I didn’t want to leave Slovenia, but there were other roads to explore and things to see. And upon leaving Slovenia, we had the opportunity to do something I may never do again – we rode through three countries on the same day. Granted, very small portions of each, but still… It felt pretty novel.
Leaving Slovenia we crossed first into Italy. With the current open border policy within EU (Schengen Agreement), moving from one country into its neighbor is not unlike moving from state to state within the US. Old border stations are vacant, and on some of the small roads and bikeways we travelled on, it was only when you saw signage in a different language that you knew you had crossed into new land.
From the Italian border town of Tarvisio – once an important village along the ancient trade routes across the Alps to Venice – we returned to Austria.
We would spend the next several days cycling in the Austrian state of Carinthia, and the beautiful valley of the River Drau, before heading to Lake Wörthersee. The cycling was easy and quite enjoyable, with expansive views of the valley and the river. Our daily routes included both paved and gravel roads, along with large stretches of the R1 – the Drau Cycleway – an easy 366km bike route that passes through the numerous towns and villages, and is very popular among both day and multi-day cycling enthusiasts.
From the city of Villach and the Drau River valley, we cycled along the Drava River and on to Lake Wörthersee and the resort town of Velden. While it was nice to be pampered at the Schloss Velden (a Condé Nast “Hot Hotel” and spa), I found the cycling here to be rather anti-climactic, especially after our days in the Alps of Slovenia and the mountain-flanked valleys outside of Spittal en der Drau and Villach.
My favorite sight on this leg of our trip was the village and church of Maria Wörth (dating back to 875AD), situated on its own peninsula on the southern shore of Lake Wörthersee.
Our cycling sadly came to an end in Velden, but we would still have one final adventure – albeit not on our bikes. From Austria, we would end our adventure in La Serenissima, the incredible city of Venice, a city that made her mark on me. And this will be the last story, coming very soon…
Cycling along the shores of Lake Bled, especially on a day when low clouds tease the mountain tops and mist drifts through the spruce forests, you can easily become convinced you have ridden into the pages of a fairytale. Out of the corner of you eye, veiled in eddies of mist, small white petals of woodland flowers – like tiny wings – tremble as a drop of water falls from a spruce tip. Something stirs the forest floor. A medieval castle, impossibly built high on a rocky cliff, rises above the steeple and stairs of an ancient church that sits, isolated, on its own small island.
You suddenly believe in fairies, dwarves, legends, and kings.
This is where our cycling adventure began, and where I first began to fall in love with the country of Slovenia. It was impossible not to.
Just to give some clarification and perspective on the cycling, we once again used trip planning services of VBT (Vermont Bicycling Tours) as we had such a wonderful experience previously on our trip through Tuscany. They supplied us with our bikes, arranged our lodging, moved our off-bike bags, and provided us with two of the most wonderful Slovenian guides – Damjan and Matej.
Each day, our two guides would provide maps and suggestions of things to see, places to stop, additional cycling routes and loops – and translation help when we needed it. On several days, they would appear en route, bringing us wonderful picnic lunches.
As lifelong residents raised and educated in Slovenia, Damjan and Matej had extensive cultural, geographical, political and historical insight – information that they shared openly with us, providing context to the often-dramatic changes the country has endured. On bikes, they let us customize our own trip to our own desires, and at our preferred pace – yet were always there to help when we needed it. Even though we were part of a larger group of 19 cyclists, we were free to ride on our own (as Mark and I did), choose our own route options, and make our own adventures. On several evenings, a number of us gathered to enjoy a beer and some engaging conversation and stories from the day – it was open, genuine, fascinating and enjoyable, and the friendships we made were one of the trip’s greatest gifts for me.
Upon leaving Lake Bled, we headed to the area around Kranjska Gora and Podkoren, and the stunning mountains in the region of Triglav National Park. The mountains here are breathtaking, with profiles and colors different than any other mountains I have seen – from Alaska to the Rockies. They are stunningly vertical and dramatic, their luminous granite peaks rising out of deep blue-green forests. Icy mountain streams, with beds of white stones, are pristine and crystal clear – and it is claimed they are safe to drink from (altho we did not – but I did stop and wade in).
In the village of Mojstrana, Mark and I made a side visit to the Slovenian Alpine Museum. Here we learned about the area’s mountaineering history, along with hiking, trekking and climbing opportunities within the region, and the network of mountain huts that are available to the public. They also cited the fact that over 75% of the Slovenian population are members of the Alpine Association of Slovenia – a testament to how beloved and culturally significant the mountains are to Slovenian people.
While our cycling was mostly along the valley, we did cycle up to site of the World Cup ski jumping area and did a brief stint on the Vrsic Pass – a popular and challenging cycling route, climbing nearly 1200 meters over 11 km, with 24 switchbacks up to the summit. We arrived rather late in the day, and I am not ashamed to confess that my legs fell off well before the summit. But it’s a ride I have added to my bucket list, and I definitely plan to return.
