Alpine splendor, pristine lakes and a tranquil mountain lifestyle converge where Slovenia, Italy and Austria meet, also known as the “Dreiländereck” (border triangle, loosely). This area was the focus of a VBT cycling trip in June 2014, preceded by an on-our-own pre-trip exploring the Karst region of Slovenia and the Istrian peninsula of Croatia.
Ljubljana and the Karst
We started the trip in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. The city is relatively small (population ~200,000), and old town area is reminiscent of Salzburg, Austria and very easily walkable. The Ljubljanica river runs through the city and is crossed by several famous bridges, including the Triple Bridge (Tromostovje), Dragon Bridge (Zmajski Most), Butchers’ Bridge and Cobblers’ Bridge. The Butchers’ Bridge is enduring the relatively new craze in Europe (now leaking to the US) of “love locks” – couples etching their names on locks and leaving them affixed to the bridge. (Hopefully some of the relationships last longer than the locks do – the city periodically cuts them off the bridge to reduce the weight.)
(Click photos for a larger view.)
Other Old Town sights included the fine Riverside Market, Congress Square, and St Nicholas Cathedral.
We were only in Ljubljana one night, the next morning picking up a rental car (somewhat of a search and rescue operation in itself) and heading out of the city into the countryside. (This, though, was after paying a visit to track 1 at the Ljubljana train station…revisiting where Robert met his friend Russ Wiles 35 years ago when their backpacking travels intersected!)
Out of the city, we stayed at the Hudičevec Tourist Farm, after first paying a visit to the Postojna Caves. The Karst region abounds with caves but Postojna is one of the most accessible and easily the most heavily advertised. And as it turned out, the guy on all the billboards turned out to be our guide within the caves. Anyway, think Carlsbad in the US – Postojna has a long history of visitors – so maybe not completely pristine, but extensive and quite scenic. Postojna also has the feature of having a combined ticket allowing a visit to Predjama Castle, up the road.
Our stay at Hudičevec was enjoyable – fresh air, sheep bleating in the morning under the watchful eye of some friendly sheep dogs, and hearty farm food. Recommended by Rick Steves as “family friendly”, Robert’s note was “certainly not adult-unfriendly”. The dinners were particularly robust, and we knew then we would be overeating on the trip, for sure. But we couldn’t turn down the homemade brandies the last night, either!
Although we were “out of the city”, we did manage to get back in – it was only an hour or so away – to see the prologue of the Tour of Slovenia, which was starting/finishing in Congress Square. We enjoyed walking past the team buses and seeing the riders, especially American Chris Horner riding for Lampre.
A final highlight of our time in the Karst region was a visit to the Lipica Stud Farm, home of the Lipizzaners. Liza had long wanted to see a performance of the classical riding school in Vienna – the Spanish Riding School – but this was better, a tour of the farm plus a classical riding performance. The horses were dispersed geographically over time as wars waged and borders changed; Vienna now uses primarily horses from the Piber Stud Farm in Austria. There are however stud farms in many countries including (sigh) Las Vegas. (Robert’s comment – show horses for show girls!)
Leaving Slovenia, we were next on to Croatia, by way of Trieste, Italy and Piran, Slovenia (home of Piranske Soline, local sea salt). Hopping over to Trieste emphasizes just how close together everything is – an easy morning drive on the way to Motovun, one of the hill towns of Istria.
We spent three nights in Motovun, staying at the charming Villa Marija. From there we explored the rocky, hilly interior – well known for truffles (black in season in summer), olive oil, and wine. We also drove down to Pula on the southern tip, home to some fine Roman ruins without hordes of tourists, and back up to Rovinj, a charming, “we used to be Venetian” town on the Adriatic reminiscent of towns to the south along the Dalmatian coast. (Tip: look for winged lion statues and in relief on buildings to denote once-Venetian rule.)
