IT DIDN’T TAKE us long to leave Vienna and enter the clichéd Austria everyone dreams of. Gradually the land around us rolled upwards, turning into hills and valleys of pine forests with precarious, zigzagged roads linking silent wooden villages. This was real Von Trapp country and without doubt the most beautiful pockets of landscape I’d ever seen. Shortly after following the bright blue Wörthersee, we arrived in Villach, faced with a two hour wait until the next train to Bled. Slightly begrudgingly after discovering the lack of lockers at the station for our bags, we trudged into town, a little unsure of how to spend the next ninety minutes. I’m actually quite glad we missed that first train from Vienna, since it gave us a chance to use the little town of Villach as a convenient pause for our journey south. Not that there’s nothing amazing about Villach, but it’s in the heart of the countryside and has an impressive church and a sweeping cobbled Hauptplatz, where casual residents sat sipping local wine. Well, I think they were locals and not tourists; they didn’t have giant rucksacks like we did, although the only non-local-looking people we came across were Americans, wandering around enjoying ice cream. I say ice cream, but they were actually McFlurrys. Funny they missed the Italian gelateria opposite McDonald’s, isn’t it?
Oh, and a note on the rucksacks, whilst we’re at it – I overpacked. I regret it.
Eventually we arrived in Bled, some five hours later than my itinerary stated. To get to Bled, from Villach at least, you are required to get off the train at Lesce and then make your way from there. We politely said no to the taxi driver who leapt upon us as we left the quiet station, because I had informed myself of the much cheaper bus service instead. The problem, however, was that ascertaining from where the bus left, and also deciphering the information in the bus shelters, naturally written in Slovene. Fortunately, ‘Bled’ and numbers are the same in both English and Slovene, so we managed to get on the empty bus for the short trip to Bled. After a small trek around the town in search of our hostel, we were shown to our room by Andraž, so enthusiastically that I almost thought he was showing us his house, and he also told us about all the things to do on and around the lake. I didn’t have the heart to remind him we were only staying for two nights and that we probably wouldn’t have the time to do the paragliding he pointed out. We took a small stroll down the lakeside, peaceful and reflective in the fading sunlight, and had a wander for somewhere to eat. Bled – the town, not lake – is modestly-sized and equipped, and although it has given in slightly to tourism, it is not oppressively obvious. There is no sign of a McDonald’s here (although there is a L’Occitane, which seems to crop up in every town on earth) and there is a nice collection of places to get a drink and sample the ever-present kremna rezina, a mille-feuille-like cake local to the area. Of course I had one.
The next day we took Andraž’s advice, coupled with his questionable directions drawn hurriedly on the map he gave us and headed north through fields and trodden pathways to Vintgar, a sparkling blue gorge snaking through the woods. We were pleased to have taken his advice; the place is pristinely beautiful, having avoided being turned into a tourist trap, and gives few visitors in mid-May the chance to follow the crystal-clear trout river churn and twist its way through the rocky gorge.
On the way back, a little dazed by the beauty of it all (or at least I’ll blame it on that), we wound up a little lost. What I thought was the Slovene for ‘way out’ was actually the name of a village and after a steep climb through the woods we entered a soundless cluster of houses, each with that stereotypically untidy garden of European country homes, with milk churns and washing flapping gently in the sunshine. Really, there was nobody around. No, really. There were a few hens in one of the farms we passed and there was the sound of cows coming from somewhere, but otherwise we were well out in the sticks.
‘Let’s follow the church spire,’ I suggested.
So we did, and eventually the place started to come to life; there was even a mini supermarket. A small group of schoolboys walked past us.
‘Dan!’ said one of them.
I knew this was ‘hi!’ and them not attempting to guess my name, in which case they would probably be there a long time. I replied, hovering over the idea of asking them where Bled was, but I know I wouldn’t understand anything in Slovene, and didn’t expect them to know how to direct me through forest and farmland in English. Anyway, we loitered at the bus station for a while before managing to suss out a route using Sean’s GPS. Amazingly it seemed to know how to negotiate fields with non-existent looking footpaths and led us back to Vintgar. From there, into a forest. Fields are fairly easy to navigate, but forests are not, especially the ones where there isn’t even the slightest hint of a pathway. So we trudged around this forest which was heady with the smell of wild garlic, completely clueless, rather hot and rather lost. Eventually we spotted the hand-painted wooden signs to ‘BLED’ and were soon on our way back down to the lake. I supposed we weren’t the first people to get lost there, which would explain the signs most probably painted by the staff at Vintgar to appease the desperately confused tourists over the years. I felt less bad then.
After a bit of a rest, we headed down to the lake to rent a boat. I tried to put my fears of open water aside for the fun of rowing a little boat (which could have capsized at any moment) on a beautiful lake (probably stupidly deep and dirty and would be the end of me if we did at all fall in). After convincing myself that there were probably no sharks in the there, I hesitantly got into the boat. The man renting them out told us a few instructions, chucked us some lifejackets and pushed us out. Wow, I thought. If this was back home I’d probably still be signing myself up online for a health and safety training day in Leicester or somewhere before I could get anywhere near the bloody boat.
In the middle of Lake Bled is a small island, and so we set ourselves the logical challenge of rowing to the island and back. It wasn’t until the last few meters that Sean realised the boat was facing the wrong way, but at least I was then certain of how the boat should be positioned for when rowed back to shore. The island is very pretty, if a little bare, other than its church and café. I can remember writing some sort of story when I was a kid, based on a picture I’d seen of Lake Bled and its island, so being on it in real life was like jumping into the scruffy notebook I wrote it in. From the top of the island, I looked around me. It isn’t hard to see why I was inspired. The landscape is picture perfect and has no doubt inspired artists and writers over the years, not least nine-year-olds who like to write about mystical islands in the middle of lakes.
Back to the rowing – I’m not sure if it’s my calling. I knew what to do with a boat and oars but didn’t quite master it. My right arm is obviously a bit stronger than my left, as evidenced by the boat being off-course more often than it was on. I quite enjoyed it, however, regardless of Sean’s eye-rolling and constant look of mild annoyance, but I have concluded that any sport that requires me to concentrate on more than one thing at a time is something I struggle with. Don’t bother asking me to dance.
In the morning we took the coach to Ljubljana, in which the driver played a head-banging mix of Europop anthems, clearly getting himself ready for Eurovision, I’m sure.
After settling into our swish hostel, which was once a bank, we took one step out of the door and were straightaway in the heart of Ljubljana. My, what a nice place it is. It seems like the sort of place that was deliberately designed for a city break – it is manageable, walkable and affordable, and has a surprisingly strong army of museums and cultural things to do that both surprised and delighted me. I forgot I was in a capital city because at times it feels like a very busy village with a ring road. The population is perhaps surprisingly young, and glide around the city on bikes and Segways. The café culture is also top-notch and luckily the sun was out in force, and we could sip a cheap beer al fresco by the Ljubljanica River. Wonder where it gets its name?
Maybe I was a little ignorant in that I had virtually no impressions of Slovenia before going there. I didn’t know what was waiting for me in the capital of country whose past is embedded in the all-but-gone Yugoslavia. Part of me wouldn’t have been shocked to see crumbling tower blocks haunted by beggars and feral cats, but in reality Ljubljana (which is not as hard as it looks to pronounce, by the way (loob-lee-are-nuh)) is a thriving place, elegant and very much looking to the future, a city forging its own identity as the capital of an up-and-coming nation. On that note, I still wonder why little Slovenia is as unknown as it is as a destination. The people are friendly – more than willing to help lost Englishmen find a bus, anyway – it’s wonderfully good value for money and the place is beautiful. If you, too, ever recover from the blisters incurred by rowing on Lake Bled, I can assure you there’s a treasure trove of outdoor things to do. Maybe wear gloves, though.
