0 New

10 September 2019

A Long Weekend in Ljubljana: Bex’s Guide

For my fortieth country, I decided to pay a long-overdue visit to Slovenia, spending three nights in the capital, Ljubljana. With a population of just under 300,000, Ljubljana is the largest city in Slovenia, but its compact, mainly pedestrianised city centre makes it an ideal long-weekend destination. It's also very pretty, with pastel-coloured buildings located alongside a vibrant green river, and a plethora of parks. I arrived late on Friday night and flew home late on Monday night, giving me almost exactly 72 hours in the city. I usually avoid travelling during July and August, but BA’s limited flight schedule led me to select the last weekend in August for my visit. This turned out well as the weather was glorious but it wasn’t too busy.


THINGS TO DO
Exploring the Old Town. My first day in Ljubljana was beautifully sunny. I had been planning to follow a self-guided walking tour that directed me to start at the tourist information centre by the Triple Bridge and it turned out that they had a two-hour city walking tour starting in 10 minutes. There are free walking tours too, but the former tourist information employee in me always prefers to take an official tour if it’s reasonably priced. 


This tour was €17, including a Slovenian food tasting and a return ticket for the funicular to the castle (although not the castle itself), and covered most of the city centre sights, including many of architect Jože Plečnik’s works, from the famous Triple Bridge (only two-thirds of which was open while I was there), to the National and University Library, and the covered market buildings along the river. Our guide, Urban, was one of the most entertaining and informative tour guides I’ve ever had and I will certainly never forget that Slovenia is shaped like a chicken (look at a map).



Ljubljana Castle. As our tour finished at the funicular that runs up to the castle (you can also walk up, but it takes rather longer), I decided to go up right away. There are some nice views of the city from the top, although to ascend the tower and enter most of the exhibits at the top, you’ll need to pay €10 for a ticket. 


Art and culture. I didn’t have time to visit the Ljubljana City Museum or the Museum of Modern Art on Saturday and they are closed on Mondays (stop for coffee at Stow Coffee Roasters if you do visit the former, and Kavarna Moderna if you visit the latter). I did explore some of the city’s free art and culture, however, from the Metelkova Mesto, an alternative culture centre not unlike a small version of Copenhagen’s Christiania. In the summer, there are many free outdoor music events and I stopped to listen to some of these in the evenings. Meanwhile, there are also several ‘library under the trees’ locations, where small book shelves are set up next to chairs, with reading and discussion of books encouraged.



Day trip to Lake Bled. Much as I enjoyed Ljubljana, I’m really glad I spent a whole day at Lake Bled, a stunning, turquoise lake in the Julian Alps, some 35 miles northwest of Ljubljana. It’s certainly not the only lake in the area or even the most beautiful, necessarily, but it is easily accessible by public transport. I had originally planned to take a small-group tour (€99) but Slovenia Explorer, oddly the only operator I could find, could only offer a half-day tour to a solo traveller. With hindsight, I was glad I went alone as it was much cheaper and gave me far more flexibility. The bus from the main bus station (which was busy but not full) took 1h20, and as the weather was perfect, I spent two hours walking around the lake, stopping to swim, sunbathe, take photos and admire the fairytale castle perched high above, and the small island in the centre.


I then hiked up to the 11th century castle (€10 )to learn about its history and admire the panoramic views across the lake. It’s only 15 minutes or so but the path is very steep (there are shuttle buses too), I picked up a small picnic from a grocery store in the unremarkable Bled town, which I ate while waiting for a shuttle bus to take me to the Vintgar Gorge. During summer, two shuttle bus routes (€1 per trip) run between various locations in the area. Their erratic schedule was one of the reasons I had considered a tour. However, I timed it well and only had to wait a few minutes for the 15-minute ride to the gorge. 



Once I had paid my €10 entrance fee, I made my way onto the mile-long route of wooden walkways through the gorge. The water was clear and vibrantly turquoise, but swimming isn’t allowed. It was trying to rain by then, anyway, with thunder rumbling atmospherically through the gorge, but I still enjoyed the walk. At the end, there was a sign advertising hourly shuttles back to Bled, but I calculated that if I retraced my steps, I could enjoy the gorge scenery again and catch the original shuttle back instead. This worked well and I was soon back at the lake.



I thought about taking a gondola trip out to the island (€15), but it was still warm and I decided to go for another refreshing swim in the water. There is some geothermal activity in the area so although not warm, the lake was a very pleasant temperature. To cap off a lovely day, I bought a kremšnita — a Bled cream cake — from the Hotel Park on the lakefront. The hotel claims primacy of this decadent cake, which involves thick layers of custard and cream between flaky pastry. It was huge but absolutely delicious. The 4:30 pm bus back to Ljubljana was running late and there were a lot of people waiting to board, but luckily, I got a seat.




FOOD & DRINKI’ve already published my guide to Ljubljana’s speciality coffee scene, but here are some of the other food and drink spots I enjoyed during my stay.

Monstera. This casual fine-dining spot came highly recommended, and I was pleased I managed to book a spot at the high, sharing-table in the window, as it was fully booked (as the wait staff patiently explained to the many walk-ins, they only have one sitting). I opted for the seven-course tasting menu, which was only €55. With diverse Slovenian ingredients immaculately cooked and beautifully presented, the whole meal was fantastic. My favourite elements were the deer tartare with quail’s egg; roasted broccoli; and the pancetta ice cream and maple. They do a paired wine menu, although sadly there were no cocktails on offer.


Kolibri. I wasn’t too disappointed by the lack of cocktails at Monstera because I had already had a very fine cocktail at Kolibri, a prohibition-style cocktail bar just next door. The summer specials list all sounded great but I ordered the Mar Adentro, with Gin Mare, vermouth, rosemary, thyme bitters, salt, and orange liqueur foam. It was served alongside an oyster and was tart, sweet, salty and delicious.


Pop’s Place. After a long day in Bled, a casual dinner at Pop’s Place, a popular burger bar by the river — and just a few minutes’ walk from my hotel — was just what the doctor needed. I started with a G&T with Slovenian Broken Bones gin, and then had a huge and messy but delicious burger with crispy onions, cheddar, Slovenian bacon and BBQ sauce.

Ek Bistro. For brunch on my first day, I walked along the river to Ek Bistro, taking advantage of the petite eatery’s outdoor seating next to the river. I had a homemade ice tea and a local twist on the eggs Benedict — which came with pulled beef and the famous local pumpkin oil, which tasted great.

Trappica. There is a lot of Italian influence in Ljubljana but Neapolitan pizzas can be hard to come by. But at Trappica they serve small pizzas that make for a perfect quick and cheap lunch.


Street food and sweet treats. We sampled some of Ljubljana’s famous garlicky sausage on the walking tour I took, and I liked it enough to return for more to Klobasarna, where a ‘half’ (though really a whole sausage) with bread and mustard was €3.50. There was also lots of fruit, meat, honey and other produce for sale at the Central Market. If you are in Ljubljana on a Friday, don’t miss Open Kitchen (Odprta kuhna) — a street food market where chefs from many of the town’s restaurants run stalls selling diverse dishes. Sadly, I arrived at 9 pm, when it was winding down…


SHOPPINGI didn’t do a lot of shopping in Ljubljana — other than coffee beans from Stow, a dragon fridge magnet was my only souvenir. I did do some window shopping, however. tipoRenesansa, a letterpress studio and stationery store, was easily my favourite place. They sell beautiful notebooks with various designs letterpressed on top. Other shops I found, which were good for gifts, homewares and accessories, included: Gud Shop; Trgovina IKA; Slovenika; and Extraordinary.



PRACTICAL INFORMATIONAccommodation: I stayed at the Vander Urbani Resort, a small design hotel that occupies several houses in a quiet side street near the river. Its biggest appeal is the rooftop bar that boasts a small swimming pool with stunning views over the river and the city’s colourful architecture. My room was small but cosy, comfortable and quiet, with minimalist décor. The breakfast (including an omelette or pancakes) was very good and the staff were very helpful. Booking some months in advance, my room was about £120 per night.


Arriving and getting around: Buses go to and from the airport (€4.10) every hour until the evening, with the journey taking about 50 minutes. Unfortunately, I arrived after the last bus, so instead booked a taxi, which cost €30 and took about 25 minutes. There are also various shared shuttles, that cost about €10. While in Ljubljana, I walked everywhere, but there are buses if you need to travel further afield. Buses run about every hour to Lake Bled, which takes about 1h20 and costs about €13 return. If you're staying in Trieste, Venice or Zagreb, Ljubljana would make a great day trip.


Money: Slovenia uses the Euro, and although most places accept credit cards, I did need cash in several places, including at the bus station and a couple of the cafes I visited. When you ask for the bill in an eatery, you will probably be asked ‘cash or card’ right away.



6 September 2019

Seven Speciality Coffee Shops To Try in Ljubljana

I've also published a guide to spending a long weekend in Ljubljana; check it out!


