Tbilisi, Georgia

Coming from snowy Skopje, Tbilisi provided a welcome boost in temperatures. Though we flew over plenty of snow-topped mountains, Tbilisi was well ahead in the season. Spring rapidly closed in. Flowers and trees bloomed and the sun shone with just the slightest chill on the breeze.

Flying over the Georgian mountains and the city from the cable car

Our Airbnb sat at street level on a main thoroughfare. Noise from vehicles, impatient drivers, and construction resounded at all hours. Closing our shutters blocked a small portion of the cacophony but left us in cavelike darkness. It took a couple weeks to get used to the noise but we never got comfortable with the absence of sun in the mornings.

But it turned out Tbilisi is a loud city in general. There were precious few places inside the city that were free of cars. Honking and loud engines are the norm. Highways ran along both sides of the river, and only a few short sections have anything resembling a pedestrian waterfront, though this seems to be gradually improving.

In the Old Town

For my moderate complaining, however, this might be one of the most photogenic and beautiful cities anywhere. Every street has its own bakery wafting fresh-bread smells out the windows and old women selling fruits or socks in the alleys. Porches made of intricately designed wooden slats or wrought iron hang over many sidewalks. Ancient-feeling churches glow with candles and the soft odors of incense. The Old Town even hides a bridge covered in love locks and a waterfall.

Colorful street art

And some wonderful street art. The pedestrian walkways circling under Heroes Square hold particularly amazing murals, probably crafted by local university students. Thousands of square feet of constantly changing artwork make the concrete tunnels the equal of many art galleries.

The artworks inside the museums are good too. Though the National Galleries are small in size, they pack a larger punch than their limited number of rooms suggest. Niko Pirosmani and his ‘primitive’ paintings hold the most honored spot in Georgian art. His giraffe and peasant images pop up on all kinds of souvenirs.

Items in the Georgian National Museum

Apart from art, the Georgian National Museum displays several millenia’s worth of artefacts. Jewelry made of delicate filaments (even one necklace of tiny turtles!) shows off the region’s goldsmithing traditions. Christianity made early inroads, from the start of the 300s onward. Church textiles and icons have been preserved and some of the best examples moved to Tbilisi.

Boiling khinkhali, smoked suluguni, shotis puri bread in a tradition oven

Our favorite thing about Georgia’s capital turned out to be the food. Especially the carbs. Traditional bakeries are ubiquitous. At 80 tetri a loaf (about .33 cents), it was impossible to pass one up. We bought shotis puri fresh from the oven, delicious enough to eat plain.

Khinkalis, a dumpling filled with meat or veggies, could be bought almost anywhere, from fancy restaurants to the bulk frozen section of the grocery store. The juices stew inside the dough adding extra flavor. The preferred way to eat them is by using the top as a handle and angling them to keep the juice from spillng. I didn’t manage that, but they were tasty even with knife and fork.

Barf dish soap, Adjarian khachapuri, dying Easter eggs with madder root and onion skins

The king of Georgian cuisine is khachapuri. It combines local bread and cheese into a boat- or pizza-like dish of incredible carb and calorie density. Adjarian khachapuri adds an egg to the mix. Cracked onto the cheese as the dish comes out of the oven, the radiating heat helps cook the egg. It may be the world’s pinnacle of culinary achievement.

Though Orthodox Easter fell after our stay, egg dying ingredients were already being sold. Traditionally madder root is cut or crushed into a pot of boiling water along with onion skins. Eggs are added and boiled before being allowed to sit for several hours. Out attempt fell short of the deepest color, but experimenting is always fun.

Armenia may be our next stop, but we already have two more months in Georgia planned. I know more carbs will be on the way!

Pristina, Kosovo

From Skopje the capital of Kosovo was just over two hours away by bus. We walked to the central bus station mid-morning and found a minibus scheduled to leave for Pristina in just fifteen minutes. Our trip turned into one of the more entertaining ones of our travels. A couple of border guards were headed to work, and we stopped to pick up a standing snack order that soon filled the small vehicle with delicious smells. As the driver jumped out to deliver the meals to various guards, our passports were examined and stamped. Kosovo’s mountainous terrain is beautiful, even dressed in winter’s drab colors. A bold highway project is currently in the construction phase, towering above valley villages and aiming to make access to Macedonia easier.

About halfway from the border to Pristina, our bus gave a rattle. By the time we pulled off on to the roadside the engine had quit. A nearby repair shop was not yet open, but our driver hurriedly flagged down another, larger bus, explained the situation and got the driver to agree to take us the rest of the way. Even with this hiccup, we were dropped in Pristina a few minutes earlier than expected.

