Traveling in a former communist country, a couple creates their own fairy tale as they discover natural and man-made beauty.
THEY SAY THAT every village in Slovenia has three things: a church, a bar and a linden tree, but it’s nearly impossible to spot the trifecta from the window of the rental car. One moment, we’re entering a red-roofed hamlet with slight roads and an impossible-to-pronounce name (Selišče, Tomišelj), but seconds later it’s over, like some trick of light, and we’re back winding through rich farmland and massive limestone formations, a steeple just visible in the rearview. The towns are so tiny they make the country — which in reality is about the same size as the state of Massachusetts — seem immense.
For a diminutive country, Slovenia is full of such contrasts. An artful European ambience is juxtaposed with the sulky cement remains of former Yugoslavia, from which Slovenia gained independence in 1991. The country went on to join the European Union in 2004, giving up the tolar in favor of the euro in 2007. From an outside perspective this is a happy development, but the shift is one that many citizens — accustomed to socialist sameness and faced with a struggling capitalist economy — are still aspiring to celebrate. The country’s confident beauty belies its uncertainty, and the tourism industry takes full advantage: I FEEL SLOVENIA (emphasis on the letters that spell “love”) is the region’s ubiquitous slogan.
After a few days in Ljubljana — Slovenia’s lively, candy colored capital — and group tours of Postojna Cave and the nearby Predjama Castle, my boyfriend and I were ready for some peace, quiet and independence, so we rented a car. The prospect of riding buses, trains and shuttles seemed draining, and we congratulated ourselves on the frivolous decision as we retreated from town, liberated from the public transportation hassle, the GPS barking incoherent directions to point the way.
Of Tourists and Tranquility
A hidden oasis at the base of the Julian Alps.
We were bound for Lake Bled, the country’s signature scenery and our most highly anticipated destination. Back in the States, a precursory Google search of “Slovenia” brought up hundreds of images of the fantastic landscape: the lake itself surrounds Bled Island, home to several architectural feats, including the Church of the Assumption, built in the 17th century, and a Baroque 99-step staircase to which visitors can ferry, row or even swim. The picturesque display is overseen by Bled Castle, which sits on a towering cliff. I mean, come on. Aside from Slovenia’s outdoorsy allure (the country is one of Europe’s lushest, with plenty of opportunities for hiking, kayaking and biking — especially with the pleasant weather we encountered during our August visit), and general obscurity (“You’re going where?”), the fairytale factor was a major draw.
As such, our disappointment upon arrival at Lake Bled was palpable. The would-be dreamy scene was teeming with tourists of all shapes and sizes, our campground overbooked, crammed with recreational vehicles and electric grills. Reality had put the kibosh on our idyll. Fifteen minutes, a canceled reservation and one blurry photograph later we were back on the road in search of Lake Bohinj, a lesser known alpine basin highly lauded by locals, who were easy to communicate with — nearly everyone spoke English.
Given the miles of forested, undeveloped land along with a national park to boot, it came as a surprise to learn that in Slovenia, “camping” is a relative term. Those who wish to sleep under the stars must do so in designated camping areas, which are filled with amenities and, well, other people. To camp solo, one must either hike to one of the several sanctioned cabins strategically located throughout Triglav National Park (and hope that it is not already occupied) or approach the owner of a stretch of farmland and request permission to stay the night. This all sounded fairly time consuming, so when we finally located Lake Bohinj, we pitched our tent at Camp Zlatorog.
The sunset found me waist-deep in Bohinj’s calm, algid waters, a sigh of sincere serenity hanging in the dusky air and the taste of Laško — Slovenia’s ale of choice — lingering on my lips. Zlatorog’s camp restaurant provided ample picnic tables and a basic but welcome menu of food and drink, along with a wholesome family vibe reminiscent of Kellerman’s in Dirty Dancing — animated card games supplemented by laughter and a soundtrack of ’80s pop.
What Zlatorog lacked in privacy was made up for by locale, with tents positioned in a wooded area bordering the lake. Down the road, arduous trails slithered upward toward a number of sister pools, laid out like lily pads in the Julian Alps’ higher perches. A hike was definitely in order.
As the Wind Blows
If this trip had a theme, spontaneity was certainly it. The planning I had attempted prior to flying over — 11 hours from SFO to Munich followed by two hours to Slovenia on the ever-so-accommodating Lufthansa — had been discarded after the rental car indulgence and subsequent Bled debacle, and instead we (a “we” that included an iPhone, Wi-Fi and TripAdvisor) took each day as it came. This sort of adventure is liberating as long as you remain thoughtful in regard to impromptu decisions, which, on our first official morning in Bohinj, we did not.
With nothing but bread rolls in our bellies and packaged apple strudel in our day packs, we began what camp staffers assured was an easy-to-moderate hike to a waterfall followed by the series of alpine lakes. Seasoned hikers both, we confidently strode toward the skyward trails, saying hello to fellow hikers (none American, all English speakers) while smugly snickering at their inappropriate footwear. These friendly hikers were clearly not in it for the long haul.
As it turns out, neither were we. The requisite hour and a half brought no lakes, only a steep and steadily rising forest path. The lesser athlete of our duo, I gasped mouthfuls of air while enjoying yet another break on yet another forgotten stump. A young couple making their way down the trail eyed me sympathetically. “How much farther to those lakes?” I sputtered. An hour and a half, they casually replied, and with that I threw in the proverbial towel — no amount of “pacing myself” would propel my body up that mountain with only strudel as fuel. Dejected, we turned back.
