Wednesday, 13 June 2012

A short visit to Slovenia

The Virtual Tourist Euromeet weekend ended on Sunday 3rd June, and I had arranged leave for the rest of that week.
On Monday 4th June the weather turned out to be very different, as it never stopped raining all day. Daniel & I left Italy for Ljubljana the capital of a pretty & mountainous country Slovenia. After our final breakfast in Abelia Holiday Home in Bergamo, we walked to the station. According to the "Departure boards" at Bergamo station, there should have been a direct train to Venice at 08.24, but this was not to be, and by the time we found this out we had also missed the 8.07 train to Brescia, which is in the right direction. We had to wait until 9.07, but the helpful lady in the ticket office had provided us with the details of our journey. From Brescia we caught a "express" train to Venice, which meant us not losing much time in our schedule, but all the trains from Brescia to Venice had all been delayed, the 8.44 arrived at 10.24 (the time we were booked to leave) & so we boarded it. The journey was interesting as we passed through Verona & Padua. We met Collette & her husband (from Virtual Tourist), but sat with a dissatisfied (with Trenitalia) student who told us that these delays were all too frequent. This lady said she travels to Verona University regularly. We arrived into Venice & after a short wait (at the Mestra station) we caught the next train to Gorizia, a pretty Italian city with architecture from the time of the Austro-Hungarian period. At about 3pm we took a No 1 bus from outside Gorizia station to Nova Gorica station, which is in Slovenia. Therefore we passed the border, the only formality being a one-Euro supplement. Our train to Ljubljana is a small train which left at 15.31, we passed through some magnificent mountain scenery, the Soca river valley & pass & the station for Lake Bled (Bled jezero in Slovene). Some of our passengers were walkers. When we arrived in Jesenice, an industrial city, we only had to wait a short time for our next (and final) train to Ljubljana. This train was the most luxurious of the day, a EuroCity train from Austria & going onwards to Zagreb (in Croatia). In our compartment we met & talked with with Monika (a Slovene now living & working in Germany) & a student. Monika was very helpful as when we left the train, she arranged the schedule for our train to Budapest (on Wednesday) & also took us on a bus (the rain was pouring) to a square near the University, this being a short walk to the river & our hostel (the Alibi) on the bank of the Ljubljanica river.
Daniel & I checked into the hostel, but I had also planned to meet Blaz, a couchsurfer who lives in Ljubljana, and we met by the pink coloured Francescan church in Preserven Square.
We all then walked to Sokol a restaurant & gostilina, which brews its own beer & serves traditional Slovene food. I had a Sokol beer. I had a bowl of beef & noodle soup followed by a Slovenian venison goulash, served with a "potato cake", pickled cabbage & a pear. Daniel, Blaz & I talked about Ljubljana, Couch Surfing & our travels.
After supper we had to curtail our evening plans (to explore the city) due the very heavy rain. Instead Blaz went home, and Daniel & I went back to the Alibi hostel, where we met two friendly Australian girls.

