Ljubljana, Slovenia – Krakow, Poland – Europe Day 38 – July 4

Independence Day behind the Iron Curtain

Rob and I got up around 8 and had an early breakfast before packing and taking a taxi to the train station. We got a quick bite to eat at McDonald’s and used their free Wifi to catch up with people back home. McDonald’s has become the US embassy for me. I know no matter where I am, except for Italy, McDonald’s had free wifi and clean bathrooms. I have no idea if the US embassies offer either of those services, but I would imagine so.

Rob’s train left at 11:30 so he was the first to leave. We said our goodbyes and made tentative plans to bike the Pinellas Trail when I returned to St. Petersburg in mid-August. I spent the rest of the afternoon editing pictures and catching up on blog posts. I’d been so busy over the past couple of days it was nice to have a chance to do nothing for a bit.

I was going to spend the entire day traveling and rather than dreading it, I looked forward to it. I’d be able to rest for a whole day and do nothing but nap and listen to music. My first train took me to Vienna. I left at 4 and got in at 10. My next train left at 10:30 so I only had enough time to buy a slice of pizza and a tea and board the train.

Since I’d be traveling all night, I booked a sleeper car from Vienna to Krakow. I’d booked the cheapest bed I could which was in a room with three beds. Fortunately for me, however, I was the only one in my room and got to lay about all over the place for the duration of the trip.

Ljubljana, Slovenia – Europe Day 37 – July 3

Jaime, Rob, and I woke up and ate breakfast at 7am, in time for Jaime’s early departure to Croatia.

Breakfast was included with the hostel, and it was delicious. We had two eggs, bacon, and two rolls, the best free breakfast I’ve had so far in Europe.

After breakfast, Jaime left and Rob and I planned out our day. Around 11, Rob and I walked down to the train station, missed the first two trains by minutes, and finally caught a train out to Lake Bled to do some mountain biking. Lake Bled is a resort area outside of Ljubljana known for its beautiful mountains, forests, and lake. In the center of the lake is a small island with a church on it, and on the surrounding lakeshore are small beaches and parks. On one side of the lake, atop a large cliff face sits a castle. Rob and I spent the day biking around the lakeside eating cheese and drinking wine. Overall, it was a great day. We slept on the train back into Ljubljana and got some food in town. There was a giant orchestra/choir concert in one of Ljubljana’s town squares. Rob and I ate pizza on the side of the square and watched this amazing concert for free. Ljubljana offered so many free performances around town in the couple of days that we were there. It was incredible to see what the city provided to its citizens on a regular basis. I feel like concerts and ballets in the town center like that wouldn’t happen in the United States. We watch the concert for awhile then returned to the hostel to get some sleep that night.

Back at the hostel, I skyped with my grandparents and found out that I will not be going to Japan this September. I was disappointed. Its been a lifelong dream of mine to travel to Japan, but I understand how strenuous a trip like that would be on my grandparents, and I hope that we can go on a trip perhaps closer to their home in Boston instead. I assured them that it was fine, and that I understood how much of an undertaking the trip would have been.

Ljubljana, Slovenia – Europe Day 36 – July 2

Once the cleaning lady let us in, Rob and Jaime passed out on the couch immediately inside the door. I went in search of warmth and found a large couch in a dark corner of the top floor. I woke up at 10:30am and Jaime was asleep on the couch across from me. She’d gone looking for me and found a couch of her own. Rob came upstairs and woke us up so we didn’t sleep all day. I wasn’t a fan of being awake at this point, but I understood the logic behind it.

The three of us made our way through Ljubljana’s beautiful park that separated the residential area of the city from the downtown commercial area. The park was dotted with wildflowers and winding paths. Families picnicked, people rode bikes and walked their dogs. It was a very tranquil place. On the other side of the park, we reached Ljubljana’s downtown. It’s more beautiful than Venice. The river winds directly through the city center and numerous bridges criss-cross the river connecting both banks.

We found ourselves in a large market selling various meats, cheeses, and produce. We all bought buckwheat cakes and grapes to share. I bought a “Cockta,” a crazy soda from Eastern Europe that tastes like Iron Brew. Everything was delicious, which I suspect had something to do with only eating an omelet and crepe the day before. With breakfast out of the way, we made our way from the market to the castle on the hill. From the top of the castle, we could see all of Ljubljana stretched out before us. Beneath the castle’s courtyard in an underground cavern was a series of modern art exhibits. We perused them then made our way to the courtyard for Elderberry flavored water on our way back down the hill.

Back in Ljubljana’s downtown, we ate gyros and sardines for lunch from a local cafe. I really enjoyed the pace of life in Ljubljana. No one is in a hurry, and the attitude of the city seems very carefree yet people still get things done and everything still runs on time, minus the train that took us here. After lunch, we returned to the hostel to nap, in hope of recovering from the night before. Jaime and I ended up staying awake and talking about San Francisco for the entire afternoon. I’m planning on visiting there on the way to Japan with my grandparents and she offered to show me around the city. The city sounds incredible, like a massive Gainesville, filled with interesting bars and parks, shops and taco trucks.

When Rob woke up, we walked back through the park and into the town center again. In one of the squares, a ballet performance was happening, complete with professional lights and audio equipment. A full production had been assembled in the square, free for anyone to come and watch. It was incredible. Further down our walk we stopped at a riverside cafe for dinner. Jaime and split a delicious magherita pizza with hot peppers and washed it down with a Hungarian beer.

Our waiter brought out Rob’s water with ice in it and gave us ketchup and tabasco to put on our pizza. The whole scenario was funny. Our waiter wasn’t being rude by doing this, by all accounts he was incredibly polite, I just don’t think he’d ever encountered Americans in Ljubljana, and this is what he’d learned about Americans from TV. Either way it was hilarious.

