Category Archives: Travel Guide

Travel Guide: Bratislava

Bratislava marked the end of my winter adventure through Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia (with a brief stop in Italy). By the time I got there, I was used to the cold and the short daylight hours and I was also very glad to meet up with a friend the day after I arrived.

One of the important things I learned on this trip is that driving in Europe requires a vignette, basically a road pricing sticker that includes road tax and can vary based on roads driven and distance. The cost of a vignette is quite reasonable but the fine for not having one is rather steep. Turns out I’d been pretty lucky because I didn’t learn this until I’d been driving around for five days. After buying an online vignette for Slovakia, one of the few countries that allows this, I took back roads out of Maribor back into Austria. As I drove through a vineyard on a road with one and a half lanes, a border official waved and that was it. I do very much like this about Europe. Shortly afterwards, I stopped to look around.

The winding, twisting, narrow roads led into small towns with winery after winery, each clearly visible on the surrounding hills. Thinking of the lives that had been built here gave me pause.

Getting to Bratislava was simple but getting into Bratislava was a little more complicated and I marvelled at how people had navigated before technology. I was more than happy to park the car and leave it for the next two days. Getting around Bratislava on foot is very easy and there’s extensive public transportation.

I was staying across the street from Bratislava Castle, the grounds of which are open at all times. I walked through it that afternoon and again the following morning.

Bratislava Castle was first built in the ninth century but the current version was rebuilt beginning in the 1950s. Today, there are museums that are open to the public, as well. I was more interested in the garden . . .

. . . and the churches and other buildings located just down the hill. There were real signs of life and ideas here, which I always enjoy seeing.

I took a quick walk through town to get my bearings, surprised at how very few people were around. I was also surprised at the number of hipster establishments that didn’t seem to match the atmosphere. The streets were really quiet and the sky, no longer the bright blue of Slovenia, gave the city a feel of being tucked into winter. Although I couldn’t tell you why, I got the impression that Bratislava could be a very stark place and it did not feel like anywhere I’d been before.

The UFO bridge certainly added to that impression.

But then I stepped inside a brewery (and then another one . . . and then another two the next day) and I found all the people. They were laughing and talking and joking and almost no one was looking at their phones. This was very, very different from what I see in Asia and I felt suddenly warmer for being around people who were interacting with each other and the space around them.

The following day was one of walking and wandering. I met up with a friend and it was great to have the company and to share this new experience. We walked through the old town and quarters of grand buildings . . .

. . . through the city to visit the Blue Church . . .

. . . and took a short walk from the Blue Church to the site of Bratislava’s only remaining synagogue.

Earlier that day, right next to St. Martin’s Cathedral in the old town, we’d seen an exhibit on the street about the synagogue of Bratislava that, despite protests by the community, had been torn down in the 1960s to build the UFO bridge. Bratislava has a long and extensive Jewish history and there were historical markers about it around the city, including a museum dedicated to Jewish culture.

We also walked across the Danube River . . .

. . . and found ourselves in a park that must have been a relic of Bratislava’s communist history. Imagine the stories these benches and trees could tell! Or the last people to sit here. Who are they? Where are they?

Just across the street from the Presidential Palace, we saw another relic of communism – a fountain that had once clearly been a showpiece but was also in disrepair.

Another notable element of walking around Bratislava was the graffiti tagging everywhere. I felt a real lack of reverence and desire to be heard and I liked that attitude very much. Things that have been needn’t always be. And Bratislava was a little bit of everything.

The next morning, it was time to go but I really wasn’t ready to leave just yet. Instead, the last day having a car made it possible to visit Devín Castle, a stone castle located 10km from Bratislava. It was built in the thirteenth century and was then destroyed by Napoleon’s army in the early 1800s. The sun had come out again but the wind was really strong. It was easy to see why this castle had been built up on a windy hill at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers.

Thanks to a photo exhibition, I learned that the Iron Curtain had run directly in front of the castle to separate Bratislava from Austria across the river. I knew that the Velvet Revolution, the history of which Bratislava is very proud, had toppled communism here but I didn’t know that the Iron Curtain was a physical structure. In school, we’d talked about it as a concept, not as something tangible. Learning about that was really powerful and reminded me again of how much I don’t know.

