Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Back in the saddle and Slovenia-bound!

Well folks, it's been a long time! We've had a lot going on with our cat being very ill and this resulted in our cancelling the UK trip. Kitty rallied and we decided to risk a short break a bit nearer to home, with the option of racing home tout de suite should the need arise. On the back of this, we opted for Slovenia. Only 5 hours away but far enough away to get out of Italy and have a proper break.

We decided to have a two-centre holiday, with the first part being spent on a "Tourist Farm" up towards the Julian Alps and the Austrian border and then a couple of days of R & R in the spa town of Maribor. Here is how it went:

11/8/2011 -  Set off from Modena on a lovely sunny morning. Being a Thursday, the traffic was really light and we were able to make good progress. We had our first stop near Venice, just after 11, for a cappuccino and a croissant and to feed Ruby, then it was on and up into Slovenia, stopping just inside the border to buy a vignette, which for €7.50 allows you to travel on all the motorways without having to stop and pay a toll.

Something strange happens when you enter Slovenia, in that the air takes on a gorgeous, aromatic perfume, of mint and thyme and grass and other herbs. It's delicious. Many of the fields and meadows were being mown to provide food for livestock over the winter and that's perhaps why the air seemed so fragrant, but it was really noticeable. The other striking thing is how clean everywhere is. A stark contrast to Italy! Hardly any graffiti, no litter, and beautifully clean rivers, free of the detritus we're used to seeing back home.

We pressed on and stopped for lunch just outside the capital, Ljubljana. This was our first taste of Slovenian prices: €20 for two bowls of soup, two plates of chips and two glasses of water! We even had to pay extra for ketchup and mayonnaise. This was all a bit of a surprise. We gave the loo a miss. Let's just say they were making improvements and the loo was a work in progress. Nuff said... We stopped for petrol a little further up the road and took advantage of their rather more salubrious facilities.

The road was clearly signposted, and just after Ljubljana, at the town of Kranj, we took a right turn which took us through a series of gorgeous, affluent-looking villages and up into the hills. The ride up was divine, following the River Kokra, first tumbling down one side of the road, then under a bridge to run down the opposite side, and all along, little bridges so that people could get to their houses. It really was fairytale scenery at its best. After we reached the village of Zgornje Jezersko, we spent about an hour trying to find our farm. A quest that took us almost up to the Austrian border and back. Some other tourists directed us to the Information Office, situated beside Lake Planšar, so we headed off there to ask where our farm might be. The girl in the office seemed a little unsure, but then confidently directed us back the way we'd come, back to the village and the hotel that was there and to turn left and we'd find it. Back we headed, but it all seemed illogical, so we stopped again and asked someone else. Between this pair, a) they actually knew where the farm was and b) spoke English and Italian and were able to clearly describe where it was. So back again to where we'd just come from at the lake, and instead of going the wrong way, as described by smarty pants at the tourist office, we went the right way and were there in a couple of minutes! If she had pointed us up the correct road in the first place, we would have found it with no difficulties whatsoever.

So, here was our farm, at the bottom of the most spectacular alpine meadow. We parked up the bike and I went to the front door and rang the bell. I was greeted by Valentina and Ivan, who seemed surprised we'd had such a job finding them... Addresses in Jezersko work like this: Name of Village, Jezersko, followed by a number, in this case 150. No street names, no rhyme or reason to the numbering. We found Jezersko 138 down in the village, but Jezersko 150 is down a track that runs from the lake that is outside the main part of the village...

The farmhouse was a picture, all pine and red geraniums. Our room was really cute, with pinewood flooring and a balcony that ran all the way around the first floor of the house. All you could hear was birdsong and the background hum of insects and the distant gentle jangling of cowbells. Bliss.

There were several barns around the farm, in various states of repair. This one was our favourite, with the fir tree growing out of the roof:

They eat dinner early in Slovenia, and at 6.30 we sat down to delicious bowl of home-made broth with croutons, followed by turkey breast, broccoli and a cheese and egg dumpling. This was rounded off with a tasty slice of watermelon. Valentina, our host spoke some English, but struggled with the description of turkey, explaining to me that it "wasn't a peacock". Good to know.

After a short and somewhat chilly walk up the road, we retired to read and plan the next day's activities. The night was completely dark and completely silent.

12/8/2011 - Got up at around 7.45 after a good night's sleep and went down to breakfast. We were offered hard-boiled egg, sliced cheese, cold meats, a pot of honey, a pot of what tasted like apricot jam, but with a tang, that I later found out was homemade apricot and rhubarb jam, lovely fresh bread (I assume, homemade) and a pot of a fabulously minty-fragranced infusion tea. This tea smelt  just like the surrounding fields, and we later found out that it was in fact an infusion of local herbs, hand-gathered by Valentina.

