Thursday, 23 September 2010

Diving in Trstenik and camping in Brijesta, plus Ston

15th to the 19th September

We stayed on the Peljesac peninsular until the September 19th, a lot longer than we had anticipated. This was mostly due to two factors: the first, was that we found in Vedran a really exceptional dive guide who made us feel very welcome and confident when we dived. He took us on some wonderful dives and from the first dive we knew we wanted more.
We did however want to find another campsite as the drive to the dive site in Trsenik was not ideal, so tried to find another campsite a little closer. In doing this we found our second reason which was a lovely little campsite in the bay of Brijesta, campsite Vrela which again was right on the beach and very quiet. It was a joy to stay there.

On September 15th we met up with Vedran and Dived the wreck the S57 which was a torpedo boat in the second world war. Technologically advance for it's time it was extremely fast and so when the British damaged it during an ambush the skipper skuttled it to stop it falling into enemy hands. It was a great wreck to dive on, there were torpedoes still on it's skeletal deck, magazine clips scattered on the floor and a still movable anti-aircraft gun on the top of the wreck. Lots of sea life had now made homes in and on the wreck, including this Moray Eel which I managed to get some good footage of (you've got to see this!).
We surfaced and changed tanks ready for the second dive of the day which was a reef dive. Again there was a lot of life to see, notably some pretty big lobsters in a wall and also some ancient Roman amphora just lying discarded from a long-lost wreck.
After diving we went to check out camp Vrela and pretty soon decided that this was the place to camp for the night. We then sent a text to Vedran to organise some more dives for the 17th.

We spent the day chilling in the camp on September 16th, taking advantage of the campsite position literally 5m from the bay. Snorkelling was fun as there was a fresh stream that joined the bay quite close to the campsite and the combination of fresh and salt water created a crazy thermocline at no depth! We were used to seeing thermoclines at around 25m underwater but this was right on the surface. As you snorkeled, you could see one minute then it was as if the mask had fogged up the next only to clear again a second later! It was really trippy.
The bay iteself was lovely and calm and was also used to farm mussels and every afternoon we would see the mussel farmers going through and cleaning their catch.

We dived again on September 17th, making the shorter but somewhat hilly trip to Trstenik to see our mate Vedran. Again he took us on some wonderful dives with lots of life. Of note this time were some cool nudibranches (Flabellina Lila), a Fork Beard fish, and this funky purple starfish!
On the night we sat out on the campsite veranda with the site owner (Nedjeljko) and the other guests, two friendly couples, one German and the other Czech, drinking the owners own wine (produced on his family land for over 300 years no less) and it felt like a proper community of people joined by the purpose of finding some peace and quiet. Nedjeljko also produces his own spirits, olive oil and mandarins which are grown one the campsite as well as on the family land in the area. It was really interesting to talk to Nedjeljko about his family roots and how he could trace his ancestry back 300 years, to among other things the Ragusa Republic (the area of land from the tip of the peninsula to south of Dubrovnik) and how long his family have been producing wine in this region.

So the next day I was nursing a bit of a hangover, but nonetheless we went for a bit of a cycle round the area. We passed countless fig trees, rosemary bushes, pomegranate trees and other such delights not usually seen wild in Britain so we scrumped a little to augment our fresh stocks. On the way back we passed the mussel fishermen cleaning their haul and bought 2kilo of mussels for the equivalent of £1.40! Needless to say we hurried back to our van to cook them up and thanks to Rachel's culinary wizardry we were soon feasting on fresh mussels not 400 metres from where they were landed. Delicious. The bay is excellent for farming mussels because the bay is rich in plankton. This makes for excellent mussels! We had an early night after the seafood feast as we were due to meet Vedran for some more diving the next day.

However, when we woke on the 19th, the wind was howling. We decided to head over to Trstenik anyway to see what the harbour was like but en route we had a text from Vedran saying the dive was cancelled due to the weather. We soon could see why as when we arrived the waves were very lively. We decided over a coffee to visit the town of Ston at the very south of the peninsular instead and so hopped in the van and headed off. To get onto the Peljesac peninsular you have to go through the twin towns of Ston and Mali Ston. Between these two small ancient villages runs the third longest wall in Europe, which made up part of the defense of the Ragusan Republic.
When arrived in Ston in the middle of two events, the first was the annual "Marathon of Ston" - a race around the 5Km walls of Ston and Mali Ston - eventually won by a Briton - and a "Gastro Film Festival" showing lots of films about the importance of food and other considerations. It was a very informative day out as we got to watch a number of short documentaries on such themes as "slow food", GMO and it's implications (both economically, in terms of biodiversity as well as impact on human health and legal cover-up operations from the major chemical companies). It wasn't all factual and there were a number of fictional food films to enjoy also.
For lunch we treated ourselves to a Seafood platter from a restaurant called Backus in the town. It was incredible and no words can do it any justice.
Back at the site we again sat down to some wine and another spectacular sunset before wobbling off to bed.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Split then onto the Peljesac Peninsular

