Meanderings

Slovenia, Bled and.....Georgie Best?

Slovenia.

June 2012.

 

Perhaps these jumbled notes may be of some service to anyone heading to Slovenia.

 

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Back in 1996, me, Hil, and Huck the dog left Regensburg behind and, took a year-long trip in our VW bus. By accident (literally) we spent some time in Slovenia and I think subconsciously we fell in love with the place.

Slovenia is like a miniature Europe. It has a little bit of everything. Mountains, ocean, old cities and solitude. In short, it has a lot of stuff that I like. In fact it’s not unlike where we live in the Pacific North West USA. It just feels older and more “Lived in”.

 

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Back in 1997, I moved to the United States. But now after an absence of about 14 years, I suddenly find myself back in Europe.

Last time I was here, the Euro currency was still under discussion. International Borders were just coming down and some of the countries didn’t yet exist. Slovenia itself was one of a number of nations then emerging from the former Yugoslavia. It only actually joined the European Union in 2004.

I had good memories of Slovenia. So it was no surprise that when we were planning a little road trip recently, Slovenia’s name kept cropping up. It seemed the time was ripe for Slovenia Part 2.

 

So off we went……

 

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June 2012

 

…… Rain pelted down the wind shield from the moment we left Burghausen in Germany and all the way through Austria, to Slovenia. The journey took us about 5 hours. We could probably have managed it in 3 but we dilly dallied on the way. Our rental car was a diesel which was cheaper to fuel up but there were a lot of road tolls en route which still syphoned off quite a lot of Euros. For example, we required an autobahn “vignette” for Austrian Motorways (Not necessary for normal roads). It cost about 10 Euros but was valid for a week. There were also tunnel fees and another toll for Slovenian roads and a couple of other expenses. All told we spent about 50 Euros on road fees just to get there.

Our destination was the Julian Alps in Northern Slovenia. We headed directly to the lake town of Bled (pop. approx 10,800) where we had booked a room/apartment for 3 days in the student side of town. I have no idea what our hotel was called. We booked it online where it was only referred to cryptically as “The Yellow Room”. It wasn’t particularly yellow but it was clean and reasonably priced with a small kitchen area and an upstairs bedroom and a sofa downstairs. The supermarket (Mercator) was a 2 minute walk and The Georgie Best pub was just 2 doors down from our doorstep.

The Georgie Best Pub? Wait a minute. What the…?

For those out there just joining us from outer space, Georgie Best was a world class footballer in the 60s and 70s. He is most remembered as a Manchester United player who lived a rock star life style. He was a house-hold name in Britain and a hero to every schoolboy in the land. Sadly he died a few years back though I believe his liver died a few years earlier. His most famous quote was something like, “I made a million pounds and spent most of it on sex, drugs and rock n roll. The rest, I just squandered”.

I got so see him play once. It was in the 1980s. He’d signed for Hibs in the twilight of his career. The game was Celtic v Hibs at Easter Road Edinburgh. He didn’t play particularly brilliant but it was still a thrill to see him run out on to the pitch.

I doubt that Georgie best was ever the owner of this bar but whoever set it up was without doubt a big fan. The place was like a shrine. The walls were decorated with faded newspaper headlines, photos and clippings. Some scrap books lay on the bar top. And in one alcove there was a large portrait of Georgie looking like Christ himself with a heavenly light shining down on him (though that may have been the camera flash). Despite that image, I should say that the whole homage and worship themes were actually fairly mellow. In fact the pub had the pleasant ambience of a wood beam English country pub. There was a nice beer garden too but I didn’t notice any food. Upstairs I believe was a backpacker hostel.

 

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Second day.

 

The rain went off during the night and we awoke to a beautiful sunny morning.

So after enjoying our breakfast of Mercator croissants and coffee, we set off to explore the castle. From our room it was less than a ten minute uphill walk to the gate. There was of course an entry fee but it was a nice little trip. The castle was well maintained and sits perched on a rocky outcrop overseeing a magnificent panoramic view across the lake and the mountains. Around the courtyard,there was a museum, a café terrace, some traditional crafts displays some souvenier shops and a wine cellar.

