Postojna Cave and Lake Bled, Slovenia

Our Airbnb host was full of suggestions for our stay in Ljubljana. Near the top of her list, Postojna Cave and mountain lakes were her favorite destinations outside the city limits. Happily for us, the main bus and train terminals were just a block away and made getting around – both in the city and further afield – simple and fast. We picked a rainy day to ride the train to Postojna, figuring that we’d be cloud-free underground no matter the weather.

In Postojna, the station sits on the opposite side of town from the Cave, but the walk wasn’t far, especially since we missed the downpours. A hotel and a string of restaurants and gift shops grace the cave’s entrance and set the mood closer to a suburban strip mall rather than a natural wonder. They cater to an audience held semi-captive by the tour times (in winter just three per day).

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Massive spaces in Postojna Cave

The trip into the cave originates in a relatively spare concrete tunnel. We boarded a tiny, two-seat-wide electric train. The tiny cars zoom through several kilometers of tunnels blasted into the limestone with very little space to spare. We ducked automatically at almost every curve and the recent rains meant that drops and drips spattered on us from overhead. Occasionally the man-made passage opened up into a brief glimpse of natural cave, tempting us with what was to come.

Stepping off the train for the walking section of the tour, we located our English-speaking guide and followed him uphill. It felt a little odd to be climbing while below the earth’s surface. Postojna’s large rooms meant we actually found ourselves gaining a small vista that looked across a tiered landscape of stalactites, stalagmites, and deep shadows.

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Stalactites, stalagmites, and curtains of rock

The cave was formed by an underground river flowing through the karst landscape in addition to water seeping down from the surface. The water removes much of the stone while at the same time building up spectacular cave pillars and waving curtains of stone. In some places the ceiling seeps are so numerous that the cave roof appears to be covered in spaghetti strands. After about 45 minutes of weaving our way among the most beautiful areas, we ended our walk in the cave’s concert hall. So spacious it can hold an audience of thousands it feels anything but claustrophobic.

A second train ride whisked us back toward the surface and dropped us off near the grand finale, an underground waterfall. Below us the full force of the river, still at work, was audible as well as visible. Interestingly, Postojna had electricity fairly early because the falls were utilized for a power generating station.

This cave is the most touristed in Europe, and even in the off-season the groups are quite large. Guides turned off the lights for a few moments, to give a sense of true darkness and stillness, but the reaction of so many to shout or turn on their cell phone lights doesn’t allow for much of a glimpse of either.

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Just an underground waterfall to cap the tour

To the northwest of the capital, Lake Bled nestles in the foot of the Alps. Famous for its island church, castle, and high shoreline cliffs, we were more interested in the chance to hike around it. Despite heading to the bus station twenty minutes early, we arrived to find the bus already almost full. Even in winter the Lake turns out to be a popular destination.

The trip took about an hour and dropped us at the Bled bus station, just a couple blocks away from the shore. A small waterfront Christmas market provided lunch. The stands had warmed wine and stews to soothe the chills we faced in the day’s long shadows.

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Looking across Lake Bled toward the Castle and the town of Bled

Lake Bled isn’t large and the shore path is just a few kilometers. We spent about two hours walking its circumference, but that included a fair amount of view-admiring and photographing. The portions nearest to town are the most built up, crowded with hotels and restaurants fighting for the spot with the best view.

Though the most recent snowfall at lake level had already melted, frost covered the ground in the shade. Thankfully we had donned our heaviest clothes, and kept moving. We were fortunate to see the lake on an almost-still day, the reflections only faintly blurred. Two or three restaurants on the far side of the lake attempted to make some money from chilled visitors, hawking more mulled wine and roasted chestnuts.

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Bled’s famous island

It was hard to find a bad viewpoint anywhere around the lake. The castle dominated our photos at the start, but soon we drew closer to the island church. Boat tours cost 12 euros per person, so we stuck to land. Plus, it is hard to take pictures with the island in them while on the island.

We stayed for sunset. The sky faded into different shades of blue rather than turning rainbowed and the mountains darkened into the night. My fingers and toes were thoroughly chilled by now so to cap off our walk we found a cafe serving warm coffee. This helped us pass the time until the return bus to Ljubljana. Descending back to the city, a layer of fog thickened around us and we were grateful to have traveled back before the road disappeared from sight in the dark clouds.

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The fading sunset

Slovenia’s natural spaces are beautiful, even in winter, and wonderfully easy to access via public transit. I’d love to return in a season without snow to do more mountain hiking and when the warmth makes the coastal region more attractive.

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Ljubljana, Slovenia

Wanting to take in as much Christmasness as possible and avoid an extra-long bus ride between Zagreb and Munich, we opted for a two week stopover in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The city, especially the cozy old town tucked under the Castle’s hill, is very walkable and full of corners to explore. Science-themed Christmas lights hanging above the streets provided just the right amount of nerdiness. But Zagreb’s Christmas markets are among the best in Europe, and after that spectacle, Ljubljana’s fell a little flat.

Garlanded stalls ringed PreŇ°eren Square and lined short stretches of the Ljubljanica River near the Triple Bridge. Food and gifts were pricier than in Croatia, and the selection seemed more limited (many stands only sold drinks rather than a variety of snacks and sandwiches). And, despite the Christmas-light galaxies and music notes strung up above, the mood felt less festive even though we had a difficult time pinning down exactly why.

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PreŇ°eren Square before & after dark

After a couple years of avoiding winter, we saw our first snowfalls of this trip. We layered up our thinnish travel clothes and new coats as the weather worsened. The markets sold plenty of mulled and warmed wine, crepes, and thick soups to combat the chill. Fortunately our apartment was well-heated, as was the theatre where we caught the new Star Wars flick.

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Old Town from above & in the snow; even the city’s fountains get bundled up

Ljubljana loves its dragon mascot and shows it off at every chance. It graces the city flag, bridges, even images of the castle where it perches atop the stonework. The castle is smallish but has been utilized for all sorts of purposes through the ages – fortress, hospital, prison. Christmas decorations filled much of the courtyard and snow muted the sounds of traffic from below. Though the mountains are often in view from its walls (and many other points around town), for some reason we opted to tour it during a snow storm. This severely restricted the vistas, though the lit up streets below looked welcoming. The castle’s museums are a little lackluster, though there were some great art works mixed into the small collection (see the bear in a chicken-powered chariot below). A museum of puppets, creepy on even the best day, didn’t do anything to make them less macabre in my mind.

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Around Ljubljana Castle

A funicular ascends to the castle, but we opted to walk up a winding path through the treed hillside. Slipping during the dark return, we managed to make it without falling. For a longer hike Tivoli Park, just a kilometer away, provided miles of trails, pretty even in winter shades of gray and brown. Nestled in its open spaces are art galleries, ski jumps, and playgrounds. Plenty of other walkers could point us in the right direction if the twisting trails disoriented us.

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Tivoli Park, book exchange at the Castle, pretty paint, and walking after dark

Ljubljana seems to be a city on the verge of literary greatness. Book exchanges feature prominently around the castle grounds and buses have seats designated for readers. A Baroque Library in the Seminary can be visited only be request. A quick stop into the Tourist Information Center got us a personal tour. Still in almost completely original condition, it was spared long-term public use and too many candles. Vivid ceiling murals look as if they were painted yesterday. And unlike many libraries-come-tourist-attractions, it still smells like books.

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Seminary Library, murals at Metelkova Art Center

Fast food in Ljubljana is cheap, readily available, and sometimes unusual. Our apartment was just a block away from Nobel Burek, a 24-hour burek and doner window that doled out massive portions for just 2-3 euros each. Clearly a favorite with students and workers in a hurry, it was possibly the cheapest meal in town. For a few more euros, Hot Horse served up burgers true to its name. Horse meat is fairly common in the Balkans and just incredibly tasty. 10/10 would eat again. Of course, the ajvar and peanut puffs are delicious as well.

Local wine surprised us a bit. The rocky landscape combined with coastal influences mirrors lots of other regional wine regions, so it shouldn’t have been the shock it was. Part of the charm was the lack of Slovenian wine in other countries – it definitely felt exclusive seeing it available in large quantities. Even the 4-5 euro bottles were high quality and similar to the more popular Croatian vintages.

With the easily accessible mountains and forests, if we return to Slovenia it will be during a warmer season. The glimpses of nature we had at Lake Bled and Postojna Cave (featured in the next post) teased us even as snow was in the immediate forecast.