We left Slovenia early on Thursday for a train to Milan, via a coach through the winding roads to Trieste. The train seemed to go on for ages, past the poppy fields and vineyards of northern Italy. Finally we arrived in Italy’s powerhouse, greeted in fitting style by the Centrale station. Now, no station has yet managed to dethrone Antwerp from the position of Best Looking Train Station in Western Europe, although Milan Centrale might have just done it. I don’t want to write about train stations, for goodness’ sake, but Milan deserves it – is so enormously grand and doubles as a shopping centre and Art Deco monument as much as it serves as the city’s transport hub. Just when you think the building is about to finally end and give onto the streets, it opens out into another cavernous ticket hall, easily big enough to fit a couple of blue whales (or a dozen Austrian brides), making you feel smaller and smaller. It delves underground, too, down to the metro. From there we took the metropolitana to the San Siro, known in layman’s terms as the shared home of football giants AC and Inter Milan. The newly-built metro station spits you out into the car park, which on that day had transformed into a tarmac desert cooking in the 31° heat. The stadium is also vast; a compendium of spiralling concrete and crimson girders, and not quite as photogenic as Munich’s Allianz arena, which, I regret to add, we did not see light up red when visited. Anyway, I like visiting football stadia; there’s something quite inspiring about walking and sitting where people of importance have done the same, even if I didn’t know half of their names. Italian football isn’t exactly my area of expertise, OK? The ‘tour’ of the stadium and consequent museum which features a borderline frightening statue of Ruud Gullit didn’t warrant the €17 fee, but I’m glad to say I’ve stood on the pitch of such an important stadium in the footballing world. Well, on the edge of it.
If you’ve lived in a cave since birth and therefore never heard of a city called Rome, you’d easily be forgiven for thinking Milan was Italy’s capital. The city crackles with a fiery importance that is both hard to ignore and embrace, the people strutting its streets no doubt proud to call the city their home. My first experience of Italy was indeed in Rome on a school trip when I was 16, and other than the language which unites the cities, they have little else in common. Milan boasts a handful of skyscrapers to the north, from which I realised Milan is where things happen in Italy; the brain of the country and not the sentimental, almost sleepy heart that is Rome. Milan is cosmopolitan, perhaps one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, proven no less by the much-hyped and controversial EXPO2015 taking over chunks of the city. It is alive, in all senses of the word, and seemingly far, far away from the quiet shores of Lake Bled.
I think it goes without saying that Italy’s main attraction (well, for me) is its food and I seized the opportunity to eat pizza in Italy. Call me touristy or cliché or whatever, I don’t care, but rewind to 2009 and the school trip to Rome, but we stayed in a religious retreat for the week and were served the same penne in tomato sauce every night for six days without a single slice of pizza. Can you imagine the heartache? So, I think my cravings for pizza was justified. Although my first bite of pizza in Italy was from a slice sold to me in a folded paper plate from a fast food counter, it was good, even more so as the memories of tomato pasta cooked by nuns were washed away from my mind.
As you’ve probably seen on TV, or more realistically, the internet, Milan’s most well-known attraction is its Duomo: the great, white-coloured cathedral with spires that look like peaks on a meringue. It is arguably one of Europe’s finest churches from the outside and I read somewhere or other that it is one of the world’s largest Gothic cathedrals, too. Unfortunately, dear reader, I cannot confirm this as I didn’t go inside as we had planned, because for some inane reason, someone thought it was a good idea to set up a queue for tickets into the cathedral and then, once you’ve been lucky enough to gold hold of one of these elusive tickets after an inevitably long wait, you are then required to queue for a second time in a different queue to get in. Stupid. And so un-German. It was disappointing, but as Pedro, the Brazilian in our dorm, rightly said, ‘when you’ve seen one Duomo you’ve probably seen them all’. What a sensible motto.
The piazza over which the Duomo prevails is the Trafalgar Square of Milan. Not only is it brimming with pigeons, but photo opportunities and iconic buildings, notably the grand marvel that is Galleria Emmanuelle Vittorio II, easily more impressive in real life than in photos. But this is a tourist hotspot in Milan, after all, and so the piazza is subject to shady African men trying in vain to charm gullible tourists with coloured pieces of string, tenuously called ‘bracelets’ by tying them around your wrist. Sean, possibly because of the camera hanging from his neck, was one of such tourists, and was swiftly pursued by one of the men, reeling off some rubbish about prices and discounts (for a piece of string, no less!). He asked Sean where he was from.
‘The UK,’ he replied, making attempts to leave.
