Location: Kranjska Gora, Slovenia and Ferlach, Austria
Another fine morning dawned so we decided to don the hiking shoes and explore a new dimension of Kranjska Gora, heading up into the mountains via the chair lift.
Once up the top though, the walks were pretty much all up, and on a 30 degrees day it was hard going.
We walked a couple of kilometres up to a great viewing spot, and enjoyed the downhill a lot more than the up!
We wandered into the pretty town of Kranjska Gora to find somewhere for lunch. Unlike many ski resort towns we have visited during summertime, this is busy and bustling, full of e-bikes for hire, busy cafes and interesting shops.
It’s great to see a town being successful all year round – no doubt the cycleway passing through is a big drawcard, with many tourers stopping for the night in hotels and B&Bs here.
Full of pizza, we returned to Truffy to move on to our next destination, out of Slovenia, and into Austria our eighth country this year (the others being New Zealand, Australia, UK, France, Italy, Croatia and Slovenia).
It was less than an hour’s drive to our next destination, Ferlach – Austria’s southernmost town. We took the Karawanks Tunnel, a nearly 8km tunnel beneath the Karawanks Alpine Range.
We had a very loose plan on the other side, aiming for the region of Carinthia. There are a number of cycleways in the area, coupled with beautiful castles and mountainous scenery. We were keen to check it out.
We found ourselves a parking place in Ferlach, a town famous for its gunsmiths, making guns for hunting which are used worldwide. Behind us are the mountains we were the other side of this morning and beside us a babbling mountain creek.
We got the bikes out for an explore. The town is so pretty, and hardly a person around.
We had an explore locally before heading down to the 510km Drau Cycle Path which runs alongside the River Drava nearby. We did a small taster cycle as it was getting late in the day, but it has definitely encouraged us to come back and see some more tomorrow.
After riding 19km, a beer in the local pub completed our day before we headed back to camp for showers and dinner. A great introduction to Austria.
How any times have you said when setting off for a ride…”well we had better take our passports!” Thats what we did today when we set off from the small ski village of Kranjska Gora in Slovenia to ride along a short section of cycleway that joins to one of Europe’s most scenic long distance routes, the Alpe Adria trail.
At 477km in total, it runs from the city of Grado on the Italian Adriatic coast, to Salzburg in Austria, mostly on dedicated cycleways, with the odd bit of quite road and one section of main road near Salzburg.
It was a Sunday afternoon, and heaving with bikes, everyone from toddlers out with their parents and siblings, to grandads like me, all with big smiles. Then there were the Lycra clad road riders, with their long serious faces, clearly on a mission of some sort. We are all out there for our different reasons. For us it’s the sheer joy of zooming around these new places, breathing in today the fresh mountain air, and being awestruck with the views.
We cycled up to a couple of lakes, after crossing the border into Italy. No security here of course, both countries are in the Schengen Zone. The view was just stunning up to the Julian Alps, still with some snow way above us on the north facing slopes.
With thunder rolling round the mountains, it was time to head back to our bedsit on wheels. After our few days of luxury in a hotel room we are back to quick showers in our cosy little Truffy, and a home made red Thai chicken curry to end the day. Not a bad trade for a different view out of our window whenever we fancy a change.
We had driven past Lake Bled on our way to Bohinj and it looked lovely, but totally booked out in terms of camping opportunities. We could have done a day trip, but were really keen to see it in depth, so instead booked a hotel room for a couple of nights.
We selected the Grand Hotel Toplice, one of the oldest and most spectacular hotels on the lake’s edge, with fabulous view across to Bled Castle and Bled Island. We have our 17 year wedding anniversary coming up next month and I will be in London for my next hospital appointment, meaning we won’t be together. So, what better excuse for a few days of luxury?
Breakfast at the hotel was an event in iteself, with the best spread of food either of us have seen in many years of staying in hotels.
