Slovenia

Ljubljana, Slovenia: Ljubljana Castle

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Much like Bled Castle, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, Ljubljana Castle is another fortress on a hill with fantastic views.  Although Ljubljana isn’t quite as picturesque as Lake Bled, the castle is easily accessible by funicular, which I think we can all agree is better than trudging up an insanely steep hill under the broiling sun.  The website for Ljubljana Castle only has prices listed for the funicular ride + all the exhibits, which is 8 euros.  However, we opted for the return funicular trip with access to the free exhibits at the castle, which I believe was only 4 euros.

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Obviously, the funicular was pretty awesome.  It was a chilly, drizzly evening when we visited, so we were the only people going up the hill (which meant the grizzled operator was forced to emerge from his warm booth to escort us up, which he seemed none too pleased about), thus our views were uninterrupted by other people crowding the glass front.  I had just been lamenting the fact that we didn’t have time to take the funicular in Bridgnorth a couple months ago, but honestly, this one was steeper, and probably more fun.

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Upon reaching the top, we stepped into a weird stone tunnel/mazelike structure, finally locating some steps and emerging into the courtyard of the castle complex, which included a restaurant, a bar/club, a gift shop, and various museum galleries.  We began with the viewing platform, as sunset was fast approaching.

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“Red roofs. Red roofs.”

Ljubljana is a quaint little city to look out over, as the buildings are all around the same height, and of a similar architectural style, with distinctive red roofs.  Unfortunately, I have a short attention span where the outdoors in concerned, so I was anxious to check out some of the other attractions the castle had to offer.

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I was drawn to the penitentiary, so we went in there first.  It was small, but rather neat.  They had a few cells set up with information about the history of the prison, including the POWs held there during the First World War.  They even had a holographic prisoner in the last cell complete with authentic howls of despair.  There was also a computer screen where you could take pictures of yourself with a cell-looking background, and email them to family and friends.

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Above the prison, there was a small chapel known as the Chapel of St. George.  It was a nice little chapel, but there’s not really much to be said about it.  Now, because you had to pay extra to visit the Slovenian History exhibit, and the “Virtual Castle,” I didn’t learn much about the history of the castle, which I kind of regret.  The internet informs me that there was a settlement on the castle hill as far back as the Bronze Age, but the oldest bits of the current castle date back to the 15th century, which includes St. George’s Chapel.  So I guess it has age going for it if nothing else.

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There were some signs directing us to an art gallery, which turned out to be underground, with a rock wall on one side. Some of the pictures seemed fairly random, but there was also pieces of preserved murals that had been found in the castle, which I enjoyed.  The tunnels eventually led us out to a temporary exhibition, and here’s where things got a bit weird…

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This is just the outside of the castle, and has nothing to do with the Camel exhibit. I just didn’t have anywhere better to stick it in. Sorry.

It turned out to be an exhibit about Camel cigarettes.  At first, we were wandering through and saw mentions of “Camel,” but we thought perhaps it was some Slovenian thing.  It wasn’t until we saw the pictures of Joe Camel that it kicked in.  Now, I’m no prude about smoking, having briefly been a smoker myself in my youth, but it was clearly being paid for by Camel, as all the signage indicated how great Camels were – a promotional tobacco exhibit just seemed like a really odd choice for an art gallery.  There were a few disinterested girls sitting by a photo booth, who were apparently working there, but they gave off a vibe of being too cool to speak to us, so I don’t know if we were meant to use the photo booth or not.  Honestly, I’m kind of surprised no one offered us a free pack of cigarettes or something, as it seemed like the obvious conclusion to walking through a three-dimensional advertisement.  Bizarre stuff.

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The Pentagonal Tower. It was certainly very, um, pentagonal.

As we were visiting quite late, the gift shop was already shut, but the club had yet to get going (not that clubs are really my thing anyway), so there wasn’t much else for us to do up there.  Also, the ice cream was only Carte D’or, which I have already established I’m not a huge fan of, so it was getting to be time to seek out a more delicious ice cream in town (and there are delicious ice creams in abundance in the Old Town).  We had to wait for a good few minutes for the funicular (the website claims it runs every 10 minutes, I don’t know how true that is), since it just sits at the bottom of the hill, I guess until someone notices you’re standing at the top.  At least the waiting area is enclosed, and has good views and a few signs about geology on the wall to amuse you whilst you wait.  The ride down was just as fun as the ride up, though funiculars never go quite as fast as I would like, though I suppose a sedate pace is more desirable than a snapped cable.

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I’ll give Ljubljana Castle 2/5, which is perhaps an unfair assessment, since I didn’t pay to see all the exhibits.  Therefore, this whole review is probably rather pointless, unless you are a cheapskate like me who doesn’t want to pay for the full experience. Perhaps you enjoyed reading it anyhow.  They do offer guided tours of the castle during the day, which may be worth doing if you want to see everything, as there appeared to be quite a few areas that were otherwise closed to the public.  I would have liked to learn more about the history of the castle whilst I was there, but I guess it’s my own fault for not shelling out the big bucks (euros?).  The view and funicular were probably worth the 4 euros though.

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Postojna, Slovenia: Postojna Cave

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I’ve been to a lot of caves over the years.  I’m not entirely sure why, as I’ve no particular interest in geology – I just like caves.  I think it may have something to do with the fact that they’re dark and quiet; as you can probably tell from my complexion, I’m no fan of the sun.  I’ve no doubt there’s a disturbing Freudian interpretation behind my fondness for them (actually, I can pretty much guess what it would be; Freud wasn’t exactly subtle in his use of metaphor), but they’re neat looking, so let’s leave it at that.  All of this is a somewhat awkward lead-up to my visit to Postojna Cave.

All aboard the cave train.

All aboard the cave train.

Slovenia seems to have an unusually large number of caves for such a small country.  I’m sure there is some geological reason for this, which I should have consulted my boyfriend about before posting (what with him being a geologist and all), but to be fair, he probably already explained it to me when we were at the caves and I wasn’t paying attention.  Of these many caves, Postojna is the most famous.  In fact, when we drove up to Graz, and then back down to Ljubljana, we started seeing billboards for it as soon as we crossed over the Slovenian border.  (Well, that and signs for paczki, or whatever the Slovenian equivalent was (I’m from Cleveland, I know paczki when I see them), but I never managed to track down one of the elusive paczki huts, more’s the pity).  I think the main reason Postojna is so famous, aside from the quality of the caves, is the cave train, of which more later.

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I should apologise for the rather crap photos. You were only allowed to take pictures in one small area of the cave, and I neglected to bring a camera, so these were taken with a phone, which was obviously not ideal.

Firstly, you should know that the caves are not cheap.  They cost nearly 23 euros per person, for a 90 minute “experience.” They’ve actually managed to turn the entire cave complex into quite a little tourist destination, complete with overpriced shops selling the most awful tat, restaurants, and even a hotel.  I’m not knocking it, as I rather enjoy tourist traps under the right circumstances, and it helped us kill some time before our flight that afternoon, but it can add up to a pricy outing, especially if you rent one of their capes for warmth (honestly, I wished that I had, as they looked lovely and toasty).  That being said, you do get to ride the freaking cave train, so I don’t think I can justify complaining too much about the price.

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So after we parted with a substantial chunk of cash, we made our way into the caves, to catch the next tour (I believe they’re hourly).  We piled onto the cave train, which bears more resemblance to something you’d ride in Disneyworld than an actual train, and embarked on a 2 km journey into the heart of the cave.  I think the ride is only about ten minutes long, but it felt longer because I was freezing my ass off.  To be sure, you get to see some incredible stuff from the train, including a gorgeous chandelier suspended from the cave ceiling, and all manner of stalagmites and stalactites, but it’s small consolation when you’re shivering uncontrollably.  Therefore, I highly recommend that you wear something warmer than just a hoodie over a cardigan, because it was not enough.

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Upon reaching a platform, we were all herded off the train, and directed to go assemble ourselves by language (with the help of signs, obviously).  They offer tours in English, Slovenian, French, German, and Italian, but they have audio headsets available for most languages, and I think they do tours in a few other languages by advance request.  We were met by our guide, and conducted through the caves, which included the “Spaghetti Cave” (so named for the thousands of skinny stalactites hanging down), and the “Concert Hall” (where I think they’ve actually had concerts).  We mainly walked through in silence, with our guide stopping us at various points throughout the cave to provide commentary, which was nicer than him just rambling on all the time.  The first part was pretty steep, but the paths were level and not terribly slippery, so it wasn’t like some caves where you worry about tripping over something the entire time.  This seems to be in large part due to the labour of prisoners during WWI, who we were told constructed the bridge.  Our guide actually had a few fascinating wartime anecdotes like this, the other being a story about the Yugoslav army blowing up German fuel tanks hidden in the caves, which created so much smoke that it permanently blackened the outer caves.

