Presenting the Slovenian Mountain Bike Route

Hills and mountains have in the past been predominantly visited by hikers, climbers, perhaps the odd paraglider. More recently though, the trend of bike touring has been growing in popularity and the top brass over at the Alpine Association of Slovenia came up with the idea of a bike route that stretched the length and breadth of the country.

So a couple of years ago a group of mountain biking specialists got together and they set to work on what was a massive project indeed. The aim was to lay down a bike trail that would visit pretty much every attractive cycling region in Slovenia. Just last year they succeeded and the trail was officially opened. From the hilly vineyards around Maribor the route crosses Pohorje and continues into the equally hilly region of Koroška. Then it turns down towards Ljubljana and after that  you’re in for some serious climbing in the Alps. You’ll find yourself in the beautiful scenery of the Triglav National Park, then turn towards the coast and some warmer climate. Still more vineyards (and wine cellars) await you along the way south. Catch some beautiful Adriatic sunshine, have some ice cream on the beach, then head east again along the Croatian border and into the dark forests around Kočevje. You’re well on your way here, almost but not quite home yet. Just a few hills lie on the way back to where you started out in the region of Štajerska.

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The route is natively known as Slovenska turnokolesarska pot, or STKP. Click here for an interactive map.

It reads like a nice day out, but unfortunately Slovenia isn’t as small as that. In fact the route is around 1800 kilometers long and features about 50.000 vertical meters of ascent, so you’ll have quite a bit of uphill pedalling to do. It is divided into 41 stages and is meant to be taken over a longer period of time, step by step. It was designed to incorporate local hospitality providers and other attractions, so that cyclists can get to know the area they’re in. This also provides revenue for the local communities along the way, while cyclists don’t have to worry about getting stranded with mechanical difficulties or sleep under the stars on a cold night.

Along the way you might visit the world’s oldest vine that grows in Maribor, learn about the lives of coal miners in Velenje, drink coffee on the busy squares of Ljubljana, or have a glass of Teran, red wine that is native to the karstic regions just inland from  the Adriatic coast. The trail can be taken up pretty much anywhere along the way, there is no official beginning or end. Accommodations in alpine huts, private rooms, camps and other lodgings are available throughout, so you can get a good night’s rest after a hard day of cycling. You’ll be well supplied with internet connectivity and other modern amenities as well.

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It hardly shows in the picture, but the climb towards the peak of Uršlja gora is one of the toughest bits of the route. Uršlja gora is also it’s highest point at just under 1700 meters above sea level.

They designed the route so that it runs along quiet roads, away from traffic. Mostly it sticks to unpaved roads and forest tracks, so it’s nice to have a bike that can handle a bit of rough terrain. A hybrid should be able to do the job, but a full fledged mountain bike would be ideal to handle everything along the way. You don’t need any special off road riding skills, as the route was designed with a broad audience in mind. Do keep in mind all the safety precautions before you go though – keep your bike in good working order,  choose stages according to your physical ability, wear protective equipment and care about your surroundings. Don’t litter and give way to hikers if you want to avoid nasty looks.

Follow these simple steps and your heart, and you should find a range of experiences along the way that will keep you coming back for more. You can plan your trips using the official STKP website. There you’ll find more info on different aspects of the route, as well as a list of 109 control points where you can stamp your route diary. These are usually cottages or restaurants that provide a warm welcome, a refuge from the elements and probably a cold beer as well.

A couple of snaps from the field. Credits go to PZS and Jože Rovan, president of the Slovene mountain bike touring commission.

So if you’re looking to spend this year’s summer holidays a bit differently, or perhaps a new epic project, the STKP is sure to provide a worthy challenge. Be sure to click through the provided links and enjoy your time out on the bike.

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Exploring Slovenia’s mountain region – Gorenjska

I must apologize – It’s been a while since I last wrote anything here, over a month in fact. I just couldn’t get myself to post anything of half-decent “quality”, so I let it be for a while.

Now I’m happy to report that I was on a yet another cycling-unrelated trip yesterday and while I really hoped to squeeze more bike-related stuff in here, it just wasn’t meant to be, at least not this time. However, Gorenjska, Slovenia’s mountain region is great for bicycle exploration and there are a lot of bike paths, trails and spots to enjoy. I guess I really should bring a bike the next time I go.

What follows is just a couple of spots I went to see yesterday. I had the help of Amela B., a friend of mine who is also a local of the region and knows where to go to get the most out of your day. A bit like having your own personal guide, quite fancy. I picked her up in Ljubljana in the morning and the original plan was to visit the Triglav lakes, but that would require a full day of hiking, and we sort of drifted in other directions.

