To say Slovenia flies under the radar as European holiday destination would be a gross understatement.
Even savvy travellers would be hard pressed to locate the former Yugoslav republic on a map – and this small but beautiful nation, independent since 1991, is often confused with Slovakia, which is hundreds of kilometres away.
For a small country – the population is just two million people – Slovenia is remarkably diverse. The capital of Ljubljana, overseen by an historic castle, has an old town that looks like something from a fairytale and is mercifully vehicle free.
Bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia is the tiniest and most affluent of the former Yugoslav republics – and visitors are made to feel very welcome. I lost count of the number of market vendors who enticed me to try a mouthful of everything from strudel to potent local home-made liquors.
Slovenia offers the chance to be taking in some rays on the Mediterranean at the medieval seaside resort of Piran in the morning, and scaling mountains in the afternoon. This crossroads of Europe is often described as the country where the Adriatic meets the Alps and while the cities are sophisticated (nearly everyone in Ljubljana speaks English), the country areas are delightfully rustic.
Ljubljana is within a few hours’ drive of several major European cities including Venice, Munich, Vienna and Zagreb, making getting here a breeze, by car, bus or air and there are amazing photo opportunities here with snowy mountain tops and wild green-blue rivers competing for the attention of photo buffs.
The town of Lipice, not far from the Italian border, has been home to the famous white Lippizaner horses for over 400 years, well before Vienna.
The beautiful alpine resort of Bled, around an hour north of Ljubljana, is home to a famous lake with an island that is among Europe’s most photographed attractions, while the massive stalactites and stalagmites in the Postojna caves are also well worth a visit. Ancient graffiti found here indicates that the first visitors arrived in 1213.
Just a 30-minute drive outside Ljubljana, and a short drive from the historic town of Kamnik, is the unique recreation area known as Velika Planina, a popular destination for walkers, hikers and mountain bikers.
This mountain plateau in the heart of the Kamnik Alps is not easy to reach – but is worth the effort. First you take a cable car to the base station and then walk a steep path for around an hour to the green pastures where local shepherds graze their dairy cattle in summer, but are covered with snow in the winter months.
Some of the local shepherds here still wear traditional costumes and hand craft hard cheeses called trnic, which they sell to tourists. The plateau is also a starting point for the hikes onto the higher summits in the Kamnik Alps and is popular with cross-country skiers in winter.
The food here is hearty (think sausages and dumplings) but to work off any excesses (and Slovenians wines are pretty good, too), over one third of the country is made up of national and regional parks. There are 28,000 kilometres of rivers (including the wild waters of the dramatic Soca River) and more than 1300 lakes.
Everywhere you go you see remarkably fit looking hikers, many of them aged in their 80s and 90s. There must be something about the air.
Whether you are a gourmet, art lover or outdoor adventurer, there is something here for just about everyone – and nowhere in the country is more than a day trip from the capital.
Emirates Airlines flies from Australia to Dubai 84 times per week, with daily onward connections to 35 European destinations including Istanbul, where you can connect with Adria Airlines for the flight to Ljubljana. 1300-303-777; www.emirates.com/au
# This is an abbreviated version of a story from Vacations & Travel Magazine: