July 26, 2012

Slovenia’s Little Secret

We were first tipped off about Slovenia by our friends Jill and Kevin DiFalco who were stationed in the Air Force in nearby Italy. Slovenia is a hidden little secret that most American tourists don’t even know to consider, but now we can vouch that it is certainly worth a visit.

Ljubljana is Slovenia’s capital, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. Instead of stately national buildings, it’s full of cafes, trendy boutiques, a waterfront promenade and a bustling daily market. The Town Hall is more grandiose than the country’s Parliament Building. We suppose it’s because Slovenia has only been its own country for 21 years.

Slovenia gained its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, after just 10 days of fighting. Of the former Yugoslavian countries, it's the most Western with the strongest economy and the most efficiency. It was also the first of the former-Yugoslavian country to join the EU in 2004.

Slovenians speak very good English…even better than Spain, France or Italy. They recognize that in a country of only 2 million people, it's not realistic for everyone else to learn their language, so they learn ours too.

Ljubljana (pronounced something like “Lubliana”) is artsy like Barcelona, but has a quaint canal-town feel like cities in Belgium.

We stayed in a hostel that was constructed by the Austro-Hungarian soldiers in 1882 and used as a military prison until 1991. All over town there are all sorts of interesting conversion stories just like this.

Less than an hour’s drive away from Ljubljana is fairytale Lake Bled.

As the rowing center of Slovenia – and devoid of any motorized boats – Lake Bled is a tranquil getaway.

Only 3.5 miles in circumference, this picturesque little lake is capped by a castle on one end and a dreamy island in the middle. Unfortunately we had bad weather in Lake Bled, but we tried to make the most of it. While the weather was good enough, we did some hiking, rowing, and swimming.

The highlight was paddling our wooden swan rowboat out to the island.

99 stairs lead up from the dock to the church on top of the island. It’s a tradition for local grooms to carry their brides up the stairs to see if they’re “fit for marriage”. I spared Steve the experiment.

Inside the church, a rope hangs down in front of the alter. Legend states that if you ring the church bell three times, your wish will come true. From the shores of Lake Bled, it’s standard to hear wishes being made from morning until night.

We were in Lake Bled for only two days, which barely gave us enough time to sample all of their famous desserts like Kremna Rezina, the Lake Bled Cream Cake.

There’s also Cockta…a soft drink introduced during the communist era when Coca Cola was hard to come by. It has such an odd taste. There’s a reason Coca Cola is enjoyed globally and Cockta is not.

Just outside of Bled is splendid Vintgar Gorge. This was our first look at Slovenia's crazy-colored water and a precursor for what was to come...

From the Lake Bled region, we spend a day driving through the Julian Alps and the Soca River Valley. The Soca’s water is as blue as Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon, except that it’s so clear you can see straight to the bottom.

Upon hearing the word “Slovenia” you might immediately think factories and minefields. But this country is full of a rolling green countryside that is quaint and beautiful – packed with hayracks and colorful beehives. Beekeepers once believed that painting the fronts of hives made it easier for bees to find their way home.

This area was also a sobering lesson for us. The Soca Front saw some of WWI’s fiercest fighting…the same valley that we spent the day playing in. This is where a young Ernest Hemingway drove an ambulance for the Italian army and there are WWI reminders everywhere – abandoned forts, guard stations, cemeteries, and this crazy ladder that the soldiers used to escape into the mountains.

Along the drive we stopped in Bovec, the whitewater adventure hub of Slovenia. The high point of our time in the Julian Alps was canyoning down the Susec Gorge. We didn’t completely know what canyoning meant before we signed up, but we sure do now! Sadly we don’t have any of our own pictures to help explain it, but I would describe it as a combination of rock climbing, cliff jumping, and sliding your body down a canyon full of waterfalls.

The adventure began with a 25-minute hike up the canyon in the most ridiculous outfit I've ever worn. Picture this...bikini, neoprene booties, crash test helmet, and a wetsuit tied around my back like a monkey. Having all of that neoprene wrapped around us was heat inducing, and we didn't bring any water. We were dying. When we finally got to the point where we stopped hiking, our guide Peter reassured us that we could drink the water from the river...only in that particular spot and not further downstream. We would never normally do such a thing and jeopardize our trip with waterborne disease, but again, it was a dire situation. So there we sat guzzling and I mean guzzlingriver water. It's been a week and we haven't gotten sick yet.

Once the monkey was off our backs and we were suited up, the final piece to our ensemble was a thick plastic “diaper" that aids you in sliding down the rocks. There are all sorts of ways to take the slides…feet first on your back, feet first on your stomach, head first on your stomach (“Super Man”), head first on your back (the most fun).

At the beginning Peter warmed us up on cliff jumps that measured anywhere from 4-6 meters. Steve and I were both shocked when I went for it down the last waterfall slide measuring a completely vertical 12 meters or 38 feet. This girl has come a loooong way in her battle against fear of heights.

We joked with Peter that having a company take people down 38-foot waterfalls without ropes would never be possible in the US. There are just too many regulations. Come to think of it, when we signed up we never signed a waiver and they didn’t even ask us if we could swim. Hmmmm…canyoning in Slovenia…highly recommend.

We’ve had great pizza in Slovenia. Dare I say even better than in Italy? That’s what I’m feeling and thinking, but I’m almost apologetic to write it. Slovenia is also known for burek – I’ll just describe it as a big yummy fast-food meat pastry.

Beer is straightforward here. You get the option of (1) light (2) dark (3) mixed. It’s almost too simple so we had to ask. “What is mixed?” The server looked at us like we were stupid and said, "That would be light and dark mixed together". It ended up being our favorite. Oh, the simplicity.

Come to Slovenia! It’s worth it. But please just don’t tell too many of your friends. Let’s keep it our little secret for as long as possible.


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