Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Slovenia & Croatia (Part I of IV)

Sunday March 27-Saturday April 9

For our last big vacation as a family of 3 (well 3 1/2), we are spending 2 weeks in Slovenia & Croatia, staying 3 nights in Lake Bled, Slovenia (Part I); 3 nights in Rovinj, Istria, Croatia (Part II); 2 nights in Split, 2 nights on Hvar Island (Part III), 2 nights at Plitvice Lakes National Park, & 1 night in the Croatian capital Zagreb (Part IV).

In the late afternoon Saturday, Joe dropped off Chance at Joekelz, our favorite dog kennel near the Belgium border. Then after Brooklyn woke up from her nap, we packed up the car and got on the road to the Park Plaza Hotel by Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. We booked a 9:20am flight for Sunday morning so we knew staying the night up there was the best idea for ease. It also happened to be daylight savings here. Jackie put down Brooklyn in the baby bed and left the hotel room to let her fall asleep. We thought enough time had passed. Nope. We quickly skirted into the bathroom, but she was not wanting to go down. She woke up crying many times throughout the night. Jackie picked her up and brought her into bed with her to snuggle. She just wanted to play and touch her mommy's face. Looks like an easy relaxing morning turned into a night of barely any sleep. We had to catch the 6:45 hotel airport shuttle to the airport. Of course as we get to the KLM sky priority checkin desk, we realize that we were way earlier than we needed to be. 

Sunday March 27 
I'm ready to go! 
We took KLM flight KL1943 from Amsterdam to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. After picking up all our luggage (2 rolling suitcases, diaper bag, camera backpack, toddler carrier backpack and carseat with base), we went to the Enterprise counter to pickup our rental car. Brooklyn was losing it while we waited. She was so overtired. We desperately just needed to get her in the car in her seat so she could finally go down for a nap. The rental car we got is definitely the worst we have ever been given. It was an Opel with 100,000 kilometers. There were scratches and dents all over the silver car. We could have gotten into an accident and they probably would never know. The thing was filthy. We found 2 rotting cut lemons in back floor boards. There was no cruise control. We had a 2.25 hour drive from Zagreb to Lake Bled. Before we hit the Croatia-Slovenia border we needed to stop at a gas station to buy a 20 euro sticker allowing our Croatian rental car to drive into Slovenia. We grabbed some snacks since meltdown sleepy Brooklyn had prevented us from stopping for a suitable lunch before we really hit the road.
When we arrived at the Airbnb Spacious Yellow Apartment in Vila Marjetica in Bled, Slovenia where we would sleep Sunday, Monday, & Tuesday nights March 27-29, Brooklyn was still asleep. We met with Matej and got some great advice on things to see in the area. Since it was Easter, he informed us of the specific hours for the grocery store and bakery just 100 meters down the road on the day after the holiday. He provided us with a baby cot in the single bedroom with a double bed. 
We unpacked the car to which Brooklyn woke up. We walked down to the Lake.
Lake Bled (pronounced "blayd") made our must-visit list because of its alpine panorama, fairy-tale island, cliff-hanging medieval castle, lakeside promenade, and its most sought-after desserts.
The town’s specialty, a cream cake called kremna rezina (KRAYM-nah ray-ZEE-nah; often referred to by its German-derived name, kremšnita, KRAYM-shnee-tah), is a layer of cream and a thick layer of vanilla custard artfully sandwiched between sheets of delicate, crispy crust.
We stopped at Hotel Park Restaurant and Cafe for some famous original Bled cream cake and coffee/beer as well as a bite to eat. They had a little play area for kids so Brooklyn could run around and play on a slide while we waited for our food. 
Brooklyn seemed to love the cream cake! 

Bledski grad (Bled Castle) & Župnijska cerkev sv. Martina (St. Martin's Church) from Park Restaurant and Cafe
Pletna boats and Bled Island
swan and Bled Island

Brooklyn wearing mommy's sunglasses
Župnijska cerkev sv. Martina (St. Martin's Church)

Bledski grad (Bled Castle) and Župnijska cerkev sv. Martina (St. Martin's Church) 
We picked up some pizza to go for dinner. 

