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:

https://www.peta.org/blog/woman-loses-toenails-after-fish-pedicure/

https://www.peta.org/living/personal-care-fashion/fish-pedicures-dangerous-and-cruel/

 

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.

People

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.

 

 

One great day in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljanica River, LjubljanaYour best day in Ljubljana

Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is like a chocolate truffle. It’s not large, but it delivers a great deal of flavor and delight in a small bite. You can see most of the main sights in a single day, about as long as it takes to learn how to say its name correctly (j’s are pronounced as i’s so it sounds like lee-oo-bee-yana or lewb-lyana or, well, just ask a local).

Door knockerSlovenia itself nears the top of European destinations that will surprise most travelers who a) have no idea where it is, b) confuse it with Slovakia, or c) never realize how beautiful and charming this country is. However, for those who do visit, they leave realizing they should have allowed more time there.

Located at the north end of the former Yugoslavia back in the days of Tito and Communism, Slovenia borders Italy on the west and Austria to the north. Drive through its gorgeous Julian Alps and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Switzerland. And when it comes to its capital, from certain viewpoints, Ljubljana (got that pronunciation down yet?) may remind you of Salzburg, Austria with its architecture and castle on the hill.

Gornji TrgBut Ljubljana is its own city with its own personality. And its one you can get to know, in a speed-dating sort of way, on a short visit. Here’s how to get the best of Ljubljana in one day. (Just be sure to use the Google Translate function if you follow the links I’ve provided since many go to the local websites in Slovenian).

Ljubljanica RiversideOrientation

Most of the sights are all within walking distance and lie along or near the Ljubljanica River that divides the old city to the east from the new city to the west. The river’s banks are lined with willow trees and cafes. Strolling or lingering here will provide you with the main highlights of the city. As you get further from the river, the appeal factor of Ljubljana drops. As an Eastern European city that spent a generation or two under communism, to get to the old town, you’ll pass through several industrial or very utilitarian areas filled with apartment blocks. But that’s not unique to Ljubljana. Just stay close to the river and you’ll be happy (unless mid-century Soviet is your thing).

Preseren Square

Preseren Square

To cover the popular and some surprising, lesser-known features of Ljubljana in a day, start off at the heart of the city, Preseren Square (Preservnov Trg, named for Slovenia’s famed 19th century poet, France Preseren).

Church of the Annunciation You can’t miss the bright salmon-colored Franciscan Church of the Annunciation that sits at the twelve o’clock position (with north at the top) on the round square (and yes, I too wonder why they just don’t call it a circle).

Galerija EmporiumAt about the two o’clock position, you’ll see the city’s oldest department store, Galerija Emporium with its interesting Art Nouveau facade and interior. At the five to seven o’clock positions, you’ll find the city’s famous Triple Bridge. The center bridge, based on one in Venice, was built in 1842. In the 1920’s, Joze Plecnik, the city’s most well-known and prolific architect (it seems as if he designed half the city) added two similar bridges to create a pedestrian-only thoroughfare that defines this central meeting place in Ljubljana.

Starting early

If you want to start early with amazing pastries, bread and coffee, get going by 8:00 or 8:30 a.m. Most of the shops and even the Central Riverside Market area will still be closed, but that gives you the area to wander without crowds. You’ll do a little backtracking this way, but it is worth it. If you prefer to sleep in, you can still get your baked goods and coffee later as a late-morning snack and skip to the Riverside Market section below.

Stari Trg

Stari Trg

For you larks, your breakfast destination lies on probably the most beautiful street in Ljubljana, Stari trg. From Preseren Square, cross the Triple Bridge, go straight into the square before you where you’ll see the Fountain of Three Rivers Sculpture, then turn right (you can’t go straight). You’ll quickly pass Town Hall, currently (as of October 2018) closed for renovation. Keep heading down this street which here is called Mestni trg, but it changes names shortly to Stari trg. This is one of those amazing streets that work perfectly if want to learn how to pay better attention by noticing the right details of a place.

