Late this summer we braved the stormy roads across Europe to reach Slovenia, and a family holiday near the beautiful, mountainous lake town of Bled in the north of the country. The week that we had allowed for the roughly 1,600km drive gave us lots of time to explore, and the flip-flopping weather meant that we mixed up climbing and culture to try and dodge the rain. It resulted in a hopscotch trip stopping in some fairly random places, and we would inevitably get drenched at least twice a day when the storms caught up with us. It made the journey quite exciting, like a race against the elements. With regular coffee breaks.
Our first stop. The previous night's sleep had been a strange one, driving miles into nowhere for a camper aire that turned out to be, in the middle of the night, anyway, a super creepy commune appearing to be charging 15€ a night for basically being creepy. We woke up at seven to sneak out, and drove past the free parking on our way out, a bit shamefaced, but well on our way to arrive in Ticino by midday.
The original plan was for three days bouldering, however the rain was due to set in the evening of our arrival demanding a reevaluation. We had lunch, a power nap, and then set off to Area Centrale and the nearby Vitruvian Man roof, a boulder that both of us had been keen to try since our previous visit in spring. It juts out of a grassy field, an inviting cave of crimps and micro-jugs where we happily wore ourselves out until darkness arrived, and with it the first spits of rain. Rain fell heavily overnight, and the morning view of wet, fog shrouded granite held nothing more for us than a farewell photo. Sunny Italy was just half an hour away, and weirdly it was actually sunny.
Val Daone, Italy
Deprived of two days on Swiss rock, we detoured to some of Italy's reputed finest. Val Daone sits above Lake Garda, away from the tourist rush. Quite a long way above, as it turns out, we were a bit surprised to find ourselves passing 1,200m, but a very nice drive up a pretty gentle mountain. The bouldering area appears to be large and full of potential, but a little dispersed and complex for the short afternoon session that we had time for. We drove up and down for a while, getting out occasionally and poking at bits of rock, and then stumbled upon the Boulder Park which was ace and exactly what we needed. Three Font-style circuits of crispy granite with perfect wood chip landings, and all that is asked in return is respect for the environment. No problem. As usual, the rain caught up as night fell; we drove back down to the main road and spent the night at a lovely tourist info centre between the hills.
Lake Garda, Italy
After the wild isolation of Val Daone came sun time on the edge of Lago di Garda, a chilled few hours spent watching the clouds slowly closing in on the patch of bright blue above us. The water was warm enough to swim and dive, and dry out on the pebbles where we were kept company by a small, agile gull catching improbably large fish out of the boat wash and swallowing them whole.
When the sun disappeared we headed down to Sirmione, a neat town on a spur of land that juts into the lake on the south end. Apparently there are some particularly atmospheric Roman ruins above the old town, but there were also parking fees, a long walk and a heavy hailstorm that made a persuasive argument against the experience. We went to Lidl instead and bought some really good tinned tomatoes and a giant lettuce, and stood in line with lots of large sunburnt tourists buying orange fizzy stuff. When in Rome...go to a German supermarket. As a point of (our) interest, there were regular billboards showing the positions of the seven or so Lidls located around the lake. We weren't sure whether Italians really dig Lidl, or if they are in place for tourists struggling to find a parking place to access local shops. Like us.
Once we had finally reached the till and paid, we set off again to get some solid mileage out of the way, driving past huge, illuminated villas on the outskirts of Verona, and then sneakily skirted Venice whilst traffic was quiet in the middle of the night. The city that we drove round was a hive of looping roads, airport, ferry port, a huge web of infrastructure feeding tourists into pretty Venice until it sinks (it is sinking, at a rate of 1-2mm per year, not yet linked to the influx of visitors). We continued until we found a quiet petrol station with a spacey forecourt and a weird ditch-pond for wildlife (we think). There was a raucous late night discotheque across the field, but nothing was keeping us awake, not even Avicii accompanied by a hundred Friday night party goers.
Magnifique! A very efficient tourist info lady sent us on a trail round the Roman remains of this tranquil town. The remains are a little bit rough and ready, but that is certainly part of its charm, and there is an interesting juxtaposition of modern cars driving past columns crafted thousands of years ago. The Basilica is very impressive, the entire floor is mosaic and a floating walkway has been built. If you forget to cover your shoulders they provide a nice hoody made of anti-weed membrane or something. Very kind. The espresso was, as usual, great and we exploited the novelty of paying only 1€ a cup. Left a bit caffeine tipsy.
