Misty mountains covered in lush green forests with fast flowing rivers winding their way down never-ending valleys, interlinked with some of the prettiest roads we have ridden so far on the trip, Slovenia was a surprise to us both.
As we made our way towards Bled, we could see in the distance in the direction we were headed, black clouds were beginning to appear accompanied by the odd flash of lightning, which was making its presence felt with a distant roll of thunder. It was serendipitous that, just as the first few spots of rain hit our helmet visors and were just about to stop on the side of the road to pull on the wet weather gear, we rounded a corner and saw a lovely little café right in the middle of nowhere. We just managed to grab the map and wallet before the heavens opened with a huge clap of thunder above our heads, and a deluge of rain came down. “Two coffees please”…
There was a lovely man serving behind the counter who said we were lucky to have reached shelter in time. He also said we were most welcome to stay as long as we wanted and joined us to point out where we were on the map. Sometimes things just seem to work out.
It’s not often you meet truly fascinating people in the deep forests of Slovenia with perfect English, great coffee and stories of their life that make you want to pull your shoes off, sit back in a comfy chair and be taken on some amazing journeys as they give you snippets of their adventures. Apart from his mountaineering stories or the motorbike trips similar to ours, it was the story of how he became one of the secret teams working on state-of-the-art command bunkers belonging to Saddam Hussein in Bagdad. This was of course in the 80’s when the American administration was not only financially supporting Iraq’s war on Iran but was actually helping steer the ship so to speak; how times quickly changed… We sat and listened with fascination, as I had no idea how big these bunkers actually were and the amount of work that went into making them impenetrable.
Halfway through one story, sipping coffee, we all stopped talking and watched in silence, a very odd sight on the road pass by. Out of the torrential rain emerged two people in their 50’s sitting in waterproofs in a very old open-top 1920’s Rolls Royce. It was one of those moments when nothing really needed to be said, just continue the story with the expression, ‘that was odd’. I noticed, however, it had British number plates and could only think of that song, “mad dogs and Englishmen”.
We could have stayed there for the rest of the day, but during the couple of hours engrossed in stories, the rain had stopped, so it was back out on the road heading towards Bled after bidding our new friend farewell.
The journey there was so lovely, quiet roads washed by the downpour, and the smell of ‘damp earth’ that always takes me back to England and into the garden after the rain.
Our first night’s accommodation wasn’t actually in Bled itself, we decided on a smaller town about 30 minutes ride away, we had read it was very popular with people who wanted quiet, relaxing, and quaint. After the last night we had with the Contiki tour we just wanted sleep, so it was perfect.
We found a super little guest house in a small village, very well priced, pub next door selling local dishes of sausage, schnitzel and big mugs of beer. It had the feeling of Austria with its architecture, and the locals all spoke excellent English, all in all we immediately liked the place. However, if we stayed too long we would admittedly have become the size of a small family car as the menu was not for the faint hearted. Chips with mayonnaise, sausage and schnitzel were the house meals, but it was a nice change from pizza and pasta.
Bled is a small town on a big lake surrounded by mountains, there is an iconic castle overlooking the town and a church on an island in the middle of the lake. It’s a really lovely place to visit with small flat-bottomed rowing boats lining the shore and restaurants dotted about serving the small numbers of tourists.
What we did find out the next morning when we arrived for a look was it was playing host to a very special event.
Bled was part of the 100-year celebration of the Rolls Royce 20-Ghost Club. In 1913 the then relatively new Rolls Royce took part in a very grueling race, a 1850-mile, 16-day drive through some of the most scenic, tight cornered, steepest and in those days, frightening passes and Alpine roads on earth. The rally started in 1910 and car manufactures such as Bugatti, Daimler, Audi and Rolls put their cars in to see if they could win this bone shaking race. If they succeeded it would help with sales and, more importantly, prestige. During the 1913 rally a privateer driver, James Radley, finished first in each stage with his Ghost and with that incredible win, earned Rolls the moniker ‘best car in the world’.
We were privileged to be just at the right place and the right time to see the cars, all of them Rolls Royce’s as they came to the completion of the near-identical route, with two days remaining before they all arrived in Vienna.
There was an estimated 26 million pounds worth of cars, 48 in all, parked at the most posh hotel in Bled, on the shore overlooking the castle.
James Radley’s car lives on today, and was the main jewel in the crown participating in this centennial re-enactment organised by the 20-Ghost Club – something that has moved modern Rolls-Royce to build a limited edition Alpine Trail Centenary Ghost to support the endeavor. His car is stunning; it may have been one of the most expensive at a price tag of three and a half million pounds, but it was not the oldest. We walked along the long line of these extremely delightful machines ranging from a 1910 to a few years later. We met a really down to earth couple from Australia that owned two Rolls Royce’s in the rally… you can never have too many. They had a friend drive one and they swapped between the two that they had shipped from the other side of the world.
Then to our surprise we were told there would be a visit by their Royal Hignesses, The Earl and Countess of Wessex and Price Edward and Sophie who were out on a “look at what Britain can do” tour which was carefully timed to coincide with the rally.
The local Slovenian police protecting the small entourage of British guests must have received an email from their superiors that started with… “No expense spared boys … don’t stuff this up … watch how Obama travels and use that as your benchmark”. Nicola and I were standing admiring the cars outside the front of the hotel, when we heard the sirens of four police bikes and two cars, which came hurtling around the corner from the town centre. They all came to a screeching stop on the road, both sides of the hotel… “Guess they are arriving”… Nicola said.
Then there were security cars, more police, men jumping around the place talking to their sleeves, more police, a couple of dark 4×4 full of more personal protection and finally a very nice silver Jaguar car with the Prince and his wife sitting in the back seat. First thing that struck me odd about that was they had been invited to a Rolls Royce function… Unlike the local police, who in fairness did not let the team down in any way and should be proud of the way they stopped the traffic… the Rolls Royce team may have forgotten to sort out the car the royals were to step out of. Given they had four brand new Ghosts sitting in the car park, I would have suggested it would have looked better for the photos if they had followed suit.
I am, as my friends and family would vouch, a big supporter of the Royal family, for many reasons… I think they work jolly hard and on a whole do good; financially the simple fact is having a Royal family is a net gain for Britain, regardless of what people may wish to argue. But saying all that, on this occasion, in a small town in Slovenia, had the Royals visiting come quietly, with a driver and their personal security people pull up into the car park and walk into the venue like everyone else, then I think the profit they give back to Britain would have been considerably higher. It was a little over the top and I hope it was just the overenthusiastic response to the original email the locals received that made it so. I would hate to think that much money was spent every time the youngest son of the Queen went for a day out waving the British flag. But it was nice to see them there and we got a little wave from them both of them as they went in for a round of handshaking.
We would love to have stayed in Slovenia for a little longer, but had made the decision that our journey would finally have to be coming to an end. We have been on the road now for about 11 weeks and even though are loving the trip, we are starting to miss a bit of what one would call ‘normal’. Hotels and campsites are great for a while, but having a drawer full of clean socks seems to be something we both used to take for granted. Besides which, we can’t spend our whole lives having fun, guess I should get back somewhere and earn some money. However, we still need to ride back and to do this requires us to navigate the hairpins of the Alps on-route to Paris.
We had a final dinner in the local pub that night, which was playing yodelling music, while a waitress in a ‘Heidi of the mountains’ traditional costume served us bratwurst and beer, love this place, especially when she pulled the bottle of local schnapps out from behind the bar and started dishing it out for the guests.