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Trip Report Ten days in Slovenia, plus Austria and Italy

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Note: I have posted an extended version of this trip report on my personal website; this version has pictures, maps, and videos embedded in it:

http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/

Itinerary:

My trip was eighteen days long, from September 13 through September 30, 2011:

September 12: Fly US to Munich (Portland-Amsterdam, Amsterdam-Munich)
Few hours in Munich
September 13: Train to Salzburg
Salzburg, Austria (2 nights)
Lodging: Pension Herbert
Day trip (bus) to Berchtesgaden, Germany
September 15: Train to Graz
Graz, Austria (1 night)
Lodging: Drei Raben Best Western
September 16: Train to Maribor
Maribor, Slovenia (2 nights)
Lodging: Hotel Orel
Day trip (train) to Ptuj, Slovenia
September 18: Train to Celje
Day visit (stop off the train) to Celje, Slovenia
September 18: Train to Ljubljana
Ljubljana, Slovenia (2 nights)
Lodging: B&B Slamic
Pick up rental car (Sixt) in Ljubljana at bus/train station.
September 20: Drive to Skofja Loka, Slovenia
Stop in town of Skofja Loka
September 20: Drive to Bled via towns of Drazgose, Jamnik, and Kropa
Bled, Slovenia (2 nights)
Lodging: Hotel Vila Bojana
Day trip to Lake Bohinj
September 22: Drive over Vrsic Pass (Julian Alps) down into the Soca Valley, to Kobarid
Kobarid, Slovenia (1 night)
Lodging: Hisa Sonca (B&B), Kobarid
September 23: Drive to Portoroz, Slovenia (stopping in Sanjel, Lipica, Skocjan Caves)
Drop car in Portoroz, short bus ride to Piran
Piran, Slovenia (2 nights)
Lodging: B&B Miracolo di Mare
September 25: Taxi to Trieste; train to Venice
Venice (few hours stop off the train)
September 25: Train Venice to Pisa
Pisa, Italy (2 nights)
Lodging: B&B Le Donzelle di Vettovaglie (1st night)
Lodging: Royal Victoria Hotel (2nd night)
Day trip to Lucca, Italy
September 27: Train to Levanto
Levanto (Cinque Terre), Italy (2 nights)
Lodging: Affittacamere Marco B&B, Levanto
September 29: Train to Milan
Fly to Milan to Amsterdam (KLM)
Amsterdam, Netherlands (1 night)
Lodging: Movenpick
September 30: Fly home Amsterdam – Portland.

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    Munich

    The direct Delta flight from Portland to Amsterdam was great (about ten hours); connection to Munich (KLM) was a bit quick but worked. I managed to get into Munich via the S-Bahn train pretty quickly, by about noon local time.

    I might have spent a few days in Munich, having never visited before. But I arrived a few days before Oktoberfest, and I really wanted to avoid it (I don’t drink). Plus I decided to focus on Slovenia and Austria on this trip. Still - I was here, why not check out Munich briefly? My plan was to spend a few hours walking around the center, take some pictures, then train on to Salzburg. I wanted to drop my bags in Munich somewhere, but the only place to drop my bags seemed to be at the central train station, and I didn’t want to waste time backtracking there. So I wound up dragging them around with me (carry-ons) for my brief visit.

    The weather was sunny and warm in Munich. Sadly, many of the beautiful old buildings were under renovation and covered with scaffolding and tarps, so these ruined many photo opportunities. I still manged to walk around (bags in tow!) and snap a good bunch of basic photos of pedestrians and tourists sampling beer (this was a few days before Oktoberfest!). I sat down, grabbed a slice of pizza and a pretzel, tried to shake off the jet lag, and then eventually headed to the Munich Central Station to head on to Salzburg. The train ride through Bavaria was beautiful.

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    Salzburg, Austria (2 nights)

    (Pictures etc. at http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/salzburg-austria )

    I was tired when my train finally got into Salzburg, and I kept making rookie travel mistakes like losing my 5 Euro bus pass and getting on/off at the wrong stops. Long day of traveling! Fortunately, I soon got to my B&B, the Pension Herbert, on the outskirts of Salzburg (which is small, so not as far away as it sounds). The B&B was nice and comfortable, with easy bus service back to the center. Taking a nap was mighty tempting, but I always stay up the entire day when arriving in Europe, to try to get over jet lag as quickly as possible.

    I got started touring Salzburg’s picturesque squares a few hours before dusk - but sadly, the sun didn’t follow me from Munich, as it was mostly cloudy. What a shame: Salzburg is a beautiful, photogenic city that I’d hoped to see in good weather.

    Dusk is my favorite time to shoot pictures in a city like this, but this first night I didn’t even bother. I found a pizzeria near my B&B, had dinner, and went to be early.

    The next morning, it started to drizzle a bit. The plan for this day was a bus trip Berchtesgaden, Germany (about a half hour away) to see some Nazi stuff and nice Bavarian scenery. The weather just got worse. I got a few pictures down from the hills of Berchtesgaden before the skies opened up with rain. I spent the next few hours in the Nazi Documentation Center at Berchtesgaden and had one of those “small world moments when I ran into a woman from my high school in rural Pennsylvania. She was a year ahead of me; we hadn’t known each other but had many mutual friends, and Facebook had previously suggested we might know each other. Wow, Facebook can even predict the future now!

    As for the Documentation Center: even though I’m a history buff, I found it a bit frustrating. It’s not a “museum" because there are no artifacts, just pictures, documents, etc. Almost all the descriptive text is in German, and the English audio guide simply translates all the text in each exhibit, so it’s quite verbose. In any case, the Center mostly tells the story of the Nazi rise to power, and I’d already known that pretty well. But the posters, photos, and propaganda were fascinating. I think seeing the Center with a guide would have been more worthwhile.

    Back in Salzburg, the rains stopped and the sun tried to come out, and I photographed it as best as I could. The town is full of beautiful churches, gardens, and nice squares, plus a dramatic fortress up on a hill. The Mirabell Gardens are gorgeous even without sun, though. At dusk I managed to get a few nice shots of the Fortress and a few on the river.

    I enjoyed Salzburg more than Vienna (visited in 2005), just because the town is much more picturesque.

