In the winter, the surroundings of Mt. Vogel operate as a skiing centre, and in the summer you can hop on the lifts and easily get to a height of 1537m to admire the spectacular mountain views without ever breaking a sweat. On the fifth day of our vacation, we spent our Bohinj Package cable car tickets to do a bit of hiking around Mt. Vogel. The same tickets were also good for the Orlove Glave chairlift, which took us even higher to the trails.

IMG_20190623_094405Snack break viewsIMG_20190623_104909Something that makes my soul sing
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A scared feller along the wayIMG_20190623_104236An excited feller at the top of a mountain (Šija 1880m)

The mountain weather forecast for the afternoon didn’t look too promising, so we decided to only do a short hike and summit one of the nearby peaks around the end station of the Orlove Glave chairlift. A very steep path took us to Šija in well under two hours, snack breaks included. In good weather, continuing further along the same trail would have led us to Vogel itself, but even this short route offered magnificent panoramas over the Julian Alps.

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After our brisk little walk, it was nice to kick back and enjoy a glass of wine at the cable car upper station terrace, with views all the way down to the lake. A tip to any drink ticket users: wine costs less than other refreshments there, so spend your Bohinj Package drink ticket on a Coke and pay cash for your 1,50 € glass of wine. I also recommend taking a moment to visit these furry friends living next to the upper station viewpoint!

Pigi_and_friendSpotted: a plump pig called Pigi

IMG_20190623_084218The Vogel cable car takes you straight to this picnic spot. Suits even the laziest of us!

Adventures and Adrenaline in Triglav National Park 

BohinjA happy mountain sloth in its element

On the sixth travel day, we finally got down to business, i.e. went on a proper day hike in the national park! In the morning, we caught a bus to the neighbouring village of Stara Fužina, where we started off on a steep forest trail leading to the Vogar viewpoint at the height of 1085 metres. That made for a nice warm-up ascent of about half a kilometre.

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Our original plan was to do the five-hour circle route of Vogar–Pršivec–Planina Viševnik–Planina Jezero–Vogar, but the route between Planina Jezero and Vogar was unfortunately closed due to fallen trees on the trail. Our plan B was the one-way route of Vogar–Pršivec–Planina Viševnik–Crno Jezero–Slap Savica, which meant ending the hike at the waterfall we had already visited the previous day. I had a lot riding on this choice, since it was Redds’s first “real” mountain hike and I didn’t want to disappoint her.

IMG_20190624_130157Pršivec (1761m)
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Decent nap spot

At this point, we felt good about the route choice, and Redds didn’t let her fear of heights stop her from tackling a few scary points where we had to do some light climbing. The highest point of our route, Pršivec, offered incredible 360-degree views on the surrounding mountain range and down to the valley. It was also a great place to have a snack and a bit of rest before heading back down.

IMG_20190624_135307 Bregarjevo zavetišče

On the way down, we stopped by the Bregarjevo zavetišče hut, where we were able to purchase some cold drinks. Hot meals prepared by the hostess were also available. A cold soda cost 3 € and a sausage plate would have cost 10 €, which is incredibly reasonable considering the location. Best make sure to bring some cash for this one!

IMG_20190624_144931Back into the forest

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Our last pit stop before Savica was the dazzlingly turquoise Čzrno jezero (literally “Black Lake”). I wonder why each and every one of these lakes with clear turquoise water is always called the Black Lake, no matter where in the world they are located, hmm? There was a similar-looking puddle of the same name on my last trip to Montenegro. Anyway, at this point we had been hiking for at least eight hours, so a little soak in the cold water did wonders to our weary feet before the last leg of our hike. Perfect weather, perfect scenery – Redds’s maiden voyage into the world of mountain fanatics had gone almost suspiciously well.

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And suspicious we should have been, since bad luck struck us mere 20 minutes before the Savica parking lot. The descend from Črno jezero to Savica is a super steep zig zag trail, and while we were making our way down, some poor bastard above us stumbled and set off a bunch of chunky pieces of rock and failed to yell out a warning. The falling rocks bounced off the cliffs and thumped Redds straight in the forehead. Suddenly, there was enough blood to shoot a damn slasher film, and for the first time ever, I got to practise my first aid skills in action.

I managed to stop the bleeding, but the rest of the descent was nearly impossible due to the uncontrollable shaking in my thighs from all the adrenaline (oddly enough, I was more shaken than Redds). At Savica, we asked the staff to call us a taxi to the nearest hospital, but there were no taxis anywhere in the vicinity. Thankfully, a friendly restaurant worker gave us a ride to the nearest ER, which was a 35-kilometre drive away in Bohinjska Bistrica. The nurse who patched Redds up said that another person had gotten hurt on the same dayin the same spot and for the same reason. So, if you’re planning to take this route from Savica to Črno jezero, bringing a helmet definitely wouldn’t be overkill.

Thanks to beginner’s luck, Redds only suffered a fright and some nicks and bruises – well, a bruise the size and shape of a golf ball on her forehead. Stylish! As an added bonus, at least we got to see how the Slovenian health care system works, and no complaints there. However, Redds wasn’t too excited about the idea of me publishing a picture of her monster bruise, so here’s a bunch of pictures of alpine flowers we spotted along the way, instead. Enjoy!

alp flowers

Prices (June 2019): Bohinj

  • Bus ticket Bled–Bohinj: 3.60€
  • Accommodation, B&B Sobe Ćuskić: 50€/night/room for two
  • Mini Bohinj Package: 27€
  • Entrance fee to Savica waterfall: 3€/adult, 2.50€/student
  • Bus travel between the villages in Bohinj: 1.30–1.80€
  • Dinner at restaurant Kramar by the lake (incl. main dish, drink and dessert): 17.50€

+Tip: See arriva.si for local bus schedules and ticket prices

To read all my posts on this trip in English, use the tag SlovinIt19EN.

SlovinIt19: Lake Bled and Vintgar Gorge

Lake Bled

Once again, the first half of this year has been a bit of a blur for me, but that’s just how it goes with the rat race, I suppose. At least I got to go on a few short holidays this summer! Ever since I first started (this admittedly intermittent) blogging, I’ve spent my midsummer alone in the mountains. This year, however, my friend Redds made a delightful special guest appearance. I planned us a little tour of Slovenia and northern Italy with the goal of maintaining a nice balance between the cities, the mountains and the sea – in other words, a bunch of mini vacations in one low-budget package.

Bled

The first stop of our grand SlovinIt tour was Lake Bled, best known for its clear, turquoise waters and its tiny church island. Bled is easy to reach from Ljubljana, as buses run regularly, and accommodation-wise there’s plenty to choose from, as long as you book early.

castle_hostelCastle Hostel: views from dorm and roof terrace

Mainly for budget reasons, we picked a hostel for the first two nights. Castle Hostel is located smack dab in the middle of Bled, a short stroll from the lake. The roof terrace features excellent views over the town, and they even arrange free morning yoga classes there. Our four-bed dorm shared the same view, which seemed great at first but turned out to be not-so-great after all. With no air-con it was really hot in the room at night, but it was also nearly impossible to keep the terrace-facing window open since the party people would smoke and make noise right in front of it until the wee hours. Decent accommodation for a couple of nights, just don’t forget to bring your earplugs and inhalator.

IMG_20190621_121229Lake view from the Bled Castle

Bled is one of the most popular tourist traps in Slovenia, and no wonder why: the astonishingly turquoise lake with its crystal-clear waters is surrounded by mountains and castles that could be straight out of a Disney film.  The lake keeps changing colours depending on the viewing angle and weather conditions. And those changing weather conditions seem to be able to pack all four seasons into a single day! Out of the two days we spent in Bled, both included sunshine, cloudy but dry weather, drizzle, thunderstorms and hailstones the size of a tennis ball. A storm can rise seemingly out of nowhere and soak you to the bone in a matter of minutes while the hailstones gently hammer your muscles, and the next minute the sun comes back out and there’s no trace of dark clouds anywhere. In this sense, Bled reminds me of Iceland – it is said in both places that if you don’t like the weather, wait for five minutes and check again. Unfortunately, that works both ways.

IMG_20190621_120527Better remember to bring an umbrella…

IMG_20190620_145935__01__01…or face the consequences! This only took five minutes.

