Slovenia Day 1 – Castles of the East

I woke up early, thanks to jet lag, and hit the road at 7:30am for Slovenia.  The distance between Budapest and the Slovenian capital city of Ljubljana is approximately 463 km, or 4.5 hours.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  However, whenever I need to drive long distances I always look to see if there are any attractive stops along the way.  Luckily, there are.  Fortunately, I was able to hit two very cool and interesting castles.  Unfortunately, I was a bit overzealous with my planning and was hoping to hit a cave and a Roman Necropolis, which didn’t quite work out as well as I had hoped.

The first stretch was the 3.5 hours starting in Budapest going to a town in Slovenia called Ptuj.  I took the highway south west along the south side of Lake Balaton, all the way to Slovenia.  My biggest concern in this whole trip has been figuring out the toll situation in Slovenia, which uses a little tool called a vignette. This is common in other countries as well (Hungary and Austria come to mind) but i had never had to buy one before so it was all new to me. The issue here is that if you get pulled over without a vignette, then you have to pay a massive fine (several hundred bucks) on the spot to the police.  But you can only really get vignettes inside the country.  They say that you can buy the vignette at the first petrol station in Slovenia.  I didn’t want to risk a fine for even a minute in the country, so once I got close to the border I got off the highway and drove along back roads until I found a petrol station where I could by the vignette before getting back on the highway (I know, I’m a little overly cautious).  Otherwise, it was a fairly easy albeit long drive.

The first stop in Slovenia was Ptuj, the oldest city in Slovenia dating back to medieval times. The main attraction is the Ptuj Castle, but there are several other interesting sites including the Town Tower, the Town Hall, the central square, the Church of St. George, the Minorite Monastery, and Orpheus Monument (among others). The Ptuj Castle, sits high on a hill with a lovely view of the city, and houses several different collections of artworks and artifacts.

Ptuj - Town Tower with St. George Church Just Behind

Ptuj – Town Tower with St. George Church just beyond, and the Orpheus Monument just in front

Ptuj - View of the town from the Castle

Ptuj – View of the town from the Castle

Ptuj Castle Courtyard

Ptuj Castle Courtyard

After a quick lunch in Ptuj, I continued toward Ljubljana and made another stop along the way at Slovenska Bistrica, another town with an important castle.  The Slovenska Bistrica castle is a Renaissance-Baroque castle that has now become a Cultural Center housing exhibits on various different aspects of Slovenian history.  The Castle also features gorgeous frescoes painted in the early 18th century by F. I. Flurer in the Knights Hall as well as the Chapel. The frescoes in the Knights Hall are particularly well preserved and quite exceptionally executed.

Stairwell with Frescoes, Slovenska Bistrica

Stairwell with Frescoes, Slovenska Bistrica

Knights Hall Frescoes, Slovenska Bistrica

Knights Hall Frescoes, Slovenska Bistrica

After a quick tour of Slovenska Bistrica Castle, I rushed to see if I could try and fit in two more sites before I arrived in Ljubljana.  The first was a Roman Necropolis in Sempeter, and the second a cave nearby called Hell’s Cave.  Unfortunately both were technically “closed” when I arrived – because it’s still June, the sites have somewhat irregular and slightly inconvenient visiting hours.

At Hell Cave (so named because some believe the rock above the entrance looks like the image of a devil) there was a hiking trail that goes past the cave that I heard was nice for a hike.  Even though I wasn’t able to enter the cave, I did decide to do the hike, which was slightly more complicated than I had anticipated.  Lacking a real map and the trail markers being somewhat inconsistent, I found myself going off trail a few times.  In the end it was a more tiring hike than I had planned, but I needed to walk around after so many hours in a car.

Hell Cave

Hell Cave entrance – I am going to see if I can fit in a scheduled tour on my way back to Budapest in a week

I went over to the town of Sempeter to see the Roman Necropolis, which had also closed somewhat early.  Well, technically the Necropolis was closed but it’s in an open area fenced off by some hedges so you could look in over the fence and still see several of the tomb stones and markers. This necropolis features reconstructed marble tombs of wealthy families from Roman Celeia dating from the 1st to the 3rd centuries A.D. It’s considered an important archeological site and Roman memorial in Slovenia.

I also read there was an old Roman Road nearby that ran through the area.  For some reason that fence wasn’t locked so I wandered into the closed off area to take a look.  There isn’t much to see but it made for a peaceful afternoon stroll.

Roman Road

Roman Road

At that point it was evening and time to make my way to Ljubljana.  I arrived and settled into my hotel, and then headed out for dinner in the city center.  I took some okay photos at sunset around the city center, but I’ll wait to post better photos in daytime tomorrow (assuming it doesn’t rain…).  I will say that the town is absolutely adorable with it’s bridges and lovely architecture and the castle looking down on the town from the hill above.  It’s a gem.  I really like here.

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Hungary and Slovenia with a side of Italy – A New Adventure

I have some friends in Hungary, who are almost like family.  One of them is a wonderful pianist, who ten years ago started a summer music festival for pianists at a castle just north of Budapest in the town of Pomaz.  I went the first year to see the festival and had an amazing time. This year they are celebrating the 10th anniversary of what has come to be called the Adam Gyorgy Castle Academy.  I decided it was time for a return visit, particularly since I have so many fond memories of Budapest and Pomaz from my first trip.

When I came to Budapest for the first time, it was part of a longer journey seeing friends in disparate corners of the continent.  This time I decided I want to stay in the region and explore some nearby areas and countries.  Having had some friends travel to Slovenia recently, who gushed over how beautiful Slovenia is, I began doing some research.

And boy was I surprised and impressed!  There are so many things to see: interesting caves, castles, lovely towns, mountains, lakes, the list goes on.

So for this holiday, I decided to do a trip in a similar vein as my recent National Parks adventure involving renting a car and roaming around.

Of course, flights being what they are, I arrived in the evening in Budapest after a rather long layover in London.  I rented my car (tip: I made the rental reservation through AutoEurope with unlimited mileage, allows me to cross borders into various countries, and other small convenient details) at the Budapest Ferhegy Airport and drove into town to spend one night here before heading out early in the morning for the first of several long days spelunking, exploring, and driving through Slovenia.

I’m staying at a lovely gem of a hotel in the center of the “Pest” side of Budapest.  I was particularly pleased to find during my sunset stroll that I am a short walk to the Liszt Academy of Music.  I took a little walk through this central area, past the Liszt Academy, past the Opera House (whose exterior is currently being renovated so it’s all covered up), through St. Stephen’s Basilica square down to the Danube to watch the sunset over the river. I even crossed the Lanchid Bridge to the Buda side to get in more photos before dinner.

Liszt Academy of Music

Liszt Academy of Music

St. Stephen Basilica

St. Stephen Basilica

Sunset over the Danube, with the Parliament in the distance

Sunset over the Danube, with the Parliament in the distance

Lanchid Bridge Illuminated

Lanchid Bridge Illuminated

With the summer days stretching ’til late, it feels early but I have to go sleep.  Tomorrow is a big day with lots of exciting things to see and I have to figure out driving across the Slovenian border, buying the vignette for your car (a sticker for your windshield that lets you legally take toll roads), so off I go to try and kick this jet lag.

Budapest – I’ll see you again in a little over a week for some more fun!

Wild Wild West Adventure Day 9: Mountains, Rivers, Lakes, and Forrest

I started the day with a rafting trip along the Snake River.  There were 10 of us on a 22′ bucket raft.  Our guide manned the oars and gave us some good information about the park, wildlife, history of the area, etc.  There were plenty of terrific views of the Tetons from the river.

Grand Tetons from the Snake River

Grand Tetons from the Snake River

The recent down pours and warmer temperatures melting ice on the mountains have added a lot of water to the river, causing it to be deeper than usual and also flow quickly. What would normally be a 2 hour rafting trip took us about 1 hour and 10 minutes to complete.  We moved very fast down that river, which made it a lot more fun for me – my concern when I signed up for the trip yesterday was that I’d be captive on a slow boat for hours.  The hour flew buy and it was a nice start to the day.

