Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Former Yugoslavia -- Slovenia

Bled Island on Lake Bled near the town of Bled (in Slovenia)

Our last destination in the Former Yugoslavia was Slovenia.  That's Slovenia.  NOT Slovakia.  This small country of just over 2 million inhabitants is probably best known to the outside world for its presidential brides (Melania Trump) and Olympian ski jumpers.  Beyond the iconic Lake Bled (pictured above and on every tourist brochure), a varied playground beckons the tourist; within a small region, there are alpine mountains, Adriatic coast, medieval towns, giant underground caves, vineyards, thermal spas, and agricultural fields.  Centuries of foreign rule is evidenced in the architecture and culture.  An extremely short war resulted in independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, and an efficient and progressive government assured a relatively rapid and successful bid for EU membership.  According to Rick Steves, Slovenia is unique for its haystacks, beehives, and polka. My agrarian genes are behind me at this point, so I don't have much interest in the former two, but growing up in Wisconsin has hardwired my body to polka.

Gelato in Portoroz
The desserts and gelato are outstanding.  We happily explored the cream cakes in Lake Bled, the desserts of the riverfront cafes in Ljubljana, and the gelato of the seaside cafes in Portoroz.   All of these cafes were set against a backdrop of natural beauty; it was no wonder that we met Western Europeans moving to Slovenia.  Unfortunately for my love of linguistics, excellent English was prevalent..

Skrbovinca in Ljubljana

Slovenia is one of the most disabled-friendly countries on the planet.  In 2018, the capital city of Ljubljana was named the second most accessible city in the EU (first place went to Lyon, France).  Coming out of the accessible restroom in downtown Ljubljana, I met Emir Okanovic, who was on a break from his work at "Skrbovinca," an old town gift shop which sells handicrafts made by Slovenian residents with disabilities.  Emir told me that the accessibility of Ljubljana, and indeed of Slovenia, was a conscious policy derived with the support of the city and national government in recognition of the aging of the population and the economic logic of accessibility.

Accessible train in Ljubljana

Accessible car in Ljubljana
The center of Ljubljana is flat and pedestrianized.  The cobblestones have low profiles.  There is free parking by the Ljubljana Castle, and the gondola ride down from the castle to the old town is free for people with disabilities. Public transport in green electric cars and trains is wheelchair accessible,

Designated wheelchair restroom
in Old Town Ljubljana

Free "wheelchair trailer" in

There are locked and designated wheelchair-accessible toilets in the center of town; if you don't have a Eurokey for access, you can get one at the Skrbovinca shop or wait in front of the restroom doors where guards at the other end of a camera can buzz you in.  The tourist office offers a city map created specifically for disabled tourists, and there is a downloadable app for your phone, entitled Ljubljana by wheelchair.  If that isn't enough, the main tourist office offers free use of a "wheelchair trailer" -- actually a power assist bike handle and third wheel (made in Slovenia) that attaches to the front of most manual wheelchairs and goes incredibly fast.  It's available during office hours for a refundable deposit.

Villa Pacug: a thoroughly
wheelchair-accessible hotel
(complete with ceiling tracks
and lifts) near the Adriatic Sea
This inclusive attitude extends throughout the country.  The Slovenian tourist agency website includes a webpage dedicated specifically to accessible travel.  The same group that wrote the "Ljubljana by Wheelchair" app has created a web directory especially for people with mobility impairments for all of Slovenia, "Pridem." There is a strong and active "Association of Paraplegics," which provides information to tourists.  In addition, the association owns several adapted and accessible vacation rooms and houses, including Villa Pacug, which is equipped with its own therapy room, disabled rooms, and electric hoists and tracks(  No Limits Tours offers tours, hotels, van transportation, and equipment (including wheelchairs, hoists, and sit skis).