DIY museli with fresh nuts, seeds and fruit, cold meats and juices, cooked eggs, sausages and vegetables, cakes, buns and yoghurts – the choice was endless and meant there was no need for lunch! All this while sat on a balcony with arguably one of the best views in the world.
We set off after breakfast to Bled Island on which stands the Church of the Mother of God, Mr A valiantly rowing us over in a wooden boat.
No motorised boats are allowed on the lake, keeping it serene. The church date back to the introduction of Christianity in this area (the year 745), with many adjustments over the years – mostly in the mid 1400s. Before this, there was a temple on the island dedicated to the Slavic goddess of love, Ziva.
Humans have been settled in this area since the Stone Age, with numerous artefacts found and displayed in the Castle, which we walked up to on our return from the island. There we enjoyed more amazing views, and saw our first little Slovenian red squirrel.
After an hour or so enjoying the hotel’s spa we went back to the room to get ready for dinner…Mr A decided to see whether we could get an upgrade. Well, he was very successful – managing to get us room 501, the best lake view room in the hotel!
Truffy was parked nearby so we picked up a bottle from our champagne stocks and cracked it open to celebrate with a glass of bubbles before going to dinner.
Dinner was at Restaurant Sova, which we had booked because of its fabulous reputation for both modern and delicious Slovenian food as well as having a wide selection of local wines and highly trained sommeliers. We were not disappointed.
Our evening finished off with a free live concert as part of the ‘Taste Bled’ weekend event. A great band called Lumberjack entertained us with covers from Kings of Leon, Lenny Kravitz and Dire Straits among others, before a ‘famous in Slovenia’ band headlined playing their own music (which was great for the locals especially). A perfect end to a perfect celebration!
I really did not expect to like Lake Bled as much as I have done. After Lake Bohinj, seeing big hotels, restaurants and a casino it all felt a little commercial. But in reality it has been far from it. The local people have been so friendly and welcoming, the hotel staff excellent, and everyone clearly loves Slovenia and is full of recommendations of what to see next. It has been more like being welcomed into a small town. This area will always have a place in our hearts.
It’s so hard not keep looking at this ever changing scene, the chiming of church bells around the water (especially now as I write on Sunday morning, calling people to service). With a late checkout today I think we will treat ourselves to this view just a little bit longer before we jump back into our camper and continue our journey in Slovenia.
Given the state of Mrs A’s toes and inability to walk, another ride was the only way to go. She put her ebike in turbo mode and managed to cycle one footed! An unintended benefit of these little beasts of bikes.
We rode up to Lake Bohinj, which was looking particularly sultry on this Wednesday morning.
We pressed on to the top of the lake and the awful Camp Bohinj…well awful to us anyway at this time of year – lots of people seem quite willing to stay there crushed together in the mud and mayhem.
We explored the upper reaches of the lake then decided it was time to start wandering back to rest up madam’s foot…35km of one legged cycling later!
A lazy afternoon ensued, with only a wash loaded and hung out to chalk up any sense of achievement. But it didn’t matter…we’re chilling.
Late afternoon madam decided she was up to another little foray in search of wild flowers. I tagged along cos I’m good like that, I don’t bother to feign any interest.
It was not long before I noted the storm clouds gathering and pronounced there would be rain before nightfall. Catherine told me the forecast says not. I packed everything up and put us into rain mode, and was then proved correct as just after a lovely reheated pork curry the heavens opened.
There is no better sound to drift off to sleep than the patter of big drops of the wet stuff on the roof of our motorhome.
We left Ljubljana early to drive the 90 minutes up to Lake Bohinj, Slovenia’s largest permanent lake, in the hope we might be able to find a lakeside campsite for a couple of nights. There is one campground beside the lake, and they had told us to be there early to find a spot as they didn’t take bookings.
