Look up: The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia


Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood exterior

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (also known as The Church of Spilled Blood, The Church of the Savior, The Church of the Resurrection, The Church on Spilled Blood and probably many other names in Russian I can’t even imagine), is one of the most popular tourist destinations in St. Petersburg, Russia.

It is also one of the few places where people do something they rarely do elsewhere: They look up.

Look up to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood ceiling

Background on the church

They do so because the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is filled floor to ceiling (and ceiling to ceiling) with beautiful mosaics. While today it serves primarily as a museum or gallery of this mosaic work, it was originally constructed at the end of the 19th century to honor Czar Alexander II whom anarchists fatally wounded on the spot where the church now stands (so now you know who’s blood was spilled there).  Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood side altar

The czar had survived an attempt by one anarchist to kill him with a grenade and as the czar wrestled with the culprit, a second conspirator detonated another bomb killing himself and fatally wounding the czar who died a few hours later. Two years later, Alexander II’s son, Alexander III, initiated construction of the church on the site to honor his fallen father.

It’s nice to know the background of the place, but once you step inside, you tend to forget the history lesson and instead, you just marvel at the mosaics. And you get the best view of these if you practice a key form of Looking the Other Way, looking up.

Why we don’t look up

Most of us rarely look up. We don’t do so for a few reasons.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood ceiling looking directly upFirst, you can’t walk and look directly above you at the same time without risk of bodily harm or odd stares from others. Second, so many of us are glued to our phones peering in the opposite direction of looking up that we rarely consider there might be something of value above us. Third, it’s not that easy. You have to crane your neck back to look directly up. That’s a hard posture to hold for long, unless you’re Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel (and some surmise even he reclined on a cot-like contraption to do so).

Look up at an angle in the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

The benefits of looking up

But if you do look up, you behold what few others ever witness. You see more nature (clouds and birds, maybe branches and leaves). You see more architecture (the most interesting parts of older buildings are usually near the top or around the entrance or above you as you go through the entrance). And you may find surprises — from interesting signs to ceiling details to hidden doors. You also gain a much greater appreciation of light or rather, lighting. We almost always focus on the object illuminated rather than the source of illumination. But looking up can help you do both.

Stop and go

Look straight up: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood ceiling In the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, to get the most interesting photos and to appreciate the value of looking up, you need a combination of stillness and movement. Stillness to stop and to look up. Movement to make micro adjustments if you want to get images like some of these that require you to center yourself directly beneath the main element of the ceiling. You don’t have to do that if you’re not taking a photo, but it can still be a fun challenge to try, even without a camera.

See in a new way by looking up

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood columnsWhile looking up is the opposite of looking down, with both you cease to see things in terms of recognizable objects so much as design elements. You start discerning patterns, shadows and connections you don’t normally notice. For example, I have a greater appreciation for the church’s columns, as shown in the photo above, because I’m seeing them in a new way, foreshortened and part of an almost abstract design rather than as an architectural support.

You notice this shifting of how you perceive values and design elements most when you look directly up or down and not at an angle but even looking up at an angle has its rewards. Notice in the following images how the shot that shows the walls and columns from the ground up has a very different feel than the ones shot directly up. You’ll never experience that difference unless you look up.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood side wall

Look up: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood column looking upward

Look up with your camera

When taking photos in places like the Church of the Spilled Blood, it helps to have a wide-angle lens when you look up. Often such lenses distort the image in the corners but in this case, it actually adds to the effect, bringing the whole scene together. You can try making panoramas as well if you don’t have a wide-enough lens, but be aware that distortions in making the panorama can occur in surprising ways such as in the first image below. One thing this shot does show, however, is just how crowded this place can be. Which is another benefit of looking up: Even in a jam-packed location, you can usually get unobstructed images by simply pointing your camera up.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood - panorama

Not all panoramas come out the way you want. This one distorts the curves but shows how crowded the place gets.

Look up: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood - vertical panorama

This is a vertical panorama made from five separate photos.

Enjoy the journey up

Finally, sometimes looking up not only reveals what is directly above you, but all that leads up to that as in this image below. In this case, you get the best of both, the mosaics that guide your eyes up to the ceiling and then the ceiling itself. It’s like getting a bonus prize, such as the free rutabaga peeler with your Ginzu steak knives. And all you have to do is look up.

Look up: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood column looking up


Look the Other Way: Kirkjufell, Iceland

Seeing more at Iceland’s Kirkjufell

Kirkjufell, the “Arrow Mountain” on Iceland’s Snaefellsness Peninsula, is one of the most photographed sites on this North Atlantic island country. The quintessential view you see everywhere usually shows this conical mountain behind the nearby waterfalls of Kirkjufellfoss.

Here, for example, are the top results on Instagram for Kirkjufell.

Kirkjufell on Instagram

The name, Kirkjufell, by the way, has nothing to do with Star Trek’s original captain. It means “Church Mountain” since its shape, from certain angles, resembles a typical box-and-steeple church. Throw in “foss” after it and you have “Church Mountain Falls,” as well as the entire extent of my knowledge of Icelandic.

There’s no question that Kirkjufell is beautiful, particularly when backed by a sunset or even better, a display of the Northern Lights.

But the mountain isn’t the whole story.

Look the other way from Kirkjufell

If you look the other way by turning around, away from the mountain of Kirkjufell, you’ll discover a world you never see on most travel sites or in photos of the iconic scene.

Look the other way from KirkjufellAs we explored before in Look the Other Way: Budir Black Church, sometimes you discover the best parts of your trip when you not only look the other way, but physically turn the other way.

Turning the other way requires movement. And even a small change of location can result in a very different perspective, of a scene or of your world.

Use your feet

There’s a saying among photographers that the best zoom function of a camera is your own two feet. Meaning, if you want to get a close-up shot, move. Get closer physically rather than relying on your lens to zoom in. Same thing with looking the other way. Sometimes you have to turn the other way and move your feet.

The irony with Kirkjufell is that you have to do that turning and moving just to see the mountain behind the falls.

If you drive toward Kirkjufell, you can see the mountain from the road. But — full confession here — I didn’t realize there was anything special about the mountain when driving by it. It’s a greenish yellow conical peak. Do you know how many of those there are in Iceland? Me neither, but I’m guessing their number exceeds that of cheap dining solutions on the island by a significant margin. Thus, unless you know what you’re looking for, you may arrive at the parking lot with a curious sense of, “What’s the big deal here?”

Kirkjufellsfoss from parking lot

View from parking lot toward the falls (Kirkjufellsfoss). Where’s that conical mountain I’ve come to photograph?

Seeing it from above—or not

I’d show you an overview of the area via a drone shot, but I wasn’t able to fly my drone there for two reasons. The first was this sign:

Kirkjufellsfoss sign

The second was the wind. Not just a breeze, but a blow so hard Mary Poppins and her umbrella would have hit Mach 1 speeds. On the flight to Iceland, the fun facts that Iceland Air displays on the in-flight screen include this gem: “Iceland is the third windiest place in the world. But what’s remarkable is that the first two are both uninhabitable.” How that little factoid entices travelers  to visit Iceland is beyond me.

Anyway, once you arrive at the parking lot for Killjufellfoss, you have to follow the trail up to the waterfalls, cross a bridge over the river above the falls, circle back on the other side and then, voila, there’s your famous shot. Or at least the place where you can take it.

That’s the usual process. You get your shot that looks like this.

Look the other way: Kirkjufell

Of if you proceed several more meters downstream, you’ll find the lower falls which, to me, are even more interesting in person, but you may have to look back and forth between the two photos to tell much of a difference.

Kirkjufellsfoss lower falls

Shooting during the day

Full disclosure on why my photos here of Kirkjufell are rather snapshotty compared to most of the sunset or Northern Lights images out there. We arrived at midday (which is a rather long stretch of time when the day in June lasts for 22.5 hours). That meant many other people scurrying around and most of all, very harsh overhead light. I think the advanced technical term in photographic circles for such a situation is, “Blech!”

Also, we’d been on the road since early morning, so I was rather tired and thought this would just be a quick stop because I could tell the light was too bright, even from the parking lot. I just grabbed my camera with no other lenses, tripod or filters and hurried up to the falls. My advice to you is if you have a wide angle lens, use it. Similarly, use a neutral density filter if you arrive on a bright day to darken the scene enough so you can take a longer exposure to blur the water of the falls. I tried to do that somewhat holding the camera by hand, but a filter, tripod and wider angle lens would have likely produced better images, even in that light.

If you want to learn more about how to take travel photos that look better than these, check out my free Beginner’s Guide to Making Awesome Travel Photos.

