A European Destination for Everybody: Discover Slovenia
Above image by www.slovenia.info, photo: Jost Gantar
If you’re making the long-haul to Europe for your next getaway, you probably want to squeeze as much cultural charm and natural grandeur as you can out of a week or two on the continent. With almost thirty countries, a seemingly endless list of unique and interesting cities to be toured, and a lifetime’s worth of mountain peaks, rivers, forests and beaches, it is hard to decide where to start. Though there are good arguments to be made for visiting just about every European destination, let me suggest an often underrated option: Slovenia.
Wedged between Italy, Austria, and Croatia, the small mountain nation of two million contains a broad and fascinating array of climates, landscapes, and cultural centers. From the ancient coastal settlement of Koper (a few minutes from Trieste) to the hill-ringed, river-crossed capital of Ljubljana to the alpine beauty of Lake Bled and the surrounding peaks, Slovenia’s exciting offerings can easily fill a weeks-long vacation, while satisfying the tastes of all types of travelers.
For skiers, bikers, runners, and outdoor adventures of any stripe, northwestern Slovenia—home to some of the finest backcountry in the southern alps—is the place to be.
The beauty and adventure-potential of this region is due not only to the Julian Alps, which boast Slovenia’s highest peak, Mount Triglav (9,400 ft); there is also the massive and picturesque lake Bled, offering boating, swimming, and breathtaking views of both vast evergreen forests and baroque 16th century churches (one of which is built on the island in the center of the lake).
Luckily for visiting adventurers, Slovenia’s capital is situated in the heart of the nation’s wilderness, and is easily accessible via plane or train. In fact, the city serves as sort of gateway both to Slovenia’s backcountry and to the rest of the Balkan countries. It is not unusual to see throngs of backpacking youths decamped across Ljubljana’s parks, and making full use of the city’s many hostels, bars, and affordable restaurants. If you’re on a budget and looking for the authentic backpacker experience, consider spending a night at the garden-surrounded Vila Veselova, which offers both dorm and private rooms. If you want something a bit more plush, check out the reasonably priced boutique Hotel Heritage, situated in the heart of the city, alongside the Ljubljanica river.
Even if you are only in the Slovenian capital for a night before heading into the mountains, be sure to enjoy a meal at the beloved Hisa Pod Gradom, where you can sample the delicious simplicity of Slovenian cooking. Most dishes are composed of local ingredients—wild trout and daily-baked Slovenian cheese pastry, for instance—and are so precisely executed that the vibrancy of the produce and the traditional recipes shines through. Be sure to enjoy a local wine with dinner, which are normally as affordable as they are excellent. Like their Austrian neighbors, Slovenian whites are exceptional, although generally fruitier and less peppery than the Grüner Veltliner (I’m thinking especially of Rebula varieties and the famous Slovenian orange wines).
After dinner, check out any of the lovely bars with tables spread along the cobblestoned banks of the Ljubljanica. For just a few euros you can enjoy a brimming pint of local beer (either Union of Laško, locals are divided as to the superior brew) and perhaps a tipple of the local plum liquor (Slivovitz). Before leaving the capital, stroll through the sprawling market, held daily in the center of town. There you’ll find the best seasonal produce from the area, as well as seafood from the nearby Mediterranean and all of the most classic Slovenian butchery items.
There are of course a thousand and one things to do in Ljubljana, and if you have time in your schedule there are many that should not be missed. At the top of my list would be Ljubljana castle, which towers over the city, the sprawling Tivoli park, with its various cafes and water features, the modern and ancient art museums, and of course a healthy stroll along the central river and across the famous triple bridge (a bridge, as you might guess, that is actually three bridges). However, if you are itching to get to the mountains, it is best to head north. A two-hour bus ride will land you in the stunning resort town of Kranjska Gora, which sits conveniently between Triglav national park and the Austrian border.
For rustic-yet-comfortable, family friendly accommodation in Kranjska Gora consider Berghi Hotel and Apartments, which (like the rest of the village) sits just a stone’s throw from the trail network that crisscrosses Triglav National Park’s 350 square miles.
The terrain in this massive national park (which accounts for nearly five percent of Slovenia’s land area) is widely and excitingly varied. There are the rocky peaks of the Julian Alps and Triglav Mountain, the gentler, snowier slopes on which alpine ski resorts like Vogel-Bohinj sit on, as well as two long, meandering river valleys. Given this variety and the high proportion of gently rolling hills, the Triglav park is perfectly suited, in the winter months, for cross country skiers; meanwhile, in the summer months, it meets all the demands of hikers and mountain bikers. For skiers, the Bohinj Valley (at the base of the Vogel resort) boasts some 80 km of professionally groomed trails, while elsewhere in the park there are countless point-to-point and loop-style ski tour routes.
For mountain bikers, the extensive and well-maintained trail network in Triglav National Park makes an exciting day of climbing and dropping safe and accessible. There are over thirty well marked routes (ranging in length from five to 60 kilometers), crowned by the Juliana Trail, a 300 kilometer distance route that circumnavigates the Julian alps. Learn more about this incredible bike network here.
Wherever your park adventures lead you, be sure to circle back to Kranjska Gora and especially to the restaurant Okrepčevalnica Lačni Kekec, which offers generous portions of grilled meats, seafoods (grilled octopus, anyone?), and local vegetables, as well as an excellent selection of Slovenian wines.
Of course, this is not nearly the end of the adventures that Slovenia offers. In addition to Triglav National Park, a staggering 40% of the country’s heavily forested land is protected.
There is also the 47 kilometer Adriatic coastline, lined by small, ancient, tile-roofed cities and some extraordinary beaches (Piran’s waterfront is especially beautiful), not to mention the many mountain villages that lie off the beaten paths. The list goes on. The beauty of Slovenia’s size, however, is that its endless adventure is also endlessly accessible.