Site Migration

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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 Nebotińćnik – 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 ҆kofu, 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 Рa 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 Рuntil 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¬†VrŇ°ińć 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 Sońća 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¬†Sońća 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 Divańća, 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 LaŇ°ńće, 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¬†LaŇ°ńće¬†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 (Divańća) 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 ūüôā

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

All photographs used are also my own.

A rural retreat in Pamukkale : bizarre landscapes, ancient ruins & a spontaneous paragliding experience!

So I’d decided that Turkey would be my next destination to explore, partly because it was one of the closest and cheapest places to get to that would be relatively hot in April, and partly because family and friends had been continually telling me how much I would love Istanbul. ¬†They were right. ¬†I loved the vibrant, buzzing, colourful city, I loved the charming neighbourhoods, the stunning mosques, and the wonderful markets and bazaars. ¬†But Turkey is such a vast country with so many diverse and beautiful landscapes, that I couldn’t possibly pass up the opportunity to venture outside of Istanbul to see some of them.

I toyed with the idea of visiting Ephesus – and don’t get me wrong, that’s still somewhere I’d love to find myself one day – but I’ve seen a lot of ruins, yet I’ve never seen such unusual landscapes as Cappadocia and Pamukkale presented.

I arrived in Pamukkale following a long but surprisingly comfortable overnight bus journey from Istanbul and a breakfast of sweaty cheese and broken crackers. ¬†Arriving here was almost like I’d stepped back in time – a lone tractor chugged along the road and inquisitive children hung around on dustry street corners. ¬†Yet already I was falling in love with this place…the tranquility of the lush green countryside that surrounded me, the relaxed pace of life, and the freshness of the air in every breath I took. ¬†I love cities, I love how alive they make me feel, but when I come to somewhere like Pamukkale – somewhere so far removed from city life, it brings a whole new dimension to that sense of feeling alive. ¬†There’s nothing quite like standing on top of a mountain, with the wind on your face and the crisp mountain air in your lungs, and that humbling moment when you look around and see the vast, beautiful landscapes that surround you.

When we arrived at our hotel, it seemed to embody everything that we’d found Pamukkale to be so far…a beautiful oasis of calm. ¬†We walked through the gates of the Melrose House Hotel into a lovely shaded seating area with marble floors, wicker tables and chairs, and traditional Turkish style lanterns hanging from its wooden ceilings. To the left was an inviting pool and garden, thoughtfully landscaped with plants and flowers, and backed by the beauty of Pamukkale’s countryside.

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As we’d arrived so early, we had to wait an hour or so for our room to be prepared, so we took advantage of the free coffee offered to us by the welcoming and accommodating owners, sat down by the pool in the early morning sunshine, and affectionately petted the resident cats. ¬†I’m a self-confessed cat lover, so the fact that there were three of the adorable little feline creatures here, meant that I immediately felt at home.

An hour or so later, we strolled into town in search of Pamukkale’s main (and possibly only) attraction – its hot springs and travertines; terraces of carbonate minerals left by the flowing water. ¬†We brought a map with us, which we soon realised was completely superfluous to our needs, as Pamukkale is barely a three-street village. The travertines form a stunning backdrop to its sleepy streets, like mountains covered in fresh snow.

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Spotting a tortoise carelessly wandering along one of Pamukkale’s ‘main’ roads (which we later discovered was to be the first of many of these curious creatures we encountered – in the wild, as it were) made a random interlude to our short walk up to the southern entrance.

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Pamukkale means “Cotton Castle” in Turkish, and as you get closer to this stunning, bizarre and unusual attraction, you can see why. ¬†I didn’t really have any expectations about the place before I arrived, but I’d seen numerous photographs of the unique terraces and pools, and I was interested to see them for myself. ¬†What I saw, having paid my 20TL to enter the site and removed my shoes and socks (as is obligatory for any visitor), was on a much larger scale than I’d ever imagined. ¬†Stretching high above the town itself, the travertines spread for almost 2 miles across the Turkish countryside.

