I was on my way to see the famous Predjama Castle in Slovenia, a remarkable stone structure set into the face of a mountain above a cave that has one of the most dramatic approaches imaginable for such a structure. It’s going to make a great photo session, I convinced myself, and thus worth the drive, even though many say the inside is rather skippable.
The problem was that I wasn’t quite on my way. I was sitting in a café in a small town 45 minutes away from the castle, wondering if the damn thing was worth it.
This was in the middle of a long driving day in Slovenia, small and brilliant country full of attractions. I had just driven along the incredible winding Vršič Pass through the Julian Alps, down to some valleys called the Karst region, an area known for wine. The continuing plan today was to hit that castle and then move on to the coast to a small Venetian town called Piran. I was attending an academic conference there that started the next morning, and had to get there tonight.
The visit to the castle would be out of the way. I would need to drive inland and then backtrack, adding perhaps 45 minutes each way plus other time spent there. I had already been on the road for hours, and this is a long day. Should I do this?
The small town of Vipava, where I took a break, in the middle of my driving day
Predjama Castle (Predjamski Grad) is one of the main sites in Slovenia. That still means most people have never heard of it, but stay with me. The castle is built half-way (thereabouts) up a 123-meter cliff, set back into a niche, and is 800 years old. Its website says it “would make a perfect venue for the filming of historical and fantasy film such as Harry Potter or Game of Thrones”. Not that it was used for filming, only that it “would” make a perfect venue. I agree, as it looks dramatic as hell.
Tickets for the castle are €11,90. The castle is built over a cave, which also can be toured, for €8,90 more, and it’s near another much larger and more famous cave system called Postojna, a major draw and a €23,90 ticket. It’s probably neat enough, but a cave just doesn’t draw me. The cave advertises itself as having the only underground post office in the world. I can’t think at all why that’s special. That’s like claiming you’re the only post office in the world build on stilts.
The castle has a great story, about a nobleman named Erazem Lueger who fell from grace but then used the castle for revenge, holing up there while raiding the other noblemen in the area. Robin Hood-like, he stole from the rich and gave it actually to himself, not the poor, but still he thumbed his nose at the world. Erazem was finally killed when the enemy soldiers aimed a cannon at the toilet and waited for him to sit on it. Shrewd plan.
One downer about visiting the castle—most writeups on the place agree that the interior of the castle isn’t all that. You go for the cool view outside, not the recreations of the spartan 16th-century interior. After the drive there, I wouldn’t have much time anyway. If I went, it’s just for the outside photo, and I’m hardly the first to discover the place.
I’m not the type of travel snob who distains big-ticket attractions (I’m a different type of travel snob). I think the big canonical sights are often big canonical sites for a reason. I’ve done silly things such as kiss the Blarney Stone and I’m good with all that. Yet I’m also fine with skipping a major site where the purpose is merely to just have seen it with my own eyes. Experiences are usually better than sights anyway. My only big thought about the place was to get a good photo.
The wine landscape of Vipava, a temptation
I’ve only been somewhat serious about photography for a few years. I have long, long snapped photos when traveling (and have not much interest in photos when I’m not traveling), but it’s fairly recently that I’ve bought a better camera and learned how to use it, along with learning about post-processing the digital images. I’ll be practicing this for the rest of my life and I’m happy about that. But this hobby means that I also now think about my travel activities in an additional term: what shots I can get out of it. Predjama Castle is a remarkable image and would be a neat shot, but how much do I want it?
Photographers, real ones, get up early to catch the light for good shots. They scramble around the rocks to get the right angle. They endure bad weather and long hours to wait for the right conditions. They use their time on this. A few months before this trip, I was on Victoria Peak at sunset, the highest point on Hong Kong Island, trying to get a canonical shot of the amazing skyline there in Hongkers. I came away with several good photos (one B&W version is now the cover photo of the A World of Flophouses Facebook page (check it, and “like” it while you’re there, eh?), but getting the shot cost me. The wait for the tram to go up and down the peak took forever, I had to wait further for the right light, and the crowds were so oppressive I had to fight for space for my tripod. The entire exercise took me 3-4 hours, was a huge pain, and left a bad taste. Furthermore, it ruined my Happy Hour that day.
I love Hong Kong–it’s one of my favorite cities in which to hang. I might be willing to sacrifice my Happy Hour one day to get some good shots of the skyline, shots I can now keep forever. But for an arbitrary, though cool, castle in Slovenia, I’m not sure.
Furthermore, there was another distraction from the castle, involving another great love of my life.
The Karst region of Slovenia is a fantastic wine region, one that should be better known. I planned my driving route that day to pass by Vipava, a small village of about 2,000 people that’s at the center of all things wine. The village was a bit confusing, as I first mistakenly drove to a hilltop with a church steeple, thinking that’s the center of town. No. But I soon found the real center, securing parking easily, and strolled to the TI, a 22-second walk.
The town contains the Vinoteka Vipava, a sort of a tourist wine center. They have a tasting room with a collection of local stuff, a first stop overview for wine visitors where we can get some samples and then figure out what else we want. When I asked about it at the TI, they told me it was just across the hallway.
