Is ‘A Walking Holiday in Slovenia’ the same as ‘Hiking in the Julian Alps’??

26 – 29 August 2019

Prelude to a holiday (or how it all started)

My dear friends S and GC are into walking. Their earlier trip to part of the Kumano Kodo trail in Japan had spurred them to do more ‘walking holidays’ (to some this phrase may be an oxymoron). S had discovered a UK-based company that specialised in ‘slow holidays’ – which included self-guided walking trips to various parts of the world. And so, S and GC proceeded to organise a walking holiday in Slovenia – chosen because it’s a pretty part of the world, the ‘best time to go’ aligned with their available dates, and neither of them had been to Slovenia.

Then there’s me – a walking holiday hasn’t quite featured on my bucket list. To be absolutely honest, walking has never been on my list of fun things to do – neither has walking ever been the whole point of any of my adventures. While most of my journeys involve a lot of walking, the walking doesn’t necessarily happen every single day of the trip, and it certainly hasn’t involved walking from one inn or hotel to another.

I don’t rate myself very highly when it comes to these ‘physical/adventure-type’ holidays…which may seem strange to some. A friend I mentioned this to, pointed out some of the tougher trips I’d done…Turkana, Omo Valley… Funnily enough I hadn’t thought of these as in the same category as a walking (soon to become hiking) trip.

So it doesn’t quite follow why I said yes so quickly when S sent me the itinerary and asked if I’d like to join them. On reflection, it was probably a combination of things…the trip was still some months away, with Peru before that (Peru would be good training, I thought, and I’d have plenty of time to get fit for the ‘walking trip’); it would be fun to visit a country I knew little about; it wasn’t an expensive trip – the flight (on Premium Economy) cost more than the trip itself. And, if nothing else, the company would be good.

Perhaps too, I said yes to do something I felt no real interest in – a bit like how, many years ago, when given the choice, I chose to work on the myopia prevention programme over the Hepatitis B immunisation one – simply because ophthalmology was not my favourite subject in university. If at the end of this trip, I conclude that it was torturous and I didn’t enjoy it, I won’t spend anymore time or money doing a similar trip again. If, on the other hand, I enjoy it and there isn’t an inordinate amount of keeping up with the walking aficionados on our 20KM a day walks – then a whole new world of possibilities would open up – and it’s always a good thing to have more holiday options : )

Metamorphosis

After our return from Peru and the high altitude (short) walks, it was time to start preparing for this trip. The rather detailed walking notes arrived, and as part of the prep, the notes recommended taking ‘longer walks’ preferably with the packs we’d be carrying and in our hiking shoes. However, with full work weeks, there was just no time for these longer (4 – 5 hours) walks. Instead, my prep comprised taking the stairs and being diligent about workouts at FTI with Nelson. Nelson, as creative as ever, peppered his exercise instructions with info on how this exercise or that would help my photography (!) and walking up and down slopes. I was also introduced to the Tratac roller, with video instructions, and verbal imperatives to use it EVERY single day of our trip.

I read the notes with increasing trepidation…15-20KM each day, every day; ascents/descents; words like “challenging”, “slippery” and “steep” jumped out at me from the pages as if they were written in bold (they weren’t). Then there were notes on what to do in case of lightning and thunderstorms; how to check for ticks and how to remove them, with a casual mention of Lyme disease; another paragraph mentioned vipers and another, bulls (interestingly only the bulls got S worried); yet another section talked about the torchlight and whistle code for SOS and how to signal to helicopters for help…

S did much research – on map-reading (with compass) and what to carry with us, among other things. There were YouTube videos galore on the subject – I watched some of them…it appears that there is a debate amongst the hiking community on whether or not to carry a trowel (to dig holes for Number 2 toilet stops); those against it say that it’s just unnecessary additional weight and that the hole can be dug using hiking poles. As I went from YouTube videos on the various grades of walks (this was a Grade 2, described as “moderate, with some long days, some challenging ascents/descents”) to how to tick-proof our clothes (Permethrin is the answer); from the benefits of aforementioned trowel, to how much water (and electrolytes) to carry (and drink); and from how to properly fit a backpack to how to use hiking poles…the trip insidiously but surely morphed from a walking holiday in Slovenia to a hiking trip in the Julian Alps.

Water supplies, rain gear, and layers (in anticipation of cooler climes) seemed to be mandatory items. Rather anally, I actually weighed the various rain/fleece jackets in my possession to help me decide which to take – the weights ranged from 0.3KG to 0.6KG (if anyone’s interested).

I could not see myself carrying the D850 with my go-to 28-300mm lens on 20KM walks / hikes – that would add a horrifying 1.8KG to my load. There was no choice… I was forced to get a new camera. I decided to stay with Nikon and got the entry level D3500 – together with the 18-105mm kit lens, it weighed….wait for this…600 GRAMS. I was Very Pleased with this purchase.

