Ljubljana +++

We are safely home in Florence. I took 40 minutes early Friday morning before our departure to walk around with my artist’s eye to see what beauty I might capture before our departure, and another bit to quickly transcribe my overall impression. I can tell that Slovenia, and especially Ljubljana, for me will become like Sicily after 2004 and 2008 – an enthusiastic if unanticipated elevator speech for lukewarm might-be tourists.
[If anyone wants to hear my still-valid Sicily elevator speech, shout out; I’ve keep it warm for years, and believe it yet.]
As for Ljubljana: go. It is lightly touristed, and a gem. If you are at all a travelly type, if you studied abroad or “done” Europe in the past but somehow missed it, put it on your short list.
[I am not in any way connected with any Slovenian entity, and give these opinions and exhortations freely and without reward or compensation.]
The city is in a flat part of a valley with a river that runs through it, and ample bike paths. 
The town is surrounded by snowcapped mountains.
The city is very progressive, full of art, especially bronze sculpture, and recycle bins and open piazze. 
I’ll take Slovenian impressionist painters of the 19th century for $1000, Alex.

The outdoor cafes serve coffee and espresso in the mornings, beer in the afternoons and evenings, with tons of outdoor seating and blankets at every chair. Many of them look out onto canals or the river.
The city really appreciates its outdoor festivals, and even when said air is 20 degrees Fahrenheit, there are still tons of people outside enjoying mulled wine, coffee, and beer and each other.
The beer and wine situation is superb.
Note huge vat of tapped, mulling wine behind Gluewein hawker. Strasbourg never saw the like.
The music and theatre situation seems omnipresent and easily accessible.
The medieval core remains cobbled yet lined with Hapsburg architecture and fine buildings that truly make you feel as though Gilded Age Vienna were just a stone’s throw away.

The Slovak and Teuto
nic influence is a welcome change from sunny Italy. The pastries become more yeasty and filled with jam, the pretzels appear everywhere, the beer served in large steins, and the Habsburg onion cupolas glitter over the cityscape.
Did I mention the antique and vintage bookstores?! In another life…
Ljubljana linguistics: I never liked the name on poetic principal as it reminded me rather of Jiffy Lube. Lubricant. Lube. Eck. Tourist literature indicated the name in fact means “most beloved…” hmm ok. Elsewhere in the castle I saw medieval reference to the town called Ludwigana. So which is it?
The Airbnb offerings are plentiful, central, and well priced. I’m posting a positive review of our four-day base next.
Umm if you like Indian food …I can say that Maharajah in town is outstanding.

And if you get sick or worse their healthcare professionals are attentive, efficient, and international.

Ljubljana. Go. Or I’ll call you and continue to tell you about it.

The city mascot: a dragon. Of course.

Ljubljana

The castles in Slovenia are incredibly family-friendly. They all have heating, Pergo floors, and ramps, plus new and modern exhibits that are courteously labeled bilingually in Slovenian and English. They are not expensive to visit and both content and woo seems geared to small children. (Looks like I have conveniently and quickly forgotten the Murder Hole incident.) 
We headed up to Ljubljana castle yesterday via a shiny new funicular and skated around quickly to see the watchtower.
View into Alps from castle tower.

 Castle courtyard.

Tower stair. Spot Victor yet?

Eleanor admiring the castle’s wooden nativity.
Ljubljana is full of holiday spirit and the Christmas market stalls are out in force, well lit and stuffed with chocolates, soaps, local felt, and wooden items.
My favorite booth: full of decorated candy and gingerbread.
We’ve been liberally enjoying mulled wine and kielbasa and french fries. Yesterday while snarfing said menu, Victor abruptly announced, “I have a wiggly tooth.” Sure enough, our firstborn’s first milk tooth is on its way out, with a second one close behind. I guess baby teeth are FIFO because they are coming out in the order they came in. I think. 2012 was a long time ago.
Site of momentous family announcement.
Last night we tried to make the 5pm electric train, but Eleanor was having none of it as she repeatedly attempted stroller-based swan dives and took off her shoes and socks. Jason took her back to Trnovo while Victor and I attempted to locate the Town Hall. We’d passed it earlier in the day but I forgot that it was across the river. We did ask a mom with a young child where it was, but the directions seemed a little unclear. I didn’t catch any reference to a bridge.
Victor and I quickly wound up in a large crowd that was being penned in by a temporary metal fence by Slovenian police (varovanje!) Who was it? Why, Father Frost would be along shortly in a sleigh pulled by Lippizaner horses. But would he? would he? “This is taking too long,” Victor moaned. It was getting colder as the wind blew off the river. Hmm a lot of people were here, and very excited. Where was he? We wait for 40 minutes and then folded. I am sure that to many of the people in the crowd a long wait to see a guy in a Father Frost suit was no problem – after all, they did grow up in Tito’s Yugoslavia. 
“For me, this wait is no problem,” a father told someone behind us in accented English, laughing. But for an American boy of five? Too long. Plus, new Legos at home.

