Slovenia: Lovely, lonely, forgotten treasure

By Andrea Jutson

The town of Piran on the Adriatic Sea has Venetian overtones. Photo / Supplied
The town of Piran on the Adriatic Sea has Venetian overtones. Photo / Supplied

I have five hours to kill in an airport roughly the size of a woolshed. There's nothing here at Ljubljana International save other waiting passengers, a souvenir shop and two coffee bars.

That's what happens when you quit your job to go travelling and you've still got weeks on the pound and the euro to go. When the cheap shuttle leaves, you're on it. Still, I feel a strong reluctance to go just yet.

Ljubljana, capital of newly capitalist Slovenia, is a city small enough for larger empires to swallow without chewing. The Romans did it, then the Venetians, the Austrians, Napoleon and finally the Communists.

Slovenia's now part of the European Union brotherhood and one of its forgotten treasures. That can't last.

The lonely slice of gherkin in the sandwich between tourist meccas Italy, Austria and Croatia, Slovenia is coming into its own.

Like New Zealand, it packs a great deal of scenery into a small space. It should tell you something that Prince Caspian was partly filmed here too. The little country has Italianesque beach towns, Austrian-style ski resorts, stunning lakes and some of the best caves in the world, complete with a scattering of castles.

Ljubljana has one of those, but it boasts much more than that.

I crossed the old town on foot in 15 minutes, then re-crossed it more slowly, drinking in the beauty of its colourful Baroque architecture, cobbled streets, and numerous footbridges over the river, one festooned with dragons.

Visions of a dire Communist backwater choked with Ladas and downtrodden peasants vanished instantly. In my jeans and wrinkled T-shirt, I was the worst dressed in this chic little city of trendy cafes and up-to-the-second bars, each filled with immaculate locals.

All spoke perfect English, shopping in boutiques and design stores. The only chains were L'Occitane, Lush and Bang & Olufsen.

Every second bar appeared to sell nothing but beer, wine or elaborate icecream sundaes made with the best gelato you ever tasted. I fell in love.

In the summer, Ljubljana is much more people-friendly than the heaving cities of Italy or Dubrovnik in Croatia, with just as much to do. Artists abound, giving theatre performances, selling jewellery at the riverside markets, or creating colour in the streets. I was charmed by one installation that featured a sign proclaiming it to be "The area with Ljubljana's own weather".

Above the square, a sprinkler created a small patch of rain to refresh hot passers-by. People were giggling like kids as real kids ran in and out of the rain. I enjoyed myself so much I ran out of time to visit Tivoli Park, or to join a Dragon Code tour - a puzzle-solver like The Da Vinci Code, with a local twist.

Ljubljana is also a day-tripper's paradise, with several locations within two hours' drive worth a day to themselves. Lake Bled, in the Alps just 65km from the city, is eye-poppingly beautiful.

The local castle provides a perfect viewpoint, although the swimming isn't quite as blissful. The bottom of the lake is all large rocks covered in slime.

I made the mistake of going in at the jetty where the quaint little covered pletna boats leave for the island - ie, the deepest point. With no footholds to propel myself out, I had a sinking feeling - and I'm not being metaphorical. Luckily a kind gentleman hauled me out, dripping with humiliation.

I later walked past a small beach where little children were swimming in knee-deep water. I went and hid in a cafe, covering my face with the local cream cake. A brief drive along the road, and I cheered up at Vintgar Gorge.

A gorgeous green river flows into rapids like a scene from Lord of the Rings. Nearby Lake Bohinj is a fantastic spot for hikers, paragliders or kayakers. Many prefer its quieter charms to Bled, although its water is usually a few degrees cooler. I opted not to try it.

The other major attraction in Slovenia is its Unesco-listed caves. The Postojna Caves are the best known.

One enters on a thrilling train that threatens to smash into the walls on every curve. Postojna has the same rock formations as Waitomo, but on a much grander scale, with cave after cave of wonders.

The other famed caves at Skocjan are a disappointment as most of their stalactites and stalagmites collapsed in a long-ago earthquake, but they're eerily akin to Moria from - yep, Lord of the Rings.

It's a quick trip from here to pretty Predjama Castle, where the knight Erasmus was blown up on the toilet, or to see the dancing Lipizzaner horses in Lipica, where they were first bred.

I ended the day at Piran, a coastal town with Venetian overtones, thanks to its previous overlords.

Stretched out by a sparkling blue sea, with more fabulous gelato, it's easy to remember Italy is just minutes away. Should you bother to make the trip.

CHECKLIST

* Easyjet provides daily flights to Ljubljana from London. There are also direct train services from Venice, Vienna and Zagreb.

* Adria is the national airline, and a member of Star Alliance.

* Slovenia is now on the euro, and prices are not too different from elsewhere in Europe - don't expect things to be all that cheap.

- NZ Herald

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