My favourite thing about Bled is the trail circling the entire lake, with a plenty of nice wild swimming spots and opportunities to admire the lush vegetation and chubby duck families along the way. My least favourite thing must be the ceaseless echo of church bells from early morning until late evening  – the locals have found a way to squeeze a few extra bucks out of tourists by offering them a chance to ring the “famous wishing bells” of the island church and people positively flock to do it. Oh well, as long as business is booming, right?

 

When it comes to food, I can definitely recommend paying a visit (or two) to the reasonably-priced bakery Slaščičárna Zima, where you can easily sample the local delicacies. Make sure to taste the cream slice! And, even though it might seem silly to travel to Slovenia just to order a pizza, the popular Pizzeria Rustika is also worth queueing for – even going as far as making a table reservation might be wise with this one. These two joints won’t disappoint!

IMG_20190620_131024__01Cake break at Slaščičárna Zima. The hot chocolate was as thick as pudding, 5/5 from me!

The obligatory sights of course include Bled Castle. Built high up on a hill, you’ll get a nice, quick workout climbing there on foot. The castle overlooks the entire lake and the surrounding mountains, and the views from the courtyard are magnificent.

 

Vintgar Gorge

Bled is a great base for all kinds of tours and day trips, but if you’ve only got time for one activity (like we did), go for the Vintgar Gorge! It is one of the finest sites of natural beauty I’ve ever stumbled upon and my pictures don’t do it any justice. The start of the 1,6-kilometre walking tour is about 4 km from Bled, and can be easily reached by bike or on foot if you’re not fond of busy tour buses. By walking or biking, you’ll also be able to make an early start before the biggest  tourist hordes arrive.

IMG_20190620_090008Country scenery along the way from Bled to Vintgar

As I recall, Redds and I made it to the ticket window at around ten in the morning, and the number of visitors was still at a reasonable level then. The entrance fee includes a return trip from the starting point to the Šum waterfalls and back. As you’ll be walking in the gorge on narrow boardwalks and gravel paths, with people simultaneously going in both directions and stopping along the way for pictures, foot traffic gets easily stuck in various bottlenecks. Therefore, it’s best to go as early as possible in order to spare your nerves. By noon it’ll be too late, already.

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Another benefit to an early start is the chance to see the morning mist quietly hanging above the river, making the atmosphere a bit more eerie and mystical. As the day warms up, the mist slowly disappears and the crowds appear. So be early if you’d like to enjoy this sight in (relative) peace and quiet! Reserve at least two to three hours for the whole thing.

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Prices (June 2019): Bled and Vintgar Gorge

  • Bus from Ljubljana airport to city centre: 4,10€ pp
  • Return bus ticket Ljubljana–Bled_Ljubljana: 11,34€ pp
  • Castle Hostel: 19€/bed/night + tourist tax 3,13€/person/night
  • Vintgar Gorge entrance fee : 6€/student, 10€/adult
  • Bled Castle entrance fee: 7€/student, 11€/adult
  • Stentor BarFly, lunch by Lake Bled: 14,30€ (meal + drink)
  • Slaščičárna Zima: one piece of salty and sweet pastry each + hot chocolate: 9,55€
  • Rustika, pizza + drink: 14 €
  • Public Bar & Vegan Kitchen Bled, soup lunch + smoothie: 9,50 €

To read all my posts on this trip in English, use the tag SlovinIt19EN.

Miami Mini Vacation, Days 4 and 5: Sunset Celebration in Key West

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On the fourth day, the end of our mini vacation was rapidly approaching. Our official programme for the day consisted of seven full hours of shopping at the Sawgrass Mills outlet. However, I am really bad at buying anything, and the mere thought of changing rooms and their bright lights makes me sweat. I’ve also gotten quite used to travelling alone, so the first three intensive days of travelling in a group (no matter how nice the group) had started to wear down my introverted brain. Although I’m sure that chasing after discounts in a jungle of designer products would have been a culturally rewarding dive in the deep of capitalism, at this point I decided to separate myself from the rest of the group and headed out to Key West by myself.