We came back to the lodge and I decided to head south toward Jenny Lake.  The concierge had told me yesterday that there were some good trails around two lakes (Taggart and Bradley) and that altogether the hike to both was around 6 miles on a loop.  This seemed like the right length for me so I made my way to the south side of the park and went on the hike.  It was really terrific, and the weather held until the end (it started raining just as I was getting back to my car).

Grand Tetons from Taggart Lake

Grand Tetons from Taggart Lake

 

From a huge boulder (you can see me standing on top)

From a huge boulder coming back from Bradley Lake

I swung by Jenny Lake, but it was a bit of a mess.  From what I can tell, Jenny Lodge is closed right now and the visitor center is under construction (there is a temporary one set up nearby). Anyways, initially I had wanted to go to Jenny Lake to take the shuttle boat across to the other side and then hike back.  However, unbeknownst to me the boat stops running at 4pm and I arrived a bit after that.  I thought I might do a shorter hike to Moose Lake (a two mile round trip) but it was drizzling and I figured I had done enough hiking already.

Mid afternoon in the rain at Jenny Lake

Mid afternoon in the rain at Jenny Lake

In the evening I went back to Leeks Marina – I had stopped there on my way down from Yellowstone yesterday and wanted to go back for dinner because I had heard that the pizzeria there is quite good (and it is!).  Also, I found the marina to be pretty low key and peaceful, and made for a nice spot to take more sunset photos (despite the thick clouds and like rain).

I enjoyed a pizza and an ice cream with my sunset photos, and it was the perfect way to end my trip.

Sunset begins at Leeks Marina

Sunset begins at Leeks Marina

 

Dusk sets in

Dusk sets in

 

Last sunlight rays peaking through the storm clouds

Last sunlight rays peaking through the storm clouds

All in all this trip has been fantastic.  I would hate to ever rank the parks since they are all so different, but I would say that the Badlands was my very favorite, followed by the Grand Tetons, and then Yellowstone.

Again, they are all fantastic, but I really loved the desert mountain feel of the Badlands.  One minute you’re surrounded by brown/red/orange striped mini-mountains, and then the next minute you’re in lust green grasslands.  I loved the constant contrast.

The Tetons dominate all the vistas in Grand Teton National Park, but they are simply spectacular in how they appear to rise right out of the lakes.  No matter what angle you see them from, they always look good.  It’s clear enough from my photos that I did not tire of photographing them.

Yellowstone was majestic and there’s a lot to see there.  The canyon and falls were really grand and the geyser basins were very cool, especially the very brightly colored ones around Old Faithful.  And the hot springs were great as well.  I don’t know why it didn’t quite capture my imagination as much as the other two parks.  It’s a lot bigger than both of the other parks combined so it just might be that I have a preference for the smaller, more compact parks.  Either way, I would recommend all three of these to anyone.

In terms of wildlife, I saw a good amount on this trip.  Of note:

  • Badlands/Wind Cave:  I saw a lot of bison and prairie dogs.  I also saw pronghorns (fastest animal in North America), big horn sheep, and lots of critters and birds.
  • Yellowstone/Grand Tetons: A lot of bison as well. I did get to see a few grizzly bears.  The first was on the side of the road in Yellowstone – that one was probably the closest one.  The second was a mama bear and two cubs yesterday through the spotting scope.  The third was this evening going to Leeks Marina for my pizza dinner, in the same spot as yesterday.  This time the grizzly was alone (that I could tell) and was a bit closer than yesterday and last I saw of it, she was running toward the road into the woods.  I decided not to stick around in case she popped up on the road… I also saw various elk, as well as numerous smaller mammals and waterfowl.  Today I got the chance to see a moose as well as a bald eagle during my river rafting trip.

So what’s next for me?  I think I’m hooked on this national park thing so I think I may try to do some of the ones further south in Utah, Colorado, and Arizona.

For now I’m going to sleep for a few hours before I have to wake up to catch an early flight home.

Wild Wild West Adventure Day 8: Yellowstone Grand Canyon encore and Grand Tetons

Today was another great day.  The weather was perfect so I decided to revisit some of the sites on the North Rim of the Yellowstone Grand Canyon. When I went there two days ago it was snowing and raining, so I wanted to see it with blue skies.

I’m glad I went back as this also gave me the chance to hike some of the North Rim Trail, which had some great views of the Upper Falls in the canyon.

