After a quick trip in Trieste, we drove back across Italian-Slovenia border for the Škocjan Caves — A UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to one of the largest known underground canyons in the world.
For 16 euros a person (12 euros if you have a student ID), we got ourselves on the 3:30pm tour, which was the last one of the day. The tour begins with a short 5 minute hike downhill through a forest.
At the entrance, they’ll split you up based on your preferred languages (English, Slovenian, Italian or German):
Unlike Postojna Caves which commenced with a cool train ride into the caves, here you walk for about 10 minutes underground to begin your tour.
No photos are allowed to be taken inside, but 2 ways around it is you can use an Apple Watch as a remote camera or hang in the back and take your photos when the tour group turns a corner and nobody’s looking.
The first part is a massive underground lair that’s already larger than anything we saw in Postojna Caves.
…But once you turn the corner to witness the immense canyon known as Big Collapse Doline, you can hear everyone around you gasp.
Recall the scene in The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf screams: “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!!”? This could be the place.
The photographer for Wikipedia and National Geographic obviously broke a few rules to get this shot
After about 30-40 minutes walking along the walls of the canyon and back up a few flights of stairs, the tour concludes at these beautifully and naturally formed Rimstone Pools:
Then it’s down again a few stairs to reach the cave’s entrance, where photo-taking is then officially allowed.
Afterwards you’ll weave around the side of a cliff and take a funicular back up to the parking lot.
By this point it was 5pm, so we drove back an hour back to Ljubljana, said our goodbyes to Ashley as we dropped her off at her hotel (we’ll miss you!) and drove onwards to the airport for our 8:40pm flight to Belgrade.
- At time of posting in Skocjan Caves, Slovenia, it was 11 °C -
Humidity: 89% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: thunderstorms
While we were at Bled yesterday taking the boat ride to the inlet, we befriended a fellow American and NYU student Ashley after teasing her for hogging the front seat and ruining all our photos. We would then find out that she was staying just across the street from our hostel at City Hotel and after a series of other run-ins including one where our driver had to rescue her tour bus after another tour bus crashed into them (no joke, that probably was the biggest news story in Slovenia that day), she would join us later that night for drinks in Ljubljana at the counter-culture neighborhood district of Metelkova (which bears resemblance to Freetown Christiania neighborhood in Copenhagen).
There we crashed a local’s birthday party, got free cake, and then hung out with fellow hostelmate Eric Stonehill back at Hadouta Lounge for more beer, hookah, and jokes that made Mihaela laugh so hard she woke the whole neighborhood up (not an exaggeration).
We eventually turned in at 2am, waking up at 9:30am to a rainy and stormy Ljubljana morning. We decided to rent a car (thanks to Nathaniel who woke up early and picked up our car at the airport) and take a quick roadtrip to nearby Trieste, Italy, because why not. Probably due to a mild form of Stockholm Syndrome, Ashley even joined us for round two.
The trip from Ljubljana only took an hour and by 11am we were at Trieste’s Synagogue, which is one of the largest in Europe and built in 1912.
A few blocks over is Piazza Unità, which is Europe’s largest sea-front square.
At this point it started to pour extremely heavily here as well, which we were not prepared for. Grabbing quick gelatos and ducking back into the car, we opted out of a leisurely walk around town and headed north from Trieste, passing by the Roman Theater that was built in 33-32 BC.
About a 10 minute drive up north from Trieste is Miramare Castle, which we checked out for about 20-30 minutes. Inside is a museum about how rich Italian people used to live, which we didn’t find really interesting.
The rest of the property, however, is pretty.
At this point, Mihaela tried to take a selfie of our group.
We then got back into our car and drove back across the Italian-Slovenian border towards Slovenia’s Skocjan Caves.
- At time of posting in Trieste, Italy, it was 14 °C -
Humidity: 81% | Wind Speed: 21km/hr | Cloud Cover: thunderstorms
After a morning in Lake Bled and an early afternoon at Predjama Castle, it was finally time for the big finale of our day: The Postojna Caves. Spanning 24,340m long and carved by the Pivka River over the course of 2-3 million years, this impressive cave system houses the world’s only underground post office, boasts a concert hall that can fit up to 4,000 people, and is home to the olm, the world’s largest troglodytic amphimbian/salamander.
Arriving at around 3:30pm to make it in time for the last tour of the day at 4:00pm, we were split up into 2 large groups based on language preferences (English or German).