Go beyond what you came to see—and shoot

Which leads us to one of many reasons to look the other way: When the light isn’t what you’d like it to be for the subject you came to photograph, look around for something else to shoot. In my opinion, a less-than-iconic image shot in great light usually beats a famous landmark photographed under sub-optimal conditions. Such was the case here.

Because if you look the other way, constantly turning, moving and letting your curiosity hunt for what the scene can reveal rather than going only to see what you came to see, you will find these (to me) more interesting sights.

Kirkjufellfoss away from the mountain

I do love the images I’ve seen online of Kirkjufell. But as my images here hopefully reveal, there’s so much more here than just that mountain.

Kirkjufellfoss away from the mountain

If you could magically relocate those same waterfalls elsewhere with all the surrounding scenery minus Kirkjufell, it would still be a highly photo-worthy site.

And that’s the problem when you don’t look the other way, when you don’t consider a place based on its own merits instead of some preconceived idea of what you expect to be there. You don’t realize how stunning certain places actually are when they aren’t compared to what they’re “supposed” to be.

Look the other way: Kirkjufellsfoss

Next time you’re anywhere famous, take in the iconic sight. But then turn around. Move. Look the other way.

Then be prepared to be amazed by what you see. Not just because it can be visually rewarding, but because it is your own personal discovery, one you made, even in highly popular locations.


How to reduce stress and worry: Ten lessons from travel

.Reduce stress and worry: Cruise ship

We all struggle with stress and worry to varying degrees. But I’ve noticed something quite telling: I stress and worry far less when I’m on a trip. It doesn’t even have to be a relaxing cruise or beach getaway. Any trip tends to work.

Oh sure, there’s always some concern about making connections, staying healthy, or getting to that newly-discovered-but-now-my-favorite-in-the-world gelato shop before it closes. I mean, some worries are legit.

But overall, when I’m away from my daily routines, I also tend to avoid the accompanying concerns that frazzle me. Some of it is obvious: Most of my trips, particularly abroad, are vacations. If my vacations are causing stress and worry, I’m not doing them right. And if that happens, then, well, that’s just one more thing to stress and worry about.

However, I’ve discovered other reasons why travel lessens my stress and worry and have started to apply what I’ve learned to life at home. I’ve found I’m routinely less troubled when I follow these lessons and remember that worry is merely an act of the imagination. Hold worry up to the light of day and you realize that it is only a figment of one’s fertile imagination, no more real than a daydream, no more likely to happen, in most cases, than a bad hunch. It’s something within my control. And yours.

So keep that in mind as you consider these ten lessons from travel that will help you reduce stress and worry at home.

