Wonders of Slovenia

When I called the Slovenian Embassy in New Delhi to follow up on our Visa application, the gentleman from the Embassy replied “Don’t worry sir, we are on it”. “Should I share my reference number so that you can track me down?” I enquired. “That won’t be necessary, yours was the only application this week”, came the reply. And in that instant I knew that we had made an excellent choice in picking our destination.

In the Instagram age, no place can claim to be a hidden gem anymore. Slovenia is at least an unspoilt gem, if not really a hidden one. Ever since I saw the Chef’s Table episode on Slovenian chef Ana Ros and its depiction of the Slovenian countryside, I wanted to be there. But it always seemed too far-flung and in the middle of nowhere. Until I started making the itinerary for a trip to Prague and Budapest and it looked temptingly close. We decided to spend a week in Slovenia on our trip through Central Europe.

Slovenian Countryside is full of post card worthy views
Slovenian countryside is full of post card worthy views

Slovenia is a tiny country but offers a melange of varied terrain.  It has mountains and national parks, rivers and gorges and 30 miles of Adriatic coast. The capital Ljubljana is a hip city. Impressive castles are strewn across the country. For a country its size, Slovenia punches well above its weight. Driving through Slovenia is the best way to enjoy the country and its many majestic sites sprinkled every few kilometres.

Driving in Slovenia
Just your regular roadside view

Driving in Slovenia

Indian driving licenses in English suffice for renting the car. We got our car from SixT in Ljubljana and found there services reliable, professional and reasonably prices. Our Renault Kaptur cost us about €60 a day including the in-built navigation, baby car seat and premium zero-liability protection package. Having a car with an inbuilt GPS is worth the extra €5 a day. Opting for a zero liability insurance is a no brainer. There are things on which one can pinch pennies, insurance is not one of them. Cars using the highways in Slovenia need to have a vignette which is usually included with rental cars.

Here’s our travelogue that doubles up as a suggested 6-day itinerary. 

Day 1: Arrive in Ljubljana, Preseren Square

Just saying Ljubljana (pronounced lyoo-blyah-nuh) out aloud a few times generates good vibes. Seriously, try it! Imagine what actually being there can be like. Ljubljana is a vibrant, compact city. It has the quintessential old town, a castle, green spaces, trendy dining options and a hipster district. Pretty much everything a European capital needs to be to be taken seriously. Most things of interest to visitors are within walkable distance, centred around Preseren Square.    

We arrived in Ljubljana from Budapest by train. Our Airbnb was a very pleasant 10 minute walk away, located near Union Brewery. We spent the evening soaking in the sights and sounds of Preseren Square. Cafes, restaurants, gelaterias and souvenir shops line the streets. One can easily while away the evening people watching and getting oriented to the city. 

Day 2: Tivoli Park & Ljubljana Zoo, Ljubljana Castle

Two years ago, if someone told me that I would spend half a day in a European city visiting the local zoo, I would politely tell him that he needed help. But that was before Nyra came around. Now, we felt it would be a good way of rewarding our two year old for her cooperation during the entire trip. We went in for her only to discover the child within.

Tivoli Park
Autumn colours in Tivoli Park

Tivoli Park is a huge expanse of green that even has a castle inside. We packed some coffee and croissant and took a leisurely, refreshing stroll through the park to reach Ljubljana Zoo. It is home to sea lions, koalas, tigers, chimpanzee, giraffe and many other interesting animals. The zoo is well kept and the animals well cared for.

The entrance costs €8. But watching Nyra scream with excitement on seeing these animals in flesh and blood, hitherto encountered only in books, was priceless. It took us 3 hours to do justice to all the residents.

Ljubljana Zoo
Nyra had a ball at Ljubljana Zoo

An alternative for those travelling without kids would be the Metelkova district. This is cluster of erstwhile army barracks has been squatted and converted into a cultural hub covered in vibrant graffiti.  

From the zoo, we took a bus to Preseren Square again, this time to admire it in the light of the day.  To use the bus, one needs the Urbana Card which costs €2 and can be purchased from most newsstands. Every ride for upto 90mins costs €1.20 irrespective of the distance.   

 St Nicholas Cathedral

Frescoes of St Nicholas Cathedral
Frescoes of St Nicholas Cathedral

This is a prominent church located at Preseren Square. Though the earliest mentions of a church at this site date back to the 13th century, the current Baroque building was built in the early 18th century. The church looks mundane from the outside but the frescos inside are amazing. There are two noteworthy sculpted doors to the church that were added when Pope John Paul II visited the cathedral in 1996.  

Ljubljana Castle

This is easily the most important thing to see in Ljubljana. It is located on castle hill just off the old town centre. The entrance ticket including the audio guide and funicular ride for € 12 offers the best value. The audio guide has lively narration and greatly enhances the tour experience. The funicular from just off Preseren Square takes one to the Castle’s entrance.

