From the Capital to the Coast
Good things come in small packages, and Slovenia undoubtedly fits that expression. With an area a little over 20,000 sq kms, what the country lacks in physical size it more than makes up for with diversity. Due to its compactness virtually any sight is just a daytrip away. Hike in the Alps one day and then bask in the sun on the Adriatic Coast the next. Go rafting or kayaking on the thundering mountain rivers in the morning and then spend the afternoon sampling the sumptuous wines in the many vinotekas lining the lush green hills. With so much diversity in such a small area, Slovenia makes an ideal holiday or short break and literally has something for everyone.
Tucked neatly between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia this small Central European country offers a wealth of diversity when it comes to landscape, beauty, lifestyle and history. For hundreds of years it was ruled by the Austrian Empire before joining the former Yugoslavia after the First World War. In 1991 it was the first to break away and thankfully managed to escape the war that ensued across its southern borders. In 2004 Slovenia joined the EU.
Being located in the heart of Europe, getting to Slovenia is a relatively easy task. The capital’s airport, which was re-christened many years ago “Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport” after the man who was instrumental in instigating Slovenia’s independence from the former Yugoslavia, is just 26kms north of the city centre. There are regular flights from London Stansted and Gatwick with Easyjet, From Luton with Wizz Air. To get there from Dublin, you will need to take Ryanair to Venice Treviso, then you can take a shuttle service offered by GoOpti direct from the airport to the capital Ljubljana, or anywhere else in the country.
The easternmost edge of the European Alps form the northern and western borders with Austria and Italy, while the Adriatic Sea provides a short, yet fascinating, stretch of coastline. Western Slovenia, from the coast to the foothills of the Alps retains a distinctively mild sub-Mediterranean climate thanks to the warm winds that blow in from the coast. However, on occasions that warmth can be counteracted by the fierce and bitterly cold Burja (bora) wind that howls from the northeast, dropping down from Nanos Mountain, near Postojna, and causing rapid drops in temperature. Much of the western region is karst, a vast world of limestone where huge, intricate caves systems have been carved out by erosion over millions of years, and fertile soils and an abundance of sunshine provides ideal conditions for winemaking. Add to that a scattering of medieval castles, ornate gothic churches and charismatic villages where locals eagerly await to serve you home-cooked food and it will soon become ever so apparent why visitors keep coming back.
Slovenia’s capital city, Ljubljana, may pale in comparison to other more mighty European cities, yet this is its charm. Strolling through the centre it feels more like a large town, than a capital city. This however, doesn’t mean that it lacks the sophistication and attractions of its European neighbours. With its hilltop castle standing guard over the city centre and old town, its plethora of exquisite architecture (much of it designed by Slovenia’s most celebrated architect, Jože Plečnik), and the bars and cafes that spill out onto the patios outside, Ljubljana somehow manages to be a peaceful small town as well as a vibrant and exciting city. The castle is 1000 years old. Its most visited feature is the pentagonal tall tower. A narrow spiral staircase winds its way up to the top, where you will emerged to a panoramic, breathtaking view of not only the city, but the surrounding mountains.
For a great view and photo of the castle itself, head up to the rooftop cafe at Nebotičnik (the city’s skyscraper). Ljubljana also loves Ireland, and on Saint Patrick’s weekend the Irish embassy has in the past arranged for the castle to be lit green at night in honour of the patron saint. But Ljubljana was crowned European Green Capital for 2016, and the city had the castle lit green all year to commemorate this. So, not to be put off, the embassy arranged for the castle to be lit on the tri-colours of the Irish flag. A sight you will never see again. Thankfully I did, and headed to Nebotičnik to photograph it in both colours.
Ljubljana is also conveniently located in the middle of the country, which means that virtually everywhere in Slovenia is just a short drive away. For now we will head west and sample the delights that this region of undulating karst hills and plateaus has to offer. The coast is just an hour’s drive down the motorway, but don’t just wiz through; there is plenty to keep you occupied in-between.
As you head west you will not fail to see the sign for Postojna Caves, a vast underground cave system carved out by millions of years of limestone erosion. 42% of Slovenia is karst, and in this region there is a network of underground tunnels. The largest and most famous are at Postojna. Stretching a total of 21kms, of which 5.2kms are now open to tourists, this is the most extensive cave system in Slovenia. So far nearly 30 million tourists have visited this stunningly beautiful underground formation, carved deep into the heart of the limestone hills. The 1½ hour tour will take you through a fascinating world full of large, colourful stalactites and stalagmites, and the many mysteries of this underground world. You will also learn about the unique “human fish”; an odd creature that lives in dark pools inside the caves and defies all the logic of human nature. It’s 25cms long and completely blind (not that it needs eyes as it lives in total darkness). It has pigment-less skin and a long tail fin to propel itself through the water, but despite this it also has four legs. It has gills for breathing underwater, but also lungs for breathing out of water. Scientists have never been able to figure out how they reproduce and they can live up to 100 years.
An impenetrable castle guarded by a cunning knight
A short drive from Postojna is the magnificent and imposing sight of Predjama Castle. Wedged tight into a crevasse halfway up the edge of a 123-metre cliff-face that protrudes dramatically into the surrounding valley, this daring piece of architecture is four stories high.