Monday March 28 
This morning we began our day in Lake Bled driving 10 minutes away to hike the Vintgar Gorge in Triglav National Park. 
As we go to get out of the car, Joe realizes he forgot his extra outer layer of jackets, etc. Back to the house we go...
As we got to the trailhead this time, the few parked cars looked different. A couple of ladies getting back to their car informed us that the trail is closed with a metal gate blocking entry. The office was not open to pay the entry fee. Matej had told us that the trail is often not open yet this time of year because maintenance had not been completed on the trail, but that most locals just hop the fence and hike while it's still free. We took his advice and went to check it out.  
Joe and Brooklyn ready to hike Vintgar Gorge in Triglav National Park, Slovenia
Can't stop this lady from hiking. Even if there's a human growing inside. 
Selfie hiking some of the Vintgar Gorge in Triglav National Park, Slovenia 
The rushing waters in Vintgar Gorge in Triglav National Park, Slovenia

The clear blue green waters in Vintgar Gorge in Triglav National Park, Slovenia 

Joe the photographer in Vintgar Gorge in Triglav National Park, Slovenia 
Boardwalks interlace over the waters of Vintgar Gorge in Triglav National Park, Slovenia 

Hiking Vintgar Gorge in Triglav National Park in Slovenia near Lake Bled 
As we hiked, we quickly understood why the trail was still closed. Many boardwalk planks were missing. In some places the hand rail was gone. It took some balance and coordination to walk the bare planks over the open water both as a 28 week pregnant lady and as a father carrying a 20 pound toddler in a hiking backpack. It wasn't from higher flowing waters in the gorge, most of the damage must occur from the weight of the heavy snowfall this area can get each year. Matej told us it hadn't snowed in 2 weeks so things were beginning to look up and head toward looking like spring. We were fortunate enough to see the high waters from the snow melt, but it would have been great to see this area all green in full bloom. 
This is about 20 minutes into the hike and as far as we would comfortably go with a toddler in a backpack and as a pregnant lady 

Ooo that's some cold snowmelt water 

Next we planned to drive the Julian Alps and as far up the Vršič Pass as we could due to road closure. Brooklyn fell asleep in the car early on in the drive. We drove past industrial Jesenice and made sure to take our turn and not continue on into Austria. We enjoyed seeing the Julian Alps to the south in the Triglav National Park. We drove through Kranjska Gora, a ski town. We continued onto the Nordijski center Planica, a new ski jump sports complex. We had seen it had a zipline down the ski jump in the summer time. This was the first winter the ski jump was open. Matej said last weekend there was a huge ski jump event/competition there. As we drove in we noticed a lack of snow on the ski jump slopes and did not see a zipline running. With Brooklyn still asleep and needing to pay a parking entry fee, we turned around and continued driving back to Kranjska Gora to drive as far up Vršič Pass as we could. Vršič Pass is the highest point in Slovenia, 24 up and 26 down (50 total) breathtaking hairpin turns. Each one is numbered and labeled with the altitude in meters. We made it up 2 hairpin turns before the road was snowed in and blocked as closed. Well that was disappointing. I guess we are going back to Lake Bled for the day. 
The distinctive Slovenian roofed haystack with concrete posts 

We drove to the Bled Castle (Bledjski Grad) parking lot as Brooklyn was waking up as it was lunchtime. We still had a 5 minute steep hike up to the castle itself even from the parking lot (€9 castle admission). Bled Castle (Blejski Grad) offers very little history (1,000 years old from 1011) but makes up for with intoxicating views.
The view of the town of Bled from Bled Castle
Bled Island from Bled Castle 

