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Friday, 1 May 2009

Europe trip 2009 - Bled to Kromberk

5th April
The spring weather treated us to a warm, sunny day and we took a walk around Lake Bled - along with the rest of the world and their children, it was Sunday after all. Being a keen observer of such matters, Sue was soon commenting how many pregnant women there were - expect a baby boom in Slovenia any time soon.

Bled is a photographer’s paradise, as you do the circuit of the lake there is hardly a vista that doesn’t have you reaching for the camera, add in the spring flowers in abundance and mute swans gliding around in the sunshine....

Lake Bled and the island

6th April
Suddenly we had the campsite and the lake to ourselves, everybody else had gone home.

Sue had set her mind on a boat trip to the island and feared that the Pletnas, a cross between a gondola and rowing boat, would have packed up as well. Not to worry, a kindly gentleman with nothing else to do was waiting patiently by the water’s edge to take us across. We were his only customers, but the fee is a standard €12 per person.
(http://www.pletna.net/ )

A Pletna ride to the island

Our boatman chatted pleasantly to us on the way and even stopped rowing every time I lifted the camera so as not to disturb my focus. Apparently the lake water reaches 25°C in the summer, though swimming is limited to the campsite end.

Once on the island, for another €3, you get access to the Church of the Assumption of Mary, where you can ring the bell and make a wish according to the legend of the young widow.
There is also a small museum, notable for its folk dolls of every country in the EU. The British national costume appears to be something akin to Quaker’s clothing!

7th April
Another fine day, set aside for blogging and washing.
I took a walk around the lake at night, the moon was bright, the water still, the island church and the castle on its rocky outcrop floodlit – got me wishing I had some more sophisticated camera equipment.

8th April
Our first mission of the day was to get our damaged front tyre fixed - the reception at the campsite had marked on a map the location of the local tyre repair garage. We found ourselves going up the drive to the Castle, not the kind of area you'd expect to find a large, and very busy, tyre factor.
The young fitter took about 3 minutes to ease out the screw, augur through the tyre and plug the resultant hole with a strip of gooey rubber. €7, thank you very much, Pnevmatik Center Bled.

On the outskirts of Bled we noticed a covert 2 man police speed camera unit, checking vehicles coming down into town.

Our destination was the Vintgar gorge, a long narrow gorge with the Sum na Radovni waterfall at the end.
In the car park, workman were dragging tree trunks around with a huge tractor and although we thought we had parked ourselves out of the way, they promptly dragged a few more right past the front of the van.

More workmen were busy renovating the entrance to the gorge and the path was barred off. We could see people on the path however, and when I asked the foreman he said “yes, I can’t stop you, but watch out for falling rocks!”

Vintgar Gorge in full flood

At places along the canyon, the walls almost meet and passage would not be possible without the wooden walkway built into the rock face. We had picked the right time to see it as the river was in full flood with the melt water.
The waterfall at the end was stupendous, a torrent of water throwing spray high into the air.

Sum na Radovni waterfall

Thinking that the car park would be a nice spot for the night and seeing no signs to the contrary, we waited for the workman to go home and shifted ourselves across to the river’s edge.
About 8 p.m. we got a shock when the workman returned with a large digger and started shifting earth onto the bankside. Fortunately they gave up when it was fully dark without coming anywhere near us. (GPS: 46.3926, 14.0844 E)

Later still, an Austrian campervan crept by us and parked up opposite, levelling himself up on a handy piece of rock and raising his rising roof.

9th April
Our Austrian friend was up early and went fishing with his young son, returning triumphantly at breakfast time with a good sized fish.

We moved off in the direction of Jesenice and Hrusica to drop off the Austrian GO-Box and get more gas. Despite what our sat nav thought, its only possible to walk to the garage as it was on the motorway - with no local access, and as we didn’t have a vignette we left the gas for another time.

Returning the GO-Box was straight forward, though the guy was a bit bemused that we hadn’t used up any credits on it. Our €75 was credited back to our card - the additional €5 is lost as rental for the machine. We could have kept the box for another five years, but we would rather have the €75 in the bank. However, we were happy to have it just in case we needed to use (or mistakenly drove on) an A or S road.

We then headed along the 202 to Kranska Gora, probably Slovenia’s second biggest resort area, after Bled. The ski areas were now closed, but in the summer the range of activities on offer covers just about anything you could think of.
(http://www.kranska-gora.si/ , http://www.julian-alps.com/ )

The famous Zlatorog (mythical Chamois) at Kranska Gora - or is it an Alpine Ibex?

