Lake Bled, Slovenia

About five years ago I saw a picture of what looked like a fairy tale brought to life. It was of a gorgeous lake, surrounded by towering mountains, with a tiny island in the middle with an old church on it. I wasn’t sure if it was real, but eventually tracked it down: Lake Bled, Slovenia.

Slovenia. It sounded remote and was definitely not a place I already had on my list. But after seeing that photo, up it went, and I am so incredibly glad I was able to go last Semana Santa, in between Italy and Croatia.

I made friends with a few people from my hostel, and we decided to spend the day in Bled together. Getting there from Ljubljana is really easy. The bus leaves right from the main station, and drops you off right at the lake about and hour and fifteen minutes later. They depart hourly, and are 7 euros each way. Some buses even continue on to Bohinj, which is another gorgeous looking lake. You can also go by train, which is faster but the stop is a few miles away from the lake so unless you feel like a walk, you’d have to then catch the bus or take a cab.

It was as stunning in person as it is in photos, which isn’t always the case, and even though it was Easter we only had to share the lake with about ten other people. We spent a few hours walking the loop, and at about the midpoint found a little shop that had groceries–we picked up some wine and the makings for a picnic. There’s a trail almost directly across from where you first enter that leads to the most incredible view point. It was a lot more steep and rocky than I had expected, but WOW were the views worth it. We stayed up there for about an hour, picnicking, and soaking in the beauty. There are hostels nearby if you want to stay for the night, but unless you’re planning on going to Bohinj the next day, there’s not much to do in the area once you’ve done the lake. It’s a perfect as a day trip from Ljubljana, and such a perfect way to cap off any trip to Slovenia.

48 hours in Ljubljana, Slovenia

A weekend in Ljubljana was the perfect rest stop between the craziness of Italy, and the fast paced road trip I was about to embark on with G.

A tiny capital city, there is very little to do but wander around, soak in the beauty, and speak to the amazingly friendly locals. Also ask again and again how to pronounce it–apparently it’s Loo-blah-nah. But the Spanish call it Libby-anna, the Germans have something else entirely, and it seemed like every person I asked had their own take–even the natives! So I guess the best advice is to just go with your gut and hope not to get it too wrong.

There weren’t many tourists while I was there–and this was over Easter holidays. I love avoiding tourists and instead trying to get a feel of what actually living in a place might be like.. And after the loneliness I felt in Venice, Ljubljana was the perfect place to do some solo travel.

The bus I took from Italy was delayed at the border due to what could only be described as some pretty serious racism. It was horrible to have to powerlessly witness it, and be unable to do anything to help.

Because of the delay we didn’t get into the city until past midnight, and I entered in a bit of a panic–my phone wasn’t working (the new rule that keeps EU phones working across borders is THE BEST, but hadn’t yet gone into effect), my hostel had a 21:00 pm check in cut off, and I had no idea how safe it would be to walk the streets alone at night.

Luckily, I was in Ljubljana which is probably the most charming, friendly, and sweet European city I’ve visited. They had free wifi everywhere, so I could easily log on, find my hostel, and alert them to my arrival. Walking the streets felt a lot safer than it does in London or even LA. There wasn’t a single moment I felt nervous walking alone.

I stayed at Zeppelin Hostel and I really loved it. However—I woke up on my second morning to discover that both me and the girl below me were covered in itchy red marks! BED BUGS. I don’t know if it’s me in particular, of if everyone is equally horrified by the idea of bugs crawling all over them whilst they sleep, but it was a really horrendous discovery. The hostel was fantastic, moving me to a new room, washing all my things (pretty great after a week on the road), and made my entire stay free. They were great people and from talking to others around Ljubljana, it sounds like it’s a huge problem at all the hostels—the bed bugs come up from Northern Italy—even the trains and buses that do the route are infested. So if you’re staying in a hostel, check the mattress carefully before climbing into bed!

