Slovenia's Julian Alps fill the north-west corner of the country with craggy limestone peaks worthy of their namesake, Julius Caesar! Two towns compete for the tourist trade and they are both winners: Kranjska Gora takes the winter tourists and is the only genuine ski resort in the Balkan region, and Bled not only takes the prize for being the easiest place to pronounce, but reigns supreme as Slovenia's summer destination!
We stayed 3 nights in Bled, in a crumbling old villa held together, literally, with wire and string! We had an enormous high-ceilinged room with a balcony you could hold a party on, the best shower we've had yet, albeit shared, along with the loo, with 4 other (empty!) rooms, and towels and sheets that must have belonged to great grandma around the turn of the century, that's the 20th century of course, if not the 19th! Our host maintains that Rick Steves stayed in this room, twice! All this for just 50€ a night! Check out this view which includes Slovenia's highest mountain in the distance, Mt Triglav!
Lake Bled is the training area for Slovenia's Olympic rowers. Actually it wasn't quite long enough so they took a bite out of the land at the west end and made it longer! There is a state-of-the-art rowing centre proudly showing off its progeny, and after work hours we could sit on our balcony and watch the stars of the future going through their paces!
Bled town is a mixture of grand old villas from an age when the very rich came here for their holidays, a very pretty church, and ugly communist era blocks, plus the obligatory hockey arena. Not really an attractive town at any time, and definitely looking worn out at this time of year. That matters not a bit when everyone's attention is drawn to the massive castle that towers above the town on a rocky crag that's floodlit at night, and the fairy-tale island with a quaint church where every Slovene wants to be married!
Legend says that to be a "real Slovene man" you must carry your bride up those 99 steps!
No motorized boats are allowed on the lake, giving rise to a traditional form of transport and important local symbol, the pletna, seen here with the oarsman standing in the stern, facing forwards, putting himself through complicated maneuvers to keep this shallow-keel vessel pointing towards his destination!
Our first day at Bled was also our first day with no sun, and a short shower! We walked around the lake, so 3.5 miles, 5.6km, was our hike that day, along with the two very long flights of stairs to our balcony! We did visit Hotel Vila Bled, a grand mansion formerly the summer residence of the Yugoslav Royals, and later Tito's humble getaway! World leaders from Indira Gandhi to Raul Castro have stayed here, and its park-like grounds are filled with exotic trees brought by guests from around the world. They let us in to see the ballroom where Tito had his idealistic image of communist Yugoslavia painted as a giant mural - stirring stuff!
Just up the road near Kranjska Gora is another, entirely different, local curiosity.............the world's biggest ski jump! We went to have a look and were thrilled to find a practice session going on right in front of us! It was mesmerizing! Slovenes are generally keen athletes, and these ski jumpers must be incredibly fit and strong - just look at the size of those skis! Look closely and you'll see someone in mid air on the second biggest jump! We could hardly tear ourselves away!
Our hike in the Julian Alps was one that is rated as the classic Slovenian hike, with views that grace every calendar and chocolate box, Slemenova Spica. Getting to the trailhead involved driving into Triglav National Park and up to the top of Vrsic Pass, aka Ruska Cesca, the Russian road, because it was built during WWI by Russian prisoners of war. This exciting drive has 50 hairpin bends, each one labelled with its number and metres above sea level. Despite the fact that the bends are cobbled for traction, we were very glad the rental cars here are standard shift!
At turn number 8 is a pull-off and steps up to the Russian church. Over 10,000 Russian soldiers laboured in dreadful conditions to build this road, and the tiny Russian Orthodox church stands where an avalanche added 300 to the death toll.
After 24 hairpins, and many spectacular views, we started our hike at 5285 feet, 1611m, the summit of Vrsic Pass. The first 20 mins was very steep and we very soon stopped to peel off a few layers!
Thank heavens this trail had much better signs than the ones at Velika Planina, as we didn't meet a soul for the first 45 minutes.
After cresting a very blustery pass we descended into an area of larch trees and magnificent views towards Italy and Austria.
It was completely silent there, no birdsong, no babbling brooks or waterfalls, no cowbells, absolute silence...... until we met a large group of Irish hikers, with a Slovene guide! Were we ever surprised! They were all about our age and had hiked up from the ski jumps, which you can see far below in the valley! We were impressed, especially when they told us they had already been to our destination - that peak on the left!
Climbing again we passed through a tiny gem of a meadow surrounded by massive rock faces, and on to the summit - WOW, what breathtaking views! We were astonished to find sheep droppings all over this peak! Getting your flock up here for the summer, and retrieving them, must be quite a task!
Although the weather wasn't perfectly sunny and cloudless, we had a wonderful day, very reminiscent of our hiking holiday in the Italian Dolomites in 2010 - of course these are the same mountains, just further east!
Too bad we didn't have another day as there are many World War I museums and sights in the nearby Soca Valley, which is where Hemingway served in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps, and used as the setting for A Farewell to Arms.
There is much more to explore in the Julian Alps, with many more hikes around Lake Bled area and beyond. We should have allowed at least a week here!
On our way south to return to Croatia we stopped to see Predjama Castle, built in a cave in the side of a cliff, impressive!
We ate our lunch in the car, which included one last treat from Bled.......apparently Slovenes travel from all over the country for this one, it's called kremsnita!