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    Graz, Austria (1 night)

    (Pictures etc. at http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/graz-slovenia )

    American tourists go to Salzburg and Vienna but few of them go to Graz. I’ve grown weary of tourist traps in Europe over the last few years, so Graz sounded appealing. Plus, I could take a train through it to Maribor, Slovenia, another non-destination for tourists. Graz looked picturesque so it seemed worth at least a night. My original plan was to detour to the beautiful lake town of Hallstatt, Austria but the weather was not supposed to be ideal there - and it was a big hassle to detour, so I abandoned that plan and headed directly for Graz.

    The train ride from Salzburg through the Alps was breathtakingly beautiful - but the windows were sealed, so it was difficult to take pictures. I made few attempts.

    My hotel in Graz was a bit pricey (The Drei Raben, a Best Western) but well located and with a king bed. With only a short time there, it seemed worth the splurge.

    You can quickly see why few American tourists visit Graz: it lacks the cultural attractions of Vienna and Salzburg and also the picturesque squares that make it look like a fantasy land. Yet it has regal bearing of a classy old city: lots of neat old buildings and churches. Plus it has trams - which for some reason always catch my photographer’s eye.

    The most obvious scenery is up on the clock tower hill known as the Schloßberg. Back in Napoleon’s day, when he (and his army) defeated Austria, he mandated that the armaments up on this hill be destroyed, but the town was allowed to keep its cute little clock tower. Now the hill is a park with a restaurant and the tower. You can take an elevator up there.

    The other eye-catching object in Graz is the Kunsthaus (aka “Friendly Alien") - an art museum that itself has a “modern art" design:

    And of course, the Schloßberg provided great vantage points for looking down and photographing the city from different directions. Of course, I was up there several times.

    The old town of Graz is also picturesque - some neat old buildings and, of course, the ubiquitous “plague column.”

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    Maribor, Slovenia (2 nights)

    (Pictures etc. at http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/maribor-slovenia )

    Maribor is a short train ride from Graz, but because the train is co-operated between Austria and Slovenia, there’s a short layover at the border while the crew changes - but there’s no passport check, as both Austria and Slovenia are in the European Union.

    Maribor is another one of those towns that’s not on the tourist map, but I wanted to get a fuller picture of Slovenia, plus I wanted to see another non-tourist city. My first impression walking from the train station to my hotel (the Hotel Orel) was not good, as the buildings are a bit ordinary and rundown, but my impression improved once I got closer to the town center. There are some nice squares and buildings. The Orel is smack in the middle of the small old town - an ordinary business-class hotel, a bit stale but convenient and comfortable. Because it was warm out, I felt lucky to get one of the rooms that was air conditioned.

    Beyond the nice town squares and old buildings and churches, the most scenic part of Maribor is down by the Drava river and the Lent neighborhood. Unlike the storybook feel of Ljubljana’s downtown, Maribor’s river seems pretty ordinary but still scenic, with a few interesting bridges and an interesting kind of “townscape.” There’s also a gorgeous view of the St. Joseph Church slightly upriver (but walkable). Maribor’s river area is walkable and interesting, with festive activities on the downtown (Lent) side. Kayakers seem to enjoy the river; I also saw a “party barge” go up river at dusk, complete with DJ. (This may have been part of a celebration of the Festival of the Vine; Maribor is a wine-making region.)

    I did visit one museum in Maribor: the National Liberation Museum. The exhibits about the Yugoslavia’s World War II resistance and about Slovenian culture were interesting, but the section about Slovenian’s actual liberation from Yugoslavia in 1991 was not very coherent to someone who doesn’t know the full story.

    I enjoyed some tasty Italian food at the Ancora Bar and Restaurant, casual and cheap, right around the corner from the Orel.

    I had two nights in Maribor, and it was barely enough, even though the town isn’t exactly full of high culture or unique diversions. (I also devoted half a day of that to a side trip to Ptuj, see below.) I didn’t have a car, so I was exploring on foot. I wish I’d gotten up to Pyramid Hill overlooking Maribor.

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    Ptuj, Slovenia (day trip from Maribor)

    (Photos, etc. at http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/ptuj-slovenia )

    Ptuj (roughly pronounced “puhTOOey") is an easy train ride (about an hour) from Maribor, which is a lot bigger. Ptuj’s old town (the oldest town in Slovenia) is quaint and picturesque, with a castle on the hill above the town and the dominating City Tower in the center of town. It seems made for postcards.

    It’s also a ghost town on a Saturday afternoon. In mid-September, there were few tourists or people on the streets; even a wedding party at the church behind the City Tower didn’t make much of a dent in the lack of excitement. There seemed to be no stores or restaurants open. (Maybe it was busier Saturday evening? I didn’t stick around to find out.) I correctly decided ahead of time that Maribor would have more going on at night and Ptuj would be better as a day trip. Still, Ptuj is stunning to walk around and very worth at least half a day or longer if you want something peaceful and quiet.

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    Celje, Slovenia (stop off the train to Ljubljana)

    (Photos, etc. at http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/celje-slovenia )

    The city of Celje (3rd-largest town in Slovenia) wasn’t originally on my itinerary, but I realized a few days prior that my train would go right through it on the way from Maribor to Ljubljana. It seemed an easy stop. I learned I could simply buy a train ticket to Ljubljana, get off in Celje, and have a ticket agent at the Celje station stamp my ticket, then get on a later train to Ljubljana. This is what I did, and then I left most of my bags in a locker at the train station (lockers near the ticket agents so it seemed very safe.).
    The biggest attraction in Celje is probably the castle up on the hill above the town - the largest castle in Slovenia. It’s also a long 45 minute hike each way from the station - so I hailed a taxi. (It’s a tiny train station, more like a bus station - but taxis do come by.) The driver spoke no English, but I managed to point to the castle. The ride was only 3 Euro each way - very wroth it! I also managed to communicate to him to send another taxi back to get me in an hour.

    The REAL attraction of the Celje Castle for me was the view down on the town: a great vantage point showing the town and the river and basically a 360 degree view around. I had to wait for the clouds to move away from the sun to light up the town below, but with patience I got some good shots. The castle itself is probably interesting to the average tourist - but it was just a castle to me. Slovenia has many of them.

