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So where is Slovenia? I discovered that heaps of people, like me, didn’t really know. It’s actually bordered by Italy on the west, Austria in the north, Hungary on the north-east and Croatia on the south. It’s almost land locked, except for a small amount of coast close to Trieste on the Italian coast in the west. Its capital is Maribor which is in the north-east, close to the Austrian border.

After an excellent journey on the much maligned EasyJet airline from Stansted (who did, however, manage to extract €10 from me for excess baggage), I arrived early at Brnik (burnik) – the airport at Ljubljana. Linda was there to meet me, looking cool and relaxed in shorts and a sleeveless shirt which made me hope that it was going to be warm! In fact, as it turned out, the weather was warm most of the time and I found myself in shorts and sleeveless tops too!

Linda and I first met in 1964 when we were both chosen for the Hertfordshire hockey team, she as left wing and I as right back. We both played Hertfordshire and East of England hockey together over the years as well as basketball in the South of England Squad (Linda was very good) and tennis at the local club. And quite apart from all the sport, we also did a great deal of socializing with our mutual sporting friends. We’ve always kept in touch but haven’t seen nearly enough of each other over the years.

She’d had already been at her holiday home beside Lake Bohinj for almost a month with family and friends visiting sporadically. She’s owned this beautiful home for seven years and comes regularly, either on her own or with friends and family to enjoy both summer and winter activities, walking and mountaineering in the summer and skiing in the winter. It’s very well situated with access to both winter and summer pursuits in a beautiful environment.

Linda was in need of a rest. For the past six years she’s been working with the female Olympic gymnasts, in charge of their pastoral care. Needless to say she’s thrilled with the success they’ve achieved and is now considering her involvement in the future.

It was clear that we were going to do a great deal of exploring so I checked out the guide books.

Slovenia is roughly the size of Wales with a population of one and a half million. For such a tiny country, its geographical diversity is breathtaking. It sports imperious white limestone mountains, spectacular underground curiosities, deep gorges with fast flowing rivers with deafening waterfalls, sweeping vineyards and a craggy coastline punctuated by historical coastal resorts. In a single day, it’s possible to be hiking in the Alps in the morning, downing a few glasses of wine in a local cellar over lunch and relaxing by the beach at the end of the day. Over half the country is forested and there are picturesque buildings on every side, including castles on cliff tops, churches on minute islands in the middle of stunningly beautiful lakes and tiny houses dotted around on green pastures.

It’s definitely an OMG country and one that I’d love to explore further – apart from not understanding the language that is. It’s frustrating not to be able to engage with the locals in their own language although everyone I met spoke excellent English, which is their second language. Slovene is the official language of the Republic of Slovenia. The forebears of today brought the language, with its roots in the Slavonic language, from their original homeland beyond the Carpathian Mountains.

For the 70 years following the second-world-war, the country was, somewhat reluctantly, part of the Yugoslav federation. Slovenia was by far the most liberal and progressive of Yugoslavia’s erstwhile republics which partly accounted for its relatively painless transition from one-party rule to multiparty democracy and from communism to a market economy following independence. It achieved European Union membership in 2004.

Leaving the airport behind us, Linda drove me to her beautiful holiday home close to the edge of Lake Bohinj.

To reach Bohinj she drove on lovely motorways northwest from the airport at Brnik towards Bled and through this beautiful lakeside town to our final destination. Driving through the picturesque scenery we kept passing beautiful homes, all of which had their winter wood stacked up in a prominent place. (It may look like a wooden fence in front of the house but it's actually beautifully stacked logs.)

The day was drawing to a close and we were chatting so much that we didn’t venture out on our first evening.

The next morning, after a lovely slow start and equally slow breakfast, we sauntered down to her village of Ribčev-laz (ribcherlaz) which overlooks Lake Bohinj (bohin). Above us stood the mighty Triglav (triglau), the highest mountain in the Julian Alps, standing at 2,800 m. Linda told me that two days earlier she had climbed with some of her friends to a height of 2,000 m to the Valley of theTriglav Lakes – and was still alive to tell the tale!

Later that morning, Monday, she drove me through Bled to the Vintgar Gorge. It’s an impressive 1600m long and 150m high defile 4km north of Bled.

The gorge was actually chanced upon by a local mayor and his cartographer colleague in 1891. They were so thrilled with their discovery that they set up a construction committee in order to find ways of opening the gorge up to the public, which happened two years later.

It’s since been accessible via a continuous chain of wooden gantries and bridges, suspended from the precipitous rock face and running the entire length of the gorge. Despite the fact that the day was sunny, sunlight only penetrated into parts of the gorge and it was damp and slippery in places, but very, very beautiful.

Having said that it’s open to the public, there are also places which are particularly inaccessible and we climbed down to one of these. You can see the bridge above to get some idea of how far we’d clambered down over the rocks at the side of the fast-flowing river.

