To most people, Slovenia is a little known country, with a population of only two million. Tucked away on the Italian/Austrian/Hungarian and Croatian borders, it is the acceptable face of eastern European (though the locals don’t seem to see themselves as such) tourism, with its inhabitants speaking excellent English but their country still relatively undiscovered.
Lovers of mushrooms and pork (though never a pig to be seen), the country is mountainous, somewhat understated and very clean. Apart, that is, from Ljubljana, the capital, which is endowed with copious amounts of street art or graffiti, some of it racist, the only chink we noticed in the overall Slovenia persona. Indeed, Ljubljana is slightly disappointing, despite its bridges and fake ‘castle’ which was rebuilt purely as a tourist attraction and cultural centre. The castle is worth a visit, however, if only for the funicular ride up to it and the panoramic views from the tower. These open out vistas of three quarters of Slovenia itself, creating a full realisation of its small size yet immense scenery, and offering a real sense of a land surrounded by mountain terrain. The city is small, compact and easy enough to walk around, with plenty of cafes.
In June, the streets of Ljubljana are awash with market stalls, selling cherries, strawberries and flowers, colourful, and pretty.The city itself appears, however, to lack a true heart and while pretty, pleasant and safe-feeling, it somehow lacks soul. Maybe this is because of the grim communistic tower blocks, perhaps home to the graffiti artists, which are so close to the centre and therefore ‘in your face’ or maybe we just didn’t find it. I am told that compared to the misery that is Budapest, Ljubljana and its friendly vibe is utterly wonderful!! The jewel in Slovenia’s crown, however, apart from its friendly and very hospitable people, is probably Bled, a fairy-tale tourist attraction with a walkable lake, and its iconic island set in the middle of the deep emerald water, reached by a gondola or ‘pletna’, or by rowing boat for the energetic.
Similarly, Bohinj Lake is stunning, a word much over-used during our visit. The best way to see and appreciate its depths is by the wooden boat which travels its length, leaving waves of mercurial water in its wake. A fabulous view is also afforded from the vertiginous Vogel cable car, though in early summer, the scrubland at the top is sadly disappointing, indicating land-damage caused by ski-ing. Good food at the top (hearty soups mainly) is a welcome site though the slight swaying suspension sensation feels peculiar. Nearby are Slap Savica, a dramatic waterfall, reached by 500 steps and fairly disabled – friendly (we met a woman with crutches at the top) and the Vintgar Gorge, which has a 1600m wooden walkway, originally built in 1893, crossing the Radovna rapids. The gorge is a lovely walk along the emerald river, Radovna, which also culminates in a big waterfall, called the Sum, an impressive 13m high. Savica waterfall is worth the climb, as you are treated to refreshing spray from the fall at the top.The Julian Alps, are incredibly spectacular, with tremendous ranges and exciting hairpin bend roads, as expected, over the passes, taken at breathtaking speed by motorcyclists, and amazingly also tackled by what must be the world’s fittest cyclists. The River Soca is similarly clean and turquoise. It seems that rock flour causes rivers to be turquoise (basically glacial deposits which haven’t yet been affected by air, so are chemically unweathered). Put it all together and you have an astonishingly awesome array of sights.
Bohinj is a glacial lake, Triglav overseeing it in the background; the lake sustained an earthquake in 1998, and is longer and less developed than Bled. It is also a big water sport activity centre so the best time to go is fairly early in the morning.The view of Bohinj from the bridge, which changes mood according to weather, was a firm favourite. The lake itself is 4.5km long and 1200m wide, 45m deep. Bled, by comparison is only 2km by 1480m. Bled island is the only true island in Slovenia, site of a Christian church since the ninth century and surely the most-used image of Slovenia. However, there are signs of earlier Pagan worship, too. The ‘pletna’ is the archetypical tourist experience but worth doing. The boat drops you at the south staircase built in 1655. The 15th century belfry contains a wishing bell that you can ring if you want to ask a special favour, though the noise of everyone doing this is a little irksome after a while. Much more natural is the sound of cow bells near the Vintgar Gorge, or the incessant hum of cicadas or birdsong almost everywhere else.