After dinner we returned to the hostel to call it a night. The hostel we stayed at was very bizarre. Based on the large number of doctor’s offices in the area, and the bizarre configuration of everything in the hostel, I suspect it was at one time a hospital. Everything was painted the sterile white hospital color and all the lights were harsh industrial florescents. The room Rob and I stayed in was a dorm, but each bed had its own room but with walls only on three sides, and a curtain on the last side. Because Jaime had booked late, she had a single room. It was more expensive but it was nicer and reminded me of a private hospital room with only two beds in it.

Budapest, Hungary- Ljubljana, Slovenia – Europe Day 35 – July 1

I woke up and looked over. Rob was asleep. It was 6:15. So much for going to Zagreb. We decided to skip Zagreb and just take a late train to Ljubljana arriving at 2am. I had met a French girl named Gaelle on the pub crawl a couple nights earlier and she and I walked all over Budapest for the first half of the afternoon. We went to the Opera House, Parliament, a giant church, and the House of Horror. Budapest’s Nazi/Soviet occupation museum. The building the museum was in was first the Nazi Headquarters in Budapest, then the Soviets. The top three floors were museum space, while the bottom was an actual torture chamber complete with prisoner cells, gallows, and a tiny room where prisoners were forced to stand.

After our morning of adventures, I returned with Gaelle to the hostel to pack and check out. Rob and I nearly missed our train as we race across Budapest with about 20 minutes to catch the train. We took a tram down the road to metro, then the metro to the station and sprinted onto the train, making it with only a minute to spare.

Once on board, Rob and I met a school teacher from San Francisco named Jaime. It turns out her and I had talked back at the hostel for a couple of minutes and so we had report, or as the lady at the liquor store by my house says “child, we have relations”. The three of us had the usual backpacker talk, where are you from? How long are you traveling? Where are you going? Etc.

I went to the dining car on the train to eat a ham omelet with a side of bread, as I realized I hadn’t eaten anything all day and it was now 6pm. Rob, Jaime, and I talked all night, played shithead and ate jam crepes at midnight in the dining car together. Jaime was originally planning to travel to Zagreb on this train but decided she would rather go to Ljubljana with Rob and me.

Around 3am our train arrived in Ljubljana. It was an hour late and very cold outside. The three of us piled into a cab and rode to our hostel, only to discover that it was closed and no one would be there until 7am, four hours from now. In a cruel twist of fate, we were able to get the hostel’s wifi from outside, only to discover there weren’t any other hostels nearby and nothing was open.

As the night dragged on, the temperature dropped and soon it was 50 degrees with the three of us putting on all of our warm clothes, huddling together on the front stoop for warmth. When I woke around 5:45, it was actually colder than when I went to sleep, despite the sun being up. I was about to just start walking until I found warmth, somewhere, anywhere, when a station wagon pulled up and the cleaning lady got out. We were saved! She looked at us, clearly perplexed, then let us in.

Budapest, Hungary – Europe Day 34 – June 30

We got up early today, had a quick breakfast, and caught the train into Egers, a small town outside of Budapest, that’s known for its wine caves. The town itself was nothing special for us, but apparently its the mecca of Hungarian history, with school groups making pilgrimages there daily. Hungary’s Alamo is there, where a small group of Hungarians, vastly outnumbered, held off an attacking army. We took a cab from the town center to the wine caves region of Eger. It was a bizarre little place, like a wine tasting amusement park, as Rob described it.

There was a little row of doors and storefronts etched into the cliff face with each one offering a different wine tasting. The first one was basically a small cafe and nothing special. We paid about fifty cents each for a glass of wine. The second place involved walking down some stone steps into a full-on cave. Rob and I were the only two customers and the woman working was ecstatic to see us. We each tried about 5 half glasses, apparently, they don’t do taster glasses here, lucky us. Rob and I bought a bottle, and everything included it was about $5 each. The next place we found we almost walked past, unlike the rest, it wasn’t a store or a cafe. It was just a pair of green steel doors leading into the cliff face, guarded by a fat Hungarian in sweatpants. We pantomimed if we could come in. He mimed back yes and we entered. Inside there were no tables or benches, cheeses or pictures of Hungary, just a dozen barrels of wine, aging in this mysterious cave. Our host used a giant pipette to siphon out two glasses of wine straight from the barrel. This is by far the most authentic wine experience I’ve ever had.

Our third stop was another cafe type place. We each had six half glasses here and it didn’t cost us a penny.The last place was a storefront, with the cave behind it. The owner also ran a local vineyard with the help of his three beautiful daughters. This seems like the setup to a joke, but it isn’t. The wine was good, the owner gave us a pamphlet and didn’t charge us and we left.

Overall, it was a great day. Rob and I napped for the two hours it took to get back to Budapest. We got to the hostel in time to catch a bunch of people going out to Morrison’s a bar downtown, based on how much fun we had last night, we had to go.

We took the tram to the bar, and who should I find drinking absinthe in front of the bar? It was Cooper from the other night. He joined our group and we all went in for drinks, dancing, and traditional Hungarian spirits. The bar was awesome. It was 5 stories. You walked in onto an open courtyard with several alcoves off of it, some with bars and others with dance areas. There were two floors above the courtyard with more bars and a fancier atmosphere. I never went up. Beneath the courtyard was a basement level playing house music and below that another basement that I also didn’t go down to. I found out about half these floors afterward. Rob and I spent most of the night talking with Cooper and these two girls from Budapest that work for “Carning” I think. The company makes glass for iPhones, and they worked in accounting. At the end of the night, Rob and I walked back to the hostel to get some sleep so we could catch our train to Zagreb at 6am.