May 13, 2019

                                               What is the first image that comes to your mind when you hear the name ‘Slovenia’? Nothing, right? A lot many of us are unaware about this country or its place in the world map. But in reality, Slovenia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. A land dotted with snow-capped mountains, turquoise lakes, green pastures and tiny hamlets, this country can rival the most scenic places like Switzerland or Austria. Slovenia shares its border with Italy, Austria and Hungary & Croatia, and a small part of it opens out to the Adriatic Sea. The population is no more than 2 million. One of the reason for the sparse population density could be the thick forests which occupies the lion’s share of the land. The Alps mountain range which starts in France ends in Slovenia with a range of hills known as Julian Alps. ‘Bled’ is a quaint little village below the Julian Alps range.

                                      It was from Venice that we started our journey to Bled. Train travel from Venice till the last Italian station named Gorizia. A bus journey from Gorizia to the Italy-Slovenia border town of Nova Gorica. Another train from Nova Gorica to Bled. This was the plan. Amongst this, the Nova Gorica railway station is an interesting one. The station building lies in Slovenia whereas the walkway and parking space in front of it lies in Italy. We can get down at the bus station in Italy and walk across the border into the railway station in Slovenia! A circular plaque can be seen at the borderline with ITALIA and SLOVENIJA engraved on it. The borders of the 25 countries which follow the Schengen visa agreement is like this. You can move from one country to another country without any obstructions or hindrances or visa checks. The train journey to Bled was also an interesting experience. A cute train with just three coaches. Due to the sparse population, trains in Slovenia are not as long as those in India. Even those coaches runs half empty. The coaches are usually covered in multiple layers of Graffiti. Somehow train coaches in Europe have become the canvas for the Graffiti artists. But instead of being a nuisance, most of the times these graffiti actually make the trains more charming.

                                     Punctuality is something you can take for granted when doing train travel in Europe. It is very rare to see trains running more than 5 minutes late. Even non-reserved coaches are air conditioned. But the ticket also is very expensive. With the price you pay for a regular ticket in a European train, two people can travel in 1st AC coach of Rajdhani express in India for the same distance. The ticket price for the two hour journey from Nova Gorica to Bled was 15 Euro. Approximately 1100 Rs.  Because Slovenia falls in Euro zone, the currency here is Euro which is also the common currency in Europe. The Nova Gorica-Bled train journey takes us through the soca river valley. The biggest and most beautiful river in Slovenia. The blue green water whirling into ravines and small falls ensures that you remain enchanted at your window seat throughout the journey. There are 2 train stations in Bled named Lesce & Jezero. Lesce is the station for those coming from Austrian side and Jezero is the station for those coming from Italian side. We got down at Jezero since we were coming from Italian side. It’s a very small train station. The town of Bled is a short walk from there. Bled nowadays have turned into a holiday spot for the affluent crowd of Slovenia. Hence most of the properties are owned by rich Slovenians. This is asserted by the luxury sedans and premium motorcycles plying the roads of Bled. The calming silence of Bled is broken only by the occasional noise of a Ferrari or Ducati zooming past you. We had booked our beds in the dormitory of ‘Back’ hostel. The receptionist and caretaker Sara Gracelj was welcoming the guest with a broad and warm smile. The walls of the pub inside were full of the pictures of a previous Manchester united player named ‘George Best’. Even the pub is named as Best Bar as a tribute to that guy. Looks like the owner of the place has a thing for this relatively unknown Manchester footballer! We noticed a poster pasted on the sidewall while walking towards our dormitory. “Do more of what makes you happy”. Well that’s the plan !

                                      The next day morning started with a Tuna flavoured Panini from the restaurant below. Panini is an Italian version of grilled sandwich. After gobbling our paninis, we walked towards the bus station where we could catch a bus to vintgar gorge. It is a rocky gorge formed by the twists and turns of the river ‘Radovna’. Thousands of years of pounding water has sculpted the rocks in amazing patterns. The most charming thing of vintgar gorge is a wooden walkway drilled to the rocky sidewalls. This way you can walk above the frothing & frolicking river along the full length of its gorge listening to the sounds of the forest. A group walking in front of us along the walkway were very enthusiastic about getting group photos. They were lead by a nun. Must be a trip from a nearby convent or so. It was the nun who was more active and eager in clicking and posing than the girls !

