Wednesday 23 September 2015

The Skocjan Caves and the Slovenian Coast

Italy and Slovenia, 19th – 21st September 2015

As of today we have now officially been travelling Europe for six months.  Given that we had to come back for Matt’s work we’ve only been out of the UK consecutively for five months, but it still marks us being away for half of our original travel time.  The good news is that we’re only a hundred pounds over budget which should level out very soon; the bad news is we’re at the halfway point, and time suddenly feels rather short.  But there’s no use dwelling: we’ve got to make the use of the time that we have got, and so it’s time for some exploration of Slovenia.

The promenade near our overnight spot in Trieste
Before leaving our spot north of Trieste in Italy, we went for a walk around the surrounding area and did a little people watching.  There was a paved promenade running along the water’s edge where locals had laid down their towels for a spot of weekend sun.  Running from the promenade into the water at regular intervals were metal walkways with steps leading over the rocks and down into the water.  Signs warned at regular intervals that it was not a swimming area; presumably this is just the city’s way of saying ‘if you drown, no-one can sue us!’.  We possibly could have attempted to find somewhere to park up closer to the city centre for a look around, but the weather was so hot and clammy that my motivation levels for a city walk had plummeted.  We’d had a hot night the night before (around 30 degrees), and although it was only mid-twenties during the day, the air felt so thick and heavy with humidity that everything was clammy and sticky.  I’m not going to admit to maybe—maybe—having a slight tiny tendency to getting irritable in said weather, but I’m not going to deny that I was eager to move on either.

Back across the border into Slovenia we went.  There are a few towns along the short stretch of Slovenian coast, with the largest of which being Koper.  Technically a city, it’s the first main place you get to once crossing the border from Italy.  We drove through briefly but didn’t really stop around to visit; it looked rather built up and most of the parking spots were packed.  There is an official gated Camper Stop at Koper at the park and ride that’s only €4 (and maybe an extra charge for a card to open the gate), but despite the fact that it was right next to the busy motorway, it was still fully occupied.  There were a few guys in high-vis jackets guiding people around some of the bigger car parks, so perhaps there was some kind of event going on making the place busier than usual.  Either way, we left the place behind and continued along to the next town along, Izola.

Izola is a small fishing town, with a large harbour at its centre.  A large part of the town is made up of narrow pedestrianised streets, and after a wander along the seafront it is this part of town where I took Matt for a rather long and winding walk.  He says I got us lost; I say that I was just taking us past the town’s church, and that all of the disorienting paths that I took us along were completely planned.

We were going to investigate the next main town on the coast, Piran, but didn’t have any luck.  The entry into the town is barriered so you have to use the nearby car parks, of which the ones we saw had height restrictors.  We gave up and went back to Izola for the night.  At Izola is another camper stop (GPS: 45.53851, 13.66488), which is €15 for one of four larger bays in the main car park with electric hookup and a small service point.  We’d read online about numerous people who had arrived when the camper bays were  full, and had instead paid the normal parking rate (€2/day expiring at midnight, so €4 for an overnight ticket) and parked in a regular car parking bay.  We opted to give this a go, as the motorhome bays were right next to the main road into town, and we didn’t feel like forking out €15 to listen to traffic all night using electric we didn’t need.

The next day we spent some time having a bit of rest and recuperation; after a trip to Lidl (verdict on Slovenia Lidls: the prices make sense once more now we’re back on the Euro, the food is pretty cheap, the bakery not quite as exciting as Croatia) we crossed the border back to Trieste.  The official Sosta in Trieste (GPS: 45.63710, 13.76990, €4/night) has a service point, which is just outside the entrance.  Given that the Sosta itself is on the stretch of ground directly beneath one of the main motorways around Trieste, we weren’t particularly inclined to spend the night and so we (perhaps somewhat cheekily) used the service point before returning to our free spot north of Trieste.  Here there was another British camper, although you wouldn’t have thought it from a first glance; it was a Renault Master based Luton box van, looking remarkably like a work vehicle if not for a UPVC house window that had been installed into the side.  Inside, the back was fitted out with cottage-style furniture, and looked to be done to quite a high standard for a self-build.  The owner was a young man looking to be around Matt’s age, who left his life as a British plumber behind to come live in Trieste, and was a frequent user of this particular Sosta.  His observations on some of the local vans proved interesting; there are lots of old campers dotted all over Trieste, and it appears that a large majority of them are used as storage units through lack of availability of garages/storage spaces.  One particular van in the Sosta seemed to be owned by a nearby bar, as he’d discovered when they went over to it to get some supplies out.

