Part 8: Slovenia & Northern Italy
12 days travelling through Slovenia and northern Italy followed by central France, taking the back roads heading back to Dordogne for the summer. The last part of this road trip and potentially the most spectacular through mountains, turquoise rivers and crystal clear lakes. Out of all the places we have been Slovenia in particular is probably going to be the first place we rush back to in the future, absolutely incredible and insanely underrated.
Being the last part of the journey, and with lots to do before getting back to Dordogne by our deadline, there wasn’t much time for writing. Therefore this whole blog has been written retrospectively making it not as detailed as usual which doesn’t do justice to the amazing place this is. But take my word for it, it was an incredible area.
Triglav National Park, Slovenia
- One of the most beautiful places we have ever seen. That is all.
Lake Bohinj, Slovenia
- Incredibly beautiful lake hidden in the mountains of Triglav National Park. The tranquil area was a great spot to relax, and the surrounding mountains were full of beautiful hikes. We will be coming back.
Soča River, Slovenia
- The beautiful light blue waters of Soča River were incredible to see, and even more incredible to slide through on a hydrospeed. From Bovec (the main town in the valley) there are countless adventure activities you can do, you could spend ages in this area…
Škocjan Cave, Slovenia
- A cave unlike anything we had seen before with little paths etched in the rock taking us through massive rooms over 100m tall. It was an incredible site that was worth sharing with a large group of others.
- The capital of Slovenia is a pretty fantastic city. It’s clean, it’s eco-friendy and it isn’t a classic city for holiday goers making it pretty tourist free. It also seemed to us like it functioned really well as a city with easy driving, city bikes for hire, recycling around every corner etc. It’s filled with beautiful old buildings that look new and freshly painted in a rainbow of colours. It also has a canal running through the center of the old town which adds a bit of extra beauty.
- The magnificent and unique mountain range was an amazing thing to see, and filled with some amazing hikes. There would be some pretty epic skiing around here in winter too.
Lago di Garda, Italy
- We travelled past many lakes in the north of Italy but this one takes the cake. The south is incredibly touristy unfortunately with strange theme parks and massive campgrounds but in the north it is absolutely beautiful! The lake surrounded by magnificent mountains is a stunning sight. Would be a perfect spot for sailing and windsurfing!
- The home of Romeo and Juliet was a beautiful place to visit. There were surprisingly very few tourists in comparison to many other towns this size and with such an interesting history. It was a much nicer experience than we had in Venice which is somewhere on everyone’s to-go list. I think Verona more so deserves a label as the ‘city of love’.
- This city was more of a highlight for us because after hearing a lot of bad things about it we were not expecting to enjoy it but we were pleasantly surprised by what we found; a beautiful city with not only a massive cathedral but several other beautiful historical buildings as well. It was also pretty easy to get off the tourist stream to some great hidden spots in the city.
Hiking the Swiss Alps
- With incredible mountains everywhere you look I think it would be pretty hard for anyone to resist the hiking here. The tracks are really well put together but absent of hoards of travellers, it felt a bit like hiking some of the trails in New Zealand.
Day 68: Koper → Škocjan Caves → Ljubljana → Lesce
The Škocjan Caves is one of the largest discovered caves in the world. It’s largest chamber has a volume of around 2.2 million metres squared. It was a bit of an investment for us to visit but it was worth every cent. We walked through the cave with a guide and a large group of around 40 people (as everybody has to) which felt a bit disappointing at the start, but as soon as we got into the large chambers it didn’t matter how many people we were with. The views were incredible, like nothing either of us had seen before. We were first led through the Silent Cave, the area without a river.
The first few hundred metres were much like other caves we had seen before, but as soon as we entered the Great Hall we were stunned. The high ceiling around 100m above us covered with stalactites, and massive stalagmites several thousands of years old. And that wasn’t even the most spectacular part. Once we entered the Murmuring Cave (the section with the river running through) we were speechless. The paths were etched out of the cliffs within the cave so we had the high ceilings above us while at the same time a massive drop below down to the river. You could also see the precarious pathways made by initial explorers of the cave and the first tourist paths from the early 20th century (which wouldn’t come close to safety standards of today). An incredible experience and a magnificent thing to see. You aren’t allowed to take photos in the cave, but without a flash you don’t cause any damage to the cave environment nor are you annoying to the others around you. So here are some photos ‘someone’ took. They don’t quite do it justice though, it was breathtaking.