Brooklyn and Jackie at Bled Castle with Bled Island in the distance
We brought our own picnic lunch to munch on as we took in the million-dollar views over Lake Bled. It was very windy so we sat in an upper courtyard with more wall protection to keep us warm.
Brooklyn walking around the upper courtyard of Bled Castle

Brooklyn and Jackie at Bled Castle with Bled Island in the distance
Happy girl enjoying lunch at Bled Castle
Brooklyn clapping for herself 
Swinging around the Bled Castle courtyard with Daddy
Bled Castle window
Bled Island from Bled Castle
The view of the Julian Alps from within Bled Castle
Bled Castle door
We saw an old-fashioned printing press and bought Brooklyn a souvenir made just for her from this Gutenberg replica press. 
A little history of why the printing press is located at the castle. Slovene was considered a crude peasant's language and illegal to print. Trubar, a Slovenian reformer went to Germany in 1550 and wrote and printed first 2 books in the Slovene language. He smuggled his printed books back to Ljubljana and was briefly given refuge in Bled Castle while en route. 
Video of the souvenir print being made 
Jackie and Brooklyn at Bled Castle 
We had looked up the Luge Ride (Polento Sankanje), Bled’s “summer toboggan” luge ride, atop Mount Straža overlooking the lake, which allows you to scream down a steep, curvy metal rail track on a little plastic sled. A chairlift takes you to the top of the track, where you’ll sit on your sled, take a deep breath, and remind yourself: Pull back on the stick to slow down, push forward on the stick to go faster. You drop 480 feet in altitude on the 570-yard-long track, speeding up to about 25 miles per hour as you race toward the lake. It just happened to be open today for €8/ride and €4 for the chairlift ride only. Adventure seeking dad, really really wanted to do this. When we bought tickets at the base, they told us little Brooklyn was allowed to go in her dad's lap. Jackie rode up the chairlift in case Brooklyn freaked out when getting into the sled with Dad. The plan was she would ride the chairlift back down with mom if she was too scared to ride.
Daddy and Brooklyn riding the Mount Straža chairlift 

Mama and Brooklyn riding the Mount Straža chairlift
View of a toboggan ride down Mount Straža

The view of Lake Bled, clifftop Bled Castle, the town of Bled and the Julian Alps beyond from Mount Straža 

We rode the chairlift up Mount Straža overlooking Lake Bled after which Dad & Brooklyn rode the luge down a steep curvy metal rail track in a plastic sled
Brooklyn got in the sled with Dad just fine and let the operator buckle her in. Looks like she is going down with Dad...
Jackie could hear her screams as their sled started to move. 
Jackie tried to take a few photos of them whizzing down the track from the chairlift but timing didn't work out so well. 

Bled Castle
Joe had to go real slow for Brooklyn. Once Brooklyn saw the chairlift base at the bottom, she got happy again. 
We took a walk around the lake, wandering along the 3.5 mile path around the alpine body of water. We walked along the south shore first to get the afternoon light on the island as we reached the side opposite the town of Bled. 
Bledjski grad (Bled Castle) and Župnijska cerkev sv. Martina (St. Martin's Church) from the south side of Lake Bled

Swans along Lake Bled
Pletna boats are hand-built according to the same centuries-old design, much like gondolas in Venice. There's no keel so the skilled oarsmen work hard to steer the flat-bottomed boat with each stroke. 
Pletna boat and Bled Island (Blejski Otok)

There are also rental rowboats at various points around the lake for €12/hour. We thankfully did not do this option. I will share why shortly.
Bled Island (Blejski Otok) has 99 steps that lead from the island's dock up to the Church of the Assumption on top. You can ring the bell at the island church. A local superstition claims that if you can get this bell to ring three times with one big pull of the rope, your dreams will come true.
Bled Island with the Church of the Assumption

