The Best of Slovenia
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 WWI history, go spelunking in a gigantic cave, and swim with Slavs in a charming Adriatic port.
One of Ljubljana's most insteresting sights is the house of the architecht who redesigned much of his city. Today it's decorated exactly as it was the day Plečnik died in 1957, 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.
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).
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.
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. Ladder rungs fixed to the cliff face (across the road from the fort) allowed soldiers to quickly get up to the mountaintop.
This modest but world-class museum offers 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.
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.
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.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time, it's beaches, caves, and Alps — enjoying a cultural workout...in Slovenia. Thanks for joining us.
Tiny Slovenia — with just two million people — is one of Europe's most unexpectedly delightful destinations. Located where the Germanic, Mediterranean, and Slavic worlds come together, Slovenia has a unique appeal.
We'll enjoy the playful architecture and lively café culture of its capital city, row to a church-capped island, explore the Julian Alps, descend into a grand, underground canyon, and sunbathe with Slavs on the tiny but inviting Slovenian coast.
During most of the 20th century, Yugoslavia was on the other side of what was called the "Iron Curtain." As Yugoslavia broke up into separate countries in the 1990s, Slovenia became independent after a 11-day war. We begin in the capital city, Ljubljana. After relaxing at Lake Bled, we loop through the Julian Alps and the historic Soča River Valley. We end at the Adriatic resort of Piran.
Ljubljana feels small. It is, with only about a quarter-million people. But it's by far the country's largest city, cultural capital, and a charming place to kick off any Slovenian trip.
A fortress has capped Ljubljana's hill since Roman times. As if turning its back on its hard-fought history, the city playfully straddles its sleepy river. Ljubljana is laid-back — the kind of place where crumbling buildings seem elegantly atmospheric rather than shoddy. In its relaxed pedestrian center, it seems all roads lead to the main square. Fancy facades and whimsical bridges ornament daily life with a Slovenian twist.
Centuries of rule from Vienna under the German-speaking Habsburgs seems to have both inspired an appreciation of the good life and strengthened the local spirit. The statue of France Prešeren, Slovenia's greatest poet, reminds locals that their language and culture are both distinct and worthy of pride.
The Triple Bridge — where the town square joins the river — is both a popular meeting place and a beloved symbol of the city.
The bridge seems almost Venetian. That's because the architect recognized that Ljubljana is located midway between Venice and Vienna, and the city itself was — and still is — a bridge between the Italian and Germanic worlds.
The riverfront market is a hive of activity, where big-city Slovenes enjoy buying directly from the farmer. Over time, shoppers develop friendships with their favorite producers. In this tiny country, it seems like everybody knows each other. Some farmers still use wooden carts to bring veggies in from their garden patches. Then they flip over the cart to turn it into a sales stand. The market is a perfect opportunity to connect with the locals.
Rick: Dober dan.
Vender: Dober dan.
Rick: Half kilo. How do you say "half-kilo"?
Vender: Pol kilo
Rick: This is your farm?
Vender: Our farm, yes. They are fresh.
Rick: Yes they look good.
These scales allow buyers to immediately double-check the arithmetic...just in case.
The Habsburg days left locals with the old saying, "Trust is good; control is better." Half a kilo, it's just right.
The market's picturesque colonnade is designed to link the town and the river. It feels made-to-order for conviviality — enjoying a drink or observing the market action. Nearby, market vintners proudly share their wines. These wines, from the northeast, are considered some of the country's best.
Ljubljana's single best activity is simply strolling the riverfront promenade and sitting in an outdoor café watching the stylish Slovenes strut their stuff. As home of the country's main university, youthful Ljubljana is busy with students.
An earthquake leveled the town in 1895. It was rebuilt in the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles so popular in Vienna, the empire's capital at the time. Ljubljana remains a treasure-trove of engaging architecture. This striking bank building was designed by an ambitious architect, hoping to forge a uniquely Slovenian style.
But the big name in local architecture and urban planning is Jože Plečnik. Like Gaudí shaped Barcelona and Bernini shaped Rome, Plečnik shaped Ljubljana. He lived in the early 20th century, studied in Vienna, made his name in Prague, and had the greatest impact right here, in his hometown.
The prolific Plečnik essentially remodeled his hometown with his distinctive classical-meets-modern style. Along with the Triple Bridge and market colonnade, Plečnik's genius for urban design — the ability to connect Ljubljanans to their city and river — is evident in his Cobbler's Bridge. Because he loved his town, walked to work each day, and had to live with what he designed, Plečnik was particularly thoughtful about incorporating aesthetics, nature, and people's needs into his work.
