Last year my husband Bryan and I were kicking around trip ideas. TripTuner had not launched yet, so we weren’t lucky enough to be able to fine tune a range of personalized options for our summer vacation. We had to do the research ourselves. I wanted Italy for the fantastic food and romantic scenery, but felt like that would have been too easy since I’ve been a few times already. Bryan was leaning towards an active trip with mountains and outdoor adventure. We found all of that and more when we stumbled across the tiny country of Slovenia. It’s capital Ljubljana is this week’s #WhereToGoWednesday destination.
With a population of only two million, Slovenia is an unknown travel spot to many American vacationers. Sandwiched between Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia, the tiny country — which is part of the E.U. — is about the size of New Jersey (but all similarities end there). Slovenia offers towering alps, Italianate wine country, Adriatic coastline, and abundant outdoor adventures all within a few hours’ drive.
Logistically, the country is easy to get to and travel around. We arrived on the national airline, Adria Airways, just a short flight from Zurich. Renting a car was the way to go, as the highways are excellent, it offered us great freedom, and the price was right. We could even use our iPhones to navigate.
If your idea of a great vacation includes miles of hiking trails, back-country huts, mountain biking, rafting, spelunking, or canyoning, Slovenia is just your place. If you’d also like gourmet meals, surprisingly good wine, and wandering cobblestone streets, then Slovenia works as well. Here are a few highlights from our trip (please feel free to add your own tips and experiences to our comments section below):
Trekking the Julian Alps
Stark and menacing compared to the soft green foothills at its base, the craggy limestone peaks of the Julian Alps straddle part of the border between Italy and Slovenia. Dominated by 9,300-foot Mount Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak, much of the Julian Alps lie within Triglav National Park. With miles of hiking trails and an established back-country hut-to-hut camping system, the park was one of our first destinations. We drove the scenic winding road over the pass and stopped for an alpine hike along the way. We took our trip in late June, a fantastic time to travel the country. School is not out yet, so there are no crowds, but the weather is warm enough to enjoy a wide array of activities. We only saw one other couple, Austrians who had crossed over for the day, on our two-hour hike.
Soakin’ up the Soca River Valley
The clear, turquoise-to-emerald waters of the Soca River emerge from a limestone cave on the southern side of the Julian alps. Fed by an underwater lake, the Soca is reported to be one of the cleanest rivers in Europe (though I’m sure that will prompt a few emails from our friends in Switzerland). Running through a valley surrounded by towering evergreens and dotted with picturesque Italianate villages, the Soca is a Mecca for paddlers. When were there, kayak teams from all over Europe were practicing for a championship to be held a few days later. We opted to raft the gorgeous section of class III-IV rapids with one of the many commercial rafting companies located in Bovec and Korbarid. The same companies offer canyoning adventures, where we descended down the smooth walls of some of the Soca’s feeder rivers, as well as mountain-bike rentals, allowing us to explore the miles of singletrack located in the valley. We stayed at the boutique Hotel Hisa Franko, located in on old farm house just a few miles from the Italian border, where we enjoyed gourmet locavore dishes like wild rabbit and black cod with more than one bottle of outstanding Slovenian wine.
Slovenia- The Other Tuscany
Part of the lure of Slovenia, in addition to its accessible size and varied landscapes, is the influence of the countries on its borders. Drive through the northern part of the country and the houses and landscape resemble that of Austria. Head down the country’s western border and you find yourself amid rolling vineyard-covered hills and red roofed villages that were once part of Italy. It’s hard to distinguish between Italy’s Friuli region and Slovenian’s Goriska Brda. We toured the Renaissance-style Dobrovo Castle, built in 1606, sampled local wines at the castle’s vinteka, and ate a delightful Mediterranean lunch in the picturesque 17th century fortified village of Smartno.
Although Croatia and Italy are more famous for their coastlines, Slovenia’s 30 miles of Adriatic coast offers echoes of the centuries of Venetian rule in the area. We wandered the cobblestone streets of picturesque Piran, swam in the Adriatic, and enjoyed feasts of fresh seafood. My favorite dish was the flavorful gnocci with cheese and shrimp at the aptly named Neptun.
You wanna Ljubljana?
The only thing difficult about visiting the capital of the nation is figuring out how to say its name. Pronounced “L’ub, bl’ana”, the vibrant city is a cultural hub with Yugoslav, Hungarian, Austrian, and Italian influences. While we enjoyed taking in the views from the city’s medieval castle and touring some of the most important architectural sites, we most relished drinking pints in animated outdoor cafes along the river and cheering with throngs of students while watching the national soccer team play on television. Our hip and historic Hotel Antiq was originally built in the 16th century as a palatial residence for nobility. Right in the center of Old Town, it was within walking distance of everything.
Recalling our trip has me realizing once again what a diverse, interesting, and accessible place Slovenia is. Want to find your own unique destination and make your own special memories? Just #tuneit.