Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Slovenia Part I: Ljubljana & Lake Bled

A few days after coming back from Finland, we set our sights on a trip to Slovenia. Slovenia borders the northeast corner of Italy, about 90 miles from Venice. A lot is packed into this small country, which contains everything from snow-capped mountains suitable for skiing, beaches on the Mediterranean, and acres of hills and plains blanketed with grapevines. It has some of the cleanest water in the world due to its many lakes and springs, has half of its total area covered in forest, and is abundant with various types of wildlife. And lastly, the Slovenian people (two million strong) are some of the friendliest people we've encountered in all of our travels.

We flew into Venice, rented a car, and drove about two hours to the capital of Ljubljana. Ljubljana is a small city that has plenty of museums, universities (1/4 of the population are students), greenery, and a castle overlooking the city on its highest peak.

From our hotel we walked to the old town, which includes all of Ljubljana's most important sights and buildings, including Ljubljana Castle which can be seen overhead from every point. As we walked through Presernov Trg (Preseren Square), we noticed that this square seems to be where the life of the city is. There is a river running through it with quite a few small walking bridges crossing the water. Many restaurants and cafes line the riverbank and even though it was 25 degrees F there were a lot of people sitting outside and sipping their coffees with friends.

"Triple Bridge"

Peseren Monument

Cathedral of St. Nicholas
We took the funicular up and made our way to the castle grounds. From below, the castle looks extensive and is the city's focal point, but while we were up there it seemed surprisingly small. We went across the small courtyard to the watchtower and climbed the stairs in order to see wonderful views of the city.

The castle courtyard
The Castle above the city

Our ticket also included an entrance to the Slovenian History Exhibition, leading us through the country's past, exhibiting significant objects and video explanations. There are about six museums in Ljubljana so it was nice to see a collection of items in one place instead of trying to find them at the various museums.

Copy of the world's oldest flute. The original is held at the National Museum of Slovenia.

Reconstruction of the oldest wooden wheel with an axle from Ljubljana.
After taking the funicular down we walked through the central market area, which has an outdoor and indoor market selling everything from meats, cheeses, vegetables, and honey, to items like magnets, paintings, and wooden kitchen accessories. We walked through the market along the river and crossed Dragon Bridge, which is "guarded" by four sculptures of dragons which are now the city's mascots.

Some of the market

After our day in Ljubljana we drove 40 minutes to the town of Bled. Bled is situated right on the lake (Lake Bled), a picturesque emerald-green lake that has the scenery of a postcard. The lake has some of Slovenia's highest mountain peaks as a backdrop, a medieval castle on a small cliff, and a church sitting on a tiny island in the middle of it all. In the summer Bled gets incredibly busy, as there are many rowing, swimming, and boating competitions, while in the winter - though not empty - one can walk around the lake without the chaos and noise of tourists.

Soon after we arrived we walked the four miles around the lake, capturing pictures, petting dogs on walks, and admiring the natural beauty of this location. Seeing the snow covered Julian Alps in the distance was stunning and the entire landscape was just breathtaking.

The small island with the church. The castle is on the left.

Castle at night.
We loved our time in Ljubljana and Bled and found this trip to be a pleasant surprise. Next up, skiing in Kranjska Gora, the Postojna Caves, and a stop in Trieste, Italy on the drive back!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Saariselka, (Lapland) Finland - Playing in the Arctic Circle

Way up in northern Finland, approximately 185 miles ABOVE the Arctic Circle line, and about 30 miles from the Russian border, lies a small town named Saariselka in the region of Lapland. Saariselka is Europe's most northern resort town and is known for its large hilly landscapes and clean air. A five minute walk from the village center brings you away from the lights of the town and into the peace of the wilderness. The town itself has 300 permanent residents and even when there are many visitors, the town continues to hold a silent, peaceful, and serene feeling.

This is a region that has six weeks of uninterrupted sunlight in June and July, and six weeks of darkness in December and January. On our first day there the sun rose at 10:38am and set at 2:04pm for a grand total of 3 hours and 26 minutes of sunlight! The amount of sunlight quickly increases daily and by the end of January the region will be up to 5 hours and 35 minutes of sunlight.

The sun at high noon on 1/20/13.
The sunset at around 2pm
On a cloudy day it looks like this during the "daytime" around 11:30am

As most of you know, Jon and I love the cold weather and outdoor winter sports so we were in no way concerned about the cold that was awaiting us. As it turns out, they were having a "warm" week in Saariselka - the temperature ranged from 7 to 25 degrees F. Typically the temperatures are coldest during January and are normally between -20 and 14 degrees F, though a couple of years ago it got down to -63 degrees F! We packed our typical ski gear and many many layers! While walking around the town we took notice of the fresh crisp air and saw that snow covered every surface. It truly was a winter wonderland.