  1. There’s always another train. Few “once-in-a-lifetime opportunities” are. If you miss one, no need to stress and worry: There’s usually another. You may have to wait for that next train or opportunity, but in the waiting you may learn something you would have missed had the original option happened. Plus, there’s greater value to downtime than you may realize
  2. There’s always another route. Rarely is there only one way to do something or to go somewhere. We default to what’s easiest and familiar and when that doesn’t happen, we stress and worry. But we learn better and acquire new skills when we’re forced to figure out a new approach, a different pathway to our destination or goal. We cease to stress and worry as much because we’re too busy enjoying the quest or creative problem-solving inherent in travel and in the most rewarding of activities at home.  
  3. The worst mistakes make the best stories. When you realize that travel disasters result in great tales later and a greater sense of achievement and overcoming, you learn to embrace the so-called failures and mistakes. Similarly, you’ll stress and worry less at home when you take on an attitude of adventure in all you do.
  4. Who you’re with matters more than where you are. A great travel companion can make a bad place fun. An annoying travel companion can ruin the best place. Experienced travelers understand this. But the same principle applies at home. Want to stress and worry less? Curate who you spend time with. Don’t give up on friends who need a little extra attention. But also, don’t spend your time with consistently negative people who drain you. Your trip — and your life — is too short.
  5. Out of sight, out of mind. On a trip, you connect better with locals, with your traveling companions and most of all, with yourself when you unplug and only use your phone for directions or travel-specific purposes. Checking in periodically with home is fine, but trips allow you the chance to see what life is like free from 24/7 connectivity. Practice staying off your phone on a trip and, once you get over the initial shock to the system, you may find that your stress level decreases as a result. Most of us don’t realize how the constant state of connectedness (or our perceived need for it) keeps us both distracted and anxious. Take what you learn on a trip and apply it at home. Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport is a helpful resource if you want to understand just how much of a toll your smart phone is taking on your life and what to do about it.
  6. The news you don’t know won’t hurt you. If you can’t completely unplug from social media on a trip, try to at least avoid checking in on the news. It’s amazing how less stressed you’ll feel when you’re away from politics and other divisive information. Again, see how you can apply what you’ve learned on a trip to how you digest the news at home. Maybe slow down, read an actual printed newspaper or get your news from other sources like radio. Or maybe, as on a trip, give up the news completely for a while. You’ll find that the important issues still filter in through friends and other sources. But when you consciously adjust how much you consume the news, you begin to realize how much that news may be consuming you (and adding more stress than you realize).
  7. You’re not indispensable. Being away from and unconnected to work for a week or two (or three) can initially freak you out. How will anything get done while you’re gone? But most of us learn that everyone manages just fine without us. Just that awareness can reduce your worries on your trip. It may also help you take yourself a bit less seriously at work once you return home.
  8. There’s a reason they’re so happy. When my son was 13, he returned from a trip to Guatemala with a surprising insight. He couldn’t believe how young kids who lived in a garbage dump there were happier than most of his friends here in the US. “They had practically nothing whereas my friends have all the latest video games and gadgets.” What those kids in Guatemala had was each other; a strong sense of community and belonging. They used their imaginations to turn trash into toys. This isn’t to diminish their hard conditions. Instead, it’s to note that maybe all the stuff we own may be owning us and creating more stress than we realize. Learning to be grateful for all you have goes a long way in helping to keep it all in perspective.
  9. A rolling stone gathers no stress. Travel involves movement, but at home, we can feel stuck, in our jobs or in our lives. Research shows that stress doesn’t come from hard work. It occurs when you work hard but see no results. Travel teaches you how to stay flexible and how to focus on small wins that provide a sense of momentum. At home, if you get stuck in one project, shift to another right away. This isn’t multitasking where your concentration is fragmented as you flit back and forth between projects. Instead, it’s a way to keep you progressing, concentrating deeply on one project until you hit a wall, then shifting to another and so on. This approach, like going from sight to sight on a trip, tends to energize rather than stress you.
  10. Your worst-case scenarios rarely happen. Enough said. Just remind yourself of this the next time you’re head-tripping over all the things that might go wrong. And in the unlikely event that the worst-case scenario occurs, see point 3 above.

Try applying these lessons from travel and see if it doesn’t help in reducing stress and worry at home.


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Look the other way: Budir Black Church, Iceland

Budir beach from aboveLearn to see more of your trip

“The traveler sees what he sees. The tripper (tourist) sees what he has come to see.” This quote from G.K. Chesterton’s Autobiography takes on new meaning when it comes to travel, photography and Instagram.

Choose any popular spot around the world and it is mind boggling how many people are there to not just see, but photograph a particular landmark or site. All well and good, except they do so in pretty much the same manner. They come mostly to get their own Instagram shot, to claim membership in that club and to check off that experience.

That’s not a bad way to travel.

But it may not be the best way to travel. While you may have the bragging rights of capturing “the” shot, you’re likely missing so much more. In fact, you may be missing out on the best part of the place —or your trip.

Today I begin an ongoing series called, “Look the Other Way.” In it, we’ll explore numerous possibilities to do just that, to look the other way. That may mean looking up, down, from a different viewpoint, behind you or just from a different mental perspective. Today, let’s start with a rather obvious aspect: Look around.

Budir black churchAn example from Iceland’s Budir Black Church

I recently returned from Iceland (and several other Scandinavian countries). One iconic image you see of that windswept isle is of this lone church, black in color (because its wood is coated in tar for weather protection) and usually shot with the coast or nearby mountains as the backdrop. Pretty much like the shot above only, because it was a bright, sunny morning, the black is looking a little faded here.

I did a quick search on Instagram for Budir Black Church and this is the top page of results.
Instagram images of Budir

You see it in all seasons, day and night, with or without people, but with only one exception, it’s a similar shot of just the church itself.

This lemming-like phenomenon isn’t limited to Instagram. On virtually every travel blog or site I went to before visiting Iceland, I saw the same image. Here’s what a search on Google using the Images filter reveals:

Google images of Budir

Lest you think the results are limited because my search term was Budir Black Church, an expanded search to just “Budir Iceland” resulted in pretty much the same results with a few shots of the nearby hotel added.