The National Library of Kosovo

Pristina isn’t a very large city, and the downtown is especially compact. We began our walking tour with a statue honoring Bill Clinton, who happened to President when NATO intervened during Kosovo’s War for Independence. Next door to the statue a shop called Hillary sells womenswear. During our short trip to Pristina, we noticed more US flags than we’ve seen in years.

Not far down the same street is Kosovo’s National Library. Built in the 1980s, it resembles a Faraday cage or a futuristic prison. It is a distinctly memorable structure. In a sweep of land next to the Library, an abandoned Serbian Orthodox church sits, barred shut and crumbling. Just one of many in the country deserted after the war, there is a lot of division surrounding the future of such structures.


10th anniversary of independence monument, memorial to women victims of war and ethnic cleansing, the Uni’s Chemistry department

We had coffees and a snack at one of the city’s cafes. The coffees – heavily chocolated – were possibly the best we’d had in a region known for its love of the drink. Unemployment is still quite high in Kosovo, and relaxing in a cafe is a common way to pass the day with friends.

Fueled up for more walking, we strolled through a market and eventually to the NewBorn monument constructed to celebrate the young nation, and now sporting a ’10’ in the center to commemorate the 10th anniversary of independence.

Abandoned Serbian Orthodox church, monument to Bill Clinton, smiley graffiti 

We’d stopped by the National Museum earlier in the day only to be told an event was taking place and they’d be open at one. Heading back we found a crowd watching a dance performance by a troupe dressed in traditional garb. Once that finished, most people dispersed and we shrugged and went inside. No one stopped us, although it was clear some sort of celebration was going on – a string quartet played and hors d’oeuvres covered a table.

The exhibits covered Neolithic to modern times, with objects as diverse as a lead coffin, stylized carvings, and Madeleine Albright’s cowboy hat. As we left, there were cars waiting for ambassadors from several nations. We later learned that these events apparently marked the museum’s grand reopening and that most of it had been closed off for several years prior to this.

National Museum exhibits, a ceremony marking their reopening

While I think we would have enjoyed a longer stay in Pristina, a day let us cover all the major sights. Almost twenty years after war threatened to destroy the region and ten years after the independence declaration, the city is still making itself into a European capital.

Skopje, Macedonia

Skopje from by the river and on Vodno

After five weeks on sun-warmed Malta, we headed to Skopje, Macedonia. Though the weather was relatively mild when we arrived, during the last ten days snow covered the city. Our initial Airbnb booking didn’t work out due to excessive noise and a pervasive moldy smell (a first in 2+ years of travel via Airbnb), but we contacted their support and within a couple of hours we found a different place. Even paying a bit extra to transfer to a new apartment, we think we got a much better deal. The new space had a view overlooking much of the city, and it was nestled on Vodno Mountain’s lower slopes, near the start of hiking trails. A small fireplace kept us cozy on the coldest nights.

The largest of many Alexander the Great statues

Skopje, the capital of a country that didn’t gain independence until 1991, has been on something of a building streak. In the early 2010s, the party in power put grand monuments and buildings at the top of its agenda. They want to foster a national identity stretching back to Alexander the Great. The airport and highways were named after him, and his likeness graced many of the new statues across the city. Other memorials to poets, writers, religious leaders, and ancient rulers appeared on bridges, in plazas, atop buildings. Picturesque from some angles, the overall effect was a bit jarring. The downtown center is full of Romanesque architecture but the rest of the city (and country) is still struggling. Many Macedonian citizens were angered by this waste of hundreds of millions of dollars, especially when it could have been spent on education or infrastructure.

This construction rush ties into a dispute over the name of the entire country. Since breaking with Serbia, Macedonia’s official name is actually The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Aside from the tongue-twister length, no one likes it. But standing in the way of simply calling themselves Macedonia or the Republic of Macedonia is Greece. Greece insists that because Macedonia is the name of a region within their borders, it cannot also be the name of the nation next door. In fact, both countries share descent from the ‘original’ Macedonians and it is all a bit silly. But to try to reclaim some of that history, the likeness of Alexander, the greatest Macedonian, was sent to grace key points around the nation and serve as bargaining chips. During our stay, the airport and a major highway had ‘Alexander’ removed from their names and there was some hope that the naming fight might be over soon.

View from and into the Kale Fortress

On one of the few clear-ish days, we walked to the Kale Fortress. The walls are visible from any points around the city, and have been kept in good repair. But the inside wasn’t so lucky. We strolled along the walls, greeted by a handful of friendly stray dogs. A couple of abandoned half-finished constructions dotted the grounds – it looked like botched attempts at a visitor’s center or cafe. Barbed wire blocked access to a old excavation that now held quite a few plastic bottles and chip bags. But the views were among the best in the Old Town and it was one of our few opportunities to see the distant mountains.

