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In Slovenia October 2013 PDF Printable Version E-mail


Travelling with a Sprinter Van, Lunar Caravan and Paul Hewitt Bicycles

Margaret and Barry Williamson
October 2013

(Continued from: Travels in Austria September 2013


After a winter in Spain and Portugal, May in England and June in Ireland, we took the Stena Line ferry in early July 2013 from Harwich to the Hook of Holland to begin our journey through northern Europe. The initial focus was on cycling the Fietspads of the Netherlands and the Radwege of Germany; later we moved further east into Austria, following the line of the Danube to Vienna before turning south into Slovenia.   



Klosterneuburg nr Vienna, to Camping Center Kekec, Maribor, Slovenia - 175 miles, elevation 985 ft

Open all year. www.cck.si ACSI Card rate €17 inc tax and 16 amp elec. Free showers. Free WiFi. N 46.5355 E 15.60508

The first day of October was warm and sunny, following a dull cloudy weekend – a new month and a new country lay ahead. Escaping Vienna was busy and complicated: along B14 towards the city for 5 miles, then over the Danube North Bridge to join A22 southwards, recross the river on A23 and finally joinA2 at 15 miles, heading past the airport and Wiener Neustadt towards Graz.  Paused at Guntramsdorf service station at 24 miles to check tyres and drink coffee, then on to Loipersdorf services for a lunch stop. The restaurant, packed with an American tour group, only offered an expensive a la carte menu with waiter service, so we made a sandwich. At Graz, after 131 miles, exited onto A9 and continued south into Slovenia.

Gralla, the last Austrian services before the border, sold the Slovenian motorway Vignette - €15 for a week, €30 for one month or €95 for a year – pay with Euros or credit card. This applies to vehicles up to 3.5 tons (no extra payment for a caravan, nor is the caravan's weight taken into account). Vehicles over 3.5 tons do not buy a Vignette but have to pay individual tolls along the motorways as they pass checkpoints!

Armed with a one-month Vignette, we crossed the frontier at 157 miles, elevation1,000 ft, after a lovely drive through Austria (up to 2,500 ft). After 13 Slovenian miles, we took exit 5 (Maribor Centre), turned left and followed the SatNav (and brown signs for a ski lift - but not a campsite) through the busy streets of Slovenia's second largest city. We noticed that fuel was considerably cheaper than Austria.

The newly created little campsite, to the west of the city near the foot of a ski run, came as a pleasant surprise, with tidy level pitches, excellent facilities and a very friendly owner.    

At Maribor

Maribor is on the River Drava (a tributary of the Danube) in the northeast corner of Slovenia, bordered by Austria, Hungary and Croatia. It's a wine-producing area and we were given free bunches of red and white grapes from the camp's own vines - very sweet and distinctive in flavour. See www.visitmaribor.si.

There are a few shops just 5 minutes' walk from the site, including a bakery, post office, a small supermarket with bank machine, and a hairdresser run by twin sisters and their mother. The twins gave us each coffee and a good haircut while practising their English.

At the nearest Hofer (= Aldi) store 4 km away, amongst 'foreign' goodies like marzipan Stollen cake we found several 2-hour episodes of 'Midsomer Murders' on DVD at €1.99 each, in English with a choice of Croat, Slovene and Serbian subtitles. They must given a strange impression of English village life!

The Hotel Merano, near the campsite entrance, was an excellent place for lunch or dinner, with home-made bread and desserts and a glass of local wine: very reasonably priced and a young English-speaking barman. In fact, everyone we met was extremely helpful and friendly, while telling us of the country's current problems of unemployment and youth migration to Austria in search of work.

There was a local bus service into the centre of Maribor, that lies on the north side of the river, or an easy ride on a marked cycle path to and across the Glavni Most bridge (see below).


