Observations from the saddle of a bike: Slovenia



September 2017

Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital

According to ancient Greek legend Jason with his men, the Argonauts, was fleeing with King Aeetes’ daughter, Medea, after winning the Golden Fleece. As they tried to make their way back to Greece they found themselves at the head of the Ljubljana River where they came across a shallow marshland. Unable to sail further and with it already winter they built a village near the marsh. Unwittingly they had set up camp in the hunting ground of a fierce dragon. After some destruction and death by this fiery beast Jason was forced to slay it. Finally the land was safe to be settled and the dragon became a symbol for the Slovenian capital. Now it perches on top of the present day Ljubljana coat of arms and flag.

Guarding the Dragon Bridge in the centre of Ljubljana.

The dragon shown above is one of four perched on the corner pedestals of the art nouveau Dragon Bridge in the centre of the city. The bridge was constructed between 1900 and 1901 and is Ljubljana’s first reinforced concrete bridge. The bridge was supposed to have been adorned with winged lions but the dragons won the battle of supremacy.

According to another legend the dragon was adopted from St George, the patron of the Ljubljana Castle. The story you choose to believe depends on what you want to believe. I like the Argonauts story because I grew up with an Australian Broadcasting Commission radio program called ‘The Argonauts Club’. It was historically one of the most successful ABC radio productions.

Map of Slovenia. Note the narrow strip of coast near the town of Izola (bottom left corner).

The train from Villach to Ljubljana was a Slovenian one. It was an older train and we felt we were going out of the luxury of Austria into a lesser developed country.  However this was not the case as Slovenia is  highly developed. It was possible to open the train windows and stand and take photographs through the open space. Following are a couple of photographs taken through the open window.

Near the border between Austria and Slovenia.

Simple and uncomplicated Kranj Station, but don’t be deceived. There has been a lot of activity around the station area in the past.

During WW2, Kranj, along with other parts of northern Slovenia, was annexed by Germany and the Nazis brought with them trauma. In 1944 the German forces discovered communist activities to the north of the town where military supplies for the partisans were stored. Three of the partisans were killed and the storage building was burned to the ground.

 Another story relating to Kranj tells of a mass grave in a small wood nearby. The grave contains the remains of an unknown number of people murdered after the war. The victims may have been German prisoners of war killed by retreating Germans or Slovenian civilians from Kranj and the surrounding area.

Planina Mass Grave site. Image credit: Wikipedia, author unknown.

During WW2 Slovenia was occupied by Axis forces, Germans from the north, Italians from the east and Hungarians from the northwest. Following WW2 the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was established under the control of President Tito. Tito established a relaxed form of communist government. When Bev and I visited Yugoslavia in the 1970s we didn’t think it was very relaxed, however the very fact we could visit indicated the government had one foot in the west and one in the east.

On the road in Yugoslavia in 1972

Cooking porridge high in the hills of Yugoslavia in 1972.

It is impossible to know why a travelling event sticks in one’s mind decades later but the cooking of porridge in Yugoslavia in the mountains is one that does. Maybe it’s because of events leading up to the act. First dry firewood was in short supply and I sneakily broke pieces from the stick fence to get sufficient fuel, then there was the difficulty of starting the fire with damp wood and lastly, when Bev did the wiping up the tea towel froze after wiping the bowls. It was a hard-going breakfast but one never forgotten.

There was no fuss crossing into Slovenia, no border guards or serious checkpoints as it was in the 1970s when we crossed into Yugoslavia.   The border is defined by the Karawanks mountains and a tunnel by the same name, about eight kilometres long passing through the range. The tunnel, built between 1867 and 1918 was to link Klagenfurt (to the east of Villach) in Austria with the main seaport of Trieste.

Our Slovenian train speeding on to Ljubljana.

Northern entrance to Karawanken Tunnel. Image credit: Robert25260 via Wikipedia.

Today Slovenia is a very different country to what it was in the 1970s. There is little visual evidence of the trauma and difficult times of the past, but they do still linger, especially memories of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. For example, Sandra our Couchsurfing host in Ljubljana, experienced difficult times when she was a child fleeing with her family from Bosnia to Slovenia. I asked Sandra about the border crossing and even though she was only four years old she remembers the event vividly. At the checkpoint her sister told her to keep her eyes straight ahead and not to make eye contact with the border crossing guards. Sandra’s father was dragged inside the interrogation building, others were dragged out with bleeding faces. ‘I was hoping when my father was dragged off it wasn’t the last time we were to see him’. Fortunately her father returned unscathed and they were allowed to continue their exodus. Sandra and family have made a new life for themselves in the new independent Slovenia. The wider international community recognised Slovenia’s independence in late 1991 and since then it has prospered significantly.

Our Couchsurfing hosts Sandra and Gregor. Two beautiful people.

