As we continue on the journey of our European road trip, you may be wondering what could possibly warrant such a title as “Grand Finale.”I think the sheer surprise of what we came upon after we left Hungary had a lot to do with it.
Remember when we had to change our plan from Croatia to Slovenia? Well, this is when that change went into effect, and we couldn’t be happier that circumstances led to that decision.
Ljubljana and Lake Bled, Slovenia (2 nights)
Ljubljana (Lyooblyahna) may possibly be my new favorite capital in Europe. I almost don’t want to write about Slovenia because since seemingly nobody goes there or talks about it, it still has a really special, local, undiscovered (almost) feel about it.
It was just about love at first sight for me. Ljubljana is a very small capital city, situated around a river that skirts a hill with a castle on it, of course. We dined on the riverfront, where we ate hamburgers made of completely local ingredients, right down to the house-made ketchup. Quality.
We roamed the open air market and even got milk out of a fresh milk vending machine. It was quite possibly the best milk I’ve ever tasted in my life. We meandered the pedestrian streets enough to see just about everything in town before we moved on to Lake Bled.
Yes, our time in Ljubljana was short-lived, but it sure left a great impression. I could easily go back and spend more time there. I wish downtown Bozeman was built around a river, it just adds so much to the experience.
HOLD. THE. PHONE. Did that image sort of slap you in the face? Because that’s how I felt when I first saw Lake Bled.
In fact, that’s how I still feel looking through the photos I took there. This place really exists. It is a fairy tale come to life. We were fortunate enough to spend one beautiful night here to enjoy the unreal beauty of this area. Lake Bled is small, it only takes about 15 minutes to drive all the way around it, which we did a couple of times. Oh, the joy of having a rental car! You can see the white church in the very background- that’s where the town is, and we were just up a hill with a view of that church, and the castle on the cliff, of course. We had rain the first evening, so we enjoyed an amazing Slovenian meal at our hotel’s renowned restaurant. We took it slowly, starting with soups, bread, and cheese croquettes, moving on to rich-flavored main courses and delicious local beers. Quality.
To our complete and utter delight, the sun came out after breakfast and we indulged in photography for a couple of hours. It was impossible not to stare, just stare at this incredible landscape with a fresh blanket of snow over the Julian Alps, the fall colors, and the perfectly reflective water. Does it get any better? It’s truly amazing when architecture adds to the landscape, as it so often does in Europe. I don’t know if this view would ever get boring, but Sabrina had a train to catch, so after taking significantly more photos than we needed, we finally left this beautiful place. It doesn’t even feel right to just say “place.” Lake Bled was more like an experience. An indulgence of the senses. Wow.
Tarvisio, Italy and Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria (1 night)
Lake Bled was only the beginning of the Grand Finale. Sadly, we saw Sabrina off on her train (she still had to catch a flight out of Croatia and we had to head back toward Munich to return Berta). It turns out that Lake Bled is only about half an hour from the very northeastern tip of none other than my ITALY. So “on our way to Austria” guess where we went for lunch? While we were excited about Italian food and language, Mother Nature had other plans for us. What we didn’t quite realize was that we would be driving right alongside the Italian Dolomites. Having just come from an incredibly beautiful place, we couldn’t even process what was in front of us, in words, at least:
You would have done it too, trust me. I’ve never been to this region of Italy, but this was definitely love at first sight. Who knew that you could get Austrian chalets in Italy and a mix of both German and Italian? WHAT!!?? Buy me a house with a wood stove and I would stay forever, happily speaking both languages and indulging in my beloved Italian cuisine while watering my chalet balcony flowers and staring all day at those incredible mountains… How I could live just hours from this place for an entire year and never knew it existed just hurts. It’s incredible. How many of these beautifully descriptive words am I allowed to use in one single blog post? Wow, where was I?
Lunch. Oh, how we looked forward to lunch. It’s not every day you can just dip into Italy and enjoy some authentic Italian food. I ordered one of my favorite pastas: Tortellini panna e prosciutto (cheese tortellini with cream and prosciutto). Daryl and Nate both ordered pizzas. It lived up to its expectations. Tarvisio is also home to an indoor market with stalls and stalls and stalls! More indulging in Italian goodness. By the time we left Italy with full stomachs and new accessories from the market, it was still only about 4 pm.
Just across the border to the north was Austria, calling us to its snow-capped Alps and alpine lakes. We made our way up to a little town called Bad Kleinkirchheim, but not without being slapped in the face a few more times first.
Bad Kleinkirchheim is a gateway town to a region known as Carinthia in Austria. It is a holiday paradise for both summer and winter activities, with a big national park, ski area, and multiple thermal baths. Our night there was capped off with a dip in the spa and none other than Italian food at the restaurant of a guy from just over the border. This day consisted of breakfast in the Julian Alps, Slovenia, lunch in beautiful Tarvisio, Italy, and dinner in the Austrian Alps. CAN A DAY GET ANY BETTER??
Salzburg, Austria (1 night)
We weren’t even finished yet! We got to continue on to Salzburg, one of my favorite (are they all my favorite?) cities in Europe. It is small (I see a trend), and situated along a river (really starting to see patterns now), and has the most impressive beer garden experience I’ve ever – well – experienced. This was Nate’s and my second visit to Salzburg, while it was Daryl’s first, so we of course went to the famous beer garden again. Augustiner Bräu, people, if you ever get to Salzburg, go. We skipped the Sound of Music Tour this time (which I would also recommend!). Instead, we walked the city streets and bridges, drank mulled wine, and enjoyed dinner in a 450-year-old beer hall outside the city. It was sort of in the middle of nowhere, but it was jam-packed, we were definitely in the right place. The beer cream soup was especially delicious! After a really good night’s sleep (love when that happens), we hit the road again to get back to Munich, return Berta (she had served us so well), and catch our flight back to Ireland. It seemed like such a long time had passed since we had been in Ireland, but in reality, it was only two weeks.
Dublin, Ireland (1 night) and Chicago (1 night)
Compared to the trip we just had, our last night in Europe was nothing to write home about. We basically just used Dublin as a means to an end this time through and were on our way back to the US the next morning. We actually stayed a night in Chicago with a dear friend of mine from Costa Rica (shout out to Corina!) on the way home and got to meet up with my friend Rob, too, but we were exhausted and ready to be home. Stopping somewhere on the way home only sounds good before you travel, keep that in mind.
Thanks for patiently re-living this amazing road trip through Europe with me. It is always so much fun for me to write about my travel experiences. So, to recap: my name is Jackie Laulainen, I like small cities on rivers, big mountains, good beer, and Italian food. Slovenia is quality, Italy has my heart, Austria is still at the top of my favorites list, learning to speak fluent German is still on my bucket list, a perfect trip is when you are ready to go home, I have the best travel buddies in the world, and I wouldn’t trade travel for anything.