#1 – Lake Bled

If you’re a tourist planning to visit Slovenia, this is probably one of the spots you hear the most about. Lake Bled, the castle on the cliff, the church on the island in the middle, the Bled cake –  these are some of the most known tourist attractions in the country. When I was last here a month ago, in the peak of the tourist season, it was absolutely packed with people from around the world.

We took a walk around the place, found that it was not so packed any more and headed on. You’ll find much better pictures online, there are probably 5 photographers for each 100 meters of shoreline here.

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#2 – the Peričnik Waterfall

Here’s a sweet spot. If you head into the Vrata valley, you’ll soon pass the Slovenian Alpine Museum, a gem in itself. A bit further on, just a short hop from the road is the Peričnik Waterfall. There are actually two of them, with the higher being 52 meters tall. The ledge it falls over is overhanging, so you can even walk behind the curtain of water. Another fun fact; it freezes over in winter, so the whole rock face gets covered in ice, creating a fairytale view.

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Observe the family on the ledge behind for scale. The ledge can easily be used to walk behind the curtain of the waterfall.

#3 and #4 – Planica nordic center and the Tamar valley

Turning into another glacial valley nestled between high mountain peaks we find the famous ski-jumping center of Planica. If you happen to follow the sport you’ll know that this is the venue of the last leg in the season and tens of thousands of people gather here every year to watch people jump upwards of 220 meters on skis. If you’ve never seen ski jumping before, this is what it looks like:

A nordic center has recently been constructed, allowing for full-time training on several different hill sizes, and there are ski-running and biathlon courses here as well.

Red Bull is hosting a 400-meter sprint competition up the biggest hill. It’s called simply the Red Bull 400, it’s much harder than it looks and it’s happening next weekend.

Further down the road from Planica is the Tamar valley. Like many alpine valleys, it’s enclosed on three sides by high mountains and provides a peaceful retreat from the everyday bustle. A dirt road takes you to a hut at the end of the valley, which is also a starting point for a number of climbing ascents.

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#5 – Lake Jasna

Just before we left we decided to stop at yet another alpine lake just outside Kranjska gora, the best known resort town in the area. It seems that you’re never far from a stream or a small lake here, and they all paint these beautiful images with mountaintops in the background.

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Gorenjska is deservedly the best looking part of Slovenia, and it provides nature lovers with plenty of things to see and do. Leave a comment below if you’ve been here before, I’d like to hear about the time you’ve had.

For more info, head on to the official page of the Triglav National Park.

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The Grossglockner High Alpine Road

Ask a hiker why he or she spends countless hours or even days walking up a steep hill when it would be much easier to just watch TV and you will probably get the answer that it’s nice, refreshing, good for your body and so on. Indeed these things are all true and while many people know the benefits of a good hike, others give not a damn about all those rocks and trees. Mountains are dangerous, you could get lost or caught by the rain. Those fancy panoramic pictures look nice on Facebook, but walking up steep inclines just to take a selfie is out of the option for some people.

Luckily for all those naysayers there is an easier way. You see, back in the 1930s some Austrians had a nasty problem. Being from a mountainous country, they always had to climb everywhere if they wanted to visit their neighbours or, say, pop to the shops. It was especially difficult for those living under the Grossglockner – the highest pointy bit in the country at nearly 4.000 meters above sea level. Cars were the new fashion and they were tired of walking anyway, so they decided to build a road that would take them across the surrounding highlands, connecting the regions of Salzburg and Carinthia.

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But building such a high alpine road was no mean feat. More than 4000 workers had to work in harsh conditions for over 5 years, but eventually they got it done and in early August 1935 the Grossglockner alpine road was open for business. It was 48 kilometers long, featured 36 bends and took it’s users over 2500 meters above sea level. Trade was quickened significantly as traveller no longer had to look for high mountain passes on foot and to celebrate the occasion, there was an automobile race the day after the opening.

As cars became commonplace the road’s popularity quickly began to spread and people were eager to experience the thrill of driving up into the mountains. The economic potential of this was soon realized and a number of tourist accommodations, cafes and museums were added to make the destination even more appealing. Soon the road itself had to be widened as traffic grew. Today this is one of the top 3 tourist spots in Austria with almost a million visitors coming here every year.

