It has been a long time since we have spoken and had a conversation.
June was definitely a bit of a whirlwind. I entered a depressive episode for the first two weeks. I forced myself through work without really thinking or feeling anything. At home, I felt ‘heavy’ and ‘burdened’ with absolutely no motivation or goal orientation. I was not myself again. I did not feel like doing anything (especially all the things I love – running, reading, cooking, being outside etc.) or interacting with anybody. I forced myself through plans I already committed to, and said no to everything else.
At times, I did not even want to interact with JH. He asked me what was going on, and I felt something stopping me inside internally from figuring out what it was. I wanted to cry but I could not bring myself to cry. And there were other moments where I would just bawl for no reason. I felt what I could only describe as dead inside. I felt a targeted disdain for social media – for this blog, posting pictures, interacting with the world, making sense of how my friends felt about me (and subsequently creating really twisted stories in my head about those feelings). While I did not feel suicidal, all I wanted to do was lie down and sleep all the time. I felt in some ways like I was already dead. Like maybe I had passed and I was watching everyone go about their lives without me in it – and everyone was okay with that fact. I would be okay with that fact. At this point, I felt like a break from life again. This was not a break to get away from work, or friends or Toronto, etc. This was a break to get away from potentially spiralling again – spiralling into hospitalization for yet another time.
Talking to my psychiatrist, he said the depressive episodes will come and go. I have to prepare people in my life for them when I start seeing the signs. I have to prepare myself for them. Even though I have probably cycled a million times already now since this has all started, I still do not know what to do. I always feel lost still.
In the latter half of June, work became hectic. For the first time since I was in my early twenties, I was working until 9 or 10 every day, and for a bit into the weekends. I had no time to think or feel anything until we were leaving for our trip with my dad to Slovenia. I felt irritation sometimes (as a person with Bipolar II would); fatigue mostly, but maybe a bit alive again. I suppose that being busy until the late evening each day allowed me to forget my depression even though it was still trying to press me down daily. Subsequently, travelling again also made me ‘forget’ my depression. I ‘laughed’, ‘smiled’ and raced through activities like ‘normal’. JH and my dad looked at me like I was renewed, even during the moments where I was incredibly irritable. On June 25th, the anniversary of my first suicide attempt with full hospitalization, I cried a good reason-based cry for the first time in a really long time. And then for the rest of the trip I remembered in the pit of my stomach how I felt throughout the rest of June. I popped more clonazepam to ease me down – but do not worry, it was not enough for it to hurt. Coming home, I feel a bit lifeless again. I am not sure where to go from here, but I suppose it is somewhat positive that I want to write again.
JH and I always have adventurous, meaningful trips. But this trip was especially meaningful because my dad came along. The last time we had travelled together was to Peru in 2008, and that was nearly 9 years ago. My dad had never been to Europe before, and it was a highlight to see him embrace his surroundings, and open up his curiosity. Slovenia was his idea, after he had read about it extensively. I knew very little of the country (except that it was Melania Trump’s homeland); but after having been now, I know that it is natural, astonishingly beautiful, and still very much untouched. Unlike some of the rest of Europe, it was not at all tourist saturated (even the most obvious tourist spots). We explored places endlessly it felt without obnoxious crowds or lines.
Something as well that I loved very much was that the country was exceptionally clean. Everywhere we walked there was not a hint or sight of litter. The people take care of the country, and that is incredibly important in preserving a place this beautiful. I loved that we could road trip almost the entire circumference of the country in the 10 full days we went. I also loved that everywhere we drove, hiked or explored, there was ‘somewhere’ more beautiful than the next. 10 days is hard to condense into one conversation, so I will mostly likely separate this into 2 or 3 stories.
We flew into Zurich through Air Canada, with a long 7-hour layover. Thank goodness Europe is a bit more relaxed with visas. We left the airport with no issue to walk around the centre for a little bit. My dad was astonished at how “relaxed” everyone seemed. Albeit, it was a Friday, so I do not necessarily think that it was all too uncommon for a pile of people to be sitting on patio cafes on a pretty summer Friday morning. It is possible this occurs in Toronto; I just never walk outside of the office to look. It was fun though for us to explore a little bit, and allow my dad to say he had been to three European countries on this trip (we crossed the border into Italy later onwards in the trip, and almost made it to Croatia – 10 km away). Before we knew it, we were on a short 1-hour flight to Ljubljana to finish the journey.
