Slovenia is a country I knew nothing about until I knew I was going there. On a winding backpack trip through Europe we had hit a handful of influential countries, loads of famous sites, and decided to make it somewhere we knew nothing about. After having a miserable time in Italy, a tragically crumbled ancient country that doesn’t seem to take care about the priceless works of art littered around every street corner, my girlfriend was physically ill and I couldn’t stand the humidity, tourists, and overpriced everything any longer. Though I will surely return, I’ll go back with twice as much money and do my research to find the food locals eat; because if you think Italian food will be good everywhere, you are sorely mistaken.
Perhaps that’s why when we leave Venice to take a train through Austria we are ecstatic to make it to the clean and efficient city of Villach, which is beautiful in its subtlety. Only staying for a night, we wander the quaint Austrian town before the train to Slovenia leaves in the morning. There are pubs and restaurants near our hotel, but the curry wurst stand is particularly alluring. We wish we were staying longer, but have accommodations in place in Slovenia and are passing back through Austria again on our way to Germany.
There is a violent thunderstorm as we sleep, but luckily it has subsided before we rise to catch our train at the crack of dawn. On the clean rail car, we watch the stunning, verdant green of the Austrian mountains go by as we cross over the border into Slovenia. The towering mountains and rolling hills are covered with lush forests, which are incredibly vibrant this time of year. As we make it into Ljubljana, we’re surprised by how tame the 5,000 year old capital is. We begin to learn that, like the rest of Slovenia, the former city of the Roman Empire and later the Soviet Union, is understated, mellow, and full of seriously friendly people who move slowly and enjoy their lives. At the train station, it is seven in the morning and gruff men are sitting at the cafe, unanimously enjoying wheat colored beers with no breakfast in sight. We aren’t staying in the city for long– after a coffee and traditional meat and cheese breakfast pastries, we’re off to Skocjan Caves, a UNESCO Heritage Site.
Turquoise water cuts through the walls of the cave while a staircase winds up the gaping hole in the forest. I am always fascinated how something as integral to life as water can carve and eradicate the Earth over time. From above the abyss, a church can be seen in the distance, hovering over the dark cavernous void, which is covered by an abundance of trees and foliage. Birds fly over, in, and out of the pit. Walking through Skocjan, the air becomes cold, brisk, and thin. The sides of the cave cascade and perturb into the narrow opening. Skocjan is rigid, intimidating, and beautiful. It’s another world.
Slovenia is a small country, you can go to a few cities and see a number of sites in one day, or take your time for about a week and do everything you want to do. Next we’re headed to Predjama Castle, which was built an hour outside of Ljubljana on the mouth of another cave in a village called Postojna. The castle is an archaic shelter designed to give the sequence of esteemed families that lived there the higher ground to defend themselves against intruders. The creaking house is as ominous as it is grand. There are a variety of rooms that are curated to show what they were once used for. One of which is a torture chamber that sits at the top of the house where a door reveals a small room that’s contained only by the wall of the cave. Across the way, there is a cannon that sticks out of the forehead of the castle. Which, by the way, is in the middle of gorgeous emerald field of rolling hills that the Sun is currently shining triumphantly upon. The castle is deceptively large with winding staircases that lead to its many bedrooms and elaborate dining hall.
Deciding to skip the guided tour of Postojna Caves since we already had an independent viewing of Skocjan, we decide to take the bus back into Ljubljana. Only when we get to the station, we realize the last bus left moments before, despite that the Sun is still shining in the early evening. We aren’t the only ones left behind, another couple is stranded with us. When we ask the woman at the desk where we can get another bus she doesn’t look hopeful. Instead, this saint drives all four of us into the city where we can catch a cab back to our hostel. Our driver is a kind, serious man who tells us about Slovenia’s people. “Americans vork two or three jobs just to get by,” he says. “Vhile Slovenians vork part-time and enjoy life.” I could get used to this, I think as he drives us to our hostel. Compared to the Italian equivalents we’ve been staying in over the past five days, it is a spotless haven consisting of a huge gym and a friendly staffed bar. We order local beers and buy a box of Paprika Pringles, which is only one of the out of the ordinary and awesome flavors they have all over Europe. I am not usually a fan of snack foods, but the interesting Pringle flavors are perhaps my weak spot. We get hazily drunk on the patio and talk about the pleasant surprise that is Slovenia before retiring for a book and a good night’s rest. After a full, very exciting first day in country, we can’t wait to see what else Slovenia has to offer.
