Budapest stood on its own as an endless fount of discovery and gritty beauty, but what made it really special was that we stayed at Mandala Hostel. Our friend Leah found the place, and we ended up there with her after being unimpressed with our first I-know-you’re-checking-in-at-11p.m.-but-we’re-not-sure-which-beds-are-free-and-also-we-forgot-to-hang-the-clean-bedsheets-out-to-dry hostel.
Living at Mandala is basically like living at your friend’s apartment. If your friend put a bunch of beds and a loft in their living room. Another key component was that the group of people who happened to be there at the time, were all lovely and interesting and conscientious and it felt like we had our own little family group.
Some days we would just sit around and make tea and talk on the courtyard balcony, or on the sofa. Some nights we would all go out to the neighborhood ruin-pub for some traditional (and not-so-traditional) Hungarian folk music.
So we ended up staying a lot longer in Budapest than we originally intended. It was a good thing.
That’s right, Budapest. (The s makes a “sh” sound in Hungarian.) We were considering the cost of train tickets from Maribor to Prague or to Budapest, and Budapest won. It turned out that return ticket was actually cheaper than one-way, so we reasoned we would probably run across someone who was on their way to Slovenia and we could sell them our return segment. The beauty of not planning ahead and having more time than money is that you can look at each other, say “why not Budapest?”
One great thing that happened back in Maribor is that we picked up a stray Australian named Leah. We met her briefly at our last guesthouse, then we were pleasantly surprised to find her sitting on the platform waiting for the train to Budapest. She was traveling Europe solo in between high school and college and had all the spunky free spirit you’d expect from an 18 year old, blended with mature and nurturing qualities that always made us forget that we’re closer to twice her age. Leah’s friend Sky, an equally sweet person whom she met the month prior in Turkey, flew from Rome to join us a few days later. The four of us soon became a traveling family and we had heaps of fun with our newly adopted sisters.
The ride from Maribor to Budapest was our favorite train trip so far. We had the entire compartment to ourselves, and we reclined all the seats and chatted and read our books and ate our snacks for the next eight hours. Hungary looks a lot like Iowa, and it was easy to pretend that we were not in Europe at all and instead traveling on the hopefully-someday-soon-to-be-reality Iowa passenger rail route.
Budapest! The glorious merger of the cities Buda and Pest on either side of the Danube. We were always looking up at the architecture and finding it looking back down at us.
You might have noticed by now that we don’t do loads of research about a place before we arrive. Sometimes we don’t even know how to pronounce its name. (Lyoob-lyee-AH-na, for the record.) Sometimes this ends up biting us, and sometimes it just means our lives are full of good surprises.
We spent one day in Ljubljana in between graffiti hunting in Zagreb and renovating a house in the Julian Alps, and we instantly knew that we wanted to come back before we left Slovenia. Firstly, there was a Georgian restaurant in town (remember that Georgian food from Tbilisi?), but it was closed the day we were there.
Ljubljana is a small city filled with a mix of Baroque and Viennese architecture, interesting sculptures and tons of cafes, all cut down the center by a small river and joined by all sorts of bridges. Add to that the fact that it’s highly walkable and bikeable, and you have all the great components of a laid back European city in one easy-to-embrace package.
One day, we saw a young guy with marker on his face and assumed he passed out at a party with people he thought were his friends. Then we saw another person with even more scribbles. Then we saw others carrying around markers. Later, we found out that it was a freshman hazing tradition for the first day of school.
Our favorite day was when we rented bikes and pedaled through Tivoli park and across the bridges and even through the tunnel that goes under the castle hill. The city is full of bike lanes and bike traffic signals and the motorists are aware of and considerate to cyclists, so the usual fear of getting run over just wasn’t there. It seemed like everyone biked, even middle-aged ladies with perfect hair, nice jewelry and designer clothes. The type that would probably be driving a new Escalade if they were in the States.
We had seen many places by this point, and the quality of life in Ljubljana made us think that it was one of the few places we could actually imagine living in. Also, not gonna lie. There might have been some ice cream.
Maribor, Slovenia – 2012 European Capital of Culture! Multiple daily events year round! Art shows, street performers, public art installations, music, concerts, all mostly free. Sounds great!
So we took the train to Maribor. Our arrival was ill-timed because we arrived on the weekend, and in a lot of places in Slovenia, everything shuts down on Saturday and Sunday. Everything. Unless you’re looking for booze or cigarettes, you’re out of luck. We made more than a few Maribore jokes.
But Maribor was definitely picturesque, especially the view from the church tower. If you ever happen to be there, it’s worth the climb and the small donation.
And we got to see a 400 year old grape vine, just before its heavy clusters were harvested for the season. It’s the oldest known grape vine in the world.
We saw some art, then attempted a concert, but there wasn’t a lot of seating and it seemed to be more or a local open mic night. On Sunday, not even the grocery stores were open and so we had lunch at the “Mexican” restaurant in the mall. And then the mall closed at 2 p.m. and we decided we were taking the first train out of town in the morning.