Ljubljana was cloudy on the day we arrived. I hoped it would not rain, and the weather held out for a few days. The weather was actually pretty amazing throughout the trip, and when it rained, we embraced it because we were in spectacular nature. Every drop of rain seemed to fit in perfectly with rolling streams and plush green forests. This was our third road trip (Switzerland and New Zealand before), so JH and I were excited to get in the car again. We rented a Skoda Octavia from Sixt in the airport (booked online before with our flight tickets), and collectively decided that I would not drive again. Lucky me, as this was actually the hardest road trip JH had to endure as a driver. Some of the mountain roads had pretty rough terrain, endless switchbacks, insane downhill switchbacks, tight lanes and very few opportunities to stop-over (for view-points) without creating traffic chaos. We thought collectively that Slovenia is much like New Zealand in landscape and atmosphere, but the country is not there yet from a tourist infrastructure point-of-view. The country eventually will need to build infrastructure with better signs, viewpoints and passing lanes. Nonetheless, JH made it through the driving experience, and I loved the drive as a passenger. I love anywhere with mountains, especially driving through mountains. You just get so lost in the fairy-tale scenery.
Truthfully, we did not explore the full depth of Ljubljana. I feel like we went in and out of the city fairly quickly. I was fine with this. I am sure the city has its beautiful spots and interesting culture, but I am never a fan of the big city when travelling overseas (except New York – nothing beats New York). I would rather be in the countryside and deep in nature. The airport was a 30 minute drive approximately from the center and our hotel.
Our hotel – 1830 Sincere Bed & Breakfast was located right at the river near the bridge with the famous Ljubljana gothic dragon statues. Driving into the street, we all pretty much had the same reaction. It looked really ghetto, and gave off a really grimy vibe. The buildings had graffiti all over it, and it was not very clear where the actual hotel (ahem – hostel) was. JH parked the car temporarily on the side of the road. We picked up our keys from the main hostel a block over (H2O Hostel), along with a parking pass to a garage on the other side of the river. Parking cost 8 EUR per day. Our hotel was located around a corner from the actual address on the street. Once you get inside, you can tell it is a hostel. Ljubljana hotels were insanely expensive though when booking (because it was their Independence day holiday the weekend we arrived) so I chose the cheapest ‘cleanest’ looking option I could find.
The room was tiny for three people even though there were three beds. It felt incredibly claustrophobic, especially since the ceiling slanted over my dad’s bed. The street was also located near a bar, so we heard dance music here and there for most of the night. There were very few electric outlets which was annoying because we all had to charge our phones. For the two nights we were there, JH and I also had to do work at night, so JH ended up working on the floor because he had to use the outlet in the bathroom. There was no soap in the bathroom, but the reception ended up giving us some. The shower pressure was almost abusive. I had to hold my chest because it felt like someone was beating me. Honestly, for $105 CAD per night, I wish I had just gone for a more expensive option especially given my dad was there. By the time we left, we just wanted to get out of there. It was our worst hotel of the entire trip.
We arrived late on the Thursday night, so we only had enough time to eat dinner and do some quick exploring. I had read that there is a weekly open-market on Fridays near the town centre called Odprta Huhna. We ventured over and it was fairly buzzing. The one thing we noted throughout the trip is that Slovenians do not have definitive facial features, so unless it was very obvious (or we could hear French, German, etc being spoken – though they could still be Slovenes since they speak the border country languages), we could not easily distinguish between tourists and locals. I felt myself people-watching more than often just to see if I could make these distinctions.
The market reminded me very much of the food festivals in Toronto. There was nothing too special – BBQ, ice cream rolls, tacos (they were trying to be multi-cultural). We checked out the few local Slovenian food stalls. JH and dad ended up having Slovenian fried chicken with these really good mashed potatoes that did not taste like conventional mashed potatoes. They were very textural like some of the potatoes were stripped out and intermixed with the mash. I had stuffed peppers in a tomato sauce. This was also pretty tasty, but very hearty. Everything was slopped on a plate, but it is what it is when you are eating at a stand-up market.
