Saturday, March 9, 2013

Slovenian Countryside

Beautiful Lake Bled

Day 16 (Friday September 16, 2008)

Continuation from Ljubljana, Slovenia

After checking out of my hotel in Ljubljana, I walked a few blocks east in order to reach the car rental office where I picked-up my rental car. Although I had reserved the cheapest option possible through Gemut Auto Rental, I ended up with a small white Mercedes, which was a pleasant surprise!

I have rented cars several times during previous trips to Europe. Even though I always had directions printed out, I would inevitably get lost. To help prevent this from occurring again, I purchased a GPS system before I left on the trip so that I would have a much less stressful driving experience. The GPS system worked flawlessly, each time bringing me to the correct destination in the shortest amount of time. Had I not had the system, I’m sure I would have gotten lost numerous times.

From Ljubljana, I headed southwest to Lipica Stud Farm, which was located just two kilometers northeast of the Italian border. The farm was started in 1580 to breed and train horses for the courts of Vienna. The Austrian Archduke Charles wanted to create a breed that was light in color and of a more elegant stature. It took nearly 200 years for the mix of local horses from the Karst region in Slovenia to combine with the Andalusian horses to evolve into the famous Lipizzaner breed that can be found today.

I arrived just in time for the 11:00 English tour, which took me all over the farm. I learned that the Lipizzaner horse is not white when born but actually a dark gray. Over the course of five to ten years, they slowly change into the beautiful white color. However, I was also informed that one percent of all Lipizzaner horses born never turn white and instead remain a gray color. Today, the farm houses about 400 Lipizzaner horses.

Unfortunately, I was only able to see a few of the horses up close in the stables as the rest were out grazing far away in the pastures.
Lipica Stud Farm
Lipica Stud Farm
Lipica Stud Farm
Lipica Stud Farm
Old carriages at Lipica Stud Farm.
Lipica Stud Farm
Lipica Stud Farm

From the stud farm, I drove to the nearby Skocjan Caves, which was located in the Karst region of Slovenia. This area of Slovenia is filled with many limestone caves, a few of which can be toured by the general public. I chose Skocjan as I had read that it was less touristy than some of the other caves and not as easily accessible, thus the reason why less people visit. I arrived about 45 minutes prior to my 13:00 tour. While I waited, I walked up to a nearby lookout point that provided a beautiful view of the deep river valley, including a town capped by a baroque church in the background.

Beautiful view near Skocjan Caves.
Beautiful view near Skocjan Caves.
Beautiful view near Skocjan Caves.
Beautiful view near Skocjan Caves.
Beautiful view near Skocjan Caves.

When the tour finally began, I walked from the ticket office with the guide for 500 meters down a path along the main road, which eventually led to a gravel path that took the group to the main entrance of the tunnel. The temperature inside the caves is a constant 12 degrees Celsius so it was quite chilly, although I stayed warm due to the extensive hiking and climbing of stairs. To give a little background as to how the formations are created within the caves: as water seeps down into the limestone caves, the calcium carbonate that dissolves from the water dripping from the roofs creates stalactites and stalagmites. Sometimes, as the stalactites grow down from the roof and stalagmites grow upwards from the floor, they eventually meet together, creating what is called a column. I learned that the formations grow only one centimeter over a period of 250 years; some of the formations I saw were over 250,000 years old! Due to the high humidity in the caves, the ground is quite slippery and I was glad to have worn my good hiking shoes. I was blown away and mesmerized by the countless beautiful formations I saw in each of the cave sections.

Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take any pictures within the caves; I assume this is because the unnatural light of flash photography causes problems within the delicate ecosystem of the cave. However, I was unsure as to why they did not allow photographs without the flash. I was a bad visitor and managed to sneak in few shots of the first cave called Paradise, although to my defense, I did not use the flash! The entire tour took about 90 minutes and was much more physically strenuous than I had realized. After climbing several hundred stairs and walking uphill through many of the caves, I was quite tired by the end.
Skocjan Caves
Skocjan Caves
Skocjan Caves
Skocjan Caves
Skocjan Caves
Skocjan Caves
Skocjan Caves
Skocjan Caves
Skocjan Caves

From Skocjan, I headed to the Slovenia coast on the Adriatic Sea to the Venetian city of Piran. The closer I got to the coastal region, the more apparent the Italian influence in this area of Slovenia became; I saw countless vineyards and red tiled roofed homes that filled the landscape of beautiful, rolling hills. This region was actually part of Italy until WWII ended, when the borders were redrawn and it was given to the former country of Yugoslavia.

