3 countries. 2 wheels. No previous cycling experience.

Not only am I not a cyclist but I’d almost go so far as to say I don’t even like cycling.  I avoid the bikes at my local gym in favour of the cross trainer or the treadmill.  Not only do I find them boring but I have to notch the difficulty level down to about 3 before I can manage any more than 10 minutes on one!  Moreover, I’d never really used my third or fourth hand BMX, which I’d bought 7 or 8 years previously for about £20, and which was still sitting in my kitchen gathering dust.

Yet for some strange reason I was being drawn towards the concept of a cycling holiday. Or rather, one particular cycling holiday.  Starting in Venice, we’d cycle along the Adriatic coast through Italy and Slovenia, and then follow the Istrian peninsula on to Porec, northern Croatia.

Route map

Route map

I loved the idea of seeing 3 countries in 1 week, but doing it all under the power of my own steam made it seem all the more appealing.  I also loved the fact that this was a self-guided cycling trip.  No group (although there would be others booked on to the same trip, cycling the same route) and no tour leader.  Just a series of maps and route notes to get me from A to B.  What’s more, my main luggage would be transported by bus to my next destination.  All this meant that I’d have the ability to stop whenever and wherever I wanted, I wouldn’t be limited to the amount of time I chose to spend at any given location, and I’d have the freedom to go at my own pace.  Most of the trips I’d taken prior to this had been short-term or long-term backpacking holidays, relying heavily on local transport to travel between destinations.  This time I fancied doing things differently.  I wanted to challenge myself a little.

Or a lot.

Yes, I consider myself to be reasonably fit.  As I mentioned previously, I do a lot of cardiovascular work at the gym 2 or 3 times a week.  But the fact that I can run and use a cross-trainer and a rowing machine does not mean that I can necessarily cycle.  Experience of using the bikes at the gym had proven that I can’t.  Or at least, not very well or for any length of time.  Would these factors detract from my enjoyment of such a trip?  Would I be physically capable of covering the distances involved?  How tricky would I find the terrain?  What about the gradient? and what sort of bikes did the tour operator supply us with?  Were they fit for purpose?

So many questions spun around my head, some of which the information in the tour brochure would answer but many of which I’d never know the answers to until I’d bitten the bullet, booked the trip, and spent a day in the saddle.

The tour was graded as moderate – one step up from leisurely – which meant that there was going to be a certain level of physical fitness, strength and endurance required.  But I liked that – I wanted to push myself to some degree.

The average daily distance covered was 51km (32 miles), which was over 2 thirds of the way to Chester (my University city) from my hometown of Shrewsbury.  Now it was starting to sound a little scary.

The bikes supplied to us were 27 speed road bikes.  Sturdy vehicles with more gears than you can shake a stick at.  This was good.

Should I need it, there was a 24-hour emergency assistance telephone number.  Otherwise each bike came with its own puncture repair kit.  Normally this would be a problem, as I’ve never had to fix a puncture in my life.  However, on this occasion my boyfriend Stu had decided to come along for the ride.  He’s a plumber and electrician, and is generally good at fixing things and staying calm in stressful situations.  However, he’d never really considered himself a cyclist either…

This was going to be interesting!

We considered training in preparation for said holiday.  However, although my BMX is great for nipping to the shops or cycling over to a friend’s house (which is all I’d really ever used it for), it wasn’t really suitable for long cycle rides through the Shropshire countryside.  The Shropshire countryside – for those that don’t know it – is hilly.  My BMX has no gears.  Moreover, the ‘lovely’ English weather in March and April (our trip was in May) was not helping our cause.

So we arrived into Venice 2 months later, having completed one 5 mile cycle ride between us.

The Grand canal viewed from the infamous Rialto bridge

The Grand canal viewed from the infamous Rialto bridge

We’d been to Venice 4 years previously as part of a backpacking trip around northern Italy, but It was lovely to see the city by night.  Getting lost in Venice’s back streets – away from the main canals and tourist spots – is both interesting and fun at the best of times.  But those isolated streets, crumbling buildings and empty canals are somehow much more atmospheric once night has fallen.

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We even found a mask and costume shop open at 10pm.  As I looked around me at the bizarre, beautiful and sometimes macabre adornments, I really felt like Sarah at the masked ball from that scene in Labyrinth.

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And then the cycling began…

We’d collected our bikes, equipment, maps and route notes the evening beforehand, so all we had to do in the morning was wake up relatively early, get in the saddle and go.  And get out of Venice, which turned out to be a lot more difficult than it sounded.

The first part of the journey involved navigating our way from Mestre (the location of our hotel) to the island of Tronchetto.  We referred to our guide for instructions about this route, which is when the following sentence leapt out us:

“Some parts of the road from Mestre to the island of Tronchetto are extremely busy and quite dangerous.”

It gave us the option of taking the train from Mestre to Venezia Santa Lucia.  Sold.  I really didn’t want the first part of my first day of cycling in a country where they drive on the opposite side of the road, to be amongst busy traffic in a potentially dangerous situation.  The problem with our chosen option was that there is a limit to the number of bikes that can be loaded on a train, so we had to wait until 10am for a train that would allow us to load our bikes on board.

When we reached our destination station, finding the landing stage for our ferry transfer from Tronchetto to Lidio San Nicolo was a little more tricky.  The directions in our route notes were making very little sense, and when we finally found (what we thought was) the right place, the surly Italian gentleman told us in broken English that we were not permitted to bring our bikes on board.  I was ready to cry.  It was nearly midday, we were still in Venice and we couldn’t see a way to get out of the city.

Fortunately, after asking for directions, pointing desperately at maps and attempting to utilise the limited Italian vocabulary I possess countless times, we were finally directed to the correct landing stage – which incidentally was not where our route notes (route notes that I was ready to rip to pieces and throw overboard at the earliest opportunity) had advised us it would be.

We travelled the 35 minute journey to Lido San Nicolo only to discover that, having disembarked the ferry, we then had to board a direct motorboat to Punta Sabbioni. Okay, so I was a little apprehensive about the cycling, but after getting lost in Venice and changing transport from ferry to vaporetto with a lot of waiting in between, I couldn’t wait to get on the bike and start exploring a little bit of the Italy I’d come on this trip to see – the Italy away from the noise and the traffic and the crowds.

From Punta Sabbioni we cycled 7km of dirt road along the Sile river towards the small village of Lio Piccolo.  Surrounded by lagoons on each side, the landscape seemed so desolate and remote, and it wasn’t helping matters that we were having to cycle into a 14kph headwind.  Disenchanted by the landscape and disheartened by prior events, I should have been feeling deflated and disillusioned by the whole trip.  But I wasn’t.  I was actually feeling pretty alive.  Realising that I was cycling along a dirt road and into a strong headwind and NOT struggling lifted my spirits.  A lot.

Will we ever make it to Caorle?

That was the question we found ourselves asking before long.  Looking through our route notes as we stopped to catch our breath, it became apparent just how much more ground we had to cover, and we were already a large chunk of the way into the afternoon.

The rest of the day passed as a blur of map checking, clock watching, route studying, and brief glimpses of the scenery rushing past us.  We finally found ourselves crossing the bridge and heading down into the colourful coastal town of Caorle at around 9pm, just as dusk was approaching.

Caorle at dusk

Caorle at dusk

We’d not eaten anything since breakfast (aside from a bag of peanuts we’d bought at a small market we’d found in Laguna del Mort) so all we were concerned about doing in Caorle was finding our hotel, and then locating a nice harbourside restaurant for dinner.

