We ended our two-week Eastern Europe tour in Slovenia, a country about which I knew next to nothing. It is absolutely charming! It’s quite small (the size of New Hampshire) and sits snuggled between Italy, Austria and Croatia. We got a tour of the capitol of Ljubljana from a local guide who told us that Slovenians are very mellow – their language lacks profanity and they are one of the most green countries in Central Europe, with active recycling programs and lots more solar than we’ve seen in other countries in this region. They are also full members of the EU so we are back in euro country, leaving behind (as Eszter called it “funny money”).
Ljubljana is small and extremely walkable – not too many years ago they converted a lot of the central area to a pedestrian zone so the main traffic for walkers to dodge comes from bicycles, of which there are many. As we walked we got to sample some local goodies – sausage and cake (Central Europeans are mad about cake) then had some free time to amble about. We used part of that time to exchange all of the various currencies we had accumulated to euros and did pretty well, ending up with about 160 euros which turned out to be more than we needed for the few days we were here.
After leaving Ljubljana we headed to Bled where we spent the last two nights of the tour at the Hotel Lovec, a hotel located about two blocks from Lake Bled – in fact our room had a lovely view of the lake. Lake Bled shows up on lots of lists of must-see things, and now I can see why. It is spectacularly pretty with a castle on a hill an island with a lovely church in the middle of it, and a 2 ½ mile walking trail that circles the lake. Surrounding the lake are lots of restaurants, bed and breakfasts and hotels. There is also a rowing center – rowing is huge here. They have races on the lake and it’s the training location for the Slovenian Olympic rowing teams (who have performed very well over the years).
We took pletna boats (flat bottomed boats that looked like crosses between row boats and gondolas) out to Bled Island in the middle of the lake and walked to the top of the Chapel of St Maria’s clock tower to see the pendulum clock and get a great view of the entire lake. After taking the boats back to the mainland, we walked up the (steep) trail to Bled Castle which also has a great view. The castle itself is fairly modern on the inside: it pays homage to its ancient past in the castle museum and has a neat print shop and a forge (not a working forge, unfortunately, due to safety concerns). We continued walking around the lake, stopping for a lunch of fish and chips and sausages and continued on into the town and did some shopping then headed back to the hotel for some downtime before our farewell dinner at a restaurant near the hotel. Much toasting happened and we reminisced about all that we had seen. It was amazing to reflect on how much we saw in two weeks! Everyone also made their plans for the last day – some folks were heading home, others (like us) were off for more travels, and a few were staying put to enjoy a few more days in Bled.
Since our flight to Zurich didn’t leave until the afternoon, after breakfast on our final morning we took another walk around the lake, enjoying the views one more time. Then it was off to the airport for the flight to Zurich and the start of our Switzerland adventure.
All in all, we really enjoyed the tour. Central Europe is not exactly undiscovered but it’s also not spoiled by over tourism (though given the number of Chinese tourists we encountered, the word is getting out!) and the Rick Steves touring model is a good one (at least for us). We did a fair amount of walking but it wasn’t crazy hard (okay, we did feel the need to climb every tower we could find, but that’s our problem). There are group activities and most logistics are handled for you which is great, but you also have lots of free time to either do more stuff or just have some chill time. Having local guides to talk about the culture and politics of the places we visited was wonderful and helped us get a better feel for what we were seeing. Despite his initial reservations about tours in general, Chuck enjoyed it, too. He still prefers to do his own thing when possible, but can see the advantage of having the logistics handled for you so you just show up and enjoy the sights. I think that we would easily have spent the same amount of money (probably more, I’d guess) to see all the places we’ve seen – but I suspect we would have missed out on some of them through either ignorance or just not having the time to get there.