Although I have passed through the likes of Slovakia, Hungary, and Croatia, I still expect some of these Eastern European countries to be somewhat undeveloped and undiscovered. I don’t know where this impression comes from, but I thought I may be shopping via street-side fruit vendors instead of brightly lit supermarkets, hitch-hiking or catching local trucks instead of traveling in air-conditioned buses on super highways, and having more “what the hell” moments instead of “ahh, this is pretty awesome” ones.
I don’t even know if my kind of rustic traveling still exists anywhere; maybe somewhere in the “stan” countries, but it certainly has no place in cosmopolitan Slovenia. Nope, it is pretty awesome here.
The tiny country of Slovenia is slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey and is home to just under 2 million people. So…about the population of south Chicago. In one country. More than one quarter of this population lives in the beautiful little capital of Ljubljana pronounced (lub-lee-yana). And it is in Ljubljana that I began my journey through Slovenia.
Ljubljana reminds me of a fairy-tale village. It is pretty, It is clean. And, of course, there is a castle on a towering hill. While strolling through town, I half expected to catch Snow White daydreaming under an apple tree or find Rumpelstilskin hiding near one of the city’s many artistic bridges. The local market, set on the river’s cobblestone banks, was full of ripe fruits, homespun handicrafts, and homemade jams and butters.
Since Slovenia shares borders with Italy, Croatia, Austria, and Hungary, Ljubljana represents a melting pot of cultures in its diverse cuisines, architecture, and languages. Many locals speak or at least understand English and most speak more than two or three languages.
I only stayed one night and one full day in the capital since I was leaving for Lake Bled the following afternoon. After catching a bus from Zagreb via a train from Budapest, I unpacked, grabbed a quick dinner, and set out to see the sights around a town enhanced by fading twilight.
Ljubljana’s town center was serene except for a few dawdling couples and cigar-smoking drifters. Lamp glow from the bridges and walkways reflected brilliantly off the placid river, and though it was nearly 35 Fahrenheit, I found an ice cream shop and bought an ice-cream sundae. I settled near a lone violinist illuminated under the warmth of a lantern and listened to his melancholy poetry.
As I slurped the chocolate sundae, my thoughts drifted to my father, not only because he loved ice-cream sundaes, both as a snack and a dessert, but because I knew he would have enjoyed the ambiance of Ljubljana. As I fondly reminisced about our adventures together, the violinist started playing Frank Sinatra’s ballad, I did it my way. This song always reminds me of my father for he was certainly a man that lived his life based on his own beliefs and ideals and not by those around him. It was kind of a magical moment and a great beginning to my time in Slovenia.
The following day, I spent a resplendent few hours trolling the city for photos and soaking up the sunshine. The daytime reflections on the river were magnificent. I took about thirty just standing in this one spot. Lovely, lovely.
Musicians of varying talent and age entertained in the main square while pedestrians strolled nearby, enjoyed coffees, shopped at boutique stores, or wove their bicycles through the narrow streets. There are dozens of classy boutique and souvenir stores, cafes, and umbrella-adorned bars and restaurants lining the alleys. Basically, Ljubljana seemed to be a city for relaxing and socializing.
The dragon, representing power and courage, is a symbol for Ljubljana, and these beasts launch themselves from the Dragon Bridge and on the castle’s coat of arms. Nobody could really tell me why the dragon is Ljubljana’s symbol, but the most common story involves a brave mythological hero named Jason and a fierce battle with said fierce dragon.
After another circuit around Ljubljana’s center, I caught a 45 minute bus to Lake Bled and readied my body and mind for several days of near-alpine hiking. Back into nature – yay! I checked into my hostel, threw on running shoes, and circled the lake with gorgeous, take-my-breath-away views. While running, I thought that I should be carrying my camera so I could capture this pretty-as-a-postcard view. But, I reminded myself that I had four days of sunny weather in which to take scenic photos.
Turns out, I spoke too soon as I woke to an overcast and rainy sky the following morning… and for the next three mornings after that.
It was cold and miserable, but I did manage a few hikes. Though I returned home sodden, cold, and shivering in my thermals, I ventured out to Vintgar Gorge, Lake Bohinj, and hiked the mountain up to the Ojstrica and Mala Osojnica lookouts.
I can’t say that I was impressed with any of these outings as I really needed (wanted) crystal clear, snow-peaked mountain backdrops and sparkling blue waters to make an impression and satiate the adventure-outdoorsy goddess in me. However, I was out in nature with fresh, clean, mountain air so I couldn’t complain. Too much. Maybe just a little bit.on the plus side, even when raining, Lake Bled is pretty special. Where else can one find an emerald lake, Alpine peaks, a gothic church nestled on a tiny island, and a medieval castle looming from a rocky perch?
Finally, on the forth day, the sun came out to play. I was following the forecast for several days and set my alarm for sunrise. I jumped out of bed at 5:30 a.m to circle the lake, climb the viewpoint (again) and thank the sun gods for giving me at least a few hours to enjoy the lake minus the lingering gray skies.
As it was my final morning in Bled, I didn’t have time to take a rowboat out to the church. However, the island and church excursion is usually a highlight for many visitors. They have an opportunity to climb the church tower, ring the church bell, and hope their wishes come true!
I look forward to returning to Lake Bled in slightly warmer weather. The summer months are not the best time to visit. Though gorgeous, sunny skies are prevelent, so are the hoardes of tourists and locals that flock to Bled in June, July, and August. Prices for nearly everything triple during these busy months, and accommodation is often booked out weeks in advance. Many local dwellers told me that the best season to visit in mid to late September or even early August when the schools are back in session and European vacationers have returned home.