We woke up at 6:00 AM to have breakfast in the dining room before our ferry docked in Rijeka. By 7:30 we had found the port city's tourist information office, but we were too early; it hadn't yet opened for the day. We wandered through the historical center to an open market, where we bought provisions for the day's ride, and then returned to the information office. We were looking for a bike shop. Ben's tires had started to shred and we were not willing to bike up into the sparsely populated mountains with them in that condition. We checked out the first of the suggestions, but they didn't sell mountain bike tires, so we tried another suggestion. This shop was able to help and even swapped the tires for us, saving us some time. We changed into our biking gear in the back bathroom of the shop, walking through a room that looked and sounded like an aviary. Either the shop owner is an avid bird fan, or there's an illicit trade of birds going on there. We didn't stop to ask, but rather hopped on our bikes for what was to be the most grueling ride of the trip.
We biked up the road out of Rijeka. We biked up along the touristy villas along the coast outside of Rijeka. We biked up until we were in the hills overlooking the expanse of the Kvarner Gulf to the south. Still we biked up. We biked up the monster main road between Rijeka and Pivka, but only for a short distance, and then we started biking the quieter, smaller, and more poorly marked side roads. We had trouble a few times finding the correct road to take, as sometimes they dead-ended, and for many miles we were on unpaved logging roads, still biking up. These were the Dinaric Mountains we were heading up into, and settlements became few and far between. At one point, we found ourselves onto a tiny singletrack (going up, of course) that became unrideable. It would have been challenging for a rested and technically skilled mountain biker on any day, but on this day we had packs and panniers, and we were tired. We walked our bikes a mile or two until we emerged on a paved road and were able to regain our bearings. We enjoyed a brief downhill into a village and then started escalating again. We joked to each other that the minor uphills were feeling like downhills because they felt so easy after the steeper climbs.
We arrived in Vodice, near the Croatia-Slovenia border just at 1:00 PM, as the only store in the village was closing. But we had thought ahead and lunched on food we had brought with us. As we sat in the shade we watched a car pass us in the direction we were headed. About ten minutes later the same car passed again in the opposite direction. After lunch and a brief rest, we got back on the bikes. A snarling dog chased us as we left the town and then a bee stung Ben just below the eye. What a day.
A few miles later we came to the border crossing. Up in the mountains on a small back road sat one car with two men inside. Next to the car on the pavement was a big yellow and red triangle, which probably read something like: "Stop! Border Crossing." So, we stopped, and the men got out of the car. One of them said something to us and we fished for our passports. The man flipped through them and then said, in decent English, "no, you cannot cross." Ben and I looked at each other. I have to admit we had become used to the seamless borders of the European Union and were a bit taken aback. The man explained: this crossing could only be used by Croatian and Slovenian citizens; they weren't able to process foreigners. Oh. So I got out our biking map, which was zoomed way in so that we could find our way on all the little back roads, and asked where we might be able to cross the border. It was looking to be an incredibly long riding day. The man and his associate looked at our map, flipped it, unfolded it, and pointed to a crossing many miles away. "There," he said. "You can cross there." It was a main thoroughfare, not surprisingly, and it looked like we'd have to bike a long way on a busy road. Sigh. I asked the man, "can you tell us how to get there?" Maybe he could suggest the shortest route. He spread the map way out and looked. And looked. And then looked up at us with sympathy. "Well," he said. "where are you going in Slovenia?" "We want to see the Skocjan Caves. And Lipica," I volunteered. There was a pause while the man considered briefly. "Okay, he said. Go ahead." We smiled our thanks, heaved a sigh of relief, and biked over the border into Slovenia.
It was immediately apparent that we were in another country. Suddenly, the run-down villages of Croatia became the bright orderly towns we were used to seeing in Germany and Austria. The roads were in better repair. And the countryside was more open, with fewer forests. All in all, it felt much more like middle Europe than the exotic Adriatic coast on which we had spent the past week.
We biked down through the hills, along a railroad track, and into Kozina, our first major town in Slovenia. We stopped at an ATM to get out some tolars, but without success. A friendly local woman told us that this ATM was broken, but there was a working one in Divaca, the nearest major town to Kozina. We thanked her, but didn't relish the prospect of another fifteen or twenty miles of riding. Fortunately, we were able to buy groceries at the next-door store with a credit card! Still cashless, at least we had food. We found the local campground with the help of Gigi, a man who rented out some of his own rooms. He was so nice that we felt bad opting for the campground over his rooms. The campground itself wasn't a wonder to behold. It was in the backyard of a motel and primarily set up for RV's and was set up as a small street with "driveways" and patches of grass alongside it. We were to find out later that it was also noisy, as motorists on the highway often mistook the nearby road as an exit and used the campground to turn around. But it was cheap. We set up our tent (with grasshopper, above), and then split up tasks since the day was growing long. Ben stripped the bags off his bike and then sped off to Divaca to fetch us some cash. I did laundry. We had dinner at the motel restaurant. The service was bad. We ate huge amounts of food and then went off to our tent for a well-earned sleep.
