Slovenia, or, The greatest country on the planet you've never heard of

Welcome to Slovenia

When planning our overall Europe itinerary we started with a focus on visiting the countries that were on our to-do list when we lived in Amsterdam but that we didn't get to: Nordics, Croatia, Greece, and Portugal. We took that as a starting point and then started reading travel guides and travel blogs and the rest in order to pull together the itinerary we ended up with. Some of the countries we added were exciting additions that we knew we would enjoy (the Baltics, Krakow, Budapest), others were just cities we had to see because we were right there anyway and it would be silly to pass right by them (Bratislava, Vienna). However, one country in particular didn't really fall into either category. To the best of our recollection, we put it on the itinerary for almost a week based solely on the recommendation of the Rick Steves guidebook. This country, of course, was Slovenia, and boy are we glad we devoted so much time to this incredible country.

We arrived in Ljubljana on a cold, rainy afternoon. It was a long, wet hike from the train station to our hotel, located in a narrow alley right off the promenade by the river. We were well located close to one of the famous bridges in Ljubljana, the Triple Bridge, but unfortunately the narrow alley was foreshadowing. Our hotel room was tiny. Maybe 100 sq feet, bathroom included. Although bath-"room" is a misnomer, let's call it our bathnook. You know how some service apartments have a kitchen essentially grafted onto one wall? Well, that's how our bathnook was fitted into the room.

Undeterred by the rain and lured out by fantastic reviews for a pizza joint with gluten free pizzas, we hiked through the rain halfway across town for pizza that easily lived up to its reputation. Although the weather felt more like Norway than anywhere we've been since, in the end it was worth it. To be honest, the rest of Ljubljana was a pretty big letdown. There was some interesting architecture, two good churches, and we had two good dinners, but otherwise there wasn't much to it. Well, there was the *very* interestingly decorated town hall, which borders on NSFW (one picture below, more over on smugmug). We did have some drama, however. When we went to pick up our rental car we discovered that I had incorrectly booked the reservation for the previous day, and they had no cars available! We were saved, though, as they managed to clean up a car returned that morning and we were on our way with only an hour delay.

It's even prettier in person

From Ljubljana we headed out to Lake Bled, a short hour drive away. Lake Bled is the fantastically beautiful lake with church-topped island that looks like it's something out of a Disney movie. Unfortunately while we were there the sun was bright and the humiditiy made everything hazy, so the pictures don't do it justice. We made the most of one night in Lake Bled, hitting everything on our to-do list: hike the nearby Vintnar Gorge, swim in Lake Bled, canoe out to the island and ring the bell at the church, visit the stunning castle above the lake, and hike around the lake itself. Not on the list, but fun nevertheless, were a downhill "tobaggan" ride that terrified me and a short archery lesson for Walter. Also not on the list was getting backed into by another car in the parking lot at the gorge, but thankfully the other couple was extremely gracious and called our rental company, explained it was their fault, and filled out all the required paperwork. All things considered it only cost us another hour delay in our day.

Subversiveness

From Bled we spent a day driving through the Julian Alps over to Bovec, our last stop before reaching the Adriatic. The drive was exhausting: there are 24 hairpin turns (literally hairpin turns, not just a sharp turn) on the way up to Vlsic Pass at the summit, and then 26 turns on the way down. Along the way there are places to stop and see interesting sites, the most famous of which is the Russian Orthodox chapel built by the Russian POW laborers in WWI who were forced by their Austro-Hungarian captors to build the road itself. The chapel commemorates the hundreds who died in an avalanche during the construction. On the religious theme, there was also a small church that was decorated by a Slovenian artist hiding out during WWII. The art featured many subversive inside jokes about Slovenia's then rulers (Austro-Hungarians and Germans), my favorite of which was the carving of Jesus on the wall featuring Adolf Hitler as one of the men raising the cross (Mussolini was another).

The summit was a neat experience in an of itself. We parked our car and then made our way to a hiking trail that lead above the road close to the actual summit. Along the way we ran into a herd of sheep making it's way across the highway, with many sheep deciding to ride out the heat of the day in the shadow of a parked car. The views from the top were breathtaking (as was the climb) and our ever-hungry Walter was able to get pancakes with nutella from a restaurant/hostel at the top. Interestingly, the hostel seems to be run by the Slovenian telecom firm. From what I can tell they need a station there to maintain the cell sites, so I guess they make money on the side running a hostel and restaurant.

The view from our hotel in Bovec

We had a neat stay in Bovec at a very cute little hotel before making our way to the coast to the town of Piran. Piran itself was not overly impressive, but we really enjoyed our first chance to swim in the Adriatic and witness the first of many sunsets on the coast. And it provided the backdrop for yet another screw-up on my part in booking rental cars. We could have saved over $100 if I had realized there was a ferry between Piran and Rovinj, our first destination in Croatia. Instead, we spent 80 euro taking a taxi to Porec in Croatia, then rented a car there and drove to Rovinj, where we then paid to keep the car parked for a couple of days. But Croatia is a subject for another post.