The Church of Saint Clement of Ohrid

Across town, the Church of St. Clement was probably the grandest in the city. From the outside, its multiple domes and arches look incredibly futuristic. In contract, the inside is all traditional – images of saints ring the lower level and a depiction of Jesus fills the largest dome. Several points around the city honor Mother Teresa, who was born and baptized in Skopje.

Though the main TV stations still go off the air daily, we had no trouble getting our fill of the Olympics or the Superbowl

This month was marked by great sporting events around the world, and Macedonia’s main TV station delivered. Even though they still shut down for several hours each night, they don’t slack on the coverage. The Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the PyeongChang Olympics ran uninterrupted by commercials or fluff pieces, as did the events that were shown. Two hours of uninterrupted biathlon are no problem! A cable network picked up the Superbowl, broadcasting it to the Balkans, so we watched enough of it to get our American football fill.

Sporting snacks

Of course, no sports binge is complete without snacking. Like the rest of ex-Yugoslav countries peanut crisps and ajvar (a pepper and eggplant spread), could be bought everywhere. Doritos are making inroads as well, though the flavors were new to us. We had plenty of cevapi and even some trout as well.

In general, food was cheap, and the wine followed suit. Macedonian wine is exported all over Europe as an affordable table wine. At about $2-3 per bottle, we had our choice of reds or whites. My favorite of the month was a bit pricier than that, but still very affordable by US standards – a late harvest Vranec (a traditional grape in the region), was sweet and rich. Clearly, Macedonia knows their wines.

We’ll be following the news in the coming months to see if they settle on a new name, and hopefully can return in a warmer season when the hiking trails open up in the mountains. Everyone we spoke to mentioned Lake Ohrid’s beauty and gorgeous mountain vistas that were too snow-covered for us to visit. Next time!

Gozo, Malta

Sanap Cliffs – boat for scale

Researching Malta, most of the focus centered on the summer weather, the beaches, the bath-warm seas. But since we were visiting in January, these didn’t really apply. We’d seen a few items about walking trails, and that sounded good, but didn’t pay too much attention. At just 26 square miles, we weren’t sure how much the island could cram in. The answer truly surprised us. No matter which direction we walked from our home in Marsalforn, the views stunned. Every town and corner of the island had a distinct personality and landscape.

Blustery arrival, Ggantija Temple

Inland to the southeast of us, the small town of Xaghra held a mysterious Neolithic temple and a more modern Parish Church which stunned us with its intricate interior. Following the coastal trail rather than the road, we passed small cliffs high above the green slopes. Below us the Mediterranean wrapped itself around the island’s shore. Ending up at Ramla Beach, the temperatures were almost nice enough for sun bathing.

Xaghra Parish Church, near the salt pans

Walking west from our apartment led to another set of views entirely. Along the low rocky coast, salt pans are still active in hotter seasons. The shallow pools reflected sea and sky, a myriad of blues. Often people fished. The only downside was passing by the shooting range; the sharp pop of guns didn’t add anything to the day.

Salt pans

Soon the ground swelled upward. The shoreline grew steeper, finally reaching vertical around Wied Il-Mielah, a striking sea arch. The Azure Window, the more famous arch, crashed into the sea in 2017. Il-Mielah has seen an uptick in visitors but still feels underappreciated. A few climbers scaled the sides and a family took photos along the viewing ledge.  Continuing beyond this arch, the cliffs took over.

Terraced hills and Wied Il-Mielah

The path, marked with red blazes, wandered though lunar-like landscapes of wind-smoothed stone. In other spots the ground was lush with flowers. And thistles, too. It was a ‘calm’ day my Maltese standards, the wind only picking up to 15 miles an hour or so, but coming over the top of the rock it gusted at random intervals.

The landscape varies a lot for such a small island

Rounding the northwest corner of the island, we lost the path for a bit. But with help from Google Maps we got back on track and soon the area around Dwejra was in sight. The island drops away into the blue, a wide horizon shows off the sunset. With no more Azure Window, there are fewer tourists. And most stayed near where the tour bus dropped them off. We preferred the areas a bit further out – from Wied Il-Mielah all the way to the end of the hike, we only saw three other people.

Cliffs around Dwejra

Starting another hike at Xlendi, we again hugged the tops of the cliffs. The Sanap and Ta’ Cenc cliffs are just as high as those near Dwejra, though they curve a bit less so there are fewer views photo opportunities.  As we neared Mgarr, where the Gozo Channel Line docks their ferries, the trail dipped to sea’s edge. We skirted under hills formed of layers of gray clay and near rocky beaches.