Above Bled sits the castle, reached by a steep climb up steps. It has to be said that most of the castles are not up to much compared to their Bavarian counterparts, but they do provide an opportunity to soar up and look down, the place to go for views and vistas.Ditto, the mountains provide fine vantage points, along with the sheer harsh beauty of the Alps. A botanist turned climber described the highest mountain, Triglav, as “not a mountain but a realm” and it is apt. The mountains, composed of limestone and dolomite, are breathtaking. Slovenia is often called ‘the country on the sunny side of the Alps’ in the tourist blurb, for it is the first to receive the morning sun, though it tends to be shrouded in cloud later in the day. The national poet, France Preseren, called it “a vision of paradise” in his famous “Baptism Beside the Savica” epic. Triglav is 2864m. Its three peaks appear in the Slovenian national coat of arms; thus, it is a key part of national identity. Before starting the mountain climb, it is said one should rub the golden goat statue perched by another turquoise lake. This stops the rain! There is, of course, a mountain myth about the ‘golden horn goat’……the place is surely full of myths.
Near to Bled is Radovljica, a medieval town, with a range of bars and restaurants, plus a large church and museum. It is a quiet place, fascinating to visit on a sunday when the locals flock to mass dressed in their Sunday best, and the bells ring out. The tourist information centre sells fabulous gift items such as local honey chocolate and decorated gingerbread plus beeswax candles.
On a rainy day, you can do worse than visit the Skocjan Caves which are huge caverns with a bridge over a canyon. The Cerkevnik Bridge is 45m above the river bed where the Reka River enters the Hanke’s Channel. On the UNESCO list of cultural world heritage sites (1986) the caves form an important part of the Karst (limestone plains above the Gulf of Trieste, in the foothills of the Julian Alps) with huge sink holes and natural bridges. The Great Cavern is a very barren environment, so the sight is awesome rather than beautiful. There are many daily tours which last around one and a half hours, with the lowest point 144m below the surface. The tour is approx 3km long and had we but known it, the passage at the entrance is the most beautiful (aptly named Paradiz). There are enormous stalactites and a canyon of the River Reka. Towards the exit, there are bats, who also enjoy the caves. The Skocjan caves have been described as Gothic and mystic, whereas the more popular Postojna Caves are described as luxuriant and baroque. Having not seen the Postojna Caves, it’s hard to compare. Nearby is Predjama Castle, a cave castle of four storeys built into a 123m high vertical Karst cliff face . During sieges, the inhabitants of this impressive – indeed a formidable and impenetrable eyrie – fortress maintained food supplies via a secret entrance. The seemingly impregnable castle held a secret stash of food which was used to pelt at besiegers. The last owner, a knight called Erasmus, was undone through servant betrayal when a cannonball was fired at the toilet he was sat on. Way to go. He is allegedly buried next to the 15th century church. His safe house in an unsafe environment was obviously not quite as secure as he thought.
The peaks themselves are bare and craggy, but there are also areas of dense alpine forests, all encompassed within the 84, 805 hectares of the Triglav National Park. The road/pass through the mountains is known as the Russian Road, built by ten thousand Russian POWs. There is a monument to their suffering, and to commemorate the deaths of those killed in avalanches along the way. The road opens for approximately seven months a year, and there is much to be thankful to those Russians for.