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The gleaming white calcite shelves, overrunning with mineral-rich warm waters from the mountains above, are actually naturally formed (although parts of the site are now man-made). ¬†However, had the site not obtained Unesco World Heritage status back in 1998, and a subsequent plan put in place to protect it, those unique travertines could well have been a natural phenomena ruined by the intervention of man. ¬†Bathing is now only permitted in the lower pools, and there are ‘police’ scattered around the site at the top, who appear like ninjas, to stop rebellious tourists venturing into the upper pools. ¬†I say ninjas because you cannot see them right up until that moment that you’ve stepped just a little too far across in order to home in on that perfect shot that you see on all the postcards. ¬†Whilst I do wholly respect the rule and the definite need for it, in my defence it’s difficult to tell where the boundaries are, so on this occasion I was guilty as charged!

It’s a strange sensation walking through the pools and over the travertines. The water is beautifully warm, and the ground beneath it is soft, even gooey in places. ¬†However, in between the pools, the constant water flow can make the ground rather slippery so you do have to take care if you’re not wearing swimming gear and you’re carrying an expensive camera (like I was!).

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IMG_6821As we climbed the terraces, we amused ourselves by watching children playfully splashing around in the pools and girls posing for their boyfriends, draping themselves seductively over the terraces in skimpy bikinis. ¬†We even witnessed a couple having their wedding photographs taken at the top of the pools. ¬†Whilst Turkey’s “Cotton Castle” is a unique and very beautiful landscape, I’m not sure how the white dress against the backdrop of the dazzling white travertines would have worked on camera. ¬†But hey, I’m sure the photographer knew what he was doing!

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As you reach the top of the climb, the land levels out.  The travertines up here are a lot more pristine and made for some wonderful photographs on our way back down, as the sun lay lower in the sky and had begun to create those lovely reflections in the pools.  The site shut at 6pm the day we visited, so unfortunately I missed out on what would have been some awe-inspiring sunset photographs across the terraces.

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Located high above Pamukkale and on the same site as the village’s travertines and hot springs, Hierapolis (meaning ‘Sacred City’ in Greek) was founded as a thermal spa in the second century BCE, and subsequently became a healing centre where doctors used the thermal pools as a treatment for their patients. ¬†The ruins cover a vast area and include grand entrance gates, columned streets and baths, as well as a sacred pool, Basilica, Temple, Latrine, Amphitheatre, and a sprawling Necropolis.

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We spent a whole day here marvelling at the landscape…

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Paddling in the hot pools…¬†

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Climbing the ruins…

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Looking for lizards…

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and taking an enormous amount of photographs – a few of which were silly ones we simply couldn’t resist!

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It’s very evident that money has been spent on the upkeep of this site. ¬†It’s been landscaped beautifully, with a wooden walkway running around its circumference, giving easy access to all areas.

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Not many tourists seem to venture very far along the walkway at the top, preferring to bathe in the pools nearer to the bottom, explore the ruins, or mooch around taking photographs of the views. ¬†However if you continue along the walkway as it wraps its way around the perimeter of the hillside, there are some spectacular sights to be seen. ¬†There is less water up here, and in parts the terraces are completely dry due to the fact that the water is regularly diverted from one side of the valley to the other, in order to give the calcium carbonate a chance to harden and form travertines. ¬†It’s really interesting to see how the whole operation comes together, and just how much work has been done to keep the site what it is today.

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Right at the end of the walkway, near to the northern entrance of the site (which is the jumping off point for Hierapolis) is a real gem in my opinion…a monumental tomb that is partially submerged in the dry calcium carbonate. ¬†It’s positioned right on the edge of the hillside and is one of the most bizarre sights I’ve ever encountered.

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I’d thoroughly enjoyed my time exploring the site of Hierapolis and it’s terraces and hot springs. ¬†Yes, I’d travelled all the way from Istanbul just to witness this bizarre landscape but it was so totally and utterly worth it. ¬†

How a ‘wasted day’ became one we were so glad we stuck around for…

The next day, we were at a bit of a loose end as to what to do. ¬†We’d only wanted and intended to spend a day here, however had we not booked a hotel for the night, we would have been faced with the issue of where to leave our backpacks whilst we explored the travertines. ¬†It would have also meant we were unable to have a shower after 10 hours on a bus, so we made the decision to stay the night. Now in retrospect I’m glad we did.

