I have traveled in over 40 countries, many of them off the beaten path – including Martinique, Bulgaria, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Crete, Elba and Montenegro. For those who want to venture beyond the guidebook shelves at the book store, there is a treasure trove of nooks and crannies around the globe for the adventurous traveler. Slovenia presents a wealth of them.
I advocate touring in a group on foot – walking, hiking, or trekking. This up close perspective is not only preferable to scenery flying by out the window of a bus or car, but the exhausting days become a catalyst for evenings of bonding, bonhomie, celebration, singing, dancing and unusually good cheer These elevated spirits in turn permeate interactions with people you encounter along the route. The locals sense a refreshingly different disposition than the people who step out of cars or off buses.
On September of 2015, I set out for Slovenia. The country is an infrequently traveled destination that rewards visitors with sublime crystal lakes, picturesque Alpine meadows, aquamarine-colored whitewater rivers, and rugged limestone mountain ranges.
On this trip, I joined up with 10 hikers from Minneapolis, Chicago, and Massachusetts to explore the countryside on foot, hiking around a series of Bed and Breakfast accommodations throughout urban and rural locations. From this up close perspective, we got an intimate sense of the country’s history, landmarks, wildlife, botanical treasures, culture, food, drink, singing and dancing.
Slovenia is a small country that despite its tumultuous past, has successfully come into its own since independence in 1991. It is now a flourishing economic, political and cultural hub in Central Europe. Nestled between Croatia, Italy, Austria and Hungary the populace has been dominated by foreign rule since the Celts established the first state in the 3rd century BC. They were ruled by the Roman Empire for centuries, then overtaken by the Franks and briefly, the Turks. Compulsory education was established under Marie Therese’s Hapsburg reign in the 18th century. With the ensuing flowering of literature, art, political and financial clout, Slovenia began to claim equal footing in cultural circles with other European nations.
World War I was devastating for Slovenia, as a 3 year battle was waged on the Austro- Hungarian side of the border formed by the Soca river. Numerous bunkers, trenches and roads rutted from armaments still scar the countryside. The Austro-Hungarian army conscripted several hundred thousand Slovenes, and the ensuing battles caused 30,000 deaths on native soil. Hundreds of thousands more were resettled in refugee camps in Austria and Italy. After the war Slovenia was sliced up and absorbed into Austria and Italy.
In 1921 the kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed by Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, with Slovenia being the most prosperous, industrialized and westernized. During World War II Slovenia was the only European nation to be completely annexed once again by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Hungary. In Kobarid Slovenia, a young Ernest Hemingway collected the wounded in his ambulance and immortalized the last battle for the front in “A Farewell to Arms.” In 1945, Yugoslavian liberators created a federal communist state which Slovenia joined as a socialist republic. Yugoslavia did enjoy broader freedoms under Josep Tito than the USSR-controlled Eastern Bloc countries. I travelled the Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia quite freely in 1973, and it was a marked contrast to the tight military controls exercised in Hungary and Bulgaria. Finally, in 1990, Slovenians walked out of the Serbian controlled Yugoslav Congress, effectively causing it to cease as a national party. In 1991 Slovenia held free elections creating a multi-party democracy. Subsequently they were welcomed into the United Nations, NATO and the EU.
Despite past transgressions, the country remains the jewel of the alps; incredibly picturesque, accessible and not nearly as tourist-trafficked for adventurers as the French, Italian, Austrian or Swiss Alps. I find the Slovenians quite genial and resilient, perhaps because they have successfully weathered a turbulent history.
Recovering from breast cancer surgery just 4 months previously, I got the news that I needed follow up surgery to remove additional tissue. I had signed up for the trip before I got the surprise diagnosis, and deliberated back and forth whether I should go. But mentally I needed this trip to fortify myself, so I got the authorizing letters from various doctors saying I was fit to do it. I struck a deal with my surgeon to take a couple of weeks off from cancer treatment to take this plunge.
I would have accompanied my husband, Foreign Service daughter and her spouse to New Zealand in early October, but I had a wedding which conflicted with their timing. So I was able to join an REI tour to Slovenia’s Julian Alps instead. This was to be a hiking or “trekking” tour. It had been four years since I trekked 60 km in Bhutan and a year since I solo backpacked the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
Ljubljana Prešernov Trg Square
The capital city of Ljubljana was our gathering point, and I arrived a day early on to explore the Old Town, Prešernov Trg square overlooking the linden-lined terraces along the Ljubljanica River, the Modern Art Museum, and the Kastle featuring a unique puppetry exhibit. I dined at an outdoor restaurant that served traditional dishes such as kranjska klobasa (sausages), fragrant sauerkraut, štruklji (rolled dumplings), venison and rabbit among other offerings, all washed down with Lasko beer or sparkling water.
Our tour mates convened the next afternoon with native guides Alesa and Nina. Nearly everyone in our group of 11 had met the previous year on an REI tour to Mount Blanc, France. We had so much fun together we decided to replicate the experience in Slovenia. From Minneapolis we had a surgeon, family practice doctor duo, a dentist and dental hygienist couple, a stock market research analyst, a widowed Norwegian dad raising 3 daughters and a retired marketer (me) .There was a software developer and an event planner husband and wife from Chicago and a Massachusetts couple who were a nurse and nurse anesthetist. In terms of professional expertise, we had all of the bases covered medically. I appreciated having these resources at hand for bandages on blistered feet and electrolyte tablets for muscle cramps.