Using images to plan your trip

I tend to plan trips visually, reading about places that sound interesting first, then doing image searches or using Google Earth to provide a fuller sense of what the place is like. Google Earth works well for understanding what’s around the site but it isn’t the best for capturing the beauty of it. Here’s what I mean with this destination shown in Google Earth:

Google Earth of Budir

Thus, based on the cursory search I did for the Budir Black Church, I assumed there’d be a small isolated church worth maybe a five to ten minute stop since it was on our way.

But look what happens when you look the other way, in this case looking around the area.

There’s always more to see

Budir Black Church and cemetery

First, I realized there’s a cemetery next to the church. I didn’t know that before.

Second, I had no idea there were these beautiful moss-covered tiny hills and valleys around the church that you can explore.

Budir from above

Third, I never realized that right next door to the “isolated” church is a lovely hotel.

Budir hotel and inlet

Fourth, the setting is as impressive as the church. The beaches, the water and the mossy volcanic landscape around the church and beyond the hotel make for a gorgeous environment you can wander. The conical and other mountains in the background make for a nice backdrop as well.

The road into Budir

Fifth, while many of the photos I’ve seen of Iceland show some lovely scenes, photographs cannot capture how beautiful many of the places are. The scenes just don’t translate well because the Icelandic experience is about being out in the vast natural environment there. You can’t capture in an image how the sun (rather rare), wind, scent of the sea, the intricate details of moss and small flowers and the expansive landscape all around you merge.

Why some images show up more often

Budir grass

For example, in the above photo, the scene itself when I was there was brilliant. It was a wonder to just wander amidst the grass, rocks, moss and sea. But honestly, I think it’s a rather boring photo because there’s no real subject, just the expanse.

Compare it to the following:

Budir hotel and church

I love this image because while it captures the rocks, grass and beach, it has a focal point on the hotel and distant church.

This lack of subjects to ground your photos explains in part why most people take the same shots of the same places in Iceland. Iconic subjects are simply fewer and farther between there.

It helped, in my case, to have a drone to get some of these shots from above. That added a level of interest you might not behold at ground level.

Budir water and coastA great photographer, however, can find a worthy subject anywhere, particularly when the right light and weather work together to make even an open expanse of field and distant mountains appear magical. But on a dull rainy day or a bright sunny one with no clouds like what we experienced, most of us need some subject to stand out in our photos. Hence the church or a handful or other iconic shots you see so often.

Don’t settle for what others have seen

Budir Black Church

That may explain why you only see the church in photos of Budir. But hopefully the above images reveal that there is so much more there in Budir than than just the church, both to photograph and most of all, to experience.

In any location, when you look the other way, looking beyond the iconic sight to what lies behind or on the other side of the popular subject, you discover an entire world that may be more wondrous than the one you came to see.





Piran, Slovenia and the joy of wandering

Piran from the air

Piran: Venetian feel on the coast of Slovenia

Piran harborPiran, Slovenia lies on the Adriatic, across that sea from its big Italian brother, Venice. Dating back to the 10th century, Piran came under Venetian rule in the 13th century and the influence is unmistakable to this day.

Piran lacks any must-see individual sights. You don’t go for some outstanding museum or a particular historical edifice. You go to wander. You visit Piran to absorb the well-lived-in beauty and even mystery that comes from exploring the alleyways and streets of this Slovenian town with a Mediterranean feel. In the following map, I’ve highlighted (using red markers) places called out below primarily so you have some sense of context and location. But think of these only as suggestions. Piran works best when you make your own discoveries.

A town made for exploring

Piran alley with familyYou wander Piran not as a flaneur, a saunterer of wide boulevards, but as an explorer, a discoverer of intimate wonders. In a place like Piran or any maze-like environment (Lijiang, China, Fez, Morocco or Rothenburg, Germany all come to mind), you’re not wandering as if on a stroll to casually absorb what comes your way. Instead, exploration here is more intentional, a quest to uncover what lies around that next corner. As you go, you’re filled with constant surprise and delight because you have no idea what’s coming, either in the form of people, architecture, light or places (like small shops, beautiful churches, museums, galleries, workshops or just laundry fluttering above you as colorful signs of daily life).

A place of light and shadow

Piran alley with motor scooterHow fitting that both Piran and the word “chiaroscuro” originate in Italy. Chiaroscuro is the dramatic contrast between light and dark often associated with paintings where a single source of illumination creates intriguing shadows and highlights on the subject. In Piran, particularly in the late afternoon, the sun filters into the narrow alleyways (one was no wider than a meter, about 40 inches) illuminating the upper stories of closely-packed stone buildings while the cobblestone streets below lay in shadowy silence.

