Ljubljana and the hipster of world travelers, Alma Karlin

Ljubljana and the hipster of world travelers, Alma Karlin

Ljubljana (lyoob-lya-na) wins the award for most fun capital city to pronounce.


With just over 200,000 people it is also the smallest, most relaxed capital city I’ve been to in the world.

The Cooperative Business Bank Building (the “Pink Bank”), designed in traditional Slovenian styles by architect Ivan Vurnik and his wife Helena Vurnik.  The Pink Bank has been called the “most beautiful building” in Ljubljana.

The Cooperative Business Bank Building (the “Pink Bank”), designed in traditional Slovenian styles by architect Ivan Vurnik and his wife Helena Vurnik.  The Pink Bank has been called the “most beautiful building” in Ljubljana.

Ljubljana was originally the Roman city of Emona and Roman remnants, including remains of a stronghold on top of the hill, can still be seen around the city.


Ljubljana Castle is at the top of a small forested hill on the east side of the Ljubljanica River.

Ljubljana Castle’s now modern courtyard

Ljubljana Castle’s now-modern courtyard

The castle’s old funicular was closed when we visited but the 15 minute walk up to the castle is no problem.

My favorite exhibit in Ljubljana Castle was not about the castle itself, but about a woman born in Celje named Alma N. Karlin.

Karlin was the hipster of world travelers.  She did it WAY before everyone else thought it was cool.


“I am a lone traveler, much like a hermit crab . . . I imagine that I know how to write.  A person should have at least one illusion!  And this illusion has led to my journey around the world.”

I imagine that I share Karlin’s illusion, though my writing is a result of, rather than a cause for, my decision to journey around the world.

Outside the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Ljubljana

Outside the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Ljubljana

In the early 1900s, Karlin began a journey around the world that makes my travels look elementary by comparison.

To boot, Karlin was a woman, and to travel alone back then as a woman was unheard of.

Inside the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Ljubljana

Inside the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Ljubljana

Karlin was born in Celje (now part of Slovenia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) in 1889 and as a young girl, spoke German with her Austrian family.  In her teens she learned French and English and in 1908, moved to London, where she took her language studies to the next level.

Shoes hanging on a wire in Ljubljana’s old city

Shoes hanging on a wire in Ljubljana’s old city

Karlin was relentless about learning new languages, using the days of the week to dictate her study schedule.

Karlin would study Norwegian on Mondays, French on Tuesdays, English and Latin on Wednesdays, Danish on Thursdays, Italian on Friday mornings, and Swedish on Friday nights.

A look over the Ljubljana River

A look over the Ljubljanica River

And Karlin didn’t take a break on the weekends. On Saturday Karlin would kick it with her Asian friends and practice basic phrases.  On Sunday mornings she would do the same, this time with her Spanish friends, and on Sunday nights, Karlin would dive headfirst into Russian lessons.

On Monday mornings Karlin would start the week all over again by studying Sanskrit.  Every morning of the week, Karlin would commit to learning at least one song in the language (or languages) she was studying that day.

After the start of World War I, Austrian citizens were no longer welcome in England so Karlin migrated to Scandinavia, where she continued her studies in Norway and Sweden, adding books on the Inca culture to her ever expanding knowledge of different cultures.   It was in Scandinavia where Karlin first decided she would embark on a journey to visit the places she had read so much about.

In 1918 Karlin returned to Celje and founded a language school, now beginning intensive preparations for her journey, studying history, geography and natural history of the countries she was planning to visit, basically a reverse of how I’ve done my travels.  I learn as much as I can about the place I’m at while I’m there, but end up doing most of my research for my blog posts after the fact.

In 1919 Karlin began her journey, bringing with her only 130 dollars, 950 Duetsche Mark, and a portable Erika typewriter.  Karlin was banking heavily on the fact that her foreign language skill would allow her to earn money, perhaps through teaching, as she traveled.

Karlin spent her first four years traveling through southern and central America, Hawaii, Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and down on to Australia and New Zealand.  At the end of these four years Karlin was physically and emotionally exhausted.  Even more so then,  than now, backpacking was (and is) no vacation, no picnic, no walk in the park.


But she continued on through Southeast Asia, up on into Myanmar, Calcutta, New Delhi, and in 1927 ended up in Karachi, then part of India, now in Pakistan.  In Karachi she received a letter from her sick mother saying she wanted to see Alma before she died.  Alma, deeply depressed and sick herself, returned home after eight years of Globe-trotting.

I can relate to this feeling.  Even though traveling leads one to meet hundreds of new people around the world, the inherently transient nature of these relationships makes them far less fulfilling than the meaningful relationships that can be developed at home or while living in one place.

Even the most robust of souls can begin to feel lonely and a bit depressed.  On each of my four big trips, I have always felt a tinge of this feeling, usually about three months in, when the long bus rides and hostels start to wear on you.

A colorful train in Ljubljana’s train station

A colorful train in Ljubljana’s train station

But overall I would say the positives of long-term world travel (too numerous to list here, but read a few of my other blog posts and you’ll get the idea) far outweigh the feelings of loneliness and depression that can occasionally accompany a long-term vagabond.

And though the titles of Alma’s subsequent writings about her travels might indicate otherwise  – “Einsame Weltreise” (The Odyseey of a Lonely Woman) and “Im Banne der Sudsee” (The Spell of the South Sea) among them – I would venture to say she would agree with me.

Bohinj – A review of Slovenia’s only national park (Triglav) and tallest waterfall (Savica)

Bohinj – A review of Slovenia’s only national park (Triglav) and tallest waterfall (Savica)

Triglav National Park reminds me of Rocky Mountain National Park, the place where I grew to love hiking on vacations with my parents.

A difficult three hour uphill trek rewards you with this, the Doma Na Viewpoin in Triglav National Park

A difficult three hour uphill trek rewards you with this, the Doma Na Viewpoint in Triglav National Park

There is warm sun occasioned by afternoon showers and the smell of fresh pine wherever you walk.


Triglav National Park encompasses nearly all the territory of the Julian Alps in Slovenia, helps form Slovenia’s border with Italy, and is named after Mt. Triglav (2864 meters).  We didn’t get a chance to make it to Mt. Triglav but we had great views of some of its sister peaks in the Julian Alps at the Doma Na Viewpoint.


Protection of the pristine mountain range and its chorus of snow-capped peaks, waterfalls, glacial gorges, rivers, and lakes can be credited to Fran Jesenko, a Slovenian PhD Botanist.  Jesenko, a Slovenian national, was first a professor of botany in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, until he took the same position at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital.

Together with his students in 1924, Jesenko drew the initial boundaries that would help form the protected area that is now Triglav National Park.  Two years later Jesenko published a paper in a daily local newspaper naming the area Triglav National Park, using the article to stress how important it would be for Slovenia to preserve and protect the area.

Ironically, after devoting a significant part of his life to making sure Triglav National Park would be protected, the Park took Jesenko’s life when he fell to his death at the Komarca slope in 1932, while visiting one of his students at Triglav Lakes Valley.

Bohinj Jezero

Bohinj Jezero

Marcela and I stayed in a nice guest house a short walk east of Bohinj Jezero.


Like Bled Jezero, Bohinj Jezero has lots of activity going on above the water.


While I was searching for a guesthouse to stay in I had good enough timing to witness the start of a race.

My favorite spot within Triglav National Park was the Savica Waterfall ,Slovenia’s highest waterfall.

Savica Waterfall

The Savica Waterfall rises from a fault cutting into the Komarca cliff, where Fran Jesenko met his untimely end.  The waterfall slides down 38 meters at an angle of 50 degrees from a hidden cave in the cliff before it begins its freefall, 51 meters straight down.

A village near Bohinj Lake called Stara Fuzina is a good starting point for trips to the Voje Valley and the Fuzina Alps.


A golden scarab scurries across the trail

Stara Fuzina also has some fantastic exercise equipment if hiking doesn’t do it for you.


The Voje Valley contains Mostnice Gorge and at the head of the gorge, the Mostnice Waterfall.

Mostnice Waterfall

The Mostnice waterfall, despite its name, is not the most nice waterfall in the park.  The Savica Waterfall mentioned above most definitely is.  In other words, it is not worth it to go the full distance to the Mostnice Waterfall, which we did.  Just check out Savica Waterfall and call it a day.


While the Mostnice Waterfall is a bit disappointing, the hike to the Mostnice Waterfall, a 4 kilometer trail along Mostnice Gorge, is worth a half day hike.

Mostnice Gorge 5

Mostnice Gorge 4

Mostnice Gorge 1

Mostnice Gorge 3


Mostnice Gorge 2

Before the waterfall, but after the gorge trail, there is a brilliant meadow where some very Thoreau–esque folks have chosen to live the rest of their days.


On our way back from the waterfall we got caught in an afternoon shower and finding ourselves umbrella-less, we hid out under one of the meadow houses to wait it out.

taking a break from the rain

With the rain, the temperature dropped considerably so we made a stop in a small local restaurant that served some excellent blueberry pie.

On our hike to Mostnice Gorge we were one of the few people to ever see the rare Triglav mountain lion

On our hike to Mostnice Gorge we were one of the few people to ever see the rare Triglav mountain lion

My overall impression of Bohinj was positive but it would not be a place I return to.  Its got some great peaks but its still not as good as the Rockies and the Swiss Alps has both of those mountain ranges beat.  That said, I didn’t get a chance to do some of the longer treks (e.g. Mt. Triglav), so this critique is limited to the three treks mentioned in this post.

Bled – Medieval sword fights, a lakeside castle, and the Vintgar Gorge

Bled – Medieval sword fights, a lakeside castle, and the Vintgar Gorge

Bled is one of Slovenia’s most popular tourist destinations, famous for its picturesque “Jezero” (Lake) with an island and a church in the middle.


Bled Jezero is a perfect spot to rent a row boat and take a trip to the island or spend an afternoon just paddling around the lake.


For the low-low price of 20 Euros ($26) you can jump on a swan boat and have someone paddle you out to the island.  We did this and I have to say it was definitely not worth it, the small island is very much anti-climactic.  Save your money and just walk around the lake – the island is pretty enough from the shore.


The boats are modeled after the Mute Swan, the local species that live at the lake.  Mute Swans are distinguished by the black hump at the top of their beaks and S-shaped necks.

The Mute Swans at Lake Bled pay no attention to the tourists

The Mute Swans at Lake Bled pay no attention to the tourists

Lake Bled is also the Olympic training grounds for some of Slovenia’s best rowing teams.


If you didn’t know, Slovenia can row.


Bled town is set up right next to the lake – hotels, guesthouses border the eastern shore.


We had a hell of a time getting to Bled from Munich.  In June 2013 there was excessive flooding in Germany and Austria, shutting down many of the rail routes between Bavaria and Slovenia.


Instead of one simple four hour train ride our trip turned required ten hours, two bus rides, three trains, and four transfers.


But riding the rail in Europe is probably the most pleasant form of “traveling” in the world, in that literal sense of the word while you’re doing it, though the coach rides in Argentina are a close second.

My friend Austin commented, while we were grinding out a long overnight bus ride in Peru, that the worst part of “traveling” is the “travel” itself – the long train, tuk-tuk, jeepney, boat, bus, and mini-van rides. This simple wisdom is right on the mark but “traveling” in Europe is relatively pleasant – the trains are smooth, the seats comfortable, and the views fantastic.


We arrived at Bled’s train station in a drizzling mist and had no trouble hitchhiking to the hostel we had booked.

The rain brought lots of enormous snails out

The rain brought lots of enormous snails out

Our first day in Bled we walked up to Vintgar, a massive gorge set in nearby Triglavski National Park.


The 4 km minute walk to the gorge leads through the small village of Podham and is almost as nice as the walk through the Gorge itself.


The Vintgar Gorge has a wooden walkway a mile long that was built in 1983.


The first 700 meters of the walkway leads back and forth over the Radovna River.


There is never any real danger of falling so it is a popular little trek for families with kids.


The Gorge was discovered in 1891 by Jakob Žumer, the Mayor of Gorje, and the cartographer/photographer Benedikt Lergetporer.


Once the Gorge was made passable for purposes of tourism, it was declared one of the three most important tourist sights in Slovenia.


The grand conclusion of the walk through the Gorge is the 16 meter Sum Waterfall.


At the end of Vintgar the water is an incredible blue green.


The next day we headed up to Bled Castle, a medieval castle sitting on the edge of the lake.

Bled Castle

We were a bit startled on our way up to the castle when we found two Slovenians duking it out Medieval style in the parking lot.


We politely asked them why they were trying to hack each other to bits and they informed us they were practicing for the annual Bled Castle Medieval festival.


They told us their actual fight would happen at 5pm up in Bled Castle and strongly encouraged us to join.