Farewell, Ljubljana

We enjoyed our last two days in Ljubljana, hiking the beautiful natural areas surrounding the city, eating great food, and overall basking in the great karma of this very special place.

We love to hike new areas when we travel and Tivoli Park, Ljubljana’s largest park, was a perfect place to get some exercise and enjoy nature.  Jacopik Promenade, designed by Jože Plečnik, whose beautiful designs grace much of the Ljubljana city center, provided a grand welcome to the park. The promenade is often used for art exhibits of large-format photographs, and we were lucky to see one that combined art and math.

After walking miles of forested trails, we were surprised to come upon a charming restaurant tucked amidst the trees.

We strolled the lovely city streets and enjoyed more of the amazing cafe culture.

We hiked back up to Ljubljana Castle and explored the many hiking trails behind the castle. The castle planted a vineyard in 2016 to revive its wine-making traditions.

An interesting photographic narrative about lithium, the core component in battery-driven cars, phones and robots was set up on one of the walking paths.  “As the need for climate protection gets stronger, the development of cleaner energy is gaining momentum. At the same time, a key part of the solution, lithium, and the production of the material is not without its own hazards and sins.” I love how Eco-sensitive and proactive Ljubljana is.

We finally got a reservation at top Slovenian TV chef, Bine Volcic’s restaurant, Monstera Bistro . I was excited to try his cuisine, but a little nervous when I read that he is the first Slovenian chef to establish the concept of “zero-waste cuisine.” This means that the chef prepares edible parts of plants and animals that are usually thrown away. Great for the planet, but maybe not so great for someone who eats minimal amounts of meat. I am happy to report that everything was delicious, even my salad that included roasted pork neck.

We made multiple trips to Vigo, our favorite ice cream shop and discovered a new love-tortes at Cacao, a fabulous cake shop that also serves gelato and wine. It’s a good thing we didn’t discover the luscious tortes until our last night here.

Ljubljana is an easy city to visit. Everyone goes out of their way to be helpful and almost everyone speaks English.  When we first arrived, I worried  because I couldn’t even guess how to pronounce Slovenian words. The words didn’t seem to have enough vowels. Some of their words have no vowels at all-for example, vzbrst which means bloom. Not speaking the language was never a problem.

The food is amazing; there is an emphasis on locally-grown, traditional food.  A number of the Slovenian wines are ranked among the best in the world, but many are produced in small, organic wineries and not available in the US.

We are always happy to return home, but we will be sad to leave lovely Ljubljana. Honestly, I love every place I visit, but Ljubljana feels special. We will probably return someday, but I don’t know if it will be the same. The city is becoming a more popular tourist destination, and I expect that every year more people will visit. Right now it seems to have the perfect combination of everything I love in a place to visit without being overcrowded.

 

Lake Bled and Beyond

After learning “just-in-time” how to navigate toll booths in Italy, Monaco and France, we were thrilled to cross the border to Slovenia and see no toll booths. Lucky for us we mentioned this to a local who told us Slovenia has toll roads but no toll booths. Instead you must buy a sticker for your windshield-no sticker and you could get a large fine.  So, our first stop on the way to Lake Bled was the Petrol station to buy a sticker. The helpful young woman at the Petrol station not only sold us our sticker  but gave us great suggestions for other things to see when we went to Lake Bled.

Lake Bled, a beautiful little lake in the Alps, was not on my radar until we started planning our trip to Ljubljana. Suddenly pictures of beautiful Lake Bled, and specifically Bled Island, seemed to be everywhere.

The little island with a church and other buildings is the most photographed part of the lake.

Visitors can row themselves to the island or hire an oarsman to row them in a wooden boat called a pletna. Many of the oarsmen are descendants of the original twenty-two families granted the right to ferry passengers to the island in 1740.

We hiked around the beautiful lake. The crystal-clear water reminded me of Lake Beltrami, the lake we lived on in Bemidji.

After lunch, we traveled on to Lake Bohinj.  Every local we talked to about visiting Lake Bled told us to go to Lake Bohinj, about a half hour past Lake Bled. They said it was more beautiful and popular with locals than Lake Bled.

