You might have noticed by now that we don’t do loads of research about a place before we arrive. Sometimes we don’t even know how to pronounce its name. (Lyoob-lyee-AH-na, for the record.) Sometimes this ends up biting us, and sometimes it just means our lives are full of good surprises.
We spent one day in Ljubljana in between graffiti hunting in Zagreb and renovating a house in the Julian Alps, and we instantly knew that we wanted to come back before we left Slovenia. Firstly, there was a Georgian restaurant in town (remember that Georgian food from Tbilisi?), but it was closed the day we were there.
Ljubljana is a small city filled with a mix of Baroque and Viennese architecture, interesting sculptures and tons of cafes, all cut down the center by a small river and joined by all sorts of bridges. Add to that the fact that it’s highly walkable and bikeable, and you have all the great components of a laid back European city in one easy-to-embrace package.
One day, we saw a young guy with marker on his face and assumed he passed out at a party with people he thought were his friends. Then we saw another person with even more scribbles. Then we saw others carrying around markers. Later, we found out that it was a freshman hazing tradition for the first day of school.
Our favorite day was when we rented bikes and pedaled through Tivoli park and across the bridges and even through the tunnel that goes under the castle hill. The city is full of bike lanes and bike traffic signals and the motorists are aware of and considerate to cyclists, so the usual fear of getting run over just wasn’t there. It seemed like everyone biked, even middle-aged ladies with perfect hair, nice jewelry and designer clothes. The type that would probably be driving a new Escalade if they were in the States.
We had seen many places by this point, and the quality of life in Ljubljana made us think that it was one of the few places we could actually imagine living in. Also, not gonna lie. There might have been some ice cream.
Maribor, Slovenia – 2012 European Capital of Culture! Multiple daily events year round! Art shows, street performers, public art installations, music, concerts, all mostly free. Sounds great!
So we took the train to Maribor. Our arrival was ill-timed because we arrived on the weekend, and in a lot of places in Slovenia, everything shuts down on Saturday and Sunday. Everything. Unless you’re looking for booze or cigarettes, you’re out of luck. We made more than a few Maribore jokes.
But Maribor was definitely picturesque, especially the view from the church tower. If you ever happen to be there, it’s worth the climb and the small donation.
And we got to see a 400 year old grape vine, just before its heavy clusters were harvested for the season. It’s the oldest known grape vine in the world.
We saw some art, then attempted a concert, but there wasn’t a lot of seating and it seemed to be more or a local open mic night. On Sunday, not even the grocery stores were open and so we had lunch at the “Mexican” restaurant in the mall. And then the mall closed at 2 p.m. and we decided we were taking the first train out of town in the morning.
As we walked to the train station early Monday morning, it was amazing how the town that had seemed totally deserted for the previous two days came to life. It made us wonder if we would have felt differently about Maribor had we arrived on a weekday. But the tickets were bought, and we were ready to move on to our next destination.
While we were staying with Marie in Kobarid, we also spent some time with her friend Rudi. Rudi is an engineer who drives a car train through the mountain tunnels. We had never heard of a car train before, so in case that’s also unfamiliar to you, it’s basically the same concept as a ferry. Except instead of a boat taking your car across the water, the train is taking your car through the mountains, which saves you almost an hour of driving and lots of petrol burnt on steep switchbacks.
Rudi invited us to ride with him from Most na Soči to Bohinjska Bistrica in the engine of his train. Marie drove us down from Kobarid to meet the train, and after the requisite coffee at the station cafe, we climbed aboard.
Rudi told us that the engine was American made. The sections of track that didn’t go through the 100 year old tunnels wound along rippling rivers and valleys and small towns.
Time passed all too quickly and soon we were at the end of the line at Bohinjska Bistrica. We parted ways with Rudi and walked through the edge of town until we came to a pizzeria where we ordered a soup and a spicy venison sausage pizza for lunch.
After lunch, we walked back to the north of town on the road to Bled and stuck our thumbs out. We were told that it was very easy and safe to hitchhike in Slovenia, and we positioned ourselves in an area with a nice place for a driver to pull off the road, across from a petrol station. Nearly forty minutes passed with hardly any drivers giving us a second look and we were beginning to doubt the advice we had been given. But soon, an elderly Slovenian couple in a white sedan pulled over. As we climbed into the slipcovered back seat with thankful smiles and several hvala lepa!s, the woman turned and indicated that we should buckle up. “Policija!” After they asked where we were from, the rest of the ride was spent in contented silence, and when we arrived in Bled, there was another round of smiles and hvala lepas and adijos.
It was a warm afternoon, and we wished we had brought our swimming suits. Since we kept our transportation costs at an all-time low for the day, we decided to splurge on renting a boat. Tony rowed us out to the island. We climbed the 99 steps to the church at the top and rang the bell.
We took another train back to Most na Soči as the sun disappeared behind the mountains.
The Soča Valley in Slovenia has mountains and dark green forests, waterfalls and perfectly blue water and massive marble trout, wooden suspension bridges and World War I trenches, meadows full of horses and wildflowers, and pretty little church steeples would ring in town every 15 minutes.
While we were on the gorgeous (and hot and crowded and expensive) Croatian coast, we decided that we wanted our time in Slovenia to be something different. We thought we wanted to be in a more rural setting, preferably in the mountains, and turned to HelpX. Help X connects travelers with people like farmers, homesteaders and B&B owners who are willing to offer free room and board in exchange for half a day’s work.
Tony came across Marie’s profile while we were in Split. Marie owns a guesthouse in Kobarid, in the Soča Valley in northwestern Slovenia near the Italian border. The area was the site of one of the major WWI front lines, and is the setting of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Nearly 100 years later, it’s hard to imagine a more peaceful place.
Marie is also renovating a stone house in the outskirts of Livek, a village up a neighboring mountain. Renovating is not quite the correct word. The house itself was not salvageable, and only three walls of the former attached barn are being incorporated into the new structure. Marie is doing a lot of the work herself, but also enlists a few friends, colorful contractors, and HelpXers along the way.
The neighbors up at Livek had a flock of goats, which were a nice diversion. (Watch a little video of them.)
This particular goat reminded us of our dog, Ivan. It was a girl, but we still decided to refer to her as Ivan.
Ivan was extra friendly. Here she is, licking the camera.
And the views from Livek were unbeatable.
Mt. Krn saw its first snow of the season while we were there. Its peak is distinctively jagged due to wartime dynamiting.
Marie was more than fair about the amount of work expected in exchange for our cozy accommodation. Some of it could be a little frustrating due to the unavailability of a wide range of tools or materials, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome by a little determination and extra sweat.
Part of the deal was that Alicia would cook the evening meal for the three of us. She enjoyed walking to the Mercato every day, picking out our food and cooking real full meals for the first time in months.
We had pork chops with stewed apples and cabbage, chicken risotto, ham and cabbage soup, spaghetti and meatballs… lots of filling dishes that were perfect after a cold day up at Livek. Or a day spent hiking all over the valley instead. Marie treated us like friends and was good to make sure we saw everything the Soča Valley had to offer.