Travel through Venice and Ljubljana with Expat Explore

The deal was that I would write honestly, so, in the spirit of such a virtue I will let you know that I’m currently sitting at our campsite in Venice, sipping on something called an Ottweiler Pils beer (pretty nice actually, especially for €1!); Jessie J is playing on the iPod and I’m attempting to catch up on my blogging activities, madly editing a zillion photos from Vienna, Ljubljana and Venice, and procrastinating on this next post because to be honest, I’m a little tired. It’s been hot, and the days long, but as I say to everyone – it’s better than work!

xxx
Slovenia
 

Travel through Venice and Ljubljana with Expat Explore

We’ve arrived in Italy, and isn’t it beautiful. Sleepy as I may be on any bus trip (planes and buses put me to sleep – too bad my parents didn’t know this when I was a baby…). I was wide awake as we drove through the border into Italy. Who doesn’t want to visit this country?

There’s so much history, and despite any recent conflicts or issues, Italy to someone like me represents food, beauty, divine language, various Shakespearian scenes, gorgeous people and fashion. Venice itself is completely charming – canals, gondolas, Renaissance masks all over the place, aged churches, public spaces like the stunning St. Mark’s Square, classical musicians positioned around the restaurants, and people of all demographics. I was interested to learn on our walking tour that traditionally Venice welcomes a melting pot of nationalities and cultures, and aside from certain periods when various groups (religious, political) chose to stamp their authority, the region generally catered to the needs of ‘anyone and everyone who was in the business of making money’. The Merchant of Venice sprung to mind at this point, and I realised that my high school Modern History and literature classes are all only now starting to make sense after actually having the opportunity to visit Europe.

It is indeed very easy to get lost in the unmarked streets of Venice, but the advice we were given was to simply enjoy the experience (however leave lots of time to get from one side to the other if you need to be anywhere at any given time). A beautiful, but expensive city, so save your dollars if planning an extended stay – and whatever you do, don’t forget your camera!

Throughout Italy we’re staying at a series of camp sites, and our accommodation in Venice was basic but fine, and most of us shared with another pair – we had the pleasure of being room mates for the night with the delightful Martin and Gayle (South Africans who currently reside in London). The upside to such a set up is the social aspect, and our group enjoyed some fun by the pool and bar this evening.

ljubljana

Prior to arriving in Venice yesterday we made another romantic stop, in the picturesque town of Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia (pictured above). Ljubljana means ‘beloved’, and it’s certainly obvious that the townsfolk here are fiercely proud of their little piece of the world. Formerly part of Yugoslavia, the country gained independence in 1991. It is surrounded by the Alps, and several European nations including Austria, Croatia and Italy. Slovenia itself is actually 60% forest (which makes for a scenic drive throughout the country), and uniquely the region hosts a series of more than 8000 underground caves! Consequently there are many little rivers and streams as well as quaint bridges in Slovenia’s towns and cities. Long ago, people in the region thought that the Salamanders that lived in the caves resembled dragons, and they became a little obsessed by the creatures – evident in the numerous dragon sculptures and figurines that appear on the streets, in flags and on other local merchandise.

This idyllic little spot is a beautiful place to visit, and I’m so glad to have had the chance to discover it on this tour because on my own I probably wouldn’t have even thought to stop. The cafes and restaurants that line the old streets offer affordable, high quality, fresh cuisine and produce. One amusing venue is the Cafe del Moro (Cafe of death) or Pr’skelet (translated to Cafe by skeletons) – an underground bar that features, as you may have guessed, bones and skeletons all over the walls. Pretty creepy, but totally cool!

I’m loving this part of the world so far – such natural beauty, intriguing history and gelato, delicious gelato – everyone is eating it… “when in Rome (well, almost – it’s tomorrow’s destination)! The trip will be one of our ‘long hauls’, but to be fair, our coach journeys have been comfortable, and Steve does a fab job of keeping us all safe and getting us to each destination in a timely manner. Ally also organises movies, quizzes and games to keep us amused – most recently we teamed up to entertain each other with some songs – here is a video snippet of the entertaining offering from Hector (Ecuador) and Julio (Mexico)…

By Sarah Blinco | View our travel galleries on Flickr

Porsches, Masquerade Balls + UFOs: Austria + Slovakia

Bratislava and Vienna

On the road again and aiming for three countries across two days – major stops – Bratislava (Slovakia) and Vienna (Austria)!