I was so glad we took their recommendations. The drive through small villages in the Alps was beautiful and the lake views were stunning. To the left of the lake was a huge vertical mountain side where we watched people learning to mountain climb.

That evening we dined at Open Kitchen. Every Friday in the warm months dozens of chefs from all over Slovenia cook their specialties. It was like one big party; the square was packed with happy people eating and drinking local food, wine and beer.

Later that evening we enjoyed the lively outdoor cafe culture that permeates the city.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Tricky to say, trickier to spell, but easy to love-Ljubljana, Slovenia is our new home for the next six days. After settling in to our apartment and making a quick trip to the nearest market for breakfast supplies, we went for dinner at TaBar, a tapas restaurant. When our waiter told me they were making the butter as we ordered, I knew I was in for a treat. The food was beautifully presented and incredibly tasty.

Orange wine is popular here. So popular that more orange wines were listed on the menu than red or white. Having only read about orange wine, I had to try it. Our waiter instructed me to smell it first and told me the taste would be nothing like the bouquet. He was right.  It was an interesting experience to smell a light, fruity wine and taste a fuller, dryer wine.

Our dessert was beautiful, but I had to laugh at the foot-long spoons they brought us  to share our tiny little dumpling.

The next day we went on a Ljubljana walking tour with Ana, our amazing guide. We loved how knowledgeable and passionate she was about the history and culture of her country. Both our airb&b host, Ales and tour guide, Ana are impressive examples of the  young adults shaping Slovenia’s exciting future.

We met at the statue of France Preseren, Slovenia’s most famous poet. The Slovenian language had been considered an unsophisticated language until his poetry became famous throughout Europe in the 19th century. When Slovenia became independent from Yugoslavia in 1991, the country used one of his poems for their national anthem.

In 2007 Ljubljana closed the main streets in the historic district, creating a beautiful pedestrian-only city center.

Metelkova, an alternative arts colony in the middle of the city, was one of my favorite stops.  A few years after Slovenia’s independence, squatters moved into the former army barracks to prevent developers from tearing down the buildings. Now it is a vibrant arts and nightlife center.

Ljubljana is a city of independent and creative citizens. Graffiti and murals adorn many of the buildings. One that I especially liked was on the side of a home for older adults. A rough translation is “Into every life some rain must fall, but the sun will shine.”

We visited the market and learned about traditional Slovenian food. Ana bought potica, the traditional cake of Slovenia from the best baker at the market, and we took a break to enjoy the wonderful treat.

The dragon is a symbol for Ljubljana, and four large dragons adorn the beautiful Dragon Bridge.

A banner celebrating Ljubljana’s designation as European Green Capital in 2016 hung outside the Town Hall.

We ended our walking tour with the steep walk up to the 900-year-old castle. The hike and the great view of the city from the castle were a great way to end our wonderful walking tour.

There was lots of excitement in front of our apartment last night. The Slovenian men’s volleyball team played Poland last night in the semi-final game of the European championships. When Slovenia beat Russia the week before, tickets for the next game were gone in a few minutes.  A giant screen was set up in the square below our apartment to give more people a chance to see the game. The square was packed with cheering fans. Slovenia won three sets to one and the crowd went wild.

 

 

Fair Verona

When I think of Verona, I think of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It is doubtful that Shakespeare ever visited Verona, but there is no doubt at all that Verona is a beautiful and romantic place.

Although our time in Verona was short, I fell in love with this lovely city and hope to return for a longer visit. Some of my favorite memories are the  friendly people, beautiful little streets, really old buildings and wonderful food and wine.

At the restaurant where half of the main dishes were made from some form of horse meat, I was able to find a fabulous cheese and grilled vegetable dish.

My favorite Verona experience was our food and wine walking tour. Irena, our lovely guide, first took us to a coffee shop where we learned about Italian coffee culture.

Going for a coffee is an important part of Italians’ social life. We learned that Italians only drink cappuccino until 11:30 and not with food, a moka pot is often used to make coffee that is not as strong as espresso and in the evenings they like to put grappa (an Italian brandy) in their coffee. After learning how Italians make and enjoy coffee, we enjoyed a coffee together.

