Without any subjectivity whatsoever on my part (wink, wink) I do have to state: Slovenija is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. How could it not be when even the name itself connotes LOVE. Love locks on Lake Bled
Slovenia is a tiny little country (less than 8.000 square miles and only 2 million people) tucked under the Alps with neighboring Austria to the north, Italy to the west, Hungary to the east and Croatia to the south. I have never met anyone who visited that did not fall in love on first sight. I have met plenty of people who confuse Slovenija with Slovakia or even Slavonia. Just to make it clear once and for all: Slovakia is the divorced half of the former Czechoslovakia and Slavonia is a part of Croatia. And then there was Yugoslavia of which Slovenia and Croatia used to be a part of.
Sunrise over Julian Alps
Just recently I somehow managed to finagle my youngest daughter into the first ever mother-daughter trip back to Slovenia, my home country. While she has been there countless times since childhood, this time she saw it with the eyes of an independent young woman, who has now travelled a big chunk of the world on her own. And to my surprise she could not stop raving about the beauty of her mother’s homeland. The mountains, the meadows, the lakes, the mediaeval castles… all the sights she has been taking for granted on all her childhood summer vacations suddenly took on a new meaning and beauty. It probably helped that her best friend just spent two weeks hiking in Slovenian Alps and raved to her about all the wonderful experiences and nice people she had encountered. Our daughter Naya hiking in the Alps
Of course one can trust one’s friend’s opinions much more than one’s mother’s life experience! Still, I felt gratified and excited about her excitement. Maybe even a little vindicated…
Despite its tiny size and population Slovenia has won quite some bragging rights. Slovenian athletes are world class, and whatever the sport, Slovenians will show up in droves and win a lot of medals. When you look at per capita Olympic medal wins we are right up at the top. A giant billboard with Olympic rowing medalists
Not surprising, as Slovenes are quite an athletic nation-it is mandatory for every child in the elementary school not only to learn the 3 R’s (and consequently bring the country’s literacy rate to 99.7 percent and the fifth top place in the world) but also to attend a week of swimming lessons in a camp at the Adriatic Sea and a week of skiing lessons in the Alps. Every weekend you will see people of all ages on bikes, boats, skies, or at least lacing up their hiking boots. There is likely no other nation that is as crazy about their national sports teams and not only when it is time to soccer tournaments. Biatlonists or rowers or ski jumpers-they are all beloved national heroes.
Slovenia has also been named, according to some Internet travel sites, the safest country to travel to. It is also one of the cleanest. Alas, that only applies to its recycling programs and general cleanliness of streets, pubs and toilets. Not so much to the clean government; since the independence some 27 years ago when new Slovenia was declared the least corrupt and safest to invest in from the former Eastern European nations, her ranking kept on dropping. That is something that pains me nearly as much as the birth connection of the current First Lady to the country of my birth. Turns out that we have another connection, we both attended the same university, except that I really graduated and she said she did.
There is an undeniable cuteness factor: darling small villages with small cozy houses with small carved balconies with small wooden boxes spilling over with an abundance of colorful flowers. Small undulating hills dotted with tiny white mediaeval churches,
which rise above narrow checkered fields in green rainbow colors. Yet there are also big, beautiful, breathtaking places and sights to see – natural and man made marvels: the snow caped peaks of the Julian Alps rising from the green meadows; clear blue-green lakes with swans and fairytales castles; underground caves with fantastic karst formations, vineyards ablaze in fall colors, blue-green rivers and streams, even a small a small piece of Adriatic Sea. For me the biggest Slovenian treasure are swaths of lush forests, where you can tramp freely; rich green woods filled with abundance of chestnuts, mushrooms, wild blueberries, and raspberries. You can have your truffles anytime, let me have just a fistful of intoxicating wild strawberries. In the cities, you will find a thoroughly modern standard of living with glass skyscrapers and business centers, air-conditioned public transportation, and five star restaurants and casinos. But just a short hop, skip (forget the jump) you’ll encounter quaint ethnic villages with cottage gardens where all vegetables are organic, sausages home made, honey golden, and fresh chicken eggs have yolks orange like the setting sun.On a short drive or a hike in the mountains, you will often come across centuries old methods of cutting grass with a scythe or transporting hay with a horse cart. In the mountains you will find summer pastures with sheep or cow camps and there you can indulge in home made cheese or buttermilk crafted from the milk milked from the cows that have eaten only fresh juicy green grass sweetened with meadow flowers. People are helpful, interested and educated. They speak at least one foreign language — English if not also German and Italian. Slovenians are quite hospitable, and if you are lucky to be invited into a Slovenian home, you will have to drink and eat until bursting. Ditto if you eat in a pub, where large quantities of meat and potatoes are a staple diet. Culinary-wise Slovenia tends to lean towards healthy Central Europe with soups, meats, dumplings and yeasty cakes. As you move to the edges of the country, you can taste the influence of its neighbors, especially Italians with their pizzas, pastas and gnocchi. Fresh river trout and sea food and, for the more adventuresome, game (deer, boar and bear) are easily found. There are a few unique specialties that I absolutely have to sample on every visit to my home country; surprisingly, they are pretty much all special desserts. Ah, my sweet tooth gets me in trouble all the time!
