If there is only one place you have to see before you die, it’s Slovenia. The country is absolutely stunning with its lush green mountains, crystal clear turquoise alpine lakes, richly cultivated fields, quaint and immaculately clean towns – the list could go on and on. This small former Yugoslav state, squashed between eastern and western Europe, is often overlooked in favour of Croatia’s beaches, Italy’s lakes or Austria’s alps. But little Slovenia has a lot to offer (and usually at cheaper prices too!).
I arrived in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, late in the evening after a somewhat interesting four-hour bus trip from Venice. The bus, on its way to Sofia, Bulgaria, was full of people (most of them Bulgarians) throwing items down the aisle, yelling at the bus driver and even smoking in the WC (by the way, I don’t have any hatred towards Bulgarians, this was actually the first time I met with a group of them, and they seemed to be rather ‘baulkan’ in their manners unfortunately). Once we arrive in Ljubljana, I was rather glad to get out of the bus and explore this quaint little city. Ljubljana, being quite a small city, is very compact and everything in the centre is within easy walking distance). Prior to my arrival, I reserved a bed at The Zeppelin Hostel http://www.zeppelinhostel.com/, located on Slovenska street, about a five to ten minute walk from the train/bus station (located at the northern end of the city). So I on this occasion I didn’t have to carry my increasingly heavy backpack too far. Being rather exhausted from my mammoth day, travelling from Verona, stopping-off in Venice for a few hours, and then the bus trip to Ljubljana, I was glad to go to bed and get some sleep.
I woke up early the next morning and decided to go for a walk around the city, before visiting Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj. Ljubljana is quite safe and easy to navigate, but if you get lost, one of the locals will be more than happy to point you in the right direction. Here are a couple of sights I recommend visiting in Ljubljana:
Ljubljana Castle: Located at the southern end of the city, take the beautiful walk up the hill, through the forest, until you reach the castle. If you’re too lazy to walk, there is a funicular every ten minutes, or you can jump onto the tourist train. But these amenities do not commence until 9am, so if you want to experience the golden morning light of the Slovenian summer glittering through the trees, you have to walk. And once you reach the castle, your efforts are rewarded with a spectacular view over the awakening city below. The castle is open for tourists to explore, but arriving so early in the morning, the gates were not yet open.
Central Market (Presernov Trg): These beautiful outdoor markets sell an extensive range of fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers and traditional Slovenian handicrafts. Being able to communicate with the locals (I speak Croatian, which is a bit similar to Slovenian), I was lucky enough to ask the store owners which were their best fruits for the day to take along with me for a picnic snack at Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj.
This beautiful alpine lake is located about 60km north of Ljubljana. It is one of Slovenia’s most popular tourist destinations, but thankfully does not seem to have been spoiled by tourism. The lake and its surroundings are so immaculately clear, the air is unpolluted and all you can hear is the twittering of birds in the trees. A day at Lake Bled feels as if you had died and gone to heaven. It truly is paradise.
Most people spend a day at Lake Bled, enjoying the scenery, taking a swim in the lake, enjoying the outdoors, basically just revelling in nature. For those who like to walk, there is a well defined walking path which encircles the lake and takes a few hours, at a leisurely pace, to complete the route. There are a few cafes along the way, where you can have a drink and breath in the crispy, clean mountain air. There is a small island in the middle of the lake, with a baroque church, which can be reached row-boat for about 10 euros. Also, overlooking the lake, is Bled Castle, which can be visited on foot and from which you have a spectacular view of the lake.
The road to Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj from Ljubljana is one of the most picturesque I have seen in Europe. All the fields you pass are richly cultivated, bursting with fresh produce, with the Julian Alps as a backdrop.
Located about 20km south-west from Lake Bled, is Lake Bohinj. Another alpine lake close to the capital Ljubljana, this is a popular spot for picnics, canoeing, sailboating and bathing in the crisp, clear waters of the lake. Being less built-up then Bled, and more untouched, spending a few hours at Lake Bohinj is like finding paradise in the middle of the alpine forests. With the magestic Slovenian Alps as a backdrop, Lake Bohinj, like Lake Bled, seems to come from some heavenly realm, untouched and unspoilt by human interference. I only had a few hours at Lake Bohinj, so I didn’t have much time to explore. But I absolutely fell in love with what I saw, and would recommend to everyone who plans to visit the more popular and well-known Lake Bled to spear a few hours and visit Lake Bohinj as well.
Stay: Zeppelin Hostel, Slovenska 42, Ljubljana. This funky little is hostel located on the second floor of a historic building smack-bang in the centre of Ljubljana. It’s within easy walking distance to shops, restaurants, bars, clubs, the train/bus station and all the major attractions. The rooms are clean and spacious, the staff friendly and breakfast is included. For 20-somthing euros per night, you can’t go wrong.
Eat: Ljubljana: Stara Macka: Located on Korjaska Ulica, beside the Ljubljanica River, this restaurant is set in a popular night spot for both tourists and locals alike. The menu has a selection of international dishes, as well as some local specialities, such as local cured ham, known as prsut. For those who are missing a good Aussie steak on their travels, Stara Macka does a fantastic ‘surf and turf’.
Don’t forget to buy some seasonal fruits at The Central Market, Presernov Trg. As well as supporting local farmers, you are purchasing fresh and delicious produce. The summer grapes I bought were phenomenal!
Lake Bled: As you’re walking back to the bus station, there is a little fastfood outlet to your left. They do amazing hamburgers and cevapi burgers in big woodfire-baked rolls.
Getting There and Around: Florentia Bus (http://www.florentiabus.it) does a route Florence – Bologna – Padova – Venice Mestre – Triest – Ljubljana – Sofia (and the reverse) every day. I caught the bus at 4:10pm in Mestre Venice which arrived in Ljubljana at 20:20. The cost of this ticket is 32 euros. You must purchase the tickets in advance from the website or at the ticket office at each stop. There is also a good train link between Ljubljana and Zagreb. There are six trains a day which run Ljubljana – Zagreb and also Zagreb – Ljubljana. Tickets are about 15 euros and can be purchased at the train station. The train ride between Ljubljana and the Croatian border is spectacular – the line runs along the banks of the Sava River and between lush green alpine mountains.
Getting to and from Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj is extremely simple and straight forward. There is a bus every hour from the bus station in Ljubljana which goes directly to Lake Bled and then onto Lake Bohinj. Don’t forget to purchase your tickets at the station, as they cannot be bought on the bus. From the drop of points in both Bled and Bohinj, it is just a short walk to the lakes. There are no signpost, so just ask for directions (most people in cafes & shops should know at least a little English. Or even ask the bus driver). Bled and Bohinj are small towns, so it’s difficult to get lost. Don’t forget to take note of the final bus for the day back to Ljubljana, as there is no other way to get back to the city, aside fromt trying to hitch a lift with a local famer.