On arrival we found a chaotic jumble of tents, campers and motor homes camped and parked up everywhere and anywhere, no set sites or organisation whatsoever. Most were parked within just half a metre of each other on muddy patches. Oh, but they were close to the water. Definitely not our type of camping., no matter how beautiful the lake is.
We abandoned that thought and found an alternative camp at Camp Danica in Bohinjsko Bistrica – further away from Bohinj but on a picturesque river and off road cycleway leading to the lake.
We got set up with almost no incident. Usually it is Mr A who is the clumsy one, but today it was me. I managed to trip over an unexpected guy rope on the campground. It sent me flying and now I have a suspected broken toe…perhaps two! Either way my left foot is not in a state for walking with two purple puffy toes. Hopefully they’re just badly bruised and my hobble will reduce with time (I will withhold photos – they can be shared on request if desired!).
I dosed up on anti-inflammatory tablets and we jumped on the bikes to ride…it didn’t hurt too much as long as I didn’t pedal with my left foot or step down…again – thank goodness for e-bikes!
And what a ride! The path wound through beautiful alpine meadows full of white, yellow and mauve flowers of every variety, surrounded by the most gorgeous mountains of the Julian Alps and Triglav National Park.
For most of the ride we followed the crystal clear Bohinjsko River, watching groups of paddlers negotiate the small rapids and gravel races. We explored small villages, full of flower filled holiday accomodation intermingled with farmers. It was just magical.
The lake was icy cold when we dipped our feet in it, though there were a few brave people in for a swim, not us…it did my toes some good though!
It was a beautiful ride – just over 35km (about 22 miles) all up, so we were ready for dinner on our return. In spite of an unexpected injury, a brilliant introduction to this area.
We found a place to park Truffy and wandered into Slovenia’s capital city – all very easy as it’s so dinky! The vibe was just so good.
We climbed up to its centrepiece, the magnificent castle.
We did the whole Ljubljana Castle tour with audio sets and it was so worth it. From the unique artefacts showcased in the museum (including a 5,000 year old Celtic vase), to the description of its turbulent history as it suffered the onslaught of the mighty Ottoman Empire – at one stage only 100 miles from its doorstep, to the beautiful entertaining spaces that have been created inside the old castle walls and are a hub for modern day culture in Slovenia.
Really the only parts of its history not covered was that during the Second World World War it served as an Italian prison (was that a deliberate omission? I don’t really understand the unwritten rules around what’s not spoken about in a tourist context). Then right up until the 1960s the castle was used as overspill city housing for the poor.
A short ride down on the funicular railway and it was time for lunch. We seem to have slipped unconsciously into that Mediterranean pattern of no breakfast (well we substitute tea for their coffee), then lunch as our main meal and a snack at night. I think Catherine’s missing her creative time in the kitchen!
We had a lovely meal by the river at a fish cafe, then wandered around the lovely streets filled with interesting shops, cyclists and happy smiley folk! What a great vibe…a city we would call at first glance like this very liveable.
In fact it’s the most likeable capital city we have seen so far on our travel based on our criteria – easy to get around by bike, waterways and green spaces everywhere, loads of food and wine choice, easy access to the mountains.
At just over 20,000 square kilometres, the country of Slovenia is a good deal smaller than Australia’s largest cattle station (Anna Creek in South Australia at 23,600km²), so its major tourist attractions are apparently heaving …we will find out tomorrow!
Location: Kostanjevica na Krki and Dolenjske Toplice, Slovenia
Saturday: After nearly four weeks travelling around Croatia we crossed the border into Slovenia this morning. A quick showing of passports and we were into new territory, and back in the European Union. Having lived in Australia for so many years crossing borders still feels bizarre to us – the concept that you can drive a few metres and there is a whole new culture and language. Thankfully our basic Croatian language learning of ‘thank you’ and ‘good day’ are exactly the same in Slovenia, so if nothing else we can be slightly polite, if largely ignorant!
Once over the border we continued on to the little settlement of Kostanjevica na Krki. Mark was earning his brownie points having found an old monastery which had been completely renovated and turned into a sculpture park and art gallery – an absolute culture hit, really not his style, but totally mine! Thank you Mr A, brownie points stored.
The centre of the settlement of Kostanjevica na Krki sits on an island in the middle of the Krka River.
You would be forgiven for thinking the Krka river becomes Krka falls in Croatia, the beautiful national park we visited a few days ago, but no, this river flows entirely within Slovenia, and is in fact the second longest in the country.
We continued to the Kostanjevica na Krki monastery.
The Cistercian monasterywas built in 1234 and was lived in by practicing monks until the abolition of monasteries in Slovenia in 1786. In the early 1800s all the furnishings were sold off, and the complex slowly fell into ruin.
Throughout the 1900s it has gradually been restored and renovated, the bulk of the work conducted post WWII, and today it is in perfect condition. Today there is nothing religious about the buildings, even the chapel, with all rooms given over to hosting the Božidar Jakac Art Museum and the Forma Viva Open Air Wood Sculpture Collection. The complex has been declared a cultural monument of state importance.
I explored the complex with an exhibition showcasing medieval fragments from the old building and telling the story (in Slovenian and English) of the renovation and the work involved. From there, I enjoyed artworks from several important Slovenian artists and some temporary exhibitions. It is an incredible space for showcasing art, and all the more powerful for being just me there most of the time. Time just flew.
Invigorated, I went back to meet Mark, who was relaxed, reading in the picturesque car park and we headed off for our next destination. As we drove, the sunny sky disappeared and the clouds began to darken.
We diverted off the main road to see a castle (now expensive hotel) on another island in the Krka River.
There was just enough time for a quick photo of the beautiful building reflecting in the river before the first crack of lightning and boom of thunder split the silence and we retreated to find our camp, a further 20km away near the settlement of Dolenjske Toplice.
The storm raged for about an hour, with incredibly heavy rain, almost deafening on Truffy’s roof. Early evening it abated, and we emerged to go for a walk to see where we were staying.
We followed a woodland pathway into the small town. It’s famous for its hot springs and attracts a number of German tourists it seems. We had a little look around before returning to camp as the sun set.
Sunday: Blue skies greeted us as we awoke so we decided a bike ride would be on the cards. A little research online revealed a mostly off-road and on quiet lanes ride along the river to the settlement of Novo Mesto. We decided to investigate.
We found the pathway and followed it along the river – beautiful little agricultural villages, fields of corn, wheat, strawberries, pumpkins, tomatoes….mostly small scale, local workers.
We had a fabulous ride, around 35km (22 miles) all up, and felt we got a real taste for Slovenian life in this part of the country. Despite being only about 60km from the Croatian border, Slovenia feels quite different.
Thursday: We took advantage of the cooler, mid twenties weather and leapt on our bikes to explore one of the many rides signposted around the small town of Samobor, to the west of Croatia’s capital Zagreb. The area does a good job of branding itself as a gourmet weekend destination for the weary city dwellers nearby. No evidence of them on a Thursday and it was beautifully quiet.
Firstly though it was a visit to the doctor for an annoying blocked ear. This would be the second time I had visited a doctor in Croatia and both times had been seen immediately with no appointment.
The first time I saw a private doctor in an immaculate surgery, and paid the same as I would in Australia, the gap between what the government thinks a doctor should charge and what they actually need to charge. On this second occasion there was no private doctor so I was sent to an “emergency” facility, again top notch, well presented facilities with super friendly staff. I paid the equivalent of £1 (AU$2).
I contrast this not only with my experience at home in Australia but the miserable task of getting to see a doctor in the UK. I was told to turn up the next morning and “expect to wait around 3 hours”, or have an appointment in several weeks’ time! No wonder the UK’s life expectancy rates are declining and the infant mortality rates increasing. The country is bursting at its narrow seams with people and just not coping…in my opinion.
