A Melting Pot in the Heart of Europe
On paper, Slovenia has everything a visitor could wish for – it is considered one of the safest travel destinations in the world as well as one of the most sustainable, and combines awe-inspiring landscapes and rich traditions with the comforts of travelling in an EU country where English is widely spoken. Yet the true appeal of this tiny corner of Europe is more difficult to quantify.
Slovenia is a young country with a long and complex history as a crossroads of geographies, peoples and cultures. Suspended between Venice and Vienna, with one foot in the Balkans and one in Central Europe, the true pleasure of visiting Slovenia lies in peeling back its many layers of contradictions.
In Ljubljana Plečnik’s unique architecture rubs shoulders with utilitarian socialist buildings and echoes of the Habsburg Empire, crowned by the medieval Ljubljana castle, which once served as the bulwark against Ottoman invasions.
The interplay of Germanic, Mediterranean and Balkan cultures makes Slovenes a strange breed of hedonistic overachievers – hard workers who will happily spending hours on end lounging in cafes setting the world to rights with their friends, and have equally strong opinions on the best local wine varieties as on the best skiing and hiking routes. It is hardly surprising that the Slovenian endurance swimmer Martin Strel, who set a world record by swimming the entire length of the Amazon River, did so while enjoying a bottle of cviček wine per day.
A Culinary Pilgrimage
Few people embody the versatile Slovenian spirit as well as Ana Roš. Once a dancer and member of the youth national skiing team, Ana was on her way to a career in international diplomacy when she fell in love with sommelier Valter Kramer and ended up taking over his parents’ restaurant Hiša Franko. After decades of hard work this self-taught chef single-handedly put Slovenia on the culinary map when she appeared on the Netflix series Chef’s Table. Her effervescent and subtle ingenuity, paired with a deeply ingrained respect for local foods and traditions – what she calls her “zero-kilometer approach” –, have earned her the title of the World’s Best Female Chef in 2017. Hiša Franko, nestled in the unbearably picturesque Soča Valley and consistently ranked among the best restaurants in the world, is much more than a restaurant. It is a labour of love and the family’s home, which makes a dinner there a uniquely warm and intimate experience. Ana often comes out of the kitchen to chat with her guests, effortlessly switching between the five languages she is fluent in, while Valter makes sure to pair every meal with the perfect local wine.
Slovenia has long been a beloved culinary destination for those in the know thanks to the efforts of chefs like Tomaž Kavčič and Gregor Vračko, as well as famous winemakers like Kristančič and Kabaj, whose delectable creations are a distillation of the most basic Slovenian approach to food: fresh, local and organic. In Slovenia even haute cuisine is firmly rooted in its bountiful landscapes and old recipes handed down generations. Eating your way around Slovenia is a fantastic way to delve deeper into its cultural and geographic diversity, but don’t make the mistake of only focussing on the big names. After a long day of hiking an honest bowl of home-made golaž served in a mountain hut can be more satisfying than all the Michelin stars in the world!
A Hiker’s Paradise
In the past decade, a number of titles and awards have cemented Slovenia’s reputation as a green travel destination. Ljubljana was the Green Capital of Europe in 2016 and National Geographic’s World Legacy Award recognised Slovenia as the world’s most sustainable tourist destination in 2017. Slovenians watch these developments with a mixture of pride and bemusement: with over 60% of the country covered in forest, a life surrounded by nature is considered the norm and even the most hardened urbanites lace up their hiking boots at every opportunity.
Even though Slovenia is growing in popularity as a hiking destination, more than 10,000 kilometres of marked hiking trails make it easy to avoid the crowds if you know where to go. Most of the region’s highlights can be reached on a day hike, but a network of mountain huts also makes it possible to hike for days or even weeks on end without leaving the mountains, where routes range from easy ascents to technical climbing routes and cross through areas of extraordinary biodiversity.
Where the Mountains Meet the Sea
While Slovenia is deservedly famous for its Alpine scenery, the jagged peaks of the northwest are only one piece of the puzzle. The country lies at the intersection of four distinct geographical regions – the Alpine, Mediterranean, Karstic and Pannonian – meaning that Alpine hiking trails, UNESCO world heritage caves and Istrian coastal towns are all only a short drive from the capital. In Slovenia you can go skiing in the morning and take a dip in the Adriatic in the afternoon, or cycle up the famous Vršič Pass and reach the Soča Valley just in time for dinner at Hiša Franko.
So what are you dreaming of? Languid afternoons spent tasting world-class wines on the sun-kissed slopes of Goriška Brda? A weeklong hike through Slovenia’s stunning mountain scenery? Adrenaline-filled mountain biking or a leisurely ramble through a bustling European city?
In Slovenia you don’t have to choose.