Slovakia


Scenes from our hike in the High Tatras mountains
Trying to picture Eastern Europe before I ever saw it, I always envisioned lots of communist bloc housing.  And also cabbage.  And clouds.  After having spent about six weeks there, I can report that it has at least the first two of these things in ready supply.  As it turns out, though, Eastern Europe also boasts some of the most spectacular natural wonders I’ve ever seen.
Scenes from our hike in the High Tatras mountains
Driving from Poland into Slovakia we crossed into the High Tatras, a 15-mile long mountain range that seems to spring up from the floor of an incredibly green, wildflower-covered valley.  We spent a day hiking up the Tatras’s rocky cliffs and, alas, we were not alone.  We shared the trail with lots of other hikers, including a woman in white hot pants who, embarrassingly enough, left us in her dust.  Happily, though, the views (of everything but the woman in hot pants) were incredible, and well worth the climb.

From Slovakia, it was on to Slovenia, where our first foray into the natural world took us into what felt like the bowels of the earth.  We were in the Skocjan Caves, a series of underground chambers covered in stalactites and stalagmites whose bright coloring reflect the myriad minerals they contain.  A river ran through the last cave in the series, and we had to cross it via a dizzying bridge that I really wish we could’ve captured on film.  (Sadly, taking pictures in the caves is not allowed.)
Hike around the gorgeous Lake Bled
After the caves came Lake Bled, Slovenia’s most popular tourist destination, and for good reason.  Watched over by a towering castle, the blue-green lake wraps itself around a tiny, perfect island, on top of which sits a tinier, more perfect church.  Unsurprisingly, the church is a popular setting for weddings.  Some 99 stairs connect the lakeside dock with the church, and it’s said that grooms often try to prove their “fitness” for marriage by carrying their brides up the entire flight.  When I suggested to Derek that he attempt the feat, he became very interested in photographing the family of swans that make their home on the water’s edge.
Hike in the Soca Valley in the Julian Alps
Slovenia’s Julian Alps were our final destination in Eastern Europe, and they turned out to be one of the our favorite places in the world.  Named after Julius Caesar, the Alps occupy Slovenia’s northwest frontier with Italy and its northern border with Austria.  (In fact, in one mountain town we visited, we were just a five-minute walk away from both countries.)  We spent most of our time in the Alps in a small town called Bovec, which is in the valley (the Soca) that witnessed the World War I battles that became the setting for Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.  (Hemingway drove an ambulance for Italy during the war.)
Hike in the Soca Valley in the Julian Alps
Looking around at the incredible scenery, it was kind of hard to to believe that anyone could retain the will to fight in the midst of beauty like this.  The ridiculously turquoise Soca River courses down the Alps and into the verdant valley below.  It is joined by another river, the Susec, which has carved out the canyon that served as a veritable waterslide for us during our first-ever attempt at an adventure sport called, accurately, “canyoning.”  Donning neoprene bodysuits, aquasocks, helmets and plastic diaper-looking things that allegedly make it easier to slide over the rocks but are potentially there only for the amusement of our guides, we climbed up part of a mountain (not a tough hike overall, but made much more difficult by the fact that were were wearing not shoes but aquasocks) and then slid and jumped our way back down to the bottom.  The experience was exhilarating, only a little scary and–like so much of what we’ve seen in Eastern Europe–highly recommended.