After breakfast, we set off, with no real aim in mind, (and hence no day bag or water) down the gravel path that leads through the meadow and up into the surrounding hills. Actually, it was more like climbing up the side of a mountain. It was really steep and hard work, but I was more concerned about the prospects of coming down! I have a bit of an irrational fear of falling over and slipping, and these were two almost inevitable possibilities we would have encountered on the descent. Still, we kept on upwards through the lush beech - pine forest, following the red and white trekker dots, to, well, we didn't really know.

Hot on our tail was a group of noisy Slovenes also staying at the farm. They were also struggling, but not as much as we were. They eventually passed us and must have taken pity on us as they kindly left us a bottle of water on a rock. More likely they thought, "stupid buggers!!" They carried on onwards and upwards and we bade them farewell. We caught up with them a little further on when we came upon a clearing with some kind of logging activity and a burnt down refuge, or the like.

 Rhubarb??? (no...)

 Carved out trunk channeling water from a spring

At one point further up the trail, the path divided. We faced the choice of continuing on up or heading down. We were pretty worn out and opted to go down. Glad we did, as it was a relatively gentle slope down, quite unlike the dreaded track we'd taken on the way up. On the way down we passed seats, so this was definitely the easy route, and eventually we reached the cable that carries supplies up the mountain in the ski season, and further down still, a really pretty refuge that had apartments in an annex for rent and a naughty kitten to play with.

From here, we made our way to the restaurant by the lake for some well-earned lunch and a sit down. We both had a garlicky rainbow trout and chunky chips which was absolutely divine. It was funny watching all the blokes going barmy over the abundance of wasps. Who needs a fan with all that arm-flapping?!

Our hike continued after lunch as we had to walk some of the humongous amount of food off, especially knowing we'd be eating a hearty Slovene dinner at 6.30! Another hike around the village and a much needed sit down and an ice-cream, later brought us back to the lake again for another well-earned rest. Then it was off again, back up to the farm. Up being two steep hills... We'd walked miles and Claudio's feet were "barking" and I felt like I needed a double hip replacement. Still, it had all been fabulous and well worth it.

Bus shelter


 Slovene Cottage

 Hotel Planinka

Bee Hives

Jezersko Village

Sv Ožbolt Church, Jezersko

Trout in Planšar Lake

 Planšar Lake

Dinner was fried fish, mash and garlic sauce, followed by a slice of cake. Very nice. Another quick walk after dinner, involving a delightful encounter with a cat and her kittens, then off to bed at 8.45... Tomorrow, Lake Bled!

13/8/2011 - Breakfast today included homemade redcurrant jam. The bushes grow out at the front of the farm. It was delicious. It was a little cloudy today but we set off in some sunshine. It was much warmer at lower altitude. There was a lot of traffic, being Saturday, but thanks to Ruby, we managed to sneak past most of it.

Lake Bled is picture-postcard pretty, but there is no dedicated motorbike parking and apparently, as long as you're not obstructing anyone, you can pretty much park where you like. Still one's person's non-obstruction is not necessarily the same as another's. We managed to find a space and parked up. We had a walk up and down the banks of the lake, and then opted for pizza for lunch. Blokes going barmy over the wasps...

After lunch, we collapsed in the shade on the grass in a garden. We were so stiff and aching from the previous day's hike, we couldn't walk any more. Of course, the best thing would have been to walk about and loosen up, but we really were in pain and still quite tired. We're just a bit decrepit, really, the pair of us!

After a suitable relax, we set off for Lake Bohinj. We found it much more wild and rugged and actually it appealed to us more than Lake Bled. We had a stop for water and watched the blokes going barmy over the wasps again. The women and children are far more composed... We then headed up beyond the Lake where a Spanish tourist took our photo as he was so impressed by the bike and how we were dressed! Unfortunately we didn't have time to visit the waterfalls, but we've definitely earmarked Bohinj for a return visit. Perhaps a long weekend sometime.

 Claudio waiting for me up on the road

It was, by now, time to head back to Jezersko to be in time for dinner at 6.30. Nearing Jezersko, we looked in some trepidation at the angry black clouds shrouding the mountain. We were sure we were about to get soaked. We were really lucky because we were just behind it by the time we got up there. We could see it had rained very heavily, but we only caught the edge of it. By the time we reached the farm, however, it started raining again. It was noticeably cooler and had apparently been raining pretty much all afternoon there. After a hot shower and dinner, we had a walk down to the lake to see the preparations for the Sheep Ball the next day.