The main road in Trieste (above) was fine.  The rest of the
roads, which we didn't think to photograph, slightly less so...
The next day, it was back into Slovenia for some inland exploration.  We had numerous disagreements with Crazy Daisy the Sat Nav, and also developed a sudden if somewhat irrational dislike to Trieste.  The main road along the sea front is lovely and wide if busy, as are the motorways to the north and south.  But travelling through Trieste rather than around?  Nightmare.  The roads are tight one way streets, packed with parked cars, weight restrictions and other obstacles.  This was the part we disliked about our travels in Italy, and the part we were most eager to leave behind: city driving.  We wasted at least a good half hour trying to find a decent road that travelled from the east of the city to the west before we finally made it onto a motorway towards Slovenia.

We finally started making the approach to Slovenia, and were confronted with a new type of panic.  The border signs announced we had crossed into Slovenia, and came accompanied with vignette signs and road cameras.  All vehicles under 3.5 tonnes need a vignette to drive on Slovenian motorways; the fines can be anywhere between 300 and 800 euros.  Worried that the camera was a vignette check, we immediately pulled off in an exit for a border customs area for lorries and signposted for some kind of ferry port, trying to figure out what to do next.  I don’t know how much time we spent trying to work out if there was an alternate route we could take or if there was somewhere we could turn back to buy a vignette, but it turns out our panic was unfounded; after finding a side road to take we carried on, we found that it merged with the Italian motorway and right before it joins with the actual Slovenian one at the old border checkpoint, there are official vignette sellers and it is very clearly marked where the vignette starts a bit further along with a toll booth.

The Skocjan Caves

After our setbacks we finally made it to the Skocjan caves.  In Slovenia, one of the main tourist attractions is the Postojna caves.  The Skocjan caves are a similar attraction with similar prices, and within around a half hour drive.  It seems the main difference between the two is that Postojna is slightly bigger, with a train ride down into some of the caves, and more well-known to tourists.  Skocjan on the other hand is UNESCO listed and more atmospheric.  After spending some time online trying to gauge which to visit, it seems that the wise words of the internet is that whilst both are nice, Postojna is more Disneyland, Skocjan is more Lord of the Rings.

The only part of the guided tour we were
allowed to photograph: the exit!
I’d say the Skocjan caves are definitely worth a visit.  Unfortunately no pictures were allowed inside the caves even with flash turned off (and the tour guide was rather strict about it, to the point where she stopped back to have words with a girl she’d caught breaking the rules), but pictures probably wouldn’t have done it justice.  It is several km long with some huge chambers full of interesting different stalagmite and stalactite formations that were anywhere between a few thousand to 250-300000 years old.  The guide would switch the lights on and off as the group moved through each section, so if you were towards the back you could get a real sense of what the caves would be like in the dark.  The tour lasts around 90 minutes, eventually coming to an area some 150m underground where the Reka River flows through a channel several stories beneath.  The water levels of the cave can fluctuate massively during heavy rains by as much as 100 metres, and there was a log wedged in an alcove above us that had been flushed up there during flooding last November.  At one point we crossed a bridge over the gorge, and I can see why others would liken the place to something out of Tolkein; thankfully no cave trolls or Balrogs impeded our progress.

At the end of the tour is an option to do a second unguided path, which travels partly through smaller cave systems and partly around the Reka River.  Given that it was only a few euros extra per person for the combined ticket we decided to give it a go.  Whilst nowhere near as impressive as the main caves, it made for a pleasant walk (and we didn’t see anyone else during the walk so we had the whole path to ourselves) with some nice views, and whilst not an essential part for someone visiting the park, it was a nice way of padding out the visit.  There is also a free trail around the park and three museums; two of the museums were pretty empty, and the third was possibly one of the strangest we’ve visited.  Upstairs in the Biology section, images of various bugs and spiders would flash on and off on the walls; downstairs in the Archaeological section, a silhouette of a moving woman was projected against one wall with no real explanation whilst in another room, a video montage of people in cavemen costumes walked ever closer to the camera.

We rounded off the day with a visit to Predjama Castle.  The castle is built into the side of a cliff in the mouth of a cave, making it rather impregnable and attractive to look at.  We arrived late in the day so it was too late to go inside, but it was nice to view from the outside at least.  The next point of call on the list is Ljubljana (the capital city of Slovenia) which according to Google’s help, is pronounced like I’ve just been anaesthetised by a dentist – normal Ls, Js like Ys.  It is our first capital city since Budapest, so it has a lot to live up to!

- Jo

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