The Hidden Gems of the Julian Alps and Soča Valley in Slovenia

The eighth stop on our nine week summer vacation across Europe found us in Northern Slovenia and the beautifully scenic areas of Lake Bled, Soča Valley, and the Julian Alps.  While visiting these sights we spent four nights in the tiny village of Podkoren in the far northwestern corner of Slovenia.

We stumbled upon Podkoren while searching for a centrally located apartment in the northern part of Slovenia that would serve as a home base for exploring the mountains, lakes, and valleys nearby. Podkoren was perfect for all of that. Wikipedia says Podkoren has 388 residents, but they must have done the census during the winter ski season and not when we were there during the sleepy summer off season.  We assumed Podkoren would be nothing more than a place to rest in between our daytime adventures across Northern Slovenia but to our surprise the village turned out to be worth exploring as a destination in itself.

Here’s a recap of our trip in Europe so far.  We started our journey in Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada, Spain.  After Granada we visited Seville, Spain.  From Seville, we flew to Milan on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight. After a two hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Venice.  Then we took a four hour bus ride to Ljubljana where we spent a week exploring the city and the nearby caves.  After Ljubljana, we drove just under an hour north toward the upper edge of Slovenia to Podkoren where our story picks up.

We spent four days in Podkoren and the surrounding countryside exploring the Julian Alps, the Vršič Pass, the Soča Valley, and a few lakes near Podkoren.  Though the various lakes and rivers were stunningly beautiful, the water wasn’t as inviting to swim in.  Water temperatures hovered between 43-50F degrees (6-10C) during the middle of the summer when we visited.  Most of the water is snow melt from the Julian Alps and the mild summer temperatures do little to heat up the water.  Brrrr!!!

Soča Valley

This place is paradise on earth. So named for the translucent aquamarine Soča River that runs through it, the Soča Valley is truly an amazing place. The one hour drive to the valley from our home base in Podkoren took several hours since we had to stop and drink in the scenery along the way.

Picnicking along the Soča River. It looked shallow near the bank because the water was so clear but it was actually several feet deep.


We must have stopped a dozen times to check out views like this.


Mile after mile after mile, the views never got old.



The Slap Virje (“Slap” is Slovenian for waterfall). Photography credit goes to the wonderful Scotsman who took our family portrait.

We visited the Slap Virje waterfall while in the Soča Valley.  What is amazing is that we only saw about 15 other tourists during the hour or two that we were there.  Elsewhere in the world this would be a major tourist attraction with hundreds or thousands of visitors.


Julian Alps and the Vršič Pass

The Julian Alps mountain range extends from Italy into Slovenia and provides similar breathtaking scenery as the main branch of the Alps that run from France and Switzerland in the west into Austria and Germany in the east.

To get to the Soča Valley, we had to cut through the Julian Alps and drive through the Vršič Pass.  At a mile high, the Vršič Pass is the highest elevation mountain pass in Slovenia.  The drive through the Vršič Pass is a destination all its own, with a 3,200 foot elevation gain and a series of 50 tight hairpin turns up one side of the mountain and back down the other.  Our little Audi rental car was fun to drive on these mountain roads!  The road through the mountains was built around 1915 by Russian prisoners of war during World War I.  Halfway up the northern slope, we stopped at a Russian Orthodox church built by the Russian POW construction crew.

Just one of 50 tight turns on the Vršič Pass.


A pit stop on the road through the Vršič Pass for some impromptu rock sculpturing (until one kid threw a rock at their sibling’s head)


Caught the sunset on the drive back home through the pass


Lake Jasna

Three miles from our apartment in Podkoren lies Lake Jasna. It was open to the public for free.  We visited on our first day there and loved it so much that we came back a second time. Next to the lake is a rock-strewn riverbed and floodplain with shallow ice cold swift currents.  We spent quite a while building dams in the riverbed to divert flow to new channels we dug in the sand and rocks.


Tranquil Lake Jasna. Though it doesn’t look deep it drops off quickly and must have been 15-20 feet deep throughout much of the lake. There is a three story diving tower on the far side of the lake in this pic which means deep water!


We saw a couple jump in the 50F degree water from this pier. After 30 seconds they climbed out quickly. The woman that jumped in wearing only a bikini climbed out with bright red skin all over after her brief swim in the freezing water.  Our kids were troopers and claimed “you get used to it” but I couldn’t take more than about 30 seconds in water up to my knees.