Perkana Osam

Perkana Osem

You’re looking for the Perkana Osem bakery at 17 Stari trg. It will be on your left and you’ll likely smell it before you arrive. Once there, you can observe the bakers at work in the back.

Cafetino on Stari trg

Cafetino is the green storefront on the left. Later in the day when it isn’t raining, you can sit at the cafe tables outside.

Pick out some delicacies and retrace your steps to #5 Stari trg, Cafetino. With over twenty styles of coffee and an intimate interior, it’s considered the best place for coffee in the city. Later, on a sunny day, you can sip your coffee at one of their outdoor tables. For now, once you’ve had your carbs and caffeine, head back to the Triple Bridge.

City tour tram

If you don’t want to walk the Old Town, you can take this tour tram that you pick up near the Triple Bridge.

The Riverside Market, Dragon Bridge and the Castle

If you got a later start and didn’t do the bakery and coffee house, no problem. Just start here at the Triple Bridge. Orient yourself by facing the castle (on the hill before you), then turn left (east).

Colonnade by Riverside Market

Porticoes by Riverside Market

Along the porticoes that parallel the river, you’ll find some decent souvenir shopping by merchants who set up their wares each morning around 9:00 or 10:00 a.m.

Vendors at Riverside MarketKeep going, and you’ll arrive at the Riverside Market (aka the Central Market), a daily affair where farmers bring in produce, honey and other items to sell to the city folk. You can grab picnic supplies or snacks here, or just wander.

Roasting chestnuts at Riverside Market

Roasting chestnuts at Riverside Market

If you want, dart back over to the river from the Riverside Market for a quick look at the Butcher’s Bridge.

Locks on Butcher's Bridge

Locks on Butcher’s Bridge

It’s filled with some interesting sculptures (not to everyone’s taste, apparently) and loaded with locks fastened there by couples, a now familiar sight on bridges throughout Europe.

Sculptures on Butcher's Bridge

Sculptures on Butcher’s Bridge

You’ll also find some rare public restrooms beneath the market side’s entrance to the bridge. Go back to the Central Market then turn left and proceed to the next bridge at the end of the market, Ljubljana’s Dragon Bridge with its namesake sculptures at each end.

Dragon BridgeGet your selfie with the dragons, then turn around and head uphill, looking for signs for the castle that you can see looming above you on the hill. You can do a somewhat strenuous walk to the top or take the funicular. Once you’re at the castle, you can visit the museum and shops or just take in the view of Ljubljana below you (though as of this writing, the Viewing Terrace is closed for renovations).

Seminary Library

Seminary Library

Cathedral and Seminary Library

Seminary Library entrance

Seminary Library entrance

Retrace your journey back down the hill back to the Riverside Market. On the west end of the market area there’s a small street you want to go down. On the right, you’ll see a fascinating doorway framed by two titans with the phrase “Veriti & Musis” (Truth and Muses) over the entry. This leads into the Seminary Library, the country’s first public library (established in the 18th century).

It’s a fascinating space of old leather-bound books, ornate wooden bookshelves and a beautiful fresco that fills the ceiling and upper walls. It’s only available by private tour that you have to arrange in advance (you can email them at semeniska.knjiznica.lj@rkc.si to make a reservation).

Seminary Library entrance detailIt’s definitely worth the small effort and donation to visit this exquisite space.

Cathedral side doorFrom the library, pop into the nearby St. Nicolas Cathedral (you can’t miss it: Just look for the towers). Note the intriguing bronze doors on the front and especially, the one on the side depicting portraits of 20th century bishops of the cathedral.

Shop and eat

For you early risers, you’ll be repeating your morning journey down Mestni/Stari trg. But this time, you get to shop. The street is lined with boutiques and shops filled with local Slovenian products such as honey and other bee items, salts from the local salt pans on the coast, a book store, several chocolate stores, a place specializing in woolen goods (Madal Bal) and a wealth of others.

Stari trgIf you want some higher end Slovenian souvenirs, on the small stretch that connects the Triple Bridge with Mestni/Stari trg, look for Gallerija Rustika.