The house of Ljubljana's favorite son is on an unassuming street. But behind the gate, in his garden, the creative world of Plečnik opens up. Guides, passionate about his work, give meaning to his home.
Natalija: So this is Plečnik's room, where he worked, and he slept here.
Rick: So his bed is right next to his work table.
Natalija: Yes, absolutely.
Rick: And a single bed — so he never married?
Natalija: No, he was married to the architecture. But on the other hand, you have here a gilded sculpture on top of the ceiling. Some kind of a muse, you know. But if you look all around, you will see there are many, many personal objects...his glasses, or — for example — his hat. He was famous by that hat. He was always wearing it and always dressed in black.
Rick: So, Plečnik is very important to the Slovenian people.
Natalija: Absolutely. He left such a strong mark, not only in Vienna and Prague, but definitely in Ljubljana, because all the land accesses and river accesses are designed by Plečnik.
Rick: And his heritage lives on today as the people enjoy these places.
Natalija: That is the most important. All the bridges are crowded, you know. Architecture really lives, even nowadays.
If this city works for its people and fits their character, it's at least in part thanks to Jože Plečnik.
In Slovenia, so small and so laced with modern freeways, virtually every sight is within an hour or two of the capital city. We're headed north, into Slovenia's Julian Alps.
Our first stop is the country's top alpine resort: Lake Bled. Since the Habsburg days, this is where Slovenes take their guests — whether kings or cousins — to show off their natural wonders.
The castle is striking, as are the views from the castle. Lake Bled retains an aura of the Romantic Age.
Slovenes are particularly fond of their famous local pastries. The decadent kremšnita artfully sandwiches layers of cream and vanilla custard between sheets of delicate crust.
Lake Bled's iconic island is the focal point of any visit. Romantic pletna boats, unique to this lake, ferry visitors back and forth. Locals still build their pletnas by hand with larch wood from a design passed down from father to son for centuries. There's no keel, so the skilled oarsmen work hard to steer the flat-bottomed boat with each stroke.
The island has been a special gathering point through the ages. Ninety-nine steps lead from the dock up to the summit — and the Church of the Assumption. A local superstition claims that if you ring this bell three times, your wish will come true.
While no motorized boats disturb the tranquility of Lake Bled, it does have its human-powered speed boats. Bled is the rowing capital of Slovenia. Crews stroke rhythmically through glassy waters, merging natural and human grace.
Strolling the three miles around the lake, visitors enjoy ever-changing views. Also enjoying dramatic lake views are handsome villas, mostly from the 19th century.
My favorite was once the vacation villa of Yugoslav president-for-life, Marshal Tito.
Slovenia was one of six republics united to make Yugoslavia — a country that existed basically from just after WWI until the 1990s. Tito, a larger-than-life, strong-arm dictator, was the only leader who could hold that troubled union together.
When Tito ran Yugoslavia, he huddled with foreign dignitaries — from Indira Gandhi and Nikita Khrushchev to Kim Il Sung — right here. After Tito died in 1980, his villa was converted into a classy hotel, offering guests a James Bond ambience. In this high-end suite, you can actually sleep in the dictator's bed. And guests can use Tito's personal desk for something I bet he never imagined...sending an email.
Here in what was Tito's ballroom, a mural survives, telling of World War II heroics. After the Nazis bombed Belgrade and took over their country, the ragtag gang of Yugoslav patriots, inspired by charismatic commanders, formed a resistance army. Vastly outgunned, they fought back valiantly, eventually defeating the German invaders.
Tito and his Partisan Army booted the Nazis without Soviet help. That's why, unlike his Eastern European neighbors, Tito could and did chart his own course — independent from the USSR.
My friend and Slovenian tour guide Tina Hiti is joining us to help sort out the Yugoslav puzzle.
Rick: I find this propaganda so stirring. I can see how it would make people just want to wave a flag.
Tina: Yeah, this is a very typical socialist realism propaganda. It was all over Eastern Europe, and if you look at the picture, you can see the proud workers, you know, carrying their tools. You can see them with shovels. And then you can see here the true representative of a strong woman carrying a child and proudly waving the flag. But still, you know, it's a propaganda of Eastern Europe — but it was so different over here. We were never inside the Warsaw Pact. That's why maybe the faces are a little happier.
Rick: So, how was communism in Yugoslavia different from all the communism we think about with the USSR?
Tina: Well, we chose our way. The "Third Way," we called it, and it was a lot different — like we could travel, we had free market economy, and there were jobs for everybody. The social system was good.
