Saturday, September 12, 2015

Slovenia, part two: Bled

After the Alzheimer Europe Conference closed (you can read Susan’s description of the conference at we took the train to Slovenia’s celebrated resort town of Bled.  At least we tried to take the train.  We had purchased tickets in advance, knowing the train would take us to a town near Bled from which we could get a bus.  But the trains don’t run to that town on weekends, so we took the train to a bus that took us to another bus, but it all worked in the end.

We had never visited a European resort town before, but we chose a very nice one.  Bled is nestled on “the sunny side of the Alps” and features a beautiful alpine lake (oddly enough called “Lake Bled).  A walking/biking trail meanders around the lake (on our first stroll we ran into a friend from Rome), and there is an island one can ride to in traditional boats called pletnas ( that are rowed by a man standing in the rear of the boat – all quite romantic.  On the island is a church perched atop a hill (many steps to climb) that every Slovenian couple wishes to be married in.  It is traditional for the groom to carry his bride-to-be up the steps in his arms, a feat at which about ¾ of grooms succeed.  During the Communist era, church weddings were forbidden, but in the waning days of the regime weddings resumed on the sly.

There is also a castle ( above the lake that dates to 1004.  To reach the castle from the lake one negotiates a long series of switchbacks and then climbs 226 steps (a lady who was quite proud of herself counted them on her way up).  It is lit at night in orange, and the sheer cliff below it is lit in white: simply breathtaking.  

Behind the castle loom the Julian Alps.  It was raining when we first arrived, but snowing at higher elevations.  We watched the snow recede over the next few days.  Have I mentioned that it is simply a beautiful setting?

We visited the summer palace of Marshall Tito, now a hotel with glorious grounds.  It features, among other things, a gigantic slingshot.  I assume Tito enjoyed picking off the occasional Pletna to relax from the stress of being dictator.

So in Bled one walks and boats and climbs.  Those who are so minded can scream down a steep hillside on a kind of toboggan thingie, but we were not so minded.  Rather, we focused on the other things one does in Bled, which is to eat wonderful food and drink Slovenian wine.  When we first arrived we were fortunate enough to find Okarina (, the restaurant Rick Steves calls the best in Bled, and obtain a reservation for that evening.  It is small, features eclectic art (including Egon Schiele prints in the bathrooms), and the odd combination of Slovenian and Tibetan food.  Okarina alone would justify a visit to Bled.  Hey, Paul McCartney ate there!  We hit it off with the manager, a delightful lady, who squeezed us in again for our final night even though the restaurant was fully booked by two private parties (we ate in a small nook while the rest of the room was occupied by 14 British diplomats who were there for a conference on Europe’s migration crisis). 

We also developed an odd fondness for the bar in the Grand Hotel Toplice, where most of the guest appeared to be elderly Brits; a nice spot for a nightcap while gazing up at the lights on the castle.  All in all, it was relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable to be in this beautiful setting.  While waiting for the bus that would take us back to Ljubljana we ran into the manager of Okarina.  “So, you are really leaving?”  Yes we were; it was time to get to know Ljubljana better.

Friday, September 11, 2015

An Introduction to Slovenia

One of the things we most appreciate about participating in Alzheimer Europe over the years is that the annual conference has taken us to countries we would otherwise not think to visit.  In at least one case – Poland - the initial visit resulted in Susan making a connection to the University of Warsaw that took us back and likely will again.  We now have a dear friend in Warsaw, and have learned a great deal about their tragic history and vibrant culture. 

Certainly we would not have thought to visit Malta on our own, and had a delightful time there.  This year’s conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia sent us scurrying for maps, sorting out exactly where Slovenia is.  For those scratching their heads, it is the westernmost nation in the region termed “central Europe,” sharing borders with Italy, Austria, Croatia and Hungary.  In its long history it has been part of the Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires, and more recently Yugoslavia.  It is a small, largely rural nation with a population of slightly more than two million.  Its largest city and capital, Ljubljana, has only 300,000 residents. 

It is a beautiful nation of mountains (the Julian Alps line its northern border), lakes, forests and fields.  Geography has favored it in multiple ways: it was able to largely avoid the horrors of the Balkan wars, and it has prospered far more than some of its Slavic neighbors since the advent of democracy.   At least in the cities, almost everyone speaks at least passable English (when there are only two million of you, you do not expect visitors to learn your language, which is a good thing given that the Slovenian language is unique and has 42 official dialects).  The people are warm and hospitable. 

Cultures, including culinary cultures, collide in wonderful ways.  Slovenians argue, and not without reason, that they offer the best pasta and gelato outside of Italy.  Austrian and German influences also abound.   There is a distinctly Slovenian cuisine, and also what gets termed “ex-Yu” cuisine from the broader Slavic culture.  International foods can also be found: our favorite restaurant, Okarina, in the resort city of Bled, combines traditional Slovenian food with Tibetan offerings because, well, because it does. 

I will write specifically about the capital city, which travel writer Rick Steves terms “the next, next Prague,” and the beautiful resort town of Bled.  I doubt that anything I write will cause many people to put Slovenia on their “must visit” list, lacking as it does major tourist magnets.  Yes, it has cathedrals, castles, and museums, but no one travels to Slovenia to see specific attractions.  Rather, one goes to experience a beautiful place, to learn about a people’s history and culture, and to appreciate a setting that is distinctly different from the United States and Western Europe. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Slovenian Hotel Rooms

I plan to write a number of essays about our wonderful visit to Slovenia (we fly home in the morning), but first let me reflect on the things I love most about European hotels, as well as the things that puzzle me.

The environmentally responsible part of me loves the way that one needs to insert the key card into a slot by the door to turn on the electricity in the room.  Of course, if you want to power up a computer or keep the room warm/cold while you are out, it is a bit problematic.  But overall, I wish American hotels would go this route.

I love European hotel bathrooms that include towel dryers, which are especially appreciated when washing underwear and socks in the sink.  Many bathrooms also include a bidet, which we have never attempted to use.  Apparently one can wash various body parts in them, including one’s feet.  On the web there are tutorials on using them, but I find the illustrations frightening and a bit disturbing. European friends claim they cannot imagine life without one.  Perhaps some day we will learn proper appreciation.

Newer or renovated European hotel rooms offer a bewildering array of light switches.  It can take several days to sort out which ones carry out various functions, and which do nothing at all.  Similarly, the HVAC system may be less than intuitive.  I spent two days at our very nice hotel in Bled fiddling with the control on the wall before I figured out that one needed to open a hatch on the radiator and hit an unmarked switch before the wall control did anything at all.  Housekeeping is seemingly instructed to turn this switch off between guests so that new arrivals will have the fun of searching for it.

European bathrooms often feature bathtubs so deep that one should not attempt to step in or out of them to shower while remotely tipsy.  There will be no grab bar.  However, there is a chain with a plastic, dangly thing with “SOS” inscribed on it that you can pull if you fall.  Except, of course, you will not be able to reach the chain.  There will be no shower curtain.  Rather, there will be a hinged bit of glass.  It is cleverly positioned to make it impossible to spray water on one’s body without also spraying the floor or countertop.  I believe this design is meant to encourage short showers.

All of our rooms here have featured a trouser press.  I simply must press a pair of trousers one day to show my appreciation.

European hotels almost universally include an absolutely amazing breakfast.  In addition to the things one might expect to find it an American hotel (eggs, sausage, cereal, etc.) there will be a selection of meats and cheeses, roasted vegetables, many kinds of fruit, thick loaves of bread to slice yourself, and remarkably good coffee (they know that Italians will never come back if the coffee is bad). In Bled there was even a bottle of prosecco because, hey, why not?  I am particularly grateful that European hotels would never, ever include a “make your own waffle” machine.  Free hotel breakfasts are a great joy. 

On the plus side, there will usually be a king-size bed.  On the minus side, it will actually consist of two mattresses with a gap in-between them, ranging from an inch to a chasm.  And it will have a duvet, or possibly two matching duvets.  Discussing duvets is similar to discussing religion or politics, so I will be guarded here.  At least a duvet offers one a choice between being too hot or too cold.  There is no third option.

Finally, an upmarket European hotel will feature a wonderful bar with a gifted bartender.  I will miss the one here at the Grand Union Hotel in Ljubljana terribly.  On arrival, one can have a glass of wine and a plate of artisan cheeses.  Late in the evening, one can explore marvelous digestifs. The bar here, for example, features some sort of Slovenian gin that one sips like brandy, with a sprig of juniper leaf.  It makes even the likes of me feel momentarily sophisticated.