Sunday, October 27, 2013

The remarkable beauty found in Slovenia and Croatia

I finally finished my first LLM class and had a week off before my next class would start up again. So, Big R took a week of leave so that we could go exploring. We'd been planning a trip to the former Yugoslavia for awhile, but it kept trying not to happen. I was so excited we were able to make this trip come together because it was such an amazing part of the world to see.

We did the adventure by car, so I tried to plan our visits to break up the drive for the kiddos. Our first stop was Lake Bled in Slovenia. Then it was off to Plitvice Lakes in Croatia, and back up north again for a final evening in Ljubljana. The theme of our trip was to enjoy the outdoors by visiting national parks. I had my fingers crossed the weather would cooperate for us, and we definitely had luck on our side this time.

The 6 hour drive from home to Lake Bled was relatively uneventful and painless. Well, as uneventful and painless as a long car ride can be with a 4 year old and a baby. There was a warm front passing through our part of Europe, so the drive was incredible.

Lake Bled is a beautiful place. We weren't sure what exactly to expect other than a church on an island in the middle of a serene lake. It was off-season, so things were quiet, and it took a bit for us to figure out exactly where to park the car, so we could enjoy the view. Before we knew it we were on a small boat heading across the lake to an island.

Beautiful church waiting for us on the island
Baby C is learning to love these boat rides
Another incredible view of the island on Lake Bled
The wind was whipping at the top of the observation tower
The rare family photo taken by new friends we met on the boat ride to the island
just so pretty...
little r taking it all in...
We wrapped up our visit to Lake Bled and headed to Radovljica, which is a small medieval town just 5 kilometers from the lake. Our hotel was Pension Lectar, and it was darling all the way down to the gingerbread museum in the basement. We found a place to park the car outside of the town center and waltzed right into a commercial. Literally, we landed smack dab in the middle of a commercial. Italians were filming a 30 second commercial bit set around Christmas time, so all of the buildings were lined with Christmas lights and a huge fake tree was set up in the square. Too funny...

We had an authentic Slovenian dinner at our hotel, explored the town a bit including purchasing some local wines, and then got the boys into bed while we stayed up and enjoyed a fabulous Cabernet Sauvignon together.

Radovljica was all decked out for Christmas in October for the Italian commercial
Crazy road and rickety bridge we had to cross to get to Radovljica - I had to hold my breath to cross it!
Before we headed to Croatia, we took a little jaunt to a place recommended by the tourist information office called Vintgar Gorge. We really wanted to get some hiking in before another long car ride, and the pictures of the place looked amazing. Let me just say, the pictures hardly did the place justice. It was absolutely gorgeous!!! I think we were there right at peak foliage. Somehow we managed to arrive before anyone else, so we practically had the trail to ourselves until our walk back. The gorge was quiet except for the roar of water, you could feel mist on your cheeks, the foliage lining the trail was breathtaking, and the water was crystal clear. It was absolutely incredible.

rushing water was the only sound as we hiked through the gorge
My boys and I in the middle of Vintgar Gorge
a wooden bridge crossing over the crystal blue waters
seriously beautiful
one of the water falls at an old dam structure
looking down a waterfall
large falls at the end of the hike in Vintgar Gorge
best hiking buddy ever!
seriously?! the beauty was neverending
i actually took this shot - so proud :)
classic little r look
Peek-a-boo, little man!
We hit the road after our exhilarating hike through Vintgar Gorge and headed for Croatia. Our final destination was Plitvice Lakes. A few of our friends had made the trip to this amazing place, and after seeing pictures and hearing about it, we knew we had to find a way to visit this magical location. The drive was less than 4 hours from Lake Bled. Although Croatia joined the European Union this past July, they still have a passport check at the border. We were so excited to get a stamp on our passports! All the travel that we have done since living in Europe, and this is only our second adventure where we received a stamp to enter a new country. It was pretty cool.

We stayed at a hotel super close to the park. Nothing spectacular about our hotel except that our host was terrific. The town we stayed in was kind of bizarre. It climbed up a hill and at the top the buildings seemed as if they were old barracks to house workers during the communist regime that had been turned into apartment buildings. Not exactly quintessential by any means... But that didn't matter because the location was ideal for hiking into the park first thing in the morning.

