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Matthew Lepori (MattL)
While I did spend time in England (12 days) and Trieste (1 day) and Budapest (7 days), there really is enough information out there on these destinations that writing about them would be somewhat redundant. Especially in England's case. Although I am going to write a little review on all the curry houses I ate at while in England, as I am currently salivating for more, but unfortunately am sitting about 6,000 miles from the nearest one. So what does this leave for me to write about? Slovenia! I spent 5 days in Ljubljana, 5 in Bled, and 1 in Ptuj.
It's funny thinking in retrospect on the things I read regarding Slovenia before I left for my trip. Some of the insights were dead-on, such as out of my Lonely Planet guidebook. They, in a nutshell, claimed the country was neat, efficient, clean, and full of English speakers. They were right on every account. But other things I read were a little misleading: Bled is full of tourists in August! Chock full! Tourist horde! I have to laugh at the assertion. Neither Bled or Bohinj were anything of the sort. In fact I can't think of a more ideal time to go to these lakes than in July or August; what great weather and nice swimming.
Lake near Bled
That Bled has been a tourist draw for years (centuries) is no secret, but the misleading thing is that "a lot" of tourists in Slovenia is nothing compared to "a lot" of tourists in other areas, like say Florence or Paris or Seville or some of the Italian hill towns. When someone says those places are full of tourists, they really mean it. And perhaps relative to other places in Slovenia, Bled has a lot of tourists, but this must be understood relative to the fact that Slovenia is seriously undertouristed. Now is the time to go, because I don't believe the country will stay like this for much longer. There is simply too much to do there; it's too beautiful, clean, (somewhat) cheap, and the people are very friendly as they aren't jaded towards foreigners just yet.
What's great about Slovenia is that you can get nightlife (Ljubljana), beautiful coastal towns (Piran), mountains and lakes (Bled and Bohinj), hill towns (Ptuj), castles and churches galore, hiking (Triglav, Soca Valley), and not to mention two incredible caves (Postojna and Skocjan). I'm not sure there is anything the country does not offer, other than a major metropolis (Ljubljana doesn't fit that bill). So here are some thoughts on the places I visited, with my restaurant reviews at the end
The interesting thing about this city is that you can "see" it in about 5 hours, and yet you never want to leave. The atmosphere there is too inviting, and it is easy on the eyes. The area around the river (Ljubljanska) is gorgeous; the only issue is that it's quite small. The part of LJ where the thousands of people live is not really that interesting. So I suppose my advice is to not plan on spending 3-4 days exploring LJ itself. Spend 3-4 days there both seeing the town as well as using it as a base for outlying areas.
And it has some great sites around it. Skocjan and Postojna caves are both great daytrips, as is Skofja Loka. Bled could also be an easy daytrip from LJ, but it deserves more time than that. But if I only had say 4 days to spend in Slovenia, I'd do all 4 in LJ and take two daytrips, one to Skocjan caves and one to Bled.
One word: incredible. By far the most amazing natural wonder that I've ever laid eyes on. I decided to go here instead of Postojna on the recommendation of a couple Slovenes I met and my guidebook. They told me that Skocjan is both more beautiful and less touristed, so I chose it even though getting there is a challenge if you are using public transportation.
Essentially it requires a 1 hour 45 minute train ride to Divaca, and then a 45 minute walk to the entrance (very enjoyable and well marked trail, it goes through a small little village and some countryside).
So let's just say that I decided to do this trip knowing that it would be about 5 hours of travel time for a 1.5 hour tour. In other words, I went in with really high expectations. I was expecting to be blown away. And as anyone who travels knows, that's rather dangerous since it leads to big let downs. But I wasn't let down at all, these caves more than exceeded expectations and left my jaw hanging. It's impossible to describe on paper, or by pictures really. It's something you simply have to go and see for yourself. I suppose the best I can do is say that I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones/Lord of the Rings movie or something.
Very neat little town about 30 minutes by train from LJ. While Ptuj is simply beautiful for it's atmospheric little town, Skofja is beautiful more for it's surroundings. It's nestled in between a handful of ridges, making beautiful backdrops and countryside. It's worth about a half day; there isn't much to see, but it's very pleasant to ramble around. There is a castle and a couple churches, but nothing spectacular. My favorite part of Skofja was walking through the houses surrounding the river (which bisects the town) and absorbing the small-town charm.
Bled gets talked about a lot, so I'll spare you the common details. Here are some random tidbits:
This is the more scenic and less developed partner to Bled (45 minutes away by bus). Probably less touristed as well. The Julian Alps that surround the lake are definitely more spectacular than the mountains ringing Bled. It's a sweet feeling to be walking on the valley floor around the lake and having to crane your neck to see up to the top of the mountains.
I was disappointed in one thing there though, the Savica waterfalls (on the west end of the lake). They were really less than inspiring. The hike there is nice though (don't take the road, there is a trail through the valley and past some really pretty houses). But just a heads up to not expect much when you reach the end.
In addition to the falls I took the gondola up to the Mt. Vogel area, which was definitely worth the expense. It was a somewhat cloudless day so the views were great across to Mt. Triglav and down onto Bohinj itself. You get that nice "I'm-on-top-of-the-world" feeling. Seeing Bohinj's green-green water from above was a treat. The hiking around the lake is supposed to be incredible. One day I will return here and do the Valley of the Seven Lakes hike, which is reputed to be the best in the country (but requiring two days to complete).
My last destination in Slovenia. I hadn't seen much written about this place anywhere on the web, but it was recommended by Rough Guide and was in my LP Eastern Europe book. Despite that, no one seems to go there (was only one reference to it on the Fodors.com board, which says something considering their traffic and thread counts).
I think the reason for this is that Ptuj is basically too far from any major tourist destination to get day-trippers, and it's too obscure of a place for people to plan a stay there. It's about 2 hours 30 minutes from Ljubljana, the same from Graz, and 6 hours from Budapest.
It is on the Ljubljana-Budapest train line though so I decided to stop there for a night. Definitely was a good idea. Reminded me a lot of an Italian hill town with a Slavic twist, although most of the town is flat since the castle dominates the hill. It has Italianate building architecture, with some Slav rooflines and towers. Very atmospheric.
You get a nice warm feeling walking around it, knowing that you're probably the only American in the entire place. There were hardly any tourists around, only a few others who were taking pictures like me. I was approached randomly on the street three different times by people asking me things, who knows what, in Slovenian. So either I look particularly Slovene or they don't really expect to run into many tourists. And despite the lack of tourists, everyone here spoke English, just like in the rest of Slovenia.
The castle wasn't all that impressive, although it had a really beautiful tri-decked inner courtyard. There's also a really beautiful Benedictine church in town (which is now a museum). And Ptuj sits in Slovenia's wine region, so for winos it's a place to go.
There isn't really a Slovenian cuisine; they basically just borrow the food from their neighbors. Because of this, Slovenia seems to be in love with pizza, and who am I to complain? The pizzas I ate there were damn tasty.
So if you are into pizza, I recommend both Ljubljanska (on the river) and Pivnica Emonska in Ljubljana, Origano in Skofja Loka (you'll see the signs around), Dante in Bled town (next to Okarina, the Indian place), and Europa in Ptuj (you'll for sure stumble across it).
www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3054: Matt's photos of Slovenia
© Matthew Lepori, 2004
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