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Slovenia –Europe’s little-known gem

From vibrant green rolling hills to the craggy snow-capped peaks of the Alps, from medieval towns and castles to rivers and dragons, Slovenia is rich in beauty, history and intrigue.

all seasons in one day 18 °C

From Austria, we continued south by train to Ljubjana, the capital of Slovenia. I (Chloé) had been before, briefly, in 2001, and remember loving it, charmed by its bridges, riverside cafes and bars, and picturesque hilltop castle that presides over the quaint old town. Traveling with a baby you don’t cover near as much ground as alone or just adults, so we planned five days there.

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Slovenia – it’s not a country that gets much coverage in tourist magazines nor is widely talked about in travel circles. But it’s a fascinating place! Briefly, it has been inhabited for over 2000 years. First by the Celts, then the Romans, and invaded during the Barbarian incursions, sought after because it's a key route around the Alps from Italy to south eastern Europe. Around 500 AD the southern Slavs (ancestors of modern day Slovenes) moved in. It was part of the Holy Roman Empire for almost 1000 years, then around 1400 came under the Hapsburg rule. It remained part of the Hapsburg empire until it fell at the end of WWI, at which time most of it joined the Republic of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, which became Yugoslavia.

Here's where it is in Europe:
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Most of us remember the almost decade long war in the 1990's during the break-up of Yugoslavia; Slovenia was the first country to claim independence from a country made up of a variety of peoples increasingly dominated by Serbian leadership. Their separation was quick and fairly quiet, and in 1991 they became independent Slovenia. In 2004 they joined NATO and in 2007 joined the EU. Because war didn’t ravage the country the same way it did many other parts of former Yugoslavia, ancient castles, chapels, towns, tunnels, bridges and the baroque city center of Ljubljana are largely preserved. And the mix of history and architecture makes it a fascinating place to visit.

Anyway, back to us. The train ride there was awesome. It took six hours, but was wonderfully scenic; the low alpine area of southeastern Austria and northwestern Slovenia is lush. It is a landscape of rolling hills in all shades of green, fruit trees and wild flowers in bloom, spotted with old villages and contoured by sparkling blue rivers. We had a train compartment to ourselves, Zadie napped and played. The dining car, with picture-windows on both sides, comfortable seating and top notch service and food was a highlight.

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We are not travelling light (see photo below of Dan with four of our six bags), so were pleased that our apartment in Ljubjana was only a short walk from the station.

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The apartment itself was tiny – only 46 meters squared, so less than half our space in Vienna. There wasn’t room for Zadie’s crib in our bedroom, but with a tight squeeze it did fit in the bathroom, so that became her nursery. Not ideal, not much ventilation, but dark and quiet. We’re used now to making do with what we have.

We took two days to visit Ljubljana. It’s really a vibrant town; cafes, restos, bars and ice cream parlours with outdoor terraces everywhere, literally EVERYWHERE. At least three per side of a block. There is a huge pedestrian only zone in the center of the old town, on both sides of the river, with talented buskers playing live music, market stalls and hundreds of patios filled with people taking it easy.

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All the while charming, Ljubljana also shows the wear of strife and time, with many buildings outside the core bein rundown, graffitti on most vertical surfaces, and a fairly prominent punk vibe. Here's Dan in front of a train at the railway station, and Chloé walking through a side street.

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The town is centered around the Ljubljana river with numerous bridges crossing throughout the pedestrian zone. Probably the most renown and definitely the most interesting is the dragon bridge…. the dragons shown below at night.

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We went up to the old castle, and Zadie had her second funicular ride of her life:

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The castle is super neat; inside of the old walls, around towers and dungeon cells they have built ramparts and platforms so you can visit the different levels. Here are Dan and Zadie inside the castle wallks, then Dan looking through an arrowslit at the countryside below.

