Thursday, June 10, 2010

Trueffel Pasta & Die Blaustufe (Truffle Pasta & Shades of Blue)

Note: I started writing this blog entry on 31. May. I literally haven’t had time to finish it until today, ten days later. I plan on doing another update with more current information soon. Just fyi. :)

Well, hi again! Yes, I’m back, just like Arnold Schwarzenegger. (I totally just spelled his name wrong and then Microsoft Word corrected it for me. You know you’ve made it when your last name is in Microsoft Word’s dictionary spell-checker! Haha)

Okay, so before I begin, I need to get something off my chest:

Ireland, I’m sorry. I thought you were the fairest country in the land, but I’ve met someone better. No, it’s not Snow White, and there are no seven dwarves. It’s, it’s… Slovenia. Don’t take it too hard, Ireland. You’re still beautiful and all; it’s just that Slovenia is… more beautiful. Gorgeous, in fact. She definitely wins the Miss Europe pageant. But Ireland, you still have a great personality; you get the Miss Congeniality award….

Haha. But seriously.

You may have noticed from previous blog posts that I am kind of obsessed with Ireland, and I still am. But then I went to Slovenia and, well, Ireland may have just gotten beat.

No bigger than the state of New Jersey, Slovenia is wedged between Croatia, Austria, Italy, and Hungary. As part of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia was under the Communist ruler Tito and, while limited areas were available for tourists to visit (My parents went to Lake Bled during the 1980s, for instance), the vast majority of this bite-sized country remained closed off behind the Iron Curtain. Since the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991, however, Slovenia’s unbelievable natural beauty has become accessible to anyone. Anyone who has heard of Slovenia, that is. For most of the world, though, Slovenia’s veritable secret garden has remained just that: secret. Until two weekends ago, I too had no idea. Now I know. And if you continue reading, you will too.

So where should I even start? How can I best describe to you the country that took my breath away over and over and over again? Well, in the words of Fraulein Maria, the very beginning is a good place to start.

It all began with a long weekend from Friday May 21st to Tuesday May 25th. (Here I need to give a shout-out to the Holy Spirit because Monday and Tuesday were holidays due to Pentecost Sunday. Thanks, Holy Spirit! :) ). What’s a girl to do with a five-day weekend in Austria? Go to Slovenia, of course! And that’s what I did. On Friday afternoon, I went with my Italian friend Michela to Maribor (a small, semi-industrial Slovenian town about an hour from Graz) to go on the tour organized by the ESN (Exchange Student Network). Maribor wasn’t all that exciting (one of my friends aptly nicknamed it “Maribor-ing), but it IS the home of the world’s oldest grapevine. It’s more than 400 years old and produces several liters of ridiculously expensive, relatively low-quality wine each year. But I guess if you’re that old, you can get away with it.

After an afternoon in Maribor, we headed to Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia. Don’t let that name intimidate you, and don’t try to pronounce it like it looks. It’s not “Luh-JUB-luh-Jana” as I thought it was for my first month in Austria. It’s “loob-lee-yah-na”. Just let it roll off your tongue like music. Be careful, though; it might become one of your favorite words and you might become addicted to saying it, and it will randomly come out of your mouth involuntarily. Not that I would know anything about that…. Haha

Anyway, we were in Ljubljana where we stayed at a place called Hostel Celica, which incidentally used to be a prison. Unfortunately, though, we opted for a normal room instead of the converted prisoner cells; they were too expensive. I’ll have to save up more money if I want to go to jail. Just kidding. On Saturday morning, Jodie (from Canada) and Anna (from Sweden) met up with us. We spent the entire day wandering around Ljubljana (say it again), sampling food from the huge open-air market (where we bought a kilo of cherries and an extra-large case of strawberries for 10 euros), drinking ridiculously cheap coffee, and taking photos of all the super fun and random graffiti. (Ljubljana seriously has the BEST graffiti I have ever seen! It included, but was not limited to: rainbow-colored dustpans, Ron Weasley faces, angry owls, bunny rabbits and much, much more). Unfortunately, everything closed at 2 p.m. (on a SATURDAY. And I thought Austria was bad!), so we were severely limited in our sight-seeing, shopping, and eating options. But we still had an enjoyable time, nonetheless.