Our plan was to go over the Julian Alps via the Vrisc pass, (altitude 1618 metres) but as we drove out of Kranska on the 206 we spotted the red sign up for Vrisc, indicating that the pass was closed. A quick check with a couple of locals confirmed that it was definitely closed.

A big disappointment, so we detoured into Italy to Tarvisio and then back into Slovenia and over the Predil pass (1156 metres).
We were struck by how shabby and dirty Italy suddenly felt, and were happy to be back in Slovenia, climbing this still very pretty pass.

The Predil Pass from Italy to Slovenia

Predil lake from the pass

A lot of road repairs were going on, particularly impressive was a spectacular new single span bridge, leapfrogging between two vertiginous bends. We passed a monument to the engineers who built the pass – a very knackered looking lion, resting on a stick of dynamite.

One thing that has come home to us this trip is the seasonal harvest of destruction that each winter brings - endless fallen trees (bringing down lines, breaking fences, blocking roads and paths), fallen rocks released by the relentless freeze-thaw (more blocked roads and broken fences, damaged buildings), landslides (we saw a river bed completely blocked by one), and flood waters, (many roads undermined and broken away). The annual repair bill must be huge.

The valley drive down to Bovec was equally scenic. Bovec has the only ski slopes in Slovenia above 2000 metres. We parked up by the ski base station, which has pukka motorhome bays and facilities. The maximum stay allowed is 36 hours. €6 for 24 hours, free electricity included. (GPS: 46.2958 N, 13.4928 E)

We met an Austrian skier in an old camper, he couldn’t wait to get up there, he reckoned 8 metres of snow had fallen over the winter, there was seven metres left and they would still be skiing in August!

10th April
The car park filled early and by ten o'clock it was packed - a band of happy skiers was singing Beatles songs in the café - we moved to the motorhome service bay for fear someone would park on that as well!

Many battles were fought between the Italian and the Austro-German forces in the mountains surrounding Bovec in the First World War and there is a special hiking route known as the Walk of Peace which visits the key areas of the Isonzo Front.

Following the beautiful Soca river, we pulled off below Zaga to watch canoeists recovering their boats from the very fast flowing, light green waters. Some had high tech carbon fibre or Kevlar kayaks that they tossed onto roof racks single handed, others short slalom canoes. A fabulous spot.

Canoeing heaven on the Soca River

We passed through Kobarid, which is home to a European museum of the First World War.

More road repairs on these tight mountain roads, they weren’t built for 40 ton trucks and they are causing problems.

Just before Tolmin we pulled off the road as the sky was full of paragliders, 50 or more, wheeling and circling. We watched as they came in to make perfect landings, it was impossible to see where they had leapt from, some had soared so high they were just specks. What a pastime, will we ever have the nerve to have a go?

Next to the landing field was a model car racing circuit, seemingly indestructible cars screaming round at amazing speeds.

The Slovenians certainly like their sport, in one day, without really trying, we had witnessed them skiing, climbing, mountain biking, road racing, white water kayaking, paragliding… oh, and fishing and racing model cars.
Many were young, most of the canoeists were teenagers, one paraglider, no more than sixteen, walked passed us and said hallo with a self-effacing grin, her backpack containing her sail seemed almost bigger than she was.

We checked out a Womo guide ubernachtungen at Lake Soci, but it had very difficult access and was very public. We didn’t fancy that one so we turned onto the 102 towards Idrija, then the 210 to Cerkno. There we found the road to Franja was closed for repair - another Womo pitch bites the dust!

Back on the 102 we had another close encounter with a monster truck, I backed up tight alongside the safety barrier, and with our wing mirror folded, he just squeezed by with a couple of inches to spare.
Thinking I’d need a stiff drink if we got anymore of those, we drove onto Idrija. Here, in a communal car park above the town, Womo finally delivered a suitable overnight stop. Phew! (GPS: 46.0005 N, 14.0235 E)

Battened down, we strolled into town for a couple of well deserved beers.

The castle at Idrija

11th April
After another look at this pleasant town, complete with its own castle and mercury mine (now a museum), we continued on the 102 to wards Postojna, through some more lovely countryside. We saw many new private houses being built, well finished and attractive designs.

Our destination was the Postojnska Jama, the largest complex of limestone caves in Europe - there are over 20 kilometres of caverns, 5.2 km of them open to tourists. Apparently 32 million people have visited them since they were opened to the public in 1819.

We expected something on the scale of the Nerja caves in Southern Spain, but then this was the Easter weekend and we should have known better. There are three large car parks here, one allocated specifically for motorhomes.
We were greeted with the sight of literally hundreds of motorhomes, cheek by jowl, crammed into every corner and overflowing onto the other parks. We don't think we've ever seen so many vans in one place outside of a major show. Most of them, it appeared, were Italian.