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We had lunch at one of two restaurants in the castle, while we waited out a thunderstorm. The bolts of lightening, menacing dark grey clouds and sheets of pounding rain sure made for an intense castle experience! The fortress was built in the 14th century by the Hapsburgs to defend against Turquish invasions. Through the 1700s to 1900s it was used as a military hospital, an arsenal, then a jail from 1900 on. It remained a jail until the 1960’s! Well, not exactly a jail from WWII on, it actually housed ostracized citizens of Ljubljana who lived there in squalor. In the 1970’s it was renovated, and today is the open museum with viewing tower that we visited, two restaurants, as well as a site for special events and weddings. Man, I thought. If only we lived here. Dan and I could get married in a castle! Seaside in Sooke is next best though ;)

We decided that five days was more than enough time to see Ljubljana, so rented a car and took off on a two day road trip through Slovenia’s Julian Alps. We went old-school, with notes on where to go jotted down by our waitress at the castle and a paper map, our overnight gear but no hotel reservation.

IT was a SPECTACULAR drive. Here’s the route we took on Google Earth.

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Up an over a mountain pass to a micro ski resort: Bohinja:

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And the craziest switchbackiest road we have ever driven... Zadle loved it.... in her dreams.

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And some photos of the foothills…

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The Alps lived up to their reputation. Slovenia's Alps are not as well known as their Austrian, French, and Italian counterparts but they are equally as impressive. Our drive started in lush green valleys, twisting and winding along the Soca river up to almost 2000M. Along the way we passed through numerous villages where the highway was no more than one car wide with homes on nestled on each side. With the goal of adventuring, we picked a sub alpine lake to visit, not knowning what the road would hold. We ventured forth onto what was the most twisty, winding, switch-backy road we had ever driven. We found a small ski town (small being the key word here) where we grabbed lunch on a patio before the rain came. Since the town was at the end of the road, we went back up and over the twisty, winding, switch-backy road we had ever driven and connected on the road north to Boveč which follows the azure blue Soca river. At this point, it was us, river rafters and motor bikers…. City slickers stayed behind.

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As Zadie signaled that she wanted to stop for the night, we came across the beautiful Penzion Boka, nestled along the river surrounded by mountains. What a gem: great staff, a 9 euro 4 course meal, and breakfast included. We thought it couldn’t get any better until we woke up with the sun shining in and snow capped peaks all around. One word: Amazing!

This is the view from our bedroom:
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And Dan on our patio in the morning:
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We have seen a lot of awesome mountains but there is something special about these mountains. They are just so steep. From the valley floor they rise straight up into the sky and so does this road….. after thirty 180 degree switchbacks, we arrived as the summit of the pass to find people ski touring the spring snow and enjoying the last that winter has to offer. The only way I can describe the road is combine the Duffy lake road, the Hurley, and Rogers pass into one highway and make it just wide enough for 2 small hatchbacks to fit. What an experience! It was so calming to be back in the mountains, it was re energizing, and it has inspired us to plan a winter trip here sometime in the future.

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From the rugged narrow, cobblestone and broken asphalt road through the alpine, we continued down into the valley onto a proper highway and made our way to Bled…. This town was designed for post cards! Lakeside castle atop a craggy rock that juts up out of the forest on the shoreline, an island in the middle of the lake with a picturesque church sitting in the middle, gondolas, gelato and lots of green space. We enjoyed lunch with a view, then returned to Ljubljana for our last night there.

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One other thing: Zadie's front two teeth have come through. Nice to finally visualize why she's been drooling like a waterfall, and a bit crankier than usual.
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Next stop, Pula Croatia. Tip of the Istria. Stay tuned...

Posted by CeeZeeDeeBP 03:34 Archived in Slovenia Tagged alps slovenia julian

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Comments

I just read this piece on Slovenia. It's magic! I enjoyed it so much and am glad to see that the previous pieces on your tour is still available. I love to travel (whenever I can afford to). Will now definitely follow your tour.
Thanks
Engela
South Africa

by Engela van Dyk

Enjoyed reading that - some good photos too... I've been to the Alps a few times but not yet to Slovenia - definitely somewhere I want to go!

by PeteB

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