Smooth river rocks stretch out for a half mile in this riverbed




Exploring the Village of Podkoren

We enjoyed exploring the tiny village where we spent four nights.


A little stream runs right through the middle of Podkoren. At this location, I could tell there used to be a waterwheel that probably powered the mill housed in the building to the left. The sluice gate (to control water flow over the waterwheel) is still there (seen in the foreground).


View of the village of Podkoren in the valley


The Zelenci spring right next to Podkoren.

The Zelenci Spring is the source of the Sava River that runs for 600 miles through Slovenia and several other countries before joining the Danube River in Serbia.  We saw the “underwater volcanoes” where the spring water bubbles up through the sandy bottom similar to lava erupting from a volcano.  The water table in the valley is under pressure from the higher elevations surrounding this pool (according to the explanatory signage in English at this site).


Lodging for four nights in Podkoren, Slovenia with Airbnb

We were looking for a centrally located base camp for exploring the northern parts of Slovenia. We found that base in Podkoren just a mile from the Austrian border and two miles from the Italian border.  Our airbnb was a ground floor two bedroom apartment in what must have served as a ski chalet during the winter ski season. During the summer when we were visiting, Podkoren is a sleepy rural village without a lot going on. The only activity we saw was the hotel next door with a few guests lingering at the adjoining open air cafe, and an old-fashioned lumber mill with a few guys feeding huge logs into the buzzing saw, leaving only saw dust and rough hewn boards in its wake.

Finding the village was an exercise in quaintness as the airbnb host gave us “country directions” (a term bestowed in homage to my Appalachian mountain heritage).  Google maps was of limited usefulness in this situation because literally every road in the village was named “Podkoren” and there were no street signs. Eventually we found the right place by following the directions that went something like:

“turn left at the first turn from the main highway, then go past the fire station until you come to a dead end where the old Black Kitchen restaurant used to be. The apartment is behind the restaurant”

We arrived at the airbnb rental earlier than expected and found our landlord on his hands and knees scrubbing the terra cotta tile (remember, we’re just two miles from Italy) with a soapy brush. “The previous guests complained the floor was dirty” our host Dejan explained in his mildly accented English.  Dejan is pronounced “Dan” with a Southern drawl in English; remember the “j” is a “y” sound. And let me express how glad I was to see him scrubbing the floor clean  – always a good sign to see attention to detail when you first enter your abode for a few days and you know you only paid the ridiculously low sum of USD$45 per night.  The place was nice, clean, and well appointed for our short stay.

Two couches in the living room


Our small kitchen. The only thing missing was a microwave.


Dejan soon friended me on facebook so we could keep in touch during our stay. He provided plenty of tips on dining and recreation for our four night stay in his weekend getaway bachelor’s pad.  He explained there’s plenty of beds and couches inside and he routinely has ten or so friends come up from Ljubljana with him to go skiing and enjoy the countryside. Dejan was a great guy, in spite of my initial impressions upon seeing his shirtless Putin-esque facebook profile pic (note: never judge a book by its cover).  Must be a Slovenian thing.  Dejan also welcomed us to sample his homebrew liquor kept in little flasks by the front door.

He’s a plumber in the capital city who somehow owns this basement apartment in a ski chalet in the Julian Alps plus “a house trailer and a boat on a lake in Croatia” as he later tells me.  Plumbers must make a great living in Slovenia.  He explained he owns a van with a rig that pressurizes and shoots out jets of high pressure water to clean sewer mains.  Per his facebook page’s Christmas well wishes (automagically translated from Slovenian): “Give us the jimky and the sewers. Your shit our joy.” Business must be good!  Another cool character we met during our nine week trek across Europe.

If you want to enjoy the personal connection that sometimes comes with Airbnb rentals, click here to take $40 off your stay.


Getting Around Town (and Country) and a HUGE problem with our rental car

There isn’t a lot of public transit in the northern part of Slovenia where we were visiting. We kept the rental car we picked up in Ljbubljana and drove it for the four days we spent in the north.  At $17 per day it was quite a steal and it allowed us to explore at our own pace.  The hour drive from Ljubljana to Podkoren took all day (by design) because we stopped at Lake Bled on the way up. We also picked up a trunk full of groceries when we were in Lake Bled since we didn’t know how large the local grocery stores would be once we arrived in Podkoren.