After dinner, we walked around the city and admired the beautiful architecture. Ljubljana has a castle, but we did not visit this one. We walked around the main squares where we saw the majority of tourists we would see on this trip. Walking by the river was also very nice and bustling. Lots of people were out and about just relaxing with drinks on a patio. Everything just seemed really, insanely relaxed. This resonated with most of the Slovenes we met (younger generation). They seemed to have the mentality of “whatever goes”.
The next day, we headed out of the city in search of prettier places. Lucky us, the skies were blue and the sun was shining. Dad really wanted to see Logar Valley (Logarska Dolina), so we drove 1 ½ hours to see the beautiful valley overlooking the mountains. For a lot of these places, I would have loved to spend at least 1 full day or 2 days, because there is so much to explore. However, we tried to cover as much as possible in 10 days to make somewhat of a ‘circumference’ road trip. We used a mixture of the car GPS and Google Maps to navigate through the country. Google Maps failed us a few times. With Logar Valley, as you approach the area, you have to watch for signs very closely. We drove past the entrance sign in an effort to follow the Google Maps pointer, and ended up having to turn around. You know you are in the valley when you see a girl standing out front waiting to collect a toll fee of 7EUR. Driving into the valley is just spectacular. You see beautiful views of the mountains, gorgeous cabins / farms, and impeccably green grass stretching for miles. My dad also fell in love with this ‘special tree’ which he insisted on taking several pictures with.
We drove until we hit a parking lot for the (Slap) Rinka Waterfall, which is essentially at the end of the valley. You walk for about 10-15 minutes (with a little bit of uphill) to reach a waterfall. It was not the most beautiful waterfall we would see on this trip, but given we were in Logar Valley for such a short time, it was the easiest sight we could visit. There were barely any people there so we were able to take a lot of pictures on our own in privacy. Logar Valley provides access to a number of hiking trails, and you could easily spend several days in that area.
After this, we drove about an hour to Velika Planina – a series of mountain herdsmen settlements overlooking mountains and rolling green hills. JH suffered the wrath of several steep and narrow downhill switchbacks. I think my dad was clutching himself in the back because the driving was so treacherous. Luckily it was not raining so roads were at least clear. Once again the GPS failed us. Originally, we were looking for a parking lot leading to a cable car that would take us up to the settlement. The GPS ended up taking us to an opposite entrance driveway. We drove up the full elevation (and because of this, did not have to pay anything with this option versus cable cars). We passed a few parking lots, skeptical of whether or not to stop. We ended up driving on terrain where there were multiple tourists (and no cars), and decided at that point we needed to turn around because the terrain was really railing on our wheels. People were also staring at us. We found an arbitrary ‘parking spot’ near the top, and left the car there hoping it would still be there when we returned. We walked the extent of the settlement and did end up finding a ski lift on the other side. Apparently, there is a cable car up to a middle elevation, and then a ski lift to the top.
Once again, we did not allot enough time for this area. There was so much more exploration we could do, but we had a food tour scheduled in Ljubljana in the late afternoon, so we could only walk so far before making the trip back. The settlements were pretty unique looking, especially as they were all clumped together on rolling hills (with the ‘Sound of Music’ resonating in our ears); some had cows and sheep on their pastures. Some of the settlements looked like they were either owned by people (as summer homes) or rented out to tourists. It was a very pretty area, which unfortunately none of us really photographed well.
At the top, we ate at Zeleni Rob, a local Slovenian restaurant (located right near the ski lift). My dad ordered a barley soup, and JH and I shared buckwheat porridge (this was really gritty), juta (a rich stew with sausage), and struklji (a blueberry cottage cheese pastry). The strukli was really good, but after this meal I felt saturated already. While the food here was better than I have had in other European countries, I hit saturation point early a number of times. There was just too much cheese, butter and cream. Miraculously, I somehow actually lost a bunch of weight when we got home. I guess we hiked too hard.