Ljubljana, the vibrant and verdant capital of Slovenia, had long been on my to-visit list and I spent a few days there last weekend. Speciality coffee wasn't my main motivation for visiting — and I'll have a post up next week about all the other things I got up to — but I found a number of great speciality coffee shops and roasters during my short trip. Ljubljana's city centre is compact, which means you can visit several of these even if you only have limited time in the city. Here's what I found (as usual, my very favourites have purple icons in the map):



Located at the lower station for the funicular that runs up to Ljubljana Castle, I first arrived at Cafe Čokl at lunchtime on a sunny Saturday and all of the tables were full. I went back on my final day and secured a table on the sunny patio. The cafe serves coffee from their Buna cooperative with a variety of brew methods, from espresso to Chemex and cold brew. I had a washed Nicaraguan coffee brewed through the Aeropress, which was fruity and satisfying. NB: Cafe Čokl is cash only.


Cafe Čokl is located at Krekov trg 8. Website. Twitter. Instagram.


Črno Zrno


This coffee roaster, whose name translates as 'black bean', specialises in speciality coffee from Colombia. Their coffee bar, a slim shop with beautiful blue tiling on the counter, is located on a broad street between the river and the foot of castle hill. On the day I visited they were serving beans from the Meta region of Colombia, a relatively new coffee origin. Brewed through the V60, the notes of lemon, plum and blackberry came through nicely. Other brew methods are also available, and they also sell their house cold brew in bottles. Inside, there are just a few stools at the side, but there are also tables outside on the pavement of the pedestrianised street.


Črno Zrno is located at  Gornji trg 17. Website. Twitter. Instagram.


Kavarna Natura


I had added Kavarna Natura to my Google Map but as it was a little further out of the city centre (though still only 30 minutes on foot), I wasn't sure if I'd have time to visit. Following the recommendation of Klemen at Mariposa Coffee Roasters (see below), I decided to stop by. The coffee shop is located in a quiet, residential area — it's unlikely you would come across it unless you were seeking it out. They roast coffee from many different origins and sell bags of their beans. There was just one coffee, from Honduras, in the hopper during my visit and I ordered a macchiato. It actually came deconstructed, with a tiny jug of steamed milk on the side, but lacking confidence in my milk pouring, I decided to drink the coffee as an espresso instead, and really enjoyed it. The cafe itself is, as the name would suggest, a very relaxed, rustic place to visit, and the macchiato was only €1.30.


Kavarna Natura is located at Središka ulica 10. Website


Mariposa Coffee Roasters


In a small retail complex in the north-east end of the city centre is the lovely Mariposa Coffee Roasters. Again, you probably wouldn't come across it unless you were looking for it, but it is well worth seeking out. They roast their own coffee — for sale in butterfly-themed bags — and there were three single-origin coffees available during my visit. I had a Gesha from Nariño, Colombia, which was brewed excellently by Klemen through the V60. This was a really jazzy coffee with notes of orange, pineapple and jasmine. The staff were also super-friendly and welcoming, taking time to explain the different origins and brew methods to customers who had not yet fallen down the speciality coffee rabbit hole. Klemen also gave me some great recommendations for other coffee shops in Ljubljana, and Slovenia more generally.


Mariposa Coffee Roasters is located at Kotnikova ulica 5. Website. Instagram.


Stow Coffee Roasters


As soon as I saw the name Stow, I wondered if there was some connection to Stow-on-the-Wold. In fact, it's named for the chair factory near their roastery (stow is how the Slovenian word for chair (stol) is pronounced), hence the factory motif on the bags of beans. Their Ljubljana coffee shop is located inside the Ljubljana City Museum, with the seating area located in an airy, covered courtyard. I was overwhelmed at first by the sheer number of different coffee varieties on offer, but the barista helped me narrow down my choice by highlighting the three limited-edition Panama Geshas they had. I picked the Hacienda La Esmeralda, which was delicious brewed through the V60, the jasmine and tropical fruit notes coming through very strongly.


At €6, it was the most expensive coffee of my trip, but also the one I enjoyed the most. I almost bought some of one of the other Geshas to take home, but at €26 for 100g, it was on the pricey side, and I didn't trust my home-brewing skills. Instead, I bought a 250g bag of Ethiopian Nano Challa (€12), which I've been enjoying at home this week. The cafe is closed on Mondays, but if you're in Ljubljana on any other day of the week, you should make a beeline for Stow.

Stow Coffee Roasters is located at Gosposka ulica 17. Website. Instagram.


Tozd


Some of Ljubljana's most loved bars and eateries are located along the river and Tozd is no exception. A coffee shop and cafe by day (the avocado toast is supposed to be great), it transitions to a breezy bar by night. There are plenty of tables on the street, overlooking the river (and large umbrellas to provide shelter from the sun and/or rain), as well as more seating in the quirkily decorated cafe. My macchiato was very good and I paired it with a huge but tasty chocolate brownie. If the sun is over the yardarm and you haven't yet tried the Slovenian Broken Bones gin, this is a good place to do so.


Tozd is located at Gallusovo nabrežje 27. Website. Instagram.


Finally, I didn't get the chance to visit Kavarna Moderna, the café-bar of the Museum of Modern Art, as like the museum, it's closed on Mondays, but it came highly recommended, including by Klemen at Mariposa. It's now on my list for next time!


2 August 2019

In North Wales, Steep Streets and Cloudy Peaks

We haven't even made it to the next junction of the M40 before my parents and I realise that driving from Oxford to North Wales on the first Friday of the school holidays may not have been the best idea. The journey takes over five hours, but the last part, at least, is lovely as we wind west from Welshpool through the rolling hills and lush green fields towards the coast at Barmouth.


We have been dreaming all day of fish and chips on the beach at sunset, a goal that is achievable only because sunset isn't until 9:20 pm, but it's touch and go for a while. Barmouth has put on a particularly beautiful display for us, and the sky is awash with rose pink, lavender blue and tiger lily orange by the time we park on the sea front. It proves more challenging than we expected to find a fish and chip shop still open at 9 pm, but The Mermaid saves the day and we are soon enjoying the crisply battered cod as the saturation on the sky is dialled down.



After breakfast at our B&B near Bontddu, we drive north to Harlech, which boasts a splendid 13th century castle. It's been many years since my last visit to Harlech and the town has had a moment in the spotlight of late thanks to Guinness World Records declaring Ffordd Pen Llech to be the world's steepest street. We arrive early, worried the small town might be inundated with 'gradient tourists' but other than the Victorian mop fair and several art and craft stalls, it is still fairly quiet. We end up walking halfway up a very steep road before I realise we're in the wrong place. Luckily, the right location is very well marked (I feel the gift shop is missing a trick by not selling commemorative spirit levels, however). It is surprisingly difficult to capture gradient on camera, but we try our best.




On the way back to Barmouth, we stop at the diminutive seaside village of Llandanwg, where we stroll along the beach, trying to avoid the giant translucent domes of washed-up jellyfish, and then pay a visit to the small church. Lunch in Barmouth is underwhelming, but at least we have a good view of the harbour and Barmouth's iconic railway bridge; I also take the opportunity to photograph the colourful houses on Marine Parade on the sea front.




In the afternoon we hike around Farchynys, four miles east from Barmouth along the Mawddach Estuary. We walk up the bridle path opposite Farchynys car park, a short but steep climb with stunning views over the estuary from the top, and then descend through the bracken, via St Philip's Church, to the main road. On the other side of the road, we spot some 'grey sheep' (well, white sheep that I later realise have been rolling around in slate dust), and plenty of vibrant and varicoloured hydrangeas. If you're interested in the area and its history, there is plenty of detail in my dad's lively book, Marians on the Mawddach, the launch of which I attended in Farchynys two years ago.





For dinner, we return to the always excellent Mawddach restaurant, a few miles east towards Dolgellau. The upstairs tables in the converted barn command stunning views over the estuary and Cadair Idris, although the sunset isn't as impressive as the night before. The food is top notch, however. I start with a plate of salami and cured pork collar, followed by 55C beef with celeriac and potato gratin and Etruscan sauce (a bit like salsa verde). The beef is particularly good, but I still have room for pudding when I find out they have lavender panna cotta; I substitute the poached pear for some honey ice cream, which works very well.


I go for a pre-breakfast run in the morning, and then we drive to Dolgellau to stock up on supplies for our Cadair Idris hike. Although we're wearing trainers and have some rain gear, we're not prepared for a full Cadair ascent, but we follow the Minffordd Path up to Llyn Cau, a stunning heart-shaped glacial lake most of the way up the mountain. The hike — particularly the part with steep stone steps — takes me back to the Inca Trail, and I regale my parents with tales of my Peruvian adventures.




After taking some llyn leaping photos, we climb a little further up until we can see over into the valleys on the other side of the mountain. Unfortunately, either it has started raining or we've ascended into the clouds, so we eat our refreshments quickly before returning to the sunshine of the lower altitudes. It took us just over three hours in total to reach the mini-peak above Llyn Cau. To get to Penygader, the summit, and back it would take about five hours, which would have been doable had we had more time, and better kit (walking boots, hiking poles and more food, for starters). The car park at Minffordd is full, though, and we meet many other ramblers, from the UK, EU and further afield.





Fortunately, the return journey is much swifter, and I'm back at Euston station about four-and-a-half hours after leaving Dolgellau (I hop on a train at Birmingham International for the last part). We have packed a lot in our long weekend in Barmouth and my knees will certainly thank me for the rest when I return to the office the following morning.