In search of the best vegetarian lunch we headed off to the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana. This place has got to be one of the best cities we have come across during our travels for many reasons. Not only was it beautiful with stunning old buildings that all looked new and freshly painted, but it also seemed to function really well as a city as well as being very environmentally friendly. It was clean, free from litter and graffiti, recycling bins were available all around the city, there seemed to be many environmentally friendly shops and vegetarian/vegan/organic cafes, bike racks were everywhere as well as city bikes for hire, the whole city centre was car-free and yet parking in buildings close to the centre was easy to find and inexpensive, driving was easy and everyone stuck to the road rules, people seemed to be relaxed and enjoying themselves, it was not overly touristy and while we were there was a science festival set up all through the streets with several booths set up with games and experiments to teach kids (and adults) about anything and everything scientific (I think every big city should have something like this during the year, was so cool). We both had really great vibes walking around this city, and it was a great day for it which made it all the better.
We headed off to a campsite close to Lake Bled, but with rain looking as though it was on the way (and with a tent that isn’t even close to waterproof) we checked into a hostel. It was such a cool place, one where you could stay for several days and always have activities to do and people to hang out with. A1 Adventure Hostel, highly recommend.
Day 69: Lesce → Lake Bled → Triglav National Park → Lesce
Lake Bled has got to be one of the most well known spots for tourism in this area, with it’s picturesque mountainous backdrop, crystal clear waters and iconic small island right in the centre. We headed off early on a small walk to the Mala Osojinica lookout, the classic viewing point. What is great about Slovenia though is that even in the most well known spots you still feel quite hidden off the beaten track with very few tourists around in comparison to a lot of other places we have been.
This was even more so the case at the next spot we went to, Lake Bohinj. The mountains surrounding the lake were perfectly reflected in the ripple free water, perfect weather for the rowers training in the distance.
It was also pretty perfect conditions for a hike in Triglav National Park. The whole area here is absolutely stunning, Slovenia is incredibly underrated in my opinion. We hiked up to Back Lake, not a long hike but pretty much straight up so we definitely felt it (hiking up with packs for the multi-day version of the hike would have been a struggle for sure). But it had incredible views over the national park, the surrounding snowy mountains and the lake down below. A place we would definitely like to come back to in the very near future.
When we got back to the car we were pretty surprised to find a 40€ parking ticket stuck to the window. We have parked in some pretty ‘debatably-free’ locations on our trip and never got a ticket, yet this park was clearly legal and free with several other cars (who also had tickets on their windows when we returned). We think the tickets were put there more to scare other drivers into using the nearby paid parking lot. One thing is for sure though, if we ever get a letter in the post we will be contesting it.
As storm clouds started to come over the mountains we decided to check in at the same hostel again for an early night (little did Elric know the next day would be pretty full on).
Day 70: Lesce → Soča River →Udine
Elric’s birthday was several months ago, but with us being trapped working in the snowy mountains of the French Alps his gift from me was a surprise day out at some point during our travels. Unbeknown to him, that day was today.
We drove out as soon as the sun had risen to head to the ‘surprise’ location. Over the mountains with some stunning views of Triglav national park, into Italy, back into Slovenia, until we finally made it to Bovec – the ‘adventure capital’ of Slovenia located within the stunning Soča Valley. Here is the base for many different adventure activities; white water rafting, mountain biking, kayaking, canyoning, hiking and much more (with a decent chunk of money you could spend a long time here, doing something new every day). One of the most well known things to do is rafting on the Soča River but I thought we could try something new, hydrospeeding. With hydrospeeding you go down the same rapids as the raft but instead of having the protection of the raft you swim in the water on a modified bodyboard, getting close up and personal with the rapids (and the rocks). To be honest I wasn’t really sure what to expect, it looked like fun but was hard to find much information on it. As it turned out, it was insanely fun! Highly recommend, and for adventurous people like us I think it was a lot better than the raft in this spot (which now seems a bit soft). Sebastian at SportMix Bovec was a really cool guide also taking us to some cool spots to jump off the rocks. The water of the river is also an incredibly beautiful and unique light blue colour, and it is so clean and clear you can literally drink it while you are swimming in it.