Upon checking our notes it then came to light that our hotel was not actually in Caorle; it was 6km out, at the start of the descent down into Caorle.  Back the way we’d just come and uphill.  I was ready to tear my hair out.  We had spent half the day getting out of Venice, a large chunk of it cycling around some very unspectacular lagoons, and then the rest of it pedaling so hard towards our destination that we didn’t even allow ourselves time to stop and have a look at the towns and villages we were travelling through.  We’d well and truly deserved that harbourside meal I was so desperately looking forward to.  But by the time we’d found our hotel and checked in, the hotel restaurant was no longer serving food, and I really didn’t fancy cycling all the way back into Caorle at almost 10pm – in the dark.  So we had a couple of drinks in the bar, and decided that we’d make up for it at the buffet breakfast the next morning.

Tomorrow was another day.

And tomorrow really was another day.

Bright sunshine and blue skies had replaced the stubborn cloud and strong winds of yesterday.  As we arrived into the centre of Caorle, we got a taster of what was to be the first of many colourful little coastal towns.

Piazza Duomo

Piazza Duomo

At its centre stands the symbol of this town – a cathedral built in 1038 and its coeval cylindrical bell tower.

Piazza Duomo, Caorle

Caorle’s ancient cathedral and bell tower

From Caorle we followed quiet country roads traversing lands rich in water, where dykes and isolated farms mark this wonderful landscape.

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Traditional fishing techniques

Traditional fishing techniques

Now I was starting to enjoy this cycling malarkey.  For the most part I didn’t even think about the physical aspect of pedaling the bicycle; it came as second nature to me whilst I soaked up the sights and sounds that surrounded me.  What’s more, today the directions in our road book seemed much more comprehensive, much less ambiguous, and therefore completely navigable.

We cycled through Boccafossa, Sant Elena, Torre di Mosto, and Concordia Sagittaria, where coincidentally we bumped into 3 dutch couples who were part of the same self-guided tour that we had embarked upon (the orange bicycles gave it away).  After a brief conversation about yesterday’s logistical nightmare, we discovered that they had experienced similar problems getting out of Venice, and that they had only made it to Caorle an hour before we did.  Upon closer inspection of their bikes, we had an idea as to why that was – they had electric bicycles.  Granted, there hadn’t really been a lot of need for switching from pedal to electric power so far, but it’s something I so would have utilised yesterday evening on the climb back up to our hotel.  Even so, I didn’t really see the point in undertaking a cycling holiday if you were going to cheat, as it were.

Landscapes: Caorle to Portogruaro

Landscapes: Caorle to Portogruaro

We arrived into the elegant city of Portogruaro (our final destination for the day) by 3pm, giving us an ample amount of time to explore what became my favourite Italian city on our trip.  However, after seeing the hotel we were to spend the night in, I was almost too flabbergasted to leave.  The Hotel Residence Portus stands boldly on the banks of the river Lemene, smack bang in the centre of Portogruaro and it is AMAZING!  Maybe it’s because I’m used to staying in hostels when I travel, but this 3 star hotel seemed like a 5 star luxury apartment to me, with wooden floors, a flat screen TV, a walk-in shower and enough room to swing a tiger.

Hotel Residence Portus

Hotel Residence Portus

But drag myself away from this new found luxury I must….

So we wandered along the pretty banks of the Lemene, along which several 12th century mills can be found. Weeping Willow trees gracefully overhang the river, and colourful pink and white flowers decorate the little wooden bridge that crosses it.

Portogruaro

Portogruaro

In Portogruaro’s Piazza della Repubblica – dominated by its equestrian statue and gothic town hall dating from 1265 – we grabbed seats at one of the local cafes, ordered a couple of glasses of red wine, and soaked up the last few rays of sunshine.  The town’s major economic activity is its production  of wine, and quite rightly so – this was good stuff.

The next morning it seemed a shame to be leaving such a charming little town, but we had a 68km ride to Palmanova ahead of us, and I absolutely did not want a repeat of day 1; I wanted to get on the road.

A journey towards the eastern star

Today we cycled some pleasantly flat, virtually traffic-free roads through peaceful little villages dotted around the Italian countryside.  We passed countless vineyards, churches decorated with brightly coloured ribbons, foretelling an upcoming festival or celebration, and coffee-drinking locals gathered around tables on the corners of streetside cafes.  In one of the villages we spotted the tiniest toy dog who was yelping incessantly behind an imposing wrought iron gate to which a sign was nailed advertising his ferocity, “Attenti al cane”, that made us giggle as we cycled past.

We continued on, as far as the city of San Michele and the Tagliamento river, whose peaceful course marks the border between Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia.  The Tagliamento river is 170km long and is considered to be the last morphologically intact river in the Alps.  Shortly after a break in the beautiful ancient village of Precenicco, we were directed on to a dirt road (which although it plays havoc with your control over the bike, it does make for a more authentic hands-on cycling experience!), and soon found ourselves following a narrow grassy path alongside woodlands, where flowers like this beautiful little gem can be found…

The wonders of nature

The wonders of nature

This narrow pathway soon gave rise to an unpaved track flanked by more solar panels on either side than I’ve ever been witness to in my life.  We were cycling through a solar farm of enormous proportions!  

The ever-changing scenery is one of the aspects of this trip that I was starting to love, and it’s something that you don’t necessarily find to such a noticeable degree when you’re trekking or backpacking.  Yes I suspect I’m not a very fast cyclist by any stretch of the imagination – particularly when faced with uneven terrain, busy roads or slight gradients – but it’s still a darn sight quicker than walking, which means that you can cover much greater distances in a much smaller amount of time.

This is why – only minutes later – we found ourselves cycling into the picturesque fishing village of Marano Lagunare, watching fishermen haul in their catch, and hoards of seagulls circling noisily above them.  As someone who has a definite fondness for seafood, I was eager to try some of the fish here.  Unfortunately the people of Marano Lagunare had other ideas: the harbourside restaurants and cafes were all very empty and very closed, but the menus still hung tantalisingly inside the windows, torturing the tastebuds of hungry passersby.

The streets of this little sleepy fishing village

The streets of this little sleepy fishing village

When we arrived into the unusual city of Palmanova – famous for  being built as a fortress in the 16th century in the shape of a nine-pointed star – the winds were bending the trees so forcefully that it felt as though there was a storm rolling in.

The next morning, said storm had not only rolled in but it didn’t look like it had any intention of rolling out…

The day the weather forced some tough decisions upon us

We woke to the sound of torrential rain, which was already so heavy it was leaving large puddles in the hotel courtyard.  The rumbles of thunder were growing closer and closer to the bolts of lightning that preceded them – so much so that when we stood in the doorway we half expected one to strike the clock tower in true Back to the Future style.  It was spectacular to watch from a distance, from the shelter and warmth of the hotel lobby, but then the reality hit – we were supposed to be cycling in this.

That fact had obviously dawned on the rest of the group too…one by one (or should that be two by two?  An ark might have been a better form of transport today) the dutch appeared, followed by 2 Mexican couples.  Some of us took up residence on the comfy leather sofas, some of us paced around, some of us watched the rain hammering down on the pavements outside.  Yet the same question was running through all of our minds – could we cycle in this?

I desperately wanted to cycle. Obviously not in the current weather conditions, but I kept trying to convince myself (and everyone else in the room) that the storm would roll through, and the day would turn out to be beautifully sunny (ever the optimist).  I didn’t want to miss out on a whole day worth of sights between Palmanova and Trieste – the medieval village of Strassoldo, the archaeological site of Aquileia, the panoramic coastal roads, and the castles of Duino and Miramare.  I freakin love castles.

But then my conscience (Stu) began pointing out the dangers of cycling in such severe conditions.  When the roads were wet they became slippery; stopping distances (of our own vehicles as well as those of other motorists on the road) were reduced and visibility was impaired.  Not only that, but would I really enjoy exploring villages, archaeological sites and castles in the torrential rain in the middle of a thunderstorm?