Side note: I feel very self-conscious yelling “Tito!” at Victor – Eleanor’s nickname for him, which she has since outgrown, but which still gets trotted out in excitable moments.
Tito: two loose teeth!
The other Tito, d. 1980.

Slovenia: People Abroad

We made our move this morning from Bled to Ljubljana in car. A very short car ride! This is not a big country. With just 2 million people and a lot of forest and mountains, the distances to cover are not great, yet they offer much by way of quality scenery. We are settling in to our Airbnb rental home in the stare mesto (old town), across from a size M church with an XXL campanile – the Trnovo Church.

Trnovo Church, outside our front door. 

 Vic mugging on Eippurova ulica close to our house

 Picturesque brewery a few steps from where we’re staying

International graffiti – a perennial draw

A few observations about people abroad:

Slovenes dress more like Americans than do Italians. I was startled to see adults in daylight wearing two-piece sweatsuits. Our children look less vagrant than they tend to do by comparison in Italy. People are bigger here, probably due to the unofficial “every meal meat” policy. Plus pastry as often as possible. There’s less coffee. In fact, hardly any espresso!

It was very easy to pick out the Italians at Bled for their neat fits and nice glasses. And nice hair. And nice everything. It’s not that the Slovenes did not also have nice down coats and Desigual suede boots and new jeans. But everything just seemed to not fit as well.

Italians always look extra sparkly no matter where they are. Please, Italy, rub off on me. Let me age as graciously as an 80-year-old Florentine grandmother spinning through town on her bike with her friend in a down coat and lipstick, 10,000 steps per day and varied groups for dinner each evening while Chianti pours modestly!

Ok… back to Slovenia…

Our Kinderhotel in Bled

As I picked my way down the hill from the hotel to the lake with Eleanor in a borrowed stroller, we came across a rather large group of Americans who were as perplexed as we were regarding the stair situation in Bled. We mumbled something to each other regarding outcroppings of rock on the slanted dirt path. The assertive middle-aged father promptly asked me where I was from.

“We live in Italy,” I said.
“Oh!” he replied. “We live in Belgium.” He gestured to his wife, children, and a very tired looking mother in law who was making her way uphill with an oxygen cart and a walker. (Excellent advance research, people.) “Why you in Italy? Military, or business?”
“Neither,” I replied. “Academia.”
“Well, happy new year to you, too!” He turned around and started talking to his family again.
It took me a moment to realize what had just happened. I laughed.

I appreciate a little “welcome to destination X” trivia myself. Slovenia, as I regaled Jason with smartphone-channelled wiki help in the car, was the first former Communist country to go straight-up EU. Its annual per capita is >$32k. It is a wealthy country here. With that population of just 2 million, there is no danger of any Slovexit. A Prussian history has given them, no doubt, a well-fortified education system, as Slovenes were the most literate and well-educated immigrants to come through Ellis Island, at an impressive 90%. Ljubljana definitely maintains a smart intello vibe with its 50,000 students.

Victor and I had a post-sundown saunter into Ljubljana center together tonight, walking on a wide sidewalk down a main arterial. He trilled numbers and destinations as the busses purred by, all electric, all full. Congress Square was decked out for the holidays in lights as a band completed a soundcheck for an imminent concert.

