After crossing into Slovenia, we still had time to go to the Postojna cave before rolling into Ljubljana. I made sure the course was set in the Google Maps navigation while we were still in Italy because I wasn't sure how data roaming would work in Slovenia with my Italian SIM. It was a pleasant highway drive from Trieste, and I enjoyed the rolling green scenery and the anticipation of discovering a new European country for the first time since Portugal eight months previously (sorry, San Marino). When we arrived in Postojna we had to rush a little bit in order to make the last cave train of the afternoon.
That's right, cave train. The first part of the Postojna cave tour is on an open train that whizzes through the narrow passages at surprising speed. In my rush to reach the cave on time, I had forgotten the advice to wear warm clothing. Fortunately I was wearing jeans and long sleeves because of the cool weather outside and we had warm clothes and scarves for the kids. Only Mei Ling was exposed to the cold wind that blasted in our faces as the train roared down the tunnel, but her subarctic upbringing seemed to have immunized her to the chill.
Eventually we disembarked and reassembled the baby gondola. The pathways inside the cave were a little steep but negotiable, although I felt a little nervous on the downhills as I felt the gondola trying to follow the pull of gravity.
I couldn't resist a photo of this natural formation.
Once we left Postojna I couldn't navigate to our next accommodation because I didn't seem to have any data roaming. However I still had GPS and a crude Google map so I felt pretty comfortable I could make it to the city center. Getting back on the highway, there was a tollbooth but no gate and nowhere to pay. Instead there was a sign with a little highway logo and the word "Vignette". I slowed down entering the lane worried that I might be activating some kind of license plate camera but the girl in the booth vigorously waved me through. I saw more signs with those same logos on the highway, which made me wonder if I was going to find myself with some outrageous bill from the car rental company at the end of the trip.
Outside of Ljubljana, we reached the worst traffic jam we had encountered for the entire trip. Eventually traffic came to a complete standstill and people started to get out of their cars and walk around. Once again, we found ourselves calling an Airbnb host to tell her we'd be late. Half an hour later, I got out myself and started walking to the front of the jam. Just a hundred meters ahead, police had closed off the entire highway to clear an accident, although there only seemed to be debris in one lane. I don't know if they had just cleared the other two lanes or if they were too apathetic to care about the hundreds of cars trapped on the highway. Just a few minutes after that, the cars finally started to move and we made our way to central Ljubljana with a combination of the directions our host had given us and pure instinct. As I was driving slowly scanning our surroundings for a familiar word I saw an underground parking garage with the sign "Kongresni trg". We had reached our destination, Congress Square, without a single wrong turn since coming off the highway.
We'd finally learned from Venice that we didn't need to lug our big bag with us every time we checked in or out of an accommodation. All we had to do was make sure everything we needed for the next stop was in the two small rolling suitcases. Once we checked out and got back to the car, we'd transfer fresh clothes out of the big bag into a small suitcase and put dirty clothes in a plastic bag. I really wish we'd figured out that simple technique earlier. We emerged from the garage and found ourselves in a very pretty little park surrounded by ornate buildings. We quickly found our Airbnb host waiting for us and I took the opportunity to practice the few Slovenian phrases I had learned as she led us across a bridge and into the Old Town. We had previously enjoyed good success with our Airbnb locales but our apartment in Ljubljana was the best yet, in a beautiful building directly off the main pedestrian street Mestni trg. The apartment itself was comfortable and very spacious, although we had to walk up several flights of stairs. We dropped off our bags and took the recommendation of our host for a restaurant that specialized in game meat. The restaurant served venison and wild boar, but the preparation was uninspired.