BUT, even bed bugs could not get me down, as Ljubljana was fantastic. There’s not much to do, to be sure. You really only need a day or two in the city–it really is the perfect respite. I hiked up to the castle that sits atop the city, swung on the swing, and read a bit. 

Honestly though, wandering around the city, popping into shops, and eating the delicious food was so refreshing. To anyone who needs a respite after a bit of hectic travel, I highly, highly recommend taking a break in Ljubljana. There’s no need to sightsee, because the city is the sight. That, and Lake Bled, obviously, which is one of the most magical places I’ve ever been.

After 48 hours hanging around in Ljubljana, I was ready for the next adventure. I went into the bus station, and there were so many bus companies that weren’t listed online, with routes to Belgrade, Sarajevo, Trieste, and more, all for under 10 euros. My advice would be to check here before booking anything online, where the options were much more expensive.

I had a week before I had to meet G, and could go anywhere. The freedom was such a fantastic feeling, only hampered by the realization I couldn’t do it all. After checking out the weather, connections, and timings, I decided on Zagreb, as it was where G and I were meeting, but we wouldn’t actually spending any time in outside the airport. And seriously, it was the right choice!

24 hours in Venice

Going to Italy during Semana Santa helped me realize something about myself–I hate tourists. Not just other people, but I don’t like being one myself. It’s probably why whenever I go anywhere I even moderately connect to, I’m convinced I’ll move there one day and experience the place like only a true local can. That said, I don’t want to move to Venice. Venice is like Prague to me–too magical to be real. I couldn’t ruin Venice by actually moving there and having to worry about running late for work or changing the kitty litter or any other real life burdens. I want to preserve it’s otherworldly charm, but I do still want to go back. Because of Semana Santa the cheapest hostel I could find was over $45 and I could only afford a night there.

Venice was my second stop of 17 day trip over Semana Santa, and to be honest about the fact that travel is not all wonderful all the time, my night in Venice was not the best. Usually I love traveling alone, but after Rachel left Italy to go back to London, I was facing another week alone before Gareth and I met in Zagreb, and I suddenly felt really lonely. Add in that I didn’t arrive until the sun was beginning to set, and that Venice is not exactly the ideal place to be a single– I spent the most of the night sticking close to my hostel and on the phone with Gareth. Lame, I know.

Luckily after a good night’s sleep I remembered how much I actually love solo travel, and got my mojo back. I spent the day wandering through the maze like passages, stopping in awe every few minutes that a place like that actually exists.

    

I don’t have a ton of suggestions for how to best “do” Venice, because I don’t think I did it properly. I have a few suggestions based off of lessons I learned, however.

Book early – and by this I mean everything. Accommodation, certainly. But there are places online you can arrange a gondola share, because they are privately hired and seriously expensive. That said, the looks on people’s faces as they rode convinced me they are worth it.

Get off the beaten track – the restaurants that have their menus in a dozen different languages aren’t going to be the ones with food you never forget. One of my biggest regrets was the place I chose for dinner. I was staying in the Jewish area, an immediate left after crossing the Guglie bridge. I had wandered deeper into the city, and it was getting dark. I knew it was a bad idea, but I settled for a place on Rio Terà San Leonardo that was filled with tourists and served legitimately bad food. On the five minute walk back to my hostel, along Fondamenta Cannaregio, I passed about three places lit by candle lit and filled with Italians. Learn from my mistakes. And probably go to dinner on that street cause it looked amazing.

Buy a water bus day pass. The pass is 20 euros and a single journey is 7.50. The ride is such a good tour of the city, and to have been able to go to San Marco, Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore, and back to Guglie all on a water taxi would have been great.

Set aside time to get lost – this, I did, and it was one of my favorite parts of the day. As I wandered back from San Marco to Guglie, I passed through quiet, residential areas that were nearly empty, and offered just as much charm as the packed city center. I also stumbled upon La Bottiglia, which is an amazing deli. They asked me to trust them and built me the most incredible sandwich. If you like sandwiches, this is your place.