You’ll likely start in the main square, Tartinijev trg (Tartini Square), and head out through the rear of the square. You then pass through a short tunnel of darkness and emerge into the brilliant afternoon reflections off the Adriatic as you ascend to the town’s ancient city walls for a view over the entire peninsula, a jut of land that both constricts and defines Piran. Pay your two euros to climb to the top of the crumbling stone walls and take in the scene: red tiled roofs surrounded on three sides by the gray-blue sea.

Piran from town wall with birds

View of Piran from the old town wall. You might even see a huge flock of birds flying by.

Then plunge back into maze, coming up later, for another overview from the top of St. George’s campanile (bell tower). Just a word of warning: try not to be up there on each quarter hour unless you enjoy the ringing of large church bells just a few feet (less than a meter) away from your ears.

Piran from St. George belltower

A different view of Piran, this one from the St. George belltower

Descend the belfry and pop into the church of St. George. It’s a large church for such a small town. Rumor has it that the residents built it that way so that marauders sailing by would see the grand church and tower, assume the town was much bigger (and thus better defended) than it was, and sail on.

From the church, back you go into the warren of small streets making your way to the end of the peninsula to check out the lighthouse. Stay in the sun as you pass the many restaurants offering views over the bay and fresh seafood. Then turn left at your choosing back into the alleyways and continue the exploration.

Piran fishing boat

There’s no right or wrong way to do Piran. If you feel you’re lost, keep going. You’ll either end up at the sea (or harbor) or in Tartini Square, the oval-shaped hub of the city from which these numerous alleyways spoke off. Near the center, you can see the bronze statue of the square’s namesake, renowned violinist Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770).

Tartini Square from aboveTartini Square: The heart of Piran

Take a break on the square for a drink or some gelato. Mestna Kavarna, the cafe between the town hall (where you’ll find the tourist information office with helpful maps of the town) and The Venetian House (with its fancy corner balcony) serves a gluten-free double-chocolate gelato that will make a chocolate lover weep.

Fish SpaAfter your refreshments, pop into the many stores around the square or do what my wife and son did: Head up the south-bound alley between the square and the harbor and look for signs for the “Fish Spa.” There, you can have the callouses of your feet smoothed away by submerging them into tanks filled with small, toothless fish who somehow gently nibble or suck away the dry skin leaving your feet feeling baby soft afterward. Seriously, it seems like a gimmicky tourist experience, but my wife and son loved it. Apparently, if you go in summer, expect long lines to get in.

UPDATE: Since I posted this, I heard back from a thoughtful reader, Michael, who pointed out some serious health concerns about these fish spas. My family wondered at the time but the woman there at the fish spa convinced us they clean the tanks out every night. Well, even if they do, you might want to read these two articles that Michael sent before you consider doing what my wife and son did:




St. Francis cloisterYou can then walk your soft feet back up the hill behind the Tartini Square and have a quiet respite at St. Francis’ church and cloisters where they loop a recording of sacred music. It’s surprisingly soothing.

St. Francis churchWhich is good because now it’s time to head back into the alleys (unless you first want to pop across the street to one more church, the Church of Mary of the Consolation). Again, you can do as much or as little exploring of these tiny streets as you want. But be aware that even the alleys you visited earlier will appear different as the light fades and evening brings on an entirely different experience. Just be sure to emerge when it gets close to sunset since you’ll want to roam around the beautiful harbor or catch a view the last of the sun’s rays as it dips below the Adriatic horizon.

Piran HarborGetting lost to the rhythms of Piran

Piran street at nightWhen you wander Piran in this way, your explorations can be a wonderful combination of adventure and rhythmic meditative experience, particularly if you’re doing this alone. You go at your own pace, turn where and when you want and create your own adventure. I could see doing this with a friend or partner as well because then you could share in the discoveries. But either way, it’s an immersive experience that is highly personal and highly rewarding. And when you finally get tired, you can try one of the many outdoor restaurants or cafes. And of course, that double-chocolate gelato.

 If you go

  • You could see most of the town on a quick two-hour jaunt. But stay the night. You’ll avoid day-trippers and you’ll have the evening and morning to explore the near-empty streets all to yourself. Plus, running through the alleyways takes away from the meditative appeal of a slower journey.

