Home to America’s First Lady, Melania Trump, Slovenia is one of Europe’s smallest countries, with a population about the same as West Yorkshire. Formed in 1991, it is also one of Europe’s youngest.
Small it may be but this little country has three distinct climates. The south is very Mediterranean, the central area is more Central European whilst the north is mountainous and dominated by the Julian Alps.
It provides striking contrasts for visitors and offers everything from beach holidays to cycling and mountain trekking in summer, spectacular skiing in winter.
I left my car at Gatwick in the capable hands of I Love Meet and Greet and flew to Venice, then followed the Mediterranean coastline across the border to the classy boutique coastal resort of Portoroz or Port of Roses, so named because of the many rose bushes that line the coast road. It is one of the few seaside resorts in a country that has just 29 miles of coastline.
Portoroz has the feel of the French or Italian Riviera about it with elegant small hotels, cafes and restaurants lining the shore for two or three miles. It’s a delightful, relaxed and classy town much favoured by the locals as well as Italians from across the border.
A few miles further along the small coastline I came across Piran, a picturesque Italian-style medieval town with a wide town square and small harbour, overlooked by a dramatic hilltop cathedral. The town square is home to a statue of Giuseppe Tartini, violinist and composer, who was born close by. Piran is also a small fishing port so there are fishing boats in the harbour rather than luxury yachts, although I did get a coastal tour from one of the fishermen who seem happy to show guests the coastline from the sea.
European Green Capital
After a delicious lunch with a strong Mediterranean influence I headed north to the capital, Ljubljana, which sits astride the Ljubljanica River. Its banks are lined with lively restaurants and bars and it was voted European Green Capital 2016. I enjoyed walking around this compact city but if you get tired, weary travellers can hitch a free ride on one of the green-coloured electric buggies called Kavalirs.
The city is dominated by a medieval castle, reached by a funicular railway. The interior has been updated in a more modern style which somehow doesn’t match the exterior. It’s more B&Q than Baroque.
However, I enjoyed dinner in one of its towers, now a restaurant, with stunning views across the city and beyond from the lofty perch.
After a long day’s travelling I finally reached the popular resort town of Bled. My spacious balcony room at the Hotel Park overlooked a castle and picturesque lake. It’s popular with oarsmen as well as swimmers as the water temperature rises to 24 degrees in summer; it also contains Slovenia’s only island. The four mile shoreline is ideal for walkers and cyclists, offering great views of the lake, castle and surrounding mountains. Bicycle hire is readily available in Bled, indeed in all the tourist areas, so there’s no need to take one with you.
Sitting in the middle of the lake is the country’s only island with its 17th century church, reached by climbing ninety-nine steps. It’s unique and romantic setting is popular with couples getting married and legend has it that if they want a happy marriage the groom has to carry his bride up those steps. Rather him than me!
Inside the church is a long rope which, if pulled hard, rings the church bell. Another legend has it that if you make a wish when the bell rings, your wish will come true, however I’m still waiting for that email from the National Lottery.
Slovenia is very much an outdoor destination so next morning I headed off to the Vintgar Gorge and walked along the wooden pathway that clings to the rocks, admiring the stunning scenery and fast flowing water. Later I sailed in an eco-inspired electric boat on Lake Bohinj and after took the cable car to the top of the Vogel Ski Centre to get a stunning bird’s eye view of the lake and surrounding mountains, their peaks poking through the clouds.
The Julian Alps forms the backbone and high point of Slovenia and is home to the huge Triglav National Park. A challenging roadway crosses the Alps with 49 hairpin bends, each one signposted with its number and height. It offers magnificent views of the towering mountains and great valleys. It’s popular with motor-cyclists and cyclists and the park provides spectacular walking trails with numerous lodges and cabins. Maps are readily available and our guide told me that no guest is ever refused lodging, even if it means making up bed on the floor.
The mountain road was built in 1915-16 by Russian prisoners of war. In March 1916 an avalanche fell on one of the workers’ camps, killing around 400 of them. In honour of their comrades, other Russian prisoners built a lovely Russian Orthodox Chapel on the site of the camp. In July 2006 the road was renamed Ruska cesta “Russian road” and whilst I was there the Chapel was visited by Vladimir Putin.
In winter the Alps provide a number of ski resorts and I visited the ski jump centre which includes the world’s highest jump. Standing at the top of the jump where skiers launch themselves down the steep incline, and staring at the miniature buildings far below, I wondered why they did it. As it was summer, people were zip-lining down the near-vertical drop – I’m not sure which descent was the more frightening.
Throughout our visit the hospitality, food and wine were excellent, whether in castles or village restaurants, and our visit came to an end with dinner on a terrace beside Lake Bled, the lovely views proving once again what a scenic destination this is. Next morning I said good-bye to Slovenia as I headed across the mountains to Salzburg and my flight home.
Thomson Lakes & Mountains www.tui.co.uk/holidays/lakes-and-mountains; 020 8939 0740 offers a week’s stay at the four-star Hotel Park in Bled from £650 per person (based on two sharing) including flights from Gatwick and transfers departing in July. Direct flights available from all major UK airports.
Thomson also offers the city of Salzburg as an add-on to a week’s holiday.
I Love Meet & Greet www.ilovemeetandgreet.co.uk, 01293 577988 offers valet parking at Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted with prices from £60 a week, dependent upon the season.