At Ljubljana station we stood waiting to be collected by Sandra and Gregor. It was not advisable to ride to their house as it was about 45 kilometres from the station and on not very bike friendly roads. Roads in the main in Slovenia have no shoulder and are also frequented by trucks. However the country may not be rated as bike friendly but the capital Ljubljana is. It is rated 13th in the bike riding friendly stakes of the world. By comparison Sydney Australia does not even get on the list due to a lack of a cycling infrastructure and the fact that Australians do not have a cycling history, they are more likely to take a car than a bike.

Staying in rural Slovenia was just what we needed, away from the hustle and bustle of cities. During our time with Sandra and Gregor we spoke at length about their ambitions and where they stand at this time in their lives. Gregor works for a semi government body associated with the local chamber of commerce and manages WordPress blogs relating to goods and services provided by chamber of commerce clients. Gregor’s present occupation is not what he was trained for, his formal training relates to social science and matters of the metaphysical mind. Sandra is involved with public administration.

Both Sandra and Gregor have travelled extensively, having visited twenty six countries and at the time of writing this post they have recently returned from Lebanon, not a common destination at present.

 The couple are much into exposing visitors to their home to the traditional ways of Slovenia. Our first meal although very much different to what we eat at home was a Slovenian experience. Much of the food was fresh produce and homemade.

Rabbit stew, homemade bread and brandy.

Pickled gherkins, salami and pig fat (front edge of the plate) used as a spread on bread.

Rabbit meat, especially home grown, is actually the best meat. Best in terms of nutrition and the environment although I do admit rabbits have done untold damage to the environment in Australia. It is permitted to keep rabbits as pets in all states in Australia except Queensland where there is a $44 000 fine and a prison sentence if you breed or keep rabbits.

Rabbit is good tucker because:

**Its low fat content makes it almost cholesterol free and thus heart friendly. **The meat has a high percentage of easily digestible protein. **It contains less calories than other meats, which is a positive if one is weight watching.  **The calcium and phosphorus content of this meat is more than any other meats. **The ratio of meat to bone is high, meaning there is more edible meat on the carcass than even a chicken.

Rabbits for sale in France.

While staying with Sandra and Gregor I told them about a friend of ours who lives in Wales who told me about a farmer in Slovenia who made linen in the traditional way. They both took a day off work and drove us there and even though it was a long drive it was worth it. The traditional linen-making business near Rim is run by the Raztresen family with Boris at the head. Boris runs guided tours of the property, giving demonstrations as to how flax is processed into linen. Following are a few images of the linen making process.

Flax, also known as common flax or linseed (Linum usitatissimum).

The plant species is known only as a cultivated plant and appears to have been domesticated. It is grown as an ornamental, oil from the plant is used as a nutritional supplement as well its oil is the ingredient in many quality wood finishing products but most importantly as the basis for making linen.

A hank of spun flax/linseed.

The Raztresens use a traditional vertical kick spinning wheel to spin flax.

The loom used to weave linen.

Finished linen.

Gregor and Sandra discuss the purchase of a length of linen to use as a bed sheet underlay. Linen is not smooth and the bumps in the thread act on acupuncture point whilst one is sleeping.

Sandra and flax producer Boris Rastrezen.

The outbuildings of the Raztresen farm particularly interested me as the jointing and construction methods employed were medieval and one can easily imagine the builders using simple hand tools to build and erect the buildings.

Outbuilding at Rim.

The underside of one of the barns. Look at the amazing handcrafted cross bracing joints.

Another view of the building underside.

On the drive to the Raztresen farm we called at a couple of historical sites. The first was Bogensperk Castle.

The very famous Bogensperk Castle on the way to Rim.

Many castles in Europe including this one are not castles in the true sense, they are in fact secure homes built to protect the aristocracy from minor external intrusions. This castle would not withstand a serious siege, maybe just minor incursions. It would be possible to live within the confines of the castle as there was a courtyard for a garden and a well for water. And getting rid of wastes was not a problem, all that was required was a garderobe, as in the case above, where one could attend to the act of the toilet. The garderobe is located on the first floor to the left of the main entrance door.

The garderobe.

Wastes were gathered from the ground by the lower classes and mixed with ashes and used as garden fertiliser. The English name, garderobe, relates to the place where one took one’s robes/cloaks off to carry out the act of cleansing oneself.

The next stop was at Zuzemberk Catholic parish church and even though I said at the start of this blog I was not going to dwell on churches I did find the outside of the church a very beautiful photographic subject and the photos have to go in my very best images collection.

Spheres on the top of an exterior staircase newell post. The church can be seen in the reflection.

The photographic conditions for this photograph were ideal, the sun backlighting the reflected church makes the photograph. The church was burnt down in 1945 by Slovenian partisans and had remained in ruins until 1972 when restoration began.