Piran at night

  • Visitors must park outside of town either at parking garage Arze (closer, but steeper climb to reach it and no shuttle bus) or at garage Fornace. The latter is on the main road into town with frequent shuttles from the garage to Tartini Square.
  • Piran sailboatIf you go in summer, especially during August when Italians flood the city, it will be crowded. If you want a quieter experience, consider the shoulder seasons of May and September. We visited in October and the weather was perfect. Winter, I’ve read, is cold and wet.
  • There are a few museums like the Maritime or Shell Museum. We didn’t visit these, but they might be worth a look if weather is bad.

If you have the time, do what we didn’t but wanted to do: visit the old Medieval center of nearby Koper (lying 20 km from Trieste, Italy. It’s Slovenia’s main port city and pretty industrial on the outskirts but lovely in its core) or dine in the even closer fishing village of Izola.


Slovenia’s Tolmin Gorge versus Vintgar Gorge

A tale of two gorges

Tolmin GorgeSlovenia is a beautiful country filled with some astonishing sights. The underlying limestone of much of the western part of the country creates magnificent scenery, particularly when rivers pass over this relatively soft rock, wearing it down into fantastical shapes and leaving mineral deposits in the water. This results in creeks and streams that flow in shades ranging from bright turquoise to a deep emerald green depending on the water’s depth, the angle and intensity of the sun and the cloud cover.

Some of the best places to observe this remarkable confluence of light, color, stone and water are in Slovenia’s many gorges.

In terms of seeing two of the most popular, the choice usually comes down to Tolmin Gorge versus Vintgar Gorge.

Tolmin Gorge river

With both Tolmin Gorge (shown here) and Vintgar Gorge, you walk besides beautiful flowing rivers.

The latter lies just north of popular Lake Bled whereas Tolmin lies further west on the other side of the country’s largest body of stone, the Julian Alps.

Vintgar Gorge river

At Vintgar Gorge (shown here), you spend virtually your entire time beside the river. With Tolmin, there are several trails that take you up away from the river.

Choosing between Tolmin Gorge versus Vintgar Gorge

Both of these gorges delight visitors. As I reviewed the photos shown here, it’s easy to believe they both look a lot a like. And they do, in terms of stone walls and aqua rivers running through them. But they are quite different in a number of ways.

Along the river in Vintgar Gorge

Another shot of how the walkways at Vintgar Gorge parallel the river most of the way.

More people visit Vintgar (let’s make that A LOT more: visiting in the summer can be claustrophobic) because of its proximity to Lake Bled and also because it is longer with 1.7 kilometers (a little over a mile) of trails or boardwalks that line or criss-cross over the Radova River that runs through the gorge. Tolmin is quieter but shorter and has one spectacular narrow-walled area that stands out.

Which should you visit? I like the advice found here about Vintgar  and here about Tolmin. These two articles by Earth Trekkers provide everything you need to know about logistics and what to expect, as well as their opinion on which is better.

I agree with their assessment: If you’re going for easier access and the quantity of beauty, go to Vintgar. Seems like an easy choice, right?

Not so fast.

Climbing in Tolmin Gorge

Here’s an example of how in Tolmin Gorge, the trail takes you up above the river in spots.

When evaluating Tolmin Gorge versus Vintgar Gorge (or any place, really) we often forget that what makes any place special is the overall experience there, not just its physical appearance alone. And even physical beauty is, as the old saying goes, in the eyes of the beholder. So let’s explore some of the other considerations that affect one’s experience anywhere using my own visit to Tolmin Gorge versus Vintgar Gorge as examples.


We were there in October, the shoulder season and in some ways, the best season: sunny days but also relatively fewer crowds than in summer. Still, at Vintgar, we were far from alone.

That affected our experience there significantly. I’d get stuck behind large groups of people intent on walking at a turtle’s pace three abreast on the narrow boardwalks. And often, when I stopped to make a photo or just marvel at the ever-changing color of the river, I’d have people brush against me even when there was plenty of space around me.

Vintgar Gorge Entrance

Here near the entrance to Vintgar Gorge, you can see there are many more people than at Tolmin Gorge despite, as in all these photos, me waiting until there was a lull in the crowds.

In retail, research shows that narrow aisles, say in a department store, decrease sales because of the “butt bump” factor: Your shopping pleasure decreases dramatically when you’re jostled by others. Same with your enjoyment of these gorges.

Tolmin Gorge bridge

Here at one of the bridges near the entrance to Tolmin Gorge, you can see there were only a few other people when we visited.