So on with our ride with hearing restored. Bucolic scenes were everywhere, the rich soil and climate enabling small allotments being tended by stooped figures.
We took it all in and enjoyed the fresh climate and green space after the stifling heat and endless concrete developments on the coast.
Having cycled 45km (29 miles) we had worked up an appetite and headed for lunch at a family run restaurant recommended by our campsite host.
Mushroom soup, containing 15 different types of this locally picked delicacy, was followed by shared plates of a delicious mushroom risotto and fresh asparagus with scrambled eggs.
I think this was the best lunch we’ve enjoyed since we have been in Croatia. Immediately you can taste the freshness of local produce, something we have been missing in the tourist spots on the coast.
Friday: The next day we took a bus and tram into Zagreb. I’m sad to say we were completely underwhelmed by this capital city. We just didn’t find much to really get excited about.
We walked up to the Upper Town, the old Zagreb. There Catherine wandered into St Marks church.
I have decided to stay out of churches as a silent protest to institutional religion. While I waited, I was told off by a policeman with a gun for sitting on the steps of some official looking building.
We thought we would try the National Natural History Museum. Disappointingly there was no English signage at all meaning we learnt nothing… apparently it’s due a big makeover in 6 months – at least our ticket donations will go to a good cause, it is in dire need!
Then we started the long painful process of finding somewhere to eat where cigarettes weren’t going to be waved in our face and the menu featured some thing a little fresh and interesting. Finally we found a lovely little cafe in the leafy grounds of the Museum of Archaeology.
We were ready to leave mid afternoon, the first capital city we have ever run out of motivation to explore that quickly.
So it’s back to our lovely camp ground in the country and a snooze!
Location: Sokorlarski Raptor Centre and Zadar, Croatia
Tuesday: Departing camp in the morning, we headed to the Sokolarski Raptor Centre, just a fifteen minute drive from where we were staying. The centre is completely run by volunteers and funded with donations and visitors like us.
They are the only centre in Croatia which is set up to rescue birds of prey, restore them to health and release them – or in the case where they cannot be released (eg they are with humans too long) then they care for them lifelong. Injuring a bird of prey in Croatia is punishable by imprisonment, so they also are responsible for being the CSI of the bird world, identifying what or who may have killed a bird.
It wasn’t long before a keeper’s talk began. It is clear that everyone working here is passionate about the birds they are caring for, and educating people about them.
We were first introduced to the largest owl in the world, the Eurasian Eagle Owl. This female had been hand reared from a chick, so could never be released back into the wild.
A volunteer was sought to demonstrate some particular characteristics…and of course one is found….
The Eagle Owl population is now stable throughout all European countries, other than the British Isles where they are making a gradual comeback after being absent for around 200 years.
Fun Eagle Owl Fact
Owls eyes are not light sensitive – so if you shine a light into them the pupils will not change size…instead, when their pupils are large, they are seeing in macro, observing everything right in front of them. When their pupils shrink down, they are seeing things in the distance, like a pair of incredibly powerful binoculars. Eagle Owls can see a mouse move 8km (5 miles) away!
Having done her bit demonstrating the beauty of her species, she is fed a chick, which she sucks up like spaghetti…
The Centre also cares for several Harris’ Hawks, all bred in captivity. These are usually native in South America and southwest USA, but did a good job of demonstrating bird flight and the reason they do not fly away when allowed freedom. Again a volunteer was required…
Just beautiful birds. Did you know that Velcro is modelled on birds feathers? Or that keratin in shampoo (that makes your hair shine) is made from chicken feathers? Or that spoilers on the back of cars are modelled from hawk tails in flight? There are so many inventions direct from birds…
We had a look around some of the other raptors being cared for there, before heading back to Truffy and pointing north.
Our destination for the day was Zadar, a town on the coast about 160km north of Split. Once parked up at a very ordinary campground (basically crammed cheek by jowl in someone’s back garden with water access) we jumped on the bikes and cycled 10km into town.