A cheery faced monk gave us the world’s fastest winery tour. He said he was expecting a German tour group any minute. So, speaking fast like an auctioneer, he gave Ronan a ceremonial sword to wield, took a photo, gave us a sniff of wine, and showed us how we could cork our own bottle to become a real live wine bottler (Vintner?). He held up a parchment which we could sign to make it all official…. for a fee of course. “Going once, going twice”…. We declined the offer, tempting as it was. The whole tour lasted about 45 seconds.

 

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After the castle we went to the Vintgar Gorje which was a little way out of town by car (North West). Here, we enjoyed a great walk through a river gorge on walkways and ramparts that curved around the gorge walls. This easy going trek took about half an hour and gently descended past a chain of churning white waterfalls that poured into slow clear pools with lazy trout, till we emerged at the bottom where the most spectacular waterfall awaited. There we stopped and had a picnic before meandering leisurely back. Did I mention there was a small entry fee?

 

We returned to Bled and drove round to the campsite side of the lake. On the shore we sat at a café in a large wigwam and enjoyed coffee, ice cream and a delicious local vanilla cake called Kremma Rezina that Hil would have taken a bullet for.

Near the café wigwam we hired a canoe and rowed out to the lake’s Island. It took about 20 minutes each way. Hil rowed us out and I rowed us back. It started raining when we were on the island. Hil and Ronan explored its church while I did some sketching. Ronan rang the church bell for luck and the rain went off. If only he’d rung it the night we’d arrived.

The boat cost 10 Euro an hour. Public car parking beside the camp site was 5 Euros for the whole day.

In the early evening we explored the upscale side of Bled. This neighbourhood had a sort of casino feel to it. I suspect it caters to a slightly more bourgeois clientele. It reminded me of Baden Baden.

So we returned to the humbler side of town. Our little corner definitely feels more student and backpacker friendly. It’s rural and villageois but there is a lot of renovation work going on. I suspect it won’t be long till it becomes more exclusive too. Right now though it still retains some lingering pastoral qualities.

 

Speaking of rustic, we ate dinner on the terrace/deck of the Pizza Rustika. Hil had a burger in Pizza style bread. Me and Ronan shared a pizza. Nice enough place. It’s hard to go wrong with pizza.

Later Ronan stayed in the room and played his little DS computer game while me and Hil went to the Georgie Best pub for a quick drink.

 

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I must compliment the Slovenians on their command of languages. I guess they realize not many foreigners will speak their tongue and it’s up to them to make an effort to accomodate strangers. The Slovenian economy seems geared towards tourism and I sense they are determined to make it work in a friendly welcoming way. We were often asked if we prefered to speak in German or English. I think Bled has a Tourism School where some language classes are taught. Though Slovenian is the official language, I think Hungarian and Italian are spoken in certain regions.

 

But in any language, Slovenia is stunningly beautiful. It’s the unexpectedness that hits you. I was in constant awe as to how this gem of a country can have been sitting quietly undisturbed for so long. It’s like discovering Brig O Doon right there in front of your nose. I hope it doesn’t disappear.

When we’d been here all those years ago, we’d approached from the South West. We’d only reached Bled in time to discover we’d misplaced a day somewhere and could only stay over-night. We’d never got the full Julian Alps experience. So on this trip to Slovenia, everything was fresh. Every new day of discovery was like reading a great book and having no preconceived notion of the plot till the next page is turned and read.

 

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Next day (or page) we drove to Lake Bohinj. (Pronounced Bo-Heen) and pulled into the bustling little hamlet of Ribcev Lav. We rented bikes there from a place beside the scenic stone bridge and cycled off on a few false starts before heading vaguely East on a bike trail. The minute we left the tourist trap of Ribcec Lav behind, we found ourselves in a lush green valley of tranquility. There were no cars or crowds, just a few purple cows with alpine bells and an occasional cyclist. We cycled quite far and hardly encountered a soul. On the way back to Ribcev Lav, we snacked at a little cabin by the trail side. We saw quite a few of these handy little places. They were like beer gardens with no proprietors. Walkers and cyclists simply stopped in with their own refreshments.