Layered cliffs near Fort Chambray

Coming back from a long hike, a tasty treat was an order. We visited Ta’ Mena Estate during our first week and brought home a hefty load of wines, local cheeses, salt, and konserva (a thick tomato paste blended with salt and sugar, great on toast). Their wines were especially tempting, relatively cheap but wonderfully rich. We went back several times to restock. Beer was thinner on the ground, but the island’s single brewery, Lord Chambray, works to reverse that trend. They craft several styles and were happy to give us a tour of their space as well. My favorite proved to be their Flinders Rose, a gose beer made with local sea salt and caper flowers.

Local eats & drinks, timed parking, wind-churned waters

Kevin made a traditional rabbit stew with fresh meat, letting it simmer on the stovetop for hours. It lasted for several days and only got better with time. If we passed through Victoria, the island’s capital, we stopped for pastizzi (a flaky pastry stuffed with cheese or peas) or qassatat (a larger, doughier cheese or spinach pastry). Both cost just a few cents and filled us up quickly.

Between long walks, beautiful scenery, tasty local dishes, and the ever-present Mediterranean, Gozo might be my favorite spot to spend a winter. With just a handful of other tourists and a relaxed pace of life, we felt like we could explore the island on our own schedule.



Malta’s Main Island


A sailing class in front of Valletta

Malta traces its history back before the Egyptian pyramids. Temples of massive stone blocks dotted these islands 5,500 years ago. Over time, successive layers of civilization have transformed every inch of Malta, from terraced fields, walled cities, temples, churches, new coastal resorts.

Arriving in Valletta between Christmas and New Year’s, we walked into the city and entered a wonderland of beautifully decorated streets. Triq Ir-Repubblika, the main street and open to pedestrians, was strung with sculptural arches of lights, culminating in a lace-like dome.

Readied for New Year’s and the Capital of Culture Celebrations

Celebrations to ring in 2018 took on an extra importance as a kick-off to Valletta’s role as European Capital of Culture. Several hours worth of concerts at St. George’s Square lead up to midnight fireworks. We watched a more scattered set of fireworks from the Siege Bell War Memorial. Looking out over the water, several boats set off their horns and lit off small shows and the three cities had their own little displays. The crowd of thousands at the central square didn’t attract us and we preferred the quieter way to welcome a new year of travel.


Walking around the city during daylight, many spots closed for the holiday. So we mazed our way through the narrow streets and along the waterfront walls. A longer walk took us to Sliema on its own peninsula to the north of the city center. This area is full of newly-constructed apartments and hotels, all looking back over Valletta’s striking fortress walls and church domes.

Narrow streets and galerija windows in Valletta

After just a couple days, we left for a month on Gozo, returning for another short stint in the smaller town of Zabbar to line up our cheap flight date. From this home base we visited the Hypogeum, an ancient temple/tomb carved out of the rock beneath one of Valletta’s suburbs. It is Malta’s premier archaeological site. Only a handful of 10-person tours enter the man-made cave each day, dim lights revealing doorways carved to look like above-ground temples and red-ochre painted ceilings.

Around the Three Cities

Wanting to visit the water one more time before leaving the island, we took in the Three Cities. Older than Valletta and heavily fortified by the Knights of the Order of St. John, the cities are famed for surviving a months-long siege by the Ottomans in 1565. The fortresses and walls have been rebuilt and restored. The Three Cities were quieter than Valletta and provided their own set of waterfront views worthy of admiration.

Three of these induce happiness, one does not.

A new country meant new foods. We left most of our cooking for Gozo, but we couldn’t resist a few snacks upon arrival. The multiple brands of prawn-cocktail-flavored chips were a win, the Kinnie was not. A local soda brand, Kinnie is definitely an acquired taste which we did not acquire.

With warm weather even in January and an Italian feel, Malta was a great way to escape the winter chills. On a final cozier note, Malta’s wandering cat population loves attention. They seemed well-fed and content to indulge passers’-by photo whims.

Nuremberg, Germany

Munich’s markets were spectacular and we could have easily spent our entire trip basking in their glow (and snacking on their bratwurst), but we wanted to see the most famous: Nuremberg’s. Going back to at least the early 1600s, it may not have been the earliest market, but it is one of the largest in Germany and probably the most well-known. We joined a throng of other tourists on a morning train out of Munich, a smooth ride across the snow-free countryside that didn’t feel particularly wintery from the comfort of the carriage.


Stepping out of the train station in Nuremberg, it was impossible to get lost. Signs point the way to the central square and we couldn’t miss the lines of people moving in the same direction. Some red-and-white roofed stalls escaped the main market and lined the other avenues. There was no escape from mulled wine or lebkuchen! Others sell fresh fruit or lace. More modern cabins/foodtrucks hawked sushi and Asian fusion food.


