NOTE: I wanted to share a few exciting trips taken from our home in Pula, Croatia that occurred before the Covid-19 crisis in March of 2020 as that’s when the lockdown began here. The following trip was especially meaningful to me as it was the last one I had with an expat friend who has since moved back to the USA. The journey was a search of sorts for her and her husband to find a place to locate a potential new business. It was to Slovenia, a country that not a lot of Americans tend to travel to as it’s simply not a place they’ve heard much about. Well, it will be now and hopefully will be a place people consider traveling to once US citizens are free to move around the world again.
Castle For Sale
In January 2020 we headed to an old castle turned monastery for sale in the tiny town of Cerina in Slovenia, which is about a half hour out of the Croatian capitol of Zagreb.
Our friends were considering purchasing a property to make it into either a spa retreat center or bed and breakfast and wanted to get an up close and personal look at what had been advertised as a 17th century manor house that was once a monastery. The asking price was only 80,000 euros.
Seriously, a place built in the 1600s, a 10 bedroom home no less, for just 80,000 euros ($90,000 USD)? We had to see this place.
We called it a castle because it had all the makings of one except for a wall built around it and a moat. A steal of a deal for this manor house that came complete with its own private chapel and bell tower. Who wouldn’t be interested? And lucky us to be able to come along for such a historic ride.*
Love is in the middle of Slovenia
Slovenia is an incredibly beautiful country that isn’t really on the radar for many people in North America, and it is one I want to bring attention to as part of a series I’m writing to raise people’s awareness of tourist destinations that aren’t very well-known or crowded, but worth visiting for their natural beauty and rich cultural history.
When the restrictions for Covid-19 are eventually completely lifted and that day will come, people are going to have to do some soul searching to make decisions as to whether they want to get out and travel again. Places that aren’t well-known and less crowded will have an advantage healthwise as less people would mean less illness if there are still concerns about viral transmissions. Slovenia, like Croatia for the most part, has successfully managed to keep Covid-19 under control and has had very small numbers of the disease. Plus visiting less crowded destinations will take pressure off of places that have literally become not fun anymore because of the crowds. (See my post about overtourism The Truth about Santorini and the Perfect Sunset Picture) Thus spreading out tourism and making overtouristed locations enjoyable places to visit again.
So back to Slovenia. It is a fairytale-ish country of verdant green rolling pastures and hills topped with graceful, spindly church spires. Every time I drive through the landscapes I feel like I am being transported through a Disney movie and keep waiting to see Prince Eric ride through on one of the beautiful sturdy, white Lipizzaner horses that are native to this area. Yes, that’s right, the famous white horses from the The Spanish Riding School of Vienna hail from the town of Lipica in Slovenia, whose stud farm dates back to the 16th century, one of the oldest in the world. The stud farm is one of the major tourist sites in the country.
Besides scenic beauty of the pastures and hilltop churches, the rides along the Sava River are breathtaking. If you are a fan of scenic drives, this country will truly warm your heart. The drive is even incredibly beautiful in the barren winter, which is when we visited last in January of 2020.
It was the first King’s Day (Jan. 6) of the new decade when we met our friends in Kanfanar, a tiny town in Croatia, and left our car in the parking lot there to drive to Slovenia together. It was early morning and the small medieval town was quiet except for a lone dog barking amidst the fir trees. An elderly lady peeked out of the upper floor window to see what someone was doing out so early in the morning, but we had a real estate agent to meet and a bargain-priced castle to check out, so we were on our way quickly.
The highways all throughout Croatia and Slovenia are new and well maintained, so getting to most places in both of these countries is fairly easy and straightforward. In Slovenia, each exit has a tasteful brown and creme sign naming which of the country’s precious historical landmarks are located there (and there are many), and thankfully there is lack of the giant billboards that mar the countryside in the USA and other countries. Gas stations aren’t particularly plentiful along the highways in both Slovenia and Croatia, so the ones available are hidden off of the interstate and usually have a nice restaurant or cafe attached. (Oh, and come prepared a 50-cent euro for a trip to the restroom. We got fussed at in Slovenian because we tried to tell the restroom attendant we’d come back and pay our euros after we had finished, so we didn’t have to traipse back to our car in the freezing temperatures. No such luck. But alas, Mike saved the day when he showed up with 2 euros for all four of us.)
In the winter the snow topped mountains of Slovenia make it a ski destination for many in Croatia and Austria as the prices tend to be more affordable than in other European resorts. As we drive on down the highway I see the ubiquitous graceful black church spires that are topped with gold ornaments that glimmer in the sunlight. First one, then another and then another. Up this hill and that hill. I count eight or nine and stop counting. I wonder who built all the churches and how they got up the hills and mountains where many of them perch. They are postcard worthy, all of them. I have driven through Slovenia in the fall and summer as well, and the pastures are so green that they almost glow in the sun. Truly gorgeous. Winter has its own beautiful dimensions as the skeletal trees without their leaves allow glimpses into places normally hidden in the summer time.
Small town, Big Heart
We finally arrive close to our destination of Cerina, but since we are early we decide we’ll stop at the nearest town for a break. We do a quick walk through the quaint town of Brežice, which advertises itself as “a small town with a big heart.” The town, which sits on the banks of the Sava River, has a rich and interesting history of more than 660 years, although the area around it has been inhabited since prehistoric times, according to the city’s tourist guide.
There are many beautiful castles in the city and the surrounding area of Brežice. The castles once served as a refuge for the invading Turks in the Middle Ages, but today they are renovated, dressed up and open for weddings or historical tourist visits. Apparently one of the more dilapidated ones is for sale in the nearby town of Cerina which we will see in a little while. How dilapidated only time will tell.
The city of Brežice was extremely quiet and many things were shut down I guess because it was winter time and also a Sunday afternoon. Still the buildings looked extremely interesting; there is a castle granary whose foundation dates back to the 16th century and is one of the best preserved in Slovenia; there are stables and an actual 4 meter thick 16th century wall. It looked like a good place to spend a day when we had more time and the places were open, especially the Brežice castle and museum.
I pledged to come back when we had more time and still plan to do so at some point. We had a quick cup of coffee at a charming little cafe and were off to see the castle/manor house/monastery.
From a distance, the castle was um, deceiving. That’s a good word. A picture of it is below (and its balcony above). You can see it was really large and imposing and at first glance, it looked like it could be quite a steal for just 80,000 euros. It had a charm that only a medieval manor house built four centuries ago could have. It had a chapel and a tall bell tower and a wonderful little courtyard.
But upon further inspection, there were some serious flaws.
Like the roof caving in, for one. Yikes.
And mold and mildew everywhere and some walls looking like they were about to crack open. There was a place in the charming little chapel that had a piece of wood holding up the dilapidated ceiling. It seemed a little precarious to me, like was that small piece of wood really going to hold up a centuries old tile roof and stone ceiling? I wanted to leave. So did our disappointed friends. The mold was giving us headaches and it looked like a million dollar plus renovation, if you were lucky.
Still, it had a beautiful charm and if our friends had been wealthy billionaires, they might have decided to take on the task, but alas, realistically it wasn’t going to be inhabitable anytime soon. So we decided to take our leave, thanked the kind agent for showing this small slice of history and move on to our farm stay in nearby Globočice (See upcoming post.)
It was a good lesson to learn that it is extremely hard to keep historical places alive and especially to maintain them and that if a price seems too good to be true, it probably is. But it was still an interesting exploration of the history of the area. In my next post about Slovenia, I’ll share a little more of what makes this area in Slovenia really worth visiting, the farms and wineries that dot the region as well as some thermal springs that are incredible. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.