Saint Mark’s Square – They charge an outlandish price to sit and have a drink, but you should do it anyway. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s everything you imagine when you think of Venice. Have the Prosecco, obviously. Sit and listen to music and watch people try get a photo with the pigeons. Drink in the magic of the city, and if you’re like me have to remind yourself over and over again that you haven’t fallen into a movie set, but that Venice is a real place that exists in the world.

 

Dinner at Il Teatro del Sale

Il Teatro del Sale is an all you can eat dinner followed by a show, and the kind of dining experience you’ll remember forever. You’d think it would be overflowing with tourists, but when we went we were the only non-Italians in attendance. It’s the kind of place you immediately feel at home in, almost like you’re all having dinner in someone’s (huge) living room. There are private tables and community tables and as everyone gets up to collect the next dish at the same time, it feels like one big group dinner.

It’s run by a husband and wife team, he handles the food, she handles the entertainment. Together, they make quite the pair and have turned the place into a Florentine treasure. There are hundreds of dinner options in Florence, but you can tell this one is in the heart of the city and its history.

It’s a members only club, so to attend you have to become a member. It’s 7 euros to join and around 35 for the meal. Not exactly cheap, and also the (unlimited) wine that is included is quite literally undrinkable–and this is coming from a girl who thinks Franzia and two buck chuck is surprisingly tasty. We kept checking to see if other people were drinking it, wondering if maybe it had oxidized and no one noticed, but no. It was only a small few, but some people went back for seconds. We tried to power through, if only to be polite, but it was honestly like drinking nail varnish. Suffice it to say, we did not finish our (small) glasses, and they only sell wine by the bottle. The cheapest is another 30 euros, not ideal, and not an inexpensive night.

That said, everything else was amazing. The food was delicious. Like, really, really good. And there was tons of it. I eat a lot and even I was super overwhelmed with the amount and variety in front of me. The service was excellent, though we had an amazing language barrier experience.

The way the place runs is there’s always food being served on a table that you can just go grab. While this is happening the chefs are cooking a ton of other things right from the kitchen, and when that is ready the chef yells out, in Italian, what the next course is, and you line up and wait for them to hand you a plate. Easy enough. However, this was described to us as “when the cook screams, you must go running because there is a situation in the kitchen.” After a slightly concerned second wondering exactly what situation occurring in the kitchen would cause the chef to scream, we realized what he meant. It was hilarious and sweet and so nice to not be the one making little sense in a second language for a change!

The show afterwards was my favorite part. It was two older guys, and I’ve never seen anyone love what they do so much. One of them was literally grinning and jumping around the entire time, and if I can be half as happy and content as he is, I will consider myself a success.

They serve brunch as well, and next time I’m in Florence I will definitely be back. I highly recommend this place to anyone wanting an authentic Italian experience!

48 hours in Florence

YOU GUYS. I had the most incredible Semana Santa in the history of the world. Probably. At least top 10.

Just so we have a general timeline to work with here, I left Logroño on Thursday, April 6th, spent the night in Barcelona airport once again (it went better this time). I flew out on the 7th at 6:00 am, and started a whirlwind trip around southern and eastern Europe.

Florence from April 7th to April 9th
Venice from April 9th to April 10th (too short!)
Slovenia from April 10th to April 12th
Zagreb from April 12th to April 16th
Zadar from the 16th – 17th
Split from 17th to 19th
Mostar from the 19th to the 20th
Dubrovnik from the 20th to the 22nd

Whew! It was a LOT of travel and a lot of moving around, but it was the perfect road trip itinerary and a great way to see Croatia. The only things I would change would for it to have been longer, so I could have spent more time in Venice and Mostar. Also so I could have gone to Sarajevo and Montenegro, haha. It’s never enough!

Doing Florence in 48 hours is sad, because you’ll fall in love and have to say goodbye so quickly, but totally doable. The city is very walkable, things tend to be grouped together, and in just over an hour of walking you can see the major sights.

