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Travel & Holiday

Scenic Slovenia

Whether you are looking for history, culture or adventure, Slovenia has them all
The Straits Times - July 26, 2011
By: Cai Haoxiang
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Scenic Slovenia ST PHOTOS: CAI HAOXIANG

Imagine a country where you can soak in the majesty of Alpine mountains in the morning and have a cappuccino along the Mediterranean coast in the afternoon.

Slovenia has all the luck.

With a population of just two million and a land area 30 times that of Singapore's, the country has scenic mountain ranges, valleys and rivers, a stylish, pint-sized capital and stretches of agricultural land with rustic cottages. Yet you can drive from one end to the other in a few hours.

It is a hidden, understated gem of a country that is one of my favourite places in Europe.

I was in Slovenia on a winter backpacking trip around Central and Eastern Europe four years ago and visited it again in the summer last month.

Nestled between Italy, Austria and Croatia, it is often bypassed by travellers lusting after the nearby extravagance of Venice, the opera houses of Vienna and the sunny beaches along the Croatian coast. But those seeking respite from the tourist hordes will find plenty to do over a week-long holiday.

They will discover picturesque Lake Bled, where a 1,000-year-old castle on a cliff overlooks an island on a lake, stroll around the narrow cobblestone walkways and ancient walls of pretty port-town Piran, or explore spectacular underground caverns and raging rivers deep in the Postojna or Skocjan caves.

Or go even further off the tourist path and do as the Slovenians do: lunch in gostilnas, rustic countryside inns which serve hearty, homemade Slovenian dishes, contemplate the wonders of nature by hiking, biking or skiing in the mountains, trek, kayak or raft in the Soca valley and admire the river's incredible natural shade of turquoise, or soak in the thermal waters in various towns in the eastern region.

Apart from the geography that makes all these activities possible, history, too, has dealt the Slovenes a good hand.

They were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire before becoming part of the ill-fated Yugoslavia in the 20th century. But they escaped unscathed from the ethnic cleansing of the Yugoslavian wars in the 1990s, becoming independent in 1991 and experiencing just 10 days of low-intensity fighting.

'People are pleasantly surprised when they visit. They say, oh, you don't have a war here anymore, you have computers, you have homes,' quips Mr Janez Ohnjec, 31, a professor of physical education and my Slovenian tour guide.

Not having been war-torn like its fellow Balkan states, Slovenia is more prosperous than other countries of former Yugoslavia such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo.

In fact, with a per capita gross domestic product of over $30,000, Slovenia is in the ranks of the developed nations and joined the European Union in 2004.

It is a safe, clean and modern country with the younger generation proficient in the English language.

The cost of living in Slovenia is not as high as in Western Europe but is higher than in Eastern Europe. Prices for a night's stay in its capital Ljubljana (pronounced Loo-blia-na), where the cost of living is highest, range from $40 a night in youth hostels to $200 or more at four-star hotels.

The cost of meals at a gostilna or restaurant ranges from $15 to $50. Slovenian cuisine varies according to location but a typical meal can begin with beef or chicken noodle soup or risotto followed by a meat or seafood dish.

Ljubljana has a population of just 260,000, with a quarter of them students in the universities there. It feels more like a college town with its main city area closed off to traffic, which makes for relaxing strolls to admire the sights.

Many parts are designed by famous Slovene architect Joze Plecnik, who also designed Prague castle in the Czech Republic and buildings in Vienna.

In Ljubljana, his mark is still visible today: triple bridges in the heart of the city, weeping willows along the banks of the Ljubljana river as well as the national library with windows that look like books.

What struck me, too, were the innumerable statues of poets, musicians and architects that adorn Ljubljana's buildings and squares with their storied pasts. Slovenia adores its artists.

A statue of its national hero, poet France Preseren, takes pride of place in Ljubljana's main square.

He is famous because, at a time in the early 19th century when German was the language of the elite and Slovene the language of peasants, he wrote poems in Slovene and inspired national consciousness among the people.

From the square, his statue gazes wistfully in the direction of a terracotta bust of Julija Primic on a building nearby. She was a rich girl whom the penniless poet fell in love with but could never marry.

The region around coastal town Piran, which was once part of the Venetian empire, is known as 'Coast and Karst'. 'Coast' refers to the Mediterranean towns near Piran.

I visited the party town of Portoroz, chock-full of hotels with a casino to boot, as well as Koper, a commercial centre and the main port in Slovenia's limited stretch of coast. Not far away, too, are the Secovlje salt pans (tourism office tel: +386-5-672-1330), where sea salt is made in the summer by the evaporation of sea water in shallow basins.

The 'Karst' region contains subterranean splendour. A blast of cold air greets my entrance into the Postojna caves (tel: +386-5-700-0100, e-mail info@turizem-kras.si).