Fortunately, we are not trail-bound folk, and our downhill energy empowered us to explore offshoots of the main route. The first led us down a likely illegal path to the aforementioned waterfall. Tourists who had opted for the approved route waved down from a viewpoint across the ravine, restoring our identities as competent explorers. We rode this prideful current back to the path and down a wooded hill and were rewarded with an oasis of sorts — a flowing tributary of Lake Bohinj, accompanied by a crystalline pond as clean and cold as ice. Raindrops tumbled from the smattering of clouds overhead, and in that moment, I really did “feel Slovenia.”
Back at the lake, a campsite canoe was the ideal vessel for a quick trip across the water. We docked on a tiny beach, enjoying swigs from our ever-present bottle of Teran (a wine made from a dark-skinned grape variety found primarily in Slovenia, but available in Italy and Croatia as well) and discussing the serendipitous events that led us to this idyllic corner of the country. Nightfall returned us to the protection of our tent, where I was lulled easily to sleep by a symphony of toppling droplets made heavy by the branches overhead.
Savoring the Seashore
The sunrise reignited our need for transience. The now fully realized storm had inspired my inner sun seeker, and we hastily packed up camp between intermittent downpours.
A mere one-and-a-half hours of driving brought us to unfiltered sunlight and a dreamy 80 degrees.
Slovenia’s 29-mile stretch of Adriatic coastline is reminiscent of neighboring Croatia: Slavic and Italian influences intermingle while locals enjoy an unhurried, Old World approach to life. Piran, a city playfully crammed into peninsula formation, a castle (of course) at its point, is the country’s most popular seaside destination, and one I was eager to visit. An accidental jaunt to nearby Portoroz, which I can only describe as the Reno of Europe, made Piran all the more appealing, and we happily parked outside the gates of the city, a mandate to avoid excess automobile traffic in town.
We strolled along the cape, fast-melting gelato in hand, while other visitors basked on man-made cement “beaches” that jutted from the main drag, children splashing in the briny sea. Anxious as we were to join them, our ultimate Adriatic destination awaited around the corner in Izola, Piran’s less-crowded little sister.
Another sunset, another swim — this time off the rocky shores of Izola Beach. The waters of the Adriatic enveloped me like a downy blanket, surprisingly warm and gentle waves lapping against my skin, easing me into a state of unfettered bliss. If I could have, I would have forgone a bed in favor of a slumber in that sea. But one must eat, so we waded back to shore, dried off and pulled up two seaside seats at Gostilina Sidro — a seafood restaurant with Mediterranean influences, as is the norm in this region — for a dinner of too much bread, mussels and a buttery pasta loaded with more truffles than either of us had ever seen, let alone eaten, all at once.
With bellies full, we followed a maze of meandering alleyways to the Wine Bar Manziolini, positioned in a charming square opposite a large white stucco church. Regulars sat around an outdoor piano, crooning in various languages, their jovial expressions brightened by candles and muted light from within the bar. We succeeded in closing the place down — not so impressive considering it was only open till midnight— and soon found that all of Izola shared a Cinderella bedtime. We took our partially finished bottle of Teran and wandered the empty maze for hours, losing ourselves in quiet corners — laundry hanging on lines overhead, alley cats skittering by pastel-colored buildings squished in a whimsical, romantic layout reminiscent of nearby Venice, a city that once ruled over Izola. The place was ours for one night, making one night just enough.
One More Castle
Tolmin was the last stop on our jumbled itinerary. Bags fully stocked with almond biscotti and plump, oily olives from the Italian vendors that sprinkled Izola’s avenues, we headed north — past the home of Slovenia’s famous, snow-white Lipizzan horses — toward the wooded villages that we had come to adore during our time in Slovenia.
Our Tolmin haven was The Blue House, a three-story roadhouse situated in the Soča Valley, its powder-blue paint job bright against the unseasonably gray sky. The owner, Valentini, is an avid antique collector, a hobby evidenced by the well-edited collection of furniture and striking wall decor. We were only planning to stay one night at Valentini’s museum of treasures, but one quickly became three as we made The Blue House our home. After a day of doing nothing but skipping stones on the nearby Soča River — which, like most rivers in the region, is made an impossible shade of pale turquoise by the flecks of limestone that litter the bottom — we were ready to explore the Tolmin gorges, known locally as Tolminska korita (an important fact, it turns out, as no one seemed to know what or where the “Tolmin gorges” were).
The lowest point in Triglav National Park, the gorges showcase the uniquely Slovene river hue through a series of eroded channels, which hikers can explore via paths, stairways and suspension bridges. The day’s rain resulted in rushing rivers, morphing the typically tropical-looking turquoise waters into a blanched aqua that better echoed the chilly temperature. The sun peeked out occasionally from the clouds, highlighting the wildflowers and butterflies that inhabited the craggy banks. Back at The Blue House, a dinner of homemade vegetable soup prepared by Valentini himself ensured we were again warm, cozy and very much at home.
One last castle visit seemed the only appropriate way to say good-bye to this magical country. The ruins of Tolmin Castle sit on the ridge of Kozlov rob, offering breathtaking views of the villages below, the Soča cutting through the landscape like a glacial vein. As we gazed down at the valley and upward to the Alps, I thought about how all fairy tales are born of some semblance of reality. If Prince Charming really did come riding in on a white horse, it was probably a Lipizzan, and it was definitely in Slovenia.
IF YOU GO
CAVES AND CASTLES Postojna Cave and Predjama Castle, postojnska-jama.eu/en
LAKE BOHINJ Camp Zlatorog, camp-bohinj.si/en
TOLMIN The Blue House, bluehouse.si
HOSTEL Hostel Alieti, en.hostel-alieti.si
Check out the gallery below for more photos of Slovenia.