The entire Hauptmarkt was covered by the wooden cabins. They squeezed in at the edges and surrounded the Schöner Brunnen fountain. Unlike many markets, the majority of the stalls sold decorations and gifts rather than food, though there were plenty of those as well. Handmade glass-blown ornaments, snow globes, nutcrackers, and traditional figurines made of dried fruit and nuts were all given plenty of shelf space. Finger-sized Nuremberger sausages proved a perfect snack as did the fresh lebkuchen topped with icing and almonds.


The rest of Nuremberg is beautiful as well. Just outside of the old center, the Kaiserburg provides a loftier view over the rooftops, though clouds kept the horizon muted. Narrow medieval streets and buildings were rebuilt after World War II so that the center retains its pedestrian feel. Plenty of small bakeries and shops sell regional specialties and gingerbread.


Naturally we ended up back at the market as the sun set. The rain, which had been keeping some of the crowd away during midday, had ceased. We noticed several balconies overlooking the square and decided it looked like a better spot to enjoy the spiced wine. Late afternoon and evening seemed to be the high water mark for visitors, with people flocking to the squares.

A Children’s Market was set up in another nearby plaza, focusing on sweets and handmade toys circling around several carnival rides. On top of each cabin, animatronic figures drummed or assembled toys. There was also an international market where vendors from Nuremberg’s sister cities sell more exotic goods. Held every year for the last couple of decades it is a fun way to bring in traditions from the rest of the globe. We found the stand from Atlanta, US which had Hersey’s bars and Reese’s.


Nuremberg certainly deserves its title as Christmas capital. The whole city embraces the season, all year long. Its Christkindlmarkt was by far the most traditional looking of all the ones we saw. And a day trip was the perfect way to see it. We had enough time to visit the whole market and wander around the town itself before heading back to Munich’s greater variety of markets.

Munich, Germany

We rolled into our final Christmas market destination just a few days before the holiday. But of the three regions we visited, Munich certainly showed the most spirit. Germany LOVES Christmas and getting ready for Christmas and shopping for Christmas. As proof I submit the dozens of markets in and around the city and the amount of garlanded and lit windows and frantic shoppers we witnessed. Even our Airbnb host got into the spirit, greeting us with poinsettias and a tiny decorated (and real!) tree.

After our arrival we grabbed a few basic groceries and then headed to the nearest Christkindlmarkt at Sendlinger Tor. The market was crowded but not crushing and full of scents of mulled wine and beer and bratwurst. After eyeing the glass ornaments and nutcrackers for sale, we found glasses of mulled beer (a first for us that the markets to the south should copy) made with spices reminiscent of gingerbread. Plenty of locals grabbed a post-work pint and snack with tourists mixed in.

A10 pass in Austria, decorations in our apartment and at markets

We made a concerted effort to see as many markets as possible before they closed on December 23 or 24. Our second stop turned out to be Tollwood. Held on the Oktoberfest grounds at Theresienwiese, there is markedly less beer this time of year. With large tents housing bazaars of local handcrafted goods and another tent covering a food court, it was the easiest one to spend long amounts of time at. And we found that the goulash soup and potatoes made a perfect winter meal.

At the Christkindlmarkts

The market at Marienplatz was a must, the huge tree dominating the wooden houses set up around the square. We walked through a number of times, and as it ended on the afternoon of the 24th, listened to brass band play Christmas carols from an open deck below the Glockenspiel. This main market didn’t have a better selection but certainly catered to larger crowds.

On Wittelsbacherplatz, the Mittelaltermarkt held the title for most distinct. Basically a Renaissance Faire dolled up for the holiday, they fully embrace the middle ages theme. Everyone is dressed in period-ish clothing and there are more ragouts and stews for snacking and weighty ceramic cups and plates. One corner was full of the wafting scent of salmon, slow-cooked in a wood-fired oven. The market around the Chinese Pagoda in the English Garden seemed the most kid-friendly. They also were serving up Urbock, one of the tastier non-spiced beers. The sunny day balanced out the beer’s chill nicely.

More market goodness

The rest of Munich was just as beautiful and welcoming as the two previous times we visited (during quicker stopovers on more traditional vacations). Though we’d already been to Asamkirche it was worth a second stop. The ornate interior is so densely decorated that it was hard to pick our individual details from the general splendor. Still, the skeleton cutting someone’s tenuous connection to life drives home the central point in the entryway.

Christmas day itself was especially warm, and we wandered along the Isar River to the English Garden. Lots of kids were trying out new bikes and it seemed like surfers at the Wave might have received some new gear as well. Munich takes the week between Christmas and the new year seriously – many small shops and restaurants shut down completely and even larger places operate on limited hours. We grocery shopped in advance and enjoyed the quieter neighborhood vibe.