By midday we had reached the sweet little city of Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. An informative walking tour through the city centre meant we learned about the city’s rich cultural and musical history, that the average capped age of citizens is 35 years, that this place is responsible for producing Volkswagons and Porsches, and that the country is currently ruled by its first ever female prime minister – a blonde – so no blonde jokes please.

The ‘new’ and ‘old’ (dating back beyond the 13th Century) streets within the city are lined with beautiful contemporary alfresco dining, cafes, bars and clubs, and in our experience we found the locals to be friendly and customer-service orientated. Clever pieces of art and sculpture also pop up all over the streets and even within eateries – one popular instalment is a statue of famous artist, Andy Warhol (parents originally from Slovakia) sitting at a table in a restaurant; and another is a very old statue of unknown origin (but it has been dated back to the 1500s), of a little naked boy peeking around a corner – legend has it that he was sitting on the loo when he heard a procession of Royalty outside and out of curiosity he jumped up to look out the window.

Bratislava

A lovely sculpture of St. George stands in the old town square. He is the basis for major town celebrations towards the end of April – evidently he conquered a 3-headed dragon one April 24th, and saved the region – good timing, right before my birthday on April 25 – might have to come back one day to join their annual local celebration!

The newest bridge in the city, the Nový Most, was erected in 1972, and was actually one of the earliest suspension bridges built in the world. It boasts a feature lookout/restaurant in the shape of a spaceship – hence it is referred to as ‘The UFO bridge’ – love it! From the lookout (and even from some angles on the ground) you can actually spot the Austrian mountains, which is positive because it means we’re heading in the right direction for our next stop, Vienna.

Bratislava UFO bridge

Our Austrian accommodation, Hotel Congress, is yet another lovely surprise. Although located slightly outside the city centre it is stylish and comfortable, with food and transport amenities conveniently located nearby.

Following dinner we head three train stops into the centre of Vienna, capital city of Austria and host to many major international organisations such as the United Nations and OPEC. The city is actually older than Prague but maintains more of a contemporary edge; architecturally stunning and long regarded as a centre of high culture and modernism.  What can I say but ‘wow’! This city is truly breathtaking – from its main square with luxury designer stores and street performers, to its churches, museums, State Opera House, cathedral (in particular the masterpiece that is St. Stevens) and palaces such as the Hofburg.

To see this city at dusk (or at any time, I suppose) is nothing short of magical. If you can imagine what it might have been like for Cinderella to arrive at the Ball, well, Vienna is that – think opulence, grace, sculpture, masquerade balls and beautiful gowns. Church bells chime in the distance and chic locals rollerblade around in front of the palace to a soundtrack of cool upbeat samba, while behind them elegant horses + carriages gently trot through the streets. It’s the romance of the old world set in 2011; truly one of the most beautiful places I have seen. Does anyone know how I can get my name on the door for the next glamorous Vienna Masked Ball?

Burg_Galerie_-_Hofburg

Tour guide Ali tip: In Austria the locals speak German, and as in Germany we’re required to more or less ‘play by the rules’ – basic things like no J-Walking will keep you in the good books here. Also, ‘prost’ means ‘cheers’, but remember that it’s the local custom to try to maintain eye contact while ‘cheersing’ – it’s the polite thing to do. Enjoy!

 

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Spanked by a witch and pouring pints – only travelling in Prague and Dresden

Spanked by a witch in Dresden; Pouring a pint in Prague.

Travelling in Prague and Dresden with Expat Explore travellivelearn.comWho was spanked by a witch in Dresden? It could only happen while travelling in Prague and Dresden…

We were up, packed and served breakfast by 8am yesterday, ‘day 5’ of our great Expat Explore 26-day Europe adventure. After saying a final goodbye to the baby bunnies who reside at the Plus Berlin hostel/hotel we were on the road again, this time headed for the small German city of Dresden, then to Prague (exciting!).

Dresden (Germany) is only a couple of hours drive from Berlin and proved to be a truly beautiful little place. Evidently it was bombed heavily (and quite controversially) right near the end of WWII. Consequently most of the city has been rebuilt or restored, but charred stones and remnants on buildings still evidence signs of this sad period.