We hit the H&M for a few things (also learning that “moski” means “men,” which is fun), got some money out, scoped out a kiosk to buy our new vijneta prior to setting back out for Italy on the 30th, and did some legwork on how the buses work and where to buy tickets. We also saw the electric train doing its loop. I love that our children are seeing firsthand how and where things are different, and good, and that the world is a welcoming and varied place. Vic’s urban calm and confidence really struck me tonight as I watched him move through crowds, his bright green and yellow Oregon stocking cap in place under his hood. Wow, I thought, he sees things and he just wants to try, try, try. He was practically ready to hop onto a bus without me. I pointed out that we had not paid great attention on the way in and so were not exactly sure which number to take (9, as it turns out, direction: Stepanskij Naselje). He booked the return 1.5k with me in the dark with nary a fuss nor a whimper. That’s my boy! I thought with pride.

 Bridge next to where we are staying

 Stare mesto – centro

  Stare mesto – centro

 Stare mesto – centro – Congress Square with Ljubljana castle in background

“Mommy, do you have any tissue?”
“Gahh! No, Victor, I am so sorry, I forgot. Use your mitten, we can wash…”
“That’s ok, mommy. I already licked it.”

[I am a hopeless shutterbug – making up for years as a young traveller who was to shy to take any pictures, and too poor to afford decent film or hardware!]

Christmas in Bled

Christmas morning began early as it would have in any locale: 6:30 am. Fortunately Santa knows how to find American children in Slovenian hotels to deliver presents of Legos, dolls, and medical kits. We quickly unwrapped all the presents and begin the transition to our festive breakfast song and dance. 

Because this is a Kinder Hotel, the dining room was full of families with small children. This helped us feel less out of place as we spilled and fumbled our way through the buffet. We met the hotel mascot, or rather his sister, named Rosie, the swan mascot of the town due to the large white ones that endlessly glide across the lake. 
We spent the better part of the morning in the hotel pool, which was fortuitous as it was fairly empty since apparently everyone else was still busy eating Christmas breakfast and opening even more presents. I brought only my most communist swimsuit which I purchased four years ago in Spain at the Cordoban hammam and quickly felt out of place as even the most Rubenesque guests were in two pieces. The tantrum quotient soared to 10 with Eleanor while we attempted to decamp in various states of re-robing. Victor lost a sock. Everyone was exhausted. 
So we decided to go up to the lake for a walk on the path with the stroller we had borrowed from the hotel since we had left ours in Florence. Victor and Jason were starving and so succumbed to what Jason described as a very unclean, greasy, Tostino’s Pizza while I pushed a now deeply napping Eleanor in the stroller. I was hanging out in front of the kielbasa stand having fond recollections of similar nibbles in Prague. Jason met me there and we promptly demolished a kielbasa with mustard between the two of us, and a cup of what we thought was mulled wine? Or mulled white wine? Or cider? Uncertain. I also missed the caraway-studded rye slices that the Czechs wrap around their kielbasa as the Slovenian analog was a somewhat pasty white roll. Victor hauled Jason into the local toy store for another Lego set to supplement his rather thin Christmas morning take. I for my part stood outside deeply appreciating the availability of mulled wine at all hours.

As a spa aficionado, I am bound to sample spa services whenever and wherever possible, especially when on vacation. The spa here was bustling and businesslike, and I had reserved a massage and a pedicure. I waited in a large candlelit salon with a collection of mostly Italians drinking orange juice until my massage appointment arrived. At exactly a minute to the hour, a troop of aestheticians and masseurs trotted out calling names and services, and immediately sorted the guests out into the warren of dimly lit rooms. My massage was vigorous and no-nonsense, and I was promptly released back into the candlelit salon. Did I want any orange juice? Err no, my water is fine, thanks. I was met with a frown. I surveyed the scene of midlife Italian couples, a certainly American college student on break, and Italian man in a spa robe who was alarmingly manspreading. At :59 the same cuckoo-clock-like summonses began, and I was brought back into a different dimly lit cell for an extremely thorough and technical pedicure by a Slovenian woman with a Dremel tool who spoke to me in Inglesitaliano. When she finished, I was again asked if I wanted orange juice, or perhaps melon juice. Melon juice!? what is that?! I’ll take the orange, thanks. I sat back down on the sofa for the third time and chugged my juice. Overall, a very positive experience, and I have to say, my feet look fantastic.