After the cold wind, the obvious choice was to stop for some hot wine once more before the last part of the journey, which would again follow Austrian wine roads because they’re so much prettier than the highway.

And then all too soon, the car was dropped off and I had far too much time to kill at the airport. As is my habit, I drank a hot chocolate and reflected on the roads travelled. I had seen parts of the world that I’d never really imagined seeing and I honestly felt the growth in myself as a person. When I moved to Malaysia in 2014, I never would have known how to go about a trip like this. And here I was with all clothing in my pack worn twice like it was nothing. It has been a long road to get to this point and that I cannot forget.

Sometimes the world feels right to me and over the last few weeks it had. There is solace in that feeling. There is solace in knowing there are places out there where the world feels okay. Thank you, world.

Travel Guide: Lake Bled, Lake Bohinj, Trieste, Maribor

After four days in three cities in Austria, a beautiful drive through mountains, rolling hills, wind, sunshine, and blue skies led the way to Slovenia. After two nights in Slovenia, I headed into Italy just because “Let’s drive to Italy today” seemed like a fun thing to do. One more night in Slovenia completed this part of the road trip.

Lake Bled

I cannot say enough good things about Slovenia. And I almost don’t want to say anything at all because part of the magic of Slovenia is that it was quiet, though this might also be because I was there in the winter. But anyway, there are a million good things to say about Slovenia. Go see for yourself!

For my first night in Slovenia I stayed in Lesce, a small town in the hills that was close to everywhere I wanted to be but away from the much more popular area of Bled. The quiet, calm solitude was startling (even after a night at a farmhouse in Leoben) and contributed to quiet and calm in my mind, too.

However, I’d heard of Lake Bled in the past and knew I wanted to see it. There’s a castle and a church at the lake and while I didn’t venture up, I know you can actually visit. Instead, I opted for the 6km walk around the lake, which began with afternoon sun . . .

. . . went through a Christmas market celebrating its final night . . .

. . . and ended in the evening’s gathering darkness, though not without a cup of hot wine along the way.

Walking back from dinner that night along a silent street, I noticed the stars. The sky was dark and the stars were bright and the air was cold and I stood outside and just looked. We don’t see often stars in Singapore and when we do, they don’t look like Slovenian stars.

The world of that night was very different to the world of the morning waking up on a farm in Austria.

Lake Bohinj

The next morning, giggling at how I planned to spend my thirtieth birthday playing outside, I drove past Lake Bled to Lake Bohinj. There was snow on the ground as the road descended into another glacial valley and I actually got out of the car to look at the world. It was the magical winter fairytale of childhood that I haven’t seen in a very long time.

Before finding a parking spot at Lake Bohinj that turned out to be illegal, I stopped to visit Slap Savica, the Savica Waterfall. The walk up itself was nice and easy and it was beautiful to look out at the Julian Alps while listening to the rushing water and feeling the cold.

A picnic lunch on a bench in the sun was in order before a walk around Lake Bohinj. Later that day, I’d pay my parking ticket (oops) at the post office. The light on the lake was stunning, as were the mountains surrounding it.

I walked through a sub-alpine meadow and looked down at the lake and up to the mountains and felt the cold and the wind and the air.

There were plants and trees and runoff from the snow creating little rivers and puddles.

Once the sun disappeared behind the ridge and then grew smaller and smaller, it was time to go. It gets bitterly cold at night in January in Slovenia.

The drive to Bohinjska Cesnjica where I spent the night went through narrow twisting roads and tiny towns containing wood and stone guesthouses and farms. Late that night with the weather well below freezing, I walked outside to look at stars. How had I gotten here? How did any of us get here?

Trieste

The next day taught me that I never again want to have a car in an Italian city. I decided to go to Trieste rather than Croatia or Hungary, both of which are relatively nearby, based on the fact that Italy is in the eurozone. I drove through the sunshine and the Alps, which was lovely, and then into a busy city with small cars and limited parking, which was far less lovely. My tip for parking a car in Trieste: Spend a few euro and park in the spacious and huge parking lot at the port. It was easy to find once I knew it existed and the parking machines take coins, notes, and cards.