On this visit our full day in Slovenia was Tuesday 5th June 2012, and fortunately the weather changed for the better, the sun shone, there was a fresh breeze, just ideal for visiting Lake Bled (Bled jezero). I had a coffee in the hostel, before Daniel & I were ready to walk to the station, arriving in plenty of time to catch the 11.28 (to Lesce Bled), so we had a coffee & a ham/cheese baguette in the station's "Prihod bar". Our train to Lesce Bled was the more luxurious type (like our train to Ljubljana the previous evening) & the journey was scenic, I even managed to video part of the journey, showing the lush countryside. In Lesce Bled at 12.11 we had a short wait for the next bus to the lake. While waiting for the bus we met & talked with two American girls (also visiting, but staying in Bled), and arrived at the bus station about 15 minutes later. It was easy for us to find the lake & decided we could walk around the lake's perimeter. The water was so clear we saw the fish swimming. Lake Bled is so photogenic, the green hills around, the small island with the Church of the Assumption, the castle on one of the hills above and the small gondola style boats. During our walk we saw very little traffic, except when we wanted to stop at a cafe/bar, Gostilnica Pletna, the owner stopped the traffic to enable us to cross the road. I had a tomato salad & a glass of Union beer, sitting on the first floor balcony which overlooks the lake. We continued our walk & when we returned to where we started we went back to the bus station. At times particularly during the later part of our walk, the weather looked less promising, dark clouds formed over the mountains around the lake. We caught the 15.20 bus back to Lesce Bled train station, and the 15.52 train to Ljubljana, a local stopping service, which arrived 17.10. We took a slight diversion to enable us to reach the Dragon Bridge, via the Metalkova street. The Australian girls from our hostel had given us vouchers for the POMF restaurant they had visited & enjoyed the previous evening in Trubarjeva street (small street of old houses, bars, restaurants & shops). This street runs parallel with the bank of the Ljubljanica river, at the junction near to the Dragon Bridge (Zmajski Most)
We decided to have a look around the area, take pictures of the Bridge, Squares & the buildings, before having our dinner in Pomf. We were welcomed by the waiter Boris, who helped us to select a typically Slovene meal. We had local beer (I had Lasko pivo) & wine (free with our vouchers:-), and then I enjoyed the starter (served in a kettle) of Bograc, Cevapcici (small spicy sausages) pomfrit (fries) kajmak, lepinja, postrv po trzasko, with Boris's hospitality. Outside the restaurant there were also tables, and musicians were playing & encouraging other visitors to the restaurant. After dinner Daniel & I were full & so a walk up to the castle was needed. We also walked around the Old Town, and up a steep slope to the castle. The views of Ljubljana as dusk was falling were awesome. We made our way down via Ulica na Grad, and passed the Pleznik masterpiece, the University library, before we returned to the Alibi.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Virtual Tourist 8th Euromeet Bergamo

Virtual Tourist (a web based social networking/forum based advice service) has over a million members. As well as providing advice, sharing information & photos, many members arrange to meet up in towns & cities from all over the world. Some of these meeting are arranged many months in advance, including the annual "Euromeet" in the late Spring/Early Summer, in 2010 we met in Krakow, in 2011 Bitola & Ohrid in Macedonia. In 2012 it was the turn of three English girls, Susan, Jane & Gillian, who organised an excellent weekend in the town of Bergamo in Northern Italy. Each meeting has a theme this years's being "it's Your Meet", where the only "organised" events were the evening meals (for obvious reasons). However some members made suggestions which became VT Meetings in their own right, two will be included in this report.

The meeting is over a weekend, starting on a Friday, this year was the first weekend of June (UK Diamond Jubilee) and on the 1st June some members had already arrived, however I had to book leave from work, so the first day I had to travel from Reading to Bergamo, with my flight (with Ryanair) and accommodation already booked way back in January. I have travelled to the VT Meet on my own but this year a work colleague, Daniel Renton also wanted to come. At about 09.55 we left Reading for Paddington on a First Great Western High Speed Train, then by Underground (Hammersmith & City Line) to London Liverpool Street station from where the Stansted Express trains run. We arrived at the airport just before 12.00, so still had ample time to go through security, and we boarded the Ryanair Boeing 737-800 14.00 flight. Ryanair flights although suitable for budget travellers, fill their planes up, and are constantly trying to sell their customers with either refreshments, duty free, gifts & even scratchcards!

We landed on time 16.55, passed through Passport control, and boarded the first No 1 bus to Bergamo FS (Stazione Ferrovia) and with Daniel's and a couple of ladies shopping in a supermarket (at which we had stopped to get a drink), we found the Abelia Holiday Home, where the owner Fabrizio, warmly welcomed us, we settled in, and then started a walk to find somewhere we could buy some supper.

Bergamo is a town which is on two levels, the hotel is in Citta Bassa (low), the older town is Citta Alta, with a funicular connection between the two. At the top of the city is the Citadel and many other old churches & other buildings, squares, tree lined avenues and narrower winding streets. At the top of the funicular we found an opening to the Piazza Mercato della Scarpe, where there is a bar, "PolentOne" which specialises in polenta  dishes & drinks, and for 8 Euro  I had a bowl of polenta with wild board stew & a "glass" of local beer. After our supply Daniel & I continued to explore Citta Alta, and had another beer in the Caffe Cittadella bar before we decided to head back to our hotel. We noticed that on our route back there were small porch-ways which had vending machines selling drinks & snacks 24-7.