Upper Falls in Yellowstone Grand Canyon

Upper Falls in Yellowstone Grand Canyon – you might remember a similar photo on Day 6 shrouded in fog and mist

Yellowstone River in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Yellowstone River in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

I considered going back to Norris to see the geyser basin, but decided that since I only have 1 full day in Grand Teton tomorrow I wanted to get a head start and spend some time hiking and exploring today.

I used the word “majestic” to describe Yellowstone and I believe the description still fits.  But Grand Teton is absolutely spectacular.  The mountains seem to burst right out of the lake, all snow-capped and rugged.  I understand the allure of the place, and I am surprised that not as many people come here as Yellowstone, especially given the proximity.

I made my way down highway 89 making several stops along the way to take in the views.

Grand Tetons

Grand Tetons from Leeks Marina

I arrived at a village called Colter Bay Village where I got a local trail map and did a 3 mile hike to Heron Pond and then to Swan Lake through the forrest.  I was a little uneasy about encountering bears, but it was all fine and made for a nice bit of exercise in the afternoon.

View of Grand Tetons on my 3 mile hike to Heron Lake and Swan Lake near Colter Bay

View of Grand Tetons behind Heron Pond on my 3 mile hike

I then took a walk along the Lake Jackson shore to take in more views and shoot some more photos of the mountains rising out of the water.

One of my favorite photos because of the pristine reflection of the mountains and clouds in the lake

One of my favorite photos because of the pristine reflection of the mountains and clouds in the lake

I continued down highway 89 going towards Jackson Lake Lodge.  On the way, there was a little bit of a traffic hold up.  Turns out there was a mother grizzly bear with two cubs in a big field by the side of the road.  They were very far out though and rather hard to see. There were a lot of folks gathered on the road, including several photography excursion groups.  The guide for one of these groups was nice enough to let me look through her spotting scope to see the bears, which was fun.  They must have been almost a mile out, so it was great to see them zoomed in.  This was definitely my preferred way of seeing a grizzly in the wild.

Shortly after I arrived at Jackson Lake Lodge to watch the sunset and eat a little dinner.

Sunset over the Grand Tetons and Lake Jackson

Sunset over the Grand Tetons and Lake Jackson

Tomorrow will be the last day on my agenda and I have some fun activities planned!

Wild Wild West Adventure Day 7: Good Old Faithful

I spent most of the day over by Old Faithful.  There’s a lot to see over there, including several trails to view different geysers and hot springs that are worth taking the time to hike.

I’m exhausted and did so much walking I can barely keep my eyes open but I am still going to try and jot down the highlights.

Today was characterized by a lot of good timing on my part.  As I walked into the Visitor Center at Old Faithful, one of the rangers announced that the Beehive geyser was about to go off – the eruption of the Beehive is even higher than that of Old Faithful and it only happens once (sometimes twice) a day, so it’s something you won’t want to miss.  I rushed outside to see it.

The Beehive Geyser erupting in the background with the Blue Star Spring in the foreground

The Beehive Geyser erupting in the background with the Blue Star Spring in the foreground

After the Beehive eruption, I roamed around to view some of the other geysers and hot springs in the Upper Geyser Basin. I made my way up a nearby mountain to an overlook that provided a nice view of Old Faithful.  And as I approached the overlook, it turns out that Old Faithful was set to erupt, so I then got the opportunity to see that.  Because of the direction of the wind I saw mostly smoke, but it was still very cool.

Old Faithful eruption

Old Faithful eruption

After, I made my way along the Upper Geyser Basin to see various geysers and springs there.  Here are some of my favorites.  Unfortunately I only noted down the names of some of them, so a few of these aren’t properly labeled.

This really starts to look like something on another planet

The colors and textures look other worldly.

 

I love the contrast of the oranges and reds against the turquoise water and blue sky

I love the contrast of the oranges and reds against the turquoise water and blue sky.

 

This one is called the Castle Geyser

This one is called the Castle Geyser

I wandered along and made my way up to the Biscuit Basin.  There was a nice peaceful trail that went up there.  I stopped at several geysers and hot springs along the way, including the famous Morning Glory, known for its spectacular colors.