  • I’d recommend starting at the Galleria dell’Accademia and checking out the amazing artwork and saying hello to David.
  • Then I’d head to the Duomo and see the Cathedral, climb to the top if you were smart enough to book tickets, and hang out in the plaza for a bit. Everything is so beautiful.
  • On the way to Ponte Vecchio stop at Palazzo Vecchio before windowing shopping all the gorgeous old jewelry.
  • Take a left and head to San Niccolò, a laid back and artsy neighborhood filled with great places to grab some food and have a few drinks. Even when Florence is packed around Easter holidays, you’ll still feel like you’ve escaped the tourists.
  • Make your way up to the viewpoint Piazzale Michelangelo, where you can soak in everything you’ve just seen and done. If the timing is right, you could enjoy the best sunset in town.
  • Head to Il Teatro del Sale for a unique and authentic dinner. You’ll have done all the touristy bits in the beginning of the day and end it with a view, dinner, and show that you’ll remember forever. Not a bad itinerary!

Florence was the perfect introduction to Italy, and it was the perfect time to go to Italy, considering my recent Italian news! I arrived at 8 am on no sleep, but as our (amazing, beautiful) flat wouldn’t be ready for hours, I decided to explore the city. I wandered around Ponte Vecchio (in my exhaustion it took me far too long to realize that’s where I was/it was even a bridge, haha), and looked at all the jewelry I’ll never be able to afford. I ended up at Piazza Pitti, where people were sunbathing and locals were selling artwork and crafts.

I found the perfect place to lay down and wait for Rach to arrive, and my favorite part of Florence, just by heading to the greenest bit on the map. I walked quite a ways until I got to Piazzale Michelangelo, where I was rewarded with the absolute best view of Florence. I headed down to the gorgeous Rose Garden and read my book, basking in happiness and feeling pretty astonished that I could finally call this country a little bit mine.

Rachel arrived and we settled into our flat. YOU GUYS. This flat… there are not words or pictures that do it justice. It was HUGE. And GRAND. Its front door was the biggest door I’ve ever actively used. It had a little old lift that we got slightly stuck in. The windows and shutters were dreamlike. Oh and also it had a mural painted on the ceiling, because why not. The bed was far too enticing, but seeing Rachel was just the boost of energy I needed, and we headed back across the Arno to go to Culinaria De Gustibus Bistrot. And thank god we did. Our food was amazing. We had so much of it, and they kept bringing us free extras. I cannot recommend this place enough. It was cozy, had a great ambiance, and a great place to catch up over a bottle of wine.

After an early night we decided the next day would be our tourist day. We’d hit all the major sights. Advice: book everything in advance. We didn’t and definitely should have. First we went to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see David. The line was long but there were people selling tickets to skip the line for only about 10 euros more, which seems like a scam, but is not. We decided it was worth it, especially as we had discovered we couldn’t go to the top of the Duomo at the Cathedral of Florence because they were booked for days.

I’m not going to lie, we were slightly uncultured and honestly debated if seeing David was worth it. In case you need any convincing, I am here to tell you that it is one million percent worth it. He is stunning. When I was in Amsterdam I was happy I went to the Van Gogh Museum, but none of the paintings really surprised me. I’d seen prints, they were cool to see in person but that was kind of it. David was nothing like that. He was huge. He was a masterpiece that caused awed silence and extended observation. The whole museum was worth it on its own but you guys. Don’t miss David.

From there we headed to the Cathedral and Palazzo Vecchio, which are pretty close to each other. After that it was a direct shot across the river and back to my favorite place, the neighborhood leading to Piazzale Michelangelo, San Niccolò. We grabbed a menu of the day lunch at Trattoria Cent’ori (good not great), before heading up to check out the views. We wine hopped our way back to our flat to get ready for the ultimate dining experience: Il Teatro del Sale.

We spent the next day wandering around eating, taste testing all the gelato, and checking out Palazzo Vecchio. Even though we only had a weekend there, I feel like we saw the main things, and even got out of the tourist heavy areas for more authentic experiences.