I have two confessions.
One: Until I read an article this week in the New York Times, I had no idea that Melania Trump aka Melania Knauss aka Melanja Knavs was from Slovenia and went to high school in Ljubljana. However, I was not surprised that her husband Donald has made only one visit to the country, a day trip to Lake Bled, in which he boasted 'The fact that I even went there was very much appreciated'.
Two: Until 2011, I had not heard of Ljubljana.
The first time I saw the name, I was at Luton Airport waiting for my flight to Amsterdam. As I stood in the holding area with the other cattle, er, EasyJet passengers, waiting for my gate to appear, another destination caught my eye.
I wracked my brain trying to place it. Gun to my head, I would have said it was in Poland. So I looked it up and discovered it was the capital of Slovenia.
Fast forward to 2016. After spending over a week in Slovenia, I'm so enamored of the country, I might just make it my life's ambition to retire there. It's a lot like Switzerland, super clean with a high standard of living and rugged natural beauty, but friendlier and cheaper. At the crossroads of Slavic, Germanic and Latin cultures, you can also be assured of a variety of amazing cuisine. And it's far less crowded.
Don't be like Donald Trump. A day in certainly not enough, especially if your wife is from there. And while a week in this beautiful country may seem like a lot compared to rockstar destinations like France or Italy, Slovenia is like your favorite pair of jeans. So comfortable, you just reach for them over and over.
It didn't start off a fairytale, but after a few 'first world problems', we got to our happy ending.
We had just finished eight fun-filled days in Budapest and were looking forward to the train journey to Ljubljana after reading about it on The Man in Seat 61. Yes, it would be a ten hour travel day, but with beautiful scenery, cozy environs and a well-stocked restaurant car, why not?
Let me just say that even if the train advertises a restaurant car, I implore you to pack a substantial lunch and plenty of water. For whatever reason, the Hungarians felt that providing access to basic necessities during a ten hour travel day was not necessary at all.
Luckily, I had packed a sandwich and one 16 oz bottle of water which I consumed at 11 am. Still thirsty, I walked to the next car and discovered we were only two cars and an engine- no restaurant car, no snack bar. At 1 pm, an attendant walked through and when I asked where I could get water, she squinted her eyes and hissed 'Ljubljana'. When I said that was an awfully long time from now, she muttered something unintelligible (probably 'Go eff yourself') as she walked away. We were due to arrive into Ljubljana around 5:30 pm and had departed Budapest at 7:30 am. I thought about all those trips from Peterborough to London King's Cross where there was not only a bar car, but also someone pushing a snack cart, all for a 45 minute journey. Naturally, without access to water, I felt extreme thirst and pouted in my seat while watching the two men in front of me share a six pack of beer.
She took pity on me and came back an hour later with news that the train would stop for 10 minutes in the next town and that I could get off for water. There were no announcements to this effect. When we finally arrived in Ljubljana, we walked into town with an American retiree who had just completed a two year Peace Corps assignment in Kyrgyzstan (pronounced Kurg-iss-tan). He mentioned that he had not packed any food or water, but was so matter-of-fact about it, I can only assume he endured far greater hardships in Kyrgyzstan.
Day One & Two: Old Town Ljubljana
Our travel day quickly forgotten, we spent the first couple of days in Slovenia immersing ourselves in beautiful Old Town Ljubljana. Easy-going, like the city, the Ljubljanica River gently winds through the Old Town offering relaxing views for patrons sitting alongside the many restaurants, pubs and cafes. Our apartment was on the far edge of the pedestrian zone so we had easy access to the riverfront and returned to it again and again.
What I love most about Old Town is that it has three distinct personalties to suit whatever mood you are in.
- The Fortress side and Mestni street have that Medieval feel with cobbles and narrow alleys. The restaurants are more upscale with a quiet, romantic atmosphere to them.
- Canalside, the bars and restaurants beckon you with an Aperol spritz and great people-watching. It's fun and lively, yet classy.
- West of the river, the University dominates the scene with youthful exuberance. The busy streets are full of teens in cheap and cheerful food shops pumping out techno beats while in contrast, students in the nearby music academy fill the air with the sounds of stringed and brass instruments.
On the second day, we made the climb up to the fortress where we enjoyed stunning views and a short film on the history of the site and city of Ljubljana. Afterwards, we poked around a strange puppet museum where we learned that Slovenians have a strong and sentimental love for this type of entertainment. Quirky, but I like it.
Afterwards, we ate what would be the first of three lunches at Hisa Pod Gradom (review at the end), then spent the rest of the day cafe hopping around Old Town.
Day Three: Tivoli Park & Vigo Ice Cream
After a lazy morning, we headed to the far edge of Old Town and plugged in our headphones for some long overdue heart pumping exercise in Tivoli Park.
This large green space holds Tivoli Mansion (currently houses a graphic arts center) but the real star is the incredible trail system, which takes you higher and higher above the city. Near the top are a few cafes and if you are lucky, you might catch a game of Slovenian Bocce where rocks are used instead of balls. Watch out for the little old lady in a gray kerchief- she's a ringer.
