Sensational Slovenia, plus Split/Dubrovnik Croatia

IMG_4518CRUISING THE MEDITERRANEAN ON THE SILVERSEA SILVER SPIRIT – A country I already loved. And a new one that might be just as awesome.

I had the good fortune over the past few days to visit Slovenia, a country I first went to in 2009 as Travel Editor at the Star and fell in love with. This time I’m travelling with the Silversea cruise line; a fine and wonderful experience.

Slovenia is a former part of Yugoslavia and is relatively small; crossable in a few hours of driving. But it’s got an amazing variety that’s the envy of Europe, or should be: a pretty coastline on the Adriatic with the wonderful town of Piran; a gorgeous, compact capital called Ljubljana with creamy yellow and pale green and salmon-coloured buildings and a river and lovely shops and squares; a fairy tale lake with castles and churches and towering alps in the background. Not to mention great food and wine and beer and a marvellous system of underground caves and mountains that soar to the sky and chalky blue-white rivers cascading through deep channels and rolling hills dotted with farms and spas.

IMG_4579I call Slovenia “The Tiny, Perfect Country” in honour of another favourite of mine, former Toronto mayor David Crombie. Like Crombie, Slovenia is a classy place and friendly as all get out.

I only had a few hours on my cruise excursion with Silversea, but we were able to take a bus from the port of Koper to the capital of Ljubljana in less than two hours, including a stop for coffee at a Movenpick Marche. The capital was just as pretty as I remembered it; graceful architecture and onion dome spires rising into the sky and a great market and fun shops selling trendy clothes, as well as Slovenian salt and honey and other local goodies. The river is lined with cafes selling coffee or Lasko or Union beer; a great place to unwind and watch the world go by.

It’s a bit like Salzburg as it has a castle on a small hill overlooking the town. It’s not as spectactular as Salzburg’s caste, but it’s nice. And the town itself is, like I said, a picture perfect little spot.

We also had time to check out Lake Bled (see photo at left), a small lake surrounded by a walking path where you’ll find an old castle high on a huge cliff overlooking things and a couple of beautiful churches, one on an impossibly romantic island. It’s one of the most picturesque places in Europe, if you ask me. It’s also home to the Bled crème cake, a tasty affair with custard, whipped crème and a flaky topping dusted with powdered sugar. It goes down great with coffee. Or probably brandy, which I didn’t try at 1 p.m. (unlike the guys I saw drinking beer at the market in Split Croatia the next day at 10 a.m.).

We also stopped in the pretty town of Radovljica for a tasty lunch outdoors; it being about 22 Celsius and clear in the inland part of Slovenia on this day (but cool and drizzly on the coast). The owner of the restaurant entertained us with a Slovenian folk song on the harmonica and also played an American tune where he made his instrument sound like a howling freight train. Absolutely wonderful…

The next day it was on to Split, Croatia. We sailed inIMG_4226 under perfect, clear skies and were treated to a small city huddled under a giant wave of rock. Diocletian’s Palace (see photo at right) is rightfully recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site; a palace with a huge bell tower I climbed for a great view. The complex is a maze of small streets and tiny alleyways maybe two feet wide and is lined with small shops and a few hotels and plenty of cafes. I hadn’t read a lot of about Split but found it quite charming, and with a wonderful, waterfront promenade lined with a million cafes and plenty of families and young lovers.

We did a quick walk up nearby Marjan Hill for great views of the town and the harbour and the soft smell of pine forests. There’s a nice café where you can soak up the view and sip a cappuccino or a cold beer if you like.

IMG_4864It’s quite a beautiful spot. But I don’t think it can compare with the absolutely stunning (photos simply can’t do it justice, but I’ll try with the photo at right) city of Dubrovnik, further south on the Croatian coast. It’s a walled city surrounded by thick battlements, and you can do the walk in an hour or two. It took us closer to two given the heat (again, about 23 or 24 C) and our penchant for stopping to take photos and chat with fellow tourists.

The views of the church spires and the red tile roofs and the nearby sea are simply stupendous. Small alleyways create a maze and there are beautiful patios lined with luscious lemon trees and cats lazing on rooftops. (And a couple basketball courts, this being a IMG_4901country that’s absolutely wild about hoops.)

The water is a shade of deep blue I’ve never seen before and the coast is lined with rocky cliffs. There were tons of boats out and about and kayakers and people sunning themselves on rocks.

The town inside the walls is filled with too many souvenir shops for my liking, but there also are a couple of beautiful monasteries and a pretty square with a market and a lovely, spacious cathedral with tons of natural light (completely unlike the dark affair in Split). There are a million pizza joints and pretty cafes where you can do great people watching or soak up the view of the bell towers or the cliffs that rise up behind the town.

I’d heard it was pretty, but I was absolutely blown away by the beauty of Dubrovnik. A friend took the funicular to the top of the hills behind the town and told me it was spectactular. You also can take a ferry to a small, pretty island just off shore called Lokrum, where the views of town are quite something and you can stroll through forests and check out abandoned fortifications.

Next stop: the island nation of Malta, plus a tour of the bridge and a spa treatment and killer lunch on the Silversea Silver Spirit cruise ship.

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