The curse of mass tourism

Come here on a sunny summer weekend and you will see long lines of cars and motorbikes at the entry toll station. Daily car admissions go for 35€ a piece and will grant you free access to most of the museums relating to the history of the road and life in the area. Further up the hill dense traffic and bursting parking lots; space is limited on the mountain, but it seems admissions are not.Of course weather plays and important role here; winter snows stick around well into spring time and the workers only clear it away around late April. The road itself is open for visitors from early May until late autumn.

When it is open, it’s marketed as a thrill ride for keen drivers and bikers, and it would be if one had enough space to safely open up the throttle. In reality you will mostly be part of a slow-moving convoy of cars, busses, caravans and cyclists climbing ever higher in search of stunning views of the surrounding mountainsides.

The stampede culminates on the Edelweissspitze, the highest point of the road at  over 2.500 meters up. A steep and narrow cobbled road leads up from the last big parking lot and ends at a smaller summit area, but you can still take your car there. This is the most gridlocked section of all, as everyone tries to squeeze their machines into what little space there is.

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Upon successful summitting and parking everyone flocks to the panoramic terraces and pulls out his phone, camera and selfie stick and fires away. The views really are stunning and the pictures I’m providing here do nature no justice. I tried my best to avoid getting the crowds of people into my frame, but you have to take the good with the bad when visiting such a popular destination.

The true heroes of the climb

Alongside all the motorists you will see surprisingly many cyclists pushing their pedals tirelessly up the steep inclines. They are the real heroes of the day and hopefully an inspiration to many people speeding by in their air conditioned vehicles. As a cyclist myself I tip my hat to everyone who has managed to climb up the road on any kind of bike. It is a real challenge in the best of conditions, but top that with summer heat and busy traffic, and you have the makings for a climb that is not for the faint-hearted.

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Once you do manage the climb though, you are richly rewarded with some of the best views you will ever see. Several 3.000 meter peaks open up in front of you, and clouds roll lazily around them. The highest of them is of course the mountain that lent the road it’s name, and it is truly a sight to remember.

Whether you are a nature lover, a passionate cyclist, a motorbiking fan or just looking for your next trip, the Grossglockner alpine road is an experience that leaves a long lasting memory. If you can, visit it away from the main tourist season when it’s not so crowded and enjoy the stunning vistas it has to offer.

Head on over to their official website for more info.

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Contemplating a future on the high seas

After pretty much a lifetime of going to school, doing homework and chasing all kinds of assignment deadlines the time has come to take on a life of a fully functioning adult.

It’s funny how simple things tend to be when you’re a kid. Someone asks you what you want to be when you grow up and you instantly know that you want to drive that big truck, become a firefighter or a designer for Lego. Then as you grow older the notions of traveling the world, meeting interesting people and having a great time come into your head. All you want to do is have a meaningful life, find the girl of your dreams, buy a nice house and a good car. Then have a kid or two and live without worry. Such simple things, it seems.

Yet how do you do that in the world we live in? I’ve tried driving big trucks and while it might be a way to happiness for some, for me it wasn’t the case. I’m a firefighter as well, but everyone does it on a voluntary basis here in Slovenia, and that hasn’t paid any bills yet. People might look favourably upon your role of the brave soul who is always ready to sacrifice his time for others, but it won’t fill your pocket.

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I’m not sure how people look on normal life these days. Maybe spending 10 hours every day for work that doesn’t fulfill you has become the norm in the “developed world”. I feel sorry for people who spend their whole lives waiting for the next weekend while life passes by left and right. Then before you know it you’re ready to retire and if you’re lucky enough, you might even have some time left to do all the things you missed during the previous 60+ years.

Perhaps this mindset is why I’ve always had unusual jobs in mind. Jobs that I’d actually enjoy, and not only do for the sake of earning money. Jobs that would allow me to see cool places, enjoy nature, meet people from all over the world and experience stories that I could tell my grandchildren. Doesn’t sound like much if you live in a metropolis like London or New York, but coming from a small town in a small country that everyone tends to overlook, it’s much more of a challenge.

Over the years though, I’ve had the chance to work in some truly international environments at two Kempinski hotels on the Adriatic coast. It was much more what I’m into and a nice change of scenery, though living away from fiends and family starts to take it’s toll regardless. I’ve found that such longer excursions follow a set pattern which consists of the initial excitement of moving, then settling in and quiet optimism, which is eventually replaced by more and more homesickness. In the end what was once an interesting new environment becomes a burden to you, and you are just a stranger in a strange place, looking forward to returning home.

