I'd heard great things about Slovenia, and the guide book I was using let me know that travelers were always delighted by this country, so I decided to give it a cursory two night stay on my way from Italy to Croatia. By the time I got there I had already added a full extra day of exploration, and wished I had more time to enjoy it when I had to leave. Here's why:
1) The capital of Ljubljana: Don't be intimidated by the funky spelling! (The "j" is pronounced like a "y", so it sounds like "lube-li-ana" - much easier that getting used to how "c" is really more like "ts"!) This is a totally charming and fun little city, complete with a castle looming overhead and a cute little river running through it. It's a university town, and the nation's capital, so there are tons of museums and lots of culture, and a very lively happy-hour to after-dinner scene. There were SO many cute little design shops along the old streets, and a huge part of the center of town (and tucked around the big cathedral) is dedicated to a sprawling market on most days of the week (all kinds- fruit & veg, flower, meat, clothes, souvenirs, you name it!). As the day ends, the sidewalks (and riverbank) become crowded with locals enjoying the air, a drink or three, some snacks, and of course conversation. This one particular bridge featured on separate occasions: a total hipster bluegrass band playing, and an open boat featuring young ballerinas dancing as they floated downriver. I mean... far be it for me to criticize Paris, but THIS city knows how to chill out and enjoy the summer weather! Much like this multi-cultural country, Ljublijana, the "dragon" city, really has a lot of elements of both Italian and Austrian culture, with a dash of Slavic cultures from the south and east - it was part of the old Yugoslavia after all! So, yes, you'll see horse on the menu (BOO!), but you'll also see mushroom rissottos, pastas, meats in rich sauces with polenta cakes, and even these cool cheese dumplings that seemed unique to Slovenia. Now, I didn't actually go into a single museum (no time), but just from poking around in stores and wandering through town I really fell in love. Here are a few shots to help you fall in love too:
2) Lake Bled & surrounds: Lake Bled is the mega famous photo you always see of a quaint little church on an island. But it's SO MUCH MORE, though it is the most "touristy" place I saw in all of Slovenia, fair warning. So - yes, Lake Bled is home to a cute little island with a cute little church perched up on the top of the island. Most people take cute little wooden boats over to the island, then climb up the 99 steps to the top (I counted), visit the church and leave. That's honestly all there is to it. Well, except for ringing the bell - there was some legend about a tragic couple involving the steps and the bell, but I didn't pay much attention. Ok, and of course there is a gift shop and cafe. (The gift shop was actually quite good, and gives you an idea of all of the different sort of Slovenian crafts you can find all over the place.) The thing is- it really just is SO pretty, that I didn't mind the fact that it's totally touristy. These days you can also rent your own boat or even a stand-up paddleboard (there really known as "Sups") to get yourself over, to the island, or you can just look at it. But like I said, that little island is just one of the attractions to Lake Bled and it's immediate surroundings. First of all, the lake is ringed giant mountains with all these ADORABLE villas, in all sorts of different styles, tucked in at the bottom of the hills. So it's almost like a little, mini, more-Austrian-feeling, Lake Como. Does that make sense? Many of those villas are now B&B's or small inns, but the main town of Bled is dominated by a few big hotels, one of which is famous for creating the famous "cream cake". I don't even know how to describe this delicious and light dessert - but I know I loved having one after lunch (picture below, taken minutes before a rain storm chased me off my lovely deck overlooking the lake). The third "must-do" in Lake Bled is to go up to the top of one of the cliffs to visit Bled Castle, another mega touristy place, but again- worth visiting because the views are stupendous. They do have various little mini-museums about the area, including a little replica print-shop with a pretty authentic looking printing-press (the castle was home for a bit to a Gutenberg contemporary who published the first books in the Slovenian language), an iron forge, and even an exhibit about wine-making. BUT, one of my favorite things in the Lake Bled area, which actually turns out to be not at all touristy, is the gorgeous Vintgar gorge. This is really just an easy little hike though a super pretty national park. I've seen it called the "poor man's Plitvice" (a spectacular national park in Croatia), but that's even a bit too generous. To me it was just a lovely stream through a steep gorge with a few decent waterfalls - far closer to what I grew up with in the Appalachian mountains to what I later saw in central Croatia. That said, to get away from the tour groups and have a LOVELY stroll through the woods - this is the place. You can even hike to it from the lake, which makes it super convenient too - again, I SO wish I had more time to hike around up here! Here are a few highlights from the area:
3) The Julien Alps: So, yes - Lake Bled is beautiful and there's lots to do around there - but the surrounding countryside shouldn't be skipped either, if you have any time at all. The alps make you think you're in Switzerland, but there are of course subtle differences. First of all, there aren't nearly as many cows roaming around Slovenia, the hay racks here are unique to Slovenia, and the mountains aren't quite as dramatic and high, but my afternoon driving around REALLY made me wish I'd have stayed a few nights in Bled (or even further out), just to be able to hike around and enjoy the alpine lakes and everything. I mean - I spent a half an hour at Lake Bohinj (pronounced: Bo-heen) just staring out at the scenery. Plus, again, if you follow me on Facebook you may have heard the legend about the golden horn goat that charmed me there. I even spent a little bit of time in a nice little town that was typically Slovenian: Skofja Loka. Super cute place that was complete with a baroque church, an old nunnery (that needs restoring), the oldest bridge in Slovenia (that's perfectly fine and still in use!), and of course a cute medieval main square and street.
4) The "hidden" gems - Rather than go to the big tourist spots of Predjama Castle (famous for being perched on/in a cliff/cave) or the caves of either Postojna or Skocjan (both very popular destinations), I followed my passions and found Lipica, original home to the Lipizzaner horses made famous in Vienna's amazing Spanish Riding School. (I TOLD you it's multicultural over here!) Ok - full disclosure. I am a big horse fan, and grew up riding and showing. If you could care less about horses, you can probably skip this part. :) Anyway, the Lipizzaners and the school in Vienna were always SO fascinating to me, just because it's so completely unique, and the horses are just so gorgeous and talented. When I found out the actual place where the breed came from was just across the border from Trieste (Italy), and directly on my way to Ljubljana from the Istrian peninsula (Croatia), I flipped out and made a last minute reservation for a private car to take me there (had I planned ahead I would've figured out another way, but I shelled out the $$). I was in HEAVEN. You pull up to the farm along the pastures and BOOM - a field full of the famous white horses. I learned that these were the mares - the stallions are too precious to roam freely like that. Once you got in to the farm you get to tour the barns, learn about the breeding (ALL Lippizzaners come from one of six original stallions) and naming convention, and finally - my favorite part - you get to sit in and watch an hour training session. I was even doubly lucky because two of the trainers from Vienna were still in town and were working with specific riders that day. Regardless of who was being trained- these young riders WORKED. They were also having a competition that afternoon, so after lunch I went back to watch it, but it turned out to be a driving competition, rather than just dressage, so that's way less interesting to me (though still cool to see). On the way out we passed by different pastures and BINGO - we got to see the new batch of foals running around with their moms. Here is where you'll notice that the babies are dark and slowly turn grey/white with age, though I also learned that they aren't ALL grey - I saw a bay one and they do sometimes come in other colors, and even one of the stallions that shows is black - so it's just coincidence (and royal preference likely) that they're famous for being white (technically grey). I mean - this just cemented in my mind that the next time I make it to Vienna I am going to see an actual performance, no matter what!
So, as you can see, Slovenia has something for nearly everyone! Hikers, boaters, stand-up-paddleboarders, culture-lovers, foodes, horse-lovers... you name it and you've got it. It does even boast a little bit of a coast line, squeezed just between Istria and Italy, and Piran is supposed to be a super cute little town as well. (I spent my time in the town of Umag, just a few miles south in Croatia instead...) Hopefully this post has helped convince you that you really should make time for Slovenia on your next trip to Europe!