The others had already begun organising alternative transport, and I eventually conceded that perhaps that was the right thing to do.  It wasn’t an easy task but after several conversations with our tour operator’s Italian representatives, we eventually secured 3 minivans to transport the 12 of us and our bicycles all the way to Trieste.

An uphill challenge

As we walked out of the hotel the next morning, into the wonderful Piazza Unita d’Italia, the pavements were dry, the sun was shining and there wasn’t a single cloud in the perfectly blue sky.  I was feeling good again – until I read the route notes for today’s leg of the trip:

“Today’s stage is more difficult than the previous stages…when you leave Trieste you will have to face some short but difficult slopes uphill…the rest of the itinerary goes on a slightly hilly territory, and the last 2km to reach Piran are uphill.”

How many times did I just read the words ‘hill’ and ‘difficult’?  True enough, once we’d negotiated the traffic on the busy roads that lead us out of Trieste, the road started climbing – gently at first, but still consistently climbing.  Yes, it was taking it out of my legs a little but I was doing ok.  I was cycling uphill without a significant amount of effort.  Maybe  I could be a cyclist after all…

But then the road started heading downhill quite dramatically, which was great apart from the fact that – just as night inadvertently follows day – a downhill is always followed by…yep, you’ve guessed it!  Now for those of you who don’t know me, I can be incredibly stubborn, independent, and possess a very tenacious sense of determination when I want to.  This was an occasion when I wanted to.  I’d done so well up until now that I wasn’t going to let a silly little hill get the better of me.  I had 27 gears after all.

So I sped down the hill as fast as I could safely manage, in the hope that I’d gain enough momentum to be able to climb a reasonable distance uphill before I’d need to start pedaling.  That was before I saw the hill.  This wasn’t a silly little hill; this was a freakin enormous hill.  So I pedaled, and the more I pedaled the harder the wheels became to turn, and the harder the wheels became to turn, the more likely the bike was to stop – causing me to fall off into the road.  Or worse still – causing me and the bike to roll backwards downhill.  So  I dropped down a gear – better.  I dropped down another gear, and another.  True, the more gears I dropped down the easier it became, but it got to the point where I felt like I was on one of those bikes at my gym – pedaling so hard yet not covering any distance.  I contemplated the fact that I would have been better off walking, and I would.  But I couldn’t let this hill beat me, no matter how long it took.

The dutch had sailed past me on their electric bicycles a long while ago.  Even Stu had overtaken me, bemused and mildly tickled by the determined look on my face, my bright red cheeks, the beads of sweat running down my forehead, and the fact that I was panting furiously yet didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  “Why don’t you notch it up a gear?” he suggested breathlessly.  He obviously wasn’t finding this a walk in the park either.  So I did, and I’ve no idea how, but I made it up that hill – and I felt so damn good at the end of it.

We made it over the border too, which was also a miracle considering the unusual nature of the border crossing.  The route we were directed to take involved cycling up a dirt road, which then became so rocky and uneven that we had to dismount and push our bikes.  The path then wove its way between olive trees, and we were forced to adopt a single file approach in order to get through .  We were actually starting to wonder whether we’d taken a wrong turn, but all the landmarks we’d passed – the end of the wooden fence, the olive trees – seemed to tally with our instructions.

The remnants of the path gradually trickled away beneath our feet and gave way to an area of overgrown shrubbery, nettles and a mass of densely planted trees.  We sent one of the game dutch folk out into the undergrowth to investigate, and sure enough – there was the asphalt road we were looking for on the other side.  No government officials, no passport control; just a scramble through some vegetation and that was it.  That was our border crossing.  Welcome to Slovenia!

Isola, Slovenia

Isola, Slovenia

All the best things come in small packages

Slovenia’s coastline was one of them.  I’d never been to Slovenia before, but within minutes I loved this country.  I loved how much more cyclist friendly it was compared to Italy…miles upon miles of well marked and well maintained cycle paths that took us through some beautiful countryside and into the pretty coastal towns of Koper, Isola and Piran.  I especially loved Piran.

Piran became all the more special for me because it felt like a culmination of everything that had come before it.  The rural landscapes, glistening seas, red-tiled roofs, almond trees and salt beds at Strugnano were just the beginning.

Slovenia

Slovenia1

Once we’d passed these the road began to climb again as we neared Piran, signalling the start of the 2km uphill run. I knew this was coming; I’d been forewarned when I read the road notes before we set off earlier this morning, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much such a long stretch of uphill takes it out of you.  I’d had no problems with sore legs or muscles so far on the trip; all I’d suffered with was saddle-sore (skin abrasion on your bum due to spending long and continuous amounts of time in the saddle) – and God only knows how much worse that would be if I hadn’t invested in some good padded cycling shorts beforehand!  However, part the way up this tough uphill section, my right knee became really painful.  At first it was just a dull ache, but then it developed into a shooting pain every time I put pressure on that leg in order to turn the pedal.  Again, being the stubborn madam that I am, I refused to give up, and ended up pretty much cycling the rest of the way in a blur of pain and determination.  So when I reached the top, and was confronted with this view down into Piran, it had somehow made all that pain and effort worthwhile.

Looking down on to Piran after an excruciatingly painful 2km uphill cycle

Looking down on to Piran after an excruciatingly painful 2km uphill cycle

As we cruised down into Piran, I properly fell in love with this place.  Piran is an old, fascinating and well-preserved Mediterranean city situated at the tip of the peninsula on the Gulf of Piran.  It gets its name from the Greek word for fires, ‘pyr’, referring to the fires lit at the very tip of the peninsula , to guide ships to the port at (what is now) Koper.  Its old town (centred around Tartinijev Trg) is a gem of Venetian Gothic architecture and alleyways, and tempting seafood restaurants.

Piran, as viewed from the city walls

Piran, as viewed from the city walls

The harbour at Piran

The harbour at Piran

I desperately wished that we’d have been stopping the night in Piran, but as my fruitless quest for some tempting seafood continued, so too did we – on to Portoroz.

Portoroz is a place that definitely does not belong in Slovenia; its presence on Slovenia’s tiny coastline is so out of place amongst the beauty of Koper, Isola and Piran.  For that reason I don’t wish to say much about it, apart from the fact that it’s much like your stereotypical beach resort, and I wouldn’t recommend staying there.  Why Exodus decided we should – when picturesque Piran is virtually on the doorstep – is beyond my comprehension.

The final stretch

Despite hobbling a little in an attempt to avoid putting too much pressure on my knee, walking around in Portoroz the night before hadn’t been too much of an effort.  When I woke up the next morning, I appeared to be able to walk properly without any pain or twinges.  But the real test would be how I would fare in the saddle.  Was my knee up to 52km of cycling?  What’s more, was my knee up to another 2km stretch uphill, just beyond the Croatian border?

So far, so good.  The first leg of the journey was on some lovely flat roads alongside a lagoon.

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We then passed the Secovlje salt mines (part of a fascinating nature park included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list), and followed the old Parenzana railway as far as the border.  This border crossing was more as I expected border crossings to be.  Not only did we have to show our passports twice – once to the Slovenian border officials and once to the Croatian border officials – but we also had to meet a Girolibero official there at 9:30am to see our own backpacks through.

My knee didn’t cope too well with the hill and I must confess that I did have to get off and walk my bike for the final stretch of it, but in my defence I made a pretty valiant effort nonetheless.  The hill was Croatia’s way of introducing us to its territory of vast forests, caves, and hillside villages.  The first of which was Buje, located at the top of a hill and famous for its vintage olive oil and excellent wines.  The centre of the village is full of winding alleys and traditional taverns, and there are some stunning views across the surrounding countryside.

Buje

Upon leaving Buje we continued on through Croatia’s wine-growing regions, where Stu made a small detour…

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Our next stop was the colourful little coastal town of Novigrad, awash with brightly painted buildings, inviting cafes, and an attractive little harbour.