Morning Glory

Morning Glory

There were numerous other beautiful geysers at the Biscuit Basin as well, also with some very bright, rich colors.

Geyser at the Biscuit Basin

One of the geysers at the Biscuit Basin

I made my way back down toward Old Faithful and took a moment to admire the Grotto Geyser, which started erupting as I was photographing it.  So of course I stayed awhile to photograph it and take videos of the eruption.

Grotto Geyser erupting!

Grotto Geyser erupting!

By the time I got back to the Visitor Center it was closed – I had been roaming the geyser basins around Old Faithful for over 5 hours!  I didn’t realize how much hiking I ended up doing just by going around the Upper Geyser Basin and hiking up to the Biscuit Basin and back.

I hopped back in my car and I headed north to Norris. I stopped at Gibbon Falls along the way to take some photos of the waterfalls there.

Gibbon Falls

Gibbon Falls

I was determined to make it up to Norris to see the Norris Geyser Basin, but when I got there I realized that it was a lot larger than I thought.  I would have needed another 2 hours to see it (I estimated). I snapped a few shots in the entrances to the different basin areas and then called it a day.  I did stop between Canyon and Lake village to take this beautiful early sunset photo of the Yellowstone River valley – this was a view I couldn’t photograph yesterday because of the snow and fog and was glad I could get back there on a better day.

Yellowstone River Valley

Yellowstone River Valley

It was sunset at the Yellowstone Lake when I got back so I enjoyed some last sunset photos before dinner.

Sunset over the lake with moon

Sunset over the lake with moon

It was a long day.  Because I was around Old Faithful most of the day it didn’t feel like I did all that much at first, but when I look back on the amount of walking I think it might have been the most active hiking I’ve done in one day on this trip so far.

I’m still hopeful I can get to Norris to see that Geyser Basin.  Tomorrow I need to head to the Grand Tetons where I will spend my last 2 nights, but if it’s a nice day I’ll go back to the Yellowstone Grand Canyon again to take a few more photos and then head over to Norris to see if I can enjoy that Geyser Basin before heading south out of Yellowstone and onward to Grand Teton.

Wild Wild West Adventure Day 6: Chasing waterfalls, geysers, and hot springs

Again, due to internet challenges, this was posted the day after.

I slept in a little and had a much needed late start to my day.

Today I wanted to do the top loop of Yellowstone, which from Lake Village would mean driving north to Canyon Village, onwards to Tower-Roosevelt, west to Mammoth Hot Springs, south to Norris, and then back east to Canyon Village and then south to Lake Village.  I figured this would be easy enough to do in the 8 hours before my 8:15pm dinner reservation.  Boy did I cut it close.

First off, I woke up to find several inches of snow accumulating on the ground.  Good thing I packed several layers so I was well prepared for the cold – I’m particularly happy I remembered to bring gloves this time (which I did not do for Mt. Fuji last summer and regretted it).  Sadly, my photos are mostly cloudy, snowy, or rainy due to the weather conditions, but I still enjoyed a full day of site seeing.

Between Lake Village and Canyon Village I probably spent 3.5 hours in that 20 mile distance. There was a lot of ground to cover and a lot of things to see, including rapids, several geysers like the Sulphur Caldron, the Mud Volcano, and then a lot of different mini-trails to view the Yellowstone Grand Canyon, which is magnificent.

Also, I enjoyed a brown bag lunch in front of a field with some bison while my socks were drying (for some reason I thought sneakers were a good idea in the snow – I soon after changed into my hiking boots which I always bring along with me).

Rapids in the snow

Rapids in the snow

Mud Volcanos

Mud Volcanos

Yellowstone Grand Canyon and River

Yellowstone Grand Canyon and River

Yellowstone Grand Canyon Lower Falls

Yellowstone Grand Canyon Lower Falls

Canyon Village was rather nice and I decided to spend a little time at the visitor center, take in a film, visit the exhibition, buy some supplies, etc.

It was mid afternoon and I decided to head north towards Tower-Roosevelt where I saw the Tower Falls and then went on to see a petrified redwood tree that somehow ended up in Yellowstone.

