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Archive for the category “Europe”

Five Senses in the Alps

Since you aren’t up in the Alps Mountains with me, I thought I’d share a bit about each of the five senses so you can get a feel for what it’s like here.

SOUNDS ~ While hiking in the mountains here, we hear these cow bells all over across the hills. Someone told us that cow bells are a status symbol for farmers here, and sometimes cost $2,000 a piece — but owning cows is very difficult to actually turn into profit.

Cows.pngSIGHTS ~ There are so many beautiful sights. Photos don’t do these mountains justice, but here are a few that might give you a taste. Pano from Murren.pngCows and ViewAnother ViewMe and Amazing MountainsDon’t let these photos fool you — the weather hasn’t been perfect this whole time. We tried to go up to the top of a mountain to see the view, and ended up in a cloud. We’ll try again tomorrow, but here’s what we saw at the top so far:White.pngIt’s a cloud. Eventually, we got some nice views from the Cable Car, once we got out of the cloud:

Coming down.png

SMELLS ~ Ah, the flowers! I have really enjoyed stopping to smell the wildflowers in the mountains. So many colors and varieties!

The village of Allmendhubel is famous for its flowers, and they even have a flower playground and flower walk, where you can learn about all the types of flowers you’ll see while hiking. This little garden had an exhibit with a wooden platform to lie on, inviting visitors to lay down to smell the flowers. Who am I to refuse?!

And then I tried out the playground too… it was an extra good one.

TASTE ~ We’ve been eating lots of cheese, served every day with bread at breakfast. We also had fondue the other night (the dipping bread into melted cheese kind), along with the traditional bratworst sausage and rösti, a kind of potato fritter. Mmmmm…

Fondue, Rosti, and Brotworst.png

FEEL ~ We visited a waterfall that was inside of a mountain! It felt very… wet! Here’s the evidence:

Tofu San at Trummelbach Falls.pngThis was a neat experience, but as you can see, it was pretty touristy. Even better was the next day, when we were hiking and came upon a sign we didn’t understand. Sprutz sign.pngWe used Google Translate, and saw the word “caution” but decided to proceed down the trail very slowly anyway. It was very steep, and in the woods.Me and trail.png Eventually we were rewarded with a beautiful waterfall. Sprutz from far away.pngI was very careful, but we figured out that it was safe to walk underneath and through to the other side, which was pretty amazing!Sprutz from the topSprutz People under

Can you see me on the other side after I made it through?Me and Waterfall.png

So, there’s a little taste of the Alps (and sounds, sights, smell, and feel)! I hope you got a little bit of a sense of what it’s like here.

European City Hopping: 4 Cities, 3 Countries, 2 Sleeps

Greetings from Switzerland! We are finally up in the Alps, and decided we needed a rest day to bask in the mountain views– a chance to slow down and sneak in a blog entry. Views from Murren.png

During our first few days of this trip, we did some country hopping. We left Saturday night from Boston, and flew overnight, arriving in Lisbon, Portugal with 13 hours until our next flight. We barely slept on the plane, but stayed awake enough to get in miles of walking around the city and a stellar first gelato cone of the trip.Lisbon Pano

We arrived Sunday night in Zurich, Switzerland and crashed quickly. With a full night’s sleep under our belts, we spent the morning wandering around the city, which is the biggest in Switzerland but still much smaller than Boston.

That afternoon, we decided to country hop over to Liechtenstein, since it was less than 2 hours by train. One of the smallest countries in the world, Liechtenstein is a little kingdom with the highest GDP per capita in the world — that means that it’s a very wealthy country. It has a ruling prince, and while we didn’t see him, we did see the castle where he and his family currently live. Vaduz (pronounced “Vah-DOOTS”) is kind of small and fairy-tale like, but also modern in the “downtown” area. We made it up the path to the castle, walked around town, and arrived at a restaurant for dinner just as the sky opened up into massive thunder storms.

So despite the jetlag, and having seen three countries in two days, we woke up the next morning and set out for a full day journey through Switzerland. We took some time first to walk around Zurich more, and then spent several hours in the capital, Bern, which we loved. It’s just a really lovely city all around, and feels really quintessentially Swiss.