Novigrad

As we cycled back inland, we passed  countless poppy fields and olive groves. By this point we were making pretty good time, so we decided that we deserved a stop at the underground world of Jama Baredine.  A 300m long path runs through the cave up to 60 metres below the ground, and into 5 beautifully decorated chambers.  At the end is an underground lake where we would hopefully catch a glimpse of the cave olm (Proteus anguinus Laurenti), a blind amphibian endemic to the subterranean waters of caves in the Karst region of central and south-eastern Europe.  We arrived at the caves just in time for the last tour of the day.  Coincidentally this seemed to be the best time of day to visit these caves as we were joined by just 4 other people on our 40 minute tour.  Not only was I impressed with the guide, but also with the quality and detail of the curiously shaped stalagmites and stalactites (all of which we were permitted to photograph).

Stalactites

Moreover we got our sighting of the olm, an unusual and fascinating little creature that can apparently survive for up to 10 years without food!

The cave olm, photographed with the help of our guide and his torch!

The cave olm, photographed with the help of our guide and his torch!

I don’t know why but I’d not really expected much from Porec, assuming it was just a final port of call from where we could hop on a boat back to Venice.  So when we cycled into this charming, historic, and beautifully compact harbourside town I was genuinely – but pleasantly – surprised.  Porec is almost 2000 years old, and there are still remnants of old Roman structures scattered around the place, along with Roman houses, Gothic-Venetian mansions, and the Euphrasius Basilica – dating from the 5th century.

Porec

Seats from the town’s numerous cafes and restaurants spill out on to its attractive paved streets, and stalls selling honey, olive oil, wine, truffles, and lavender line the harbour front. This was a perfect location for a comparably enjoyable end to our 7-day cycling trip, which I’d found relaxing, exciting, challenging, and rewarding – in equal measures.  Whilst on one hand it was a holiday – an opportunity to see a myriad of ever-changing landscapes – it was also a great physical accomplishment for me.  The combination of these two factors meant that it was a truly memorable experience, and one that I would happily repeat.

So if you’ve not considered a cycling holiday before, I hope this article has helped to alter your perspective a little.  You may even enjoy the experience.  I certainly never expected to 😉

Footnotes

The cycling holiday I undertook was Cycle the Adriatic: Venice to Porec, run by Exodus. The general quality of the hotels used was excellent and mostly central to the town (with the exception of Caorle) and the buffet breakfasts were enough to fill us up for the majority of the day.  The 27-speed bikes were of excellent quality and made the ride smooth and hassle-free. The waterproof panniers supplied were spacious and easy to attach and detach, and the waterproof box on the front of the bike was exactly the right size for my camera.  The routes chosen generally avoided main roads, which is great if you’re not a confident cyclist and also meant that you experienced the real heart and culture of each country, travelling on country roads through quaint little villages and pretty coastal towns.  My only negative comment is that the directions given were sometimes vague and ambiguous, resulting in us covering a vastly increased distance on the first day, not reaching our destination until 10pm, and not having any time to stop at any of the towns/villages on route.  We did get used to the way they were written and learned to interpret them accordingly as the trip went on, but there were still times we resorted to using a map and picking our own route to the next place named on our itinerary!

All views and opinions expressed within the article are wholly my own.

All photographs used are also my own.

Slovenia : The beauty of the open road

I’d decided a long time ago that I wanted to travel to Slovenia…from seeing my parents’ innumerable photographs of beautiful lake Bled, to flicking through adventure travel brochures and being drawn to the challenging but equally visually rewarding treks up into the dramatic Julian Alps, to reading blog posts recounting the charm of the country’s tiny capital, Ljubljana.

I had a week’s leave booked at work in September, and although I should sensibly have been saving my money in preparation for my imminent redundancy at the end of October, the draw of Slovenia, of another new adventure to write about on this blog, and of new landscapes, cityscapes, castles, lakes, and mountains to photograph was far too overwhelming to ignore.

I knew I’d have to fly into Ljubljana, and it was a city I was very much looking forward to exploring.  I love eastern European capitals; I love how manageable they are to explore, I love the architecture and quirkiness  – Prague is one of my favourite cities, and I also loved Dubrovnik, Bratislava and Krakow, and would happily return to any one of them.

Prague, Bratislava, and Krakow

Prague, Bratislava, and Krakow

 

So Ljubljana was on the list.

And Bled.  Bled looked like the kind of place that fairytales were made of.   With its emerald-green lake, picture-postcard church on an islet, and medieval castle perched high upon a rocky crag, this was somewhere I just had to see for myself.

I started to build an itinerary, and as I did I studied maps, searched forums, and perused travel blogs that had been written about the country.  I began to realise just how small Slovenia is, and that sparked the adventurer in me.  I wondered how much more of the country we could see in a week.  From what I could gather, the public transport links were good (although perhaps not as regular as during the summer months), and travel on local buses and trains was relatively cheap – as were the hostels we could stay at in between.  However, many of Slovenia’s roads, particularly those which wind their way up into the mountains – to the most scenic areas of the country – were not roads I really fancied travelling on by bus.

But then I got embroiled in a conversation with a couple of friends of mine about the hospitality of the locals during their 2 week tour around Croatia – by car.  That was it: we would hire a car and take a roadtrip around Slovenia.  Not only that: realising Ljubljana’s proximity to Zagreb, and learning that the Plitvice lakes in Croatia can easily be visited on a day trip from Zagreb, I tagged an extra few days on to my week off, and decided that the road trip would also include a crossing into Croatia – so that I could tick off another place that’s been on my bucket list for some time.

Let the adventure begin.

The last time I’d done a road trip was back in 2005, when a few friends and I hired a campervan to travel around the south island of New Zealand, so – 8 years later – I was more than ready for another one.

The beauty of having a car is the freedom it gives you.  You don’t have to schedule your day around train or bus timetables, you don’t have to carry your backpack halfway across town to said bus or train stations, you’re not restricted to a set route or having to travel at set times, and there are places you can travel to that simply aren’t on bus or train routes.  It’s a similar freedom to the kind you have when you’re on a bicycle (and which I experienced when I cycled the Adriatic coast from Venice to Porec with Exodus), but you can travel greater distances and in most weather conditions, and if money starts to get tight or you simply cannot find anywhere to lay your head that night, you can always sleep in the car (thankfully not something we needed to do, and I suspect blankets would have been required if we did!)

Before picking up the car we gave ourselves a full day to explore Slovenia’s capital.  Ljubljana is a pretty small city with a population of only 300,000 so everything is easily navigable on foot. It sits inside the loop of the Ljubljanica river and is therefore dominated by bridges and attractive riverside cafes. I loved wandering around its cobbled streets, admiring its colourful buildings and inquisitively studying its curious and fascinating art.

Ljubljana's colourful architecture and riverside cafes

Ljubljana’s colourful architecture and riverside cafes

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Bizarre and fascinating artwork

We took a stroll up to the castle, watched a wonderful animated film about its history (narrated by a dragon), marvelled at the hypnotic mystery of a contemporary light installation on display there, witnessed a local gentleman create some wonderful gifts utilising the art of calligraphy, and admired the views of the city down below. To get a view of both the city and its castle, we headed over to Nebotičnik – Ljubljana’s tallest skyscraper.

There also seems to be a busy but fairly low-key nightlife here…laid back, friendly establishments where you arrive for one drink and stay for three. We also ate some fantastic food at Pri Škofu, tucked down a little side street in tranquil Krakovo.

At the Hertz office in downtown Ljubljana, we were introduced to the vehicle that was to get us around Slovenia and into Croatia safely and surprisingly cheaply for the next 9 days – a little white Volkswagen Up, which appeared almost new and had comparable mileage on its clock. I was impressed by how easily we managed to get ourselves out of Ljubljana and on the road to Kamnik – until we realised that we were actually on the back road to Kamnik, so our planned 30 minute journey took a lot, lot longer. On the plus side though, we drove through some lovely little villages, and had our first views of rural Slovenia.

