Exploring an Alpine heaven in Slovenia with Roundabout Tours.
Sundays are a serious business in Slovenia.
A largely Catholic country, Slovenian shops shut down on Sundays. Businesses are shuttered in honor of a day of rest. Only a few bars and a couple really big groceries stay open in service of the last minute Sunday dinner item, or the last minute Sunday pub crawl.
With so many things off the menu on a Sunday, what else were we going to do?
Why not head to the Alps?
We had booked our small and comfy tour with Roundabout, a company that proclaims they offer “travel your way” (emphasis is mine, not theirs). Well, Jessi and I travel in a way that tosses us into the fray, into the native culture, and into the oddball foods that are foreign to us–but totally normal to locals. We are nerds, we obsess over literature and history and science. We also try to avoid being herded into large tour buses, where individuality and personal touch is hard to pass on to every visitor. They’re like conveyor belts of fast food bites of information.
No, we wanted something smaller and with the freedom to explore at our own pace, to ask questions and get to know our small group of travel compatriots as well as our guide.
Peter, our tour guide, greeted us super early at our hostel, along with our new Brazilian friend who would also be joining us. We were eager to get this Alpine “fairytale”, as Roundabout’s website puts it, well underway.
So, eyes slightly glazed, sleepy but excited, we hopped into Peter’s minivan.
Breakfast? A quick sandwich of amazingly delicious bread and blackberry jam from our hostel.
Our itinerary? A full day of travel from Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana to the country’s northwesterly mountain locales: Lake Bled, Vintgar Gorge, the charming town of Bohinj, and the medieval city Škofja Loka.
If we had been driving from one end of Slovenia to the other, it would take two hours to cross the 20,000 square kilometers of the country, from the western seaside peninsula Piran to the northeastern border with Hungary.
Today, we instead head north. Peter safely and capably zips us up the highway from the capital city, and the landscape shifts from marshy Ljubljana–a mere 300 meters above sea level–to the steadily rising headlands of the Alps. To the north and just slightly east, the Kamnik-Savinja Alps peak at around 2600 meters above sea level, while the Karavanke and Julian Alps pass to the west of the highway, near Lake Bled, Vintgar Gorge, and Bohinj. As we drive, we criss-cross and run parallel to the Sava River–Slovenia’s largest, fed by the limestone peaks to the north.
We pass birches along the highway, bent by a recent winter storm, and evidence of how deadly winters here can be. We pass through Kranj, the biggest northern Slovenian city. Along the side of the road, rectangular wooden lean-tos called kozolec stand like barriers against the wind. They are used to dry hay and occasionally as billboards, which we thought was a pretty nifty double usage of these iconically Slovene structures.
Up and up into the Julian Alps we climb, to our first stop: the resort town of Bled, with its famous lake, and Slovenia’s only island in its midst.
And the most breathtaking views of Lake Bled!
Bled Castle dates back to the year 1011, first mentioned in the documents of the German king Henry II. It sits perched atop a cliff on the edge of Lake Bled, and hosts small shops dedicated to printmaking and blacksmithing, as well as a 16th century chapel, a cafe, and a restaurant.
We met the blacksmithing family, whose main forge sits farther inland but whose wares are made in the same ways as the swords and weaponry of the days of yore.
And of course, here there be dragons.
Bled Castle itself is optional, and costs 8 Euros per person, cash or card. If you don’t wish to spend the cash on the Castle, your Roundabout guide can drop you off in Bled town.
From Bled Castle, our guide Peter flags down a young boatman and his pletna boat, engraved with the name ‘Barbara’. This trek is also optional, and costs 10 Euros per person, cash only. We highly recommend it if you can afford it, but if you can’t or don’t want to make the trip, you can take an hour long hike around the lake and get picked up in Bled town. Our tour friends who made the hike said this took a little longer than they’d expected, so be prepared for a stroll with some good hiking shoes.
It turns out that only certain families can lay claim to being a boatman on Lake Bled, and only if your heritage is in boating on the lake can you then continue the tradition. This weeds out would-be newcomers looking to stake a claim on the tourist scene at Lake Bled, and keeps the pletna businesses firmly entrenched in sturdy old Slovenian boatman families.
We take our seats in the pletna, protected from the sun by the boat’s awning, making sure to balance our seating so the boat doesn’t tip. The young boatman drives his oars with sheer muscle power, and we glide out into the placid and reflective waters of Lake Bled.
The steps of the Assumption of Mary Church on the island are a traditional misfortune for young grooms, who will attempt to carry their brides to the top of the steep steps and ring the bell in the bell tower beyond, to wish their marriage good luck.
For Jessi and me, it was just another part of our trip’s epic battle with stairs.
Up we climb, enjoying the spectacular architecture of the tiny island’s buildings. You can ring the bell and climb the tower for a small fee in cash, but we didn’t opt for it–Peter recommended that the view from Bled Castle was much better and that we should save our cash. We appreciated his candor and good sense!
There is a small gift shop on the island, where you can peruse local craft items, including handmade slippers that are worn inside the house as a relic of the area’s faint Turkish influence. The Ottoman Empire failed to conquer this area, believing it was the end of the world. Their loss!
