Fringed by the Julian Alps, Slovenia’s Lake Bled is a photographer’s dream. J. Skok/Slovenian Tourist Board
By Alison Gardner, Editor Travel with a Challenge
Well-traveled Europeans and an increasing number of North Americans and Australians are becoming keenly aware of the multi-layered, well-preserved history hosted by many of the six countries that once made up Yugoslavia. Equally embraced with rave reviews are the growing number of resort destinations dotting the long Adriatic and Dalmatian coast including dozens of picturesque islands only a brief ferry ride from the mainland.
Far less recognized but equally worthy of holiday inclusion are the outdoor possibilities for active nature exploration in national parks and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Most of these are within easy distance of the cultural highlights of key historic cities and towns, as well as popular shoreline destinations.
Let’s pick two countries where you will regret leaving Mother Nature out of your plans.
PLEASE NOTE that starting in 2010, ElderTreks has expanded the tour described in this article from 14 to 21 days, and added an exploration of southern Bosnia and Montenegro as well.
On a two-week ElderTreks tour of Slovenia and Croatia, all 12 of us Americans and Canadians, ages 55 to 75 years, were on just as much of a mission to stretch our legs and stress our lungs as we were to educate our minds about an unfamiliar part of the world. Many of us had done more homework to prepare for the historic and cultural experiences identified in our itinerary than to understand or prepare for the physical part of the program, but we had definitely brought along all the trappings to hit the road whatever came our way. Labelled as a level 3-4 trip gave fair warning that we had better pack some light hiking boots or sturdy walking shoes, a stylish hiker’s hat against the Mediterranean sun and an adjustable walking stick or pole to act as a third, and possibly fourth leg.
Close to Postonja Cave, Slovenia’s dramatic Predjama Castle, dating from the mid-15th century, was built by a Robinhood-like nobleman. Alison Gardner
At Plitvice National Park, water rules, with channels coursing through forests and over limestone ledges comprising 16 levels of lakes. Alison Gardner
After meeting up in Slovenia’s capital, Ljublijana, and enjoying the highlights of this medieval gem, we got our first taste of natural “spectacular” driving north into the Julian Alps that divide Slovenia from Austria. Other visitors had clearly got to this land of lakes and mountains long before us, judging by the formidable stone fortresses and stunning medieval monasteries staking claim on the best real estate in the area. Contemplation seemed perfectly natural in these precious settings, and our timetable gave us space to sit and stare from both lakeside and mountain top.
Lake Bohinj and Mt. Vogel – Forest-canopied walking trails around the edge of the glacial waters of Bohinj are exhilarating and a cable car ride to the top of nearby Mt Vogel puts visitors almost at eye level with the highest peaks in the snow-capped Julian Alps bordering Austria.
Postojna Caves – First take a ride of several kilometers by electric train into the heart of this extraordinary set of caves. Then you are on a magical walk of similar length through cathedral-sized caves of amazingly-varied geological formations.
Skocjan Caves – A UNESCO World Heritage Site of much more rugged proportions than Postojna Caves, they feature narrow dizzying [but safe] pathways 90 meters [300 feet] above the cave-carving River Reka. Twelve breath-taking caves are in the system.
Slovenian Tourist Board
Cres Island – There is plenty of opportunity to explore the island’s fragrant oak forests and visit an inspiring research center and nature sanctuary for endangered vultures and other birds on this second-largest island of the Adriatic.
Plitvice National Park – This UNESCO World Heritage waterworld of dramatic cascades, thundering waterfalls and turquoise lakes embraces an entire mountain. All is accessed by raised boardwalks, lakeside mini-ferries and a visitor train to the highest elevations for those whose preference is walking down (a good idea!).
Paklenica Gorges National Park – This is a two-gorge United Nations “Man and the Biosphere” reserve with shear-walled canyons up to 1500 feet high. You can spot dozens of crazy people — men, women and children — scaling these canyon walls while sometimes visible only with binoculars or a telephoto lens.
In Slovenia’s south, we experienced not one, but two, of several mega-cave systems that speak to the country’s limestone foundation. Driving along with some anticipation, we had pressed our guides, Lajos and Manka, about which of the two caves they preferred and why we were doing two of the “same” on our itinerary. They had just smiled and said we could all share our opinions later because the caves affected visitors in very personal ways.
First riding for several miles into the Postojna Caves by electric train, we then walked for hours through stone forests of artistically back-lit staligtite and stalagmite formations. There were no two formations of the same design as Mother Nature has a way of making happen. Curiously, never once did I see an electric cord or a light bulb in what must have been a very challenging lighting design in such a fragile, fairy-like world. Overdo it and you’ve got Disneyland; underdo it and the immensity and style of more distant formations in this cathedral setting would be lost.
The manicured cement pathways, barely-noticeable elevation changes and solid picturesque bridges of Postojna hardly prepared us for our Skocjan Cave experience next day. There was no train waiting at the entrance, and passing through the cave entrance, we quickly sensed a more brooding, shadowy and rugged experience coming up. In the next few hours, we navigated through significant elevation changes, dizzying bridge crossings and rock outcroppings straight out of a Lord of the Rings movie set. Echoing around the stone walls, the sounds of the roiling Reka River 300 feet below served as a perpetual reminder to step carefully and hang on to the railing. This UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site is the largest underground chamber in Europe and the first designated by UNESCO as an “underground wetland”.
