Wanderlust goes on a people-powered journey through Slovenia as the nation celebrates 20 years of freedom
It was early afternoon and the inn in Stara Fužina was heady with fruit brandy fumes as farmers gathered over a bottle. Naive paintings of game animals decorated the walls. A Catholic shrine filled one corner.
The scene, while not backward, was certainly bygone. Andreja, a pretty 24-year-old with a pierced eyebrow, was certainly not. For 20 minutes she had mused eloquently on the struggle to reconcile life as a student in Ljubljana with weekend bar-work here in her childhood village.
Then I asked about Slovenia’s image abroad. “Some people still think Slovenia is part of Yugoslavia – that was so long ago.” She shook her head. “I try not to think about it but it’s annoying. Why don’t people know us? We’re a nice country, there’s a lot to us.”
Slovenia celebrates 20 years of independence this year. Without fuss or fanfare, it has negotiated the transition from socialist state to sovereign democracy with a string of firsts: the first member of Yugoslavia to win independence; the first (and only) one accepted into the European Union; the first former Communist country ever to hold the EU presidency.
And still many Europeans would struggle to confidently place it on a map. If it was unfortunate for a governor of Texas to confuse Slovenia with Slovakia in 1999 (stand up, George W Bush), it was inexcusable for Romania to trumpet Milan Kučan off his presidential plane with the Slovak national anthem in 2002, the year that Slovenia was welcomed into NATO.
This common mistake is emblematic of how Slovenia is the forgotten nation at the heart of Europe. Even when you read about it, it is usually compared to the domineering countries of its history, a past that independence was supposed to bury. The alpine scenery, they say, is like Austria. The coast is a little Italy of Venetian towns or Tuscany-esque wine villages, while eastern villages are a slice of Hungary.
For years the capital Ljubljana was tagged ‘the new Prague’. I arrived there clutching a map and an idea to discover what made Slovenia tick on its 20th birthday. Instead of guidebooks, I would trust to the Slovenes I met in the traveller-friendly regions of Gorenjska and Primorska, up in the country’s north-west. On paper it seemed an authentic freewheeling adventure. In reality I felt lost before I’d even left the capital.
The main square of Prešernov trg hummed with civic harmony: students in skinny jeans laughed, elderly couples strolled in their evening best; a few hoodies sucked on cigarettes but their hearts didn’t seem in it.
What threw me was the prosperity. The euro had arrived and painted the centre with gloss. Stylish bars and interiors shops now filled old townhouses. Swarovski crystal glittered in the velvety dusk. No one could’ve called it backwards, but nor could they have called it distinctively Slovenian.
“I feel more European than Slovene,” an art student admitted in Le Petit Café. It was time to hit the road.
Before I left, I took a tip from Mojca Peterka, Slovenia representative of tripbod.com, a global network of local guides. It sent me north with a scribbled address: “Globoko 9”. It sounded like a Communist missile base. It was just as well-hidden. Once off the motorway, the roads narrowed, villages shrank, the countryside took over. Soon there was no tarmac, no signs. The map placed me 30km from Ljubljana. It felt like a century.
Renovating the 17th-century building had proved expensive – but this was love. Cene twinkled as he showed off the old kitchen, its roof sooty from the smoke that had cured countless hams. Stuffed with farming bric-a-brac and Cene’s folk-art, and soundtracked by accordions – a CD of Slovenian polka legends The Avsenik Brothers – the restaurant felt like it was mainlining into Slovenia’s rustic soul.
Flushed by viljamovka (pear brandy) as much as a sudden brisk polka with the waitress, I thought it rude not to accept an invitation to lunch.
Like a culinary Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the dishes kept coming: foraged-mushroom soup in a bread bowl, homemade sausages and hams, cheese dumplings, a roulade of bread and pork bound with lard. My chest tightened under the calorific deluge. Veins in my neck throbbed dully. For a momentI panicked about heart attacks – traditional Slovene cooking is not for wimps.
In digestive soft focus, Cene’s place seemed less a traditional restaurant than a super-sized artwork; a meditation on the past at a time of unprecedented change. Like Slovenia itself, it felt homely but also rather modern in its use of homegrown seasonal ingredients. “Your family must be proud,” I suggested to Cene amid the wreckage on my table. He flushed quickly; tears welled. Our music, our food, our country – all are about heart, the waitress had said earlier.
If outsiders don’t know about such warmth, Slovenia’s landscape is to blame. Triglav National Park fills the mountainous north-west region of Gorenjska with Disneyesque beauty: corkscrew peaks, china-blue streams, waterfalls, lakes like jewel boxes, pine forests, wildflower meadows. It’s a landscape to immerse yourself in, and that’s exactly what I planned to do: immerse myself.
I was heading for Lake Bohinj, at the foot of Triglav NP, a gloriously scenic centre for aquatic activities. When I arrived, the waters were so calm the reflections of mountains looked Photoshopped. I met Robi Franjič,a canyoning instructor at Pac sports, andwe drove on into the pine-clad hills.
Robi explained that the next valley south could barely understand the language in this one. He had grappled with the dialect when he moved here. From a distant city, I asked? No, from the other end of the lake: 7km.
What united Slovenes, Robi said, was their love of nature. A white peak sawtoothed the horizon behind us: Mount Triglav, the nation’s tallest, whose tricorn is the centrepiece of the national flag.
“We say that to be a true Slovenian you have to climb Triglav once in your lifetime.” Robi had done it four times.
Robi’s idea of ‘scenic immersion’ turned out to mean Jerečica Canyon, cut into a wooded hillside just 8km east of Lake Bohinj.
More specifically, it meant a 3°C stream fed by snow-water. Swaddled in neoprene, we descended into a narrow canyon sliced into the slope to clamber over boulders and rappel down waterfalls. Robi peered over the lip of a near-vertical chute: “Welcome to the point of no return!”
I don’t remember the drop; it was a blur of movement and fear. What I do recall is a shock of icy water and bubbling endorphins. It was the first canyoning trip of the year and winter weed had made the rock as slippery as the local linguistics.
Robi raved about the mountain’s opposite flank as we got changed, so I decided to head north to see it before looping westward and down towards the Soča Valley. Jesenice flashed past, its stained apartment blocks a bad hangover from socialism.
Then the motorway swooped away into Austria and I was back on B-roads among alpine villages the colour of buttermilk. Every so often the hills would part and a ragged wall of snow would appear like an epiphany – the north face of the Triglav range.
At Kranjska Gora, Slovenia’s biggest ski resort during the winter, the road became confused. It contradicted itself then tied itself in knots as 49 hairpin bends traversed Vršič Pass between dizzy peaks.
I free-wheeled south down the helter-skelter to meet the Soča River, its glacier-blue colour as fantastical as the scenery it had carved: interlocking limestone sculptures at the Soča Troughs gorge; an arena-sized rock-bowl scooped out by the Kozjak waterfall.
The least surprising thing was to learn the valley featured in one of The Chronicles Of Narnia films.
Yet there’s more to the Soča Valley than fantasy scenery. In the First World War it had been the bloody frontline between Austro-Hungary and Italy. Mussolini claimed it during the Second as spoils. Communist Yugoslavia snatched it back in 1945. Now it was Slovene. Four nationalities in less than a century.
I studied a map at the visitor centre and saw Robidišče, just west of Kobarid, a little nib of Slovenia almost encircled by the border.
“Down there is a boundary stone from Austro-Hungary. That hill there is Italy. Me? I feel Slovene. Of course.” Sheep farmer Igor Cencič seemed surprised by the question.
On the map, Robidišče looked well-placed to have felt the sharp end of recent history. It seemed a place for answers. Instead, Slovenia’s most westerly settlement only piled on the confusion.
I had arrived at Igor’s farmstay the night before, and sat in the kitchen, warmed by the cosy domesticity between him and his wife Pavla. When farmhand Manuel and his partner joined us, a third of Robidišče was gathered for dinner; not a sturdy Slovene meat-fest but homemade pasta with Igor’s ricotta cheese and meadow herbs picked by Pavla.
The village had been just ten-strong until Igor and Pavla settled – Igor had quit his job as a city croupier to restore a family home made derelict by Yugoslav nationalisation. I tried and failed to imagine him in black shirt and tie. Mind you, I couldn’t see him as hotelier either. “Actually, you’re our first guest,” he admitted.
It hadn’t taken long to explore the village the next morning. A half-abandoned huddle of grey stone and rust, it sailed as empty as the Marie Celeste on the cloud that had flooded the valley below. Igor had emerged from a barn with a bucket – fresh sheep’s milk. Silkily creamy and steaming slightly in the chill air, it tasted almost voluptuous.
