With a three-day weekend coming up, I simply had to take the opportunity to explore more of Europe. It really is astonishing how little we – from Britain – know about the rest of our continent. We talk enough of France, Italy, Spain and Germany, but I bet that a large number of the population couldn’t point to Lithuania, Albania or Lichtenstein on a map. I don’t even know if I could now.
I had barely heard of Slovenia, and yet there it is – a beautiful, stunning little country nestled between Austria, Hungary, Italy and Croatia. Small enough to drive across in four hours or so, this mountainous country is home to barely 2 million people. Formerly a part of Yugoslavia, Slovenia was fortunate enough to keep breath-taking Alps and lakes, even if it barely manages to cling to a sliver of coastline between Italy and Croatia.
It cost around £200 for a return flight with Czech Airlines – a journey that we decided upon based on the available flight times. I had hoped to visit Croatia, but schedules meant that I would only be able to spend a day there, while a Thursday evening flight and Sunday afternoon return meant that we’d have a fair bit of time to see this humble country, around half the size of the Czech Republic but with more mountains and a coast line. The flight took barely 80 minutes on the smallest plane I’d ever encountered – two seats on each side of a tiny aisle, and barely 50 on board. At 11pm on Thursday we arrived at Ljubljana airport (in case you’re trying to pronounce that, now, the “j” is a “y” sound).
We stayed at Jana Apartments, a quaint guesthouse barely a five minute drive from the airport. The owner picked us up in what was definitely not a chain-hotel shuttle, and took us to her countryside home. We were given not a room, but a small apartment (as the name implied), and for 20 Euros we had a kitchen, complete with utensils, table, sofa and two TVs. Breakfast was a help-yourself affair, and while online reviews whine about the “basic” nature of it, I was pretty thrilled at having open access to bread rolls, croissants, several kinds of cheese and ham, jams, toast, yogurt, cereal, sausages, fruit, coffee and juice.
After paying, we were directed to the bus stop – an isolated stand next to a field, which is a little daunting when you realise that the buses only run once an hour. Still, we grabbed the 8:05 bus into the centre of Ljubljana. It took around 45 minutes and cost 3.60EUR, winding through some beautiful little villages. Here, I was faced with what it actually means for a building to be old. Prague’s centuries-old buildings are stunning memorials to ages gone by, and yet we casually ignore the fact that there must be regular reconstruction in order to keep these old buildings looking so – well, new. Faced with crumbling concrete, damp wood and broken windows, I was reminded of what actually happens to buildings left untouched for long periods of time, and remarked on the interesting phenomenon of keeping things “old”.
Upon arrival in Ljubljana, we decided to keep our main bag in a storage locker and take another 60-minute journey – to Bled. Bled is indisputably one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It was Jeff’s second time to this country and to this location, and yet I watched him in constant awe, taking photographs from every possible angle. What’s there, you ask?
Bled lies at the entrance to the Julian Alps, a national park and area of supreme natural beauty. It would take days to venture deep into the scenery, and ideally we would have had time to take up skiing, white water rafting or one of the other adrenaline-sports that are so popular in Slovenia. Lake Bled itself is a few steps from the bus stop, and at once it takes your breath away. In the middle of the lake lies a small island, on which a small chapel resides. Jutting out from a surreal cliff-face, dominating the scene, stands the 1000-year-old castle. The walk up to the castle is slightly exhausting, but the view is definitely worth it. Unfortunately, the prices reflect most Euro countries these days – 4 or 5 EUR for a coffee and 2 for a bottle of water – which we definitely needed at the top. The weather was surprisingly warm.
After a wander through the castle’s museums and wine cellar, we took a detour into the trees and took the long way down. It was pretty, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be there at night (or during rain), hopping over roots and rocks, glimpsing the lake through the leaves. We continued to walk around the lake until a kindly old man beckoned us onto a boat. Naturally, we had to see what was on the island, although we stupidly didn’t ask him how much this brief journey would cost. The island itself was pretty boring – the chapel stood proudly atop several crumbling steps, and – of course – a small cafe and gift shop had nestled in on the action. We were given thirty minutes to explore the island, which – considering it took three to circle it and another five to see everything – seemed a suspicious ploy to make us buy something. We resisted, though.
Upon wishing to depart, we realised that we would have to pay whatever the old man demanded or face a swim to the shore – not ideal when you’re holding your new camera. We discovered that it was 12 EUR each – ouch! For a five minute row each way and half an hour of chilling by his boat, the man had just made a nice 48EUR from us and our travel companions. Still, as the Japanese would say – “shoganai” (what can ya do!?).
Somehow, our lakeside trek took up the best part of the day, and we finished it off by calling into the restaurant with the curious “Pizza Hut” logo on the outside. It turns out that they somehow have taken the name and added it to their otherwise unremarkable kebab and cake-serving pub, which I assume means that Pizza Hut do franchises! There was no pizza menu, however; they told us what toppings they had, and we experienced some delicious “kebab pizza” as well as a popular Slovenian cream cake.