At least at that time of year, it appeared that all shops and many other establishments closed in the afternoon from 1 or 1:30 until 4 or 4:30, and I arrived close to 1. I had every intention of going back in the evening when shops would be open until 7 or 7:30, but the guesthouse where I spent the night was up a ridiculously narrow, winding road on a hill about 8km outside of town. There was no way I was going down (or up) that road in the dark.

One thing that struck me about Trieste is that this city is old. The buildings were beautiful but they had been standing for a long, long time.

It was also really neat to see a stadium from Roman times next to a car park and an apartment block. I very much love that about Europe.

I also really loved the greengrocer set up in the middle of a piazza.

And of course, there were grand piazze that are probably much busier in the summer.

The history of Trieste’s Jewish community dates back about 800 years and I walked to the synagogue . . .

. . . and through the old Jewish ghetto that was full of (unfortunately closed) quirky shops selling antiquities and used books.

All things considered, a wander through parts of Trieste was a perfectly acceptable way to spend an afternoon before settling into the little guesthouse on the hill. Looking down on Trieste both at night and in the morning was really cool.

Maribor

After a day away, I decided I missed Slovenia. In the morning, I drove to Maribor, Slovenia’s second-largest city. It was a bright and sunny day and not too cold yet, which was perfect weather for a walk. I looked at a map and found Jezero (Lake) Komarnik, which has marked running and hiking trails.

Remaining aware of the sun and the time of day, I chose the shorter of the two paths and found myself first walking along a dike at the edge of a field . . .

. . . and then crunching leaves underfoot in a forest.

There were nature signs posted along the route with information about plants, animals, and ecosystems and even though I didn’t understand any of it, I really enjoyed that it was there. The way a community treats the environment tells a lot about what that community is and what it stands for.

Later in the afternoon I walked through Maribor City Park, which is exactly what it sounds like. A large park in the middle of a city with ponds, old trees, a bandstand, and a nature centre.

On the drive to the park, I spotted signs for Pyramid Hill. As the sun was beginning to set, I followed the walking trail up the hill . . .

. . . through the vineyard . . .

. . . and past the recent excavations of a twelfth century castle.

Signs along the way, including some in English, explained Pyramid Hill and Maribor City Park and it was nice to get a sense of where I was. There are longer walking trails along the back of Pyramid Hill but it was far too late in the afternoon for those.

Once it was dark, I headed into the old town to find the town square, have some wine, and feel European. It grew very cold as night came in but the narrow cobblestones felt good under my feet and I walked until the need to actually feel my toes became urgent.

It had been a wonderful few days and I knew I’d miss Slovenia even before it was time to leave. I spent the last evening curled up reading a novel and researching international schools. This had been a very special adventure and it left me excited for the next day’s journey to Bratislava.

Travel Guide: Salzburg, Vienna, Leoben

Before dawn on New Year’s Day after a week in Switzerland, my parents and I took the train from Zurich to Salzburg. The trip itself was beautiful and everything I had hoped train travel through Europe would be. We journeyed through mountains, hills, trees and through increasing amounts of snow, but there was sunshine and blue skies the whole way.

Salzburg

I really, really enjoyed our afternoon in Salzburg and would have loved more time there to walk up to the Hohensalzburg Fortress, or drive to Schloss Hellbrunn in the countryside. But now I have a reason to go back!

Salzburg was surrounded by water and, surprisingly to me, great stone cliffs that seemed to come up out of nowhere when we were walking through the old town.

As before, the walk through the old town took us past beautifully painted buildings and intricate architecture that just don’t exist anymore. I know that real people don’t live in these old towns, but they certainly are pretty. The narrow streets leading to large open squares in Salzburg are hilly, which means that church towers and other buildings just sort of peek out at you around corners.

But there are other parts of Salzburg that remind you that this is a real place where people live and I was glad to see that, too.

Mozart made his home in Salzburg and we visited Mozart Geburtshaus, Mozart’s birthplace, which is considered the more informative of the two Mozart houses. We learned a great deal about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his family (including a very talented sister!), and Austrian musical tradition and I was really impressed with the collection of artifacts and family papers. Music is a really important part of heritage here and classical music was playing through speakers throughout the old town in Salzburg, prompting a surprising amount of waltzing in the streets and in the squares. I kept expecting to see a live orchestra around each corner!

