Slovenia always loomed large on our “must-do list” for Europe, even before we got to this enormous and endlessly varying continent. We’d been given the tip from two close friends (Adam and Steve), both of whom stated that Slovenia was one of – if not their most – favourite places in Europe. Tucked away south of Austria and east of Italy, as a component of the former Yugoslavia it flies completely underneath the radar of most Australians when they think of Europe. Armed with our tips we were ready to be wowed, but even so we were unprepared for just how much we would love this little country!
Our first taste of Slovenia occurred during our hard slog south to Plitvice Lakes. In one day we traversed half the country, from the far north east to the central south, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that we were delighted anew at almost every turn! The landscape was bucolic, rustic and charming, and even the larger towns were pleasant and welcoming (very unlike Italy, which defied our expectations in the most disappointing way). There were a couple of fleeting moments of urban unsightliness, but they were quickly followed with more rolling hills, roadside chapels and smile-inducing vistas. We departed Slovenia for Croatia that day a little saddened, but comforted by the knowledge that we would return there very soon.
After Plitvice Lakes we headed straight to Slovenia, aiming in particular to Bled in the northeastern corner of the country. We’d been pointed to this destination by specific recommendation, one which was supported by a completely random meeting near Plitvice. While buying groceries at the only supermarket in the area, we got chatting with an Australian couple who lived in Germany with their kids. They were on summer holidays and had recently come from Bled, and they said it was so nice there they wished they could have spent their entire holidays there, as they believed it was the most beautiful place in Europe! That was great news to us, as we had already booked a campsite right by the famous Bled Lake to ensure we had the best possible chance to enjoy it.
After a couple of nights at the very relaxing Camp Smlednik (with a surprising riverside nudist section for those so inclined), just north of Ljubljana, we headed for Bled and couldn’t believe how spectacular it is. Or how perfect our campsite was, just metres from the edge of the lake with a public beach/park right out front where you can take in the view. We’d already planned five nights there but in the end stayed for six – and we would have stayed longer if we’d had the time to do so!
With our perfect base to stay at, enjoying Bled and its surrounds was easy and I can’t emphasise highly enough how special that town is. On our first full day we walked around the lake, viewing its tiny island in the middle and the castle on the hill from all angles. After a coffee in town we carried on to Bled Castle, a beautifully restored site on a promontory overlooking the lake and surrounding valleys. The lure of the castle’s restaurant proved too strong to resist, and we settled down for what will remain one of my most memorable meals in Europe. The food was great: lamb carpaccio with truffle slices and parmesan and rocket, followed by veal in mushroom sauce with truffled polenta, then some of the local cream cake, but it was the setting that seduced even more. With its eyrie viewpoint we could see down the valley towards to Ljubljana in one direction, and to the peaks of the Slovenia Alps (the Julian Alps) in another. Below us the lake was spread open like a flower, the tiny island backed by our campsite snugly in the distance. It was a moment to savour, even more so as the weather was stunning that day and never regained the perfection we felt at that time….
On other days we walked the narrow and twisting Vintgar Gorge nearby, and spent plenty of time basking on the beachfront in front of our campsite. We intended to spend a day hiking in the Julian Alps but the weather took over, with rare rain and wind confining us to quarters for a day or two. We did have enough time to fit in a rewarding short trip to nearby Lake Bohinj, which is another popular tourist site, and with more time we would surely have stayed there too. Suffice it to say that if you want superlative natural beauty in an easy to enjoy setting, the area around Bled in Slovenia is pretty hard to beat!
When the weather relented we escaped back to Camp Smlednik, and used that as a base to explore the pretty capital for an afternoon. Walking through town, having lunch by the river (a sensational seafood restaurant noted by Lonely Planet), then up to the castle on the hill, a coffee by another part of the river, then back to camp. Ljubljana is a pretty capital and entirely doable in an afternoon – if you want to enjoy the food and wine then you can definitely stay longer :-)
On our final day we headed south-west to Italy, mistakenly assuming that it would be as enticing as Slovenia. That false assumption was even more cruelly underlined by the amazing wine region we passed through as we trickled over the border to Italy. Near the remote border crossing of Gorjansko, the roads were tightly lined with curving hand-built yellow stone walls supporting carefully tended vineyards, some with fine trellising for even more care (and beauty). We both thought at the time “this is how Italy must look!” and marked that fabulous Slovenian region we were passing through as somewhere for future interest. If only we’d known, we’d have stopped right away and forsaken Italy entirely!!