Piran is a contrast to the mountain scenery for it is on a peninsula at the edge of the Adriatic. The guide books fail to provide a true sense of its beauty with the gentle sea hugging the shore, and the plethora of eateries along the shoreline. The concrete beaches are not the best, nor is the tendency towards naturist bathing (for most of the bodies are not beautiful, merely uninhibited) but the town, whose centre is Tartini Square (actually an oval) complete with an 1892 statue of the famed ‘Devil’s Trill’ violinist and composer, has a lovely old centre with narrow streets, walls and church with bell tower. Views from the tower are exceptional, so well worth the one euro fee to climb up and hear the bells up close and to see the birds eye view over the peninsula; the overall feel is very Venetian. The shops are mixed and keenly staffed. Piran was very hot when we visited – 28 degrees – with high humidity making it hot, close and at times uncomfortable, despite the gentle Adriatic breeze. An enchanting place, which attracts many groups, is relatively traffic free and has a friendly atmosphere and character with the advantage of the salty sea air.
The locals reckon there is little work in Slovenia, with young people decamping abroad to find opportunities. The daughter of the housekeeper of our apartment, for example, now lives in Belgium. Well understandable because Slovenia is about half the size of Switzerland, with half of the territory covered by forest. Having achieved independence in 199, the country is known as ‘transitional’ bordered by four countries and the Adriatic. The language changes accordingly depending on where you are, and, while largely secular there is also apparently a deep Roman Catholic and Lutheran base, though I only noticed Catholicism in the baroque churches which tend to be locked. Externally, the churches are Gothic in nature.
Slovenes are said to be welcoming, generous, multi-lingual and broad-minded, all of which seems true. We rarely encountered the ‘am I bothered?’ face. From the Soca Valley to Ljubljana, all seemed friendly and helpful. A local farmer we met also provided us with free lettuces. Farming is efficient but primitive. The universal language appears to be football as we found a keen Steven Gerrard fan out in the sticks, complete with football shirt! In Slovenia, farming seems to be a quiet business, with no roar of mechanisation as farmers literally plough the fields with archaic equipment, the women raking behind them. A Devon farmer once told me that their old equipment is transported to Bulgaria. Well, this seems to be a step further down the line. Poor size of farms, fragmentation and over growing have obstructed rapid technological progress. Production conditions are not the best and land is thus poorly exploited. Two thirds of farmland is grassland. Vegetable production tops the poll of farming here with fruit, wine and grapes important. White wine accounts for 70% of production and is rather good, especially the sparkling. Farming brings with it low incomes, so that people are unlikely to move. Combined with poor quality land, farming remains agrarian. Great to see as a tourist though as it’s like stepping back in time, not quite Amish but about as close as one is likely to get.
In terms of history and culture, little comment seems to be made about the more recent years before the fall of communism. Food is a sticky area though. The Italian influence makes for a dominance of pizza/pasta which is ok, though dull. I enjoyed plentiful Greek salads with copious amounts of feta and olives, but the traditional Slovene dishes, such as cheese filled dumplings made from buckwheat are stodgy and tasteless, requiring the addition of a glutinous mushroom sauce to make them remotely palatable. Even the staff in the restaurant seemed to recognise this unpalatability. Bread is pleasant but heavy. The food lacks imagination yet is not cheap. The wine is much better though even here we endured a rather odd pinot, amber in colour and heavy as if fortified, though dry. The food is therefore unmemorable at best and highly forgettable at worst. A shame really as, while one doesn’t travel for the food, it does form part of the overall characteristic of any holiday, and we were keen to try the local fayre.
The vignette is a card which people buy to drive on motorways in Slovenia (spot checks are made) similarly to Italy and Switzerland. It is effectively a tourist and freight tax, which struck me as a fabulous idea for England to bring in much needed money for infra-structure from the lorries who fill up with cheaper fuel in France then thunder along British motorways. It needn’t be prohibitive, and nationals would pay for their use as they do now, through tax, but it seems like a much better way than tolls to bring in cash. Driving in Slovenia is not too arduous but the petrol is much cheaper and easier to get than in Italy on a dozy Sunday afternoon. We were told that Italian law requires every fourth petrol station to open, and even then it is a self – service nightmare for the foreign traveller. Avoid!!