May 05, 2005 GMT

Our first impression of Slovenia is kind of dreary. The high mountain pass we've chosen in order to see something a little more unusual (as well as to avoid the high cost of the toll road) deposits us in a narrow valley with dark old farms and barns and houses which seem a shabbier imitation of the chalets of Austria. The sky is dark and the hills covered with less abundant shrubs. A few older people are out tilling small patches of ground. Few flowers are evident. We continue on to ugly Jelenice, still in a narrow valley, with our first view of classic drab Communist apartment blocks and a sprawl of industrial structures.

Fortunately this is not our destination. We ride on to Bled, and Slovenia is immediately redeemed by the charming vision of its lake surrounded by high snowy mountains. A castle perches high above the waters and a small church sits beckoning tourists to a little island near the shore. A small corner of the lake has been built up with hotels but overall the mood is peaceful and low-key.

Lake Bled.jpg

We find a great campsite where the receptionist gives us a quick lesson in Slovenian. Dinner is a large portion of tasty weiner schnitzel at a local pub recommended by our guidebook. Though we came equipped with a general guide to Eastern Europe we are lucky to befriend Alan and Ellen (visiting from London). They are on their way out of the country and give us their book on Slovenia. We are able to pawn off our campground guide to Western Europe in return.

Erika is just delighted to be able to walk around the lake in the morning, as she has been going through withdrawal of her morning saunter around Lake Merritt in Oakland since leaving California. In the afternoon we take a ride to Lake Bohinj and walk up its 500 steps to the top of a waterfall.

waterfall at Lake Bohinj.jpg

After a few vacation-like days in Bled (yes, this is all just one big vacation--but some places convey a holiday atmosphere better than others) we are off to Ljubljana, the capitol city of Slovenia.

countryside en route to Ljubljana.jpg

Dave navigates bravely through the sprawl of its not-particularly-charming outskirts and we eventually locate the campsite. Compared to the immaculate marble bathrooms of the Bled campground, this one ranks low as its plumbing is being repaired and the tent sites are muddy. There is a Chinese restaurant nearby, however, which promises to appease us somewhat with its lure of something to eat other than bread and cheese. We have been so spoiled by the abundance of eating options in San Francisco.

Old town Ljubljana turns out to be a delight, with a canal running through art-deco and 19th century facaded cafes on both sides.

Ljubljana bridge.jpg

Many trendy-jeans-clad-under-20-somethings bear evidence to the fact that this is a college town. We learn later that one in six residents of the town is a college student. Dave tries to upload some photos onto the photo CD and is horrified moments later to find that his entire stash of Europe pictures has somehow been erased from his allegedly non-rewriteable CD-R. The young-and-slightly-bored cafe manager is of little help. Pictureless, we drive across town to seek out an internet cafe with someone more knowledgeable.

Like magic, Dale shows up. We are in a little dead-end street at the address the book promised would hold an internet cafe, no internet cafe in sight. "Need some help?" someone says. As soon as we explain our predicament, he says, "Come on up! You can use my internet! I have a phone where you can call the U.S. for free! Make yourselves at home!" It is too good to be true. Dale is from Southern California and has lived in Ljubljana for 8 years doing ministry work with college students. He has also lived in a lot of other places and shares all kinds of interesting and useful information with us.

our new friend Dale.jpg

We end up spending 3 nights at Dale's spacious apartment, enjoying home-cooked Mexican food, delicious Bulgarian wine, and great company. Dale's generosity is wonderful and we are sorry to leave (but figure that ultimately he would probably prefer not to have 2 new permanent housemates). Thanks for everything Dale! (note: sadly, Dave was never able to retrieve his pictures).

On a day trip from the capitol we head east through rolling hills and pleasant villages along the glossy Krka river.

Village of Zuzemberk.jpg

Zuzemberk Castle sits intriguingly by the side of the road so we pull over but realize we can't get a good view unless we walk down the hill to the river. There are fly fisherman casting in the river and we stop to watch.

fly fishing at Zuzemberk.jpg

A wirey, sunbaked old man gestures to us in that timeworn mime, cupping his hand and pretending to toss back a drink. We step into his home on the river where he pours us one shotglass after another of "mineral water". It is fairly firey and plenty tasty. For the next hours we attempt to convey our trip by drawing little pictures of motorcycles and world maps and he attempts to tell us stories of, perhaps, the collapse of Yugoslavia and how he got the large scar on his stomach. He shows us the contents of a small treasure box which includes a few large bullets and proclaims "Tito, Tito" proudly as he bestows Dave with a small red communist star to pin on his shirt. We have to move on before Dave gets so plastered he can't drive straight. It has been a rewarding if indecipherable cultural experience.

Erika Takes Kumelj's Hat.jpg

It is an unusually hot day and we pull over by the river to cool off and eat Slovenia's gas station's finest gourmet treat, a can of tuna with bread sticks. Continuing on the road we are surprised to see a flock of ostriches.


The final destination is a castle which Erika thinks is the foremost tourist attraction of Slovenia and turns out to be just another guest hotel with golf course. Okay, fine, so that tourist desitnation was some OTHER castle. You can't be right about EVERYTHING.

Slovenia in springtime.jpg

After bidding farewell to Dale, we arrive at Piran. This corner of Slovenia is on the coast right next to Italy and looks nothing like anything we have seen so far. It is a Venetian-style town on a harbor with very steep narrow streets on which Dave gets his first lesson on the difficulty of getting a grip on the bike on cobblestones. He is able to maneuver out of the dead-end we find ourselves in and get us back onto the scenic highway. We find another great campsite with a restaurant overlooking the coastline where we relax with a drink before dinner at a rustic Italian place nearby.

A rainy day is a good day to check out caves. So seeing as how the next day is once again wet and frigid we venture underground to the Skocjan Caves. This is a UNESCO heritage site and impresses us greatly with its VAST gaping slanted caverns and thundering underground river. Erika is tempted to join the evil photo-takers who are defying the guide and gathering memorable mementos right and left, but Dave does not want her reprimanded by the guide of the pack of school children behind us who snaps at someone in our group that "my kids are better behaved than you people". After the cave, we explore a few rainy towns (Piran, Koper, Izola) before returning back to camp and preparing for our next day's journey on to Croatia.

Posted by Erika Tunick at 02:38 PM GMT

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