The rental car experience was mostly uneventful except for the maddening return process. We booked the car through Sixt and they conveniently dropped it off at our apartment in Ljubljana with no problems and no extra fees. Several months earlier we had booked deeply discounted advance purchase non-refundable tickets on the morning express train to Salzburg with a 10:03 am departure time from Lesce-Bled in Slovenia.  There’s no Sixt rental car office at the Lesce-Bled station but they pick up rental cars for free from anywhere within a 30 km radius of their main office at the Ljubljana airport.  I let Sixt know that we would return the rental car at the Lesce-Bled train station right on the outskirts of the city of Bled so we could take advantage of returning the car at the train station near where we were staying north of Lake Bled and avoid a drive all the way into Ljubljana first thing in the morning.  How about we meet at the train station at 9 am, Sixt? That will give me a full hour to hand them a key and shake hands and I can wait on my train in the cozy little station.

Sixt told me it would be super easy to find the rental agent at the train station. They will wear a bright orange Sixt shirt and it’s a small train station. No problem, right?


As it turns out, Sixt forgot to send an agent to pick up the rental car at our scheduled 9 am drop off appointment. By 9:30 am I started to panic as I realized I have a train coming in 30 minutes and no one to hand the rental car keys to.  I didn’t have cell service in Slovenia (the ONLY country that wasn’t part of my global SIM package!!). My backup T-Mobile cell phone that has global service everywhere wouldn’t work either.  Tick tock the train is coming soon.

I considered locking the keys inside the rental and emailing Sixt with a heads up that they messed up and I had to think fast. The car would be secure but I might face a steep fee for unlocking the car.

One thing I decided was that I WOULD be getting on that 10:03 am train to Salzburg, Austria. If I didn’t make the train, then a cascading failure would surely result. The next train to Salzburg wasn’t an express train and would (best case) get us to Salzburg late in the day. I’d be paying $200 for full price last minute tickets and lose the $40 I had already paid for non-refundable train tickets. I would probably reach the next rental car office after they closed and be stuck carless all weekend (this was a Friday and the car rental office in Salzburg wasn’t open Saturday or Sunday). We only had one full day booked in Salzburg with sightseeing an hour and a half outside of town, so we didn’t want to miss that just because we couldn’t get the rental car.

Eventually I came up with a better plan than locking the keys inside the rental. I decided to lie to the train station attendant. Just a small white lie.  The attendant looked honest enough.  So I told this young lady, probably no older than 20, that I had arranged with Sixt to leave the keys with her and they would pick up the keys from her.  They were, uhhhh, mmmmm, running late! Yes, that was it. Sixt was “running late” and had phoned to tell me to leave the keys with this trustworthy looking train station attendant (Sixt was running late, they just didn’t know it at the time). She was hesitant to accept the keys but my powers of persuasion won out.  I hurriedly handed her the keys before she had the opportunity to think things through all the way.

Worst case, I figured, would be losing the $4,000 hold on my credit card or perhaps I’d be on the hook for $26,000 (full price of the car) if this nice looking young lady stole the car. I figured the odds were under one percent that she would steal the car, since she thought Sixt would be there any minute to collect the keys and our whole exchange was being recorded by a security camera. But if I missed my train it would mean two days of blown plans and several hundred dollars to change travel arrangements.  One of the benefits of having $2 million in the bank is choosing the convenience of sticking with your convenient pre-booked travel itinerary and shrugging off the tiny odds of a huge $26,000 loss.

It was 10:00 am and the train was due in a few minutes. These European trains don’t stop for more than 60 seconds when calling at the smaller train stations like Lesce-Bled, so we had to get going.  We grabbed our bags and headed the few steps outside where the platform started to crowd with fellow travelers standing in the misty rain waiting for the train.

Fortunately the train was delayed by a few minutes. I managed to find an open wifi connection at the cafe next door. At 10:04 am I fired off a quick email to Sixt Slovenia saying “hey, your car is at the Lesce Bled train station / gave the key to the train station attendant / never saw anyone from Sixt / Peace out I gotta catch a train to Austria”.  Minutes later we were on the train and a few minutes after that we were entering the five mile tunnel that leads to Austria. Once in Austria I regained cell service and was able to check my email. Sixt acknowledged that I had left the car at the station and apologized profusely.  Everything turned out fine with the rental and no extra charges were assessed for leaving the key with a random young Slovenian woman who looked pretty trustworthy.

