After hearing rave reviews about Slovenia, a small country that formerly comprised the northern portion of Yugoslavia, my wife and I decided to head there during our Europe trip last summer and see for ourselves if it could live up to its glowing, “must-see” reputation. Not only did it meet our expectations, but it exceeded them; in fact, I could live there, a statement I’ve rarely made about the 78 countries I’ve gotten to know.
Bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia and a small sliver of the Adriatic Sea, Slovenia offers enough sights and adventures to fill a visit for week or two. With only two million people in a country half-covered by forests, Slovenia seldom felt crowded. Its compact size made it easy for us to drive our rental car in a couple of hours or less to destinations around the country, from the majestic Alps in the north to the vineyards in the southwest, the world-class caves in the south, and the many delightful, flower-clad villages inbetween. We found the drivers and roads to be equal or better than in the US.
After a few weeks in Italy, we headed for Trieste where a deluxe bus took us directly to Slovenia’s capital, Ljubjana (loo bee ahna). Our love affair with the country began when we asked an elderly, well-attired couple for directions to our hotel, and as we reached the entrance a few blocks later, we spotted them patiently waiting on the corner, making sure we hadn’t gotten lost. Like so many Slovenians whom we met during our visit, these kind folks embodied the old Slovenian proverb: Politeness costs little but yields much.
Ljubjana’s subtle charm captivated us and now, looking back on our two-month Europe adventure, I’ve decided that it’s my favorite capital city. Oddly enough, it isn’t bigger, prettier or older than anywhere else, but what it does offer is an attractive, clean, uncrowded, compact, safe and affordable place to relax and enjoy life. We spent two days in Ljubjana’s historic center, enjoying its pedestrian-only, cobblestone streets lined with baroque buildings, Greek-style fountains, a prominent pink church, and its plant-lined canal bordered by outdoor cafes and crossed by a series of medieval bridges. Ljubjana Castle, perched atop a nearby hill, provided an expansive view of the city and surrounding countryside, though the newly refurbished castle lacked the allure of other vintage castles.
There is much to see and do in Slovenia, but here are some of the highlights we most enjoyed:
- LAKE BLED: This deep blue, spring-fed lake is one of the most popular places in Slovenia, known for its tourist-friendly town of Bled, and the postcard-perfect views of a medieval castle perched over one end of the lake and a baroque church nestled on a small island at the other end. We spent three days exploring Lake Bled and the surrounding countryside, and while we enjoyed Bled, the nearby hikes and countryside drives were even more enjoyable. In fact, my favorite day of our entire summer trip was when we drove from Bled to nearby Lake Bohinj via a back road that wound through the mountains and past charming villages with flower-draped houses tucked away in valleys whose grassy pastures were so green that the intensity almost hurt my eyes.
- RIVER GORGE HIKE: Less than 3 miles from Bled, Vintgar Gorge is one of the most popular hikes in Slovenia, featuring a walkway fastened to the rocky hillside just a few feet above a fast flowing, turquoise-tinted river. It meanders through a deep gorge for one mile until ending up at a lovely 40 foot waterfall. We loved this extraordinary hike but the key to our enjoyment was avoiding the immense summer crowds by arriving early (8am).
- RUSSIAN ROAD: Thank goodness we listened to our inn-keeper’s advice and drove on the Kranjska Gora road over the 5700 foot high Vrsic Pass in the Julian Alps. This turned out to be one of the best drives in Slovenia because of the majestic mountain scenery and the fascinating history of the road, built in WWI by 10,000 Russian POW’s (look for the historic Russian shrine they built near the pass to honor their comrades who died in avalanches while building the road).
- CAVES: Two of the finest caves in Europe are in southwest Slovenia: Postojna and Skocjan. If you like jaw-dropping caves whose size and formations defy imagination, then don’t miss both of these behemoths.
- WWI MUSEUM: As we headed southwest from Bled, we happened upon a fascinating WWI museum in the town of Kobarid. It presented the dramatic story of the “biggest mountain war in the history of mankind” which unfolded on tops of the towering mountains surrounding the town.
While there is much more I could say about one of my favorite countries, I’ll close by saying this: If you want to tour a country with genuinely friendly, mostly English-speaking people, and you like to hike, bike, kayak, ski, drink local wines or eat farm-to-table food, then Slovenia is the place for you. Meanwhile, we’ll be considering our next home covered with bright red and white geraniums in the Slovenian countryside.
Doug Hansen is a travel writer and photographer in Carlsbad, CA. See more photos and articles at www.HansenTravel.org or Instagram @doug6636.
IF YOU GO:
CURRENCY: Euros; mostly cash is needed, credit cards are accepted much less than in the US.
ELECTRICITY: 220 v but most US devices work OK with a simple plug adapter.
WHEN TO GO: Early May or mid September to avoid summer crowds. Book accommodations in advance, especially in the summer.
CELL PHONES: Check to see if your phone is “unlocked”; we bought inexpensive SIM cards in several countries for GPS directions and phone calling.