Little Slovenia is the least visited and most underrated of Europe's alpine countries. From its prosperous capital of Ljubljana, we enjoy the mountain resort of Lake Bled, venture into the Julian Alps for natural thrills mixed with World War I history, go spelunking in a gigantic cave, and swim with Slavs in a charming Adriatic port.
Jože Plečnik House in Ljublijana
Ljubljana's favorite son lived here from 1921 until his death in 1957. He added on to an existing house, building a circular bedroom for himself and filling the place with bric-a-brac he designed, as well as artifacts, photos, and gifts from around the world that inspired him as he shaped Ljubljana. Today the house is decorated exactly as it was the day Plečnik died, containing much of his equipment, models, and plans. The house can be toured only with a guide, whose enthusiasm brings the place to life. There are very few barriers, so you are in direct contact with the world of the architect. Still furnished with unique, Plečnik-designed furniture, one-of-a-kind inventions, and favorite souvenirs from his travels, the house paints an unusually intimate portrait of an artist. As the house is slated to be closed for restoration sometime soon, it's important to ask the TI, check the website, or call the museum to be sure it's open before making the trek out here (tel. 01/280-1600, www.aml.si, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Church of the Assumption on Lake Bled
Lake Bled's little island (Otok) is capped by a super-cute church that is pretty to look at from afar but also fun to visit. On summer Saturdays, a steady procession of brides and grooms, cheered on by their entourages, heads for the island. An eighth-century Slavic pagan temple dedicated to the goddess of love and fertility once stood here; the current Baroque version (with Venetian flair — the bell tower separate from the main church) is the fifth to occupy this spot. The most romantic route to the island is to cruise on one of the distinctive pletna boats (catch one at several spots around the lake — most convenient from in front of Grand Hotel Toplice or just below Hotel Park, replaced by enclosed electric boats in winter — unless the lake freezes, mobile 031-316-575).
Tito's Vila Bled
Before World War II, this villa on Lake Bled was the summer residence for the Yugoslav royal family. When Tito ran Yugoslavia, the part-Slovene communist leader took over the place and had it renovated using plans from the architect Jože Plečnik. During his heyday, Tito entertained international guests here. Since 1984, it's been a classy hotel and restaurant, offering guests grand Lake Bled views and James Bond ambience. The garden surrounding the villa is filled with exotic trees, brought here by Tito's guests from distant lands. Even if you're not a guest here, the hotel's staff is generally tolerant of curious tourists poking around the public areas inside. From the marbled lobby, head upstairs. This is where Tito fans have a nostalgic opportunity to send an email from Tito's desk, sip tea in his lounge, and gawk at his Socialist Realist wall murals (tel. 04/579-1500, www.vila-bled.com).
Kluže Fort near Soča
Roughly five miles outside the town of Soča, the WWI-era Kluže Fort keeps a close watch over the narrowest part of a valley leading to Italy. In the 15th century, the Italians had a fort here to defend against the Ottomans. Half a millennium later, during World War I, it was used by Austrians to keep Italians out of their territory. Notice the ladder rungs fixed to the cliff face across the road from the fort — allowing soldiers to quickly get up to the mountaintop (tel. 05/389-6444, www.bovec.si).
This modest but world-class museum, offering a haunting look at the tragedy of the Soča Front, was voted Europe's best museum in 1993. The tasteful exhibits, with fine English descriptions and a pacifist tone, take an even-handed approach to the fighting — without getting hung up on identifying the "good guys" and the "bad guys." The museum's focus isn't on the guns and heroes, but on the big picture of the front and on the stories of the common people who fought and died here (Gregorčičeva 10, Kobarid, tel. 05/389-0000, www.kobariski-muzej.si).
The Škocjan Caves offers good formations and a vast canyon with a raging underground river. You'll end up walking about two miles, going up and down more than 400 steps. The first half of the experience is the "dry caves," with a wide array of wondrous formations and what seem like large caverns. The experience builds and builds as you go into ever-more-impressive grottoes, and you think you've seen the best. But then you get to the truly colossal "finale" cavern, with a mighty river crashing through the bottom. You'll come out in a canyon for a steep, somewhat strenuous hike to a small funicular, which lifts you back to the ticket booth/café/shop (tel. 05/708-2110, www.park-skocjanske-jame.si).
Burrowed into the side of a mountain close to Postojna is dramatic Predjama Castle, one of Europe's most scenic castles (despite its dull interior). Predjama is a hit with tourists for its striking setting, exciting exterior, and romantic legend. The first castle here was actually a tiny ninth-century fortress embedded deep in the cave behind the present castle. Over the centuries, different castles were built here, and they gradually moved out to the mouth of the cave. While the original was called "the castle in the cave," the current one is pred jama — "in front of the cave." By the 16th century, Predjama had become a castle for hunting more than for defense — explaining its current picturesque-but-impractical design. English descriptions are sparse, and the free English history flier is not much help. But for most, the views of the place alone are worth the drive (tel. 05/751-6015).
For up-to-date specifics, see the latest edition of the Rick Steves' Croatia & Slovenia travel guide or the Rick Steves Eastern Europe travel guide — or join us on one of our free-spirited Eastern Europe tours.