14/8/2011 -  Breakfast this morning included homemade strawberry jam. Yum! After breakfast we packed and loaded up the bike and went down to the lake for the Sheep Ball. It was hot again and a gorgeous, sunny day. There were lots of sheep-themed stalls, selling cuddly toys, sweaters and tee-shirts. The mayor and several others acted out a dialogue - something to do with sheep and bears, "medveda" (bear) being the only word I understood in the whole thing. It was all very dramatic.

 Cooking polenta and lamb goulash. Just the thing at 11 am and 30°C

 The mayor and the bear...

We set off at around 3 o'clock for Maribor. It was very hot and sunny in spite of the mixed weather forecast. We stopped for a late lunch / tea. Remembering what "without meat" was in Slovak secured me a gorgeous bowl of mushroom soup. Slovak is quite similar to Slovenian, but is probably closer to Croatian. Anyway, the kind lady serving me understood and helpfully pointed out all the meat-free options, of which there were many! This was one of the Mövenpick Marché service stations we'd stopped at that have the most fantastic food. Pity there are none in Italy! A slice of garlic bread and a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice completed a yummy snack and we were on our way.

We thought we'd made a mistake coming off the ring road and stopped to ask a group of locals if they knew where the street was where our hotel was situated. There was much animation and face-pulling until the only one who wasn't from Maribor said, go to the petrol station and turn left and it's the third road on the right. We thought that this would take us back to the road we should have been on, but no, it took us right to the hotel. I don't know what all the face-pulling was all about!

We'd just seen three bikers on beamers go by, and they were arriving at the Vila Mira, just as we were. The owner, Frank, came out and was really confused as he thought we were all together. They were Finns. He let us all put our bikes in the garage, so that was a bonus. We thought, from the booking we would be getting a room on the first floor with a "French bed" (whatever one of those is...). Instead we were given a mini-apartment on the ground floor with a double and a single bed and basic cooking facilities.

 Vila Mira

After settling in and having a shower we set out for a look around the city and in search of dinner. Maribor is quite a contrast from the pristine mountains around Jezersko and is a mixture between ultra-modern, traditional and squalid. Apparently the city was heavily bombed towards the end of WWII, so that explains the different architectural styles. In 2012 Maribor will be the European Capital of Culture, so I hope they clean it up a bit by then. Having said that, however, the residential areas outside the city centre were leafy and attractive. We found a Bosnian restaurant and were drawn in by a Turkish vankedisi sitting on the canopy and looking at us with hypnotic eyes. The menu was largely meat-based, but they did offer a platter of mixed grilled vegetables and fried cheese with tomato rice, and so I opted for that. Claudio had meaty stuff. We both enjoyed our meal very much, but mine was to disagree with me later, though how mixed grilled veg and rice can do that, and not a plate of mixed meats, escapes me!

 The oldest noble vine in the world

Bosnian Restaurant (the cat is sitting at the front of the striped awning)

Turkish vankedisi

After a stroll around the deserted Sunday evening city, we headed back to our little guest house. The bed, equipped with a memory foam mattress was super-comfy, and a good night's sleep in the peaceful surroundings was had by all.

15/8/2011 - Woke early due to the lack of curtains in the room. We went down to breakfast which is served at a big table under a portico in the garden. There was a variety of cooked meats, cheeses, jams, honey, lovely fresh bread and the offer of eggs, beautiful prepared by Ivana who assists Frank in the running of the guest house. We saw the Finnish motorcyclists again, who were set to leave and continue on their epic travels, and a Hungarian couple.

Ivana is very keen on green issues and she gave us her "barefoot" brother's email address. He runs an eco-village in Koper. After a chat with Frank, we walked down to catch to bus to the spa hotel Habakuk on the other side of the river, for a day of R&R by the pool. The complex is amazing, with thermally-heated indoor and outdoor pools. Our day pass gave us access to the pools with various water massages and waterfalls, Turkish bath, Finnish sauna and fitness studio. We opted to just swim and sunbathe today, but we booked for a full body massage tomorrow and I want to have a run on the treadmill.

We'd heard thunder rumbling round for a good part of the afternoon but the storm seemed to miss us. As we were waiting for the bus however, the heavens opened and a huge thunderstorm dumped gallons of water on anyone unfortunate enough to be outside. There was little time to run for cover, but fortunately we were able to leap onto the bus. By the time we arrived back in town, the rain had stopped, so we had a dry run up to the guest house. No sooner had we got in, though, it started raining and thundering again. We had a shower and got ready to go out for dinner. By the time we were ready to leave, the rain had once again stopped.