Even though the country is so small, you can stay for awhile, as each region is quite diverse and offers interesting places to visit or lovely drives to enjoy. But if I had to choose three highlights, these would be it:
A stroll Through the Old Town of the Capital Ljubljana (Don’t try to pronounce that, you might tangle, if not break your tongue.)
It is a miniature version of Prague’s Old Town sans endless hordes of tourists and hawkers. Going back five millenniums you can see well preserved walls of the Roman town of Emona. Walk the pedestrian zone on the cobbled streets with Renaissance fountains, restored Baroque facades or Art Nouveau decorations. Climb, or if you wish, take a funicular up to the tower of the medieval castle for a beautiful view of the city. You will see the glistening roofs by the green river Ljubljanica, meandering slowly through the city, separating the oldest part from the new by many elegant bridges. Descend and explore the big Framer’s Market (right next to the Cathedral) with its colorful umbrellas and variety of foods and ethnic products. Have a delicious gelato by the Three Bridges, observing the people meeting at the monument to the national poet and his muse. (No statues of military men on horseback here). Or have a beer in the beer garden right across the square with jazz artists and students playing every day in the summer.
Stroll along the lighted paths by the river to the outdoor Krizanke Summer Theatre and enjoy an international performance of opera or ballet.
When last year our oldest daughter Tisa chose Ljubljana as her wedding venue, surely her American friends and family did not know what to expect. It only took checking in at the Vander hotel (designed from three medieval houses with a roof terrace peeking at the castle above) and a few hours at the night-before-the-wedding-bash on the banks of the Ljubljanica river and everyone was in love with the place. Lake Bled
The day after the wedding we all took a trip just half an hour north of the capital to the jewel of Slovenija – Lake Bled. Its unique setting is simply magical. The panorama of the small blue-green lake is edged by the distant peaks of the Alps and its highest mountain Triglav, the symbol of the country. In the middle of the lake is a miniature island accessible by traditional wooden boats or a swim for the brave and sturdy. It is an old tradition that the groom must carry his bride up the ninety-nine steps on the island leading to the white church built on an old pagan site, replete with old frescoes and a wishing bell. The tradition also says people who ring the church bell three times, get their wish fulfilled. Our middle daughter Lana ringing the bell for the newlyweds’ happiness…
The best view of the lake and surrounding villages is from the medieval castle perched on a hill by the edge of the lake. After you catch your breath climbing the stairs it will be immediately taken away for the view is truly to die for. You can easily walk or bike on the path all around the lake, stopping to admire the families of white long necked swansor young rowers of Olympic fame. On a recent early morning walk around the lake my husband and I could not help ourselves but double the time it takes to go around. Every few steps there was a new sight begging to be enjoyed and photographed. We encountered some early runners and with his typical sarcastic take Mirek observed, “Half of them look phenomenal, and half look like they might be running straight to their doctor. And of those, I think, half won’t make it.”
To replenish your energy sit on a terrace of one of the hotels or coffee shops, enjoying the romantic view, good coffee and famous Bled kremshnite (Custard slices). Bled is a starting point for many short or long hikes to the countryside, waterfalls, or mountains of the National Park. For the young and/or the daring it is also a center for adrenaline filled sports of river rafting, kayaking, canyoning or paragliding. For my 50th birthday I took to the sky over the neighboring Bohinj lake on a tandem paraglide and it was one of the more thrilling experiences of my life!
An hour south of the capital is one of the more famous European wonders of the natural world-the underground caves created by tiny drops of water over millions of years. Deep underground await thousands of stalactites and stalagmites of all sizes and colors to dazzle the visitor. Personally I am not big on caves, but this one really is a marvel. Multilingual guides bring you along well paved paths to the most attractive areas on a 1.5 hour long tour, part of it on an open electric train. It is exhilarating for young and old alike to zoom through black passages only to be greeted by dramatic lighting revealing pillars and curtains of calcite formations. Back up in the sun make a short detour to visit Predjamski grad, a romantic white castle built into the rock in a hidden valley that was occupied in the middle ages by a robber baron. For horse lovers, a stop at Lipica stud farm nearby, where the famous Lipizzaner horses of the Vienna High School of Dressage have originated from, is a special treat.
You can easily make Slovenia your base for exploring some other better known European destinations. It is only 186 miles across the whole country so from the capital it takes about three hours of driving to Venice and four to five hours to Vienna. You can also head down to the Croatian Islands or to Budapest in Hungary, but you might first want to see how hard it is to leave the fairyland of SLOVEnija after you inevitably fall in love, too.