And into the Balkans they entered, excited and wondering, for what might await…
It’s true, we did wonder. But we’d read up quite a bit so actually had a pretty good idea. Slovenia’s been on our list for quite a while, especially Lake Bled, and we are happy to report it more than lived up to expectations. Incredibly friendly people (especially bus drivers, of all people), outstanding scenery, reasonable prices (at least in comparison to Western Europe) and enjoyable food (they really appreciate a bit of grease in these parts). We broke our stay down into three stops:
Our Balkan tour began with, Piran, one of the hidden gems of Europe, although we got off to an inauspicious start to our visit to this highly appealing coastal town, taking the FlixBus in the pouring rain all the way from Venice, delayed just before Piran by a different FlixBus broken down by the side of the road (ominous or lucky?), then even eliciting a sympathetic look from the girl across the aisle when we started to get off in the deluge. Not to worry, our AirBnB host, Elvis, was waiting at the station to drive us to the terrific 3-story apartment that would be our home for the next 3 nights (providing some welcome room to roam after the “tiny house” in Venice). Of course, it didn’t take long before all this excess space led to new problems, like trying to decide the appropriate room level for each item, then proceeding to forget where we left everything, and ending up going up and down the stairs incessantly. Ok, not exactly real problems.
Despite all the exhausting planning of where to keep the portable speaker and racking our brains to remember what level the grocery bag was mischievously hiding on, Piran is a stunningly beautiful place. A whole lot of classically photogenic Venetian-style buildings stuffed onto a miniscule little peninsula jutting out into the Adriatic Sea like a stubby finger – showing its age but still eye-catching with an occasional manicure. Views from the remains of the walled fortifications are amazing from every angle, although smashing our heads on all the tiny entryways reminded us 1) how much smaller people used to be, and 2) why they wore so many helmets. At least that’s what my notes say; I’m pretty sure we both have concussions.
Our very first Slovenian dinner was an eye-opener – I had something unpronounceable (this would become a theme in Slovenia) that included “meat rolls” stuffed in deep-fried bread, plus a bonus sausage in case somehow that hadn’t met my meat quota, and a side of what I originally thought was rice, then realized – to my absolute horror – that it was actually half a plate of raw onions, chopped and reeking like something from the deepest levels of hell. Gotta say, the meat rolls were pretty good, though.
Stocking up in the grocery store, the language barrier didn’t get any more straightforward. Looking to my handy Google Translate app to decipher exactly what type of ravioli we were contemplating, we learned only that they were simply, and somewhat disturbingly, “stuffed with force”. We bought them, obviously.
The next morning saw the rain disappear, providing us with one of those glorious sunny days following crap weather that gives you the energy to just wander endlessly, checking out every narrow alley and expansive viewpoint in the vicinity, even walking a few kilometres over to a nearby “beach”. As usual, in this part of the world, any slightly open space next to the water is referred to as a beach even though, in most cases, it is really just a wider section of the concrete walkway.
I climbed everything I could climb, Laynni sighed at everything I climbed, we enjoyed the sunset with a couple tasty Laško beers on the rocks, then finished off the evening with a great, cheap fish meal at this popular little semi-takeaway place where you sit in the square, drinks are served by the bar next door and when your order is ready they ring a bell and hang a seashell marked with your order number on a string over the window.
I honestly can’t remember what we did our second full day. Something about a bakery, I think it rained for awhile maybe, we suddenly realized we were already getting spoiled when we began complaining about how uncomfortable our couch was, we did some more walking, ate at some point. You know, travel.
Stunning Lake Bled, one of the 3 foundations of our entire fall trip (along with the Tour du Mont Blanc and the Gokyo Lakes trek in Nepal). That’s right, our trips are formatted. Does that surprise you? That we would analyze all our options, weighing pros and cons and costs and highlights, finally evaluating them and allocating appropriate stay times based on our findings? If it does, you don’t know us as well as you think. Hell, you may even be surprised to learn multiple spreadsheets are involved.
Anyway, the lake is just as amazing as we’d hoped – offering extraordinary views from every angle, both along the easy hour and a half circular path and the wide variety of hills and hiking trails around the lake. First, you’ve got a relatively small lake surrounded by hills, with a neat, unobtrusive village featuring a nice park and some ideally situated restaurant terraces. Add in a fortified castle looming on top of a huge rocky hill, with the massive spire of the cathedral stretching into the sky nearby, then a mini-island off-shore featuring another church with yet another impressive spire. Oh yeah, then there is a long chain of mountains in the background, can’t forget about those. Altogether, as you can see, this makes for some pretty great photos.
There is also plenty to do, although, as usual, we focused mainly on hiking. There are literally hundreds of trails in the area, of every length, difficulty and terrain imaginable. We made it our mission to walk to as many different viewpoints as possible in order to enjoy the lake from every angle we could find, a project we decided deserved to be addressed in more detail in its own dedicated post: The Best Viewpoints on Lake Bled. There were steep climbs to overlooks, easy strolls to various hidden corners and fascinating visits to medieval castles. At one point, we rented a basic old rowboat to get to Bled Island, getting far more enjoyment from the short journey and the distinctive scenic variations than the island itself, crowded as it was with milling tour groups ferried out on packed group rowboats. Not having much experience with rowboats, but often ranting self-righteously about all these idiots on the Amazing Race who can never even seem to figure out which direction you’re supposed to be facing when you row a boat, we were quite impressed with ourselves and came away comfortable that if we ever do end up racing around the world, rowing a short distance to an obvious destination will not be our unfortunate downfall.
Vintgar Gorge was a highlight as well, following a skinny walkway with safety ropes alongside a rushing river, crystal-clear pools and tight rock walls. Luckily, Laynni’s research warned us to arrive only very early (no thanks) or very late in the day (that, I can do), since the only thing worse than sharing a popular tourist attraction with hordes of other tourists is doing it while on a 2-foot wide wooden walkway.
Ojstrica viewpoint, about 20 minutes uphill from the west end of the lake, was probably our favourite lookout spot, with awesome panoramas, the setting sun behind us and a handy posing rock in front. We liked it enough to visit twice, enjoying the slightly different light just as much, although it took some work for me to talk Laynni out of adopting the dirty abandoned cardigan still hanging on a branch from days earlier.
At the tail end of one of our morning viewpoint walks we found ourselves at the top of Straža Hill, enjoying yet another great view, of course, but also unable to avoid the fascinating spectre of plastic toboggans on rails just waiting to hurtle us down the hill at breakneck speed. At the time, I couldn’t think of a single better way to spend €4 (and still can’t, frankly). Cheesy, and exhilarating.
Kremšnita, or Bled Cream Cake, is a local delicacy that has since spread out around the country. And it’s easy to see why. It’s basically a little bit of pastry topped by about 4 inches of sugary cream and equally sugary different cream. It’s pretty tasty. We also tested out some heavy pie concoctions (flaky pastry filled with meat or cheese) and picked up some bacon that looked more like ham but somehow tasted mostly like bacon, at least after this long without.
Oh, and how have I not mentioned our AirBnB yet? The nicest place we’ve stayed on this trip so far (not counting the free hosted stays with friends, of course), it was even bigger than the place in Piran. Sure, it was only one level, but that level featured not just a separate bedroom but 2 separate bedrooms, 2 couches, a kitchen, a huge bathroom, and even a terrace. It was a bit out of town in the countryside, but the location itself was pretty stunning and it was just a short walk to various hiking trails.
By design, our 5 nights at Lake Bled represent the longest stay of our entire trip (telling you a little something about how our trip planning got away from us a bit on this one), although if you are considering visiting yourself it is worth knowing that we hit just about every Bled highlight on this list within the first 24 hours. Anticipating – or at least in preparation for – worsening weather, we were determined to “make hay while the sun shines”, as the farmers say, or said, probably, at some point. It is one of those rare locations where even a very short visit can be captivating, yet you could easily stay for weeks (or even months, he suggested quietly, carefully watching for a reaction).
Not only is Ljubljana a very enjoyable place – with a nice, compact old town, a photogenic river, pedestrian streets ideal for idle strolling, big churches and colourful old buildings, essentially checking all the “ingredients for a great European city” boxes – but it can also brag on a vibrant, college-culture vibe that was noticeably different than some of the other places we’ve visited recently. For example, Colmar, which is pretty as hell, but nobody’s idea of “energetic and vibrant”. Mind you, neither are we, so maybe it’s hypocritical to use that as part of our criteria. And it’s possible that seeing lots of college kids mixing drinks in parks and on public staircases should really be called something other than “vibrant”. Symptomatic, maybe. Anyway, despite Ljubljana having a name that is simply terrifying for foreign visitors to pronounce and, once again, an inconvenient amount of rain, we really enjoyed our time in this little Slovenian capital (roughly the same size as Saskatoon).