Rick: Tito had some magic ability to bring it together.
Tina: Well, probably his magic ability was that he was a mix of all the nationalities that included Yugoslavia. His mom was Slovene, his dad was a Croat, and his wife was a Serb, so he was the only true Yugoslav there was.
Rick: Today, are you happier with or without Tito and Yugoslavia?
Tina: I will say I was happy to live a part of Yugoslavia, but I am happy to be living in European Union as well.
This land has seen lots of change. But one thing that's constant is the warmth and hospitality of its people.
Tina's having us over for dinner to meet her family. Uh-oh, little Anže's more interested in bedtime than us. While Grandma and Grandpa take care of him, Tina and Sašo are giving us a peek at their apartment. They converted the attic of Tina's childhood home — creating plenty of space for their growing family.
Tina: Here we are.
Rick: Whoa. This is quite a surprise. When you come in, you don't realize how much is here.
Sašo: It doesn't show from the outside, does it?
Rick: You wouldn't know, looking up here. It looks just like a loft.
Sašo: It's a secret compartment of our house.
Rick: With Grandma and Grandpa downstairs.
Sašo: Built-in babysitters. This is our living room. This is where we spend rainy afternoons.
Rick: This is very comfortable and very spacious, really. Above Grandma and Grandpa's...now, I still can't get over that, because — I've got to say — in America, there is this stigma about people in their thirties still with their mom and dad, raising their kids upstairs.
Sašo: That's the usual thing around here.
Tina: Very typical.
Sašo: Alright, and this is the little kid's room...
Sašo: ...Anže is his name. The room is soon going to be shared by another baby, which is due in four and a half months.
Rick: In four months?
Sašo: We are almost halfway through
Rick: Anže will have a roommate. This is great.
Sašo: Yeah, ha ha ha.
While the two families live separately, they share lots of dinners. And the hearty local food provides a good foundation for a lively conversation.
Rick: This is very interesting, because this is food I would think about in Germany or Austria or in the north. But, we're right in the middle...Italy, Germany. And how does that affect your culture here?
Sašo: We are punctual when we need to be punctual. We will be on schedule when we need to be on schedule. But we can also be really laid back, relaxed, mellow about certain things.
Rick: If you're angry what would...?
Sašo: We will curse. Seriously.
Rick: In Slovene? What would you tell me?
Sašo: I would say, Tristo kosmatih medvedov...
Rick: That's your worst?
Sašo: ...or "three hundred hairy bears." This is just about our worst.
Rick: Three hundred hairy bears?
Rick: That's worse than "Your mother wears army boots."
Rick: Gorazd, you grew up with Tito. Are you nostalgic about Yugoslavia?
Gorazd: No, no. Not nostalgic, because now we live better than in former Yugoslavia. There in former Yugoslavia, there were good things and also bad things. Maybe one of the better things was for young families, because they can get apartment, they can get job. Bad things about Yugoslavia was maybe because there was no good stimulation for good workers. For good or bad workers, the wage was all the same.
Rick: So Yugoslavia was good for bad workers.
Gorazd: Good for bad workers, yes.
Rick: And today, capitalism has changed — good for good workers.
Gorazd: It's good, yeah.
There's really no better way to get to know a place, than a meal with a local family.
This northwestern corner of Slovenia — within yodeling distance of both Austria and Italy — is crowned by the Julian Alps.
Exploring the Slovenian countryside, you get the feeling things work. Valleys that just a generation ago were industrial wastelands are green and getting greener. Villages gather around Baroque bell towers amid rich farmland. The unique roofed hayrack is recognized as part of the national heritage. In this unpredictable climate, hay is hung on the rack to stay dry.
These Alps, with their craggy limestone ridges, bring to mind Italy's Dolomites just over the border. Like the more famous Alps of Austria and Switzerland, the Julian Alps are busy with nature-lovers both winter and summer. In the center of this region is Mount Triglav, Slovenia's symbol and tallest mountain. Locals claim that you're not a true Slovene until you've climbed Triglav.
Vršič Pass, which comes with 50 hairpin turns, was originally a military road. It was built during World War I by 10,000 Russian prisoners of war. In 1916, an avalanche thundered down the mountainside, killing hundreds of these workers.
This little Russian chapel, built where the final victim was found, offers today's visitors a chance to pay their respects to those who made this scenic drive possible.
At the crest of the 5,000-foot-high pass, there's snow even in late May — and a commanding view.
The road switchbacks down into the valley of the Soča River. Springy suspension bridges offer a memorable roadside stop. The Soča continues to cut its way deeper and deeper into this gorge. Tiny bits of limestone — the geological equivalent of sawdust around here — reflecting under the brilliant blue skies gives the river its rich turquoise color.
