A journey into pure nature
Many, many, years ago Slovene Poet France Preseren described Bled as a “second Eden, filled with charm and grace.” Sitting at the bay window in Hotel Toplice eating (wolfing) kremna rezina, the traditional Bled cream cake, I can understand why as I’m privy to one of the best views of Lake Bled.
This lake, high in the Julian Alps is particularly beautiful in the evenings as the sun sets over the twinkling water. From the window I watch couples with picnic baskets rowing across the lake to the 15th century Church of the Assumption. They are joined by other tourists taking the public gondola across, both groups eager to visit the belfry to have go ringing the wishing bell. They say all you need to do is ring once and believe.
Walking around the lake – it’s 5km in total – the setting is postcard pretty. Perched on the edge of the Triglav National Park the towering peaks of Mount Stol and Mount Triglav sit behind the medieval Bled Castle. The alpine-fresh smell is intoxicating.
At the turn of the 20th century, Bled was famed as one of the most beautiful health spas in the then Austrian Empire. The water has a unique mineral composition which supposedly could alleviate any illness.
Post-walk, I visit the spa facilities at the Hotel Golf, a short walk from and part of the same chain as the Hotel Park which I’m staying at.
Sitting in the lake-view (it’s all about the lake!) whirlpool, I find my troubles ease away. With all my worries willed away, I’m prepared for my first taste of Slovene food. My advice is to always come to a Slovene table with a hefty appetite. Dinner will be remembered for my first taste of octopus carpaccio and Williams, a strong-tasting pear schnapps. Local honey schnapps are a more palatable alternative.
Travelling deep into the heart of the Bohinj region the meadows teem with wild flowers stretching from the valleys to the mountain peaks.
We pass the 700-year-old St. John the Baptist church and stop to admire the most recognisable sight in the area – Lake Bohinj. As the water laps the unspoiled shoreline, trout scurry and live in harmony with a duck family who are keen to see if we have any bread to offer. Never before had I witnessed such a sense of calm than at this natural pearl.
High above the lake lies Slap Savica. Slap is the Slovene word for waterfall and this one is aptly named ‘the source of life’. After a 20-minute hike winding through a forest so green it’s as if you’re looking at it through a lens on Instagram, the pine trees part and you finally hear the roar of the waterfall. Standing 78m tall and in the formation of an A, the sound of the white foamy water cascading down the limestone is incredible.
From the view point there is a small rocky path where all that protects you from the source is a wrought iron gate. Moving towards that gate I feel the spray on my face and I can’t help thinking: ‘this is pure nature’. Back in the valley we pause for lunch at Gotilna Danica where we try traditional Bohinj dishes: Bohinj cheese, which is Emmental cheese with large holes; zaseka with sausage; corn zganci with crackling and sour or sweet milk.
We dine al-fresco gazing out to green fields and traditional hayracks. Our guide explains how the local farmers take an immense amount of pride in their hayracks. That evening we bed down in Bovec, for a more scenic route, we journey between the mountains travelling from Bohinjska to Most Na Soci by train. There is something about hanging out a train window and waving at people in their houses that you pass by that makes you feel alive.
On what seemed like another generic road, we round a bend and are presented with an incredible turquoise green river. As clichéd as it sounds, the colour was breathtaking. For such a small country Slovenia just keeps on giving.
That evening Martin and Silva welcomed us to their restaurant, Martinov Hram, in the centre of Bovec, where they serve local food and wine all produced within a 10km radius.
If you ever find yourself hankering after over-priced fancy food come here for a reality check. The food is simple (zganci – potato, cheese, bacon and polenta dish) but done exceptionally well (tender lamb cooked just right).
Peering out the window of Hotel Mangart, the Julian Alps are shrouded in mist and the biblical rain is approaching – better call Noah to see where the ark is!
Bovec is a haven for any outdoor adventure seeker. The region offers kayaking, mountain biking, zip line and caving.
As it turns out, this weather is ideal for rafting down the river Soca. We’re left in the trusty hands of Betty, our guide from Sportsmix to take on the 13km adrenalin journey down the Soca.
Sadly, when I saw the swell of the river and rapids, my nerves got the better of me and I couldn’t bring myself to raft, despite the guide promising me she’d keep me safe.
