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Slovenia: an unexpected jewel


There’s a new kid on the tourist block that deserves every rave it’s receiving: Slovenia. I decided to attach five days and travel to Slovenia after a trip to Budapest and Prague. It’s a quick hop. I chose Adria Air for the 70 minute flight from Prague to Ljubljana, though train and bus services are also available. From the airport, it was a snap to shuttle into the city with Markum Shuttle. Once in Ljubljana, it is easy to get around by walking and catching some phenomenal tours. Definitely, Slovenia has its own charm. One minute it reminded me of Venice, then of Vienna, then of Lucerne. By the time I left, I stopped comparing it to other places. It held its own in wonder and beauty.

Castle, Slovenia

I stayed at B & B Petra Varl in Ljubljana. It is a humble, quiet accommodation in the perfect location, just across from the town market. My room had its own small kitchen, stocked with cereal, bread, milk, juice and a few other basics. Truly, everything in town was at my beck and call. Just outside and to the right I could catch the funicular up to the castle. And if I turned left, I would end up at the church or city center in a matter of minutes. Good restaurants dot the surrounding avenues, along with souvenir shops and bakeries. (For additional information, refer to www.booking.com/Petra_Varl_B&B/Lubljana)

For much of my time in Slovenia, I attached myself to organized tours. I chose Roundabout as the touring company, and they were excellent in every detail. Caves, Caves, and More Caves seem to characterize Slovenia, being home to a known 13,000 of them! I toured two amazing yet very different caves with Roundabout. The first was Skocjan. International scientific circles acknowledge the importance of the Skocjan Caves as a natural treasure of Earth, and UNESCO agreed as they became a UNESCO site in 1986. The Reka River disappears underground at Big Collapse Doline into Skocjan Caves and then flows underground for 34 km. The caves deliver a field day for one’s imagination. Tour guides conduct groups in Slovenia, English, Italian and German. They tell of past expeditions and divers who swam through a siphon to discover over 200 meters of new cave passages. They tell of climbers; they tell of artists of the 1700’s who captured the caves’ grandeur; they tell of renovations and addition of a steel bridge to aid visitors. Yet, one’s imagination takes over and discovers delightfully rock formations of ghosts, wizards, dragons, and unicorns at every turn and in every color. This is a walking tour of a speck less than two miles. Take some water with you, for sure. Even more importantly, take an empty canvas of your brain to paint the caves’ delights at every turn. It will not disappoint.

Cave, Slovenia

The other cave I visited with Roundabout was Postojna, Slovenia’s most famous cavern. This enormous cave has been receiving tour groups since 1819, when the Emperor of Austria Ferdinand I came to visit. Each hour hundreds of visitors are whisked into the cave on a 3 km-long underground railway. The cave train first takes its visitors through a manmade tunnel and then through the first natural passage, which was blackened by petrol during World War II. Then visitors see two cave hills, first the Gothic Hall, which boasts abundant cave formations, followed by Congress Hall. When visitors arrive at the Great Mountain, they get off the train and cross the Russian Bridge to reach the Beautiful Caves, as well as the most famous stalagmite: the so-called Brilliant. Inside, vast caverns filled with elaborate stalagmites and stalactites, as well as more unusual rock formations such as huge pillars and spaghetti-like strands hanging from the ceiling, amaze each and every visitor. Subtle lighting adds to the effects. It’s an easier tour than Skocjan: plopping on a railroad car for most of the tour vs. traipsing via foot. One also gets to meet olms in Postojna. They have pale, almost translucent skin. They have unusual red tufts, with eyes nowhere to be seen. They have four limbs and only ten digits. They seem to be baby dragons. Their long, snake-like bodies are 25-30 centimeters. They can go without food for up to 12 years and can live to be 100 years. Perfectly, they fit their environment. It is as if we are visiting an alien world, with mysteries at every turn.

