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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Zagreb

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Tallinn

Tallinn is high up on the list of places I could see living after traveling gets old. Each place we’ve gone this month just makes the list of reasons why longer. (Full disclosure: it has gotten noticeably colder since we arrived and I’m not yet sure I could last through a winter. I’m pretty glad we’ve had a sauna as the weather has changed.) My favorite spots in the city are Kadriorg Park and the paths along the waterfront.

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Kadriorg Palace: all business and with its hair down.

Kadriorg Park has a prettily colored summer palace with the same name. It was built for Catherine I of Russia, but is now an art museum. We were lucky enough to be here for the end-of-the-season Light Walks. For a single night, thousands of candles line the park paths, spotlights and stages go up on the buildings and gazebos, and a large portion of the city comes to hang out, listen to music, and see the night-ending fireworks.

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Favorites from KUMU

The Estonian Art Museum, KUMU, is in a far corner of the Park. We went on an almost free day and spent a few hours. I was happy to find a temporary exhibition of 19th century dresses – and a War and Peace miniseries has been airing on TV – so I’ve gotten my fill of period clothes/drama. Intimidatingly cinched waistlines aside, it would be fun to have one in my wardrobe just because. There were some really interesting artworks trying to deal with the decades of Communism and pretty landscapes that explain why hiking is a popular activity. Perhaps the oddest thing was a room full of dozens of sculpture heads and busts – a little creepy for sure, especially the random one on the wall that was a seagull.  (There was also a similar set of baby head sculptures outside – I might have nightmares from it.)

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Main square, ghost monks, Baltic Way memorial

The Old Town leans heavily towards touristy and governmenty, and is full of souvenir shops, restaurants, and embassies. Its town walls and towers are mostly preserved so it feels cozy. Many buildings are pastel colors and there are churches every few blocks. I’m sure we’ve seen each Old Town street multiple times. It is fun to visit, but I’m glad we stayed outside of it where meals are cheaper and there are fewer crowds. Tourist groups can be nice if you are in them, but less so if you are trying to get down a narrow, cobbled street through a hundred people going the other direction.

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St. John’s and the Memorial to the War of Independence

Churches in Tallinn run the full spectrum of Christian decor. Several are Russian Orthodox, full of beautiful artwork covering every surface, and what feels like acres of gold. Others, Roman Catholic and Lutheran, tend more toward Nordic austerity.

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Museum of the Occupations: prison doors, Soviet statues by the toilets, spy equipment

Just outside the Old Town is the Museum of Occupations. Estonia spent an unfortunate amount of the 20th century under Russian and German control without self-determination. Especially thought-provoking were video interviews on the end of World War II. Some Estonians had been forced into the Red Army (Russia overran and occupied Estonia from 1940-1), but were OK with fighting against the Nazi invasion. But as the war turned and it became clear that Russia wanted to re-occupy Estonia, others joined German army units or otherwise fought to try to keep Estonia free of outside rule. Sadly, numbers were not on their side. It struck me what a Catch-22 deciding which side to fight for must have been. There was no way to know which side would win, or support your claims to independence, or how you might suffer if you chose wrong.

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2016 Marathon, getting ready for winter, Old Town towers.

We were also in town for the Tallinn Marathon. Thousands of runners show up for a weekend of races, making us feel bad for our pointed lack of exercise. The race route is definitely scenic – immediately to the left of the picture is the Baltic. Companies and individuals set up cheer squads along the route playing upbeat music – one we walked by had a live band that was really good. Other people had already stopped (not runners, just walkers like us) for an impromptu concert.

Tallinn is really a city that feels like a small town. We can walk everywhere and feel safe doing so, even late at night. On nice days, the parks are full of families enjoying the sun. But like any other city, there is a huge selection of choices for food, art events, shopping malls (Rahva Raamat bookstore has a good selection of English-language titles!). At the very least, I can’t wait to come back to Estonia. Maybe even during winter just to experience the short days and potential for northern lights…

Thaipusam

Over the weekend we attended Thaipusam. We didn’t know anything about it in advance other than a couple Uber drivers had mentioned it to us as an Indian festival that we had to see. As we found out afterward, it is a Hindu commemoration of the Lord Murugan receiving the Vel spear (representing knowledge and wisdom) which he used to slay evil. As we found out while we were there, it was an unforgettable experience that is the most memorable thing we’ve seen so far on our trip.