                                        About halfway through the walkway, you reach a turn of the river where a lot of stone piles have been erected by the river side. Piles where seven or eight stones kept one after the other. No one was sure why it is there or what it signifies. There were no signboard too. Some of the curious tourists are adding their own stone piles to the existing lot. Maybe someone started the first pile for fun and the succeeding ones kept on adding to that. The walkway ends at a place where Radovna turns into a small waterfall and plunges down. There is a small café and toilet at this point from where you do the return hike. You need to walk all the way back to exit vintgar gorge. Anyway, walking in a setting such as this is rarely a trouble.

                                 There is a bit of walk from the entrance of vintgar gorge to the bus stop. The road is flanked on either sides by apple trees. Branches loaded with green apples are within a reach of hand. We plucked a bunch and munched on them on our way back. Our next destination is Lake Bled ! Smack in the middle of Bled, this lake is the centre point around which the town of Bled is built. Clear waters, lotus plants and swan groups adds to the rustic charm of this alpine lake. Though there is no shortage of such alpine lakes in Slovenia, three things make lake bled unique. An island right in the middle of the lake, a cute church with 99 steps built on that water locked piece of land and a medieval castle built on a rocky cliff just above the lake. Row boats ply on the lake to transport tourists from lakeshore to the island church and back. They are crafted in the traditional Slovenian style and are known as ‘pletna’ boats. Most of the weddings in Bled happens at the island church. As per their tradition, the groom should carry the bride in hand and walk up the 99 steps to reach the church. Also the bride is not supposed to laugh or talk till they reach the top. Most of the young generation who gets married here still adheres to these traditions from their yester years. The road that winds around the lake is rife with cafes, restaurants and thick canopied trees. The patch of grass in between the circular road and the lake usually is occupied by sun bathing tourists and families on picnic. While walking on the patch of grass close to the lake, we heard a rustle of leaves above. We looked up and saw a bunch of teenagers perched on top of a tree branch leaning above the lake, planning to make their dive to the water. By the time I figured out the fast shutter settings of my camera, some of them had already jumped. Still we got lucky in clicking the last two who jumped.

                                               Because of the way the land is scaped, the island cannot be discerned from the ground level. In order to get a good view of the lake bled and its island church, you need to go to a higher vantage point. The best vantage point in Bled is the Ojstrica viewpoint. It’s a tough climb from the lake shore to the Ojstrica hilltop point. The rounded pebbles and wet grass on the steep and jagged mud path makes the hike a bit too tricky. You will end up where you started if each step is not taken with care. It took an hour of walking, climbing and a bit of crawling before we reached Ojstrica point. It was well worth the effort, because we were welcomed with a view unlike anything else we have seen on our journey through Alps. The blue waters of lake bled, its island church and the 99 steps can be seen in clear detail from here. There were a lot of pletnas scattered all over the lake. From this height they resembled tiny ants floating on a puddle. The view is overwhelming. Thick forest canopy on one side of the lake. The cliff top castle on the opposite shore watching over the lake. The town of bled spreading outwards from below the castle. To top it all, the snow capped mountains of Julian alps on the horizon. It was a picture perfect frame. There were another group who had made it to the viewpoint before us. From Texas, USA. Two girls from their group were sitting on a jutting out rock and strumming their guitars. The mellow music and the stunning nature set the mood for those unforgettable moments on Ojstrica. We made our descent well before the sun began its. Because, it is risky to walk down that path in darkness. The city lights of Bled were coming to life as we walked the road circling the lake towards the town. Next morning we bid adieu to Bled. With backpacks on our shoulders and another adventure in our minds.