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This, along with other people’s expensive cars was my daily view while working at Kempinski Adriatic in the summer of 2014

So you return home, back to the life you’re used to and for a while you’re feeling fine. You enjoy the home cooking, the company of your fiends and the general simplicity of the daily routine. But once again, after a while the grind of everyday life gets to you and you start dreaming of new adventures, the kind you just can’t get while living a “normal” life and doing a “normal” job.

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For years now I’ve been thinking about working on cruise ships. It’s the kind of idea you obsess over for some time, then it goes away and suddenly pops back in out of the blue. During that time I’ve been to interviews with different employment agents, I’ve read blogs, watched movies and talked with people who have been on board in different roles. I got the universal impression that this was something I had to do at some point and not going through with it would be something I would regret forever.

By now it’s come as far as almost applying for a photographer position with Carnival. I’ve talked with the recruiter a few times, but ultimately failed to fill out all the initial papers due to getting weak at the knees. The offer is still on the table, should I reconsider.

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Carnival Breeze is one of the 20+ luxury cruise ships in the company fleet. Photo credit aa.cruises.com

It’s an offer that’s just as exciting as it is terrifying. I believe I’d be able to do a good job and enjoy the lifestyle even through the tough bits. The stories and experiences gained would probably be unforgettable. The pay can be relatively good, chances for promotion are high and seeing the world is something some people only dream of. And yet…

Every time I think these things, the thought of what I’d miss out on comes right after. From what I gather the workflow can be quite stressful. There are no weekends, no green hills, no chances for hiking and cycling with friends and no firefighting antics. Working on the other side of the world can get to you, and there’s no real place of retreat. Folks at home don’t think much of the whole idea, of course they’d rather see me working some dead end job at home, but even these are hard to find in the current state of the economy around here.

In the end, it comes down to guts I guess. Either I take the leap, decide to go and see what life has in store for me, or end up taking the “normal”, and likely quite boring way through…

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Tarragona Trip article in Hostelling International Web Magazine

After coming back from Tarragona, Spain and writing a blog post about it, I went on and did an article for Globetrotter, an online travel magazine under the Slovenian branch of Hostelling International.

Although similar in length and equipped with pretty much the same pictures, it is not a copy/paste job – while I mostly convey my personal experiences and thoughts here on the blog, the magazine article is oriented more towards giving a general presentation of the city and it’s attractions. To put it short – it’s a lot more like your average travel article.

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Best taken with friends 🙂

I won’t go over what or why you should go to Tarragona, I’ll just say that you definitely should. And before you do, there’s the article in question waiting for you by clicking on one of the links below. Both English and Slovenian language versions are available and again, not direct translations. Why not read both of them if you have the chance. 🙂

Tarragona trip article @ Globetrotter Web Magazine – English version

Utrinki s potovanja v Tarragono – v slovenščini.

As always, enjoy it 😉

 

 

The Tarragona Trip Report

I’ve just come back from a rather splendid trip to Catalunya, where I spent a few days in the port city of Tarragona. My friends Gregor and Maja have been living there for the last 2 months by way of the Erasmus student exchange and have kindly invited me and another friend called Blaž to come over. They rented a snug apartment just outside the city overlooking the beach and as this also meant free accommodation, we just couldn’t refuse the invite.

Having someone who’s done the trip there definitely helped planning. After looking for the best flight option we booked a return flight from Treviso (IT) to Barcelona, but that still meant getting to the airport and from Barcelona to Tarragona itself, which is about 100 km down the Catalan coast.

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The other part of Blaž’s family decided to spend a few days in Rome and they luckily dropped us off along the way, which spared us a lot of bother just getting to Treviso, which is about 330 km away. Tagged TSF, the airport is a small affair mostly used for low-cost airlines such as Ryanair Besides their regular and quite affordable connection with Barcelona, they do a lot of internal flights in Italy, while others may take you to places like London Stanstead and East Midlands as well.

Unsurprisingly, as this was the beginning of the 1st of May holiday weekend, the flight was packed. I booked my seat 2 months ago and just managed to snatch the last spot. I’ve only flown twice before, a round trip from Vienna to – you guessed it – Barcelona and was excited to relive the sensation of takeoff and flying. It was much as I remembered it. Seats only slightly more comfortable than your local bus, young couples and the

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ir kids, taking pictures and acting wildly excited, safety instructions reminding you of the worst and prettily made up cabin crew smiling the biggest smile while trying to sell you overpriced snacks and local guides over the intercom. I still can’t comprehend how humanity has been able to walk on the moon, but failed to produce stewardesses who one might understand during their safety-dance demonstration.