We also rode up to Lake Jasna – where a bronze statue of an Ibex stands over the stunningly clear turquoise lake, surrounded by mountains peaks. It made me think of a story Matej shared with us, the Trenta folktale of one of the most well-known and symbolic figures of the region – the legend of Zlatorog, the golden-horned chamoix. Rich in detail, filled with old taboos and enduring truths, is basically goes something like this…
Zlatorog is the name for a majestic white chamoix with golden horns. He roamed the mountains with the White Fairies, helping humans who ventured into the mountains, guarding the treasures hidden deep within the mountains, and keeping the valleys green and beautiful. In a valley village below, an innkeeper’s daughter was being courted by a local hunter, who professed his love and brought her flowers from the mountain meadows.
One day, a Venetian merchant arrived in the village and tried to win the heart of the young woman with gifts of gold. The hunter, in his jealousy, decided the only way to win back his love would be to kill Zlatorog and take the gold that was hidden beneath the mountains – treasure that was dutifully guarded by the golden-horned chamoix.
The young hunter left on his mission, managed to track down Zlatorog and took aim at him, killing him. Drops of blood fell from Zlatorog, and magically turned in to beautiful blooms – the Triglav roses – that still flourish to this day. Zlatorog nibbled at a few of the flower petals and miraculously came back to life – only to take his revenge on the hunter, steering him into a deep abyss and to his death.
After this, Zlatorog – in his fury – used his horns to gore through the mountainside, carving deep channels and tearing up the beautiful green hillside, leaving the steep dramatic rocky landscape and deep mountain lakes that exist today . Zlatorog left the valley with the White Fairies and has never returned…
On the edge of Lake Jasna, looking up at Mt. Triglav, and in love with this beautiful, friendly and magical country, I can’t help believe it is all true.
I am not an exceptional cyclist. Yet somehow, I have managed to have extraordinary and exceptional journeys. Slowly. Purposefully. Sometimes accidentally. On two wheels.
For me it is the love of slow travel. It is not about pushing through to a destination, or about arriving. Rather, it is a conscious savoring of each meter, each mile along the way – under my own power, and to the beat of my own heart. It is about letting the day unwind before me as it will. It is about the diversions and accidental discoveries. It is about seeing the beauty through all of the senses – through touch, sight, sound, smell and taste.
We – my beloved and I – spent mid- through late September traveling and cycling through three magnificent countries – Austria, Slovenia and Italy. We began in Salzburg and finished in Venice. And in between, we fell in love with the mountains, the people, and the villages of Slovenia. We were in the land of the Julian Alps, a region whose heritage is rich in music, folklore, and mountaineering. It often looked and felt like something taken out of a fairy tale … and in a way, I suppose it was.
It is difficult for me to write, at least publicly and impartially, about this adventure. There is so much that goes beyond even the best words and photos. But for the benefit of our boys (who are spread far and wide right now), our families, a few close friends – and anyone else who may be interested in a glimpse of this region as seen from the saddle of a bicycle – I will share briefly and as well as a I can. I will spare you all a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account, and instead provide a few posts and a few photo galleries about each of the regions. Just to give you a taste. Just to (hopefully) inspire you to visit this region a create your own journey…
We arrived in Salzburg several days before we were to begin cycling. Salzburg is a picturesque city, surrounded my mountains and watched over by the old fortress – the Festung Hohensalzburg, or the “High Salzburg Fortress”.
At the heart of Old Salzburg are magnificent baroque churches and architecture, the meticulously manicured Mirabell Gardens, and the gentle blue-green ribbon of the Salzach River.
The city is rich in its musical heritage, with Mozart being the biggest draw for me. It is the birthplace and childhood home of Mozart – and the resting place for his wife and father. It is home to the renown Salzburg music festival and the Mozarteum University. And more recently, it was the home of conductor Herbert von Karajan – as well as being the setting (and home of Maria von Trapp ) from The Sound of Music, which was filmed in and around the city and continues to be a major tourist draw.
Like many other old European cities, Salzburg is wonderfully bicycle-centric. In the heart of the city, bicycles are the rule, rather than the exception. The streets are mostly void of vehicular traffic, with the exception of a few delivery trucks and a network of electric buses. People walk or bike, or use some combination of the two – coupled with public transportation when needed. It is a beautiful thing to see.
After three days of walking and seeing Salzburg on foot, we were ready to get on our bicycles … but that will have to wait for another day, another post.
To be continued …
We just returned from spending several days in Pennsylvania, visiting family. I love riding there – quiet empty roads, rolling hills, Amish farms, horse-drawn buggies sharing the road, and cooler temperatures. And at the end of the ride, a slice of my mother in-law’s wonderful pie – usually apple or “Shoo-Fly”.
While I promised certain persons I would not go on some blog-based rant, I can’t help but feeling concerned about the explosion of natural gas wells that are mushrooming up across the landscape – including one that sits in a corner of my in-laws’ property, a beautiful 20-acre wooded and pastured piece of land in NW Pennsylvania where they have lived most of their lives in their circa 1800’s farmhouse.
It feels like a new century Great Gold Rush is taking place. If you own any property, an enticing lease will come in the mail with the offer of thousands of dollars per acre to lease the land and then provide an additional flow of royalty checks for coming years.