Into and around Maribor, and along Drava River to Jelovec and back (33 km) – From the campsite 'Cycle Route D2' starts as a gravel track, bypassing the local shopping centre and roundabout, then follows the main road into Maribor on a separate safe pavement. We were impressed by this provision for cyclists (compare with England!) After crossing the Glavni Most bridge, we took the 'Drava Cycling Route' westwards. A pleasant ride past the old vine house (home to Europe's oldest living vine) and through park land until the riverside cycle path ended abruptly at Jelovec, where the route joined busy main road no 1 towards Dravograd and Austria.

Returning to Maribor we explored its partly pedestrianised old centre, with city hall and plague monument, cathedral, university (hence an excellent bookshop), castle/museum, Franciscan church, wine cellars and market place, complete with hot chestnut vendors. It was warm enough to sit outside a pavement café enjoying excellent coffee and cakes (as good as Austria's at a much lower price!)

Then we crossed the Drava on a footbridge and cycled the riverside footpath east for a short way until the waterfront became industrial. We paused to admire the work of two artists who had set up their easels to paint an almost Parisian scene of the wide river curving away beneath the bridges and the old town across the water. Very rive gauche, though we're on the right bank. A Slovenian cyclist (from Ljubljana, the capital) stopped to talk, saying it was indeed a nice country for tourists but not to live in any longer. He bitterly blamed the EU and especially the Euro currency – sentiments often heard. Turning back, we took quiet roads to rejoin 'Cycle Route D2' to the campsite, rounding off a lovely afternoon with an excellent chicken dinner at the Hotel Merano.

A Drive to Dravograd

On an overcast morning we took a drive westwards along the north side of the Drava to Dravograd (40 miles from camp), looking out for signs of the Drava Cycle Route beyond Jelovec. There were none. Here, just 8 miles from the Austrian border, we searched for a bite to eat. The two cafes only served drinks, the only food available being a pizza slice or a burek (greasy cheese pie) from the bakery but they were neither hot nor tempting. The Tourist Office had closed for lunch and the town was a depressing contrast with vibrant Maribor. We headed back, shopping at another Hofer (Aldi) store on the way.

Winter Planning – Greece?

With reliable free WiFi (therefore free Voipwise phone calls), we spent some time forward planning for the winter months. It was hard to decide whether to continue south through Italy to Sicily, or take a ferry to Greece from Trieste or Venice, or indeed whether to leave the caravan on site and take a side-trip in the Sprinter to Croatia first. How fortunate we are to be able to have such choices!

After some research, we provisionally booked a 'camper deal' (free cabin and meal) with Minoan Lines, running 3 times a week fromTrieste via Ancona and Igoumenitsa to Patras, with the unsocial departure time of 0530 hrs. Tickets to be paid for on collection in Trieste, leaving time to reconsider. See www.minoantrieste.it, then phone the agents Hellenic International on +39040363242 for the best deal. They offered a better fare than the ANEK ferry from Venice.

Keeping up with the News

Barry now starts every day with the Guardian thanks to a Kindle subscription, supplemented by Radio 4 when we have good free WiFi, as here. As well as the usual news programmes and plays, we listened to an excellent tribute to Seamus Heaney who died at the end of August – 'Yeats and Heaney: A Terrible Beauty'.

Maribor to Camping Danica Bohinj, Bohinjska Bistrica - 122 miles, elevation 1,690 ft

Open all year. www.camp-danica.si  ACSI Card rate €17 inc tax and 6 amp elec. Free showers. Free WiFi. N 46.27438 E 13.94798

The warm weather turned showery as we followed signs for Ljubljana to join the A1 motorway heading southwest. At the toll points for vehicles over 3.5 tons, we drove straight through in the 'Vignette' lane. It was a lovely journey through sheep-dotted hillsides and woodland, climbing to 3 short tunnels at about 1,780 ft near Trojane, with splendid scenery in the Alpine foothills. After 70 miles we exited onto the H2 dual carriageway ring road, to circle to the north of Ljubljana. At 77 miles we took the A2 northwards, pausing for lunch 12 miles later on the services at Kranj, near the capital's airport.