Now here I was, grappling over borders with Igor far above the village after we had driven the flock through mossy copses to pasture. The only sounds were of birdsong and grass being munched. It’s another life here, Igor said quietly. “Everyday I look at the mountains and think, here is perfect.” Hills rolled empty to the horizon. The idea of official demarcation lines seemed absurd.
Yet borders – or rather the bellicose neighbours beyond them – have been the constant issue of Slovenian history. Earlier, Igor showed me a photo of him hacksawing a metal customs barrier when Slovenia entered Europe.
The caption read: “Ko no več meje la via e libera: 26.12.2007” – When the border falls the road is free. Robidišče’s own Berlin Wall moment had taken just two minutes. “It was easy,” Igor said.
I found the former checkpoint downhill beside a shiny blue EU sign for ‘Slovenija’. The lane arced around a corner and suddenly I was in ‘Italia’, stood beside a rusty flagpole with flaking green, white and red paint.
Five years ago, this 100m walk would have required a passport. In the days of Yugoslavia it would have been unthinkable. Now you could slip casually from Slovenia to wherever took your fancy. The possibilities left you giddy. I glimpsed the enormity of independence for the first time.
A car pulled up. Its driver stepped out: “Buongiorno.”
Plan your trip to this compact nation – tips on how to avoid ticks, negotiate the rules of the road and sleep in a former prison.
Shoulder months: Fickle weather, often wet; April, with mountain snow, is beautiful.
High season for skiing; daytime averages of 2°C. Snow tyres or chains required by law everywhere; high passes may close.
No major health risks. Water is potable. Tick-borne encephalitis is a potential risk in summer; vaccination is advisable if hiking in heavily wooded areas. Wear long socks.
Slovenia has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe. Aggressive driving and tailgating is an issue on major routes.
Ensure you have adequate travel insurance – visit www.wanderlustinsurance.co.uk for specialist cover.
EasyJet and Adria Airways fly to Ljubljana from London. Returns cost from around £100; flight time is 2 hours 15 minutes. London-Ljubljana by train takes about 20 hours (via Paris, then Munich or Venice).
Buses serve the north-west Gorenjska and Primorska regions; a few trains reach major resorts. Services can be sketchy at weekends.
The easiest way to see Slovenia is by car. Vehicles require a vignette to use motorways (€15/30 per week/month). Hire cars will have one. Slovenia’s compact size and excellent backroads make it good for cyclists.
Public transport is good value (around €4 for 25km by bus). Petrol is about €1.30 a litre. Main meals cost around €12-14. Mid-range doubles in summer cost about €90; farmstays €25-30 pp B&B.
Slovene cooking is hearty stuff: thick soups, pork, game, cakes with cream. There’s outside influence, too: schnitzels from Austria; pastas and prosciutto along the Italian border; Hungarian goulash (bograč); Balkan grilled-meat snacks. Fish is excellent. Vegetarians may struggle.
Beer is pilsner style. The wine is not as well known as it deserves to be; Movia and Simčič are two highly rated producers.
Izletniška Kmetija Globočnik - reservation required.
The friendly capital city combines classic European architecture with modern buzz.
2. Logarska Dolina
An inspiring alpine valley dotted with farmstays; also offers an easy ascent into the mountains.
Slovenia’s oldest town wears its 2,000-year history lightly. There are excellent museums and a Renaissance castle to explore, or head for the idyllic wine hills around Jeruzalem.
4. Kolpa Valley
Slovenes go misty-eyed over this valley that snakes peacefully along the wooded Croatian border. Raft, kayak and explore east to the little-visited region of Bela Krajina.
5. Škocjan Caves
The highlight of the Karst district, the largest cave of this Unesco-listed system is over 500m long and over 100m high.
Poking into the Adriatic, this town is stuffed with Italianate architecture.
7. Lake Bled
The implausibly pretty sister lake of Lake Bohinj is the place to stroll, swim, row a boat or gaze at the view.
8. Soča Valley
Prime territory for activity activists: grade IV rapids through sublime scenery
9. Mt Triglav
It takes two to three days to climb Slovenia's iconic peak, staying in hikers' huts en route.
10. Lake Bohinj
Brooding and beautiful in summer, icily exciting (and often skate-able) in winter.
The author travelled with the Slovenian tourist board.