With Tolmin, we encountered perhaps five or six other couples or families the entire time we were there. That made it a much more peaceful and even meditative experience.

In addition, at Vintgar, we were treated like a commodity at the ticket booth. At Tolmin, I was able to joke with the woman selling tickets, both on our initial entry and then later when I ran back to get a jacket from the car for my wife (the gorges can cool off in the mornings and evenings). On my re-entry, I explained my task telling the ticket seller that retrieving the jacket was worth the effort because in my country, we have a saying, “Happy wife, happy life.” I knew the woman’s English was excellent, but she didn’t react. I then added another, “When Mom’s not happy, nobody’s happy. But when Dad’s not happy, nobody cares.” That got a response. I could hear her still laughing long after I left the ticket booth on my way back to the gorge.

The point is, people can make your experience or they can detract from it, no matter how beautiful the place is. Thus, from this perspective, Tolmin won hands down over Vintgar.

Time of day

Glare on the water in Vintgar gorge

Here at Vintgar, you can see what happens when the bright midday light creates glare on the water.

With Vintgar, we arrived just before noon. Few popular places are at their finest at midday, not just for crowds, but also for lighting. Sunlight significantly affects the water color of the river in both gorges. You’d think having the sun almost directly overhead would help. And it does for illuminating the shadow areas of the canyon and brightening the water. But it also creates glare and, psychologically, it changes the overall feel.

Lower light adds to the mystery of Tolmin Gorge

The lower light of early evening added to the mystery of Tolmin Gorge for us

At Tolmin, coming in the late afternoon meant fewer people and also a more soothing light. The lower light led to slightly less saturated colors in photos of the river. But as the sun edged toward the horizon, the lengthening shadows enhanced Tolmin Gorge’s mystery and allure, improving both the mood of the place and our mood in it as well. So again, because of our timing, Tolmin took the prize over Vintgar.

Time of year

The month you visit will affect the crowds and light as noted. But it can also affect the water flow. But in this case, it affected both rivers equally, so for us, this was a tie.

Vintgar Gorge quiet moment

Having a quiet moment with few other tourists around improved how I experienced Vintgar Gorge in surprising ways.

Your own attitude and situation

View from bridge above Tolmin Gorge

This view from bridge above Tolmin Gorge shows the quiet lack of others present there.

Probably the greatest factor influencing your experience will be you or, specifically, your attitude in the place. I have a friend who, on a trip to London, took his wife and two young children to a famous restaurant. But because their kids were acting up and everyone was hungry and tired, the magnificent meal before them went unheeded or at least undervalued. They couldn’t appreciate the experience around them due to the experience between them.

For us, our visit to Vintgar was in the middle of a long day of driving. Thus, while we wanted to engage all the marvels of Vintgar Gorge in a leisurely manner, we knew we had many hours of driving and much to see ahead of us. With Tolmin, we arrived there after a wonderful day of hiking. We were thus relaxed and had nothing else planned for the evening.

Our mental states differed dramatically in Tolmin Gorge versus Vintgar Gorge and as a result, we absorbed more of the tranquil beauty at Tolmin even though there was less to see there. So, once again, for us, Tolmin won.

Tolmin Gorge versus Vintgar Gorge: The bottom line

Vintgar Gorge bridge and waterfall

Vintgar Gorge wins in terms of its final sight, this waterfall with the old bridge behind it.

A myriad of other factors will influence your situation as well. But these examples hopefully reveal that the physical attributes of a place affect only part of your enjoyment and appreciation of the overall experience. When you take all the factors into consideration, we liked Tolmin more. But if we’d come at a different time of day to Vintgar, it likely would have taken the prize.

End of Tolmin Gorge

Tolmin Gorge wins in terms of its one spectacular area off one branch of the gorge.

The point is this: Be aware of all the factors that will affect your experience in a place. Recognize that more is at work than what you see (even though choosing a place to visit based on its visual appeal is still an important consideration, just not the only one). Understand the dynamics at play. Control what you can: time of day or even the season you visit for crowds, for light and even for weather. Eat and drink so you’re not hungry (and grumpy) or dehydrated, etc.

Do what you can to increase the likelihood of you being in the right place when you’re in that place. And when you do, to paraphrase the line from The Hunger Games, the odds will be ever be in your favor. It won’t matter whether you’re at Vintgar or Tolmin Gorge. You’ll have a remarkable experience either way.