    Back down in the old town of Celje, I grabbed a bag of McDonalds (since not much else was open), ate a quick burger and fry lunch, and toured the old city. Like Ptuj on Saturday, Celje on Sunday was another ghost town. But it is full of interesting buildings and churches. Still, after an hour or two I had seen enough. To kill time before the next train on to Ljubljana, I took in a museum, the Museum of Recent History, which was...slightly interesting for a short diversion.

    One potential train mishap: at the Celje train station, I got on a train headed toward Ljubljana, but I got on the wrong one! I was supposed to get on the faster train (arriving earlier). Realizing my mistake, I got off at the next connecting station and got on the correct train. The conductor still gave me a hard time because, I take it, my original ticket was for an inferior type of train (slower) compared to this one. I shrugged and played dumb tourist, and he let me go without much complaint.

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    Ljubljana, Slovenia (2 nights)
    (Photos, etc. at http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/ljubljana-slovenia )

    Beautiful Ljubljana impressed me so much in 2009 that I planned a whole trip (this one) to see more of Slovenia in 2011. So I looked forward to returning to the city, even if for only two nights. I arrived early enough in the evening from Celje to get down to the main square, Preseren Square, before dusk to shoot some pictures. Unfortunately, the rains returned - heavy rains - just after after the sun went down. Lucky I was able to shoot pictures in great dusk light before it got wet - then (forgot my umbrella!) hustled back to my B&B (the B&B Slamic). I found pizza at the Pizzeria Folcus, a place I’d visited in 2009.

    Little Ljubljana is a big university town, so it’s usually crawling with students - and to me that always makes a city seem more alive and real than some of the tourist traps you find in Europe. The town is also full of beautiful architecture, largely thanks to the famous architect Joze Plecnik who designed many of the elegant buildings and bridges in town. (You can tour Plecnik’s modest house with a tour guide - I did in 2009, very worth doing.) It almost seems like a fairy tale town, with beautiful little bridges over a tiny river, with a castle above the town. It's a great city just for wandering around and soaking in the atmosphere.

    It was still raining pretty hard when I woke up the first morning. I’m so glad I had visited before so I had already seen the beautiful town! The rains gave me an excuse to take it easy and rest my sore feet in my tiny B&B room (single bed was bit cramped for a tall guy, but I managed). Still, I couldn’t help going out and walking in the rain, anyway. I left my heavy camera behind for a change and toured huge Tivoli Park with my umbrella and a point-and-shoot camera. This rainy day turned out to be a Monday - when most of Ljubljana’s museums were closed. But luck was with me, as I discovered a photography exhibit...OUTSIDE, in the park! I spent a half hour browsing the beautiful photographs of Serbia by photographer Dragoljub Zamurovic.

    At lunch I revisited another favorite pizza place from 2009, this one a much less-known hole-in-the-wall called Pizzeria Sestinka. A place with slices patronized largely by workers at lunchtime, it seemed. It's a great casual place to grab a quick slice – and quite good too! As a solo traveler, I appreciate finding casual places that have good food but where I'm comfortable also.

    After lunch I retrieved my big camera and still wound up walking all over Ljubljana for hours – so much for taking it easy! This was one of my favorite cities in Europe – I wasn't going to waste an opportunity to enjoy it, rain or otherwise. By the afternoon the rains stopped, and by dusk I was pooped, camped out near Preseren Square again on a dry bench, waiting to shoot more dusk pictures as the skies cleared again. I wanted to photograph not just the famous Triple Bridge but also the Dragon Bridge and the Cobbler's Bridge – always wanting to improve my pictures from previous attempts!

    When I was finally done shooting pictures, as dusk gave way to night, I headed over to an Italian restaurant I'd picked earlier in the day, only to find they'd closed early. Oh, well...I headed back to Pizzeria Sestinka, if only because I knew they'd be open and have good food!

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    Skofja Loka and the drive to Lake Bled

    (Photos, etc. at http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/skofja-loka-and-the-drive-to-lake-bled )

    I love taking trains in Europe, but sometimes you just need a car. I had decided to rent a car for a few days to drive from Ljubljana up to Lake Bled, up and around the Julian Alps, then down to Piran on the coast. It's possible to do this by public transit somewhat but not really practical if you wish to stop and take lots of pictures at random places.

    I've driven in Europe a few times and have found it pretty easy, but I still get nervous driving over there. Once I'm in the car for five minutes, I'm fine, but until then I worry. So I was a tad nervous heading over to the Sixt rental car place by the Ljubljana bus/train station. Fortunately, I got a nice little VW Golf (not a diesel though), very small but surprisingly comfortable. I was staying up at Lake Bled the next night – not far away, easy to get to via a wide highway, but I decided to take a scenic detour via the quaint little town of Skofja Loka – not mentioned in the Rick Steves books but well regarded by others.

    The first part of the drive was easy, almost impossible to get lost driving from Ljubljana. The town of Skofja Loka (“Bishop's Meadow”) is pretty typical for Slovenia, if you'll forgive me for me stereotyping it: a couple of churches, a little river, a nice main square with cool old buildings, and a castle up on the hill. On the other hand, it's still pretty unique, even compared to the eastern Slovenian towns I'd seen the previous week. When I first arrived, the clouds were starting to roll in and ruin my light, but make the best of it, right? I walked around the river, through the main square, and up to the castle. As I was walking back, the sun came back out, so I walked it all over again, re-taking many of the pictures I'd just shot.

    After Skofja Loka, I had considered taking a REALLY scenic detour, a windy path (according to the map) on narrow roads through the mountains. This made me quite nervous, but the travel information guide I talked to convinced me it was worth it and very doable. So I headed through the towns of Drazgose, Jamnik, and Kropa. Wow, she was right, and the scenery was amazing!!! This was one of the highlights of my trip. There were great little churches, stunning vistas, and obscure but fascinating war memorials. And in September, the roads were nearly deserted. It was almost the perfect un-tourist trap. I regretted later not spending more time on this drive, but the roads were pretty narrow, and it was hard to pull over sometimes (to take pictures!). And I needed to get to Bled before dusk if I could – I didn't have much time there, and I needed to photograph that too!

