Monday, July 21, 2014

July 7th – Cycling Along Slovenia’s Coast

From Izola, there's a cycle route along the path of an old train line that takes you to Slovenia's more upmarket resorts of Piran and Portoroz. As neither the road nor this path follows the coast, we were wary that we'd have to cycle up some pretty steep hills to get there, although the woman in the tourist office told us that "it wasn't too steep". Either she's a top-class cyclist or she was having a laugh with us, because the first hill felt like it was nearly vertical, and it almost killed us off before we'd really got going.

Fortunately, we persisted and the journey proved to be quite beautiful, through rolling valleys of vines, up a few more hills and then down to the coast again to Portoroz. With its beach bars and packed beaches of imported sand, I guess that Portoroz fancies itself as the St Tropez of Slovenia, although to me it seems a bit more Blackpool than Riviera.

So, instead of lingering there amongst the bucket and spade brigade for too long, we headed to the more refined charms of Piran along the coast. This place really is like a mini-Venice, full of graceful Italianate palazzi and churches – it made me wonder what Italian tourists must feel like as they walk around these quintessentially Italian streets. Do they think that these towns should belong to Italy instead? After all, they're only a few miles from Trieste across the border. Having said that, you only have to go a few miles in the other direction to Croatia to find yet more Venetian towns without the Italian flag flying over them – modern borders and modern history can be a confusing thing.

Without doubt, Piran is the most beautiful town on the Slovenian coast, but, as I said, Izola's more prosaic charms made it feel a bit more of a "real" place to me. It's funny to think that in their time, these towns have been ruled from Venice, from Vienna, from Paris (under Napoleon), from Rome (under Mussolini), from Belgrade (as part of Yugoslavia), and now from Ljubljana. I don't think that it's hard to see why they've been so coveted – it's a beautiful part of the world.

July 5th to 10th – La Izola Bonita

As you descend from Slovenia's mountainous interior towards its tiny sun-drenched Adriatic coast, you notice a real change in atmosphere – the temperature gets warmer, the air smells of pine, and the architecture changes from Middle Europe to Italian (as the many church bell towers change from Austrian-style bulbous tops to Venetian-style pointed tops). In fact, the whole atmosphere seems much more Italian, and much more focused on mainstream tourism.

It's no surprise that the Slovenian coastline feels Italian, because for most of its life it was governed by Venice, rather than governed by the Austrians like the rest of this young country. That means that Italian is the other official language here, all the restaurants serve pizza, and that the towns are known by alternate Italian names too – Piran is also Pirano, Koper is Capodistria, Portoroz is Portorosa, and the place where we stayed Izola, is also Isola.

Even the campsites felt much more like Italian coastal sites than the spacious, ordered ones of non-coastal Slovenia – much more crammed in and ramshackle than we'd experienced in the rest of the country. However, if you were lucky like we were, and had a shady pitch right on the sea, then there couldn't really be many more idyllic spots than we enjoyed for our last week in this wonderful country.

Izola retains its historic feel, but even though it is a holiday town, it still has the feel of a working class fishing port – a genuine town rather than the more tourist-focused resorts up the coastline. We loved the seafood, the sea breezes, the relaxed atmosphere, the cycle rides, the swims to cool down, the friendly people, the drinks outside the van as the sun set – all in all, a lovely place to spend the end of our stay here in Slovenia.

PS. From Izola we did side trips to other places like, Koper, Piran and Lipica – highlights to follow.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

July 4th – Predjama Castle

Central Slovenia doesn't have many campsites, so our plan today was to break up our westward journey towards the coast with a stop in Postojna, home to an enormous (and enormously popular) limestone cave system. Things didn't go quite to plan because, firstly, the campsite that was advertised as being 2.5kms from Postojna appeared to be much, much further away than that, in the middle of nowhere, and up a massively steep hill (so steep, that even our newly acquired cycling stamina would find it impossible). Secondly, on reflection, we decided that we weren't actually interested enough in caves to spend €44 Euros to join the hordes getting a train ride around a place that seemed to be advertised as a Disneyland for troglodytes.

So, satisfying ourselves that all we were missing out on was "just a big hole in the ground", we drove on to the impressively situated Predjama Castle, a medieval castle that was built into the rock face of another huge limestone cave. It was certainly one of the most distinctive castles that I've been to – half-cave, half-fortress – although it was probably more noteworthy for how it looked outside, than it looked inside, which was a bit bare and lacking in interesting features.

The most interesting thing about the castle's history was that it was once a refuge for an outlaw called Luegar, a kind of Slovenian Robin Hood, who was holed up here for months under siege from the Austrians. Luegar knew the secret passages through the massive cave system behind the castle, so would regularly taunt his attackers by lobbing fresh cherries at them (you can imagine him shouting Monty-Python insults at them about "your father smells of elderberries"). They got the last laugh though – a traitor told them when Leugar was sitting on the loo, and they fired a cannonball at the toilet and killed him while he was on the job. It wasn't just Elvis who died on the toilet.

Having filled up on fascinating stories like this, it was time to head down to the coast to the little Venetian town of Izola.

July 2nd – Maribor – Slovenia’s Second City?