Georgetown’s large Indian population makes it one of the largest Thaipusam celebrations in Malaysia with tens of thousands of attendees. On our way to be dropped off, crowds were forming blocks away. We got out of the car at the start of the closed street, and were instantly on sensory overload. Heavily-beated Indian music was pouring from massive speakers. Bright colors were everywhere – clothes, altars, highly decorated tents. Free lunches were being handed out in booths and at temples up and down the street, and the air smelled of delicious curries and vegetables. People were everywhere, some as participants and others to see the spectacle.

In Penang, the center of activity is the Waterfall Hill Temple, where a statue of Lord Murugan is brought the day before in a long procession. On the day of Thaipusam, devotees carrying kavadi walk and dance their way down the street and then climb the 500+ steps to the temple – all in blazing tropical sun & heat.

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A little hard to make out, the the top left is one of the metal altars being carried by a man about to start up the temple steps; two of the altars set up along the route.

We learned later that are many types of personal offerings and rites associated with Thaipusam, and each one has deep meaning. People may decide to go through with their offerings as a way to further their spiritual growth, as thanks for answered prayers, or to fulfill a vow.

Many shave their heads as a sacrifice and as a reminder to not let ego control their lives. Some devotees also bear some type of kavadi (burden) to the temple. We were awed by the physicality involved on the day of the celebration, even more when we discovered this is a culmination of a 48-day preparation time. During the lead-up participants, eat only vegetarian meals, fast the day before, practice celibacy, and strive keep actions pure and God foremost in their thoughts.

The most basic kavadi is carrying paal kudam – pots of milk symbolizing purity – the length of the route and up the temple stairs where the milk will be poured over the statue of Lord Murugan. We passed by dozens of people carrying the silver urns on their heads; many were wearing yellow and had yellow flowers. They all looked calm and their concentration seemed to be on making it to the temple amid all the heat and humidity.

Others carry tall, elaborately carved altars over their heads. Some are made of painted and decorated styrofoam and others of metal leaves adorned with peacock feathers. In either case, the altar is balanced on the shoulders and tied to a waist belt for stability. Stopping to dance en route, the journey to the temple can take hours. We also saw dozens of these – some of the styrofoam altars were shaped into peacocks or had dolphins, shrimp, or mice. Each was painted or decorated with feathers, bells, or ribbons, and some had milk offerings balanced precariously on top.

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Two men carrying portable altars – the silver jars are attached to hooks run through their skin.

More extreme is bodily piercing and skewering. While not quite as common as the first two, the numbers of people doing this shocked me. Thin spears, representations of the Vel, are run through the cheeks, tongue, or lips. Hooks bearing fruit or small pots of milk are attached to all sides of the torso, arms, and legs. There might be only a handful of pots; others had more than 100 hooked to their body. I can’t imagine what that would weigh, or how long it would take to prepare.

Occasionally, two lines of hooks were run down the back and tied to ropes held by a friend; the bearers leans forward, straining against the piercings during the journey. We even witnessed four men, with double rows of hooks down their backs, roped to a wagon topped with decorated horses and statues. They were slowly pulling the entire float down the length of the street, surrounded by crowds of onlookers.

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Look closely – two rows of hooks allow him – and several others – to pull the float.

Drummers accompanied those bearing altars or who are pierced, and loud music was piped through speakers all along the route. Kavadi-bearers often stopped to dance in the street – barefoot on burning pavement. Occasionally, someone was standing with a hose to cool and clean the pavement as a way to show their support. Each kavadi was accompanied by friends there to make sure the altars stayed balanced and carrying chairs so they could rest as the journey progressed. Finally reaching the stairs to the temple, the goal seemed to be to run up as fast as possible. It is a blend of solitary pilgrimage and group effort – the person making the journey was aware they were not alone, even though they were experiencing it on a far more intense level.