Cave, Slovenia

Also with Roundabout I stopped briefly at Lipica, the homeland of the white Lipizzaner, the famous horse of the Spanish riding school in Vienna. The stud farm provided the beautiful background for these mighty beasts. And then we continued our drive past the coastal towns of Koper, Izola, and Portoroz to the charming jewel of Piran. A flea market at the town square enticed me to browse handicrafts and antiques. I wandered the town’s medieval narrow streets, enjoyed fresh tuna at one of many coastal restaurants, and basked in the sunshine at the seashore. Slovenia has only 46 kilometers of coastline. Others countries, indeed, have more, but in charm it’s hard to beat Slovenia.

We ended our day by stopping at Predjame Castle on our way back to Ljubljana. Another day I would return with Roundabout to tour the interior. This castle has been perched in the middle of a 123-metre-high cliff for more than 800 years. Behind the largest cave castle in the world sits a network of secret tunnels, from where the knight Erazem of Predjama would set out on his plundering expeditions. Legend tells us that rebellious knight Erazem withstood the imperial army’s siege of the castle for over a year. We also learn of a secret tunnel for romance and defense, as well as an underground cave providing a home to bats. Inside the castle, one walks through an armory, chapel, kitchen, and torture chamber. Some say ghosts live there. Easy to imagine this. Easy to imagine that just about anything goes in Slovenia.

Another castle worth visiting is the one in Ljubljana. A funicular or a walkway shoots one up to the castle sitting atop the hill that looks down upon the capital city. Galleries, puppet shows, chapel, and an armory enlighten guests about the castle’s history. A restaurant gives one a brief respite, and the view of the city below is breath-taking. Ljubljana gets more than its fair share of rain so try to catch a visit to the castle on a bright blue day to appreciate its view and grandeur.

Castle, Slovenia

Same advice for visiting Bled. Chances are most people have seen one classic photo of Slovenia: that of Lake Bled. The turquoise lake, embellished with a steepled church on a tiny tear-shaped islet, set against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, is an unforgettable sight. The nearby castle provides magnificent views, as do the many restaurants that dot the lake front. However, it is often rainy and overcast, expelling much of the want-to-be beauty. Roundabout was accommodating to the weather, at least as best it could be. We toured a nearby quaint village on our drive to Bled and we river rafted the Sava River in the afternoon. The Sava River is born in the Julian Alps, and it flows through the mountainous region towards Lake Bohinj. Its source is the thaw of the snow and glaciers in the peaks. As it flows near Bled, it creates an amazing playground for an outstanding rafting trip. It is mostly class III, full of twists and turns and non-stop laughter from the guide. (For more information, see https://www.travelroundabout.com.)

Ljubljana definitely holds its own as a European capital. The downtown is pedestrian only, unless you also include the boats that hug the canals and delight their passengers and the strollers along the river edge. Stone bridges cross the river, reminding one of Venice, Prague and Paris. Free walking tours are given daily by locals who passionately adore their city. (See https://ljubljanafreetour.com/) And, the food! I found it delicious. The best of Ljubljana’s foodie scene of yesterday, today, and tomorrow comes alive with the food tour offered by Ljubljana Essentials. For nearly four hours, one hops from restaurant to restaurant under the expertise of a food guide to sample or devour soups, breads, wine, salads, fish, meats, gelato, etc.! It’s a great way to begin your stay or end it, knowing that the delicious food, city tips and companionship will linger long in your memory. (For more information see https://ljubljananjam.sl/food-tours.com )

Busker, Slovenia

Truthfully, Slovenia did not give me the amazement of history that Budapest delivered or the grandeur of architecture of Prague. But, it gave me nature unparalleled in beauty and awe. It gave me a city that in a couple of days I could maneuver around very comfortably. It gave me tours that were 100% efficient. It gave me memories that are definitely worth sharing and exclaiming to all, “Do yourself a favor. Come and visit Slovenia. You will love it.”

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