Mountains loomed out of the low cloud ahead and around us as we took exit 16 (Lesce) at 105 miles. Then we drove west, through picture-perfect Bled along its misty lake with an island church, all set beneath a towering pinnacle topped by a castle. We've previously stayed on seasonal Camping Bled at the head of the lake but now we drove southwest, a gentle climb following river and railway up the Bistrica Valley to the village of Bohinj, popular with walkers, and its riverside municipal campsite.

Outside the high season, reception is only open from 5-6 pm but the 'Allo Allo' pub at the camp entrance opened the barrier and supplied a key to open an electricity box! The restaurant next to 'Allo Allo' offered a gourmet menu featuring local trout, venison and game – at gourmet prices. The rambling campsite has a lovely setting by the clear shallow River Bistrica, though the grassy pitches were very muddy and heavy rain still fell. We joined just 4 other vans near the small winter facilities block, which was heated and clean, and checked in when the receptionist arrived.

At Bohinjska Bistrica

Our intention was to walk, cycle and drive in the Julian Alps, site of Slovenia's highest peak, Triglav (at 2864 m or 9,451 ft), but the weather was against us.

Next morning a fine shower misted the still landscape. We took a 5-minute stroll into the village to shop at the Mercator supermarket, with a treat of a hot roast chicken. The Tourist Office had a range of free leaflets covering the local highlights, such as walks to two waterfalls, a boat trip across the lake and a cycle route. We hoped it would dry up in the afternoon but the forecast was not promising.

In fact it poured more heavily as the wind rose and shook the trees into a realisation of autumn. Watching the river rising rapidly, we decided to retreat to Ljubljana next morning unless the rain stopped.

Bohinjska Bistrica to Ljubljana Resort (Hotel & Camping), Ljubljana - 45 miles

Open mid-March to mid-Oct and 20-31 Dec. www.ljubljanaresort.si  ACSI Card rate €17 inc tax and 16 amp elec, plus €2 'registration fee' on first night. Free showers. WiFi €2 for 24 hrs (or free near Reception).  N 46.09752 E 14.51870

After a night of steady rain, yesterday's calm clear river was rushing turbulently past the windows, our pitch thick with mud and fallen leaves. With regret, we packed up and left before the Bistrica broke over its banks. There was fresh snow on the surrounding peaks.

It was 17 miles down through Bled to the A2 at Lesce, then 25 miles along the wet motorway to exit 13 for Ljubljana. Follow signs or SatNav for another 3 miles to the so-called Ljubljana Resort, consisting of a muddy campsite and some hostel-like cabins offering B&B to groups and backpackers. The heated pool complex, fitness room and other advertised attractions are all closed off-season.

The off-hand receptionist demanded two passports (as well as ACSI ID card and ACSI discount card) before we could drive in. We insisted she photocopy and return the passports. She also told us the barrier would be locked from 1 pm to 4 pm, with no entry or exit. This proved quite untrue, as it was only lowered at night. 

The toilet/shower facilities were basic, unheated and miserably cold, the only reason to stay here being easy access by bike or bus to Slovenia's charming little capital. Or, in our case, the campsite's proximity to a Mercedes commercial vehicle garage, known to our Sprinter van from a previous visit to Slovenia.

It was already noon and still raining as we quickly settled the caravan, had lunch and took the Sprinter round to AutoVommerce, less than 3 miles away - the site of various vehicle repairers, dealers, tyre and exhaust specialists. Our van had not been running well since Austria but the Friday-afternoon mechanic at the Mercedes workshop could not identify the cause. His English/German speaking manager was apologetic and made no charge.

At Ljubljana

The city (its name meaning 'lovely') is well worth a visit, the sights including an impressive castle and architect Plecnik's dragon bridge over the Ljubljanica River. See www.visitljubljana.si. We might have cycled in to revisit the old centre but rain continued to pour all the next day, so we stayed on site catching up with laundry, baking and writing. A short drive for a fill of diesel and a visit to the local Lidl demonstrated that the Sprinter had not been improved by the mechanic's tweaking.

