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We arrived by train after dark, but it was our first time visiting Slovenia so despite the late hour we were eager to begin exploring the capital of Ljubljana. Under the luminescent glow of a harvest moon it was only a five minute stroll to reach Prešernov Square—five minutes during which we were bewitched and felt as if we had stepped into the pages of a fairy tale.
With a magical castle perched overhead and the city center encircled by cotton candy colored buildings designed in the gaudy Vienna Succession style as if dressed for a ball, Ljubljana sets a bewitching tone for the entire country. It’s difficult to visit this pocket-sized nation without conjuring up thoughts of princesses, witches and trolls, perhaps even a handsome prince charging in to save a damsel in distress. There’s even a Dragon Bridge that is guarded by four large copper dragons, the symbol of the city.
Once upon a time Slovenia was the northernmost region—and economic engine—of Yugoslavia. When that man-made collection of Balkan states disintegrated in the 1990s, Slovenia was one of the first to declare independence. With a total population of only two million it seemed like a risky step, but the Slovenes, who had once been members of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, naturally looked toward Western Europe. They joined the European Union and are the only former Yugoslav republic using the Euro as its currency.
The country packs a little of everything into its compact borders, which encompass an area slightly smaller than New Jersey. Sweeping snow-capped Alps, quaint medieval villages, a sophisticated capital and UNESCO-sanctioned natural wonders provide an abundance of sights to keep visitors enthralled. It even manages to squeeze in a miniscule (30-mile) coastline on the Adriatic Sea, topped by a town that was an outpost of the once-mighty Venetian Republic.
As the clock struck midnight in Ljubljana’s pristine Prešernov Square we wouldn’t have been surprised to see Cinderella racing across the Tromostovje (Triple Bridge), leaving a glass slipper in her wake. The unique three-pronged pedestrian crossing straddles the diminutive Ljubljanica River as it meanders through the capital city’s medieval heart, which was transformed into a pedestrian zone in 2008.
Much of Ljubjlana’s otherworldly atmosphere is due to Jože Plečnik, the de-facto architect laureate of Slovenia, who designed the bridge and river esplanades, along with many of the city’s decorative elements, in the early 20th century. Plečnik’s style is a sort of Steampunk merger between Art Nouveau and Greek Revival; it boasts a unique flair that is spotted on railings and streetlamps throughout the country.
Those longing to rescue Rapunzel can climb the 200-plus feet to Ljubljana Castle, which has been standing guard over the city for more than 500 years. (Or better yet, take the ultra-modern funicular, which will whisk you up in about 30 seconds.) The hilltop complex includes a selection of small museums and a medieval chapel, along with a commanding view of the city below, with the Alps in the distance.
While Rapunzel was growing her long locks, Sleeping Beauty could easily have been eternally dozing only 35 miles north in the foothills of the Julian Alps on Lake Bled. The crystalline waters are pierced by tiny Bled Island, barely large enough to embrace the 15th-century Church of the Assumption.
To reach his damsel in distress Prince Charming would have used the services of boatmen with a pletna, a traditional wooden craft resembling a large gondola that is still used today. The gnarled hands of our boatman were testimony to the demanding work of the unique motioned required to row the pletna 300 yards to the island. Despite the toil, the profession carries honor, rowers granted a license for this job decades ago pass the career down in families; boatman Janez rowed us out while his son Klemen squired us back to shore.
After alighting from the pletna visitors to the island climb the 99 steps up to the church where they ring the bell for good luck. Unless you have an urge to unleash your inner Quasimodo, we suggest saving the six Euros required for the privilege and instead linger outside and listen to the results of other’s efforts while you savor poteca—a Slovenian coffee cake—at the island’s café.
If that setting isn’t magical enough, the lake is guarded by Bled Castle perched high atop a stone crag. It’s the oldest in Slovenia, the first references to it dating to 1004. Today it houses a cluster of craft exhibits and small museum and also offers a breathtaking view of the lake.
Perhaps the lake’s magical setting is due to the famous Bled cream cake. Rich custard and whipped cream sandwiched between layers of thin buttery crust and powdered sugar could enchant just about anyone. It’s available at restaurants overlooking the lake, but arguably the best view is from Belvedere, the Plečnik-ornamented teahouse perched on a hillside that was once part of Marshal Tito’s summer residence. The late “president for life” of Yugoslavia enjoyed bringing visiting dignitaries to this picture-postcard spot, which is now a luxury hotel that houses displays commemorating his glory days. Some of the former “glory of the workers” artwork is still on display.
Every fairy tale should feature an ogre or troll, and a perfect setting to find one is Škocjan Caves, which is the world’s largest underground canyon. The towering stalagmites and drippy stalactites along a three-kilometer subterranean trail could easily have been the setting for The Lord of the Rings (our guide assured us it was not). Nevertheless, traversing a narrow footbridge in a huge cavern 150 feet above the rushing underground river makes it easy to imagine Gollum lurking at every turn.
Sixty miles southwest of Ljubljana lays a land that is a mixture of Shakespeare and Arthurian legend. The 1000-year-old town of Piran occupies pride of place on a walled promontory along Slovenia’s brief slice of the Adriatic coast. Known colloquially as “Little Venice,” Piran reported to its big brother just 60 miles west across the sea. Perhaps that merchant of Venice Antonio strode the narrow alleyways to stock his ships en route to wooing his fair maiden back at the homeport.
At a fishing pier south of Piran we met a modern day version of the Lady of the Lake. Irena Fonda is not seeking to resurrect Excalibur for King Arthur; she simply wants more fish in the sea. The PhD microbiologist, along with her scuba diving brother Lean, were concerned that the waters of the Gulf of Piran and nearby Adriatic were becoming depleted of seafood. They established Fonda Fish Farm to grow sea bass using largely sustainable practices.
The Fondas’ efforts have paid off. The farm created an ecosystem that has attracted new sea life to the area, while Fonda sea bass is recognized throughout Europe as a premier brand. Visitors can tour the farm, boating out to the seabeds to help Irena feed her “babies”; sample the fish, along with other locavore products, back on land.
Visiting with Irena was like gently emerging from our fairy tale. We had glimpsed a land that seemed frozen in a magical time, yet while Slovenia cradles her past, she is progressive. With a myriad of historic sights, natural wonders and 21st-century business savvy, Slovenia is poised to live happily ever after.
Traveler information for visiting Slovenia:
There are no direct flights from the US to Slovenia, however the main airport at Ljubljana has links to most European gateways. There is also excellent rail service from Munich and Vienna through stunning countryside.
The Slovenian Tourist Board: Excellent website with an overview of many sights, including Lake Bled, Ljubljana and Piran, along with practical information. www.Slovenia.info
Škocjan Caves: There are three hikes in the caves and canyons-two below ground and one above. The hike to the largest underground canyon is by guided tour only. Tour times are limited in winter, so plan ahead. www.park-skocjanske-jame.si//en
Fonda Fish Farm: Visitors can book a tour of the farm or a tour plus tasting. www.fonda.si/en/fonda/the-fonda-fish-farm
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