Join the dots
A clearly marked path
2nd to 11th September, 2019

God, I'm feeling old. The last time I was in Slovenia was twenty-two years ago with a caving expedition. I was fitter, tougher, more optimistic and less wrinkled. We had camped up above Vrsic Pass near Kranjska Gora for a few weeks and were pounded by rain, hail and lightning. We didn't find any new caves, although we did unearth an old mine that had partially collapsed. We had no idea what they’d been digging for, but it was a grim place.

Twenty-two years slipped by and I wondered how true my memories would be. I was no longer stupid enough to camp in thunderstorms, looking for caves. I didn't have thirty kilos of grubby caving gear with me this time, either.
We only had a day and a bit walking around Ljubljana, but the city had a good feeling to it. We got bus tickets for the next day to Bled, then walked to Tivoli Park, which was pleasant to stroll through. We got a great coffee at a place on the edge of the old town, then headed for the castle.

We wanted to see inside, but in the end were thankful we didn't pay for the funicular ride up. The castle looked impressive from below, and we found a winding path that climbed the hill. Once through the gates, we were assailed by a chaos of steps, walkways, pavilions and half-covered arches. Broken stonework was left isolated, hanging apologetically in mid-air. It seemed that whoever redesigned the courtyard for tourists could only think in plan view, without considering the three-dimensional nature of it all. If you looked down from above, it made a kind of sense. The end result, however, was like being in a Lego theme park where they'd run out of bits.

The view was worth the climb regardless, and we took a bet on where our AirBnB was in all the streets laid out below. I lost.

Ljubljana Grad
Looked better from below
The next morning, we got our packs on and walked to the bus station. The exercise reminded me how much stuff we would have to leave behind, before arriving in Nepal for a couple of months of trekking.

Bled was a small village, a couple of hours’ ride north. It looked nice in the pictures and was very pretty in real life. It was also the centre for adventure tourism. We could go canyoning, caving, rafting, climbing, biking, hot-air ballooning, and more. There was an adrenaline park and a luge. We got so exhausted from just reading the list, we had to get coffee and a slice of cake to recover.

What with check-in times and buses and such, there was a three-hour wait on a park bench in the sun before we could get in to our next spot. Nothing like compulsory relaxation, intruded upon somewhat by a busker, who wasn't as good as he thought he was.

The AirBnB place was comfy, although quite cramped. The living and cooking area had to be packed in together to make space for the enormous bathroom. We had a good view over the town to Bled castle. I hoped the inside of it was nicer than Ljubljana's one.
Casting my eye back over this post, I can see a degree of cynicism oozing out. I was frustrated at all the dots not quite joining up. When we'd been in Italy, A & K had done most of the organising and now it was my turn. But, the train I thought to take to Bled only ran once in the early morning despite the timetables on-line saying otherwise. Finding buses was easy. Finding which stop they were supposed to leave from, wasn't.

And so it went ...

Vintgar Gorge
Reminded me why I love limestone
We wanted to go and see the Vintgar Gorge, but there were a dozen different places in Bled, all proclaiming themselves as the Tourist Information Centre. There seemed to be little information online that wasn't conflicting. I didn't remember there being this much fuss the last time I was in Slovenia, battered copy of Lonely Planet in hand.

The weather in Bled was forecast to be wet later in the week, so we chose the first day to see the Vintgar Gorge. Finding the right bus stop to leave from was blind luck.

Begun in the late 1800’s a timber walkway had been built through the gorge, hanging off the walls, above waterfalls and deep pools. Most people walk it in one direction, as we found when we walked back up. I have an enduring love of the sculpture of limestone landscapes and despite the steady flow of tourists along the way, it was cool and peaceful.
It took about an hour to walk through the gorge and back again, so naturally, the shuttle buses came three hours apart. A hopeful taxi driver spotted us sitting in the carpark and offered a cheap lift back to Bled.
World’s deadliest catch
“And people look at me funny when I say I go caving..."
The day was so lovely that we then hired a couple of bikes and pedalled around the whole lake. At various points we saw some guys engaged in one of the most baffling pastimes I've seen. They were fishing, Jim, but not as we know it.

They had every gadget imaginable: shelters, deck chairs, rods and special holders for them, landing pads and landing nets and boxes of bits. They had fancy wheelbarrows to move it all, and everything was in camouflage green. The weirdest part was, they just sat and surfed on their phones. When they caught something, they looked at it (the fish, no doubt, looked back), took a photo for Facebook, then put it back in the lake.