September 10th - 12th

We were staying in a campsite a little way from the ancient town of Split at a fairly big campsite but one that allowed us to park right on the beach. It was lovely in the morning to be able to open the main door and stare straight out at the ocean.
Over the few days we were in Split we had a good explore of the city which was born out of a Roman Emperor's retirement palace. Emperor Diocletan had a palace built when he decided that he didn't want to work all his life and invented the concept of retirement. After his death families from nearby Salona, moved in and some of their descendant still live in the Palace. Because of this change of functionality, much of the original architecture has been lost in place of family accommodation but there are some great sights left intact too. There is the impressive Cathedral of St Duje and Diocletan's Mausoleum which is now part of the peristyle and hidden amongst cafes is the Temple of Jupiter. This is now a baptistery with some interesting stonework and in the roof there appears to be some faces which look slightly worried. There's also a massive statue of Gregorius of Nin and rumour has it that touching his foot is lucky. There is also the original keep, or castle which was part of the defensive garrison which also lived in the palace. One of the most striking things about Split is the way old and new combine. In the main square you see ancient architecture and modern living side by side. On a sunny day it is quite beautiful.

While we were staying in Split we met two great chaps Mike and Johnny, who had driven from Liverpool to enjoy the sights and sounds of Croatia. We spent a very pleasant evening swapping stories about our travels and discussing other unrelated topics such as Ukulele chords, Oasis albums and camper van conversion.

September 13th
We traveled to Peljesac Penninsula and were again rewarded with great weather, roads and views for the journey. We saw a valley full of vineyards and some of the beautiful Bacinska Lakes as we drove along. We were heading for the little village of Trstenik which has a lovely little harbour. There we met up with Vedran who runs Freaky Diving and arranged to dive with him on the 15th. From there we pushed on north to Orebic, to a campsite Vedran recommended and spent the evening having a wander into the heart of the town along the beach. From here you can see an archipelago of islands, and the largest island of Korcula. Here we found a small store selling wine made by the owner. The peninsula is famous for it's wine which is made here. The grapes are grown all over the peninsula by local families and sold off to a co-operation for distribution. The local familes also sell a portion of the wine they produce directly so we were able to pick up a bottle of Postup (named after the hills where the grapes are grown) and that evening we settled down to some lovely wine and cheese from Pag island, just a bit further north on the mainland. All local and absolutely fantastic. Also famous in this part of the world is olive oil, which we also fully intend to get hold of at some point.

September 14th
Today we had a relaxy day by the beach. Our campsite was a stones throw away so it took all our effort to get to the beach and then couldn't find the energy to move from there. Did manage a bit of snorkeling though.

Still, diving tomorrow so I should have some interesting stuff to update you with!

Friday, 17 September 2010

Diving in Trogir

9th September

Went diving today! We checked out of the campsite early to get to the Trogir dive centre at nine in the morning. The weather was beautiful, the wind had died right down during the night which meant the big waves and currents I had had a lot of fun snorkeling in yesterday had gone - diving was on!
The guys at Trogir Dive Centre were excellent and I highly recommend them. They put us at our ease and were extremely professional, which made for a very relaxing dive. They had excellent boats, a mid-size speedboat which had plenty of room for us and a larger day-boat. The prices of the dives was also very reasonable (better value than pretty much all the other dive sites in the area and further south) and they offered a 10-dive package which also brought the price down further. Once we had kitted up and got on the boat we were soon coasting across to our dive site, which was the Balkun reef, had a thorough briefing from the skipper Ivan and were soon slipping into the water.
Again we saw lots of Blennys and Gobys, I managed to get a good photo of what I think is a Black Goby, although because it's camouflage was so good I can't be sure! We saw lots of other forms of life and I managed to get reasonable photos of some of it including Leopard Seaslugs and Facelindae (Nudibranches), an all-white Star Fish and a massive Scorpion Fish sitting amongst the rocks. We were also lucky enough to come across an Octopus feeding on a massive spider crab which it had just ripped in two. The crab was huge and there were a flurry of other fishes poking about for some of the remains. The octopus quickly retreated back into it's hidey hole before I managed to get a really good photo of it, but you can see it here. Look for the line of suckers in the middle of the photo. That was a real treat.

Back on land we said our goodbyes to the dive centre after what was a really good dive and drove across the bridge into the ancient town of Trogir. We had a lovely walk around this little island and the old town which is now a UNESCO world heritage site with it's castle, old buildings and narrow winding streets. The distinctive Camerlengo Castle was built in the 15th Century (the hexagonal corner tower was built in the 14th Century) by the Venetians to defend the town and the harbour from Turkish attack. There is also a tower on the opposite side of the island to aid in the defense of the town. Dominating the Eastern side of the island is the Cathedral of St Lawrence (St Lovre) built in the 12th Century, but supposedly based on an earlier temple and shows Gothic styling possibly added to during the Venetian reign. The Cathedral stands in the Trg Ivana Pavla III, which also has a nice clock tower.

