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Lake Bled, Slovenia

See the Eastern European Landscape of Slovenia

by Susan McKee

It's just a mosaic design in the pavement now, but until 1990 the line in front of the historic railway station at Piazza Transalpina was an actual wall dividing Western Europe from the communist East. On the Italian side of the Iron Curtain is the city of Gorizia, and on the Yugoslavian side, Nova Gorica, Slovenia. As late as last year, taking the train from Trieste to Ljubljana meant getting off at the main station in Gorizia and taking a taxi across the border to the much smaller Slovenian train station to continue the journey.

Taking the train

For 2006, its centennial year, the Transalpina Rail Line is once again connected between Italy and Slovenia, and it's possible to cross the border by train. In commemoration, special "Oldtimer" runs are scheduled between May and September - using an historic steam engine from the Railway Museum of Ljubljana to pull the cars along the three-hour scenic route from the Isonzo River valley to the resort town of Bled in the Julian Alps.

The journey chugs along the Soca and Sava river valleys, crossing the elegantly arcaded bridge of Solkan and tunneling through almost four miles of mountain at Podbrdo. The fast-moving river water glows an unearthly emerald from all the calcium carbonate leached from the surrounding limestone mountains.

Between the rivers is Triglav National Park, Slovenia's only national park. Covering 324 square miles, it includes almost all of the Julian Alps. The highest point, Mount Triglav is 9,400 feet.

The region is known for outdoor sports. On the rivers, there are options for kayaking, canoeing, rafting and canyoning. Outfitters offer hang-glider lessons. Mountain bike and hiking trails abound. In the winter, there's skiing, snowboarding, dogsledding, snowshoeing and ice climbing.

My destination was the spa town of Bled, where an ancient stone castle sets on a rocky bluff towers over a picturesque village on the shores of an alpine lake. Three thermal springs are channeled into the pools of local hotels.

In Lake Bled, formed by the melting of a glacier, is Slovenia's only island. On that tiny wooded spot of land is the Baroque Church of the Assumption, built in the 17th century (although it's been a sacred site since prehistoric times). These days, it's the setting for many a modern wedding, even though custom requires that the groom carry his bride up the 99 steps leading from the boat dock to the narthex.

The castle, parts of which are said to date to Roman times, was gifted by the German emperor Henrik II it to the Bishops of Brixen in 1011. Today, it's a museum with a terrace café overlooking the tranquil lake.

The Transalpina Railway, inaugurated on July 19, 1906, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire's key rail line between Vienna and its Adriatic port, Trieste.

Lake Bled

The journey by train is a wonderful introduction to Slovenia, a picture-postcard-perfect European country. Its years behind the Iron Curtain have preserved an unexpected gem that Americans have yet to discover. On the northern perimeter of the former Yugoslavia, this small country - about the size of New Jersey - provides breathtaking beauty, a heady dose of history and surprising architecture.

Just east of Italy and south of Austria, Slovenia combines the best of both cultures. Along the Adriatic Coast, the atmosphere - and the architecture - is Venetian. Inland, sipping tea on the terrace of the castle at Bled, life has a Teutonic tone. In the capital, Ljubljana, the Baroque splendor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire seems to come alive again.

Although Americans have forgotten their ancient history, this region was once part of a vibrant Mediterranean culture. According to legend, the Greek prince Jason was the founder of Ljubljana. He and the Argonauts, with the stolen Golden Fleece on board their ship, sailed from the Black Sea up the Danube, from the Danube into the Sava, and from the Sava into the Ljubljanica River. Here, they ran into a fire-breathing dragon. Jason killed that monster, who is forever immortalized on the city's coat of arms.

In more recent times, Elizabeth Kostova began her mesmerizing New York Times Bestseller, "The Historian", right in the middle of Ljubljana on the famous 1901 bridge still guarded by four fierce dragons. In her book, she called the city by its Roman name, Emona.

All around the walkable city center of Slovenia's capital are, side-by-side, architectural masterpieces in Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau style seemingly untouched in a century. There's a lively market most mornings along the Ljubljanica River where cafés are plentiful and seafood the main course of choice.

The City

And you get all this at prices far below what you'd expect to spend in the more touristy parts of Europe. It's Prague without the busloads. Hotels that would rate four stars in Venice or Vienna cost just about $80 a night in Ljubljana. A four-course meal in a fine restaurant is possible for less than $20. Adding a bottle of fine Slovenian wine sets you back just $10 or so more.

In Piran, a medieval walled town on the Adriatic coast, it's easy to remember that the Venetians used to rule this region. The language on the street, the menus in the restaurants and the buildings around the town square of this sleepy fishing village all are definitely Italian. On a clear night, you can see the lights of Venice itself, only 1-1/2 hours by boat across the Adriatic.

Just a mile south of Piran is the bustling resort town of Portorož with convention hotels, thermal spas, a casino and marina.

There are some 8,100 underground caves in Slovenia. In between Piran and Ljubljana are the Škocjan Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. Arguably the most beautiful and certainly biggest of the limestone karst formations is Postojna, the most-visited cave in Europe (more than 30 million have stopped by since records were first kept in 1819). The typical visitor explores just a part of the network of 13 miles of passages, galleries and chambers, taking some of the trip underground by train -- but there are adventure tours available for the true spelunker who asks at least three days ahead.


Rail Europe


Oldtimer trip, Transalpina Rail Line

Tourist Office, Bled

Tourist Office, Ljubljana

Slovenian Tourist Board

Hotel Jelovica, Bled

City Hotel, Ljubljana