Peter, clad in his orange Roundabout shirt, then whisks us off to Triglav National Park and the absolutely mind-blowing Vintgar Gorge.
I have to admit, I had no idea what to expect from Vintgar. I’d almost forgotten it was on the itinerary, until we arrived and piled out of our minivan.
Vintgar Gorge is one of the most spectacular places I think we’ve ever visited, and here’s why.
Crystal blue-green waters, World War I bridges [editorial note: the bridge above is actually pre-World War I, constructed in 1906, and spans 33.5m above the trail], lush greenery, waterfalls (called–not even joking–’slap’ in Slovenian). And a rainbow, to boot. How could this place be real?
Vintgar Gorge is a lattice of wooden walkways that switch back and forth across the rushing Radovna river. Peter speeds on ahead to help connect another tour-goer with his ride home, so for those of you who might be interested in the half-day version of this tour, it ends after Vintgar. Along the way back, Peter provided great information on his own history as a tour guide, humorous anecdotes, and guidance. I also, because I am an utter goof with bad peripheral vision, smacked my head into an outcrop of karst, the limestone rock that is itself a Slovene word. Be careful on those slippery walkways and look where you’re going–unlike me!
Admission to Vintgar is 4 Euros and is optional, but trust us–don’t pass this place up. It’s incredible.
Ah, Bohinj. Go ahead and say that out loud, with a slightly phlegmy, Germanic ‘ch’ rasp on the ‘h’. BOCH-een.
Bohinj is a much quieter destination, with its main town Bohinjska Bistrica nestled in the deeper Julian Alps. The cold and glacial Bohinj Lake is bigger and more remote than similarly glacial Lake Bled, offering more hiking paths within Triglav National Park, and therefore more ways to just lose yourself in the splendor of the park.
This lake completely swaps its water flow with fresh streams from the mountains three times per year, making Bohinj much chillier than Lake Bled, which only cycles through its water supply once every three years. In short, Lake Bled bakes in the sun a lot longer, and is therefore much warmer.
We eat lunch in Bohinjska Bistrica at a cute little place called Strud’l, where we sampled borovnica (blueberry) schnapps and enjoyed the Austro-Hungarian inspired mountain fare–lots of sauerkraut, sausage, and potatoes. It was, in short, amazing and stick-to-your-ribs kind of stuff. We also tried the local Union Radler beer, which is a bubbly mixture of Union beer and grapefruit flavoring. Refreshing and cold after our long hiking day. Peter tells us about his travels to Asia, and his inspiration to become a travel guide. As travel writers ourselves, we’re pleased to meet a kindred spirit! A note here–Strud’l is cash only, though there is a Bankomat (ATM) a few steps away.
Green hills, snowy peaks, and the cold clear waters of Bohinj Lake await us after lunch. We have the option here of swimming in the lake, renting canoes (4 Euros per person, we didn’t explore this option but recommend taking cash just in case), hiking around part of the lake, or just dipping our toes in and enjoying the view.
Which do you think we chose?
Our final stop on the tour was the medieval town of Škofja Loka, one of Slovenia’s oldest, where we toured the historic bridges and alleyways. The place is over a thousand years old, and since the trip to the town was short, we just scratched the surface. There was enough time to stroll through and take in the beautiful sights, and perhaps grab some sladoled (ice cream). One particular point of interest was the coat of arms of this ancient city, which featured a black servant who had saved the life of the Bavarian prince who served as the first feudal lord of the town. In honor of this man, the prince declared that his visage should be stamped on the city’s coat of arms.
From Škofja Loka we were comfortably brought back to the doorsteps of our hotels and hostels, exhausted but exhilarated by all that Slovenia had offered us in a long but productive day.
1. Make sure you bring enough cash to enjoy the optional sights. We were lucky to have enough on hand.
2. Bring sturdy walking shoes, and a bathing suit if you wish to go swimming in Bohinj Lake.
3. I wish we’d had time for some of the famous Bled cream cake or the sour milk (yes, the sour milk) that the tour website described.
4. Our group was small, but a little more information might have been better dispersed if we had been gathered in one spot during the longer hikes. For example, until I looked online, I had no idea the big waterfall we saw at the end of Vintgar Gorge was 26 meters tall and called Šum. That’s a minor gripe, and overall Peter was awesome. Besides, look at that word, it’s pronounced “shoom”! How onomatopoeic? Bottom line, if you want to hear the good tidbits sprinkled in, try to keep your guide handy.
5. Humor, good companionship, and absolutely breathtaking scenery, delivered with knowledge and in safe and capable hands, make this Roundabout Alpine Fairytale tour a winner in our book!
Care to go for a tour with Roundabout? Ask us any questions you’d like in the comments below! And don’t forget to check out their website for this and other Slovenian tours.
Our Outbound Adventure was partially reimbursed by Roundabout, though the views expressed here are our candid and honest opinions. Thanks to Roundabout for the excellent tour, and to Peter for being such a personable guide, and Mitja for corresponding with us at Roundabout headquarters! Best of luck, priatelji!
[Author’s note: This Weekend Wanderlust post was originally published July 19th, 2014.]