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.
Slovenia is all about diverse, natural landscapes – there are tree-covered mountains, deep valleys, crystal-clear lakes and a short-but-stunning coastline. As magnificent as the above-ground scenery is, however, there is something even more extraordinary hidden below the earth’s surface: caves. To be more accurate, more than 11,000 caves have been discovered in Slovenia. Exploring the erroded interior of Skocjan Caves – the largest known underground canyon in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site – was something we weren’t going to miss while in 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
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.
When I traveled through Europe in 2000, I passed through Munich three times…yet, I never left the train station. The European trip, which I made with my mom and aunt, was a spontaneous one and a few missteps had us slightly zigzagging through countries. Munich wasn’t on our original, rough-outlined itinerary, so we had done little research on the city. When we arrived at the Munich train station, we had no map, no guidebook and no idea how close we were to the city center. My one and only memory of our layover in Munich is that a train station vendor refused to sell us sausages. Instead, our layover in Munich was spent – without sausage or beer – simply waiting for the next train.
The coastal town of Florence, Oregon, population 8,500, is situated in the central portion of the state where the Siuslaw River flows into the Pacific Ocean. In the charming Old Town district, Bay Street runs parallel to the river where locally-owned restaurants and shops are housed in historic buildings. In the summertime, brilliant flowers rise beside the sidewalks and overflow from pots hanging from street lamps. Strolling the street with an ice cream in hand from the bridge down to the wooden docks is an ideal way to soak in the atmosphere.
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.