5 reasons to vacation in Slovenia

“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.

Thanks for the tip, Hotel Adora!

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.

slovenia_distances

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.

The Soca river near Kobarid, Slovenia.

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.

P1000371

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.

grilled calamari in Slovenia

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.
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An afternoon at the Red Tea Box, Toronto

I am watching Meilleur Patissier de France (Best pastry chef of France) on M6, my favourite TV station/guilty pleasure.

Today’s challenge was to make a “Voyageur” almond cake, so named because it can keep for 3 days at room temperature. The tricky bit for the 12 contestants was the fondant icing. Ah, yet another ‘false friend’: fondant is just regular glazed icing to me, while what anglos call fondant icing is pâte à sucre (sugar paste) here, and such cake decoration is almost non-existent in Paris*.

On the other hand, we saw some stunning examples when in Toronto a few weeks ago, at the Red Tea Box.

One of our favourite neighbourhoods in Toronto is the stretch of Queen St W. by Trinity Bellwood park. Our friend Fauna kindly sacrified her Friday afternoon off to battle traffic and fetch us from Pearson (when is Canada’s largest city going to have a subway line to the airport, like a normal metropolis?),  then brought us here for some mid-afternoon sustenance.

I had been here 10 years before, again with Fauna (my source of all things cool in TO), and had never forgotten the experience. It was my first time tasting white Chinese tea, and I went gaga for the savory-sweet, Asian-influenced nibblies served in bento boxes. Since then I’ve made many trips to Toronto and tried repeatedly to visit, often dragging Torontophobic, tea-loving HerrKaa to prove the city has its merits even if there are no mountains, but this place would always be closed, ultimately reinforcing entrenched stereotypes.

The server was very friendly and we enjoyed being able to banter with her unhindered by linguistic mental gymnastics. She did tend to mysteriously disappear for long stretches, but this suited us fine as we needed time to choose from the extensive tea menu and to dither between soup of the day, a tea bento, or a gooey dessert.

In the end, HerrKaa opted for a chocolate hazlenut toffeecake, while Fauna and I split a tea bento that featured along with the savouries a chocolate lavender mousse. Because I am greedy was famished I also had a cauliflower, pear and wasabe soup to start. All this was accompanied by a huge pot, practically a vat, of steeped black tea. Such a thrill compared to the minuscule pots of tepid water you get when you are order tea at a typical café in France!

The Red Tea Box (phone for opening hours as they can be irregular)

696 Queen St W, Toronto

416-203-8882

* In Paris, you can order pretty cakes decorated with rolled fondant/pâte à sucre at the American (and I think Canadian)-run Sugarplum Cake Shop, near Contrescarpe. David Lebovitz has a good write-up here.

Like biking? Check out the Czech Republic

In late July we spent 2 weeks in Czech Republic and Poland, most of it while on bikes. It was our first real bike tour since 2009 (our May Day long weekend doesn’t really count), and we were relieved that my tendons and joints held up over the 420 km between Mikoluv, CZ and Krakow, PL.

We were so enthused  I even uploaded photos to Picasa and added captions. And now I’m actually making a blog post about them. This is an unprecedented level of vacation-sharing enthusiasm here on Pain au Chocolat, but that’s what two weeks of great beer, fab biking, and gorgeous Baroque towns can do for you.

First foray into Eastern Europe

Update, Nov 2013: I forgot to give credit to Simon of CZ Circuit Rider, for his excellent explanations of how to travel by bike in the Czech Republic. Thanks to him, HerrKaa was able to pick up the maps we needed during a business trip to Prague a few weeks before our vacation.

Another shout out to Top Bicycle, an American run outfit that offers rentals as well as guided & self-guided tours around Moravia, the Czech wine region. Thanks to them, we didn’t have to deal with packing our bikes and lugging them from Paris and through Prague. Another huge plus is that we were able to drop off our bikes in Krakow (where they also run tours), rather than returning to our starting point.