 

They say that Bern was named after the bears in the area, so they actually have some bears in an enclosure in the center of the city. So cute!

Close UpAnd after 7 different legs of trains, trams, or cable cars, and about 7 miles of walking, according to my phone’s GPS, we arrived in the mountains. The Swiss rail system is really incredible.

All four cities were beautiful, and had some things in common.

Two of the cities had castles, where we hiked up and looked down on the city from above:

Two had funky outdoor elevators to help navigate the hills:

Three had beautiful churches, too:

We saw lots of interesting art on the street…

…ate some yummy food…

…and had great views overlooking the water.

But now we are in the countryside and looking forward to a bit of a slower pace. It’ll be a few days out of the city, but I’m sure we’ll make our way back soon.

Plitvice Lakes: Too much hype, but ok, fine, it’s beautiful.

One of the stops on our trip that seemed like it would be awesome was Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia. It is supposed to be ranked one of the most beautiful places in Europe, so we wanted to see what all the hype was about. Unfortunately, about a million visitors a year also want to know.

Crowds.png

Plitvice was a little bit annoying to get to, but you know, we conquered. Instead of doing an organized tour, we took the bus there from Zagreb and spent the night in the area. The bus was actually super comfortable, pretty empty, and had free wifi. So, no complaints there, but it was still a tiring travel day. Once there, we took a nap and then we were able to walk around late in the day and early the next morning. Success! It’s really a beautiful and massive place:

Plitvice

Famous view from above at Plitvice Lakes

One of my favorite parts of Plitvice was the amazing color of the water:

I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls in my life, but these ones were definitely nice too:

The sound of the ater was also part of what made me feel the power of this place:

The roots are totally weird and fun:

And there’s all sorts of interesting flora and fauna to photograph:

Even under the water!

Overall, I prefer the little adventures, like the walk to Kozjak Waterfall in Slovenia, but Plitvice was an impressive place.

Tofu San and Big Fall

Tourist Farm Love

Hole in my heart.pngThere are still more days of sunshine on the horizon, but my summer is ending. This week teachers at our school are back at work, prepping our classrooms for the start of a new school year. I’m holding onto a little bit of summer by remembering my favorite places I visited back in July: Slovenian tourist farms.

Never heard of a tourist farm? Basically, it’s just what it sounds like. All over the countryside of Slovenia, tourists can stay at local farms instead of hotels, where they experience the rural life and chow on local food.

After driving through Triglav National Park, making our way up and down the 50 switchbacks of the Vršič Pass, we made our way to Tourist Farm Kranjc near Kobarid. We passed through a quaint little village called Luce as we made our way off the main road.Near Kranjc

And then we arrived. On one side of the house, there was a pretty densely packed neighborhood of local houses.Kranjc Neighborhood

On the other side of the house, there were the views and the farm.Farm Sheds.png

And just like that, I fell in love with this place. I just wanted to sit on their patio forever, alternating between their swing and hammock.

DeckHammock

What a perfect place to relax in nature. SpiderwebsFurry Flowers

To top things off, the family was nice as can be, and they had the sweetest dog (whose name was something like Moscow or Rosco).15 year old pup.png

The best part, though? The food! So local and yummy. Tourist Farm Food

The downside? We only had one night here. We considered backing out of our reservation for the next night, but we pushed on. In the morning, we only had a little time for exploring, and decided to go to Slap Kozjak (which means “Kozjak Waterfall”) for a quick hike before hitting the road. It was a beautiful little adventure:

And then the roads. We had to drive WAY too long to get to our other tourist farm. We did pause for a nice rest stop on the Soca River, but we didn’t have much time to gaze at the ridiculously clear, turquoise waters. (Notice the rocks below. The water is so clear you can’t even SEE it!)

As we drove, I seriously questioned what I was thinking choosing these two tourist farms so far away from each other.

