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Published: August 13th 2008
Mat: Have you heard of Ljubljana? Can you point it out on a map? Can you spell it?
It was a no, no, and no for me prior to our trip, but after heading there I can tell you that Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, is smack bang in the middle of the country, and is spelt with two awkwardly placed "j"s.
Ljubljana is a city of 270,000 people, but it seems much smaller. The heart of the place is a beautiful old town, nestled around a small river. The river has been channelled through stone embankments, so many of the city’s cafes and restaurants are perched right on the water. This, combined with the summer heat, and optimism of the people, makes for a wonderful atmosphere. Everything is within walking distance, and we whiled away hours wondering about, eating icecreams, people-watching, visiting the fruit and vege market, and cooling off with good Slovenian lagers (how can you resist the national beer when on the bottle it states “brewed with love”). Slovenia had been the economic powerhouse of Yugoslavia, and has recently been doing very well for itself since becoming part of the EU. As a result Ljubljana
has a really positive feel. I think we spent four days there, and I can not really remember anything of note that we did, but I know we had a great time.
After soaking in Ljubljana for a few days, we visited the Lipizzaner stud farm at Lipica in southern Slovenia, which has been breeding horses since the 16th Century. The history of the stud farm has been turbulent, with a disastrous earthquake, many horse relocations during various wars, and persistent financial issues. To provide another source of income they now have their own version of the Vienna riding school, and we watched both a morning training session, and the afternoon performance. It was pretty much like Vienna, but without the chandeliers.
The day Trace flew back to Scotland, Dave and I took a bus to a place infinitely easier to spell - Bled. This place was incredible. It is in the mountains. It has a lake. It has a castle perched high on a cliff overlooking the lake. It has an island on the lake. It has an old church on the island on the lake. Bloody beautiful mate. The weather was superb, as it had been
during our time in Ljubljana. In fact it was almost too hot, I think I got a touch of sun stroke after Dave and I spent a day outside walking all over the place. The most punishing, but ultimately rewarding walk, was in the mid-day sun, through farmland with no shade, to Vintgar Gorge. The official temperature for the day was 33 degrees, and by the time we had walked the 4km to the gorge we were drenched in sweat and knackered. We had seizure-inducing plunge into the freezing, clear water of the river, before heading towards the centre of Vintgar Gorge. This is a 1600m sheer-sided limestone area that can be traversed on a boardwalk that was originally built a century ago. One peculiarity was that one moment the air would be chilly as it was cooled by the icy water flowing through the shaded part of the gorge, then a second later we would get enveloped in warmth as the air moved back towards us from the sun-drenched area at the end of the gorge. Superb place.
After Bled, we headed south to the Adriatic coastal town of Piran. This medieval walled-town is on a small peninsular
near the border with Croatia. Its buildings are a jumble of irregular shapes, and some of the cobblestoned streets were incredibly maze-like and narrow. Something that I found particularly cool about Piran were the swimming-pool-type entry/exit ladders spread around the rock shoreline of the town. A rock and concrete shoreline does not seem very attractive, but it seemed to work for this place.
After a night in Piran it was back to Ljubljana to catch a train towards Hungary. On the way we stopped at another old
town called Pjui (the Slovenians seem to really like strangely-placed “j”s). We arrived in the evening, and the one hostel in the town had closed. We really did not have a plan for accommodation, so ended up wandering a bit before finding a dodgy Yugoslavian-era hotel. The guy at the reception desk spoke pretty good English, had watched Once Were Warriors, and wanted to know if all Maori people were like Jake the Muss, and if their children went to school...
Once we had the hotel sorted we headed out for a wander around Pjui. There was a big group of people watching the Euro 2008 semi-final. We met up with
a bunch of very friendly locals who were from Pjui but studied in Ljubljana and spoke English well. They pointed out that the slab of sculptured stone in the centre of the square was the tombstone of one of the mayors of Pjui during the 2nd century! Embedded in the walls of the church were also many Roman artefacts. I wish mum had have been there, she may have been able to decipher what they were all about.
I think we would have stayed in Pjui for another night or so, but our train ticket could not be changed, so we left first thing in the morning for Budapest, the last stop on our trip.
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