Koper is a lovely little town on the edge of a wide bay surrounded by hills. It makes me think of Wellington, but it has an Italianate feel to it, as does this whole area, which has been batted about over the centuries and was for many of them under Venetian control. Italian is widely spoken, most people bilingual, and all place names and signs are in both languages.
We hit the town early, as does a ship of cruisers. It’s not Bled, although the sound of English accents throws me for a while. We’re in the visitor centre when the bells start ringing, a crescendo of sound that reverberates around the town square for full on five minutes. I can hardly hear the man speaking to me but he doesn’t seem to notice them. Neil and I are halfway up the bell tower when it dawns on me – Bell Tower! I glance at my watch – a couple of minutes to the quarter hour. We hare up the remaining steps, squeezing past the bells and through the door to the terrace just before a single note sounds.
The view from the top is worth the 200-odd steps, across the bay and hills towards distant mountains. Ships queue into the haze over the bay (Koper is Slovenia’s only port). A faint breeze barely tickles my skin, the air hot and humid, thunder clouds already gathering on the hills. They linger all day, glowering on the town, a few large drops occasionally suggesting what they are capable of. In the afternoon we cycle around the bay to a rocky beach, cooling off in a sea that is much warmer than any we are used to at home.
Slovenia has only a short stretch of coastline so locals flock to it in summer, as do tourists. Piran, a small town a short distance from Koper, mitigates the impact by banning all but local cars from its streets. We cycle along the coast, our own movement creating a cooling breeze, arriving before the crowds. The town square hosts some stunning architecture, remnants of Venetian control, and above, crenelated remnants of town wall snake across the hills.
It’s a warm climb away from the growing crowds. Below, tiny people mass in the square, masts line up along the quay in the harbour, and the sea sparkles blue around the peninsula. Behind, olive trees dot the hills and tall slender cypresses are scattered around. If you tell me I’m in Tuscany, I’ll believe you. It’s no surprise it’s so popular, it really is beautiful.
As we pass the bell tower on the way down we hear an American lady: the bells don’t ring any more do they? I stifle a smile as the host explains that, yes, they do, every quarter hour. Sloveniens like their bells and, whether a tourist is standing right next to them or not, they will ring.
It’s not so easy to escape the crowds at Postojna cave, one of the biggest cave systems in Europe. It lies on our route between the coast and Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, so it’s no hardship to join the crowds where a little train takes you 4km deep into the earth. I dislike being underground but the natural sculptures here make me forget that I am. They are stunning, huge mounds of rock grown into rounded stalagmites, their counterpart pointed stalactites hanging high above them. Oxides have coloured them red, yellow, orange.
Sadly it’s been ‘touristed’, a flat concrete path leading around between curtains of silica, chandeliers (seriously!) hanging in a huge cave that, frankly, detract from the beauty when subtle lighting would highlight it. The groups are large and I can hardly hear what the guide tells us over the voices of the chattering masses. One young man plays a video game as he walks, not looking up at all. It costs twenty euros to get in here!
Every direction I look there’s another stunning sight. The roof of one cave is pure white, untainted by oxides or environment, needle-thin stalactites hanging like threads from a silk scarf, drops of water at their ends glistening like diamonds. It looks like a jewel encrusted wedding dress. My neck is sore before I tire of looking up at it.
The final stop before we get the train back to daylight is a huge cavern, the acoustics so perfect it is used for concerts. As we approach I hear singing – clearly the group ahead of us includes some talented singers. It adds to the amazing beauty of this place. Then we turn the corner to see the glass wall of a large, brightly lit, gift shop that we have to pass through to catch the train back to daylight.
A couple of miles away there’s a first for me – a castle that has been built into a cave in the cliff face. Predjama Castle doesn’t draw the crowds as much as the underground spectacle but they are really missing something. It feels cold (let’s be honest, most castles do) and more than a little damp in places, but it’s an amazing structure, rooms with the gorgeous view of the valley one side and, behind, the rough wall of the cliff.
There’s a dungeon – with remarkably lifelike figures hanging from torture instruments – and a secret passageway by which the besieged inhabitants (one the Slovenian Robin Hood) brought supplies into the castle, confusing the enemy with their ability to withstand a long siege. It’s like a maze, bits added over the centuries by various feudal families, and we jostle and bump with others as we twist our way up and down stairs and in and out of small rooms, all holding ‘phones’ to our ears as we listen to the audio tour.
At the top, castle morphs fully into cave – the first version of the castle was merely a wall built across the front of a huge cavern that climbs up and into the hillside. There’s the sound of trickling water somewhere in the darkness.