“Slovenia – where’s that?” you ask. Don’t worry, none of my French coworkers knew where it was either, some thinking it was on the Baltic coast and others sure it was just next to Bulgaria.
In reality, it’s one of the former Yugoslavian states, wedged between Croatia to the east, Italy to the South, Austria to the west, and Hungary to the north. It gave the world the word Karst, has been crossed by trading routes for millennia, and was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire for centuries.
But more importantly, it’s worth visiting. It’s like Switzerland, only smaller, less expensive, and
more friendly. (I’ll explain after the photos).
1. They’re so friendly the owner of your hotel lends you his climbing helmets.
In the capital, Ljubljana, we asked the front desk at the Adora Hotel about hiking Mt Triglav (Slovenia’s highest mountain) in the Julian Alps, about 120 km away.
The guy at the front desk phoned the owner, a keen mountaineer, who drove over to the hotel right away.
Not only did he recommend scenic, do-able alternatives to the beer-fueled crowds on Triglav, he lent us his mountaineering helmets so we could feel more safe navigating a few slightly exposed sections.
So nice. But how would we get them back to him?
“Leave them at this farmhouse. It’s 400 meters down the road from my weekend place.”
And since that neighbour was a B&B (our hotel owner got married there in 2009), he phoned them to make sure there was availability for when we’d be there.
Or, when we were on the coast, we decided against staying at the campground packed cheek-by-jowl with camper vans. When we then asked the campground manager, whose campground we had just rejected (politely), if he thought the hotels in town would all be booked for the weekend—it was Friday evening of the last weekend in August—he offered to phone the hotels on our list.
2. You’ll spend more time outside your (bargain) rental car than in it.
You can easily cross the country in half a day. It took us 1.5 hours to drive from Ljublana, near the north, to the Venetian port town of Piran on coast (excluding stops to get lost, eat lunch, and tour a cliffside castle). So you spend a lot more seeing the sights than driving to them.
And yes, the rental car was insanely cheap – less than 200 euros for 9 days.
3. It’s outdoor sports paradise
Mountain biking? Canyoning? Climbing? Mountaineering? White-water kayaking? All there either in or around the Julian Alps. Sleepy little Kobarid and more bustling Bovec, both on the Italy-side of the Julian Alps, seem to be the epicenters. Slovenia’s tourist website has more info here.
But because the country is so small, even if you’re staying in Ljubljana, there are outfitters there who can arrange adrenaline-filled day trips into the mountains.
After trying canyoning in France’s Cévennes a few weeks earlier, we decided this time to try white-water kayaking. For obvious reasons, we didn’t have our camera with us (the first thing they teach you is what to do when your kayak tips over – which was a good thing as HerrKaa went on to do this 3 more times during our 2 hours lesson).
But it was in this river, the Soca, with the same clear, COLD water, just deeper.
You also need to imagine a few small towns above the river, topped with little white churches dotting the lower slopes at regular intervals. Apparently the churches used to signal to each other to pass messages up and down the river valley.
4. Baby donkey sightings
While the trail we took while hiking above Kobarid involved more route-finding than we bargained for, the compensation was getting to hike through the pasture of this little donkey with a velvety thick pelt and lashes worthy of a Maybelline ad. We passed within a foot of him & his mom and neither batted a (long) lash.
It was so late by the time we finished that hike that we had to take the long, windy main road back to our campground 7 km down the mountain, rather than the much shorter, but entirely wooded, trail that we had come up.
Fortunately, after 2 km of roadside trudging we were able to hitch a ride from the 2nd car that passed us, a woman on her way to work. More Slovenian friendliness in action!
5. Slow-venian food
When you say “Central Europe” and “cuisine” in the same sentence, visions of pork knuckles and doughy dumplings swimming in mysterious brown sauces usually dance in people’s heads (especially vegetarians’).
But proximity to Italy and its slow-food movement, plus a mediterranean climate in the south and lots of limestone plateaus means that they grow olives and grapes here too.
The coastline and rivers means you can enjoy seafood and river fish as easily as pork and beef. I think I had grilled calamari (so fresh! so tender!) every day for, like, 7 days straight.
Some of the really outstanding places we ate at:
- Gostilna (restaurant) Na Gradu, in the courtyard of Ljubljana’s hilltop castle.
- Spazja, near one of the paths leading up to Ljubljana’s castle, at the edge of the old town.
- Kekčeva-domačija, the B&B where we stayed in the Julian Alps. If you’re staying here, you can also arrange in advance to dine there at night. When we ate they we had homemade ravioli for a starter, our main was the local specialty of roasted river trout with almonds, and homemade ice cream for dessert. The owner also has his own vineyard, so there is plenty of wine to choose from.