Back in the Old Town, the best reward for a sweaty, three-hour excursion is a scoop (or two!) of ice cream from Vigo (more at the end). I don't care what Trip Advisor says, Cacao's ice cream is NOTHING compared to Vigo. Trust me, GO TO VIGO.
Day Four, Five, Six: Lake Bled
Just an hour north of the city is the world famous town of Bled, home of Lake Bled and Bled Castle.
Spectacular. Magnificent. Stunning. Words will never do this area of outstanding beauty justice so I must rely on my photos which give you an idea, but still can't compare to seeing it with your own eyes. Combined with our glamping experience, Lake Bled is the number one highlight of our trip thus far.
We took the bus to Bled and walked from the station, in the center of town, to Camping Bled on the opposite side of the lake. The lake has a walking path that encircles it and since it's only 6 km, we walked it every day. With views like this, you will find excuses to be near it.
The whole area is an active person's dream come true with several companies offering white water rafting, hiking and mountain biking excursions. For you party animals, there are plenty of bars and discos on the south side. In addition to walking the lake, our repertoire included:
Rowboat to Bled Island Church
Perry took on the challenge of rowing the short distance to the island (which is actually not very easy!), but if you are feeling less adventurous, there are plenty of strapping young lads on gondolas that can take you. The island is very small and takes about 5 minutes to walk around it, but you can also climb to the top of the church and ring the bell for a nominal fee.
Indulge your inner child with an exciting toboggan ride down the hill. We had our biggest laughs of the day with this fun and inexpensive (14 euro for 3 rides) excursion with the added bonus of great views on the ski lift.
We got a great workout walking from Bled to Vintgar Gorge, but you can catch a ride for about 5 euro. It's a popular place and the footpath was a bit crowded at times, but worth dodging death-defying sorority girls trying to get that perfect Instagram! We got a little waylaid trying to find our way back to Bled and ran into a globe-trotting Argentinian couple for an entertaining hike swapping travel stories, proving that getting lost makes for a memorable day.
But never fear, if you are into relaxation, we did plenty of that too, eating big slices of the local specialty cream cake, chilling with a beer outside our glamping hut and taking romantic strolls at dusk.
If you are an outdoor junkie and have more time, take an extra day and also visit nearby Lake Bohinj. From rock climbing to kayaking to hiking in the Julian Alps, this area is an adventure seeker's paradise.
For anyone interested, I have posted a photo gallery with more amazing Lake Bled photos here.
Day Seven: Bike the City & Cat Cafe
Back in Ljubljana, we decided to get outside of the Old Town (and work off that Lake Bled Cream Cake) with a very long walk, but for others a Bike the City tour is just the thing. Three hours long, including a beer at Tivoli park at the end, I will certainly do this when I go back.
We are walking fools, however, and walked the trail, snapping photos along the way. We followed this up with a drink at our favorite cat cafe Cat Caffe Ljubljana, where they serve up not only kitties and coffee, but cocktails.
Day Eight: Go Underground
Take advantage of the proximity and make an excursion to Postojna or Skocjan Caves- less than an hour from Ljubljana down the brand new E61 freeway. Postojna is one of Slovenia's most popular tourist attractions as the train system makes it easy for young and old alike to enjoy it. Skocjan is a UNECSO world heritage site and takes a bit more exertion. It's possible to tour both caves in one day.
This was our plan, but since we ended up touring Grotta Gigante cave in Trieste with our Airbnb host, we skipped it in favor of more time in Ljubljana. That's how much we love it! If you go there, let us know. If it's anything like Grotta Gigante, you will be glad you did.
Day Ten: Head to Zagreb
Sadly, it was time to move on, but we were thrilled to discover a place in this world that ranks amongst our favorites. Luckily, the 2.5 hour train ride to Zagreb, Croatia was only 9 euro per person and since bargain travel makes me really happy, I was able to leave with a smile on my face.
PS. Food & Lodging
We stayed at this lovely AirBnB apartment for most of the week, but lodged at a 'real' B & B the night before we left for Zagreb. I want to give a shout out to Atticus B&B for providing one of the nicest budget priced experiences we have had on the road. Exceptionally clean and modern with cute and comfortable rooms AND a killer breakfast for 65 euro per night is a total bargain.
Hisa Pod Gradom is located at the foot of Ljubljana Fortress just east of the Funicular on Streliska Ulica. It's popular with locals for good reason- their 3 course lunch for 7.90 euro is a ridiculous value! Throw in a glass of Slovenian Rose for 2.70 euro and you have a gourmet lunch worth writing home about- without the sticker shock! With daily specials in addition to a substantial menu, I highly recommend this place whether you are on a budget or not.
I mentioned this earlier, but it's worth mentioning again. Vigo is in the heart of Old Town (Fortress side) and is the most impressive ice cream I've had on the road. It takes a lot for ice cream to 'wow' me and for only 1.50 euro per scoop, you get an otherworldly gourmet taste experience for a super small price. How often can you say that? Forget Cacao, I'm Team Vigo all the way.