And that’s the story of how I spent my last hour in Slovenia.  I don’t blame Slovenia as this snafu could have happened anywhere. I blame Sixt some. I blame myself for not confirming the day before that someone would actually be there to meet me and pick up the car. Lesson learned!  Other than a very stressful adrenaline-filled 45 minutes of making a tough call, I didn’t let this incident bother me. I did what I thought best at the time and was ready to accept the consequences of a negative outcome. Travel can be unpredictable and this episode was fairly tame in the grand scheme of things.  No one was injured and the worse case outcome was a slight chance of losing some money. Once I got on that train to Austria I accepted my fate and mentally moved on so I could enjoy a beautiful three hour train ride through the Austrian countryside.


Food in Podkoren

We stopped at EuroSpin, an Italian discount grocery store chain, in the city of Bled on the way up to Podkoren to stock up on supplies. We picked up our routine picnicking co-conspirators: baguettes, salami, ham, prosciutto, cheese, and apricots. Then we enjoyed a picnic next to the castle overlooking Lake Bled. We would later discover that the small grocery store in the larger village next door to Podkoren offered a full selection of groceries so we didn’t really need to stock up while in the city (better safe than sorry goes the theory).

Our view after lunch: Lake Bled and the church on an island in the middle.

We cooked most meals in our Airbnb and packed a picnic lunch for each day of adventuring.  After a long day of climbing, hiking, lounging, and driving we embraced the spillover Italian culture and visited a local picerija (pronounced “piseria”) for some seriously good eats.  I sat in the dining room watching the chef bake the pizzas in the wood-fired oven in the corner of the room.

Ham and mushroom pizza and a seafood smorgasbord pizza from the Picerija Maraton in the village of Log (two villages down from Podkoren).  USD$7 for each ~14″ large pizza. The seafood pizza was an incredible value – real mussels, shrimp, fish, and octopus plus some “krab” meat.


Perfect place for a picnic overlooking Podkoren (off to the right).


Thoughts on Podkoren and the Soča Valley area

This area is a contender for the most amazing natural area in the world (from what little I’ve seen of the planet).  We enjoyed our four days in the region immensely and plan on spending more time there in the future.  It was the least crowded area out of all the fourteen cities/areas we visited across Europe. The lodging was also the cheapest of anywhere we stayed.


I miss you already, Soča Valley


The beautiful scenery combined with the slow pace of life added up to a perfect break from the mostly city-based tourism we enjoyed during the first month of our European vacation leading up to our stay in Podkoren.  The mountains, lakes, and valleys all blew our minds. Every time we rounded a curve in the road we were treated to another fairy tale scene.

Thanks for traveling with us on this scenic part of our trip.  After spending four days in Podkoren and the Soča Valley area of Slovenia, we departed for Austria where we’ll pick up in the next article.



City or country – which do you prefer to see while on vacation?  Ready to get on a plane to Slovenia yet?  


Check out the fourteen part summary of our nine week European family vacation:


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  1. Dejan sounds like an awesome dude and not afraid to get dirty! Google translate is hilarious haha.

    For various reasons, we missed our flight in Guadeloupe and had rented a sixt car. It took a lot of wait time (an hour) to convince them to let us use the car for one more day. They were pretty nice through, albeit a bit slow, but it was Guadeloupe and just slow everywhere. Island life I guess?

    Maybe we’ll do a Eastern Europe tour as part of our global trek when we’re retired. It should bring down the annual cost of global travel :). Glad to see you guys had fun and love seeing the series continue :).

    1. I’m a relative novice when it comes to rental cars, having only rented a half dozen in my life, so I’m still learning the dos and don’ts. I even found out this summer that a confirmed reservation doesn’t mean a confirmed reservation if they close that location and open a new one half a mile down the street (we still got the car, in fact with an upgrade to a premium luxury car, and the travel agent I booked through wrote me a check for the extra cost due to last minute booking).

