Europe’s hidden gems.

…Headed to Vienna with Lufthansa flight via Munich.. Unsurprisingly, we were one of the few Asian passengers on the flight.  As if it wasn’t odd enough, these two ordered hindu vegetarian meals on board…  

// Austria //

Arriving late in Vienna, we had cold supper at the hotel, which overlooked the Danube river.  In the next morning, we had simple breakfast and ‘Melange’, the classic Viennese coffee.  This hot drink may be for someone who is fond of Cappuccino as I’m not inclined to prefer milky taste in coffee.  I tend to find Turkish coffee preferable..  Perhaps due to the spice (cardamom). 

We hurried and hopped on a bus to explore the city of Graz, one of the world cultural heritage sites in Eastern Europe.  On the way to the city, countless solar panels and wind turbines were intermittently painted on the canvas of scenic routes and incredible blue sky.  Among the classic European-styled buildings with vivid paints and random acts of graffiti, the bright green colour appeared every now and then.  Although the wind farms in Austria aren’t normally as powerful and abundant as those in UK, Germany, Netherlands, and others, we could see that the country is seriously concerned about producing renewable sources of energy in an attempt to replace coal and other fossil fuels, which cause harmful emissions, fly ash, wastes, pollutions, and sources of global warming.  

The old town Graz portrayed gothic/renaissance/baroque architectures.  Mausoleum and St. Catharine’s Church was designed in renaissance transitioning to baroque.  Exploring another turquoise dome, we walked to Landhaus Palace, which was influenced by the Italian renaissance. 

// Slovenia //

Moving to Bled island, our first destination in Slovenia.  To get there, we joined the Pletna ride with the crew.  The pilgrimage church of the Assumption of Mary, where the medieval Bled castle and the Julian Alps were seen as backdrops, sat boldly and occupies the small island in the lake.  After the traditional dinner in Bled city, we got a chance to try the famous ‘original Bled cake’, which was provided with puff pastry on top and bottom of custard cake, served with whipped cream.  Its beautiful texture gave out a nice contrast between crispiness and soft layers of cake.  Still.. this heavy cream cake is perhaps best to indulge during the day, together with some warm tea!

Early the next morning, we got to explore Postojna cave, where the history lied millions of years.  Given that it’s not the longest cave (27 km; 5km opened for the public), it’s believed to be the most beautiful cave in Europe.  The cave, which is 8-10 degree celsius all year round, was once used to be the place to store barrels of fuel by the Nazis.  Different types and colours of stalactites and stalagmites were presented here (each meter growth is approximately depicted as 10,000 years old).  

Having witnessed the cold nature of the cave, we headed to the capital city of Slovenia, Ljubljana, to warm ourselves up.  Parking close to the city centre, I came to be interested in the elementary school, Waldorfska šola Ljubljana.  The extension of the school was designed by Ira Zorko, Soavtorji.  The vertical wooden facade that embraced large windows expressed the organic and somewhat modern Scandinavian building.  Particularly, the specifically designed openings at the base of the building allowed passers-by to take a peak in classrooms and gyms that were concealed in the basement as well as let natural light and ventilation into the space.  I was intrigued by its location as it didn’t try to be flashy, yet hid beside one of the small roads.  The pattern and layout appeared to be minimal with an open courtyard in the front of the building.

Wandering around the Preseren Square in Ljubljana, it felt so like the classic European capital city, where the major river or waterway cut through under bridges, together with big trees alongside.  The colourful paints of historical buildings helped bring the city to life.  After the long walk, my cousin and I were drawn by D’Cafe, where we had ‘Torta figa’ or fig cake, my most favourite cake of this trip, with a cup of decaf macchiato (illy) before spending a night in this pleasant city.

// Croatia //

Hopping on a bus, we approached Zagreb, Croatia.  Cathedral of Assumption of Virgin Mary & St. Stephen Zagreb shouted for fierce expressions of Gothic elements through flying buttress, vertical emphasis, ribbed vaulting, and pointed arches, yet was later restored and gave it today’s Neo-Gothic look.

Taking a funicular to the upper town, where St. Mark’s Church was rested aesthetically on the top.  The spectrum of colourful tiled and emblematic roof, which was redone in the 19th century, makes the church the city’s icon!

As the sky hadn’t yet become dark, we made a short trip to Rastoke, the picturesque village that still preserved folk traditions and natural phenomenon like waterfalls and dense forests.

Spending a night in Plitvice, we woke up the next morning to see Plitvice Lakes National Park, the world heritage site.  As I walked through a series of waterfalls and cascades and emerald lakes, it felt almost as if I was in Canana, but less pretty! (I might be totally biased here… Not really.. It’s my honest thought after all..) 

Heading to the south of Croatia, we stopped by Trogir, a small town by the Adriatic coast.  The Cathedral of St. Lawrence and churches in the old town (St. Dominic, St. Barbara, St. Peter, and St. Sebastian) portrayed the Greek-Roman architectures.  Given the urban focus of tourist attractions, the sea view overlooking the historical buildings in contrast to the modern yachts from where I was standing was still breathtaking.  In that vivid moment, I was thrilled and ready to see more of architectures in Split in the very next morning!