The best restaurant in the area (according to the locals) was in a very surprising place at Kamp Lazar. Again not knowing what to expect (but ready for a decent meal) we headed off to Kobarid. The road on the way there was beautiful, an area where Narnia Prince Caspian was filmed (the location was actually chosen based on the fact it looked similar to New Zealand where other Narnia movies were filmed, which is pretty funny).
As it turns out the restaurant as well was a great find! The food was so good (one of the best risotto’s I have ever had) and they have these stuffed ‘pancakes’ which are kind of a mix between a crepe and a calzone, so good…
Just next to the restaurant is a small walk over a swing bridge hanging over Soča River, through the bush and passing by a couple of waterfalls (the first waterfall I elegantly fell into, and it turned out some passers by were also conveniently filming the waterfall on their GoPro at the same time, awaiting my appearance on YouTube…). It was a beautiful walk and very local, free from tourism which was an added bonus.
With the ‘surprise day’ coming to a close we headed into Italy to Udine, a stop on the way to our next planned stop in Venice with a decent spot to sleep and some delicious Italian gelato. Hope the day was worth the wait Elric!
Day 71: Udine to Venice to Verona
Today it was off to Venice! We felt exploring the iconic town was a must while we were in the area, despite the fact we knew it would be packed full of tourists. We found a free park in the streets of Mestre and got the train into the center, which was surprisingly cheap and really nice. That was the only thing you could really call cheap though, with a half an hour ride on a gondola through canals packed full of speed boats costing 80€ (~NZ$135) and an espresso in Piazza San Marco costing 6.50€ (~NZ$11). It was a pretty town in some ways, and unique in terms of location and structure, but in all honesty the numbers of people in the streets and speed boats and ferries in the canals took away a bit of that uniqueness (and it’s not even peak season). An afternoon was a perfectly ample visit for us anyway. Highlights of the town would probably be eating Cicchetti (Venetian tapas) and drinking prosecco in the small streets , recovering from the intense heat in the shade of the cathedrals and walking into Saint Mark’s Basilica with shorts hanging off my butt to make them long enough to avoid buying a paper skirt for 2€ (beat the system..)
We stayed at The Colombra Camp just out of Verona which was probably the best tent site so far in a quite secluded area (and one of the cheapest too). It was also really eco-friendly with many of the facilities designed in a way to reduce power usage and encourage recycling etc. (it has been pretty hard to find places like this around).
Day 72: Verona to Trento
Exploring Verona turned out to be a much nicer experience than Venice! To be honest I knew absolutely nothing about this town before coming apart from the fact Elemeno P wrote a song about it. That was enough to want to visit. It is the home of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet which is echoed through the town. We could visit the home of Juliet with it’s famous balcony referenced in the play and the supposed sarcophagus of Juliet found underneath the church San Francesco al Corso. The actual story may be legend but wandering around the town did make you feel as though you were a part of the play yourself. The whole town was beautiful with coloured buildings lining the streets, historical monuments and a large Roman Arena in the centre. It was much less touristy and much more vibrant than many other large towns we have visited which was a great surprise.
It was then off to Lago di Garda which according to Google is the top thing to do in Verona despite being a decent drive out of the town (I think the town in a bit underrated in quite a few ways). The south of the lake was incredibly touristy, surrounded by theme parks and massive expensive campgrounds, however the north was absolutely incredible. The clear lake surrounded by grand mountains was stunning, a bit like a large Lake Wanaka in New Zealand, and the town of Riva del Guarda was also a beautiful place to stop with old historic buildings lining the shore. Apparently it’s also a really popular spot for windsurfing, and it would be an incredible place for it… Maybe on the next visit!
Our AirBnB in Trento was a little interesting to say the least, but it was incredibly cheap and our host even made us proper Italian pasta for dinner so no complaints there!
Day 73: Trento to Dolmites to Trento
Pretty much the whole of today was spent roading around the Dolomites, one of the most beautiful parts of Northern Italy with incredible mountains, cliff faces, rocky outcrops, waterfalls and the odd lake spotted throughout. There are several ski resorts here as well which would be incredible to come to in winter. It was a place unlike any others we had seen before, photos just don’t capture it’s magnificence. If we had time we would have loved spend a lot more time exploring around here, but unfortunately with time biting at our heels a big loop on the roads and a little hike was all we had time for.
