ADRIATIC COAST: DAY 3, SLOVENIA (PRE-EXTENSION)

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Julian Alps

Our program director, Sinisa, told us he had a “surprise” for us today.  He has a good sense of humor.  When we arrived at our “surprise,” we were in ITALY!  Sovenia is bordered by Italy and Austria, and you could actually bicycle through all three countries in one day quite easily.  Since all three are members of the European Union, you wouldn’t even need a passport.

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We walked into Italy at this now-shuttered border station to take cheesy pictures at the Italia sign and have a good laugh about the additional country we were visiting.

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Sinisa Diklic, our program director

At one time, this border separated communism from capitalism.  (More on that in a future post.)  Now you can go all the way to the English Channel without a border crossing slowing you down.  In 2020, Croatia and Montenegro will also be members of the European Union, so there will be even less need for a passport on road trips.

Our next stop was really the unexpected surprise:  Planica, Slovenia’s Olympic ski jump center and location of the most recent ski jump World Record.  Set in 2015, Peter Prevc jumped a whopping 248.5 meters (about 814 feet or 271 yards)!

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When we first arrived, I said to myself, “Ok, we’ll see some beautiful mountains with ski jumps and just imagine what it would be like to jump off them.”  I had visited the Olympic ski jump in Oslo, and I thought that was amazing enough.  I would have been happy just having an experience like that again.

Surprise!  There were skiers jumping, and it was SUMMER!  Little did I know that except for the main jump where the World Cup is held, the training jumps were covered in a special Astroturf that was kept wet for the skiers to train on all year long.  In addition, there was an indoor cross-country ski course, where we braved the cold for a minute (in our t-shirts and shorts) to take a quick snapshot before going back outside to watch the jumpers.

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After getting an overall view from the center’s balcony, we got an up-close look to watch the ski jumpers.  It amazed me how YOUNG some of them were!  One of the kids flying through the sky couldn’t have been more than ten years old.  (I missed the shot of him.)  That’s a brave kid!

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In Slovenia, they start young, learning how to ski at the same time they learn how to walk.  Once they are stable on their skis, the kids learn how to jump by starting on a playground slide-sized jump, and then work up from there.

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This is the highest ski jump where the World Record was broken by Peter Prevc.  The World Cup is held here. Note the tiny ski jump at the bottom.  This is used to train toddlers!  Next, they graduate to the longer jumps behind it.

We had so much fun watching (and trying to photograph) the jumpers that we could have stayed there all day.

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Laura, this one’s for you!  Bring in da goat!!

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Free time was spent nearby exploring the ski resort town of Kranjska Gora, surrounded by beautiful mountains.  There was a ski lift directly behind the hotels; no driving required!

Unfortunately, those lifts didn’t get any use last year due to the lack of snow.  It usually snows October to May; however, global warming has caused quite a weather change in Slovenia, including less snow and more tropical thunderstorms.

The lack of snow made for good foraging in the surrounding forests, however.  Berries and mushrooms grow in abundance, and mushroom soup (which we enjoyed later on at dinner) is a mainstay of the cuisine in the region.

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A cheese vending machine!  Laura, don’t ya love it?  We saw a milk vending machine the following day, and they even sold both glass and reusable plastic bottles to dispense the milk in.

When we returned to Lake Bled, I had hoped to go for another swim; however, the clouds looked threatening and thunderstorms were in the forecast.  Instead, we grabbed our umbrellas and set out on a 3.5 mile walk around Lake Bled, not worrying about rain, but hoping a lightning bolt wouldn’t strike our umbrellas!  It turned out to be the only time rain was a nuisance on our trip besides the following day on our walking tour of Ljubjana.  The walk around the lake was gorgeous, though, even in the rain!  It is one of the most popular walks in all of Slovenia, and I’m glad we didn’t miss it!

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This was our hotel.  There was a ski lift on the right.

For dinner, we were taken by bus to a traditional local restaurant, Gostina Lectar, in the town of Radovljica.

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Antique skis were displayed in the lobby.

The restaurant has been in existence since 1822; however, the 500-year-old house has been in the Lectar family for three generations.

Before dining in a private room, we first watched a private ginger-bread-making demonstration in the charming basement bakery and gift shop.  Actually, it was really honey-bread, since ginger isn’t native to the area, but honey is abundantly available.

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Dinner was served by Mr. Lectar himself, and we started with his family’s locally-made wine and mushroom soup in a cute bread pot.  Very clever!  Platters of meat, sausages, potatoes, and sauerkraut were then served (one platter per four people), and plenty remained behind as we were all quite full from the abundance of food.  There was still dessert, though, and we were served apple ice cream in a carved-out apple.

The town was so picturesque, that I was glad I slipped out to take this picture before night fall.

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ADRIATIC COAST: DAY 2, SLOVENIA (PRE-EXTENSION)

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Our hotel at Lake Bled had something I had never seen on a breakfast buffet:  honey straight from the comb.  It was delicious with cheese and their freshly-baked croissants.  Between the wonderful assortment of food and fairy tale view of Bled Castle, it was a pleasant and relaxing way to start the day!

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The view from our patio table

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Bled Castle dates back to 1100, the wall was built in 1300, and the church in 1600.

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There is a permanent rowing course set up on Lake Bled, and we watched dozens of sculls gliding back and forth during breakfast.

