Quirky sights in Ljubljana

The sun really shone on my last day in this incredible country and in the capital in particular. I tried to capture some quirky images of Ljubljana and am simply going to put them up here as a sort of gallery. See what you think. Love to have some comments.

Always a good day in Slovenia

The weather has broken at long last and low temperatures and persistent rain has driven us from the damp streets of Ljubljana back to the hotel and an opportunity to share with you some reflections about this beautiful country.

As the plane lands the first impression of the land laid out below is one of neatness and order. The landscape is a palette of greens and a patchwork of fields and forests interspersed with collections of painted ginger-bread houses. 68% of the country is forested.

Slovenia is made by its people. Just over two million people live in this small country. The vast majority speak English with a pleasant, warm disposition that is immediately welcoming. There is a colossal link between Slovenes and nature. At weekends most will head for the hills, literally, and ski or bike or canoe. Most families have an allotment and gardening is the number one participation activity. Whatever it is down to, it works. Slovenes are friendly, warm, softly-spoken. They seem grounded and content. Their quality of life and their attitude to living is worth emulating.

Food is very much meat based. Most menus contain locally sourced beef, veal, pork, chicken, venison, even boar. In some more remote parts bear is still found, but not on menus of local restaurants. Dishes are accompanied by locally grown fruit and vegetables. Beer is good and wine, particularly the whites, is exceptional, even for a red lover like me.

Every settlement of any size boasts a church, usually Catholic, and a protecting castle in various states of repair. These places all have a medieval core that transports one back to the old days of ancient monasteries and narrow, cobbled streets and timber bridges. On the small strip of coast Venetian ports remind us that these links are as relevant to the history of Slovenia as the mountain passes and the river valleys. This country has been moulded by its stunning and wonderfully diverse scenery – mountains, rolling hills, rivers, streams, lakes, evergreen pine forests, mixed deciduous woodland, meadows and farmland, allotments and orchards, fields of hops and vines.

So, all in all, a beautiful place with stunning scenery inhabited by friendly people who value their culture and history. What else do you want?

Some delights in southeast Slovenia

As always there is a delight or two to find on any journey in this country around the one back to the capital is no exception. Following a slightly longer route than necessary, the first is Slovenia’s smallest town, but nothing like any town you may have visited. Firstly, Kostanjevica na krki, occupies an island 200m wide & 500m long in the middle of the River Krka. This sleepy place dates back to 1252. Two old timber bridges connect it to either bank so it is possible to drive straight through without stopping. Not that you would want to. The place has an old charm to it that is almost timeless.

Just a few kilometres out of town is the Pleterje Monastery, belonging to the Cathusians, the strictest of all the monastic orders. Only the Gothic church is open to the public. This, in itself, is worth a visit as its empty space arouses the inner spirit, settling anxieties and inspiring awe and wonder. There is no sign of white-hooded monks quietly going about their chores; they have taken a strict vote of silence. The main building, dating from 1407, can be seen from the outside and signs are everywhere reminding visitors of where you are and to respect the tranquillity of the place.

Finally, Otocec Castle, also on a tiny island in the middle of the Krka River but further up stream, is reached by similar timber bridges from opposite banks. The castle is completely restored now and has been converted into a very smart hotel. But hey, not one to miss an opportunity to rub shoulders with the posh & glamorous, it is in through the main door to use the toilets and then order some refreshments. They were very happy to serve some excellent coffee, along with a very tasty choccie with the hotel’s emblem on it rather than, as is normal elsewhere, a simple marciponi biscuit, and not charge the tourists in the scruffy shorts and faded T shirts too much for the presumption.

Saying goodbye to the mountains

Last day up here in the mountains in the eastern part of Slovenia, where mountains and agriculture meet and hops and vines stand gloriously side by side, proudly extolling the quality of the other. So, if its beer or wine that floats your boat you will find excellent products of each for your delectation.