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Aside from the train and the vast size, the main difference between Postojna and other caves is the olm.  Otherwise known as the human fish, or Proteus, the olm is the largest cave amphibian in the world (which isn’t really saying much, as it’s still less than a foot long), and gets the name “human fish” from its skin colour, and life expectancy, which is usually between 60-70 years.  To ensure that you see one, they have a tank holding five of them at the end of the tour; naturally everybody crowds around, so it’s hard to get a good look, but I pushed and shoved my way in there.  I have no shame.  The other major attraction is a stalagmite named “Brilliant” on account of its white colour, which is cool and all, but it’s just a stalagmite.

Pivka River

Pivka River

At the conclusion of the tour, we were led into a cave that conveniently contained a gift shop (with working post office, so you could mail a post card from underground), and given some time to look around (and buy stuff) whilst waiting for the train back.  The return trip was just as cold, but still pretty fun.  I mean, that train is surprisingly speedy.  I went on a cave train in some salt mines in Germany, and it was some weird tiny train that you had to straddle and it kind of putzed along.  The Postojna train can move!

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Once back outside, we wandered into the aquarium, but it turned out you had to pay extra for that (like 23 euros wasn’t enough), so we gave it a miss and just wandered around outside for a while (which felt pleasantly warm after the caves).  There was some sort of mill, but it wasn’t running, so we went to look at some stagnant pool of fly-infested water instead.  No one else was down there, for some reason.  They only had crappy Carte D’or ice cream in the restaurant, so I got a pink Magnum bar instead, because I’d never seen a pink Magnum.  It turned out to be champagne flavour, which was tastier than a normal Magnum.  (Because I know you all care about the ice cream I eat).  The gift shops really did have the most horrible crap inside, so after using one of those souvenir coin machines (I have a collection), we headed for the airport.

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Yep, upon closer inspection, that water is as scummy as it initially appeared.

Tourist trap it may be, but Postojna Cave is still undeniably rad.  I don’t think a couple tacky shops really detract from the beauty of the caves, or the delight of the cave train.  4/5 for Postojna, though I’d love to visit some other caves in Slovenia the next time I’m there to see how they compare.

Bistra near Vrhnika, Slovenia: Technical Museum of Slovenia

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I know what you’re probably thinking, “A technical museum, Jessica?!  That seems like a unlikely choice given your distaste for engineering and technology.”  Well, that’s what I thought too when I first heard about this museum, but upon learning they had a collection of Tito’s cars, the shameless gawker in me simply couldn’t resist.  And I’m so glad I went, because this place was awesome!

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The Technical Museum is located in the village of Bistra near Vrhnika (I’m guessing “near Vrhnika” is part of the name, like a Stratford upon Avon situation), about 20 km outside of Ljubljana.  Thus, you’ll be forced to make some complicated arrangement that involves a combination of public transport and a taxi, or, preferably, if you’re lucky enough to have access to a car, drive there, which is what we did.  Of course, this will involve travelling through an absurdly green countryside that best resembles a Bob Ross painting on steroids, which is obviously a real hardship, but we managed.  The museum itself is a sprawling complex made up of various appropriately rustic buildings (actually a former monastery), all set beside a babbling brook and surrounded by lushly rolling hills.  Seriously, even the museums in Slovenia are ridiculously picturesque.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

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Admission was only 4.50 euros, which was so cheap I actually felt guilty, and I found myself stuffing euro coins into a donation box later to make up for it, once I had realised the scale of the museum.  We began our experience in a shed full of cars (none of them Tito’s), which opened onto a courtyard girded by outbuildings.  It would definitely be a good idea to pick up a map at the admissions desk, because the directional signs are in Slovenian, and it’s all too easy to miss things otherwise.

