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?