England is home to some of the oldest wild bluebell woods in the world, and the British get pretty excited about seeing “a blanket of bluebells.” After walking through the woods of Ashridge Estate earlier this May, I see what they mean — it’s a wonderful sight, just a layer of purplish blue spread out as far as you can see, amongst the deadwood of the forest floor and the green trees glowing in the springtime sunlight.
The English bluebell is very delicate, and if you walk on some, the crumpled leaves can’t rally and photosynthesize anymore, so the flowers die, and it can take years for them to grow back. It’s actually illegal to intentionally disturb or uproot bluebells in the United Kingdom. Since about half the world’s bluebells are found here, you can see why they’re so eager to protect the fragile flower.
The walk from Tring train station to the visitor center at Ashridge Estate isn’t complicated, but it’s also not very well signed, so we took a slight detour down one right-of-way path along a field of something green, rather than following the path along a different field, but that just meant we saw something a little different on our walk back to the train station.
The best part about all of this was that we’d been told the bluebells were past their peak and there probably wouldn’t be much to see — even the woman at the visitor center sounded doubtful that the woods were looking so good. All I can say to that is, this has got to be the most beautiful decline I’ve ever seen. The season is short, but if you’re able to get to a British wood in late April/early May, go looking for a blanket of bluebells — it’s worth all the superlatives attached to it.
Driving a car in another country makes me more nervous than it probably should, so I generally try to avoid it, which is how I found myself on a daylong tour in rural Slovenia rather than driving myself through the countryside. Slovenia, as a couple friends had told me, is absolutely beautiful, and it’s not quite popular enough yet to be overrun by tourists, so each place we stopped at was gorgeous and not very crowded.
I joined four guys from the hostel in a van our gregarious tour guide drove around his home turf–a loop from Ljubljana to Predjama Castle, to Škocjan Caves, and Lipica stud farm. Later, a new friend and I from the hostel rejoined the guide to visit the town of Celje and the nearby lake for sunset. It was like a one-day advertisement for Slovenia–and it worked, we were all hooked.
The approach to Predjama Castle looks like just a path up a hillside, with no castle in sight, and then you turn a corner and voila!–a castle built into the mouth of a cave. It’s an impressive construction, and looks about as impregnable as it is. Back in the 15th century, the baron who owned it came under siege but suffered no hardship for a year and a day because of the secret passageway through the caves that allowed him to bring in fresh supplies. A servant betrayed him and he was shot by cannon out of his toilet–an ignoble but also kind of awesome way to go? The castle underwent extensive changes in the next hundred years, and has remained in the Renaissance style ever since the late 16th century.
Škocjan Caves are a World Heritage site, a massive system of underground karst canyons (karst being the type of rocks found here). Reka River flows through some of the largest underground caverns in the world, and you can visit a couple of these caverns on a guided tour. Photos weren’t allowed, because apparently the flash can damage the rock, so we all took a bunch when we saw daylight again and our guide said it was okay. But go ahead and Google some images to get a sense of the size of these caves. They were breathtaking, and the water rushing through was at a magnificent strength and volume as well. I’d say that this is probably the only caving tour you can go on if you’re claustrophobic, since even the smaller areas were pretty comfortable. It’s just a whole city of stalagmites and stalactites and river rapids down there.
After the caves, you can take a pretty direct route back to civilization, or you can do a mini hike through the hilly woods atop the caves. Our guide had scheduled in time for the hike, so we set off, and of course I took the longest. I’m just a slow walker, and I take a lot of photos. I warn people of this, but they always seem surprised anyway.
I was aware that I wasn’t the only one on the tour, so I kept moving, although the scenery was absolutely gorgeous so I was tempted to dawdle. After one last look at the castle across the valley, we got back on the road to our last stop before Ljubljana.
Lipica stud farm is where the Lipizzan horses have their start. These white horses have been bred for centuries to be raised in the Spanish Riding School style of dressage, which is a very specific purpose, and apparently a very expensive one, as these horses are highly prized and the stud farm a place of pride for Slovenia. You can take tours of the grounds, or you can do what we did, which was stop partway up the private drive, get out and stand at the fence and gaze at the horses from there. They were mostly shy with us, but lovely to watch from a distance as they grazed and sedately walked around the huge grounds.
The town of Celje is about an hour’s fast drive northeast of Ljubljana. We walked along the Hudinja River as kids played in the last hours of daylight, we admired the 3/4-life-sized bronze statues scattered around town, and we had a drink in the shadow of buildings in the Viennese style.
One of the statues is of Alma Karlin, a Slovenian traveler and writer who knew over TEN languages. She often wrote in German, until the rise of the Nazis, at which point she stopped writing in German in protest. She traveled around the world for a decade and established a language school, and is clearly someone whose writings I need to read immediately.
We ended the day at Šmartinsko Lake, a manmade lake with irregular borders so it looks more natural. Aside from slapping away mosquitoes, which let’s be honest has been part of every summer evening for me in the Midwest, I sat and had a totally peaceful experience, watching the sky turn pink and the distant hills blue, and seeing it all reflected in the still waters of the lake. Our guide talked about how proud he is of his country and how much he loves Slovenia, and we just nodded along. Look at this place–how could you feel any differently?