June 1, Wednesday
After breakfast, we set off walking from the hotel, climbing up to the white church, dedicated to Saint Martin, that makes the third of the three picturesque landmarks on the lake. (The chapel on the island and the castle being the other two.)
Inside are fascinating, modern frescoes, by a local Slovenian artist, Slavko Pengov. At first the overall effect is much the same as in any medieval church with frescoes, but there are notable differences. First, the figures are extremely muscular, much like Michelangelo’s. Second, the colors are not traditional. Close observation reveals that some are actually lurid…what should be dark red shadows are painted in green or purple, for example. Third, the halos are executed in a shallow bowl-shaped relief painted in metallic gold. The shape really helps the paint pick up the light, so that even in the semi-darkness of the church they have an unearthly glow. Appropriate, right?
Our walk this morning was a long one, passing through the hills and valleys around Lake Bled. Our intention is to walk the 1.6 kilometers of the Vintgar Gorge. Thanks to Pinterest I already know that the gorge will be spectacular (I like to search out and “pin” pictures of the places I will be traveling.)
The entrance to the gorge costs just 4 euros. At the beginning the path follows a rushing stream, through fairly heavy forest. There is evidence of damage done by a storm two years ago that closed the gorge to tourists while the destruction was cleaned up. Still, in various places, you can still see huge trees tossed helter-skelter along the steep bank.
When the river enters the gorge, you see some of the most beautiful scenery you may ever see. Again, the turquoise water rages through the narrow gaps between the rock walls, and over the jagged boulders in the stream bed. It crashes and smashes, producing a mist that cools the gorge and waters the lush vegetation. Following the course of the water, you walk on a boardwalk that, like the river, will twist and turn and carry you over and back as you descend through the gorge.
Visitors can traverse the gorge in both directions, so the you often have to squeeze against the rocks or the railing to let others pass. Below you the water may be running wild, white and frothy as it jumps over the rocks in its way, or it may be smooth and clear as glass where in deeper parts you get a look at the bottom. It is a beautiful and unforgettable experience.
We exited the gorge walk right at a huge waterfall. The path continued but I know not to where! Our exit took us back into dense forest. The light was low and the ground covered in dark, wet leaves, moss clinging to everything. May favorite fairy landscape! The path, however, was an upward climb, so I had to concentrate on my feet, to avoid slipping. If there were fairies there, they had plenty of time to scamper and hide.
Out of the woods, we could see the Bled castle far above and across broad meadows of wildflowers. We walked right next to the typical hayracks, called kozolec, that are found only in Slovenia. Otherwise, there was little to suggest that we weren’t in Austria!
The kozolec were sometimes decorative, and sometimes in very bad states of repair, but often they were already partially filled with drying hay. The first cutting of hay had already happened as was clear from the huge roles of hay, baled in plastic: The modern juxtaposed with the traditional.
We had lunch outside on the patio of a small place that served grilled meat. Everything was very tasty – after that long exciting walk, just about anything would be gourmet!
After lunch we still had to walk back to the hotel, but it was a pleasant stroll, mostly downhill and back to where we started.
Later in the afternoon, Dave took Galina and me to up to the castle. Thankfully it was raining so we didn’t have to even consider walking up! My legs were a little sore from the morning! The outside of this castle, unlike the Ljubljana castle, is still very original. Inside, the views from the terrace, back down to the lake and across the area, are exceptional, even in the rain. The inside of the buildings has mostly been modernized as the castle houses a museum about the history of Bled. The area around Bled has been inhabited from prehistory, and the museum houses Stone Age tools and artifacts that have been excavated, as have some from the Bronze and Iron ages, as well as Roman times.
I was detained looking at a huge relief map of western Slovenia. The docent showed me the areas of Slovenia we had already visited, and where we crossed over the Vrsic Pass, and where Mount Triglav is in relationship to everything else. I found it really interesting and we got to talking about other things, too.
The museum has a place where you can sit down and watch a selection of videos about history, geology and more. The only difficulty for me was hearing the video I was watching while Galina was watching a different one, at the desk right in front of me. There were no headphones, so I am still unsure if I didn’t mix some of my information with hers!
Once finished with the museum, we walked outside to a rainbow, but no more rain! We were able to walk down the hill back to the hotel, along a path of mostly steps.
We ate dinner that night back at Okarina. This time I did opt for an Indian dish. It was very good! We slept well after a busy day.
