Slovenia? Where is that? It amused me that most of my friends looked perplexed when I mentioned my spring holiday plans. That they could not pinpoint Slovenia on a map was only half the appeal. I had wanted to visit that small country on the sunny side of the Alps ever since I read about it in a Lonely Planet™guidebook six years ago.
After a harsh Canadian winter, I was very enthusiastic about spending time outdoors and was hoping that my ten-day solo journey through this green country would give me what I craved: clean air, mountains, sunshine, and the experience of a different culture. I also looked forward to making new friends, thanks to VirtualTourist.com
I discovered the travel website VirtualTourist.com (VT for short) last winter and became a member, for free, a couple of months before my trip.
VT members can easily create web pages and post tips and photos on the different destinations they have visited, e-mail each other, and ask questions in the forums.
Members often go beyond the virtual and arrange meetings in different cities around the world. Two weeks before my departure, I posted a message in the Slovenia forum announcing that I was coming to the country and asked if anybody wanted to meet. Within half a day, a couple of women had already responded that they could meet me in Ljubljana and had given me their telephone numbers. As the number of interested people grew, one of them offered to organize the event.
I was delighted!
My first impression of Slovenia was pleasant surprise at how clean and efficient the country was, not at all as I had generally imagined eastern Europe. Since gaining independence from the Federation of Yugoslavia in 1991, low prices, and a dearth of tourists are about all that differentiate Slovenia from western European countries.
After spending my first five days exploring the quiet countryside near Bled and lake Bohinj, I looked forward to a little bit of city action in the pint-sized capital, Ljubljana.
The first thing on my schedule was to find my VT buddies at the agreed meeting spot – by the statue of Slovene poet, France Prešeren. Prešernov trg – the square named in honor of the poet – is the city's main square and a focal point for tourists.
Because of the picture on my VT home page, some people recognized me and started waving a greeting as I walked toward the statue. What a warm feeling!
In total there were eight of us: Kristina, Zdenka, Tanja, Boris, Darja, Marko, Adrijana and me. Three of them had even driven from Zagreb in Croatia to meet the Canadian visitor.
To get to know each other a little better, we started by having drinks at a café beside the Ljublja-nica River. The conversation quickly started flowing in three languages, although I could only follow the English thread. Fortunately, several people were able to translate the best jokes for me.
Kristina suggested a drink called bola, a refreshing mixture of red wine, soda water and melon balls, similar to sangria.
We also spent some time writing postcards to other VT members who had requested them, complete with coffee stains. This is a VT meeting "tradition" for the sake of people who wished to be at the meeting but were unable to attend.
After the refreshments, we started the upward climb toward the ancient Ljubljana Castle for city views and a 3D audio-visual history presentation.
Darja surprised us with chocolates and little souvenirs she had bought for the occasion. Back on the ground again, we walked around the streets of the old town before ending up at Sokol, a cavernous and atmospheric restaurant with massive wood tables. I ordered the most expensive item on the menu (around C$20): a sampling of three different wild meats, each smothered in its own delicious sauce, and three dumplings, all of it washed down with Slovenian red wine.
We sat there for hours, eating, drinking and talking. Boris, the amateur photographer, thoroughly documented the event and almost got run over by a car trying to photograph us while standing in the middle of the street.
It was a great first VT meeting. The following day, solo again, I walked all around town, admiring the buildings and bridges, but couldn't quite recapture the magical feeling of the previous day.
The weather turned grey in Ljubljana, so I left the capital to look for sunshine. I spent the last few days of my vacation enjoying the medieval Italian flavor and seaside atmosphere of Piran, a quaint resort town on Slovenia's Adriatic coast.
Slovenia gave me everything I expected from this holiday: clean air, green countryside, interesting architecture, mountains and seashore. That the country has not yet been discovered by most of the outside world only adds to its charm. As a solo traveler, I felt comfortable and safe everywhere I went. But what touched me most was the genuine friendliness and generosity of the fellow VTers I met in Ljubljana.
