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Conner's Big Adventure 2017

Slovenia - Natural Beauty

SLOVENIA | Tuesday, 8 August 2017 | Views [687]

As I mentioned before, we didn’t have a car so our experiences with Slovenia’s natural wonders were limited. A very sad thing considering how stunning the country is. Still, we did get to see two incredible places outside of Ljubljana and for that I am thankful.

One of Slovenia’s claims to fame is the picturesque Lake Bled. Nestled in a little valley surrounded by lush, green mountains, it is every bit as pretty as the pictures. To get there from Ljubljana we took a very comfortable one hour bus ride which cost $33 for three round trip tickets. As soon as we disembarked in the city of Bled we saw plenty of shops renting bikes and kayaks, or selling adventure tour packages. As exciting as they looked that was not our goal (nor did we have an extra bank account hiding somewhere…), so we walked on and headed down the hill toward the lake. My first thought was actually “Huh, I thought it would be much bigger?” My next thought was “My god it is stunning!” The lake itself was incredibly beautiful with pale blue/green water so clear you could see down 30 feet or more. The surrounding mountains and town were like something out of a fairy tale, picture perfect and oh so peaceful. We picked a direction and walked a short distance to a coffee shop with a small playground. Perfect, I thought, we can sit down, let Conner play for a bit, and enjoy a cup of espresso as we take in the valley. Did I mention that Bled is a tourist town? I almost choked when I saw the prices on the coffee menu. They were easily four times what they were in Ljubljana. Not only that, but coffee in Ljubljana is very simple generally, just like it was in Croatia. Espresso, espresso with milk, espresso with cream, and occasionally an Irish coffee. Basic. This place made me think of a Slovenian Starbucks with prices to match. However once Conner saw the playground it became worth the $5.00 not to have to make him leave right away, so we shared one very sweet caramel concoction while Conner played and then headed out.

There is a very well maintained paved trail that circles the lake with lots of pedestrian and bicycle traffic. We figured we would make the loop, find a lunch spot in town, and then decide where we wanted to swim, so we headed down the trail to see if we could find a nice swimming spot or two for later.  In a very short distance though we came across a sign that said “No Swimming”. Seriously? It was already hot and it was only 10:30am, if we weren’t allowed to swim in the lake this day was going to be a whole lot more challenging. A little further down we came to something like a swimming resort with roped or walled in swimming areas, beach chairs, diving platforms, boardwalks with ladders to climb out of the water, a playground, sandboxes, and a waterslide. For a price. We really weren’t interested in paying to swim in a lake, but we promised Conner that if we didn’t find anywhere else to swim we would come back here and pay to get in. A little further and we noticed people walking down to swim right off the edge of the path, so we figured maybe it was just in some areas that you couldn’t swim? Halfway around the lake is where we found the good spots. You can actually swim in most places around the lake, we discovered, there are just a few where you are not allowed. The swimming resort even had a helpful map with areas where you could swim marked out, though strangely their resort was the only one marked? Ah tourism. We passed by the first place which looked like an old rowing club that was now used as a summer swim spot with docks to lay on or run down and launch off of. Next we arrived at a pebbly beach where there were lots of local seeming people in the water and laying out in the grass. We stopped to look around and decided that our original plan of circling the lake first was a pretty poor plan since the swimming spots all seemed to be across the lake from the main part of the town. It was a little early for lunch, but there was a decently priced restaurant next to the beach and they had plenty of GF options for me, so we decided to have an early lunch and then go for a swim.

Lunch was very yummy, if a little more expensive than we would have paid in Ljubljana. Thankfully it was nowhere near as bad I was expecting after our little side stop at the coffee shop. After lunch we found a public (pay) bathroom and all changed to go swimming. The first thing I will say is that I hate pebbly beaches. Call me a wimp, but we don’t have room to carry around water shoes and bare feet on pebbles just hurt after a while. Thankfully the water was warm and I didn’t want to get out once we got in, except to launch off of the dock with Conner. That crazy little boy has turned into a fish. He ran off the dock, jumped off the dock, and then even dove off the dock! It wasn’t a fifteen foot high dive, but for a kid that is only 120cm tall it was a long way down (he also half slid/fell off the dock once which almost made me snort water up my nose!.) We spent about two hours swimming before deciding that if we wanted to rent a row boat we had better go find one. We gathered our stuff and walked on around the lake some more in our bathing suits, since everyone else seemed to be wearing theirs and we were planning on getting back in the water anyway. We found a place with a single row boat for rent, but there were about ten other people waiting in line so we walked on. The next place we passed rented rowboats and paddleboards, or “sups” as they called them. I had said earlier that if they were inexpensive I would like to try one, so we turned in and asked to rent a boat and a sup which ended up being $30 for an hour for both.

Back into the water we went, Conner and Gregg in a little row boat and me on my sup. We wobbled around on our own for a while, Gregg trying to figure out how to go in a straight line with one loose oarlock, and me trying to figure out how to get my foot to stop cramping and my legs to stop shaking without dumping myself in the lake. We eventually got sorted and we met up and headed out toward the island in the center of the lake with the beautiful church tower. Paddling around Lake Bled was an incredible experience I will never forget. The absolute serenity of the clear water below, blue sky above, and green surroundings was breathtaking. We never heard a single motor on the lake, it was all oars and paddles, and it was so quiet out in the middle. We decided not to dock on the island, but to look around from the water. Conner wanted a chance to row the rowboat, so I practiced paddling around them while Conner rowed. Then he wanted me and daddy to race, so we raced down the lake until we were both laughing too hard, me trying not to laugh myself off of my board! Next up Conner asked if he could swim there in the middle of the lake. He had a life jacket on so I told him to jump on in. I sat down on my board and he swam over to me. He asked if he could try the board, so I had him climb up in front of me and we paddled around for a while, both sitting on the board (I’m not that crazy). Once our hour was up we headed back to the boathouse and returned our boat and board with many smiles and thanks.

