Slovenia, the green heart and gem of Europe. Whichever corner you come to, one thing’s for sure: with its snowy mountain peaks, turquoise rivers and romantic seaside towns, it instantly steals into the hearts of every visitor. That’s what I’ve been through. In nearly a one-week stay in the country, I went from one am amazement to another. I haven’t thought this little state had so much beauty and that returning from Slovenia I would feel if the trip had taken longer.
It’s hard to describe in one word what the country’s appeal lies in. The fact that its natural beauties above and below the surface are unparalleled. Just like it was Slovenia’s credit for being the first to win the green country in the world, due to its sustainable tourism and exemplary relationship with the environment.
Slovenia is a truly fresh, fresh and green country. Savoring and experiencing it was one of the biggest surprises of my year. And even though I haven’t seen all the faces of the country, I’m sure I’ll remember each of the places below with a warm heart.
The name of the city is linked to winter sports. But there’s one more thing that makes it worth visiting Maribor all year. And this is the high-quality grapes and wine made from them. Before I arrived in Slovenia, I had no idea the country has such a high wine culture and that Maribor is one of its centers. Let’s see what else grows here besides grapes.
It is worth exploring the city on the banks of the Drava, which is also the oldest quarter of the city. The riverside part of the city (Lent) is lined with two remaining towers of the former city wall: the cylindrical Court Tower, which was the city’s cell, and on the other side the Water Tower since 1555, which served the city’s water supply. Between the two bounding walls there are many restaurants and cozy houses on the riverbank, as well as the world’s oldest vine, which has even been included in the Guinness Book of Records.
The old lady named Stara trta (referred to as the grapes as a lady) is Maribor’s main attraction. Its specialty is that to this day it still grows the Žametovka, which is a traditional Slovenian grape variety. Every year, the harvest is the city’s largest event, traditionally held on the last Sunday in September. This year’s grape festival will take place from 17-20 September 2020, more information about it can be found here.
Maribor’s city center is small and car traffic is banned anyway, so let’s go on foot to explore it. Take a walk in the Main Square (Glavni trg) and admire the Renaissance City Hall. Then continue your journey to Grajski trg, where next to the Baroque-style Marburg Castle you will find a strangely shaped World War II monument.
Let’s close the day in the Vinag cellar system, as Maribor is a wine town in Slovenia, where you can have a truly special experience. One of Europe’s oldest and largest cellar systems runs under the city, which we visited with a 2.1 km long walk led by Jernej Lubej. By the way, I suggest to contact him (here) if you are in Maribor, as he is one of the best sommeliers in the country and can provide all the interesting things for those interested in wine and grapes.
Bled is a gem of the Alps, where even though I’ve been to, I was happy to come back again. The beautiful lake with its charming island in the middle and above the castle is a real postcard place that shows visitors its most beautiful face in every season. But how did this tiny island was founded with a church in the middle? According to legend, there were shepherds in the valley once who grazed sheep on the alpine pastures. One of the sheep was very unruly and kept running away from the flock. On several occasions, his curiosity took him to the Church of Our Lady on the hill, to the greatest shock of the locals. Several people suggested to protect the church with a fence, as an animal had no place in it, but nothing happened. So God flooded the valley with water to protect the sacred place from unsolicited visitors.
This is part of the legend, but in fact a glacier-formed the lake, in the middle of which stands a temple. The other symbol of Lake Bled is the castle, which is located above the island. According to written sources, it is the oldest castle in Slovenia, referred to as Castellum Veldes in a 1011 donation letter. The castle, which stands on the 130-meter high cliff, offers beautiful views of the lake, the Karawanks and the Julian Alps. Inside the castle, you can see an exhibition of book publishing and get to know the history of the castle.
However, the most attractive part of Bled is undoubtedly the island, where the easiest way to get in is by boat. For a special experience, try the traditional Bled boat, the pletna. Besides boating it is also interesting that rowing and making the boat are family traditions and knowledge is going from father to son. The island is worth a visit for several reasons. The most popular is the legendary wish bell of the Church of Our Lady, which if you ring it three times, your wish will be granted.