We enjoyed a leisurely morning the next day. Another couple of cyclists had arrived late the night before and we talked with them briefly while they packed up their tent. They were from the Netherlands, the woman spoke very good English, and they had just come from Ljubljana and were off to bike through Istria. We warned them of our experience with the border crossing, gave them our map of Istria, and wished them well. We munched on breakfast, and then biked to the Skocjan Caves. We wanted to see them the next day, and stopped by to make sure they would be open and giving tours. They were. So we continued on to Lipica. In 1580 an Austrian Archduke set up a stud farm in Lipica to supply horses to Vienna for parades and military purposes. The famous horses, known as Lipizzaners, stem from Andalusian horses from Spain, the local Slovenian horses once used by Romans to pull their chariots, and white Arabian horses. The stud farm in Lipica still exists, and we went to visit it.
We arrived just as the horses were being sent out to pasture. We took a tour of the farm's stables and out buildings. We had lunch at one of the restuarants on the stud farm estate, and then whiled away some time playing miniture golf on a derelect course. We were waiting for the 3:00 show.
Dressage. We had seen dressage at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna when we visited earlier in the year, but the Lipica show lacked the Viennese pomp and allowed the audience closer to the action (and allowed photographs).
Unfortunately, it turns out that Ben is deathly allergic to horses, and suffered through the show.
Our Lonely Planet suggested a nearby cave a bit off the beaten track. Since it wasn't very far out of our way, we decided to stop by. And we were in luck! The Vilinica Cave is maintained by a little local caving club that runs tours only on Sundays. Our guidebook said that the only tours were at 3:00, but the club must have added a couple viewing times. They were giving another tour at 5:00, just a half-hour away. So we sat with a bunch of jovial locals in their little club house and waited for a couple more tourists to arrive. The cave was fantastic! And though we didn't understand most of the verbal tour (it was in Slovenian), the guide and one of the other tourists translated little bits into English for us so that we learned the basics.
The grand hall right within the entrance of the cave was used as an underground (literally!) meeting spot for resisters throughout Slovenia's history.
For scale, Ben's silhouette can be seen on the right towards the bottom of this picture.
Few visitors keeps Vilinica Cave wonderfully preserved. One of the major problems famous cave sites face is the encroachment of algea and moss. Caves are damp places, and when lights are constantly on to light human vistors' ways, these organisms not normally found in caves are able to flourish. The green goop growing in many more prominent caves was nowhere to be found in this one.
Vilinica Cave. Wow. The cave itself is apparently several miles deep. The tour only went a half-mile in, but it was spectacular.
Our caving and horsing around complete, we biked back to Kozina, and had dinner in a bar there. We watched Greece beat Portugal for the gold in a surprising end to the 2004 Euro Football (Soccer) Championship. The Slovenians seemed happy about it.
The next day we picked up some more food supplies at the local market and then biked to the Skocjan Caves, an Unesco World Heritage site. While the details, the stalagtites and stalagmites are not as amazing as Vilinica's, Skocjan was impressive for its sheer enormity. We had an English-speaking guide for a morning tour this more famous cave system, and it was quite a hike through its massive interior. Once outside again, we hiked around the edge of the sinkhole at the end of the caves and visited the little museums about the ancient peoples who lived in the area.
Then we biked to Divaca where we hopped on a train to Ljubljana by way of Pivka. Our major biking was done for the trip.
We arrived in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, after a hot and crowded three-hour train ride. We were elated that there were elevators at the train station so that we wouldn't have to carry our bikes up yet one more set of stairs. At the station, I stood in line to get tickets for our bicycles to Salzburg while Ben went to pick up maps of the city. Meanwhile hordes of touring cyclists poured through the station, and on and off trains. Finally, a bike-friendly place. We biked to our hostel, which was a little hard to find, and with a receptionist who was not so receptive. But the hostel itself was fine. We dropped our stuff off.
Then we walked around for quite some time trying to find open restaurants without much success. Finally we asked at the information office, which suggested a vegetarian place nearby. But it, too, was closed. By chance, we stumbled upon Gostilna Sokol, which we later discovered is a highly recommended little hideaway. And rightly so. We had a great meal, in a lovely setting right near the cathedral -- until it started to rain. And then, no problem; the friendly waiter simply moved us all inside (whereupon it immediately stopped raining).
We wandered around the downtown for a while and watched some street performers before heading back to the hostel. This is the Robba Fountain with the Town Hall in the background.
The next day we had breakfast at the hostel and then hiked up the hill to Ljubljana's castle. We saw a state-of-the art 3D video about the creation of the castle and then climbed a tower for a view of the city. When we came down, we decided to try to stay as much out of the sun as possible. I was quite red by this time despite numerous daily slatherings of SPF 30 sunblock, and my skin couldn't take the heat anymore.
Um, yeah. I really don't know. I tried to stick this in an online translator. Well. You know how those are: "To shave a note rocnim tub upon meal-ticket vent." Yeah. I think you're not allowed to push carts on this street. Or something.
A dragon on the castle wall.
We spent some time at the National Gallery which was enjoyable (the museum was hosting some Buddhist monks creating a gigantic sand dial). And we visited the Modern History Museum which was disappointingly neglected. We went in search of and found Cafe Anika, which supposedly has the best ice cream in the city. While Cafe Anika's was the only ice cream I had there, I wouldn't be surprised if it were true. We wandered around town a while longer and had dinner at the hostel. Bedtime was early as we had to get up at 5:00 AM to catch our train back to Germany. We had little trouble heading home; all the trains had bike cars, and while we had to move our bikes to a different car in Villach and switch trains in Salzburg and Rosenheim, the trip was straightforward. By 1:00 PM we were home.
A dragon on Ljubljana's Dragon Bridge at dusk.