June 2, Thursday
Our day began with a peaceful row across Lake Bled, right from the dock at the hotel, to the famous island with its chapel. You know the one – it is the image on the cover of every book about Slovenia. I had been lucky this morning that the sun came out and lit the chapel beautifully for a long enough time that I finally got the picture I wanted! (I had not taken my camera to breakfast, so I carefully timed the passage of the clouds to be able to finish my breakfast and then make it back up to my room, grab my camera and go out on the balcony to get the shot. I needn’t have worried – the sun stayed there for a nice long time.
The boat that we took to cross the lake is called a pletna. Twenty-three families currently have the rights to own and operate one of these boats. We later earned that the Empress Maria-Theresa (the last Habsburg monarch) gave the rights to the peasant families with the poorest soil in the 1700s. The oars are long and the motion is a pushing one not a pulling. The boatman is forced to turn the oar as he pushes it, and again in order to feather it, as it does not come out of the water when he returns it for the next stoke. The top of the oar is shaped like “T” allowing him to turn his hand and push with the heal of his palm.
Our boatman was a pleasant young man who told us a lot about the culture of the boats, about the island and about tourism in Bled. It was interesting to hear him say that the Japanese tourists don’t have time to take the boat from the hotel. Their schedule is so jam packed they have to take the closest boats, ride out, take a photo and return to their buses on shore.
The chapel is located on the top of a hill on the island. Custom says that a bridegroom should carry his bride to the top of the 90 plus steps if he wants to insure himself a long happy marriage. This was a cause for general laughter, and looking around our group, it seemed evident that none would try it today!
We climbed to the top of the clock tower to see the restored mechanism that governs the action of the bells that ring out the hour, the half-hour and the quarter-hour, each with a specific type of ring. We also peeked inside the chapel and watched some summer interns hard at work with a regular team of restoration experts.
After the island chapel visit, our boatman brought us back to the main pletna pier and showed us pictures of a 6-foot carp that had been pulled out of the lake. What a monster! You wouldn’t believe it but to see the pictures.
Near the boat pier, the water from the lake flows into a restricted channel. This area is called Mlino (not so sure about the spelling), the mill district. Our walk for today started here.
We walk through the village that used to be the mill town, out into the countryside. Again the hay racks dot the fields, and we see meadows filled with flowers, white, yellow and many shades of purple. The beauty of the wildflowers is rivaled by the garden flowers, especially irises, peonies and roses. Villages along the way had interesting names like Selo and Ribno.
Our destination was a town called Radovljica, situated along the Bohinjka River with the turquoise water. We now know that the source of the water’s color is glacial dust left over from action of centuries ago. There are no glaciers in the Julian Alps now, but dust is part of the soil so still gets in the water.
Our lunch in Radovljica started with a platter of different cured meats made in-house, a black radish about the size of a softball filed with cream cheese-like dip, sliced kohlrabi with horseradish and walnuts, and a pumpkin soup (which was more like a vegetable soup with chunks of pumpkin than the creamy pumpkin soups we are used to). We also tried dumplings with meat broth and a mushroom sauce. Desert was a buckwheat cake with nuts and honey.
Our restaurant was called Lektar, the name for a baker, and was located inside a 16th century inn. Below the restaurant was a museum/workshop where making honey bread is showcased as a traditional craft. Galina and I were given a explanation of the honey bread tradition – unlike gingerbread it is not a bread you eat! It is created, shaped and painted for decorative purposes, mostly romantic. I bought a sample as a Christmas tree ornament, but there were many more elaborate creations.
After lunch a walk around the main “square” (a long, rectangular shape) revealed interesting facades, all different, some painted, some ornate with stone. It was very sleepy and quiet on a Thursday for lunch, but by the café chairs and tables you could see it was clearly prepared for more tourists.
After lunch, we climbed aboard our van and drove to Opatija in Croatia.
Our hotel for the next two days was called the Miramare. It is a new structure, newly built but modeled on the original hotel on this property called the Villa Neptune, a Belle Epoch gem that had fallen on very hard times. Opatija is a seaside resort town on the Kvarner Gulf of the Adriatic. It was created out of what was probably a sleepy fishing village when a wealthy Austrian (There are many Austro-Hungarian ties to Croatia, as there are in Slovenia.) brought his sickly wife here to recover her health and together they entertained all sorts of visitors from Vienna. Today the town is bustling with activity, and there are lots of hotels, both grand and less grand.
That evening we had dinner in the hotel dining room…We turned a lot of heads when we entered…maybe because we were the only non-Germans in the whole place?