        1. It was They hooked me up! Not a ton of money – $30 I think, and I don’t even think it was their fault (unless they were notified by Hertz that the reservation was cancelled due to office transfer/closure and failed to pass word to me). Just a bit shocking to see my rental cancelled and only have a day or two to sort it out (in the middle of sightseeing and packing up and dealing with dropping off the rental a the train station etc). Just one of the “joys” of traveling I guess.

  2. I am definitely ready to get on a plane to Slovenia. Those pictures are gorgeous and I definitely prefer the country to the city. So Soča Valley would definitely be right up my alley. Looks amazing!!!

  3. Great pictures – the lakes and mountains look amazing.

    That was also quite exciting with the rental car and the train! Glad you were able to make it. I would have likely locked the keys in the car but still would have been worried until being able to connect with someone.

  4. I love how you traded the certainty of a $200 loss for the possibility of a $26,000 loss!

    Slovenia looks lovely.

  5. The pictures are great. That rental car problem would really stress us out. We rarely rent cars outside the US. It sounds like you need to rent a car for that section, though. That part of the world sounds like such a great deal. I’ll see if Mrs. RB40 is willing to go next year. We definitely need more than 3 weeks, though…

    1. I’m kind of a rental car novice too. I don’t really like driving but it was necessary several times due to where we were staying or where we were visiting. Cost-wise it wasn’t that much more than transit plus bus/train tickets since there were 5 of us, and the convenience of a 1-2 hr drive vs 3 hours on transit/trains/buses in each direction was worth it with kids.

  6. Wow, beautiful place RoG! It reminds me of some beautiful places in Alaska. Quiet and devoid of people, but extremely beautiful.

    Sometimes these types of trips to rural areas are the best — low prices, no crowds, and a ton of beautiful nature. Perfect for relaxing!

    1. These 4 days in Podkoren hit the spot. About a month later, toward the end of the trip we ended up in a similarly rural spot about 15 minutes outside Koblenz Germany (in a small village called Mariaroth). That village was even smaller than Podkoren!

  7. Lake Jasna looks amazing! I’d go to Slovenia just to see that. Surprisingly the mountain ranges remind me of Zakopane, Poland.

    Man, that returning the rental car story sounds hectic! I probably would’ve just missed the train–considering how you could’ve lost way more if the lady at the train station stole the car. Good thing she didn’t though! I didn’t even know you could get the car rental people to pick the keys up. We usually return the car the day before flying/training out, and then take an uber or bus back to the airbnb.

    1. Lake Jasna is worth a stop. It’s only 5 minutes or so from Italy and Austria too, and directly on the way to the Soca Valley. Amazing how quiet it was there. They had a gravel parking lot that held maybe 12 cars and it was half empty the times we visited (in the middle of summer).

      The rental car thing was probably the most stressful part of the trip. I figured I’d just lump it and pay up if the lady stole the car (or rather, called her friends to come take the key and steal the car). The risk seemed so minor vs. the huge headache of missing 1-2 days of our itinerary and losing out the prebooked travel plus paying $$$$ to book stuff last minute.

    1. We didn’t see much about it during our research. Still kind of off the tourist path. I was dumbfounded that we didn’t encounter any Americans till day 4 of our stay in Slovenia (and it was at the caves which are a big tourist attraction). Eventually it will be swamped with tourists like Prague is. Until then, enjoy! 🙂

  8. justin,

    these articles are coming in handy…i’m checking out of work in july and booked a 5 week journey thru europe (including germany, austria, czech, hungary, slovenia and croatia). still need to figure out transportation in each country, but that’s the next step and a nice problem to have : )

    1. I think all those places are fairly easy to drive in (at least outside the center of big cities; Prague was a little crazy but not as bad as say NYC or Chicago center city). Enjoy! Those countries are in a beautiful spot of the world. And stay tuned for future articles on Austria, Germany and Czech Republic.

  9. I’m definitely adding Slovenia to our list! When we were in the British Virgin Islands last year the rental company told us on the day we left we could leave the car unlocked with the keys under the mat in the ferry dock parking lot. I had to have the guy repeat that back to me a couple times and then asked our house manager if it sounded legit. I guess it didn’t really have any where to disappear too! I believe Slovenia has a very low crime rate so I’m guessing you probably could of gotten away with doing something similar.