Rustika

Galerija Rustika

You’ll also find that Stari trg is filled with numerous restaurants and cafes. This is a good place to grab lunch if you’re there around this time.

Stari trg

Once you’ve completed your shopping and dining, head to the southern end of Stari trg and you’ll arrive in Gornji trg.

Gornji Trg

Gornji Trg

Look up the street that runs uphill and you’ll see some of the oldest buildings in Ljubljana.

Gornji Trg doorsThis whole Mestni/Stari/Gornji trg area is filled with a combination of Medieval and Baroque buildings that visually charm and make this one of the most delightful areas in Ljubljana. Take your time and simply enjoy it.

Cobbler's Bridge

Cobbler’s Bridge

Crossing the river

So far, you’ve spent the day in the old city. Now it’s time to go to the new city. After coming to the end of Gornji trg, turn right and cross the river. If you stop and look up the river, the next bridge up is the Cobbler’s Bridge, also designed by Plecnik. You’ll have time to explore the river more later, but for now, keep heading straight into the quaint area known as Krakovo.

Ljubljana near Plecnik's homeYour destination is located at Karunova 4 and 6, the former home of Joze Plecnik. Even if you’re not a big architecture fan, the home where Plecnik resided for years is fascinating. It’s exactly as it was when he died in 1957. This is one of those rare museums where nothing is behind glass.

Plecnik's Home

You get right up close seeing the items on his desk or the books on his shelf. It’s a great introduction to the man and also, to Ljubljana since the two are so integrally linked.

Plecnik's Desk

Joze Plecnik’s desk in his home.

If you have an extra day, spend it exploring this area or the area’s many other museums. You can also venture over to Tivoli Park. But for now, you still have several hours left on your one great day in Ljubljana tour. So head back to the Ljubljianica River (you’ll see another smaller one near Plecnik’s house that flows into the main river).

Library

Entrance to the National University Library

National University Library

If you’re in Ljubljana on a Saturday, you have a once-a-week opportunity to pop into one of Plecnik’s most famous buildings, the National University Library. As you head north along the river, you’ll cut over after a couple blocks. Your goals is to find a brick and stone building with windows projecting out from the walls that resemble open books. This is the National University Library. You can visit the library’s small bookstore, stairway entrance and a small exhibition space any day. But only on Saturday afternoons do they let the public into the main reading room. As with the Seminary Library, this will mostly be interesting to lovers of books, art and architecture. But the unique spaces can make it intriguing for just about anyone.

Library Steps

Stairway in National University Library

On the south side of the National University Library you’ll find the former monastery known as Krizanke. Joze Plecnik (but, of course!) renovated it and it now serves as one of the primary concert venues in the city (show on the right in the photo below).

LjubljanaCheck out the schedule for a possible concert while you’re in town, or just admire the space itself.

Doors near universityMore food and exploration

From Krizanke and the National University Library, either return to the river or just meander north through the side streets.

Ivan Hribar sculpture

This statue of Ivan Hribar, Ljubljana’s mayor in the early 20th century, stands near the University River by the river.

You’ll soon get to the University District and the large tree-lined square, Kongresni trg. But mostly your goal now is to enjoy the town at your own pace, looking along the cafes that line the river for a great dinner location. Or, if you want yet another snack, here are three great places to try gelato in Ljubljana.

Gelateria Romantk

Near the university is Gelateria Romantik. You’ll spot it next to two impressive bronze doors. Here, they use something like 40% less sugar and only natural ingredients. Further along (hey, gelato is worth the walk) and back between Triple Bridge and the Fountain of Three Rivers is Vigo (which gets the number one slot on Trip Advisor) closely followed by Cacao, across the river from Vigo. You can’t go wrong at any of these three ice cream spots. But at Cacao, you can sit in their riverside cafe to enjoy the views and the passing crowds.

Stari Trg buildingsThe best of Ljubljana

And that, just watching the people and the beauty of the city, may be the best way to spend a day in Ljubljana. Sure, you’ll want to explore many or all of the sights noted above. But allow time to relax, have a great meal or a drink or — gelato! — along the river and observe the locals doing much the same thing. You get all the vibrant energy, stylish fashion and beautiful architecture of a European capital city but on a more manageable scale. In Ljubljana, you can take it all in and enjoy it, even if you only have one day there.