As I arrived in Piran, I was immediately brought back to the time I spent in Italy two years prior. The entire environment was complete sensory overload for me; beautiful ocean views, crumbling pastel colored buildings, and the overall “dolce vita” atmosphere of the town was all quintessentially Italian. The warm and sunny weather helped to further my already happy travel experience. I parked the car and walked into the central part of town, eventually wandering around the backstreets. I bought some gelato and later some pizza for an early dinner at a restaurant called Riva, which had gorgeous views of the sea. I would have loved to spend an entire day in Piran as it would have been wonderful to spend the night in this atmospheric city. However, I had plans to drive further on into Slovenia and end my day in Lake Bled. I begrudgingly left, knowing that it would be years before I would be able to see Italy again. I say Italy because I truly felt as though I was in Italy and not Slovenia; this town was one of the highlights of my trip!
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran
Piran

After leaving Piran, I drove northeast for about an hour, later reaching the secluded Predjama Castle, which was located just outside the town of Postojna. The castle was built into the walls of a large cavern during the 16th century and its sight was quite dramatic! Although the interior of the castle is usually open for visitors, I arrived after operating hours, so instead I took photos of the exterior and enjoyed the views of the valley below the castle.
Predjama Castle
Predjama Castle
The view from Predjama Castle.
Predjama Castle
Predjama Castle

From the castle, I began the drive up to Bled, which involved driving over countless switchbacks whose lanes were only wide enough for one car; this made for an interesting experience when another car approached me on the road! I eventually arrived in Lake Bled around 21:00 and headed to Penzion Berc, where I had reserved a room for three nights. One of the very friendly owners greeted me and brought me to my room, which was simple but filled with lots of character, including wood paneled ceilings and rustic looking furniture. I was happy to finally be able to relax in my room after a long day of driving and sightseeing.
Penzion Berc
Penzion Berc
Penzion Berc
Penzion Berc
Penzion Berc
Penzion Berc
Breakfast room at Penzion Berc.
Breakfast room at Penzion Berc.
Breakfast room at Penzion Berc.

Day 17 (Saturday September 17, 2008)

Today my plan was to complete a full day driving tour of the Julian Alps. Slovenia has the very eastern end of the Alps and they are called “Julian” after Julius Caesar. From Bled, I drove towards Vrsic Pass, passing through numerous green fields, immense mountains in the background, and many Slovenian hay racks  Because of the amount of rainfall the northwest part of the country receives, the hay racks are quite common as they allow hay to dry thoroughly since they are covered by a roof.
Scenery along the drive to Vrsic Pass.
Scenery along the drive to Vrsic Pass.
Scenery along the drive to Vrsic Pass.

I reached Triglav National Park about 30 minutes later. The Vrsic Pass involved driving over 50 switchbacks (24 up, 26 down) that provided amazing views of the surrounding mountains and valleys below. Along the way, I stopped at several of the viewpoints to take some photos. I also stopped at switchback number eight to visit the Russian Chapel. The church was built in memorial of hundreds of Russian workers who lost their lives on March 8, 1916 as a result of an avalanche and hundreds more who died of illness as they built the roads in this area.
Triglav National Park
Triglav National Park
Russian Chapel in Triglav National Park.
Russian Chapel in Triglav National Park.
Triglav National Park
Triglav National Park
Triglav National Park
Triglav National Park
Triglav National Park
Triglav National Park
Can you see the face on the mountain wall at Triglav National Park?

When I reached the summit at switchback #24, I jumped out of the car to take some photos. The temperature up here was freezing (five degrees Celsius) with a fierce, bone chilling wind but that didn’t stop me! The view from the top was incredibly beautiful and truly a spectacular sight; I was able to see the surrounding area for miles and miles ahead of me and I was reminded of the mountains back home in Washington.
Julian Alps
Julian Alps
Julian Alps
Julian Alps
Julian Alps
Julian Alps
Julian Alps

I headed back down the mountain, driving through the rest of the switchbacks, seeing a few pieces of WWI debris along the way including checkpoints and a guard tunnel.

Next, I drove through the Soca River Valley. This area saw complete and utter devastation during WWI. It was on the fields of the Soca River Valley where some of the most brutal fighting between the Allies and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which Slovenia was a part of) took place. This part of the war is known as the Soca (Isonzo) Front. It was difficult for me to fathom how such a long war ragged in this part of Europe; it's one thing when you can fight a war on level ground, but this area was filled with massive mountain ranges and uneven terrain. Most of the trenches had to be carved into rock instead of dug in mud like the rest of Europe. It was definitely not a friendly environment for any of the soldiers and made for a long and complicated fight.
Soca River Valley
Soca River Valley
Soca River Valley
Soca River Valley
Soca River Valley
Soca River Valley
Soca River Valley

