Sunday, February 22, 2009

Venice Carnevale

Venice on it’s own is a completely incredible and interesting place, but to see it at carnevale is mind blowing….a photographers dream! There is no vehicular traffic in the city so we had to travel like the Venetians from the airport, by water bus. As soon as we could see San Marco square we felt the excitement in the air. People in 18th century costumes and masks were everywhere! It was a sea of color with an unmistakable air of regality. The masked people did not talk at all – not to each other and not to us, but were all too happy to stop and pose for every tourist with a camera. They glided through the winding canals on their way to fabulous balls, tipping their hats to other costumed passer-bys as if they were in 300 year old bubble and the rest of us were on the outside looking in. There wasn’t much formality to the pageantry, it was just individual prerogative to dress as you wished and stroll about. The splendor was slightly spoiled by some misguided tourists who got in the spirit by wearing afro wigs or other silly get-ups that was much more appropriate for Halloween than carnevale, but the spectacle created by the serious still out-shined. In between all the people watching, there was lots of pizza eating, bubbly Presseco in the San Marco Piazza (set us back a small fortune, but hey it was worth it), a romantic gondola ride for 3 single ladies, and bag shopping on the Rialto bridge. We got into the spirit a little ourselves, managing to get through the maze of canals to the mask shop that created some of the costumes for the Tom Cruise & Nicole Kidman movie, “Eyes Wide Shut.” Predictably, my mask wouldn’t stay on my odd-shaped head but it was good fun while it lasted. My favorite part of the trip was seeing the streets at 6am on the way to the airport. I didn’t want to leave the fairytale but the early morning aura of Venice carnevale was amazing to experience…there were still masked people about and a very befitting morning fog, but hardly any tourists reminding you that you had not actually been transported back to the 1700s. I wish I had more undisturbed moments like that, but I will certainly hope to return to the Venice Carnevale again to absorb each and every one I can get.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


The mystery is finally solved! Župančič, Zoo-pan-check is the correct spelling & pronunciation. As it turns out, I am a distant relative of a famous hockey player and there is a street in the capital city, Ljubljana, named for my family…or maybe it’s named for the actual meaning of the word, “mayor”? Whatever the case, it was a thrill to finally see some validation of my heritage and explore my roots. Now I know that we were/are some very important people who came from a friendly, welcoming, and incredibly beautiful country.
And what was the very first thing we saw after crossing the Slovene border? A tractor driving down the road, it felt just like home!
The village where we stayed, Ratece, was like a movie set. Snow was piled up to our ears, old ladies greeted each other on the wooden bridge at the end of our lane, we awoke to the ringing bells of the local church, the picturesque Julian Alps filled the horizon, cross country skiers skied uphill mere feet from our balcony, and the cozy village restaurants served only delicious home cooking. Our neighbors in this unspoiled landscape? Haystacks and Lipizzaner stallions….
The first full day of our stay, we went skiing at Kranskja Gora. The quaint ski town was almost as nice as ours but far more commercialized with big hotels, shops, and restaurants. In the evening, we rested our tired bones in the thermal healing waters that Slovenia is famous for with an alpine aromatic bath. Tracey & I shared the bath (in our swimsuits of course), giggling all the while, but it was still soothing & calming nonetheless and especially nice on a cold winter evening.
The next morning I had my first full body chocolate massage – yes, it smelled wonderful and no I did not try to lick myself. After I was properly relaxed with the lingering smell of cocoa on my skin, we took a road trip to the enchanting Lake Bled and Bled Castle. The glacial lake contains the only island in Slovenia on which stands the Church to the Assumption. Tricky to get to in the best of weather, it definitely wasn’t happening for us in late February! On the rocky cliff high above is Bled Castle with spectacular views and an amazing 5 star restaurant where the day of pampering continued with a scrumptious steak lunch, the only thing that was missing was a some local vino but as the responsible driver I had to put that indulgence on hold until we got home.
We intended to spend our last day on another excursion to Ljubljana, but since our rental car was “100% frozen” (official diagnosis provided by the local tow-truck driver) most of our day was spent waiting for our SUV to thaw. It was disappointing to lose so much time, but it was hard to be too upset with the beautiful, serene scenery all around.
There were only a few hours of daylight left by the time we arrived Ljubljana, the name derived from the word “beloved,” after visiting I can see it was so for very good reason, but we had enough time to get the vibe and see the major sites. I really enjoyed seeing the ornate door of the Saint Nicolas Cathedral, strolling along the old town promenade of the Ljubljanica River, and tasting a krof (fruit filled, powdered donut) near the Triple Bridge.
I was sorry there wasn’t more time to enjoy Slovenia, but now I know it really is just as beautiful and interesting as I imagined. I should have no trouble persuading others to join me for another visit in the future, preferably summer next time.
Now it’s off to Venice and the second half of a truly amazing holiday!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Vilnius, Lithuania

Although I am always excited to visit new places, I was unusually enthusiastic about going to Vilnius. I thought it was simply because it was another country I had never expected to visit, but as I later learned that I actually have some Lithuanian ancestry thanks to my Great-Grandfather!
Not surprisingly, I found Lithuania/Lietuva a bit quirky (so very familiar to me) and filled with nice people, beautiful architecture, and tasty food.
February isn’t the height of the tourist season, and with temps averaging -3 degrees and only 2 hrs of sunlight per day it is for good reason, but it was nice not having any crowds to battle in order to see the city or experience real Lithuanian culture.
Our first day there, my work friends and I strolled down the Gediminas Prospektas, the main street of Vilnius, a diverse street of banks, government institutions, theaters, the national library, and other shopping and dining options towards Vilnius Cathedral and the central meeting point of the city. There is a tile near the belfry marked with the word “stebuklas” or miracle, which marks the spot where the 1989 human chain of 2 million Lithuanians protesting Soviet occupation ended. It’s said that if you stand on the tile and turn around clockwise you will be granted a wish…my wish is that I had known this before I found the tile!
Our next stop was the Gediminas Tower - named for the 14th century Grand Duke or High King of Lithuania - the only remaining part of the upper Vilnius castle. This tower is a historic symbol of the country and is even depicted on the national currency, the lita. From that vantage point, 48 m above the city, we could see The Hill of Three Crosses, where legend has it Franciscan monks who were trying to spread Christianity were tortured to death and thrown into the Vilnia River.
Around 4pm the sun was down so we decided to pop into a coffee shop to warm up and then proceeded on to a wine bar (hey, you got to do what you got to do to stay warm!) to kill some time before dinner. We sampled traditional Lithuanian atmosphere –live chickens greeted us at the door! -- and food at Cili Kaimas. My adventurous undertaking was the aptly named “cili kaimas” or baked meat dumplings. They looked a lot like pierogies yet tasted a bit like lasagna, in short they were incredibly delicious!
The following day I strolled around the Old Town area some more, enjoying the winding cobbled stone streets, and taking in the unique atmosphere. It was freezing! so there were many stops for coffee and pizza, but I also managed to fit in a stop at the 15th century St. Anne’s Church, which is virtually unchanged since that time. The interior seemed a little dilapidated but the fact that it is still in it’s nearly original form made it all the more interesting and unique. After this trip to Vilnius, I am rather proud to claim myself as part Lithuanian!