In an area that has seen the loss of industry and jobs over the past several decades, where unemployment is high and new industry is scarce, where the tax base has eroded, where municipal services struggle and schools have been closed and consolidated – players in the gas and oil companies are positioned to move in and bring jobs and an alluring cash infusion to struggling townships and boroughs.
Lucrative gas leases are the talk of the town and everyone seems to want to jump on board and cash in. Landowner groups have formed to negotiate for the best possible price. Shell and Chevron, among others, are ready to invest billions in petrochemical facilities. The local papers are full of stories of not only the Marcellus Shale, but the Utica Shale, the Medina Sands … we’re sitting on a gold mine!
If you’ve spent the last twenty years struggling to make ends meet on your old family homestead, finding a check for tens of thousands of dollars in your mailbox can certainly feel like you just won the lottery.
I understand the needs, the draw. And I support the prospect of clean domestically-sourced energy – if we can come by it safely and sustainably. But the issues, as always, are not so black and white. I know that everything comes with a cost … And looking at the construction of the well on my in-law’s land, and wells on nearly every property along their road and beyond, I ask myself: at what cost, this?
The immediate and contentious issue is “fracking”, or hydraulic fracturing – the process of drilling and injecting massive quantities of water combined with a toxic chemical “cocktail” (a proprietary recipe) deep into the ground to fracture the substrate along in order to release the trapped gas. I won’t bother to go into detail here, as the controversial issues – especially in regards to the eastern Marcellus Shale fracking – are all over the news and internet. NPR recently did an excellent multi-part series about the issues at hand, called The Fracking Boom: Missing Anwers. And of course there is the incredible award-winning documentary by Josh Fox called Gasland.
While I didn’t experiment and see if my inlaws’ water could be ignited and burst into flame coming out of their tap, I do know that their experience has not been without issues. Recently, for instance, while they were out of town for several days, it was discovered that one of the pipes or fittings at the well had corroded to the point of failure, and that gas (and methane and probably heavy metals and proprietary chemicals) had been spewing into the air for an unknown amount of time. My father-inlaw complained that “they must have used some really cheap pipe”. I was thinking: you have no idea how corrosive the stuff coming out of that pipe really is – (and you are probably breathing it, and possibly drinking it).
It bothers me – the possible (probable?) risks, borne from contaminated water and or air. Multiply this by thousands – tens of thousands – of virtually unmonitored well sites across huge swaths of land and cracked open beneath public water sources for millions, the unknown cumulative effect of widespread fracturing of the grounds below… what will the cost be to public health and to the environment?
Extensive research on the effects has yet to be completed, the fracking cocktail recipes remain undisclosed to the public, and the big oil and gas players are moving as fast as they can with fists full of cash before time runs out and they face more stringent regulation. Play now, pay later. Only you know who will ultimately have to pay…
On the farms belonging to the Plain People, the Amish, I didn’t see a single gas well. I saw their vegetable gardens, their windmills, their cabinet-making workshops. We rode our bikes, they passed by us in their buggies. I contemplate our progress. And I don’t drink the water from my in-laws’ faucet.
Lucy is proving to be a perfect commuter bike for me – functional, comfortable, versatile. And appropriately red enough for my trips into the Red Cross office (I swear this never even crossed my mind when I was choosing her paint color).
On a national level, the Red Cross is making preparations for the possible landfall of Isaac. It’s fascinating to see the process unfold, the planning, the deployment of material and human resources – and the ways that numerous local Chapters contribute to the response. While I have chosen not to be available for deployment at this time due to some personal scheduling conflicts, I continue to stay busy locally with our DAT team and working with new volunteers – work that I enjoy very much.
The continuing reorganizational changes surrounding our local Chapter can be frustrating at times. While many of the changes to our service model make sense, and should ultimately provide more efficient delivery, the plan for implementation (internally) has not always been so well thought out – and this can be very difficult for a workforce of volunteers.
At the end of the day, I often have to step back and ask myself: are we helping to the people who need our assistance? The answer, thankfully, is yes. Ultimately, this is all that really matters – whether it involves responding to house and apartment fires here at home, or providing relief to our clients after a hurricane. At the end of the day, I know we have helped.
I get on my bike and ride home, thankful for the chance to unwind and mentally re-evaluate the day to the soothing rhythm of my pedals strokes … and hope that storms, near and far, change course.
Summer is sweet.
With their summer research projects wrapping up, the boys briefly returned home for a couple of weeks before heading back to university life. It’s been pleasant days of biking and playing around – morning runs for coffee, paddling on the river, family bike rides, catching up with old friends, dinnertime humor around the table. Summer is sweet.
But eventually, as the sunsets come a little earlier each evening, it begins to feel like time to return to familiar routines. Back to school, back to friends and regular schedules … all as it should be. And as much as I love them and will miss them as they leave, I think we are all ready to turn the next page, to return to the story.
I have enjoyed the break of being away from things – putting down the camera more often, leaving the computer to sleep, and spending more time in one-to-one conversation rather than cyberspeak. I’ve loved the warm, lazy days with my family … and yet as the weather begins to cool, and the books and bags are packed for the semester ahead, I happily anticipate rides yet to come, and the return to routine.
Meanwhile … scenes from summer days.