There are two types of people who are going to read this blog post. The first are those people who know Jacob and myself and are just here to see the pictures. The second type are those who would like to take a road trip to Slovenia from Vienna and find themselves sadly bereft of useful information.
To those of you who fall into the latter category: Welcome. I hope you find this information helpful as you plan your trip. Enjoy the pictures of my parents.
To the rest of you, I've got your number. Here's a picture:
My parents, Jacob, and I decided to rent a car and take a road trip to Slovenia during their second weekend visiting us in Vienna. Slovenia is not a terribly well known travel destination, though I will state loud and clear: IT SHOULD BE. Located on the southern edge of Austria, the Slovenian border lies just 4 hours driving time from Vienna, and less than an hour from Klagenfurt.
The Republic of Slovenia, formerly known as Yugoslavia, was a communist state until the 1980s. Though technically part of the Eastern Bloc, Slovenia enjoyed far greater economic and personal freedoms under President Tito. Why do I bring this up? Because, surprisingly enough, those freedoms are quite noticeable. Venturing into other countries of the Eastern Bloc from Vienna (such as Hungary or Slovakia), there is often a dramatic shift immediately upon crossing the border. The effects of years of communism and political upheaval are immediately felt and visible. In Slovenia? Not a whit.
The cities are clean, the countryside is beautiful, the tourism is well developed, the roads are excellent and thoughtfully planned...but I am getting ahead of myself.
We left on Friday morning, driving from Vienna through Graz (on the E59 and E66), and around Klagenfurt. We stopped for lunch near Klagenfurt at a cute little gasthaus tucked up in the pre-Alpine hills, and sat outside reveling in sunshine and warm weather for the first time all month.
After lunch and a good stretch we crossed the Slovenian border, at which there was virtually no official border crossing. As a civilian vehicle we drove right on through, without even being stopped for a passport check. Shortly after crossing the border we stopped at a gas station to buy a "Vignette", which buys us permission to drive on the roads (a week long pass is about €15).
Upon crossing into Slovenia, we immediately found ourselves in the Julian Alps. Though just as impressive as any Alps you might find in Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, etc. the Julian Alps are significantly less well-known. One of the most popular spots is Lake Bled, a fairy-tale-like lake and resort spot located just over the border from Austria. Within 45 minutes of crossing the border we were pulling up to our hotels perched on the side of Lake Bled.
The iconic image of Lake Bled is the church that graces the tiny island in the lake's center. There is also a small town that has cropped up around the lake, and a castle set high above on a cliff over the water. All around the lake you can find quaint guest houses and hotels to stay in. Jacob and I were doing a hotel review for Our Man On The Ground, so we had arranged to stay at Vila Bled, the former Yugoslavian royal family's residence, and more recently, one of Tito's presidential residences. The hotel was magnificent - it felt like someone had given us the keys to a museum and said "have fun!".
The area around Lake Bled is well built up, including a paved (and lit) walking path around the entire lake. The popular activities include rowing to the island and ringing the "wishing bell" of the church, as well as climbing up the cliff to see the views of the lake and surrounding mountains from Bled Castle.
We spent our first afternoon walking the perimeter of Lake Bled, which took about two hours (at a leisurely stroll, and stopping to take pictures every 30 seconds).
Afterwards we had dinner and called it an early night. The next morning after breakfast we procured a row boat to head over to the island. Though designed for two people (ideally), we managed to cram all four of us into the canoe. We were a bit low in the water. Jacob muscled us to the island as I clutched my camera in fear of tipping over. The island is quite small, with exactly enough space for a church, a gift shop, a cafe, and a path that goes around the island.
After our foray to the island we went back to shore, and opted to drive up to the castle for a view of the surroundings before heading out on a hike. Our first stop was Vintgar Gorge, an Alpine river gorge that is 3 km away from Lake Bled and absolutely worth a couple hours of your time. We had been informed the gorge was closed for the season, but decided to take a look at it anyway. Though the ticket office was shuttered there were plenty of people around, some of which were walking along the path barricaded by a wooden gate with a Slovenian word written on it. Not speaking Slovenian, we assumed the word meant "welcome", and hopped over the gate, following suit with the hikers ahead of us.
The hike is about 3 km in total (but you will be stopping to take pictures every 10 seconds), and ends in Slovenia's largest natural waterfall.
After spending a couple of hours gawking at the gorge we hopped back into the car to head deeper (and higher - much higher) into the mountains. We drove towards Bohinj Lake, where we had been told we could drive up into the mountains, then hike to some high Alpine pastures. The drive through the countryside alone would have made the trip worth it. The Alpine valleys were dotted with quaint villages and stunning panoramas. The roads were exceptionally well marked, and we found our way to the road winding up the mountains with very little trouble.
As we got higher into the mountains snow began to appear in patches. Once we we had been climbing with the car for roughly 40 minutes, we hit a large spot of ice and snow on the road. As we did not have 4-wheel drive and figured that we were close to our destination, we chose to park the car and head forth on foot. 20 minutes of walking later we found ourselves at an Alpine pasture covered in moss and crocuses and decided that was a good place to eat our picnic lunch.
As our lunch wore on we began to see more signs of life - a group of hikers passed through the base of the pasture, and a car passed on the road by us, evidently coming from a nearby gasthaus. Spurred on by the fact that we were evidently heading towards something, we finished our lunch and kept going until we came to a much larger Alpine pasture decorated with little chalets. We stopped into one of the chalets for warm apple strudel, gawked over the scenic view, and decided we had done enough hiking for the day.
That evening we checked out of our hotels and drove 45 minutes to Ljubljana, the capitol of Slovenia. Ljubljana is a quaint city, so charming and pretty that it almost seemed like a European Disneyland than a real place. Except - it IS real, which makes it about a million times better than Disneyland in my book. A river, channeled into a pretty canal, cuts through the center of the city, with plenty of outdoor cafes and weeping willows lining the water.
That weekend they were having a craft beer and hamburger festival downtown, just a short walk from our hotel. We had such incredible gourmet hamburgers (about €5 each) and craft beer (about €3 each) for dinner the first night, that the second night we went back and ate more.
Sunday morning we walked through the city, then headed out into the mountains for another hike. This time we went to a separate set of mountains, about 45 minutes from Ljubljana, and took a gondola up to a high Alpine pasture, still dotted with patches of snow. A steep 30 minute hike took us to the top of the mountain, where we were greeted with a vast network of trails, high Alpine chalets, and this incredible view.
We stopped for lunch at the top of the mountain. It is amazing how much better some foods taste in their proper context. Typical German/Austrian/Slovenian food is delicious at any time, but high on a mountain after a grueling hike? It makes sausage, dark bread and sauerkraut that much better.
After hiking around the pastures for the afternoon we took the gondola back down to the base of the mountain and headed back to Ljubljana. The following day we drove back to Vienna, refreshed, relaxed, and positively in love with Slovenia.
Mark my words, you will soon see Slovenia at the top of those "Undiscovered treasures of Europe" lists. You heard it here first!
To wrap up, here is a picture of what Jacob would look like if he was blind.