At the pasta shop, a young man amazed us with his pasta-making skills as he quickly made perfect tortollini. Because fresh pasta cooks so quickly, we were eating his pasta about five minutes after he made it.

After eating the warm, buttery tortelloni, I really needed our little walk to get to the next stop, a small cheese and meat shop. We tasted three cheeses and two meats that were made in the Verona area. One of the cheeses is very similar to Parmesan but is made in such small quantities it is only sold in the area.

After walking not nearly far enough to walk off the pasta, meat and cheese, we stopped at a small wine shop. Diane, the sommelier at the wine shop, and Irena are good friends, and it was fun to hear them share their views of Italian wine and wine drinking.

Our final stop was my favorite, the Vittoria Gelato Cafe. I eat gelato every night when I am in Italy, so it was fun to visit a place where they made 100% organic gelato right in their shop.

Our time in Verona went by too quickly. We said good-bye to our friend Scott and packed up to leave for Slovenia.

 

 

Amarone Wine

I have a new love. After years of not really liking Italian wine except Brunello and Super Tuscan, I discovered the Piedmont area of Italy, home to some of my new favorite wines. After learning about the very wonderful Barolo wines a few days earlier, I was excited to go to the Valpolicella area which is just north of Verona and learn about Amarone and other great red wines of this area. I loved the one bottle of Amarone I had about a year before our trip, so the odds were good Amarone would be a hit.

Our guide, Michaelangelo (yes, that really is his name) took us to two small Valpolicella  wineries. Although there are more than 400 wineries in the Valpolicella area, ten large wineries produce eighty percent of the wine.  They use both the  espalier and pergola techniques for growing their grapes. Espalier, where the grapes are lower to the ground, is what I have most commonly seen, so it was interesting to see the pergola technique, where the vines and grapes form a canopy.

Grapes for Amarone wine are hand-picked. Not only must the harvesters carefully select and gently cut the grapes, they are constantly reaching over their heads to pick grapes from pergola-styled vines. When I mentioned to Michaelangelo that I had always wanted to try harvesting grapes, he told me it was fun for about ten minutes. After that, it is just hard work. Harvesters may work as many as ten hours a day.

Our first stop was Le Bignele winery, a family-run winery since 1818. Both Kristin, our hostess at the winery, and Michaelangelo, our wine tour guide, taught us so much about Valpolicella wines.

Making Amarone wine is a unique process. Rather than being crushed right after picking, the grapes are first dried in special drying rooms, using both natural air flow from large windows and fans when it is too humid.

After about 100 days of drying, the grapes are fermented for 30-50 days. After the fermentation process, the wine is aged in French or Slovenian oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Both wineries we visited aged their Amarone wine for three years.

Three brothers operate Fratelli Vogadori, the second winery we visited. Alberto, one of the brothers, conducted a tasting for just the three of us. Although we enjoyed meeting the interesting people from Germany and Australia at our firsttasting, we really liked being able to talk personally with the winemaker and see his passion for his wine.

Our wine tours are finished.  We loved learning more about the wines we came to taste as well as discovering new wines to enjoy- Barbaresco in the Barolo area and Ripasso in the Amarone area.

 

Barolo Wine

We chose to visit Alba, Italy to learn more about Barolo wine. Barolo, considered one of Italy’s greatest wines, is a favorite and we were excited to taste it and see where it was produced. Gianfranco, our B&B host, arranged two private tours and tastings for us.

In the morning we visited the Sordo winery. Producing Barolo wine for more than a century, it is an interesting combination of old cellars, modern technology and a sleek new tasting room.

Giorgia,our Sordo hostess, showed us all stages of the wine-making process from where they receive the grapes to where they put the labels on the bottles before they are shipped. They use both traditional oak barrels and hi-tech metal barrels to age the wine.

After the tour we enjoyed tasting the luscious wine and ordered some to ship home.