 

Visual appeal: Plan your trips around what delights you most visually

Japanese Garden Steps

What you see is what you get

When planning where to go on a trip, don’t overlook one of the most important, seemingly obvious and least considered aspects of travel: The visual appeal to you of the places you’ll visit.

Now obviously, travel consists of so much more than what you see. In particular, the people you meet tend to be highlights of your trip. But also the smells, the tastes, the sounds and even the texture of new objects, all that adds to the experience. Moreover, what you feel in response to all this, your reactions to the thoughtful gesture of a stranger, the exoticism of new tastes or the delight in walking in the footprints of some historical figure, those emotions go far beyond anything visual on a trip.

And yet, what you see affects so much of how you feel when you travel. The odd thing is, if you’re like most of us, you may never have factored into planning for your trip the kinds of things you desire to see on that trip. Instead you may show up and experience deep bliss without ever considering why or what triggered that happy feeling or how much the visual stimuli contributed to it.

Machu Picchu

This shot captures what has the greatest visual appeal to me: nature, architecture and people, especially those close to me.

An exercise if determining what appeals to you visually

Fountain in Rome

Just in case you were wondering what that sculpture in front of the Pantheon looked like…

To help you get better in touch with both what you see and also how it affects you, your trip and planning where you’ll go, try this exercise.

Think of any place in the world that you’ve been to (or have seen pictures of) that you adore. Be specific. Don’t think, “Rome, Italy.” Instead, think, “that fountain with the comically-faced sculptures in front of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy.” Got it?

Now imagine you were magically plopped down there for the first time. Look around. What stands out? What specifically appeals to you visually there?

Maybe it’s the natural beauty displayed in the rocks and trees. Maybe it’s the epic expanse of a big sky or open sea. Or, conversely, it might be the intimacy of small cafe or Gothic chapel. Are you outside in the country? Inside in the city? Wandering down a quaint village road? Huddled beneath a jungle canopy? Looking out on a vast mountain range? Hanging out with newly-made friends in a quaint pug? What grabs your attention visually? Bright colors? Ancient surfaces and textures? The unfamiliar angle of the sun? Or perhaps it’s the people who make that scene work for you. What specifically about the people in a particular place attracts your attention?

Consider all the factors

Baihe Courtyard with great visual appeal inside and out

Sometimes architecture doesn’t have to be planted in nature for visual appeal. Sometimes, as in this traditional courtyard home in Baihe, China, they bring nature inside.

When determining what visually appeals, it’s likely a combination of many elements and it could even include the weather, quality of light, season or time of day.

Visual appeal - AmalfiBut think about what you most love to see on a trip.

Try to jot down all the components that have the greatest visual appeal. Then prioritize them. Which one emerges as most important to you? You could expand this beyond the visual, but that quickly gets overwhelming. Restricting this exercise to only what has visual appeal to you reveals insights you may never have considered before.

If you want, try the same exercise again only with a different location. See if the same factors that worked regarding visual appeal for you the first time hold up in a new location.

You may be surprised

Before I did this exercise, my guess would have been that nature would have been the aspect that had the most visual appeal for me. And that’s still at the top of my visual-interest list. But this exercise revealed that neck-in-neck with flora and fauna is architecture or other human-made elements. And most of all, when you combine the two — human design combined with natural beauty, I’m a goner. The images above and below will give you some idea of what I mean by that combination of the human element combined with the natural.

Sailboat in fog

The mountain (Morro Rock in Morro Bay, California) wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without the boat.

But how about you? What’s the visual appeal priority or highlight for you on a trip? Knowing this can dramatically assist you in choosing destinations that delight you. You might be amazed how many people don’t consider what elements have visual appeal to them before they go on vacation so they end up choosing trips that may be enjoyable, but don’t spark that “I can’t believe I’m here!” response.

