|We left the peaceful Plitvice Lakes area and headed to the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana. On the way there, we decided to stop and see the Potojna Caves. This is the biggest cave system in Slovenia (and before borders shifted a few generations ago, was the biggest in Italy). The place is a little like Disney World (except of course it's all underground). We boarded a great little train that whipped us past fantastic rock formations to the bottom of the cave. Then we walked with a guide to see 100 ft tall stalagmites and stalactites, translucent natural curtains of limestone, thousands of long thin "spaghetti stalactites", an underground river, and a subterranean pond that contained several Proteus Anguinus (long skinny blind flesh-colored salamanders with human-like fingers and toes - Proteus Anguinus is popularly known as "human fish"). These animals can go without eating for up to ten years, and can live to be 90 years old. After spending ninety minutes deep underground, it was nice to come out into the sunlight again.
We left the caves behind and headed via motorway to Ljubljana. When we stepped out of the car it felt like we were back in the States. Seriously, this lovely small city has a look and feel that could place it anywhere in the U.S. On top of that, everyone from young to old spoke perfect English. When we quizzed a local about this he explained it's because they watch a lot of TV. He added that, unlike Germany and France, Slovenia does not dub foreign TV shows and movies and Slovenians watch a lot of American TV programs and movies.
After dropping our bags off at our hotel, which was located in the heart of the city, we walked through the town and headed to the Joze Plecnik Museum for a private tour. Joze Plecnik was Ljubljana's super architect who designed many of the bridges crossing the Ljubljanica River, among hundreds of other projects in Slovenia and abroad. Plecnik was a favorite of Czechoslovakia's pre-war president Tomas Masaryk, and Yugoslavian dictator Marshall Tito. He was hired to renovate Prague Castle, which is what he is most remembered for outside Slovenia. The museum that used to be his home has been kept just the way it was when Plecnik died in 1957. It was a treat to get so close to the life of someone the Slovenians revere. That evening, after a nice dinner, we sat in the park eating the best ice cream we're tasted on the trip, and listened to local folk music under the stars. It was the prefect way to end our first day in Slovenia.
The next morning, instead of doing a self-guided tour of the city as we usually do, we joined a tour offered by the Tourist Information office. Our tour guide grew up near Ljubljana and wanted to make sure we knew we were in Slovenia, which was formerly part of Yugoslavia, and NOT Slovakia which was formerly part of Czechoslovakia. We all laughed when he said this. He went on to explain that when the current U.S. president was asked a question by a Slovenian reporter, he got the two countries confused and answered referring to Slovakia when he meant Slovenia. Oops!
When we started the tour, it was lightly raining. Our guide apologized for the rain and said it had rained a little every day since the first of August. He blamed the Portuguese for the rain. He said a group from Portugal was there at the beginning of August, and told him August 1st was the start of autumn and that's why it was raining. Joining us for the tour were a couple from Houston, a man from Miami (who also owns a home near Siena, Italy) and a couple from Barcelona. We all trudged along in the rain listening to our guide telling wonderful stories of the city. Slovenia has a population of 2 million; 300,000 thousand live in Ljubljana and 50,000 of them are students. This makes the city very similar to Austin, Texas in size and demographics. Most of the students are gone during the month of August, which gave the town a slightly empty feel while we were there.
Ljubljana is very compact and easy to navigate. The majority of the city's great buildings were built during the period of Habsburg rule in the 17th and 18th centuries, and some were later modified under Napoleon when he named Ljubljana capital of his short-lived Illyrian Provinces. Many buildings were destroyed during an 1895 earthquake and were replaced with Art Nouveau buildings. Bridges designed by Plecnik include the Triple Bridge, the Dragon Bridge and the Cobbler's Bridge. Plecnik also had a hand in designing most of Ljubljana's public squares and many of its monuments. In the main square are the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation and a statue of national poet Franc Preseren. Preseren is looking in the direction of a bust of his unrequited love, Julija Primic (up on a building across the square). The Grand Union Hotel, built in 1905, was commandeered during WWI for use as a command center. Slovenia was on the losing side in WWI (part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) and Ljubljana was occupied and turned into a labor camp by the Italians in WWII.
Our tour guide also explained that in the spring of 1991 Slovenia was the first Yugoslav republic to hold free elections and to vote out the communist party. After months of stockpiling weapons, Slovenia closed its borders and declared independence. This did not go over well with Serbia and they sent in troops. The problem was, some of the Yugoslav troops were from Slovenia and were not aware they would be fighting their own family and friends; they were also young and inexperienced. The Slovenian civilians blockaded the Yugoslav barracks with their own cars and trucks, and the Yugoslav soldiers found themselves trapped and unable to overcome the Slovenian citizens. After 10 days of fighting and fewer than 100 deaths, Serbia relented and withdrew. Slovenia had won their independence.
The one thing we noticed was that Ljubljana has the least amount of graffiti of any other European city we visited. Our tour guide said he has a running verbal battle going with the graffiti "artists" and that Ljubljana has its share of this form of vandalism. During our tour he took us to see many of the tagged buildings and a few pieces of "art". You could tell that our tour guide loves the city and wants it to retain its original charm and beauty. Asked if he thought Ljubljana would become a big tourist destination like Prague, our guide said "no, the city isn't big enough to accommodate large tour groups" and that he hopes it stays that way. We disagree - with a little marketing Ljubljana could become a very popular tourist destination.