Row boat ride in Lake 
As do all good tourists in Slovenia, we spent a day in the town of Lake Bled.  The town is filled with tourists, but for good reason.  With Bled Castle perched on the mountains above and Bled Island scenically positioned in the middle of Lake Bled, the scenery is superb even in the rain.  Tourists often ride the Pletna boats to the island in the middle of the lake and then climb 99 steps to ring the church bell.  Obviously, that's a bit tricky with a wheelchair.  I read about one wheelchair user who was lifted into the Pletna boat, but I read a few more suggestions by wheelchair users to skip the non-accessible boats and steps and to just admire the island from the shore.  Having an able-bodied and willing husband and brother as traveling companions, we decided to select another option and make the rental rowboats work.  With able-bodied people ferrying from the boat rental dock to the public dock (where I waited), and me not caring how it looked, we made it work -- dumping me in the back of a row boat with my husband and one of the teenagers, while my brother ran my wheelchair from the public dock to the car.  We then paddled to the island, where my husband disembarked and climbed the stairs to the church bell, while we rowed around the island.  On the way back, I even managed to row a little, but lacking core muscles, that was nearly a disaster, so it didn't last long.

Bled offers other accessible opportunities, which we didn't  experience: There is a path around the lake, which is sometimes packed gravel and sometimes paved. I have read that it takes a couple of hours to circumnavigate, and there are a couple of challenges -- one short stretch where stairs send you out to ride the road a bit, and one steep hill to climb-- but the route is ultimately accessible. We did not visit Bled Castle either, but I have read that it is accessible.

We ended our visit at one of the many lakeside cafes, enjoying the famed local cream cake.  We sat at the Panorama Cafe (which has an accessible restroom, besides the tasty desserts).

Julian Alps up the road from Bled

Planice ski jumps

Had it been clear, we would have then driven to Lake Bohinj and tried to go up the Vogel Cable Car (still not sure if it's accessible).  Instead, we proceeded up the road to the northwest, alongside the paved bike path, through the Julian Alps, stopping to build stone dams (kids) and then view the Olympian-producing year-round Planice ski jumps near Kranskja Gora.

Slovenian Music Evening -- 5 hours of polka!
Not far from Bled, the descendants of Slavko Avsenik carry on his musical tradition, which started in 1953 with the first Avsenik Ensemble. The first family of Slovenian polka offers a Slovenian Music Evening once a month. The accordion player was magical and the multi-generational audience was captivated -- singing and dancing to nearly five hours of polkas and waltzes. The food was traditional Slovenian, the guests were almost all Austrian, and the songs were half in Slovenian and half in German. Unbelievably, there was even vegetarian food and a wheelchair-accessible restroom. I was blissed out all evening!

Postojna Cave
Postojna Cave

The following day was still rainy, so we headed underground.  We drove to the karst region in the southwest, to Postojna Cave.  I've heard that Skocjan Cave is less touristy, but it is inaccessible, so we headed to the more-touristy Postojna Cave.  The cave is impressive, beautiful, and huge; the tour lasts about 2 hours, including a long train ride, followed by a guided walk through the lit cave.  Is it accessible? Well, sort of.  There is disabled parking on the top near the bus parking, there is an accessible restroom, and the entrance/exit is accessible.  On the tour, we disassembled my manual chair, and they stuffed it in the seat behind me on the train.  At the end of the train ride, we re-assembled the chair for the guided tour.  The tour followed well-lit, well-paved paths.  However, the paths went up and down VERY steep hills, so I was thankful for the energy and good-will of my nephew and nieces.  A power chair would not have fit in the train, and a manual chair would struggle on the steep hills.  So, while it was wheelchair-accessible in theory, it would take a special chair -- actually the detachable power assist for rent at the Ljubljana Tourist Information Office (see below) would work perfectly! -- to be truly accessible.

Ljubljanica River
Ljubljana riverside cafes
The capitol city of Ljubljana, population 280,000, lies in the center of the country.  The Ljubljanica River meanders through the city, crossed by many bridges, and lined with outdoor cafes.  The heart of the city is a pedestrian zone, including a good part of the river, as well as the Medieval old town.  It is the perfect place to spend a lazy day exploring the local cafe culture.  There are many museums, which we didn't visit, being short on time and traveling with at least one teenager morally opposed to museums.  Unfortunately, we also missed touring the alternative neighborhood of Metelovka and the unique youth hostel there.  Above the city is the Ljubljana Castle, with its museum (I've heard it can be accessible, but as I mentioned, we were avoiding museums), restaurants and a coffee house, and wheelchair accessible bathrooms.

Gondola from Ljubljana Castle

We parked at the Ljubljana Castle (disabled and free parking), and ate at the Castle Restaurant Na Gradu.  We then took the gondola (accessible and free for the disabled person and one companion) down to the city.