Driving around the beautiful hills of the Alba area, we saw the skyline of a city sitting atop the highest hill. Girogia told us the city was La Morra and suggested some places for lunch. Lunch was great, but the best part was the beautiful view from the highest point in the area.

At the Fratelli Serio & Battista Borgogno winery we tasted nine of their wines with fifth-generation Borgogno family member Frederica. One of the wines we tasted was the one Frederica had chosen for her wedding the previous year. And, of course, we ordered more wine to ship home.

That evening we went into the heart of Alba for dinner. I was so glad that we had accepted Gianfranco’s offer to make a dinner reservation for us. Dinner was fabulous, but more importantly we got to see a beautiful part of the city. When we first arrived in Alba, we drove through an industrial part of the city to get to our B&B a few miles out of town. Based on the part of town I saw, I made the assumption that the city of Alba was unattractive and uninteresting . I was so wrong. Alba is beautiful and lively. 300,000 people were expected to arrive the day we were leaving for a week-end international cheese festival.

 

Alba, Italy

I was sad to say good-bye to beautiful Aix-en-Provence but excited for our next stop, Alba, located in the Piedmont area of Italy.  Alba is most famous for its Barolo and Nebbiolo wines and white truffles. The drive through the Alps was stunning, taking us into the clouds and by Turino, Italy, site of the 2006 Winter Olympics. Even though we had been driving through beautiful countryside all day, the beautiful hillside vineyards surrounding Luna di Langa, our Alba home for the next two days immediately captivated us.

B&B host Gianfranco, his son Alberto and adorable dog Layla were waiting for us as we drove into Luna di Langa.

We were excited to walk through the beautiful vineyards.

All of the grapes in the region are picked by hand. Harvesters picked the white grapes last week and begin picking the red grapes this week. Beautiful,  lush bunches of grapes hung low on the vines.

Gianfranco, who is also a wine expert and gourmet cook, prepared traditional dishes of the Alba region for our dinner. I am not sure what we enjoyed more-his wonderful meal or entertaining company. He is a fantastic cook and even shared one of his recipes with me. Now I just need to find someone to translate it from Italian to English.

Tairrin, pasta Gianfranco had made earlier in the day

Dessert was a moist cake that was his mother’s recipe accompanied by apricots that he had preserved himself in sugar and alcohol and Moscato wine.

Bunet

 

 

 

 

 

Chateauneuf du Pape

Ever since I shared a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape with three good friends when I was just starting to enjoy wine, it has been my favorite red wine. Enjoying wine involves both the senses and the emotions, and our fabulous wine tour covered both. Thanks to our wonderful guide/sommelier, Pierre Fernandez owner of wineprestigetour.com, we experienced one of our best wine tours ever.

We took the TGV train to Avignon where Pierre picked us up. While waiting for the other four people in our group to arrive, we visited an art exhibition in an old chapel. I got to practice my French with a charming French woman in the chapel.

Pierre was born in Chatueaneuf du Pape to a family that has been making wine for 600 years. The local winemakers trust him so much they literally give him the keys to their cellars. He took us to three wineries, and at each one he unlocked the door, got out the wine and glasses and told us about the winery. He provided amazing tasting notes for each wine we tasted.

Before the tastings, he took us into the vineyards and explained the importance of terroir (the soil and climate that affect the taste of the wine) and the unique terroir of the Chateauneuf du Pape region.  The French believe that terroir is more important than the grape in making wine. The Chateauneuf du Pape region is unique because the soil changes frequently from sand to clay to limestone to river rock.

We were surprised that river rock entirely covered some of the vineyards. As a result of geological forces millions of years ago, Chateauneuf du Pape is the only place in the world where river rock covers the fields as it does here. Who would think to plant anything in an area covered with rock? The winemakers did because they knew the rock kept moisture and heat in the ground and provided an ideal setting for the grapes.

I noticed that most of the vines were bushier than the usual trellised vines I had seen before . Pierre explained that because all of the grapes are handpicked (required for all Chateauneuf du Pape wines) there is no need for space between the rows for machines.