One more tree, inside Asam Church, the Wave

Having already seen the Residenz, the main royal palace in Munich, Schloss Nymphenburg filled our palace and castle line item for this stop. Built as a summer home when the surroundings were countryside rather than city streets, it feels more relaxed though it sprawls out to either direction for what feels like miles. The interior rooms are heavily muraled and bedecked with matching furniture. Outside, man-made canals and lakes form the centerpieces of a heavily landscaped vista that encompassed hundreds of acres now fronted by tram stops and backed by a train line.

Schloss Nymphenburg

Munich’s art museums are clustered in the Maxvorstadt neighborhood. We stopped by the Alte Pinakothek, which focused on works up through the 18th century. Currently under renovation, several galleries are shuttered and some masterworks are housed in temporary positions. Still, we felt like we got a good overview of the collection. For some reason it felt like more of the paintings dealt with bar and drinking scenes…

Alte Pinakothek, a 250mb hard drive at the Deutsches Museum

We missed the Deutsches Museum on previous trips, even though it is the largest technology and science museum on the continent. When we arrived, ticket lines stretched several hundred feet out of the courtyard and down the sidewalk. Rather than wait in falling snow, we opted to buy our tickets on our phone as we stood in the lobby. Several other families were doing the same; though it cost a euro extra for the privilege it saved us at least 40 minutes of queueing. It was shocking as well – walking by a few days earlier there had been no wait at all. Inside the museum there are miles of tech-related exhibits, many of which are interactive. Telescopes, centuries-old globes, airplanes, and ships share the space with a recreation of a coal mine, a cave, glassblowing, and interactive physics experiments. The old computer equipment was among the most mind-blowing. For example, the washing-machine-sized hard drive in the image above stores just 250 megabyes; the image I took of it on my phone is too large to fit on it. A cloud chamber entranced us for quite a while. Charged particles cause puffs of condensed water vapor to form, a direct way to visualize the radiation all around us, some of which is the universe’s background voice.

Munich is always lovely, and each time I leave I miss it. In many ways it feels like home. Having grown up with the background of German midwestern influence, much of the food and cultural tics are at least a little familiar. I’d absolutely visit again, in any season, for any length of time.

Postojna Cave and Lake Bled, Slovenia

Our Airbnb host was full of suggestions for our stay in Ljubljana. Near the top of her list, Postojna Cave and mountain lakes were her favorite destinations outside the city limits. Happily for us, the main bus and train terminals were just a block away and made getting around – both in the city and further afield – simple and fast. We picked a rainy day to ride the train to Postojna, figuring that we’d be cloud-free underground no matter the weather.

In Postojna, the station sits on the opposite side of town from the Cave, but the walk wasn’t far, especially since we missed the downpours. A hotel and a string of restaurants and gift shops grace the cave’s entrance and set the mood closer to a suburban strip mall rather than a natural wonder. They cater to an audience held semi-captive by the tour times (in winter just three per day).

Massive spaces in Postojna Cave

The trip into the cave originates in a relatively spare concrete tunnel. We boarded a tiny, two-seat-wide electric train. The tiny cars zoom through several kilometers of tunnels blasted into the limestone with very little space to spare. We ducked automatically at almost every curve and the recent rains meant that drops and drips spattered on us from overhead. Occasionally the man-made passage opened up into a brief glimpse of natural cave, tempting us with what was to come.

Stepping off the train for the walking section of the tour, we located our English-speaking guide and followed him uphill. It felt a little odd to be climbing while below the earth’s surface. Postojna’s large rooms meant we actually found ourselves gaining a small vista that looked across a tiered landscape of stalactites, stalagmites, and deep shadows.

Stalactites, stalagmites, and curtains of rock

The cave was formed by an underground river flowing through the karst landscape in addition to water seeping down from the surface. The water removes much of the stone while at the same time building up spectacular cave pillars and waving curtains of stone. In some places the ceiling seeps are so numerous that the cave roof appears to be covered in spaghetti strands. After about 45 minutes of weaving our way among the most beautiful areas, we ended our walk in the cave’s concert hall. So spacious it can hold an audience of thousands it feels anything but claustrophobic.

A second train ride whisked us back toward the surface and dropped us off near the grand finale, an underground waterfall. Below us the full force of the river, still at work, was audible as well as visible. Interestingly, Postojna had electricity fairly early because the falls were utilized for a power generating station.

This cave is the most touristed in Europe, and even in the off-season the groups are quite large. Guides turned off the lights for a few moments, to give a sense of true darkness and stillness, but the reaction of so many to shout or turn on their cell phone lights doesn’t allow for much of a glimpse of either.

Just an underground waterfall to cap the tour

To the northwest of the capital, Lake Bled nestles in the foot of the Alps. Famous for its island church, castle, and high shoreline cliffs, we were more interested in the chance to hike around it. Despite heading to the bus station twenty minutes early, we arrived to find the bus already almost full. Even in winter the Lake turns out to be a popular destination.