We had intended to eat at a restaurant near the river that was recommended in the Lonely Planet. When we got there there was no space and the waiting staff pretty much ignored us. We headed off looking for somewhere else to eat and found a Cuban-inspired restaurant. The menu looked okay, so we sat down. The waitress then disappeared and didn't come back. In the meantime, two blokes had parked themselves at the table next to ours and proceeded to chain smoke, so we left again. We found another restaurant, The Ancora that we remembered had also been recommended in the Lonely Planet and went inside. Although ostensibly an Italian restaurant, they had a varied menu, and we both chose fish. I had sole and Claudio had trout. It was all delicious and we left really full.

Outside, it was evident that it had rained again while we were inside having dinner. We walked back to the guest house in the dry. I can't believe how lucky we've been avoiding the rain this holiday! After a bit of telly-watching (subtitled rather than dubbed, yay!) and reading, it was time for bed.

16/8/2011 - It was a lovely sunny morning and we had a walk before breakfast in the nearby park. It is vast with 3 lakes and a hotel and restaurant within its boundaries. At breakfast, we met another Italian couple who were on a "let's see where the wind takes us" trip around Slovenia. She spoke good English, being an English teacher. The Hungarian lady had also been a teacher. Apparently they have a lot of teachers and professors as guests! Breakfast was once again lovely, with wasps providing customary entertainment by stealing the food. Not the jam, but the cooked meat... After a chat with Ivana, the Italian couple, to arrange dinner for that evening, and Frank, we finally got going back to the spa.

We checked into reception and collected our big, fluffy Habakuk robes. Claudio went off for his massage and I went for a run on the treadmill. I've never run on one before, but it was fun and I managed a 20 minute "run" followed by some stretches. After that it was out to the pool to wait for Claudio. He duly appeared, filled me in briefly on what to expect, and off I went for my turn. I was a bit apprehensive, as I'm not really keen on being touched, and this was a full-body massage. I was taken into the wonderful, competent hands of the masseuse and was soon put at ease. Unfortunately I'm really ticklish, undoubtedly the reason why I'm not keen on being touched, and when she moved onto my inner arms and knees, I couldn't help tittering. Even a spot that's normally quite painful when pressed had me muffling my titters. How embarrassing! She said, "Hmmm, I see what's happening here." Glad she knew what was going on! Anyway, after 45 minutes we were all done, and I felt absolutely fantastic. No lower back pain for the first time in years. She had magic hands that slightly scary Slovene girl, she did indeed!

By this time it was lunch time, so I joined Claudio for chips and ice-cream. How healthy after my morning's run!! After a bit more loafing around and swimming, it was time to head back.

After a shower we met up with the Italian couple and went for dinner at the restaurant attached to the hotel in the park. It is run by a friend of Frank's. I suppose the menu was typically Slovene, with lots of meat and cabbage-based salads. There were a couple of fish dishes, and I opted for carp, instead of trout this time. Why did I do that? I'd never had carp before, and fancied trying it. Someone might have told me it was ghastly!!! All bones and muddy flesh. Never again. I felt a bit off-colour and didn't eat that much. Everyone else seemed to enjoy their dinner, however. During the course of the chat over dinner, we learnt that the Italian couple had eaten at the Cuban restaurant we'd abandoned the night before and had had a lovely meal. We told them we'd also eaten well and they told us that they'd avoided the restaurant we'd eaten at because they thought it would have a cheap and nasty version of Italian cuisine. Not so, as it happened.

So, after a walk around town, we headed back to the guesthouse. We got told off by one of the guests from their upstairs bedroom window for talking in the street. It was only 10.30. We wondered who it was, but we later found out by a process of elimination that it was Mr Hungarian guest, who did seem completely miserable and anti-social, unlike his wife, so no surprises there. And so to bed for our last night in Slovenia.

 Mestni Park
  Mestni Park
  Mestni Park
  Mestni Park
  Mestni Park
Vineyard on hill at the end of the road

Cheeky wasp helping herself to some cooked meat. Bon appetit!

17/8/2011 - Our final morning. We packed and loaded up the bike and enjoyed a hearty breakfast. After our sad goodbyes, we were on our way, following a tip from Frank to go up into Austria via Dravograd. A much appreciated tip it was too, as we followed the beautiful river Drava through impossibly beautiful scenery and chocolate box villages. We headed up into Austria near St Michael, headed towards Völkermarkt, Klagenfurt and onto another lovely Marché service station overlooking the Wörthersee for lunch.

Entering Italy at Tarvisio was like someone turning on a gigantic hairdryer set on super-hot. Up until this point it had been warm, but this was something else entirely. It was 44°C on the motorway, quite unlike anything we'd encountered since Turkey last year. We had to stop three times on the haul towards home.

And so it was that we arrived back at 18.40 to a rapturous welcome... Well not quite. There was a garden party of sorts going on at home when we arrived, and some of the guest even managed to stop gassing and look up! Still, the cats were pleased to see us and it was nice to be home with them.