After stopping for a coffee to recharge the batteries we headed on to Split, 24Km further south and parked up to have a wander around the city. We mosied along the rows of shops, market stalls and seefront before deciding to push on to the campsite we had found for the night.


Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Into Croatia - Rovinj, Pula and Icici, then Zadar, Nin and Trogir island

6th September
Rovinj, Pula and Icici
Today we made our way over the border into Croatia at which unlike all the borders crossed since arriving in France, we had to show our passports! The guards on the border were very much taken with Nailz though, which was a relief as they had given us the expected stoney glares as we approached. Soon we were journeying through the Croatian countyside in the areas called Istra. This is the northern coastal area famous for Olive oil, Wine growing and cheese! We soon passed lots of small holdings selling their own home-made produce, but sadly as we had just crossed the border we didn't have any of the local currency with which to buy anything! One of the stalls was selling pumpkins  and all around we were surrounded by fields of pumpkins and squashes ready for harvest.
We were heading towards the coastal town of Rovinj which we had read as a picturesque town with some nice architecture, but as we drove through we saw police on every corner! This disturbed us a little as we wondered what the rest of this country would be like. After driving past the harbour we decided to carry on to Pula, further down the coast and it was as we headed out of the town that we were passed by a procession of police cars and blacked-out limos with state flags fluttering from the bonnets. I still don't know what this was about but at least it explained the police presence, and it was a huge relief to know that it wasn't because they had been tipped off of our presence.
A little while later we arrived in Pula which is on the far south eastern corner of Istria. As we entered the centre we passed the Roman Amphitheater. We parked nearby and set off on foot to have a closer look at this amazing creation. It was started in 30BC during the reign of Emperor Augustus and finished in 1AD. Made out of the local limestone it measures 130m long and 100m wide making it the 6th largest Amphitheater in the world, and impossible to fit in a photograph. Next to this we found a more modern church and poked our noses inside, where we found a large mosaic depicting the Crucifixion and on the front of the building this lovely little mosaic. The other major attraction we found in Pula was the ancient temple dedicated to Augustus. Pula is the largest town in Istria and was the major naval base of the Habsburg empire. It is still a major port today, so having seen the highlights we alighted 'Gertrude' again and hit the coastal road towards Rijeka, the next major town en route.
The drive to Rijeka involved a lovely coastal road as we were avoiding the motorway and we were rewarded with some fantastic sights as we went along.
As the evening drew in, we came to the little village of Icici, near Opatija, where we found an incredibly informative tourist info booth (the lady there could not do enough for us!) and found a campsite to hole up for the night.

7th September
We left Icici after a restful sleep an made our way north, keeping to the coastal road so that we hit the town of Rijeka mid-morning. We had seen the lights and tower blocks of this large city (Croatia's largest port) from across the Kvarner bay and didn't fancy stopping here too long and had planned just top drive straight on through. As it turned out we had a bit of shock. Driving through the busy streets we were immediately struck by the charm of the place, so parked up and headed towards the centre. First we crossed a footbridge which was absolutely teeming with fish - the little shark-looking creatures were everywhere. Next we saw some wonderfully elaborate and ornate buildings, some showing the winged Lion of the Venetian empire and others with similarly interesting features. There was a market in the centre with all kinds of produce on display and we were able to pick up one or two bargains, before seeing this Church which had some colourful mosaics as part of it's contribution to the style of the place, and was the initial reason we decided to see more of the place. In the high street was an nice archway which had a clock telling the time in standard and a more simple way.

On leaving the city we stumbled across this example of a very daring relief.

We were then blessed with some incredible scenery as we drove south-east, again following the coastal road and heading for Zadar which was to be our next stop. It was a longer stint than we had done for a while so we swapped seats so I could take more snaps of the views. We also pulled over for a short snorkelling session in the crystal blue waters by the roadside, with starfish galore! We also stopped to pick some figs from the trees next to the lay-by and spent a lot of the journey cheerfully munching away on them! They were really sweet and to someone who would not normally eat figs, I found them very delicious. Soon night had fallen and it was dark by the time we reached Zadar.

Zadar is a very cool place, there are some very interesting historical monuments but also some very cool modern additions. Moreover, this is another place where you are straight away intrigued and knocked off balance, as what you see within the city walls does not match any expectations you have. As you walk through the city walls into the pedestrianised old town the first thing you notice is the floor. The paving slabs are so worn that you can literally slide over them even when they are dry. Later we would try walking on them after some light rain, wearing flip flops, and it was fun trying to stay upright.
In the centre of the town lies the traces of the Roman forum which once stood here. The remains have been partly excavated (more were brought to light as a result of the Allied bombing in WWII, although also much of it was destroyed in the process). If you look around in the nooks and crannies all over the old town you can see examples of ancient buildings next to modern (and pretty tatty) flats which again conveys the rich character of the place. It's hard to make that last sentence sound good, but take it from me, it adds to the appeal of the place.
Built upon the ancient Roman forum is a Byzantine church, St Donatus, which was literally built on the remains, including fallen columns, of the forum.
Of the more modern aspects of Zadar to enjoy are two very cool pieces of "Artitechture" by local artist Nikola Basic. The first is (and it is a world first) the Sea Organ which makes soothing noises as the sea pushes air through tubes set into the seafront. It's quite extraordinary and we sat on the front for ages just listening to the sea make unique music with this true work of art. I think Rachel was even lulled to sleep by it, briefly, at one point.
Slightly further down the seafront is the Sun Salutation, which is a 22m circle fo coloured lights. During the day solar panels on the surface of the circle capture the sun's energy and from sunset to sunrise colours are beamed out from this circle, again using the sea to alter the patterns formed by the colours. It's breathtaking to watch, and Nailz loved it too.
We were really late to get to a campsite now so we made for the only campsite in the town. We had seen on camping forums that sleeping in a van outside of a campsite in Croatia can land you with a hefty fine so we wanted to play it safe. However, when we arrived at the camp there was a big sign saying quite clearly that dogs were not welcome. This was bad news, but unperturbed we popped our head in the office with Nails in tow. Immediately we were told this was a problem but when we asked if we could just stay in the carpark and move on early doors, unexpectedly we were told that not only could we stay on the campsite, with Nailz - and for free - so long as we moved before seven in the morning! We could not believe our luck and promptly moved the van onto the nearest pitch and went to sleep!

8th September
We got up early and made sure we got out of the camp so as not to cause the kind chap who had let us stay any bother. As we were up early we headed to a town called Nin, just north of Zadar as I had read about the "world's smallest cathedral" being there. We parked and crossed the bridge into the single-street which was the town and saw the 9th Century Church of the Holy Cross, the aforementioned smallest cathedral in the world, surrounded by the ruins of a Roman temple. As we made out way out of the town we came across a further curiosity which was the Church of St Nicholas, built on a small burial mound. This was perhaps more quaint than the Church of the Holy Cross as it stood all alone on the mound on the outskirts of the town.

We were heading back to Zadar when we decided to track down some Pag Cheese, cheese made from goats herded on the nearby island of Pag. The reason for this is that the goats herded on Pag feast on wild "medicinal" herbs which brings healthy qualities to it's cheese, so we are told. We were told in the tourist info booth just outside Nin that any of the two local shops would sell it and (dubiously it must be said) we ventured inside. Sure enough, there was "Pag cheese" so we bought a block (there were only two blocks left which I took to be a good sign), hopped back in the van, sampled a piece and both Rachel and I were in love. Pag cheese, unbelievably tasty and I swear it tastes slightly different each time I have some.

We stopped in Zadar again to get some more photos of the Forum and Church in the daylight and plan our next step which was to push on to Trogir and see if we could set up a dive for tomorrow, so shortly after we were again on the road south. On the way we passed this little village which looked as though it was in danger of being washed away.

After sitting in a pretty boring traffic jam trying to get onto the island of Trogir (to where the dive centre was) we finally got to the Trogir Dive Center (descriptive name!), set up the dive and they were kind enough to help us find a lovely place to camp. our campsite for the night is right on the beach and as I am writing this I can hear the (pretty big) waves crashing on the jagged rocky shore. Shortly after we arrived on the site I went for a snorkel in the waves and it was a lot of fun. There was a small stony beach area where I could safely get in and out and there were plenty of fish braving the swells. Hopefully the weather will be good for tomorrow and I will have more diving photos to share with you!

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Diving in Piran

4th September

Today we went scuba diving!! We got up and after getting out kit sorted pootled off to the dive centre to meet up with the Nemo Divers team. After a lovely cup of coffee on the sea front we kitted up and got onboard the boat which took us out past the tip of Piran and to the Fiesa reef. The reef went down to 11m so it was a nice shallow and relaxing dive. It was also another good test for us and our new kit which performed very well again. I had great fun playing with my camera and took way too many photos, but I was pleased with a handful of them! Unfortunately the built-in flash didn't penetrate the water very well so colours were a bit lacking. I'll be looking into a possible upgrade at some point! Afterward we basked in the glorious sunshine with the Nemo crew and had great fun trying to work through the photos to identify what we had seen with our guide Robert. There was a lot of life including Golden Sponge, Purple Sea Urchins (the female ones cover themselves with "jewels"), Painted Combers, Loads of Blennys and Gobys, Baby Damselfish which were an electric blue, and their adult counterparts which had lost the vibrancy and were a more sedate dark grey, and European Wrasse. I also managed to capture on camera a HappyRachelFish, normally a camera-shy creature! I was pretty happy too.
For the rest of the day we soaked up the sun on the seafront and didn't do a lot else!