‘Ah!’ he replied. ‘I love UK! I love London! I love Queen, God Save the Queen! For you, my friend, one euro…’
Liar! I bet the man had never been anywhere near London. In fact, I heard him saying ‘I love Belgium!’ to someone else later on. Eventually I told him to f*** off, a phrase apparently understood by nearly everyone in the world, and the message he got, taking himself and his coloured string off into the crowds. One euro for a piece of string. Honestly…
Talking of phrases, I have in Italy suffered a bout of linguist’s anguish, an affliction I first felt in Budapest two years ago. So far I’ve managed to extort my languages degree in France, Germany and Austria, but I don’t speak Italian. Oh well, I would tell myself, I don’t care; I will talk to this waiter/salesperson/equivalent of The Big Issue seller in Italian. All goes well with ‘buongiorno’, but afterwards I’m lost, plagued by a non-existent knowledge of verbs, resulting in me spluttering single words and reading out the menu with a pointed finger to help me. It’s horrible. Luckily most people in Milan speak English, meaning I can meekly say ‘grazie’ and keep my pangs of linguistic torment an internal struggle. I will learn some decent portions of Italian, enough at least that I can understand the man at the kiosk asking if I want a stamp with my postcard.
One thing I liked about Milan was the ‘Happy Hour’ bandwagon. It’s funny; I’m fairly sure no establishment takes the name literally anymore, and all the non-English-speaking countries that have adopted this trend have realised the same thing, the ‘thing’ being that ‘Happy Hour’ is more like ‘Happy Hours’ and the end result of the activity done during these hours does not always guarantee happiness. Especially the day afterwards. Anyway, in Milan it seems to be a tradition every day – restaurants all over the city, mainly around via Brera and Porta Genova, lay out a buffet of all kinds of pasta, bread, salad, sauces, fruit and cakes and charge you, the customer, that is essentially an inflated price for an included drink and unlimited access to the trays of treats. The Milanese (or perhaps they were all tourists and this ‘Happy Hour’ thing is about as Milanese as Susan Boyle’s pet cat) all seem to love it. Although for me, as a Brit, I can’t help but see a buffet and think associate it with weddings I’ve been invited to where there is an enormous array of free food on offer to me, and the irrepressible urge to make the most of it and just live with bloated feeling until three o’clock in the morning and the sluggish guilt the following day. Fortunately, you are presented with just a small plate which helps keep the gluttony away, since getting up thirteen times to load your plate is neither comely nor worth it. Plus, you look like a pig. Clever Italians.
Whilst we’re talking food, Sean and I took a trip to Eataly, a fun but slightly naff play on words which is the name of what I can believe to be Milan’s biggest food hall. It’s a cornucopia of Italian produce, more or less all regional, tastefully and carefully laid out across three floors, complete with its own book section, restaurant, café and theatre, the latter the venue’s original function before it was turned into a rapturous playground for voracious shoppers and eaters. If you’re anything like me, and you bleed tomato passata with a love of Italian cuisine, you will not be disappointed.
After what was, as you would have thought, the best pistachio gelato (far less sweet and nuclear green than the others I’ve had), we slowly coursed through the city, which shifts between hectic avenues and quiet backstreets. The only non-enjoyable thing about it was the pollen blowing around. Fortunately Milan is the only place I’ve been where it seems acceptable to sport sunglasses indoors and when the sun’s out, so I was able to shield my eyes and look like a local in doing so.
After a dash back to the hostel in a sudden monsoon-like downpour, we took to the bar for the promised complimentary drink upon arrival. The hostel had a great vibe to it, and we were lucky to have been put in a room with aforementioned Pedro and Jen from Vancouver. There was another girl, perhaps a bit older than me, who, on the first evening, gave me a weak smile when I said ‘hi, how are you?’ and did nothing else. I wonder if she actually even saw me standing there, looking and smiling at her and making clearly audible salutations. Or, more logically, she was just a bit of recluse. I do wonder sometimes, with stone statues Hamish and Josephine also in mind, how and why such reserved and I dare say cold people choose to stay in hostels. This hostel especially, was very convivial and so I struggled to see why this girl, travelling alone apparently, whose nationality we will never really know, decided to stay in a hostel and not at least say ‘hello’. Perhaps she was trying to beat the world record for being the person to go the longest on a European adventure without saying a single word to anyone. I don’t know. I suppose, after all, that’s the unappreciated beauty of hostels; it’s where the whole world comes to spend the night.
Part Four: Nice and Madrid: https://theconnorsseur.wordpress.com/2015/05/29/year-abroad-blog-15-trains-of-thought-part-four-nice-and-madrid/