The first castle was built here around the 12th century, but the restored structure you see today dates from the 16th century. But a century before that, while the castle was still unfinished, Erasmus (Erazem of Predjama), lived here. Erasmus rebelled against the Austrian emperor, Fredrick III, and eventually killed his kinsman. Thus enraged, the Austrian leader commissioned the governor of Trieste to capture and kill Erasmus. This is where the impregnability of Predjama Castle was truly put to the test.
For a year and a day Erasmus was besieged in his fortress. But, much to the dismay of his adversaries, he continued to survive and taunt the attacking soldiers by pelting them with cherries. They couldn’t figure out how he was getting his supplies. As far as they knew, there was only one way in and out of the valley, and the castle. But the cunning knight knew better.
Unbeknownst to the soldiers, Erasmus knew of a secret tunnel leading from the castle, which allowed him to travel to the nearby village of Vipava and collect supplies, including hoards of fresh cherries when the season was ripe.
But it seemed that the solders were to have the last laugh. A servant of Erasmus was bribed to reveal, with the placement of a small flag, when the elusive knight needed to go where even the most noble of men need to go after consuming lots of cherries and wine: the outhouse. Unfortunately for Erasmus, the toilet, situated on the top floor and at the very edge of the castle, was the one place that wasn’t so impregnable, and when the flag was placed by the treacherous servant, a single cannon ball was launched and the errant knight was literally caught with his pants down.
Guided tours of the castle are available daily during the summer and you’ll be shown around by an enthusiastic young guide dressed in medieval attire and seemingly under the delusion that he is Erasmus himself. Erasmus was said to have been buried just outside at the entrance to the valley, where a large linden tree grows. According to legend, this tree was planted by the knight’s sweetheart on the spot where he was buried – obviously before his body was exhumed and restored, along with the castle, by the local authorities so he could lead everyone on this tour.
In order to obtain supplies, Erasmus used a secret exit from the castle itself, but this was sealed at the beginning of the 17th century to stop thieves entering. From this cave extends a large underground network of tunnels carved out over millions of years by a stream called Lokva. This stream emerges in the town of Vipava, 13½ kilometres away (known locally as mini Venice owing to its 25 bridges).
The Heart of the Karst
The Vipava valley stretches through the heart of the Karst region and some sections can often be closed off to large vehicles due to the ferocity of the Burja winds. The most noticeable characteristics of the area are the limestone houses which are protected by the government as cultural monuments. Another unique feature is the heavy stone roofs and chimneys supported with limestone slabs to help protect against the Burja.
Pliskovica is one of many villages lying in Slovenia’s Karst region. The village lies in the region of Primorska. Spend the night at the Pliskovica Youth Hostel, which is located in a lovely old karst farmstead. Part of the building has been modernised, but many sections remain as it has been for decades, namely the old Karst log fire which was where the family would gather during the chilly evenings. The fireplace lies just inside the entrance, where the original stone floor remains and is now the dining room. An old wooden staircase leads to the rooms, and slippers are provided so you won’t damage the upstairs with your heavy boots.
The sub-Mediterranean climate also provides ideal conditions for winemaking. Vineyards sprawl across the hills. The region’s soil is known as Terra Rosa, and from it the ruby red Teran and Refošk wines are produced. The soil here is a lovely deep red, and the reason for this is the amount of iron, released when the limestone dissolves. Slovenian wines are rarely exported. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. To sample these unique wines is just one of many reasons to visit the area. There are plenty of tourist farms and restaurants offering degustations, and who will also offer the famous Karst ham (Pršut), air-dried, matured and served in ultra thin slices; a perfect compliment to the wine.
The Karst region covers most of western Slovenia and also stretches right the way to the coast. Before you arrive at the coast though, there’s another set of caves: the Skočjan Caves. Although not as large, they are far more spectacular than Postojna. The caves were carved out over millions of years by the Reka River, which still gushes through with the almighty force that can be heard echoing through the great caverns as you walk through. The highlight of the tour is crossing the 45m-high Hanke Canal Bridge, which takes you across the river.
The beautiful Lipizzaner Horses
The nearby village of Lipica would probably be passed by if not for the famous Lipica Stud Farm, where you can visit beautiful thoroughbred horses whose glistening white coats and gentle, graceful dancing have earned them a worldwide reputation. You can take a tour in a traditional carriage, watch them perform at the daily show and visit them up close in their stables.
The farm was originally founded in 1580 by the Archduke Charles (third son of Ferdinand I of Habsburg). Back then the Spanish horse was generally considered to be the highest quality breed. The Archduke signed an agreement to restore the summer manner of the Bishop of Trieste after its virtual destruction by the invading Turks. He chose this spot due to its rich soil and climate bearing many similarities to Spain. He then imported twenty-four broodmares and six stallions from Spain and began his breeding program.
Down by the seaside
A short hop from here and you’ll find yourself on Slovenia’s short, yet impressive stretch of coastline. The wonderfully ornate architecture left behind by the ancient Venetians is most prevalent in the small town of Piran, while the modern affluence of Portorož sits just around the corner but seems like a world away. Piran sits on the tip of a narrow peninsula and its narrow streets provide a cool respite from the heat of the Adriatic sun, and eventually lead up to the Church of Saint George where you can climb the bell tower for a magnificent view across the red-tiled roofs that sprawl across town to the glistening waterfront. After all that exhaustion you can take a seat outside one of the many cafes and restaurants along the waterfront or in the lovely Tartini Square and relax with the best cappuccino you’ll ever taste.