Balancing precariously on the rock doesn’t give an indication of the tortuous journey I took to reach it so you can imagine that I was immensely proud of myself – and my new hip!

As we were already north of Lake Bled, Linda then drove us to Bled Castle, one of the oldest castles in Slovenia.

Before we started to explore, we decided to have a coffee and ordered the last cream slice to share between us – just as well really, considering the size of it.

The castle was first mentioned in a written document on 22 May 1011 as the German King Henry II awarded it to Bishop Albuien of Brixen. It is perched on top of a cliff rising above the glacial Lake Bled with a romantic island and a church on it. It is this image of Bled that has become well known through the centuries, not only in Slovenia but also worldwide.

The castle’s terraces offer a spectacular view of the Upper Carniola region, captured between the mountain ranges of Karavanke and the Julian Alps.

The buildings of the castle are arranged around two courtyards on two levels. At the lower level are the castle’s printing works, a memorial room for the consolidator of the Slovene language and the author of the first Slovene-language printed book. The gallery shop and a café are also on this level. The castle’s wine cellar and the herbal gallery are located on the intermediate level of the castle. The wine cellar was fairly small and unfortunately, the herbal gallery was locked.

But on the upper courtyard, we found the most important part of the castle, a chapel dating back to the 16th century and a museum that took us on a journey celebrating the eventful history of Bled from the Bronze Age up to the present day. There is also a restaurant with a lovely terrace and a forge on this level.

Looking down from the Castle on the stunning scenery below, we had a perfect view of the Church of Mary the Queen on Bled Island. The Church contains a bell which was cast by Franciscjus Patavinus in 1534. It’s 66cm in diameter, 56 cm in height and weighs 178 kg. There is no information available about who commissioned the bell and the bell tower to be built. However, the legend of the wishing bell is still preserved.

The legend says that a young widow, who lived at Bled Castle, mourned her husband who had been killed by brigands. She gathered all her gold and silver and had a bell cast for the chapel on Bled Island. When the bell was being transported to the island, a tempest caused the boat to overturn. The boatmen drowned and the bell sank to the bottom of the lake.

The young widow, now even more devastated, decided to go to Rome and enter a convent. After her death, the Pope donated another bell for the church on the Isle of Bled. The legend has it that those who ring the bell to honour the Blessed Virgin and make a wish will see their wish come true.

On Tuesday morning we had an even more decadent start, getting up slowly and enjoying a sumptuous continental breakfast.

For the second day in a row, the weather was clear and warm so we started by driving to the western end of Lake Bohinj, exploring as we went.

Close to Linda’s house is the Vogel Ski Resort and we were able to watch the cable car come down, as it does every half hour in the summer. Of course, the view from the top of the cable car is superb!

Driving past the entrance to the ski field we parked at the western end of the lake and strolled around, admiring the tranquility and watching the odd person enjoying the sunshine and swimming in the warm water of the Lake.

After returning home for a quick snack, we set off on bicycles to explore the eastern end of the Lake and this was really beautiful. We rode around the edge of the lake and then ventured deeper into the countryside where everything was peace and tranquility with few homes and even fewer people.

To our delight, some hang gliders were catching the currents above the lake and it was exciting to watch their descent and finally their skillful landing.

And so home at the end of another lovely day to a beautiful home-cooked meal.

Day 3 dawned cloudy and drizzly although it was still warm. We tried to visit a local spa and indulge ourselves but everyone apparently had the same idea and it was booked out.

Instead, Linda drove us to Radovlijica, a beautiful village on the far side of Lake Bled. We strolled through the picturesque streets and were particularly enchanted with the lovely church which became more and more unique and beautiful the closer we got.

After a cup of coffee overlooking the beautiful countryside, we made our way home to a quiet afternoon before going out to dinner at a gorgeous restaurant, called Gostilna Rupa in Srednja Vas.

The next day was departure day. It had been both a surprising visit (because I’d known nothing of Slovenia beforehand) and also a great opportunity to chill out, enjoy Linda’s company and explore beautiful places.

We set off in the rain for the airport and, once in the city, the buildings ceased to be as picturesque and almost Austrian as they had been in the country and appeared to have the stamp of the communist era upon them.

We had time to stop for a couple of hours to explore Ljubliana in the company of Linda’s next-door neighbour, Frank, who works at the University, a very attractive building by comparison.

Frank pointed out the Castle to us through the mist and we made our way up the cable car to the Castle courtyard where the buildings were surprisingly modern.

We didn’t have much time to linger but made our way down again to ground level and enjoyed morning tea at a very smart restaurant in the city.

Then there was just time to pay a visit to the Cathedral of St Nicholas in the centre of the city with its very beautiful door, reminiscent of the one I’d seen in Port Venere in Italy in 2010.

On the way back to the car park we crossed the Shoe Bridge – and you can see why that’s what it’s called! And so to the airport and a direct flight to Singapore.


Slovenia - 9-13 September 2012

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