Visual Appeal - Morocco

Sometimes, the architecture blends in with nature as in this village in Morocco

Understanding what has visual appeal to you also helps you know what to pursue on your trip, particularly if you want to take photos. Finding places, people and scenes that appeal specifically to you rather than just seeing what everyone else is looking at, can dramatically enhance your trip and your photos. To learn some simple yet powerful techniques to taking better travel photos, check out this free guide.

Applying this to planning a trip

Scottish Doorway with great visual appeal

Even elements of architecture increase their visual appeal, to me, when even small bits of nature are added.

Think about what appeals to you visually, then go where you’re predisposed to liking what you’ll see once you arrive. If you’re a nature lover, minimize cities or find hidden examples of nature even in urban centers (e.g. The High Line or Central Park in Manhattan). If you love the sea, you may not want to vacation in Nebraska. If you’re a people person, avoid deserts, ghost towns or Times Square at 5:00 a.m. If you love artifacts and sites related to ancient history, stay away from the suburbs. And if you, like me, love that combination of nature and architecture, choose places like national parks, gardens, castles in rustic settings, remote villages or anywhere the design is distinct, unusual or incorporates elements of nature into the buildings themselves or their surroundings.

In short, find what you love and pursue it. That sounds so obvious, but you may never have really isolated the key elements of what you love, at least visually. Do so. Plan your journey around those. Then go have a trip where you come home knowing why you love it. And how to find even more of that on your next trip.

Finally, realize that the visual appeal of a place is but one factor in planning a trip, albeit an important and often overlooked one. But you may find that knowing your Traveler Type can also be invaluable in helping you decide not just where to go on a trip, but how.

 

Chiusa, Italy: Small town with a big view

Chiusa, Italy - view of monastery

Chiusa and the serendipity of travel

Discovering some unknown (to you) place on your own is one of the great joys of travel. No one has recommended it to you, guidebooks may barely mention it and yet, once there, you wonder, “Why have I never heard of this place before?”

Most people head to the Dolomites – that craggy region of northern Italy – to hike amid its jagged peaks in the summer or to ski in winter. But throughout the region lie many charming towns and villages that deserve a closer look. One such place is the small artists’ town of Chiusa (Klausen in German). In much of this area known as South Tyrol, more people speak German than Italian since prior to WWI, this region was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Chiusa - view of city

Chiusa lies about 18 km (12 miles) north of the larger city of Bolzano, or 60 km (40 miles) south of the Austrian border. But this combination of Italian and Germanic influences gives Chiusa its distinct character. You may never have heard of it before and you could cover the highlights of Chiusa on a short visit as you’re passing through the region (it’s conveniently right off of the autostrada. You can see an elevated section of the freeway to the rear of the photo above). But spend a bit more time to linger and wander and the wonders of this lovely town begin to reveal themselves.

The town itself

Chiusa, Italy - a view of the streets

As you enter town, look for the signs to the “Altstadt” (old city in German) or city center. Just driving through on the main road will leave you wondering about those castle-looking buildings on the hill, but otherwise underwhelmed. You have to make your way to the small central area and begin exploring to discover the full beauty of this place.

If you arrive on a Sunday, as we did, you’ll find most of the shops closed. But you can still enjoy a meal at one of the restaurants or cafes that line the town square. You may be fortunate enough, as we were, to come upon a wedding outside the town’s main church, the Chiesa di Sant’Andrea, where you’ll behold a choir in traditional garb sing a beautiful song a cappella to the attendees.

Chiusa, Italy - Choir singing

On a weekday, if you like to shop, you’ll find a wealth of intriguing boutiques and quaint stores along the main street selling handmade wares and locally crafted gifts. Chiusa has always been a town that attracted creative types, especially poets and artists such as Albrect Duerer who is said to have visited and sketched the city in 1494.

Heading uptown

The town invites exploration so after strolling along the main streets, wend your way through narrow passages, eventually ascending a set of stone steps that mark the start of the Via Cruxis, the Way of the Cross, up the hillside behind the town.

