What, Where, and Why
I’m a photographer who enjoys landscape and scenic photography. I’ve taken several solo trips to Europe. This was my 6th solo trip. My trips are mostly about photography, but I love to explore new places. I love history, but I’m not a big fan of museums. I’m a bit of a picky eater, and I don’t drink alcohol, so if you read about my travels, don’t expect much in the way of restaurant recommendations, beyond pizza joints and Italian food.
I haven’t been everywhere in Western Europe, but I’ve grown weary of the big tourist traps that attract mobs of other American tourists. In 2009 I traveled through Ljubljana, Slovenia on the way to Croatia, and I found both places far less touristy (except for Dubrovnik) than many other places I’ve visited in Europe. And I loved Ljubljana. So I decided to return to the Balkans and focus on Slovenia this time and try to see some of the out-of-the-way places.
When I tell people I visited Slovenia, many of them don’t even know where it is. I LOVE that! Everyone goes to Italy, France, Germany, etc., so I love the idea of visiting places that are a little off the main tourist agendas.
I live in Portland, Oregon. It’s easy to fly to London or Paris from Portland without complicated flights, and we have a direct flight (Delta) to Amsterdam. But flying directly to/from Slovenia requires a few connections, and with limited options it’s a bit expensive. I found it significantly cheaper to fly into/out of neighboring countries and get to Slovenia by land (I did something similar in 2009 with Croatia). This trip, I decided to fly into Munich and out of Milan, via Amsterdam. This allowed me to use that great direct flight to/from Amsterdam and save a few hundred bucks vs. flying directly to/from Slovenia.
Planning and Booking
I mostly knew what I wanted to see in Slovenia – I had been thinking about it and even doing some preliminary planning since 2010 (when I considered a trip back). I used Rick Steves’s Croatia and Slovenia Book and the Brandt Guide to Slovenia (plus the web of course) to do my planning. I hadn’t seen much of Austria (except Vienna) so I decided to see Salzburg and Graz on the way to Slovenia. Flying home through Milan, I could see more of Italy, but I’d been there a few times already. I had always wanted to go back to the Cinque Terre and to Pisa after having visited them in 2007, so I put those in at the end of my trip. Finally, to pick up that direct flight home from Amsterdam, I chose an overnight layover there flying from Milan the previous afternoon. I had been to Amsterdam many years ago and thought I might enjoy a brief return, anyway.
Despite early planning, I didn’t book anything (hotels, airfare, cars) until six weeks before departure or less. I booked some of my lodgings (Piran and Levanto) only after I was traveling.
I am on the frugal side when I travel (rarely take a taxi, will usually opt for a public bus or train). But I’m a bit beyond being able to sleep in a shared hostel or something. I’ve come to favor “off the map” B&Bs or even private hostel rooms when I travel vs. hotels, but sometimes hotels make the most sense. In Amsterdam, I stayed at a nice hotel, the Movenpick, but I paid only $100 with Priceline. Otherwise, I tried to keep the hotel price between $60-$80/night. I had my netbook with me; all of my lodgings had some sort of wireless or wired internet.
My first preference for booking hotels was Trip Advisor to see what the top hotels/lodgings were, filtering them by cost and location, then see if something was available via the website booking.com (usually free cancellation until a few days prior to arrival). I also checked hostel booking websites for private rooms. But in several places (Ljubljana, Kobarid, Piran, and Levanto), I booked places “off the grid” – no reservation booking service, not even a credit card guarantee to hold it, just reserve a room directly with the B&B by email and show up and pay in cash. This takes a little more work, but it can save you money and/or get you a better place. The place I found in Levanto (Cinque Terre) at an expensive time there (September still “in season”) was not even listed on Trip Advisor and I took a chance on it, but it was in a great location and only about $60/night. And I booked it only a few days before arriving.
Packing and Travel Needs
As a photographer, I carry a lot of equipment with me when I travel. On this trip, I brought my Canon 5D (digital SLR) and four lenses, plus a spare Canon body, plus a little point-and-shoot Canon camera, plus a netbook…plus all the chargers, batteries, etc. And a small tripod. That stuff gets heavy!
Still, I managed to fit everything and some clothes into two small bags: an oversized carry-on bag (wheels0 and a camera bag that (barely) fit under my seat. I managed to travel with these two bags as carry-ons. The camera bag could sit on top of the bag with wheels, so I could roll everything that way. I also had a big cloth shopping bag I could fill with food and water when I was moving around, without having to stuff them into my already-full bags. I got my exercise for sure moving around.
I used my netbook at my hotel or B&B, and I had a cheap old unlocked GSM cell phone with me; I bought a SIM card for it in Slovenia for about 5 Euros and used the phone only a few times – nice to have for emergencies. It did save me some trouble a few times when I had to call rental car companies or B&B owners at the last minute. I used Google Voice to call home for free via my netbook, but this only works if you have a VPN that tricks Google into thinking you are really back in the states. Most people would use Skype.
I traveled from place to place mostly by train and bus. I love train travel and consider it a highlight of any visit to Europe, but I rented a car in Slovenia for a few days to drive over the Vrsic Pass through the Julian Alps in western Slovenia. I walk many miles on my trips.
Beyond taking pictures almost all day, my main daily need in Europe is diet soda to nurse my addiction to it. Diet Coke is “Coke Light” in Europe, and in Slovenia they seem to sell only Coke Zero. Fountain drinks are rare (McDonalds is a great spot for them!), so I was usually getting it in 500 ml bottles (about 16 oz). These bottles are EXTREMELY expensive in restaurants, so I tried to find them in grocery stores or convenience stores where they were much cheaper (about a Euro a bottle give or take). I probably drank two or three of these a day. In restaurants I usually asked tap water and would buy big bottles of it in the grocery stores to drink. Sometimes I drank tap water at the hotels and B&Bs. It all seemed fine – I never got sick.