The Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church, located in the center of Lake Bled | Photo by Conor MacNeill/500px
Surrounded by Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia, Slovenia isn’t a place that’s easily located on a map. But that’s part of its appeal. Sharing influences with its illustrious European neighbors, Slovenia’s culture and topography seem to take a bite out of the Mediterranean and a chunk from the Alps. Sometimes you feel as though you’re on a side street in Italy or Vienna — but without the crush of the crowds.
Though the plazas and bridges bustle with activity, even the capital city, Ljubljana, feels charming, stylish, and civilized, not overrun by tourists. And with approximately 60% of this tiny country still forested, there’s ample greenery to revitalize visitors.
In a week, it’s almost possible to experience everything Slovenia has to offer, like cycling from coastal Piran all the way to a salt farm on the Croatian border; hiking the crocus-filled mountain trails to a historic herdsmen’s settlement; and even dancing with drag queens until dawn at a sprawling club in Metelkova Mesto, Ljubljana’s artistic, quasi-illegal squatters’ zone located in a former military barracks (an old prison has even been converted into a hip hostel). Slovenia’s meals often come decorated with edible flowers, and paired with delicious white wines mostly unavailable outside the country, since it produces only enough for domestic consumption.
The most charming attribute of Slovenia — which recently became the 11th European Union nation to approve marriage equality — is its castles, such as the Grad Otočec hotel (Grad-Otocec.com), located on a small island in the Krka River, and Predjama Castle, which is practically plucked from a fantasy novel. Built within rock formations on the side of a cliff more than 800 years ago, it’s anchored in a formidable position near the massive Postojna Cave.
And then there’s Lake Bled.
To some, there may be a certain logic in resisting a trip to the country’s most famous destination, fearing that the hordes of interlopers would break the spell of this fairytale setting — a Baroque church spire jutting out from a lonely lake island (and yes, another enchanting castle on a cliff, too).
But almost magically, the throngs never materialize, and instead visitors are quietly rowed to the island’s edge by an oarsman. There, breaking the silence of the setting is the sound of a church bell from above.
Pro Tip: “Eat at the Open Kitchen at the Ljubljana Central Market, designed by architect Jože Plečnik, who is to this city what Gaudí is to Barcelona.” Andrej Mahovič, architecture professor and co-owner of the design firm DAK