I imagined that Slovenia would be an Eastern Bloc country trying to find its feet after years of Soviet abuse. How wrong I was. Stunning scenery, extreme outdoors and friendly people welcomed me
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.
Slovenia is the home of Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. Fairytales really are possible in this chocolate box of a country, and the capital Ljubljana could be the setting for many of them. Just over two hours flying from Stansted and you can be wandering across a bridge flanked by dragons, or browsing around the bustling markets jostling with Red Riding Hood for some fresh mushrooms beneath the omnipresent castle. The city itself is quite small and the markets, restaurants and bars and be easily explored in a day - a walk along the river will take you to some lovely restaurants (if you are an equine lover then pay careful attention to the menus, although the foal pate with shredded horse was delicious). A brisk 30 minute walk will take you up to the castle, or alternatively the funicular (follow the signs from downtown) is a good way to fully appreciate the stunning views without the panting.
Where to Stay
We stayed in the Hostel Celica, a former prison that has been transformed into a cheap, cheerful and funky youth hostel. The names of former inmates outside each room provide an eerie reminder of the history of the place, and the fact that the bars on the rooms once weren't just for giggles. Each has been individually painted by local artists and a double room will cost €28 per person per night. Set in the alternative Metelkova Mesto area there are some crazy artworks and interesting bars to check out in this part of town, and it's just a lazy ten minute stroll from here to the centre of the city.
Touted as the adventure capital of Slovenia, Bled is a cheap (€6.20) one and a quarter hour bus ride away from Ljubljana. Built 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, 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 on the edge of the forest further 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 which does a lovely spa massage.
If relaxing by a gorgeous alpine lake becomes a bit tedious, look up 3glav Adventures (www.3glav-adventures.com) 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 fresh 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 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! It is possible to swim out to the island, or hire a row boat and head out to have explore this tiny dot of history and culture.
With rivers like aquariums, Slovenia is a fly-fisherman's paradise. Don't be deceived, 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) have everything you need for a day flicking a feather at some trout, 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 the 2lb beauty that found itself on the end of my line at the last cast of the day certainly made it all worthwhile. Hiring a car is also a good idea as it makes the hot spots much more accessible. Even if the fish aren't biting, wading up and down the stunning valleys in crystal clear water is an incredibly soul-restoring experience.
To the Coast via the Karst Caves
Three days in Bled was enough of an outdoor kick for us, but it would have been easy to spend a week exploring the area. As a final unwind we drove our hire car (www.avantcar.si/en) down to Piran, on the Adriatic coast for some final days of sun and sea. Along the way it was well-worth calling into the Škocjan caves, a UNESCO listed labyrinth of subterranean paths winding through incredible stalacites and stalagmites, underground rivers and waterfalls (www.slovenia.info/?kraska_jama=3899).
After dropping our hire car off in neighbouring Portoroz, we took an easy fifteen minute walk back along the sea-front to explore Piran. A historic walled city, Piran is a tiny place but abounds in character and atmosphere. The town used to be a part of the Venetian empire - tiny cobbled streets radiate out from the central square and ghostly saints of old wash through churches dating back hundreds of years. If walking up walls and exploring churches isn't your thing, your best bet is to enjoy the plentiful seafood on offer and relax by the sea-side. Piran is a nice place to have a few days to take a load off, make friends with a good book and enjoy some beautiful sunsets. The restaurants along the seafront are pleasant but targetted to tourists and overpriced - we had our nicest meal at Pizzeria Tartini, back from the seafront to the east of Tartini Square, but there are plenty of other intimate places to choose from. You'll also always know what time it is in Piran - the impressive Church of St George overlooking the city chimes every quarter hour, once twice or thrice. Bring your earplugs if you're not sure you can handle it.
Not renowned for cheap accommodation, we found a clean double room with private bathroom in a traditional Piranese house through Maona (www.maona.si/index_e) in downtown Piran.
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 Gatwick and reality.