If you’re lucky to see a wedding, you can be part of a special, local tradition. It’s not every day that the groom takes the bride up his lap through the 99 stairs leading to the church. But everyone who makes marriage here will do so, because, with this gesture, marriage will last forever. When you walk on the island, you also have to climb the stairs. It is worth getting it picked up not only to the church but also to its bell tower. From the top of the tower, there is a beautiful view of the water and you can even admire an old clock, which still operates on the basis of a completely mechanical principle.
The trials of climbing can be eased in the café of the church with a traditional Slovenian sweetness, potica, which is similar to our bejgli, only in the shape of a potcake. The Slovenian festive dish, which is made in several flavors, grabbed also the attention of Pope Benedict. So much so that he asked for it for breakfast during his visit to Slovenia, which was prepared by the pastry chefs of this café on the basis of a secret and unique recipe. Speaking of special sweets, let’s not leave Bled without tasting kremsnita Bled, or creamy pastry. The creamy pastry origins from here and today is one of Bled’s signature symbols. Its real recipe was found by Istvan Lukacevic and the secret is kept in the patisserie opposite the Park Hotel.
This place, less than 4 km from Bled, was one of the most beautiful natural attractions in Slovenia for me. Discovered in 1891, Vintgar Gorge covers an amazingly colored valley where the Radovna River meanders from turquoise to ice blue to emerald green in the embrace of steep cliffs. Probably at the time of its discovery, there was no infrastructure as well built here as what is now available to visitors. On a 1.6 km long trail, through wooden boards, you can walk 1-1.5 hours in Vintgar Gorge and admire the gentleness of the river.
At the end of the tour, if it wasn’t enough wow experience, let’s visit the 16-meter-high Sum that is Slovenia’s largest river waterfall. The gorge is guaranteed to provide an unforgettable experience for all ages and its conquest takes little effort. Practical information and prepare for, as in the case of Rám Gorge in Hungary (I wrote about it here), there is also a one-way direction in Vintgar. So in the end, the road doesn’t lead back through the wooden paths, but through the mountain. Unless you go on a guided tour, where you end up with a bus waiting to bring you back to the starting point.
Whether you are hiking on the Karawanks or Julian Alps trails or boating on Lake Bled, it is worth detouring to Radovljica and spending a few hours in this charming, medieval small town. That’s because it’s the sweetest city in Slovenia. The area has been famous for its honey-producing countryside for centuries. In the city, you can not only taste but also learn more about the versatile use of Slovenian beekeeping and honey.
Radovlica, however, is not just made sweet by honey. The Lectar Inn, which is covered with beautiful geraniums, offers an insight into the mysteries of gingerbread making and its 200-year-old history, while the chocolate festival (details here) offers delicious specialties in April each year. Craft chocolate making, by the way, has a long tradition throughout Slovenia. I met the most extraordinary taste in Piran.
Slovenian wine regions
At first, you certainly don’t think about wine speaking of Slovenia. Not even because only 30% of the wines produced here are sold through export, so it is not easy to meet Slovenian wines in supermarkets at home. However, if you are here, it is worth exploring this face of the country too. In Slovenia, 52 well-known wine varieties are produced, which can be found in wineries, in restaurants, and during the osmice that opens in the autumn.
The easiest way to explore Slovenia’s three great wine regions is by bike. I tried the electric bike for the first time in my life in Posavje region and I really, really liked it. There is a misconception that you don’t have to ride at all, but of course, you have to. However, in the hilly countryside, the assist function served well on the slopes. Among the wine regions around Primorska, you should taste Mediterranean sun-matured red wines such as merlot, shiraz or cabernet. In the Sava wine region, around Posavje, do not forget the traditional Slovenian wine, cviček, which is made from the marriage of three types of wine and has a relatively low alcohol content. For those who like classic white wines, e.g. Rhine Riesling and tramini, the Drava and Podravje regions will be the best choice and Maribor.