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    Lake Bled, Slovenia (2 nights)

    (Photos etc. at http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/lake-bled )

    Lake Bled is probably Slovenia’s biggest tourist attraction. The church on the island in the middle of the lake, set against the backdrop of the alps, sure grabs your attention, and walking around the relatively small lake is pretty easy. When Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia, Tito had a villa here.

    My hotel in Bled, the Hotel Vila Bojana, was just something I booked on a lark (“have to book something, find something better later”) but just kept it. It was OK, well located but extremely gaudy, with interesting gold and blue décor and a really odd bathroom!

    I walked halfway around the famous lake and was able to photograph the Church of the Assumption out on the island in the middle of the lake before dusk, with great late-afternoon light (not really a “sunset” picture opportunity – the sun sets behind the mountains). Then I hiked back to my hotel and grabbed some pizza at a little place in town. The town of Bled is really nothing exciting – walking around the lake at night is pretty, but otherwise I'd have preferred walking around pretty Ljubljana at night.

    Next day, I photographed some Pletna boats heading out to the island, then I headed out to Lake Bohinj (see below) for much of the day. After getting back from Bohinj, I rushed over to the Vintgar Gorge, a popular hike (not hard, with boardwalks and easy paths) through a beautiful wooded gorge area. There was one waterfall at the end. It was a nice little hike though not amazing.

    I'm sure I could have walked around Lake Bled a few times looking for optimal pictures, but I figured I'd gotten the gist of it pretty quickly. I didn't even take a boat out there – the best photographs are of the church and island, after all, right? I had hoped to visit the castle up on the hill for a great view on the very last morning, but it turned out to be cloudy, so I bagged it.

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    Lake Bohinj (day trip from Bled)

    (Photos etc. at http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/lake-bohinj )

    This lake, about 30 minutes from Bled, is much larger than Lake Bled but far less developed. The attractions include a ski lift up to Mount Vogel, a waterfall, and just walking around the lake. (Much longer than walking around Lake Bled). At the little town of Ribcev Laz right at the lake's edge is a beautiful little church and some monuments.

    You can also take a boat across the lake, which I did. Sadly, the boats depart not so often, and I arrived too late to catch the last morning boat and had to cool my heels for over an hour waiting for the next one! (I assumed they'd be more regular, should have checked the schedule online, doh!) The electric boat ride was very scenic, though – the Slovenian tour guide on board giving a helpful little spiel about the lake and the area (in English or whatever language you want that he knows).

    At the other boat dock across the lake, I took the (expensive, about $20 USD!) cable car up to Vogel for the view, but in retrospect I'm not sure it was worth it. But you're there – shouldn't you do it (if you're a photographer)? So I did. The waterfall would have been a 45 minute hike each way...and with sore feet and limited, I said “forget it!” It helps that we have beautiful falls in Oregon, plus I would see several more waterfalls later in this trip. I walked around the lake itself just a little, then drove back to Bled, then on to the Vintgar Gorge before it got dark.

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    Driving the Julian Alps and the Vrsic Pass

    (Photos etc. at http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/driving-the-julian-alps-and-the-vrsic-pass )

    Bled was cloudy in the morning as I got ready to hit the road for the Julian Alps drive. I hoped the clouds wouldn't stick with me up there – this was supposed to be the most scenic part of my trip! Please, could it not be cloudy on this day? Fortunately, the clouds burned off as I climbed in elevation up to the Vrsic Pass, and I soon forgot about the clouds.

    Forty-eight “hairpin turns” through the mountains? (each turn is numbered.) Sounds like a scary drive! But it really wasn't so bad. The windy drive from Skofja Loka to Bled was probably just as challenging and in parts nearly as scenic. In September, during my visit, most of the snow in the Vrsic Pass on the mountains was gone; I imagine it's much prettier in the winter and spring with snow covering everything.

    In some ways, as a solo driver, I had trouble keeping track of which sites were at which turns, as I had to watch the road too with all of those turns! One of the more memorable – unscheduled! - sights driving up the pass was a flock of sheep coming down the road toward me!

    As you drive up through the pass, mostly through dense trees, each turn is numbered. At clearings you can see Mt. Triglav, the largest mountain in Slovenia. There are various stops and little attractions to see as you drive – like the Russian Chapel, built in memory of thousands of Russian prisoners of war who died building this very road during World War I.

    After you reach the summit of the pass, you descend into the Soca Valley, an area where brutal fighting took place during World War I between the Italians and the Austrians. (Famously documented by Ernest Hemingway in his novel “A Farewell to Arms”.) There are World War I sights, cemeteries, and old buildings left over from the war, but mostly you see beautiful views into the valley. The Soca River at the bottom is a turquoise color; there are various hiking detours including one I took down to the source of the river. It's a favorite of kayakers.

    One of my stops was in the town of Soca at the Church of St. Joseph, a famous church that was damaged by an earthquake a few years back, still under renovation. Behind the church is a famous Austrian cemetery. I didn't expect to get inside the church itself, as it was being repaired, but a workman saw me walk by and graciously offered to let me see the inside.

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    Kobarid, Slovenia (1 night)

    (Photos etc. at http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/kobarid-slovenia )

    I made it to the town of Kobarid, Slovenia by late afternoon after driving over the Vrsic Pass, in time to explore the Kobarid Museum, largely devoted to World War I. This was another case of high expectations for me: I am a history buff but not a fan of museums. Still, I had heard this one was exceptional. For me, it just wasn't.

    After the museum I found my little B&B, on the edge of town. Kobarid is so small that “the edge of town” means about a five minute walk to the center and just a little further to the museum. Kobarid wasn't really a place I had desired to stay, but in my planning it made the most sense. The only real hotel in town, the Hvala, was booked so I wound up at a place called the Hisa Sonca – basically a home with three rooms for rent in it. My room was up a windy staircase but was comfortable, and the B&B owner was friendly and practically a tourism promoter for the town, urging me to hike out to the Slap Kozjak (Kozjak Waterfall) on the opposite side of town before sunset. This I did: nice waterfall, slightly dicey (if short) hike.