The high cliffside pathways and bridges of Skocjan Caves are exhilarating for more intrepid adventurers. Lajos Németh
When I first announced my ElderTreks trip to Slovenia and Croatia in 2005, before anything else nine out of ten North American friends and relatives asked about the war that took place here in the early 1990s. For that reason, a bit of history and some comment is helpful. I have been asked three questions: Is the war truly over? Are these really safe countries for travel? Is there anything to see beyond rubble and devastation? Now, two decades after these sad events, and having explored the Western Balkans on several trips from Slovenia’s Julian Alps to Croatia’s stunning city of Dubrovnik near its southern border with Montenegro, the answer to all three questions is a resounding “Yes!”
Always the most westernized and liberal of Yugoslavia’s former regions, Slovenia and its homogeneous population of two million bear virtually no physical or psychological scars from ten days of war and 64 Slovene casualties. This was the sum total of their 1991 war experience. With entry into the European Union in 2004, it is today a sweet secure country, full of colorful history and spectacular natural attractions.
Neighboring Croatia, population 4.5 million, is a different child of war where an undeniably brutal campaign deeply affected all but the northwest of the country until 1995. A remarkably short time after the signing of peace treaties, tourism is clearly Croatia’s economic anchor. Restoration of its unique historic treasures like Dubrovnik and reconstruction of roads and other infrastructure are all but complete, thanks to billions of dollars in timely donations from Europe, the US and Japan. It too is a success story in the making.
Stark evidence of “the Aggression”, as this period is often called, remains in some infrequently-visited interior villages where proudly-maintained Croat homes, gardens and farms stand beside looted and abandoned, though still Serbian-owned properties. Skull-and-cross-bones signs warn about land mines in some obviously untended fields, orchards and rocky hillsides. Spontaneous exploration is never encouraged in such areas.
On Croatia’s Island of Cres, we hiked to the melancholy remains of a stone village. Alison Gardner
On another day, we rode a ferry from the mainland to tread trails through fragrant, bird-filled oak forests on Croatia’s Island of Cres in the north of the Adriatic. We felt the historical sadness of a deserted stone village in the center of the island, once a vigorous community with church, graveyard, animal shelters, orchards and two-storey homes tightly clustered among cobblestone steps and pathways. After generations of farming success in this rough unforgiving environment, water came no more above and below the ground. In 1980 the people left their history to the lively skittering lizards, song birds and occasional hikers.
ElderTrek guides, Manka and Lajos, treated us to their favorite campout stew one evening atop a cliff overlooking a favorite secluded valley in Croatia. Alison Gardner
Returning to the Croatian mainland, we headed inland to Plitvice National Park, hard to describe in words but awesome to experience. American travel writer and TV host, Rick Steves, captures it most cleverly, “Imagine Niagara Falls diced and sprinkled over a heavily forested Grand Canyon.” I suppose such an image is something that North Americans should identify with but it does require serious powers of visualization. Composed of 16 interlinked lakes stepping down the face of a broad-based mountain, waterfalls large, medium and small ambush the visitor from every direction. The entire park is composed of raised boardwalks offering the best possible photo ops without being swept away in cascades of water. This park never runs short of cataracts, falls and lakes to admire, but surely this wonderland’s most powerful effect is in Spring and early Summer.
Well-designed trails in Croatia’s Paklenica Gorges National Park provide challenging elevation changes and sheer-cliff scenery. Alison Gardner
Our guides warned us that Paklenica Gorges National Park was the most challenging hiking of the trip because of the trail elevation change. A number in our group passed on this one, though the well-tended stone trails and staircases leading into the narrow gorge proved more manageable than I anticipated. As always, coming down was more perilous on the joints. With cliff faces tilted vertical to 1,500 feet in many places, I lay on my back to get decent photos. I startled myself at one point by seeing a rock climber in my telephoto lens scrambling up a rock face well over 1,000 feet high and still heading toward the top of the plateau. He was too tiny to see with the naked eye even after I knew where he was located.
In a thoughtfully-balanced itinerary with as many cultural and historical highlights as natural ones, how were we to choose a favorite natural experience from Mother Nature’s Balkan best? Of course, our group tirelessly discussed candidates for THE top country walk, but in the end Manka and Lajos were right, there were too many personal biases to be decisive. These days I freely admit that I am not really up to all-day walks, but a holiday that spreads out the physical challenges in such a variety of novel natural environments does provide healthy motivation to keep going whether the path leads up, down or straight ahead. I have a feeling I got tricked into a lot more exercise than I expected to get.
ElderTreks, www.eldertreks.com, currently offers a 21-day Adriatic Adventure Tour once each Spring and Fall, showcasing highlights of Slovenia, Croatia, southern Bosnia and Montenegro. With an activity rating of level 3 to 4, participants should be able to hike for up to three hours and climb plenty of steps with ease. Exclusively dedicated to curious, adventurous travelers over 50, ElderTreks offers active educational and cultural tours in over 80 countries.
Tourism websites and visa requirements:
Slovenian Tourist Board, www.slovenia.info. Croatian National Tourist Board, www.croatia.hr. Visitor visas are not required for citizens of most European countries, the USA, Canada, Australia or New Zealand for up to 90 days.
Best Seasons: Weather is most reliable from May through September. Shoulder seasons mean less European tourists, less intense heat than July and August, and better hotel prices.
Recommended guidebooks: The Rough Guide to Slovenia by Norm Longley (Third edition, 2010), and The Rough Guide to Croatia by Jonathan Bousfield (ebook, 2013).
Another Slovenia treat: While exploring the caves of southern Slovenia, plan to visit the original Lipizzan horse breeding and training estate located nearby. You may even stay on this farm and absorb the regal atmosphere at a more leisurely pace. Read about it in our richly-illustrated spotlight.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com.