Tomorrow it is back to Ljubljana for a few days before its back home on Tuesday. I am going to miss this place. I will miss the view every morning, now covered in distant haze as a storm builds. I am so familiar with it that I can lean out and reach through the murky horizon and caress those far, glorious lines in my mind. I will miss the cows , just a handful in each of two fields, and their relentless routine from pasture to shed and back again. I will miss the hoarse, screaming call off the two big boys (eagles, buzzards, kites, am not sure which) who appear every morning and rise the thermals and float off to a neighbouring valley to carry out their business out of sight but within sound. I will miss the handful of cars & clanking tractors who periodically negotiate the narrow lane around and down the head of the valley, disappearing into forest and reappearing at the same spot each time, a few hundred metres further on. Such repetition has set these sights in my mind so I can take them out and enjoy them whenever I please.

But one last pleasure is required before we got the bustle of the capital again – a special lunch at the Gric Restaurant I told you about a few days ago, in amongst the patterns of vines on the gentle slopes of Slovenske Konjice.

Beef Tartare and Sea Bream Tartare to start with a sparkling white for company


Veal, medium rare, with roasted veg, polenta cakes & cheese rolls, accompanied by a local Riesling.


Chocolate souffle and coffee to finish. There is always one really special place to eat and remember.

 

Slovenske Konjice is full of surprises

A routine has developed. We wake up and have breakfast on the veranda.

There follows an excursion into the locality to appreciate the area’s culture and history. We return for lunch.

A snooze follows whether planned or not, shower, dinner, and red wine this time, on same veranda watching the sun dusk on the. same stunning view and the plumping moon come around the corner along with singing stars, in a slightly different place each night.

Today’s trip out is focussed on Slovenske Konjice, a small market town started about 1,000 years ago, nestling under the northern slopes of Konjiska Gora. From the tourist bumf it seems nothing special but it has all kinds of secrets to reveal. A small stream runs down from the mountains through the middle of the main. main street. Locals call it ‘dragon’s slobber’ after the local saint, George, supposedly killed the beast who lived in the mountains.


Like all towns it has a church – the Church of St George, built originally in 1146.

A ruined castle overlooks the town.

An intriguing main street has smart, plaster-painted houses lining each side, looking dapper in their fresh colours. However further investigation reveals more. Built in the 16th century the houses had new facades created 200 years later. Go through an open door and it is as if you have arrived in medieval times with an open courtyard surrounded by balconies and windows.

The surrounding hills are patterned with beautifully maintained vines which produce grapes to create high quality red, white & sparkling wines. Wine has been produced here for 800 years.

Every day has a special nugget. Today’s wonder place is the tranquil, partially ruined Zice Charterhouse Carthusian Monastery. It is situated in a small valley surrounded by rolling hills and forest. Over lunch there is no-one there and the full impact of the place hits you. Serene, peaceful, contemplative, harmonious. The white habits of the twelve monks who inhabited these hallowed walls since they first arrived in 1165, still linger in these empty cloisters, studying their ”book for the day’ as they did all those years ago until the monastery was dissolved in 1782.

Just down the valley is the Church of Virgin Mary’s Visitation. This lower monastery housed lay monks who looked after the 12 ‘proper’ guys up at the big one, and also took in guests and travellers.

50 minutes drive and late lunch on the balcony follows. Aaarh. Hard work this exploring.

The streets of medieval Ptuj

I have been quiet for a couple of days. Only because I’ve been chilling out, taking in the view from this place. So magnificent. There are two ways to tell that time is passing here. Firstly shadows surge and shrink as the sun passes over. Secondly the cows wander further away from their milking shed and then, as THE time approaches, they wander back again. But the urge comes around again  and ignites the desire to explore further afield.

Ptuj rises gently above a wide valley. It is one of the oldest towns in Slovenia, beginning life as a Roman outpost on the banks of the Drava River. The castle, stayed in the 14th century overlooks the clay roofs, the red-roofed burgers’ houses and the river itself.

In front of the City Tower stand the Orpheus Monument, a 2nd century Roman tombstone with scenes from the story of, you guessed it, the story of Orpheus.

Ptuj is an ordinary town with this ancient feel to it. Its squares and narrow alleys and passages ooze history combined with a summer arts festival which juxtapositions installations alongside flaking plaster and ancient brick & stone work.

This is not an installation. Just a customer at the local hair salon waiting for her roots to be done. Well in is cooler outside rather than in.

 

A peaceful Sunday in the mountains

Heading up into eastern Slovenia sees changes in the landscape. The route is through rolling forested hills that follow wide valleys of farmland. The landscape is more agricultural with round hay bales awaiting collection in the fields rather than the traditional hay ricks. Cattle, proper cattle with white patches on brown or is it brown patches on white, graze in the swathes of snooker table green meadow. In a patchwork of farmland and forests, small allotments and meadows have given way to larger fields of maize, alfalfa, hops (this must be beer country).

Gradually the land rises into the Pohrje Massif, an adventure land of outdoor activities and historical centres with castles, medieval streets and alleys and ancient churches. Sounds like Slovenia all over. Our chalet is on the edge of this region of forests, mountains and highland meadows and made for outdoor activities like skiing, hiking and biking.


This place is wonderful with the most magnificent view from the bedroom and the balcony.


It is Sunday. The hills and mountains stretch away into the distance. I can count at least 14 layers of pastel-hued greens and greys laid out for my eyes to feast on. Forests, fields, farms, barns, hills, mountains, clouds. The only movement is the slow plod of chomping cows making their lazy way up the field, a soaring eagle or buzzard (a big bird anyway) and a rickety tractor crunching its gears around the tracks. The only sound is the chirp of unknown birds and a gentle breeze whispering in the trees. Twice a church has peeled its bells up the valley. This gives the place a historic, almost timeless feel. I’m going to like it here.

A Saturday in Skofja Loka

It is time to leave the sporty peaks and slopes of busy Kranjska Gozd in the north west of Slovenia and travel to the eastern part. As I said, everywhere is about an hour from everywhere else. So the motorway heads to Ljubljana, spoons around the edge and goes of towards Maribor, the country’s second largest city, a journey of about 3 hours in total. As there is time to spare the medieval town of Skofja Loka is a pleasing diversion.

The old town is the usual small nugget surrounded by the functionality of modern apartment blocks and administrative buildings. The most evocative approach to this ancient centre is over the 14th century Capuchin Bridge and through the arched gateway.

Mestni Trg is a long square with pastel-hued, 16th century burgers’ houses lining each side. The umbrellared cafes are busy. A few trees provide shade from the midday heat which slams down onto the cobbles and flag stones and sends folk into the shadows or indoors. Few people venture out and brave the bright sunshine.


The main exception seems to revolve around the town hall. Four wedding parties follow each other in to town – one in a white stretched-limo, one in a decorated Deux Chevaux and two on foot. One has a guy with an umpahpah accordion, one has some piped music from a speaker, one has an orange bouquet that gets flung around a lot and one has guys with torn jeans and some very scary modern haircuts. In turn, with the bride in all her finery, each party hangs about in the street for a bit and then takes over a cafe. I am not sure if this is after the ceremony or before it. Not important. They all seem to be very happy and having a good time.

The castle, having a bit of an upgrade, stands proudly over the roofs and spires of the town – an ordinary town on a Saturday in Slovenia.

 

The wonderful drive up the Soca River

So it’s up from the coast today and back to the mountains. Rather than a mad dash up the motorway, pootling is called for. There is a very simple motorway system in Slovenia which is that they all, all four of them, go through Ljubljana and that everywhere (the mountains, the ski slopes, the coast) is about an hour or so from the capital. So pootling it is. It might take longer but it’s through another glorious area of this intriguing part of Europe.

What else does this wonderful country have to offer? The route heads up the western side of the country where it borders Italy. Slovenians get a bit upset about this bit as Trieste used to be part of their country but as part of the post-war settlement it was given to Italy. We head for the ridges and rolling hills of the Vipava Valley and a landscape that mirrors that of northern Italy in general and Tuscany in particular.


This is Slovenia’s wine region and we go in search of decent stuff to consume at home. Our first attempt took place in the local Spar. Faced with an unknown language describing unknown grapes and depicting the quality of their range in pictures on the label, we purchase two bottles. One has a lovely picture of a large wine barrel – sadly, one sip proved it to be worse than anti freeze and the sink beckoned. The other had won three medals on its label – half a glass at each meal was just about manageable. SO… desparate times mean desparate measures

Dobrovo is the start of the wine region. It has a castle, a ‘vinotecka’ and a few houses. This is exactly what is required – a walk around, some pretty impressive views, a taste and a purchase of 4 red & 2 white. Then it is off to lunch.

The next hill-top village of Smartno bakes in the midday sun.

The simple family restaurant lines its tables out in the narrow street and offers simple local fayre of platters of meat and cheese or salads, accompagnied by a glass of white followed by a wander around its shaded streets.

From here it is the most magnificent, two hour drive through the Triglavski National Park following the Soca River upstream to its source and through the Vrsic Pass again but this time from the south. This is a beautiful, awe-inspiring landscape of the swiftly flowing, milky turquoise river winding through the wide, grass covered valley with naked or forest-covered peaks towering ahead and on either side.

It is unbelievable to discover that this green and glorious land saw the horrors of trench warfare for 2 and a half years in WWI. 500,000 Italians were shot, starved or gassed when they came up the against the German lines and 300,000 taken prisoner. The fighting was horrific on both sides but the territorial gains for each were minimal.

This is yet another landscape in Slovenia where around every corner there is a gob-smacking view of forested ridges, craggy sun-kissed peaks and mountains, open farmland, fortified village, traditional hay ricks, campsites snuggling beside the rushing, clear waters, tall-standing church spires that constantly surprise the visitor. It is so impressive as to draw yet another ‘wow’ or ‘OMG’ or something a bit more intelligent like ‘that’s aamazing’. Everywhere there is a notice for hang-gliding, canyonning, hiking, canoing and any other forms of exercise that I have never heard of. Unable to take photographs  to capture an image of the valley as I drive I have to resort to an image from the net which does it poor justice but you get a flavour of glorious scenery that constantly surrounds you.

Just to say that the Soca Valley must be one of the most beautiful drives in the whole of Europe.

Piran’s Venetian glory

After the storm of last night, this morning was a different day and a different light in which to view this gold nugget on Slovenia’s short coast. Piran is one of the best-preserved historical towns anywhere on the Adriatic – a gem of Venetian Gothic architecture. The Greeks and Romans developed the town as a port but its real importance came in the 13th century, when for five centuries Piran supplied its Venetian rulers with salt.

All right, the place could have more than a summer bustle to it, as a constant stream of cars and buses and ferries drop off visitors within the town’s pedestrianised cobbles and pathways but it is easy to lose them within the narrow, dark, enclosed, medieval streets. Then you can get hooked on the atmosphere within winding alleyways and on ancient steps. When I say narrow I mean narrow. There is hardly room to hold one arm out before scraping an elbow along ancient plaster, let alone swing a scraggy medieval, cat. Steps and stairways have been worn away by centuries of salted breezes and padded feet.

The main act of Piran has to be the pastel-toned, marble-paved Tartinijev Trg which used to be the inner harbour until it was filled in in 1894. The square is oval-shaped really and in the north corner stands the statue of the smartly dressed gentleman whose father was a famous local violinist and composer.


The walk up to the Cathedral of St George is hard work but well worth it. The cathedral, the bell tower and the baptistery next door provide an iconic backdrop to the town whether it is used from below up, or from top down.

Exploring away from Mr Tartinijlev takes the visitor through dark narrow alleyways where sunlight permeates more by luck than judgement. The sea is never far away, glimpsed through arches and cobbled walkways to the right and left.

The 1st May Square (I have no idea what happened on that day) has a delightful feel of ancient history with its pastel colours clinginging onto its flaking plaster.

The small Punta Lighthouse, from which Piran got its name in ancient times, still stands on the tip of the peninsula and is attached to the 13th century Church of St Clement.

20180815113933_IMG_5282Being so bowled over by this place I have let my images be your guide around Piran and provided only a short written commentary each time.

Just to say, that if you are anywhere near Piran, do make the effort to visit. It is magnificent.

Beating the storms to Koper

Awoke to grey heavy clouds and the decision was immediately taken to head south, young man, and seek the sun on Slovenia’s minute coastline. This was so good a decision that a night away from the mountains was required to see the best of two magnificent Venetian ports.

The warm up act is ably covered by the commercial port of Koper. Not obviously attractive until one picks away the industry, the container port, the apartment blocks, the cruise liner dock, the docksides of waiting exports of Mercs & Renaults to reveal the small, medieval heart of the town.


The Ancient Greeks & the Romans developed Koper as a port but its hey day was in the 15th century when it monopolised the salt trade on the Adriatic. Tito Square is a Venetian-influenced stunner, it’s cobbled, flagged surface closed to traffic. The four sides reflect its medieval splendour:

In the western side is the armoury and munitions dump in the 1600s and is now university offices.

To the north is the Venetian Loggia built in 1463 and now a cafe.

To the east is the Cathedral of the Assumption.

To the south is the Praetorian Palace which dates from the 15th century.

Through its arch the narrow medieval streets lead to the southern gate of the old town.

The main act is a few kilometres down the coast. The storm clouds have followed us all day, always threatening from a distance. Unrelentingly they grow and darken until it is impossible to hold them back and they crash out their rains and roars to coincide with dinner. Here is a taster of the second of Slovenia’s Venetian glory.

Two lakes in a day – Lake Bled or Lake Bohinj?

Lake Bled is Slovenia’s most popular resort and the town, called Bled, swarms with visitors in the summer because word had got around that it is such a special place. The lake is small, just 2km by 1.4km, but it’s 6km circumference is a good walk for visitors. The two main drawbacks are the traffic that crawls through the town and the difficulty in parking. Once out of the cars the town itself and the lake’s shores are big enough to take all the visitors on offer with hotels, parks, lakeside water theme park, trails, toboggan run, tea rooms, ice cream parlours.

Other than the lake there are three main sights. Bled Castle is perched high up on a steep cliff. This 11th century medieval castle boats towers, ramparts, mosaic and terraces. The path up to it is really steep and taken with care, or take the car and park up there. I should say it is quite expensive to get in and the best shots off it are from lakeside.


The Parish Church of St Martin stands next door to the castle, is steep steeple pointing to the heavens contrasts with the stumpy turrets and the bare faced walls.


Bled Island is at the far end of the lake. The Church of the Assumption dates from the 17th century. To reach it take a pletna (gondola) and get dropped off at the South Staircase, built in 1655.


For a complete contrast take the road south west and see the beauty that is Bohinj Lake. No tea rooms here; just a small unspoilt lake surrounded by high peaks over which clouds glare at the crystal-clear, blue-green water and the folks canoeing/swimming/sail boarding or walking/cycling the trails around its edges. Be sure to park in the proper car parks though. Those who pull onto the verge and make their way through the pine trees were all labelled with a ticket.

I’ll let the images do the work. See what you think. Both are special and well worth a visit. At the end of the day I wanted to spend more time in the quieter, smaller, cool, clear waters of Bohinj.

Passing up and down Vrsic’s appendix

Woke up this morning and all that wet stuff had moved off leaving a few clouds in a clear blue sky. Now you can clearly see what I mean by sharks’ teeth. This is the view from the bed. Not bad eh?

OK. Off to explore the area. 10 minutes by car up the valley is Kranjska Gora, one of Slovenia’s largest ski resorts. Busy in winter, yes. But also multitasking in summer. The ski lift, one of many, takes punters up to the top. From there you can take the trails down on your bike, slalom along the monotoboggan track, hike (carrying an infant if so inclined) along and down, climb up a peak with all the kit and abseil down or sit in a deck chair and have a beer before deciding which one to do to get down. Pete, the car park at the bottom has many overnight vans.

Jasna Lake, just to the south of the main town, is a small glacial lake with white sand around its rim. It is a popular spot for both tourists and locals.

Then it is the challenge of the road over the Vrsic Pass.This engineering marvel was built by Germany during WWI, using hard labour provided by Russian prisoners of war. The trip over the top involves over 50 hairpin bends. It’s a bit like driving along someone’s appendix. Some brave people cycle the tortuous elite to the 1611m summit. Do they really enjoy it? From a hire car it means that you really get up and intimate with some very impressive mountain scenery, even if you do have to negotiate stereo ascents, tight cobbled bends, disintegrating edges, straining cyclists, effortless motorbikes and crawling motorists. Amazing. Well worth the drive.


