Peace. If I have ever experienced it, I experienced it here. Christmas was the perfect time to visit this magnificent place. As I recall back to winter of 2015, Slovenia was not at the top my list of places to visit before exiting Europe. It was supposed to be a pit stop before Croatia. Little did I know that this country was going to be a highlight of Europe for me.
The train arrived at a rickety old building that was supposed to be the Ljubljana station. Not a good first impression to the city. Cracked paint. Wooden supports exposed. But God forbid they forget the state of the art McDonalds. Priorities screamed, “’Merica!”
None one was waiting for me and none of the cab drivers around me spoke English. Sinful of me to expect them to. Hostelworld said the hostel was about a thirty-minute walk. I have always embraced exploration. Perhaps I’ll find some neat scarfs on the way. When I reached Vila Veselova, the kind hosts brought me to a room with bunks that had outlets, drawers, lockers, and night lights build in. The overall feel of the hostel was old apartment-like yet warm. I set my backpack in the locker part of the bed and rushed out. I tend to suffer from time-lapse anxiety. When I arrive at a new destination, I immediately expect a new experience. And when I feel I haven’t found a certain peace or thrill shortly after my foot has touched ground, I must find it before the day curtains.
Christmas was in 3 days and the markets were alive and well. Out of all of the Christmas markets I visited in Europe, Ljubljana was by far the most Unique. Lights of different themes, outer space, Pokémon… and the stands were full of delicious foods like lamb burgers and barbecue. One thing to never miss while at a Christmas market is the Mulled wine. It’s wine heated like an herbal tea with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and sometimes spiked with something stronger.
Before heading back to the hostel I explored the Castle of Ljubljana. Once a defense fortress for Cornelia, it stands as a museum and citadel with a fantastic areal view of the city. I was on my way up when I met a fellow who was fond of American culture. I cannot remember how the conversation initiated. But it was a conversation that lasted a couple hours, till the castle closed for the night. Robert and I found common interests in music. He was extremely enthusiastic about American culture. Eventually I asked him what was the most important thing to do in Slovenia? He mentioned Lake Bled. Because Slovenia was nothing more than a pit stop, I did not do enough research to know what Ljubljana had to offer. The only plan on the agenda was to improvise. I took his word and ran with it.
On top of Castle Ljubljana (Excuse the quality)
The next morning I walked to the train station that happens to also be a bus station. The ticket to Bled was very cheap. I believe it was about 5 euros each way. The forty-minute ride through the countryside was something to see. The mountainous region with clear blue skies and carpeted with green. It looked like the landscape of a train set. I opened dialogue with a middle-aged woman who spoke broken English. I cannot remember what I said. But someone on the bus was being loud and I made a joke. It looked like I made her day. I moved from my seat, which was about two seats back to sit behind her. She was amazed at my being a lone passenger traveling through Europe as if it was something only couples do. She was telling me all about bled and what I must do before leaving. Bled cake!
The bus stopped and I immediately reached for my camera. This place was breathtaking. It was winter and it was as she said, "the best time to come because there are no tourists and it is quiet." When the bus left, silence and miniature ripples in the water were all I heard. All I wanted to do was walk. Meander slowly and take in the serenity.
As I walked, I saw there were boats letting people onto the river. The first one I found was small but I would have needed to wait 20 minutes because the driver wanted a bigger party. I had just arrived and wanted to see what else was in store. A quarter of the way around the lake I found row boats. Something I can engage in. A motorboat is too easy. I like the slow hike to my hostel, the long walk around the lake, rowing of the boat instead of a pontoon. I like getting dirty and engaging with my destination. I recall correctly, 15 euros got me an hour on the lake. The lady working the rentals walked me to my boat and gave me a time to return. No rowing introduction -- not that one was needed-- no do’s and don’ts, just a gentle push off the tiny wooden dock. I rowed and sweated a lot. I hadn’t been to the gym in about a week up to that point so I was really putting in work. Rowing is harder than it looks. Then, I rested. It was in this moment I felt special. Graced with something so divine. I still fail to put it in words. I was able to spontaneously embark and arrive at a location as glorious as this. The mountains surround me. The silence in the clean, fresh air. Everything had been given to me. If not before, in that moment. I was surrounded by beauty. Angels. “I’m truly blessed.” “Special.” Then I continued to row.
The island at the center of the lake has a church. They say if you make a wish and ring the church bell, your wish will come true. A 4 euro ticket led me to a small catholic sanctuary with a long rope hanging by the ceiling in front of the alter. But no wishes were really needed. At lake bled, the whether, my health, my sense of freedom all converged into this perfect moment in time. As if the veil of heaven had been pulled back for a few days. Far from sorrow, I could only wish for world peace and for more moments like these.
