Slovenia’s startling delights

September 20, 2022

After enduring today’s nearly normalized air travel pains and punishments to get to Slovenia (documented in three previous posts here, here, and here), my wife and I landed finally at the Ljubljana Airport (LJU) mid-afternoon on the last day of August.  The view of surrounding peaks and green vistas on approach was lovely and promising.  My Avis car was waiting, and we soon sped off in the direction of Lake Bled, our first stop in Slovenia.

Bled has real charm:  It’s more than just first impressions of Slovenia that make Lake Bled so appealing. After all, this was a favorite haunt of even the roughhewn Yugoslavian dictator Marshal Tito during his long reign in this part of the former Eastern European Soviet bloc behind the Iron Curtain.

Tito entertained infamous communist luminaries such as Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev and Cuban President Fidel Castro at his lakeside villa here, now a hotel. I have to wonder what the tough and bloody commissar Krushchev, the man Stalin relied upon to successfully defend Stalingrad against Hitler’s siege during World War II, must have thought of this nearly perfect, placid place.

Reminiscent of Germany and Austria, yet with a distinctive Slovenian character. We love it. The photos tell the tale. Penzion Mayer, where we stayed, is shown in the 2nd and 3rd pictures. My wife Ruth, is standing on our balcony in the third one below.

We were lucky that first evening to snag a table at Old Cellar. It’s booked solid for weeks. About which next week when I will sing the praises of dining in Slovenia and Croatia.

Bled farmhouse

As evening gathered, we planned the following day:  In the morning, a hiking adventure through a nearby gorge reputed to be stunningly beautiful, and the following afternoon we’d take a boat to the small island in the center.

After a few drizzles the first day, we found overcast skies the next morning, September 1st.  But low-hanging clouds in the Julian Alps of Slovenia didn’t deter us from enjoying the perfect day in and near Bled.

First, a hearty breakfast at the Penzion Mayer. We presented ourselves at 730am and were astonished at the huge spread. The smorgasbord of breads, fruits, cheeses, cured meats, jams, yogurts, and juices was rich and varied. Topped off with eggs made to order with several salamis and a coffee machine that produced perfect cappuccino, latte, and espresso. The croissants were as flaky as in France, and the brötchen as fresh and delicious as in Deutschland. It was hard not to overeat.

We burned off breakfast calories walking for nearly two hours around Lake Bled. Along the way, we had great views of the island in the lake, the only natural island in all of Slovenia. The photos above and below offer different perspectives of the island as we circled Lake Bled. 

Afterward, we drove our Arona rental car (made by a VW subsidiary in Spain) to nearby Vintgar Gorge. Though it was fun to drive the car’s 6-speed manual, Google lists the Arona as one of the 37 cars to avoid ever buying. No matter to us; we were just renting.

I do love driving a stick on the twisty, narrow European local roads, especially in little towns with virtually no visibility around 270° blind turns. Never know if I’ll encounter a farm tractor, an S Class Mercedes going too fast, a herd of milk cows, or a gaggle of cyclists practicing for their next weekend 100 km ride. Driving was as much fun as just being there and reminded me of the many pleasures of being in Euroland.

The Vintgar Gorge was crowded with cars from every part of Europe. I was surprised it was so busy on a Thursday and in the month of September—post the usual Euro vacation months.

The cost was €17 (charged online in advance for a specific entrance time) to walk the gorge’s impressive boardwalks and trails, plus €5 cash to park the car. We began the trail at 1245p and left the gorge at 125p to return to the carpark.

However, the gorge trail was strictly one-way in, and it wasn’t apparent until we headed out that the way back required lots of steep uphill climbs punctuated by equally precipitous and rocky downhills.  I was moaning and groaning incessantly by the time we arrived back at the parking lot at 230p. Ruth was patient and sweet to tolerate my muttered curses. I was just glad not to have tripped on the rocks going down.

The gorge was well worth my geezer travail, and I’d do it again (not sure Ruth would want to hear me gripe so much, though). Our frequent trips to Montana include a lot of comparable nature trails and hikes, and each one is a treasure. This one was unique and beautiful, as the pictures illustrate.

We then rested in our comfortable room at Penzion Mayer for a bit before heading to nearby Lake Bled for a boat trip to the island.

Ruth desired to take a boat to the small island in Lake Bled. Honestly, I was not excited about it. Only when we had left the dock did I begin to feel the utter tranquility of the experience and share the peacefulness with Ruth. She was right, and I’m so glad we did it.

The above photo is the view from Lake Bled island looking over to the Hotel Villa Bled, formerly Tito’s palatial digs (mentioned above). In the foreground of the picture is our traditional Lake Bled boat, called a pletna, used exclusively by licensed oarsmen to ferry up to 16 passengers to the island.

Pletna flat-bottomed boats on Lake Bled are said to have been a tradition since the 12th century. Just 23 oarsmen are licensed. They use two oars from a unique standing position to row the seven-meter boats.

It’s an impressive technique, as the next photo shows. You can see the church on the island as we began our return to Bled.

I was amused to witness our pletna oarsman immersed in a Slovenian polka video on his smartphone with the sound at full volume while waiting for passengers to reassemble at the island landing. It was a slice of real Slovenian life, as polka music was reputedly invented there and still much enjoyed.

The cost for the round-trip boat trip was €15 per person ($15 at the current exchange rate).

The following morning we went on seaside Piran on the Adriatic for two more nights with a stop in the Julian Alps on the way.  I’ll report on that glorious experience in a future post.

Who knew Slovenia was so beautiful and its people so charming?  I arrived with an open mind, expecting to have fun, but was still swept off my feet. 

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