The Bohinj valley really reminded me of Mazama in the Methow valley in Washington State. In fact this whole trip would constantly remind me of the Cascades and the Rockies.

Three hours on 3 bikes cost approximately 24 Euros.

 

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Next stop by car was on Bohinj’s Western shore. We’d heard rumour of a waterfall called Slap Savica located at the end of a 20 minute uphill hike. There was of course, an entry fee but the trail was well maintained. Someone said there were 539 steps to the top. I saw one guy take a photo of a poster at the bottom. I guess if he didn’t make it to the top, he could always pretend he had.

The hike turned out to be fairly easy going but a bit crowded. We got to the end and there was an impressive 78m waterfall tumbling out of a fissure in the cliff face. It fell straight and thin like a white Lipitzaner horse’s tail. The view across the valley was an eye opener too. Once again, we could easily have been in Washington Pass back home in the Cascade Mountains. Me and my fellow 538 hikers all took some great photos before descending back to our cars and buses. Beside the car park we found a modest little cafe terrace to rest and have a drink.

 

Back in Bled, Ronan played his DS while we went to see Georgie Best for 45 minutes.

Ronan was asleep when we returned. I guess if you’re fleeling sleepy in Slovenia, then just glo to Bled.

 

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Next morning.

This was our last day in Bled. We had a farewell croissant breakfast, packed up, and left town. We stopped in at Radovljica just outside Bled. This was quite a nice little place with a sleepy charm and seemingly better shopping options as regards to supermarkets than Bled.

In a 2nd hand store I bought a rusty draw knife for 6 Euros. That’s my Slovenian souvenier. Hil bought some traditional bee hive prints from a gallery across the street.

 

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We got on the highway West to Kranjska Gora where we entered the Triglav National Park. The mountains if anything are even more spectacular here.

We turned South and headed up the pass. There were about 26 switch backs to the top: all numbered and cobblestoned at each curve. At number 8 there is a small Russian church built to commemorate the Russian POWs who died in an avalanche while building the road in 1916.

The top of the pass (1611m) was dull and chilly so we retreated the way we’d just come up until we found sunshine. We had a picnic and spontaneously decided we’d stay an extra night in the town (Kranjska Gora) at the base of the mountain.

We quickly and painlessly found a cheap room on the edge of town at the Penzion Blenkus. 50 euros including breakfast. I thought it very reasonable. The view from our window was reminiscent of looking up at the Tetons in Wyoming. I need some new expletives other than “Spectacular”. Somewhere among those peaks must have been Triglav Mountain.(Treeg-low). Triglav is Slovenia’s highest peak (2568m). They say you are not a true Slovenian till you’ve climbed it. I guess I’m not Slovenian. I wonder if I climbed it, would there be a guy issuing passports at the top.

There is a tale of some guy who climbed it a ridiculous amount of times in a single year. I guess he was a patriot with a point to prove or else he drank a lot of coffee.

We went to the local supermarket got some supplies and spent the afternoon and evening happily pottering around by the local lake and exploring a dried up river canyon. Basically just doing nothing. My favourite outdoor activity.

In the morning, the hotel served up a fantastic (Spectacular) all you can eat buffet breakfast.

As we were leaving town, we discovered that Kranjska Gora was larger than we’d thought. There was in fact quite a buzzing little town centre. But in the end we were happy in our ignorance as it made our stay less complicated.

 

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We crossed into Italy which was new territory for Ronan. In the town of Tarvisio, we stopped for a quick stroll before driving North into Austria via the Nassfeldpass. At the old border crossing was a small lake. We walked around it just for a stretch of the legs. There were a couple of restaurants but we didn’t go in.

We were now heading for the Grosglockner Strasse on route 107 which is sort of like Glacier National Park’s “Going to the Sun Road” in Montana.

