Saturday, 10 April 2010

I feel Slovenia

written 9th April

Dober Dan! After only three days, I have a new favourite country.  Slovenia.  Even better than Portugal.  Who would have thought?!  And I have run out of both adjectives and superlatives to express how lovely I think it is!  so you will have to make do with the beautifuls, stunnings, gloriouses and fabulouses scattered at all too often intervals throughout the post

To my shame, it is again a country I had never considered - I mean at least I knew where Portugal was, even if I never thought about it - I hadn't even realised until about four days ago that we couldn't drive straight from Italy to Croatia and that we would have to drive through Slovenia en route. And it seems that quite unfairly, it is overlooked by a lot of people.  Fortunately the Lonely Planet raved about it in its short chapter - even the rough guide might like it here! - and luckily we had enough days in hand before Will may or may not be jetting back to the UK for the short visit from an airport in Northern Croatia to give it a whirl.  And I am so glad we did as we have had possibly the best three days of our trip so far.  It is a close run thing between beach living (evil genie's notwithstanding) and the clear air and stunning scenery here in the Julian alps.  so there you go.

Slovenia is a tiny country, half the size of switzerland, perched on the edge of the east, sandwiched between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, but is packed full of 'geography' from the snow-capped mountains of the north, to the coast and beaches of the south-west and the wine-growing plains to the east - all my favourite things in a small space - I was obviously always going to like this place!

Credited by some as being the founders of modern democracy - given that Will is insistent that what we have now is not democracy, far from it... -  apparently the Slavic ancestors of today's Slovenes (I thought they were Slovenians and that Slovene's were evil, body stealing baddies from Dr Who!)  first had a system of elected leaders back in the 7th century, a french study of which was used by Thomas Jefferson as a basis for the American Declaration of Independence.

Since then, as a nation, they have had a chequered history of occupation, annexation and border-shifting - ruled for centuries by the Austrians, with a brief interlude of Napolean (he was a busy man!), then occupied by the Italians and then the German led Austrian-Hungarian army during WWI, it was divided after the war when part of the country was given to the Italians as reparations, part stayed with Austria and part joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.  It was then occupied by the Nazis (albeit with partisan protest) during WWII, and Slovenia finally regained much of its land from Italy after the war, losing only Trieste, which remains Italian.  As part of Yugoslavia, Slovenia contributed 20% of the GDP despite having only 8% of the population, but, feeling marginalised by the Serbian controlled government, they finally broke away from Yugoslavia after a short civil war in 1991, joined the UN in 1992, the EU in 2004 and adopted the Euro in 2007.  There, I feel I have made amends for my ignorance and feel better about knowing things now!

The Slovenes are now busy welcoming the world to their beautiful country.  Everyone we have met is friendly and speaks english, their shops and tourist offices are open at all sensible times (ie, from early, until late and they don't shut for hours in the middle of the day!) and they are reinventing themselves as the adventure holiday capital of Europe, capitalising on their stunning landscape with ever more extreme ways of walking it, climbing it, paddling it, rafting it, hanging from it and generally throwing yourself of it in adrenaline-pumping ways

It's fantastic.

After a final night in Italy, in a motorhome filled carpark in the border town of Gorizia (our first and last proper aire in Italy!), we crossed over with no fanfares via an insignificant checkpoint in a back street area and there we were.  Slovenia.

It immediately felt different, mountains as opposed to the relentless flat plains of the long drive of the day before, jade green milky rivers, sunshine (!), clearly signed roads (we don't have satnav maps for slovenia so this is a very good thing!) and queues of italians at the first petrol station we came upon - got to be a good sign!

Having checked the weather and finding it to be promising glorious-ness, we headed straight for the town and lake of Beld, described by the LP as 'an emerald green lake with a picture perfect church on a tiny island, a mediaeval church clinging to a rocky cliff and some of the highest peaks in the Julian alps as a backdrop, Bled seems to have been designed by some god of tourism', over the wiggliest mountain roads we could see on our big atlas. 

And it was beautiful. 

Bright sunshine, cerulean blue sky, tall snow-capped  mountains encircling wide green valleys filled with little alpine chalet style villages.  The villages might be alpine but the landscape reminds us so much of the Canadian rockies where we spent a fabulous, unforgettable week as part of our honeymoon. 

Simply glorious. 