We then were guided to the famous train ride that takes you deep deep within the cave system.
Watch your head! If you haven’t yet seen the video we posted at the top of this entry, this train goes fast and is no joke!
After about a spirited 10 minute train ride, we finally stopped for the obligatory hour and a half guided walking tour through the caves.
It’s stunning inside.
Definitely take your time to ponder the formation of these amazing stalagmites all around you, created slowly over millenias by tiny drops of water carrying limestone and other minerals from the flowing Pivka River above.
It takes an entire century to form a single centimeter of these structures.
At some point you’ll cross the Russian Bridge, named for the Russian prisoners of war during World War I who constructed it.
You’ll then be led through 3 chambers that are arguably the best part of the cave system. The first is Spaghetti Hall, known for its spaghetti like stalagmites that hang from the roof.
Second is the White Hall, named after its beautifully white calcium carbonate stalagmites.
Finally the last one is the Red Hall, obviously named for its reddish stalagmites.
Then go forth and take a photo of Brilliant, the unusual pair of white and red stalagmites that have become the official symbol of the Postojna Caves.
Next you can get a glimpse of the olm on a live-camera (for the babies that just hatched last year) and at the nearby aquarium. These creatures are remarkable for its lifespan of 100 years, having evolved to this point within the forbidding Postojna Caves, and even being able to live for 5-6 years without eating.
Afterwards, test out your singing voice with the remarkable acoustics of Postojna’s concert hall, which can fit up to 4000 guests.
Here you can mail a postcard out from the world’s only underground post office, before boarding your train back to the entrance/exit.
After getting off the train, take a peek over to your left to see the actual culprit responsible for this entire cave system: The Pivka River.
After a serene morning at Lake Bled, we drove south for about an hour and 15 minutes to reach Predjama Castle.
First mentioned in the history books in the late 1200s during the Renaissance period, Predjama Castle was the seat of the knight and robber baron Erazem and became famous for having been built within a cave mouth that allowed it a nearly perfect defensive advantage.
The castle itself has now become a government/state-owned museum of life inside the castle, complete with replicas of the chapel, bed chambers, and even the torture dungeon/execution area.
The views of south Slovenia that you can get from the castle is also as scenic:
Head up from the castle into the cave itself, but don’t get lost inside!
It takes about an hour to see everything here, so from this point we backtracked out from the castle and drove down about 10 minutes southeast for the nearby Postojna Caves.
The car ride takes about 45 minutes north to Bled, a Slovenian resort town in the foothills of the Julian Alps known for its picturesque glacial lake and the natural inlet within. On the inlet is the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Maria with its 90-step staircase and bell tower.
Walk about 5 min through a park to hire a boat that’ll take you across the lake to the inlet.
Walk up the 90 steps from drop off to reach a café and the church.
For 6 euros (4 if you have a student ID), you can head up to the top of the bell tower for decent views.
You can also gain admission inside the humble church itself, where you can ring a wishing bell for good luck.
Just don’t do this:
Afterwards we rowed back out where we drove up to a cliff to reach 11th-century Bled Castle that overlooks the lake.
Take about 30-40 minutes to explore the castle, which houses a few exhibits, a honey store, a printing press, and a small chapel.
I chose to kick back with an iced tea and a sandwich for these views.
“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” – John Steinbeck
Everything seemed like it was going according to plan. After all, I had a minor scare 6 days ago when I nearly missed my flight from JFK to Paris and then again on the way home 4 days ago. So I thought I had learned my lesson: Today after my overnight shift in the Montefiore Pediatric ER ended at 8am, I skipped the nap and left really early from my home to make it for a 2:40pm Air Serbia Flight to Belgrade where we would catch a connecting flight to Ljubljana the next morning.
I also met up with the other monsooners, my high school friend Nathaniel and perennial monsooner Mihaela (this is her 5th monsoon with us this year!) at the airport where we all relaxed at the Wingtips Lounge waiting to board our flight.
By 2:15pm, 25 minutes before departure, the electronic departure screen in the lounge still wasn’t showing any indication of “Go To Gate” or “Boarding” next to our flight (whereas other flights did), so we got a bit suspicious and mosey’ed our way down to the gate by 2:20pm just to check, where we discovered our suspicion was well-founded and that they were indeed boarding this whole time. . . .
. . . . and yet we were still denied entry.