While in the valley, I stopped in the towns of Bovec and Kobarid. In Bovec, I ate lunch at a restaurant called Letni Vrt Pizzeria. Unfortunately, I did not realize that the place was filled to the brim with a recently arrived German tour group of at least 30 people. Although the wait staff at the restaurant provided friendly and efficient service, I had to wait at least half an hour for my food as the tour group had ordered just prior to my arrival. I requested Spaghetti Carbonara along with potatoes au gratin  I was shocked when the pasta arrived as the portion was huge even though I had requested the “small” size; I did not want to imagine what the larger size would have looked like! The food was pretty good, although my favorite was the potatoes au gratin.
Bovec

From Bovec, I drove to nearby Kobarid, where I visited the Kobarid Museum, which was created to present the story of the Soca Front. The museum has received many accolades, including being voted one of Europe‘s best museums in 1993. Although parts of the exhibits were interesting, I didn't feel like it was laid out in the most functioning manner. The first floor was mostly filled with photos from the war. The second floor had artifacts from the war, including several military uniforms and tools such as wire cutters, axes, shovels, etc.
Kobarid
Kobarid
Kobarid

From the museum, it was just a quick drive up to the Italian Mausoleum, which was located on a hill that overlooks the town of Kobarid below. This mausoleum was created in remembrance of the thousands of Italian soldiers who died in this area of Slovenia during World War I. The building itself holds the remains of 7,014 of these soldiers. In addition to being a somber site, the church also provides panoramic and unforgettable views of the Soca River Valley.
View from the Italian Mausoleum.
Italian Mausoleum
Italian Mausoleum
View from the Italian Mausoleum.

From Kobarid, I began the drive back to Bled. As I drove alongside the Soca River, I was blown away by the color of the water; it was the darkest and most spectacular shade of aquamarine I have ever seen and almost appeared to be unnatural, as though the color of the water had been dyed.
Soca River
Soca River

From the city of Most na Soci, I boarded a car train (Autovlak) that took me through the mountains to a city near Lake Bohinj, where the drive to Lake Bled took only 30 minutes. Had I driven the roads through the mountains myself, I would have had to contend with narrow and twisty roads for two hours; the train sounded like a much better and less stressful option!
Car train in Slovenia.
Car train in Slovenia.

Later in Lake Bled, I ordered pizza to go from a restaurant called Pizzeria Rustika. I had planned on eating in the restaurant but all of the tables on the inside were full and it was much too cold out to eat in their outdoor seating area. The pizza was reasonably priced and quite delicious.

Day 18 (Monday September 22, 2008)

After eating breakfast, my first item planned of the day was to visit Lake Bled and take a pletna boat to the Bled Island in the middle of the lake. Initially, I began walking around the lake, taking a few photos. The sun was just beginning to break through the clouds, so the beautiful reflection of Bled Castle was shimmering brightly on the lake. I can only begin to imagine how much more impressive the lake would have appeared had there been no clouds in the sky.
Lake Bled
Lake Bled
Lake Bled
Lake Bled
Lake Bled

About ten minutes into my walk, I reached a pletna dock, but as I walked over to pay for the ride, I was informed that there must be a minimum of 10 riders. Since I was the only person standing there, I decided to continue my walk around the lake and try the boat ride a little later in the day.
Pletna boats on Lake Bled.

As I continued to make my way around the lake, I eventually reached another pletna dock. This time however, there were several people already waiting to board the pletna, so I went ahead and got on. I was astounded by the price for the round-trip ride to the island (12 Euros per person). That seemed a bit steep as the boat ride only took about 15 minutes each way. Aside from renting and rowing a boat, the pletna boats are the only way to reach the island in Lake Bled. I just swallowed hard over the price and equated it with part of “the experience”.

I found it interesting to learn that the pletna boats of Bled have been compared to the gondolas in Venice as both are hand carved boats that are steered by an oarsman who pushes long and thick wooden handles through the water.

My pletna took off for the island with a total of 16 riders. I attempted to relax as we glided through the smooth water, but my moments of reflection were frequently interrupted by a man sitting across from me. He was a young Slovenian who appeared to be leading a small guided tour for three other adults. He spoke flawless English, which became quite obvious as he rattled off well-known American quotes and sayings. The three people he was with asked him many questions about the lake, but he knew the answers to none of them, which I found strange. As the three would be in the middle of discussing something about the Lake Bled or Slovenia, the Slovenian man would go off on a tangent and say the most random things; thank God I was only around him for a short time because he was driving me absolutely crazy!
Lake Bled
Bled Island on Lake Bled.

By the time I reached the island, the temperature had decreased and I was freezing. I had 30 minutes to tour the tiny island before the pletna boat would take me back. I walked up 98 steps to the church; the steps are famous in Slovenia as it is a wedding tradition for a groom to carry his bride up all 98 steps. Apparently, this tradition can be witnessed on most Saturdays, when weddings frequently take place.