    As usual I hunted down pizza in Kobaird (there were two places that seem to have an equal reputation).

    Kobarid is a nice little town without much going on besides the museum, but it's near a lot of outdoor activities and makes for a comfortable stop.

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    Stanjel, Lipica, and Skocjan Caves

    (Photos etc. at http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/stanjel-lipica-and-skocjan-caves )

    After my night in Kobarid, I was headed to Piran, where I'd return my rental car. Enroute I planned to detour over to see the little town of Stanjel, perhaps stop in Lipica to see the horses, and then tour the Skocjan Caves. This wasn't that far of a drive but there were a lot of stops and detours, and I'd hoped to get into Piran before sunset.

    I had considered getting a GPS or at least a good driving map for Slovenia, but I decided to wing it with the driving map I got for free in Ljubljana. So far – plus with some prior research on Google Maps – this had turned out pretty well. I never got lost at all in my drives. The signage was pretty good. This drive turned out to be the most challenging of all in terms of directions, but I still didn't really get lost for more than about 5 minutes. The road names and route numbers are not marked with BIG signs in Slovenia as they might be in the US, but route numbers ARE marked on small signs every 0.1 km. So if you know you're supposed to be taking route 624 to some town, you can tell quickly whether you're on it or not by looking for the small yellow km markers and the route number. Also, the signs pointing to various towns are helpful – so it helps to know which towns are in the path of your destination. This is where prior research with something like Google Maps helps a lot.

    My only misstep was at the Italian border in a circle where I could have headed to Trieste or back into Slovenia. I wound up driving this little circle twice, past the “Welcome to Italy sign” twice(!), so technically I drove from Slovenia to Italy to Slovenia back to Italy back to Italy...all I the span of about 20 seconds! But I quickly found the right direction.

    Stanjel is a cute little town – by comparison, far smaller than Skofja Loka. I did a basic walking tour of the town in about an hour but felt rushed to get on to Lipica and the caves, so I missed a few things. I'd say the town itself is hardly going out the way for, but the drive to the town is pretty and made it worthwhile, probably.

    I wasn't sure if I'd spend any time at Lipica Stud Farm or not. I like horses but I'm not a horse fanatic. I decided to drive to the farm and see if I could see any horses. There was a tour of the stables or something an hour and half after I arrived, but it wasn't cheap, and they didn't seem happy that I had a camera without a press pass. So, I quickly left, stopping as I excited the farm to take pictures of some of the beautiful Lipizzaners. Then, on to the Skocjan Caves.

    The Caves were really interesting - huge underground caverns with large crystals growing from the rocks - but no pictures allowed!!! And since photography is really my thing, this was a big disappointment.

    See some official pictures of the caves here: http://www.park-skocjanske-jame.si/eng/caves.shtml

    You can tour the caves only with a guide (as part of a group, at a scheduled time), and some mild hiking is involved. The waterfall outside the exit of the cave was pretty nice, though.

    Finally, on to Piran!

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    Piran, Slovenia (2 nights)

    (Photos etc. at http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/piran-slovenia )

    I was scheduled to return my rental car in Portoroz (just south of Piran) the following morning to Sixt, but having a car in Piran is a burden in a sense (you have to park it outside of town in a lot). So I decided to drop it the night before scheduled. I arrived in Portoroz before their scheduled closing time but for the life of me I could not find their sign or location! The addresses on the main street of Portoroz are not clearly noted in many cases, so I drove back and forth looking. I asked a few people, “Where's Sixt?” and no one seemed to know exactly. They pointed me in the direction I had already been looking. Finally, I found their tiny storefront, still before closing time, only to find them gone! I called them from my cell phone, and they told me to drop it across the street at the hotel.

    How to get to Piran? It's about a half hour walk but with all my bags I wasn't about to do that. I figured I'd take a taxi. I didn't even know where my B&B (B&B Miracolo di Mare) was in Piran – I'd booked it just about a week ago while I was traveling. By chance, the bell hop (really nice kid) working at the hotel knew where the restaurant near the B&B was. He even told me how to take the bus from Portoroz directly there. For a change I got lucky: as soon as I walked down the steps from the hotel to the bus stop, the next bus to Piran pulled up and I got right on. The B&B was only a short walk from the bus stop, very easy to find! It was comfortable enough, a great value.

    I got off the bus in Piran to find the sun almost setting, so I quickly got out my camera gear and started taking sunset pictures with boats in the harbor. This as it turned out was probably my first real “sunset” of this trip and it was gorgeous over the Adriatic!

    Next I headed over to Tartini Square, the town's main square, which was magically it up at night

    with kids skateboarding and rollerblading around:

    The next day, I headed up to the town walls to find the best vantage point possible down on the town. I knew the light would be optimal in the morning, but I went back to the same location at sunset, too.

    I had few plans for my single day in Piran. The next morning (Sunday), I was heading early to Trieste en route to Venice and on to Pisa. I figured I'd take it easy (because my feet by now were REALLY trashed from so much walking), take a dip in the Adriatic, explore beautiful Piran. The only possible thing on my agenda was a side tip over to Koper (30 minutes away by bus), where a dessert festival of sorts was going on – sounded tasty, but Saturday buses weren't very convenient. So I just chilled in Piran and took pictures on and off all afternoon just in the town itself.

    Piran apparently has a "Saturday Market" in the Tartini Square during the day:

    and later on the same day, folk dancing!

    This was probably my slowest day of the trip and I probably needed it. Piran is pretty – a nice place to take it easy.

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    Venice (stop off the train en route to Pisa)

    (Photos etc. at http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/venice-italy )

    Getting from Piran to Venice on a Sunday isn't simple or cheap by public transportation; you can take a train from Trieste to Venice every day, but buses run between Piran and Trieste only on “Italian workdays” - that is, not Sunday. My best option from Piran to Trieste was a taxi – or a “taxi service” offered by the owner of my B&B for 40 Euros – a bit cheaper than just hiring a taxi company and convenient, so I went for it. My other option was to spend the last night in Trieste instead of Piran – but I'm really glad in retrospect I stayed in Piran. I missed a chance to explore Trieste (except briefly around the train station), but from the looks of Trieste driving into it, Piran was a much better place to spend a night for me.