And then we arrived. Yes, Tourist Farm Govc-Vršnik was definitely worth the drive. Our room was huge and we had two porches, both with stunning views:

The place was incredible — it was much more remote than the other tourist farm, and such a peaceful area to walk around.

Even the food somehow managed to give our last tourist farm a run for their money, which I didn’t think was possible. Plus we had a great view from the deck where the meals were served. They even served something that seemed like matzah ball soup for dinner, and it made me feel like I was home.

Sadly, we only stayed there one night too. The next morning we headed back to Ljubljana to return our rental car and leave Slovenia.Govc Pano

Since I travel often, people sometimes ask me which places I would hope to go back someday. Definitely I would love to go back to both of these tourist farms, and explore many more.

Highs and Lows of the Bridge City in Bosnia and Herzegovina

When traveling, you never know what to expect. That was especially true today, en route to Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that I knew very little about. Generally, when I’ve talked about this part of the world, I am teaching geography, so we’re using my favorite mnemonic trick thinking of a crow (Croatia) eating Berries and Honey (Bosnia and Herzegovina). Doesn’t it look like that? Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 10.37.54 PM

Anyway, I shouldn’t have been surprised that today was filled with lots of unexpected happenings, some positive and some negative. Here’s a taste:

NEGATIVE: Google Maps said it would take about 2 hours to travel from Split, Croatia to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina by car. Our packed bus stopped lots of time, and it took us more than 5 hours. We had scheduled a tour for an hour after our anticipated arrival, and we missed it.

POSITIVE: The “scenic route” was actually quite scenic. I mean, really truly stunning. Most of the trip with rocky mountains on the left and the sea on the right. Here’s a taste after we crossed the border into Bosnia.

NEGATIVE: It turns out that you can’t just hail a taxi here. You need to call for one. So, we stood in the blaring heat waiting for a while.

POSITIVE: Some random woman approached us after not too long, told us that, and then had a taxi called for us. Shopping Mostar

NEGATIVE: A lot of people smoke here.

MostarPOSITIVE: The vibe here is so chill and friendly. People are genuinely nice. And helpful! The shopping is so fun, because the market is packed with lots of interesting things, and the prices are MUCH lower than we’ve seen anywhere on this trip. And everyone so far has seemed really honest and not trying to rip us off. There are different ethnic groups, and today everyone seems to get along, whether Catholic or Muslim. Here’s a video of the edge of the market, while the Muslim Call to Prayer is being projected from a nearby mosque:

NEGATIVE: There’s more gelato here. For 50 cents a scoop. We are going to gain so much weight!

POSITIVE: The food here is amazing. I now know how to say Ćevapčići. It’s a kind of Bosnian mini sausage. Yum. We tried it first in Slovenia but it’s even better here.Food

Translation? Ćevapčići.Ćevapčići.

NEGATIVE: We’re trying to navigate 4 currencies here. The Bosnian currency is called the Mark, but they quote a lot of prices in Euros, and sometimes they’ll take Croatian Kuna. Here’s the math: 2 marks = 1 Euro, 1 Euro = 1.1 USD, and 10 Kuna = $1.50. It’s even more confusing when you pay in one currency and they give you change in another. What?!

POSITIVE: Did I mention that everything is really cheap? Ok, we’ll do the math if it means we can get beautiful things for 5 Euros.Tree

POSITIVE: Our hotel has a nice room, the hotel staff are helpful, and they even gave us a welcome drink upon arrival. It is very centrally located, close to lots of interesting stuff, including some great live music.

NEGATIVE: The music is really really loud in our hotel room. Will we ever sleep?Tofu San Stari Most

POSITIVE: This city feels so welcoming and and we are hungry to keep learning more. After our initial late arrival, we eventually were able to have a tour with Ms. Alma Elezovic, who was personally recommended by Rick Steves in his book and in this video. Alma showed us around and explained that this city, Mostar, was named after the guards who watched over the bridges during Medieval times. This city really feels like a meeting place for many different peoples.

Bigger Bridge

Overall, today was not without its hiccups, but I am glad to be here, away from the crowds and tourist prices on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. I’m very glad to be here (and will feel especially grateful if I can eventually get some sleep tonight)!