Slovenia, with a population of just under 2 million, is tucked between Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia. It's only a two-hour drive from the mountain peaks of the Julian Alps to the waters of the Adriatic Sea. I entered the country from the north (coming from Munich by train). Slovenian countryside met my romantic notion: small farms, herds of cows, hayracks, all with a mountain backdrop.
Bled: From the train station I could see the lake and island, and everything looked clean and serene. Caution: The train station is quite a long way from town, and I saw no sign or information desk, so I made my way on foot toward the lake, following a gravel path that begins across the street. It's at least 3 kms to the youth hostel (Penzion Bledec).
Arriving by bus is easier as it stops close to hotels and restaurants on the north side of the lake. The schedules are posted on the building across the street from the bus stop. You buy the ticket from the conductors (who speak very little English).
Buses are large, comfortable, air conditioned, and go pretty much everywhere, although they stop in just about every town and village along the way. Costs are minimal. For example, from Bled to Ljubljana I paid 1370 tolars (C$8.95; US$6.50). The fare from Ljubljana to Piran was 2610 tolars (C$17; US$12.50).
Vintgar Gorge: Located about 4 kms from Bled, the Vintgar Gorge is 1600m long and lined with a wooden boardwalk that crosses several times over the cascades and pools. Admission: 600 tolars (C$4; US$2.80). In Summer (mid-June to Sept), a tourist bus runs from Bled, but the walk is pleasant. Take one route there through idyllic countryside and a small village, and a different way back via a forest and the small church of St Catherine located on an excellent viewpoint.
Bled Castle is on the cliff along the northern edge of the lake via one of two trails. One starts right next to the Penzion Bledec restaurant. The other starts off the road on the north side of the lake across from the castle baths. There is a sign. Climb up to the castle for beautiful views. It's about a 10-15 minute walk up through the forest depending which path you take.
Lake Bohinj is 28 km southwest of Bled. It's a wonderful place to take a rest from city life and enjoy the outdoors.
Ljubljana, with a population of about 300,000, is the political and cultural hub of Slovenia. Over 10,000 cultural events and 10 international festivals are held here each year in numerous stately venues. It's a compact city straddling the Ljubljanica River. You can walk everywhere safely on your own.
Prešernov trg: Besides the statue of its namesake poet, France Prešeren, Ljubljana's main square features the ornamented facade of the 17th century Franciscan Church.
Central Market: From Prešernov trg cross Tromostovje (Triple Bridge) and turn left to find an interesting and colorful outdoor market in the old town. This is not a handicraft market but rather a local market that sells produce, flowers, candles, baskets, etc.
Ljubljana Castle: Surrounded by the river on three sides and perched on top of a hill rising out of the city center, Ljubljana Castle, has its roots in pre-history. Archaeological excavations have uncovered 3000-year-old artifacts. A "Virtual Museum" covers the city's history.
Tourist Train:It makes regularly scheduled, 15-minute runs up Castle Hill from Prešernov trg, or it's a good uphill walk following Studentovska ulica in the Vodnikov trg.
Walking Tours: During summer, two-hour guided walking tours leave from Mestni trg, the square in front of the Town Hall (Magistrat).
Piran: 191 kms southwest of the capital, Piran is notable for its distinctively Venetian architecture, and for its charming seaside setting on Slovenia's brief, 50-odd km coastline. Frequent buses operate daily from Ljubljana.
Tartinijev trg (Tartini square) is the heart of town and the place to begin strolling quaint back lanes, or seaside pathways.
Maritime Museum: The museum, located on the harbor in a 17th century palace, displays the maritime past of the coastal region. Open: 9am-12pm; 6pm-9pm. Closed Monday.
Church of St George: On a hill overlooking the sea, the Baroque style parish Church of St George contains fine examples of medieval art.
Information: Slovenia Tourism, www.slovenia.info