5th September

Again we spent the day by the beach today, neither of us really water to leave Slovenia just yet as it has been so good to us, so not a huge deal to report. Took this picture of a lizard though!

Will try and do something a bit more interesting tomorrow...

Click here for our photostream (flickr)

Click here
for our route so far (google maps)

Skocjan Caves, Trieste, Koper, Piran and Lucija

2nd September
Skocjan Caves
I was awoken to the sounds of a jubilant Rachel preparing breakfast. She was in a great mood not only because today we were going to the caves, but also because she had been out foraging whilst I lay in bed and had retrieved some blackberries to put in our cereal. They were a very tasty treat and a great start to the day.
The Skocjan Caves were quite simply amazing. Massive caverns underground filled with elaborately sculptured Stalactites and Stalagmites in all kinds of crazy shapes and sizes from the minuscule to ones so big you almost missed them. We traveled deep underground and followed a similar path to the original explorers (we were quite a few feet above however as the underground chambers can fill up at an alarming rate. Further on into the cave complex and way beyond the tourist trail there is a narrowing of the caves which restricts the flow of the underground river and consequently fills the huge lower chambers of the cave system in a matter of days) and the sheer scale of the complex was just incredible. Our guide also highlighted numerous types of formations of calcite and explained their formation. We exited the caves through the same tunnel the river uses to begin it's journey beneath the surface. It's a magical place not only where the river disappears underground, but as a consequence of the microclimates created both specialised Alpine and Mediterranean flora exist within metres of each other.
Outside of the caves we were treated to a number of smaller museums which were cottages, outhouses and other buildings which had been renovated by the locals to provide room for the exhibits of local life down the ages, explanations of the river system and maps showing where the river Reka finally came to the surface and joined the Adriatic to the north of Trieste. Two guides Boris and Matej were on hand to provide further insight, not only about the area and caves (of which they were extremely knowledgeable) but also we had a good chat about life in general! They were both really good fun - big thanks to them!

Trieste and Koper
In line with our day so far we followed the expected course of the Reka to Trieste (as most of it is underground much of it has not been explored so far and is guesswork). When we got to the Italian sea-side town we were freaked out a bit. We had enjoyed inland Slovenia so much with it's picturesque mountains and villages, but to find ourselves in the middle of the bustling port and seaside resort of Trieste was a real shock to the system. Our initial excitement at seeing the sea quickly changed to a desire to follow the coastal road out of the town and down to Koper, back in Slovene territory.
Koper was also quite busy but nothing on the same scale as Trieste and we were able to park after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing so we could explore on foot. Our stay was quite brief but we managed to see the Church of the Assumption and the 15th Century City Tower which dominates the main square. Adjacent to this is the Praetorian Palace which now houses the town hall and tourist info centre. We also stumbled across the oldest building in the city, the Rotunda of St John the Baptist which dates from the 12th Centutry.

We ended the day with a little stroll into Piran after finding a rare parking space and were treated to a spectacular sunset, which looked more like a inferno in the sky and was a nice end to the day.

Piran itself is mental for parking we stayed in a car park about 6Km away in the town of Lucija which is like a small extension of Piran, but much less hectic. We were told Piran and the area was bedlam in summer but as we had arrived in September we thought it may be quiet. It wasn't, but it wasn't totally crammed either, the only real problem was parking which is at a premium in Piran but with the bikes we brought with us we have been able to circumvent this little issue, and Nailz likes the runabouts he is getting!

3rd September
Piran, Portoroz and Lucija
We wanted to explore Piran more today so got up and started to cycle the 6km from Lucija to Piran but stopped at the town of Portoroz which sits directly between the two. We came across a little "beach" - basically some grass with a concrete waterfront - and decided that we should soak up the sun a little and spend the day relaxing and snorkelling.
In the evening we again went into Piran, where we found a sea food stall on the pier and managed to "sample" two free glasses of the local wine - from Koper - which was delicious (and not just because it was free!), before wandering Round the rest of the city which is crammed full of Venetian-Gothic style architecture. The name Piran is thought to have come from the Greek word for Fire (pyr) as fires were lit at the tip of the peninsula to guide ships into the nearby port Aegida, now known as Koper.
There are some spectacular views from the ruins of the city walls which are preserved as part of Slovenia's man-made heritage, and more views are available from the Cathedral of St George which is also very attractive inside. In the main square stands the impressive Venetian House and in front of this, is a statue to Violinist Giuseppe Tartini. Finally there is the Punta, the tip of Piran, which used to house the old lighthouse, although this has long been replaced with a modern equivalent. However the 18th Century Church of St Clement sits right next to it and creates a wonderful vista across the sea. There were lots of free entertainment and events on here too, such as Acrylic / painting demonstrations, rock sculpting classes (lead by a British woman) and more.
On the way back to the van we had a flat tire which meant we had a long walk in front of us. There was a silver lining though, as by walking we noticed a Dive Centre that we had previously cycled past three times so we popped in and had a chat with the friendly folks at Nemo Divers and arranged a dive for the next day - result!