We stayed in yet another very sweet AirBnB apartment, located about a 10-minute walk outside the old town but right across the street from gigantic Tivoli Park (riddled with both hiking trails and women of a certain age getting their exercise in). A “loft apartment”, featuring an actual loft with a chaise lounge (Laynni quickly called dibs), and a whole personal history as a cheese factory, then winery, then brewery and, for a brief time following World War II, the birthplace of Yugoslavia’s cheap alternative to Coca-Cola, something called “Cockta”. Incidentally, Cockta is currently in the midst of a nostalgic comeback. We had a bottle to wash down our pizza by the slice and found it to be… pretty good, I guess. Kind of sweet and fruity, but refreshing, sort of like if you threw a dozen Starburst in the blender with some ice. But with a way better name.
The whole apartment was a weird combination of trendy and bizarre. Retro artwork celebrating utilitarian roots vs a railroad tie along the floor separating kitchen from dining area. An old-school record player and box of classic records (i.e. Queen, Janis Joplin) vs a porthole looking directly into the bathroom. A box of slippers vs a complementary eye-patch. You get the idea. Nonetheless, a very comfortable stay.
Slovenian Food Update
We spent some time on a mini-food tour, at various times trying veal soup, a meat pastry called “burek”, pizza by the slice, some local specialty sausage, and some tacos pastor and guac and chips at the only Mexican place in town. Then we kind of went off the rails with an impulse McDonald’s stop. Of course, all the burger names were different, so that was kind of exotic. Anyone for a “Juicy Jane”, “Trojni Cheeseburger”, “Generous Jack” or “Mister Roko”?
Sunset drink at the top of the Nebotičnik “skyscraper” – at just 13 stories tall, it was once the tallest building in the Balkans, and is still among the tallest in the entire city.
Admired the dragons on the “Dragon Bridge”, the three bridges of “Triple Bridge” and the love locks on “Butcher’s Bridge” – neither the name nor the artwork fitting well as the choice of love-dumb couples.
Browsed shoes at a store called “Athlete’s Foot”. I’m assuming they call their foot fungus by a different name than us.
Wandered through their version of Christiania, a graffiti-covered hippie enclave with a very similar counterpart in Copenhagen.
Checked out the views from the hilltop castle.
Walked the length of their little baby canal – and back – in just over 10 minutes.
Booked 4 separate Bosnian and Croatian bus trips while it poured rain outside.
We also strongly suspect that as our journey through the Balkans continues we will look back on lovely little Ljubljana with steadily increasing fondness. Coming on the heels of some of Europe’s best cities it did well to impress us as much as it did. Over the coming weeks, however, we will also be visiting some places that have been described as many things (i.e. war-torn, chaotic, kind of gross), but rarely “Europe’s best” so, by comparison, it is bound to look better and better.
Slovenia, as a whole, we really loved. These three particular places, anyway. Although everything we experienced suggests you could spend much more time in many more places around the country and enjoy them every bit as much. Maybe more, if you got beyond the somewhat touristy areas. I know saying this is painfully cliché – although we personally do our best to only bring it up when it’s truly noteworthy – but the people were incredibly friendly. I mean, we’ve been treated well all throughout Europe, both this trip and in the past, but there are some places where the friendliness, helpfulness and enthusiastic welcome are just a little bit more emphatic and genuine. And that’s the feeling we got in Slovenia. From our AirBnB hosts (yes, they have incentive, but there are still levels) to restaurant staff to people giving directions all the way to, rather shockingly, bus drivers. We even got a free bus ride in the rain one afternoon when we tried to pay cash on a bus that apparently only accepted transit cards, and he just nodded toward the back, smiled and said, “no problem”. And that kind of attitude (minus the free ride) was standard through all our bus trips in Slovenia, despite the fact that, I can assure you from years of experience, most bus drivers around the world are not exactly bubbly beacons of joy and happiness, especially when it comes to dealing with clueless foreigners who don’t speak the language and often don’t even really understand where they are trying to go.
Anyway, great place, not dirt cheap, but much more affordable than Western Europe, and a place that would be well worth a more extensive visit in the future (perhaps to explore more of their thousands of hiking trails spread all over the country).
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