Slovenia might be a tiny sliver of a country, but what it lacks in geographical scope it more than compensates for with swathes of natural beauty and near-limitless supplies of Slavic charm. Its appeal lies in its hospitable populace, the melting pot of Central/Eastern European-influenced cuisine and the craggy Julian Alps that sweep across the Northwest corner of the country. Indeed, many a traveller I’ve met on the road – from Australians and Americans to Koreans and Brazilians – have raved about how Slovenia is a real find: a place that is still a little under the radar but growing ever more popular.
My friend – who, to this day has not ventured outside of Europe – and I went to Slovenia a couple of years ago. For reasons I’ve never quite been able to fathom, he has something of an obsession with Eastern Europe; me, I’m basically up for going almost anywhere. He also has an obsession with tea – a proper Englishman – and our hunt for Earl Grey tea in Slovenian supermarkets certainly were not the easiest food forays I have ever undertaken! Other than that, he was fine company – he got stuck in to Slavic cuisine – and I have since travelled with him again.
Ljubljana is one of Europe’s less showy capitals. That’s not to say it’s dull or anything – with its hilltop castle, quaint old town and winding river criss-crossed by several bridges (the most famous, the triple bridge, being the handiwork of Joze Plecnik: sort of Ljubljana’s version of Gaudi), Ljubljana has its fair share of things to see and do. It’s just that it hasn’t got the big ticket, big feel of a Budapest or a Paris. Still, I can certainly confirm there aren’t many more pleasant experiences than a beer on a warm late summer’s evening, perched on an al fresco table overlooking the river.
If you’d like to mix things up with a countryside experience, I can recommend an excursion to nearby Skofja Loka. The town itself – cobblestone streets, old churches, another castle, cheesy pillory for the tourists – is diverting enough. But the rolling hills to the west of the town are beautiful – the lushest of green in colour, and commanding some fine views of the area, spend a few hours hiking these and you’ll understand why Slovenia has such a reputation for outstanding natural beauty.
Bled is quite possibly the most popular destination in all of Slovenia, and its twinkling emerald lake is the focal point of this picture-postcard town. Everything around – the medieval castle perched atop a slab of rock, the mountains on the watercolour horizon – are essentially the supporting cast to the belle of the ball that is Lake Bled itself. Its islet, complete with spired church, is the beauty spot on the surface that seals the love-at-first-sight deal.
Ringing the bell of the church is purported to bring good luck, and boatloads of tourists sail over to claim their slice of Slavic fortune, as well as to drift serenely over the lake’s crystal clear waters. It’s little wonder, then, that Bled is a common destination for moon-eyed romantics. If you’re the trekking sort, like me, then I do recommend a climb up the Velika Osojnica hill alongside the lake. It’s a steep-ish climb, complete with a stretch of near-vertical steps, but you won’t be disappointed by the panorama of Bled and its surrounds that await you at the top.
Bled is also the base from which to explore a couple of nearby gorges. By far the more accessible and touristy is Vintgar Gorge, which can be walked to quite easily. The wooden walkway – surrounded on all sides by a vista of pretty water features – makes navigating it easy, and it all ends with a moderately impressive waterfall. For me, though, the wilder and more obscure Pokljuka Gorge edges it, as here you’ll find more varied terrain and scenery, plus fewer visitors (we had the whole gorge to ourselves!). It isn’t within walking distance, but it is definitely worth the effort.
If Bled is something of a delicate, eyelash-fluttering beauty then Bohinj, some 26km to the west, is its dashing, wilder and spunkier sibling. It’s situated on the edge of the Triglav National Park, ensuring mountain landscape views are guaranteed. The Bohinj Valley offers the visitor snapshots of Slovenia’s traditional rural life, as well as attractions such as the Vogel Ski resort and Savica Waterfall. However, once again it’s the lake that steals the limelight.
You won’t get any of Bled’s glossy trappings here, and, indeed, we even had to wade through soggy grassland to get to its banks. Instead, you get an experience that’s devoid of crowds and dramatically cheek-to-cheek with the rough-hewed slopes of towering Alpine peaks. Visiting at sunset is a spectacular treat, as at this time the lower slopes of the surrounding mountains are cloaked in shadow, offering a vivid contrast to the higher peaks reflected in the lake’s pristine surface.
Regarding which lake is better, there’s a rough 50/50 split among those whom I’ve asked, and I personally come down on the side of the less-visited Bohinj for its more remote and, to my mind, spectacular setting. But which lake you rate higher will be closely related to which side of Slovenia you prefer: is it the fairy tale architecture and picturesque townscapes, or the lush and verdant landscapes sculpted more by nature than by man? That little Slovenia offers both in spades, not least with these two lakes, explains why this Slavic nation is becoming an ever more popular destination.