Thursday, September 22, 2016

Lake Bled, Slovenia


Day 3: A lake, a gorge and an engagement

There are not enough superlatives for the beautiful Lake Bled, a delightful lake in the mountains about an hour away from Ljubljana.

There's a lake! With a church on an island! With a castle on the hill! You guys, Slovenia was already inching its way to the top of my favorite list, and then Lake Bled sealed the deal. We had a day and a half for Lake Bled and its surrounding areas (Vintgar Gorge), and again, we were very sad to leave. Can we just live there?!



It was overcast for almost all of our time in Slovenia, except for an hour our first morning in Bled. Still a bit jet-lagged we are waking up earlier and were lucky enough to catch beautiful light for reflection. When I woke up and saw the light, I scrambled to put on enough clothes to be acceptable and ran out to the lake. Then the clouds came and we never got such clear reflections again. I have to remind myself of this story, because if you want a picture, don't wait until later! You might not get another chance if the conditions are perfect then.


After breakfast, we took out some bikes around the lake.* The path around the lake is 3.5 miles, so it is walkable but I'm glad that we had bikes. As the day wears on, the pathway around the lake gets increasingly crowded. So if it is peace and quiet you want, start early.

* Our hotel offered free bike rentals but there are plenty of rentals around the lake.

The island is just cute. I snapped way too many pictures because just look at it. You can set foot on the island by a non-motorized ferry with a group, or row yourself. We rented a row boat by the campground (bring a lock if you are riding bikes) and rowed across the smooth waters.

It's free to visit the island but you have to pay 6 euro to get inside the Church of Assumption which allows you to ring the bell by pulling on the rope, you know for luck or something. Not sure what I was expecting of the bell ringing experience. A spiritual experience? A good story? Honestly, it was neither and I wish we would have saved our money. Live and learn, right?

However, I was glad we got on the water somehow, so that I would recommend.


After we finished our romantic row (I mean, look at my man and island views), we finished our bike ride, grabbed some allergy meds (forgot mine...) and visited a nearby gorge.

 

In the countryside near Lake Bled is the beautiful and easy to access Vintgar Gorge. You can drive or hike up to the gorge. Since we are always short on time, we opted to drive to spend more of our time at the Gorge.


Vintgar Gorge (Veent- gahr) is a mile-long hike through a mountainous gorge. The hike is more of a stroll over wooden bridges that crisscross over the river. It is cool and wet, so bring decent shoes and a light jacket just in case.


The trail ends with a waterfall where there are bathrooms and a snack bar. This easy hike is good for anyone of all ages and was pretty mellow.

My last two goals in Lake Bled were to find a good view and eat Bled cake. I found both.



We hiked Ojstrica which was a moderately steep climb with some sweeping views of the area (ALPS!!!). It had recently rained so the hike was a bit muddy so keep that in mind. It is on the west side of the Lake and parking is available near the campground if you don't want to walk. 

I captured a sweet moment of that couple in the bottom right-hand corner getting engaged! We saw them later at a restaurant, and while they were busy being romantic, I was busy stuffing my face. 



We had dinner at one of the restaurants near the east side of the lake. We were feeling adventurous and ordered the seafood platter. Which could have fed a party of 6. So many tentacles. 

We washed down dinner with a delightful piece of Lake Bled cake which is as light, moist and creamy as you would expect.

And with that, we said goodbye to Lake Bled. Next up, the Julian Alps! 



Tips from Lake Bled

  • Experience the lake somehow. Either walk or bike (my preference) around the perimeter and/or get on the water. I would recommend renting a personal boat instead of the ferry (it's cheaper and you can go wherever you want). 
  • Get above for a view! We chose to hike over visiting the castle only because the hike was free and I was told the castle's interior wasn't that impressive. However, if it was a clear day, I would have paid to get the views from the castle. 
  • Lodging: we splurged a bit and stayed in a hotel on the edge of the Lake and I'm really glad that we did. It offered great breakfast and free bike rentals.
  • Visit the surrounding areas. Vintgar Gorge was a fun diversion and I wish we had enough time to visit Lake Bohinj. 
  • Eat Bled cake. That is all.

Traveled May 2015.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Last May, we had the pleasure of visiting Eastern Europe. I woke up to an alert on an amazing deal on flights, took the morning off from work to convince Jacob to go and work out particulars, and then we booked a dream trip!

We started off in the delightful country of Slovenia.

Eastern Europe Day 1 & 2: Dragons and Castles and Bridges, oh my!

When we would tell people we were going to Slovenia, most people would nod knowingly and then pause, "Ah, yes, Slov... wait, where is that?"