We began our morning tour (14 passengers in a deluxe 45-passenger coach!) with a beautiful drive through the Julian Alps to Vogel Ski Resort where we took a breathtaking cable car ride up to the top at 4,000 feet.  The views were spectacular!

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Skiing is Slovenia’s national winter sport, and they are dedicated to it, no matter what it takes to get to the slopes.  It is typical for Slovenians to spend a total of 14 hours (round-trip drive and the wait time to get on the cable car and ski lift) just to be able to ski for 36 minutes down from the top of Vogel!

Our next stop was for a walk through a tiny village where the homes were adorned with overflowing baskets of flowers and the stream was incredibly clear and colorful.  It was the most beautiful little stream we had ever seen!

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The town of Ribcev Laz located on the crystal-clear glacial Lake Bohinj was another picturesque stop we made where we were mesmerized by the clarity and color of the water.  Our free time at Slovenia’s largest lake provided an opportunity to take in the views of the limestone mountains and enjoy doing some photography.

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Throughout the morning tour, I came to understand why those who had been to Slovenia were so emphatic in their recommendations to visit this small gem of a country.

When we returned to Lake Bled, we made our way around to the other side of the lake from our hotel to visit medieval Bled Castle that dates back to 1011.  Fortunately, it was a sunny day, and we were able to take in the gorgeous views of the lake, including the church on Bled Island and our hotel across the way.

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Although most of our group chose to return to the hotel afterwards via our private motor coach, Bruce and I opted to walk down and take in the views around the lake.  We rewarded ourselves with a piece of delicious Bled cream cake at the Park Hotel.  Created by their chef in 1953, it is so popular now that they make 500,000 of the cakes each year!  Considering that every single person dining on the patio around us had a piece of cream cake in front of them, I had no doubt that statistic was accurate!

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This is where we enjoyed Bled cream cake and took in the views of Bled Castle across the way.

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Between our piece of cake followed by a gelato at a stand down the street, we made a lunch of it.  Nutritious?  No.  Delicious?  Absolutely!

Dining alfresco at a local restaurant that evening, I was curious to see if the grilled squid would be as good as the night before at the hotel, and I was not disappointed!

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ADRIATIC COAST: DAY 1, SLOVENIA (PRE-EXTENSION)

Our flight from Atlanta to Ljubljana, Slovenia (via Zurich) was uneventful, and that’s a good thing!  I love being able to fly out of the busiest airport in the world (and Delta’s hub).  It means never having to fly United Airlines ever again (if I can help it!) and opting for Delta and Southwest Airlines (domestically) instead.

Vantage Travel’s arrangements were flawless, and we had a seamless day of arrival.  For our pre-cruise extension in Slovenia, we spent three nights in Bled at the Grand Hotel Toplice, located on Lake Bled, and dating back to 1845.  GORGEOUS!  Although the hotel wasn’t anything special on the outside, it was grand on the inside with a lovely lounge and restaurant overlooking the lake.

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The view of Grand Hotel Toplice from Bled Castle.  The hotel’s private “beach” and swim area is to the right of the rowboat shelter.

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The key to minimizing jet leg is immediately adapting to local time.  Neither of us sleep well on planes, so it was a challenge to stay awake until after dinner.  I chose to go for a refreshing swim in Lake Bled while Bruce lounged on the hotel’s private “beach.”  At 77 degrees (just below competition temperature), I was in heaven!  It did the trick and energized me for the remainder of the day and evening.

After meeting the 12 other Vantage travelers on the pre-extension over a glass of wine and briefing by Sinisa , our program director, we enjoyed dining with sunset views of the lake and Bled Castle.  Dinner was fabulous!  Bruce and I had never tasted grilled calamari (they refer to it as “squid”) so fresh and perfectly prepared that you could cut it easily with a fork.

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By now, many of you may be wondering just where Slovenia is located and why we would travel there.

A small country bordered by Italy to the west, Austria to the north, Hungary to the northeast, Croatia to the southeast, and the Adriatic Sea to the southwest, Slovenia is smaller than the state of New Jersey.  Formerly part of Yugoslavia, the country gained independence in 1989.  In 2004, Slovenia joined the European Union.  It is one of Europe’s least-densely populated countries with just under 2.1 million people who are mostly Roman Catholic.

I was impressed to learn that Slovenia’s education ranks as the 12th best in the world and that 92% of adults between 25-64 speak at least one foreign language.

Slovenia’s extremely strict gun laws also impressed me.  Before you can purchase a gun, you must undergo a medical and psychiatric exam.  If you pass, the next step is to participate in a six-month training program.  As a result, the percentage of privately-owned guns is only about 15 per 100 civilians compared to about 120 per 100 American civilians!  In addition, most of those privately-owned guns in Slovenia are used for hunting, which is only allowed on Sundays.

A few other facts about the country:  In addition to banking and tourism, Slovenia is known for its production of electronics, wool clothing, wood furniture, beer, wine, and jams.  Apples, pears, plums, and vegetables are the main crops; and the cuisine is a mix of Central European, Mediterranean, and Balkan.

Slovenia is very mountainous with over half the country covered by forests, so it is absolutely beautiful—and, clean!  Conservation, a clean environment, and recycling are priorities of Slovenia, so we never saw litter on the streets, and the air and water were fresh and clean.

Located in the Julian Alps in the northwest region of the country, the scenery surrounding Lake Bled is stunning, making it an ideal locale for destination weddings—very popular for the British.

In my next post, we explore more of the Julian Alps region.