However, at the time, knowing that we had to wait until 9pm to catch the bus to Goreme (for Cappadocia), and that we’d seen Pamukkale’s one (and only) tourist attraction, all we had to look forward to was a day of doing nothing. ¬†For those of you who know me, I’m not very good at that.

We’d seen the paragliders flying down over the travertines yesterday, but had not really considered it with any seriousness due to the high costs involved – or so we thought. ¬†However we were wandering through the village, and a guy from one of the paragliding outfits beckoned us over. ¬†He spoke perfect English (he’d¬†even picked up the slang ‘sick’, meaning ‘awesome’) and was so enthusiastic about what he does. ¬†My boyfriend Stu is big into what’s been labelled as ‘Extreme Sports’ (Skiing, Snowboarding, Surfing, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, Hand-gliding), so the two of them very quickly became engrossed in conversation about it all, together with the scientific and technical facts and figures behind it. ¬†We spent a good hour just hanging out with this guy, watching clips on YouTube of base jumpers, people in flight suits, the guy who fell from Space…) and drinking Turkish tea. Couldn’t think of a better way to spend what was going to be our ‘wasted day’.

However the day got much better when he offered to take us out paragliding for 100TL each (around ¬£35). ¬†It was low season, the weather had only just started improving, we were a couple of the first tourists he’d spoken to since opening this year, and on top of everything, he was desperate to fly! ¬†I could easily spend ¬£35 in the pub at the¬†weekend, so I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity of a new experience for the same price.

Taken on the Go-Pro...pretty neat little piece of kit!

Taken on the Go-Pro…pretty neat little piece of kit!

So we packed up, jumped in the van, and headed up the mountain.  The scenery on the drive up was beautiful, glances of time-forgotten rural life, fresh mountain air, the wind on your face, and the excitement and anticipation of climbing higher and higher towards the sky.  When we finally reached the jumping off point, beautiful green hills interspersed by clumps of dense woodland, stretched for as far as the eye could see, and in the distance you could see the travertines, a massive expanse of white, creating a stark contrast to the rich green landscape they covered.

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Stu was the first one to take off, so I took my camera in hand and tried to get as many shots as I could before it was my turn to get strapped up and become airborne.  

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Being the little hobbit that I am, it didn’t didn’t take long for my little running feet to leave the ground. ¬† Paragliding is, if you’ve ever done a skydive, much like the part once you’ve released your parachute and you’re sitting there floating, admiring the¬†scenery that you couldn’t really appreciate previously because you were too busy enjoying the sensation; too busy thinking “wow!” ¬†Paragliding gave me a wonderful aerial view of Pamukkale, a different perspective from which to view all that we’d seen the day before from ground level. ¬†

You can just about see Stu in the distance!

You can just about see Stu in the distance!

IMG_6949IMG_6947My only complaint, as with all experiences like that, is that it didn’t last long enough.

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Footnotes

  • We stayed at the Melrose Hotel, which I can thoroughly recommend for the friendly, helpful staff, and quality of the accommodation and food.
  • We paraglided with Hierapolis-Pamukkale Paragliding. ¬†I think they’re the only outfit in the village, but again, I can thoroughly recommend.

Thai massage – become a contortionist, it’s good for you!

“Hey lady! ¬†You want massage?”

Well yes, actually I would.  After three weeks of being constantly on the go since I arrived in Bangkok, coupled with some long arduous bus journeys and the weight of my backpack pulling aggressively at my shoulders as I hauled it down yet another dusty street in the 30 degree heat, a massage sounded like just what the doctor ordered.

However, not wanting to be victim to a sub-standard masseur or masseuse, or ‘poked’ in a rather unprofessional and unethical manner (you catch my drift), I did my research beforehand. ¬†I opened my Lonely Planet guide.

Bor Nguen (get the play on words?) was a small, professional establishment with a central location, tucked down a little soi off Moon Muang Road. ¬†It wasn’t the most expensive option available but it wasn’t the cheapest either – usually a reasonably safe bet. ¬†I opened the door and was met by a petite, mild-mannered Thai lady who greeted me with a smile. She led me into a beautifully decorated, air-conditioned oasis of calm – so far removed from the dusty traffic filled roads that surrounded us. ¬† Already I could feel myself starting to relax.

