Friday, 31 August 2012

A week on Lošinj island

This summer there is something going on all the time and it looks like M. and I will not get to go on a serious vacation. The good side of this is we are doing many shorter trips.



Since we both fall into sea-lovers category, hardly any summer vacation goes by without at least a short trip to the seaside. After all this year will not be so much different - we are heading on a short (one week) trip to Croatian island of Lošinj.


We have been there quite a few times before and we always love going back. It is relatively close to Slovenia and it offers a unique combination of hiking opportunities, crystal clear waters, lots of shade and that great smell of pine trees. As usually we are going camping - we love camping!



These two photos are from one of our previous trips to the island. I guess it is quite obvious we can hardly wait to head back there. You can expect some more details about the trip when we return.

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Monday, 27 August 2012

Introduction to Kayaking

A few weeks ago a friend of mine invited me to join him on a Kayaking introduction course. He was one of the organizers of this event taking place at a regional park near the Slovenian town of Idrija.


The place is called Idrijska Bela and it has been a popular local summer getaway destination for ages. A narrow road from the town of Idrija follows the Idrijca river upstream to the point where a stream called Belca joins it.


On your way to this public natural swimming spot where you also pass by the interesting Divje jezero. This "Wild lake" (as it translates into English) is remarkably deep. Actually the depths of this lake still remain undiscovered.
The lake is also the source of the shortest river in Slovenia (only 55 meters or 180 ft long).


The Kayaking event was a part of series of sports events taking place in this beautiful setting almost every summer weekend. As such it was also free of charge.
When we heard about this M. and I were both very excited about it as it was going to be our first kayaking experience.


We expected to see a serious crowd trying to seize this opportunity but it was not so bad. Actually there were quite a few spaces left for random passers-by. This kayaking preschool as organizers called it, was divided into a few rounds - each taking one hour.


The part of Idrijca river where the event took place is dammed, so the water was pretty calm. This meant instructors could come up with different games to make things interesting. At the same time each of those games included various exercises aimed to help us develop a better feel for our kayaks.


We both did quite well but at the same time we also began to understand how much effort we would have to invest before being able to tackle some serious rapids. Some things were quite hard to do even on still water. We could only imagine how it would feel on some white water rapids.


At the end of our course we also got to try an Eskimo roll. This is the act of righting a capsized kayak by use of body motion and/or a paddle.
It does not just look hard - it actually is. I guess I do not have to point out no one of us succeeded without at least a little bit of help from our trusty instructor.


Fortunately the Eskimo roll is not the only way of freeing yourself from a capsized kayak. You can also simply swim out of it and drag your kayak to the shore. By doing this it gets filled with water. Emptying it usually requires quite a bit of effort.


Some of us had the privilege of trying it a couple of times.


All in all it was another great day spent in the beautiful nature. We were really glad we took part in the event and got a taste of kayaking. We actually liked it so much, we are thinking of trying it in a little bit more serious environment.
Luckily in Slovenia one can find some of the best rivers for this sport. The only problem is, I would never dare to attempt it without some professional guidance...

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Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Wordless Wednesday: Butterfly goes Ziplining

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Friday, 17 August 2012

Zipline Slovenia - A shot of adrenaline

Soča river valley in Slovenia is one of top European destinations for adrenaline addicts, water-sports enthusiasts and nature lovers.


The place literally looks like out of a fairytale and obviously I am not the only one who noticed it. A part of the movie The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian was filmed in the town of Bovec. They filmed the climax of the battle at Beruna's Bridge there.



This place has been a popular destination for water sports like rafting and kayaking for decades. There are also other activities worth looking at when visiting the area. Canyoning and paragliding are definitely two of them and recently also zip-line has joined this already very interesting array of choices.


I have already tried some of those things before and really liked them. This time I decided to try this new thing simply called - Zipline Slovenia.



Zip-lining (also known as a flying fox, aerial ropeslide or Tyrolean slide) consists of a pulley suspended on a cable spanning between two high points. Simply put - gravity helps you travel from the top to the bottom of the inclined cable by attaching to (and hanging from) the freely moving pulley.



This particular zip-line adventure starts with a scenic drive up the mountainside in an ex-military 4x4 car (TAM-110). Even views from the back of the car are spectacular and as such just the right introduction for the things to come.
First you get all the necessary equipment and after a quick training course the real thing begins...



The 2.4 kilometers long zip-line is divided in four sections - approximately 500 meters each. After every slide there is a short - few minute walk to the start of the next line. The path is quite steep in some parts so do not forget to bring comfortable trekking shoes.
The estimated top speed of the fastest line is over 60km/h and the cables are set 130-200 meters above the ground, each providing stunning views of the Soča river valley.



Personally I liked the one going through tree canopies best. Tree branches flying past gave an impression of even greater speed.
Throughout the whole experience the two instructors kept a close eye on individual participants giving us tips and precise instructions regarding safety and appropriate aerodynamic positions on each of the rides.



Everything from arranging this 3 hour adventure to the actual rides on the lines was done very professionally and I can only recommend it. Despite the natural environment this "adventure park" is set in, the whole thing felt surprisingly safe and controlled all the way through.



If you are having second thoughts about doing this because of a mild fear of heights - trust me, you do not need to worry about a thing. I actually think you will enjoy this zip-line the most if you are not completely comfortable with heights and exercises involving yourself hanging from a wire while flying super fast from one hill to another.
A scream echoing from the mountains now and then will only add to the whole experience.



Since this is the longest and the most spectacular zip-line in this part of Europe, it can get pretty crowded. Booking ahead of time is highly recommended. Visit Zipline Slovenia on their webpage for additional information.
If you find yourself strolling through the center of Bovec, you can also visit Aktivni Planet tourist agency. They will provide all the information you may need. They speak perfect English.

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Monday, 13 August 2012

Lechazo - The Spanish sacred roast lamb

As I already mentioned in my previous post, roast lamb and pork are the dishes a visitor to the province of Segovia (Castile y León, Spain) definitely must taste before moving on. Actually this is much more than just food - it is more of a tradition and some might even define it as religion.
The roasting of lamb is an ancient art of this region which has not changed much for centuries. Even today this art of preparing and the delight of eating it remain something of a ritual.



During my visit to the region I visited two villages - Pedraza and Sepulveda, renowned for some of the best restaurants offering traditional lechazo.


For a lamb to be classified as lechazo, the meat has to comply with several regulations.
For the meat to be tender enough a lamb must be slaughtered when it is 20 to 30 days old and weighing between 5-7 kg. It must also have only been fed on its mother's milk and cannot have grazed. That is where the name lechazo comes from - the Spanish word for milk is leche. Also not every breed is appropriate for this purpose. The most commonly used is Churra breed, although a few others are also allowed.



To taste the real thing one should visit a typical Castilian asador - restaurant specializing in roast meats. Since this is the only thing they do, there usually is no need for menus. Lamb is roasted in a wood-fired oven for around four hours until the meat is cooked through. These traditional clay or brick dome-shaped ovens are also part of Spain's Arab heritage.
If the main ingredients (in this case - the lamb) are as they should be, the preparation is pretty simple. Quartered lamb is placed in clay pots and only a cup of water and some salt is used in the cooking process.


With all this in account it is obvious, this can not be a very cheap treat. Nevertheless it is something definitely worth tasting.



With some local help we found one of the best asadors in the area. Situated in a picturesque village of Sepúlveda, Figón Zute el Mayor is one of around 20 such places there. You can find it in a street just below the main square.
At this asador one can choose from a very limited list of things on the menu - actually there is no menu. If you visit this place it is kind of obvious, you came for the lamb.
I guess besides the lamb you can only get a salad, some cured meats, fresh home-made bread, one or two local deserts and you can wash it all down with wine or water. That is it.
Frankly there is no need for anything else. It is a combination that goes together perfectly.


The meal we had there was simply delicious and I can only recommend it. I will definitely visit this place again if I just get a chance.



For me the lamb itself is a good enough reason to visit this old town. However loosing yourself in the narrow streets of Sepúlveda is also quite an experience. There is the old village cemetery and also a museum worth visiting.


For nature and sports enthusiasts there is also a chance to visit Hoces del Río Duratón Natural Park. It is a nearby picturesque river canyon with 100 meter high cliffs and as such a great place for bird watching, canoeing and climbing.