Ljubljana Castle
Ljubljana Castle

The area was first fortified in the 11th century and has since been remodelled and re-constructed several times. You may do some virtual exploration beforehand at www.ljubljanskigrad.si or choose to explore it directly in person. There is a video theatre called Virtual Castle on site that shows a documentary video on the Castle’s history.  The ceiling of Chapel of St George inside the castle premises is painted with various coats of arms and is worth checking out. The castle grapevine has a fascinating story. It has been grown from a graft of the oldest noble vine in the world from Moribor

The high point of Ljubljana (literally and metaphorically) was the Viewing Tower in the castle. It is said that on clear days you can see two-thirds of Slovenia from here.  Looking right below we saw locals and tourists alike frolicking in Preseren Square. Towards the horizon, we could see the mountains in the distance. We spent almost an hour atop the tower, right until the sun went down on our time in Ljubljana.

Day 3: Piran

Piran is a lovely town on Slovenia’s very short (47km short!) but very picturesque Adriatic coast. Piran is a 1.5 hour drive from Ljubljana (120km) and is an easy day trip. It brings together rich history and culture with spellbinding azure waters and some great sea food.

We left our car at the Fornace parking lot and took the free shuttle bus that leaves every 15 min from outside the parking lot to the city centre.

Piran had been a part of the Venetian empire from the 13th to the 18th Century. Post that it has shifted hands from the Austrian Empire to Italy and Yugoslavia among others before finally becoming a part of independent Slovenia in 1990. Its historical importance arose from its role in salt production and trade. The city was fortified to protect it from Turkish incursions.  

Tartini Square is a grand plaza eponymously named after Giuseppe Tartini, the 18th-century composer and Piran’s most famous son.  It stands on ground that was once a dock for fishing boats. Gradually prominent buildings came up surrounding the dock and dock was filled up and converted into a public square. A magnificent statue of Tartini lords over the square. The square is surrounded by restaurants and cafes. We started our exploration of Piran with a cooling gelato to beat the hot Mediterranean sun.

While ambling across the narrow winding streets, we stumbled upon Mediadom Pyhrani, a multimedia museum that has a fantastic documentation of the history, architecture and culture of Piran through interactive screens and a video. Know more about them here. The entry fee is just €5 and it is highly recommended to augment one’s understanding of Piran.

Some of the best restaurants in Piran can be found along its seaside promenade. The cuisine here is primarily Italian with some Austro-Hungarian influence. After a hearty lunch, we walked to the Church of St George and then to the walls of Piran. The tower of the church is accessible for a fee and is said to offer great views. I had had a filling lunch and decided to give it a miss.

Posing In Piran

We proceeded instead to the famous city walls of Piran. The earliest fortifications date back to 10th century and substantial parts of the fort walls remain. The view from up top of orange roofed houses dotting a triangular landmass that juts into the glittering blue waters of the Adriatic Sea is breath-taking. As we stood there watching the sun go down, it was not difficult to imagine Piran as a bustling town at the height of its prosperity and prominence, with Venetian merchant ships flocking here to trade in white gold (salt). The €2 entry fee to the complex is easily justified.    

City Walls of Piran
Million dollar views from City Walls of Piran

Those willing to pack in a little more into the day can consider adding the nearby towns of Izola or Portoroz to their itinerary. Another option is stopping by Postojna caves on the way to Piran. 

Day 4: Vintgar Gorge, Jasna Lake, Vrisic Pass

After checking out trendy Ljubljana and the old world  charm of Piran, we were all set to make our way into the north-west of Slovenia, home to Slovenia’s best known attractions – Lake Bled and Triglav National Park. 

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

We started this leg with a stop at Vintgar Gorge near Bled. It’s a 1 hour drive from Ljubljana. It is a 1.6km long gorge created by erosion caused by the Radovna river. There is a wooden boardwalk all along the gorge that makes it easily accessible.

Radovna river flowing through Vintgar Gorge
Radovna river flowing through Vintgar Gorge

The sheer drop of the gorge, the transparent water of the river, the multiple rapids and a layer of mist on top of the river’s surface creates an otherworldly feel. We took 3 hours to complete the walk and come back, not because the walk was long or tough but because we couldn’t help stopping after every few steps to click the hell out of Vintgar Gorge.

Baby strollers and pets are not allowed here because the passage is quite narrow. The gorge is open to the public only during summers so visit http://www.vintgar.si to know the latest updates. The entry fee is €5.

After a satisfying morning of moderate physical exertion, we enjoyed some freshly caught and grilled trout from the river at a restaurant nearby.      

Vrisic Pass and Jasna Lake

We were booked to stay the night in a pretty little town called Ratece, near Kranjska Gora, which fell on Slovenia’s border with Italy and Austria. But before getting there, we had planned to cross Kranjska Gora and drive along the famed Vrisic Pass and its 50 hairpin bends.

