Gorgeous Lake Bled with its clifftop castle and Gondola boats

Gorgeeous Lake Bled with its clifftop castle, churches, mountains and Gondola boats

Slovenia

Spring 2008

To be honest, I knew almost nothing about Slovenia when I decided to go there. All I knew was that it appeared that I could get there and back during my week's vacation in April. As an airline employee, I'm often at the mercy of where the open seats are, so am used to last minute destination changes. This trip was scheduled to be to Cyprus...or Croatia. Those flights all looked full, though, so Slovenia it was! I hurriedly read a couple guidebooks, which made the small, mountainous country -- which was formerly the northernmost part of Yugoslavia -- sound incredibly scenic.

After connecting in Frankfurt, I landed in the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana. It is actually easier to pronounce than it looks: Just imagine those "j's" are actually "y's." That would make it Lyublyana, or Loob-lee-ana. Simple! Anyway, I caught a bus from there to my first destination, the gorgeous lakeside town of Bled. The guidebooks had raved about its beauty and they were not mistaken. Bled is on the eastern shore of a small, Alpine lake, completely surrounded by thickly forested green hills. And ringing the hills, on every horizon, are massive snow capped mountain peaks. So, everywhere you look, there is a panorama of lake, hill and mountain. The church spires peaking up from the town of Bled add to the atmosphere. And looming above the lake, perfect as a postcard, is a castle built on a cliff 100 yards above the water. Still not enough for you? Well, at the western end of the lake is a tiny island. A medieval church slumbers there, and small gondola like boats ferry visitors out to it where they pull on the bell rope to ring it for good luck. There is a path that encircles the lake, allowing you to admire ever-changing combinations of castle and church, lake and hill.

The castle looming 100 meters over Lake Bled

The castle looming on its cliff 100 meters above the waters of Lake Bled

After waiting out a brief rainstorm in my hotel room, I spent the rest of the afternoon hiking around the path, taking photographs. Each view I lined up in my camera seemed to surpass the next. As it began to get dark, I returned to the hotel, which was very pleasant. The owners were friendly, the room was clean and well equipped, and there was even a computer with free internet downstairs in a common room. Guests were free to help themselves to beers or soda from the hotel restaurant's refrigerator -- you simply note what you took and your room number on a slip of paper. A wonderful buffet breakfast was also included, and I gorged myself on its fresh fruit, cereal and bread every morning. As a matter of fact, I extended my stay in Bled from two to three nights, partially because the Hotel Berc was so nice!

The next morning, I knew I would need the hearty breakfast as I'd labeled Day 2 "Hiking Day." It began with an hour long walk north of town through quaint Alpine villages towards the Vintgar Gorge. The gorge is a narrow, wooded cleft which the Vintgar River rushes through. Wooden walkways have been anchored to the rocks walls of the gorge, with bridges criss-crossing the foaming river a dozen times. The forest that cloaks the gorge intensifies the green, and is reflected in pools that form where the river slows. During the nearly hour's walk along the path, I saw only two other people. Nature's beauty was enhanced by the sound of water and the solitude. The gorge hike ends with a nice waterfall that is framed by a high, arched stone bridge that passes overhead.

The Vintgar Gorge hike and its idyllic scenery

The Vintgar Gorge hike and its idyllic scenery

The villages I hiked through on the return trip were even more quaint and scenic, if possible. Slovenians seem to share the love of tidiness and order of their Austrian neighbors. At times, it felt like I was hiking along an Austrian road, or perhaps a Bavarian or Swiss one. The homes were fairly large and well kept. Nearly all seemed to have a spacious balcony for sitting and soaking up the gorgeous mountain views in all directions. My guess is that the Slovenians are fairly wealthy, as far as Eastern Europeans go, probably sharing more in culture and standard of living with Western Europe than its former Yugoslav compatriots.

Next, I hiked up to the clifftop castle, which unfortunately was rather overrun with tour groups. Most seemed to be from Italy, and they clustered on every wall, posing for the camera in front of the gorgeous views of the lake below. The displays inside the castle were somewhat lackluster, and were it not for its dramatic position overlooking the lake, the castle itself would be a disappointment. I lingered for awhile, but as the steady stream of tourists showed no sign of letting up, I finally gave up and hiked down the path which led through the forest to the town below. After a short stop at the hotel, I was back outside, soaking up more of the sparkling sunshine and stunning scenery. I followed the path around the lake until I found the trail that led up to the Osojnica viewpoint. This towering, forested hill has a great scenic overlook of the Bled area. The hike was steep, but the panorama well worth it. The map that the hotel had lent me showed another trail leading to another hilltop vantage point, so I decided to try to find it, as well.

A hayrack, horse corral and typical village scenery

A Slovenian "hayrack," horse corral and typical village scenery

Most footpaths in Slovenia are extremely well marked, usually with a symbol or number painted on the occasional tree trunk in red. However, this one joined up with a dirt road at one point, and from there, I never seemed to regain the path. I ended up clambering up a steep hillside only to find out it wasn't "the one." Eventually, I gave up, but not before I twice encountered a chamois -- a wild, goat-like animal native to Slovenia (and incidentally, featured on the label of one its main beers). I heard its weird shriek -- more birdlike than goat-like -- and spotted one, perhaps 20 yards away. A short time later, I saw another one. Seeing some native wildlife more than made up for never finding the other viewpoint.

As I trudged back down the hillside, somewhat footsore by this point, I decided that it was time to visit the island church. There are two ways to get there...well, I guess it would be three, if you count swimming! You can either pay 10-12 Euros for one of the gondolas to take you out there (usually done with a group). Or you can rent your own rowboat, which is what I did. The lake is only slightly more than a mile long, and very calm, so rowboats are a common sight on its waters. It took me a while to get the hang of it, though. My right arm seemed to do such a better job of rowing than my left arm! This tended to take me in a long, curling path, until I would realign myself, only to veer off again. Eventually, I made it to the island. The steep stone staircase leading to the church emphasizes the height of its tower. It was less ornate than other Slovenian churches inside, but its austerity seemed appropriate on the island. I secretly made a wish and rang the bell, hearing the sound roll back towards me from the open doors as it echoed off the forested hillsides, outside.

The island church as seen from Osojnica viewing point

The island church as seen from Osojnica viewoint

It was late afternoon by this point, and I had one more hike to complete that day. The next day I was catching a train that left at 8:30 am from a village at the western end of the lake. I wanted to time how long it would take me to walk there, so I hiked up the hill until I was at the station, set my watch, and began walking determinedly back to the hotel. I didn't want to miss breakfast, if I could avoid it, which doesn't start until 7:30 am. My feet were NOT happy with me by the time I reached my hotel room. A power walk at the end of the day along an asphalt path is probably not the best way to treat blistered feet that have carried you up and down hillsides all day long!

The next morning, after breakfast, I retraced my steps around the lake and made it to the train station in plenty of time. I was headed to Kobarid, a town that is the site of a famous World War I battle between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies. The lady at the Bled tourist information office said it would be possible to zip south on the train to the village of Most na soci, where I could catch a bus to Kobarid. The return trains ran regularly until 8:16 pm that night, so it sounded like a great day trip. From my window, I watched as we passed through a series of tunnels through hill and mountain. After the darkness of each tunnel, I would be rewarded with a pristine view of a new mountain valley. A little more than an hour later, I got off at the tiny town of Most na soci. I asked the station conductor where I could catch the bus to Kobarid, and he said there were no buses to Kobarid on Sunday. Looking at the schedule, he said there were pretty much no buses at all from Most na soci today! I wandered out of the train station towards the center of town. Maybe I could find a bicycle to rent -- it was only about 16 miles to Kobarid. Along the way, a cab driver stopped and offered to take me to Kobarid. I bargained the price down to a still too expensive 20 Euros, but what else could I do?

The turquoise-blue Soca River

The gorgeous, turquoise blue Soca River The taxi dropped me off right outside my destination: Kobarid's famous museum detailing the WW I battle (in 1993, it won an award for the best museum in Europe). I noticed the tourist information office next door was open, so ducked inside to find out the scoop on buses. The lady there told me there was only one bus to Most na soci on Sunday, at 1:45 pm, but another at 5:50 pm to the nearby town of Tolmin, which looked about 5 miles from it on the map. She said I should be able to get a taxi or even hitch a ride for the final part to the train station. That would get me there in time for the 6:50 pm train. Satisfied, I ventured next door to the museum. Unfortunately, it too was overrun with Italian tour groups. It seems Slovenia is a favorite destination of the neighboring Italians, and I would run into tour groups of them throughout my trip. There were so many people in the little museum that I gave up after seeing only about three quarters of it. Instead, I skipped to the 5 kilometer Historical Trail that led up into the hills where the Battle of Kobarid was fought.

The hike was great, leading higher and higher along a shady forest path. It was steep going, which meant the tour groups were nowhere in sight: I had it to myself! The first stop on the hike was at the ruins of Tonocov Castle, which though not much to look at, had a romantic quality about them. They buildings and walls were constructed immediately after the fall of the Roman Empire. Romanized locals, sought out a hilltop defense, trying to withstand the barbarian invasions that wracked the Balkans. The foundations and walls of a couple buildings were all that was left to show of their 200-year struggle to hold on to their lifestyle. The view was nice from atop the hill, and since there aren't a lot of Dark Age ruins from this period, I spent a few moments savoring the atmosphere.

The path began to wind down towards the Soca River, at that point. A favorite of kayakers, the Soca is known for its intense blue color. Think milky, liquid turquoise, and then imagine a river that is uniformly that color in both the deep and shallow spots. It is really an amazing sight, and in all the countries I've been to, I've never seen a river that color. The closest water to that shade is the bright ultramarine blue you sometimes see in the Caribbean Sea near coral reefs. I crossed the river on a cool, "Indiana Jones" type swinging wooden bridge. With perfect timing, a group of kayakers spun past beneath me while I stood on the bridge. I followed a side trail to an interesting waterfall half enclosed inside a cool cavern.

Then I came upon the main course of the Kobarid Historical Walk: The Italian fortifications used almost a century ago in the famous battle. I clambered through gun emplacements, bunkers and pillboxes. It was cool to picture the battlelines along the steep slopes, and imagine how difficult fighting in such rocky terrain must have been. The local historical society has done a great job at setting up the historical trail and maintaining and renovating some of the fortifications. A couple bunkers looked like they were being outfitted with beds for hikers to sleep in! Once again, I had much of this area to myself, being a steep walk from the nearest roads. I've always felt that solitude enhances the experience of communing with history, and seek out off-peak times, doing my best to maximize my chances of missing crowds.

With most of my sightseeing done, and the day the sunniest and warmest yet, I had little premonition that things were going to begin unraveling. My pleasant little day trip to Kobarid was about to become a "Caporetto." The Italians call any disaster a Caporetto, after their name for the town of Kobarid (and for the WW I battle fought there). The eventual Italian defeat in the mountains surrounding the town was so complete and the rout so total that it erased all the territorial gains the Italian army had achieved and ended with them streaming into Italy with the Austro-Hungarians in hot pursuit.

The main square and triple bridge in Ljubljana, Slovenia

The main square and Triple Bridge in Ljubljana, Slovenia

As I stood waiting in the town square for the 5:50 pm bus to Tolmin, my own personal Caporetto unfolded. First, the 5:50 bus did not arrive. I asked some folks at a nearby cafe, and they said there should be another bus at 6:30. Since it was less than a half hour away, at that point, I simply waited. 6:30 pm came and went with no bus. I looked around for a taxi, but Sunday evening must be their time off. None were to be found. With little choice, I tore a square off a poster and wrote in big letters, "MOST NA SOCI." I began walking, holding out the sign to passing cars. It had been awhile since I hitchhiked, but what choice did I have? After about 15 minutes of walking, a young man pulled over and gave me a ride to Tolmin. I tried to talk him into taking me the last few miles to the train station at Most na Soci, but he had a hot date with an ex-girlfriend. When I got to Tolmin, I looked around for taxis. Again, none were to be found on a Sunday night. I'd definitely missed the 6:50 pm train back to Bled, leaving me with only the 8:16 pm one to catch.

With no rides in the offing, I began walking, once again holding out my sign to passing cars. I was still walking at 7:45, and no cars were stopping to pick me up. Since my map really didn't show how far it was from Tolmin to Most na soci, I had no idea how much further I had to go. The valley seemed to wind on and on between the hills, with no village in sight. At 8 pm, and still no sign of the Most na Soci, I started jogging. I knew with only 16 minutes to go, the chances of me getting there in time were slim. Finally, two men pulled over and gave me a ride. They figured I was trying to catch the train, and sped me there with perhaps five minutes to spare. I thanked them profusely, took a few deep breaths, and chugged the rest of my water bottle. It had been an adventure. And it was almost a Caporetto. Right on time, the train arrived and whisked me back through the darkening evening towards Bled, and my waiting hotel room. I hadn't relished the thought of spending the evening on a bench in the train station...my comfy bed at Hotel Berc seemed much more welcoming!

A dragon from Ljubljana's Dragon Bridge

A dragon from Ljubljana's Dragon Bridge The next morning, I enjoyed the leisurely pace that I could begin my day with. I lingered over the excellent breakfast, took my time packing, and still had plenty of time to catch the 9:30 bus to Ljubljana. Of course, I still had no idea where I would be staying in the capital. My attempts to find a reasonably priced hotel room had failed. The alternative was hostels -- with their dormitory sleeping -- or a private room in a home. I planned on using the Tourist Information Office at the station to help me find one or the other. The logical thing, with hotel rooms too expensive in the capital, would be to enjoy the company of fellow travelers and stay in a hostel. I did some soul searching as to why I wasn't thrilled with the idea. I think it boils down to the fact that I spend very little time in a hotel room on trips. I use them as a chance to unpack and spread my stuff out, and to sleep. Some hostels are known as party places, and the idea of folks coming in at all hours of the night after their revels, or worse yet, a loud snorer keeping me from sleeping, seemed to defeat the purpose of a room. Silly, I know. Yet, when the Tourist Information Office offered what was supposed to be a private room in a hostel for only 40 Euros, I took it. The hostel owner was even coming down to the office to pick me up. As it turns out, the "hostel" was actually a student dormitory that was open because the students were on spring break. So, I was essentially staying alone in the building, and in someone else's room -- their clothes were still in the closet, their toothbrush in the holder in the bathroom. Weird.

Nevertheless, it was a place to stay only a little ways out of the center of town. I did quite a bit of walking, going from the sights of Ljubljana to the room, but hadn't I done a lot of walking already? Plus, Ljubljana is a cool town, with plenty of cafes, rows of medieval and Renaissance era buildings, churches and a hilltop castle. The wide, green Drava river flows through the center of town, which has led to the creation of the unique "triple bridge," as well as the city's trademark Dragon Bridge, with four bronze dragons guarding each corner. The buzz among travelers is that Ljubljana could be the "next Prague" -- the Czech Republic's scenic and pleasant city that has become so beloved by Western tourists. I think they're right. Ljubljana is a nice place to spend a few days. And like Prague, the historical sights aren't bad, but it is the atmosphere that is its selling point. This was a place that I wished I had someone else along to indulge in a few beers in a cafe with. I always feel awkward hitting up a drinking spot by myself, so on solo trips like this one, usually call it an early evening.