What I did get to experience was the raft coming out of the mist like a ghost ship. After learning there had been no fatalities and no-one went overboard, I promised Betty I’d return in better weather to raft.
A short drive along the Soca we stopped for lunch at a hotel farm. Nestled in the Trenta Valley and set against the backdrop of towering mountains, Pristava Lepena offers accommodation in rustic cabins hidden among boulders.
Lunch is served in an on-site restaurant. I opt for the smoked trout for starter and wild boar for main course. As with most Slovene cooking, the food is simple but delicious. Milan, the owner, treats us to a traditional dessert, Perkmurska with sweetened cottage cheese.
Slovenia is famed for ski resorts. I never have nor do I have the desire to go skiing yet, oddly, I’ve always wanted to experience après-ski. Luckily Slovenia was able to make that dream come true. We travel 1300m above sea level to visit Alpska Perla and sample some alpine schnapps at the Cerkno Ski Centre.
Driving back to our accommodation for the night at Hotel Cerkno, the sister to the ski resort located in the centre of Cerkno, we stop at Franja Partisan hospital.
During World War II, Cerkno was an important partisan base. Hidden in the Pasice Gorge are a dozen wooden cabins all of which had a special function during the war. Our guide explains how the injured were blindfolded and then taken up the river to be treated. Despite the beautiful scenery, it’s hard not to feel a sense of discomfort knowing that not even 100 years ago local people were risking their lives to save others.
The most visited attraction in Slovenia are the 24km long Postojna Caves. The caves are located in an area where much of the beauty lies beneath the surface – nearly every square kilometre hides caves and rock formations.
I knew to prepare myself for something special. Yet, nothing could have primed me for the sheer size and beauty of the caves. There was something magical and other worldly about them, it was the highlight of my trip.
Only 5km of the caves passages are open to visitors and are accessed by a train which takes you 2km into the caves. Our guide took us on the 1km circular walk through the various passages, galleries and halls. The highlight for me was the White Room – a cave solely filled with limestone rock. When I passed through, rain water had dripped over the entire surface giving it an ethereal feeling.
Back above ground, the entrance price to the caves also grants you access to the picturesque Predjama Castle which has been perched in the middle of a vertical 123m high cliff for more than 700 years. Its romantic appeal is further emphasised by the idyllic River Lokva, which disappears into the underground world deep down below the castle. Walking up the stairs in the castle, you come to a small bridge and at the end, a door where you can’t see beyond, once you walk through the door an entire cave expands in front of you – you are literally walking into the cave, it’s the stuff of fairytales.
Not far from the Croatian border and more than 1000m above sea level, sits the small village of Gornje Poljane. Among its four houses you will find Turizem Jure.
We visit for lunch and it was like returning home to see your family. Jure had shot of his homemade liquor waiting for us. I tried a peach and one similar to Jäger and my, they were very strong.
Jure then treated us to a four course, which by now is standard in Slovenia, in his bright and airy conservatory. Thankfully, no course consisted of field mice – he catches up to 5,000 a year and then skins them to make clothes and uses the flesh, well, in stew. There is something about eating a mouse that doesn’t sit right with me.
High into the forest, the Loz tourist centre and local hunters offer bear watching. Under the steady gaze (and gun!) of one of the hunters, they lead you through the forest to a viewpoint hidden in the trees and you can settle in with the hope of spotting a brown bear. Sadly, when we visited, the bears didn’t want to come and play, so we had to contend with seeing some paw prints. Despite being on the verge of tears when it came to rafting down a river, somehow I have no problem walking through a bear-filled forest.
We spent our final evening in the lap of luxury (they have massage chairs in the rooms) in Hotel Union in Ljubljana. We arrive just in time to take a stroll into town and visit one of the many bars that line the Sava river. A glass of Slovene red and a river-side seat was the ample moment to reminisce over the past few days.
I knew nothing about Slovenia before I visited and when my WIZZ Air flight landed into Ljubljana airport I didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a small country, but one brimming with charm. From the jaw-dropping scenery to Alpine-fresh smell, and not forgetting the warm hospitality – I can’t wait to go back.