We drove 1½ hours back to Ljubljana, and met our guide, Iva Gruten for her Ljubljananjam Foodwalk. Iva has a wonderful, friendly and bubbly personality, and she was easy to communicate with from the get-go. She kindly provided many great ideas for our trip including our wine tour with Winestronaut in Vipava Valley (story for later). She has a lovely back-story, and it is definitely a highlight to walk through Ljubljana’s main areas with her just for her stories and perspective on culture, politics, economy and Slovenian people. She has lived in North America, and speaks English perfectly.
We were with her (and 3 other people from the US / Germany) for roughly four hours. Me and JH paid 55 EUR per person (including alcohol); dad’s cost was 45 EUR (minus alcohol). JH and I had a few conversations on this trip about whether I would drink alcohol again. He consented with sips and maintenance of control (given all my pill bottles say – do not consume alcohol). With that being said, you have no idea how good it was to drink white wine again. I, after all, just want to live life. I had my first full glass at a winery tour later onwards in the trip, and it was just as amazing.
Anyways, getting back to the tour, Iva asked that we not mention online the places we visited, but we could share what we ate. In the few hours, we tried:
- Beet root tartare, elder flower syrup – Modern Slovenian. The restaurant was small but rustic contemporary.
- The dish was really fresh and beautifully presented. It was a good kick-off to the tour.
- I also love elderflower. It is expensive in Toronto, but apparently in Slovenia (where the flowers are rampant), every family concocts some sort of elderflower syrup regularly.
- Local Slovenian dishes – Jota (Istrian cabbage stew), struklji (cottage cheese & tarragon – savoury versus the sweet pastry we had in the mountains), sausage.
- They served with the food Human Fish Combat Wombat Session IPA and White Wine Zelen from Colja at Moji Struklji Slovenije.
- This was probably my favourite stop of the tour. Despite how heavy it was, I consistently loved struklji throughout the trip.
- Pieces of brown bread with pumpkin seed oil, with craft Lager Kranjsko Pivo.
- I did not particularly care much for the food here, but I really liked the venue. It looks like a converted art gallery with a boutique restaurant / café. When we went, the venue was empty, but there were a lot of window spaces facing the river that looked great to relax in and just read a book for hours. It is owned by two young women who just wanted to do something different with their lives.
- Then, we ate a family style sharing meal with Istrian fritaja (omelette), potato salad, grilled sardines, and an Istrian platter (with beef salami, and cave aged cheese). This was served with white wine malvazija.
- I was not too impressed with this last part of the savoury meal. Everything tasted okay, but there was no ‘wow’ moment to any bite we took.
- For dessert we had gelato. This was a huge disappointment for me, as we live next door to a gelateria back at home. I wanted to try local Slovenian desserts. I understand that the tour was ‘heavy’ and perhaps adding on a heavy dessert would result in ultra-saturation, but I wanted local flavours. We tried some of the potential ‘local flavours’ of gelato – tarragon and cottage cheese, potica, but nothing really produced a pop. JH and I ended up picking normal flavours to end off the night because we just sampled too much.
- Finally, she took us to this self-serve hippy-ish type of cafe run by a British expat. This place was really fun and everyone was really nice. JH and I both had ice teas, while dad had a decaf tea.
All in all, I loved the tour because of Iva – her stories, her entrepreneurial spirit, and her positive sense of life. It was a good value for the amount of food and drink we received. I am however not sure I really loved the food. JH and I have a high bar set with our previous food tour in India. We tasted some pretty spectacular bites on that trip, and this one did not quite live up to what we were expecting. I do hope she tries out other places, and keeps a recurring cycle of other restaurants on her radar. I would recommend the tour for her as a person and a unique way to see the city, but not necessarily her food picks. In this instance – she has other restaurants she works with, so these thoughts are only applicable to what she chose that night, and not her business in general. She is a smart business owner with a good understanding of her partners, resources, and challenges. I think she will continue to do well.
That same night there were supposed to be Independence Day fireworks, but JH and I got caught in work e-mails again and we both missed it. My dad on the other hand fell into a deep sleep.