The main city square is a bustling cafe and pub type precinct, set amongst gorgeous old buildings and cathedrals. There’s a river that runs through the centre and several pretty bridges linking across it. Many street performers and characters line the area, and we encountered a rather amusing witch who was dancing with a ‘mini’ doll version of herself (creepy).

My lovely fiance, Cooper, dropped by to say hello (so I could take a photo) and was promptly poked and spanked with her broomstick, much to the hilarity of the crowd watching! A gorgeous stop if you’re ever in the neighbourhood, although I’m not sure about the ‘Erotic Car Wash’ that I saw a sign for on the way into the town centre – sounds more like something you’d expect in Japan, not Germany, but then again…

By around 5.30pm we had finally arrived in Prague (Czech Republic), most of us first-time visitors so eagerly craning our necks around each corner of the bus trying to spot the beautiful landscapes that this city is renowned for. We were excited to see that the bus pulled up outside a very nice little Ibis Hotel (Hotel Ibis Praha Mala Strana) which has turned out to be fantastic accommodation – contemporary, clean, well appointed and located right near public transport and a shopping centre with supermarket (critical for supplies when you’re travelling on a budget).

Travelling in Prague and Dresden with Expat Explore travellivelearn.com

During the evening Expat Explore guide, Ali, took us into the main section of Prague’s centre. The clouds had finally cleared and the late afternoon setting sun cast a glorious light over the enchanting city which is famous for its beauty as well as probably the most peaceful revolution in history – aka The Velvet Revolution (1989) which saw the overthrow of the communist government that had ruled since the end of WWII. We explored the Old Town, across famous Charles Bridge, down into the ‘new town’ and stopped at 8pm with another several thousand people to watch the famous Old Town Hall Tower & Astronomical Clock‘s chiming performance.

Prague’s popular music, culture and beer venues beckoned on Wednesday night too, and the group divided to play at various notable venues around town including the fabulous Beer Factory where customers can pour their own beers at each booth, and for only the equivalent of about €2 per pint; Karlovy Lazne, the biggest music club in Europe – five levels high, the simply fabulous Agharta Jazz Centrum, and Bily Konicek Restaurant (located in a stunning 12th century medieval cellar, one of the oldest houses on the Old Town Square and popular for its awesome jazz shows 7 nights a week).

Today on our ‘free day’ most of us had our sights set on Prague Castle, one of the largest castles in the world (the largest according to the Guinness Book of Records). The stunning structure dates back to the 9th century and was expanded several times until second half of the 18th century.

The castle itself also houses a complex of sights including the St. Vitus Cathedral and the St. George’s Basilica. We wandered around the area for the morning before heading back towards the Old Town on foot. Prague is actually quite easy to navigate on foot, but if you do get tired (as we did) the public transport system is very efficient, inexpensive and easy to navigate.

Travelling in Prague and Dresden with Expat Explore travellivelearn.com

Another ‘must’ in Prague – pay the mere fee of CZK Kč70 and walk up the tower above Charles Bridge. This idea came as a suggestion to us during our walking tour of the city, and at first we thought the experience was only a small level set above the city in a tower room that had been decorated with old Royal attire and furniture… until we discovered more stairs leading up to an outdoor area – glorious in the sunshine and worthwhile for the photo opportunities alone.

Evidently the city is stunning, and the people although a little reserved have been (in our experience) friendly and helpful. I was assisted in my first foreign beauty related transaction (try explaining that you need blonde hair toner to someone who doesn’t speak English – we were successful though!); and on a totally frivolous note, we added to our TGI Fridays tally now having dined in Prague (actually it was one of the nicer of our dining experiences compared with those at TGIs in Tokyo, New York and London… where will be next? 😉

Travelling in Prague and Dresden with Expat Explore travellivelearn.com

So far this trip has been brilliant and has included the right mix of adventure, information, history and even ‘free time’ to do as we please. The accommodation and food has been great too – honestly couldn’t have asked for anything to be done better up until this point. We’re very lucky that Expat Explore introduced this new 26-day trip for the first time in 2011. The best part? We still have three weeks to go!

Tour guide Ali tip: a few words to remember for use in Prague…

  • prosim (pronounced pro-seem) = please
  • deukuji (dyek-oo-yee) = thank you
  • dobrý den (dob-ree den) = hello
  • pivo (peevo) = beer
By Sarah Blinco | View our travel galleries on Flickr