A little bizarre. We stopped for lunch and a coffee along the coast road to Trieste. From the balcony we could see some small bays at the foot of the cliffs, turquoise water tickling their edges. A spur of the moment decision took us down to Portopiccolo for a few hours by the sea. And we did get that, more or less. A hill led us down to a small, empty harbour with some strange cafe-type operations with fairly haphazard themes (American; Jamaican; Bavarian biergaarten). Parking was straightforward, only complicated by wind blowing the ticket, twice, into a previously non-existent void under the windscreen.
Ticket (painfully) retrieved, we walked down to the beach past the cigarette butts and plastic cups, drained save for a slice and a trickle of coke, discarded behind a strange, gated white building (night club? Strip club?). The beach was small and dominated by a bar and its pay-per-use deckchairs, so we wandered on for about fifty metres, where we were confronted by the real Portopiccolo, a holiday resort town that occupies an old quarry site, barring the way, as far as we could tell. Thwarted, we turned back to the bar beach and squidged in at the end. The water was salty, it seemed a funny change from yesterdays fresh lake water. Then the storm clouds caught up with us again, before the sun could dry us, and we wandered damply back to the van. We considered coffee, took a second look at the cafes, then bailed for the hills, and the border to Slovenia.
Around Ljubljana, Slovenia
On a previous trip we had loosely held the idea that if the weather got bad we had only to change country and we would emerge across the border into sunshine. We were reliably and repeatedly proved wrong that time, but on this trip it was working quite well. In the morning we drove through sunny Sunday countryside, everyone out walking and cycling. Slovenia has the same thing that the UK has, it is almost startlingly green and fresh. We arrived at the house of some family for a catch up, an amazing lunch of Serbian origin (pork and beef baked with sauerkraut and peppers - amazing) and a very small shot of Pain-in-the-Arse, homemade chilli infused spirit that did exactly what it said on the label.
Over the next couple of days we enjoyed the gentle life around Ljubljana. There is a great sport climbing crag in nearby Vhrnika that we had visited and enjoyed before, so we went there again and did about two routes each, that were fantastic - quality over quantity. We went for a couple of slightly lost walks through the local woodland and fields with giant Finn the dog, none of us having a great sense of direction. And we had a lovely night of local pizza with Danilo and Andreja, who introduced us to some awesome Balkan punk bands and their crazy cat that liked ambushing your legs, before continuing on to Bled the next morning.
The weather was up and down but we managed a few days climbing at local crags before the rain set in with feeling. Nomenj is an interesting crag, which we found after exploring some of the surrounding footpaths. There are some easier routes, which vary in chossiness from terrifying to surprisingly compact, and then an enormous cave threaded with some rather serious looking climbs. We settled for an oversized boulder problem on the edge with a slightly scary mantle and a small cave that you could sit in to think about the mantle. The second crag that we visited was Bohinjska Bela, a neat climbing area with a good range of grades that was familiar from previous trips.
Other excellent activities: swimming in the very refreshing Lake Bled, to the amusement of many walkers in their waterproofs; eating schnitzel and trout at the fantastic Gostilna Batišt Tomaž Zupan in Bohinjska Bela, that gave us so much good food that we ended up with four doggy boxes; drinking large amounts of excellent Slovenian beer including some from a micro-brewery in the cellar of an ultramarathon runner; and a particularly outrageous game of Articulate.
We could write more about our return drive through Austria and Germany, but it wasn't tonnes exciting and we didn't have much time for stopping. We got stuck on a mountain in Austria, when we weren't paying enough attention to the gradient and the gear, stuck on some small roads in Germany which are way less efficient than the autobahn, bought some zwetschgenwasser to satisfy my craving for schnapps and drove through even more crazy, changeable weather. One night was spent in the Austrian mountains, by a fresh water spring and a small river (possibly the nicest layby ever?). The second was in a French aire outside a gun club, a terrifying way to wake up, and with a flock (?) of storks grazing in the field, ignoring the irregular explosions of firearms.
The last bit of the drive took far longer than we expected, as usual, leaving us one night in the forest before checking in at the lovely Camping Le Prez in Grez-sur-Loing, Fontainebleau, for holiday number two, a week with friends (latterly dubbed 'The Wyld Turkies') from the UK. Luckily we brought back twenty bottles of Slovenian homebrew...