Traditional Thai Massage . . .

” . . . is a combination of assisted yoga stretching, calmness of meditation, acupressure and reflexology.” ¬†– Text taken from http://www.healingpathways.net

I was instructed to change into the clothing provided (which consisted of some baggy polyester silk fishermans trousers and a light loose fitting cotton/linen shirt), I was given a hot cup of green tea, and lay myself down on a bed in a candlelit room listening to some soothing Thai music. So, as you can imagine, I was under the impression that the next hour would continue along much the same theme.

I was already imagining myself drifting into a realm of tranquility, losing the sense of my physical being, clearing my mind, and for that short space of time, becoming completely detached from the reality of the outside world.

I obviously didn’t do my research on Thai massage quite as thoroughly as I should have done!

Much of the process at the beginning seemed to consist of finding certain pressure points in my feet and legs, which was reasonably relaxing, but then just became incredibly ticklish when she got to the inside of my thighs! As the process moved on, it seemed more to do with stretching the muscles to their extreme potential, which at times was verging on painful! Think Yoga classes – only you’re not the one in control of how far you push yourself! ¬†There was one point when she had my body balanced on the soles of her feet (her heels at the base of my spine) while she pulled back on my arms. I felt like we were a pair of circus performers!!! ¬†

Thai massage - an 'experience'!

Thai massage – an ‘experience’!

Obviously, Thai massage has proven physical benefits to our bodies (although i’m not entirely sure I was feeling them during the process!) It has been practised for centuries : its founder – Shivaga Komarpaj, a doctor – was a friend of¬†Buddha¬†himself. The practice is said to balance the energy flow around the body, and release energy blockages, thus leading to an increased sense of vitality and well-being, whilst at the same time enhancing flexibility and invigorating the nervous system.

As I left Bor Nguen, whilst it was quite surreal to be back out in the stifling heat, surrounded by a constant rush of people and traffic, and tuk tuk horns, and the aromas of food and incense drifting past me as I walked – I didn’t actually feel any different. ¬†Maybe it was ridiculous of me to think that I would. ¬†But maybe – just maybe – I’ll try that lotus position again tomorrow, and with all that enhanced flexibility, I’ll succeed ūüėČ

What’s your travel style?

No, I’m not talking about the style of clothes you wear whilst travelling – whether you favour Berghaus or North Face, or how many pairs of hippy trousers you own. ¬†What I’m talking about is how you choose to travel – are you someone who believes in truly getting to know a city or country? Someone who believes in looking beyond the tourist trail and craves a more authentic experience? ¬†Someone who wants to feel a place rather than merely see it? ¬†Or does remaining in the same city or country for too long bore you? ¬†Are you constantly plotting and dreaming about the next adventure, the next stamp on your passport?

Or maybe it’s not that black or white.

I find myself often pondering this question, and asking it of myself. ¬†Yes, available time does dictate your travel style to a certain extent, but it’s more to do with how you choose to use that time. ¬†Money is also a governing factor, but if you were to give two travellers in the same location the same amount of money, they may both choose to use that money in very different ways.

I must admit that I am often guilty of trying to cram as much as possible into the time I have whilst travelling, whether that be simply a ‘holiday’ for a definitive amount of time, or an extended trip between jobs. ¬†I have a thirst for new experiences – new sights, new sounds, new flavours. ¬†However, there’s also a strange sense of guilt when I’m not on the go. ¬†I constantly feel that there’s something I should be doing, somewhere I should be going, some time I should be spending more constructively. ¬†I’m the same at home. ¬†I find it very difficult to simply sit down and watch a film or a television programme, becoming so easily distracted by that Photography or Journalism course I’m studying, the Spanish I’m learning, the blog I’m writing, or the next trip away I’m planning. ¬†Odd as it may sound to some, these are the things I do to relax.

Similarly, I don’t feel relaxed when I’m travelling if I’m not doing something to stimulate my mind or one of my senses. ¬†Even during 6 months around south-east Asia, I barely stopped anywhere for longer than 3 or 4 days. ¬†Bearing that in mind, you’d probably think I’d have managed to visit more than 4 countries in 6 months. ¬†I didn’t. ¬†But I did visit more villages, towns and cities in those countries than the average traveller does. ¬†After all, England is much more than London or Manchester. ¬†Undeniably a visit to England is essentially incomplete without seeing London, but there are so many more pieces to the jigsaw.

