Slovenia is one of those places that deserves to be better known, but which retains its slow-paced charm precisely because it isn’t.
Part of this is down to our hazy grasp of middle European geography. We’re aware that Slovenia is vaguely Balkan, but probably couldn’t locate it on a map. You’ll find it wedged below Austria, to the east of Venice and Trieste, west of Hungary and just above Croatia. As a result, Slovenia is a cultural mash-up of Italy, Germany and a touch of the Austro-Hungarian, but somehow manages to remain distinctive. It’s got a bit of Adriatic coastline, ski-worthy mountains, a ton of history, amazingly picturesque towns and villages with names that look like a particularly poor set of scrabble tiles, and a whole lot of forests. It’s also a great spa destination and perfect for those who want to explore the great outdoors.
The capital, Ljubljana, is just a two hour flight from the UK, making Slovenia a possibility for a long weekend or longer stay. Easyjet flies out of Stansted or Gatwick, or – if you’re looking for an adventure – you could try Ryanair to Trieste, then travel the remaining 60 or so miles by bus or hire car. Alternatively, spend a day or two in Venice, then take the train to Lake Bled or Ljubljana: www.seat61.com has the details. However you get to Slovenia, there’s plenty to see and do when you arrive.
Ljubljana offers an appealingly baroque Old Town, complete with castle and the rather theatrical Stolnica Sv. Nikolaja gilded cathedral. Meander alongside the canals or wander through the Tivoli gardens and park. Pick up some lunch, Slovenian honey or local crafts at the market at Vodnik Square. The Museum of Illusions is great for kids or just having your mind bent with everything from puzzles to an anti-gravity room. After dark, Metelkova offers an artistic, edgy nightlife, rather like 1980s Berlin or Copenhagen’s Christiania used to be.
If exploring more of the country appeals, Lake Bled is achingly beautiful, if touristy. There are caves, a castle, waterfalls, ravines and mountains to explore, or you can visit the island in the lake where the ancient Slavic goddess of love, Živa’s temple has been replaced by an atmospheric Gothic church.
Maribor, about 80 miles north east of Ljubljana, is the second largest city, about half the size of Aberdeen. The wine region, complete with the world’s oldest vine, sits to one side, with the ski slopes, summer sledging and cycle paths of the Pohorje mountain to the other. The Drava river winds through the centre, with lots of small avenues, restaurants and bars making it an appealing place to get lost.
If the coast appeals more, then make for Portaroz or Piran. Portoroz offers a wealth of spa facilities and nature parks. Sečovlje Salina Nature Park has an outdoor spa where you can be caked in salt pan mud, while spotting some of the 270 bird species that visit. Take a stroll and visit some of the nearby Istrian villages, with olive groves, orchards and vineyards. Browse estate agent’s windows, or visit the harbour, watching fishermen mend nets, or women taking vegetables to market. It’s an ideal spot if you need to step away from the frantic pace of life and just chill out.
Further down Slovenia’s tiny coastline, Piran sits on a spur jutting into the Adriatic. The pale, red-roofed buildings, winding streets, monastery and galleries seem to have been specifically designed to rekindle romance. Slovenia? S’lovely. There’s a good chance you may not want to come home.