Mali Grad and the stunning views across Kamnik

Mali Grad and the stunning views across Kamnik

Kamnik is a picturesque medieval town with its own little castle (Mali Grad). A short climb up to it rewarded us with some spectacular views across Kamnik and its surrounding countryside. We spotted a couple of lizards, one of which Stu managed to catch, and the cute little fella wandered all along his back and over his shoulders and down his arms, and finally posed for a photograph perched on the tips of his fingers. Aww…

How brave was this little fella?

How brave was this little fella?

Now we couldn’t come to Kamnik without exploring the alpine pastureland of nearby Velika Planina, made all the more possible by the fact that we had a car in which to do this. In between the trees, there were beautiful views of pristine fields scattered with traditional shepherds huts.

Velika Planina

Velika Planina

Whilst we drove these roads for a couple of hours, I’m not sure we covered a very large amount of Velika Planina, as many of the roads turn into tracks, which consequently turn into dead ends, and those that don’t weave their way all around the other side of the mountain, and therefore towards a very long route back to Ljubljana. Besides, our road trip around Slovenia had only just begun, and there were many more beautiful places waiting to be discovered…

The precariously spectacular journey from Ljubljana to Bled

As we weren’t pushed for time (Bled is only 57km from Ljubljana), we decided to take the scenic route, following the Sora river through Skofja Loka and Zelezniki, and then on through Kropa and Radovljica, and I’m so glad we did.  Whether it was because it was our first truly sunny day here, or because this was our first taste of driving the open road with a new and exciting destination to look forward to at the end of it, or because of the pure adrenalin running through my veins as we drove along heart-stopping narrow roads that clung to the edge of the hillside, I will always remember this journey as having some of the most breathtaking scenery in Slovenia.

We made a brief stop at Skofja Loka, one of the oldest settlements in Slovenia.  Its evocative old town has been protected as a historical monument since 1987. It’s an attractive little place to have a brief wander around, stop for coffee, and a climb up to its castle (which is exactly what we did) but I understand there are also many walking trails covering the surrounding hills.

Skofja Loka's streets and castle

Skofja Loka’s streets and castle

As we passed Zelezniki, the roads really started to narrow as we climbed higher and higher up into the hills…

Looking down on to the villages we'd left behind

Looking down on to the villages we’d left behind

Just before dropping down into the pretty little hillside village of Kropa, we had to park up, get out and stop for 5 minutes – we’d spotted a view which was worthy alone of the heart-stopping moments that came before it.   A little wooden hut sat opposite a long stretch of chopped logs, piled up for the winter. As I stood on the corner of the road, at the end of the log pile, in front of me lay the view we’d stopped for : a dramatic ridge in the hillside, at the end of which sat a tiny little white church, contrasting dramatically with the huge expanse of green it was perched upon. In the background were the snow-capped peaks of the Julian Alps, and above, the smattering of clouds in the clear blue sky created shadows on the land down below them.

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Kropa itself is a former forging village, and the only one in Slovenia where the custom still lives on. Apparently artisans can be seen clanging away in the workshop on the village’s single street ‘Kropa.’ Unfortunately I only found this information out, after having already driven through this charming, remote town, complete with its own beautiful, babbling mountain stream running through it.

Our final stop was Radovljica, a charming town full of historic buildings. There’s also some incredible views from the old town, of the Alps, including Triglav, and of the roads we’d travelled earlier that afternoon.

Radovljica's streets and views from its old town

Radovljica’s streets and views from its old town

 

Beautiful Bled – it’s all about perspective

We drove into Bled along one of it’s busiest and most urbanised roads, full of large hotels and trendy bars, and immediately I was deeply underwhelmed.  I expected a small village containing traditional buildings sympathetic to the landscape on which they were located.  The following morning, as we set out on a 6km walk around the circumference of its lake, I was still feeling a little twinge of disappointment.  I wasn’t seeing the beauty of the place that I’d convinced myself I would find.  Fortunately, Bled is somewhere that grows on you the more of it you see, and the more time you spend soaking up  the vast array of available perspectives of the town and its surroundings – all of which improve tenfold with a little glimmer of sunshine.

Bled island and castle

Bled island and castle

Not only does the 6km walk around the lake allow you to properly familiarise yourself with the town, but it also gives you a constantly changing perspective of it.  Rowing a little wooden boat out to its island gives you another, and then there is the walk up to its castle, and the hikes up through forested hills to 2 of its highest peaks, Osojnica and Ojstrica.

Ojstrica viewpoint

Ojstrica viewpoint

It didn’t take long for Bled’s charm and appeal to reveal itself to me…at once tranquil and relaxing, it’s also a place that inspires energy and adventure.

26km south west of Bled is Slovenia’s second lake, lake Bohinj.  It sees far fewer tourists than Bled because it doesn’t have the same picturesque, fairy-tale appeal.  However, with the low-lying cloud, and mountains rising sharply from the lake’s surface, it somehow felt more dramatic, atmospheric, and a had an aura of curious ominousity.

Bohinj

As we drove the beautiful open roads through Kranjska Gora, Slovenia’s largest ski resort, the grass covered mountains – complete with chair lifts standing stationery up to the summit – seemed strangely amiss without the soft white covering of snow upon them.

Negotiating the hairpin turns of the Vršič pass

From Kranjska Gora, the road climbed steadily, twisting its way through the dramatic Julian Alps.  Our nimble little car coped effortlessly with over 50 of these hairpin turns, and there were plenty of points on the road where we were able to pull over to photograph the spectacular views that passed us with every bend we took.

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We finally arrived in Kobarid, a charming little town in the Soca river valley complete with its very own WW1 150mm Krupp howitzer! We found a lovely place to stay in the centre, with German-speaking owners (confused me somewhat as Kobarid is much closer to the Italian border!) and a fridge and hob in a cupboard!  We didn’t use either of them because we were told it was cheaper to eat out in Kobarid, so we went – on what seemed for a long time to be a wild goose chase – in search of a restaurant that was recommended for its local specialities. We eventually found it, around 2km out of Kobarid, at the end of a narrow unlit road, in the middle of a campsite!

The next morning we really started to recognise the beauty of the place we’d decided to lay our heads the previous evening. We drove back out to the location of the restaurant, which in daylight we could appreciate tenfold. The Soča river and its stunning aquamarine waters (which we’d only caught glimpses of the day beforehand) ran right through this town. We parked the car and followed a short pathway down to the rivers edge and found a precariously placed wooden bridge crossing it. Here we were able to get some incredible photos of the rich, magical colour of the waters down below us.

Kobarid

We followed the Soča river through the towns of Tolmin and Kanal, the latter of which holds an annual bridge diving competition every August.  Inviting as the water looked, plunging 17 metres head first into it was not an activity I fancied entertaining!  However I can imagine being a spectator at such an event must be quite a thrill.

Touched by the kindness of strangers

From river valleys, we headed south towards the Vipava valley, Slovenia’s wine-growing region.  The roads here are lined with local vineyards, one of which we stopped at to take some photos of the hundreds upon thousands of sun-ripened grapes growing on the vine. Engrossed in photo-taking we didn’t see the owner approaching with his push bike.  Armed with little more language than the words for “hello”, “thank you” and “2 dark lasko please”, we were a little concerned how we were going to apologise to this gentleman for trespassing on his land and photographing his crops!  Knowing that a smile can go a long way, I turned around and smiled, said hello, and proceeded to compliment him on his grapes – in English!  He clearly understood nothing of what I said but chattered away in Slovenian – also with a smile on his face.  This was good news I thought; at least he wasn’t about to call the police. Far from it – what he actually did was cut a huge amount of grapes (carefully ensuring he chose a variety of types and colours) off his vine and gave them to us. I was so stunned by his kindness in light of our apparent disrespect for his property that I opened my purse and held out a 5 euro note, which he refused to take. So we left, repeatedly thanking him, and headed off in the direction of Vipava, munching some of the sweetest grapes I’ve ever tasted and throwing the seeds carelessly out the window.

