This post is not native advertising for the Slovenian tourist board (honest).
Slovenia is a minnow of a nation. It is nestled between Italy, Croatia and Hungary and has a population of just two million. Its very existence is a novelty. Despite having a distinct language and culture, it’s generally been a province rather than a nation. It was first part of the Hapsburg Empire and then Yugoslavia, and only gained independence in 1991.
The former Yugoslav countries are some of my favourite in the world, so it was no surprise I liked Slovenia. But the extent to which I was charmed by it was a pleasant shock. It shares in many of the things that make the region so delightful but also has many unique virtues.
I spent 10 days travelling there this summer. I got a boat from Venice to the coastal town of Piran, which is itself rather Venice like itself, where I spent a day. Then I got the coach up to the capital Ljubljana for a few days of visiting museums, galleries and churches. Finally, I went up into the mountains to walk and cycle by Lake Bohinj.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of the reasons I found it so appealing:
The Balkans is to a large extent defined by its rich blend of cultural influences. This is true of Slovenia too but in a very different way. One doesn’t see Orthodox and Islamic civilization reaching into Europe that one does in places like Bosnia. Rather Slovenia represents a conflation of Catholic European traditions, principally those of its Italian neighbours and its one time Germanic rulers.
So as I mentioned above you can go to a town that looks an awful lot like a mini Venice.
However, unlike the original it is a rather soothing place. You can visit its magnificent churches and fortifications without being bustled through to make room for a cruise liner full of tourists about to come in after you. In fact, I was able to spend about twenty minutes in the St George’s Parish Church and have it to myself for most of that time.
Like its neighbours, it is also naturally gorgeous. Slovenia is where the Alps meet the Mediterranean.* And Slovenia reaps the benefits of both: spectacular mountains, valleys and lakes in the north turn into glorious coastline out to the west.
The great outdoors
All of which makes a pretty cool backdrop for hiking, cycling, kayaking, caving, climbing, rafting and paragliding. The beautiful Bled and Bohinj allow you to do all of these things and others while seeing views like this:
Before leaving the topic of Slovenia’s scenery, it’s worth making special mention of its impressive cave systems.
One of the highlights of my visit to the country was going down into Postojna cave. Talking about going into a cave might conjure up images of scrabbling through narrow passageways but these aren’t that kind of caves. They are huge. Large enough that getting around them requires travelling on a train. Some of the larger chambers could comfortably accommodate a house.
The weird and wonderful rock formations are truly remarkably and there’s something beguiling about the sense of discovering a hidden world.
Venison goulash: sorry Bambi!
Slovenian food is far from the most sophisticated in the world, though if you want that they do have plenty of good Italian places, but it is hearty, unfussy and the portions are generous.
The capital city whose name I will probably never spell correctly has a lot to recommend it. While it has no knock out sights or attractions, there are plenty of little things to do and the atmosphere is great. It has a feeling somewhere between a historic university town like Oxford and a trendy city like Berlin. There are both lots of churches and museums, and sleek looking restaurants and bars with Mercedes parked in front of them.
It also benefits from having the great Tivoli Park, which after only a very few days in the city I’d grown rather attached to relaxing in.
Despite their warlike reputation, I’ve generally found people in the Balkans to be very friendly and hospitable. Slovenian’s are no exception.
At a more practical level, they speak good English. Notwithstanding my efforts to pick up Slovenian this proved rather useful.
The price and the lack of crowds
Even more practically, Slovenia offers a lot of what people look for in places like Italy and Switzerland but few people have yet realised that. As a result, it is cheaper and less crowded than those places.
To sum up
For such a small country Slovenia packs in a lot of reasons to visit.
*OK, technically the Adriatic but hey it’s the same body of water!