By Christine H. O’Toole
It’s got shiny yellow trains and Alps, vineyards and valleys and a capital with diminutive charm. Cloaked in deep forest, it’s a proud little republic with a millennium of peaceful history.
If it weren’t for its sliver of sparkling Adriatic seacoast, you’d take Slovenia for a Mini-Me version of Switzerland. Its attractions, from skiing to swimming to hang-gliding, are similar, and it offers the same smooth English-speaking welcome. But it’s half the size — and half the price.
I found this teenaged member of the European Union, an independent state for only 15 years, hip but unspoiled. My only complaint is that Slovenians seem to add a few superfluous J’s to almost every name in their language, starting with Slovenija and Ljubljana (LOO-blee-ana).
Vacations here can be miniature, too. You can “do” the country in less than a week. But my sojourn left a few more tolars in my pocket. A $60 Swiss dinner costs $30 here; hotel rates are a bargain, too. The vibe is relaxed, instead of ripped-off.
The northwestern corner of the former Yugoslavia, independent since 1991, Slovenia stretches only 136 miles across, in a shape natives describe as that of a pecking hen.
“It’s the Funky Chicken,” quipped Marjean Kriskovic, a law student who showed us its highlights (Marjean skips the J in his name, pronounced mari-AHN.) Spared the destruction of the last decade’s wars in Croatia and Bosnia, young Slovenians have a sense of both humor and pride about their new country.
Riding the Rails to Bled
We entered the country on a short train ride from the Italian port city of Trieste; a RailEurope Selectpass made it easy to slip over the border.
At Nova Goriza, we were greeted by a looming mountain with the inscription “NAS TITO” (Our Tito). That homage to Yugoslavia’s larger-than-life leader, who died in 1980, pointed us along a stunning valley railway to our destination: his former summer home, Lake Bled.
Tourist-board photos of the Soca (SO-cha) River promised a foaming turquoise stream—a color so distinctive we assumed it was Photoshopped. It’s real, all right. On the spectacular steep ridges alongside, a World War I siege killed or maimed one million Austrians and Italians. (One veteran later wrote about it: Ernest Hemingway, in “A Farewell to Arms.”)
The two-hour train journey dipped through mountain tunnels and up snowy peaks edged in steep green pastures. Ragged palm trees clung to the hillsides as we pulled into Bled. The dazzling Julian Alpine landscape of Triglav National Park, nearly 9,000 feet high, framed a waterscape straight from the pages of a child’s fairy tale: a deep glacial lake punctuated with a dreamy island. A castle hewn from the mountain guarded the view.
Bled has the something-for-everyone savvy of a nineteenth-century watering hole — casino, castle, cafes and gondolas, the romantic island (the only one in the country), and a trademark dessert, here called kremschnitte. We ordered it with blueberry schnapps, an immediate sugar rush, and sat back to admire the view.
Bled’s history goes back a millennium. A small museum inside the cliffside castle gives details, but we visited for the view out over the lake from its outdoor cafe. The island Church of the Assumption below, built as an eighth-century pagan temple, welcomed pilgrims aboard red gondolas. Back at water level, we rented bikes from the compact town mall and pedaled away on the six-mile lakeside path, admiring the way the golden western sunlight kept improving our pictures.
Pealing bells woke us the next morning for our departure to Ljubljana, only an hour’s train ride east. Awaiting us — everywhere — was Jose Plecnik, who redesigned the city after a 1901 earthquake.
Plecnik’s Capital: Ljubljana
When I asked Marjean for a Plecnik tour in the capital, he laughed. There’s really no other kind. No other city in the world, save L’Enfant’s Washington and Disney’s World, bears the brand of one architect so completely as this city of 300,000.
Plecnik gave the city a curiously modern, neo-classic feel that’s more Robert Graves than Socialist-heroic. His white triple bridge over the tiny Ljubljanica River defines it; his curved Market Colonnade alongside makes it grand.
His remakes of older medieval courtyards and university buildings subtly enlarge their scale. But his influence never overwhelmed the Baroque and art nouveau structures that survived the earthquake.
After my first hour, I realized I’d never get lost wandering in Ljubljana. All streets circle back to the colorful city center, Presernov Trg, The square is the magnet for back-packers, and hostels like the Celica, a jail-turned-purple pension, offer them artsy digs for as little as 13 Euros a night.
The standard pedestrian route wound past lots of willow-draped riverfront cafes and up the Castle Lane; the university offered more squares to wander. Marjean, a student here, told us the locals end the big summer arts festival here with a free-for-all pie-throw in the cobblestoned streets.
The handsome facades of the city are creamy Bohemian: yellows, corals, greens and golds, with plenty of Hapsburg statuary. White Belo and near-purple Teran wines flow as freely as the river.
Slovenia and Swiss Cheese
Marjean lured us from Ljubljana with a day car trip to Europe’s largest tourist cave, Postonja.
“Slovenia is a lot like Swiss cheese,” he explained cheerfully. “Full of holes.”
Postonja has perfected the art of shoving visitors into holes. With hundreds of others, we boarded small rail cars to travel a mile into the mountain. The guide told us that drips of water build stalagmites and stalactites at the rate of one meter every 30,000 years; the ones we viewed were dozens of meters high, lit with electric lights (except for the staged, creepy moment of darkness midway through the tour).
I contrasted that view of vast geologic time with how quickly we’d travel from Postonja. In two hours, we’d be in Zagreb, Croatia; in the same amount of time, we could have been on the Istrian coast, in Italy or Austria.
The country is little. The possibilities are huge.
Although there are no direct flights between the United States and Ljubljana, the city is served by the national airline, Adria, by European carriers, and by discount European airlines, such as EasyJet which offers fares from London about $150 round-trip; flight time, three hours.
Rail service is good. Slovenia and Croatia are combined as one country in RailEurope Select passes for multi-country travel; RailEurope (888) 382-7245) provides a Trenitalia pass that also covers travel in Italy. Passes must be purchased in the U.S. before departure. RailEurope also provides online fares and schedules and trip planning information, with reservation agents.
Where to Stay:
City Hotel Ljubljana, Dalmatinova 15, is a five-minute walk from both the train station and the city center, with small Euro-style singles from about 60EU.
The Celica Youth Hostel, Metelkova 8, offers bargains to young travelers with a tolerance for late-night noise: double cells from 20EU.
Hotel Jelovica Bled (Minotel Jelovica, Cesta Svobode 8, Bled, Gorenjska, 4260), a modern conference-style hotel, sits in a small park by the lake; doubles from 76EU.
tel + 386-4-5796 000
Where to Eat:
In Ljubljana, the five-star dining choice is Gostilina As, Copova 5 (enter through Knafijiev prehod) Multi-course dinners, vintage Slovenia wines, impeccable service; about $75 per person.
For casual luncheons, try the cafe by the Fish Market under the Market Colonnade; the open-air markets above sell crafts and excellent picnic-style supplies, including bear salami.
In Bled, Ostarija Peglez’n, Cesta svobode 19a; offers cozy bistro-style dining, with pastas, salads, and excellent desserts, by the lake.
For more information: Slovenian Tourist Board