 Chiusa, Italy - Main shopping street

Along the way you’ll pass by works of religious art set in small shrines that mark the way, and mostly, fields of grapes. Vineyards line many of the surrounding hills. Visit in the fall and you’ll see plump clusters of grapes dangling in the sun along the entire route.

Chiusa, Italy - Walkway through vineyards to monastery

The small castle seen from below, Branzoll Castle, is privately owned (nice digs) and thus not open to the public. So continue up the hill, stopping frequently to take in views of Chiusa and the valley below you.

Eventually you’ll approach the top of the rocky outcropping on which sits the Sabiona (or Saeben, in German) Monastery, one of the oldest pilgrimage sites in the region.

A building of some kind has been on this site for over a thousand years. However, it wasn’t until the late 17th century that it became a Benedictine monastery. Shortly after that, it turned into a convent. A few nuns still reside there, but they stay mostly out of sight in private areas.

That frees you to explore the first courtyard which contains a cistern with potable water above which stands a modern bronze relief. Pop into the chapel then, after paralleling the monastery walls, pass through a tunnel to arrive at multilevel courtyard area near the top.

You don’t even have to knock

It’s easy to assume all the doors there are locked. Don’t. At the very top lies a foreboding black iron door. Open it and walk inside.

Chiusa, Italy - inside locking mechanism on  black iron door

When you do, you’ll discover the largest of the four churches, the Church of the Holy Cross and its impressive frescoes. On a sunny afternoon, the interior fills with warm light and all the colors from the highly decorated walls and ceiling. You can spend a fair amount of time in the monastery just absorbing the quiet presence of the place.

Chiusa, Italy - Inside the Church of the Holy Cross

Chiusa,  Italy - church ceilingContemplating beauty and the divine, however, can be parching work. Thus, once you’ve explored the nooks and crannies of the monastery, head back down the hill and follow signs through a vine tunnel that lead to the Restaurant Pizzeria Torgglkeller.

Chiusa, Italy - heading back down to town

Pizzerias in this part of the world are as ubiquitous as fish and chips stands in the UK or poke places in Hawaii. If you don’t like pizza, your food options diminish significantly. However, you can try your luck at other choices inside sitting in one of the old wooden barrels to dine (see photo below) or head outside for a beer or a light snack.

Chiusa, Italy - dining in a barrel

Getting out of town

After relaxing, you can head out to one of several nearby valleys for stunning views of the surrounding mountains. A close and popular option is to visit Val di Funes (Villnoess Valley) to capture a quintessential Dolomites image, that of the church of Santa Maddalena (St. Magdalena) with the Odle mountain range in the background near sunset.

Val di Funes near Chiusa, Italy

You can actually take a gondola (two, to be exact) up from nearby Ortisei to reach another often-photographed area of the Dolomites, Seceda, which sits at the top of this range.

Seceda near Chiusa, Italy

Each of these lies only about a half hour drive away from Chiusa. In short, Chiusa makes a fantastic base for venturing into some of the most gorgeous areas of the Dolomites.

More surprises along the way

If you spend the night in Chiusa, you can dine at one of the many restaurants you walked by earlier. We had a surprisingly good dinner at Gassl Brau. You’ll recognize it for by the huge copper vats seen inside used for brewing their own beer. I had one of the best salads of our trip. Pizza I expected in northern Italy. Such a wonderfully fresh salad, no.

Chiusa, Italy - mountain bikers outside restaurant

It was just one of the many unexpected aspects of Chiusa. We were there for three nights and we wished we’d had more. The best part is that other villages like neighboring Velturno (Feldthurns) and even the much larger city of Bressanone (Brixen, shown above) just north of there, all have their appeal. In short, a trip to the Dolomites doesn’t have to be just about the mountains and their trails. Visiting a small town like Chiusa allows you to have the best of all worlds: the adventure of mountain adventure along with the charm, comfort and romantic appeal of a beautiful European village.