    The plan was to train from Trieste to Pisa, via Venice. I'd been to Venice before (twice), but it is such a unique place that I thought I'd enjoy a few hours back there, detouring off the train. When I arrived that Sunday morning at Santa Lucia train station in Venice, I found long lines and crowds everywhere. The line just to leave my bags at the “left luggage” desk was about half an hour! And I'd planned only about four hours in Venice to begin with – I wasn't about to waste a big chuck of it just waiting in lines. So I decided to drag my bags with me and just hang out and revisit a few things not too far from the train station.

    Venice was just mobbed this Sunday (a beautiful sunny day) – what a contrast from the previous Sunday in Celje where the place was pratically a ghost town! I had to fight the crowds just to get away from the train station, but once I got over the bridge and over to the Ghetto, things calmed down considerably. I took it pretty easy dragging my bags with me and finally settled into a pizza place to relax for a while. (Venice has decent NY-style pizza slices for reasonable prices.) I still took many pictures, but I didn't take them very seriously, having spent so much time in Venice before – twice!

    After a few hours I was back on the train to Florence (pouring rain) then another train on to Pisa.

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    Pisa and Lucca (2 nights in Pisa)

    (Photos, etc. at http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/pisa-and-lucca-italy )

    I'd been to Pisa before but not overnight, and at that time (2007) the Tower of Pisa was being cleaned and had scaffolding all over it. The cleaning had finished this year just before I arrived! So I was anxious to see it again plus explore more of Pisa beyond the ultra-touristy “Field of Miracles.” In 2007, during a day trip from Florence, I hopped off the bus back from the Field to the train station as we were about to cross the Arno River, as the sun was setting, and I was inspired after that to return and spend more time exploring this area. I wound up staying two nights in Pisa at two different places around the corner from each other: the  B&B Le Donzelle di Vettovaglie and the famous Royal Victoria Hotel, both very close to this spot where I'd hopped off the bus in 2007. (The B&B had only one night available and the Royal Victoria had the room at a good price the next night.)

    I arrived this time in Pisa early enough to shoot the sunset and some night pics, but first I had to check in to my B&B. I had emailed them to let them know my arrival time, but when I arrived at the place the sign on the door said, “We are not here – call this number.” Without a working cell phone in Italy (I thought), I didn't have an easy way to call them. So I went over to the Royal Victoria and asked them to call for me. Turns out the guy WAS up at the B&B (waiting for me). I guess the sign was meant for when you ring the bell and no one answers!

    The B&B entrance was dirty at street level; upstairs it was much nicer. It felt a bit like a monastery inside but it was clean and comfortable. Behind the B&B is a popular square, Girabaldi Square, a lively place with eateries and bars open late (college kids), so I had an easy place to eat and no noise bothered me.

    The next day I checked in around the corner at the Royal Victoria and took a morning walk over to the Tower of Pisa. Clean and beautiful! I also got to explore more of the town itself. Then, I took a bus on to Lucca for a day trip.

    I'd heard that Lucca is REALLY the place you want to stay overnight and not Pisa. I can understand where people are coming from: Lucca is a nice walled town, very appealing whereas Pisa is a bit more “real” (loud and dirty in parts). But unlike many others, I really didn't enjoy Lucca that much. There seemed to be too many tourists, and as a landscape photographer, I found photo ops frustrating inside the walled city. My feet were so beat by now that it was a struggle to try to find some ideal vantage point down into the town, so I didn't spend a lot of time on it – and probably didn't give Lucca a fair shake.

    Pisa is probably not the kind of place a first-time tourist to Italy might enjoy (other than a day trip to the Field of Miracles and the Tower). It's just a bit noisy and dirty and not that “quaint.” But I found it very authentic and not touristy at all away from the Field. Plus, the Arno River buildings are very photogenic. I'm glad I returned for an overnight visit.

    The Royal Victoria Hotel itself was a gem in a sense: it's a faded old relic of an earlier era when hotels had big public spaces, pianos, marble staircases, etc. The place was like a museum that was badly in need of a renovation. Unfortunately, my room itself was small (shared bathroom – shower upstairs). And the hot water didn't work! Oh, well, I enjoyed the hotel itself – even if you don't stay there, it's worth walking into the lobby and checking the place out.

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    Cinque Terre (2 nights in Levanto)

    [this was just before the floods in the fall of 2011]

    (Photos, etc. at http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/cinque-terre-italy )

    If you’ve never been, the Cinque Terre is “Five Villages” along the northern coast of Italy that are uniquely built into the sides of the hills. Car travel in the area is limited; travel between them is largely by boat, train, or hiking (which takes several hours except between the two villages that are close together). A popular tourist activity is hiking between villages, through vineyards and people’s backyards, up and down many steep steps and paths, as you take in the breathtaking beauty of the Ligurian Sea and coastline below. The whole area is a protected national park.

    I first visited the Cinque Terre in 2007. It was amazing, absolutely a photographer's dream! I'd always wanted to return. With Milan as a departure point back home (via Amsterdam), I decided to stick the Cinque Terre in at the end of my itinerary. The beach town of Levanto, just north of the villages, turned out to be a pragmatic choice for catching an early train to Milan the final morning but easy to close to the Cinque Terre villages.

    I arrived in Levanto, early from Pisa the first morning, checked into my little B&B (the Affittacamere Marco B&B), and headed for the villages. (The B&B was not even listed in Trip Advisor but turned out to be in a nearly perfect location in the center of Levanto and was clean and comfortable - and a bargain.)

    From south to north, the villages are: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare:

    I did the major hikes between villages back in 2007, and because my feet were pretty beat by now, I figured I'd try to take it easy and just take some new pictures in the towns and enjoy myself. That turned out to be wishful thinking! Get to the good photo vantage points still required lots of walking. And sometimes I had to hustle because of infrequent train schedules and the need to get somewhere before the sunset. Oh, well – I'd have all winter in rainy Oregon for my feet to heal, right?

    The first day I got to all of the villages at least once. The second day I returned to Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Vernazza, which seemed to have the most vantage points. In between I indulged in fantastic focaccia bread pizza, another highlight of visiting the villages!