Kostanjevica na Krki Monastery
Where the 300-year-old oak trees of the Krakovski Forest meet the Sava and Drava rivers, and where the green mountains of Gorjanci rise, there is Slovenia’s oldest and only island-built city, Kostanjevica na Krki. Because of its outstanding cultural, historical and natural values, the place enjoys the highest level of protection. One of the most extraordinary buildings of the small town that can be found along the Krk River is the Cistercian Monastery, built in 1234. Until 1785 it was the country’s religious, educational and economic center. The monastery was hit by several fires and then bomb hits, after which it was restored, but lost the religious role.
Today, among the walls of one of central Europe’s largest arcade squares, where people gained refuge from attackers during the Renaissance, you can find the cradle of Slovenian culture. The sacral character of the beautiful Gothic church has been replaced by contemporary art, while the Božidar Jakac gallery gives way to the creators of 20th-century Slovenian expressionism. The courtyard of the monastery was also put at the service of culture. While the monastery is home to paintings, the shady park is home to oak carving sculptors and works since 1961.
Along Krk River, it is worth taking a trip to Novo Mesto, which, despite its picturesque surroundings, has not yet attracted the attention of tourists. But if you want something special, stop at the Otocec Castle Hotel and have a look at its picturesque surroundings both inside and outside.
Slovenia’s natural environment is legendary, if only we assume that 60% of its territory is forested and nearly 14% of these are protected. But not only on the surface but also below it, there are amazing treasures. There are 13,000 karst caves in the country, the largest of which is the stalactite cave in Postojna. The discovery of the stalactite cave is due to the name of an auxiliary lamplighter, Luka Čeč, under whom in 1818 the cave partially collapsed. His companions thought he was lost, but in the light of the lantern, his shape suddenly appeared in the depths and he shouted, “This is a new world, this is Paradise.”
Although I’ve seen beautiful stalactites for example, underwater in Mexico (I wrote about it here), the paradise epithet is really not an exaggeration for Postojna. Interestingly, the Postojna Cave as a natural attraction is not among Slovenia’s 4 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The first underground railway of Europe was built here in 1872 and today runs through a 3.7 km long double pair of tracks in the cave area. The cave is 3 million years old and the oldest known stalk stone is the skyscraper, which covers a 5 m high snow-white stalagmite column. The world’s first cave post office opened in Postojna in 1899. The post office’s success is shown by the 7,000 postcards being mailed in 1900, while four years later, on Whit Monday, no fewer than 13,800 were handed out in just under three hours.
As a further interesting thing, Postojna Cave has not only beautiful stalactite stones, but olms (blind animals) called dragons by the locals. This animal has kept scientists in a fever for decades. This completely blind animal lives in groundwater for 100 years, all by eating only once every 10 years. Blind olms have artificially propagated a few years ago, and at the end of the tour, you can see them in a terrarium.
During the 90-minute tour, you get part of a unique world. You are taken through stalactite halls by train and on foot together with an informative audio guide presentation. Practical advice: the cave has 10-14 degrees in summer, so it’s worth taking a jacket and proper shoes too. For more information, the cave is easy to access, so wheelchair users don’t have to give up on this fantastic experience.
The work of the human hand and the creativity of nature created this gem of the Middle Ages. Predjama Castle is only a few kilometers from the Postojna stalactite cave. The rock castle was built in 1202 and in its 800 years no enemy could ever take in. The world’s largest cave castle, also considered as a Guinness World Record, tells a special story of times when security came before comfort, and the rattling of weapons was louder than the troubadours’ song.
When you walk in the medieval castle, it is often difficult to know which part belongs to the rock and which part was actually built. The cave has a secret tunnel leading to the surface that once served as an invaluable hideout. Erasmus Knight of Predjama, the invincible and romantic hero of the time often used this secret tunnel while defying the Imperial Army for years.
He lost his life in an undignified way, sitting on the lavatory. A cannonball hit the “restroom” of the castle, which along with Knight Erasmus has fallen down. Predjama Castle has been the site of many documentaries and films and is one of the 10 most breathtaking castles in the world. The castle also enchanted the best-selling writer George R. R. Martin. He may have bought the idea of a lavatory episode in Game of Thrones. But Discovery Channel also visited here, who discovered that ghosts were also inhabitants of the castle.