Really? I mean, really? You sit on your arse all day doing nothing, while your fancy gear catches a fish for you. Then you take a few snaps and get rid of it. The fish gets the bejesus scared out of it, you get no exercise whatsoever and, at the end, you have to buy your own dinner.

And people look at me funny when I say I go caving...

Nail-biting stuff
Max cardio
The day was not over when we got back, so we walked to the top of the luge track after dinner, while whooping punters zoomed past. At the top we had some great views over a picture-perfect place. There was even a big, carved wooden frame you could stand inside, a place to stand, and a platform for you to put your camera on.
The next day was supposed to get damp. Before it started to rain, we took a boat ride on the lake, to see the famous Bled church and its island. The short trip was quiet and smooth. We walked around the island and resisted the suggestion to go in and pay to ring a good luck bell. There were ninety-nine stone steps from the water's edge, up which every worthy groom was supposed to carry his bride-to-be.

Near the dock, some English blokes wobbled about in a rental boat, desperately trying to show the women sitting in the stern how nautically-awesome they were. Neither the fish they were trying to poke with an oar, nor the professional boat owners, were that impressed, as the lads bore in at ramming speed. Brits on tour. God love 'em

The island was a nice spot to have a church, but our time was governed by the returning boat trip and by the weather, which was getting quite grey. The boatman talked a little on the way back about his work. Really more of a large punt, the boat was made of lacquered wood and clearly well-cared for. It was owned by his father. Being covered, it was at the whim of any strong breeze. He made the job look easy, but I wasn't tempted to swap and try it out.

Summer Cruise
When you see a boat out on a lake, and don’t want to be in it
We figured seeing Bled castle was a good use of wet-weather time. The clouds came lower, and on the walk up it started to spit, before raining in earnest just as we got into the courtyard. It was still a nice enough castle and not at all the tourist horror I was afraid it would be. The battlements were covered with shingled wooden roofs, so we could view the invading peasantry from above, in comfort. The museum, chapel and blacksmith shop were indoors, and also dry.

Getting back home was another matter.

Months previously, I'd picked up some lightweight fabric with the random idea of sewing a couple of rain ponchos for travel, but had never made them. As we squelched down the hill, the rain coursing off our parkas and into our undies, I regretted not making the ponchos with every step. Just as well we had an unfeasibly large bathroom to dry off in. We stayed inside after that, dried out, and snoozed.
Our last day in Bled could have easily been spent on the couch, but we pried ourselves off it and climbed a hill at the head of the lake instead, dodging a triathlon race along the way. It was only a few hours out, but stopped us going bonkers.
Some vertical-format images of Bled, to finish that part of the trip off
The morning's logistical dot-joining worked eventually to get us to Postojna. The bus from Bled turned up late, just as the rain started. The driver hopped down and locked the door, before ambling off for an undercover coffee and a smoke. We put our parkas on and waited for him to come back. The train for Postojna left Ljubljana bang on time.

We were in Postojna for a couple of reasons. As part of my trip to Slovenia years ago, I'd seen the nearby castle at Predjama and wanted to see it again. Predjama was also a waypoint on a hiking trail called the Via Dinarica, which follows the spine of the Dinaric Alps down through Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro.

Our grand plan had been to walk some of the trail in each country. As we got closer to the area and did more research, we became less confident in how fun it would be. Much of the way seemed to follow roads, linked by poorly-maintained trails, and with very few huts or places to get supplies. Having learned that, we decided not to focus on the trail, and just travel instead. However, we thought we should at least walk the part of the trail from Predjama Castle to Planina. We figured we could do that on the last day, since the weather was supposed to be good.
We got online tickets to the castle that evening, and for the local show cave as well. I was interested to see a cave just as as long as, I said to A, it wasn't, "the one with the train in it". In addition to liking trains, exploring caves was a central part of my life for a long time, so combining trains and caves into a contrived tourist experience was just too much. You guessed it, the one we visited, had the train. To be honest, it was a lot better than I expected. Having an electric tram carrying the punters two kilometres in to the start of the tour hugely reduced the long-term impact on the cave. There were tunnels chiselled in the rock and smooth concrete paths laid down for sure, but the only way to control visitors (apart from denying entry) was bring them in on a tram, and have those formed pathways. I resolved to walk the whole thing with my hands in my pockets, an impossible feat in a usual cave environment.
Everyone was so overawed by the display, that they kept their voices low, which made a big difference to the experience. I've seen a lot of amazing stuff in thirty years exploring caves, more pristine and delicate crystals, and far bigger and more awe-inspiring formations. Even so, Postojna Jama was right up there, and I'm glad I went.