Jasna Lake
Jasna Lake

After exiting Kranjska Gora on our way to Vrisic Pass we stopped at Lake Jasna. This was easily the most underrated attraction we encountered in Slovenia. Lake Jasna flies under the radar. It doesn’t find a mention in too many to-do lists and very few tourists come here.  The lake is surrounded by mountains that are reflected in its near-transparent waters. Nyra had the best time feeding biscuits to a flock of ducks while we sat on the pier and dipped our feet in the cool waters of the lake.

Jasna Lake
Nyra’s excitement is writ large on her face

I had come to know of it through Instagram accounts I follow like igslovenia and feelslovenia. Actually as a general rule, before visiting any place, I start following Instagram handles featuring that place to discover such hidden gems.

We then drove on to Vrisic Pass. The pass winds up the mountain from Kranjska Gora and then winds down again connecting the town of Trenta. The road is in excellent maintenance (as, indeed, are all roads in Slovenia) and driving there wasn’t nearly as scary as the idea of 50 hairpin bends would make you believe. The views all around are obviously spectacular.  There are spots every few hundred metres to park the car and admire the scenery.

Vrisic Pass
Breathtaking vistas of Vrisic Pass

Near hair-pin No 8, we stopped at the Russian Chapel. The original road that is now Vrisic Pass was built by 10,000 Russian POWs during World War I under the command of the Austrian army. An avalanche killed 300 of them and the survivors built this beautiful chapel in remembrance.

Russian Chapel - Vrisic Pass
Russian Chapel

After crossing some 20-odd bends, the fading light compelled us to head back. We stopped one last time to admire the vistas and to record this moment forever in our memories. We came back to Ratece and checked into out Airbnb. We thoroughly enjoyed spending a peaceful night in this quaint little town with just a couple of restaurants and barely a handful of tourists.

Day 5: Lake Bohinj, Slap Savica, Lake Bled

Waking up to this view in Ratece

Today was the day to see the most famous attraction of Slovenia – the fairytale Lake Bled. But before that we wanted to check out the relatively low key Lake Bohinj. Bohinj is a 1 hour drive from Ratece.

Lake Bohinj is bigger than its more illustrious cousin, Bled. There is a walking path along the perimeter of the lake and there are some piers for fishing and swimming. Bohinj falls somewhere between the glamour of Bled and the untouched beauty of Lake Jasna. We posed and picnicked on the shore before heading to a nearby waterfall called Slap Savica.

It is an 8km drive from the eastern edge of the lake to the car park at Slap Savika. Thereafter, it is a moderately challenging climb for about half an hour, largely over paved steps. The hike was beautiful and enjoyable and doing it with Nyra in tow felt like an accomplishment of sorts. The waterfall was strictly okay though. There is €3 entry fee for the hike and access to the view point.

It was now time to head to Slovenia’s #1 tourist attraction which has been featured on covers of every travel magazine ever and rightly so – Lake Bled. To make it extra special, we had booked a lake view room at West Western Premier Lovec. After spending most of the trip staying in Airbnbs we wanted to splurge on the last night and what better way than getting a Lake Bled view room.

Lake Bled
View from the room spoiled by gloomy weather

Unfortunately, after being exceedingly kind throughout our trip, the weather betrayed us in Bled.  The sky became cloudy, light faded quickly and we were denied a clear view of the lake. We took a walk along the lake and started heading back.

On the way back we stumbled upon Hotel Park – the birthplace of the legendary Bled cream cake. We couldn’t resist trying it out at its place of origin. And boy, it was delicious! The identifiers of an authentic Bled cream cake are the top layer that makes a cracking sound when tapped with a spoon and the fact that the cake swivels on shaking but never collapses. 

Bled Cream Cake at Hotel Park
Bled Cream Cake cheered us up!

Day 6: Lake Bled

The weather continued to be a spoilsport with moderate to heavy drizzle throughout the morning. We consoled ourselves thinking that we had seen enough of the bright, sunny Bled in photos. We were getting to experience a different side of Bled first hand. Also, if we ever needed a reason to come back to Slovenia, admiring Lake Bled on a bright sunny day would always be reason enough.

We took the boat ride to the Bled Island. The round trip costs €12 including waiting time to explore the island. The Church of Assumption of Mary is the main attraction on the island. There is a wishing bell inside the church which one can ring to pray for good luck. The paid entry costing €4, while not entirely worthwhile, became a necessity for us to shield ourselves from the rain.

On fair weather days, Ojstrica and Osojnica are said to provide magnificent views of the lake below. Bled Castle is also worth checking out.

At noon, we started our drive back to Ljubljana with bittersweet feelings. Slovenia had totally lived up to our expectations and indeed exceeded it. But it was time to bid adieu to this lovely country and head home.

Driving through this spectacularly beautiful country and admiring its mountains and many alpine lakes, its castles and its cuisine, I couldn’t help but wonder why Slovenia should appear any lower than Switzerland in a serious traveller’s bucket list.

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