I mentioned earlier that Pjuj had been sidelined by the coming of the railways under the Habsburgs. And, while that killed off Ptuj's urban development, it was a massive boost for the nearby city of Maribor (which was now on the line between Vienna and Trieste, the main port of the Empire). So, Maribor developed into Slovenia's second biggest city.

We took the bus from Ptuj to see what it was like – a visit that confirmed that we'd made the right decision to base ourselves in Ptuj, rather than Maribor. As you can see from the pictures, it's a nice enough place (in fact, the pictures probably make it seem better than it really is), but it's much more low-key than you might expect of a country's second city.

I suppose that in a country of little more than 2 million people, Maribor (with a population of about 90,000) might count as a metropolis, but it seemed little more than a small provincial town to me (which is exactly what it was for much of its life under the 7 centuries of Habsburg rule, when there was no concept of Slovenia as a country). It obviously didn't help that the city had been fairly devastated by bombing during the Second World War, but there was none of the vibrancy we'd experienced on the streets of Ljubljana.

Having said all that, the town appeared to be building itself up for a music festival that was kicking off by the riverside that evening – maybe Maribor is a town for night owls?

July 1st-3rd – Taking To The Waters In Ptuj

No, we don't really know how you pronounce Ptuj either – something along the lines of "Patoo-yah", kind of like you're making an exaggerated spitting sound. While its pronunciation may be unclear, the reasons for coming out to Slovenia's eastern corner are fairly obvious – Ptuj is a beautiful and historic little town, while it's home to the country's biggest thermal baths complex.

The Romans knew a good place to set up some baths when they saw one, and so they developed Ptuj into the biggest town in Slovenia, with the result that there's a few Roman relics and stonework dotted around town. The rest of town is an attractive blend of medieval and baroque architecture – a harmonious mix that's been well preserved because Ptuj was sidelined by the railways in the times of the Habsburg Empire.

But, the main reason that people come to Ptuj is to visit its Terme (its baths), which were right next to our campsite. So, we joined the locals in enjoying the health benefits of being boiled up like lobsters in hot bubbling pools, being buffeted by wave machines, super-heated in saunas, doing a few lengths, and then being scared witless by descending the giant water-slides. I'm sure it was all good for our health, even if it was bad for our bank balance.

June 28th-30th – Loving Ljubljana

I can't think of any capital city that I've been to (certainly not in Europe) which has a more friendly and laid-back atmosphere than Ljubljana – a beautiful city that's small enough to be manageable, yet has enough sights to easily keep you interested for two or three days. But, the languid atmosphere is made to divert you from doing too much sightseeing – instead, you just want to linger in its riverside cafes and alfresco bars, or have a meal in one of its very reasonable restaurants (things that we've found we're pretty good at over the years!).

There's a really charming vibe about the place, with its attractive collection of baroque and secessionist architecture, church bells chiming fairly regularly, and its imposing castle looking over everything (it seems that you can't call yourself a town in Slovenia if you don't have a medieval castle perched up high on a hill looking over things).

Our campsite was on the edge of town, only a 20 minute cycle ride away, so it was easy to get into the centre, and from there we interspersed our general ambling with a few cultural activities, like going to the National Art Gallery (fairly interesting), going to an open-air jazz club for Sunday lunch (wonderful), and clambering up to the Castle, which aside from offering some great views over the city, had an excellent museum whose interactive displays did a good job of explaining the convoluted history of this young country and its peoples.

At the museum, we learned that until their eventual independence in 1991, the Slovenes have been dominated over the centuries by pretty much all the main regional players – the Germans, the Austrians, the Italians, and the Serbians – it made you wonder how they could be so hospitable to outsiders these days. Maybe, they realise that a country as small as this needs to be on good terms with absolutely everyone; and, with a capital as friendly as this, I'm sure that anyone visiting Ljubljana would become a staunch advocate of Slovenia's continued independence.

Monday, June 30, 2014

June 21st-27th – BeLOVEd Bled

Slovenia's Tourist Board use the slogan "I FEEL sLOVEnia", and after a week spent in the impossibly beautiful surroundings of Lake Bled, we're feeling the love too. We love the super-friendly people (almost everyone speaks English, and they're very happy to), we love how clean it all is, we love how well organised it is, we love how reasonable the prices are – we love it all! Actually, we didn't love absolutely everything – we were hit by a couple of days of rain to remind us that we hadn't hit heaven on earth.

But, what's most easy to love about Bled is just how unbelievably picturesque it all is. Every time we went out, we had to take yet more pictures of it – depending on the time of day, the lake's limpid waters were green, blue, or almost black, while the church on the tiny island in the middle of the lake never looked less than impressive and the medieval castle on the cliffs overlooking the lake always looked on imperiously.

This is a place to enjoy the great outdoors and the freshest of fresh air, for cycling and strolling around the lake, hiking up into the pine-clad hills that surround it, or for swimming in its warm waters (there's a hot spring in there, to take the chill off the mountain waters). Plus, there's day trips by bus to the pleasant medieval town of Radovljica (who'd have thought a museum on beekeeping would be so interesting?), and to Skofja Loka with its towering castle. You could even catch the train to the capital Ljubljana in an hour, but that's our next stop.

The town is gearing up for a month-long film festival next week, so it's a shame to move on, but Tracy is already planning summers spent renting an apartment here in the future. We will be back – we've fallen in love with Bled.