In the evening there was a surprise knock on our door – we had been recognised by Ann Speirs, a motorhomer who has kindly put some of her adventures onto our own website (A Broad Abroad). It was lovely to meet in person and we were only sorry that she was leaving early next morning – as were we, since the campsite (though not the 'hotel') was about to close until December.

Ljubljana to Camping Center Kekec, Maribor - 78 miles, elevation 985 ft

Open all year. www.cck.si ACSI Card rate €17 inc tax and 16 amp elec. Free showers. Free WiFi. N 46.5355 E 15.60508

After much discussion and deliberation, we decided to return to the comfortable campsite at Maribor and seek a second opinion about the Sprinter from another Mercedes garage. At least it had stopped raining and the sun appeared as we drove south to join the H3 Ring, then east to meet the A1: 4 miles in all. Driving back to Maribor, with a lunch break on the motorway services, we took the first Maribor exit for the now familiar route to the campsite, tucked away below the hills of the ski resort (see the beginning of this article).

Settling back in, we very much appreciated our surroundings and the excellent free WiFi, enabling us to listen to Evelyn Waugh's 'Sword of Honour' serialised on Radio 4.

Back at Maribor

Next morning we visited the Mercedes commercial vehicle garage in the automotive area of Maribor and made an appointment for the following day. Then on to the Bauhaus shopping centre (on the way to the motorway) with OBI (a German DIY emporium) and Leclercs supermarket. The cashier in Leclercs proudly told us there are only two of these 'French stores' in Slovenia, the other being in Ljubljana.

Early next morning, we left the Sprinter at the garage for inspection, then walked into the city (about 2 miles), with a coffee break at the Europark shopping mall before Titov Most bridge. Too cold for loitering in the pedestrianised old town, we kept warm browsing an excellent bookshop and drinking more coffee until Rado, the Mercedes garage foreman, rang, speaking patiently in German. After a taxi ride back, we learnt of suspected problems with the 4 injectors, or the turbo, or both. These components would be very time-consuming and expensive to replace, with no guarantee of success – time for further discussion and deliberation!

Back at the campsite, we consoled ourselves with an excellent meal at the nearby Hotel Merano, where the attentive young waiter remembered us. The lunch menu (1-4 pm) has the option of adding soup & salad for an extra €1 per person.

Then we began checking out options and prices for a replacement van - perhaps another Mercedes Sprinter, or a Ford Transit, or a Renault Master? We soon discovered, in the words of our mentors Darren and Martin at Motorhome Medics in Cheltenham, 'if you snooze, you lose'. Every suitable van found on-line was sold by the time we phoned the dealer and we really didn't want to drive back to England unless we had something lined up. After a day of this frustration Martin suggested a VW Crafter, we found a suitable 2010 model still for sale and the Motorhome Medics offered to inspect and test drive it, then pay a deposit if they thought it a good'un.

While considering this option, fate intervened in the shape of an urgent email from Barry's niece concerning his older brother, Michael. We needed to be in Hull (Barry's native city, still home to the rest of the family). In a flurry of phone calls and emails, we arranged to drive back as quickly as possible. The owner at Camping Kekec was very helpful, offering to store the caravan free of charge if we wanted to leave it. We decided against this, uncertain how long we might be away and where we would eventually spend the winter.

Return to England in late October 2013

And so the ailing Sprinter towed the caravan, with minimal overnight stops, through Austria, Germany, Belgium and into France for the Dunkirk-Dover ferry: a journey of around 900 miles. Arriving in England, we left the caravan at Camping Briarfields in Cheltenham and deposited the Sprinter with Motorhome Medics, who had our smart new VW Crafter ready and waiting, complete with tow bar. It proved a pleasure to drive on its first journey: 180 miles of motorway up to Hull.

Michael's funeral on 5 November was a very personal and moving Humanist service arranged by his wife, Sheila, and their 5 children. It was followed by a grand reunion with the extensive family (11 grandchildren and 3 young great-grandchildren), who made us long-lost travellers very welcome. There was much to reflect on after a strange sad day.

(to be continued)