By Doug Hansen
After hearing rave reviews about Slovenia, a small country that formerly comprised the northern portion of Yugoslavia, my wife and I decided to head there during our trip to Europe and see for ourselves if it could live up to its glowing, "must-see" reputation. Not only did it meet our expectations, but it exceeded them. We decided we could happily live there.
Bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia and a small sliver of the Adriatic Sea, Slovenia offers enough sights and adventures to fill a visit for a week or two. With only 2 million people in a country half-covered by forests, Slovenia seldom felt crowded. Its compact size made it easy for us to drive our rental car in a couple of hours or less to destinations around the country, from the majestic Alps in the north to the vineyards in the southwest, the world-class caves in the south, and the many flower-clad villages in between. We found the drivers and roads to be equal or better than in the United States.
After a few weeks in Italy we headed for Trieste, where a deluxe bus took us directly to Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana. Our love affair with the country began when we asked an elderly, well-attired couple for directions to our hotel. As we reached the entrance a few blocks later, we spotted them patiently waiting on the corner, making sure we hadn't gotten lost. Like so many Slovenians whom we met during our visit, these kind folks embodied the old Slovenian proverb: Politeness costs little but yields much.
Ljubljana's subtle charm captivated us so much that I've decided it's my favorite capital city. Oddly enough, it isn't bigger, prettier or older than anywhere else, but what it does offer is an attractive, clean, uncrowded, compact, safe and affordable place to relax and enjoy life. We spent two days in Ljubljana's historic center, enjoying its pedestrian-only cobblestone streets lined with baroque buildings, Greek-style fountains, a prominent pink church, and its plant-lined canal bordered by outdoor cafes and crossed by a series of medieval bridges. Ljubljana Castle, perched atop a nearby hill, provided an expansive view of the city and surrounding countryside, though the newly refurbished castle lacked the allure of other vintage castles.
There is much to see and do in Slovenia, but here are some of the highlights we most enjoyed.
Lake Bled: This deep-blue spring-fed lake is one of the most popular places in Slovenia, known for its tourist-friendly town of Bled and the postcard-perfect views of a medieval castle perched over one end of the lake and a baroque church nestled on a small island at the other. We spent three days exploring Lake Bled and the surrounding countryside, and while we enjoyed Bled, the nearby hikes and countryside drives were even more enjoyable. In fact, my favorite day of our entire summer trip was when we drove from Bled to nearby Lake Bohinj via a back road that wound through the mountains and past charming villages with flower-draped houses tucked away in valleys and grassy pastures.
River Gorge Hike: Less than 3 miles from Bled, Vintgar Gorge is one of the most popular hikes in Slovenia, featuring a walkway fastened to the rocky hillside just a few feet above a fast-flowing, turquoise-tinted river. It meanders through a deep gorge for 1 mile until ending up at a lovely 40-foot waterfall. We loved this extraordinary hike, but the key to our enjoyment was avoiding the immense summer crowds by arriving early in the morning.
Russian Road: Thank goodness we listened to our innkeeper's advice and drove on the Kranjska Gora road over the 5,700-foot-high Vrsic Pass in the Julian Alps. This turned out to be one of the best drives in Slovenia because of the majestic mountain scenery and the fascinating history of the road, built in World War I by 10,000 Russian POWs. Look for the historic Russian shrine they built near the pass to honor their comrades who died in avalanches while building the road.
If you want to tour a country with genuinely friendly, mostly English-speaking people and you like to hike, bike, kayak, ski, drink local wines and eat farm-to-table food, then Slovenia is the place for you. Meanwhile, we'll be considering our next home — covered with bright red and white geraniums in the Slovenian countryside.
WHEN YOU GO
The currency in Slovenia is euros, and mostly cash is needed. Credit cards are accepted much less than in the United States.
Check to see if your phone is "unlocked." We bought inexpensive SIM cards for GPS directions and phone calling.
Doug Hansen is a travel writer and photographer. See more photos and articles at www.hansentravel.org or Instagram @doug6636. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.