Food and drinks are served to all comers as a form of charity and a way of giving thanks to God; by feeding others you are feeding God. Along the route, temples and businesses set up booths that give away free meals and drinks – we saw Bosch, the Penang Airport, Intel, local doctors, and the police (who had an especially long line). We were pointed into a temple by a couple who was leaving. I suppose we looked confused on whether or not we were allowed to go in! They insisted the food was great and that we should just get in line. We did, and it was: yellow curried rice with sweet peppered mangoes, and a couple of kinds of veggies and sauce on top. It reminds me of Easter brunch at church, everyone is welcome and seated at communal tables in the back hall once you go through the meal line. Eating is done with your fingers. Drinks are thankfully served along the street all day -we needed as many as we could get in the tropical temps. We even got a take-away meal box as we were leaving the festival to have for supper.

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Meal at the temple, and the front of a booth serving hundreds of meals.

The atmosphere reminded me of a mix of religious procession, concert, county fair, and family picnic. Even though the main focus was on spiritual growth and making offerings to Lord Murugan, this blends seamlessly with stalls selling snacks, fabric, and jewelry, and what is obviously a time for people to come together.

Families are dressed in their best saris and tunics – absolutely beautiful clothes featuring incredible beading and lacework, often with intricate gold jewelry and strings of yellow flowers. In quieter corners, like down the street at the Botanic Gardens, picnics are going on. Everyone is incredibly friendly – people would come up and ask us where we were from and how we were enjoying Thaipusam.

Our photos are not that great, in part because it feels rude to me to photograph people who are on a spiritual journey. In any case, pictures are never going to capture the character of the celebration, the constant barrage of colors and noise and food, the fact that every second is something new to see and hear. I’ve never witnessed such a blend of the spiritual with the everyday or seen such enthusiastic devotion.

Thai New Year

Thailand does New Year’s better. For starters, the weather is a vast improvement over any other end-of-December I’ve witnessed… no snow, no ice, no freezing temperatures, no gray Seattle fog hiding fireworks. Just a balmy 75 degrees at midnight, perfect for strolling, eating street food, and drinking outside.

And midnight on December 31 is just the first of three New Year’s celebrations. Why have just one when you can also give a nod to Chinese New Year in February and have the three-day Songkran in April with merit-making, firecrackers, parades, and massive water fights?

Holidays here are taken seriously – most of the local restaurants we’ve eaten at closed on or before December 30 and won’t reopen until January 3 or 4. (Some even closed between Christmas and the New Year or longer.)

And of course, midnight celebrations are a little different. We went to the Tha Pae Gate to celebrate. The area had already been setting up for the events days in advance – a small market sprung up last week along with more street food vendors than usual. A main stage was erected, and was occupied by a famous or semi-famous Thai singer and band for a concert the traditional countdown to midnight. Since the area is tourisy and restaurants stayed open, we ate there on the 31st (a German/Thai restaurant might not have been the most obvious choice but it was delicious) and that put us right in front of one of the main launching areas for lanterns.

The first sky-lanterns go up about 7:45, just a small handful from those who could not wait or had small kids to hurry home. Then, about 9 p.m., hundreds start rising from all directions. Several other sites around the city like the Nimman Road/Maya shopping plaza and Ping riverfront/Warorot Market had large celebrations and also contributed steady streams of lights.

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The lanterns are flimsy, and the slightest breeze sends them into trees or power lines (of course, it doesn’t help when they are launched directly under said power lines by inattentive people and then burst brightly into flame and rain down burning ashes on the sidewalk). But once the lanterns get around any obstacles, they are absolutely beautiful. One light floats up, joins dozens or hundreds of others buoyed along by the wind, bobs along for a while, then flickers, fades, and sinks back to earth. I think it might be the most quietly joyful celebration I’ve witnessed (just tune out the firecrackers).

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If you look carefully, there are already downed lanterns in the water.

Fireworks are not so strictly regulated, so roman candles and aerials can be bought by the side of the road, and carried around above your head as they explode in merry bursts (saw two guys doing this) or set off in the middle of the (crowded) street. It is assumed passers-by will notice and move out of the way accordingly. Most were made well enough and the explosions cleared the rooftops, but some explode closer to eye-level and sent people dodging.

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What goes up does come down, and after just five minutes or so. Burned-out lanterns already littered the moat and nearby trees when we sent ours up and we passed the their detritus all the way home. They skimmed along the streets the next morning, lingering gray husks of the celebration.