A jigsaw is exactly as I see cities and countries. ¬†You can’t go to Khao San road and think you’ve seen Bangkok; you can’t go to Istanbul and think you’ve seen Turkey. ¬†The more pieces of the jigsaw you collect along the way, the better your understanding of the big picture.

Bangkok...so far removed from Khao San Road

Bangkok…so far removed from Khao San Road

Serene walks through the grounds of Bangkok's many Wats

Serene walks through the grounds of Bangkok’s many Wats

Paragliding over Pamukkale's unusual and fascinating landscape

Paragliding over Pamukkale’s unusual and fascinating landscape, Turkey

The surreal volcanic landscape of Cappadocia, also Turkey

The surreal volcanic landscape of Cappadocia, also Turkey

Yes okay, travelling within a city or a country does cost money, but there are cheaper and more expensive ways of doing it. ¬†Walking around a city costs nothing, and it’s a fantastic way of getting to know a place – not merely getting your bearings but also learning about the history, the economy, the people, the culture, and the food. ¬†You get to be a voyeur, as well as having the opportunity to interact with the locals if you choose to. ¬†If (or when!) you get lost, people’s kindness and hospitality can surprise and delight you.

So what’s my travel style? I like to scrimp on accommodation and food – I choose to stay in hostels, and for the most part I’m happy to stay in a dorm room so long as it’s secure and I have a comfy bed, access to a shower and somewhere to charge my phone and the batteries for my camera. ¬†I’m not a big eater at the best of times and hot climates do tend to suppress my appetite but I’ll always favour street food – or sitting on a tiny plastic stool at an intimate little local eatery – over dining at a restaurant, or ordering from a caf√© that’s dominated by tourists. ¬†I walk a lot and use public transport as much as I can, which usually means that I use it up to the point that language barriers prevent me from doing so.

I will spend on entrance fees to local attractions if I deem them to be a worthwhile investment, and I will research those that don’t charge for entry. ¬†I will also spend on organised treks or tours to locations it would otherwise be logistical tricky to get to in the time I have available. ¬†There are also of course those activities that you simply cannot do independently. I took a 3-day trek around Mae Sariang in northern Thailand, which happened as a result of a random meeting with a Canadian traveller in a village devoid of other Westerners, and his prior and equally random conversation with a friend of the gentleman who ran a small-scale tour company in the village. That was worth stretching the budget for and was one of my favourite adventures during my 6-month trip.

Our guide on the Mae Sariang trek, Nigorn

Our guide on the Mae Sariang trek, Nigorn

Sometimes I wonder whether I should find a place I like and plant some short term roots there for a while…teach English somewhere in Spain or south America, which would also afford me some time to develop my Spanish, or join a volunteer project where your food and digs are included in return for your input into the project. ¬†Maybe it’s time to try an alternative travel style…

Introducing…

Hi, I’m Kiara.

Greetings from my humble little abode in Shrewsbury, which is where I’m based at the moment when I’m not travelling. ¬†It’s not a bad place to be based, it’s a thriving medieval town with a great music and arts scene, and when I need a taste of city life, I can hop on a train to Manchester, Birmingham, or Liverpool – all around an hour away – or London, which is only a 3-hour trip.

My four passions in life – Travel, Writing, Photography, and Music. In my blog I hope to share my travel experiences with you using the medias of writing, photography and music. After all, countries and cities and cultures are a mixture of all these things…of words and images, and sounds, and flavours. I’ve travelled solo around South-east Asia, I’ve skydived in New Zealand, bathed elephants in Thailand, paddled a little wooden dugout down the Nam Ou river in Laos, trekked the beautiful rice terraces of Sapa in Vietnam, walked the Great Wall of China, ridden a camel through the Sahara – in the rain, taken a hot air balloon flight over the surreal volcanic landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey, cycled the Adriatic coast from Venice to Porec (Croatia), experienced the crazy, colourful streets of Delhi, island-hopped in Japan, walked every inch of the pretty little Greek island of Paxos…and those are just the highlights! ¬† Whenever I have the money and time to do so, I’m continually adding to those experiences….I got bitten by the travel bug a long time ago!