Yesterday was a true challenge and test of all parental stamina and nerve. However, today started equally early and promised to be better, and it was. I finally got some decent sleep overnight, and only minded a little when Victor woke me up before sunrise and told me that “it is best to make Legos when the sky is pink.” I lazed on one of the critter beds in the kid room and read Tolstoy short stories, which I have found to be a fine accompaniment to a late December vacation in Slovenia. Victor periodically requested specific and focused help as he worked on a giant Lego set he received the morning before from Santa. I took advantage of my early rising to take a dozen pictures of the indeed gorgeous sunrise that I was very glad to have seen with Victor. 
Breakfast this morning was easier as the kids seemed to realize what the drill was, and we saw down in the dining room not just Rosie the sister Swan but Zack the main swan. His assistant asked us if the children were terrified to which he promptly replied yes, as they scurried behind a sofa. She gave me a carafe of M&Ms from which to salt out a few for the kids, which I did, joking about “swan food,” which she thought amusing indeed.
The weather here has been gorgeous. Our goal this morning: Castle Bled and a dance with the lord of the castle, as advertised. The way up was long and steep, and counted not a few stairs, so much so that I felt a bit like a Japanese tourist on pilgrimage. We ditched the stroller at the foot of the stairs and herded the children up the hill. And up and up and up. Victor, who had formerly complained of intolerably sore legs on the lake path, suddenly found his goatlike scamper and raced upward. I had bribed him with promises of another Lego set at the appropriately named Pik-Pok store, and a sack of popcorn to boot, so we repeatedly discussed the vernacular of bribery and extortion. “I will shake you down, mommy!” he joyfully reminded me. 

The sun atop the hill in the castle courtyard was glorious. We quickly found our way to the top court, where indeed a dance was about to take place with several Slovenian Ren Fair actors in period costume. (Assumed period: medieval.) But not before … an actual sword fight! By knights! Two swords each, on in each hand! Victor was transfixed and sold. No more was said of the shakedown for a long time. The came the dancers, who after a bit invited the crowd to come pair off with them. Of course I wanted to but our hands were full trying to ensure that Victor did not quickly dart over the Murder Cliff, or Eleanor slide down a medieval drainage hole.  Then as though we had not had enough … the actors had prepared another testosterone slice (first swords, then dancing …) that featured. … a fire-breathing knight! With a dragon insignia on his tunic! Victor’s jaw again hit the flagstones as we spectated. “That red guy was sooo cool,” Victor said. “He has awesome fighting methods.” 

We peeked around the castle, and chapel, and souvenir store (3D wooden dragon puzzle: 15E). We still had not obtained a family photo, so went over to a scenic area of the court (proximate to murder cliff but every child well surveilled).  Some princesses and ladies stood around smoking, and we asked one to take a picture for us. She gestured at her double-fisted lit cigarettes and laughed – she was holding for another princess. That princess saw us, and instead of taking a picture of us, understood that we wanted her in our family picture, to hilarious effect. She was very gracious and went back to her cigarette after kindly enriching our portrait.
We welcome all comments on this particular moment in time. I laughed and joked that she looks like his new royal wife while I seem perhaps an eldest daughter or governess. She actually looks a lot like my friend Traci. The whole episode was hilarious.
We slid back down the hill where Victor indeed received his bag of popcorn and a new Lego kit at Pik-Pok. I picked up a new dolly for Eleanor because I hate gifting imparity. We gawked at the ice skaters again and felt nostalgic even more for the endless loop of George Michael sining “Last Christmas (I Gave You My Heart).” A quick stop by Mercator for lunch provisions and back to the room for a family siesta.
Tomorrow, we leave for Ljubljana, where, it is said, there is a Lego store of great fame, and where Victor can burn the 50E that his grandparents have told us to spend on him on an item of his choice for Christmas. Eleanor will have to find a similar item of enormous appeal. We can help her with that.

Postonja to Blejsko Jezero: Lake Bled, Slovenia

We set out from the hospital yesterday following Eleanor’s second complimentary nebulizer treatment. Our destination: Predjama Castle. Victor initially complained and said that the castle sounded “too boring.” Eleanor promptly fell asleep in her carseat on the winding road from Postonja out to the hills where the castle lay.

We drove into Predma, which was under heavy construction as it was clearly off-season for cave-castle viewing. New cafés and parking lots and viewing decks were being constructed while the chimneys of much older homes twirled grey woodsmoke up into the valley. We had our ticket from the cave train the day before, and so headed across the drawbridge into the castle. The cold, damp, dark castle. Remind me to never move into a cave castle.