The trip took about an hour and dropped us at the Bled bus station, just a couple blocks away from the shore. A small waterfront Christmas market provided lunch. The stands had warmed wine and stews to soothe the chills we faced in the day’s long shadows.

Looking across Lake Bled toward the Castle and the town of Bled

Lake Bled isn’t large and the shore path is just a few kilometers. We spent about two hours walking its circumference, but that included a fair amount of view-admiring and photographing. The portions nearest to town are the most built up, crowded with hotels and restaurants fighting for the spot with the best view.

Though the most recent snowfall at lake level had already melted, frost covered the ground in the shade. Thankfully we had donned our heaviest clothes, and kept moving. We were fortunate to see the lake on an almost-still day, the reflections only faintly blurred. Two or three restaurants on the far side of the lake attempted to make some money from chilled visitors, hawking more mulled wine and roasted chestnuts.

Bled’s famous island

It was hard to find a bad viewpoint anywhere around the lake. The castle dominated our photos at the start, but soon we drew closer to the island church. Boat tours cost 12 euros per person, so we stuck to land. Plus, it is hard to take pictures with the island in them while on the island.

We stayed for sunset. The sky faded into different shades of blue rather than turning rainbowed and the mountains darkened into the night. My fingers and toes were thoroughly chilled by now so to cap off our walk we found a cafe serving warm coffee. This helped us pass the time until the return bus to Ljubljana. Descending back to the city, a layer of fog thickened around us and we were grateful to have traveled back before the road disappeared from sight in the dark clouds.

The fading sunset

Slovenia’s natural spaces are beautiful, even in winter, and wonderfully easy to access via public transit. I’d love to return in a season without snow to do more mountain hiking and when the warmth makes the coastal region more attractive.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Wanting to take in as much Christmasness as possible and avoid an extra-long bus ride between Zagreb and Munich, we opted for a two week stopover in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The city, especially the cozy old town tucked under the Castle’s hill, is very walkable and full of corners to explore. Science-themed Christmas lights hanging above the streets provided just the right amount of nerdiness. But Zagreb’s Christmas markets are among the best in Europe, and after that spectacle, Ljubljana’s fell a little flat.

Garlanded stalls ringed Prešeren Square and lined short stretches of the Ljubljanica River near the Triple Bridge. Food and gifts were pricier than in Croatia, and the selection seemed more limited (many stands only sold drinks rather than a variety of snacks and sandwiches). And, despite the Christmas-light galaxies and music notes strung up above, the mood felt less festive even though we had a difficult time pinning down exactly why.

Prešeren Square before & after dark

After a couple years of avoiding winter, we saw our first snowfalls of this trip. We layered up our thinnish travel clothes and new coats as the weather worsened. The markets sold plenty of mulled and warmed wine, crepes, and thick soups to combat the chill. Fortunately our apartment was well-heated, as was the theatre where we caught the new Star Wars flick.

Old Town from above & in the snow; even the city’s fountains get bundled up

Ljubljana loves its dragon mascot and shows it off at every chance. It graces the city flag, bridges, even images of the castle where it perches atop the stonework. The castle is smallish but has been utilized for all sorts of purposes through the ages – fortress, hospital, prison. Christmas decorations filled much of the courtyard and snow muted the sounds of traffic from below. Though the mountains are often in view from its walls (and many other points around town), for some reason we opted to tour it during a snow storm. This severely restricted the vistas, though the lit up streets below looked welcoming. The castle’s museums are a little lackluster, though there were some great art works mixed into the small collection (see the bear in a chicken-powered chariot below). A museum of puppets, creepy on even the best day, didn’t do anything to make them less macabre in my mind.

Around Ljubljana Castle

A funicular ascends to the castle, but we opted to walk up a winding path through the treed hillside. Slipping during the dark return, we managed to make it without falling. For a longer hike Tivoli Park, just a kilometer away, provided miles of trails, pretty even in winter shades of gray and brown. Nestled in its open spaces are art galleries, ski jumps, and playgrounds. Plenty of other walkers could point us in the right direction if the twisting trails disoriented us.

Tivoli Park, book exchange at the Castle, pretty paint, and walking after dark

Ljubljana seems to be a city on the verge of literary greatness. Book exchanges feature prominently around the castle grounds and buses have seats designated for readers. A Baroque Library in the Seminary can be visited only be request. A quick stop into the Tourist Information Center got us a personal tour. Still in almost completely original condition, it was spared long-term public use and too many candles. Vivid ceiling murals look as if they were painted yesterday. And unlike many libraries-come-tourist-attractions, it still smells like books.