While the valley is a favorite for nature-lovers today, it has its dark side. It was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of World War I. With over a million casualties, it was nicknamed the "Valley of the Cemeteries."
This peaceful river valley was known as the Soča Front, or the Isonzo Front in Italian.
Before independence, before Yugoslavia, Slovenia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1915, neighboring Italy declared war on the empire. They quickly took this valley, driving Austro-Hungarian troops high into these mountains — from where the Austro-Hungarians fended off ten bloody and uphill Italian offensives.
The Kluže Fort keeps vigil over the narrowest part of the valley, which leads from Italy, through Slovenia, toward Austria. The Austro-Hungarians knew if their enemies could break through this front, it was a straight shot to their capital, Vienna.
But the Soča Front was 60 miles wide, and many of the defenses were more crude and remote. Every ridge was strategic. And much of the fighting was actually done way up high, on the frigid mountain cliffs.
The defenses included a web of tunnels that went all the way to the tops of the mountains.
A museum in the town of Kobarid tells the story of the Soča Front and humanizes the suffering of this horrific but almost forgotten corner of World War I. This was unimaginably difficult warfare — waged in the harshest of conditions. Trenches were carved into ice and rock instead of mud, and many ill-equipped conscripts froze to death. During one winter alone, some 60,000 soldiers were killed by avalanches.
Just above town, a somber memorial to the Italian attackers was built in the stern Fascist style under Mussolini. It memorializes 7,000 Italian soldiers — victims of just one battle. The poignant reality: costly battles eventually fade into the history books...like the Soča Front.
A short drive south takes us into a totally different landscape: Slovenia's Karst region — a high, fertile, and windblown plateau. In this land of stout hill towns and rugged farmers, grapes for the full-bodied local red wine thrive in the iron-rich soil.
Since the limestone upon which everything around here sits is easily dissolved by water, the Karst is honeycombed with a vast network of caves and underground rivers.
The most dramatic cave to tour is Škocjan. Visitors begin by seeing a multitude of formations in a series of large caverns. Guides tell the story as, drip by drip, stalactites grow from spaghetti-thin strands to mighty sequoia-like stone pillars.
In the grand cavern, the sound of a mighty river crashes through the mist. Chiseled into the wall, the scant remains of century-old trails evoke the early days of tourism here. It's a world where a thousand evil Wizard of Oz monkeys could comfortably fly in formation. Crossing a breathtaking footbridge 150 feet above the torrent gives you faith in Slovenian engineering. The cave finally widens, sunlight pours in, and visitors emerge — like lost creatures seeking daylight — into a lush canyon.
Nearby, wedged into another Karst-region cave, is Predjama — one of Europe's most photogenic castles. There's been a castle here for nearly a thousand years. The mouth of the cave provided a strategic place for some feudal lord to stick his fortified manor house. This version dates from the 16th century.
While there's little reason to go inside, the castle makes an ideal spot for a scenic drink — and a great capper for our visit to the Karst region.
While neighboring Croatia is famous for its coastline, Slovenia enjoys its own 29-mile stretch of Adriatic seafront — that's about one inch per resident. Its best stop: the town of Piran.
Many Adriatic towns are overwhelmed by tourists and concrete, but Piran has kept itself charming and in remarkably good repair while holding the tourist sprawl at bay. Crowded onto the tip of its peninsula, Piran can't grow. The main square was once a protected harbor...until it began to stink so bad, they had to fill it in. A colorful mix of work and pleasure boats fill today's harbor.
These days, Piran's walls are inviting rather than defensive, and the town is simply an enjoyable place in which to relax. Explore the evocative back lanes. Hike up to the cathedral and scale the Venetian-style bell tower. On top, catch your breath by enjoying views of Piran and nearly the entire Slovenian coastline.
The traffic-free harborfront — lined with Slovenes enjoying fresh seafood — is made-to-order for a stroll. Swimmers frolic, while sunbathers claim more than their share of the national coastline.
Piran clusters around its showpiece square, Piazza Tartini. As with most towns on the Adriatic, it was long ruled by nearby Venice and retains its Venetian flavor. In fact, the town's officially bilingual: Slovene and Italian. Today, the square is enjoyed by visitors and locals of all generations — savoring the good life where the Slavic world, the Alps, and the Mediterranean all come together.
This fascinating and offbeat corner of Europe is one more example of the Continent's many hidden charms. I hope you've enjoyed Slovenia. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.