Victor enjoyed the audio that was provided on a device that looked rather like my Nokia handset from 2002, but not as much as he liked the stairs. Fortunately both the stairs and mazelike layout provided ample momentum for five year olds, facilitating our fast visit.

The castle was used primarily for hunting, and, as far as I could tell, for the regular penitence of castle staff in the small chapel. Also, the storage of weapons. The highpoint of the visit: I’m reading a sign in the watchtower about small opening from which to fire arrows and sundry, and also for the deployment of boiling oil or simply manually offing a proximate enemy, through a feature called a “murder hole”… VICTOR GET DOWN FROM THERE!! Victor had adroitly employed his awesome core skills to wriggle up on the ledge and had his head halfway down the murder hole before I grabbed him by the ankle and pulled him out. It was not possible to see how from far below the ground looked up to the murder hole, but it is safe to assume that it was very far indeed.

Victor, on the way out, confirmed that the castle was “pretty fun” and “pretty much like a Lego castle.” We discussed how the knight mannequins did indeed resemble maxifigs (as opposed to minifigs).

“That looks like Eleanor” – Victor

We immediately reported to the bar next to our car for espresso and WC trips prior to our continuation to Bled. The bored barista made our coffee rapidly and without expression. I perused the shelves of traditional Slovenian spirits with some interest. We all gawked at the over the top Hunting Museum adjacent, full of stuffed creatures in various poses of surprise, some hung with tournament medals or labels indicating the date and place of their demise. Eleanor incorrectly identified a few animals. “Look, it’s a flying cat!” Victor exclaimed at the flattened pelt of a large mountain cat, thoughtfully mounted onto what looked like a scalloped felt table runner in an appropriate hunger green. Soon two young men came into the bar to chat up the barista and to purchase local spirits. They all then went outside to smoke and drink the just-purchased spirits together at a picnic table. We ate our lunch in the car and set off for Bled.
The misty cold landscape of Slovenia rolled out before us. Eleanor fell asleep again. Victor repeatedly announced he was bored. I got carsick. Jason puzzled over differing GPS instructions between car and phone while his phone battery dwindled. Family roadtrips at their best.
Victor demanded to know if there was a McDonald’s in Bled. “There are three,” Jason said. As soon as we pulled off we agreed that two Happy Meals were in order. Eleanor had awakened. We pulled into the McDrive where Jason asked, “English… Italiano..?”
Nope, nope. Deutsch? Ok.
Followed by a most amusing order in broken, brave German. “Zwei… Spiele…. Ein für eine…. (What’s girl?? Me: Mädchen. Boy?? Me: ummm can’t remember.) … Ein für wine Mädchen und ein für ein kleinen Herren.”
I was dying. Linguistic amusement at its very best.
We pulled ahead to pay. They handed over the Happy Meals but no straws for the Apfelsaft.
“We need two straws. Two straws!” Jason said. “What is it in German?”
I looked it up on my Google translator app. “Zwei.. Hohenstole? Let’s go with Slovenian… dra slama.”
He tried the German first, no response apart from a puzzled look. The Slovenian was successful and we were on our way.
Bled in the evening was a vision of pink sunset, calm lake and a ring of mountains. We shared a Gluhwein while we watched Victor and Eleanor chase each other around. Live music was on at the Weinachtmarkt, which entranced Eleanor, who asked repeatedly for a piano. The Kinderhotel was everything it promised and more. We will be doing this again.

The hotel hosted a Christmas eve dinner, which thankfully was buffet, and everyone got a flute of something on the way in. 
All in all, a lovely Christmas eve.
  

Firenze – Treviso – Postojna, Slovenia

Alas and alack! I had planned to blog our Christmas trip to the Slavic lands, but unfortunately the Blogger app is not working on the phone. Further, and understandably, I did not bring my laptop.

Our destination lay a mere five hours from Florence, but with autostrada traffic and two small children in the back, we knew we would have to break it up at least once if not twice. Our plan: to hit the Autogrille in Bologna, and then to meet with our friends Tomaso and Francesca at their house in Treviso for lunch with their two young children.