I had reserved my bus transfer from Miami to Key West a couple days earlier through Travel to Key West, and early on Monday morning, the bus picked me up in front of our hotel precisely as and when promised. My one-way trip cost 35 dollars, nearly as much as the 39-dollar day trip would have been. However, I didn’t want to return on the same day, since the drive is nearly four hours one-way. The day trip only allows for six hours to tour the destination, and the return bus leaves too early to see the famous Key West sunset. And I really, really wanted to see that sunset.

So, I booked a bed in a shared room at NYAH Key West, which turned out to be an excellent decision. Even though 55 dollars for a dorm bed seemed like legalised robbery at first, considering the general Key West price level, I actually got a lot of bang for my buck. The official check-in time would have been 4 pm, but they let me in my room as soon as I arrived around noon. The flirty receptionist’s only concern appeared to be whether I was trying to use my older sister’s passport – and that’s how to get hefty tips! :)

The room was clean and tidy and it had its own bathroom and access to a spacious balcony. Each bed had its own night light, a small shelf, and a couple of USB charging ports, as well as a regular power outlet. In addition, every guest got a big locker that worked with the same key card that was used to access the rooms. There were a lot of small, practical things like that to make life easier for everyone. The hotel consists of several maze-like wooden houses surrounding a cosy and secluded pool area shaded by tall palm trees. There are four pools: a heated and an unheated pool, a hot tub and a jacuzzi. Though I’m not entirely sure of the difference between the last two, it didn’t stop me from enjoying the warm soak to relax my sore muscles. Not Your Average Hotel, indeed! This one gets my sincerest recommendations.

The architecture of the wooden houses in Key West has a delightfully Caribbean vibe to it. I spent the first two to three hours just walking around the sleepy neighbourhoods, admiring their cheerful colours and kooky details, of which my absolute favourite was the scheming, mail-munching frog (see picture above). I only stopped for some quick takeaway Cuban lunch from Sandy’s Café, now known as Fernandy’s Café. My recommendations to that one, as well!

Key West is so compact that it’s easy to get almost anywhere on foot. There’s also the free Duval Loop Bus which tours the most important tourist traps seven days a week. Myself, I’d rather walk than travel by bus, but I’ll just leave that little tip here for anyone else heading to the island. Whatever you do, don’t fall victim to the 35-dollar hop on, hop off tour that they try to peddle at every street corner. It really isn’t necessary.IMG_20181112_130120

In November, there were still a lot of Halloween decorations left up here and there. And I’m not talking about any old fake spiderwebs thrown around willy-nilly. No, I’m talking about the “more is more” type of extravaganzas that only true Americans seem to master. I captured the most artistic display in the picture above: at first, I thought the dude on the rocking chair on the porch was the owner himself, but upon a closer look, I realised it was a nightmarish clown keeping company to a couple of full-sized horse skeletons. Loved it!

It came as a surprise to me that Key West isn’t really much of a beach destination. The public beaches downtown, including the Southernmost Beach in the Continental USA, sure look fine from a certain angle but are tiny and overcrowded in reality. It may even be possible to get stung by Portuguese man-of-wars in the water, yikes. Smathers Beach, which is near the airport, is surely big and gorgeous, but the highway runs parallel to it and you can hear the cars on the beach. In my opinion, anyone looking for a full-on beach holiday would be better off picking another Key or sticking to Miami Beach.IMG_20181112_152401__01 IMG_20181112_152356IMG_20181113_065628

Don’t travel to Key West for the beaches, travel there for the unique and laid back atmosphere. One of the island’s unique features is that chickens seem to have full rights there. Chickens and roosters roam free everywhere from traffic intersections to playgrounds, and you get to experience a cacophony of crowing every morning. Other must-see tourist traps include Mile 0, the starting and finishing point of the Florida Keys Highway, the old Flagler Station and the home of Ernest Hemingway, which I didn’t have time to visit.

