Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Time for a final town or two - 28 May 2007

Kostanjevica na KrkiThe disadvantage of spending a night in a small, cosy, farmyard is that the animals like to greet the morning early.

After a rustic breakfast, we set out for Brežice, which has an attractive town centre, complete with castle and stunning towers on the church that gleamed in the sunlight.

Kostanjevica na KrkiEn-route, at Kostanjevica na Krki, we detoured to view a monastery now converted into an art gallery with an impressive array of huge wooden sculptures in grounds outside. The twin pink and white guardhouses (from the days of the Turkish attacks) look like something from Disneyland. We poked our noses through the archway to have a look at one of the largest Renaissance courtyards in Europe, and left.

After Brežice we took the scenic route along the Croatian border. This is lovely countryside with yet another distinctly different look-and-feel to the villages and architecture.

Rogaška SlatinaAnother short detour off our route took us to the spa town of Rogaška Slatina where Liszt once played his waltzes in the ballroom of the Grand Hotel.

Slovenske KonjiceWe figured that we had time for one more stop before having to head back west to the airport so drove on to Slovenske Konjice, which the guidebook accurately described as “absurdly twee” with its pastel colours and stream gurgling down the main street, crossed by little toy bridges.

The storkOn the way, we had to make a stop as we finally saw a stork and nest. Although common in Slovenia we had only seen one other pair and then at a distance.

It is a delightful country to drive through, but our time was running out, so we set off for the airport, taking the scenic route over the Kozjak Pass to finish our 4000km loop through Slovenia and Croatia.

Corn dryingFinal Slovenian impression: The houses dotted all over the hillsides: they have ranged from ‘Mediterranean’ to ‘Swiss/Austrian’ and what I guess is ‘Slovenian’.

Hidden Gems - 27 May 2007

Baza 20 hutsWe set out to find the only remaining headquarters of a European resistance movement from WWII. The drive was through an area of forest described as remote and beautiful. The various factions fighting the Nazis, somehow managed to co-exist in this remote spot, and when one reads the list it is amazing what a common enemy can unite: Liberation Front Executive Committee; Supreme Council of the Liberation Front; Communist Party Central Committee; Propaganda and Agitation Commission; Decorated vaulting in the cloistereditors of different partisan newspapers and publications; Antifascist Council of Yugoslav National Liberation; The Protection Battalion fighters; as well as Allied advisors.

In spite of diligent searches, the Nazis never found the camp, and we began to wonder if we would either. The tourist map indicated it was about halfway between Kočevje and Podturn. All lies! The road from Kočevje quickly became an unsealed, single-lane, forest track which probably would have been OK had it been adequately sign posted.14th century face It was too late when we realised that the kilometre markers denoting that we were following Route 917 were no longer popping up every 0.5km. Bravely we pressed on and more by good luck than good management rejoined the 917 after making a detour of indeterminate length and duration. After a few more torturous kilometres we eventually found Baza 20 and discovered that the ‘super-highway’ in from the other end was not only sealed and two-lanes wide but hardly any distance. Tip to fellow explorers: Approach from the north!

A double hay rackTwenty-six huts hidden in the forest still survive. There was amazing feeling of history and an understanding of the hardship that the fighters had been through to construct the camp, carrying everything they needed in on foot, kept the location secret, printed propaganda that they then had to carry out on their backs and survived through 3 snowy winters in these unheated huts.

Early plaster reliefsOur second visit of the day also had a real sense of history. We did a tour of the Stična Monastery. Except for the period between 1784, when Joseph II dissolved the monasteries, and 1898, when the monks finally returned, Cistercian monks have lived, worked and prayed here from the time the monastery was founded in 1132, just 34 years after the Cistercian Order was founded in France.

Stična MonasteryLeaving 780 years of history behind the monastery walls we continued on to Novo Mesto.

As we walked into town, we could hear singing and music: it sounded great, and we expected traditional costumes but although there was some form of local festival in progress the singers were definitely not in local costume – skirts too high and bodices too low!

Nova Mesto entertainmentWe were not sure if we were a little early or too late as there were masses of unoccupied chairs and tables set out by the food and wine stalls. Regardless, we relaxed and enjoyed the music as sipped a glass of the local drink: Cviček wine, a low alcohol mixture of red and white wines.

We decided to spend the night at another tourist farm. Last evening the emphasis was on ‘tourist’, tonight the emphasis was definitely on ‘farm’. Bedtime in the barnOutside the window was the barn where the herd of 10 milk cows, 4 heifers, 4 yearlings and 2 calves was put to bed for the night. The next shed held the rooster and hens, around the corner was the pig and across the road was the duck or goose farm. We looked forward to the prospect of a great night’s sleep!

Today's Slovenian impression: The wonderful variety in the scenery.