Comparatively, BCN is an airport worthy of it’s name. Ryanair and other budget carriers land at Terminal 2, from where you have a direct train line to Sants, the main railway station in Barcelona and the trip costs about 4€. Everything is well marked and people mostly speak English well, which can’t be said for most Catalunians. From what I’ve experienced, public transport is reliable, well organised and indeed much used both in Barcelona and Tarragona.

Now, you’d think travel these days is quick, but it still took us almost 15 hours of switching between cars, planes, trains and busses to reach our friends Gregor and Maja. Luckily it all went smooth and without complications. A welcoming party with a lot of vodka was in order which lasted well into the morning and left Gregor a bit worse off the next morning. Alcohol is surprisingly cheap in Catalunya.

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Me and Blaž on the left with Maja and Gregor on the right. Big breakfast soon set things on the right track.

But most people don’t have friends in Tarragona, so why would you ever want to go there? I’ll let you glance through the gallery below, and it should be easily evident.

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Colorful, lively city streets? Check.
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Enjoying the warm climate on a quiet square? Check.
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Busy promenade and human pyramids? Check. The pyramids are a local tradition Tarragona’s famous for. I believe the records is 10 stories high, and there’s always a 5-year old child on top.
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Taking a walk with friends down sandy beaches? Check.
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Double check for golden beaches straight outta paradise.
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Castillo Tamarit overlooks still more beautiful sandy beaches and is a great setting for weddings and other celebrations.
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Cold beer on a warm day? What could be better.
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Placa De La Font fills up after darkfall with people taking drinks and ordering Tapas.
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History buffs will feel right at home, as Tarragona (then Tarraco) was an important Roman town – the Amphitheatre is an Unesco Heritage Site. Now it seems everything is called “Tarraco”, from the main square down to taxi companies and kebab stands

Plenty of reasons to consider Tarragona for your next destination then, or at least a short stop if you’re in the vicinity. The city is also popular with exchange students from all over Europe. Gregor and Maja have made some acquaintances during their stay, and we had the chance to meet two French girls, Lou and Sarah and went out for a couple of drinks at Placa de la Font. They easily broke the stereotype that people from France don’t speak English and it turned into an absolutely amazing evening. Tarragona lights up after dark and people take to the old squares in search of drinks and maybe seeing FC Barcelona play. We sat down at the Barata Bar and had a few beers, then hit a couple of clubs and danced until 3 am.

Then you realize perhaps the biggest irony of travel – you meet great people and share stories from around the world, and it seems like you’re living a dream. Then the evening ends, you say goodbye and chances are, you’re never going to see them again. For me, a sudden feeling of melancholy sets in then, even though I might be dancing at a great club and having the time of my life. It’s like life itself comes round and reminds you that you can’t dream forever. Sooner or later we all have to wake up.

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Some other local customs I found worth sharing;

  • bars mostly close at or around midnight. Only clubs remain open then, and come in an interesting variety of settings – from an Irish-themed one such as Highland (we got kicked out of that one because the waitress apparently didn’t understand Gregor’s order) to a big wine cellar called La Cova. A lot of the music is local, a nice break from the international club scene.
  • you’ll have a hard time finding something to eat in the early hours of the morning. I don’t know why, but no one sells any kind of snacks, pizzas or kebabs during the night. We heard of an old man selling such things illegally out of his apartment – the crowd of people waiting at his front door, then going up in pairs to get food looked quite silly and amusing.
  • city busses cost 1.5€ per ticket, no matter if you’re riding the whole line or just down to the next station. Useful for foreigners, as drivers generally don’t understand much outside of Spanish and Catalan.
  • If not traveling in full summer, be sure to pack a sweater and jacket. Days are generally warm, but evenings can quickly turn cold and there are strong winds usually blowing from the sea, making life tough for the hot-blooded. We found poor Lou wearing a skirt and flip-flops and it was clear she wasn’t enjoying it too much as we sat on the Placa drinking beers.
  • The custom of siesta is still respected here and the general tempo of life isn’t very fast. You’ll often see shops closed even during the day and especially on Sundays and holidays.

Why not have a go then? My time in Catalunya was amazing, and there’s still so much to see. I merely passed by Barcelona, which will require a visit all of it’s own. Fingers crossed I get a chance to return soon.

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The world is out there and it’s waiting for you to explore it. So make the most of it – meet new friends, see new places, have a beer on that golden stretch of sand. I promise you, you won’t regret it.

For more info on Tarragona, visit the official tourist website and follow my blog for similar posts to come.

And thanks for stopping by! 🙂