I hunkered down in a train that speeds into the underground darkness in a fun but chilly ride, whizzing past vast caverns and illuminated rock formations. A guide met us underground and took us past other sights, including the rare 'human fish', a translucent salamander that can live for 100 years.

The highlight of the ride back up was passing by a cavern with a bridge over a roaring river flowing to unknown depths. What wonders await the spelunker? Underground waterfalls? Ancient cities? My imagination ran wild.

Locals say the nearby Skocjan caves contain a grittier trek a la science-fiction writer Jules Verne's Journey To The Centre Of The Earth.

My Slovenian journey ended among the ancient Venetian-style buildings of Piran - or so I thought. I could not resist taking a bus to neighbouring Italian city Trieste to take the train to Venice itself.

Amid the braggadocio of Venice's canals and lavishly decorated churches, I felt a craving for the subdued peace of Slovenia's mountains.

I remembered Lake Bled near the Julian Alps, where I ate a magnificent three-course meal at the former holiday villa of Yugoslavian strongman Josip Tito (tel: +386-4-575-3710, e-mail info@vila-bled.si). The villa, now a fancy four-star hotel, has a lake and mountain view and I enjoyed my meal as birds chirped and a cool breeze wafted in.

I returned to Slovenia via the border university town of Nova Gorica and took a train into its beautiful Soca Valley.

There, I visited the town of Kobarid (Caporetto in Italian, above) where a famous World War I battle was fought and American writer Ernest Hemingway, then an ambulance driver, gathered grist for his novel A Farewell To Arms.

I hiked around the Soca region, passing villages comprising scattered residential homes, all the while admiring the turquoise waters of the Soca river.

The river's captivating colour stays constant through its 140km length, from its Alpine beginnings in Slovenia's north to its end in the Adriatic Sea, near the Italian town of Monfalcone.

It summarises the stylish natural beauty of Slovenia, a unique combination that is not overly dramatic or wild.

At the town of Most na Soci enroute to Soca Valley, I stayed at the family-run Pri Stefanu inn (tel: +386-5-388- 7195, e-mail gostilna.stefanu@volja.net) and told its manager Aljaz Hack about Singapore's sky-high prices of cars and homes and its crowded roads.

The 29-year-old laughed and shrugged. 'Some might prefer living in a city after studying in Ljubljana. But I've spent my entire life here and never want to move elsewhere,' he says.

Well, lucky him.

The trip to Slovenia was sponsored by Finnair and the Slovenian Tourist Board.

HOW TO GET THERE

Finnair has daily, direct 12-hour flights from Singapore to Helsinki. A 21/2-hour transit can be made to Ljubljana from now till Oct 28 on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. Finnair flights from Helsinki to Slovenia do not operate during the winter months.

The cost of a round-trip ticket from Singapore to Ljubljana starts from $1,570, including taxes.

Other airlines also fly to Ljubljana from cities such as London, Paris, Milan, Athens, Istanbul, Vienna, Munich and Brussels, including Slovenian carrier Adria Airways and budget airline easyJet.

Ljubljana is also accessible by train from Austria, Croatia, Italy, Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Serbia and Switzerland.

5 things to do

1 Try to be in Ljubljana on a Friday night. With luck, you will catch a free concert at the main square.

2 If you are looking for an unusual place to spend the night in Ljubljana, try Celica Hostel, a former prison-turned-art gallery-turned-hip youth hostel (From $50 a person, tel: +386-1-230-9700, e-mail recepcija@hostelcelica.com). But you have to make your own bed and remove the bedsheets after.

For something more classy, there is the four-star Hotel Slon (From $200 for a double room, tel: +386-1-470-1100, e-mail sales@hotelslon.com).

3 Go to the beautiful countryside to cycle, hike, raft or ski. Slovenia is well-connected by buses and trains but the best way to get around is to rent a car.


Try the Mouflon (wild sheep) baked in homemade bread with mushrooms, garnished with bacon and carrot puree (above) at Vila Bled, which was once Yugoslavian strongman Josip Tito's private villa.

4 Eat in a gostilna or country inn. For example, when visiting the coastal region of Piran and Secovlje, arrange a lunch at the reservations-only Gostilna Mahnic (tel: +386-5-672-2300, e-mail mahing@siol.net) for some country food and wine.

A three-course meal would cost about $40.

5 Have a light meal in the morning, which is what the Slovenians do. They also eat a mid-morning snack before lunch, the biggest meal of the day.

2 don'ts

1 Don't be noisy. Slovenians are reserved and soft-spoken people. Greet people with a handshake and a smile, and maintain eye contact.

2 Don't forget to wear a waterproof jacket when you visit the Skocjan or Postojna caves. Water drips from above and temperatures in the caves are a chilly 9 deg C all year round, even in summer.

 

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