Several shopping expeditions later – to Decathlon and Sports Connection (for the Singapore/Malaysia chapter of our trio), and to REI (for the US chapter) – we were all set, or so I hoped. It didn’t help that I came down with a nasty cough two weeks before our departure date – it was treated more aggressively than normally, and thankfully I was good to go by the time we had to leave.

WALKING in Ljubljana

It was a good start to the trip when, at the check-in counter for our flight to Frankfurt, S and I were told (in a strangely apologetic manner) that it was a full flight and that we had to be upgraded to Business Class. There was one problem, she said – the seats weren’t together. The speed at which we both said, “That’s ok” was quite remarkable, while trying to mirror the serious tone of the counter staff. So, needless to say, it was a good flight – which was confirmed by my Fitbit…apparently the quality of my sleep on this flight was the best I’d had in a few weeks – sleep score 83.

We met up with GC at Frankfurt for our connection to Ljubljana (Loob-lee-ya-na). GC, besides being in-charge of the trowel purchase, had also given us a crash course in Slovenian (courtesy YouTube) – hvala for thank you, dobre dan for good day, prosim for please. For some reason, the Polish zapraszamy (welcome) was stuck in my head…the Slovenian word for ‘welcome’ was less Indian-sounding – dobrodosli.

It was a good move to spend two nights in Ljubljana at the start of the trip as it allowed us some time to get over our jetlag and to stretch our legs walking before hiking.

We stayed at the lovely Hotel Allegro right in the old city centre – which meant cobblestoned lanes and no cars. Which also meant we had to lug our bags over the cobblestones to the hotel…fortunately it wasn’t too far from where we’d been dropped off by the cab from the airport.

From the Hotel Allegro

There were, however, many cyclists – and many near-misses as we hopped out of their way. I chatted with another tourist on one of our walks in Ljubljana – she too had just leapt out of the way of a speeding cyclist. She said that on arriving in Ljubljana, she’d asked a local if it’s safe to ‘walk around Ljubljana’ – she was told that it’s very safe to walk around at any time of night or day…however, “watch out for the cyclists, they’re the most dangerous thing here.” I was beginning to find out how true that was as they sped past in a blur.

The only other vehicles allowed in the city centre were golf-buggy-like carts that transported people anywhere within the city centre – for free. They could be contacted on a hotline or hailed like cabs – all very civilised I thought.

On that first afternoon we had lunch at Julija (j=y) where the food was great (the wine not so much), then took a walk by the river – on the Cankarjevo Nabrazje, the pedestrianised street by the Ljubljianica River, that runs through the city. Cafes, boutique shops selling clothes and knick-knacks, and ice-cream and juice stalls lined the street. One shop had in its window WWII memorabilia, including a swastika-emblazoned army medal.

One of the many boutique-y shops – this one selling LPs

As we wandered around Ljubljana, I wondered if I’d packed the wrong clothes for this trip. From all our pre-departure checks, it was supposed to be cool, in the mid- to high teens, and I’d packed warmer gear. However, that first afternoon, it was sweltering…I could only hope that it would be cooler in the mountains.

This first day in Ljubljana was about getting a feel of the place – I hadn’t read up very much about the city so it really was about soaking up the atmosphere without worrying about ‘what to see’. We’d bought a 24-hour Ljubljana City Card at the airport when we arrived – it allowed us entry to many of the attractions, bus rides, as well as a boat ride up and down the river, and 24 hours of internet access. I’m not sure how this last bit worked though – as I found that the city was extremely well connected, and free internet access was available just about everywhere, even without the card.

Just using the card on the boat ride pretty much covered the cost of the card. The ride was close to an hour and included a complimentary drink (including wine!) and a snack.

The many bridges of Ljubljana

As we wandered along the river after the boat-ride, we came to Prešeren Square. Here a girl armed with 2 sticks, some string and soap water, had a Pied Piper-like following as she released a mass of rainbow-hued soap bubbles into the air. Her partner, who had a sign that said “For My Eurotrip” sat with a collection tin as the girl did all the work, the kids squealing with excitement and running around trying to catch the bubbles. Not sure which part of Europe he intended to visit and how many bubbles that would be worth.

We spent a good amount of time here photographing the children and bubbles from almost every possible angle. As we finally left the square, we reminded ourselves that when we start our hike proper, we can’t be stopping for this long each time we come across a photogenic landscape if we were to get to our next destination before dark. Let’s see how that works out – perhaps we should have a designated time-keeper each day.

Kids, bubbles – and George Clooney.

