From Izola to Pula: The Istrian Peninsula

One of our key travel destinations for this 6 month trip has always been Croatia.  When we lived in London years ago, we never quite got there and it was a very new travel destination after the war.  I have regretted it ever since and vowed to visit.  Unfortunately I think everyone else has too.  Oh well it is mid European summer!

We had some key areas to visit and decided to explore the Istrian peninsula while we had the opportunity. This made sense as we were already in Izola.  We had heard that the border could be pretty busy so we decided to embrace our inner kiwi and get up early to be at the border by 8am, hopefully before everyone else.  Success!  We weren’t quite sure what to expect but it is important that if you are going to do this trip that you realise the following:

  1. On the Slovenian side they need to see your passport, (everyone in the car) and they will look over it, stamp it and return it.
  2. The second stage is to go across the border where the Croatians do the same thing.

The reason there is a bit of a backlog is that when we were there, there was only one station open so it doesn’t take much to get a decent queue going.  At 8am, we were clear but as soon as we were through we could see a queue forming.  Be warned!

We always like to have a bit of a look around when we are travelling from one place to another.  It helps break up the trip, gives the drivers a break and there are always interesting things to look at.

We decided to visit the small town of Motovun which is a small village on a hilltop in central Istria.  You can either park at the bottom of the hill and get a free bus up or take your chances going up in the car and getting a park yourselves.  We did the latter and as we were so early, were successful in finding a close park.

The town itself is well known for truffles.  You can try a variety of truffles in free tastings and also a variety of cheeses, dips and wine. For the foodies, this is a great destination. There are a variety of restaurants where you can order meals and the view is great.  You can even go on a truffle hunting trip with a truffle hunter and his dog!

We had also read about Porec so decided to do a bit of a drive through to look at the beach.  While we were driving through town we saw a number of restaurants advertising suckling pig with the pigs on the spit at the front of the restaurant.  Never one to lose an opportunity to try something new, we stopped and went into one of the restaurants for lunch.  Delicious.

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Heading down towards Pula, we stopped off at the Limski fjord which is stunning from the top of the road.  The best photo opportunity is from the top.  We didn’t realise this and drove down to the bottom and then took our lives in our hands trying to get a photo on the way back, hence no photo.  If you are going that way anyway, it is worth the view, if not google it to see whether it is interesting for you.
We probably wouldn’t drive out of our way to see it but it is nice if you can view it on the way.

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pula
hop on hop off bus
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Izola and Piran

Izola is a cute little fishing town, close to the larger coastal town of Piran.  If you want somewhere less touristy than Piran to stay,  then Izola might be the place for you.  We  booked in Izola via Air BnB as there was no available accomodation in Piran.  Izola is only 25 minutes drive away from Piran so it is easy to do a day trip.

So what’s great about Izola?  Well for one the seafood is amazing!  It is really nice to sit along the harbour and order a seafood lunch or dinner.  The view of the boats is nice and in the evening the sunsets are amazing.  It also has a cute little old town which you could spend an hour exploring and there are ice cream stores regularly dotted along the water front.

There is also a special cake called  Izolanka that was invented in the area. It is orange flavoured with chocolate and cream and is delicious.  Be aware that the slices are huge!

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It is important to note that all beaches along this coast are rocky.  If you are from Europe, this is probably a given but if like me you are from the Southern Hemisphere then this is pretty unusual.  After attempting to utilise my countrymen’s strength (kiwi feet) with no success, I succumbed to purchasing a pretty naff pair of rock shoes but I LOVE them! No they are not good looking and they will not be coming home with me but they mean I can get to the water without twisting an ankle or slipping and breaking my neck! Worth the 9 Euros!

The water is clear and you can even see the fish swimming around you.  Beautiful.

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We spent one of our days over in Piran.  If you are going to drive, you need to know that the town is a pedestrian town meaning that you have to park in a parking garage and then get on a free bus which takes you into the centre.

Once there, we headed to the tourist information centre where the staff were helpful.  (This is worth a mention as they haven’t always been!)  We decided to do a walking tour around the city.  The guide was excellent and the tour which lasted an hour was only 9 euro.  It was well worth the cost to hear about the different parts of the town.

Piran is much bigger than Izola so it was easy to spend the day wandering around.  Some highlights of Piran are the food (again seafood), the beautiful squares, the old medieval wall that you can walk along and some of the churches.  We really enjoyed Piran and were glad that we visited.  Take your togs as it gets pretty hot and it is a long way to walk back to the car to get them if you feel like you need a swim.

 

Novo Mesto to Izola

The trip from Novo Mesto to Izola is only a couple of hours by car and there are a number of things that you can check out on the way.  We stopped off at Otocec Castle for a quick look.  It is quite pretty and has been converted to a hotel and restaurant.  It would be a lovely venue for a special event.

From here we travelled down the highway to Predjama Castle and the caves below.  We completely underestimated the time required to see the castle, the caves below and the other caves (Postojna ) which are about 9km away.  You really could do with a whole day for the 3 sites if you are into caves.  You can buy a multi ticket which gives access to all 3 sites and if interested a couple of others.

The castle is really stunning even if you don’t go inside as it is set into the rock face.  You are able to buy tickets to go inside and there are audio guides in a  large number of languages.

The caves while not linked to the castle are directly underneath.  If you are happy inside caves, not afraid of heights and are okay in the dark with a headlamp, it is a great trip.

The cave tour was really interesting and worth a visit.  We didn’t make it to the Postonja caves but they are apparently really worth a visit.

 

Maribor to Novo Mesto

Travelling across Slovenia is easy as the roads are good, the speed limit is reasonable and the distances are short.  It is only a couple of hours drive from Maribor to Novo Mesto so it is worth looking at the sights on the way.

We made our stop off in the lovely town of Celje.  One of it’s claims to fame is a castle on top of a hill just outside the town.  It is one of the nicer castles that hasn’t been over restored.  As we were exploring the rooms, we came upon the castle printers which has a very passionate guy demonstrating how the printing was done in the old days.  For 8 Euro, you can get him to print a castle imprint with your name, the date and the castle seal on your choice of handmade paper.  Maybe a nice souvenir!

The castle also had medieval re-enactment group who are happy to explain life during the times.

Those helmets are heavy!

From Celje, we headed to Novo Mesto where we checked into our hostel.  The guide books talk about falling in love with Novo Mesto, however we struggled!  The Tourist centre was closed when we arrived on Saturday and was still closed on Sunday.  By the time we got to speak to anyone on the Monday, we had spent time in the local thermal pool, walked around the old town and the advice we got from the tourist centre (very abrupt) was that we had seen everything.

Novo Mesto didn’t win us over!

Maribor in 48 hours

Maribor is the second largest Slovenian city.  It has a population of about 100,000 so is still a small city.  It has an interesting old town and a great surrounding region to explore.  We spent 3 nights here, which meant that we had two full days to explore.  You could definitely do it in less, depending on what you are interested in but you could also spend more time  here.  So what did we do…

Old town

The old town is good for a look around.  Be aware it is almost empty during the day.  It is busiest early in the morning and the bars and cafes come alive at night.  A little tourist train leaves from the tourist centre and drives around the main sites if you can’t be bothered walking.  It is about 3 Euros.  Unfotunately there is no commentary so you are guessing a bit at what you are seeing.

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Hiking

You can drive to Pohorje, where you can go up on the cable car to the top, hike around a bit and have lunch at the hotel and come down the cable car again. You could hike down… it was a heat wave – we didn’t!  There is also a thermal swimming pool at the top which would be great in the winter.  It is 10 Euro’s entry.  At the bottom of the cable car there is another hotel which has a day pass for swimming.  It is 18 Euros for the day (no half day passes).  As it is outdoors it is probably a better option for the summer.

Wine

Maribor and the surrounding areas are wine country.  You can visit the oldest vine in the world (450 years old) and there is an interesting museum located at the site.

We had planned to do a winery tour.  If this is something that is of interest to you, you really do need a car and some guidance from the Wine Museum who will help you plot out the visit.  They helped us choose 4 wineries to visit and called ahead to make appointments for us.  In New Zealand this would be something that is likely to be hosted by an employee and you would taste a set flight, it would be all over in half an hour and you would move on to the next winery. Not so in Slovenia!  We only got to two of the four wineries as a wine tasting in Slovenia is a very personal experience.   We visited Kuster and Doppler and this took us all day!

First up, we went to Doppler which is a very contemporary winery.  We met the winemaker and she was fantastic at explaining the 10 ( yes 10!!!) wines she wanted us to try.  The servings are huge and there wasn’t anywhere to spit or tip so it all had to be enjoyed! She also showed us around the processing area and explained how her wine was made.  She is a third generation winemaker and the land and vines were set up by her grandfather.  Physically,  this is a particularly interesting winery because it is very contemporary in design.  This is evidenced by everything from the marketing to the buildings.  I found the marketing and artistic aspects very clever and inspired.

After Doppler, we drove down the road to Kuster.  This winemaker is a 5th generation winemaker.   As soon as we arrived, he invited us into his car and drove us around his “farm” showing us the different grapes and vines.  He drove us through to Austria (his winery is close to the border) to the “heart of winemaking” which is a heart shaped road and a very beautiful area.  We enjoyed a glass of wine at the top of this ridge and then he took us back to his house for tastings and a beautiful meat and cheese platter.  The whole experience took about 5 hours!  The family was very keen to share their wines with us and despite feeling like we were holding them up for the day they weren’t keen for us to leave until we had tried all the wines ( we suggested 5, he had 8 or 10 on his list). Apparently they had taken the day off to host us!  The wines were lovely and it was a truly memorable experience.  If you are a wine buff, I highly recommend this experience but take a sober driver; there are lots of wines and the servings are huge!

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Ljubljana in 48 hours

Slovenia is a small country in Eastern Europe.  Until last week I knew almost nothing about it!

So here goes…Slovenia is a small country (only 2.5 million) and has only had independence since 1991.  The people we have met have excellent English, are really willing to help and are very friendly.  They are very proud of their country, especially the clean, green aspect  and the beautiful landscapes.  Understandably they seem to feel like they are the small cousin to their surrounding big brothers in Europe.  I understand that being from New Zealand!  Slovenia has a fascinating history and it has been great to spend some time here.  First stop Ljubljana.

Ljubljana is both the largest city and the capital and is located in the centre of Slovenia providing access to most parts of the country within a couple of hours drive.  It’s quite a cool little city – very clean, a bit edgy and kind of alternative.  It is strange to see a beautifully clean city riddled with graffiti.  There is also lots of street art (which I love) but the tagging  was seemingly everywhere.

We were lucky that we were able to rent an apartment pretty close to town.  The old town is all pedestrianised so getting somewhere close to town when you have a car is not that easy.  They have a great system where you can sign up to rent bikes from racks on the streets. It is really cheap and you just put them back at the nearest rack to where you are going. A great way to get around town.

In 48 hours, this is what we did…

City tour

We did a free walking tour around the city which explained the history of the town and many of the architectural features.

Boat tour

There are a number of boat tours that go through the central city via the river.  These are worth going on and take about 45 minutes.  You can pay anything between 5-8 Euros to go.  There doesn’t appear to be an audio guide or anyone explaining anything but it is pretty to look at and is an enjoyable time.

Markets

Ljubljana has little squares at intersecting streets, where small numbers of market stalls seem to cluster.  When we were there, there were two art ones scheduled, a flea market and then Central Market which is the main one.  We were also lucky enough to be in town on a Friday evening when the Open Kitchen Market was on.  If you are in town at this time, it is well worth a visit.  Chefs from local restaurants cook up amazing food for people to try.  It is a really bustling atmosphere and a nice evening out.

The Old Town

It is relaxing to walk around the old town and take in some of the sights, grab a drink by the river and wile some time away.  You can visit the castle and a number of museums.  While the castle is well rated on Trip Advisor and in other reviews, we were completely underwhelmed as it has been restored so much it is hard to see much of what it was.  There are lovely views from the top and from that point of view it is worth a visit.

The communist walking tour

This was a really interesting tour which cost 10 Euros.  It was 2.5 hours long and really gave a good insight into the history of the country and Ljubljana specifically.  The guide was knowledgeable and was able to speak from his own perspective about  growing up during the communist era and the impact on him and his family.  If you are a history buff, this is a goodie.

Rent a bike from the city

We rented bikes and biked around town, down the river and into some of the more hidden areas.  We managed to visit the hostel that used to be a prison and Metelkova which is next door.  Metelkova is  located on the site of former military barracks (the Slovenian headquarters of the Yugoslav National Army) and has been occupied since September 1993. In Metelkova City a range of activities are run including an art gallery, bars, artists studios, space for designers, offices of cultural organisations and concerts featuring different types of live music.  It’s also a great spot for taking photos.

Enjoy any of the cafes and bars along the riverfront.

There are loads of bars and cafes to try and just as many ice cream shops.  While we were there, there was a heat wave so this was a great activity!

Ljubljana would be a great destination for a long weekend or a stopover.