Like we’d seen across Switzerland, there were little Christmas markets and stands set up across the city.

We also stopped by the university church . . .

. . . and the Dom zu Salzburg, where we stopped to visit the church and to drink glühwein.

Vienna

The next morning was equally bright and sunny and we left fairly early for Vienna. We could have easily stayed another day in Salzburg and left for Vienna that night but something told me I’d want the time in Vienna. This turned out to be accurate and again, I really need to go back!

Vienna is beautiful. It’s beautiful and grand and opulent with wide streets and specially painted bike lanes. As soon as we saw the bike lanes next to the opera house, I knew that I would like Vienna very, very much. It was pretty at night, too.

The first thing we did, however, was walk a little ways out of the old town to the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s largest food market. It’s part restaurants . . .

. . . and part food stalls . . .

. . . and part other goods.

My family loves markets and food, and we ate and drank and tasted and smelled for a good couple hours. I can only imagine how much busier it would have been on the weekend when the flea market is open, but I was really glad to have the chance to see some of the art painted on the closed stall fronts.

From there, we basically followed the streets brightly lit by Christmas lights. We wandered into a couple of Christmas markets and did some window shopping before stopping at the Austrian National Library. To warm up, we joined the long queue waiting to get inside. We were greeted by everything that creates the idea of a library – wooden bookshelves with the upper levels accessible by ladders, old books, vaulted painted ceilings. It was still cold inside, likely to keep the books in good condition, but so pretty that it didn’t matter.

We were also lucky to see an exhibit of Beethoven’s personal papers, including the program and score of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, which I have actually seen!

The next morning we followed a guided walk around Old Vienna and it took us down narrow, quiet streets to tiny squares with old, quiet churches.

There were also busy shopping streets and grand squares with opulent buildings and statues.

My dad and I climbed one of the towers of St. Stephen’s Cathedral and although it was cloudy, I was glad to see the view of Vienna from above. My spatial skills are mediocre so I appreciate actually being able to see the expanse of a city.

Fun fact: Vienna used to be a walled city! Our walking tour took us past the remnants of the old city walls.

This was the coldest day we’d had (it had actually snowed!) and we decided to spend the afternoon indoors. Along with many other visitors, we took shelter in the Leopold Museum to learn about Viennese art of the 1900s. The exhibition included painting, sculpture, furniture, and jewellery and I enjoyed learning about artists who were completely new to me. I also didn’t know anything about the impact World War I had had on Vienna; I think it’s important to understand the place where you are and I was glad for the opportunity to learn more about it. The importance of art was clear outside of the museum, as well.

That evening we went to a concert in St. Charles Church in which we were treated to a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and what I can only assume were other works by Vivaldi because nothing was actually explained. An opera singer featured for certain parts of the performance, too. The church was beautiful but one thing that didn’t occur to me when I bought tickets is that churches are not heated. I learned an important lesson when the ushers passed out blankets at the door!

Leoben

Mum and Dad flew back to Toronto the next day and I left Vienna to pick up the car I’d be driving for the next week. This was the point at which I had no plans. I knew where I’d be staying for the first two nights but the rest of the week was wide open and I was really excited for the adventure.

For example, I thought it might be fun to try cross-country skiing for the first time and planned to stay near a national park. The lack of snow meant I would hike instead, after getting over the initial delightful surprise of finding myself at a bed-and-breakfast up a goat track run by an elderly couple in what I think is their farmhouse. My German was almost as good as their English but everything went just fine.

Going from grand Vienna to the country was a drastic change but I was so glad to experience a small Austrian town.

I’ve been in a number of odd towns over time and Leoben certainly fit. It appeared that part of the old town had been torn down and a multiplex had been built instead to comprise the town’s entertainment. It contains a kebab shop, pizzeria that doubles as a bar, sushi restaurant, and movie theatre. Other than that, the town has five different grocery chains, a euro shop, three discount clothing stores, a couple furniture stores, a café/bar that did not sell food, and a sex shop. Gösser beer operations are located in Leoben, too. An adventure indeed!

The drizzle let up by the next morning, perfect weather for a drive to Slovenia!