On Sunday morning, we bid adieu to Michela who had to go home to Italy for some school obligations and then said hello to our new best friend: a silver 2010 four-door Opel. Here is side note to all wanna-be European travelers, specifically wanna-be Slovenian travelers: Travel with someone who can rent and drive a car in Europe. It’s seriously the ONLY way to experience Slovenia. I can’t even count how many times I thanked Anna for coming with us on the trip; neither Jodie nor I are insured to drive in Europe, so without Anna, this unbelievably amazing, once-in-a-lifetime trip that I will never ever forget would have never been possible.

Okay, so we rented a car. And that is where the real adventure began. Here I need to add a disclaimer: No matter how well I try to write or how many or few words I use, I am doomed to fail; Slovenia is so incredibly beautiful that trying to capture it on paper is like attempting to catch a bubble; it won’t work. But, nonetheless, I will give it my best effort because fortunately, unlike bubbles, Slovenia won’t pop. :)

Our first stop was Predjama castle, which dates from the early Middle Ages and—get this—is built into a cave in the side of a mountain! How cool is that?! Very cool. Next, we visited the Skojan caves in the Karst region of Slovenia. Karst is a type of landscape typified by rugged limestone and sinkholes; water seeps through the porous limestone underground where it forms caves below. Although Ireland is also known for its Karst landscapes (the Burren country on the west coast), the “original” Karst region is found in Slovenia. The Skojan cave system is one of the largest in Slovenia and also one of the most unique. Why? To quote Norman Maclean, because “a river runs through it.” And not just any river, a river of such power and magnitude that it created huge chasms and dizzying depths that made almost wet myself when I walked over them. At one point in the cave tour, we had to cross a bridge over a 75-meter deep canyon with the river rushing through the bottom. As if that weren’t intense enough to think about, our tour guide told us that this wasn’t even the deepest canyon; in a section of the cave not open to tourists, there is a chasm 200 meters deep—about three times the size of the one we crossed. Yikes!

Now I must take a momentary detour from my descriptions of natural beauty to shift to an equally important topic: FOOD. Not only did Slovenia prove to be the most beautiful place, it also was the yummiest… er, or it had the yummiest food. On the recommendation of Jodie and Anna’s roommates, who had visited Slovenia by car about a month before us, we went to a Gasthaus known for its truffle pasta, in the middle of Slovenia’s wine country. Literally in the middle of it—as in, we had to take windy roads intended for miniature tractors through fields of grapevine trees. You know a restaurant is good when they don’t even have a menu, and this one definitely didn’t. After we sat down on the terrace, the owner/cook (who spoke virtually no English) came up to us and asked, “Pasta?” (to which I replied “gnocchi”, which is a potato-based pasta). Twenty short minutes later, our lives—and stomachs—were forever changed. Some people have near-death experiences and they get a glimpse of what heaven looks like. Well, that evening, my tastbuds got a glimpse of what heaven tastes like. I’m not kidding. It was without a doubt THE BEST MEAL I have ever eaten, and if not the actual best, it was definitely second. I have seriously never tasted anything that compares to it; it was INCREDIBLE. (see my face in the picture above if you don’t believe me). Amazing.

Afterwards, we watched the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen (Sorry, Oklahoma). We were overlooking the Adriatic Sea and the rest of the wine country. Sooooooooooo lovely.

That night we stayed at Hostel Xaxid in the town of Zazid (spelled differently, pronounced the same). The roads to get there were so narrow that Jodie and I had to get out of the car and guide Anna through them—multiple times. The population of the town of Zazid can be likened to its street size: dinky. 75 people call Zazid “home.” Naturally, in a town that tiny, people become very close, like family; in fact, all 75 people regularly rent a large bus and go on trips together, like one giant family vacation. Cool, eh? They immediately welcomed us as honorary members of their family; as soon as we had unloaded our luggage, our hostel owner (whose name translates to English as “soul man”) invited us to a “Fish Picnic.” Where, of course, we ate fish—the itty bitty kind that you normally throw back. Interesting. The next morning, he cooked us a delicious homemade breakfast (I tried my first soft boiled egg!), which we thoroughly enjoyed. Then we explored the town of Zazid (which would have taken about five minutes total, if that, but we stretched it out) before we hit the road yet again.