As we walked to the train station early Monday morning, it was amazing how the town that had seemed totally deserted for the previous two days came to life. It made us wonder if we would have felt differently about Maribor had we arrived on a weekday. But the tickets were bought, and we were ready to move on to our next destination.
Our host Marie and her friend Rudi were planning a trip to pick up another friend near Venice, which is only a few hours from Kobarid, and they invited us along. We were not planning on seeing Italy at all this year, and so we jumped at the chance. Rudi drove us to Cividale de Friuli first for an espresso and a look at its big stone bridge. It was raining, so after we finished our coffees, we got right back on the road.
Venice is surrounded by some pretty depressing urban sprawl and industrial areas, at least the parts we could see from the four lane highway, the area that Marie and Rudy dropped us off in, and the parts the bus drove us through before we got to actual Venice Venice.
When you first cross over the from the large bus parking lot, it’s almost a theatrical entrance as you can hardly see anything until you reach the apex of the main bridge, and there before you is a big canal full of boats and rows of very old, damp, and not so vertical buildings. And hordes and hordes of people.
It was about 2 p.m. when we arrived and we needed to catch a train to meet Rudi and Marie at 6 p.m., so time was short. We decided we just wanted to wander the streets and enjoy the unexpected treat of visiting one of the world’s most famous cities, have a nice meal, and maybe treat ourselves to an espresso and gelato.
We quickly discovered that while most of the main thoroughfares were elbow-to-elbow with souvenir shoppers and the wheelie bag draggers, most of the time we had the streets and alleys to ourselves if we just deviated a block or two.
We were glad that it was a grey and gloomy. It matched he preconceptions we had in our minds about the place, which doesn’t happen often. The whole city was fantastical and we were happy just observing and admiring everything… from the canals and multicolored buildings, right down to the door buzzers and shutter locks.
Lunch was another story. We didn’t do any restaurant research beforehand, so we were completely at the mercy of fate and our own good judgement. Both failed us and we managed to spend about $60 on a pizza that had sliced hotdogs on it and some gnocchi that made us certain the chef’s name was Boyardee.
At least the wine was good. And we got this sweet photo of the waiter who gave the restaurant an aura of undeserved legitimacy.
By the time we finally got the bill, raindrops began to fall and we realized we had to leave for the station soon if we were going to catch our train. We opted to take a water bus back, reasoning that even if we missed out on expresso and gelato, we’d at least have an enjoyable boat ride and see some more of Venice. The wind and rain was really starting to pick up now and the boat plunged up and down as we boarded.
We managed to pick the boat that took us past large shipping docks and the backside of large industrial buildings, and eventually the weather was so bad that we had to retreat into the enclosed area.
When the boat finally churned sideways into the dock, there was little time to spare and we began to make a run for the train station. The instant a raindrop falls in a tourist destination, magical umbrella fairies appear and try to make a quick buck. They mistook our rush for trying to stay dry and kept stepping right in our paths to make sure we knew that they had the solution to our problem. The stone promenades were slick and I imagined myself tripping and sliding on my face. We made it to the train soaked, intact, and with three minutes to spare.
Venice didn’t turn out anywhere near perfect, but we’ll remember it just as fondly, maybe even more so, than if it had.
While we were staying with Marie in Kobarid, we also spent some time with her friend Rudi. Rudi is an engineer who drives a car train through the mountain tunnels. We had never heard of a car train before, so in case that’s also unfamiliar to you, it’s basically the same concept as a ferry. Except instead of a boat taking your car across the water, the train is taking your car through the mountains, which saves you almost an hour of driving and lots of petrol burnt on steep switchbacks.
Rudi invited us to ride with him from Most na Soči to Bohinjska Bistrica in the engine of his train. Marie drove us down from Kobarid to meet the train, and after the requisite coffee at the station cafe, we climbed aboard.
Rudi told us that the engine was American made. The sections of track that didn’t go through the 100 year old tunnels wound along rippling rivers and valleys and small towns.
Time passed all too quickly and soon we were at the end of the line at Bohinjska Bistrica. We parted ways with Rudi and walked through the edge of town until we came to a pizzeria where we ordered a soup and a spicy venison sausage pizza for lunch.
After lunch, we walked back to the north of town on the road to Bled and stuck our thumbs out. We were told that it was very easy and safe to hitchhike in Slovenia, and we positioned ourselves in an area with a nice place for a driver to pull off the road, across from a petrol station. Nearly forty minutes passed with hardly any drivers giving us a second look and we were beginning to doubt the advice we had been given. But soon, an elderly Slovenian couple in a white sedan pulled over. As we climbed into the slipcovered back seat with thankful smiles and several hvala lepa!s, the woman turned and indicated that we should buckle up. “Policija!” After they asked where we were from, the rest of the ride was spent in contented silence, and when we arrived in Bled, there was another round of smiles and hvala lepas and adijos.
It was a warm afternoon, and we wished we had brought our swimming suits. Since we kept our transportation costs at an all-time low for the day, we decided to splurge on renting a boat. Tony rowed us out to the island. We climbed the 99 steps to the church at the top and rang the bell.
We took another train back to Most na Soči as the sun disappeared behind the mountains.