Bled Island with the Church of the Assumption with Bled Castle beyond

Selfie walking around the 5km (3.5mi) Lake Bled. We are on the southwest corner of the lake where we can see the church on Bled Island, the cliffside castle to its left & the Julian Alps in the distance
We stopped for some coffee at Bled Campground outdoor cafe and to rest our feet. 
As we walked the north shore, the wind really began to pick up. You could no longer see plenta boats out on the water, just struggling rental rowboats trying to make their way back to shore. If we had rented for an hour, we would have been stuck out there in this windy weather. Joe would have been the only one able to paddle since Jackie would have to hold Brooklyn to keep her still. 
Beautiful governmental building on the north shore of Lake Bled

We had hoped Brooklyn would take another nap in the backpack on our walk around the lake, but the days of 2 naps seem to be long gone. We went straight to dinner at Ostarija in Bled. Thankfully they had toys to keep her preoccupied. 

Tuesday March 29
Since the weather wasn't the greatest in Lake Bled or Lake Bohinj, we went into Ljubljana for the day. 
Ljubljana (lyoob-lyee-AH-nah) has a lazy Old Town clustered around a castle-topped mountain. It is often likened to Salzburg, with cultural influences from Prague, Vienna, and Venice. Local architect Jože Plečnik in Ljubljana is like Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona. He reshaped the city. 
We parked the car near Congress Square and head toward Prešeren Square.
Prešeren Square, the heart of Ljubljana 

Galerija Emporium, department store at the center of Ljubljana
We walked up Miklošičeva cesta, showcasing Art Nouveau buildings.
Grand Hotel Union building, very Art Nouveau with a domed spire corner 
Zadružna Zveza, a beautiful Art Nouveau building 
A Secessionist building with bright red, blue and white tiles for the Slovenian flag
Jože Plečnik's Triple Bridge (Tromostovje)

We crossed over the Triple Bridge and went to wander through the Riverside Market (Tržnice). We stopped for a coffee and to people-watching at a market riverside cafe. 
Locks over a pedestrian bridge
Dragon Bridge (Zmajski Most) 

Cathedral of St. Nicholas (Stolnica Sv. Nikolaja) from the 18th century
Unique bronze entry doors to the Cathedral of St. Nicholas were created in 1996 to celebrate the visit of Pope John Paul II

Cathedral of St. Nicholas (Stolnica Sv. Nikolaja) interior Italian Baroque

Cuties exploring Ljubljana
Ljubljana Castle atop the hill 
We ate a fresh fish lunch at Ribca below the market in the colonnade overlooking the river.
Before heading back to the car, Jackie had to get some gelato, since Ljubljana is supposed to have the best gelato outside of Italy. Brooklyn made sure to let her voice be known that she wanted just as many licks as mama. We then drove the 45 minutes from Ljubljana to back to Lake Bled. After Brooklyn's nap, we enjoyed some time running around the yard at Vila Marjetica, our airbnb apartment in Bled. 

Brooklyn showing Daddy the rocks she found 

Brooklyn lovin' on Momma's baby belly

Wednesday March 30 
Today we checked out of Lake Bled to begin our trip to our next destination: Rovinj, Istria in Croatia. 
Istria (EE-stree-ah) has gentle green slopes, giving it a more serene feel. Though Istria has its share of tacky touristy beach towns, Rovinj is like a little hunk of Venice draped over a hill. It is supposed to be simply romantic and quaint. Seafood is a must, along with olive oil and wine. 
On our drive to Rovinj, we stopped at Postojna Caves (Postojnska Jama), one of Slovenia's top sights about an hour south from Lake Bled.
There is also another famous cave in Slovenia called Škocjan Caves (Škocjanske Jame). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a more strenuous guided hike 2 miles long up and down more than 400 steps so we opted for the more touristy Postojna Caves with our little one. Postojna Caves gets about half a million visitors a year and is more expensive (23.90/person + 1 for young child). 
We intended to make the first 10am tour group down into the cave. We arrived at the ticket office well before 10 but they wouldn't sell us tickets because we needed to be lined up 10 minutes before entry. Looks like we will be waiting around until the 11am tour group, which lasts 1.5 hour, making us push Brooklyn hard into lunch time and nap. We shopped at the cheesy souvenir shops, played in the train playground and grabbed some coffees while we waited. 
We actually ended up being thankful we didn't make the 10am tour. It was loaded with people and large groups. Our 11am tour only had about 15 people with the English-speaking tour guide. We could easily stay behind the group with our fussy daughter and still hear the tour guide. Once we got her in the backpack after the train ride and plied her with snacks, we were able to enjoy the beauty of the caves more. There are more than 12 miles (24km) of explored caves of passages, galleries and halls of this subterranean world, 3 miles of which we get to see on the visit. 
The train ride down whizzes you past beautiful rock formations. 