The 1945 to 1972 ruins of Zuzemberk Catholic Parish Church.

The magnificently rebuilt Zuzemberk Parish church complex.

The trip to Rim was a great success and we thank our hosts Sandra and Gregor for the experience.

The next day Bev and I took a bus into the centre of Ljubljana and I came to realise that the rivers passing through old towns have to be lined otherwise eddies would undermine the stone banks. Fortunately for me I found a collection of posters showing how the lining of the river in Ljubljana was achieved. But first a photo riding across the Cobbler’s Bridge.

On the Cobbler’s Bridge.

The Cobbler’s Bridge in 1934 during the pouring of concrete along the river bed.

The Cobbler’s or Shoemaker’s Bridge crosses the Ljubljanica River in Ljubljana. The first wooden bridge had a butcher’s shop built into it but the stench from the meat was so strong that the Emperor paid to have it relocated. Cobblers replaced the butcher and hence the present name.

An image of the Triple Bridge, another of Ljubljana’s bridges, follows. It is derived from two pedestrian bridges and one traffic bridge built into one.

The Triple Bridge. Detail of preparing the river bed for the laying of concrete.

Gregor and Sandra seeing us off at the Ljubljana bus station.

After four nights with Sandra and Gregor we headed for the Slovenian coast. The coastal region is only 46 kilometres long and I can’t help but think how Slovenia managed to retain this narrow strip of coastline. Surely countries around it would have snatched it up during times of hostility.

Map showing Slovenia’s narrow coast in relation with the Italian city of Trieste and town of Muggia.

Izola waterfront

A narrow street in Izola.

There were attempts by the Italians following the end of WW1 to Italianise the ethnic communities of the Istrian Peninsula and this continued until the end of WW2 when the coastal regions and Slovenia were generally under Nazi German control. Following the defeat of Germany and the capitulation of Italy the ethnics of the region began reprisals against the Italians who were forced to return to Italy. Up to 300 000 Italians were forced out to Italy and after their departure the coastal region came under the control of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. The mass movement of Italians was called the Istrian Exodus.

Today the Slovenian seaside towns of Koper, Izola and Piran have a Venetian influence. In the hinterland there are quiet villages and most important to us was the cycle track D8 Parenzana Rail Trail. Following are a few images taken during our ride along the rail trail and a side trip to Muggia, across the water from Trieste. First I will take you to Muggia in Italy and then along the Parenzana cycle trail.

A section of the bike trail between Izola and Koper.

The path above was a road but following the building of a road tunnel it was turned into a bike and walking route. Bev and I rode this road a couple of times. On one occasion we went into Italy and stayed the night in Muggia (shown on the previous map). On the way to Muggia one has to pass through the Slovenian town of Koper where the above trail ends, from then on it is classified as a bike path meaning it is shared with traffic.

Praetorian Palace at the south end of Tito square in Koper. The Praetorian Palace is used for government offices.

The fancy merlons and embrasures are for looks only. A merlon is the gap between the embrasures which are the bits sticking up along the top of the wall.

The Tito mentioned is Josip Boriz Tito (1892-1980). During WW2 Tito was the leader of the partisans, a communist revolutionary group. He later became the president of Yugoslavia and even though he was criticised and regarded as a benevolent dictator he is now considered to be a unifying symbol. After his death the Balkan wars of the 1990s erupted.

Slovenia’s port is in Koper and is one of the top container ports in the Adriatic and one of the biggest car terminals in the Mediterranean. Ports can be fascinating places where one can stand and dream of far flung destinations. It is possible to buy an official passage on a container ship, like Sara and Dominik (our first couchsurfing hosts in Augsburg Germany) have done or if you want to hitchhike you would have to be unionised and apply for a job as crew. Vagabonds do this, but it takes a lot of planning and patience. All we can do when we look at a docked ship is surmise where the ship may be going and what it may be carrying.

A ship in the Port of Koper taking on aluminium ingots.

Foreign cars having been unloaded at the Port of Koper.

Stacked containers going or coming as seen from the bike path at Koper.

The creation of the Port of Koper and other urban developments in the area changed the face of the country. In an attempt to make the port a ‘green port’ surrounding wetlands were artificially created in 2006-07 as a substitute habitat for wetlands lost. It now comprises wet meadows, reed beds and deepwater areas, which are all important breeding and feeding habitats for birds. It has also developed into an important ’hangout’ for migratory birds. Following is a photograph Bev took from the edge of the cycle path to Muggia in Italy.

The valued wetlands of Bertoska bonifika adjacent to the Port of Koper.

Harvey Norman overlooking the Koper Wetlands.

The retail chain Harvey Norman is an Australian company and we didn’t expect to see a familiar Australian name as we rode the bike path adjacent to the Koper wetlands. Harvey Norman went public on the Australian stock exchange in the late 1980s and since then it has spread its wings to a number of countries including Slovenia.

The bike path near the end of the wetlands.

The Italian border coming up.

Coming into Muggia along the coastal road. Trieste across the water.

Entrance into Muggia town today (inside looking out).

Castle of Muggia overlooking Muggia Bay. Circa: unknown.

Muggia Castle was built in 1374 and was used for military purposes until the 1700s then abandoned until 1900. In 1991 it was bought by Italian sculptor Villi Bossi and renovated. Nice digs but a dog of a place to warm in winter.

There is a bicycle route that cycling enthusiasts follow from Trieste (Italy) to Porec (Croatia). We chose not to ride it in its entirety but ride portions of it. We rode the northern sections around Muggia, Koper and Izola, which I have already described. I now take you south from Izola to Portoroz.

Farmlands along the way to Portoroz.

Bev passing a shooter’s tower on the bike path from Izola to Portoroz.

Towers such as the one in the above photograph enable farmers to shoot feral animals such as wild pigs, which come in and eat their crops at night.

One of a number of old railway tunnels along the way.

The longest of the tunnels under different light. The Lucan Tunnel is 544m long.

Usually when travelling by train through a tunnel it is dark and one is travelling at speed. So doing it at slow speed allows one to see the quality of stonework and how the tunnel was constructed. This might not be important to some but for people of my era steam train travel is a very nostalgic business and to see the inside of this tunnel in the light is exciting.

The first train to pass through the above tunnels was in 1902 and the last was in 1935.

Portoroz (shown on the previous map) is not a town I would rave about. It consists mostly of large hotels with exotic names attracting mostly Russian tourists. The local authorities have even dumped sand along the foreshores so visitors can play on the sand.

The Palace Hotel, one of the many large hotels along the Portoroz foreshore.

During our final days in Izola couchsurfer hosts Gregor and Sandra came to Izola for the weekend. They wanted to see us for a final time before we headed to Pula in Croatia. They insisted we travel to two places, the city of Piran and to a Saturday morning flea market in Koper. We visited Piran at night and visiting a city in the night reduces the number of photographic opportunities, however following are a couple of the buildings that were lit.

The 12th century tower of St George’s Cathedral in Piran. St George was the protector of the town.

A reasonable night photo of Piran’s Tartini Square.

The square is named after Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) who was a Venetian Baroque composer. Whilst reading about Tartini’s work I came across the name of his most famous work, the ‘Devil’s Trill Sonata’, which it appears is a most difficult piece to play and I’m sure violinists reading this will know what is being indicated. The playing of the piece required the use of double stop trills. Why could Tartini do this well? There is a myth that he had six digits on his left hand making it easy for him to play it.

Interesting shadows on the walls of the Piran monastery which overlooks Tartini Square.

The Saturday trip to Koper and the flea market with Gregor and Sandra was a most interesting day as the objets d’art were genuinely old and every piece had a tale to tell. Following are a few images of the items on offer.


All manner of things. Hand grenade (right), shrapnel, bullet clips, a huge key and the lovely old alarm clock.

Enamel light shades. I could use a few of these, they are much better than modern zonky plastic ones.

Girls (and some boys) don’t know how lucky they are these days not having to fill the iron with hot coals before commencing the ironing.

Stabbing knives and I think a Kukri knife in a scabbard on top.

The Kukri is the national and religious weapon of the Nepalese Ghurkha soldier and it is obligatory for a Ghurkha to carry one when awake and at night sleep with it under his pillow. I wonder where the one above comes from.

Izola lighthouse.

That’s the end of this post. Once again we said goodbye to Sandra and Gregor when they delivered us to another bus station. This time we caught a bus to Pula in Croatia.

The subject of the next post will deal with Pula, including the decorative Pula Art Host (hostel) covered with colourful broken pieces of reject tiles. When Bev researches the web for suitable accommodation we try to choose the most interesting one and Pula Art Host was one of them.

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About tbeartravels

It's been said that I know a little bit about a lot of things and a lot about little things. I hope I can share some of this knowledge with you as we travel.
This entry was posted in Odyssey #5 2017: Cycling in Europe. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Observations from the saddle of a bike: Slovenia

  1. John and Margaret says:

    What a wonderful holiday you are both the worlds most amazing travellers, looking forward to your next post.

    • tbeartravels says:

      John and Margaret

      Thanks for the comment. Yes we have to admit we are not the normal traveler but that’s how we have been for the past 45 years.

      Next year we are going to concentrate with more travelling in Australia as Europe is getting too crowded for us and with the mass migration of people from war torn Middle East countries seeking asylum in Europe the face of Europe is changing. My comments on the subject will be the topic of a future post.

      Regards Fred and Bev

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