REI Slovenia Tour Mates (Cindy in the shorts)
This was a group of rigorous hikers and riotous partiers! The cookies, chocolate, chips, beer and wine came out every afternoon after we finished hiking. Then dinner with the guides and often dancing with the Brits or the Slovenes, with singing and international toasting contests.
My companions were all in their late 40’s to early 60’s, younger than me and incredibly fit. Two couples were going biking for 3-4 days in France or the Czech Republic after Slovenia. Several were half marathon runners. Not me, but I am a YMCA workout fanatic. Nonetheless at age 66 I invariably took up the rear, lagging about 5-10 minutes in summiting, but I did successfully complete all 8 days of it. A highlight was the thrill of white water rafting on the clear, emerald blue waters of the Soca River. I couldn’t see without my glasses, but it was captured on video for later enjoyment.
The first afternoon we went for a two hour walk around pristine Lake Bled, a glacial lake fed by thermal springs. There is a church-topped islet and a cliffside medieval castle basking in the autumnal afternoon sun. Afterwards we enjoyed the local confection of Cream Cake and traveled to our next event, a day’s hike on the ridgeline toward Mt. Rodica.
Lake Bled in Triglav National Park
We took a gondola and then a ski lift to the Mt. Vogel ski area. Riding high in the cable car affords a spectacular view of the surroundings – oak and hornbeam forests at lower levels transitioning into massive beech forests with touches of larch, spruce and dwarf pines in the alpine elevations. The mountain views are stunning from the ridge. We hiked 10 miles in 5 –6 hours with a 2000 foot elevation gain.
Alpine wildflowers have made amazing adaptations to cope with harsh weather. They entrap rapidly draining precipitation, attract rare pollinators with colorful and fragrant flowers and provide enticing food for animals. Varieties here include edelweiss, bellflowers, orchids and gentians.
Each night except one we spent at a pleasant small hotel or pension with continental/English breakfast then often dining at a good local restaurant for dinner. We are reminded by our bus driver, Tomas (who dances a rousing polka) that if you drive anywhere in Slovenia for 1 ½ hours you hit another national border.
Joan and the Leopard Boy at the mountain hut
We trekked from Lake Bohinj to a rustic mountain hut near Mt. Bogatin. A series of steep switchbacks took us up out of a box canyon and into lovely alpine country. We were on the lookout for unique local fauna such as chamois, brown bear, or alpine ibex, but no sightings other than squirrels, the occasional black grouse, or peregrine. We stopped at a hut for lunch, joining other hiking groups, but continued upward in the afternoon. The day’s trek was 11 miles, 5-6 hours and an elevation gain of 3,000’ feet. That night we shared the hut with a group of young Brits bent on dancing and singing with whoever in our group would join them. There is always bonhomie among fellow hikers.
The weather was BAD….a torrential downpour with lightning that dropped more than 3 inches of rain in just a few hours. We had to descend and it took about 5 hours because of slippery paths. Unfortunately, the storm obscured what would have been a stunning view of the Gulf of Trieste, the Dolomites in Italy and the Austrian Alps which had been our plan. We all used newspaper and hair dryers to take care of soggy boots. Our hotel that night had a sauna and a pool which was a great relief for weary bodies.
We visited a haunting WWI commemorative museum in the morning, reminding us of the desolate bunkers and largely unmarked cemeteries we had seen in the mountains.
At lunch after much teasing about his dancing skills, our guide Alessa donned an Austrian Tyrol hat and Lederhosen , brought out an accordion player and danced the polka with Joan, our party instigator. Soon everyone joined in.
In the afternoon, most of us opted for rafting the amazingly clear, emerald blue Soca River. Wet suits were a given, and the rapids were tough at times and unusually rough at the highest elevation due to the area rainfall. Our Scottish guide and skipper regaled us with stories of wild rafting escapades. While our run was hair raising, there were no casualties.
We spent the evening in Koberid, scene of the 1917 Battle of Caporetto and as mentioned earlier, Hemmingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” At night we dined on seafood that was exquisite: fresh mussels from mussels farms close by, sea bass, prawns, pasta, polenta, yellow beans, roasted vegetables and sorbet for dessert.
We began to wind down, hiking the vast meadows from Livek to Mt. Matajur on the border with Italy. We had breathtaking views of Slovenia’s Krn ranges as well as the plains of Friull and the Gulf of Trieste. Our day ended in Piran, a picturesque Adriatic fishing village. We hiked 7 miles in 4 hours on dirt paths and through green meadows with an elevation gain of 3,000 feet. That evening we dined on goat and wild boar, which were surprisingly tasty.
We explored the open market in Piran, replete with WWI helmets, antique crocheted items, vases, old trunks, antlers, and all sorts of what is best described as ”junk.” There are a number of affordable Slovenian fashion shops as well. We strolled along the beach from Piran to the Bay of Strujan where we took a look at how sea salt is produced. We passed through a pedestrian tunnel that took us to Portoroz for further exploration Late morning we boarded a traditional fishing boat and spent the afternoon cruising the Slovene coastline. It was too cold to swim however with air temperatures at 60 degrees.
For dinner we had mussels, black ink risotto with squid, sea bass, octopus, French fries and green salad with cabbage and tomatoes. Then we got into a “shot” contest instigated by a table of Germans, with a few of the challengers ending up on the floor to gales of laughter. We had a final dessert then reminisced individually about our trip over a candlelit square, with the stars overhead. We gave heartfelt thanks to our guides Alessa and Nina.
All in all, a most satisfying adventure— with exquisite scenery, rugged hikes, wonderful food and hospitality plus amiable companions— to an oft-overlooked European gem of a country.