The last country on our Eastern/Central Europe tour was Slovenia. Aside from knowing the capital (but not necessarily how to spell it correctly), we really didn’t know much else about the 2-million strong nation. But Slovenia made a very positive impression straight out of the shoot. Driving to Ljubljana was a combination of highway and departamental roads, the latter taking us through a beautiful and diverse countryside with dense forests, superflous mountains and cute little towns (reminiscent of Switzerland and Austria).
We arrived in Ljubljana by the evening and made our way directly into the heart of the old city for dinner. Home to 270,000 people, the Slovenian capital boasts beautiful architecture accentuated by pastel colored building facades. The Ljubljanica river slices through the city making way for a restaurant/cafe/bar studded promenade and several elaborate bridges that connect the oldest medieval part to the newer section. Historically (like many other cities in Eastern/Central Europe), Ljubljana saw many ruling powers come and go and traces from each are still visible today. Notable was the period under French/Napoleonic rule during which Slovenia’s national language and cultural identity was allowed to flourish. Just a block away from our apartment rental stood a monument dedicated to Napoleon in Trg Francoske Revolucije (or French Revolution Sq.).
The next day we planned for a day trip to the nearby town of Bled. Bled has a few things going for it: it’s home to the 11th century Bled Castle, the gorgeous Lake Bled, and is also surrounded by the Julian Alps. It’s where Tito (Yugoslavia’s president during communist times), had one of his countryside villas and understandably so. The sheer beauty of the lake surrounded by mountaions and Bled Castle perched up on a cliff overlooking the lake is the area’s main draw. Bled Island in the middle of the turqouise lake made for a fun boat ride. From there we had 360-degree views of the amazing countryside that would inspire any painter, writer or daydreamer. After visiting the medieval castle (one of Slovenia’s top tourist destinations), we grabbed lunch at an unassuming lodge-type restaurant overlooking the lake. It actually turned out to be one of the best meals we had in Slovenia – gnocchi with zucchini and bacon for Brigitte and grilled squid alongside a potato/spinach side with a garlic/parsley dipping sauce. “BAM”!
Just a 10 minute drive away from the magical area, we found scenic Vintgar Gorge – accessible to hikers along its 1-mile long path. We made our way along the gorge taking in the wild beauty of the landscape. At the end of the trail was the Vintgar waterfall very much worth our visit. The water was chilling cold to hand negating the impulse for a dip.
Later that evening (while back in Ljubljana), we rode the funicular up to Ljubljana Castle and explored the grounds along with the 3D Museum (which educated us on the city’s history). Afterwards we grabbed dinner at a traditional Slovene place – Brigitte went with a trout dish and I settled in for an “American-size” portion of mixed grill meats (sausage, pork, chicken and beef patty). The un-American sized cabbage salad symbolically maintained the equilibrium between my meat and legume intake (or so I liked to think). After our dinner at Sokol we stopped at Dvorni winebar for a glass of Slovenian wine while checking out the vibrant scene in Dvorni square. The nearby cafes, (bars and restaurants), catered to patrons at full capacity, representative of Ljubljana rich cafe culture.
The next day we opted for another day trip, this time underground to Postonja cave. Postonja is Slovenia’s longest cave system with incredibly elaborate halls ornate with stalagmites and stalactites most of which outlived humanity hundreds of times over. The cave’s been open to the public since 1819 and today sees thousands of daily visitors. Only about 3 miles of its total 12 mile passage are open to large groups while the other 9 miles require expert guides and proper gear (and small groups). We did the large group tour which kicked off with a 1.5 mile train ride followed by another 1.5 miles on foot. The most impressive part of the cave was Big Mountain hall the point at where the walking tour commenced, and also where hundreds of visitors were appropriately matched up with their respective language guides. From there we made our way up and down through several halls – the spaghetti hall named for its spaghetti-like stalactites hanging from the ceiling. The red hall was also notable for its fiery-red appearance. Interesting yet chilling was the Russian bridge, a cement bridge built by Russian prisoners kept in the cave during WWI. But most interesting and mysterious were the Olm (or Proteus) or “Human Fish”, an intriguing species of “blind salamanders” that live in the cave’s river under complete darkness. Blind as in their eyes atrophy by the adult stage as they are useless in pitch blackness. With a heightened sense of smell, touch and taste, they prey on some of the other 130 species of animals that inhabit the cave (primarily little shrimp, worms and snails) – but here’s the kicker, they can survive for several years without food (because of their slow metabolism), and can live up to a hundred years! We got to see a few of these slick little guys which left us pondering what a hundred years in pitch blackness under water and inside a cave would be like.
For our final night in Ljubljana we walked around the old town (grabbed some food), and closed out our night back at Dvorni for another round of select and savory Slovenian grape juice.