Assembling the wheelchair trailer

We started at the tourist office on Krekov Trg (Square), picking up the city map of accessible places and the power assist "wheelchair trailer."  Since the attachment was new and had only been used a couple of times, the entire staff gathered round enthusiastically to try to figure out how to assemble it!  With the help of our tools and Ted's mechanical knowledge, we finally got it.  They warned me that they had limited the top speed to 50 kph (30 mph); Except for one small, terrifying test, I actually never went above the first of of five levels of speed.

We spent that day -- as well as a future afternoon -- walking/wheeling around the center city, exploring the side streets and souvenir stores, crossing the river on different bridges, and testing out the ice cream and cakes at the riverside cafes.  We also went shopping at the market, where we bought souvenirs and strawberries.

Because we needed a lot of space for our large group, we rented a luxury apartment outside of the Old Town.  The inside was not particularly accessible, but the entrance was flat and there was an elevator up to our penthouse apartment.  We stayed there for our first several days in Slovenia, driving to the castle to get into town and driving a few hours each day to visit Bled and the Alps to the northwest and Postojna Cave to the southwest.  There were, however, accessible hotel rooms in the city.

Our final days in Slovenia were spent on its small piece of Adriatic coast.  In the mainly car-free town of Piran (with an accessible bus to get there from a parking lot outside of town), we ventured the cobblestones of the old town, watched the skateboarders on the town plaza, walked the waterfront promenade, ate ice cream in the seaside cafes, and photographed stunning sunsets by the lighthouse.  There was one -- and only one -- wheelchair accessible restroom in town.  It was locked, so it was probably not as disgusting as the free public toilets nearby, and it was most likely truly accessible inside as well.  However, nobody in town seemed to have a key, and we did not have our own EU key, so we were not able to get inside.  For future travel and travelers, finding out how to get an EU key to disabled restrooms would be key.

One of hundreds of sunset photos
Main square of Piran

The nearby town of Portoroz seems to be a modern tourist beachside destination.  A short stretch of imported sand has created the only sandy beach on the Adriatic Coast (the rest of the beaches are rocky).  The busy street fronting the beach is lined with shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes.  We stopped at the regionally famous Kakao Cafe for the deservedly famous cakes and ice cream.  As an extra bonus, the cafe has an accessible restroom.

Next to the Croatian border are the Secovlje Salt Pans, renting salt pans to local residents, who work and tend the pans, then harvest salt produced from the sea every summer, selling it back to the company.  The northern part, Lera, is accessible to wheelchairs.  One travels about one mile on a wide, hard-packed gravel path flanked by salt pans and white egrets, past the gift shop, to the visitor center with a movie about salt production.

Villa Pacug salt-water pool
near Portoroz
While visiting the Adriatic Coast, we stayed at Villa Pacug near Portoroz -- an fantastic finale to our trip.  Historically, the villa was a vacation center for workers at a metal fence company.  Then it became a place for paraplegics to receive treatments and rehab. Now it is re-inventing itself as a spa-hotel, which is open all year and to all guests (able bodied, as well as wheelchair users).  Wheelchair-users will be amazed at its accessibility features (the hotel design committee included wheelchair users), such as roll-in showers, electric hoists, bed lifts, and ceiling tracks, as well as its therapy rooms.  Everyone will be amazed by the salt-water outdoor pool and breakfast buffet.  Perhaps the best thing is the helpful and knowledgable staff.

With an attitude of inclusivity and it supportive and active network, Slovenia was -- and is -- a super place for a wheelchair-using tourist to visit!  With its varied tourist offerings and landscapes, it is a super place to visit for all.  In fact, I would love to go back and make better use of the network of wheelchair lodging facilities, including Villa Pacug.  On the one hand, I wish Slovenia and its inclusive orientation success; on the other hand, I hope it doesn't become swarmed with foreigners!

Accessible Travel Websites:
Association of paraplegics (including accessible lodging):
Downloadable app of accessible Ljubljana (limited, but exists):
Accessible travel info:
Directory for mobility impaired:
Ljubljana tourism and power drive free rental:

Accessible Travel Articles:

No comments:

Post a Comment