The Dance Macabre - 26 May 2007

Church of the Holy TrinityWords cannot do justice to the Church of the Holy Trinity at Hrastovlje. Completely enclosed in high, stone, walls to provide protection from the Ottoman Turks, this tiny church has a Tardis-like quality in that it seems much bigger inside than out.

Almost every internal surface is covered with frescoes from 1490, Church of the Holy Trinitya wall-to-wall, Gothic picture-book paupers’ Bible. These frescoes in lichen and red-wine pigments survived under layers of whitewash until the 1950s. There are cartoons of the Creation and the Passion; an Adoration of the Magi; pictures of the Apostles; the Annunciation; and a calendar of monthly tasks. But the showstopper is the Dance Macabre.
The Dance MacabreThis fresco, running the full length of one wall shows Death (skeletons) leading a 15th century pecking order of pope, king, Church of the Holy Trinityqueen, cardinal, bishop, monk, doctor, moneylender, soldier, cripple and baby to confront their mortality in a stark reminder that before God we are all equal and there will be no A-list celebrity preferences when we die. This is further emphasized by the moneylender who is offering his accompanying skeleton money, in an attempt to alter his destiny.

The guidebook was absolutely correct: “The church is, quite simply a gem: as tiny as a matchbox, as atmospheric as a cathedral.”

Not quite so accurately described is Vipava, dubbed the Vipava“Slovene Venice” as it is built around the springs which form the delta source of the Vipava River and, consequently, it has numerous bridges. However, any Venetian allusions are entirely in the minds of the PR and marketing writers! Nevertheless we explored the different springs that give the Vipava River it’s claim to fame as the only European river that begins with a delta.

GočeThe nearby, protected, town of Goče really is worth a detour. The scrape marks on the walls of the narrow streets bear testimony to the narrowness of the streets and alleyways. It looks as though progress has entirely passed it by, leaving it with a timeless Mediterranean feel.

GočeWhile there, a milk tanker came to collect the milk stored in a vat by the town square. The vat was possibly 200 litres, a far cry from the size of the vats NZ farmers store milk in while waiting for the tanker collection.

However, NZ cannot compete in the castle stakes: Predjama CastlePredjama Castle is big and impressive, built into a natural cave and with an interesting history of withstanding sieges. One besieged occupant discovered a “back door” through the limestone caverns and taunted his enemies by presenting them with roast bullock and freshly picked cherries during the year-long siege. His downfall was a treacherous servant who colluded with the enemy.

Predjama CastleEn-route to our final destination, we detoured through the Rakov Škojan Regional Park, and did a short walk to a natural limestone bridge. The word karst, referring to the remarkable surface and underground forms, created as a result of the action of water on permeable limestone comes from the Karst area of Slovenia, so this is the ‘home’ of caves, dripstone formations, natural bridges and sinkholes.

Lake CerknicaOne natural phenomenon, in this area, which ‘sinks’ is Lake Cerknica: depending on the time of year and recent rainfall, this area can be a lake, a wetland or pasture; we saw it at the wetland stage.

Being Saturday, we decided to look for accommodation earlier than usual. A nearby ‘Tourist Farm’ provided bed, breakfast and, for a small extra charge, home cooked dinner, so we decided on another new experience.
Dolenje JezeroThe village was intriguing: quite different architecture to what we had seen previously. The houses were long and thin, close together along the road and each house had, attached at the rear, a barn with the animals.

ŽerovnicaNext Slovenian impression: impossibly small land-holdings. The farm sizes were 3 to 5 hectares and the fields all seemed to be long and thin strips, a patch-work quilt of land use, with no fences.

A taste of Croatia - 25 May 2007

Poreč Since we arrived in Poreč too late to see the main attraction, the Basilica of Euphrasius, it was our starting point today. This Byzantine Church, another World Heritage Site, Basilica of Euphrasiusbuilt in the 6th century has some of the most incredible gilt mosaics in the Apse. The other feature is the Ciborium in the presbytery; from the 13th century this is also decorated with fabulous mosaics and supported on four marble columns. There is also a collection of Roman mosaics on display.


RovinjDown the coast through Funtana and Vrsar then a big detour inland to skirt the Lim canal and back to the coast to visit Rovinj, another Venetian City originally on an island. Now part of the mainland it was threaded with fascinating narrow passageways and lined with colourful houses and, naturally, the Church at the top of the hill.

Almost at the end of the Istrian Pulapeninsula is Pula: a Roman town rather than a Venetian city with several buildings from the first century still remaining. Its star feature is the amphitheatre: one of the 6 largest Roman amphitheatres still existing today and with almost the entire original wall still remaining to full height. Although originally accommodating 23,000 spectators, most of the original tiers have gone and today’s capacity is a mere 5000.


A quick tour of the town took in the 2nd century Twin Gate; the 1st century Arch of the Sergii; and the 1st century Temple of Romae on the site of the original forum

Twin GateHeading back to Slovneia, it was so hot that we diverted back to the coast by Poreč for a most refreshing swim after which we cruised through a few hilltop villages stopping just short of the border to spend our few remaining Kuna on ice creams.

