Saturday, August 31, 2013
Skocjan Caves, Slovenia / Motovun and Rovinj, Croatia

Today we leave Slovenia. Oh, no! I love it here. But first another big plate of eggs, cold cuts, and cheese for the road.

At 11:00 we checked out, settling our bill with a credit card. Notably, this is the only accommodation of the trip that accepts plastic. Once we got to Croatia, it was cash only. I don't know if they're hiding income from the government or what. We ran into the cash-only policy at many of the restaurants in Croatia as well. That's a lot of kuna we had to carry around.

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Ubiquitous hay rack, Slovenia

On our way out of Slovenia today, we're stopping in karst country, famous for its caves. It took us an extra hour to get past Ljubljana on this Saturday. The A1 was jammed with German tourists, their cars loaded down with gear. They were probably headed to the coast for the week for an end-of-summer blowout.

We made it to Park Skocjanske jame just in time for the 1:00 tour of the Skocjan Caves. The tour starts with a 10-minute walk to the entrance, where they split everyone into two language groups, English or Italian. Not enough Slovenian-only speakers, I guess, to even bother! The tour takes about an hour and a half. You walk 3 kilometers through the caves and traverse 500 steps. No photos are allowed in the cave, so I only took a couple.

The tour begins in the Silent Cave, a series of dry caves with cool formations and impressive large caverns. Then you continue into the Murmuring Cave, a wet cave with growing formations, each cavern more impressive than the last, with a huge underground river, the Rika, running through it! Near the end, you reach the tallest cavern in Europe, where you cross a bridge 150 feet above the river. I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie.

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Inside Skocjan Caves

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Inside Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

You emerge from the cave at the bottom of a vast sinkhole with waterfalls and lush vegetation. It takes at least another half hour to hike steeply back uphill to where you first began. There is a funicular for a small assist in regaining altitude, but it's a pretty strenuous hike just getting to it. You can then walk over to a viewing area overlooking Velika Doline, the giant sinkhole/collapse doline that you just climbed out of. These might be the coolest caves we've ever visited!

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Exiting the caves, inside Velika Doline

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Velika Doline from above

We crossed the border at Socerga, Slovenia / Pozane, Croatia, into the region of Istria, a large peninsula jutting into the Adriatic at the northwest end of Croatia. Over the years, Istria has been controlled by Illyrians, Romans, Byzantines, Slavs, Venetians, and Austrians. After World War I, Istria became part of Italy. Then after World War II, Istria joined Yugoslavia, until 1991, when Croatia declared its independence. There's still a large Italian community in residence, and Italian is the second language on the peninsula.

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Our first glimpse of the sea

Motovun is a picturesque little hilltop town (population 983) in central Istria. As one of the benefits of traveling in shoulder season, we were lucky enough to park near the top of the hill. If it was peak tourist season, we'd have been in for another long, steep hike. From the top of the medieval town walls, we had a sweeping view of the surrounding countryside, with olive trees, fig trees, and vineyards as far as the eye could see.

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Motovun, Croatia

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Cafe culture

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View from Motuvun town walls

For the most part, there are two kinds of accommodations for visitors to Croatia, expensive high-end hotels or reasonably priced private apartments/rooms called sobe. Prices for the sobe throughout our stay in Croatia ranged from $47 to $67 per night. Hotels would have cost a LOT more.

Tonight we're staying in Rovinj, a port city on the west coast of Istria, just across the Adriatic from Venice, at Apartment Suran. We drove right to the address but still couldn't spot the place. With the help of three different neighbors, we were directed to the side door of a building, behind a pizzeria, where we found the word “Suran” written in very small print above a buzzer. We buzzed in and were shown to our apartment for the night. We'd reserved only a room, but the owner showed us to a full apartment. He explained that though we'd have the apartment to ourselves, to please not use the kitchen since we weren't paying extra for it. I used the fridge anyway.

After a while, we walked the mile or so to the Old Town, getting there just after dark. Rovinj is wonderfully charming, with a harbor packed with boats, lovely old buildings right on the water, and narrow, winding, cobblestone streets and alleys to wander. Now I feel like I've been to old Italy. We spent a couple of hours wandering up and down the cobblestone lanes, listening to street musicians and enjoying the ambiance.

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Romantic Rovinj

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Very Venetian

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Old Italy or current Croatia?

The restaurants in the Old Town were expensive and uninspiring, so we found a place to eat on the way back to our soba, Restaurant Pineta. Lots of locals were eating here, always a good sign. Tom ordered a pizza with ham, and I ordered “mixed meat” and fries. Again, I thought I might get something exotic, but the mixed meat was a pork chop, another piece of pork, a small hamburger patty, and two small ground-beef sausages. Good and greasy! The meat was served with a yummy condiment called ajvar, made from mashed roasted red peppers and eggplant. The food was good. The Ozujsko Toceno beer was average.

We got back to the apartment around midnight, stopping first to pick up a bottle of “Marco Polo” red wine at the supermarket next door. I really wanted some more of that blueberry fortified wine like we'd had in Slovenia, but I never found it again.

Continue to September 1, 2013

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