Chiusa, Italy - window at night

If you go

  • Travel Types
    • Adventurers will appreciate the hiking, skiing and discovery possibilities that abound in the surrounding mountains and valleys.
    • Creative Travelers will love that Chiusa is known as “The Artist’s Town.” It’s been inspiring creatives for centuries.
    • Learners can dive into the rich history of the place or take classes or guided tours that explore local crafts or traditions such as cheese or wine making.
    • Connectors have the perfect backdrop for spending time at the charming cafes or getting to know the locals, many of whom speak good English.
  • Timing and Rhythm
    • A few hours will suffice for the sights. But Chiusa makes an excellent base for a multi-day stay and allows a more leisurely appreciation of its charms.

 

How to master travel—and why it matters for beginners AND seasoned travelers

Master travel - Blue Mosque line

Master travel? What’s that?

Whether you a beginning traveler or an experienced road warrior, chances are you’ve never considered how you might master travel or even why you might want to.  When you first start traveling, you just jump in and let the novelty and excitement of the journey propel you forward.

As an experienced traveler, you figure you know how to travel already. But eventually, as with all endeavors, you hit a plateau where, though the destinations may change, your trips start to feel oddly similar. You may believe that you have mastered travel, but it can start to feel as if travel has mastered you.

You desperately try to mix up the activities or sights, but a similar routine or pace has crept in over time. You’re in a bit of a travel rut. Trips are still fun, but they lack the meaning or sense of life-changing possibility that they used to provide. What do you do when this happens?

You learn to master travel

Why learning to master travel matters

If you’re a beginning traveler, that starts with realizing that travel is a skill that can be mastered. Your mission, should you choose to accept it (queue the music) is to seek ways to improve that skill.

If you’re an experienced traveler who needs a boost, well, the remedy is surprisingly the same, but for a different reason. You’ll want to learn how to master travel not to learn new approaches so much as to get you out of—to free you from—ones that no longer serve you well. 

In both cases, your goal is mastery of a skill you probably didn’t even consider to be one.

Until now.

Master travel - Ship at night

10,000 hours of travel

You may have heard or read the stat promoted by Malcom Gladwell and others that you achieve mastery after 10,000 hours of practicing something. It’s a widely quoted finding.

It just may not be true.

This article does a good job of summarizing the more recent research on the subject noting that 10,000 hours of practice was only an average and that it doesn’t apply the same to all kinds of activities. For example, with travel, 10,000 hours of time spent on trips (not counting sleep) would be about two years of consistent travel. If you’re only taking a vacation for say, a cumulative total (counting weekend trips) of a month per year, using the 10,000 hour mark means you wouldn’t hit mastery for about 21 years.

Oh, and that is counting every waking moment on a trip as “practice” when in reality, you’re likely only thinking about the actual travel part of your trip a fraction of the time. Thus, you could probably double or triple the number of years to reach the mastery level of traveling if you based it on the 10,000 hours idea.

Good thing you don’t have to.

Why? Because what seems to apply more than time if you want to master something is a combination of interest and what’s called deliberate practice. Let’s start with the former.

Montreal

Love what you do

As a traveler, you’re not training to win a travel award or to be admitted to the top travel school in the country (and no, I don’t believe there is such an institution…yet). Nor are you competing with others to be the world’s best traveler nor are you turning pro. Unless you have to travel for work or other necessities, you travel simply for the love it. And you know what that makes you? An amateur.

The word “amateur” derives from the Latin “amare” which means “to love.” We sometimes deride amateurs for their lack of skill but true amateurs, those who take on something new for the sheer joy of doing it, don’t care. It is in the doing they find satisfaction, not necessarily in the mastery. But here’s where a paradox of mastery comes in.

You don’t have to be a pro at something but you do need to know enough to enjoy it. As my surfing coach Shaun says, “You have to reach that point of being stoked.” Once you hit that level of really loving it, you’re hooked. But many people give up before that point because they don’t get good enough to enjoy it. So you need to work to reach at least some degree of proficiency. With travel, this is pretty easy because the process itself is so enjoyable. In fact, I suspect you may never have even thought before that travel is a skill you learn, right? That’s because we don’t usually consider fun activities as something requiring effort and practice. But practice does make perfect. Sort of. Only, however, if you do it right.