We discovered that first evening that the Hare Rama Hare Krishna movement is alive in well in Ljubljana, as a trio of drum-beating, HRHK-chanting friends walked up and down the river. Interestingly, some of the more hippy-looking shops had framed pictures of Ganesha and other Hindu deities displayed for sale in their shop windows. It was a ‘throwback to the ’60s’ sort of feel.

Hare Rama Hare Krishna – in Crocs

We were starting to wilt by about 6PM. On the way back to our hotel, we saw a sign that shouted ‘Noodles’ and ‘Ramen’ – so that’s where we had dinner – at Tokyo Piknik, where one TV screen was broadcasting Wimbledon, another – soccer, while ’80s music blasted over the speakers at the outdoor area where we sat.

It was an early night, and I slept well, fuelled by jetlag.

Secret Signatures & Twitching Tails

Anže

Our travel card allowed us a free guided group city tour, so the next day – our one full day in Ljubljana – that’s what we did. Our guide, Anže, was a burly bearded local, whose wisecracks came fast and furious – often with a straight face…I wasn’t sure whether some of his stories were fact or very loosely based on fact.

Today, we saw some of what we saw yesterday with a better appreciation of the history around it. At the start of our tour Anže showed us a statue of Narcissus, staring at what would’ve been a reflection of himself (had there been water in the sculpted pool). We were told that this piece was the work of an Italian sculptor, Francesco Robba, in the 18th century. Robba left his ‘signature’ in the way he fashioned the hands of his subjects – with the middle and ring finger together, and a space between the middle and index fingers, and one between the ring and little fingers – Anže hastened to point out the difference between Robba’s arrangement and the Vulcan salute. He later tested us by asking us for the name of the sculptor of various fountains and statues across the city – we soon were chanting “Robba” in reply…possibly too because we knew of no other sculptor.

Robba’s Narcissus, with his signature in the right hand

Then there was the dragon story. From the time we arrived in Slovenia, I couldn’t help but notice the plethora of dragons – on posters at the airport welcoming us to Ljubljana/Slovenia, on carplates, on manhole covers in the streets, and most prominently on one of the bridges. Some blurbs described the dragon as the protector of the city. Anže’s story had a Jason and the Argonauts (last encountered on my Georgia trip) connection. Jason, supposedly fleeing with the Golden Fleece, found himself on the banks of the Ljubljanica River. There he encountered a swamp monster aka a dragon which he fought and killed, thus becoming Ljubljana’s ‘first citizen’. I’m not sure how, in this story, the dragon was the city’s protector if it got killed by Jason. Statues and emblems of Jason may have been more appropriate?

One of the many bridges in Ljubjana had a huge dragon statue in each corner, and smaller ones lining its sides. Legend has it that the dragon tails twitch whenever a virgin walks across the bridge – no one has seen any tails twitch.

Dragons and their tails

Our walkabout with Anže took us back to Prešeren Square. Yesterday we’d seen a bronze statue in one corner of the square with ‘PRESEREN’ written below it; today we heard the story. France Prešeren was a poet, a rather anguished one by the sound of it. The statue was built with him facing the window where Julija Primic, his unrequited love, once lived. Above him, is a bronze statue of his (supposedly naked – I couldn’t really tell) muse. On the other end of the square was the Church of Annunciation. According to Anže, trees were planted in front of it so that the saints who occupied the outside walls of the church were spared the sight of Prešeren’s naked muse…I suspect this was ‘fake news’.

Prešeren & his muse
Julija at her window
Trees supposedly shielding saintly eyes from the naked muse. [Is that an Illuminati eye?]

The various bridges had their own stories – like the Triple Bridge which comprised three bridges right next to each other. It apparently started with the centre bridge which soon became too congested for traffic and pedestrians, and so Jože Plečnik (who from the sound of it built all the important structures in Ljubljana) built two pedestrian bridges flanking the central one.

Then there was Butcher’s Bridge which in the old days was where…yes, butchers, set up their stalls to sell their meats. As Anže’s story went, the city laws decreed that any butcher repeatedly caught shortchanging their customers were dunked into the river from the bridge. The river was also where the unwanted bits from the animal carcasses were dumped, so it couldn’t have been a very pleasant dunking. Today, the bridge is known as the love bridge, where love is proclaimed on padlocks whose keys are then thrown into the river. Anže said he was thinking of setting up a key retrieval business, loaning diving equipment to lovers wanting to ‘break their engagement.’

Does using a bicycle lock make the bond stronger?

Our last stop with Anže was at the castle or Ljubljana Grad. We took the funicular up to the 900-year old castle which used to be a medieval fortress. The courtyard was buzzing with tourists and trendy cafes. Starving by now we stopped for a bite and a beer before wandering around.