Slovenia is a small country bordering Austria, Italy, Croatia and Hungary. It is beautifully green, the food was delicious and we found everyone we encountered to be kind.

Jacob's cousin used to live there and we've have heard wonderful things about it over the years. So when I found a killer deal on flights to Eastern Europe, it was a natural starting point.


Our sojourn began in the capital, Ljubljana (lyoob-lee-AH-nah). Our delightful Airbnb apartment was just off the main Prešeren square which is in a pedestrian only area. The apartment was just behind the pink Franciscan Church of St. Mary.

We had two-ish days in Ljubljana (arrived mid-morning on the first day, and left late afternoon on the second. It was enough time to see everything we wanted to in Old Town.

The Old Town is sprinkled with photogenic alleys, a river that intersects the city, beautiful bridges, lively markets, a castle on the hill and dragons. Yes, my friends, dragons. Ljubljana is just that cool.



On the first day- jet-lagged but happy- we strolled Along the Ljubljana River, passing back and forth between sides via the famous Triple Bridge, Cobbler's Bridge, and my favorite, the Dragon Bridge.



DRAGONS!
The Dragon- Mascot of Ljubljana since Jason of the Argonauts (Greek mythology) killed one nearby. So naturally, you can find the dragon a few places around town.



We then wandered through the Riverside Market (can't miss it on the south side of the river). In addition to trinkets, the food and flower market is beautiful AND delicious. Grab a bundle of fruit (the strawberries were delicious!) and have a seat in the square for some of the best people watching.

Well, strawberries AND gelato.

But be careful in the markets! A woman tried to pick-pocket me in the market (I have nothing in my pocket so jokes on her). It is a crowded area so be cautious as you would in any crowded market.





We meandered back through the cobblestone streets (sigh, cobblestones) to the delightful street of Mesni trg/Stari trg lined with cute shops and umbrella-d courtyard eateries.

Plus so many beautiful doors!



It was in this meal that Jacob discovered truffle oil and realized he had a highly refined palate. :)
No but seriously, he ordered mashed potatoes with truffle butter and fell in love, ordering it at any restaurant he could.



The next day was Castle Day! Set on a hill overlooking the city, Ljubljana Castle offers fantastic views of the green mountains juxtaposed with the red rooftops. We took the funicular to get to the top of the castle and then walked down. The castle interiors were interesting (audioguide really helped), but it was the views that really sold it.

To get the above pic of the castle, go to the roof of the The Skyscraper (Nebotičnik).




In the castle courtyard, we encountered some sort of presentation with a man in a sash, other costumed people and free dessert. I am all about free dessert.

And then there were the views...


After walking down back to Old Town, we picked up lunch at a pizza stand at the Riverside Market, then strolled to the west side of the river to Congress square (cute places around the square to get yummy dessert), then strolled to the Skyscraper to get views of the Castle. You can grab a drink or eat on the top floors, or just grab a quick free view like us cheapies.

We walked back to our apartment through the Galerija Emporium (shops) before picking up our rental car to explore the countryside of Slovenia. But not before we saw Dining in the Sky, a traveling sideshow where your dinner party is lifted by a crane hundreds of feet in the air. Have you guys seen these around? Not sure if it is for me...




Practicalities

  • Transportation: the highlights in Ljubljana are easily accessed by foot, so no need to worry about public transportation/renting a car. We used a shuttle to get from the airport. 
  • Money: Slovenia uses the Euro. While many big places accept cards, cash is king. Always have some available for small shops, the funicular, etc. 
  • Lodging: It is advantageous to stay near Old Town. We loved our room via Airbnb. If you don't already have a profile, use this link to get $35 off your first stay.
  • Guidebooks: we are loyal to Rick Steves' and used his Eastern Europe Guidebook for this trip.



Traveled in May 2015.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

How to Visit Turkey in 12 Days


Turkey! Quickly became one of my favorite countries. It is quirky, diverse, with yummy food and nice people.
Here are some things that we learned along the way. Hope this helps your trip.


Go Beyond Istanbul


While Istanbul one of my favorite cities, there is so much more to Turkey. Whenever we talk about Turkey we wax nostalgic about Cappadocia and the Turquoise Coast the most. Consider extending your trip and getting out of the city.


Transportation


In heavily touristed areas, the public transportation is usually enough. Likely you will not want a car when visited a big city (driving in Antalya nearly ended our marriage. just kidding, kind of).

Cappadocia
  • We relied on public transport for most things. 
  • From the airport- book shuttle via hotel as ours was full for walk in. 
  • Around- public bus to the town above Rose Valley, to underground city. However, I wish we would have joined one of the colored tours (ask your hotel about them). We wasted a lot of time trying to figure out and wait for public transportation.
  • The buses do stop around dark, so prepare your activities to be home by then. 