So bundled up she can't move!
Ashley, Kamalan, and Ava
Jon and me

We rented a log cabin with three bedrooms, which was plenty of space for all of us. The cabin was about a 10 minute walk to the "center" of town where there were many restaurants serving typical Finnish cuisine highlighting reindeer and salmon. We bought some local food at the supermarket to take back for lunches and a few dinners.

Our cabin

A sled to transport Ava around town

It also was used to transport our groceries!
Salmon Soup

Reindeer filet

Reindeer, salmon, mushrooms, and whitefish

Our first activity was a reindeer sleigh ride through woods of Lapland about 10 minutes from Saariselka. With two people per sleigh we slowly went through a path in the woods with the moon shining our way. The guide who led the reindeer is a member of the Sami people, a rich culture with an interesting history that stretches over the Norweigen, Swedish, and Finnish Lapland. If you're interested in reading more about this culture click here and it has plenty of information about this group of people who are trying to preserve their small community as much as they can. After our ride we were invited into a typical Sami "hut" and drank warm gooseberry juice next to the campfire. We also were fortunate to hear an old Sami song that was sung by our Sami guide.

Kam & Ashley

The next day Jon and I left for our second Arctic adventure - a husky safari! We were taken to a ranch where the barking of enthusiastic dogs welcomed us at the start. The head musher talked about the life and training of the Alaskan Huskies, which are better suited to run and pull longer distances than Siberian Huskies. Before leaving, we were given instructions on how to control the sleds, which we rode in pairs. For two hours the dogs ran and pulled us through the woods, up and down hills, and around tight curves. Whenever we would stop, the dogs would start barking and howling, anxious to get going again. After our rides we met our team of dogs and had a chance to look around the ranch. In total they have 106 huskies, all eager to run! We had such a good time with the dogs and sleds... we wish we could have brought Maya with us. She would have loved the snow and the fun of running and pulling (though we're not sure she'd be able to keep up).

A few excited dogs.

Jon was ready to lead!

On our ride through the woods

My turn to lead!
Our team
Jon with our lead dogs

A 2 week old puppy!
We were then led into a snow covered hut equipped with a fire-stove and set tables. We were welcomed with a mug of hot gooseberry juice and a large bowl of reindeer and vegetable stew. It was just what we needed to escape the cold and warm up.

Reindeer stew

When we arrived back at the cabin Jon and I had an hour and a half to relax before our next excursion, a search for the Northern Lights by snowmobile. With the moonlight flowing down we drove the snowmobiles through snow covered forests and over treeless fells, stopping a few times to look at the sky. We drove to an igloo site where we were given hot chocolate and grilled sausages. All in all we drove 25 miles and had an amazing experience on this adventure!

Kam & Jon warming up

Our snowmobiles, but no pictures of us on them :(

Inside the igloo

We got back to the cabin around 10:15 and opened up a bottle of wine to warm up. Since it was a fairly clear night the boys went out for a walk to see if the Northern Lights would make an appearance for them. After being in the cold for eight hours and it being 12:30am I just could not bring myself to put on all of my layers and head out into the cold again.. and to be honest, I wasn't too positive that we would see the lights that night. That turned out to be a bad decision since the boys were successful in their search! After walking around for an hour and feeling defeated they looked to the sky and saw a faint green light. The clouds moved and this is what they captured:

The boys told us that what you see in the pictures are actually much brighter than what you see in the sky. The camera shutter needs to be open for 5-10 seconds in order to make the lights brighter. They are also not able to be captured on video camera since the shutter speed is too fast and the lights are not bright enough. So any videos that you see of the lights are actually pictures put together in a video format.

The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis are the result of collisions between charged particles released from the sun and the gaseous particles in Earth's atmosphere.  The color changes depending on the type of gas particles that are colliding. The pale green color, which is the most common, is caused by oxygen molecules 60 miles above the earth. They are only visible towards the poles (instead of near the equator) because Earth's magnetic field diverts the particles that way prior to collision with the atmosphere. The lights have to be active, the sky fairly clear, and the timing needs to be just right in order to see them, and the combination can be rare. I can't believe I missed it!

Besides our excursions we spent a lot of time walking and playing in the snow, sampling the Finnish cuisine, and spending time in front of the fireplace in the cabin drinking hot chocolate with peppermint liquor. We had such a great time in northern Finland and it was quite an adventure! This is definitely a trip that we can see repeating in the future!

At dinner the last night

Stay tuned for the addition of our dog sledding and snowmobile videos!