After the train ride, the guide takes you along well-lit, paved paths through the formations. 
The stalagmites and stalactites grow roughly 1cm every 100 years (1/3"). There are some as tall as 100 feet!
First we saw the "Big Mountain Hall", the highest point inside the Postojna Caves. 

More of Postojna Caves

Next we crossed a bridge over a canyon into "Spaghetti Hall", named after the long, skinny stalactites dripping from the ceiling. 
Postojna Caves are proud of the fact that the caves had electricity in 1884 before the city of London did. 

Postojna Caves, Slovenia 
There are some almost translucent curtains of rock in this area. 
Phalic stalagmites and stalactites in Postojna Caves

Stalagmite meets stalactite in Postojna Caves
More of Postojna Caves 

Next was the vast cavern called "Concert Hall". 

The caves are home to a unique cave-dwelling creature, the so-called "human fish", a long, skinny, pale-pink salamander-like creature with fingers and toes. These amphibious creatures can grow up to a foot long, live for about a century and survive up to a decade without eating. In the "Concert Hall" we could look into an aquarium with the olm, a strange "human fish".
We were actually there at a really cool time. The female olm had laid an egg. Now they are just waiting for the eggs to hatch. We had to be quiet as we passed the tank they are housed in in the Postojna Caves.
Huge white melting ice cream formations in Postojna Caves

Postojna Cave's most beautiful stalagmite is called the Brilliant, a marvelous shiny white limestone formation is approximately 5m tall and located at a spot with a strong and even drip from the ceiling. 

We did get to see some live specimens on display in the Concert Hall which apparently are never fed during the 4 months they are under view. 
Then we returned on the train. 
Selfie aboard the train ride in the Postojna Caves
Ten minutes further down the road from Postojna Caves, we saw Predjama Castle, picturesquely nestled into the side of a cliff. Brooklyn had fallen asleep so we snapped a fast photo before carrying on with the rest of our drive to Rovinj, Croatia. 

After settling into our airbnb apartment, we went to walk about the town of Rovinj. In the Middle Ages, Rovinj was actually an island surrounded by a double wall, a protective inner wall and an outer seawall. Fisherman would pull directly into warehouses on the bottom level of houses. The Adriatic Sea is literally their backyard. 
We walked up Grisia Street, the main "street" or tight lane that is lined with art galleries. 
Rovinj door 

Sveta Eufemija (Church of St. Euphemia), Rovinj's 1754 Baroque church, whose 190ft bell tower/campanile is a replica of the famous bell tower on St. Mark's Square in Venice is capped by a copper weathervane in the shape of Rovinj's patron saint

The church houses the relics of Euphemia's body from the 4th century who was persecuted for her Christian beliefs by Roman Emperior Diocletian for refusing to worship the local pagan idol. She was brutally tortured, her bones broken on a wheel. She was thrown to the lions as a public spectacle but the lions miraculously refused to attack her. 
Happy girl in Rovinj, Croatia 
Mama and baby boy (baked 28 weeks) on the streets of Rovinj, Croatia
We had dinner at Rio Bar, a top TripAdvisor restaurant find, to eat a truffle pasta 
Rovinj, Croatia
Rovinj with Sveta Eufemija watching over the coast of Croatia

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