Vipava Valley grapes

Vipava Valley grapes

In the town of Vipava, we stumbled upon a wine tasting house where we were able to sample some delicious Merlots, possibly made from some of the same grapes we’d consumed only minutes beforehand. Bearing in mind that Slovenia is not commonly known for its wine, I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by the quality. Consequently we bought 3 bottles, and then contemplated exactly how we were going to fit them into our – already relatively full – backpack.

Discovering a realm of castles and caves

The region of Notranjska is peppered with castles and caves, and Predjama Grad combines both of these: it’s a castle built into the mouth of a cavern halfway up a 123m cliff.  It’s the reason I wanted to come to this area of Slovenia, and as you approach it, it’s very clear to see why Predjama Grad has been described as one of the world’s most dramatic castles.  Unusual – and possibly unique – in its construction, it looks simply unconquerable. 

Predjama Grad

Predjama Grad

Whilst Predjama Grad was mine, the caves at Postojna and Skocjan were Stu’s reason for wanting to visit this part of Slovenia.  However when we arrived here at around 4pm, we realised that our plans to see the castle and both sets of caves today had been wildly optimistic and that we needed to find somewhere close by to rest our heads this evening. We drove into Postojna (the location of one of the sets of caves), hoping to find a lovely little town like all the others we’d passed through, but when we arrived we were very disillusioned. It was characterless and unappealing, so we continued on our way.

We decided to head out in the direction of the Skocjan caves, having read about several charming little traditional farmhouses located in the villages surrounding the caves. Driving up through the villages of Matavun, Skocjan, and Betanja, our excitement grew at the prospect of staying somewhere so remote yet so beautiful – in an area surrounded by Karst landscapes, old stone churches and red-tiled roofs. Unfortunately said farmhouses were full so we ended up in a nondescript little town called Divača, drinking at its only pub, with some rather rowdy locals…and an alien.

Determined to avoid being caught up in a large group of other tourists, we arrived at the Skocjan caves at around 9am the following morning.  Perfect we thought.  It was low season, we were the first people there; we may even get our own private tour of this immense network of underground caves.  We couldn’t have been more wrong.  So, along with around 50 Chinese tourists (who all turned up 5 minutes after we’d arrived), approximately the same number of Slovenian tourists, on top of every nationality in between, we were herded around the caves in a fashion akin to my worst nightmare whilst travelling.

Nonetheless, adamant that I was not going to let this one experience tarnish what had been an amazing trip so far, I did my best to see past my immediate surroundings (which were noisy, claustrophobic and restricting) and towards the purpose of my visit – to witness one of the largest underground canyons in the world.  And it was impressive: the Skocjan cave network is over 6km in length and up to 170m below ground.  It is a natural phenomena of global significance, ranking alongside the Grand Canyon, Great Barrier Reef, Galapagos Islands, and Mount Everest.  Clinging to the barriers along the slippery narrow pathways of the epic Murmuring Cave, you start to understand why.  The Reka river (‘Reka’ means ‘river’ in Slovenia, hence the River river!) enters the caves in a gorge below the village of Skocjan, and as you cross the Cerkevnik Bridge you can see it flowing through some 45 metres below you.

Whilst I’d love to share some photographs with you, of mighty stalagmites, curled wind-blown stalactites,  narrow spot-lit walkways hugging the cave walls, bats circling the cave roof high above my head, and the humbling size of this enormous underground network, photography was unfortunately not permitted anywhere inside the caves.  Ordinarily I would not understand the need for such a rule, but here – where the walkways are tight, slippery, metres above ground, and precarious in places – the distraction of taking a photograph may tip you over the edge.  Literally.

the Skocjan caves viewed from the village of the same name

the Skocjan caves viewed from the village of the same name

 

The mission to make it to Zagreb before nightfall

We’d had to wait until 10am for a 2-hour ‘guided tour’ around the Skocjan caves, so if we were to make it to Zagreb (avoiding the toll roads) before nightfall, visiting the Postojna caves as well was not an option.  So we set off along the back roads, past lake Cerknica and towards the Krka river valley, through a region where several road signs alerted us to the fact that we were entering bear territory.  As many as 500 brown bears are believed to live amid Kocevski Rog’s 200 hectares, and as we drove along roads flanked by tall pine trees in dense forests, a bear sighting certainly wouldn’t have seemed out of place.  On this occasion, a bear sighting escaped us (fortunately or unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure!), but we did spot a wild deer, standing alone in a nearby field.

By the time we drove through Ribnica, we were desperately in need of a coffee and a bite to eat.  However, aside from major tourist attractions, there appeared to be a definite absence of life in Slovenia on a Sunday afternoon.  Finally we stumbled upon a lovely little sunny eatery in Lašče, popular with the bikers due to the road of sweeping bends upon which it sat. Here we translated the whole menu using Google Translate and then discovered they actually had an English one available upon request!

Despite crossing the border relatively easily and in daylight, a combination of not having a detailed road Atlas (or really much of a road Atlas at all!) for Croatia, and trying desperately to stay on the A roads (thus avoiding the motorway tolls) we subsequently got very lost in Samobor.  Consequently, we arrived into Zagreb in total darkness, and proceeded to drive around its one-way system in increasingly frustrating circles for what seemed like hours.

Having utilised the extremely intermittent non-secure wi-fi connection I’d found at Lašče earlier to browse the Hostelbookers website, we eventually landed a totally awesome hostel right on the edge of Zagreb’s old town, complete with on-site parking and its own bar.

Plitvice Lakes – discover the poet within you

If you don’t arrive here a poet, you’ll certainly leave with poetic musings about the place running descriptively through your thoughts.  The simple beauty of the place is very difficult to put into words, yet you’ll leave desperately wanting to do so.

There are various different trails around the lakes, depending on the length of time you want to walk for.  Although there is the odd climb up to a waterfall or into a cave, a high level of fitness is certainly not required – just plenty of fluids and enough space on your camera’s memory card.

The park is landscaped beautifully, with thoughtfully created wooden walkways crossing crystal clear blue-green waters full of fish.

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Autumnal colours adorn the trees, many of which overhang the lake and reflect beautifully upon its surface.

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Petrified trees lie abandoned in the waters, maintaining a strange sense of chilling beauty.

IMG_6128As we wandered we were continually met with the sounds of running water. Whether it be flowing calmly over rocky escarpments or tumbling down from a rocky ledge above us, it was lovely to hear the anticipation of what nature had waiting for us around the corner.

Plitvice

We spent around 6 hours at the Plitvice lakes. At 16 euros for a ticket it’s not really worth spending any less than that…besides, why would you want to?  This place is like a little piece of heaven away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and I’m so glad I made the effort to finally come here.

Zagreb – A whistlestop tour

Zagreb – Croatia’s capital city.  Sadly the only reason I was here on this occasion was as a stopover before and after our trip to the Plitvice lakes.  Walking around the city on the final morning of our trip, I realised just how much of a shame that was.

Zagreb has a lower and upper town.  The upper town (Gornji Grad), reached by a short funicular ride or a series of steps, is the old part of the city, with it’s colourful architecture, cobbled streets, and vibrant cafe culture.

St. Mark's Church

St. Mark’s Church

Wandering around Zagreb’s old town on a gorgeously sunny morning, surrounded by bright mosaics, quirky street art, surreal water features and beautifully crafted street signs, I decided that this is definitely a city I’d like to come back to.