    One of the many highlights of the area is a few unique murals in Riomaggiore, painted by Argentine artist Silvio Benedetto, depicting the people who originally built the town:

    Between Riomaggore and Manarola is a beautiful walk, famously known as the via dell'Amore (“Lovers’ Lane”). The walk is full of tokens of love left behind by couples and even a tribute to the Beatles.

    The sun setting into the Ligurian Sea in the Cinque Terre is truly magical:

    Sadly, the Cinque Terre – largely Vernazza and Monterosso – suffered catastrophic flooding just a month after my visit. The towns were devastated. I'm hoping they return to health and prosperity soon!!!

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    Amsterdam (1 night)

    (Photos etc. at http://www.portlandbridges.com/travel/europe-2011/amsterdam )

    The ideal flight back to Portland from Europe is the direct Delta flight from Amsterdam. You can connect to it from somewhere like Milan either by catching an early morning flight (so stay overnight near the airport, sleep if you really can, and wake up at 4am) - or you can do what I did and leave the previous afternoon and stay over in Amsterdam (“long layover"). Not only do you avoid that insane early morning, you can choose to not waste a night sleeping somewhere you don’t want to be (near the airport in Milan). By flying out of Milan in the afternoon, I was able to get into Amsterdam early enough to walk around the city for a few hours, too. I’d been to Amsterdam before but not since 2002.

    I caught the 7am direct train from Levanto to Milan – very easy, about a three hour train ride. I had a reserved seat in the train’s 2nd class, in a compartment that seats six. Four Aussie travelers who had only passes crowded into my compartment and were kicked out a few stops later by some irate Italian commuters who wanted their assigned seats! Otherwise, the train ride to Milan was uneventful. I grabbed a bag of Burger King at Milano Centrale train station and hopped the train to Malpensa Airport, to catch my KLM flight to Amsterdam.

    To be honest, I hadn’t enjoyed Amsterdam much the first visit in 2002. I found the city to be a bit dirty and noisy, not exactly charming. This second, brief visit didn’t exactly change my mind about Amsterdam, but it was still a fun evening, which is a colorful city. Despite sore feet, I still walked a few miles (going home tomorrow, who cares?), hiking all over Amsterdam, taking random photos and trying to recall places I’d seen nine years ago.


    I wanted to re-photograph a bridge at dusk in 2002 that was pretty all lit up, but I’d completely forgotten the name of it or where it was. Should have written it down! So I settled on the Amstel Bridge, which was still pretty nice, as were a few nearby bridges over the canals:

    I stayed at the Movenpick hotel for about $100/night on Priceline – a luxury treat for a budget price, not far from Amsterdam’s central train station.

    My direct flight back to Portland was barely eventful. We were delayed a couple of hours due to a malfunctioning backup power system. We left late and had to fly an altered route home to stick closer to land in case there was another power failure. We got home about two hours late – but at least we had a direct flight! No connections to worry about - stress free! A fun, busy vacation, over at last.

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    GREAT report, and wonderful photos. I just skimmed everything but will read in detail when I have time. I am also going to Ljubljana - in June and staying at the same B&B. In fact I think you may have been one who recommended it to me. As a photographer I can really related to your experiences of trying to get the right light and just walking all over a city. I'm also going to Amsterdam at the end of my trip - and like you haven't been back there in years (2004 for me, when it rained the entire time, so am hoping for some sun). Anyway, thanks for the report and I'll probably be back with more questions when I have time to read it in detail.

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    Thanks, Bob and Isabel! I really enjoyed Slovenia and would like to encourage everyone to consider it for a future vacation.

    I'll bet Ljubljana will be lovely in June, Isabel. I've been there twice but only in September...

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    I have read part of your report and marked it to finish later. I really have enjoyed it so far. Love your dusk pictures--such a magic time of day for photgraphy! Thanks for sharing!

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    Andrew,
    Great trip report, thanks – I read it on your web site for the pictures, which I enjoyed immensely, as we’ll spend about a week in Slovenia this summer.

    We’ll drive from Bled to Piran in one day only (I know, wish we could add a 2nd, but I’ll take anything I can). I would love to get down to the Soca River and see the turquoise water…where is the best place to do that? Any short hike that we can take that day?

    Where should we stop for lunch? Thanks

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    Andrew, I think you and I are the only ones to have done a Fodor's TR on Piran, only my trip was when it was part of Yugoslavia under Tito.

    You might find mine interesting just to compare what you saw with my impressions at that time. I'm sure almost everything has changed- or has it?

    Clicking on my name, scroll to:
    An extremely belated TR, Italy and Yugoslavia (yes, that's right)

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    I really enjoyed reading about your trip and seeing your fantastic photos. Slovenia is high on my list so this came at a good time (summer destination is still undecided).

    Thank you for posting,
    Sandy (in Denton)

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    Great report and pictures. I skimmed through it and will revisit it later. I had never considered Slovenia until I saw a Househunters International episode a few years ago and since then I have been trying to convince my husband that it would be a great trip! Maybe your report will push him over the edge!

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    I only read the Slovenia portion of your trip report (will get to the rest later) but your description of each town/city you have visited coupled with the wonderful photography makes them come alive!!

    We will be back in Slovenia next year and will be exploring the eastern portion this time, starting with the Savinjska region into Maribor, Ptuj and then the Pumorska region and ending in Celje & Ljubljana and I am so glad to have read your personal account on some of these places. Thank you.

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    I appreciate the feedback, everyone! If you've never been to Slovenia, I think you'd enjoy a visit.

    Joy, I hope you enjoy Maribor, Ptuj, and Celje. Just know that they may be pretty empty on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, as I found! (Unless there is some special event going on.)

    basingstoke2, from your report it sounds like some things have changed a lot in Piran and some not at all since the 70s. You still have to park your car outside of town in a lot. I don't think there are really lots more hotel choices directly in town even today but probably far more than you had, but many more restaurants. There were a lot of tourists there on a late September (sunny) weekend, but few of them seemed to be Americans.