Island Life in Croatia

We’ve made our way to the coast of Croatia, with a lot of stops in between. At some point, I will write about…

  • Staying on Tourist farms in the mountains of Slovenia
  • Visiting Zagreb (the capital of Croatia)
  • Plitvice Lakes National Park (beautiful, but a bit overrated)
  • The coastal town of Zadar, where the waves play music on a big sea organ

It has been a whirlwind and I can’t keep up with the blogging!

Now, we are on the island of Korcula, off the coast of Croatia, and we are in full relaxation vacation mode. This afternoon I took a 3 hour nap. This is the view we saw from our apartment upon arrival:Sunset.png

Yesterday, we took a bus and two ferries to get here. It was a pretty fun day of travel, actually. There were snack breaks and listening to podcasts as we watched the views out the window.

On the way over here, we stopped for the afternoon at the island of Hvar, which seemed a bit upscale, but it was beautiful. People like Beyonce and Tom Cruise have vacationed there! We hiked up to the castle for good views.

We noticed lots of interesting vegetation on Hvar, most notably cactuses! This is a coastal area, but it is nothing like the Caribbean.Bee and Cactus.png

Marco Polo.pngThe island where we decided to set up shop for a few nights is Korcula, which I discovered is pronounced like “Core-ch’la.” It is the birthplace of Marco Polo. Apparently, the Italians take credit for him because his father was Italian and he died in Venice, but he was born in Croatia, so the Croatians claim him too!

We’ve only seen a small corner of Korcula Island, which is 29 miles long. We aren’t staying in a big town, but just in a little village where there are approximately 4 restaurants and 1 grocery store. And 2 ways to get to the sea! This morning, we explored one swimming area. The coast is rocky, but the water is crystal clear. Here’s one spot where we swam this morning:

Swimming.png

After my siesta, we took a long walk into the main “city,” Korcula Town. We followed the coastal road, and there were lots of opportunities to stop for photos.

On the way, we passed so many interesting plants. Grapes, pomegranate, olives, and figs all grow here. Wine and olive oil are especially cheap and delicious here.

We arrived in the old town and wandered around. Inside a walled area of the city there are many shops and cute restaurants.

I saw this little pulley system at a restaurant in a castle. I guess you’ve got to be creative if your work space has such old rickety stairs!

Tomorrow, we’ll do more exploring, and check out the interesting plants and animals here.  I have all sorts of questions as I see these new places. Trees that grow on walls?Trees

What are these cute bugs?Red and Black Bugs on Flower

Looking forward to more relaxation and observation tomorrow.

Up and Over: The Epic Vršič Pass

GoogleMaps.pngMy favorite day of the trip so far had to be the day we drove through Triglav National Park, Slovenia’s one and only national park. Thanks to my new friend Rick Steves, we did a self-guided tour through the highest mountain roads in the nation. We were ready for the hairpin turns — 25 up and 25 down. Googlemaps helped a bit, but there was really only one road to follow, and it was well marked.

At first the roads were pretty flat. There were always guard rails, but in the beginning, the roads weren’t too narrow or curvy. Flat

We saw a lot of farms with these iconic hay stands that we’ve seen all over Slovenia.

Hay

It didn’t take long to start seeing some remarkable views. We had to stop a lot for photos.

Early Views

As we drove further uphill, the roads got narrower and the views got more about more impressive. This might have been our favorite pull off point: Tofu San with Cairns.png

Close to the top, we stopped for lunch. The food was ok, but the views were incredible. Lunch spot.pngI decided to take a tiny walk to explore near the restaurant and ended up with this funny video:

We were close to the top then, so we just had a few more scary turns to go. Here’s a video that gives a sense of the driving as we arrived at the top:

We laughed when we saw sheep just chilling on the road, right at the top.Sheep.png

When we asked a shopkeeper why the sheep were huddled next to cars, she answered “sheep logic. They have all these beautiful trees and such, but they like tires.” Are sheep always this weird?