We wake up bright and early again to enjoy a day of lovely Slovenian nature, cuisine, gypsy music, and a few surprises along the way. We take a bus from Ljubljana to Lake Bled, where we are staying for the night. Much to our amusement, the guesthouse is also spotless, charming, and located right on the lake. Lake Bled, or the Lake of Blood, is crystal clean and shimmering blue, with a tiny iconic island that hosts a church tower. We are ecstatic with how beautiful everything is already, and it’s only 8 in the morning. On the recommendation of a friendly passer-by, we sit down at a cafe where the advocate says they have the best coffee in town. We love the cappuccinos, but I am more of a fan of the no-bullshit service that makes me chuckle every time they ask “vhat you vant?”
We linger at the coffee shop as we watch Bled’s locals pass to and fro on the sidewalk, getting ready for the day. We’re taking another short bus ride up to Triglav National Park, and Lake Bohinj in particular. There is a bus tour that run all day and stops at a variety of sites where you can get on and get off at your will. It is an incredibly accessible feature of an already leisurely country to visit.
The bus ride is as exciting as the destination. The mountains that encompass Triglav National Park, which covers 3 percent of the country, tower above the verdant forestry. Trees and shrubbery are flourishing this summer and proliferate over everything for miles in each direction. If we came in the winter instead of summer, the landscape of Slovenia would be much more dismal and sinister, but would remain just as stunning. We pass through antiquated and relaxed villages and farms with visibly healthy cows. We get dropped off at the beginning of the trail that climbs Mount Triglav, the tallest in the Julian Alps, a symbol of Slovenian nationality and pride. It looms above with power and grace. Though, we simply do not have enough time to endeavor the whole hike, we enjoy glimpses of the mountain and the solitude the forest provides.
We decide to head back when we know the bus will soon be arriving for pick-up. We’re off to Lake Bohinj, a narrow and clean body of water sandwiched in the Alps. If it is even possible, it is perhaps more beautiful than the Lake of Blood. First, we need a snack. We go into a honey shop because Slovenia is famous for its bees and their delicious honey. We buy a few small jars for us, one with black berries, and a few others to take home. We buy crackers and bread to dip in the honey while sitting and dipping our feet in the lake. People are swimming in the water, and jumping off the rocks with glee. This is paradise.
After our snack, we’re ready for another hike, this time around the lake. There are tons of trails so we just hop on the first one we see. We hike into the forest and eventually the distant clamor of the people fades away. The trail elevates a bit to give us a peek at the water, but the real point of interest is the enveloping isolation that the canopy of thin trees provides and the buzz of bizarre insects, many of which I am amazed to see for the first time.
We make it back to Lake Bled and amazingly, the sun is still shining. We go out on the river with a rented canoe and get as close as we can to the island with the church tower. Later, another friendly cabbie tells us that it is a custom of the city of Bled to get married on the minuscule island, and that the groom must carry his bride up the numerous church steps. Yet again a heartfelt symbol from a deeply gothic and romantic culture. We swim in the lake and have a fantastic time on a slide with local kids. Then, after a shower, we enjoy a lakeside dinner. We order a hamburger-like patty that is stuffed with impeccable cheese and spices, served with a freshly fried serving of potatoes, and risotto with wild Slovenian mushrooms. As we eat, a gypsy band is performing lakeside– their music is jubilant, celebratory, and hypnotic. We begin to realize that tonight is not an average night in Bled. We are in for a treat, a street festival is converging in our honor.
Well, it may not be for us, but a weekend market is setting up along the street with a view of the lake. Fresh cheeses, pastries, desserts, and other foods are being served; the locals are pleased drinking and eating in the street. We buy some souvenirs at the market, a hand-made renaissance mug for me, and a hand carved bookmark with the silhouette of Mount Triglav carved into wood for my girlfriend. We enjoy ice cream, what we call gelato in the states, which is the ubiquitous and superior variation found all over Europe, not just in Italy. The sun goes down over the Lake of Blood, and we hope the night never ends.