It was time to kick off part two of the Raff’s Still Moonin’ adventure… Europe! Our starting place was a trip through the Western Balkans. Croatia was top of the list, but after some research (Thanks, Rick Steves!) we decided to add on Slovenia. It was described as a small mountainous country known for its hospitality, farm to table food, and love of the outdoors (58% of the country is covered in trees). Plus, they had wine and hut-to-hut mountain climbing with easy access. We were sold!
After a non-eventful, even pleasurable flight on Air France, we arrived in Ljubljana, Slovenia. We quickly got our rental car and headed out towards Lake Bled. It had been a few years since I have driven in Europe in a manual car, so the drive was a good reminder of all the different road signs, roundabouts, and narrow roads. I was happy to arrive at our hotel and find a nice parking lot to drop the car! I was even happier to celebrate our safe arrival with a glass of wine overlooking the lake.
Lake Bled is a gorgeous emerald green alpine lake with a picturesque island. We enjoyed the 3.5Km walk around the lake with a few side trips to different viewpoints of the lake including a trek up to the castle. The view was beautiful, and it was cool to climb up the walls and imagine defending the castle by looking through the arrow slots.
The real highlight of the lake is taking a Pletna boat ride to the island. According to Uncle Ricky (our nickname for Rick Steves), the Plenta boats started in the 1700’s as a way for the families in a neighboring town to make a living as they had minimal farmland. Today, there are 14 families that have boats, and they are in a union. Each boat charges the same price per person and all the money is evenly split between each family. There are several boat launches around the lake. They give the older oarsmen the short side and the younger the long side.
We opted for the longer ride to maximize our time on the water with the views. We got the first 2 spots in the boat for great views. However, about halfway into our crossing, it started to downpour and we got soaked! Once at the island, we had 40 minutes to explore. We rang the bell in the church 3 times in hopes that our dreams would come true according to tradition. The clock tower was newly restored, so we enjoyed observing the pendulum clock in action including ringing the bells at 45 after. The views were disappointing as it was still downpouring, but it was a fun adventure.
The splurge of the day was dinner at Fine Foods Berc which offered a 4-course tasting menu with wine pairings. It was a great time and fun to sample Slovenian foods and wine. They pride themselves on local, fresh foods and this was a great introduction.
Course 1: Trout prepared in many ways… Smoked (really fishy), eggs (weird!), cooked (pretty okay), and pate (actually my favorite!). This was paired with a Slovenian white wine from the Karst region which was minerally and crisp.
Course 2: Traditional Slovenian ravioli stuff with potatoes and bacon served with lamb ragu. It was basically like a pierogi with lamb sauce and was by far my favorite dish! This was paired with a red wine called Teran which is bright, fruit-forward and known for its minerals.
Course 3: Boar medallions with buckwheat dumplings paired with a Cabernet Sauvignon. Great pairing, and the boar was excellent.
Course 4: A fancy take on the famous cream cake of Bled. I don’t really like custardy desserts, but this was amazing! We skipped the dessert wine as it isn’t our cup of tea.
The next day, we enjoyed a driving tour of the Julian Alps. This was our best weather window for the few days in Bled, so we left early in hopes to get some views. The first highlight of the day was driving Vrsic road. This road had 50 hairpin turns: 24 up and 26 down. The road was built by 10,000 Russian POWs in WWI to carry supplies to the Austrian troops defending the Soca Valley from the Italians. Many died from exhaustion, starvation and avalanches. The POWs built a tiny Russian Orthodox church in their camp in remembrance of those that died.
The road is so steep that at each turn they laid cobblestones to increase traction. I was happy we had an early start and didn’t run into many other cars or busses. According to Uncle Ricky, this is a big objective for cyclists and they can beat the cars up (35 minutes)! We only saw one coming down, which might be scarier than going up!
As we went up, we had glimpses of the mountains that were surrounding us. The clouds would drift in and out but no amazing views. However, when we got to the pass, the west side was perfectly clear! Wow! We soaked in the views of the big craggy, limestone mountains towering over the green valleys. The Soca river was perfectly clear and a beautiful blue. Some sections were very narrow through the limestone, and we enjoyed a few suspension bridges to get better views.
The Soca Valley saw heavy fighting in WWI with over 1M dead by the end of the war. We stopped at an outdoor museum to walk through an Italian front with barbed-wire fences, trenches, pillboxes, and caves. As I walked through, I got chills. I can’t even imagine what it was like especially in the winter.
In the small town of Kobarid, we stopped to walk through a WWI museum that provided us with more background of the fighting. This was also the town where Ernest Hemmingway volunteered driving an ambulance and inspired A Farewell to Arms.
To wrap up the day, we opted to take the Car Train back to Bled instead of driving 2 more hours. The Car Train was only 45 minutes as it went directly through the mountains (literally through tunnels). We drove onto the flatbed railcar, put on the emergency break and held on for the ride. It was an adventure, especially the tunnels as they were long and dark. The last tunnel was over 10 minutes long with the only light from the train engine. It was an adventure, and definitely not up to the safety standards of the US!
The weather forecast for our last day in the Bled area was terrible – 3” of rain, cold and thunderstorms. We actually were supposed to start our 3-day attempt of Mount Triglav today, but postponed it due to this storm! So, we opted for a morning tour of Radovljica instead. Radovljica, or as we lovingly called it “The R town”, is a medieval market town located on a hilltop. The town center is filled with colorful, historic homes and cobblestone streets. We had the place to ourselves as it was downpouring, so good photo ops!
The highlight, strangely enough, was the beekeeping museum. Beekeeping is a big thing in Slovenia, and they are very proud that their native bee is still thriving while most of the European bees have died out. I really enjoyed peeking into a live beehive trying to find the queen bee! The highlight of the museum was the historical front panels from the beehives which were painted with different scenes. They ranged from religious scenes to cultural scenes. They were beautifully painted, and it was interesting to learn about this aspect of their culture.
Our first few days in Slovenia were fun with a warm introduction to their hospitality and a glimpse of their craggy mountains! We were looking forward to getting more acquainted with them during our 3-day climbing trip!