Begin your Slovenian adventure in laid-back Ljubljana, before heading north to the exquisite Lake Bled and west to the snowcapped Julian Alps. Next, visit the country’s western winelands for intimate cellar-door tastings, before heading to Piran on the Adriatic coast for Riviera glamour beside glittering seas
WORDS JESSICA COLE
PHOTOGRAPHS JUSTIN FOULKES
Kick back in Ljubljana, one of Europe’s greenest and most liveable cities:
CLOSE to a hiking trail, a brown bear has been spotted ambling through woodland with her two young cubs. A passing rambler raised the alarm and half-hourly news bulletins now warn walkers to stay alert. But we’re not deep in a national park, nor in a rural wilderness. This is Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia – which, with its backdrop of mountains, feels less like a city than an Alpine town.
In the centre, pastel-painted houses and Baroque architecture jostle for space around a narrow river. Weeping willows graze its surface, and young couples loll back on their elbows on the stepped riverbanks, enjoying the sun’s waning glow. Upstream, cafés and bars flank the canal’s walls. The salmon-hued Franciscan church glows rose-gold behind them. A group of paddleboarders drifts idly under the balustraded Triple Bridge, while a woman peers down at them from above, fussing the head of a dachshund scooped in the crook of her arm. There’s not a hint of motor-traffic hum; only the whisper of willow branches.
Nearby at riverside coffee shop and bar Tozd, a scattering of customers has taken up a lazy residence on tan leather banquettes. Hanging high up on a brick wall are two skateboards and, directly above a customer’s head, a fixed-gear bicycle. Named for the now-defunct Basic Association of Organised Labour, Tozd’s cooperative philosophy is as much a reminder of Slovenia’s recent Yugoslav history as it is of the liberal attitude of its people today. The wheeled wall hangings aren’t just there to look pretty: they showcase the work of local makers, alongside the photographic prints and jewellery on display elsewhere in the café.
“Slovenians are naturally shy, but this place has such energy: people come here to make friends,” says Tozd barista, Anya Rosyar. Behind her, a huddle of students are playing a card game over cups of the café’s cold-brewed coffee. “It’s important to feel a sense of community in a city.”
Fostering a sense of common good is, it seems, something of a policy in Ljubljana. A couple of streets away, the windows to the mayor’s office are permanently open in summer, reportedly so that he can hear first-hand how the city is feeling. In recent years, his office has dedicated its efforts to transforming Ljubljana into one of the greenest and most sustainable capitals of Europe. Its centre is pedestrianised, dozens of drinking fountains are scattered through the city to dispense water during summer months, and electric buggy-cars scoot about, ferrying locals and visitors around town for free. Even the culinary scene toes the line, its carbon footprint minimised by a focus on fresh, local, homemade ingredients. Take, for example, Gostilna na gradu, whose tasting menu, dubbed “a walk across Slovenia”, flaunts the best of the country’s local ingredients. Generous, bulbous courgette flowers are served stuffed with Slovenian Istrian truffles and creamy ricotta, followed by tender cubes of venison, paired with a spicy Teran red wine made some 80 kilometres away.
The food is superb and the location is quite something too. The restaurant, with its crisp white table linen and smart parasols, stands in the courtyard of Ljubljana’s medieval hilltop castle. It’s a fine setting for a languorous afternoon, enclosed in centuries-old stone walls under a beating sun. Across the wide, open quadrangle, the ramparts offer a lookout from which to admire the full span of the city, edged by green to all aspects and backed by hills in which, somewhere, a mother bear is roaming through the trees with her cubs.
The raft bumps and floats downriver quite amiably, past black cormorants drying their wings on the banks. Patches of turbulence shudder the boat like motorway rumble strips. The rapids might be tame today, but the conditions mean it’s safe to make an unplanned stop-off. Erik navigates towards a large boulder and ushers the group to clamber up onto it. Without explanation, he flips the raft and drags it against the side of the rock, grinning at the perplexed expressions around him. Finally, he leaps onto the raft’s underside and bounces headfirst into the water below. Comprehension dawns on the rafters’ faces: it’s a trampoline. For 20 minutes, each takes turns ricocheting into the freezing river, shrieks and yelps echoing into the valley, before pulling themselves up onto the boulder to take another turn.
Back in the raft, a bumpy, narrow stretch of river towards the end of the run promises to raise the tempo. The craft picks up speed, crashing downriver between the rocks like a pinball. It’s a tangle of paddles and limbs, and Erik is bellowing instructions from the back to navigate between obstacles. Inevitably, the raft catches one on its flank and spins unexpectedly, leaving half the rafters sprawling in the bottom.
“Rafting isn’t my forever job,” says Erik, as he peels off his wetsuit on a riverbank after the trip. “But how can I convince myself to leave this? Every year, I think this will be the last, but still I’m here.” He shrugs. “Many people want a picture of my office in their office.”
Explore soaring Alpine peaks, lakes, gorges and emerald rivers in northwest Slovenia :
IF Ljubljana is Slovenia’s progressive poster boy, Lake Bled is her darling starlet. Forty-nine kilometres northwest of the capital, its 17th-century church springs skyward from an island perch in the middle of the lake, its reflection casting symmetrical roots towards the shore. Above it, atop a steep cliff, a medieval castle surveys the tranquil waters; they’re stirred only by lonely swans, paddlers and wooden boats ferrying visitors across them. Sightseers have flocked to the lake for over a century and a half. Most come simply to gaze on it during a scenic stroll around the lakeside path or, for a higher and more exclusive vantage point, from a hillside on Bled’s south bank after a steep clamber.
Twenty-four kilometres to the west lies Bled’s sister lake, Bohinj. It might not have a bijou tower-topped island, but it makes up for that in bucolic loveliness and in the many trails surrounding it, which attract hikers, cyclists and horse-riders around the year. They’re in good company: it was on this lakeside that Agatha Christie reportedly holidayed. “They asked her if she’d set a crime novel here,” says Grega Šilc, owner and guide at activity tour company Hike & Bike, gesturing sweepingly to the mountain panorama with one arm as he leads a walk around the lake. “But she said, ‘No – Bohinj is too beautiful for murder to be committed here’.”
The Bohinj slopes are mere foothills, precursors to the Karavanke and Julian Alps that tower over this region to the north and west. In summer months, they form a multi-level, cross-terrain outdoor play park. Via ferrata rungs take scramblers to craggy summits; in gullies, canyoneers splash into Alpine waters. High above them all, paragliders leap from mountainsides and drift noiselessly away.
At ground level, the road from Kranjska Gora, Slovenia’s highest town, climbs unrelentingly towards a panoramic mountain pass, where dandelions grow from cracks in limestone rocks and the smell of pine needles catches on the breeze. On the other side of the pass lies the Soča Valley. The water of its eponymous river appears a startling shade of turquoise, a happy side-effect of the area’s limestone terrain. Its waterfalls and rocky gorges, canyons and pools provide perfect conditions for adventure watersports.
There hasn’t been much rainfall recently, so the waters are unusually low. White-water rafting down the river will be an altogether more civilised experience than usual, instructor Erik Sturm tells his wetsuit-clad pack of rafters, as they carry their boat to the launch point and set off onto the jade water. Erik has been guiding rafts down this stretch for eight years and knows the topography of the river as well as anyone.