Apparently a long lapse occurred between our arrival and the last person before us, so a very unprofessional and inpatient staff wanted to believe that we bounced, cancelled our seats and gave them away. To make it a perfect storm, there was also a break in communication between Wingtips Lounge and the gate, so we were never informed of the boarding process, either on the electronic departure screen or in person. One had commented “something was wrong with the screen” . . . or something. Needless to say, this was pretty fucked up and we were livid. . . . not that it meant anything to the people at the desk, however.
Either way, the flight was already taking off – even 20 minutes before its scheduled departure – and we were stranded.
But we don’t give up.
From considering flying out on a later Turkish Airlines flight at 7pm via Istanbul (causing us to miss our layover in Belgrade, as well as being stranded at Istanbul’s airport for 8 hours as visas on arrival for USA citizens have been suspended), to flying to Helsinki and joining with another ongoing monsoon led by Taylan (too expensive), we decided for the most convoluted possible flight combinations to keep our plan as close to the original itinerary:
6:05pm – Alitalia flight from JFK to Rome
8:40am – Arrive into Rome
9:35am – Alitalia flight from Rome to Belgrade
11:10am – Arrive into Belgrade, 6 hour layover
6:15pm – Air Serbia flight from Belgrade to Ljubljana
7:40pm – Arrive into Ljubljana
. . . .with identical returns on our way home.
Nathaniel and Mihaela followed suit (there is a Monsoon Diaries’ insurance policy) and we were on our way to Rome.
The flight to Rome was uneventful; I had been up for 25 hours at this point and was able to pass out for most of the flight (which never happens), so that was nice. But when we transferred to our connecting flight to Belgrade (mind you we would have only 55 minutes to do so), the electronic departure screens all around the airport had yet to post a gate number. So we shrugged and instead of standing around, we headed to another part of the airport for the lounge.
But when we noticed that the electronic departure screens in this lounge wasn’t listing our flight at all, we were compelled to ask the staff what was going on. They informed us that “something was wrong with the screen” (sounds familiar?), that our flight was still scheduled to depart (thank god), but that we would need to leave now as it was departing from a gate on the other side of the airport. So we bolted again, not about to take another chance at showing up “too late” to a departing flight. We made it.
When we arrived into Belgrade at 11am, the usual déjà vu hit for someone who just led a monsoon here 2 months ago. The same weird feeling happened with Mihaela: Years ago I had half-jested with Mihaela that I would one day take her to her birthplace of Belgrade on a monsoon. This thought amused her as she didn’t know anyone non-Serbian who would bother to know where Belgrade was on a map, let alone visit for fun (as in her words “nobody goes to Belgrade!”).
Well, guess what: Maybe all this shit was meant to be as I finally got to fulfill a half-joke of a promise I made to her years ago.
Today, at The House of Flowers in Belgrade
The first stop was at Mihaela’s suggestion and what I missed last time I was in Belgrade: To visit the bombed out Chinese embassy that the US-led NATO forces accidentally (to this day it remains controversial whether it was) struck during the Belgrade siege.
Although what’s listed on the internet (aka Wikipedia) insists this embassy is located around the site of The House of Flowers, the cab driver balked: “Fuck what the internet says, I actually lived through the siege!” and took us where the actual bombed out embassy stood in New Belgrade.
He was right.
We then got picked up by another cab driver to take us to the House of Flowers where I waited for Mihaela and Nathaniel to check out Tito’s Mausoleum (I had already visited 2 months ago).
Then we headed onwards to Miahela’s cousin – Belja – and his apartment where we dropped off our bags and got a tour of Belgrade through his eyes.
The first stop was his choice of the “best bureks” in Belgrade as the place we went to 2 months ago was not the “best bureks” but rather the “best pies” in Belgrade. Ok, whatever.
He was right.
Whether it was the raki Belja had served me a few minutes prior at his place, or actual hunger from not having eaten since the shitshow that happened at JFK, this shit I put in my mouth was unreal: I had 2 plates all to myself. And even though I was stuffed after, I wanted more.
Afterwards we walked up through the pedestrian streets and back up to the Belgrade Fortress, where pangs of nostalgia déjà vu just kept hitting me over and over again. I guess I’m that kinda guy.
After some tea and coffee at the fortress, we cabbed it back to Belija’s apartment at 4pm, picked up our bags, and headed onwards to the airport to make it to our 6:05pm flight to Ljubljana.