Bled – Part I
The next day, I originally had us driving through a ‘fairy tale’ medieval town – Skofja Loka. However, with our experience on the roads the prior day, we wanted more time to get from place to place. For the first time ever, we were not beating the GPS end time, and this was a bit unsettling. So, we cut the first town out, and drove about an hour to the next stop – Bled. Despite being cloudy, Bled was awe-inspiring beautiful (it is about 3 times prettier than what you see on the internet, and it is pretty spectacular already on the internet). On a normal day, the waters sparkle blue, but because of the cloudiness, the water was a faded, rippled turquoise. With looming clouds, It was a little bit creepy and dark, but magical all at the same time. There are two scenic hikes to see the top of the lake from a higher viewpoint – Ojstrica and Osojnica. Ojstrica is shorter and has an unobstructed view. Osojnica is a longer hike (or maybe there was a different shorter entrance; not sure, and we did not research further) and the view is slightly obstructed because of a fence (based on what we could see from Google). We ended up hiking Ojstrica.
The hike starts near Camping Bled on the west side of the lake directly facing the church on the island. There is parking right by the campsite, but it only accepts coins for payment. We went to the nearby market and restaurants, and they both refused to break our bills for coins. We ended up digging for coins scattered in our pockets and cars (and ended up giving our parking ticket later to another family who was also digging for coins). Right near the main road, kind of hidden in tree shrub (and what was described as a meadow on the internet) is a wooden sign for Ojstrica – the starting point. If you walk directly into Camping Bled and into peoples’ tent areas, you have walked too far.
The terrain with this hike is not too hard. I think it took us about an hour. It is a bit slippery if there has been rain, because the trail is a mixture of mud, rocks and piles of leaves. The last stretch is pretty steep, so you feel a bit winded by the time you reach the top. The view is spectacular though. An iPhone does not really do it justice, but I remember the breath-taking views in my mind. JH and I contemplated continuing onwards to Osojnica, but dad said no. He wanted a coffee – so we headed back down.
We walked around the perimeter of the Lake for a little bit. It was just stunning. We never ended up taking the boat trip to the little island because I had read it was pretty anti-climactic. However, it was a joy just to see it from afar, and take in the utter prettiness of the atmosphere. These are some serious places for dark thinking here. Like I said, it was a bit creepy but magical all at the same time.
At this point, the cloud cover was accumulating furiously and everywhere felt dark. We thought that it was going to rain soon, so we decided to head back and head on to the next destination – Vintgar Gorge. GPS failed us again. It led us to a dead-end where a road had closed due to construction. JH and another tourist behind us ended up knocking and calling out to a person who lived right where the blockage signs were put up. The gorge was actually 500 metres the other way. We turned around and followed the other car to the parking lot. By the time we arrived, it was starting to rain, so we ran into the local restaurant – Gostilna Vintgar, right outside the entrance to the Gorge. We had not had lunch yet, so the timing was perfect. This turned out to be one of dad’s favourite meals, even though I never read about the restaurant or considered it for our itinerary. JH ordered cevapcici – minced meat rolls, while dad and I both ordered chicken dishes. It was very simple home-cooking. While all this happened, there was a torrential storm. It rained like no tomorrow. It was a spectacle to see all these people coming in drenched from the gorge. I changed into flip flops (at the advice of one group who had just finished the walk). Dad bought a poncho.
The walk was supposed to be 30 minutes each way. Because of the rain, there were not too many people on the trail. We were lucky because by the time we were done lunch, the rain had calmed down to spitting versus pouring. Walking through the gorge was easy (at a cost of 4 EUR per person). There are fences and wooden paths set up, and the path is straight forward – straight path with a few sets of stairs. Along the way, you see rushing springs, beautiful waterfalls, and all tinges of turquoise. It is absolutely stunning. Everywhere you turn, the gorge becomes prettier and prettier. The key thing to note is that when you see a large waterfall, and what appears to be a washroom, the straightforward walk has ended. JH saw stairs leading to another trail and urged us to go onwards. This trail actually lead to the bottom of the river (he ran ahead to find out). If I was in running shoes, this would not have been a problem. However, I was in $5 flip-flips that I took from the flip-flop basket at my friend’s wedding. The path goes downhill and is extremely muddy, slippery and rocky. I turned into a monster. I basically could not grip my feet, and even pull myself up because the mud was so slippery. I saw my dad slip and I went red-monster. At that point (and I slapped myself for not turning around sooner), we turned around. I can hike, but not in cheap Old Navy flip-flops. My leg grip was so bad that I needed JH to hoist me back up towards the hill. By the time we got back to the top, I was so angry that I ran all the way pretty much back to the entrance. My irritation levels were at a dangerous high, but I think running back by myself allowed me to cool down. I am a bit sad that I did not get to enjoy this beautiful place as much as I would have wanted to, but I did manage to capture some pretty photos.