I had hiked an appetite. On my way back to the bus I was asking the locals about places where I could find the best Bled cake. Answers led me to Park Restaurant and Cafe. The atmosphere screamed wedding reception. Purple chairs. Purple table covers. Burgundy wallpaper and all those gazebos. I wanted to sit by the window to stare at the lake. Here, I ran into the same woman from the bus. Her name was a tad difficult to remember. The same lady from the bus invited me to her table to have afternoon lunch with her. She’s a sweet lady. Married. But enjoys being alone and visiting places like this. We had pleasant conversations before ordering. Bled cake comes in the shape of a square and was light. The texture still sticks with me vividly. The was like flan but much better. There is very little that I don't like when it comes to food. Flan is one of the very few food I cannot stand. It's the texture. Not the taste. The cream layer was light and frothy and complimented the custard layer beneath it very well. I do not prefer soft custard like pastries. I would have given the cake a thumbs down if it weren’t for the crispy thin layer of pastry and powdered sugar that decorated the top. That crunch on top was a necessary contrast in texture to the soft cream and custard below. It wasn't blowing me away. But I'm glad I got to try it.
It was a pleasure lunching with the nice lady. The bus had arrived and it was time to head back to Ljubliana. She asked me if I was stopping at Lake Bohinj or heading straight back to Ljubliana. I had never heard of lake Bohinj. She said it was a must see. A motto that I follow when traveling is “spontaneity is king.” My itinerary had another advent.
It was a 30 minute bus to Bohinj. 4 extra euros. When I got off the bus, there was no one in site. She was right. Magnificent. THIS was real silence. No wind. The water was still. No voices. I assumed they were at peace as well.
I started walking on a trail that wraps around the lake. It was hard to make progress because every few steps, there was an incredible vantage point to snap a photo, sit, and meditate.
I sat and witnessed clouds roll over the snowcapped mountains and hover just above the lake without sound.
I could feel it again. Except this time it is even stronger. Special. A gift from God to experience this unheard of crinkle in the map. It was like a treasure I had unearthed. Instead of gold, pure serenity and life. The silence still amazes me. I had never experienced such natural silence before in my entire life. It was truly profound.
After walking for about for 30 minutes I realized the size of the lake. It’s no joke. I tried to make it at least half way. But no. I didn’t even make it a quarter of the way around. The lake is deceptively massive.
An hour bus ride took me back to Ljubljana. I was so exhausted, all I did was blink and wound up there. When I had Wi-Fi at the hostel I saw that Robert had been trying to reach me. He told be come to the Christmas market where he and some of his friends were. It took me a 15-minute walk to get to the market. It was bustling with people. People laughing, drinking, music playing. It was like a citywide party in the city center. So much energy. It was beautiful. More beautiful than the night before. If that’s is what December 23 looked like, I would fly back just to see Christmas Eve.
When I found Robert, it was a party. His friend owned one of the stands and gave me mulled wine and alcohol to catch up with them. The mulled wine was absolutely necessary because it felt like negative 12 F. Bundling up in 4 layers and a parka was still no match for the Slovenian winter. Warm wine and so much fun. This was a great group of people. Loose on booze and wine, we shared laughs and times that alcohol can’t erase.
The next day, Robert invited me to his house to meet his family before I left for Zagreb. When I got there the door slammed behind me. And there was a little clown slowly eased into the fourier on a tricycle and said, "I want to play a game. "
Just kidding they were the sweetest people I had every met. His sister, Kleja, and brother, Kristjan, welcomed me and were delighted to meet me. Robert apparently gassed me to up to them. His sister made me some tortellini with salmon. It was the most delicious meal I had during my time in Slovenia. It was cheesy creamy pasta that was packed with flavor. To die for. We debated about music. New hip hop is better than old school hip hop. It's a debate I'm willing to have with anyone. That was almost 2 years ago. I can't defend the music of today. Puppy dog eyes then extended hugs. I told them that my stay in Slovenia was already impeccable. And that because of them, it's a place that cannot be topped. I rushed to my train.
Slovenia was not a place where I anticipated thrills and wonderment. But both exist here. Slovenia is a hidden treasure that I encourage you to explore if you haven't. Engage with your surroundings. Talk, laugh, open dialogue. Enrich your experience no matter where you go. But Slovenia particularly makes it easy.