Arriving at the airport at 4:45pm and more than an hour before departure, we thought the hard part was behind us and Ljubljana was within our reach. Except that again, our flight to Ljubljana was nowhere to be seen on the electronic departure screens. What the hell was going on? Is this a sign?
But when we asked nearby staff, they reassured us that “something was wrong with the screen” (uhh, again?!) and that we should be able to check in. So we did, and after waiting about 30 minutes on a line that barely moved, we started to get nervous. Once near the front, the entire computer system crashed. Every screen at the check-in counter went blank (how’s that for “something wrong with the screen”!), conveyor belts stopped, staff looked absolutely bewildered.
Never again, Air Serbia (well, except when we need you to head back home in 2 days).
As we waited for the system to reboot, we also noticed a suspicious looking box just lying there next to us; as Nathaniel said “the epitome of ‘If you seen something, say something.’”
So we informed them. And they did nothing. Fair enough.
By this time it was about 20 minutes left before departure and we still hadn’t checked into our flight and gotten our tickets. Luckily for us, however, this was an airport-wide problem this time and all the passengers that were in our boat for other destinations joined in a united front to keep the flights delayed for us.
And so they did, moving us to another part of the airport to check in, which we finally got to do, and after a quick passport and security check afterwards, we boarded our fight to Ljubljana at 6:10pm (5 minutes after the scheduled departure), taking off at 6:35pm.
We would get into Ljubljana at 7:30pm, touching down 11 hours after the originally planned itinerary… but after gaining an 6 extra hours that we got to spend Mihaela and her cousin in their hometown, I’d say the delay may have been still well worth it.
Lessons learned today:
Trust a human (aka don’t trust what you see on the departure screens, don’t trust what the internet says about where a bombed out building could be)
Fly Air Serbia with extreme caution
Travel with us, and we’ll get you there.
That box is still probably there.
Once we were off the plane, we quickly headed out through probably Europe’s smallest arrivals hall (aka it’s a café that gives out travel brochures).
Be wary of the cabs you get here, as you might get one with a meter that charges you up to 70 euros just to get into the city, as it should only be 25-30 euros (once again we got unlucky!).
Once we settled into our hostel at England Pub, we immediately befriended the 2 other Americans staying with us — one of whom, Swathi, has 3 mutual friends with me (and one of these mutual friends being my colleague and co-resident!). SMALL WORLD.
Kidnapping Swathi, we had her take us to Pogacarjev trg which is a 5 minute walk away to check out Odprta Kuhna (“Open Kitchen”), a seasonal open-air food market that runs every Friday from March to October 27th from 10am to 9 or 10pm and always features stalls representing the city’s top 50 best restaurants.
After getting food here we walked around the completely pedestrianized streets of Ljubljana, which charm and easygoing vibe immediately made this one of my favorite European capital cities to wander.
Our first “stop” was to see the city’s famous Triple Bridge, which is exactly that, a series of 3 adjacent bridges right next to each other that span over a small canal.
Then a mild detour to Republic Square:
Then we walked back into the city to check out Dragon Bridge, known for featuring its dragon statues at the ends (Ljubljana’s city symbol is the dragon):
And then it was a nightcap to relive my all-time favorite hobbies while traveling: open-air hookah. Luckily there is such a place for that at Hadouta Lounge facing the Ljubljana Train Station.
After what we’ve been through the past 24 hours, this was a perfect celebration well-deserved.
–ADDENDUM: October 21, 2017–
After a spirited daytrip with Slovenia Explorers visiting Lake Bled, Predjama Castle, and The Postojna Caves the next day, we returned to Ljubljana later that night to check out Ljubljana Castle before it closed at 8pm. Adding it here because it totally makes sense to include this in your tour around Ljubljana. Don’t miss it!
After returning from The Postojna Caves at 6:45pm, we bought 10 euro tickets to access the castle funicular and tower/museum.
The funicular takes you up to the castle in seconds.
In addition to the decent museum exhibits here, you should really come for the views. The first spot is the viewing terrace:
But even better are the views from the tower. You’ll need your admission ticket to enter.
There’s also a chapel next door to the tower:
And an ancient Roman well that was discovered during the construction of the castle. Parts of it have been preserved within the castle grounds.
After about 45 minutes here, we headed back down to the city and took a cat nap back at the hostel to recharge after a long day.
- At time of posting in Ljubljana, Slovenia, it was 9 °C -
Humidity: 88% | Wind Speed: 2km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear