We logged about six hours of driving in our journey from Austria to Slovenia, swapping drivers every hour or so. The scenery was all mountainous, driving through the Alps and the Dolomites, but the clouds and rain prevented us from seeing the beauty surrounding us. Not surprisingly we had been driving up some steep mountains in Austria, the steepest being 15% (so the signs told us). Our van didn't like this much, groaning away in 2nd and 3rd gear. Slovenia then hit us with the biggest of them all: 18%. As we didn't want to retrace our steps for hours to find a way around, we prayed hard and put all our efforts into the ascent. The next 15 minutes were spent in first gear only, averaging 10-15 km/h. We probably burnt through half the diesel in the tank. I was sure we wouldn't make it. I was glad Danny was driving for this part.
Slovenia is 50% forest and it was all we saw driving through the mountains and on the highways. For long stretches we didn't see any development at all. It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. I guess in a way we were.
Our first stop was Bled, a small town with a large lake in the middle. The town was peaceful and laid back, and clearly a popular weekend getaway spot. The highlight for us was that everyone spoke English - even the signs were in English. In the centre of the lake was a church on a speck of an island, and a castle on a hill overlooked the whole scene. It would have been beautiful, almost fairy tale-like, if it hadn't rained most of the time we were there.
A second highlight to Bled: finding a popcorn machine that made fresh popcorn while we waited, and let us add "butter salt" (apparently a singular ingredient) at the end. Genius idea.
We were lured through a nearby outdoor market, selling mostly touristy junk, but there was one stall offering honey brandy. We had never heard of honey brandy, but of course we accepted a free tasting. Supposedly it should be served cold or hot (not room temperature) and straight. I didn't think I was going to like it (I'm not a brandy fan) but I couldn't deny that it was a tasty drink. It was basically a honey liqueur, not too strong and worth buying a bottle for ourselves (as well as a few as souvenirs, if they made it all the way home).
After this alcoholic success we decided to stop at a bar to sample some more Slovenian delights. Danny went straight for the beer, which turned out to be from Austria, so he can't report on the local beer scene. I opted for white wine, what they call a Sivi Pinot (a.k.a. Pinot Gris). It had been a while since I tasted cold white wine (the fridge in our van was not that powerful) and at that moment it was the best thing in the world. Later on we found a supermarket and bought a litre of Slovenian Sauvignon Blanc for €3.
Looking for a car park at night was impossible. Every single public car park seemed to have a "no campervan" sign on it and there was no parking on the streets. We searched for an hour in the tiny town but found nothing. We gave up and drove towards our next destination, only 20 minutes away. The scenery leaving the town was incredible: views of the lake at dusk with mist forming a blanket over the top. It was reminiscent of a scene out of Lord of the Rings. On route we found a supermarket car park that appeared campervan-friendly, so we stopped to set up for the night. After our massive haul of driving today, we were exhausted.
The next morning we woke at 5:30 a.m. to what sounded like gunshots. Every 15 minutes for the next couple of hours they went off, ensuring that no one in the area could get any sleep. Danny told me they were just fireworks. This provided little reassurance, as we couldn't actually see any fireworks. The shots were followed by the regular ringing of church bells, two sounds you don't normally hear together. At roughly 7:30 a.m. a long line of cars drove past, all tooting their horns, waving flags and brandishing guns. Yes, real guns. The strange thing was that most of the drivers were middle aged or elderly, not young rednecks as I had expected. A little while later I figured out it was Labour Day today, a seemingly Europe-wide holiday. This must be the celebratory ritual in Slovenia. It seemed barbaric, coming from Australia where there are strict gun laws, and not even knowing anyone that owned a gun. Different countries, different customs.
After our hair-raising start to the day we drove down the road to Lake Bohinj, a larger but less touristy version of Lake Bled. We meandered around the water aimlessly for a while before heading to the Alpine Dairy museum. I excitedly thought it was going to be full of cheese, but was disappointed to find three tiny rooms of old dairy equipment. Danny was half interested; I was completely bored.
Next stop was Ukanc, around the other side of the lake, to take the chairlift up Mt Vogel. I was surprised to see a small amount of snow remaining on the mountain - I didn't think we were that high up. The view down to the lake was spectacular, but that's about all we could see - the surrounding mountains were obstructed by heavy cloud cover.
After the semi-disappointing chairlift ride we drove on to Savica waterfalls, where we had to pay for the car park AND for entrance to the falls. There aren't many waterfalls in Australia you have to pay to enter. The falls themselves weren't anything special, and definitely not worth the fees or the 20 minute uphill hike to reach them.
Our final stop in Slovenia (for now) was Piran, on the southwest coast. We found a car park directly opposite a camp site. We considered walking in and using the shower, but we couldn't see the amenities block from the road so we scrapped that idea. Walking into Piran we were presented with sweeping views over the sea and the quaint town. From our vantage point we could see the huge central plaza, dozens of winding alleyways leading off it, run-down pastel-coloured buildings lining the streets, plus a castle and church on the hill overlooking the water. I was sure many tourists wouldn't visit here, but it was just as captivating as the small towns in Western Europe that would be flooded with visitors daily.
We had no food in the van and, being a holiday, no shops were open, so we dined out for dinner at one of the alley restaurants. Every joint seemed to be a pizzeria, so we chose one at random and went against the grain by ordering fish and steak (I even ate half the fish; I'm still not converted to the fish-eating lifestyle). We also ordered a red and a white Slovenian wine with dinner, which both lived up to the expectations we now have of Slovenian wines. The red almost tasted like an Australian Shiraz. We will have to look into these wines a bit more.