Slovenia

I pulled off the road onto a gravel shoulder and parked the car behind some other cars and a dozen or so kayaks sitting by the edge of the pavement. It was the only spot to stop that I’d seen in a while, and even better, it was right beside what I’d come to see, the Soča River.

The drive through Slovenia’s mountainous Triglav National Park is winding, narrow and steep. Negotiating the curves, I caught glimpses of the river through gaps in the pine forest. Even from those furtive glances I could see that everything I’d heard about the Soča was true.

Camera in hand, I picked my way down a short trail through the trees and finally looked at the river without worrying about driving off a cliff. The water was impossibly clear, like vodka, and the riverbed glowed electric green. It was like looking at an x-ray of a river, the water was so transparent. In the pools behind the rapids, big trout—a lot of them—sat on the sandy limestone bottom, finning quietly, and occasionally one of them would tilt upwards, letting the current carry it towards the surface in a perfectly timed interception of some insect floating by. Then with a flourish of its tail it returned to the bottom of the river, still in plain view.

It was stunning. Literally stunning, as in, my mind went blank and it felt like I’d been clubbed on the head. My entire vocabulary was reduced to two words, and I just said them over and over, out loud because somehow it wasn’t enough to just think them. ‘Beautiful. Gorgeous. Beautiful…’

There was a downside, though. Watching the kayakers skim across the emerald-green water made me wish that we could trade places. Seeing those trout, and just the river itself, made me yearn to spend a day fishing. But there wasn’t enough time. Which is why, only a few hours into my first day of my first trip to Slovenia, I thought, ‘I am definitely, definitely coming back here.’ The benefit of planning a return trip right off the bat was that now I could enjoy myself. I could see, for instance, some spectacular mountain trail that I couldn’t hike and think, that’s okay, I’m coming back.

Before arriving in Slovenia, I’d heard about one-day tours of the entire country, which seemed absurd but Slovenia is small, only slightly bigger than Lake Ontario. It sits on the northeast corner of the Adriatic Sea, crowded in by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, and while it is conceivably possible to see most of Slovenia’s highlights in a day, albeit briefly, I decided to budget six days for the job. But it still wasn’t enough.

Reluctantly leaving the Soča River behind, I crossed Slovenia’s highest mountain pass, the Vršič. They don’t make roads like that anymore, and for good reason. It makes the serpentine roads of the Tour de France look like highways. The Vršič Pass is more like a paved goat track, so full of hairpin curves that after half an hour of clutch-burning skyward progress you realise you haven’t driven in a straight line for more than ten feet.

Finally at the pass, I pulled over to enjoy the view. Slovenia’s Julian Alps seem to have narrower valleys than the rest of the Alps. The peaks are bunched in more closely, and the effect is spectacular. It was windy and a full ten degrees cooler than the valley floor. I grabbed my fleece from the trunk and zipped it up, taking in lung-fulls of the brisk mountain air.

There was a man in a kiosk beside the road selling trinkets and postcards but his star products were small tins of rendered marmot fat for use as ointment. A centuries-old remedy, so the sign said, for overworked muscles and joints. A few cyclists that had clawed their way up here looked like they could use some, but I noted they had opted for tall cans of Pilsner instead, another time-honoured treatment.

Back in the car, I made the long journey down the other side of the mountain, my right foot hovering over the brake pedal the whole way. I was on my way to Lake Bohinj, but against my best research, I stopped on the way at Lake Bled.

Lake Bled is like Niagara Falls, an iconic natural wonder, but one that’s been spoiled by its popularity. It’s beautiful, but blighted by sprawl, tourist buses and casinos. But unlike Niagara Falls, a short drive away there’s a bigger, more beautiful, and unspoiled version of it—Lake Bohinj.

The drive there alone is worth it. I chose the less popular, longer route, which suited me just fine because I was in no hurry for it to end. The road cut through dense pine forests and rolling farmland, interrupted by the occasional village with an onion-domed church spire built one or two centuries earlier.

There were signs of mechanisation on the farms, but there were also old men high on the hills cutting hay with scythes and drying it on the rafters of old barns. It was all so intact, and so authentic that ironically, it almost felt fake, like a movie set or a really well-done theme park.

Lake Bohinj is not exactly undiscovered, but it’s not overrun, either. It’s what I imagine a classic Alpine resort in the French Alps looked like a century ago. Like one of those early autochrome photographs in idyllic settings and pastel colours. You can do all the resorty things like rent a wooden canoe, have spaghetti bolognese and a glass of wine by the waterfront, fish, hike, climb, bike, paraglide. But it’s lost none of the charm of being a beautiful place tucked away in the mountains. I spent a wonderful sunny summer evening by the water, mentally taking note that this was one of the places I wanted to come back to.

Early the next morning, I made my way by secondary roads through low, wooded mountains to the country’s capital city, Ljubljana, population 277,000.

After so much natural beauty, I thought Ljubljana would be a disappointment, but it wasn’t. The first part of Yugoslavia to splinter off and proclaim independence, Slovenia, like northern Italy, retains an air of Germanic influence from when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire little more than a hundred years ago. Spotlessly clean, Ljubljana also has attractive architecture, large central parks, pedestrian-friendly streets, and lots of places by the Ljubjanica River—which flows right through the city centre—to have a bite to eat and a drink.

I had lunch in front of the outdoor food market, at a place called Valentin that was half fishmonger, half fish-restaurant. It was a casually elegant place, modernly renovated but in an old building. The selection was impressive, even if they didn’t have everything on the menu, but that’s understandable. It was the most extensive fish menu I’ve ever seen. My sea bass was excellent and the wine was also very good, and cheap.

I would have stayed in Ljubliana longer, but I still had to make it to the Adriatic Sea. Slovenia may be small, but it’s got a little of everything, including, a modest 43 kilometres of Mediterranean coastline. I had only one day for this mission, so I went to Piran. On such a small coast I imagine it’s a little easier to come to a consensus of which is the most beautiful village, but still, absolutely everything I read and everybody I talked to said to go to Piran. So I did.

You couldn’t drive into the town itself, understandably, since it’s tiny, most of the streets aren’t wide enough for cars anyway, and the entire place is a dead end on a point of land jutting out into the sea. So there’s a tourist parking lot at the top of the hill, above the town. It’s a giant, modern, multi-level parking complex and that’s when I thought, uh oh, maybe this place is going to be a seaside version of Lake Bled.

But happily, it was more like a seaside version of Lake Bohinj. A beautiful medieval town on the Adriatic that had somehow managed to retain its character and charm.

Piran was under Venetian rule for centuries, which left a legacy of buildings made in the Venetian Gothic style, with Byzantine window arches and walls painted in bright but soft colours. After having a beer in the elegant Tartini square, I wandered the warren of tiny stone streets, ducking under clotheslines and stepping over sleeping dogs until I came out on the other side beside the cobalt-blue Adriatic. A wide promenade circles the town like a dry moat, and I walked back around beside the sea, eyeing up each restaurant along the way.

I settled on a place after deciding the clientele looked like a discerning bunch. I nibbled on grissini, the ubiquitous, delicate Italian breadsticks, and watched as waiters served an impressive platter of scampi the size of lobsters to a tanned, well-dressed couple at the next table who each wore large gold watches and had his-and-hers dachshunds on leashes tied to their chairs.

I was worried about the price of the place, so I opted for the menu del giorno. It included fish soup, then battered hake with sautéed potatoes and a salad, with apple strudel for dessert. A fine mix of the Italian and Teutonic influences of Slovenia, and it cost a paltry 11 euros. I could hardly believe it.

I lingered over the rest of my wine and leaned back in the wicker chair, watching the people stroll by, the sea sparkling behind them, a soft breeze keeping things cool. It was my last day in Slovenia. I wanted to stay longer, but it was time to go. I had a plane to catch. But I didn’t take it too hard because I knew I’d be back. Definitely.