Zadar traces its origins back to the 9th century BCE, with evidence of Stone Age habitation around the area. The Romans settled there in the the year 49 BCE. Today the town has extended from its original walls, but much of the historical centre is still there, with a rich variety of archaeological museums and Roman history visible throughout.
It was not a picturesque cycle, riding through derelict ports and long abandoned industrial areas, but before long we were riding across a bridge over the harbour and into the old town. Like many old towns we have visited, the streets are polished with centuries of feet, and Zadar old town is quite pretty. It was listed by UNESCO in their world heritage list in 2017.
We rode through the town, past old pillars, remnants of ancient Roman palaces combined with modern shops, cafes and ice cream stores. Every corner revealed more layers of history with current day use.
We wound our way to the waterfront with views out to the island of Ugljan, the sky darkening and flashing with an approaching storm. On the waterfront there is a sea organ, chiming out sounds ethereally with each ebb of the water.
From there, we found ourselves at the Forum, a large square full of Roman remains. Among the ruins of temples and colonnades stands one intact Roman column, which in the Middle Ages served as a shame post where wrongdoers were chained and publicly humiliated. Many of the other ruins have been used throughout the centuries as foundations for churches and other grand buildings, historical in their own right.
Mark decided to find a seat at one of the many cafés surrounding the Forum while I climbed the 12th century St Anastasia bell tower for a birds eye view of Zadar. I felt rather chuffed that at the top of the 180 spiral stairs I was not even out of breath, unlike most of the visitors reaching the top…and just a week post surgery. Breathing is so under rated!
The dark clouds got closer and closer, and before long the first drops of rain fell. We relished the cooler temperature, taking the edge of the 35 degree day, but decided it might be wise to cycle back the 10km to camp before it got worse.
Wednesday: The thunder, lightning and torrential rain raged all night, and we awoke to much more comfortable temperatures. We decided we had spent enough time on Croatia’s coast and set off inland.
The morning was cool, showery and windy, so a perfect day for driving as we pointed east and drove towards the hills.
We took our time driving, stopping for lunch and an afternoon nap (still a bit tired from the general anaesthetic last week, and Mr A wasn’t complaining either!), eventually arriving late afternoon at Camp Vugec Plac, just outside the town of Samobor, west of Croatia’s capital, Zagreb.
What a contrast to yesterday’s scruffy parking lot! This is a brand new camp with hotel quality bathrooms and showers, and parking on lush mowed lawns, surrounded by beautiful countryside. There is even a lovely looking pool.
We got set up and then sat down with a glass of Italian wine, enjoying the evening sunshine and birdsong. This is more like it, this is exactly why we travel.
Sitting in New Zealand at Christmas we had read about this National Park that has 17 waterfalls cascading through its limestone country. Now we were here..and loving it. Yes it’s popular with 1 million people visiting last year, but there’s a reason it’s popular – it’s absolutely breathtakingly beautiful.
We had booked a tour from the camp site we stayed at, a 9-5 day visiting the highlights of the park by minibus. There’s no way we would have seen some of these place left to our own devices.
A two hour walk had us deep in the forest on boardwalks, with streams and small cascades flowing all around us.
Then we came to the first major waterfall, which allowed swimming. Catherine was off as I guarded our bags. It did look quite spectacular.
A Franciscan monastery sat resplendent on a tiny island in one of the lakes, Roman catacombs beneath another monastery…this park has the lot.
We had lunch in a little tucked away cafe alongside the ever present waterfalls. Simple but lovely food served with Croatian wine….yup still the same verdict…thumbs down in the vino.
The park entrance fee was about AU$50 and the trip including the monastery tour and lunch the same. What great value! With a million visitors a year it was disappointing to see little evidence of that money being reinvested in the park, but that seems to be the story across Croatia with the tourist dollar. I wonder whose pocket it goes in?