Venetian ports, incredible cave systems, alpine majesty and a charming capital city.
This lakeside town in the Upper Carniolan region of Slovenia enjoys incredibly picturesque views of the surrounding mountains, an ancient castle perched on a steep rock and a serene island in the middle of Lake Bled. It is possible to take a boat to the island and climb the 99 steps to St Mary's Church to ring its bell for luck. The town developed as a health spa resort for the European elite and is perfect for walking in the surrounding forests and hills, boating on the lake or skiing in winter. Bled is known throughout Slovenia for kremšnita, a vanilla and cream pastry.
During the Hapsburg Empire, in 1580 Archduke Charles chose to build a stud farm on this site to breed horses brought from Spain. The soil and climate of this area is very similar to Spain and therefore considering suitable for this respected breed. In the 18th century the Lipizzaner breed was developed to supply horses to the Vienna riding school, which produced horses for ceremonial purposes. The herd was moved to Hungary during the Napoleonic wars and to Austria during the First and Second World Wars. On the site is an informative museum and a hotel. Tours of the stud farm and riding displays are offered and the pleasant grounds and elegant buildings make for an enjoyable stroll.
Ljubljana is the capital city of Slovenia since its independence in 1991. The city is compact and has some fine examples of Austro-Hungarian architecture. As an important trading centre between the Venetian Adriatic ports and the Danube region, Ljubljana became wealthy and saw frequent changes of control between the regional powers. The city is surrounded by low hills upon one of which is medieval Ljubljana Castle. Decorative Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance architecture surround central Prešeren Square and more recent buildings are represented by Nebotičnik, a 13-storey, Art-Deco, residential and business block from the 1930s. As in most of Slovenia, parks and green spaces abound and the winding Ljubljanica River is crossed by many pretty bridges.
Wine, sports and food are the enticements to visit Maribor, the capital of the Štajerska region and the nation’s second largest city. A 400-year old vine sits in the centre of the historic waterfront district, Lent and still produces grapes. A Renaissance style town hall and an impressive plague pillar lie on Glavni Trg square, the old marketplace. For students of local history, Maribor Regional Museum has a superb collection of artefacts, housed in a 15th castle. Every Friday in summer, local foods are cooked and sold on the streets and in winter people head to the Pohorje area for skiing and other winter sports.
The ancient port city of Piran developed as part of the Venetian Republic and still retains the atmosphere of a busy Italian town. Later as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Piran flourished as a market town and spa. After the First World war, the town became part of Italy and after the second World war a part of Yugoslavia. Since 1991, it belongs to the independent Slovenia and is one of the four resorts of its 47 kms Mediterranean coastline. During the summer, Piran’s narrow streets, impressive central Tartini Square and coastal boulevards are packed with cafes, pubs and seafood restaurants, often with lovely sunset views.
The Postojna Cave system is 24 kms long, the second longest in the country, created by the action of the Pivka River against the predominantly limestone surroundings. To aid visitors to the extensive caves, a train was introduced within the caves in 1872 and electric lights a few years later. A large ‘Concert’ Hall area has been used by symphony orchestras and other musical performances. The caves are home to the Olm, a large aquatic salamander that is blind and often referred to locally as the ‘human-fish’, due to the colour of its skin. A tour includes an aquarium with live examples of Olms.
The dramatic castle fortress set in the mouth of a huge cave was once the lair of Erazem Lueger, a 15th century robber chief, who defended the castle against besieging Austrian forces, throwing fresh cherries at them as evidence of his abundant supplies, smuggled into the castle from a secret passage. The castle contains wonderful quirky elements such as a roof-top hiding place, a scary dungeon and chutes for pouring boiling oil. Predjama Castle is only 9 kms from Postojna Caves and the cave system behind the building extends over 14 kms into the hills.
The 6km long series of limestone caves at Škocjan is one of the natural highlights of Slovenia. The cave system was created by the action of the Reka River, flowing below ground towards Italy. There is a two-hour guided tour through the caves, exploring a series of passages and halls. In the massive open halls, there are immense stalactites, stalagmites and flowstones and natural stone bridges over the underground river. Eventually a funicular railway brings you back to the surface. There is also a pleasant walk around the local villages.
The truly beautiful Triglav National Park in the Julian Alps is Slovenia’s only National Park, established in 1981. Mount Triglav, Slovenia’s highest mountain at 2,863 metres is the centre of the park with forested valleys and lakes descending from the mountain. Extensive cycling, walking and trekking facilities exist within the park and several large lakes provide opportunities for sailing, swimming, kayaking and rowing. The towns of Bled and Bohinj provide accommodation and access to the park from the east and Soča Valley in the west offers rafting and adventure. To the north of the park, Kranjska Gora is a charming town with skiing facilities in the winter.