Our Istrian excursion ended as drove back to Ljubljana via Opatija on the Kvarner Gulf, to meet up with the VBT tour. Opatija is the belle epoque resort of the Habsburgs, with plenty of old world charm and a less touristy feel. It also boasts the Croatian Walk of Fame, with sidewalk stars for famous Croats; we zeroed in on stars for Blanka Vlašić (high jump) and (the late) Dražen Petrović (Yugoslav world champion basketball teams, New Jersey Nets).
We met the group in Ljubljana, staying overnight in the very nice Hotel Lesar Angel. The next morning with our guides Samo and Tiziana, we were transferred out to Val Saisera, in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region in northeast Italy. Our first warm-up/tune-up ride after lunch had us first on an optional extension uphill with a rather serious grade – had to remember while the trip was rated “easy”, this *was* an option. 🙂 The extension took us a short distance to the upper Saisera valley with beautiful mountain scenery – Julian Alps to the south and Carnic Alps to the north. Not to mention what we thought was a prison but turned out to be military barracks…complete with guard towers and barbed wire. Perhaps some of their recruits are less enthusiastic than ours.
Down in the main valley we joined the Ciclovia Alpe Adria, the ultimate in “rails to trails” projects, allowing cycling from Salzburg through the Alps to the Adriatic. Riding on that bike path, also known as FVG-1 on our local stretch, took us into the Val Canale and onto our base for several nights, the Hotel Edelhof in Tarvisio. Dinner was at the hotel, preceded by a pasta cooking lesson (simple tomatoes, olive oil, basil…) in the hotel kitchen.
The Alpe Adria bike path truly seemed like the ultimate in bike paths. While Istria boasted a bike path between hill towns called La Parenzana on a former rail line, it was largely gravel and mountain bikes/hybrids are a must. The Alpe Adria, at least there, is well paved, clean, has many tunnels in the Val Canale area, and being a former rail line as well, the grades never exceed 3%. (I’ll note we were mostly going downhill, anyway!)
The next day we cycled from Tarvisio to Venzone. We paused in the small town of Pontebba located at the confluence of the Fella and the Pontebbana Creek. (The rail road line in Pontebba was the target of heavy aerial bombing during World War II as this was Germany’s main resource for transporting supplies to Italy. Robert thinks he whizzed through here 35 years ago…but didn’t stop.) Outside Pontebba, the planned picnic lunch for the day turned out to be a feast with one of our guides, Samo, grilling sausages (Kranjska klobasa) and other goodies. We ended up in Venzone, a self-proclaimed lavender capital of the region (although Liza buys hers in Croatia :-)) and shuttled back to Tarvisio by van. We thought dinner would be on our own – and technically it was – but it was preceded by a wine and prosciutto/cheese tasting nearby – a chance to get to know those wines of Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
The following day we were headed back into Slovenia, after first riding through the Tarvisio Forest Natural Park and then up (and I mean UP) to the Laghi di Fusine (Fusine Lakes). The Laghi di Fusine are two terraced lakes, and getting to the first one was a bit of work – probably about a 13% grade in a few stretches, if one decided to ride as we did and not take the van. Getting to the second lake was actually easier than getting to the first, but only a couple of folks besides us went up there.
After a nice(!) downhill from the lakes, we crossed the border back into Slovenia, past the stones marking that in 1947 the Kingdom of Italy, after losing WWII, gave the provinces of Istria, Fiume, and Dalmatia (to Zadar?) to the Social Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. We took the detour up (yes, another UP) the Planica valley to see the world cup ski jump facility under construction. Lunch was in the ski resort of Kranjska Gora in the upper Sava valley, followed by a ride up the nearby ski lift and a crazy summer toboggan run on a tiny metal track back curving precipitously downhill. (Fun, but we would have needed a few runs to get used to the speed and the bank of the curves.)
The riding continued on to Lake Jasna before backtracking to Kranjska Gora and on to Podkoren and our hotel, the Hotel Vitranc. We had enough time left in the day to ride back over to the nearby Zelenci Nature Preserve and do a little birding in the forest and at a little wetlands area. Our dinner that night at a local restaurant was preceded by a visit to a local home with traditional music, a brief cooking lesson, and a bit of dancing/folk tales. A note about the music – Robert said it was very Bavarian. The accordion reminded Liza of Slav parties in San Pedro when she was a kid. Perhaps we should just merge our backgrounds and become Slovenian!
