The tinkling sound of an accordion approached the patio door as I sat on the couch, listening to my host family chatter around me in rapid Slovenian — not a language I understand. The music accordion floated increasingly closer — much too close for coincidence.
Within minutes of the lively accordion player stepping through the patio door and jamming out rollicking polka tunes, my host’s father grabbed my hand and pulled me onto the impromptu dance floor for a bit of lively (and awkward) dancing. This was the beginning of my favorite weekend in Slovenia, filled with memorable cultural interactions, a visit to the eerie and wonderful Jama Pekel Caves, and the best donuts to be had in all of Slovenia. Although I spent weeks in northern and western Slovenia at the more iconic spots — Lake Bled, the Soča River, Ljubljana, etc — eastern Slovenia offers a handful of fun and quirky offbeat experiences.
Visiting Jama Pekel Caves
My Couchsurfing hosts, Karmen and Mitja gave me a spectacular welcome to their tiny corner of the world. Shortly after I arrived at their apartment in Ljubljana, Mitja (the “j” is pronounced like a “y”: meet-ya) that his family had invited me to attend his sister’s birthday party on the other side of the country.
Well, it’s a pretty tiny country, so that meant we had plenty of time to explore on our cross-country trip. Since it was just a short two hour drive to the east — into the heart of hops country, where the country produces beer and wine — Mitja and Karmen mapped out an itinerary of hikes, ruins, caves, and food that we just had to see before we left Slovenia.
Jama Pekel, quite literally translated as Hell Cave, is a fascinating and historic spot dating back more than three million years. The name, however, has little to do with history. During the winter, steam pours from the cave entrance, which is dark and shaped like the head of a devil. Inside, the cave is creepy and dark — the perfect place to imagine as the entrance to hell.
We visited during the summer, so the temperatures were too warm for steam. Instead, we entered the caves with a tour guide and proceeded into the depths of hell, excited when she promised that we would witness a large indoor waterfall.
Karmen and Mitja translated for me — the tour guides generally do not speak English, so read about the cave before you visit and you can follow along when the guide points out various stalactite and stalagmite formations — these rocks have formed unique shapes and images throughout the millennia. My favorites include:
One of the strangest freakiest moments happened when our guide led us into a small cavern area, told us to brace ourselves, and then with one push of a button plunged the entire cave into darkness. Impenetrable pitch blackness seeped into my poors and left me disoriented. Honestly, it freaked me out. In this part of the cave, you can truly learn what true darkness feels like as there was not even a safety light on for those brief twenty seconds.
Twenty seconds. She kept the flashlight off just long enough that I had begun to panic, but not long enough to have it bloom in full force.
After enjoying the view of the underground waterfall, we walked back to the surface, successfully leaving Hell Cave safely, and none to soon in my opinion — caves are fascinating places, but it’s nice to return to the light!
Touring the Roman Necropolis
In addition to touring the hell caves, we visited Šempeter v Savinjski Dolini, a Roman necropolis that is now a grassy area showcasing the reconstructed sepulchers and marble tombs of wealthy families from the Roman era. The ruins are located just off of the main road between Ljubljana and Maribor, and it’s a quick stop that requires little more than some curiosity. It’s all surprisingly impressive, with reliefs and inscriptions still visible on many parts of the structures. If you’re lucky, one of the people manning the gate will speak English and may take you on a tour of the mausoleums, offering needed context and background. Just in case there is little English-language information, read up on it ahead of time. It’s lovely though.
This is a little visited spot — these ruins were only discovered within the past 60 years even though the ruins date back as far as the 1st and 3rd centuries! Flood waters covered the ruins for hundreds of years, which is perhaps why they remained preserved until they were found. It doesn’t take long to visit, but is a necessary stop on any road-trip toward Maribor.
Eating Sweet Slovenian Treats
We capped off our weekend with a beautiful hike in the morning — there are a number of small forests, hills, and outcroppings where you can park your car and stretch your legs. After a morning exercise, we stopped at Trojane Gostisce s Tradicijo for famous Slovenian donuts on the way back to Ljubljana. Here’s the thing, I am not a fan of donuts (sadly even Krispy Kreme doesn’t do it for me), but I am a fan of having fun and trying new things. My hosts love these donuts. They are fanatical about it. So we ordered two flavors, blueberry and chocolate, and washed it down with a cold glass of milk. It was satisfying on every level. :)
With the number of wineries, icy blue rivers, and gorgeous sites in other areas of Slovenia, the east is an easily skipped part of the country. But one of the reasons that I can only rave about couch surfing is because of the amazing people, and the unique adventure you get when you couchsurf. My hosts in Bosnia, Furkan and his roomies, gave me such an authentic taste of Bosnia. And here in Slovenia, Karmen and Mitja blew me away with their love for meeting new people and sharing their home country and culture. After a weekend sharing stories, I learned that Mitja has never sampled root beer or sassafras flavor, so I promised to send him a care package when I return to the states in just a few short months!
What I’m Reading: “Ender’s Shadow” by Orson Scott Card. I found this on a bookshelf in Assisi, Italy and I’m addicted — I can’t put it down! I’m still reading “Out of Africa,” but switched to this one for a couple of days. :)
Bonus: Here is a ridiculous video of me dancing the polka and to accordion music at the birthday party.