I had planned on touring the interior of the church, but changed my mind when I found out that the entrance fee was 3 Euros; this would have brought my total excursion cost to the island from 12 Euros to 15 Euros ($18 USD to $23 USD), so I figured I could skip it. Although I had budgeted very carefully for this trip, I noticed that I often found myself in the same predicament; was the cost of the visit/tour/excursion/etc truly worth the amount of money it would translate into? With the terrible value of the US Dollar against the Euro at the time of my trip, I would usually skip the lesser sights to save money.
View from Bled Island.
View from Bled Island.
Church on Bled Island.
This is what Lake Bled would have looked like on a cloudless day!
View from Bled Island of Lake Bled.
Church on Bled Island with 98 stairs to the top!
View of Lake Bled from Bled Island.

On the way back, I decided to sit in the very front of the boat as I had hoped it would allow me to get some good shots of the island and other areas around the lake. Unfortunately, I did not realize that sitting in the front also meant that my hair would be blown around like crazy; after the ride was over, the back of my hair was sticking straight out, and no amount of combing my hair would fix it!
Pletna boat on Lake Bled.
Lake Bled
Lake Bled
Lake Bled
Lake Bled
Lake Bled

From the lake, I walked back to my hotel, and then headed off in the car to the gas station. I experienced another bout of sticker shock when I paid for the diesel; I had less than a ¼ tank left prior to filling up, and after I placed 40 Euro of diesel ($60 USD) into the tank, it was not quite full. For a little tiny car I thought that was terribly expensive! As the diesel cost had placed a nice dent in my daily budget, I decided to pick up some snacks to eat for the rest of the day instead of eating out. I bought some bread rolls, meat, cheese, cookies, fruit, and juice, and only spent about 6 Euro ($9 USD) which was much less than I would have spent had I eaten at a restaurant. Lucky for me, the bread rolls had just come out of the oven and were warm and soft. My sandwich of Milanese salami and a slice of Swiss cheese sandwiched together in the fresh bread roll was absolutely delicious!

My next stop for the day was to Vintgar Gorge, which was sliced into the mountainside near Lake Bled thousands of years ago. The aquamarine colored Radovna River runs through the gorge. The entire length of the gorge can be easily visited due to a boardwalk trail that has been attached to the sides of the massive rock walls. I paid four Euros to enter the trail and I was happy to hear that all proceeds go to the maintenance of the boardwalks.

The entire span of the walk was filled with gorgeous and impressive scenery. I saw more of the same stunning emerald green water that I had seen the day prior during my visit to the Julian Alps. I was so amazed by the clarity of the water; it had to have been the cleanest and clearest water I had looked through. You could see everything below you; fish, rocks, sand, etc. The contrast of the water with the green vegetation and the gray wall of the gorge was quite spectacular. Towards the end of the hike, I reached the 13 meter high Sum Waterfall, which came cascading down into the river below.
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge

After the hike, I drove to Lake Bohinj, which was located about 30 minutes outside of Lake Bled. Bohinj was much less commercialized and therefore, less touristy than compared to Bled. You won’t see high rise hotels or a plethora of restaurant options in Bohinj; the atmosphere here is geared entirely to the beauty and outdoor activity options of the lake.

I stopped in front of the lake to take a few pictures and then continued heading on past the lake to the entrance for a waterfall hike called Slap Savica. I had to pay three Euros to park my car and another few Euros each to actually hike the trail. The hike is completely uphill, including 553 stairs. The steep incline was well worth all the hard work and heavy breathing as the view of the waterfall at the top was stunning. Opposite the waterfall, I could also see a great view of the surrounding mountains, including a tiny glimpse of Lake Bohinj, where I had just come from.
Lake Bohinj
Lake Bohinj
Lake Bohinj
Lake Bohinj
Lake Bohinj
Lake Bohinj
Lake Bohinj
Hike to Slap Savica
Slap Savica Waterfall
Slap Savica Waterfall

After the hike, I drove back to Lake Bled. As this was my final night in the town, I wanted to relax for the evening and did not make any other plans.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in tiny Slovenia, which ended up becoming my favorite country of the trip. I have never visited such a small country that has such a vast range of scenery, environment, cities, and activities to partake in. It's an incredibly diverse country that should garner more attention than it does.

Up next: Southern Austria (Klagenfurt, Burg Hochosterwitz & St. Veit an der Glan)

1 comment:

  1. Slovenia looks like a beautiful country and definitely off the radar for most American tourists. There was a Bing image (they have those daily images on its homepage) of Lake Bled last month and it was just so stunning. I would love to visit one day.

    ReplyDelete

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