The Wonders of Slovenia

Explore this magical yet under-the-radar country in central Europe

By Felicity, World Traveler

Felicity—a 20-something travel lover—has teamed up with her friends from around the world to provide readers with local, insider knowledge of today’s most awe-inspiring destinations. Through writing, photography, and video, they’ll share the best tricks and tips for experiencing a place authentically and getting off the beaten path.

The central European country of Slovenia may be small but it’s mighty, an extraordinary place filled with mountains, castles, and caves. Somehow, it’s managed to remain relatively unknown in the travel world, though people are finally catching on. While I haven’t visited (yet!), the closest I’ve come is Trieste, a northern Italian city that sits close to its south western border. My brief time there piqued my curiosity about this region in general, and made me want to venture into it further.

Surrounded by Italy, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, and a tiny stretch of the Mediterranean, Slovenia isn’t large, but its landscape is imposing. The topographically diverse terrain is dense with mountains, valleys, lakes, rivers, and forests, which cover three fifths of the entire country. In other words, Slovenia is GREEN. Add in some breathtakingly gorgeous towns and a unique culture that has evolved over centuries, and you’ve got a truly mind-blowing destination to visit. Here are some of Slovenia’s many magical highlights I’m looking forward to exploring:

The Great Outdoors

With more than 4350 miles of marked hiking trails and plenty of natural wonders, Slovenia is the perfect European escape for those who love the outdoors. Hikers, climbers, skiers, and snowboarders often head north, where awe-inspiring mountain ranges stand ready to challenge them. To the west, the Soča Valley—with its intensely blue river—offers a playground for rafting, swimming, canyoning, biking, hiking, and more.

While the country has numerous gorges worth exploring, the most famous is the Vintgar, a one-mile chasm carved into the Hom and Boršt hills. The Radovna River snakes through it, forming rapids, pools, and waterfalls between the walls of rock.

A boardwalk along a river in a gorgeImage: Shutterstock

Slovenia is also famous for its Karst region; this is a landscape characterized by limestone that’s partially eroded over time and created caves, steep rocky cliffs, sinkholes, and underground streams. The Škocjan Caves are one such example of this phenomenon, and are so remarkable they’ve been added to UNESCO’s list of natural and cultural world heritage sites.

The dramatically lit interior of a large caveImage: Shutterstock

Food From The Land

To know Slovenia’s food is to know the landscape. Milk from alpine-grazed cows, goats, and sheep becomes cheese; wildflowers and other flora provide for the Carniolan honey bees, which in turn provide bakers with honey; and fruit and vegetables are harvested from the wild as well as from farms.

Goats graze in the alpine of Slovenia

Slovenians even take advantage of the Karst’s dry winds to cure meats like Kraška panceta (pork belly) and zašinek (pork shoulder). The country’s small stretch of coastline also provides fresh fish, calamari, and mussels.

A woman's hands grabbing mussels from a bowlImage: Shutterstock

While Slovenia’s štruklji (rolled dumplings), trout, cheeses, olive oil, bread, and other traditional foods sound trip-worthy on their own, I am (as always) enamoured with their desserts. Take prekmurska gibanica, for example, a type of layered strudel cake. With eight layers of fillings made from poppyseeds, apples, cheese, walnuts, and pastry, it sounds 1) hideously labor intensive and 2) insanely delicious.

A specialty layered cake with dark and light layers on a plateImage: Shutterstock

It won’t only be traditional foods you’re eating, however; many Slovenian chefs are leaders in today’s international culinary scene. Ana Roš, for example, was named the greatest talent of 2015 by the Jeunes Restaurateurs d'Europe association, was the only woman amongst the famous Cook it Raw chefs, and appeared on the Netflix show Chef’s Table (as one of only six chefs featured). Her restaurant in the Soča Valley is one more reason to add this area to your list.

Of course, we can’t forget wine! The vineyards of Slovenia are located at the heart of the European wine-growing belt, and its three growing regions produce no less than 52 different varieties. Try a Zelen, a native Slovenian variety that grows in the beautiful Vipava Valley, or—if you can find one of the sought-after bottles—“Black Velvet,” which is produced from the world’s oldest surviving vine.

Red grapes hang in a vineyard on a clear dayImage: Shutterstock

The Prettiest of Towns

Slovenia’s villages and towns are just as impressive as the landscape, namely because they marry the urban and rural so well. Bled, for example, is famous for the gorgeous alpine lake upon which it sits, and—even more specifically—for the small island at its center.

A view of a lake with a small island at its centreImage: Shutterstock

Clustered together on this tiny, leafy bit of land are a church, small museum, cafe, and the Provost’s House. The island is reached by pletna—a type of gondola—and it’s tradition for a husband to carry his new bride up the 99 steps (built in 1655) that rise from the water’s edge towards the church.

A small island in a lake with a church, small, buildings, and trees on itImage: Shutterstock

Ljubljana, the country’s capital, is also a splendor. Surrounded by parks and protected green areas, this colorful town hugs the river and is filled with art, eclectic architecture, markets, and impressive bridges (one of which is protected by dragons—you'll have to see for yourself whether they're real or not). 

A view of a European town next to a riverImage: Shutterstock

Of all the places in Slovenia, however, I’m most excited to visit Piran. Known as the ‘Town of Salt,’ it perches majestically on the Gulf of Trieste and has been around since ancient times (its name derives from the Greek word ‘pyr,’ meaning fire). Multiple empires have occupied it since, but a great number of its fortifications, walls, and handsome buildings were erected by the Venetians during their five century occupation. Since there are few things I love more than salt and old architecture, Piran might be my mecca.

A coastal Slovenian town with red roofs

You Won't See These Anywhere Else...

There are a number of unique places in Slovenia that fascinate me, Predjama Castle and Postojna Cave being two of them. Postojna is the most visited cave in all of Europe (the railway inside has been operating for 140 years), as well as the most biologically diverse cave in the world. It's home to a rare salamander that's sometimes referred to as the ‘baby dragon’; we're clearly developing a bit of a dragon theme here, and I like it. 

The interior of a cave with stalactites hanging downImage: Shutterstock

Close to Postojna is Predjama, the largest cave castle in the world and—at 800 years old—something that appears to have been built in service of a fairy tale.

A castle built into the side of a mountainImage: Shutterstock

Other intriguing things to do/see in Slovenia include the Škofja Loka Passion Play, a production so ambitious that it’s only put on every six years. Complete with elaborate sets and costumes, the more than 900-person ensemble performs Slovenia’s oldest play in the medieval town center of Škofja Loka. The next performance is set for 2021—mark your calendars!

Actors portraying a scene from an old Slovenian playImage: Shutterstock

Finally, if you’re really into horses, an equestrian ‘holy grail’ can be found in Slovenia: the Lipizzaner stud farm in Lipica, which has been breeding a famously elegant breed of white horse since 1580. Go on a carriage ride around the Karst, or even ride a Lipizzaner yourself.

A group of white horses trottingImage: Shutterstock

Really, Slovenia has so much to offer, you might just find yourself planning a second trip there before you've even gone on your first. I know I sure am...

 

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