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    xyz99, are you driving from Bled to Piran by way of the Vrsic Pass? (Like I did but just in a single day?) If you do that, you'll have plenty of opportunities to see the Soca River from the main road as you drive. I didn't really plan my (short) hikes. I had my Rick Steves book with me and saw a few indications of possible hikes and took one of them (down to the source of the Soca) which was an OK hike, nothing really that special (not especially scenic). Another was also down to the Soca - I kind of got lost thinking I was hiking down to an old fort and just wound up at the river at the bottom (no fort but kayakers instead!).

    If you start out early in the morning from Bled, you can probably make it to Kobarid by mid-afternoon for a late lunch there. I'm not sure you have many better options before that on the drive for food. I seem to recall I grabbed a sandwich and a pastry at a little grocery store in Bovec before getting to Kobarid. Sometimes I wanted to stop for longer lunches to sit down and relax but just didn't have time - that day, I wanted to get on to the museum in Kobarid before it closed...

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    Hi Andrew,
    Yes, we'll drive from Bled to Piran via the Vrsic Pass, like you did.
    I guess I should get R.Steve's book, since a lot of people seem to find it useful for Slovenia.

    Google maps shows the distance Bled - Kobarid for 1 hr 39 min...so I suppose 4-5 hours (considering the windy road - love your movies) with stops for photography, short hikes, etc.

    Does that sound about right? Thanks

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    I seem to recall reading/hearing that an updated Rick Steves Croatia/Slovenia book is due out (if not already for 2012) so you might look for that, just to have the latest info! Yes, I did find Rick's book invaluable.

    5 hours Bled to Kobarid is probably about right (more or less depending on how long you stop) but if you're traveling in the summer, maybe there will be more traffic over the Vrsic Pass? There was very little traffic for me in September. Just plan plenty of time for the drive so you don't have to rush.

    There are also lots of little World War I sites along the way. I probably wasted too much time tracking a few of them down; read about a few of them in Rick Steves' book and decide how much time you want to invest in them - perhaps just stick to the few that are easy to access right on the main road.

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    Hi Andrew,
    Thanks for the R.Steve’s book recommendation – there is a 2010 edition out there, and we might just get it. Did you have a map? Any recommendation for a good one? Most likely we will have a GPS, but many times we just want to take a detour, or pick a less beaten road.

    We’ll stop a lot for pictures…so adding some extra time sounds right for us. We’ll drive the pass on Aug 30th, so we’ll see about the traffic. Hopefully not a lot, but probably more than you had encountered.

    And I’ll definitely re-read and print your trip report and use your pictures as inspiration.

    Considering we’ll be driving in one day from Bled to Piran via the pass, do you think we’ll have time for Tolmin Gorge, which I assume will take 2-3 hours? Thanks

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    I thought about buying a good map or getting a GPS before driving in Slovenia, but in the end I opted for the free tourist road map available at the TI at Ljubljana bus/train station (and at other TIs as well). Turned out to be mostly all I needed. I also did some Google Map planning (printed out directions) ahead of time.

    Roads are not marked the same in Slovenia as in the US, so the navigation style takes a bit of getting used to. There aren't big route markers or even road signs with the road names on them, though the route number (which should match Google Maps) is posted on SMALL km marker signs along each road. These help you to know you are least going the right way! But the biggest help are the directional signs to various towns.

    Say you were driving from Bled back to Skofja Loka (opposite of the way I drove). You have driven as far as Kropa and you see the directional sign as in this photo:

    http://www.portlandbridges.com/00,5D0IMG77601,348,1,1,0-slovenia.html

    If you knew ahead of time (having printed it out, looked at your map) that Jamnik and Drazgose were on the route to Skofja Loka, you'd know to follow those signs. After you get to Drazgose, you'll probably see a sign at some point directing you toward Skofja Loka. I found those directional signs extremely helpful and intuitive once I got the idea. I almost never got lost and never for more than a few minutes.

    I will say that the drive from Bled to the Vrsic Pass was a bit confusing - in part because I hadn't really spent any time thinking about it. I relied on the directions given in the Rick Steves book, and as one person driving alone they were pretty hard to follow. With two people, it would have been much easier I think. I still never got lost - I followed what I thought was the right direction and it was correct.

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    Nice report. We did like Vintgar Gorge much more than you it seems. Ljubljana is an underrated town. Weather precluded from going to Lake Bohinj, but any excuse to return to Slovenia is good enough for me.

    ((H))

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    Very nice report. I visited Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia two years ago in October. Very few tourists were around . My wife and I had the drive over the Vrsic pass to ourselves. Just a wonderful adventure. For those of you considering Slovenia, please go. The people, food, wine and scenery reminds me of Italy 20 years ago. One week did not do the country justice.

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    Thanks all!

    I agree, Huggy, Slovenia small but there is a lot to see, and a week barely scratches the surface. Compared to Italy, it's devoid of tourists in September or October.

    maitaitom, I probably compared Vintgar unfairly to Plitvice Lakes National Park, which I'd seen in 2009 in Croatia. Vintgar by comparison is much smaller and far less dramatic (and only a few waterfalls). On the other hand, you don't have to invest a day or two just to see Vintgar - it's easy to see it with just a few spare hours in Bled.

    There are lots more little towns to see in Slovenia that I missed this time, plus Logarska Dolina, which looks breathtaking. Next time!

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    Hi Andrew, Am still reading your TR, but wanted to quckly second your description of the Royal Vic and Pisa. DH and I stayed there twice. As you, our first glimpse of PIsa made us return and it was our base for train/bus travel around the area.

    The phrase "Old World Charm" applies to the staff at the Royal Vic. Lucca didn't call out to us either but I think that can be a timing thing. We had only allowed a morning in Siena and afternoon in Lucca and we weren't ready to leave Siena.

    Nice having photos interleaved with the trip report.

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    Thank you both! I hope people who don't want to digest the whole report will at least skim the pictures and read only the sections that may interest them. Remember, I'm a photographer first and travel writer second! ;-)

    TDudette, I loved Siena so I can understand why you would have wanted to stay longer. Seeing both Siena and Lucca in the same day seems like a long day!

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    Andrew, that's a fantastic trip report, the kind that is so useful to others because you included lots of specific info. Plus the pictures are beautifil. Thanks for taking the time to do the report.

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