Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula dangles off the northwest corner of the country into the Adriatic Sea. Like much of Croatia, the coastline in Istria is the big attraction. Seaside towns steeped in history line the western shore, each exuding unique character. However, the interior of the Istrian Peninsula is equally picturesque and has a storied past of its own. Medieval hilltop towns and regional delicacies are as much a reason to visit Istria as the translucent waters of the sea. Although we opted to base ourselves on the coast during our stay, we planned a one-day tour of Istria that included both the coast and the interior so that we could experience the must-see highlights of Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula.
From the tip of the Piran Peninsula, the rocky Slovenian coastline trails east two and a half miles toward a protruding landmass of bulking cliffs covered in trees. The protected natural reserve, Strunjan Nature Park, is rich with diverse geological phenomena; the layers of rock that plummet into the sea formed by the crashing waves, wind and rain. Natural vegetation, as well as olive groves and vineyards, grow on Strunjan, which can be explored by foot on intertwining trails. A shoreline path connects the two peninsulas, providing a pleasant way to walk from Piran to Strunjan on Slovenia’s coast.
Slovenia is not a big country; it roughly measures the size of the state of New Jersey. Shaped like a chicken facing east, the nation is wedged into the space between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. Although it doesn’t have a large landmass, it certainly has diverse landscapes: towering mountains, crystal-clear lakes, vibrant and historic cities, a dramatic coastline, massive caves, wide open farmland and hundreds of vineyards.
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The country’s small size coupled with ample wineries inspired a journey; a cross-country wine tasting adventure. We were invited to join Find Eat Local and Savor the Experience Tours on an epic one-day, three-winery expedition beginning on Slovenia’s eastern border with Hungary traveling 185 miles across the country to the western border with Italy. (Yeah, guess how long it took us to accept that invite!) On a trail that we dubbed the Slovenian Wine Highway, or SLO Wine Highway for short, we set out on an overcast day for an unforgettable ride across the length of Slovenia.
Ninety-six. That is the number of castles listed on Slovenia’s official tourist website. While seeing all 96 is not a goal of ours, we had seen four of the most popular – Bled Castle, Ljubljana Castle, Skofja Loka Castle and Predjama Castle – and decided to visit one more, Celje Castle, which happens to be the largest medieval castle in Slovenia.
Celje Castle History
We departed the train inside the hollowed earth and walked in the darkness as our eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. Outside, the Slovenian summer sun was already hot, but 2km deep in the Postojna Cave, the damp air cooled our skin and clung to our clothes. As we stood in the vast space, known as the Great Mountain, we were beginning to see our surroundings more clearly…and we were in awe.
The massive 24km passageway – of which we would walk 1.5km – was formed millions of years ago by the underground Pivka River; the water dissolving the limestone and creating open space below the earth’s surface. In the thousands of years that have passed since the cave was created, nature has been slowly, but steadily, decorating the interior with an array of rock formations. The stalactites and stalagmites created by water dripping through the earth’s crevices are stacked from the floor and dangling from the ceiling like petrified icicles – creating a beautiful, yet surreal, scene.
Dating back to the year 973, Skofja Loka, Slovenia was built on the confluence of two rivers – Poljanska Sora and Selska Sora. The city center consists of the upper town square, Plac, and the lower town square, Lontrg, both of which are situated under the hill-topping castle, The Castle of Skofja Loka. From the 14th century until the late 18th century, the town was protected by walls, portions of which are still standing. Though earthquakes, fire and war have marked the city, Skofja Loka remains one of the best preserved medieval towns in Slovenia. Located just 23 km northwest of Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, we took a day trip to get a firsthand look at the sights in Skofja Loka.
For most people, the purpose of taking a train is to get from Point A to Point B. However, when there is a train that navigates through stunning landscapes, the sole reason for riding the rails can simply be for the scenery that passes by the window. The Bohinj Railway in Slovenia, which was recently featured by Lonely Planet as one of “the best train journeys you’ve never heard of,” is just that kind of train ride – a trip that proves it can be more about the journey than the destination. After three days of hiking in Lake Bohinj, we couldn’t think of a better way to give our legs a rest than to hop aboard the scenic train in Slovenia – taking it all the way to the Italian border – just to get a firsthand look at the land.
I waded a few steps into the water, cooling the soles of my feet from the already hot sand, then hopped onto the side of the boat and swung my legs in, careful to keep my balance without spilling my Bloody Mary. It wasn’t quite noon and a little later than we had planned on leaving; but no one watches the clock in Zancudo. Tides are more important than time – and the tide was low, which was precisely why we were not boarding the boat at the dock. When all eight of us were on board, we set off for the day’s adventure of boating in Zancudo, Costa Rica: zipping across the bay, lunch on “Lobster Island” and a leisurely ride back to Zancudo through The Trocha.
Our remote and off-the-beaten-path location of Zancudo, Costa Rica implies a sense of isolation. The single, unnamed dirt road runs parallel to the six-mile stretch of Playa Zancudo and ends at the point. It is easy to feel secluded and cut off from the rest of the world, but, in reality, there are several day trip destinations. The weekday taxi boat can quickly get us to Golfito, the closest hub for necessities (like a pharmacy and bank) not available in Zancudo. With a private boat hire, we can cruise across the Golfo Dulce to the Osa Peninsula, which boasts a dense tropical forest full of monkeys and other wildlife. There is even a daily bus (albeit an early one that leaves at 5:30am) that can take us to Paso Canoas, a lively Costa Rica-Panama border town. And, if just a different beach is what we are after, there is Pavones, Costa Rica, just 10 miles south of Zancudo.
We stood on the side of a dusty road on the Osa Peninsula, using our hands to shade our eyes from the morning sun as we peered into a dark, leafy tree. I looked in the direction Juan Carlos was pointing, straining to see the sloth wrapped around a branch. I could only see a shadowy mass resembling a tree knot. We crept into the edge of the forest, searching for a better angle and a spot where Juan Carlos could set up his tripod and spotting scope. Through it, I could clearly see that the tree knot was, in fact, a small, furry sloth – and I could hardly believe that I was actually seeing one in the wild. It lazily turned its face toward us –half-interested/half-amused at the humans below – and then stretched before slumping back into the crook of the limb and dozing off again.