From this parking area, we decided to hike up a bit. We passed some old ruins, possibly from WWI, which was neat to explore.

Hiking at VrsicRuins

Eventually we explored a little path, and arrived at my favorite little secret spot, where we sat to take it all in.

No panorama or video could do it justice, but I tried.Sk with Pano.png

It was just beautiful up there. From the vast views to the little wildflowers. I loved it all.

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 11.26.29 AMFlowers

We also got great views of the famous Adja face (like New Hampshire’s Old Man in the Mountain, except it’s a girl’s face). Can you see it?!

And then, of course, we had to go down the mountain. Slowly. We stayed at two different tourist farms and did a lot more driving, but some of this other stuff will have to wait for later entries. I do have to give thanks to my little VW polo rental car which was brand new and we offered it 700+ km on the road. It was an amazing little car, getting great gas mileage because it turned off instead of idling when stopped for a few seconds, and it automatically adjusted to lower gears as needed. I’m proud to say that I returned it safely to Ljubljana without a scratch.Polo.pngAfter only a week, I was sad to say goodbye to both our lovely little car, and even more so to Slovenia, a beautiful little country. It was much cooler weather than Venice, but the people were so warm and sweet.

Zagreb graffiti.pngNow, we are in Croatia! We were a bit worried about getting around without a car, but we successfully made it to Zagreb yesterday, and this morning we booked a bunch of buses and ferries. In fact, I’m currently writing this on a bus with wifi, traveling through Croatia. So, we keep moving onward, without our own wheels.

Failing at Getting Off-the-Beaten Track in Slovenia

Let me start off by saying that I LOVED the Lake Bohinj area, in Triglav National Park, where we spent most of the day. However, today did not go exactly as I planned.

In the morning, I decided that I wanted to do a hike somewhere far away from all the other tourists. After consulting our hotel owner and a tourist info booth, we set out for a scenic walk just north of a small village called Starza Fuzina. We had a plan, maps, and water in our backpacks, and the views from the parking lot were impressive enough to make me excited for the hike.Parking Lot.png

We started the hike and found ourselves quickly surrounded by woods, ascending a steep path.Path

It was very steep, but we passed a few other hikers and decided to be persistent. We trekked onward, looking for the first trail marker. We didn’t see it. For a long time. We did see a lot more rocks and trees, and just kept following the path. Ok, there were a few flowers too.

Eventually, we saw a little clearing, with a tiny view, and stopped for a break. Best view.png

Some Slovenian women passed by, asking us if we’d seen a trail marker. It was then that I realized… hmmm… maybe we’re on the wrong trail. After chatting for a while with the women, consulting GPS on my phone and more maps, we realized that yes, we were not on the trail at all. We stayed with the women a bit longer, though their English skills were not super strong (though better than our Slovenian language skills). Slovenian Friends.pngFinally, we found a trail marker! For a mountain that was not at all where we wanted to go. We decided to turn around and head downhill, this time on a proper trail, with red dot markers.

Once we hit a road, the views were beautiful again!HorsesAnd eventually we found the original trail, though by this point we were too hungry for lunch to see much of it. We saw a bit though.

Gorge.png

For the afternoon, we decided to head back to the tourist route. For 14 Euro, we got a round trip ticket on the gondola / cable car headed to the top of Vogel Mountain.Wires.png

I’m kind of terrified of heights, so I got some butterflies in my stomach and my ears popped, but it was so worth it. The views were incredible.Pano.png

Did I mention that I LOVE mountains?!

I couldn’t stop taking pictures at the top. My little friends Tofu San and Loki got in on the fun too.

I even did this. Don’t worry, I’m not as close to the edge as it looks:

Jumping.png

After hanging out in the obligatory tourist areas, where even the cows are used to tourists, we headed back down in the cable car.Cows at Pizzeria.png

Lake Bohinj is really a gem, much less built up than Bled. It’s just a clear turquoise lake surrounded by big mountains. Bohinj from BelowAfter coming down the mountain, we found a beach for swimming, paid our 1.50 Euro for parking, got some popsicles, and enjoyed the crisp water alongside a bunch of other people. This time, no complaints about the tourists. Apparently, they know how to find the good spots too.Tourists at Bohinj

Lake Bled, Vintgar Gorge, and the Internet

The first time I planned an international trip with a friend, I realized on the way to the airport that my passport was expired. I eventually made it on that flight, though I’d like to think that I’m a bit more responsible now than I was in the 90s.