The following day Saturday 2nd when the sun was shining, the temperature very warm, Daniel & I had signed up for a day trip to Grumello del Monte. Our hotel served breakfast, we had a selection of cereals, biscuits, toast & jam, yoghurt, fruit juices & tea/or coffee.

We caught the suggested train (09.07 from Bergamo to Brescia) alighting at Grumello del Monte at 09.28. Here we met other VT people including Rita (from Riga), Karl, Cindy & their family (from California) & others. The "main" party came by cars & minibus, but we had plenty of time to explore this small town in the hills, and had coffee in Kiwi Caffe. We all sat outside.

The meeting started 10.30, the minibus & cars had arrived and the Castello del Monte was open to us. We had a guided tour of the Castello, the rooms, tower, chapel & cellars (for winemaking & keeping wine cool), later we also tasted several of the wines which were served with local bread, cheeses, & cold meats, and even with chocolate cake.

After the tour we had the opportunity to buy some wine, and then we went to Agriturismo La Becaccia farm & restaurant. We sat outside on the terrace, and tried locally baked pasta, wine & water.

Daniel & I had a lift to Bergamo from David Sutton,

In the evening we went to the Citta Alta, for the VT evening meal in Antica Trattoria La Columbina, Via Borgo Canale 12, not far from the Citadel, however when Daniel & I arrived the restaurant wasn't ready for us, and so we joined Valentina, Patrick & other VT'ers on the pavement cafe of Marianna ( drink & nibbles)

The Antica is in an old building, has terraces with great views of Citta Bassa. Due to the large number of people attending Daniel & I had to sit separately, but we both met some great people. I was sitting with Valentina & the lovely Slovenian couple Jerca & Marko (appropriately as Daniel & I had plans to visit Slovenia later on this holiday),

The menu included:
Asse di salumi tipici, Lardo alle erbe, Prosciutto Crudo
Polenta taragna con funghi, Stinco, coniglio, brasao, Polenta, Patate al forno
Semifreddo (ice-cream & chocolate sauce).

Everyone also had a quarter litre wine & half litre water.

After dinner we were all able to meet other people and have some VT goodies, including T-Shirts & sunglasses.

Daniel & I walked back to our hotel.

On Sunday Daniel & I signed up to join in the picnic arranged by Gillian. The picnic was in park land alongside the Serio river and in the Lower Seriana Valley. We bought our own food & drink for the picnic, but everyone shared what they had with all. The Valley is near the end of Bergamo's tram line at a stop called Pradalunga. Clear water flowed from the mountains to the valley, we were truly in the countryside. Daniel & I met VT'ers at the station from where the tram left at 12.03.

A group of us sat at a picnic table & shared out our food, cold meats, cheese, salad & fruit, bread, biscuits & cakes, talked and shared stories & took photos.

Our group stayed until about 15.00 & went back to Bergamo by tram. During the afternoon Daniel & I had a rest, cup of tea, before we set of for a farewell meal back in Bergamo Citta Alta. The restaurant was Il Sole, not too far from Piazza Vecchia, The menu included:

Bis di Pasta, Rissoto, gnocchetta di patate, (Rice with chicory and local cheese, potato dumplings with tomato sauce & cream)
Bis de carne - arrostodi vitallio congillo con polenta (roast veal & beef with potatoes)
Macedonia con Gelato (fruit salad & ice-cream)
Wine, water & coffee.

The meal was over by 10pm, and everyone went outside to the terrace to hear the bells ringing, a tradition which goes back to the times when the town people were called in before the town gates were closed, a medieval curfew. I also had the chance to talk to VT people including Giampeiro & Kimberly (who work for VT), & say my farewells to my VT friends.

The following day most people were moving on, some taking early morning flights, others moving on, including ourselves.