 

En route, we stopped for lunch at the Gastehaus Gradewirt near Heilegenblut (Holy Blood. Interesting name for a town). The food was quite good and we sat in their garden till it started to rain.

On this trip we’d noticed a lot of motor-bikers on the road. They seemed to be travelling in large posses and also (unlike us) appeared to know where they were going.

We had begun to watch where they stopped to eat and rest. Generally they chose decent places. We guessed that many of them had planned their road trips in advance and had researched a lot of hotels and beer gardens in order to avoid frustration and discomfort.

A kilometer further we saw another gastehaus beside a large waterfall.

Plenty of bikers there.

 

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So we began our ascent into the Grossglockner’s clouds. This was a twisty, hair-raising affair, up and up, looping round the mountain.

We were doing well till we were suddenly confronted by a toll booth wanting 32 euros (22 for motorbikes).

This was a bit unexpected.

A little more warning would have been appreciated. Perhaps some more frequent signposts at the bottom with flashing details of impending extortion. I’m sure there must have been signs somewhere but I never saw them. Now here at the booth, we were so far past the last turn off it wasn’t worth returning.

We resigned to pay up and continue. I guess it’s not unlike Yellowstone National Park where even if you only wish to cross the park to visit someone on the other side, you still have to pay the park entrance fee.

All the same, it was still annoying. (So was Yellowstone).

So we continued up into the heavens: and to be honest the fee was actually just about worth it. We left the tree line far below and still wove upward into a bare bleak landscape. The clouds closed in and the ground was covered in streaks of snow. Colour drained away to a yellow, brown sepia.

Finally we arrived at a foggy car park (Hochtor). We could barely see far enough just to park.

We got out for a minute then got back in. there was nothing to see. We couldn’t see the fog for the mist.

A tunnel entrance slowly morphed out of the clouds and we were well inside its throat before the last wisps finally cleared.

On the other side, the sun was trying hard to break through.

I was amazed how many cyclists were tackling this peak. A hardy bunch. Some of them looked well beyond 70 years old. I wondered how old they looked at the bottom when they started. Probably about 25.

By now we were getting right up there. We went around a blind corner and suddenly dazzling through the ragged shifting clouds was a saw-toothed wall of massive jagged crags. I literally gasped aloud.

The mountains were so near, I felt the need to step back. They filled my entire field of vision as if I was sitting too close to a TV screen. The Hallelujah chorus would not have been out of place but fortunately for those present, I didn’t know the words.

How do you photograph scenery that huge? How do you capture a vista that’s so utterly staggering and dramatic in a puny snap shot? Maybe it’s impossible but we tried anyway. Perhaps it’s best treasured as a memory.

We were standing at 2504 metres. I think that’s approximately 7500 feet. The actual Grossglockner mountain itself stands at 3797 metres. That must be about 11,000 feet. About the size of Mount Baker back in Bellingham WA.

The Grossglockner peaks were certainly a sight to behold. I think we got our 32 Euros worth.

 

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The Grossglockner was a perfect place to say goodbye to the mountains. It was truly a lost alien world up there at that altitude but now it was time to descend back to civilization. Our trip was almost over.

And what a trip! Every day the landscape had shifted through the superlative gears. I keep returning to the word “Spectacular”. I can’t help it because that’s what this trip was.

We had drifted, mesmerized by mountains from the schone landshaft of Austria to the spektakularen kulise of the kranjska Gora to uno scenario spettacolare of Northern Italy and finally to the erstaunliche landshaft of the Grossglockner. Like I said, Slovenia is beautiful in any language. I guess that applies to its Alpine neighbours too.

 

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We crossed back into Germany and had pizza in Bad Reichenhall at the same place we’d eaten at last month on the town square. We watched part of the Poland v Greece Euro 2012 game. Greece had just missed a penalty when we left.

We got on route 20 North and the mountains slowly receeded into the rear view mirror. By 9 PM we were back in Burghausen.