On this day, we decided to explore the Slovenia coastal region. We stopped at a few towns, dipped our legs in the sparkling blue Adriatic Sea, and then decided we were hungry. So what did we do? Hopped over to Italy for some gelato, of course! :) Yummy. Late in the afternoon, we started making our way over to Lake Bled, where we would be staying the night. But on the way, we were a little sidetracked when we encountered an unbelievably color-not-found-in-nature, naturally turquoise river. Yes, you read that correctly: TURQUOISE. So, of course, we stopped and took a ton of pictures; we even found a small boat tied to the shore, so, of course, we took pictures in it, too. Then, after winding our way through some treacherously curvy mountain roads (Note: When a turn is more than a 90-degree angle, a GPS gets confused. And when a turn is a 180-degree angle, a GPS gets really, REALLY confused) before finally making it to Lake Bled. We ended up having to make a detour to get to our hostel. The main road had been indefinitely blocked off for archaeological work; when putting in a pipeline of some sort, workers had discovered the remains of an original Roman road. Apparently, this area was a tourist trap 2000 years ago too. :)

The next morning after sleeping in a little bit, we headed over to Triglav National Park, which is a few kilometers from Lake Bled. You know the expression “the best keeps getting better”? Well, that describes my experience in Slovenia to a T. Just when I thought I had seen the most beautiful thing possible (i.e. a naturally turquoise river or a sunset over the Adriatic Sea) I was blown away by something equally, if not more, enchanting. Triglav National Park, or at least the area we explored, consists of a river bordered on both sides by huge rocks. These rocks come so close at one point that they appear to almost kiss each other, or at least touch. Guests in the park can follow a footpath that hugs these large rocks and crosses over the river. But, just like always, Slovenia isn’t content with being normal, so of course this river isn’t any old river. It’s BLUE. Not murky “blue” like a river in Kansas, but glimmering, shimmering, almost glowing, filled with all different possibly shades of blue. It’s seriously stunning. I think my jaw dragged along the ground the entire time; I was so in awe of it.

After gaping at the beautiful park, we headed back to Lake Bled. Before I came to Slovenia, Bled was the only area of which I had heard. My parents had visited it back when they were stationed in Germany during the 1980s, and they loved it. My friends who had visited Bled raved about it, and I was expecting to be blown away as well. To be honest, it was pretty, but I wasn’t all that impressed. I think if Lake Bled were the only place I had seen in Slovenia, I would have been wowed. But having seen tons of incredible sights already, Bled was slightly disappointing. Granted, when my parents came, Slovenia was still part of the former Yugoslavia, and Bled was the only area they were allowed to visit. That being said, I am so thankful to be living in the post-Cold War world for many, many reasons, but especially since it now is possible to visit the entire country of Slovenia. I can’t believe Yugoslavia had been hording such beauty for so long. Crazy. Luckily, now they are learning to share the sLOVEnia. ;)

After Lake Bled, we drove to the Bohinj area to check out a glacial lake. Having been let down by Lake Bled, I wasn’t expecting much from this lake. Yet again, though, I was very pleasantly surprised. Like the other Slovenian bodies of water, Lake Bohinj is incredibly blue. Located somewhat near Austria, Bohinj is a mountainous region, so this lake is surrounded on all sides by small mountains. These two factors—the surreal blue and majestic mountains—alone would make Bohinj beautiful. But this next characteristic makes it absolutely spectacular: the sand on its banks is white. Caribbean beach white. So, taken together, Bohinj is a dazzlingly blue mountain lake with Caribbean beaches. Wow. The effect is breathtaking.

Experiencing such astonishing natural beauty got me thinking. And as I was thinking, I couldn’t help coming to some conclusions. Here is what I wrote in my journal while I was in Slovenia:

“God is the ultimate hopeless Romantic. An artist, a creative genius, He is desperately, completely, unabashedly, obnoxiously, obsessedly, unashamedly in love with us. He has to be. That is the only plausible, only possible explanation for the beauty I have seen these last few days in Slovenia. He Himself must be beautiful to create such matchless beauty. Who else would think to put a Caribbean beach in the middle of the Alps? Or to make a bright turquoise river? Or to put every possible shade of blue in the river passing through Vintgar Gorge? He must be. He has to be. That’s the only possibility.”

The One who puts “colors not found in nature” into nature loves you. Through beauty like that of Slovenia, He reveals His heart for you and for me. He’s a hopeless Romantic who loves us so much that He created unspeakable beauty for us to see—and not just to see it, but to experience Him through it. His creation is like a sonnet or a love song penned since the beginning of time for us to read and for us to hear. More than anything, He loves us. And more than anything, He wants us to love Him back.

The Mastermind of Creation wants to give you a love beyond compare, beyond words, beyond anything you have ever known. Won’t you let Him?

Thanks for reading. God bless.

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