    1. I considered that. Locked vs unlocked with the keys under the mat (or hidden in the trunk). I’m just glad it worked out. You are right – it felt very safe during our travels in Slovenia.

    1. One month in the Bahamas. Oceanfront, walk straight out on the beach from the patio/porch on our ground floor unit. Pool, sun, sand, quiet. Probably won’t even get a rental car very often so we’ll mostly just hang around the beach and explore and relax. 🙂

  10. I had no idea Slovenia was this beautiful. Great pictures! That was some fast thinking with the rental. In the heat of the moment, I don’t think I would have come up with that solution. Currently planning/finalizing a 23-day trip to Europe for this July/August. Thank you for posting your experience as it has been useful! P.S. I used your link to Airbnb to save $40 on a booking. 😉

  11. Gosh Darn I am loving your adventures. These past couple posts with Slovenia and Italy..I just sit here at my desk [at work 😉 ] and stare at them, they are so lovely. I am changing my mind on visiting Eastern Europe.

    Also, kudos on handling that car situation. I don’t think my partner and I would have come up with your solution, and that was some quick thinking!

    Lastly, thank you for the free inspiration to maybe give our own travel blog a shot. We love traveling and exploring, we love writing, and we love sharing with others. I LOVE that you provide these posts, so clearly, there is an audience. 🙂 *fidgets patiently for next installment*

  12. Awesome post! After hearing you and a couple of other travel bloggers talk about it, Slovenia is definitely on my list of future travel destinations. Your pictures look absolutely beautiful!

  13. Weeeee!! We booked two weeks in Slovenia this past January! It is our first stop on our 5-month Balkans, Turkey, Greece and Egypt tour with a return via a repositioning cruise from Genoa to Miami on the MCS Divinia (all with our 10 and 13 year old). So happy to see how much you enjoyed it. — And I weirdly feel like I may have booked the same Ljubljana apt, but ours was on! Thanks for the info on Sixt too. I didn’t realize they would deliver or pick-up, good to know!

    1. Oh cool! We booked through airbnb but I believe they also list on booking .com so it might be the same one. The host is very nice and helpful and it’s in a decent location too. Enjoy! Also enjoy the MSC Divina. We’ve been on there a few times and enjoyed it a ton. Going back on the MSC Seaside in December out of Miami.

  14. Those photos are incredible.

    It’s also so nice that you are at a place where you can shrug at the potential to lose $26K because it could mess with your vacation plans. I can’t wait to see what your next trip is like!

    1. I just think of it as “self insuring”. We didn’t buy any trip insurance either and figured paying a $25-50k hospital bill or emergency flight would be the “cost of doing business” if we couldn’t obtain treatment locally at a more reasonable price.

  15. Enjoying your travel blogs …. I was in Europe for 5 weeks in 2016 … the mountains there are the place to be … definitely like the history stuff too, but have love anything to do with the mountains and lakes ……. would be good to hear from folks like …. myself who have a homebase overseas … and travel … I am F.I. but still do international school teaching … which is busy, but have 3 months of holiday to explore the world …. my friends and co-workers are from or have moved and worked … all over the world. Michael CPO, … favourite water and mountain spots – the Canadian Rockies, the Alps, and Hong Kong …

  16. Justin,

    Just stumbled onto your blog. Enjoying getting your perspective.

    Awesome that you explored Slovenia. Love that country. Seriously.

    If you ever head to Croatia, let me know. I lived there for work for three years (before hitting FI), and I spend about a month there every year now. FIRE is good ;). I can steer you towards some cool spots and great deals.

  17. I appreciate both urban and rural tourism, but rural is best. Unspoiled natural areas put me at an ease that can be rivaled by nothing else other than maybe good music and a little alcohol! I must say Slovenia never crossed my mind as a tourist destination but your pics and stories have changed my mind. It looks absolutely gorgeous. Thanks!

  18. Which company offers the global SIM package you used during your trip? I’m looking for a sim card I can buy here in the US and use in Europe.

    1. I got one from Freedompop. Not sure if they still sell them as they were not available when I was looking this past summer. It’s pretty easy to get one over there though. Might also look for one on ebay if you want to get it ahead of time. The Hofer Slovenia cell plan SIM looked pretty good value (saw it at the grocery store while we were there – $7/month I think for a small allotment of data??).

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