Behold the pictures that we took – we managed to capture the castle lit up at night, too!
That night, we took the bus back into Ljubljana (be careful – those buses only run every couple of hours!) and found our hostel, the Confidenti. The website suggest taking a bus, so we did – everybody seemed to have swipe cards, though, and the driver looked at us as if we’d just offered him a dead mouse when we tried to give him money. He didn’t make any suggestion as to how we could pay, nor did he seem to care, so we just got on the bus anyway. It turns out that the hostel is an easy walk from the train station, through the small city centre, but ah well.
The hostel is nice enough – everything we needed, a private room, a shared bathroom (with jacuzzi bath!) and a nice common room, although the reception is only open for a few hours a day and we had to call the owner. He told me that he’d been waiting for us for a while, and had left the room open for us with the key on the bed (safe!), which was lucky. That room had some good, light-blocking blinds, too – which meant a LOT of sleep.
The next day, we took a 2 hour bus ride to Koper, on the coast and very close to the Italian border. My romantic heart envisioned rocky beaches with crystal clear (and cold) waters, a Mediterranean vibe, perhaps some sunshine. I have to say that it was pretty boring. Yes, I saw the sea – woop! I also saw a lot of docked boats importing and exporting goods, and all 2 meters of stony beach. The signs were in Italian as well as Slovenian, and the centre itself was pretty enough, with lots of cool little side streets, but after an hour of walking around we were ready to leave…
We ended up back in Ljubljana sooner than we’d thought – this time, though, we went by train. The bus hadn’t been the most pleasant journey (complaining tourists and music at that volume where it’s too quiet and too loud at the same time), but the train was great! It was 9 EUR (instead of the bus’s 11) and we had a whole compartment to ourselves, as well as a man walking up and down selling refreshments (beer), beautiful scenery and an actual toilet.
Back in the city, we decided to visit the site of the former military prison (also home to the Hostel Celica), which was surrounded by graffiti and weird, creepy artwork everywhere. It was like walking into the world’s most colourful ghetto – it felt rough, unsafe, and yet the political statements sprayed by local artists were intermingled with what looked like art for the sake of art. I couldn’t describe it completely, but imagine feeling very unsafe and yet unable to put your camera away. A group of youths hiding out in a climbling frame took no notice of us; nor did the men frantically sweeping up mounds of broken glass. The only lifeform that paid us any mind was a friendly, inquisitive cat, seemingly oblivious to the nightmare-inducing statues that stood behind her. For this one, I suggest the pictures.
The city of Ljubljana itself is like a condensed Prague – beautiful old buildings, a river, quaint riverside bars and a nice, relaxed atmosphere. You can walk the entire city in about half an hour. We took a seat in the “skyscraper” lounge, giving us a view of the pretty city at night, overlooked by a castle (which looks more like a university) on a hill. The center square – although a bit of a mess (why do they need three bridges in one place? ah well) – is a beautiful little area, and it was lovely to see café and bar seats down by the riverside as well as a little higher up. The nightlife didn’t seem to be pumping, but plenty of people were sitting outside with their cocktails.
While the customer service trumped Prague’s (the staff actually spoke English and smiled), it seemed quite hard to find a restaurant serving more than sandwiches. Eventually we found a small cluster of them near the river and ate at an Italian restaurant (I’m still not sure what Slovenian cuisine is) interestingly named Marley & Me. Why they named their restaurant after a film about a dog eludes me, although perhaps the movie copied this place? Anyway, their lasagne was beautiful.
The morning after gave us an equally tough food-hunt – I craved “breakfast” food, the kind that nobody eats unless they’re on holiday, but all we could find were rows and rows of bars (people drinking beer at 9am – woo!) and sandwiches. We stopped at a cafe serving amazing-looking hot chocolate; that thick, creamy variety that seems to be standard in Europe. Near the tri-bridge area, we finally decided that it would be sandwiches or kebabs for breakfast (the other thing that you can find everywhere), so we sat by the river in a covered area belonging to Cocoas cafe. Reclining on leather sofas, autumn leaves floated onto our laps and nearly into our drinks, but it was lovely. It turned out that the sandwiches had amazing fillings and that they served a huge range of smoothies and hot drinks. Jeff ordered a hot chocolate which turned out to contain liquor and chunks of banana… mmm! It amazes me how nobody bats an eyelid at the ordering of an alcoholic drink before noon, but like the Czechs, I suppose that they pace their drinking throughout the day rather than going crazy for a couple of hours and ending up wasted.
We didn’t stick around for long, as we had to fly back to Prague at 2pm. But a lovely little weekend it was, and here are some pictures of the city to finish with.