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Trip Report Our Week-and-a-Half in Northern Croatia and Slovenia

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Pivo, Pizza and Sljivovica: Our Week-and-a-Half in Northern Croatia and Slovenia

We just recently returned from a terrific 11-day stay in Croatia and Slovenia (mostly in the northern half of Croatia), and we’re giving the region two enthusiastic thumbs up!

Just a bit of background on us, for those who haven’t read our trip reports before… We’re both in our upper-40s, and we usually take 2 or 3 trips together per year (often to European destinations). We are generally 3-star travelers; we love good value, but we place a higher premium on good location and local color than standard “luxuries”. And while we like to eat (and drink) well, we are definitely not foodies. We usually take these trips with our teenage daughter, but now that she’s gone off to college we’re starting to get back into the swing of traveling as a twosome again (as evidenced by our romantic getaway to Tuscany last year; trip report linked for reference:

We flew out of Chicago ORD on a Friday (8/31) and returned the evening of 9/12. A rough outline of our itinerary looks like this:

Fly into Zagreb and rent a car. Drive to Slovenia.
First and second nights in Ljubljana.
Daytrip to Lake Bled and area.
Drive down to Istria, spending next five nights in Rovinj.
Daytrips to sites in and around the Istrian Peninsula.
Drive down to Plitvice Lakes area; 2 nights total.
Return to Zagreb, drop off car, spend 48 hours in town, fly home.

In nearly every way, these destinations and experiences met or exceeded our already-high expectations. So without further ado…

Day 1: Off to a wet start
The flight out of O’Hare was relatively uneventful, except for a bit of a long delay after pulling away from the gate… which wasn’t helped by captain announcing that maintenance had “goofed up” the paperwork. But we were finally airborne over an hour after our scheduled departure. It made us a tad concerned about our 1:30 connection but we made it easily (with some time for a stop at the Munich Senator Lounge). Both of us watched The Descendants with George Clooney—a good movie, btw.

Our flight to Zagreb left on time and arrived on time. It’s a fairly small airport, so we made a quick trip through immigration and picked up our rental car in no time. Finding the right motorway on-ramp was a small challenge, but no biggie. The border-crossing into Slovenia took a good 15 to 20 minutes, and then we had to stop and buy the required windshield vignette… conveniently offered by a vendor in a van by the border station.

It was a two-hour drive in light rain to Ljubljana, but finding the hotel (Premier Hotel Slon on Slovenska cesta) was easy-peasy… it’s in the heart of town on the main road that leads from the tollway. At check-in, we were warning about a wedding party planned for that evening and we noticed a couple packs of ear-plugs left on the night stand in room (just in case). But it never was a problem for us, really.

The rain started to subside a bit so we walked around the heart of the old town for a couple hours and climbed to Ljubljana Castle up on a craggy bluff. From there, we climbed the castle tower which afforded some great views of city and surrounding area. There are a great many nice, stately buildings in the Old Town, including a noted university. It’s a very pretty town, and because of its size, population and general atmosphere it reminds us of an old-world version of Madison, WI (where our DD goes to school).

It felt good to stretch our legs after the long plane flights and drive. And we both got the distinct impression that this is probably a great, great town to hang out in on a nicer evening. But as we continued our walk around the city, the rain started to pick up so we decided to head back to the hotel, dry off a little sample some of the local wine and beer at the lobby bar. There, we learned a new word (pivo apparently means “beer” in both Slovene and Croatian) and caught a quick glimpse of American football on TV (Notre Dame was playing in Dublin).

Before long we put on some dry, semi-respectable clothes and sought out a place for dinner. We only wanted something casual and light, and the nearby place recommended by the concierge seemed a little trendy and upscale for our mood, so we walked down by the river area to find something suitable. Soon it was raining even harder, so we ducked into a cozy pizzeria with a wood-burning oven to warm our bones, fill our bellies and get a half-liter of local vino. It wasn’t gourmet fare, but it was satisfying nonetheless.

By 9:30pm we were in bed and drifting off. No wedding reception would wake us. And we slept till 9:00am.

Day 2: Daytrip to Lake Bled area
Nine in the blessed AM!? We never sleep that late. But I think it did us a load of good. The breakfast buffet at Hotel Slon is pretty big and fairly decent, so we took our time and enjoyed it. Afterward, we asked at the desk about the weather around the Bled area and were informed “Rain, all the week” in definitive tones. Oh well. We decided to give it a try anyway.

Driving from downtown Lj to Lake Bled is extremely easy, and only about 45 minutes by motorway. Finding a place to park can be a bit of a challenge, but we eventually found a spacious car park on the southwest side of the lake (not cheap though; 10E for the day). It didn’t matter that much to us where we were parked, since it was our plan to walk the trail completely around the lake anyway… about 4 miles, total.

Lake Bled is, itself, fabulously beautiful with steep mountains surrounding it and a small island with a picturesque church within. Above the north shore of the lake is an old castle perched on a high cliff. We made the steep hike up to the castle to help work off our large breakfasts, but we should note that it can be accessed from the other direction by car if desired. The hike up is a personal decision… if you’re out of shape, it’s a gut-buster; if you’re a fitness person it’s no big deal; if you’re like us, somewhere in-between, it’s a workout but not really a challenge.

Our 8E entrance fee (per person) was worth it for the views. The castle itself is somewhat interesting, and has a nice exhibit on the history of the area. As we looked out over the lake and took dozens of pictures, we noticed that the previous predictions of rain had not come true. In fact, the sky was starting to clear and the sun was struggling to come out for once!

On the south side of Bled town we stopped for some drinks at a nice roadside inn, and ms_go enjoyed a hearty bowl of mushroom soup. We resumed our walk and circled back around to our car, and started down the road toward Lake Bohinj, about 20K west.

Lake Bohinj is similarly situated and beautiful like Lake Bled, but not nearly as touristed. We had wanted to go up the cable car to Mt. Vogel, but there were too many clouds at the summit and not worth the 27E for both of us. So we headed back into the small town on the eastern shore, Ribcev Laz, and strolled around for a bit. We took a few minutes to explore the local church, parts of which are 1000 years old, and admired the colorful frescoes inside.

Driving back to Ljubljana, the sun came out in full force. And sure enough, the fair weather changed the character of the town that evening. Lots of people, many of them college students, were out enjoying the cafes, bars and restaurants along both sides of the river. The mood everywhere was far more convivial than the preceding evening, and we were glad to be a part of it.

We ended up on the other side of the Old Town for dinner that night, and enjoyed one of our finest meals of the year in courtyard of a restaurant called Spajza. We ordered each of the two 5-course tasting menus on offer (one mostly seafood, one meat & game) and decent bottle of chardonnay. Both menus were excellent, and the entire meal set us back less than 100E including tip.

After dinner we strolled slowly back along the scenic river, past the many outdoor seating areas for the local bars and restaurants, and found a romantic wine bar for a candlelit nightcap. It was a lovely night.

More to come...

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