We had an insanely early dinner reservation (at 4PM because the restaurant I wanted to visit closed at 5PM), so we drove to the next town – Radovljica immediately. Radovljica is another small medieval town. It was really cute and kind of romantic, and later that evening, JH and I loved walking through it. We also met some young Slovenes, and played Pokemon Go with them (yes, we both play occasionally).
We stayed at Pension Kovac ($119 for one night). This was an extreme improvement from our hotel in Ljubljana. We had 4 beds, a fridge, TV, a parking space, and a big bathroom. The hotel was very close to the old town (a few minute walk), and was in a generally quiet and safe area. I think the shower could use more of a door or curtain to prevent splashing. The Wi-Fi was a bit spotty, and we had to pay 5 EUR for air conditioning. The owner / man at the front was really friendly. His mom cooked a really good breakfast for the guests the next day (including eggs, pastries, meats, fruits, juices and coffees). Breakfast was included with the stay. JH and my dad went ghetto, and took out plastic sandwich bags to hide bread and strudel for later.
For dinner, we went to the absolutely beautiful Vila Podvin. This was one of two “douchier” (ahem, Modern Slovenian) meals we took dad to. I was afraid he would be turned off by the price tag, plating, etc, but he actually embraced both meals. This was his second favourite meal of the trip he said. The property of this restaurant is gorgeous. We sat out on the patio overlooking a vast garden. The restaurant / Chef can produce 3 to (I believe) 8 course meals depending on your preferences. We went with a five-course meal (approx. 55 EUR per person if my memory serves me right) with some amuse bouches (or in Slovenia – ‘compliments and gifts from the kitchen’). Over the course of the meal, we had:
- An egg custard with bacon in an egg shell – Dad thought this was ‘special’. It was very rich. It was a good starter to the meal.
- Cracked meringues that looked like broken macarons – I forgot what these tasted like. I think we were generally confused because they did not taste airy like macarons.
- Cornbread with beet, wild garlic and carrot butter – The cornbread was not like American cornbread. It just tasted like bread. The wild garlic butter was really addictive, but we love our garlic to begin with.
- Veal tartare – This was seasoned well, but also a bit unforgettable, though plated really beautifully.
- Pea Soup with Elderflower Bread – The bread was really soft and warm. The soup also tasted incredibly summery and fresh.
- Wild sea bass with carrots and lentils – The sea bass was cooked well, but this was another dish that was not spectacular.
- Coconut slow roasted venison and polenta – This was probably my favourite dish. The venison was melt-in-your-mouth. I usually do not like sweet mixing into savoury dishes, but they paired the meat with chocolate and coconut flavours, and it all worked together with the richness of the venison.
- The dessert was a crème brulee with pears, mint chocolate and lemon ganaches – It was a good dessert with a lot of good flavours.
All in all, every dish was cooked well. JH and I just noted to each other afterwards that the meal was not groundbreaking. Hisa Franko (which we would eat at later onwards) introduced flavours to us that we had never experienced before, and that was groundbreaking. The restaurant is a very short drive back to town / the hotel.
As mentioned previously, JH and I later walked through old town at night. It is incredibly small, but there is a church, a few restaurants and bars, and a gingerbread museum (that was closed). It was still very pretty; if you walk outside the town a bit, you can see the countryside in the valley, and the views are just spectacular against the sunset. I love small towns like this, and lucky for us, we would have few more to experience along the way.
And….since this has become way too long, the story will continue in a later conversation.