One tourist trap reigns supreme: in Key West, they celebrate the sunset every day (every single day)! Every evening, Mallory Square fills up with artists, acrobats, fire eaters, musicians, and of course tourists. I almost missed the entire spectacle because I couldn’t tear myself away from the warm embrace of the NYAH jacuzzi, so I had to run like the wind to make it to the square in time. There were hundreds of people at the square just staring at the sun slowly falling into the horizon. The very last rays of light inspired a wild round of applause in the crowd before everyone wandered off in different directions. I loved it! I only wish I could have stayed longer.IMG_20181112_180424IMG_20181112_174428IMG_20181112_174026IMG_20181112_180057IMG_20181112_174701

After the sunset, I grabbed a cup of key lime ice tea to go and slowly wandered back to the hotel. The room had been empty when I first arrived and I had already gotten a bit excited about getting a private room for the price of a dorm, but by the time I got back, every bunk had filled up. I didn’t really mind, since it also meant that a nice French girl (whose name I cannot remember) joined me for dinner. I cannot remember the name of the seafood restaurant we picked, either, but it was next to Flagler station, the food was good and the service incredibly slow. They also asked to see my ID, which is always a nice bonus! I wouldn’t have dared to go back home to Chef if I hadn’t sampled the local specialties, conch fritters and key lime pie, both of which were absolutely delicious. I didn’t even order a main, just an appetiser and dessert, and still couldn’t finish everything. These portion sizes truly boggle my mind.IMG_20181112_203213IMG_20181112_205249

On Tuesday morning, I literally woke up at cock-crow, packed up what little belongings I had brought with me and started walking toward the Key West airport, where my Greyhound back to Miami would leave from. I decided to walk because the local bus didn’t run that early, because I don’t like taxis, and because walking allowed me to enjoy one last sunrise. And the sweet, sweet crowing of roosters, of course.IMG_20181113_062800

Greyhound arrived in Miami slightly ahead of schedule. From the airport bus station, I caught the Metrobus back to South Beach and took one last dip in the ocean, trying to soak up the sun and the waves, and all the colours, sounds and smells to get me through the dark winter awaiting back in Finland. Finally, I picked up my luggage and rejoined the rest of the group at the hotel, and then Carlos gave us a ride back to the airport. Farewell to Miami, though I hope we meet again!IMG_20181109_173007_001

To read all my Miami trip posts in English, use the tag Miami18EN!

 

Miami Mini Vacation, Day 1: Jet Lag, Miami City Tour & Wynwood Walls

IMG_20181109_134222Travel to Miami, leave your sunglasses at home!

I still find it hard to believe this actually happened. Earlier this year my team at work won a sales contest, which meant that last month I got to go on an all-expenses-paid reward trip to Miami, FL. The trip was sponsored by a large Finnish manufacturer of sweets. Slothie and the Chocolate Factory, anyone? I was joined by the candy company’s representative (our host, a.k.a. Mr. Picks-Up-The-Tab), one of my workmates, a buyer from our company, as well as four other victorious sellers from our other branches.

Before this trip, I had never been to the other side of the pond. In all honesty, if I had been planning a self-funded trip to the States, Florida wouldn’t have been my first pick. The stereotypical image of retirees flocking to the state to heal their aching bones occupied my mind. However, Miami was a hugely positive surprise, and it surely didn’t hurt to get a little break from the greyness and misery also known as November in Finland. The biggest downside was that the long flights ate up nearly two days out of my one-week holiday. I would have loved to stay longer, but this time it wasn’t possible to move the return flight to a later date since the eight of us were travelling as one group. It turned out to be ok, though – had I skipped any more classes, I really would have struggled to catch up with my studies. As evidenced by my more-than-lax blogging schedule, this Autumn has been an incredibly busy time for me.

 IMG_20181109_062717Pool area at sunrise, Washington Park Hotel South Beach

As a little addition to my reward package, I also got my first taste of debilitating jet lag. During the 11-hour outbound flight, I didn’t sleep a wink. Instead, I tried to finish a huge backlog of coursework at the mercy of Finnair’s spotty in-flight wifi. We finally made it to our hotel late on Thursday evening in the local time. The first night, I managed to get exactly two hours of sleep before waking up to a feeling of heavy nausea. I suffered through the rest of the night all curled up, just waiting for the morning, waiting to feel better. At the break of dawn, I dragged myself to the beach while the rest of the group remained in their comfy beds. It’s really quite miraculous how easy it was to forget how sick I really felt – all it took was the chance to dig my toes in the warm sand and watch the colourful sunset above the surging turquoise waves.

