“Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,
Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast”
“If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!”
This reference to Kashmir has been quoted ad infinitum and is widely attributed to the 13th -14th century poet Amir Khusro (though not found anywhere in his literary works). One could echo these very lines when one beholds the eastern Alpine country of Slovenia.
Slovenia is the homeland of Melania Trump, first lady of the US, so now the name has suddenly emerged into the searing arc-lights of publicity. And it has come out a sure-fire winner.
A part of Yugoslavia until 1991, the country shares borders with Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia and has an Adriatic Sea coast 26 km long. 58% of the land is forest-covered.
The region shows evidence of human habitation for at least 250,000 years. The Slovenes were dominated by the Habsburgs for ages. During World War II, domination by Italy and Germany caused untold hardship including death and devastation, resettlement and migration. (In the United States, Cleveland, Ohio has the highest concentration of Slovenian immigrants.)
Ljubljana was founded in Roman times and is one of Europe’s tiniest capitals. There are cobbled streets and stone bridges across the Ljubljanica River, and street art, bronze sculptures, museums and galleries abound. The Dragon Bridge and the Triple Bridge are major landmarks. (The local names are a mouthful.) There is an ancient castle on a hill with a funicular railway to haul you up. The tower has superb views but I didn’t have time to go there.
I was told the facade of the parliament building is adorned with nudes but I couldn’t go there either. Ljubljana Zoo and Tivoli Park are well worth a visit, but we were headed for Postojna Caves and Lake Bled and didn’t have too many days to linger in Ljubljana. The nights are lively too and the culture is laid-back. If you enjoy doing nothing this is the place to do it in. But I’m kinda restless so I just moved on.
About an hour’s drive from Ljubljana, the Postojna Caves comprise a jaw-dropping subterranean cavernous network of stupendous proportions. Hold your breath! The caves stretch out for 24 km but all we can see is 5 km – and boy, is it enough!
A toy train takes you on a thrilling ride for the first 3.2 km stretch. Watch out so you don’t bump your head. Hold on to your kids and keep your hands by your sides. No selfies, please! Don’t want to lose the magical aura, do you?
The train drops you off and then you walk the remaining distance. I’ve never been one for walking but this was certainly the most spectacular walk of my life. Up and down, round many a bend, widening my pupils to see the mysterious array of stalactites and stalagmites, rising from the ground and dropping from the ceiling in myriad shapes and shades. There are even shimmering curtains of what looks like raw meat. No joke!
Audio equipment supplied at the entrance gives explicit details. The caves are divided into sections and the features of each part are elaborated. The shining white stalagmite ‘Brilliant’ is a virtual icon. The aptly named ‘Concert Hall’ can house 10,000 spectators. All these architectural marvels were carefully crafted by the Pivka River flowing underground for two million years. The maximum depth is 115 metres. What’s more, a weird amphibian called the olm, a blind salamander, lives in the limpid pools.
The temperature in the caverns remains constant at 8-10°C throughout the year. Don’t forget your warm jacket. If you are accustomed to warmer climes take your gloves too. I kept one glove on and removed the other so I could take pictures.
Electricity came to Postojna in 1884 – even before Ljubljana! Postojna is not the largest cave system in Slovenia but it receives the largest number of tourists. The Škocjan Caves with an explored length of 6.2 km are popular too. The Reka River disappears into these caves and resurfaces 34 km away in Italy. The Pivka River on the other hand is a lost river that stays underground and merges with the Rak River in Planina Cave.
The Karst Region in south-western Slovenia, of which Postojna is only a part, is a limestone plateau extending through Slovenia into north-eastern Italy. The Postojna caves were first mentioned in the 17th century by a geologist studying Karst phenomena. The underground extravaganza was opened up for public exploration in 1819. It became popular with European royalty, and the rich and famous made a beeline for the caves.
Caves that are open to visitors are called ‘show caves’. Vilenica Cave at Lokev was visited by tourists as early as1633. Hell Cave, Predjama Cave and Cross Cave are amongst the most visited today. But the biggest cave system in the country is the Migovec system found in the northwest of the country in the basin of the Tolminka River. With a length of 37.2 km and depth of 975 metres it is by far the largest in Slovenia.
Bled, a resort town nestling in the foothills of the Julian Alps, is an 80 minute drive from Ljubljana.
The scenic splendour of Lake Bled has to be seen to be believed. The emerald green glacial lake was formed at the end of the Ice Age. A true chunk of paradise! The pristine purity of the lake is maintained by using the covered wooden rowboats called pletnas. No polluting motorboats here!
On a small islet in the lake there stands a little white church with a black steeple. The Church of the Assumption of Maria, a baroque structure dates back to 1698. The original was Gothic and goes farther back in time. The Wishing Bell was installed in the original structure in 1534 and ringing the bell will ensure that your wish is granted. Hindus please note – this bell-ringing culture is not exclusively Hindu. Another myth is that a groom who manages to carry his bride up the 99 steps to the church will be blessed with a happy married life. Well of course! A man who does that will do anything! Climbing up the steps carrying your own weight is an ordeal in itself. Honestly, I wished I didn’t have to carry my handbag and camera! I asked our tour guide whether men really did try to accomplish this herculean task. He told me they have a training program for this purpose! Wow! And yes, weddings are solemnized in the church.
On a cliff overlooking the lake stands the Bled Castle, a fairy-tale structure that dates back to the 11th century. A 16th century chapel stands in the courtyard. We were delighted to witness a live performance of medieval sword fighting, fire-eating and dances with wine glasses. Groups of school children visiting the castle added fun and flavour. The wine cellar was an interesting place. A brown robed monk briefed us about the wine-making process. He mentioned that Josip Broz Tito, former President of Yugoslavia was a friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, and he relished these very same wines.
Now let me tell you how to get there. A road trip from Venice to Ljubljana would be the best option. From the capital, day trips to Postojna and Lake Bled are feasible as both locations are barely 90 minutes away. Predjama Cave can also be visited as it is located near Postojna. The Škocjan Caves are said to be rather intimidating, and the Migovec system is only for experienced cave explorers. Lake Bled is the access point for Triglav National Park where Slovenia’s highest peak is located. Happy tripping!