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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Slovenia


Europe in a nutshell


Piran, Slovenia lies at the end of a peninsula along the country’s tiny, 43-kilometer-long Adriatic coastline.

When you think about the things that draw photographers to Europe, a few subjects jump right to mind: the beautiful Alps, picturesque castles, ancient colorful port cities, quaint hilltowns. A traveling photographer, however, would have to traverse the entire continent to get this mix of subject matter—unless, of course, the photographer went to Slovenia.

Yes, little Slovenia, part of the former Yugoslavia and about as big as the state of New Jersey, is home to all those things and more. Blessed with great infrastructure, a friendly and largely English-speaking population, and a wonderful culture not yet overrun by our fellow countrymen, Slovenia is a great destination for a shooter looking for the real Europe.

Fairytale Lake. Because of the country’s compact size, you can start anywhere in your touring once you land at the international airport. I recommend heading right up to Lake Bled, only about a half-hour drive from the airport. This alpine lake is nestled under the Julian Alps, and it’s a favorite vacation spot for locals. It has great hiking, a beautiful castle and a wonderful island with a church on it, and it’s crisscrossed by picturesque Alpine gondolas called pletnas.

For a great overall morning view, hike or drive up to Bled Castle. Here, you’ll find a museum, a church and a café, but unless there’s a wedding going on, your subject matter will be the lake itself and the surroundings. I found that the Singh-Ray LB Color Combo Polarizer on my 16-85mm VR Nikkor on the Nikon D90 was my go-to setup for a lot of lake scenics.

Midday is a good time to take a gondola out to Bled Island. The Church of the Assumption there has stunning interiors (take off the polarizer!), and the slight elevation of the hilly island gives you great looks back at Bled Castle and the gondolas crossing the lake on their way to and from the island.

Late afternoon and twilight should find you on the western shore, where you’ll get great looks at the lake with the island in the foreground and the castle looming behind. There’s a hike up the mountains that ring the western shore, which gets you to a dramatic overlook (where many of the area’s postcards are photographed), but I hiked up there late one afternoon to what was supposed to be an easy-to-find spot and all I could find were tree-obscured views. I had to scurry down to prevent getting lost in the post-sunset darkness in the deep woods. Fortunately, the lakeside views are also stunning right through to dusk, but next time I go to Bled, I’m going to find that overlook (probably with the help of a guide!).

Spelunking And Stallions. There are lots of mountain-based activities and scenery to photograph up in this part of the country, but we’re on a grand tour, so we’ll drive 50 miles south to the Karst land. Karst is that porous limestone geology that you can find in Kentucky, Florida and the Yucatán, among other parts of the world. It makes for amazing underground caves and caverns, and none is more amazing than the Škocjan Caves.

A vast underground array of halls and gorges, the Škocjan Caves are the most famous of the 7,000 caves in Slovenia. They’re a network of 11 caves, with hollows, swallow holes and natural bridges. They were put on the UNESCO World Heritage list in the 1980s and are a popular stop. There’s pretty good lighting throughout the caves. I was unable to get a read on whether or not tripods are allowed, so I opted to just bring one in with the thought that it might be better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, in this case.

So I slung my Gitzo Mountaineer discreetly over my shoulder by a strap and was able to use it throughout the caves. It was the end of the day, and there weren’t too many other tourists there. In general, it’s always best to take tours in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid crowds—and possibly tripod restrictions.

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