The next morning, I hiked the 45 minutes back to the train station (which is conveniently next to the bus station, but inconveniently far from where my room was) for my day trip to the Skocjan Caves. These are a UNESCO world heritage site, and the description of them in my guidebook sounded wonderful. So far, I'd had four days of incredibly sunny weather -- so much so that the locals had commented upon my good fortune. As the train began to glide out of the station, the first rain drops hit the wide windows. It was still raining almost two hours later when I got off the train in Dravaca, the closest stop to the caves. I could tell things weren't going to go so smoothly when I saw the information office was closed. There was no sign of the shuttle buses that were supposed to run the 5 kilometers to the caves. Equally, there was nowhere to rent a bicycle (another option mentioned by my guidebook). Left with the final choice, I hunched my shoulders against the now steady rain and began walking. There were occasional signs marking the way, which meant I only took one wrong turn and had to backtrack a few hundred yards. The rain alternated between steady and driving, and I was soon thoroughly soaked. Since it had worked so well in Kobarid (ha!), I began sticking out my thumb, hoping for a ride. After a wet 45 minutes, one of the workers on his way to his job at the caves pulled over and gave me a ride. The bad news, though, was it was 10:30 am, and the next tour didn't start until 1 pm.

The exit from Skocjan Caves - a UNESCO world heritage site

The exit from the Skocjan Caves - a UNESCO world heritage site

Resigned to a difficult day, I set up camp in the visitor center restaurant, ordered a beer (hey, I deserved it...!), and eventually a hot tea and lunch. I spread my wet coat and hat out on various chairs at my table, and tried unsuccessfully to dry out. The bright side was that I finally got a chance to order some Slovenian food. The trip had been jinxed so far on my attempts to try the local cuisine (the kitchen had always just closed, there were no tables available or I needed reservations). If you can believe it, I was actually tired of my steady diet of pizza for supper! The soup and tea tried to warm me up, but when it was time to head back outside for the tour, I was still quite damp. The whipping wind made me look forward to the caves, which though cool, would at least be out of the wind! Worse, though, the crowd that had gathered for the 1 pm tour was so massive they had to split us into two groups. When someone I know had taken this tour a couple months ago, it had been only him and one other person on the tour. I estimated our group at 150!

I chuckled as I saw that the poor German-speaking tourists got saddled with the chattering Italian school kids, while they paired us English speakers up with the Slovenians. The caves were incredible, and stretched on for miles. As we moved from cavern to cavern, it was often like passing through giant jaws as huge stalagmites and stalactites seemed to be clamping down on the openings. The scale of the place was tremendous, including one cavern where the ceiling was lost in the darkness 100 yards above. In another, there was a massive stalagmite that geologists estimated to be a quarter of a million years old. The Slovenian parks service did a great job with "mood lighting" of the Skocjan Caves. My only complaint was the "no photographs" policy, which they explained was to keep algae from growing from the light of the flashbulbs. I thought their science a little suspect, and most people seemed to sneak in a few pictures when the guide was around a corner. So, I did as well. The highlight of the cave is when you cross a narrow bridge over a chasm. Perhaps 50 yards beneath you, a river churns though the cave, filling the air with a foggy mist that turned the beams of our flashlights into spectral searchlights. If it weren't for the horde of other tourists, exploring the Skocjan Caves would be like hitching a ride on Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. Even with them along, it was a great experience and worthy day trip.

The train ride back to Ljubljana went faster, as I caught an "Intercity" rather than the plodding "local." The rain finally eased up when we entered the capital. I spent the rest of the evening purchasing some last minute souvenirs, and finding a great restaurant to enjoy some more Slovenian cuisine. It seemed to have been a quick five days, but now that I had some idea what Slovenia was all about, I could certainly recommend it to others, and perhaps would dash back again sometime to see more of this green jewel of a nation.