Zagreb

Just hours later as we were driving up the motorway back to Ljubljana – with the window wound down, the sun blazing in, and the scenery rushing past me – I reflected upon our Slovenian road trip.  I’d seen so much more of this country than I’d ever dreamed possible in 9 days.  From lakes to mountains, castles and caves, we’d driven along open roads and through hair-pin bends, witnessed awe-inspiring views and stunning, colourful architecture, we basked in the sunshine, dodged the rain and got woken by thunder, we experienced touching hospitality, we cooked, we ate, we tasted local wine….

Yes, I’ve written fondly about the vast array of cities, towns and villages that we found ourselves laying our hats for a few days or simply passing through, and I’d definitely recommend visiting every single one of them.  But the beauty of having a car is that you don’t have to.

You have the freedom to build your own adventure.  Just like I did.

Footnotes

  • We hired our car with Hertz. We were able to pick it up from a downtown location in Ljubljana and drop it off at the airport at no additional cost.  There was also no additional cost for crossing the border into Slovenia.  The insurance options were a lot clearer than some of the other popular hire car companies with whom we enquired.  However do watch out for the additional charge for using the toll roads (which you have to pay even if you don’t use them and which was not explained to us – hence why we avoided using them as much as we did)  The car we were given fitted our requirements perfectly and was super fuel efficient (we only filled up twice during our trip).  Our only minor complaint was that it was a little twitchy at higher speeds – but then we are used to a Land Rover back home!
  • The apartments/pensions/hostels we stayed at are as follows: Sunny Central Apartment (Ljubljana) Ace of Spades hostel (Bled) Apartma-Ra (Kobarid) Gostilna Malovec (Divača) Chillout Hostel (Zagreb)

If you would like any more advice or information about any of these or equally about any other detail mentioned in this blog, then please drop me a line.  I’d be happy to be of assistance 🙂

All views and opinions expressed within this post are purely my own.

All photographs used are also my own.

Barcelona, you little charmer…

I returned to Barcelona last week after 9 years.  It’s amazing how many technological advancements there have been in that time.  9 years ago there was no Facebook (at least, not in my world) and I didn’t have a digital camera, so I only had a smattering of mediocre quality photographs with which to awaken my memories of this Catalonian city.  I recalled the Gaudi-designed architecture – the immense and imposing Sagrada Familia – and the abundance of art,  but little more visual pictures remained in my head.   Barcelona had also been one of the places I’d visited with an ex-boyfriend of mine, probably the first person I truly loved, and with whom I have memories of a time in my life that is still very dear to me.

So, I returned to Barcelona with a mix of trepidation, curiosity, and excitement.  Excited to be returning to a place I have fond memories of, but trepidant due to the nature of those memories and the person they relate to, and also curious to discover what I remembered of the city, as well as what I didn’t remember, and parts that I hadn’t yet explored.

I arrived in Barcelona on a balmy summer evening at the end of June and found my way to the city centre via train, which – in comparison to the airport bus – is a more pleasant, authentic – and fractionally cheaper – way of making the short 17km journey.    Now don’t get me wrong, I can’t really complain about the £16 a night charge for a bed in a nice enough dorm room, in a city that’s expensive even by British standards.  However, I did feel that the location of our first hostel – just on the cusp of the Esquerra de L’Eixample district near to the University, was a little out on a limb, and the staff there seemed more concerned about making sure we came to their nightly party (read: a large bowl of free Sangria for guests to help themselves to) than they were about offering us a map or any information about their city.  That said, free alcohol is always a great way to break down those social barriers, so probably not a bad idea in itself; it just felt a little impersonal.  Coupled with the disorientation you always tend to feel when arriving at a new or unfamiliar destination, the fact that I got a little more drunk than I’d intended to (I blame the absinthe!), got separated from my boyfriend, and later learned that he’d been victim to a couple of pick-pocketers during his stumble home, I have to admit that at first, it was a bit of an ambivalent love affair I had for the city.

So how did Barcelona manage to charm me?

With its tranquil green spaces…

On our first full day in the city, through the haze of an absinthe hangover, we decided to explore the verdant park area of Montjuic.  It is possible to walk up from Placa d’Espanya, although I understand it’s a pretty steep climb, and one that we didn’t fancy doing in the heat of the (almost) midday sun, so we caught the funicular from Paral-el metro station.  Montjuic is a beautifully serene, shaded area, and is home to the Fundacio Joan Miro (a permanent exhibition of the work of Catalan artist Joan Miro), the Botanical Garden (which is laid out on terraced slopes and offers some superb views of the city), and the Castle.  If you’re into your surrealist, abstract art then you’ll love the Joan Miro exhibition.  The Mercury Fountain is amazing and even the building itself is a work of art.   Wandering around this area, I felt a million miles away from city life, and that’s the beauty of Barcelona’s green spaces…like Parc de la Ciutadella and Parc Guell – so close to the city, yet so far removed.

Joan Miro's wonderfully abstract art

Joan Miro’s wonderfully abstract art

Beautiful purple lower in Barcelona's Botanical Garden

Beautiful wild artichokes in Barcelona’s Botanical Garden

With its wonderful food…

Whether it be the colourful markets of La Boqueria (the highlight of busy thoroughfare Las Ramblas) or Santa Caterina (north of the Born area), or the busy tapas bars, or the cosy little restaurants tucked away down little side streets in Barcelona’s old town, the city’s vast array of culinary offerings will not disappoint.

Mercat de la Boqueria

Mercat de la Boqueria

So much fruit...I was in heaven

So much fruit…I was in heaven

There’s something for every budget too, and it’s not just traditional Catalan or Spanish fare on offer – although it’s almost unethical to leave Barcelona without sampling some of the local favourites.    Although not specifically Catalan eateries, the following are definitely worthy of a mention…

1. La Cereria, Baixada de Sant Miquel 5, Barri Gotic 

This is one of those places you walk into, and you instantly know that they’re going to be serving some of the tastiest organic, vegetarian cuisine in Barcelona.  It’s got an arty, rustic, bohemian feel to the place, and is full of unusual instruments and bright colours.  The portion sizes are very generous, making this little gem very good value for money.  Order from their extensive menu of imaginative pizzas, salads, crepes, as well as some artisan beers, exotic teas and tasty riojas.

One of La Cereria's starters...hummus, olive paste, guacamole, and tzatzki, accompanied by a lovely rioja :-)

One of La Cereria’s starters…hummus, olive paste, guacamole, and tzatzki, accompanied by homemade bread, stuffed vine leaves, crudities, and a lovely rioja 🙂

2. El Salon, L’Hostal d’en Sol 6-8, Barri Gotic

It’s easy to fall for the charms of cosy, candlelit El Salon, and its intimate, understated decor belies the outstanding quality of the food they serve there.  There’s a plethora of inventive salads, and a wide variety of fish dishes.  I ordered oriental style tuna steak with a soy and ginger sauce, and it was cooked perfectly!  There’s also a lovely little terrace in the nearby square, although this seems to fill up first so get there early if you want to dine al fresco.  The food here isn’t cheap but it’s certainly worth it.

3. Tapas bars Vaso de Oro (Carrer Balboa 6, Barceloneta) and Champagneria (Carrer de la Reina Cristina 7, Barceloneta)

Two very different tapas bars but both are great little finds in their own right.  Vaso de Oro may be in all the guidebooks but it still retains it’s traditional Spanish charm.  Sit along the bar and order from their extensive tapas menu, watch the food being prepared in front of you, and wash it all down with one of their own light or dark beers.  We ordered Manchego (one of my favourite cheeses) – served with roasted and salted almonds, and spicy tuna.  Service is efficient, the portion sizes are generous, and the food is deliciosa!