The green capital of the green country. I have to admit, I did not expect much from the Slovenian capital, in advance, several people said it was a half-day city. Well, I’m not going to give these people their opinion anymore, because there’s a lot more to do in Ljubljana than one would think. First of all, the city center is almost completely car-free: everyone here rides a bike, takes electric buses as a means of transport or walks. Secondly, it has beautiful art nouveau, art deco and classicist buildings, among which it is a real wow experience to walk. Not to mention the beautiful bridges across the Ljubljanica River (e.g. Dragon Bridge, Triple Bridge, Shoemaker’s Bridge), designed by Jože Plečnik. Speaking of bridges, let’s pay a little attention to the first one, the dragon, which symbol you’ll meet everywhere in Ljubljana. But where this dragon mania comes from?
Legend has it that Iason, the Greek prince, went down on the river that split the city into the Adriatic Sea with his golden wool cargo. However, he was stopped by a dragon living here, who also terrified people. Iason fought with the dragon, defeated it, and reached the sea with the gold cargo. However, the dragon could still be missed by inhabitants, as it appears on many urban symbols from the coat of arms of Ljubljana. Among other things, in addition to the fish market, the bridge, which was handed over in 1901, is guarded by dragons. Four, to be exact. It used to be said that when a virgin girl crosses the bridge, dragons wag their tails. But it’s more of an urban legend.
If you’re in Ljubljana, don’t forget to visit the 900-year-old castle, which offers the most beautiful views of the city. The easiest way to get up there is by a funicular which was handed over a few years ago, but the more enterprising ones can also walk up the hill. In addition to the permanent exhibitions, the castle is a popular place for weddings and festivals and is full of life in summer.
The city is not only a good example of green and sustainable tourism but also a treasure trove for gastronomic enthusiasts. The country’s affordability is also well shown by the fact that you can get a two-course lunch menu at the Michelin-starred Atelje restaurant from €24-28. In addition to Prešeren Square, on Fridays, you can also taste the best Slovenian restaurants in open kitchens wrapped in market vibes.
Among the thousands of faces of Slovenia, I was looking forward to the seaside part the most, as diving and the sea together are the second love of my life. Although I didn’t dive now, the smell of salty wind is unlike anything else. The Slovenian Riviera covers a 46 km long coastline and, in terms of cities, Piran is a real little jewel box. The small town of Istria, once part of the Republic of Venice, still bears the Italian influence in terms of buildings, language and sense of life.
The most beautiful part of Piran is Tartini Square, named after the famous composer and today it is a popular venue for concerts in summer. Pay special attention to the Venetian house on the corner of the square. The house was once occupied by a beautiful girl who fell in love with a sailor from Venice. Love was mutual, marriage was already discussed. Yes, but back home in Venice, the man had a wife. When the girl in Piran heard it, she got very angry. The man tried to explain the situation, but this is believed to have been done in public. Because on the wall of the house there is still the inscription in Italian: Let them speak.
In addition to its resort character, Piran is best known for its salt distiller and postcard-like locations. The former can be tasted in the salt shop near Tartini Square – e.g. in the form of salt chocolate – while the latter can be seen from two places. From the bell tower of St. George’s Church, which was built in 1608 on the model of the Venetian tower, you can see Italy on one side, Croatia on the other, and Slovenia on the other. The special feature of the 48-meter tower is the statue of St. Nicholas at the top outside the panorama, which has been used by locals as a weather indicator for hundreds of years.
If the statue faces north, good weather is expected, if to the south, then less so. A few years ago, lightning struck the statue and it had to be removed for restoration. The locals are completely disturbed they don’t have the statue and they won’t know what time it’s going to be. Fortunately, the statue has since been returned to its place and things have calmed down.
If you want a view that is even more beautiful than from the bell tower, go up to the medieval castle wall, which stands on top of the hill. Although the ascent was not exactly sweat-free in the summer heat, the view of the Mediterranean settlement with the endless sea in the background is quite simply an unforgettable sight!
I would like to thank the Slovenian Tourism Office for inviting me to Slovenia.