Master travel through deliberate practice

Doing the same thing over and over may seem like practice. Instead, it usually means mindless repetition. A better approach is what is known as deliberate practice. Being aware of how to navigate through an airport or train station, how to choose the best flights, how to know before you arrive if a hotel will be good—all of those are travel skills that come with practice. But if you don’t think about learning those skills and only pick them up haphazardly, they’ll take you much longer to master.

If, however, you practice deliberately, some of the more frustrating elements of travel—like getting a decent seat on a flight or learning how to find great local restaurants—get much easier, much faster. And the better you get, the more you enjoy. The more you enjoy, the more you’ll push yourself to be better not because you have to, but because you want to. And in so doing, you’ll discover a whole new level of travel because you’ve learned to master travel.

Naples, Italy

But what happens when you’re an experienced traveler?

All of the above is well and good for learning how to travel initially. But once you’ve done it for a while, how do you get out of your travel ruts and routines? Here’s the fun answer: Same thing. Deliberate practice. 

The exact same approach that works for beginners in learning how to master travel works for master travelers who’ve plateaued. To understand this, let’s apply some key attributes of deliberate practice to travel. I’ll note how to do this for both beginners and seasoned travelers wanting a new boost in their trips.

  1. Concentrate. For both types of travelers, be mindful and aware that you are learning a skill. As you learn to navigate the metro in Paris, make a conscious effort to pay attention to how it works. Treat it as if you will be quizzed on it later. Does that take away from the fun of your trip? Actually, it can enhance it because every mundane logistical task now becomes a creative challenge. For seasoned travelers, this means paying attention to what moves and delights you. Note what has started to feel routine and what still feels fresh. What feels missing? Be aware of your emotions and interests as you travel and you’ll be able to diagnose how to make changes for your future trips.
  2. Give yourself a break. Yes, you want to master travel by learning how to do it better and treating it as a skill to acquire and perfect. But you don’t have to do that all the time. Use the down times on a trip to mentally inventory what you’re learning. Then, the learning or practice part of this won’t bog you down when you’re in pure exploration mode. This applies to both types of travelers.
  3. Write it down. Having a travel journal is so helpful for many reasons. For beginners, you can record and even track your learnings as you go so you’re more aware of them later. For seasoned travelers, you’ll want to record what you learned in step one regarding what is working for you emotionally and what’s not. For both types of travelers, also write down as the ideas come to mind, additional travel skills you want to learn. That way, you can deliberately pursue those over time.
  4. Experiment. Try different approaches to a travel challenge whether it’s your first trip or your 100th. If you’re used to taking a taxi or ride share, take the bus. Or vice versa. If you always pack a lot into your trips, try a slower approach. Then record what you learn. Glean what works and discard what doesn’t. For beginners, you’re seeking to find your travel style or cadence. For experienced travelers, you’re looking to discover a novel approach that will break you out of your travel habits and let you master travel in a whole new way.
  5. Be consistent. Don’t just try all this once and stop. It will take a lifetime to fully master travel. You can always learn more. But that won’t happen if you forget to learn. If you go back to not paying attention to the process and the skills you’re acquiring, you’ll travel like everyone else and your trips won’t get better. They may be different, but they won’t improve. You have to be deliberate about practicing travel to master travel.

Enjoy the process as you master travel

This may all seem like hard work. But hard work, if it is enjoyable, adds greater meaning to life. If you travel only to lie on a beach and sip fruity drinks, don’t worry about how you’ll master travel. You don’t need to. But if you love travel and want to continue doing so more and more over time, start thinking about travel as a skill you can learn and even master. It may not be as easy as lying on a beach, but it is so much more rewarding.

As a friend of mind often reminds me, “I don’t like to travel. I like to have arrived.” Most of us do, especially on today’s flying buses and over-crowded attractions. But when you master the harder parts of travel itself, you’ll find a greater sense of accomplishment and greater joy, both in the arriving and in what it took to get you there. Mastering travel will make the hard parts of the journey easier for beginners. And best of all, taking a deliberate practice approach to master travel will help experienced travelers continue to reap rich rewards from travel for years to come.  

 

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