Traditional Slovenia dessert – gibanica

The St George’s Chapel at the castle was a charming stop, its Gothic windows with light streaming in made for some nice silhouette shots.

At the chapel too was a man making bookmarks while simultaneously dishing out advice to the children who waited their turn – it largely had to do with telling them to stop spending so much time on their phones and iPads – advice that the parents in the group vigorously agreed with; the children hid the phones they were carrying and had to sheepishly agree before he gave them their bookmarks.

It was a slow walk back to our hotel from the castle, stopping along the way to look at the street stalls, and for a drink at Robba (a restaurant no doubt named after the sculptor). We tried the very exotic Milk and Honey – “a creamy and sweet summer drink that flows in the promised land’ (!) – it had Chamomile infused Absolut Vodka, Apricot brandy, Greek yoghurt, lemon juice, honey and egg whites – and it was lovely. Our waiter approved of our choice, saying it was a great drink “but the egg whites often put people off”…what he didn’t know was that I grew up with regular doses of ‘egg flip’.

Milk & Honey

Dinner that day was at another ‘highly recommended’ place, Güjžina – which was hearty country-style stew and dumplings – all very satisfying.

On our last morning in Ljubljana we decided to try out the ‘golf buggy cabs’; the hotel got us one which dropped us at the edge of the old town – it was a short walk to the Tivoli Park. We stopped on the way at the unexpectedly beautiful Sts Cyril and Methodius Church. It had a lovely calm about it and some stunning paintings and frescoes. The park too was lovely, if a little over-run by bi- and tri-cycles.

Primoz Trubar, author of the first printed Slovenian language book

We had a quick lunch at the Druga Violina which was also on our list of recommended restaurants, and just down the road from our hotel. Translated, Druga Violina means the second violin (or the ‘second fiddle’ – the not so glam position in an orchestra?). The restaurant is a project in support of people with disabilities – the produce they use is from farms who employ people with disabilities, while the restaurant itself employs them as wait staff.

After lunch, it was time to lug our bags over the cobblestones once more to meet our ride to Kranjska Gora – this time with help from the Allegro’s front desk staff. Our driver was early and waiting, and we were soon on our way.

It was a one and a half hour drive to the Hotel Miklic in Kranjska Gora. On the way we passed signposts to the Slap Martuljek – the waterfalls we were going to hike to while in Kranjska Gora…it seemed really far away from our hotel…

The landscape got decidedly more rugged as we drove, dramatic mountains looming on either side. It started to rain, and the low clouds with the rain coming down added to the drama.

A rainy welcome to Kranjska Gora

We finally got to the Hotel Miklic – the whole area was filled with little inns and small hotels. Our room was one floor up, and there were no lifts, which meant more lugging of bags, this time up the stairs, with the help of a very strong young lady who was at the front desk.

Our room was more of an apartment – downstairs was a living room, a small dining room, kitchenette and the bathroom. The two bedrooms were up some narrow spiral stairs…we decided to leave the bags downstairs. It was a lovely apartment, spacious and comfortable.

It was much cooler here, and jackets were definitely needed as we sat outside with our cups of coffee and studying our route for tomorrow. We had instructions for two walks while here – one to the waterfalls, and the other to the Russian Chapel. As the words ‘steep’, ‘challenging’ and ‘slippery’ all appeared in the waterfall walk, we decided to start tomorrow with the supposedly less challenging one to the Russian Chapel.

We took a walk to the little town (more a village) of Kransjka Gora, about 15 minutes away, to have dinner. There were many little restaurants and cafes, and shops that seemed to exist solely for the hiking community. I guess if we’d forgotten anything we could’ve got it here – though prices were a lot higher here compared to Singapore.

We passed the Razor Hotel – it looked old and abandoned, and the perfect setting for a good old horror movie. I later read that it was the first hotel in Kranjska Gora, built in 1902. It later became the headquarters for the Mountain Rescue Society before it closed down. In recent years, it was bought by an investor who hoped to renovate it but ran out of money – and so it remains shuttered.

Dinner was at the Pri Martinu which served good local fare – we loaded up on carbs figuring we’d need it for our long walk tomorrow. The restaurant was crowded, filled with ‘hiker types’…would that be us from tomorrow??

Part of our dinner at the Pri Martinu

It was a very brisk walk back to the Miklic after dinner, as storm clouds gathered and the sky started spitting…a warm-up walk for tomorrow.

Village centre at Kranjska Gora – storm clouds gathering

Back in the apartment, it was time to pack our backpacks, making sure we had everything we needed. We were planning on an early start, just to be sure we had plenty of daylight in case we took longer than expected. There was a sense of excited anticipation all round as we said good night that day.

Tomorrow the adventure begins.

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