It may be a mere speck on the map of Europe but Slovenia – and particularly its capital Ljubljana – is increasingly on the radar of adventurous travellers, travel editor Winsor Dobbin reports.
Slovenia, often described as the sleeping beauty of Europe, is one of the hottest European destinations in 2014 and its capital of Ljubljana is a beautiful old city that, unlike Budapest and Prague, is not yet over-run by tourists.
Bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia is the tiniest and most affluent of the former Yugoslav republics and one of those rare places where you can be body surfing in the morning and scaling alpine peaks in the afternoon. It is dubbed the country where the Alps meet the Mediterranean.
For a great base check out the Vander Urbani Resort, with ultra-cool rooms and public areas in the heart of old town Ljubljana, where many of the buildings date back several centuries.
The Vander Urbani comprises just 16 rooms in four renovated old houses just under Castle Hill on the banks of the River Ljubljanica in a pedestrian-only district dotted with eateries. The hotel entrance is tucked away down a quiet laneway.
There’s a 35-seater bar/restaurant serving breakfast, set lunches and a la carte dinners, featuring traditional Slovenian specialities like slovenski struklji, dumplings with asparagus, cottage cheese, chives and wild garlic. The lower level wine cellar (guests are welcome to walk in and make their selection) features some intriguing wines from Slovenia (more than 170 labels) and bottles from France, Italy, New Zealand and the US.
The eco-friendly hotel, which has been open less than two years and was the first Design Hotel in Slovenia, also offers a tasting menu of Slovenian wines with local snacks, which can be enjoyed in the restaurant, or al fresco in the lane.
The rooms are in five different categories, ranging from 16-35 square metres (and cost from between €120-280 per night). Most can be configured as twins or doubles and all feature safes with laptop chargers, TVs with over 200 channels (including a couple of porn offerings, so those with children beware).
Minibars, Molton Brown bathroom amenities and designer furniture are standard. The best rooms overlook the river and there are plans for 10 more to be added.
On the top floor you’ll find a ‘Chill Out’ zone with a unique glass yoga box, and a tiny infinity swimming pool which overlooks the Ljubljanica River.
The staff here are young and funky but with a “can do” attitude and the fact the old city is pedestrian only means the area is quiet.
Any visitor will want to spend a day or two in the capital, an old city full of vibrant young people (the average age is just 30). With just 280,000 city residents, it is an easy city to get around on foot or by using local buses – and the old city is mercifully quiet with all motor vehicles banned.
The Ljubljana Castle, with elements dating back to the 12th and 15th centuries, towers over the city and is most easily reached via a funicular railway. It offers spectacular views for those willing to climb a few stairs to the belvedere tower.
The National Museum of Slovenia was founded in 1821 and is also worth a visit, but Ljubljana, with its mix of Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture, is a city that rewards the casual stroller.
Walk along the Ljubanica river and admire local arts and crafts. Visit the outdoor and indoor parts of the central market to buy some local treats, or for the less actively inclined, pick up a boat at the Breg Riverbank in the city and enjoy a relaxing river cruise past many of the city’s major sites (make sure to see the Dragon Bridge and the Triple bridges).
You will eat heartily in Ljubljana; locals are fond of sausages and schnitzels and other warming dishes, while breads, cakes, soups and dumplings all play major roles on local menus. Try the historic restaurant Spajza for dishes including an appetiser of cheek of young colt (maybe not for everyone but horse is a staple in Slovenia); smoked trout with horseradish terrine and veal medallions with local mushrooms (another staple).
Other good addresses for wine lovers include the Vinoteka Movia wine bar and the Dvorni, both ideal places to sample a range of local bottles, while other good eating options include TODZ Cafe, Compa, AS Aperitivno, JB, Taverna Tatjana and the touristy but very welcoming Julija.
Ljubljana is within a few hours drive of major cities including Venice, Munich, Vienna and Zagreb, making it an ideal side trip, while the countryside ranges from snow-capped peaks to wild green-blue rivers, with a short coastline on the Adriatic sea.
Just a 30-minute drive outside the capital, and a short drive from the charming old town of Kamnik, is the unique recreation area known as Velika Planina, the perfect destination for walkers, hikers and mountain bikers.
This mountain plateau in the heart of the Kamnik Alps is not easy to reach – but is worth the effort. First you take a cable car to the base station and then walk a steep path for around an hour to the green pastures, where local shepherds graze their dairy cattle in summer but which are covered with snow in the winter months.
There used to be a double-seat open cable-car to the top, but it is out of action while locals debate whether to repair or replace it. So a walk is your only option – and at the summit you’ll find a herdsmen’s settlement.
The shepherds still lead a simple life up in the clean high-altitude air and some of them still wear traditional costumes and hand-craft the traditional local Trnic hard cheese, made using wooden stamps to give each cheese a unique pattern.
The settlement is one of only a few remaining in Europe, and is known for its distinct architecture with low-slung roofs covered with pine shingles. There is a small but fascinating museum which re-creates the traditional way of life of the hardy souls who live and work here.
After working up an appetite, head for the Zeleni Rob lodge and try some local specialities, including sour milk and hard-boiled corn mush sprinkled with pork fat (a dish called zganci), a cabbage soup known as jota and a barley broth called ricet. Make sure to save room for the local dessert speciality struklji (cheese dumplings) with fresh berries.
For the brave, or foolhardy, the plateau is also a starting point for the hikes onto the higher summits in the Kamnik Alps and is popular with cross-country skiers in winter.
On the way back to Ljubljana there are several gorges, waterfalls and springs and the town of Kamnik, with its Romanesque double chapel of St Eligius is worth a stop, particularly if the regular market selling organic produce is in full swing.
Make sure to stop into the gorgeous old inn, Gostilna Repnik, with its carriage horses and beautiful gardens to try local dishes like the delicious caramel–veal tripe dumplings.
Other day trip possibilities include the town of Lipice, home of the famous white Lippizaner horses for over 400 years, the dramatic alpine resort of Bled with its famous lake with an island (pay attention if driving as Bled is poorly signposted) and the massive stalactites and stalagmites in the Postojna caves where the ancient graffiti indicates that the first visitors arrived in 1213.
The lively coastal town of Piran, the beautiful Soča River valley and three distinct wine producing regions are also worthy of note, and all within easy driving distance of Ljubljana.
Words: Winsor Dobbin
● The Plaza Hotel is a good budget option situated adjacent to one of Ljubljana’s main shopping complexes around four kilometres out of the city centre but with free parking. Rooms start from around €70 per night. Bratislavska cesta 8, 1000 Ljubljana. +386 1 243 0000. www.plazahotel.si.
● Rent-a-car at Sixt next to Ljubljana’s main train and bus stations. Rentals start at €35 a day. www.sixt.si.
● Emirates flies from Australia to Dubai 84 times per week, with daily onward connections to 35 European destinations. Emirates provides 30kg of checked luggage per passenger in economy class and 40kg in business class. 1300 303 777 or www.emirates.com/au