I feel sLOVEnia, or how this little gem caught me completely by surprise

Come with me to Ljubljana and Bled, as I take you on a meandering journey, painting beautiful pictures with my words…and some curated real photos for when the words make no sense. Hopefully I’ll impart some of my enthusiasm for this little treasure of a country and maybe you’ll be inspired enough to check it out for yourself. Read on below…

Read time: due to the madness of Georgia (read about it in a future post), followed by the madness of helping set up a wedding, followed by the madness of harvest 2017, along with essential trips to the pub to squeeze in, I’ve had no time for updates recently! But I’ve finally got this posted and it’s another meaty one today, as I can’t share enough love for this fantastic little country. So, grab yourself a nice flat white, maybe a cookie to go with it…hell, even a tea if you’re so inclined, and get stuck in.

Travel to Slovenia
It may be cheesy but it’s also cute and so true

I feel Slovenia is the country’s universal tourism tagline, jumping into your consciousness from the moment you enter the baggage claim and are confronted by the giant green (another common theme) poster above the baggage carrousel. A little bold, a little cheesy maybe, but as I swiftly discovered, well deserved and totally apt, as I quickly began to feel that very same affection. Given the almighty feat it had been to get to Ljubljana in the first place (see my last post here if you’re not aware of that little adventure yet), I felt like it would need to be pretty amazing to justify the effort, and…well, it really was! My only regret is that the travel delays cost me an extra day that I could otherwise have spent further exploring this tiny treasure.

Travel to Ljubljana
The gorgeous Ljubljanica river slicing through the centre of the city

I must admit, to my shame, that I really knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about Slovenia before I went. I simply had a few days to spare, asked for suggestions on where to go, and my favourite human, backed up by several other enthusiastic voices, told me I absolutely had to investigate Slovenia. Coming from my Swiss winter, it was promised that Slovenia was “a little Switzerland”, and I’d now agree with that, but that’s not to say it in any way lives in Switzerland’s shadow – it definitely has its own unique character…and apart from anything else, it’s 1/3 the price of Switzerland and they actually know how to make really good coffee there…what’s not to love?!

Great coffee in Ljubljana
A great start to the day with a delicious coffee at Café Čokl

Following the travel drama, I only had one full day in Ljubljana, then a further morning, before grabbing a bus over to Bled, another spot I’d been recommended, and where I’d have a further 40-odd hours, before shooting back to Ljubljana at night in order catch my flight early the next morning on towards Georgia. So, from the AirBnB room where I was staying on the edge of central Ljubljana, I wandered through the pleasant morning sun into the centre of town, immediately being struck by how beautiful and clean the place is, how well preserved the old streets are, and how much people were smiling everywhere. London, this is not. A little stroll along the river and over one of the bridges, covered with lovers’ padlocks, as has become the craze in recent years, then back up through a market place and I wound up at a tourist office, staring blankly with sleep-deprived eyes at maps and brochures and postcards. Since I had been so spectacularly productive during all my waiting time the previous day (not), I had very little clue of what was worth doing in Ljubljana when you only have one day to play with, so I went and chatted to the lady working there to see what she might recommend. As luck would have it (I’d not yet found a likely looking place for breakfast), there was a “food tour” – walking tour of the city centre exploring Slovenian gastronomy through stops at multiple cafés, restaurants and bars – that started an hour or so later and appeared to be great value, so I signed up there and then.

Ljubljana market travel
One of the squares in Ljubljana which frequently features a bustling food market

I’d managed to find myself a pretty damn good coffee by tour time, so my mood was even better. Upon arriving at the start point, I discovered I was in fact the only person on the tour, so received full VIP treatment – just me and my hostess for the afternoon, Simona, who presented me with a commemorative wooden spoon (and I’m going to damn well carry that spoon with me until I get somewhere I can use it!). Spoon aside, the tour was a fascinating way to walk and be able to quickly see many different cultural sights and gastronomic delights around the city that I’d never have found myself, and to hear from Simona not only about the food but also about the city, the country, the people, life in the city, everything. We covered a whole range of different kinds of Slovenian food, savoury and sweet, as well as a few damn tasty local wines to set it all off nicely. Her friendliness and passion for her country and its cuisine made the tour a real pleasure, more like hanging out with an unusually well-informed friend than just being a tourist. Of the many places we visited, two stood out above the others, the first being a restaurant called (I think!) Druga Violina. The food here was very good, but the unique feature of this place is that the staff (aside from the professional chefs) all have disabilities – mental and/or physical – and work here with their carers or mentors. The restaurant provides them with meaningful work when they may well not be able to find it elsewhere, and it’s not-for-profit, instead ploughing the takings back into the business and into other social welfare projects. And for me possibly the most surprising part was that the city council charges them next to no rent (and they’re not buried in the suburbs somewhere, they’re in a prime location just a couple of minutes from the central square) in order to allow them to further their cause. Several other charitable businesses around the city also are charged minimally to help them succeed and put their hard-earned resources back into the projects that they support, which is pretty awesome.

