Slovenia - Europe's hidden gems is written by Trine Søgaard.
An unknown country - Slovenia
Slovenia? I've heard the country's name before, but where in the world is it really? I have just been told that I am going on my first assignment as a travel writer, and the trip goes to this - at least for my part - rather unknown country.
With a slight sense of humility over my own lack of geographical knowledge, I discreetly look at the office world map hanging on the wall. Arh - there it is.
A week later I fly off with course towards Balkans to get wiser in this country. This is my story about Slovenia, its breathtaking nature, ancient traditions, the people's fascinating belief in the supernatural, and why it is worth visiting.
In my opinion is Slovenia raw and at the same time enchanting nature an overlooked gem of many travelers - and not least myself. The small country is located in Central Europe and borders Hungary, Croatia, Italy og Austria.
The Alps in the north tear up the otherwise flat landscape and create fantastic mountain areas. Here the November fog settles heavily around the peaks and envelops the dark green coniferous forests in a mysterious haze.
The runoff from the mountains flows rushing through the national parks like a myriad of crystal clear rivers, where Soča and Krka are probably the ones one might have heard of before.
The weather is dark and cold at this time of year, and at night until the second day the snow falls. At this sight, my Slovenian tour guide Petra shakes her head, for we are going out and driving in mountains. Still, I sense a glimmer of excitement in her dark brown eyes.
The Slovenes love being outdoors. A layer of freshly fallen powders is an irresistible invitation to spend a day cross-country skiing or on the slopes, and I kind of understand that.
As we move up the winding mountain roads, Petra cheerfully talks about the many things they love to do especially in the summer: kayaking, cycling, swimming, hiking, and the enumeration continues. I have no doubt that if you love the outdoors, then Slovenia is the place to go.
In summer, the country springs into lush vegetation and colorful flowers, while temperatures are around 30 degrees. It sounds nice, but at the moment it's a little hard to imagine with my icy toes and the snow outside.
In fact, the Slovenes' love for challenging themselves in the hilly nature goes so far that it is well-liked to climb the country's highest mountain, Triglav, which is just over two kilometers high, at least once in its life.
I ask Petra if she has done that too. "Of course," she replies, laughing. "Twice even."
Bled or Lake Como?
Out of the many nature sites we had to experience in five days, I was especially looking forward to seeing Lake Bled. Known for its iconic white Maria Church located in the middle of the emerald green water surrounded by mountains. Just like I had seen in pictures.
When we reached, the gray clouds lay low across the valley. The almost black color of the water made me feel very little like having to cross the lake in a wooden boat without a keel. Which, by the way, is the only way to get to the church island.
However, I let myself be told that Bled on summer day can be compared to Lake Como in Italy. After that remark, I was a little disappointed to realize that when traveling to Slovenia, November may not be the best month to visit these sights.
Fortunately, it turned out that there are other quite impressive opportunities to experience the Slovenian nature, where one is neither dependent on weather nor season. 50 km south of Ljubljana are the Postojna Caves. It is a convoluted tangle of tunnels made up of millions of years old stalagmites and stalactites.
Together they form impressive natural decorations in the huge cavities. By train you are transported deep into the underground, where the temperature is around 9 degrees all year round, so warm clothes are necessary.
Medieval castles and witchcraft
On your trip to Slovenia you will see that the country clearly bears the mark of being a country with a long history. Everywhere you find remnants of a magnificent past. With its strategic locations, ancient medieval castles sit on mountain tops and even in the middle of the capital Ljubljana. And the Predjama Castle seems to spring from a rock wall in the middle of the wild nature. This is truly an impressive sight.
This is equally well reflected in some of the country's small towns, which becomes apparent as we pass through Radovljica on foot. This small village is one of the best preserved in Slovenia, and the town's charming baroque architecture is breathtaking.
As we move along the main street, I spot a familiar figure through the gate to a backyard. It was Jesus on the cross carved into a large wooden figure. But this sight is actually not unusual when traveling to Slovenia.
In many places along the deserted and winding country roads you will find these tormented Messiah statues perched on a pole as well as small chapels with memorial candles. Perhaps it is not so strange even as over half of the Slovenian population belongs to the Christian church. But most interesting is that in this country there is faith in many forms.
Charming villages in Slovenia
In even the same town, Radovljica, a dinner offered, among other things, vegetable soup spiced with dried flower petals. All grown and harvested by the local witch who cultivated the crops after the cycle of the sun and moon. This casual remark made me close my eyes, but it was good enough.
Beliefs in witches and magic rituals date back to the 17th century. At the time, the Slovenes believed that some people possessed the abilities to predict the future, cast spells, and even heal the sick.
Today, however, this witch's autumn ritual was not so much about magical pursuit. It was more about feeling connected to nature. A need one quickly senses that many Slovenes have, but that does not make it any less fascinating.
Despite significant economic growth after independence in the nineties, Slovenia is a country that I, as a Scandinavian, experienced being able to travel cheaply in.
But on the fringes, one senses a lifestyle that has been - and in part still is - marked by poverty. On the other hand, it is under precisely these conditions that I have experienced the greatest hospitality elsewhere in the world. You will meet the same hospitality when you travel to Slovenia.
A bloody tradition
In the village of Zorenci I meet Nataša, who with open arms and without knowing a word of English invites us to dinner in her little bed and breakfast. For hours, the little black-haired lady has been standing in the kitchen.
Here she has managed to put together a sumptuous table of traditional dishes. She has made soup, duck and pork, which she serves for us in the living room under the main building, which previously served as a barn.
When I later - slightly dazed by satiety - move out to look at the frozen fields and snow-capped mountains around the city, a shrill squeal suddenly breaks the idyllic silence. I curiously pursue the sound into the middle of the neighbor's yard. Here it turns out that a bunch of men are about to take the life of a screaming pig.
The mood is high! The surrounding women kindly explain in broken German that in Slovenia they have a tradition of slaughtering a pig when the first snow has fallen. Meanwhile, the howls die out and the smell of blood slowly mixes with the smoke from the chimney and the stench from the barn. A nauseating cocktail.
Only once before in my spared life have I seen a larger animal killed with its bare human fists. Maybe that’s why this experience seems a bit overwhelming while on. But this is how life goes in the small Slovenian village.
And this particular tradition - and very authentic part of the country's culture - I would not have been without. An elderly woman with crooked teeth hands me a glass of sweet white wine. "Na zdravje!" there is shouting and we toast together as if we were old friends.
No matter how you travel to Slovenia, the country has a lot to offer. Whether you want to see beautiful nature, exciting history, a special culture or the enormously friendly people. Together, they form a string of overlooked and unique experiences. This is exactly what makes this country its own and without a doubt worth a visit for the adventurous.
What to see in Slovenia? Sights and attractions
- Triglav National Park
- Bled Lake
- Postojna Caves
- Predjama Castle
- The town of Radovljica
- The Vitgar gorge
- Lake Bohinj
RejsRejsRejs was invited on a trip by I Feel Slovenia - Slovenian Tourist Board. Attitudes and comments are, as always, our own.