Postojna Jama
Formations as good as any I’ve seen
“Imagine cold water running down the walls of your bedroom.“

Predjama Grad
Smaller than it looks
Predjama Castle hadn't changed from the outside. It was just as I remembered. The interior had been reworked a lot, into a museum with an audio guide and displays. The level of comfort while living in the castle very much depended on who you were. The master's chambers and priest's quarters had double-layered walls to keep out the damp, fireplaces for warmth, and windows to retain it.

The places for servants and soldiers weren't so flash. Small channels had been chiselled into the rock walls there, to catch runnels of cold water that flowed into cisterns. Imagine cold water running down the walls of your bedroom. A continual, damp draft took any warmth away.

It shouldn't have been too surprising, I guess, that after a year of siege in the 15th century, the head honcho Erasmus was betrayed by a servant who lit a candle one night, signalling that the Baron was in a position of maximum vulnerability. Erasmus was buried by collapsed stonework, from a direct catapult hit on the toilet he was enthroned upon.
Our last day in Slovenia was fine and warm, so we got on the bus to Planina, to begin an afternoon’s walk on part of the Via Dinarica, towards Predjama. I used a topo map downloaded from the Dinarica website to navigate by. It had all sorts of useful "bits" shown on it, so we figured it would do.

If the small portion of the trail we walked that day is any indication, our decision to not do more of it was sound. The dots just didn't join up. Almost straight away, the marked route left a perfectly good road and hared off into the undergrowth. Only a sheep would have called it a way on. It quickly became clear that the route marked, whilst accurate for much of the time, wasn't reliable enough to use verbatim. Our map-reading skills had to be completely dialled. For example, we would be following a gravel road, when it would suddenly stop in the middle of a paddock. We'd need to figure out where the trail was likely to go next, and head across country to intercept it. The route changed, without warning, from an obvious path to faint dots painted on overgrown rocks.

On the way we passed two churches, built on high points along the ridge. We weren't sure if they were for local farmers or if the faithful were expected to climb three hundred metres up through the forest, to say a word or two on Sunday. There was a local guy resting outside the first church, who told us it had been built in 1654. Towards the end of the day, we took a side path up to the second church. It seemed to be about the same age as the first one, and had old stone steps leading down into a village far below.

After seven hours on the go and with very few rests, we dropped down into the village of Gorenje. We'd planned to catch the last bus from Predjama at six-thirty but missed it. Trudging along the road through a small village, still about fifteen kilometres from home, we had the most incredible luck. We asked a woman if she could call a taxi for us. She replied that she was driving to Postojna that minute, and would give us a lift. To make it even more perfect, her destination was literally right next-door to our apartment. I think that's a year's luck used up, right there.
From what I saw of the Via Dinarica Trail that day and what I've read, I would say it isn't really a trail. It's an interconnected series of roads, with minimally-maintained mountain paths that join the gaps. Because a lot of the route is on karst limestone, there'd be very little water. The part we did was completely dry, even though it was largely in the forest.

As for navigation, the route given on the website shouldn't be followed exactly, because it isn't exact. The trail was marked exclusively by painted red dots, with a white centre. Keep an eye out for them. Unfortunately, they don't always join up. Having said all that, we mustn't grumble. We walked some of the trail, saw some stuff, and it was great training for Nepal.
Cave Dweller, Postojna railway station
Overall, coming back to Slovenia was definitely worth it. My reason for being there in the nineties was to look for new caves. This time we went to a tourist cave that had had thirty-nine million visitors in the two hundred years since opening. Bled was definitely a place to see. As for the Via Dinarica, while it was good exercise, it was too much like hard work to navigate and just not that much fun. We'll have a look at more of it, when we're in Croatia.

Considering the main tourist season was over, our only option direct to Croatia the next day was by morning train. We had a comfy compartment all to ourselves. I love trains.
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