The other place that I particularly enjoyed was our final stop, known simply as “The Skyscraper” (or “Nebotičnik”). When it was built in 1933, it was the tallest building in the Balkans and ninth tallest in Europe, though its 70-odd metres have now obviously been eclipsed by other, younger pretenders. However, it still stands above most buildings in the centre of Ljubljana, and its roof is home to a very fine café-bar with spectacular views all around the city and to the castle. Sitting in the sunshine and eating local walnut cake and a cocktail while gazing down over the historical streets to the mountains in the distance was a rather lovely way to finish up!

Views from the skyscraper in Ljubljana
The views from Nebotičnik are simply lovely, stretching right to the bear-inhabited mountains

As well as seeing all the local eateries, I also learned a few more things about Slovenia so at least I could leave the place slightly less clueless than when I arrived. For example, Ljubljana was named as European Green Capital of 2016, having made a massive effort to transform the city centre from traffic-choked car park, into a completely car-free pedestrian zone. There are electric carts to take people across the centre if they can’t walk – and they’re free of charge – and the city has an average of 542 square metres of green space per resident, which I find seriously impressive. They also have the highest share of separated waste (63%) collected in Europe, already lying 10% ahead of the EU’s recycling target for 2020. Ljubljana’s apparent weakness in not having a waste incineration plant actually helped push them on their continued drive to become a ‘zero waste society’, preventing, reusing, separating and recycling more than virtually anywhere else. These are figures that appeal to me a lot in themselves, they’re impressive to recount, but it also really shows as you’re walking around, with recycling points everywhere, spotlessly clean and well-maintained streets, perfectly preserved old buildings blending with the new, trees and greenery everywhere you look. Many (maaany) other cities could do with taking a green and clean leaf out of Ljubljana’s book.

Wow Ljubljana travel
It may be cheesy, but it’s apt. I found Ljubljana to be a phenomenal city!

In many ways I didn’t want to leave the next day as there was much more to do had I stayed a little longer. But I’d heard so many beautiful things about the little town of Bled and especially its surrounds that I really wanted to fit it in while I had the chance, so at least I’d have a better idea about more of the country for the next time. So after two magnificent coffees (I only meant to have one, but it was too good not to) in Café Čokl, a coffeeshop Simona had recommended, I walked around the city as much as I could until time and the weather got the better of me and I hopped on the bus to Bled, nestled on the shore of the eponymous lake. I was picked up straight from the bus station by my AirBnb host, who gave me a swift tour on the way to drop my stuff off at the accommodation, just outside the centre. The host headed home and I wandered down into town and got my first view of the stunning lake, completely surrounded by forested hills, with Bled Castle teetering on a hill overlooking the town and the island out at the far end with its perfectly preserved church. Following the obligatory few lakeside photos, I went in search of dinner. After a couple of false starts, I finally discovered Public & Vegan Kitchen, buried in a small shopping arcade just a couple of minutes from the lake shore. It was highly recommended online and was cosy enough for me not to feel too much of a tool going in for dinner on my own (it’s a struggle at the best of times), and I’m so glad I did. Yes, I’m sure I’ll eat meat again at some point, but chowing down on one of the mean vegan burgers in this place really made me think I’m in no hurry to do so. Absolutely delicious, and, with all its nuts and seeds and unique ingredients, so far removed from the generic veggie burger you see in the UK. Exactly what I needed!

So much love for Bled!

