Slovenia: A Watery Pastoral- 21/48

If ever a country embodied the word “quaint,” it’s Slovenia. With a population just north of 2 million, the country feels like a plastic model in a museum of old mountain life. While certainly a mountain nation, Slovenia’s waters are what defines it: dark, mountain rivers, underground water, and glacial lakes. Oh, and also a lot of castles.

Slovenia 21/48

Ljubljana

Ljubljana castle

 

Ljubljana river in Ljubljana

Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, is a picturesque city on a river crowned with a castle. In the springtime, the water from the mountains runs brown, but that doesn’t detract from the city’s prettiness. It’s most prominent water-based feature is the Tromostovje, or Triple Bridge. This is exactly what it sounds like, three bridges, but really close together so it’s actually one bridge. It’s a small city.

Škocjan Caves

Skocjan caves

This massive cave system was carved by the underground and repetitiously named Reka River (Reka is the Slovene word for river). Visitors can see two (also creatively named) chambers- the Quiet and the Murmuring. The first is, well, silent and resembles a concert hall, but filled with peanut-butter-colored dripstones. Murmuring is a bit of a misnomer because the second chamber is where the Reka rushes and roils as it tries to shove its raging self through a tiny passage exit. For this reason, the giant chamber is prone to flooding,

Skocjan exit
Unfortunately, pictures aren’t allowed inside the cave, unless you’re Nat Geo, of course.

sometimes nearly to the top. There is a 40-meter bridge where you can admire the awesome waters from above. Being the last group through, as we walked the ways along the walls, they began turning the lights off behind us. Looking back was pure darkness, with only the rushing water in your ears.

 

Lake Bled

Lake Bled rowboat

Arguably the highlight of Slovenia, Lake Bled is a magical mountain lake overlooked by a cliff-side castle. The jewel of the lake is its church-topped island. This island is accessible only by boat, so you either have to hire someone to take you, or rent a boat. You can hike around the whole lake and admire its quiet mountain majesty. And also laugh at all the people who only after renting the boat realize that they don’t know how to row.

One of the more under-the-radar countries in Europe, Slovenia has many wet adventures to offer.

Winter Mountain Moods in Les Avants- Switzerland 20/48

In February, the southern Swiss Alps are in a period of transition. While ski lifts swell in the north, the south sleeps and awaits the spring thaw. Holiday towns of the summer like Les Avants hibernate in the winter chill.

Switzerland 20/48

Located quite literally up from the coast of Lake Leman (or Lake Geneva), Les Avants spends winter resting. Warm air from Europe’s biggest lake rises to be nestled in the mountain bosom. In winter only the locals move about, chalets and hiking trails sleep, verdant dreams under white pillows. During the winter slumber you can feel the awesome power of the earth, feel the old age of the stone, and feel how truly small we are. In the winter, everything sleeps, and you can finally enjoy silence.

Above Les Avants (Sonloup Funicular)

Les Avants from above

We didn’t actually take the funicular, but instead walked up to its start from its end next to our AirBnb. The colorful little town matched the little color nature had to offer: deep evergreen and the rust of unfallen leaves. Everything else was white with either snow or fog. It was around sunset when we reached the top. Not that you could see the sun, there was much too much mist. Instead the town just slowly became darker then dark.

Les Avants –> Col de Jaman

The second day was committed to a long hike, hopefully ending at the top of something. Our hike started early, before the sun (which, admittedly, rises fairly late in February). Les Avants this time of year is sleepy. Locals go to work, children go to school, life goes on, but hotels are empty, souvenirs shops closed, everything nestled in bedsheets of white snow. But, then again, it could be because it was 6am.

“Down” in the town, Lake Geneva fog was thick and clung to everything, human and plant. We eventually surfaced into the crisp mountain air, the kind that freezes your lungs and gives you the invigorating, but harrowing reminder that you are alive. The sun lightened the sky, but it too seemed reluctant to get out of bed. We finally got peeks of peaks withheld by the fog. Glittering, natural magic. Also there was an ATV with treads clearing a path up to a chalet. At the pass, the restaurants and hostels of summer were buried in snow, closed for the season.

Les Avants –> Montreux

We hiked down from Les Avants to Montreux, a small city on Lac Leman. This hike was eerie and thrilling, wandering through the haunted morning mist, getting lost a few times, feeling totally alone. That was, of course, until we got near the city. There a big highway rumbled as urban began to overtake nature. Being a city carved into a mountain, Montreux has some amazing cliff views, but getting down (or up) means stairs. 1055 stairs, to be exact. My knees will never be the same.

Switzerland is often called magical and for good reason. I hope to see it when it has thawed out.

Brussels: Beautiful and Bizarre- Belgium 19/48

The historic capital of Brussels is a story of cheeky refinement. Beneath the glittering golden gilding lives a wonderful world of weird: strange monsters, urinating children, and cigar-related philosophy.

Belgium 19/48
The road in front of the Royal Palace is empty at 8am.

Grand-Place

Brussels’ main square is perhaps the grandest place to see gilding, but it, too, is not without its weird. As a Krakow resident, it’s easy to scoff at its small size, but the facades and architecture are truly impressive. There isn’t a building on the square that doesn’t bear some kind of gold adornment save the hilariously named Breadhouse and City Hall, which instead boasts an impressive spire.

Manneken Pis

 

Equality!

This adorable little nudist has been befouling the streets of Brussels since 1618. He’s often dressed up and decorated for occasions which meant that when I saw him he was wreathed for Christmas time. He even has a sister, though she’s in a secluded dead end street and behind bars.

Museums, museums, museums

 

A trip to Brussels would be incomplete without a visit to one of its many museums. For art, it has a collection of them at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. There you can view works of many time periods and styles. Perhaps most notable is the collection of (literally) black art by the Old Masters (or the Dutch Masters if you’re not Belgian). For things more on the figurative side of dark art, you can admire the crazy creatures of the excellently named Hieronymus Bosch. Or visit a whole museum dedicated to Belgium’s surreal-est son, Magritte.

Another option is the Cinquantenaire Museum. It’s kook starts before you even enter:

Inside you can find art and artifacts from all over the world, most beautiful, some bizarre. If you, like me, tend toward the latter category yourself, you can spend an inordinate amount of time admiring hundreds of rock samples.

Parks

Along with culture and buildings Brussels has wonderful green spaces as well. The weird depends on your opinions about the faces of statues and certain weather patterns.

Top and bottom left: Brussels Park; top right: Mont des Arts Garden; bottom right: Parc du Cinquantenaire

There is much more of both splendid and strange to enjoy in Brussels. It’s definitely beautiful, maybe a little bizarre, but certainly not boring.