Again we stayed in Lucija as we had scoped the place really well by now and got an early night to be ready for diving next day...

Predjama Castle, Intermittent Lake Cerknica, Postojna Vivarium and Skocjan

31st August

We had arrived at Predjama Castle late last night, in time to see the castle illuminated in wonderous colours and we were up early the following morning to get pictures of this amazing castle in the morning light. It's a wicked looking castle, seemingly growing out of the cliff face. It has been built in the Predjama caves and must have been a pretty robust fortress in it's day.

After we had breakfast we headed east to the "Intermittent" Lake Cerknica. It's called intermittent because during the Summer months the Lake disappears into underground sink holes and caves. The water has no overground exit points which gives the impression that the lake just disappears. During the Spring and Autumn seasons the rainfall is greater than the amount of water escaping into the ground and so the Lake becomes pretty big over a short space of time. It's also home to quite a lot of rare and endangered species of birds, lizards and fish. Quite how the fish stay in the Lake at the height of summer when the Lake completely disappears was a bit of a mystery to us but it happens, and there were plenty of fish on display in the lake following the recent rains. Its part of the Notranjsko Regional park and as such is afforded protective rights which have helped preserve the volume of life in and around the lake. Strolling along the paths there were no shortage of interesting animals and fauna to stop and admire. That's one thing that is very apparent in Slovenia as a whole, they take great pride in the natural attractions in the country and have taken great steps to ensure it can be enjoyed in the future. This is a country of nature lovers. The same goes for man-made heritage and it is hugely rich in this area too, the area being highly colonised by the Romans and fought over for centuries between various factions (see previous posts).
There was also an fairly new Stone circle to celebrate the magic of the Lake which contained some interesting designs to reflect the different aspects of the area.
Later in the day we strolled around other parts of the Notranjsko Regional park to see some lovely natural features which have been cut into the limestone by the waters of nearby river Rak. These included natural bridges, picturesque waterfalls and massive caves, as well as providing some excellent scenery in general.

1st September
We decided to stop where we were for the night so we could explore further in the morning, and we enjoyed an early stroll through the forests and natural wonders of the park. Having just discussed the joys of wilding in the most remote and unspoilt of places, seemingly a million miles from civilization, we immediately bumped into two scientists from the nearby Postojna Caves who had seen us near Bovec and recognised Nails and our British number plate! We shared a brew with them and had a good chat where we found out a bit more about the cave creatures we were about to see and the nearby area. During this chat Nailz decided to chase a passing car (the first time he has done so I might add) and after giving up half a mile down the road came joggng back with a massive grin. We were then told about how this area (and a lot of the woodland in Slovenia) was home to the Brown Bear. Now they are known to be afraid of humans and generally shy creatures but have, in the past, been provoked by dogs who then lead the grizzled grizly back to the owners with grim consequences for the slowest runner! Cene and Slavko were in the area leading a group of around 80 people touring the immediate surroundings. They were on the organising committee of the 20th International Conference on subterranean biodiversity and Rachel was delighted to pick their brains, and don't think she could believe her luck! They were really friendly and kindly gave us some material to read about the caves and the landscape of Slovenia.

Later that day we moved on to Postojna to visit the Vivarium which showcases various species found in Slovenia's most famous atraction, the Postojna Caves such as Cave Lice, pseudo-scorpions, Slendernecked Beetles as well as the famous "Human Fish" or Proteus, a Salamander-like creature which used to be thought of as a baby dragon! They were amazing creatures and had adapted to live in the most hostile of environments superbly. If you are not familiar with them, check them out. They are the largest solely cave-dwelling creature (they cannot survive outside of the cave as they are so highly adapted) and are actually older than the caves themselves!! They can't see but can sense weak electrical fields which helps them find prey.

On our way back to the van we passed a cyclist with a trailer and British flag sticking up from it. As he was walking I caught up with him and had a chat. He had cycled all the way from Manchester and was cycling around the world avoiding all forms of motorised transport, and was headed for the Croatian border before going south to Turkey, possibly Iran and then across to Asia and ultimately the States. His name is Kevin and his website is here. The journey is expected to take about three years! He is a really nice chap and we wish him all the best for his mammoth voyage.