The next morning, I grabbed my “real” camera for the first time in far too long – phone cameras are so damn good these days, it’s easy to take the lazy option and not bother with an actual camera in its own right – and headed out for a circuit of Lake Bled. I stopped first in a restaurant on the shore for a bite of breakfast; surly service (I guess I wasn’t looking quite as glamorous as their other guests) and the food was nothing special, but it did the trick and got me energised for the day.  From there I wandered on around the top of the lake and up the steep path to Bled Castle. Slovenia – and Bled in particular – prides itself on its cream slice and so obviously I had to try it, and the café at the castle, looking down over the whole town, lake and island, and the valley beyond, seemed as good a place as any. As I meandered up the path, I enjoyed annoying the other hikers and tourists as I stopped every 12 seconds to take another photo, beginning to rediscover the joy of a fully manual camera and working to get that perfect shot, looking around and around, up and down, for new views and perspectives and shapes and patterns. Much as I do love the camera on my iPhone and am forever snapping pictures of whatever’s around me, and I fully believe in “the best camera is the one you have with you”, it was really enjoyable to have a proper camera to play with again, and to have so much more creative scope and control over the shots.

Bled Castle watching over its domain

When I reached the top of the hill, I was both amused and bemused in equal measure to see there was a road that snaked up the opposite face and a car park at the top full of tour buses. Get off your arses and walk, damn it! You get so much more out of it that way. Aaaaanyhoo, I fought past the crowds of Asian tourists and the blue-rinse brigade and into the castle, grabbing myself the best coffee of the day so far, along with the famous cream slice. And, despite not having much of a sweet tooth, I must say it was pretty delicious. Light, moist (yes, love that word), nicely infused with vanilla, not too sweet…definitely worth sampling if you’re over there. And the views from the castle were absolutely breathtaking. Even on that slightly grey morning, the vivid hues of the forests all around the lake jumped out at me, and the lake itself was a rich deep green-blue colour. So spectacular, in fact, that I didn’t notice a wee bird landing and helping itself to my cream slice, which I’d laid down on the castle wall beside me as I took in the show that Bled was laying on for me.

Coffee and cake with a view. Absolutely stunning, and impressively tasty too!

After stealing back the rest of my snack from old Feathers there, I wound my way back down the hill to the lakeside path and continued my walk. Every few metres, the trees on my left parted to reveal another, slightly different and equally stunning, view across the lake and to the island, with the perfectly restored Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Maria, and the little wooden boats darting back and forth. Incidentally, the island and church are apparently well worth a visit, but my short stay didn’t allow me time to investigate for myself – I guess I’ll have to come back and check it out again! My freshly rediscovered camera took a hammering as I photographed every panorama, every little flower poking through the undergrowth, every dandelion that reminded me of that certain someone, every different way the trees framed the view out across the water.

The island in Lake Bled, with a dandelion, of course!
The Church of the Assumption of Maria, on the island in Lake Bled

As I walked, I felt a strong urge to go for a swim in the lake, but I had no swimming stuff with me, and the proliferation of tourists put me off just stripping down on the side of the path. Instead, when about two thirds of the way around the lake, I discovered a much-less trodden path weaving off to the right and up the hill looking over the lake, so I left the masses behind, pushed branches aside and scrambled over the rocks and up the hill. Despite the tourists, it was still quiet by the lakeside, but just a few minutes’ walking and climbing left me in oasis of total peace and solitude. So I did the logical thing and stripped down to nothing. I might have been thwarted in my desire to go for a swim, but I succeeded in getting back to nature in the end. Both a rush and immensely liberating at the same time, it mostly just felt great to be alone, surrounded by the beauty of the Slovenian forest, and to have shed the stresses of the previous few weeks – along with my clothes. Fear not, I shan’t burn your eyes with the evidence here 😉

Stunning Lake Bled
The incredible spectacle of Lake Bled and the surrounding mountains, from Bled Castle

After making myself decent in the eyes of the clothed masses once again, I meandered a little further and then descended back to the lakeside path to continue my route back round to the town. Not a taxing day by any stretch, but my peace of mind was improving by the minute, and I was feeling completely relaxed after a day in such naturally beautiful and tranquil surroundings. Another trip to the Public & Vegan Kitchen for a glass of wine and their burger of the month – I remember it featuring nettles – rounded out an absolute treat of a day.

A view of Bled Castle through one of the little water taxis which cross the lake each day

I had to check out of my room the next morning…in theory. In reality, the owners told me they had no one else arriving immediately, so graciously allowed me to drop my stuff and keep the keys all day until I was actually to leave Bled in the evening, which made my day a whole lot easier. Based on pretty much everyone’s recommendations, I’d decided to make the 5km-walk out to Vintgar Gorge, a naturally stunning little canyon to the northwest of Bled. The weather was better than the previous day, the sun splitting the pavement as I headed into town for a bite to eat.

This wee village has probably not changed in fifty years – and that’s a great thing!

Convincing myself I’d memorised the route, I walked out of Bled and immediately turned the wrong way. Fifteen minutes later I realised, turned around and walked back to take the correct turn. Only an extra kilometre or so added to the walk, muppet! But the scenery around Bled is all so gorgeous that I really didn’t mind. The road weaved up and down and through beautiful little villages until it crested a hill and dropped into the gorge, and as I got my first glimpse of the crystal waters of the river, my jaw must have nearly hit the floor. The colours were just so vivid and the water so perfectly crystal-clear, it was absolutely stunning, and I wasn’t even in the park yet.

Beautiful Vintgar waters
The perfectly clear waters entering Vintgar Gorge

The valley narrowed at the entrance to the park itself, so I found myself on a narrow path clinging to the near-vertical sides of the gorge, crisscrossing back and forth over the river and round sleepy vivid turquoise pools, racing rapids and plunging waterfalls and under a vaulting historic railway bridge built in 1906. Although heavily populated by tourists, the splendour of the place kept me completely entranced. The gorge was discovered in 1891 and was initially impassable, but it was quickly opened so the already-growing number of tourists could come and see the natural phenomenon for themselves. The section open to tourists is about 1.6km long and regarded as one of the most important sights in Slovenia, for good reason. If you get the chance, you absolutely must pay this place a visit!

The path often clings to the precipice over the crystal waters
Small waterfalls and rapids litter the course of the river

I was on a fairly tight schedule so I had to turn around and make the journey back to Bled in time for my bus, but still I pushed it, stopping every few paces, sliding down rocks and teetering over the water to get a last few shots of the spectacle. I made the trip back to Bled at a swifter pace than my way out, as I was determined to climb the hill on the near side of the lake before the sun went down, sure that I’d be treated to a spectacular final view. The section I climbed is called Straža, and is a small ski slope in the winter, and has a kind of monorail-luge run that opens when the weather is better. I had hoped to make it in time for a quick descent on the luge before it closed, but alas I was too late. Nonetheless, the view was, if anything, even better than I’d hoped for, framed by the trees on either side of the slope, and high enough to reveal the whole valley stretching out behind the town of Bled, all the way to the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Not only that, but after a little wander in the opposite direction through the trees, I stumbled across another view down the opposite side of my little mountain, straight down to the island and church, lit up in gold by the waning sun. A very fitting way to end my all-too brief adventure in that tiny wonderland.

Bled at sundown
The island in Lake Bled as seen from above, just before sunset
Bled from above
Bled from the top of the Straža ski slope. You couldn’t create a better view

I scampered back to the accommodation, grabbed my stuff and raced to the bus station…only for the bus not to turn up! The number of people waiting grew and grew, and when finally the next bus arrived, it was a stampede to get seats or be left behind. Despite my giant suitcase needing to be stored in the belly luggage compartment, I managed to squeeze on and we were away. I ended up chatting to the young lad sitting next to me, who spoke embarrassingly perfect English, and who chatted openly about Slovenia and life with the same verve and appreciation as Simona had done back in Ljubljana. Clearly, the country has a similar effect on its own citizens as it was having on me!

More by luck than good judgement, it turned out that the hotel (Hotel Nox) I’d booked in Ljubljana was on the very road the bus drove in on, perfect for me hauling my life around in my suitcase! Slovenian value meant that the hotel was really lovely, far beyond what the money would have afforded in the UK or Switzerland, each room having been individually created by a different designer and with a different theme. Although I didn’t know it yet, given the madness that was awaiting me in Georgia, the luxury and peaceful night’s sleep was doubly appreciated! The chap working the front desk couldn’t have been more helpful, arranging a special early breakfast for me the following day and giving me advice on the airport taxi he’d booked for me to ensure I didn’t get lost or pay too much. And so, my all-too-brief visit of Slovenia drew to a close and I was on my way once again. But writing this has reminded me of what I was thinking as I flew out: I need to go back again!

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