The small woman behind the TI counter was super nice and she jumped up immediately and led me across the hall to be my wine guide. The vinoteka is a room perhaps 6×6 meters with a central table and cube-like shelves around the walls holding bottles. The appearance is ultra-modern, everything white and back-lit, including the shelves and table. The back-lit shelves show off the wine, and the back-lit table is a brilliant idea, because you can hold you glass right over the table to examine the wine color. No one else has thought of this. Various websites claim they have from 150 to 180 bottles there to taste from 40 to 50 different wineries (the count must be off on some days).
Two older British men were already in progress on some tastings, attended to by a model-like woman with long black hair. She looked good and the men looked happy. My own TI wine guide was more friendly and engaging, but deferred 100% to the model, so I had to interject with questions to get her talking.
The eventual view from the cafe.
The tasting was excellent. A wine grape called zelen is native to the region, and this region only, so limited in its production that it was almost lost altogether. Only about ten or twenty years ago was it resuscitated and production increased, so now Vipava is pushing it. Other native grapes are pinela and klarnica and a wonderful red called teran.
Slovenia and next-door Croatia wine makers have a problem. They possess wonderful local grapes such as the zelen, but other people like me have never heard of them, and mentally buying into a new grape is a bit hard for someone less than a big wine fan. So the growers are planting canonical grapes as well, the bigger, well-known Euro varietals. My wine guide started me on the tasting with a pinot blanc, for instance, then moved to a sauvignon blanc. Once she switched to red, however, she pushed the zelen and told me the story, which I happily bought into.
We drank many other reds. Barbarossa, pinot noir, merlot, cab sauvignon, and at the end, a blend of cab-sauv and merlot and I don’t know what else. Eight wines, at least. Two trends here that would continue into future area wine tastings: (1) good pours. None of this half-ounce stuff. They want to give you a drink, meaning after tasting eight wines, you’re feeling good. (2) My wine guide was pouring for herself at the same time as me. She wasn’t drinking, just looking and smelling, as to further know the wines, but she gave herself some healthy pours too. They’re not shy about spilling some juice here.
My wine guide took me back across the hallway and handed me some literature. The TI here is quite happy to call and arrange some vineyard visits for you. Outside, I talked more with the Brit guys, who were off to some special vineyard themselves. Great blokes.
Standing in the square now. Looking at the time, wondering how much more I want to drive today. It’s hard to face the castle, but it was fun tasting the wine. I hadn’t eaten since my large buffet breakfast. On the edge of the square is a café called Caffe U Trgi. I could grab a sandwich. Or another glass of wine.
The friendly and awfully cute blonde inside the café listened to my request for a glass of zelen, and mentally raised her opinion of me. I asked about food, but eh, that’s not their strong point. “Toast?” she asked. “Ham and cheese?” No, sorry, can’t do ham. So she said they could give me some things for free, just cutting some bread and cheese, and I melted into her hands. For free, really?
I can resist anything, except temptation
That’s how it played out. I found myself at a small table by the café counter, drinking their excellent zelen. Slovenia is like Paris and Vienna and so many places–just forget about the damn tourist attraction and settle into a café. Forget about the cold stone castle, as a café is where life really is. KISS is playing on the speakers. You drive us wild; we’ll drive you crazy. The wonderful café girl brings over a finely composed tray having bread squares, cheese slices, and prosciutto. I know I’m not going anywhere. I’m touched to the core, and I eat everything. Normally I don’t touch pork, but I won’t turn down what they give me, yes for free.
Just the previous day, I was in Lake Bled, another popular place in Slovenia, a small lake containing one, just one, cute island containing a photogenic church and not much more. The thing to do there is hire a type of flat-bottom wooden boat called a pletna to get to the island (€12 a person) and then pay to get into the church (€6). It didn’t seem worth it, and so I bailed. Who cares if I actually set foot on the island, or if I just enjoy the view for free along the shore? For €18, I’d rather get some good wine and that’s what I did, settling myself into a wine bar along the lakeshore where the proprietor poured me something wonderful made from teran grapes. As I sat there, under a covered porch, it started to rain. I was glad I didn’t decide to go out on the lake.
Here in Vipava, I finished my zelen wine and struck up a conversation with the café girl and another guy about what to drink next. What will I remember more—a wonderful café experience or a castle? A real photographer would be on the road to the castle, but I’m not there yet.
Two guys are sitting in the window table of the café. They are champions, wearing dark glasses and drinking glass after glass of rosé. The only other customers are two guys at the counter, also drinking wine. All four were here before me, and they’ll hang after I’m gone. I’m an amateur, nowhere near as good as them.
I’m also still just a traveler, not a real photographer yet, as this episode shows. But I’ll have time enough in life to work on that. Later, after I finish my wine.
I’ve written before about Slovenia, a country quite underrated and not yet overrun. The coastal Venetian city of Piran is a beauty, like a mini version of Venice (read about it here, right here) and Lake Bled, with that unvisited island, is the idyllic getaway town (and see that here, click here next). If you like the wine of the region, you can read about wine tasting just across the border in Croatia, right here.