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The museum essentially covers every almost aspect of technology that is historically related to Slovenian life, though the collections seem to peter out somewhere in the 20th century, as there’s not much mention of computers or other modern technology.  Rather, the museum chooses to focus more on traditional occupations, which I find much more interesting anyway.  I don’t think I can even fully discuss all the collections of the museum, which if the map is to be believed, includes eighteen different “departments,” so I’ll just give an overview and mention some of the highlights.

Wooden things!  With moving parts!

Wooden things! With moving parts!

After the first car display, we spent some time admiring the water-powered mill, and various other sawmills that you could pop into and explore.  I enjoyed watching the waterwheel very much, as it’s not really the sort of thing you expect to see next to a museum (and I have to wonder if it was the sort of thing that the Wandle Museum has in mind if they get to move to a new location).  I guess it was a prime example of technology in action.

Waterwheel.  Woot!

Waterwheel. Woot!

Still, it was a rather chilly day (not really by British standards, but I wasn’t expecting it and didn’t have my customary backup jacket and tights in tow), so I was glad enough to enter the cavernous interior of the main building.  (Here’s a tip, keep your ticket handy, as people will actually stamp it at various points in the museum, I suppose because anyone could just wander in from outside otherwise).  There was an eclectic exhibit on the history of washing machines near the entrance, but just beyond (through a door we almost had to force open), the permanent collections awaited.  These included an extensive woodworking exhibit, and fishing and forestry departments.

Surprise!  It's a random moose above a door!

Surprise! It’s a random moose above a door!

My favourite part of the museum was actually another special exhibition, about food and eating habits in Europe (probably because I enjoy food more than technology).  Because honey is an important element of Slovenian cuisine, there was a whole section devoted to just that (though sadly, without samples of different types of honey to taste like you get at the county fair), complete with recipes you could take home with you!  I grabbed a copy of nearly every one (and here’s where I really filled up the donation box), and though I haven’t tried any of them yet, I think the dessert gnocchi with honey and walnuts shows great promise.

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Up until this point, almost everything had an English translation on it, but by the time we got to the hunting and wildlife galleries, I think they putzed out a little bit (not that I blame them, because the place was huge), because everything was only in Slovenian.  Fortunately, I don’t need a translation to appreciate some taxidermy, so it worked out just fine. At the end of the taxidermy section, there was a weird black light tunnel about wolves, which felt like it might be the museum exit, but nope, there was plenty more left to see.

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There was also no shortage of delightful wax figures.

Let’s see, there were still agricultural, textile, and printing departments (where I actually got to write my name on a Braille slate, just like Mary Ingalls), which I probably didn’t spend as much time in as I should have, as we had already been at the museum for half a day and wanted to fit in another museum in the afternoon.  I honestly thought the Technical Museum would only take maybe two hours at most, but I was pleasantly surprised at the variety of things to see and do.  The very last section was the traffic department, which contained, at long last, an entire gallery of Tito’s cars.  (Photography wasn’t allowed in this section, so I have no pictures to show you, much to my chagrin).  Many of them were gifts from other dictators, like Stalin, and were quite normal cars, such as Lincoln Continentals, though they were specially equipped with features like bulletproof glass (a must for the dictator on the move!).  There were also bicycles and motorcycles and things, but I quickly lose interest around cars and related contraptions (at least ones without a chequered past).

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The only complaints I have about this museum relate to Nikola Tesla.  Namely, that I couldn’t get my Tesla fix, because his gallery was shut without explanation.  I realise Tesla was a Serb born in Croatia, so there was no particular reason for a Slovenian museum to have to devote a gallery to him, but the map promised me a Tesla gallery, so I was anticipating it the entire visit.  To add insult to injury, they had this amazing Tesla t-shirt in the gift shop that I wanted to buy for my brother, but it only came in sizes Small, and XXXL. Thwarted yet again by an inexplicable lack of t-shirt sizes!

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I’m going to award the Technical Museum 4.5/5.  The collections were so extensive that there truly was something for everyone, and the setting couldn’t have been lovelier.  It’s a grand day out that I highly recommend if you find yourself in Slovenia!

This was not Jesus and a deer, as I initially thought, but some sort of knight and a stag.

This was not Jesus and a deer, as I initially thought, but some sort of knight and a stag. I think.