Turquoise Coast
  • If anything, rent a car for the Turquoise Coast. Public transportation is limiting and these sights are not close to one another.
  • However, don't just stick to a car. Get on a boat!

Istanbul
  • The tram and light rail are really easy to use and got us most places. However, try to have a few tickets on hand. We missed it a couple of times when we were stuck at the ticket booth.
  • Walking. It's a pretty walk-able city, so get good shoes and get out there!
  • To the airport: for an early morning flight, it was easiest for us to book a shuttle through any of the travel agencies throughout the area. 
Turkish Airlines

We LOVED Turkish Airlines, Turkey's national airline. The three times we flew, we were served a meal even on our 50 minute flight (OK, it was a sack lunch, but still!). 

Our flight coming home was cancelled (Thanks for nothing, Air France) so we were rebooked on a Turkish Airlines flight. Upon arrival, we were given a welcome Turkish Delight, a little tin with socks and other toiletries, and unlimited movies. 



Prepare for Rain


And don't expect the cheap $2 umbrellas they sell on the street to last more than one gust of wind.



Dress (and act) appropriately. 


Mosques require a strict dress code. Both men and women must have legs covered. At the Blue Mosque, there are wrap-around skirts (big pieces of fabric) and head scarfs to borrow. Borrowing head scarfs seems like ew, so just carry a lightweight scarf in your bag. You will have to remove your shoes, but they give you a plastic bag to carry your shoes at the Blue Mosque.

We saw many people worshiping while we were visiting the mosques. Be quiet and respectful.

To make your visit more meaningful, read up a little about Islam so you can have an understanding of what you are seeing.


Beware the cats of Turkey


The cats of Turkey! They are everywhere. Sneaking up on you at a picnic, lingering at your feet at a restaurant. We often saw a cat stroll through an outdoor restaurant like he was the maitre de.

The boldest cat we saw even stood on its hind legs and put its paws on the table in an effort to beg.

The strays wandered onto the stage at the G-20 Summit last week. They have no shame!


Have an Open Mind


I had a friend tell me that she didn't like Turkey because she got ripped off at a money exchange. First, one bad experience shouldn't dictate how you feel about an entire country (keep trying to tell myself that about Jordan). And, you guys, why do people keep doing this? Exchange rates at a cash exchange are the worst! Use an ATM. :)

But seriously, Turkey was so different than any other place we have ever visited. We tried to learn and embrace, and we truly fell in love.


12-Day Turkey Itinerary


We had only had 12 days in Turkey. With an extra couple of days, we would have likely gone to Ephesus. The more I learn about a place, the more things I want to see. So I eventually had to stop reading about Turkey so I could alleviate some of the travel FOMO I was experiencing.

Day 1: Cappadoccia
Arrive in Cappadoccia in afternoon
Book shuttle through hotel.
Explore and relax.
Dinner at Seten Restaurant. Delicious! Get a reservation.
Stayed at Turquaz Cave Hotel

Day 2: Cappadoccia 
5 a.m. Hot Air Balloon ride with Butterfly Balloons
Gerome Open Air Museum
Hike through Rose Valley
Public transportation ends early, so plan accordingly

Day 3: Cappadoccia
Underground City
Arrived via public bus.

Day 4: Turquoise Coast
Overnight bus to Antalya (a nightmare, bite the bullet and fly instead)
Rented a car and visited the Lycian Tombs in Myra and flaming mountain at Mount Chimaera
Arrive in Kas
Stayed at Lantana Apartments

Day 5: Turquoise Coast
Boat tour along the coast- hotel helped us book
We bough snorkel gear but shouldn't have. The fish to see weren't that great.

Day 6: Beach hopping along the Turquoise Coast
Kaputas Cove
Patara Beach
Fethiye
Stayed at Yacht Club Hotel

Day 7: Turquoise Coast
Lazing around the beach at Oludeniz

Day 8: Pamukkale
Bus ride to Pamukkale, buy tickets anywhere in Fethiye
Stayed at Hotel Sahin- basic but great location

Day 9: Istanbul
Early flight to Istanbul
Visited Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, Underground Cistern
Stayed at Airbnb apartment. Bit of a walk, but nice.
Get $25 off your first stay with Airbnb here.

Day 10: Istanbul
Bosphorus Cruise- check the forecast and schedule on sunniest day
Strolling around Istanbul before dinner

Day 11: Istanbul
Topkapi Palace
Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent
More shopping

Day 12: Istanbul
Grand Bazaar
Spice Market
Taksim Square
Istikal Street
Galata Tower

Day 13: Fly home!
Seems like most flights to the States leave first thing, so we booked a shuttle that left at the unearthly hour of 3:30 a.m.