Heading once more down the trail we came across another nice swimming hole where people were jumping in the water, and laying out in the grass. We all went for another swim, made interesting by an overeager swan chasing people around looking for food (Conner was not very excited about the swan…), and then we dried off in the sun while having a snack of cheese and crackers and fruit. We made our way slowly around the rest of the lake, soaking it all up, and ended up back in the town area with time for a little playing in a fountain before dinner. Dinner turned out to be hamburgers and a traditional Slovenian sort of cream cake at the Hotel Park Café with a little live music to sweeten the deal.

All was well as we finished our day in Bled and headed back to the bus stop. We had a bit of a scare at the bus stop with a group of about 30 French teenagers, presumably waiting on the same bus as we were (I had read that you have to be careful taking the last bus out of Bled as there is not always room), but thankfully they were headed elsewhere and we hopped on board when our bus arrived for the ride back to Ljubljana. A very successful adventure.

The other place we got to visit was a massive cave system called Skocjanske Jame, a UNESCO world heritage site since 1986. This was very lucky as it wasn’t even on our radar until a friend I had made through Zumba mentioned she was taking her husband’s visiting cousin and her daughter, and asked if we wanted to come along. We met up at a bus stop and they drove us to the park, about an hour southwest of Ljubljana. We went in and bought our tickets for the guided tour (these are not caves you can explore on your own), and then walked around looking for a vista point until it was time to meet up with the tour guide. The fact that we never actually found said vista point didn’t make the walking any less enjoyable, beautiful place that this was. Being severely directionally challenged myself, it was pretty nice actually to be following four other people who couldn’t find something that was supposedly “clearly marked”. I contented myself with following along behind with my adorable new 2 year-old friend holding one hand, and my crazy rock hopping (and sometimes throwing…) 6 year old holding the other. Also trying to keep Conner from trying to pick up and carry little miss independent 2 year-old who wanted nothing to do with him! He’s suddenly very interested in babies and toddlers which is super cute except that very few toddlers actually enjoy being squeezed and picked up by 6 year-old boys.

Time for our tour and we headed down a long, steep, loose trail toward the cave entrance, and I got gradually more and more concerned about just how I was supposed to get Conner to hike back up this long, steep, loose trail. We reached the cave entrance and they split the group into two tours, one in English and one in Slovenian. We jumped in with the English tour and descended down through a narrow tunnel carved into the rock. *Side note here, in both Slovenia and in Croatia almost everyone speaks at least some English, and most are quite fluent. It made travelling there extremely easy for us, and though we tried to learn as much of the local language as we could we were very appreciative.* As we travelled further and further down the tunnel, the air continued cooling. When we reached the bottom of the tunnel we were told it was 18 degrees Celsius, which was a nice relief from the 33 degrees in the park above, and we entered the cave system through a sealed door. Each section of the caves has its own light system which only gets turned on for the short times when visitors are walking through that particular area. We were not allowed to take pictures or video and we were given very serious instructions not to touch anything in the caves except the handrails. They really do care a great deal about preserving the unique ecosystem inside these caves.

The caverns at Skocjanske were simply incredible. Impressive enough to make Conner say to me “Mom, I’m glad we chose here instead of the lake today!” Quite a statement for my little fish ;). We first entered the Silent Cavern which was enormous and filled with stalagmites and stalactites, some of which were over 250,000 years old. We walked past old collapses, and pools that were carved into the cavern floor by the people who first came down to explore these caves. All throughout the caves we could see traces of the original explorers. Remnants of railings still attached to the walls, stairs carved into the stone. We continued through the Silent Cavern and started to descend deeper into the caves. The further down we went the more we began to hear a shushing noise. The tour guide stopped at the top of a steep descent and explained that there was a river below us at the bottom of what was the largest underground canyon in Europe, and one of the largest in the world. The bottom of the canyon at its lowest point is 190 meters below the surface. In the rainy season these caverns can become severely flooded due to the small outlet where the Reka River escapes the caves. The highest of these floods in recent recorded history brought the water level up to just 65 meters below the surface according to our guide. As we dropped down to the lowest observation point at 130 meters below the surface, still a full 60 meters above the river below, my mind simply couldn’t fathom that much water rushing through filling up the massive chamber in which we were standing. It didn’t seem possible, and yet I know it happens every year (to a lesser extent). We crossed over the bridge above the chasm and began to climb up the other side, all the while considering the terrifying insanity of carving stairs out of the stone walls of these caverns while standing on stairs you already carved 60 meters above the jagged bottom. I felt like I was in a constantly awe stricken state inside this secretive and enchanting place. And then, just in case I was getting a little too carried away, my little 2 year-old walking companion brought me right back to the present moment as I got a waft of her fully loaded diaper…. Kids really do have impeccable timing don’t they?

As we emerged finally back into the light the cave opened up and let out into a small canyon where the river flowed below and the walls were lush and green with trees and vines and ferns. A small trail walk and a few stairs led us up to a funicular which carried us back up to the parking lot (Conner was very appreciative of not having to hike back up). We had a little snack in the parking lot and then piled back into the cars for the drive back to Ljubljana. Skocjanske Jame was an incredible experience that I will forever be thankful to our friends for showing us!

Tags: bled, caves, lakes, skocjanske, swimming

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