Petrified Redwood Tree

Petrified Redwood Tree

I was making my way to Mammoth Hot Springs to see the big hot spring/geyser situation there.  Again, it was raining the whole time, so the photos aren’t as impressive as they might be on a clear day, but it was still a good visit.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs

Steam rising up from the Mammoth Hot Springs

Steam rising up from the Mammoth Hot Springs

I made my way down to Norris after that. There was road work for a good portion of the way, which made for an annoyingly slow trip.  Of note, I saw my first grizzly.  It was hard to miss: everyone and their mother stopped their cars IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD to take photos.  I ended up having to drive on the other side of the road and weave through cars to get around the blockade.  I did, of course, see the bear a little ways away on the hillside.  It was far enough away that it would look like a boulder in any photo I took with my iPhone, so I decided to keep it as a memory and move on.  Again, I’m not that interested in getting close to a grizzly in the wild.

I did, however, see more buffalo.

Where the buffalo roam

Where the buffalo roam

There is a geyser basin at Norris but I didn’t have enough time to go visit – I’ll do that tomorrow once I see Old Faithful.

Wild Wild West Adventure Day 5: Onwards to Jackson Hole and Yellowstone

Unfortunately due to internet issues in Yellowstone, I was only able to post this today, May 23rd.

I said goodbye to South Dakota today and made my way to Jackson Hole Wyoming (I flew through Denver – I wasn’t about to drive).  I arrived in the early afternoon and decided to take a couple of hours to explore the Jackson Hole town.  It’s a cute area, with lots of shops and things to peruse and pretty views of the mountains.

Jackson Hole Street with Mountain

Jackson Hole Street with Mountain

Around 3:30 I decided to start heading north towards Yellow Stone. On the drive up to Yellowstone I stopped at almost every picnic area or overlook/view point I could find along the road to take photos.

To get to Yellowstone from Jackson Hole, you have to drive through Grand Teton National Park which is gorgeous.  I will be staying there for 2 nights on my way back to Jackson Hole, so I’ll get more time to enjoy the sites and explore the area then.

Grand Teton

Grand Teton

I am a bit hazy at which point Grand Teton turned into Yellowstone (you have to pass through another gate for the latter) but I believe the following photo was already in Yellowstone.

Lewis River in Yellowstone

Lewis River in Yellowstone

Toward the end of the day I stopped at a place called the West Thumb Geyser Basin where there were a bunch of geysers coming out of the ground – easily several dozen from what I could tell.

West Thumb Geyer Basin

West Thumb Geyser Basin

I’m staying right by Yellowstone Lake.  I enjoyed numerous pretty views of the lake.  I was given a tip that there is a place called Lake Butte Overlook that has a beautiful view of the lake at sunset.  So off I went to check that out and it was worth the little trip out there.  The clouds were hanging particularly low today.

Clouds with Grand Tetons in the far distance

Clouds with Grand Tetons in the far distance

 

Sunset with tree silhouette

Sunset with tree silhouette

 

Clouds and Yellowstone Lake at sunset

Clouds and Yellowstone Lake at sunset

I’m pretty wiped out.  I woke up at 5am to get my flight out here and then spent the day moving around and chasing waterfalls, lakes, mountains, and sunset views throughout the park.

I’ll say that so far Yellowstone has been really nice.  But I really miss South Dakota – I loved the Badlands and the Black Hills.  There’s snow here in Yellowstone and it’s a bit colder, and I’m not wild about either (snow or the cold).  Also, there are bears here and I’m a little uneasy about encountering one of those.  It is very beautiful, but I liked the sort of other-worldly-ness of the Badlands.  Being in the Badlands felt like being on another planet – the topography is the sort of thing you could never imagine existing here on earth.  Whereas Yellowstone is a very grand version of some of the vegetation and growth that we’ve seen in other parts of the country.  It doesn’t feel other-worldly to me.  However it does feel amazingly majestic, and I fully appreciate it for that.

In terms of wildlife, I have already encountered numerous bison and some female elk.  I’m hoping to see more tomorrow.

Well, I’ve only been here a day and I’ve been enjoying it so far so we’ll see how the next few days go.

I think I’ll let myself sleep in a little bit tomorrow and then spend the afternoon hiking and exploring!