I had practically fallen in love with Ljubljana from reading about it and looking at pictures before our trip. In the morning, I quickly realized that Ljubljana was everything I had imagined it to be. The old town is at the western edge of a large island created by a split in the River Ljubljanica. A street parallel to the river that changes names several times forms the heart of the old town. Stari trg becomes Mestni trg which becomes Ciril-Metodov trg and eventually Vodnikov trg. Trg means square in Slovenian but these are more like wide pedestrian streets lined with cafes and beautiful old buildings. On the eastern side of this curving street the ground rises steeply behind the buildings to form Castle Hill, which is topped by Ljubljana Castle. To the west of Mestni trg, several bridges cross the Ljubljanica to another busy pedestrian area on the western bank. Also here is Presernov trg, a true open square and a focal point of old Ljubljana. Slovenians love their beautiful river and it is lined with buildings and cafes, in sharp contrast to the rivers of Rome and Verona which seemed to be mostly ignored.
At Vodnikov trg the farmer's market occupies a large square, with over a hundred stalls of fruits and other fresh produce. Berries are always a big hit with the kids. On the north side of the square were several food trucks, most of which seemed to be specializing in grilled and fried seafood. We got on line at the busiest truck and weren't disappointed. The feast of fish, shrimp, and squid was the best meal we had had in days. The Slovenian beer Lasko Zlatorog was also excellent. I made sure to get a picture of the can but I haven't been able to find the brew since I got back to the US.
After lunch we made our way to the cable car that travels up Castle Hill to Ljubljana Castle. At the castle, I left Mei Ling and the babies to play in the grass while I climbed the tower for some aerial pictures of Ljubljana.
We descended and crossed the Ljubljanica to Presernov trg. I got a Slovenian SIM and we did some shopping, and we explored the surrounding pedestrian streets.
From here, it was just a short hop back to Kongresni trg. The park in the square was full of people bicycling, strolling, and lying out in the sun. In the background the castle on the hill resided like a friendly master of ceremonies over the festivities.
We were on top of the parking garage at this point so we decided to take a road trip to Sneznik Castle in Cerknica instead of doing more walking in Ljubljana. Sneznik is the setting for the annual dormouse hunting contest and feast, which unfortunately had taken place just two days before our arrival. However, we were hopeful we would find someone there who could tell us where we could sample the rodent delicacy. Driving through the rolling green hills and bucolic towns of the Cerknica area was fun, and Snedzik Castle was pretty but deserted. We had arrived too late to take the last tour, and there wasn't anyone in sight to ask about dormice.
I decided to look for a game restaurant that was highly recommended by the Lonely Planet, thinking we'd have a better chance of finding well-prepared meats there than in Ljubljana. Sadly, I once again fell prey to the error of inputting the name of the restaurant into Google Maps rather than the address. Forty-five minutes later on a dirt road in the middle of the forest, I knew I'd been had again. Despite the fact that my iPhone power was verging on the red zone, we renewed our efforts and eventually found the place deeply ensconced in a different part of the forest. Tragically, the parking area was empty and the restaurant was obviously closed, although I have no idea why. As I climbed back into the car to begin the return trip to Ljubljana, my iPhone shut down and we were without GPS. Through a combination of luck and having paid close attention to the road in the forest, we were able to reverse our tracks to the main road without becoming lost amidst the dirt lanes that snaked through the trees. Getting back to Ljubljana was a protracted effort as it seemed like every time we intersected with another highway we would see signs that indicated Ljubljana was both straight ahead and to the right. After driving twice as far as I had expected, I grew tired of this game and stopped for directions. It turned out we had been driving around Ljubljana on the ring road and the signs to the right were to the highway that we had taken the first night. We got back on the highway, where I remembered I had forgotten to look up that "Vignette" sign. We soon came to the exit we had used the previous night and followed our original path back to Kongresni trg. I quickly found a restaurant in Stari trg that was highly recommended on TripAdvisor and we got a decent meal there, although not particularly memorable. It was funny that one of the highlights of the day was not getting lost in a Slovenian forest and having to sleep in the car overnight.
The next morning we couldn't resist going back to the market for more seafood from the trucks. This time, we complemented it with some succulent broiled meatballs from another vendor. Heavenly. We stocked up on diapers and milk and bid farewell to Ljubljana.