Archive for the ‘Slovenia’ Category

Anything but slovenly

Friday, September 19th, 2008

Given that we were thinking about avoiding this country and plowing straight up north through the Dolomites to Austria, Slovenia was a revelation. Driving past the abandoned border post we immediately entered a green landscape of forested hills, bucolic farms, and villages that never threatened to break out into anything considered urban or squalid. This overload of pastoral pleasantness never let up for the entire length of the country. Now France has got a continents worth of wonders within l’hexagone, and Switzerland and Norway have large hunks of landscape where you can feel trapped inside a fairytale. But for above-averageness in all departments, I award the EuroVisionOfLoveliness award to {…drumroll…} Slovenia!

Lake Bled, Slovenia

We stopped for a friendly beer in a roadside cafe, and by early afternoon we were in the capital, Ljubljana. This is a gem of a town. Small enough to walk across in an hour yet bustling with outdoor cafes choc full of friendly, well-dressed (though karina reckons their chic is a bit dated) Slovenians drinking and chatting the evening away. Art noveau and baroque buildings line the river and inner squares, and a small castle looks out over the city from on high. We drifted around, having a beer here, a bite to eat there, though I almost poisoned myself with with a beer that turned out to taste like cordial. The next day we caught the funicular up to the castle on the hill. It had a gallery of naive jungle art and a hysterical video presentation about traditional weddings in the castle. We walked back through parkland to the centre, stopping in a palatial university library to steal some wifi and cool myself on their marble balustrades from the heat of the midday sun.

We set off north west, and from afar the mini swiss scenery of the Julian Alps and the peak of Mt Triglav rise up in anticipation. We were making for Bled, a town by an alpine lake in the dramatic corner of the country. But being a friday afternoon in summer, there were a few other people who had the same idea, and they combined with roadworks to drag us to a stand still. Our petrol was running low, and all the idling and crawling in traffic had the needle below the empty mark. We were running on fumes when we took the Bled exit from the highway, but our van got us to the petrol station in the end. With renewed vigour. We cruised down the slope to the lake.

If I set about designing a dramatic european landscape, I’d lack the art and ambition to come up with Bled. High forested bluffs and hills surround the languid deep green waters of this alpine lake. On one of the cliffs, a beautiful castle is plonked photogenicly. On a small island in the middle of the waters, a small church and bell tower looks suitably venerable. The modest town of Bled clings to one corner of the lake and has the airs of a french spa town. On the other side of the lake, a well kitted out campground nestles in a valley and it was here we spent a few days. The sun shone and under blue skies I swam in the deep cool waters of the lake while karina sunbaked on the shore. Later, we hired a row boat and explored the island and church, before paddling into the middle where we shed our clothes and dove off the boat. As we floated on our backs, the castle and mountains formed a fish-eye lens hemisphere of beauty.

The fate of the van had been playing on our minds. The further we went east and things became cheaper, the less the possible price we’d get upon selling. There was the chance of it developing further problems, and I already had doubts that an experienced dealer would offer us much for it. We decided Austria would be our best bet, both for it’s VW dealers and being the last affluent country in central europe. We ran an ad on the London Gumtree, and received 3 bites, one of which responded to my follow-ups.

From Bled, the quickest way to Austria was via a motorway tunnel. However, at the border the Slovenians stung us for 35 euro yearly motorway sticker for driving 10kms of tarmac. I’ll miss Slovenia, it’s beautiful green landscapes, it’s friendly people, and it’s 20p supermarket pivo beer.

Far Canal

Monday, September 1st, 2008

I had a chance to go to Venice years ago whilst travelling alone, but in a silly romantic gesture I decided I wouldnt go there unless it was with a lover. Now that I’m spliced with Karina, I could put it on our itenary. But I get ahead of myself.

After Bologne, we headed west through the rice and corn fields to the venerable town of Ravenna. After a bit of catherdral browsing and a beer outside the tomb of Dante Aligheri, we headed to the port about 10km out of town. This turned out to be a very long coastal drag of one club after another that seemed to go on forever, and was packed with Italians in a party mood. We parked up and wandered these beachside bars, with different styles of music coming out of each one. We had a flourescent cocktail in one and a dance in the other, then ambled up the street market to the docks where we finished the night with a beer next to the bobbing boats. On return to the van to sleep we’d aquired a parking ticket, our first, that I had no intention of paying.

As we drove north to Venice, we encountered a traffic jam of trucks that looked like it wasnt going anywhere in a hurry. So with our trusty GPS we navigated an inland route through farming country, stopping for some fresh watermelon that hit the spot. Arriving close to Venice, we veered of the highway and parked on the mainland in a longstay carpark nexty to ferry terminal.

The ferry chugged across the venetian lagoon, and with the city rising out of the waters as we approached, it looked as if we were travelling through a Titian painting. The scene had a beautiful stillness about it, not broken by the gulls crying from the sunken wooden stacks.

On arrival, we headed out into the maze of alleys canals and bridges. The quarter between the terminal and St Marco’s square was geared towards seperating the tourists from their money, though the costume masks some sold were little masterpieces. After listenening to the bells and chasing down pidgeons in the crowded square, we set off with the intention of getting lost and succeed quite effectively. By the time we’d orientated ourselves again we’d managed to turn up at the naval arsenal at the eastern fringe of the city. Wending our way back proved a challenge but by sunset we’d covered a whole lot of that strange, beautiful and unlikely city. As our boat pulled away, the clouds castling above the city became bathed in the red light of dusk, and already the memory of that day in my mind has taken on the surreal quality of a dream. (I’d like to make clear that I was not on hallucinagenics at the time)

After Venice we had a choice of heading straight north through the Dolomites to Austria, or around the coast to the east and up through Slovenia. I would have like to see the mountains, but you can’t see everything and it would have been a challenge on the van, so we arced around following the line of the coast to Trieste. Trieste, has a bit of Slovenia, a bit of Austria, and a fair slab of italy in it’s make up. After a hearty and nutritious lunch of various fried meats, we opted for a campground a few kms east of town in Muggia 50m from the Slovenian border. A relaxing couple of days followed, of riding the bikes, exploring the area including the Slovenia side, and tucking into some tasty fresh fish in a restaurant owned by a fishing co-op. Our last night in italy we sat in the little harour and witnessed a a spectacular sunset lightning storm off to the south, that threatened but never quite reached us. Driving out of Triest and over the mountains to slovenia the following day, our GPS led us one of the steepest streets we’d been up, complicated by having cobblestones, being only one lane wide, and having a fair amount of traffic trying to negotiate it. It was so steep my handbrake didn’t even hold the van, and i had to reverse several times. Finally getting to the top, I saw am articulated lorry shaping to go down it, only stopping himself from getting into a whole lot of trouble by my finger wagging. I wonder if he had the same model GPS.