The next day we biked from Podkoren down the valley along the Sava river, past typical Slovenian farms and meadows, and had some spectacular views of the mountains en route to the Radovna valley. We could have taken a shuttle over the pass from Mojstrana to Triglav National Park, but decided to ride it instead … and it was a considerable grade, probably 13-14% at worst. But we made it, and enjoyed a hearty lunch at the Pr’Psnak family farm. After lunch we made our way through the Radovna valley to Lake Bled, the oldest Slovenian resort. Luckily the weather cooperated at Lake Bled, as we and John Black decided to visit the medieval Bled Castle, circumnavigate the lake, and score ourselves a piece of famous Bled Cream Cake. Others in the group took the boat ride out to the island with the Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church. We returned by van to the Hotel Vitranc in Podkoren to find a village festival in full swing, complete with music and beer.
The following day it was once again ‘goodbye Slovenia’ and into Austria … by way of Italy. We cycled beyond a pass—and through the immense limestone wall formed by the Carnic Alps and the Karavanken—continuing along the banks of the Gail River in Carinthia, with a stop for a traditional Austrian alpine lunch at the Almwirtschaft Hut (and what a setting for the hut!). After lunch we cycled on to Villach, where Robert and John Black did a little sightseeing before taking the train to Velden am Wörthersee, while Liza and Brooklyn friends Mark and Joanne Guralnick continued cycling (through a bit of rain) to Velden.
Velden is often referred to as Austria’s “Monte Carlo”. Certainly our hotel, the magnificent Falkensteiner Schlosshotel Velden, put us in the lap of luxury. Liza had another “Heidi moment” when she saw the down comforter and over abundance of down pillows. (Ask her sometime.) Not to mention the huge bathtub to soak in, and the “rain” shower. Seriously will have to go back here sometime. And we haven’t even talked about the buffet breakfast yet … the buffet area was enormous and had more choices than one could grasp, but the sparkling wine with fresh orange juice, marvelous breads and a lot of smoked salmon was a good place to start.
Our final day of cycling took us around the Wörthersee, a bit of the path bypassed by a short ferry ride over to Pörtschach on the northern side. We then rode around to the southern side to the village of Maria Wörth, which features two little medieval churches. We both took a final “challenging option” that went into the hills south of the lake before arriving back in Velden.
Trip’s End – Salzburg
Although we had just been in Salzburg in May 2013 with niece Maureen, we always enjoy going there. After a fabulous last tour dinner on VBT in Velden, the next morning we transferred to Salzburg and had a lovely afternoon in the city to wrap up our trip. Our friends John, Mark, and Joanne were all doing the post-trip, but we weren’t, so we made the best of our afternoon, visiting Liza’s favorite spot, the Mirabell Gardens, and then on to the Stiegl Kellar restaurant near the funicular. Fortified with Stiegl beer and Wienerschnitzel, we strolled the city of Mozart and reflected on the trip overall.
A few final wrap-up thoughts. Are these all our photos? Not by a long shot. Our full-blown web site with nearly all the photos – really just so I can preserve and caption everything; click here.
And don’t forget the multimedia DVD experience! … order yours soon! 🙂 Just kidding. Sort of.
How many miles did we get? Well, it was advertised as an “easy” trip, and although Liza at least did every extension (Robert skipped one, into Velden), her total was just about 160 miles. But the scenery was totally worth not just hammering after miles. If you want to see the maps from Liza’s Garmin data, go here: http://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/534291089 and click Next to page through the days.
Lastly, to all the people who looked at us blankly and said “Slovenia? really?” all we can say is – you’re missing out if you don’t go. It’s gorgeous, combines the best of germanic and slavic traditions, and best of all, it isn’t overrun by tourists.