Chateauneuf du Pape means “new palace of the Pope.” During the 14th century the Pope lived in a palace in Avignon and built a summer palace in a village 18 km away. That village became known as Chateauneuf du Pape.

Our last tasting was at Chateau de La Gardine winery in the family tasting room  that is not open to the public. Once again, Pierre’s relationship to the winemaker’s opened the doors to a very special experience.

We were very happy wine tasters at the end of the day. We had learned a lot, enjoyed a great lunch, tasted great wine, and of course, ordered some wine to be shipped home.

 

Chateau La Coste

Wow! What a day. Fabulous art, beautiful nature, great wine and a wonderful lunch-who could ask for more in one place. We got all of that and more when we drove about fifteen minutes north from Aix-en-Provence this morning to the beautiful Chateau La Coste.

Centre’d’Art, 2007-11 by Tadao Ando and Crouching Spider, 2003 by Louise Bourgeois

Opened in 2011, Chateau La Coste is a vineyard, winery, center of contemporary art, luxury hotel and gourmet restaurant. We started our visit with a two-mile sculpture walk through the vineyard and beautiful hillside. If we weren’t looking at amazing sculpture, we were looking at the beautiful views.

Some of my favorites sculptures:

Psicopompos, 2011 by Tunga from Brazil

La Chapelle, 2011 by Tadao Ando from Japan

Pavillon de Musique, 2008 by Frank O. Gehry, Canadian-American

It was heavenly to combine a lovely walk in the woods with finding wonderful sculpture along the way.

After being totally inspired by the amazing art, we toured the winery and tasted their wonderful wine. I thought we would be there too early for the harvest, but lucky for us the harvest had started the week before.

Chateau La Coste uses the latest technology to produce consistent wine and ensure that their wine meets the requirements of their Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence appellation, one of the appellations in the Aix region.

The best part of the tour was the tasting. We tasted a sparkling rose, two roses, two whites and three reds.

Lunch in the winery’s restaurant ended our day. I had read about the delicious tarte a l’onignon, so we all decided to try it, and it lived up to its reputation.

Aix Walking Tour

Richard, our Aix-en-Provence walking tour guide, gave us a wonderful overview of Aix history and culture this morning. Even though I wasn’t sure how a Brit who had lived in Aix for two years would do as a tour guide, he received all five-star reviews, so I decided to book his tour. His tour was amazing, and we all felt that we had learned so much.

He began our tour at the Cours Mirabeau where a festival of local activities and clubs provided all kinds of entertainment.

We learned about the golden age of Aix from 1650-1800, when prosperous residents built beautiful homes in an effort to demonstrate how successful they were. One businessman showed how powerful and successful he was by putting statues that included pubic hair on the front of his house, a move that created quite a scandal at the time. I don’t think most people passing by now would notice unless a guide pointed it out to them.

Aix has more statues than any other city in France. During the plague large gatherings were banned to prevent the spread of disease, so small statues were placed around the city to provide places to worship.

Paul Cezanne, one of France’s most famous painters, and Emile Zola, one of France’s most famous writers, became life-long friends when they met at the present-day Mignet school in Aix when they were thirteen. Later in life they had a falling out but continued to influence each other.

We walked through one of the markets in Aix that is open every day.

In addition to learning interesting history, one of my favorite parts of the tour was discovering beautiful little side streets.

After lunch, we visited the Hotel de Caumont-Centre d’Art. Opened in 2015, the center is located in one of the most beautiful 18th Century homes in Aix. Our visit gave us a chance to see a beautiful home, lovely gardens and an amazing exhibit on loan from the Guggenheim in New York City.

The exhibit included works by Cezanne, Monet and Picasso that traveled for the first time from the Guggenheim collection to Aix-en-Provence to be seen by the general public in Europe. Our walking tour guide described it as the perfect art exhibit-great art that you can see in about an hour.

We ended our evening with a lovely dinner at Le Petit Bistrot. We weren’t able to get a reservation at any of the restaurants we had researched, so we walked around and looked at menus until we found something that looked appealing. That approach has not always worked well for us, but tonight we lucked out and had a wonderful meal with friendly servers.