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Friday, 10 August 2012

Stunning little town of Pedraza

What I really like about old towns is character. Spain is full of such small towns and even villages.



Pedraza is definitely one of them. Lying 40 kilometers north-west from Segovia, with its 500 inhabitants, today it is nothing more than a small town. Many well preserved buildings and a castle with magnificent walls tell a story of a once important settlement. Everything is restored with a lot of care and it does not come as a surprise that a few years ago the town won a special European prize "for bringing new life to the medieval walled town and respectfully restoring its old buildings".


It has been a tourist destination since the seventies and has been gaining popularity since then. Even if you are not interested in historic details it definitely deserves a stroll through its cobbled streets.



Apart from a great variety of restaurants in which one can enjoy the area's exquisite cuisine (you must have a taste of delicious roast pork and lamb in traditional Segovian style) as well as magnificent accommodation, supposedly Pedraza has become an excellent place to go to look for rustic furniture as well as gifts and decorative items.
Since furniture and souvenirs were not on my list this time, I tried to concentrate on many photo motives. Some of the results could easily make it into picture-postcard category.



If you are ever in the neighborhood, do not miss an opportunity for a walk and a cool drink at one of many authentic looking bars in the main town square.

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Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Wordless Wednesday: Bell tower of Sepúlveda

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Monday, 6 August 2012

Iglesia Vera Cruz

This small church near Segovia, Spain was consecrated in 1208. Vera Cruz (literally meaning True Cross) was built by the Knights Templar to house a fragment of the True Cross.


This church has a unique 12-sided exterior with a tower on the south side. Its shape is patterned on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where according to legend the True Cross was found by St. Helen in the 4th century.



The insides are supposed to be quite interesting - the round nave centers on an unusual two-story gallery, where the Knights are thought to have kept vigil over the sliver of wood.
I guess views from the tower must be great but even from bellow there is a great view of the Alcazar and the old city.

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Friday, 3 August 2012

Music flowing through the streets of La Granja

Every year La Granja de San Ildefonso is one of FEMUKA street jazz festival venues.


Upon arrival to La Granja all the musicians lined up and played a tune or two while marching towards the center of the town. The first part of the concert took place in the shade of a small park. A group of locals was joined by a random group of tourists and everyone listened with smiles on their faces.



Almost every other street was also filled with music when bands marched past. Even a stop at a random resulted in a spontaneous jam session.
It was a great feeling to just tag along and enjoy the almost non-stop musical experience.



With or without music, this tiny old Spanish town, situated just 75 kilometers from Madrid is well worth a visit.


It is famous for a royal palace (Palacio Real de La Granja) built during the reign of Philip V and was used as a summer residence of the Kings of Spain for quite a while. It is quite obvious the palace itself and its vast gardens (covering more then 6 square kilometers!) were heavily influenced by Versailles.



The royal palace houses an interesting museum with luxuriously decorated rooms.
A part of the museum is dedicated to the Tapestry Museum. Highlights of the Tapestry Museum include the Flemish Apocalypse series, The Triumphs of Petrarch and the Honours and Virtues series, based on cartoons by Goya.
These cover a huge section of walls and the details are absolutely amazing. I was lucky enough to enjoy the company of a person heavily involved in putting together of brochures about those tapestries. Unfortunately in our very limited time there, we could only scratch the surface of the story behind those stunning pieces of art. Also photography is not allowed within the museum, so to get an idea of how those tapestries look like, you will have to look elsewhere.


If you are reading this - thanks again Brian for being a great host and guide. I hope there will be another chance for a proper tour of the palace together with its beautiful gardens. The whole place definitely deserves it.



If such palaces are not your thing, there are also other reasons for visiting this cute little walled town. Every year many known musicians choose to stop at this place for a concert.
In the past artists like Björk, Michael Bolton, Kar Češ Brass Band and José Carreras have already performed at La Granja de San Ildefonso. If you are planning a visit to the area it is always worth checking if there is something going on at the moment.


It is hard to describe how special this little Spanish town really is. Maybe Brian mentioned above said it best: "I came here from Ireland with my wife to teach English for a year. Now, twenty-and-some years later, we can't imagine living anywhere else."

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Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Wordless Wednesday: FEMUKA concert crowd

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