Ljubljana, Slovenia: Slovene Ethnographic Museum

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I visited the Slovene Ethnographic Museum primarily on the recommendation of a friend, as my natural inclination would have been to seek out something a bit quirkier (like the Tobacco museum, which I think was actually owned by a tobacco company who I’m sure have purely altruistic motives…).  That being said, there were enough weird and wonderful things inside the Ethnographic Museum to hold my attention.  Like the demented rabbit totem shown above, who looked like an even scarier cousin of that rabbit in Donnie Darko.

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The Ethnographic Museum was located in a section of Ljubljana which was described as “artistic” and “trendy,” which I think we all know are just euphemisms for the shitty end of town.  I exaggerate slightly; nowhere in Ljubljana seemed dangerous or or especially rundown, it just wasn’t as attractive as the Old Town.  The museum was part of a complex that seemed to include a few other museums, or maybe art studios?  It was hard to tell, as the signs were all in Slovenian.  Anyway, admission was pretty cheap, only 4 euros or so.  The building had at least 4 floors, but as far as I could tell, there was only exhibition space on two of those floors, though I think I might have missed something.

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I’d never been to an ethnographic museum before, so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect.  I was hoping to learn more about Slovenian culture and history.  What I got instead was the most self-reflective museum I’ve ever encountered.  I started with the “Between Nature and Culture” exhibit on the 3rd floor, which opened with a collection of objects from around the world, and musings on the definitions of ethnicity and identity.  The museum then began philosophising about the nature of museums themselves, and the purpose of collecting.  I honestly felt like I was back at university, sitting through a Historical Methods class or something. It was rather bizarre to find a museum contemplating its own existence.

Me wearing some sort of head-bag.

Me wearing some sort of head-bag.

All of the signs at the start of the museum were translated into English (obviously, as I’m not canny enough to pick up on introspection written in Slovenian), but as I progressed into the section on Slovenian culture, the English was limited to booklets at the end of each exhibit that had little blurbs about the various objects.  Still, I enjoyed looking at the variety of Slovenian artefacts, in particular the beehive paintings (I’ve read that there’s a whole beehive panel museum in Slovenia, but I wasn’t able to track it down, so it may have closed.  Another reason why someone needs to update Weird Europe, as a 15 year old travel guide isn’t that useful!), and the intriguing wooden toys, especially the curious fellow seen below.

A man and his pig.

A man and his pig.

I wasn’t sure whether to head up to the 4th floor, as there were no barriers preventing it, but it wasn’t listed on the map, so I headed downstairs instead. In retrospect, I think they might have been hiding a special exhibit on collars up there, as I didn’t see it elsewhere in the museum, but I wasn’t bothered enough to go back up and investigate.  The 2nd floor was the home of “I, We and Others: Images of my World,” which sounded, if anything even more self-analytical than the previous exhibition.  However, I’ll never actually know, as nothing on this level had an English translation.  I feel like a spoilt American complaining about this, since I was in Slovenia, and they shouldn’t have to cater to me.  That said, the museum was near empty, and the only other people in there were a French couple who rushed through all the bits with no translation, so there’s obviously a market for English captions besides just native English speakers.  I think if they want to attract more tourist trade, they’d do well to at least put out some booklets explaining the exhibit in various languages.

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As far as I could tell (gleaned mainly from the museum brochure and the objects on display), the exhibit focused on the stories of Slovenian immigrants, and finding one’s place in the world, as well as the struggle to identify with a culture.  I really, really wish I had been able to read the text in this section, as these are all topics I dwell on quite a bit myself, which I think is fairly common to the expat experience.  I’m never sure whether I identify more with Britain or America, as I never feel completely home in either country anymore, and that’s without even dragging my ancestry into things. (Not that I feel particularly Polish or Slovenian, aside from being able to make pierogi, and participating in a few other family traditions). I guess even without translations, the Ethnographic Museum seems to have led me into introspection (not that it’s hard to do)!

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The saving grace of this section (for me) was the videos, which helpfully had English captions available.  They featured a number of older Slovenes discussing growing up in foreign countries, fairy tales, or just their daily life.  I genuinely enjoy listening to the elderly talk about their lives (probably largely to do with missing my grandparents), so I liked the videos a lot, and ended up watching most of them. Since I never found the special exhibit, that was pretty much all there was to the Ethnographic Museum.

