My shuttle arrived in Rowing Heaven, otherwise known as Lake Bled, in a cold, drizzling rain. After being in fairly hot weather for most of my trip, this was a welcome relief. I was thrilled to see that the hotel was right on the lake, with incredible views of the island and the castles. The view was spectacular, and the rowing course was set up, making me wonder if it's typically in place during the entire rowing season.
After my Florence experience, I decided I didn't have to row in every place I visited - this was a rowing-related vacation, not a rowing trip. Given the somewhat hectic schedule, it wasn't quite the "Eat Pray Row" trip I had initially conceived, but it was pretty close. The only place I knew I HAD to row was at Lake Velence in Hungary. After the Day from Hell in Florence (wait a minute… Dante was from Florence! He wrote the Inferno there! It's all making sense now…), things were happily falling into place. My hotels and transportation were working out beautifully, and I was beginning to move into another travel gear.
Lake Bled was incredible. When I was in Florence and trying to figure out transportation to Bled, I was thinking... "Why am I going all this distance, out of my way… to see a lake?" As soon as I saw it, I knew why. I imagined how national team rowers must have felt when the world championships were held here several times.
The hotel was interesting. All of Eastern Europe is interesting. The music you hear in cafes and stores is typically from the 80s and 90s, with some in the early 2000s. The design of the hotel was… how to describe. Modern retro? It was like they were trying really hard to make cool designs, but they didn't really think about the functionality. Either that or they were using apprentice architects. Or something. The lights in the bathroom, for example, were in an odd, random pattern. The sink was narrow and wide, and the faucet went too far out, so you kind of spilled water all over when you washed your hands. The wallpaper on one wall wasn't really wallpaper - it was a textured 3D pattern of psychedelic curves that made my brain do weird things (thank God it was behind the headboard of my bed).
It was all a bit strange, but it was very clean and comfortable, and the most striking thing was the people. Everyone who worked there was so nice. They went out of their way to do anything possible to make my experience better and happier. There was an enormous dining room with a view of the lake, and dinner was served buffet style (with some interesting selections - like pigeon and goose… I'm sorry, but I just can't). On the other hand, they had some awesome "stick to your ribs" items, like beef stew, goulash, stewed vegetables and potatoes. But the thing that got me was the wait staff. All super friendly, and wearing fancy suits and ties. They were perfectly groomed, and if you wanted something, they would hustle fast to get it. These people were grateful to be employed. American servers could learn a thing or two from this example - at least some I've come across in Boston and New York (wink).
The hotel also had bikes to rent (10 euros per day), and they had a really nice mountain bike that fit me perfectly. The highlight of my trip was a 33-mile bike ride to the small Slovenian mountain town of Bohinjska Bistrica (say that fast three times). I rode first to the boathouse, which was impressive and an Olympic Training Center, according to the sign. They take rowing very seriously in Bled. I had my rowing clothes on and ready to go, but the boathouse was closed due to an all-age "sprint" type triathlon at the site, including kids who looked no more than 12. I got a free "athlete bag" to use as a backpack from the organizers, who were very kind, as were all Slovenians I encountered.
I then proceeded into the mountains, the sun came out for a bit, and the scenery was absolutely breathtaking. I felt like I had gone back in time 500 years (except for the nice roads and the solar panels on the chalet-type houses). Slovenian houses definitely seem to have a Swiss or Austrian type of architectural influence. The bike ride felt amazing; it was the first real workout - other than lugging bags or taking long walks - of the trip. And it was high time because Budapest was fast approaching. After two days of exercise, some serious R&R and soaking in the rowing karma in Bled, it was on to Zagreb, Croatia.
Since Bled was in the country, Zagreb was my first experience of "urban Eastern Europe." The central part of the city where I was staying was a mix of modern outdoor "mall" type areas with nice shops, hotels and cafes. Nearby was a beautiful park that was near the government buildings. The buildings were in great condition and looked very impressive. Just blocks away, however, were really dilapidated buildings with the siding falling off. I got the impression that the country is struggling economically. I also felt that the war in the 1990s was still close at hand, even though it's been more than two decades since it ceased. An Uber driver I met, named Garan, was 10 to 15 years old during the war, and his father was a soldier. He remembered it well. Zagreb was bombed with cluster bombs in a well-known attack by the Serbs in 1995; seven people were killed and more than 200 injured. As Garan said, "We wanted independence; they didn't want us to have it."
The people, again, were all very nice, and almost everyone spoke English (it's taught in school, and I don't think it's optional). I have a friend who is half Croatian, and it seemed like all of the women looked like her cousins, and all of the teenage girls I saw looked like her two daughters and the young men like her son. There is a certain Croatian "look," which is very appealing. I also felt that the hardships of life made the people nicer, because they appreciated things more.
One of my missions in Zagreb was to visit the rowing club where the phenomenal brotherly crew of Martin and Valent Sinkovic have trained. As most rowers are aware, these guys row both the pair and double and are six-time world champions; they also won the Olympic gold medal in the double at the 2016 games in Rio. At the World Championships this year in Linz, they won the coxless pair and qualified for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
The brothers began training in early 2000 at a young age at Mladost Croatian Academic Rowing Club. I don't know how long they trained there, but from articles I have read, they may have trained there for 10-15 years. Once again, I rented a bike and rode to the river where the club is located. It was somewhat of a grim picture. The building is pretty run down, although there is a modern gym on the second floor where, according to the guy at the desk, the brothers have trained. The gym, however, is completely separate from the rowing, and it didn't look like there was any rowing going on there. There was a shed where the boats were supposedly kept - it looked like it wasn't in use - and it was a long walk over a levee (up and down stairs) to the river.
The dock was in great disrepair, and the current in the river was absolutely ripping at least six or seven knots - not rowable water. It looked like there couldn't be any on-water rowing at the site currently, though the gym did have some ergs. The guy at the gym said, "Our government needs to spend more money on its national team athletes." That seemed like a huge understatement.
The Sinkovic brothers have trained at Lake Peruca in the southern part of the country for the past several years, which makes much more sense (if you look at the videos online, the lake is beautiful and the water is like glass). There was a poster of the brothers on the wall of the Mladost gym, however, showing that they are indeed national heroes - as well they should be. I'm sure everyone at Mladost, and in all of Croatia, is very proud of them.