Seminary Library, murals at Metelkova Art Center

Fast food in Ljubljana is cheap, readily available, and sometimes unusual. Our apartment was just a block away from Nobel Burek, a 24-hour burek and doner window that doled out massive portions for just 2-3 euros each. Clearly a favorite with students and workers in a hurry, it was possibly the cheapest meal in town. For a few more euros, Hot Horse served up burgers true to its name. Horse meat is fairly common in the Balkans and just incredibly tasty. 10/10 would eat again. Of course, the ajvar and peanut puffs are delicious as well.

Local wine surprised us a bit. The rocky landscape combined with coastal influences mirrors lots of other regional wine regions, so it shouldn’t have been the shock it was. Part of the charm was the lack of Slovenian wine in other countries – it definitely felt exclusive seeing it available in large quantities. Even the 4-5 euro bottles were high quality and similar to the more popular Croatian vintages.

With the easily accessible mountains and forests, if we return to Slovenia it will be during a warmer season. The glimpses of nature we had at Lake Bled and Postojna Cave (featured in the next post) teased us even as snow was in the immediate forecast.


Moving north from Sarajevo, we opted to spend a month in Zagreb. Our stay timed well with the opening of the Advent markets which can claim the honor of being the best in Europe. We watched excitedly as the little huts were arranged on the squares, lights hung, and an ice skating park assembled near our apartment. The markets didn’t open until December 2, however, so we spent the first three weeks distracting ourselves with other things to do.

Zagreb Views

An earthquake in 1880 caused the destruction of parts of the city and it was rebuilt with grand buildings and park spaces. It makes the city a sight in its own right. We walked, rather than funiculared, up to the Upper Town to get a better view. Near St. Mark’s Square (which holds the eponymous church with the brightly tiled roof) is the Museum of Broken Relationships. Items left over from failed relationships – a book, a wedding dress, a trinket, a toaster – are donated along with stories tied to their meaning. Sometimes sad, sometimes hysterically funny, it made me grateful to have someone to share the experience with.

Lots of murals and a little relationship regret

Also before the Advent season got into full swing, we had a couple events to attend. The first was InfoGamer, the largest video game expo in the Balkans. Compared to PAX, it was nearly empty of people. Of course, we went in the middle of the day in the middle of the week and InfoGamer spreads out over six days rather than just four. All the major devices and games were represented. We tried out the new Mario Odyssey and a game called Inked that boasted an art style straight out of a paper notebook, and then spent most of our time checking out the smaller games built by Croatian start-ups. One called I Hate Running Backwards was a particularly addicting multiplayer.

Advent Celebrations

We also happened to be in town for the International Festival of Wine and Culinary Art. Though the focus centered mostly on Croatian wine, there were some other countries from around the region represented as well. For just a $30 entry per person, we were able to sample as much as we wanted (really just as much as we had time for) for the six hours were stayed. With about 150 wineries each serving three or more wines, there was far too much to have a chance to taste everything. But we tried. And thankfully, almost everything was delicious (at least from what we remember). A few breweries and distilleries also showcased their wares, especially those evoking holiday flavors. And then there were a few stands slicing up cured Dalmatian pršut, an aged ham tender enough to nearly melt in our mouths.

Everyone claims Tesla; Dolac Market, lights

And then, finally, on the last weekend we were in Zagreb, the Advent celebrations kicked off. The lightings in different squares took place on Saturday evening, as did concerts and the rolling out of a tram decorated as Santa Claus. Mulled wine was a must for staying warm, but it was readily available and cheap. Sausages were also being served up on every square along with balls of fried dough and germknödel, a pastry stuffed with spiced plum jam for dessert. The ice skating park finally opened, full of lights and music. We avoided crowds and skated on a Tuesday morning. Chilly weather is not our strong suit – living out of two backpacks apiece doesn’t let us carry many winter clothes. But most markets have plenty of heaters and warm snacks, and a coffee or pastry shop is rarely more than a block away.

Market mulled wine, spiciness! mulling spices, tastes of the States

Zagreb is a large enough city to embrace a fully worldwide culinary cross-section. In addition to Balkan specialties like cevapi and štrukle (a cheese-and-cream-filled pastry), we found exceptional locally-made hot sauces and spicy ajvars, and even shops selling imported goods from Asia and the US. It was fun to have ranch and Poptarts back on the menu at least for a few days.

And of course there was plenty of Croatian wine. As the temperature got cooler, we headed to the sprawling Dolac Market for spices and citrus fruits meant for mulling. The wine is usually good by itself, but adding a few spices never hurt.

Zagreb is at least as charming as the coast, and there are fewer tourists, especially as soon as you step away from the Christmas markets. The cost of living was lower too, which definitely appealed to us. I’d like to return someday, though maybe in warmer weather.