We were planning to do the Three Peaks of Lavaredo, but unfortunately the road up was closed and we didn’t quite feel like adding 10km of road walking to the hike. Instead we went to Rifugio Cinque Torri for a walk around some interesting rocky outcrops and beautiful views over the valley. The weather wasn’t the best but that just kind of added some drama to an area spotted with old army bunkers and tunnels, remnants of WWI (the Dolomites were an area of fierce combat during this time).
Back to Trento for the night! But with it being impossible to find affordable accommodation in the area this time around we had another night in the comfort of the car (to be honest it was a really good sleep, who really needs a mattress anyway).
Day 74: Trento to Lake Como to Milan
It it’s only a few days before we need to be back in the southwest of France for the summer so it was another big day of driving for us. After being pretty happy about not spending any money on accommodation the night before we splashed out a bit on this amazing vegetarian restaurant we stumbled upon in Sondrio on the way to Lake Como. It was called La Buona Luna, a place that not only serves solely delicious vegetarian and vegan food, but also only uses local, organic and ethically produced ingredients, changes it’s menu daily depending on what is available locally and also hires people who come to Italy as asylum seekers and train them up by their chef. Despite everything being very affordably priced we managed to spend a small fortune… It was all just so good! But we are pretty happy to give money to a place like that, not to mention the fact that it was the only meal we needed all day.
We drove down the west side of Lake Como stopping at a couple of villages along the way; Menaggio, Cernobbio and of course Como. They were all beautiful and felt very much like main spots for wealthy Italian holiday goers and apparently in summer it is impossible to drive anywhere because the traffic is completely stopped on all of the roads. It was still a beautiful place with some pretty towns but the north of Lago di Garda I think still takes the cake.
We stayed just out of Milan ready to explore the following morning!
Day 75: Milan to Lago Maggiore
Our expectations before going to Milan were not too high as I hadn’t heard too much other than seeing a few photos and Elric hadn’t heard the best things about it. However once we arrived we found the city we found it had a lot to offer! The Cathedral in the center is incredibly impressive and several other buildings around give the pace a great character, just wandering the streets for a few hours and taking in the history was a great experience. We aren’t a huge fan of big cities but we enjoyed our visit here (it was also a stunning day so that added to it).
In the afternoon we headed out to Lago Maggiore, another pretty lake but not quite as spectacular as the others we have visited around this same area (I feel like we are becoming experts on northern Italian lakes…)
At the north of the lake we found a really nice and cheap AirBnB for the night. Unfortunately it was right by the main road and it turns out the roads are busy at all hours of the night here… But at least we got to see a beautiful sunset over the mountains from our bedroom window before having a beer to watch the football, can’t complain there.
Day 76: Lago Maggiore to Swiss Alps to Bonneville
Our plan today was to get up early and head off to hike the lakes around the Matterhorn. Apparently the pyramidal shaped mountain is the most photographed mountain in the world so we wanted to have a look to see what all the fuss was all about. However, as we were driving over the Swiss border we could see all of the mountains in the direction of the Matterhorn were hidden in cloud while the area that we were in was bathed in sunlight. So we made the decision to stop at the first trail head that we saw and hike around here instead. Great decision I think. The spot we stumbled upon was stunning with waterfalls, snowy mountain tops and what felt like complete isolation. To be honest I’m not even sure of the exact location we stopped, and I think I’m pretty happy to keep it that way. It just shows that no matter where you go in the mountains here you’ll see incredible things.
Switzerland is insanely expensive, and with next to no money left we kept driving to stay just over the border in France. The roads were absolutely incredible around the Swiss Alps. The mountains, the rivers, the vineyards, all picturesque.
Just over the border we stumbled across some massive glaciers, the largest being the Glacier des Bossons, and as the snow had melted a massive jagged base of ice was left. It was incredibly impressive, I couldn’t take my eyes off it (much more impressive than the incredibly average photos I took of it).
We planned to stay in an AirBnB just over the border in France, but after 4 people in a row cancelled our booking we decided to give sleeping in the car another go for the last time of the trip. This is the first time we have had anyone cancel a booking on AirBnB… Must be France…
Day 76-79: Homeward bound
After such an incredible experience (and empty bank accounts) it was time to head home for the summer. The last few days travelling through the centre of France were more dedicated to resting and visiting friends than new explorations, which was a welcome change. Travelling is amazing, but it will be nice to stay in the same place for a while (not to long though, our hearts belong to the road…)