Of course, our trip would not have been complete without a tour of Ljubljana Castle. It sits atop a wooded hill near the heart of the city, and is Ljubljana's focal point. We climbed to the castle up some rough, steep and wet steps, and managed not to fall or break any bones. We also climbed to the top of the castle tower which provided a 360 degree view of the entire area. This made it well worth the climb. The castle is the site of summer concerts and plays. Although we didn't see a performance there, we sampled several free venues throughout the city. We loved Ljubljana and will certainly return someday.
We bid farewell to Ljubljana and drove an hour to the alpine city of Bled. Bled is a mountain resort located in a beautiful settling on a lake, surrounded by the Julian (as in Julius Caesar) Alps. Our charming B&B in a mountain chalet was located just above the center of Bled, so walking to town was easy; coming back was a bit more of a challenge (lots of stairs!). We made sure we had everything we needed before heading out for the day.
Once again, we climbed a steep path to view the local castle: Bled Castle, a medieval fortress that has been rebuilt several times. There we saw at least three weddings taking place. Guess this is the place in Bled to get married or to have a reception. Fortunately for them, the wedding party didn't have to climb the steep path; they arrived by car or horse-drawn carriage. It was fun watching the various wedding festivities as well as watching women try to maneuver the grounds in high heels. For once, Elayne had on proper shoes. The castle is high on a hill directly above the northern edge of town. Views from there are amazing, with a commanding view of Bled and the entire lake.
That evening we attended the Bled Music Festival. We listened to some local guys playing songs on wooden instruments they had made themselves. They played Swiss mountain music on huge and bizarre horns. We also heard a group from Denmark play West African music. While the younger generation enjoyed the rocking, jazzy music, most of the older people headed out after listening for a little while. We noticed that the Slovenians would hop up and down to the beat of the music in their seats, but they did not stand up to dance. Turns out, Slovenians are very polite and do not want to block the views of the people behind them. Some did get up to dance in the aisle, but most stayed in their seats and just bounced around. The band also noticed this, so for the last song they made everyone stand up and dance; even Bill danced a little. It was neat to be Americans in rural Slovenia, listening to West Africans from Copenhagen playing very lively rock/jazz with an African beat.
The next morning, we took a pletna boat (flat-bottomed wooden craft that are rowed with two oars, similar to the way Venetian gondolas are piloted) to "the island" located in the middle of the lake. On Saturdays, there is a steady procession of brides and grooms along with their wedding parties heading to the island. The goal is for the groom to carry the bride up 99 steps from the lake to the church. If he makes it, the marriage will survive; if not...let's just say a lot of brides diet before the wedding day. We didn't get to witness anyone being carried up the steps, and Bill passed on carrying Elayne up. The church, St. Mary of the Assumption, was built in the 12th century. A special feature of the church is the wishing bell; many tourists come here just to ring the bell. It's said that if you ring the bell, you will have your wish granted. The bell was installed in 1534. We both pulled the bell rope, and it remains to be seen whether our wishes will be granted.
After the boat ride, we strolled around the lake. It's only 3.5 miles and a peaceful and scenic setting. We passed some great old 19th century villas; one that was the former summer residence of Marshal Tito (Yugoslavian dictator from 1945 until his death in 1980). It's now the very posh Hotel Vila Bled; this is where all the VIPs (e.g., Madeleine Albright) stay when they visit the area. The lake is home to some of the fastest rowing athletes in the world. Several world crew championships have been held here, and we saw a couple of very fast rowing shells on the lake. After our stroll, we stopped into the local Irish pub for a drink and sat with the locals watching an American movie set in, of all places, Seattle.
Before leaving the area, we stopped in the nearby village of Radovljica. We wanted to see the beekeeping museum (this part of the country is famous for apiculture - at one time, Slovenia was Europe's biggest producer of honey). Anton Jansa, a Slovenian farmer, was the first official teacher of beekeeping. Unfortunately, the museum was closed. So we did a mini tour of the old town and shopped at a store selling hand made items from around the area. We didn't buy any honey as it's too hard to ship back home, but we were tempted.
Slovenian food is similar to Croatian and Bosnian food; heavily influenced by their neighbors and big on grilled meats. Slovenians are avid gardeners and love to serve fresh vegetables. We walked by several organic community gardens during our town stroll. The specialty of the Bled area is a vanilla custard and cream cake called kremna rezina. The dessert was created by a chef at Bled's Hotel Park and is famous all over Slovenia. Of course, we had to try a piece - yummy!
Slovenians make some outstanding wines. The country has a similar wine growing tradition to the French, Italians and Spanish. Slovenia lies at the center of the European wine growing belt and is at the same latitude as Burgundy and Bordeaux. We spent some time in a wine shop getting an education on the various wine regions and the various wines. We bought a bottle from western Slovenia to enjoy later on our trip.
As we said, Slovenian people are very polite; they are also very friendly. Since they speak English, it was easy to get into a conversation with them. They are very proud of their country and are especially proud that they are part of the European Union and will be chairing the EU in 2007. We enjoyed spending time with the Slovenians and are looking forward to a return visit.
We're now heading to Austria - for the third time. This time we're visiting the alpine towns of Hallstatt and Innsbruck. Adijo!