Now, two hours would make for a perfectly acceptable nap time, but it isn’t nearly enough to sustain a sloth for an entire day. But this was not the time nor place for tiredness, as our days were packed with activities. Our first full vacation day started with a three-hour Miami City Tour on a minibus. We were accompanied by a Finnish guide, who told us about the sights and local culture. We made a quick pit stop at a cigar shop in Little Havana and then proceeded to have lunch in the Wynwood Art District.

IMG_20181109_121019Wynwood Kitchen and BarIMG_20181109_123810Octo a la Plancha

Wynwood Kitchen and Bar served us a wide selection of drinks and tapas, of which my favourite was the deliciously tentacled portion pictured above. I normally travel on a budget, so this “order whatever you want on the company Visa” type of wining and dining felt almost awkward at first. I mean, how many tapas can I order before feeling like a complete mooch? Well, I quickly got over it, and so did the others. The final bill was a sight to behold. At least nobody was left hungry!

While our driver Carlos took everyone else back to South Beach right after lunch, my workmate and I decided to stay behind to tour the Art District and admire the endless graffiti and colourful buildings. I took so many photos that I had to make a separate gallery out of them. Click on any picture below to browse their bigger versions.

 

I’ve never seen such a delightful hotchpotch of colours and patterns as I did in Wynwood – ¡me encanta! From Wynwood, we still continued our tour by walking a couple kilometres to the city centre, because there would have been no more time for such things later. Sure, we could have caught the bus, but who has the patience to wait for those?

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As the temperature remained at around 29–32 °C for the duration of our holiday, our short walk across the concrete jungle quickly became sweaty business. On the way, we popped into a Burger King to get some refreshments, and that way also caught an authentic glimpse of the everyday life of the eighteenth most obese nation in the world (WHO 2017). If these buckets o’ diabetes above are only “medium” in size, then I’m pretty sure the largest cups would be big enough to swim in.

The vibe in downtown Miami was strangely retro-futuristic: steel, glass, tall-ass skyscrapers, surprising colours and shapes, slip roads going in every direction, expensive cars, commuters on the elevated Metromover snaking its way across town, high above the streets. It was like a trip to the future – not my future, but future as imagined in the 80s. I could have spent days just exploring the architecture in the city. This is something not to be missed, even if you’re in Miami primarily for a beach holiday! Here’s another gallery of my skyscraper snaps:

 

We finally reached our daily walking limit and caught a bus back to South Beach. We made it back just in time before sunset, and managed to get in a quick dip in the warm waves of the Atlantic before darkness fell.

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In the evening, the whole group gathered together again for dinner. This time, we chose the Brazilian restaurant Boteco Copacabana on Española Way. I think our most important criterion this time was the ability to get a table for eight without a reservation on a Friday night, but the food was good enough and the drinks even better. Seated outside on the street, we even got to sneak a peek of two flamenco dancers hired by the restaurant next to us. The street really lived up to its name there.

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To read all my Miami trip posts in English, use the tag Miami18EN!

 

Budget Holiday in Montenegro, Part VI: Detour to Croatia

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Day 12: Abandoned Hotel Belvedere & Crowded Dubrovnik

I finished off my Grand Montenegro Tour on the Croatian side of the border. Croatia has a special place in the depths of my dark heart because that’s where Chef foolishly proposed to me years ago. Back then in the distant past, we hitchhiked our way up the coast from Split, so we never had the chance to experience the magnificent tourist trap of Dubrovnik. A mistake I now got to fix, at least on my own behalf.

My bus arrived at the Dubrovnik station in the early afternoon. I queued up in the drizzle just to get to an ATM that only spit out big notes. I simply couldn’t bring myself to buy a bus ticket at the kiosk with a 200-kuna note, because from personal experience I know how maddening it can be to serve as an unofficial money exchange spot for tourists, especially when you’re already strapped for small change. (Yes, I’m looking at you thick fucks who think it’s OK to pop over, first thing in the morning, just to buy one euro’s worth of gum with a 50-100-euro bill. Stop doing that.) So, instead, I decided to be energetic and walk the three kilometres to Old Town Hostel where I would be staying.