Zelenci is back down in the valley. A short path leads through the forest to the source of the Sava Dolinka River. Another peaceful spot to end the day.

The sharks’ teeth of Godz Martuljek

Today is a drive out from Ljubljana to the north west into the foothills of the Alps, our base for the first week. The suburbs rapidly pass by and within a few kilometres forests line the dual carriageway motorway. We divert to the village of Radovljica. The old part lines a ridge overlooking the surrounding countryside – a model-trainset landscape even down to the calves lying in the manicured fields of toy town farms with the soundtrack of distant church bells giving it all a bit of ‘atmosphere’. So ordered, so neat.

16th century houses with painted facades line the main street.

Outside the town hall a wedding party wait for their turn to tie the knot. A bit strange though – not a man in sight.

Round the corner at the far end the parish church of St Peter stays in the shade and provides cover for its guests.

Hidden amongst the houses are the Beekeeping Museum and the Gingerbread Museum. How quaint. Anything to attract visitors.

After a coffee, served by yet another charming and softly spoken young Slovenian, and a wander through the back streets, it’s back to the car and the motorway. The clouds falls lower and cover the layers of peaks that line the valley up ahead. Soon it is raining properly. All going swimmingly until the traffic builds, slows and then shuts down completely. Five kilometres of crawling traffic until the required turn off. Only then do I realize it is Saturday and all the cars are German or Dutch, all returning home from holiday and heading for the tunnel through the Alps and blocking my route. Infuriating. So careful when you travel guys.


Then yayyy, the turn off appears after an hour and a half of crawling along. Still, in adversity we make the best of it don’t we – high quality games of I Spy, for instance. A short time on wet country roads. Even the rain is calming and gentle.

Godz Martuljek appears in the murk and the house is easy to find. Tea is required and as we sit outside on the veranda and under the roof, the rain slows and stops and the cloud thins. Through its wisps and curls the mountains appear behind the neighbouring properties and these are real sharks’ teeth. See the snow?

 

The best welcome to Slovenia

Hi everyone. This is the start of a trip around Slovenia, a small country sandwiched between 4 bigger neighbours – Austria, Italy, Hungary and Croatia, with a few kilometres of coastline on the Adriatic. First impressions from the view from the plane window and the walk into the airport can be summed up in one word – neat. Having picked up a car it is a short drive to Ljubljana, the capital, through forests and farmland backdropped by layers of sharp mountain peaks like the bottom row of teeth in a shark’s mouth.

As an introduction to this small country, Ljubljana is magnificent. Walking to the centre takes 10 minutes along wide boulevards lined by tall, grand buildings, punctuated with parks and trees. The centre is protected from the motor vehicle, the only permitted vehicular transport being the occasional electric buggy and the bicycle. The rest of us have to get around the cobbled streets and the open squares using our feet.

The great thing about the city is that it is small and compact with a warm, familiar feeling that makes the visitor feel immediately welcome and at ease. Through the middle runs the river, a gentle waterway for the chunky sightseeing boats that chug their way between riverside promenades lined with the tables and umbrellas of the cafe culture that pervades this friendly city. Overlooking this elegant patchwork of grandiose buildings and ornate bridges stands the castle, stretched up high along the ridge, protecting the locals and visitors alike.

Several bridges cross the river, many guarded by statues, some of which seem to find it difficult to hide their inner feelings. “Oh no. Not another coachload of tourists.”

One bridge, Cobblers Bridge, attracts the romantic amongst us and the attention of the young and the old.

 

Yes, it is busy and yes, there is a constant flow of people from all over, but the place has a real buzz to it, making you feel at home. It just so happens that this first day coincides with the food fair when local businesses from across the country bring their fayre into town to share and sell. Choices are made. An Egyptian wrap and cheese ravioli are purchased and swigged down with excellent local wine. The atmosphere is one of acceptance, of diversity, of welcome.


As dusk falls this buzz is amplified and the city takes on a charm of its own. The tables fill up with diners and drinkers, families promenade, lovers cuddle in wrapped arms, locals look on and buskers busk. The volume of conversation and laughter is gradually turned up, backed up with the bass tones of church bells sounding out the hour and the various rhythms and sounds of street performers banging out their different styles of music.

A wonderful, magical first day.