Our morning started early, and after finishing breakfast we found parking and started our hike. There is an upper and lower portion of the park with a network of trails, "train" buses, and boats to help you navigate through the beautiful falls. The neatest part of how it was setup were the wooden boardwalks that were built to allow visitors to hike literally on top of the waterways and wetlands. It was an incredible and ingenious way to allow people to witness the beauty of the park without destroying it.

Our timing was a little behind peak foliage, so it wasn't quite as colorful as we had hoped, but the weather cooperated and the temperature that day was pretty much perfect. Ironically, the prettiest time to see the park is also the hottest. The sun wasn't shining much for us that day, but when it did, it heated things up quick. With the kids, that would have been pretty tough, so I was happy with our overcast skies and 70 degree weather.

Our first peak of the falls in the upper portion of the park
sights like this one were prevalent all throughout Plitvice Falls
Fall sees less water flow, but it's still a stunning sight!
Dramatic side view of a waterfall
This was my favorite waterfall in the park
Isn't this unreal?!
Me and little r on the wooden boardwalk
more of nature's splendor
kisses from daddy while we wait for the boat
beauty of the lower falls
The views were almost more stunning from above
The turquoise waters - just gorgeous
To get to Plitvice, you drive through a rather depressed part of northern Croatia. We essentially drove along what was once the frontline of battle between the Croats and Yugoslav National Army forces barely 20 years ago. Bullet holes still line many buildings. Big R took photographs of some of these buildings on our way back to Slovenia. It almost seemed as if many of the bullet holes were left as a sign of pride.

Many towns along the route to Plitvice had buildings like this one
The bullet holes almost seemed like a badge of honor
Our final stop was Ljubljana back up in Slovenia. I have to say, we kind of fell in love with Slovenia on our drive. The foliage was fantastic and the country is downright beautiful. One of my favorite observations was that all of the churches in Slovenia were built at the top of a hill. Of course, we didn't think to take any photographs of these hilltop churches, which is a huge bummer. Slovenia is also wine country, and this was the first time I have witnessed vineyards in a climate where the foliage changes in the fall. Many of the vineyards made the hillsides burst with color as the leaves on the vines were changing.

So, Ljubljana is a really neat city. I didn't expect to fall in love with it so much. If I had, I definitely would have planned for a longer stay there. Everything you read about the city, or if you talk to others about it, says that there is nothing there. It's just a city in Europe with pretty buildings - blah, blah. This could not be further from the truth, and it's a bummer the city thinks it has this reputation (although, I wonder if this is the city's way of protecting itself from the demise of too much tourism). It's a university town that is alive with friendly people. The buildings are colorful and the architecture is fabulous. We enjoyed one of our best meals in Europe at Julija Restaurant in downtown Ljubljana, and we stayed at a "hostel" just around the corner from the square for a mere 50 EUR a night. There is so much more there - we barely scratched the surface. I'm still puzzled why it has the reputation it does. Beautiful architecture, fabulous hotels and restaurants, a vibrant aire with friendly people, a zoo, five large museums, network of caves, and home to the Lipizzaner Stallions. What is it missing, the Eifel Tower or perhaps the Colosseum? I'm clueless, and I'm already trying to figure out how to fit a trip back in our crazy schedule.

Scene in the town square at night on the way to dinner
Triple bridges across the river in Ljubljana at night
a happy stroll back to our hotel after a fabulous dinner
The morning greeted us with a thick fog
but the colors at the market were vibrant and inviting!
peeking into the fog from within the walls of the Castle
Another shot of the market
A building made colorful from fall foliage
watching the fog lift
a mid-morning cafe scene in Ljubljana
and the fog is finally gone...
artistic photo of a fountain in the square
the city is lined with alleyways such as this one
Town hall building with the cathedral in the distance
blue skies providing a perfect backdrop to typical city buildings in Ljubljana

This last trip was one of a different flare. We went by car to discover former Yugoslavia, and in doing so we fell in love with Slovenia and were in awe of the nature in northern Croatia. I personally love the wine from this region, and we managed to come back with a healthy sampling from both countries. It was a great adventure from start to finish...




  1. Hi there, lovely blog entry! may I know when were you in Slovenia for the peak foliage? I hope to catch it next year.

    1. We were in Slovenia in early October. The foliage was perfect and stunning! I hope you have good timing with your visit there next year.