We recoiled, and did an about turn to the serene countryside we had been enjoying so much.
The road out of Postojna was motorbike mayhem, we pulled up in a layby for lunch and watched dozens of them enjoying the steep, tight curves of this road, some racing the stretch over and over. Many warning signs probably bear witness to the number of accidents over the years.

Slovenian bikers have their priorities when it comes to accessories!

A small backtrack took us towards Cerknica and the small farming village of Dolenje Jezero. Just outside the village we found a new car park by the lake. A Slovenian panel van conversion had already settled himself on the bus parking area.
It would do nicely, till the weekend madness was over. A walk by the lake in the late afternoon sun soothed us back into a relaxed frame of mind.

12th April
We shared our overnight pitch with the Slovenian and one Italian van, despite a convoy of 4 Italian vans arriving, then changing their minds.

Another beautiful spring morning and we enjoyed a pleasant country drive to Snezik Castle.
In an idyllic forested setting, this castle was first established in 11th Century and has changed hands many times - latterly it was owned by various German Counts who added to and refurbished it.

Snezik Castle, a home that survived

Now owned by the state, it has been comprehensively restored and is remarkable in that all the rooms contain complete and original furniture and fittings - having escaped the destruction and pillaging of the last war.

A collection of stuffed of bear and wild boar inside the Castle

Arriving at just before 11 a.m. we were the only visitors and had a personal guided tour in English by a friendly young woman. Anyone thinking of getting married – you can do it here for free, just provide your own priest.
(http://www.turizem-kras.si/ )

We contemplated continuing on from Snezik on minor roads to Knezak or Ilirska Bistrica, distances of 33 or 47 Km respectively, before coming back up to Postojna via Pivka.
Our castle guide confirmed that it was feasible in a motorhome, but also that the entire road was dirt track. That’s a long way in second or third gear.
According to our guide it is largely through forest, in which bears still roam, but includes some magnificent views and good places to eat. Still, we backed off, thinking it would take too long.

Our next plan was to return via Cerknica and visit the caves at Rakov Skocjan.

We turned off according to the tourist sign, but soon this road became dirt track and we found ourselves deep in the forest. A few cars were around and some hikers, but it felt like a taste of what we would have had had going to Knezak.

Thinking we had reached the entrance building for the caves we turned in and lodged ourselves at the back of the building in the corner of the car park. Adjacent there was a nice lawn and diners were enjoying an alfresco lunch – good café we thought.

Sue went to check out the entrance times and came back grinning – we had plonked ourselves in a hotel car park!
Amazed that you could find a hotel so deep in thick forest we nonetheless had lunch in the van and quietly departed. If you fancy it, try the Rakov Skocjan Hotel. (GPS: 45.7890 N, 14.2975 E)
(http://www.h-rakovskocjan.com/ )

Now it dawned on us that we were looking at the wrong Skocjan caves, the famous Skocjanske caves are at a different Skocjan south west of us. Doh!

Tempted to park ourselves in one of several suitable laybys and spend an illicit night in the forest, we still pressed on back to Postojna and up to Predjama castle, a 700 year old castle perched in a niche halfway up a 120 metre cliff.

Predjama Castle, a place of legend

Parking is at a premium here and even at 4 p.m. we couldn't find a space. All the bus spaces were filled with motorhomes, and many others also.
Figuring that the interior was unlikely to match that of Snezik, we cut our losses and returned to Postojna.
(http://www.turizem-kras.si/ )

(There is a tale we heard later about a Knight who retreated to the castle to escape retribution from the imperial army. Thinking they could starve him out, he nevertheless survived for several months because he was getting provisions through a tunnel, which his blockaders couldn’t find. However, one night, going to visit the toilet - which in those days clung to the outside of the castle walls - he mistakenly took a candle with him, betraying his presence to his foe. There, they displaced him with a well aimed cannonball – oouch!)

13th April
We got up early to beat the crowds at the Postojnska cave. However, half an hour before the first tour at 10 a.m, several coaches turned up and we found ourselves outside the entrance in a vast throng, several hundred deep, with 20 minutes to wait.
Finally, in a huge surge we were funnelled through the door, like cattle squeezing into a farmers pen, to be blinded by a battery of stroboscopic lights - fixed flashlights remotely operated by team of photographers, snapping every face as they jostled past. Worse than being back on a cruise ship!

Journey to the centre of the Earth

Eventually the crush eased and we filtered through into what looked like a miniature subway station, the open train waiting to take us 2 km through the caves and tunnels to the central caverns.