We next went towards the Skocjan Caves, which are not as famous as the Postojna Caves, but are said to be less "touristy", although after seeing the vivarium I would definitely see the Postojna caves if I ever come back to Slovenia. We stopped near the caves and came across this church stuck out on it's own by the main road so we pulled up for a bite to eat in it's shadow. We then went for a lovely walk around the surrounding area and enjoyed the last rays of what had been another lovely hot day.
On the way back to the van we noticed a hub of activity where we had parked, when before there was none. Slightly concerned we got back there to find that the locals were working away around our van to renovate the church with a view to re-opening it to the public as a museum. It was to be another example of how the Skocjan Caves (and Slovenian tourism in general) was providing work for, and involving, the local community. The church used to be the main church in the village before the current one in the village was built many moons ago. As the area around Skocjan was now a UNESCO natural heritage site building work was strictly limited so existing buildings and foundations are being given a new lease of life. This was a good thing, although the place we had planned to wild camp was now very much compromised, so we drove off to the next town where we saw a more than adequate lay-by leading to a field. Soon, however, we were joined by a flatbed truck piled with rubbish and two ladies in a small car. There seemed to be a stand-off between the two new arrivals with neither turning off lights, engine or moving off so I jumped out of the van to investigate. Turns out the two ladies had seen the truck driving slowly round the village looking for somewhere to fly-tip and chased it around until it joined us in the lay-by. Did I say the Slovene's love nature?? We offered to help anyway we could, but were told the situation was under control and that the police were on their way. As we were surplus to requirements, we made our excuses and were on our way!
After that little episode we thought we'd better find somewhere a little safer so headed back to the Skocjan Caves visitor centre and stayed in their carpark!

Kobarid, Lake Bohinj, Lake Bled, Skofja Loca AND Ljubljana!!

24th August

We went into the town of Kobarid today to visit the internationally acclaimed WWI museum. We spent most of the day pondering it's exhibits, including some pretty nasty-looking spiked clubs used by Austro-Hungarian forces. The museum focused on the Isonzo Front and the 12 battles that were fought around the area of the Soca river (the area surrounding Kobarid). In fact all around the mountainous Alps in the Upper Soca region were part of the war between the Austro-Hungarians/Germans and the Italians and it was hard to imagine how such a vicious war could be fought in such a beautiful land, and also technically how it was possible. High up in the alps there are caves, trenches, pillboxes and fortifications of all kinds as the two sides fought for control of the valley, a key access point to the area. During the 12th battle, the Austro-Hungarians (led by German forces managed to force the Italians from the mountains overlooking the town, and began the foray into Italian territory, as described in Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms". One of the many interesting topics brought up in the exhibition rooms was the use of caves and "mine warfare", where each side would try to burrow into the other sides cave complexes to destroy them with explosives, encircle the enemy and disrupt their supplies. We had passed many caves the day before and could see from the plans on show that these were part of the immense underground systems built during these battles. German commanders were in charge during the 12th battle of the Isonzo Front and used tactics showing early signs of the Blitzkrieg tactics that would be used extensively during the Second World War. Poison gas was used during the initial bombardment of the Italian line, as well as the use of storm troopers with flame throwers to break the resolve of the Italian soldiers, both with devastating effect.
Another point worth mentioning is how often Kobarid itself has changed hands - including during both world wars - and this was represented by a wall showing the flags of various states which had ruled here, and the corresponding dates. The town has changed hands 10 times in total, including occupation by the Austro-Hungarians (twice), Italians (twice), Germans, Americans, as well as being part of the Kobarid Republic (twice), Yugoslavia and modern-day Slovenia.

We had checked out of Camp Koren before visiting the museum and when we had finished, we hopped back in the van and set a course for Lake Bohinj. When we arrived at the small town of Bohinj, we found a choir singing local and well-known songs in Slovene, which was a lovely end to the day.

As we settled down for the night the first flashes of what would become a heavy, and prolonged, thunderstorm began...

25th August
Lake Bohinj and Lake Bled

When we got to Lake Bohinj early the next day, the weather was pretty bad again. Heavy rain and deep clouds meant the views were limited and going for a walk around the lake didn't seem like such a good idea, so having found a nice little layby right next to the lake we had a little nap. Once our batteries had recharged, the weather hadn't improved so we decided to carry on to Lake Bled.

When we got to Lake Bled, it had stopped raining at least. It was still pretty overcast and as such, when we arrived we could not see what all the fuss was about. When we saw the tourist brochure pictures however we could clearly see that our timing had been bad on this one. If you really want to see Lake Bled in all it's glory look at these pictures. We didn't even see the surrounding mountains, and would not have known they were there had we not driven over them! To make matters worse, parking was a bit problematic, not to mention expensive, but there were some very good plus points even on a day like this one. Firstly whilst trying to find a cake shop to try the illustrious Bled "specialty" cream cake - the Kremna Rezina - we stumbled upon this church which had wonderfully bright paintings adorning the walls.
Next we found the aforementioned cake shop - Slascicarna Smon - and promptly devoured said cake which was a bit like a custard and vanilla slice - only much, much better and bigger. Finally even though the clouds had blocked the views of the surrounding Julian Alps and the Karavanke, there were still lovely views to be seen.

