The best way to see what Slovenia has to offer is to get involved in the great outdoors. There are amazing fishing streams and challenging rock faces in stunning settings
Slovenia. I imagined an Eastern Bloc country muddling about trying to find its feet after years of Soviet abuse. I could not have been more wrong.
Slovenia is beautiful. The scenery is stunning, the activities are adventurous, the people are warm and accommodating, the history runs deep and culture abounds. The beer is cold and the food is varied and tasty. Nestled delightfully between Italy, Austria, Croatia and the Adriatic, one should not really expect anything else. And everyone speaks amazing English!
Get yourself to Bled. Touted as the adventure capital of Slovenia, it is a cheap (€6.20) one and a quarter hour bus ride away from Ljubljana. Situated next to a stunning aqua-blue lake snuggled amongst the mountains, Bled is also the country retreat of the Slovene aristocracy. With a medieval castle perching precariously on high cliffs and an island with a bell-ringing church poking mysteriously from the middle of the lake, Bled is so picturesque that Goldilocks could really walk out of the surrounding forests at any time. The town itself is situated at one end of the lake and is home to a variety of hotels, restaurants, casinos and a tricky mini-golf course (the longest in Europe).
Where to stay
On the opposite side of the lake from the town itself is Camping Bled (Kidričeva 10c, SI - 4260 Bled), a laidback family-orientated camping retreat offering traditional bring-your-own tent style camping, facilities for campervans (no more than €10 per person per night for these in high season) or quaint bungalows (sleeping up to four at a school-camp-style squeeze) with own bathroom and fully-equipped kitchen (€36 per night).
The two of us opted for the bungalow, cosy and quietly situated up the hill on the edge of the forest, far from the rabble. Camping Bled is clean and well run, with ample amenity blocks, free wireless internet, clothes washing and drying facilities and a restaurant attached out the front. The staff are very helpful and can advise on and book activities. Even better, a small Mercator supermarket is located out the front, offering everything needed for a cheap self-sufficient get away.
Other fancy hotels are scattered throughout Bled village, including the plush Golf Hotel Bled (Cankarjeva 4, 4260) which, according to my girlfriend (who does love a good pampering) does a lovely spa massage.
If relaxing by a gorgeous alpine lake becomes a bit tedious, look up 3glav Adventures (www.3glav-adventures.com, Ljubljanska 4260; 00386.41.683.184) for an adrenalin kick. Offering canyoning, trekking, kayaking, sky-diving, mountain biking and almost anything to get your heart racing, it really is worth heading into town and visiting these guys if you want to get out and about.
We opted for rock climbing, so early on a glorious Slovenian morning we were picked up by Rok, our aptly named guide, and whisked up to the limestone cliffs just outside Bled. Capable and confident, Rok guided us through a happy and challenging two days scrambling up rock surfaces ranging from grades 4 to 6 (there were harder available), all the while admiring the views down yawning green valleys. After an intense morning we'd return to Bled exhausted, whilst Rok would take off and go BASE jumping with his girlfriend. At €58 per person per half day (transport and all equipment included) it wasn't altogether cheap, but was a good way to see the countryside and have a local show you around (including where to get the best ice-cream in town!).
The lake itself is ideal for swimming, provided it is warm enough, and it is possible to swim out to the island near the middle. For the modern man looking for even more brownie points, hire one of the Swan-shaped row boats available from a man and his shack near Camping Bled, and head out for a romantic row and meander around this tiny dot of history and culture.
With rivers like aquariums, Slovenia is a fly-fisherman's paradise. Don't be deceived however - despite littering the rivers, these trout are fussy when it comes to taking the bait, but a combination of persistence and skill will net you a good few over a day.
The chaps at Fauna Bled (www.faunabled.com, C. Svobode 12 4260; +386 45 742 631) have everything you need for a day flicking the feather, including all fishing equipment, tackle and clothing. They'll even sort out a permit, which varies in price depending on how many stretches of river you want to fish. Hiring all the gear, plus a permit, does not make for a cheap day out (around €100) but as a keen angler, I thought it was well worth it.
Initially I was a bit perplexed. I was fishing a wet streamer and had a few bites, but nothing held. After checking out the flies I figured it might be due to the barbless hooks – compulsory in this country but something I was not used to. It means you have to tighten your technique a bit, especially at the strike, but is no major obstacle. After a few initial strikes things dropped off towards the middle of the day. I switched to nymphs, which admittedly I am no expert at, and had a pretty dry patch for much of the middle of the day. Infuriatingly I watched other anglers upstream pull in a good few fish!
A guide would probably be a good option just to get a feel for the water, the way the fish operated and which fly to use at which part of the day. Guides are available at Fauna Bled, however being too macho I had opted out and strove on solo style. Luckily things improved in the afternoon, but if I were to go back I would seriously consider investing in one. It is often a small tip or some local knowledge regarding the time of year, what the fish are taking, or how to play the weather conditions that can make all the difference.
After lunch we drove to one of the bridges further towards Bohinjska Bela, a beautiful stretch of clear flowing water descending from a gorgeous valley. Paradise. Gently wading up stream, fish were visible everywhere. Infuriatingly, however, they wouldn’t take anything I threw at them.
As the afternoon progressed and I began to despair for a guide, things suddenly picked up. Fishing a nymph through some white water yielded a nice rainbow, followed by a few other little fellows. I had been advised to stick to the more oxygenated water, despite seeing many large fish in the big green ponds, and it finally appeared to be paying off.
The fish weren’t biting regularly, but having caught a few it was reassuring to know that I was doing something right. All in all, it was an incredibly soul restoring experience to be wading up these crystal clear streams. Evening began to draw in, so I thought I had better head back - the darker it became the more guilt I felt for my ever-patient girlfriend. I did flick the odd cast at rising fish, now using a dry, and on the last cast of the day was shocked to find a 55cm, +2lb brown trout on the end of my line, which I landed after a good 15 minute tussle. Staggering.
Hiring a car is a good idea as it makes the hot spots much more accessible. We got a nifty little Skoda from Avantcar (www.avantcar.si/en), which zipped us around the cobbled streets and through the winding country lanes with ease.
Part of the allure of Slovenia is that it is so central and so close. On the morning of our departure we headed by bus from the local bus stop, across the Italian border to Trieste and then by train down to Venice. It was then an Easyjet flight from the fairytale and back to London's Gatwick and reality.
Ladies, if your man fancies himself as a bit of a fisherman, I would strongly recommend this trip as a fantastic getaway gift. And you'll probably have a good time too.