High Tatras, Slovakia

Julian Alsp, Slovenia

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Frequent travelers like to seek out places that are more off the beaten path and less expensive than their well-known counterparts, places they can claim as their own well before their fellow globetrotters have even heard of them.  Twenty years ago or so, these travelers discovered Prague, in the Czech Republic, and they fell in love with it for its grand architecture, its interesting history and its manageable prices.  Unfortunately (for them), word of their discovery got out.  Prague is now full of souvenir stands and tour groups, and those travelers have been left to try to discover the “next Prague.”  Well, intrepid travelers, look no further.  We’ve seen some amazing places during the last month, and I’m certain that one of these European destinations deserves the honor of being the next in line to inherit Prague’s tourism throne:
Wawel Castle and Cathedral
1.     Krakow, Poland – Considering it was the royal capital of Poland until 1596 and was left largely unscathed during World War II, Krakow’s old town has to be one of the greatest in Europe.  Hundreds of ancient buildings once occupied by noblemen and dignitaries are now home to a dizzying array of restaurants, cafes, bars and art galleries.  The gem, though, of this immaculate town is its main square, a square that’s the size of some small towns.  Two hundred meters (that’s two football fields!) wide and two hundred meters long, the square seems to have a life of its own.  And if you’re into history, Krakow gives you the enormous Wawel Castle, the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, a nearby Jewish ghetto made famous in the movie Schindler’s List and, less than an hour away, the gruesome death camp at Auschwitz.
next_prague2
2.     Ljubljana, Slovenia – The fact that Ljubljana (and, for that matter, all of Slovenia) is not world-famous is an outrage.  Pronounced “Lyoo-bli-yana”, the city name means “beloved” in Slovene…and for good reason.  Crammed between a massive hill (which is, of course, crowned by a huge castle) and the Ljubljanica River, the Romans, the Austrian Habsburgs and Napolean all took advantage of this city’s strategic setting.  This brought great wealth to the city, which produced some remarkable architecture, much of which was destroyed in a 1895 earthquake.  Fortunately, Ljubljana called upon the services of Joze Plecnik, a young architect who had learned his trade while working on Prague’s marvelous Hradcany Castle, to return the city to its former glory.  His training paid off, leading him to build some of the grandest and most interesting buildings, bridges and sculptures (many of which are of dragons, since legend has it that the city was build on the spot where Jason, of Argonauts and Golden Fleece fame, slew a dragon) found anywhere. Our mostly tourist-free time spent walking along the river, admiring the colorful buildings and shopping at the daily market is one of our greatest memories of Europe.
Scenes from streets of Bratislava
3.     Bratislava, Slovakia – During forty-five years of Communist rule, the largest Communist-era housing complex was built in Bratislava – scores of identical and soulless buildings marring the landscape.  Luckily, the Communists didn’t go near the old town of Bratislava, leaving unscathed a town that is the very definition of quaint.  With cobblestone, traffic-free streets, maze-like alleys and tiny, cafe-filled plazas, all you’ll want to do is walk around the tiny town and sit unhurried in a cafe soaking up the romantic atmosphere.  Luckily, you can!  Even though Bratislava is over 1,100 years old, it is blissfully free of any must-see destinations, enabling you to relax guilt-free without worrying about missing that umpteenth castle or cathedral.  My suggestion for the Bratislava Tourism Board’s new slogan is “Come to Bratislava…and Do Nothing.”
statue in main square of Lviv
4.     Lviv, Ukraine – Even though its Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, Lviv sees precious few Western tourists.  As I explored the city’s charming streets and public squares, though, I got a feeling that that’s about to change.  The hotels are nice, the restaurants are diverse and the churches and medieval buildings are as grand as any we’ve seen. This, combined with a culture and people that is drastically different from much of Eastern and Central Europe, is just too irresistible for tourists to ignore for much longer.

Amazing Castle of Kamyanets-Podilsky
5.     Kamyanets-Podilsky, Ukraine – The greatest military strategists couldn’t design a more secure location for this town.  Situated on a large rock island, surrounded by a river that acts as a natural moat, Kamyanets-Podislky has been inhabited for thousands of years by people seeking protection.  To bolster their security, a wooden castle was built here in the 10th century and reconstructed with stone 500 years later.  Our initial view of the castle as we walked across the bridge into the Old Town was, to us, one of the greatest visual spectacles this world has to offer.  And since the city is well off the tourist track (even its residents were puzzling over why we took the time to visit…), you’ll probably have the unforgettable view to yourself.

So there you have it.  If you’re bound for Europe any time soon, make sure you see some of these amazing places now.  Before everyone else does.

Krakow:

Ljubljana:

Bratislava:

Lviv and Kamyanets-Podilsky: