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Slovenia

The country of Slovenia almost never comes up in discussion – except most recently with the influx of migrants at their border. There's a lack of common vernacular on this tiny country the size of New Jersey, with people – including me until a year ago – grasping at geographic and cultural straws: Balkans? Yugoslavia? Something to do with Slovakia?

After my week long trip throughout a huge chunk of Central and Western Slovenia, I want to urge you to learn more, and as quickly as possible, but like a classic hipster protecting their newly discovered musician or just opened vintage clothes store, I do so with slight trepidation. Slovenia doesn't need a marketing campaign or an influx of "36 hours in Ljubljana" style stories. Hard as it might be to grasp in our media-saturated, look-at-me culture, Slovenia seems content to remain relatively contained. It's still a new country, at least in this iteration, joining the United Nations in 1992 and the European Union in 2004, after previous identities as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then a member of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia after the First World War, and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia after the Second World War.

Slovenia is also a country that can shrug its shoulders at unknown parts of their history, including 600 years "where not much is known" (a near direct quote in a museum at Ljubljana Castle). Missing historic details aside, their present is incredibly appealing. This tiny country is like a mini Switzerland, Italy, and Austria, with a touch of Hungary and Croatia skirting around the corners.

I'm not trying to paint a picture of a country without problems or with no desire for growth, but it does seem that citizens and government alike recognize what they already have, and have plans for a sustainable future. "What they have" includes stunningly beautiful wine regions that create wine that rivals the best I've had anywhere (and wines that rarely leave the country). The country has impressive and scary mountain passes, postcard worthy alpine villages, cerulean colored rivers, too many caves and waterfalls to count, and a culture shaped around tradition, especially the tradition of gardening.

As we learned from the bed and breakfast we stayed at in the Soca River Valley, the free calendar passed out at hardware stores includes the phases of the moon so that people can garden according to biodynamic principles. Gardening culture isn't championed or encouraged; it just is. As such, on drives, walks, and runs, we passed neatly tended and overflowing gardens--these weren't hobby gardens with a few tomatoes or basil, but serious and diversified gardens designed to feed the family. Functionality aside, the gardens were also grown in aesthetically pleasing ways as a reminder that gardening can be beautiful and remain productive. And I don't think I saw a single window without a colorful flower box; even a castle in a cave that we visited was decorated with colorful window-boxes – perhaps in an effort to make the chilly and imposing castle a touch more welcoming.

In Slovenia, the natural beauty shines, and the homes, nearly all with neat, beautiful metal roofs, merge easily into their surroundings. When I studied abroad in Copenhagen, my most lasting memory is of the concept of hygge – a word that doesn't have a direct English translation, but essentially means the act of coming together and relating with each other, in a cozy manner, frequently with candles. The Slovene language must have a word for this too, because the idea of conversation, of conviviality, and of connection, was present in all the interactions I either observed or took part in. We were struck by this observation when we scanned the room at a bar-chocolate-patisserie-smoothie place (it worked!). If I had been in America, or certainly other places in the world, I know I would have spotted a few people on their laptops, cell phones placed on the table in arm's reach, groups of people exhibiting body posture where one dominated and the others leaned back. But at this cafe, I saw engagement and felt the joy that comes from connection and being real, the mask removed.

We spent three days in Ljubljana, wandering the jewel box downtown, visiting the castle, and enjoying several wine bars. We also took a day trip to Lake Bled, and despite the fog, and thus the lack of stunning alpine views that the cover of my guidebook shows, we still couldn't help but gasp at the beauty. We took a gondola ride to the center island in the lake. These gondolas are handmade and navigated by skilled boatman who methodically paddle the 30 minutes out to the island and the 30 minutes back. The lake had a layer of mist on it, but the island was visible. As the tip of my nose started to chill, and I stared straight ahead at the slowly approaching island, the only noise behind me was the rhythmic paddling of the oarsman; we were in the middle of the lake, with other people, and all was still and calm.

We spent another three nights in the Soca River Valley, near Mt Triglav, at a lovingly restored guesthouse that we both easily could have simply moved into. Our original plan was to hike in the surrounding mountains, but the rain had other plans, and so on our first two days in that region, we pivoted and visited a cave that had 23 underground lakes you could boat on (for 7 hours!). We boated on one, just ourselves and our guide, in near complete darkness. This cave is unsupported, which means there are no extra lights or platforms. It's a cave in its natural form, and the cave guides are careful to ensure that despite occasional human traffic, it stays that way, and they take care to track the effect of human footfalls on the cave's weathering.

We also visited the castle in the cave (the one with the flower boxes), winding our way through the chilly rooms and then back into the secluded cave that connected to the main castle, wondering about the people who had lived here, and the ingenuity of tucking a castle directly into a cave. We spent our sunny day in the Gorenjska and Goriska regions with my camera nearly always at my eye – either at a waterfall, the brightly colored town of Kanal, or the Goriska Brda wine region. When the sun was out, the twisty windy roads transformed into pull-over viewpoints at nearly every turn, and the bubbly river below seemed less treacherous and more inviting.

I hope to return to Slovenia sooner rather than later, anxious to experience it in the spring or summer, to hike, to visit the eastern section of the country. I hope Slovenia is able to remain the gem it is – aware of its important geographical position and willing to grow sustainably and carefully, but keeping a pulse on what's really important.

Venice

Venice was surprising. Endlessly written about and photographed, forever referenced in history, perpetually emulated for its art and architecture, I was apprehensive that Venice would be all cliché: gondolas clogging canals, tourists jostling on tiny streets, an unfortunate large-scale theme park of itself.

The Venice we found was romantic, intriguing, and real. Just like any major city, Venice sees a significant amount of tourist traffic (estimates of 20 million a year). But tourist culture is the same no matter if you're in New York, Paris, or London: the bulk of visitors go to the same places, and they do so in giant selfie-stick wielding clumps. If you want to avoid tourists, it's easy: don't go to those places. And if you really want to go to a specific site, it's still possible to carve out a space for yourself. One day, we visited the Doge's Palace, a spectacular piece of architecture that's meticulously preserved, glittery, and extensive. A thorough visit requires attention and time, something that many cruise ship visitors simply don't have – their allotted day in Venice only allows them time to wander the outside or speed through quickly. Thus, even in a destination like the Doge's Palace, we frequently found ourselves standing in rooms entirely alone. In Venice, you're most likely to become overwhelmed by people in Piazza San Marco and around the Rialto Bridge. But as soon as you step aside onto a side street, the clumps of people nearly disappear.

A few weeks after our trip, my memories of Venice have been solidified into a few main themes. First, I'm already wistfully remembering the relative lack of ambient noise. There's a quiet that coats the city in a filter of peace and calm. Venice is a city of canals, not roads. This means there are no cars, no buses, no mopeds, no honking, no revving of engines, no squealing of brakes. Through airbnb, we stayed on the top floor of a 14th century palace, complete with two patios that offered 360 degree views. We would go out on the patios, or open the windows, and instead of being blasted back inside by city noise and honking, we frequently couldn't hear anything except for sporadic church bells, idle conversations in Italian, and children playing. At night, it was as quiet outside as if you were camping in the middle of a forest.

This lack of cars translates into a very compelling reality: every single part of Venice is a pedestrian street. I always enjoy Europe's various pedestrian streets and walking without fear of getting run over by a moped or honked at by a stressed driver. To have a few pedestrian streets multiplied into an entire city was an unimagined dream come to life. Many of Venice's streets are windy, narrow, guiding you over various side canals only to double back onto a street you just left. Venice is a city to get lost in – the guidebooks agree! – but it's not as if you're ever really lost: the Grand Canal will orient you to your relative position on the interconnected islands. In this case, "getting lost" really means embracing the concept of letting your legs take you where you need to go, while remaining open to the possibility of discovery along the way.

Unsurprisingly, water transport and aquatic cuisine dominate Venice. You can walk many parts of Venice without ever needing to get on a boat, but their boat-bus system (vaporettos) are the ultimate site-seeing vehicle. One day, after wandering around the Castello Sestiere and back towards Piazza San Marco, we took a boat over to San Giorgio Maggiore and went to the top of the bell tower for panoramic city and lagoon views. From there, we could have taken a more direct boat back to our sestiere (San Polo), but instead elected to take the scenic route – and for the cost of a bus ticket, we sailed beside Giudecca and around Tronchetto before wrapping back into the Grand Canal. It's the kind of boat ride that you'd pay serious money for in another city, but in Venice it's a daily commute for many.

We also took a boat out to several other lagoon islands, stopping in Mazzorbo to eat at Venissa, before walking to Burano and boating to Murano. Burano was colorful and cute, but because of its diminutive size, it was overrun by tourists, all of whom seemed to be snapping photos of hanging laundry. We learned that the typical order to visit these islands is to boat from Venice to Murano, visit the glass stores, eat lunch, and then spend the afternoon on Burano. We did the opposite, and so when we arrived in Murano, it felt like a ghost town. Many of the glass shops were still open, but we wandered through the stores almost entirely on our own.

We found a few spectacular restaurants close to our apartment and decided to stick with what we liked – enjoying the neighborhood feel of both and the exceptional sourcing of seafood, vegetables, and wine from nearby Veneto. The seafood is fresh, seasonal, and local – all the buzzwords we want to hear, brought to life without too much pomp or pretense in Venice.

Actually, that lack of pretense is a good way to sum up the Venice we experienced. The city is magical, influential, and unique, but it's still a functioning city – garbage boats boating along side water taxis. For me, the magic of Venice is the result of normal life lived in such a unique way.

The Painted Hills

We made a detour to see the Painted Hills on our drive from Bend back to Portland. I've been staring at photos of the Painted Hills for almost as long as I've lived in Oregon, and while Bend isn't exactly next door, it's closer than where most of our other Oregon driving take us (though I'm very interested in exploring Eastern Oregon at some point).

So, instead of heading towards Mount Hood, we veered East and drove through Prineville (fun fact: this town is home to data centers for both Facebook and Apple. I looked that up in the car when we were driving through). We then meandered through Ochoco Forest, many of the trees diseased and patchy, before the landscape changed to desolate rolling hills, punctuated by bursts of reds, yellows, and blacks. It's hard to believe but the entire central Oregon high desert used to be a deciduous rainforest...40 Millenia ago. Today, all that's left of that history are the mineral deposits of incredible colors on the rolling hills. The entire landscape reminded me of those sand jars that were popular a few decades ago: where you'd layer different color sands to create a pretty pattern (the idea of fun was simpler then, clearly).

The car thermometer said 90, but it felt like 110 and we all commented that our half mile walk around was the longest half mile of our lives! There was a small patch of green pasture glaringly out of place in the otherwise tanned palate.