As the train rattled along at high speed through dimly lit chambers (one even lit with chandeliers), it felt so Disney-esque, I wondered if we had been magically transported to Universal studios.

Is it a Limestone cave or Universal Studios?

At the same time, the headroom was so low in some of the tunnels that anyone not keeping their eyes open could collect a nasty crack on the head. Stick a foot or an arm out and it would be gone.

Arriving at our very dark, damp destination we were herded into groups by red-coated guides and collected under large illuminated signs displaying "English", "Deutsche", etc. The guides had wireless mikes that activated the nearest set of PA speakers, suspended from poles around the chamber.
By this time the whole experience, pushing around in the damp and dark with hundreds of people, was feeling so surreal I had really lost interest in the cave around us.

Finally we were led off by our guide and given a stern warning, with a veiled threat of "problems", not to use our cameras or "any electronic equipment" on the tour. Two Japanese gentlemen, obviously oblivious to all this, caused some amusement as they still snapped away and the guide waited for his message to be conveyed to them.

The tour itself was unremarkable, the limestone formations were conservatively lit at a low level and didn't really create any wow factor that the big build up would lead you to expect.

In the final chamber, used occasionally as a concert venue, there was an interesting exhibition, including a life size replica of the largest dinosaur skeleton ever found.

The train leaving platform.....

The return train journey leaves you on a platform above the underground river, the air thick with mist.
Emerging slightly damp and chilled into the sunlight and fresh air, we didn't stop to place an order for our forced entry mugshot in the 50 metre long "rogues gallery" outside.

Tickets for this experience in mass tourism are €20 for adults, €16 for children. If you are ten years old and have never seen a limestone cave before, you'll probably love it, but for us it just confirms the aphorism "biggest is not necessarily the best"

We did however pay another €4 to see the blind Salamanders and other small life forms which used to live in the caves, and was a worthwhile visit.
The Proteus Anguinus or blind Salamander

After our third free night in a row and 3 showers each, we needed to top up our water.
In the car park nearest the hotel there is a motorhome stopover area with full facilities. An electric barrier controls entry and you have buy a card for €14 from the hotel reception to use it. For some reason that day the barrier was up and the car park attendants confirmed that it was free of charge – thank you very much!

Our next port of call was Kromberk Castle, just northeast of Nova Gorica. This also appears in our Womo guide.

The countryside rolled on in that pleasant Slovenian way, even the industrial units seem to manage to keep from being a complete blot on the landscape, maybe because they’re mostly shrouded by trees.

At Ajsevica we picked up some more Autogas at another new "Petrol" petrol station - their distinctive red and blue stations are popping up everywhere and are well organised in the same format, with outside loos (useful for motorhomers) and mini-markets.

Kromberk Castle is in a great setting, halfway up a vineyard covered hillside with views over Kromberk.

Kromberk Castle from the gardens

We parked behind the baroque style gardens near a pond teeming with tadpoles. (GPS: 45.9623 N, 13.6838 E)
Sue checked out the building and reported back that there was a lovely restaurant run by a charming lady with excellent English.
The Womo guide describes the eatery as "exquisite", so as we hadn't yet eaten out in Slovenia we decided it was time indulge ourselves.

As it was the tail end of the Easter holiday we were the only customers on the elegant terrace, and the lady busied herself, surrounding us with candles and putting fresh flowers on the Damask tablecloth.
We ordered some of the local Teran wine, which took her aback (shows we read the tourist brochures) and afraid we would find it too "sour", brought us a sample, along with some cured ham and fresh horseradish.

The combination was perfect, the wine to us tasted like the juice from summer pudding, tangy rather than sour, full of fruit, very deep, dark in colour - you couldn't see light through the full glass.

We followed this up with wild boar in red wine sauce, served with a miniature version of the Italian gnocchi, lightly fried, and a salver of sautéed white asparagus.

The wild boar, apparently, have been known to forage in the castle gardens and the animal we were eating came from just a few kilometres away.
We've had boar before but it didn't taste anything like this, meaty like good beef, rich and tender, but also with a hint or aroma of pine in the flesh - the last mouthful tasted as good as the first and left us wanting more.

Sweet was a mascarpone cheese confection with crushed pumpkin seeds, followed by a sweet, peachy flavoured schnapps.

Sitting exclusively on that candlelit terrace overlooking the valley, with Ljubja giving us her personal attention during a perfect meal, was a gastronomic experience that goes up there in our top ten.

With bread and a litre of wine, the bill came to €73, a bit of a budget buster, but great value. Still, after 5 consecutive nights free camping who's counting?
(http://www.gradkomberk.si/ )

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