Border formalities were none existent. I held up two green booklets, which could have been absolutely anything, and was waved through both Croatian and Slovenian checkpoints.

Arch of the SergiiOne reads all the official guff from the Croatian National Tourist Board, like “To enter Croatia, a driver’s licence, an automobile registration card and vehicle insurance documents (including Green Card) are required.” and has a quick panic then checks the folder the car rental people supplied. Satisfied that all will be well, you turn up at the border to find that holding up something that looks like a passport is all that is needed to elicit a cheerful wave through.

Temple of RomaeBack in Slovenia the task was to find a bed for the night. This proved to be more difficult than other nights but we eventually found a gastro-pub type Country Inn based in a Winery. This proved to be a wonderful place to stay: comfortable room; the most delicious dinner and excellent service. Breakfast the next morning was also a real treat, 5-star silver-service style attention to detail. It provided one of those unexpected occasions that stay in your mind to mark a special find. If you are in the area check out Brič at Dekani, just inland from Koper.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Border bashing - 24 May 2007

TriesteLeaving Divača, we headed to the coast in the brilliant sunshine and crossed our first border of the day, into Italy.

Seeing as we were so close it would have been silly not to visit Trieste to start the day. It is a large and busy city and it seemed that we saw more traffic in that one morning that the entire time we spent in Slovenia. KoperWe sat on the waterfront and drank a gold-plated iced coffee, walked a few streets and left.

Our second border crossing was back into Slovenia on the way around the coast to Koper. We must have been the first Kiwis that particular border guard had seen drive through. After consulting books and manuals, he waved us through.

Koper is Slovenia's main port. The old town is run down, but interesting.

Izola is no longer an island but a picturesque spot nevertheless. But, best of all was our focus for the day: Piran. This Venetian city still looks loved and is a pleasure to walk around.


PiranIn spite of the heat we climbed the hill to the city walls and watchtowers at the top of the town: the wonderful view was just reward for our labours.

KoperAround the bay is the tourist town of Portorož which we breezed through on our way to view the salt pans at the foot of the Dragonja valley. Unfortunately we were there at the wrong time of the year as, naturally, the salt is harvested at the end of summer so all we saw were rectangular pools of water.

UmagTime for border crossing number three: into Croatia for the night. We headed for Umag on the coast, collected some Kuna to spend and wandered down the coast stopping for the night at PorečPoreč. Accommodation and food in Croatia seemed to be more expensive than Slovenia.

Sixth impression of Slovenia, not all the border guards are up to speed with visa regulations.

I left my heart in Goriška Brda - 23 May 2007

SmartnoWe left the foothills of the alps and headed towards Dobrovo. We crested the hill and suddenly, we were in a different world: the Goriška Brda, known as the Slovenian Tuscany. It took us about three seconds to fall in love with it, and were struck by a compelling urge to buy a vineyard and stay. Lacking obvious Real Estate offices we, reluctantly, moved on.

The cherries were ripe and deliciousThe next stop, geographically, is not far away, but a world away in terms of ambiance. When Italy was given Gorica after WWII, the Slovenians built Nova Gorica to replace it. Italy meets SloveniaWe found the square between the two cities, where, when Slovenia joined the EU, they tore down the boundary fence and created a square that you can enter from either side (but not leave by the opposite side) as a symbolic gesture of friendship between Italy and Slovenia. Standing in the middle one has a foot in both camps. In a curiously similar way, our road to Nova Gorica went across a corner of Italy without leaving Slovenia

Stanjel gatewayStanjel is a walled city complete with church, castle, a grand manor and a formal garden: all rather rundown, faded and tatty, but somehow charming. It made us feel as if we had made a discovery other tourists had missed.

After relaxing there, we took the motorway to arrive in time at our main feature of the day, the Škocjan Caves. These are in a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We welcomed the change to get out of the heat, and take the underground tour.

Škocjan Caves parkThe cave tour starts with impressive, but not mind-boggling caverns filled with stalactites etc – all things we had seen many times before. But as you leave the dry, quiet section and enter the area where the underground river leaves the system, it all changes. The Reka River travels 40 km underground, and it has carved out the largest underground gorge in Europe. We felt as if we had entered the set of Lord of the Rings: the small lights way below us seemed likely to be dwarves hard at work; all we needed were a few orks peering round a corner.

Goriška BrdaOne of the tour group slipped and broke a bone so we had an extra 40 minutes at the entrance to the large cavern, so we did get a good look at the cave.

We took a night’s accommodation in a gostilna in the next village, Divača. These are the equivalent of a country inn, and are good value, often with excellent food.

Fifth impression of Slovenia is that the wines take a little getting used to: they tend to be a bit sharper than we are used to but pleasantly quaffable all the same.