Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Slovenia: Ljubljana and Piran

By Brian at 8:31 AM
June 30 - July 5

When we started planning our trip, we quickly identified the countries of former Yugoslavia as a part of the world we both were excited to visit and learn about. Both of us were pretty clueless about the details of the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia and visiting this region gave us unique opportunity to learn more about what happened as well as the progress since then. Our ex-Yugo journey will take us through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and finally Montenegro. Our first stop was Slovenia, the first country to split away from the republic, the one left the most unscathed by that decision, and the most prosperous so far.

Melissa and I were looking forward to seeing Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, almost as long as we were planning this trip. Leaving everything behind and hitting the road for the year takes careful planning, which included reading lots of round-the-world blogs. One of the best we discovered was 13 Months, which described Ljubljana as a "perfect little town." We decided early on that our 12 months would take us through Ljubljana, even though for longest time we couldn't properly pronounce the name (roughly youb-yana.. the l's are silent and the j's are like y's)

We arrived in Ljubljana on a late-afternoon train ride from Balatonfured, Hungary through scenic Eastern Slovenia. Ljubljana is not packed with hotels/hostels/guesthouses, so we elected to use Airbnb.com for accommodations--what an excellent choice! Marija, our host, was perfect--kind, knowledgable about the region, and she didn't mind my stupid questions.

We spent our first three days just strolling through the city and casually seeing the sites. The city center is pedestrian-friendly, compact, and cute. The architecture is mostly Austro-Hungarian Baroque influenced, which we've grown to really appreciate after visiting Vienna, Sopron, and Budapest. Several rivers run through Ljubljana, of which the Ljubjanica cuts through the heart and separates the old town from the newer center. It also sets the stage for iconic bridges and picturesque landscapes.

Wooden bridge
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

Melissa in front of the Plecnik Colonnade
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

Apartments in Center
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

The old town has been inhabited from before Roman times. Later, generations of inhabitants built and expanded on a castle perched on a steep hill overlooking the town. There's a tram to the top, but we needed the exercise, so we walked instead. The castle entrance is free, but for a little extra you can enjoy the rotating art galleries; museums of the castle, Ljubljana, and Slovenia; and a climb to the highest tower for sweeping views of the city and surrounding suburbs. Below the castle are medieval, pedestrian-friendly, winding streets and odd-shaped squares packed with outdoor cafes, restaurants, ice cream stands ("sladoled" in the local language), and boutique shops. The old town also hosts a large outdoor produce market, where I found the most delicious table grapes I've ever tasted.

Inside the Ljubljana Castle
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

Hercules fountain in Stari Trg (old square)
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

Mestini Trg with Cathedral of St. Nicholas in the background
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

The center part of town is newer, but almost as attractive. Separating the old town from the center are several bridges, of which two of the most famous are the Triple Bridge and Dragon Bridge. This part of town was more centrally planned, so the roads are less windy, the squares are more square, and the shopping is more higher-end. Also on this side was Tivoli park where we spent an afternoon lounging around.

The dragon on dragon bridge
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

Preseren statue in Preserenov Trg
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

Melissa relaxing in Park Tivoli
From Ljubljana, Slovenia

And then there's the food. Slovenia's cuisine is an amalgamation of neighboring Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Bosnia, so we spent a lot of time being lazy and drinking coffee, eating ice cream, and dining on fresh fish, pastas, sausages, and salads. We tried our first burek, a doughy pastry that can be filled with meat, cheese, or other savory items and is prevalent throughout the Balkans. Melissa fell in love with Raffaello flavored sladoled and has been ordering it ever since. And I've been drinking lots of coffee and cream, which contains a shot or two of expresso topped with chilled, whipped cream and chocolate powder.

We scheduled five days in Ljubljana to leave room for day trips. At the top of my list was Skocjan Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site and some of the most remarkable underground caves in the world. Originally we planned on taking a bus, but on Marija's insistence that you can see much more in a car, we rented a VW Polo. Although I had excellent training driving stick (thanks Danny, Sadie, and Kramer!), I chickened out and went with an automatic model instead. It was the first time we rented a car on our trip and it turned out to be a great decision because we had the freedom to enjoy a prolonged, scenic ride to our next destination, Bled.

You can drive from one end of Slovenia to the other in 3 hours, but what blew our minds is in less time you can be in Venice, Italy. But we decided to stay in the country, so after the caves we carried on west and visited Piran, a small beach-side town heavily inspired by the Venetians. Slovenia's exposure to the Mediterranean via the Adriatic sea is less than 50 km, but that tiny strip of land is hilly and scenic. We wandered around the old streets, ate risotto with mixed seafood and more sladoled, and made fun of how the Europeans will tan next to any body of water, even in the absence of a proper, sandy beach.

Brian in front of the sign that proves he went to Skocjan Caves
From Piran and Skocjan Caves, Slovenia

Tartini statue in Tartinijev Trg in Piran
From Piran and Skocjan Caves, Slovenia

The promenade in Piran.  Notice the tanners next to the rocks.
From Piran and Skocjan Caves, Slovenia

Brian on the promenade in Piran
From Piran and Skocjan Caves, Slovenia

Piran marina
From Piran and Skocjan Caves, Slovenia

We drove back to Ljubljana that night just in time to catch an outdoor concert of the Slovenian and Croatian philharmonics playing together to celebrate 20 years of independence. The next morning we thanked Marija for her hospitality and made our way back West along the Soca river, over the Vrsic Pass through the Julian Alps, into Kranjska Gora, and finally to Bled where we spent a few nights. But I'll cover that in the next post.

Melissa and Brian on top of Ljubljana Castle
From Ljubljana, Slovenia