In the late evening we decided to push on, and get to the town of Skofja Loca. The route seemed simple enough, but we soon began a continuous climb and spent much of the time in second gear. Half an hour into the drive, we were halfway to the heavens and deep into layers of cloud. The views across the valleys, marked by dots of light from dozens of houses far below was simply awesome when the clouds allowed, and near the summit of the mountain we passed a church completely lit from on side, seemingly lording it over the vast expanse below. Night was drawing in fast and we were relived to get back down the mountain before it went completely dark - it was hairy enough being able to see the massive drops in the fading light. We found a suitable carpark and bedded down for the night.

26th August
Skofja Loca

We woke up early and moved the van into the heart of the town of Skofja Loca. As we were up early we beat much of the morning hustle and found a space quite easily in the heart of the old town. We made our way up to the Castle, Gradska Pot, amidst the early morning mist, to have a look around the castle grounds and see the sun rise over the town.
The town itself was incredibly cute. Everywhere we looked we found amazing looking buildings bursting with character, colour and style - from half bricked-up doors to ornate busts in the walls. In every window bright flowers erupted. The guidebooks said the town needs a lick of paint but I completely disagree - there was a real 'tumble-down' style to the place which I absolutely adored.

26th - 30th August
Ljublijana (pronounced Loo-Blee-Yaa-Naa)
For the afternoon we moved on to Ljubljana - the Slovenian capital. We had done our research on this one, and there was a plethora of entertainment just waiting for us in the city - all for free - as part of the annual summer festivals held along the banks of the Lubljanica river. As such we were able to re-balance our budget and plush it up in a campsite for a few days. The one and only campsite the city had to offer included free accesss to a "fancy dan" heated outdoor pool/spa with 60 kinds of water jets to aid relaxtion. As soon as we had checked in and set up camp, we hit the pool and got down to some serious relaxation in the blistering heat (yep, the weather had turned in our favour).

On to the evening, and we cycled into town to see international and local artists of all kinds. Craftsmen, musicians, painters, photographers, sculptors, acrobats, and dancers were all there to entertain and amuse. It was a real carnival atmosphere.  There was all kinds of cuisine from around the world, a free dance festival (featuring Carl Cox), salsa classes, free lessons in Slovenian language, science lectures entitled centreofgravityology and soundology, readings of Slovenian folk tales, puppet shows, art installations on the subjects of time, rubbish, graffiti and loads more installations that we didn't have time to see. There was also loads of stuff for children (which we also found highly entertaining) such as massive metal puppets that you could make pick their noses and workshops on making corn-dolls.
All along the banks of the river you were presented with band after band after soloist after quartet and even a full swing band playing the most amazing songs from the crooner-era. There was even free breakdancing dance-off competition, Slovenian Folk-Punk gigs including a free gig by Laibach (the only Slovenian band to get on MTV) and jazz of all kinds including some of the most exquisite accordion playing I have ever heard. Possibly my favourite was a "guerrilla" brass band called the Orkestar Kobre which just strutted around playing the most incredible Mexican-flavoured music. They would come at you from down one of the streets and burst into the number just as they neared the main street in the most amazing explosion of style and sound, then saunter off (mid song), taking part of the party with them. It was just incredible.

Over the few days we spent in the capital we tried to get round and see as much as we could before the end of the festival, and it really was incredible to witness the commitment to the arts and the commitment that it should be available to all. It really was a privilege to be able to be here and enjoy it.

I need to make few other points about our stay in this wonderful city, as during the days we were able to soak up some of the more permanent aspects of Ljubljana. Firstly it is, as already mentioned, the capital of Slovenia however, it does not bear comparison to any other major city, let alone capital that I have witnessed. It's small and lovely and the people are friendly and don't mind saying hello, smiling and striking up conversation. It's nothing like London! As a result there is no pressure, no hassle, but as a capital like London, there are plenty of opportunities to do what you want to do. A quarter of the city's population are students, which goes some way to creating the atmosphere and creativity of the place.
Another feature of the city is the wonderful architecture. Most of the old town is in Baroque style, but here and there are masterpieces by world renowned architect Jose Plecnik, who was born here. In Preseren Trg (square) there is a statue to the greatest Slovene poet France Preseren who looks over the square towards a bust on a building opposite of his unrequited love. Ljubljana Castle is very picturesque standing over the city from Granjsk gric, or castle hill, and makes a lovely backdrop during jaunts round the city. There is also the only tribute to Napoleon outside of France as during the Emperor's conquest of the area he created the Illyrian provinces which promoted local customs over those of the Austro-Hungarians who had previously dominated the area.

Finally, we found these Weasley graffiti marks all over the city and couldn't help but laugh when we saw one.

Ljubljana was a strange city and although we should have had plenty of time to get round all the things we wanted to see, I came away thinking I hadn't got under the skin of the place despite it's small size and compact nature. It's definitly on the hit list of places we would come back to!

On the 30th August we packed up and checked out of the campsite, and the weather being awful again hauled up again 50m away at the nearest bar. Later the sun came out and we journeyed towards Predjama Castle...