Leaving Switzerland is never an easy task, and it was with heavy hearts that we departed Rorbas and the comforts of the Faas family for our first foray onto the open road. The first part of a long travel day took us from Zurich to Salzburg via train, where we stopped for pizza on the riverbanks with a sweet view of Old Town Salzburg and its imposing cliff top castle. The birthplace of Mozart was humming busily with a riverside farmers market, and it was a welcome break from many hours spent on the train. Moving on, we were forced to load onto a bus after an apparent blockage on the rail during a pouring rainstorm halted the train in the middle of Austria. After some time on the bus and after switching back onto a different train, we sprinted through the Villach terminal to catch our connection to Bled, Slovenia with no time to spare. We met some fellow backpackers on the train from Holland and Denmark, and after checking into Castle Hostel, a crowded, noisy youth establishment, earned some much needed sleep. The long travel day was exhausting, but we had made it to Bled.
Known as an outdoor sports mecca for its proximity to Triglav National Park and an extremely popular summer vacation destination with a party culture, small town vibe, and magnificent lake, Bled certainly lived up to the hype. The hostels were packed with kids our age from around Northern Europe, with the UK, Denmark, and Spain being well represented. Our first day in Bled started with a hike up to Vingtar Gorge, a stretch of the Radvonna River cutting through deep canyon walls lined with tall trees that provided some much needed relief from the midsummer heat. We took the cheap route and walked along the road from Bled to the beginning of the gorge, passing by traditional Slovenian pastoral houses framed wondrously by the Julian Alps under a cloudless blue sky. The water in the gorge was a majestic, impossibly clear light blue, and even the hordes of tourists couldn't diminish the beauty of the scenery. Griff climbed in the waterfall at the end, and all was good.
Upon our return to town we found a new hostel for the night, a much cleaner, quieter place than Castle Hostel. We grabbed a dinner of pizza and leftovers and hiked up to Bled Castle, precariously perched on an outlook overlooking the lake. The sunset perfectly summed up a great day in the mountains. Afterwards we headed to the hostel bar for some conversations with our Danish friends, Jakob and Niels, about everything from travel to music to politics and differences in lifestyles. They attend the University of Aarhus for free and receive other benefits as a result of the state-sponsored system that runs off of high tax rates. There are certainly advantages to this type of government, and the boys were quite outspoken in their support of high taxes and a general sense of communal sharing, which in their minds contrasted with the typical American mindset. It is a sad fact that many aspects I cherish so deeply about my life at home, especially the community aspect so inherent in society, are lost in the cross-cultural translation across modern borders and spheres of being. The night ended with a jaunt down the main street of Bled with a horde of Brits and Danes, and we fell asleep immediately when back at the hostel, with new friends in stow.
After another supermarket breakfast and with lunch packed, our final day in Bled involved a special lake-centered triathlon: a couple of laps around the lake on rented bikes, a hike up to an overlook of the lake, with the castle, town, and the Alps in the background, a swim out to the famous island cathedral in the middle of the lake with Jakob and Niels, and an added fourth leg of trekking to the bus station with our backpacks when the day was over. The temperature reached 40 degrees Celsius (over 100 Fahrenheit), but it was a great, full day that perfectly capped our Bled experience. Jakob is a competitive power lifter and Niels was, after all, a Viking himself, and they powered through the swim of almost a mile (round trip) like nobody's business. However, Griff and I hung tough despite our lack of experience, and the backdrop of the scenery certainly made it an awesome day at the lake. We caught a short bus ride to the capital city of Ljubljana, sad to leave Bled but sure that we had maximized our stay.
Twenty four hours in Ljubljana revealed a beautiful, quaint city situated underneath another castle. A canal contained a river winding under ten bridges that the city was famous for, including the Dragon, Triple, and Lock bridges. Full of statues, fountains, and cute old squares, the city seemed like a low-key version of Venice, minus the crowds, the noise, and the grime. We stayed at H2ostel, lucky enough to have a room to ourselves for a couple of hours, and after unwinding from the bus ride we set off in search of dinner and a night out. Following another stellar supermarket meal on the banks of the river, we walked for a few hours through the Old Town and along the waterside, the city humming joyously with energy. The understated vibe was perfect for a small European capital, and the morning revealed a diurnal attitude similarly devoid of touristy traps. A small farmers market, a hike up to the castle, and another stroll in and around the Old Town, albeit under sweltering heat, yielded a pleasant, enjoyable city. After a catching a train running almost an hour behind schedule (Slovenian rail lines not quite up to the standards set by their Swiss counterparts), we set off in a muggy haze to Croatia, the land of THE Loren Ban. Our Slovenian sojourn was complete, an interesting stay with some mountains, some city, and a lot of love. I will remember Slovenia as a land of many spires, with countless church steeples rising above small little towns majestically framed by dense forests and rugged peaks. We are now comfortably settled in at the home of the Bans, looking forward to a great ten days of fun and relaxation. It was very sad to see Coop leave, but the first third of our trip with him was a blast.