Arriving at Diocletian’s Palace (Split), where Diocletian, the one and only prominent Roman emperor who willingly abdicated the throne and pursued standard life, stayed until his last hours of life.  We entered the Neoclassical and fortress-like palace from the sea shore via the (southern) Bronze gate, one of the four gates named after metal; the rests are called golden, iron, and silver gates.  Then we passed central hall and vestibule, and eventually got to the palace’s peristyle (a rectangular open court surrounded by columns), where the Sphinx was.  Blending the old and the new, it was charming to see artists’ showcases on the wall along the transversal street (on the way to the (eastern) Silver gate).  Continuously walking to the (northern) golden gate, architectural details and ornaments didn’t cease to impress me, especially a pilaster, a classical designed column that projected slightly on the surface and served purposely as a decorative function.

From Austria to Slovenia and Croatia, I felt like every town we passed by, no matter how small it was, seemed to have at least one Catholic church. 

// Bosnia and Herzegovina //

Changing vibes to the post-conflict and recovering country like Bosnia and Herzegovina, we first stopped at Mostar, a little Muslim city on the Neretva river.  During the world war ii, this small town was severely devastated and faced the struggle for development.  Still and all, every so often, I tend to be fond of this kind of folkloric places that are far from civilization. The charm of the small cities can be seen in disarray of housing and infrastructure, while preserving an individual design in each property.

Mostar presented the gigantic cross on the summit of a mountain, even though the city was heavily influenced by Islamic religion as you would hear religious pray from time to time during the day.  The only disappointment was that we got there way too late; by then it was too dark to experience the town under the blue sky and natural light.  Instead, we went ahead and explored bazaar in the old town (goods from these local shops made it as if I was in Istanbul), took a peak at people enjoying their Chicha at the patios of restaurants, and had traditional dinner on the hill of Neretva river with historical backdrops.

The next morning, we rushed to Blagaj and visited Tekija Blagaj (Khanqah, Dervish House), another world heritage site.  The house displayed baroque features (oval roof on the facade), which overlaid on the traditional structure.  The Turkish bath (hamam) rested inside the house where the perforated stone dome with decorative glasses on top let natural light into the area.

It was about time to visit Pocitelj, the Islamic influenced town, which presented the city view, Islamic architectures, and hamam.  Eventually, the last destination in Bosnia and Herzegovina before we headed to the notable Croatian city, Dubrovnik, was Mali Ston.  Bota restaurant provided me delicious and simple vegetarian options.  Here they also offered oyster and wine tasting.

// Croatia, Dubrovnik //

On the way to Dubrovnik, the scenic routes blew me away with the unbelievably beautiful views of the Adriatic sea, which would eventually flow into the Mediterranean Sea.  There’s always something with the blue colour of the Mediterranean ocean.  When the sky and the sun invariably cooperate in a seamless manner, the spectrum of turquoise colours on the sea surface seems to appear effortlessly.  Coming back to Croatia, we then once again saw a small church in every town, along with those brick roof tiles.  

Given that we arrived Dubrovnik quite late, the sunset on the horizon of the sea along the way was magnificent and ranged in gradients from pink to blue.  Perhaps I didn’t get to see many sunsets on a daily basis (or I just didn’t really pay much attention).  Once arrived, we explored the old town’s square, Orlando Column and Bell Tower, as well as the Romanesque styled cathedral, and ended up having a full-course dinner, while watching traditional dancing performance at Poklisar restaurant.  

After fully rejuvenated from a deep sleep, we looped back in the old town again in the morning to observe different vibes during the day.  As luck would have it, we got to experience Good Food Festival’ that took place yearly along the main street of Stradun (old town); the festival featured food styling workshops and traditional Croatian dishes and desserts that both professional and young chefs personally engaged and served participants. 

// Montenegro //

Off to Montenegro ‘the black mountain’ country, where Pojgojica is the capital city.  The country perhaps had merely two Catholic churches: one in Kotor and one in Budva.  Kotor’s old town manifested medieval and romanesque features (durable structure, small windows, and broken pediment).  In Budva, the historical area on the Adriatic coast, we rested there for a night.  The next morning, we walked along the shoreline before entering the old town and again explored the city’s ancient constructions, arts, and cultures.  The far end of Budva’s old town unfolded the beautiful Holy Trinity (Orthodox) Church with the iconic mosaic ornaments above the entry and frescoes painting that graced the interior wall and ceiling.  These Montenegro’s old towns represented many of the oldest architectures in the Balkan area.

Besides the old ruins and architectures, what I really liked about Montenegro was that… strayed cats were everywhere! and they seemed to crave so much attention. :)

Almost at the end of the trip, we boarded the plane back to Vienna.  We all realized that it’s time to get back to reality in which we came from. 

Traveling has always been a profound source of learning and body-mind restorations for me, particularly when I leave behind work life for a little while.  It’s been wonderful to explore the unseen places without any expectations.  If you’re optimistic and openminded to changes, things can surprise you in all instances.  Happiness is a choice and I choose to be happy wherever and whatever I set my intention to.

I hope I’ll get to share my peaceful and enlightening journeys.. somewhere in the world, (preferably Iran, Morocco, or Poland) with you in my next travel chapter… 

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