Slovenia – Europe’s ‘hidden gem’

Many have heard of Slovenia yet few have travelled there. With alpine scenery rivalling Austria, quaint storybook villages reminiscent of Switzerland and food culture akin to neighbouring Italy, Slovenia deserves more exposure. But, as it stands now, Slovenia isn’t overrun with tourists and that makes it a wonderful and immersive place to visit.

There’s something relaxing about exploring a place where few tourists venture. Fewer crowds and less tourist traps. This creates authentic experiences. Slovenia is a friendly and simple country. A place where families look out for each other, help their neighbours and continue to undertake traditional jobs – particularly in the farming sector. This is a country of pristine beauty where two-thirds of the land is covered by forest. Drink in the natural surroundings and fill your lungs with clean, mountain air. It is not surprising, then, that Ljubljana was named ‘The Green Capital of Europe’ a few years back.

One of Slovenia’s most iconic destinations, with its fairytale castle, island and church set on an cobalt-blue lake surrounded by mountains, is Lake Bled. Sure, it’s touristy, but beautiful nonetheless. A little less touristy is its neighbour Lake Bohinj. A popular side trip from Bled is Vintgar Gorge, with its wooden walkway hugging the gorge walls, hanging over the Radovna and the rapids below. Wandering through the gorge, taking in the view and feeling the spray from its waters is a totally different atmosphere from the mountain ranges.

Keeping with the nature theme, Logarska Dolina, a valley nestled in the Kamnisko-Savijnske Alpe, is a place of outstanding beauty. It is one of Slovenia’s best kept secrets, is challenging to get to easily and is a place where you will forget about time. Undoubtedly, one of the most beautiful glacial valleys in Slovenia’s alpine region.

With mountain ranges surrounding and bisecting the country, you will invariably spend time driving over scenic passes with valley vistas opening up below. Vrsic Pass is one such mountain pass, as you traverse through Triglav National Park and on to the beautiful Soca Valley. Taking the Vrsic Pass provides stunning scenery. The road is winding and steep and involves 50 hairpin turns and dramatic vistas as you cross the pass.

Beyond Vrsic, Kobarid is a town steeped in history. Kobarid’s Battle of Caporetto was captured in Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell to Arms. The Isonzo Front, from the First World War, saw some 300,000 soldiers die during three years of fighting between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian empire. This is a battle that my grandfather was involved in. Beyond that, there are stunning vistas as Kobarid sits in the beautiful Soca Valley. Here is a place that must be visited for its amazing views and dramatic landscape. Sitting proudly on a hill near Kobarid is a church dedicated to the memory of fallen Italian soldiers. The Church of St Anthony offers superb views of the surrounding mountains and river valley below.

Not far from Kobarid is Vipavska Dolina (Vipava Valley). This is a wine rich valley with numerous villages and hamlets, home of family-owned wine producers. This is also where the tradition of Osmice is predominantly centred during the year, where local wines and Karst delicacies are offered by the farmers.

It’s also worth taking a trip to Postojna Caves. These are considered a “must see” in Slovenia. These diverse and beautiful caves are probably what Jules Verne envisaged when he wrote Journey to the Centre of the Earth. The caves, operating since the early 1800s, are so large that you are transported by a small train for 3km to the start of the cave system. The large caverns are filled with the most spectacular rock formations, pillars and curtains. The caves are in the same area as Predjamski Grad (Predjama Castle).

Predjama Castle is as iconic as Lake Bled. For me, this is one of the most dramatic castles in the country. This is a gorgeous renaissance castle built into the opening of a cave during the 16th century, replacing previous constructions following destruction by earthquakes. It is spellbinding and has unbelievable views through the valley below.

Which brings me to Slovenia’s outstanding city, Ljubljana. The country’s capital is a compact and friendly city with a pedestrianised area built on and around the Ljubljanica River. The castle above Ljubljana’s old town provides spectacular views across the city. From this vantage point, you can look over the warren of 19th century shopfronts below, quiet courtyards, cobble-stoned passageways and large squares hosting various markets. Ljubljana has subtle beauty. It is easily digested. This is a place where you can easily slip into holiday mode. It is a city that will tempt you with outstanding and affordable dining options.

If exploring charming medieval towns is your shtick, Skofja Loka will deliver in spades. A town situated not far from Ljubljana, Skofja Loka is considered to have the best preserved medieval centre in Slovenia. Once you see the Capuchin Bridge as you enter the town, you soon realise that you will be in for a treat.

The city of Maribor is nestled within the Drava Valley, with the Drava River flowing gently through its heart. Wandering around Maribor’s old town and down towards the river provides an insight into this delightful renaissance city. With few tourists and being relatively uncrowded, Maribor is a city to enjoy a more relaxed visit. Not to be missed is the Stara Trta (Old Vine), reputed to be the oldest producing vine in the world. Maribor is surrounded by areas renowned for their wines. So while you are here, settle by the Drava at one of the many riverside bistros and taste the local wines. You won’t be disappointed.

Slovenia is a fantastic country for the independent traveller. It has all the charm and scenic wonder of its better known neighbours. Touring through regional areas, it is likely that you will be the only tourist. Discovering Slovenia’s best-kept secrets and hidden gems is as easy as pointing a car down a road and heading off on your own odyssey. There’s a lot to love in sLOVEnia.

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