IMG_20180627_143415Barba’s octopus burger: a million times better than I made it look

After a quick shower, I was immediately on the prowl for some late lunch. TripAdvisor did right by me: the much-vaunted street food joint Barba served the most delicious octopus burger, which was not only affordable and tasty but also so huge I didn’t even think about getting fries on the side. With my belly full, it was nice to roll up a hill to explore the abandoned hotel Belvedere.

IMG_20180627_163229Up-left: Belvedere roof peeking out from behind the trees

Hotel Belvedere stands in an incredible spot overlooking the sea, about a half-hour walk from Dubrovnik’s old town. The flashy and flourishing hotel of the 80s has been abandoned ever since the Croatian war, so for almost 30 years already. While planning my holiday, I read many blog posts by people who’ve trespassed on this private property to explore the secrets that lie within the building (f.ex. Belondoned). I’ve never even entered a “regular” abandoned house before, but all these fascinating tales about the labyrinth of hallways inside the Belvedere building were too exciting for me to pass up on the opportunity to go do some research of my own. Another tempting factor may or may not have been the fact that the hotel has served as one of the filming locations for Game of Thrones.

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The property is surrounded by signs against trespassing and there’s video surveillance, as well. When I got there, I was welcomed by a clowder of stray cats. I wasn’t the only tourist, either: I saw a couple of strangers climbing over the fence and disappearing towards the building. I was already at the gate when I noticed a seething guard appear from behind the building. He gave me a nasty glare and then started chasing down the other intruders while cursing profusely. Much to my disappointment, I had to settle for peeking in through the fence, because I really wasn’t in the mood to get manhandled. I suppose these Belvedere explorations have become too popular recently – none of the earlier blogs mentioned anything about guards patrolling the property, and it seems like many of the writers had managed to spend hours in the area. There’s nothing much you can see from behind the fence, so if the guards are always there, it’s probably best to just skip this one in the future.

IMG_20180627_164621I did make a beautiful new friend, though – not an entirely useless detour

Disappointed, I returned to the old town with the intention of seeing all the sights, but ended up having to change my plans again. In the late afternoon, it took some serious elbow action to fight my way past and through the hordes of cruise ship tourists on the narrow streets. I fully understand why there’s been talk of Dubrovnik setting some kind of a cap on the number of tourists allowed in the old town at a given time.

Every trip needs its own theme song, and this one came to me while I was desperately battling the crowds. This elegant classic by Ludacris suddenly started playing in my head, and it was stuck there for the rest of the trip. The chorus perfectly describes the feeling of trying to wade through the masses of people – and yes, I’m aware I was very much a part of the problem. :)

IMG_20180627_220658Only by night can you move freely within the city walls

Day 13: Patrolling the City Walls & Relaxing on the Island of Lokrum

Lucky 13, the last day of my holiday! Traumatized by the crowds of the previous afternoon, and against all my natural habits and instincts, I rose before the sun just to be able to take in the sights without someone constantly bonking me in the head with their selfie stick. At six in the morning, it felt like a whole other city – not a soul in sight. Fabulous!
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IMG_20180628_062250SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!
IMG_20180628_063636 IMG_20180628_063917Hi, I’m Sanni. I like to travel thousands of kilometres just to take pictures of cats.
IMG_20180628_064806 IMG_20180628_064050Even the cats are out to make a quick buck off the tourists

At eight, I was first in line for a walking tour of the City Walls. This one should not be missed, nor postponed to the afternoon! Early in the morning, I was able to walk in relative solitude, whereas the crowds in the afternoon seemed to form a tight queue around the whole old town, not unlike a record-breaking human centipede. The tour easily takes an hour or two, because from every corner of the walls there’s a different view over the old town and the Adriatic sea. Normally, tickets cost 150 kuna (~20€) a pop, but I got a hefty discount with my student card. They did twist and turn and stare at it for a good while, though, but eventually accepted the fact that this ancient sloth of 31 years is in fact still a student.

IMG_20180628_080711King’s Landing, bitchesss!IMG_20180628_081250IMG_20180628_083516
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The island in the background of the picture above is Lokrum, the official recreational oasis of Dubrovnik. Lokrum is fast and easy to reach from the old town harbour by boat, and after the City Walls tour I soon found myself on a picnic, surrounded by the rabbits and peacocks that freely roam the island. Although the boats connecting the island and the old town were always full of people, somehow all the crowds just disappeared into the forests and parks of the island. There was finally space to breathe, relax and swim.