Champagneria on the other hand, is more of an experience in itself rather than a dining establishment.  It was initially recommended to me by an acquaintance of mine who used to live in Barcelona.  It’s hidden away behind a couple of huge wooden doors down otherwise quiet little Reina Cristina.  I was warned it would be busy but I hadn’t pictured quite what I found – I had to push my way in past hoards of people, shouting “Perdoneme!” as loud as I could without seeming rude, yet still not being heard or noticed.  When I finally got within reaching distance of the very tall bar, I was too overwhelmed to order.   To order would have meant shouting, in a language I wasn’t very confident even speaking in, and to do that would have meant being able to understand the tapas menu written on the huge boards behind the bar – in Catalan.  It may not sound like I’m painting a very good picture of this tiny, crammed, standing room only tapas and cava bar, but beyond the crowds and the language barriers is a buzzing hub of social activity and one of the cheapest places to eat and drink in Barcelona.  It shuts at 10pm every night – a testament in itself to Champagneria’s popularity.

With its beautiful barrio’s…

A stroll through Barcelona’s old town quarters is a true delight. The Ciutet Vella encompasses Barri Gòtic, el Raval, and La Ribera (also known as El Born) and is a labyrinth of narrow streets and tall, crumbling old buildings oozing with character.  The streets are lined with tapas bars, vintage shops, quirky cafes, and colourful galleries but above these are residential apartments like the one we stayed in, right in the heart of the beautiful Barri Gotic.  Sat out on our small balcony in the morning, drinking tea and eating cheese and crackers (how very English!), we felt the intimacy and charm of this lovely serene neighbourhood.  Ciutet Vella, whilst at once belonging to modern Barcelona, has clung independently to its historic roots.  What I also love about wandering these streets is that you can be walking down a quaint little alley one minute, and then the next you are met with a wonderful open space – a beautiful plaza full of outdoor cafes and talented buskers – and a stunning church or cathedral rises up in front of you.

El Born

El Born

Carrer de Milans, Barrio Gotic

Carrer de Milans, Barrio Gotic

Despite the relaxing atmosphere that permeates these streets, there’s also a certain vibrancy…whether it be an entertainer making huge bubbles to bewitch and delight small children, or a musician plucking the strings of his harp outside Gothic cathedral La Seu, there’s always something to lift your spirits and awaken your senses.

Bubbles!

Bubbles!

Alien...one of the fantastic living statues on Las Ramblas

Alien…one of the fantastic living statues on Las Ramblas

With its abundance of art and culture…

Everywhere  you look Barcelona’s streets are alive with visual art…along with the work of Antoni Gaudi, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miro, there is some fantastic street art, interesting sculptures and wonderful murals to marvel at.    Barcelona feels like a city that encourages creativity, in whatever form it may take.  One of my favourite nights here was the evening I paid Robadores, in El Raval, a visit.  With its stone walls, low ceilings, manga artwork and cheap beer, it has the appeal of an underground bar.   The clientele seem diverse, friendly and down-to-earth, but the reason this bar really shines is the live music nights it hosts.  I understand there is live jazz on a Wednesday night, but we rocked up on a Sunday night – for the live flamenco jam session.  We got there pretty early (around 10:30), so we managed to get a seat, but all those who showed up later on just grabbed a space on the floor or squeezed on to one of the benches along the walls.  It was a fantastic thing to see…the flamenco style clapping, singing, guitar playing, a bit of piano.  At times it was difficult to tell where the crowd ended and the artists began.  Towards the end of the night, the room was full of smiling, slightly inebriated faces sharing one common interest between them – their love of music.

Flamenco jam session at Robadores 23

Flamenco jam session at Robadores 23

The artwork you can see on the back wall above is only a microcosmic example of the fantastic graffiti art that can be found all over the city.  Graffiti is a word I use reluctantly, because to me graffiti is tags; it degrades the appearance of the landscape rather than complementing it.  I want to call it street art, but then it’s often used inside buildings as well as out, and there are still many people who refuse to accept it under the label of ‘art’.  Tell me what you think…here are a few examples of the expressions of creativity on display.  These two in particular can be seen in the skate park along Avinguda del Paral-el, along with – randomly but brilliantly – a large ornamental gate valve.

Graffiti?

Graffiti?

Art?

Art?

With its cool bars…

Whether you like cocktails, a bottle or two of real ale, a glass of chilled Sangria, or some sparkling pink cava bubbles, Barcelona has it.  Whether you fancy some live Flamenco or Jazz, a bit of rock, some chilled beats or a full-on D.J set, Barcelona has that too.  The city’s nightlife ranges from tiny cramped tapas bars, to wood-panelled pipe smokers pubs, to cocktail lounges, and underground clubs.  Those that serve food normally shut by 11pm, but all the remaining establishments stay open well into the small hours of the morning.  Nightlife here starts late, so it’s not unusual to find yourself heading home as the sun is coming up.

For real ales, check out La Cerveteca (on the same street as El Salon).  Not the kind of place you’d expect to see real ales served – it’s a bright, modern bar with few seats – but they have a huge selection from all over the world.  I do like my ales and I’d not heard of a single one of the bottles that were stacked up on wooden shelves from floor to ceiling.  There’s some interesting names too…Rogue dead guy anyone?

For a chilled beer with friends, check out Pipa Club.  It’s hidden away in the corner of Placa Reial, in an inconspicuous third floor apartment.  You have to ring the bell, wait to be let in, and ascend the stairs, and as you do you feel like you’ve discovered a secret den, a million miles from the buzzing tourist trap of Placa Reial.   Through the rather seedy looking entrance door, you’ll discover a wood-panelled, jazzy, pipe smokers haunt.  There are several rooms in this converted apartment, and you can wander the linking corridors to view a quirky collection of pipes, including one that belonged to Dali.

For an absinthe experience, check out the authentic, atmospherically run-down bar Marsella – named after the French port of Marseilles, where absinthe is the drink of choice.  It’s located just at the bottom of Rambla de Raval, on the corner of Carrer de Sant Pau and Carrer de Sant Oleguer; you can’t miss it for the hoards of people hanging around outside, smoking cigarettes and sharing inebriated conversation.   Opened in 1820, everyone from Picasso to Hemmingway is rumoured to have been a regular here.   You wouldn’t think it had been cleaned since it opened, the dust is inches thick on those ornamental bottles behind the bar and the chandelier is so grimy, you can’t ever imagine it once being grand, but this is part of Marsella’s appeal.  Moreover, I’m not entirely sure they serve anything other than Absinthe and Estrella – but that’s part of its appeal too.

For live music, cheap beer, and an all-round fantastic little underground-style bar, check out Robadores 23 (as previously mentioned under the art and culture section)

For some happy hour Mojitos (until 10pm) or a late night drink, with an in-house D.J playing some cool, laid back beats, check out Milans – on the street of the same name just off Carrer d’Avinyo in Barri Gotic.  This bar was opposite the apartment that we stayed in for the second half of the week, and always seemed to be open when other bars nearby had closed.

And finally…

Because, after less than an hour on the train, you can be here…

Looking down on the walk up to the hermitage of Sant Magdelena

Looking down on the walk up to the hermitage of Sant Magdelena

Hermitage of Sant Joan

Hermitage of Sant Joan

The mountain of Montserrat (which I affectionately named ‘Monster Rat’), with its rocky crags, vast monastery, hermitage caves, and stunning views.  Montserrat is 1236m above sea level, and walking up here certainly feels like being on top of the world.  I climbed the mountain on my last day in Barcelona, and it was a wonderful way of reflecting upon my experiences in the city.  With the wind in my hair and the clean mountain air in my lungs, I took a deep breath and considered that perhaps Barcelona had managed to charm me once again…maybe just a smidgen 😉

Thanks toBridges and Balloons for their recommendations of Where to eat, drink and go out in Barcelona, many of which I followed up during my visit, and a few of which I have also recommended in this blog.