I’ve written blogs previously on www.blogger.com – to view my blog of my 6-month solo trip around South-east Asia visit www.cactuschild.blogspot.co.uk¬†or to view my latest trip to Turkey visit www.turkeyintendays.blogspot.co.uk¬†– but I’m liking the look of WordPress, so I thought I’d branch out.

I’m returning (after 9 years) to Barcelona at the end of the month, which I’m very much looking forward to, so please re-visit my blog in July for some stories, observations, facts and information, tips and recommendations, and some images and (hopefully) music clips to accompany them.

In the meantime I’ll leave you with a few of my favourite travel quotes…

“Travelling – it leaves you speechless, and then turns you into a storyteller”

“I would rather own little and see the world than own the world and see little of it”

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page”

The end is nigh . . .

I was awoken rather abruptly by powerful rumbles of thunder at around 5:30am this morning, and I have never been so scared by a thunderstorm in my entire life. There was a flash, which lit up the inside of my bungalow like a powerful neon light, and the loudest crash of thunder that I have ever heard. I cannot even begin to describe what it sounded like but it scared the s**t out of me! In fact, envisage the worst earthquake you could ever imagine – the ground was breaking in two and buildings were collapsing – and you’re getting somewhere close.
Fortunately the worst of the storm was over by the time I had to leave to catch the ferry back to Ban Phe. In fact, by the time I was on the ferry you wouldn’t have known there’d just been a terrible storm, the sun was shining so brightly that I was in danger of getting a bad case of sunburn on my arms as I hung over the side of the boat breathing in the sea air. At Ban Phe 10 of us squeezed into a mini bus, our bags at our feet and our knees subsequently level with our elbows. The journey took approximately 4 hours, and the moment we pulled into Khao San Road, the skies opened again. Even making the 5 minute walk back to the Wild Orchid Guesthouse would have involved me getting so wet I may as well have gone for a swim in the river, so instead I ran to the nearest internet cafe, updated my blog and emailed Todd (he’s apparently back in Bangkok applying for various chef positions at some of the city’s top hotels).
By around 8pm this evening I still hadn’t heard back from Todd, so I headed out for some food and one of my favourite mango and passion fruit shakes from the vendor just in front of the 7-11 on Soi Rambuttri. I subsequently sat down at one of Khao San Road’s many cafes and ordered a beer Chang, and it really started to dawn on me that I am actually going home tomorrow. It’s a concept that’s always seemed far too distant for me to dwell upon that seriously, and it’s not one that I’m looking forward to. I have a feeling that it will take me longer to adjust to being at home than it did for me to adjust to being out here nearly 6 months ago. Of course I’m looking forward to seeing my friends and family but I’d sooner them being flying out here to visit me. I love Asia : aside from having to barter the price of the majority of your purchases (right down to a bottle of water in Vietnam) and having to deal with people (not everyone by any means, and it’s only a serious issue in Vietnam) trying to rip you off or constantly trying to sell you their wares, I love the culture, the people and the pace of life over here. I love the food, I love the climate (although not the fact that you’re sweating most of the time as a result!) and I love the sights and the sounds and the smells that constantly surround you.
I can honestly say that I haven’t missed any of my ‘creature comforts’ as it were from back home, but one aspect of home that I have been craving is being able to go to the gym. I know it sounds crazy but a trek every now and then does not keep you fit (which I’ve realised having puffed and panted my way through several of them!) and I’ve lost all my muscle tone. So, one of the first activities I shall be persuing as soon as I get back to Shrewsbury is a dam good run (if I can manage it!) and some work on my muscles (namely my triceps, biceps and my abs). Tony, I may have to enlist your help as my personal trainer to get me back into it all! Aside from that, occasional longings for marmite and cheese have entered my head, and I shall certainly look forward to not having to sleep under a mosquito net every night and not being covered in bites all the time.
This is probably the last time I shall visit an internet cafe over here (aside from checking my mail around lunchtime to check whether Todd has got back to me and wants to meet for lunch) so I shall update the rest of todays journal when I return home on monday. Looking forward to seeing you all and boring you with endless tales of my Asian adventures . . .