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I’ll give the Ethnographic Museum 3/5.  The sections I could read piqued my interest (even if they could have cut back on the philosophy a wee bit), but there was too much in the museum that I wasn’t able to fully appreciate due to having no idea what was going on.  I think with a more visually based museum, translations aren’t quite as necessary, but this museum’s exhibits were so dependent on the written word that I couldn’t help feeling left out.

Lake Bled, Slovenia: Summer Tobogganing, Bled Castle, and an Insanely Photogenic Lake

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This isn’t strictly a museum post, although we did visit a museum inside Bled Castle (of which more later), but my trip to Lake Bled was amazing, so I couldn’t resist sharing some of it!  As you can see, the lake is stunning, but scenery alone does not a day out make.  Truthfully, one of my main motivations for visiting Lake Bled was the summer toboggan run I’d read about, and it did not disappoint!

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I first spotted the toboggan track from across the lake, and was honestly kind of intimidated.  It was situated on the side of a huge, steep hill, and actually looked pretty scary, not least of all because the cars you rode on appeared to be made of plastic.  I pressed through the fear for once, because it did look super fun.  You can either walk up the hill, or take the chair lift, but since the ticket price includes the chair lift, why in the hell would you choose to walk?  Though the views from the top are fantastic, you don’t really have much time to appreciate them once you get strapped in to your little yellow sled, as you’re too busy concentrating on not dying.

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Seriously, the cars aren’t attached to the track in any permanent way; they just kind of slap them back on the rail after they get detached at the bottom and sent back up via the chair lift. And you control the speed yourself, via the brake/accelerator attached to your sled.  Despite all these perils, I can’t recommend this highly enough.  It was probably some of the most fun I’ve ever had.  I only got to go down the hill twice, but I could have happily stayed here all day if the tickets weren’t so damn expensive.

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The other main activities around Lake Bled, other than eating ice cream (which I of course indulged in) are taking the gondola (or row boat) out to the island to see the church, or walking up a steep-ass hill to see the castle.  Surprisingly, despite my distaste for exertion, we opted to see the castle, as they were packing the gondolas full to bursting, and I didn’t much fancy a sweltering boat trip whilst boxed in by sweaty strangers.  The long slog up the hill was helped somewhat by the ice cream vendor conveniently situated at the bottom of the trail.  A generous scoop of chocolate hazelnut gelato can even turn a hike into less of a chore.

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Upon reaching the castle, we were greeted with even more steps, plus an 8 euro admission charge.  Having paid (there was no way I was just going to walk straight back down again), we then proceeded into the small museum housed within the castle.

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Despite the presence of terrible wax figures, the museum wasn’t really anything special.  I think most people just come for the view, so the museum was a bit of an afterthought.  There was a section about geology, and then some information about the history of the region, which was accompanied by wax representations of peoples who had lived in the area.  The most interesting part for me was a room upstairs with a video about the history of the spas at Lake Bled, with accompanying photographs.  Nearly everything in the museum had an English translation, so there weren’t any language issues; there just wasn’t a whole lot of stuff there.

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Naturally, if you’ve made it up the hill, you’re going to want to take some pictures of the view, which we duly did.  There are a few shops and restaurants in the castle area, including a wine cellar, but the only other attraction we visited was the print shop (where I totally got suckered into buying a print. The paper was handmade!  I couldn’t resist!), which also featured a wax preacher at the top of some stairs, and a small exhibit about the history of printing in Slovenia.

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Strolling back down the stairs was markedly more pleasant than trudging up them, not least because I got the pleasure of passing panting people (how’s that for alliteration?) on their way up.  There was an attractive church at the bottom of the hill, and of course, more ice cream.

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As we could hear distant thunder, and the threat of rain was upon us, we didn’t linger too much longer in Bled.  I feel slightly guilty about not visiting the island or trying the famous cream cake, but I suppose it just gives me an excuse to return.  Though I still might pass on the cream cake, as it looked more like a slab of custard topped with whipped cream than an actual cake, and I have a special loathing for non-frozen custard.

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The views, lake, and toboggan run all get 5/5.  Perfection.  The castle museum only gets 2/5, but like I said, I don’t think people are hiking up there for the museum, and I’ve no complaints about the view from there.  This will be the first post in a series on Slovenia and Graz, Austria, so expect to hear a lot more about the area in the coming few weeks!