As always, I love to talk about travel. Comment below or email me at stephaniefbenson {at} gmail {dot} com.


Thursday, November 12, 2015

Istanbul- Top 9 Classic Experiences

Istanbul is possibly the coolest city I've ever been to.

It straddles two continents- the only city to make that claim. Turkey has it all: picturesqueness of Europe and the quirkiness of Asia. It's, you know, the perfect combination of sexy and cute.

With four days and so much to see, we hit the highlights hard. Below is a list of our top 9 experiences.

Blue Mosque



The most iconic building in Istanbul is the Blue Mosque or Sultanahmet. Called the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles on the interior. The inside is worth a visit, although the exterior is really what makes this mosque special. It dominates the horizon and is magical both day and night.


The line can be a bit long, especially right after it is closed for prayer. Make sure to dress modestly or borrow a wrap skirt. I borrowed a skirt but brought my own head scarf because borrowing one seems like ew.

The calligraphy throughout the mosque is exquisite. Depictions of people are not allowed in mosques, so the calligraphy and tiles are lovely.

Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya)




In my opinion, the Blue Mosque has the most beautiful exterior, but Hagia Sofia (which is just across the way) has the best interior.

Hagia Sofia has quite the history. First a church with the beautiful mosaics built in 532 AD. Then a mosque, where all mosaics were destroyed or covered, and now a museum. The juxtaposition of the two religions in the building now is beautiful.
The 24-foot wide medallions were stunning. Unfortunately, half of the dome was under construction (is everything old being restored?! haha).
Testing out the Column of St. Gregory. Supposedly you stick your thumb inside, twist and you will feel "holy water" with healing powers. I'm not sure if is the power of persuasion, but I swear it felt moist inside (possibly from all of the previous thumbs that have been in there...).

Can't find the column? It's in the dome. Look for the line.

Underground Cistern


Then we went underground to make things a little interesting. The Underground Cistern was juuuuust creepy enough to be the location of the climax of a Dan Brown novel. (Oh wait, it was).

Really, could be a super creepy place, but it was really cool. The size of about two football fields, it is a cool place to wander around. Look closely for the Medusa heads at the base of two of the columns.

Topkopi Palace


Next up on our Istanbul tour is the Topkopi Palace, administrative center for an Ottoman Sultan in 1470s, it became a residence for the Suleyman the Magnificent. And his Harem.

While the whole palace is interesting (albeit time consuming), I remember the Harem the most. The Harem, something that is weirdly fascinating and disgusting, is beautiful. Well worth the extra admission.

Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent



A much quieter and peaceful alternative to the Blue Mosque. First, the interior is pink. So that is amazing. But in all seriousness, it was quiet and calm.

Outside of the mosque is the mausoleum of Suleyman and his wife Roxelanna, a slave concubine who convinced the Sultan to marry her after he banished his first wife. Through conniving plots (included dozens of murders including that of her stepson), she secured the crown for her son.

See, history can be interesting, if not a little terrifying.

Bosphorus Cruise


Jacob's birthday was conveniently during our trip. His one wish was that we not go to any museums. So we spent the day on a cruise down the Bosphorus, which surprisingly is filled with jelly fish. Random, no?

The cruise criss-crosses between the Asian and European sides of Istanbul. It ends north by the Black Sea at the Asian fishing village of Anadolu Kavagi with enough time for lunch and a stroll.


Fresh lunch! At one of the only restaurants that didn't accost you on the street. I spent the whole day telling everyone that it was Jacob's birthday. I'm annoying like that. But it paid off when the ice cream boys sang Happy Birthday to him. Which embarrassed him mercilessly.

Could you imagine a residence on the shore of the Bosphorus?

Galata Tower

Galata Tower area in the New District is really cool. Great shops, yummy restaurants and the best views in town from the top of the tower.
The top of Galata Tower has an observatory with a cafe. Even when it is pouring rain outside, the view is still pretty great.

Food


Everyone's always talking about Turkish Delight, but it's all about the Baklava! Dipped in Pistachio.

Shopping: Grand Bazaar and Spice Market

The famed Grand Bazaar is frenetic, fun and a little weird.

The spice market is a lot for the senses. We bought a beautiful painting from Ucuzcular Baharat.
But my favorite souvenir is our Turkish towels. Our favorite store was Jennifer's Hamman.

And with that, we said goodbye to Istanbul!

Have you ever been to Istanbul? Would you go?