SK at Bled Castle.png

Me Yesterday!

Since then, a lot has changed in the world, but nothing has shifted our reality like technology. I’ve been thinking about it a lot during this trip. We are currently in a very touristy town called Bled, where there’s a beautiful lake, with a castle on a cliff above and an iconic church on an island in the lake. Beforehand, I looked at lots of blogs and photos online, and now I can confirm that, yes, it’s as beautiful as everyone said it would be.

Lake BledSwan and CastleCastle at Night

Other tourists have also figured that out. Even though Slovenia is a tiny country, with only 2 million people who live here, this town is packed with tourists.Castle Happenings.png

To be honest, I read lots of blogs, but I was worried about all the chances to read other people’s trips. I was worried it would ruin the sense of adventure that makes travel so fun. It didn’t.

Yesterday we set out with bikes that we borrowed from our hotel, to bike around the lake. On the way, of course, we stopped for more photos. Paddling

ButterflyThen, we saw a sign for the castle on the cliff. Even with GoogleMaps, we couldn’t totally figure out the route, because, as it turns out, the path we selected was closed. We ended up meeting a nice Slovenian couple who helped us navigate the path (even around some fences and construction equipment). HikingAt the castle, the couple even got us in without paying the 10 Euro fee, heading straight for the restaurant where we spent our money on a lovely castle-top meal instead. The views were stunning.Tofu San at Bled.png

The other tourists didn’t matter. We ended up sampling honey in a shop, and chatting with this guy works in the print shop. For 8 Euros, he’ll help you make yourself a souvenir using old school printing methods. Instead, we just hung out and chatted, and I made him a balloon crown. Much more fun!

Balloon Hat Bled Castle

Honey StoreWe eventually got back to our hotel, where we traded in the bikes for our rental car, and headed out with our friend GoogleMaps. When we hit another closed road, this time we re-rerouted into tiny narrow roads in residential neighborhoods.Narrow Roads.png

The adventure getting to Vintgar Gorge was as interesting as the destination. Jesus and road.png

And then we arrived at Vintgar Gorge, which again, lived up to its hype. The paths were beautiful and the water was so clear.

It was a great day, and I’m grateful for all the blogs I read before, and all the benefits of offline maps. I still feel like I got a chance to discover these beautiful spots, just in a different way than the days of traveling without technology.

Art and Heart in Ljubljana

Maybe you’ve never heard of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, but it’s a really fun city with a lot of interesting art to see. Where can you see some art in Ljubljana? If you ever go, here’s where to look:

1) On random street corners: BootsFace and Skinny Alley

2) On the sides of buildings, even in residential neighborhoods:

Close Up

3) In public art exhibits (This one was an area where it rains whenever it feels like it, even when the sun is blaring. Small wires hung very high are almost invisible, making it really seem like there’s a bizarre alternate reality where it’s raining in just one spot.)RainOwn Weather

4) In the city’s architecture! This morning we went on a free walking tour, and learned a lot about the city’s history, and all the architectural influences, from baroque or art nouveau.

5) Inside the Ljubljana Cathedral (just this regular old ceiling there):Church Ceiling

6) At the Saturday market ~ There were all sorts of crafts on display, from traditional to modern. It took A LOT of will power to resist buying all the things. The lace making was my favorite:

7) Metelkova Street, where squatters / artists have taken over a former military barracks:

One of the buildings on that street had sculptures with the best faces ever. You’ve got to look closely to see how expressive they are!

ColorsFacesClose Up Faces 2

So now you know where to go to see art when you visit Ljubljana! Do you know that the word LOVE is part of sLOVEnia? The locals know.Love

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