Note: Tomaso and I both studied abroad in the same year in Strasbourg, France 20 years ago and recently attended a reunion in the UK last month with a number of other people who had also accompanied us on the journey of that glorious Gallic year.

The lunch having concluded at an appropriate Italian hour of 4 p.m., with ample barolo, panettone, and coffee, we set off for Slovenia as the sunset over the Adriatic Sea, with Jason monitoring the GPS on both his iPhone and the car’s system. Night fell and fell quickly. We were unfamiliar with the landscape and so did not recognize the mountains and the lights atop them for what they were, thinking instead that they were low flying airplanes. We were promptly pulled over at the border by a Slovenian Highway Patrol, who threw broken English convey to us the fact that we had failed to equip our rented Italian car with a proper Slovenian documentation to use on Slovenian highways. The vijneta is a sort of prepaid annual traffic toll. The officials asked for all of our documents and documentation, took numerous pictures of us in our car, and finally returned to say that we would be allowed to drive and continue on our trip if we were to pay them 15 euros for the document for the car and a 150 euro fine. 
“That’s too much!” Victor helpfully yelled from the back seat. 
 “I don’t have that kind of money, Jason told her. We will just turn around and go back to Italy and not do our trip here in Slovenia.”
“Of course this is a scam,” Jason muttered.  After long minutes the female officer returned to our car. 
Jason again muttered, either they’re going to arrest me or we will continue on our trip. The officer gave us a receipt for our 15 euros and did not charge us a fine at all. She wished us a Merry Christmas, and we were on our way. 
We arrived at our albergo agriturismo at what felt like midnight after many wrong turns in the pitch black. Dinner was laid out for us. We all went to bed under thick eiderdowns atop soft mattresses dreaming of the magical caves we were to see the next morning.
Jason woke me up at three. “Eleanor has a fever,” he said. 
The next morning we gave Eleanor some baby Tylenol and headed to the caves, Postojna Jama. They were never mines but always just tourist attractions so did not extend deeply but rather very far into the limestone mountains of the karst. So far in fact that we had to take a train! Well, that was exciting. 

We stopped at a Lidl to provision and headed back to the hotel. Jason and I split the nap. In the second half, Victor and I toured the farm.

When Eleanor awoke from her nap, she was hot, sluggish and cranky. And wheezing. Etc. After a quick consultation with the office we decided to take her back into town for some urgent care.
I was concerned she had an ear infection, bronchitis, or both. The Postojna hospital was all but deserted. Eventually a very unofficial looking woman came out and directed us down the hall. The urgent care clinic was more ambulance driver depot. We sat in the hall for some time. Jason called a hospital in Trieste who confirmed they could see us right away if we made the 30 minute drive.
Eleanor looked worse. 
We finally went and knocked on the door and told them that we would take Eleanor back to Italy if they were not able to see us, or if they were unable to call a doctor. We were quickly assured by a paramedic that a doctor would see us soon. 
Moments later we were ushered in and Eleanor was immediately attended to by no less than two doctors two nurses and two paramedics and some other sundry staff who were wandering around to help out. It was clear that they had no routine experiencing 2 year old with fevers, as they subjected her to a battery of diagnostics that were impressive to say the least. Her oxygen saturation was checked multiple times, as was her blood pressure and resting heart rate, as well as a blood panel to check her white blood cell count before they can make a definitive diagnosis. We were there for about an hour and a half. Finally they said that she did not have an ear infection, and bronchitis was borderline, but they were going to give her a nebulizer treatment. After having been messed with for so long Eleanor was in no mood for such a treatment but she did it through tears. 
They wrote us prescriptions and told us that we could come back the next day for another treatment because the doctor also wanted to see Eleanor again. It was a very international staff that spoke English and Italian from Slovenia and Serbia. The cost for all of this care? 11 euros. Parking was 4 euros. Eleanor characteristically gave the Serbian doctor a running hug and warm embrace before we left.
Back at the hotel everybody was feeling better and so we went to dinner again which was infinitely easier with a baby in better spirits.  
We returned to the hospital today for Eleanor’s follow-up nebulizer treatment, with the same staff who had seen us before last night and greeted us like old friends, due in no small part to Eleanor’s superb social skills. The Serbian doctor pronounced Eleanor much-improved, and we gave her our panettone and gratitude for their wonderful care.
More to come! We are on the road until December 30.