Now we were out of chaotic italy and ever mindful that I am shortly to be left alone with Jules and am very out of practice, I even insisted on some driving - an experience neither Will nor the clutch enjoyed very much as I stalled for the third time on a 1 in 12 switchback corner or roared up said slope in 2nd - well, I couldn't see enough to keep the speed up, and the gear change has got increasingly difficult over the last month or so! - so will took over again - after having adjusted the clutch -

and we were soon up on the mountain pass in the snow,

before descending to the the lake.  Which was every bit as lovely as promised, even if it does clearly know it.  On arrival and more map checking, we were somewhat regretting not turning the other way at Tolmin and coming via Bovec and over the 1600m Vrsic pass when we met some a dutch couple in a converted VW transit with a three-month old baby (!!) who had tried to come that way and found it still closed - not to worry then!  In fact, we later found,  it always remains closed until may so one for another time.  We will have to content ourselves with the 1200m pass we did find :)

It is clearly tourist-ville central but not too horrible for it and we had a lovly couple of days wandering round the lake

- flat easy path which only takes a couple of hours - up the to castle (but not in),

into the church where we found the most amazing newly done frescos

- makes you realise how fantastic all the other frescos we have seen recently must have looked when they were new! 

And some sitting and strolling and generally relaxing. 

We stayed the first night in Bled, not really sure if we were allowed, so ended up cooking in the dark before blacking out all the windows so we could watch some telly - with the towel hanging between the front seats and the sunshades and fold flat seats obscuring all the windows it was a bit like sleeping in a den you've made under the dining room table with blankets when you were small... :)  It also meant we couldn't really appreciate the yellow-ness of our saffron risotto so will have to try that again :)

Moving on from Bled, we went to nearby Bohinj Jezero a much bigger but less developed lake, 28kms to the south

where we walked round a bit of the peaceful lake path

in the fading light before finding a lakeside layby for the night under an inky black, star studded sky - perfect

In the morning, talk about room with a view!  The sun was once more shining and lake was mirror-still, perfectly reflecting the surrounding trees and mountains - just stunning.

We set out from the village of Ukanc, planning an easy one hour walk on path 3 to the Slap Savica (Slavica Waterfall).  it was indeed easy, a lovely stroll through on a well defined woodland path,

with perfect gingerbread houses and tweeting birds, but when we got the the waterfall, we found they wanted to charge us so decided against and set off once more for the further 1h45m trail 29 to the lake above.  Looked easy on the map anyway...

This is where our adventures became even more reminiscent of our Rockie mountain honeymoon, and particularly the fabulous day we had at Lake Louise.  On that trip, we had once again set out in t-shirt weather on an easy lakeside walk around the just thawed lake, which was all well and good, before deciding to return by the upper path where another lake and a cafe was promised.  Again, it didn't sound too far so off we set, with just a light jumper, two oranges and half a sandwich each.  Three hours later, we reached the top, having lost the path, ended up in snow up to our thighs and having had to scramble up a near vertical snowfield...  where we found the cafe was closed, three proper hiker types who looked at us aghast at the way we had come and how ill-prepared we were, and a nice gently sloping, well gritted path back to the bottom...  As I say, a fabulous day ;)  it was simply the most beautiful place I have ever been though, and the walk was much fun :)

Anyway, yesterday, we were slightly better prepared (well, we had fleeces, but only two oranges and no sandwiches) and it was warmer and the path was mostly not snowy and well signed but also much, much harder... started steeper

almost immediately and by the end was mostly rocky ledges and steps, defined in
some places with tree trunk steps (where you could tell those apart from the fallen trees!)

and excitingly, iron pegs and foot holds across sheer rock in others, this was more a case of scrambling up, on hands and knees at some points and seemed to take much longer than the 1h45mins indicated. 

We were just despairing of ever reaching the top when we rounded a corner into a snow filled valley and an easy (well level!) trail through the snow

to the prettiest of frozen lakes

- magical, so worth the effort! 

The views on the way back down were glorious

- to give you an idea, we walked from the righthand corner of the lake you can see in the picture and this was taken from about half the distance and 3/4 of the way up! -

but down was not much faster and some of it was done on my bottom - only twice unintentionally... :)

So our 2h stroll turned into a 6h hike - we did indeed make it all the way to the top in 3h and back down in 3h despite the amount of sitting we did! - but well worth the hard slog and cold wet feet - mine were wet from snow and in trying to liberate some lake water to drink, Will disappeared through the ice up to his ankles... we ate clean snow instead :) - for the the fabulous views, the glorious peaacefulness and the slightly smug feeling we have :)

We parked last night in an area marked on our new free map of Slovenia - the tourist office here is brilliant! - as being a camper stop, just below the 1200m pass and after an undisturbed night are now wending our way back down the mountains in glorious sunshine en route to the capital city, Ljubljana

So we have had our idyllic sunny mountain lakes mini break - just in a different country from the one planned and without the company we had hoped to have for it...  -  I have also  discovered some hitherto unknown muscles in my thighs which are screaming this morning but otherwise, all good :)

The tourist office slogan is indeed correct - I do feel Slovenia!

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