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Unfortunately, my carefully selected, solitary swimming spot was soon ruined by a pack of loud Lads™ whose only swimwear was their birthday suit. “Oi lads, oi! Oi, check dis out bro! HEHEHEHE LOL!” Cue: helicopter dick. I moved away from them to another solitary spot, but soon enough an older gentleman laid his towel right next to me. He also started an odd ritual of putting on and taking off his teeny-tiny speedo, over and over again, as if to show off his wrinkly junk.  I honestly wouldn’t even be surprised if he turned out to be the godfather of Professor Massage. At that point, my daily dick quota had been met, so I slinked away to the return boat before the old guy could follow.

Back at the hostel, my dorm mates were looking for a wingwoman to join their club tour that night. After careful consideration I left them to their own devices. I was about to catch a super early return flight the next morning, and the thought of travelling hung over did not entice me at all. The boys promised me that they would wake me up with drunken noise upon their late-night return, just so I wouldn’t oversleep and miss my flight. How kind of them.

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I left the boys to pre-game in the common room and quickly jogged over to the Velika & Mala Petka forest park just in time for the sunset. From atop the hill, I had the perfect vantage point to admire the stormy sea and the sky that slowly changed its colour from yellow to pink. Congratulations to me for a holiday well executed!

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P.S. Oversleeping was certainly not a problem for me: the hostel bathroom smelled of stomach acid and the guy sleeping in the top bunk coughed and snored so heavily that he made the entire bed shake. I didn’t get one iota of sleep. A fitting end to a wonderful holiday!

To read the whole story of this Montenegrin-Croatian holiday, use the tag Montenegro18EN – complete itinerary and budget still coming up!

Long Weekend in Prague, Day 2: Crowds, Treats & Jazz

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Our second day began in a very touristy manner as we followed the crowds to Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral. Long before the giant Gothic cathedral opened its doors, queues had started to form around the building. While some might find joint sweating a delightful group activity, Redds and I are no such people. We didn’t even try to catch a glimpse of the interiors, but instead settled for a stroll around the outdoor spaces.

IMG_2049Illuminati strikes again! Can you spot the Pokéball pattern on the windows?

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I almost felt sorry for these newlyweds who were trying to finish their photoshoot in front of the cathedral. In the crowds, it was nearly impossible to take a photo without accidentally (or purposefully) getting photobombed by a sunburnt tourist. This paparazzi photo of mine also had to be heavily cropped to exclude random onlookers.

IMG_2057S is for Sanni (and also for Sloth)

IMG_0176Hello MTV, welcome to my crib!

Outside the castle, I found a pretty decent Sloth Palace. The compact, down-to-earth habitat with its serious hipster vibes found its way to my heart. The pompous S-Manor in the first picture? I’ll keep that in mind as a backup plan.

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Pushing through crowds gets tiresome, and there is nothing worse than a hangry sloth. For lunch, I tried the goulash served in bread, which was delicious. As an added bonus, a wild Hare Krishna group appeared out of nowhere, drumming and dancing, and provided us with entertainment as they passed us by several times.

For dessert, we sampled the local specialty, trdelník pastry, which is made by wrapping dough around a stick to bake it, and covering it with some kind of a sugar mix as a final touch. Redds had hers with ice-cream filling, while mine was served with a generous coating of Nutella. Delicious, once again!

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The rest of the evening was dedicated to a dinner cruise on river Vltava. We snagged a table on the upper deck of the Jazz Boat (reservation in advance recommended). An amazing live band played jazz in the closed space downstairs. We got the best of both worlds: we could hear the music well from the speakers placed on the deck, and we also had unobstructed views over the water and the city. A three-course dinner with wine and snacks completed the experience. I would be quite okay with this kind of life on a more permanent basis.

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The beautiful city lights guided our way back to the hotel. Unfortunately, we had to learn the hard way that leaning on the decorative fences around the river probably isn’t the greatest idea: giant spiders are forever waiting by their intricate webs, ready to strike en masse from the shadows. Ooooofff!

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