The Regions of Slovenia
More than one way to divide a country
You may have noticed by now that we are not like ordinary travel agents: we have standards and we're not afraid to use them. We happen to think that Slovenia is an amazing holiday destination and we'll show you the very best of the country.
But we're not the tourist board, so we'll leave the fauning up to them. Read on...
Far and away the most famous Slovenian resort, Lake Bled is the stuff of fairy tales: the church on the island where you can ring the bell and make a wish, the castle high above the water, from where you can gaze lovingly at the chocolate box below, the pletna boats making their leisurely way across the still water, the golf course surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
In recent years it has rather sat back on its laurels. Many of the hoteliers and restaurateurs have lowered their standards to those expected by the masses, and grim buildings like the Big Red Shed (now grey, sadly) make it imperative that you keep your gaze towards the west. Still, when all's said and done, it's still a gorgeous place to be and see, and there's plenty to do in the area (you must see the Vintgar Gorge, for instance).
We are not enamoured with the accommodation at the 'town end' of the lake: many of the hotels are owned by a tyre company, so that should tell you most of what you need to know. The dining options are not great either.
But as we said, the lake/island/church/castle thing is truly beautiful and if you'd like to stay, go to the other end of the lake to the rather wonderful Hotel Triglav Bled. They have a fine kitchen and a finer wine cellar... and their view of the lake is the best.
Nearby is the properly pretty town of Radovlica (known by the locals as Radov'ca - Radowtsa), where you'll find the original chef has set up his own hotel and restaurant, Vila Podvin. Definitely destined to be one of Slovenia's best.
We, probably like most people, saw Lake Bohinj (pron. Bohin) after Bled. Yes, Bled is very pretty, what with its chocolate box views... but when you see Bohinj, you wonder why anyone stopped at Bled.
One reason might be that Lake Bohinj is just a tad more rugged. There is a real sense of timeless power about the place - a feeling of a link with a past that didn't have tourists (or us) in it. Nearby is the source of the Sava river (Slap Savica): a waterfall that rewards the twenty minute walk up-hill with one of Slovenia's great views. Also, take the cable car up to Vogel and get a view of the view, as it were.
There are lots of local activities, including river and lake sports (but no motor-craft on the lake), paragliding, biking and hiking, skiing, horse riding and so on and on.
From the train station at Bohinjska Bistrica you can take the car train across the mountains to the Soča Valley. This is one of the quirkiest train rides in Europe and is thoroughly recommended!
If you would like a simple, family-run hotel close to Lake Bohinj, Hotel Kristal would be a good choice. For something a little more swish and ECO-yfied (but still family-run), the Bohinj Park Hotel is excellent. And lastly, for the quintessential bijoux alpine boutique experience, Vila Park (and its lovely owner, Jana Biščan) is a joy.
As our first 'incursion' into neighbouring Croatia, it seemed only right that we should start with the Istrian peninsular. Slovenia might well have everything you could wish for, but now Slovene Dream brings you everything else you could wish for: that is, a beautiful coastline. Plus even more cuisine (especially truffles), wine, adventures and, of course, only the best hotels.
The first of these is really very special: Hotel San Rocco has won many awards, both for its accommodation and its cuisine. Owned and run by the Fernetich family, who will ensure that your every need is catered for: wellness centre, swimming pool, extensive gardens and parkland are all provided.
The hotel sits on the edge of the pretty village of Brtonigla, which is worth a day of wandering around in itself. The nearby towns are also worth a good mooching: Grožnjan for its art workshops, glass, theatre, music and dance; Buzet for truffles (although, this being the world centre for them - you'll find truffles on just about every menu in the region!); Motovun for culture and history; and further afield, Pula and Rovinj.
Bordering Croatia in the south east of the country is Dolenjska (pron. Dolenska) - through which the Krka river flows. The landscape is criss-crossed with meandering rivers, some deeeeep forestation and the beautiful Gorjanci mountain range. There are also many castles, including Žužemberk, Ribnica, Brežice and Mokrice... and of course, Otočec - the only river island castle in Slovenia.
The area is scattered with thermal springs, so it's home to many spas and wellness centres. And to wash all that down, there are a number of vineyards and very good wineries, the best of which are made in Bizeljsko, north of Čatež.
We have a plentiful and diverse range of hotels in the area, with a budget and style to suit everyone.
Our very first tourist farm was Šeruga, named after the family that owns it. It is a little idyll of Dolenjska loveliness, the accommodation and cuisine being rustic, wholesome and yummy.
An arrow's flight away is the astonishingly beautiful Otočec castle, which recently gained Relais & Chateaux status (with a little encouragement from Slovenia's other R&C property, Kendov Dvorec in Idrija).
Oh, and you really must eat at the exceptional Oštarija: one of our finds of 2014. And go for their tasting menu (at the back of the menu!).
In the 2007 Decanter World Wine Awards, Slovenia won more than fifty medals; indeed, they swept the board for Central and Eastern Europe - and many of them came from Brda.
But you will only really start to understand what a vinous wonderland this is once you get here. Almost everyone making wine in this part of the world could be called an artisan - in fact, if you check the more famous wines from just over the Italian border, you will find that many of the names are actually Slovenian.
As a holiday destination, it's gorgeous: the clean, oxygen-rich air from the north, gently warmed by the salty Adriatic to the south has made this a lush, easy-going kind of landscape.
And now consider this: in the Decanter World Wine Awards since, Slovenian wine makers won more than 50 awards. Every year.
We would recommend eating a little something to soak up all that wine, so it's lucky there are plenty of very good restaurants in the region.
From Brda you can visit the Slovenian coastal towns (we wouldn't recommend the accommodation or most of the 'cuisine', but the sights are nice), the salt pans near Piran, the World Heritage caves at Škocjan and of course, the vineyards, restaurants and towns of Italy just across the border in Collio and Friulli.
Options for staying include our first Goriška Brda vineyard/hotel Belica; it's little sister Hiša Marica; our latest, Bjana (where you can find a number of Decanter award-winning wines); Klinec, a dinky little wine tourist farm; Štekar, where some of Europe's best 'orange' wines are made; Hotel San Martin, a modern hotel that's steeped in the traditions of the region; and last but by no means least, the astonishingly lovely Alma Vista.
The secret within the secret, Idrija is tucked into a fold of stunning scenery almost in the middle of Slovenia. Although only forty minutes along gently zigging and mildly zagging roads from Ljubljana, Idrija feels as if it is completely remote from all the hustle and bustle of modern life. Here you will find some of the most beautiful lace in the world, plenty of which is on display at the fabulous Kenda Manor (the hotel we always choose to spend our last night in, when we're on a long trip).
Lots of activities are to be acted upon: bathing and river sports in the Idrijca, deer hunting, hiking, fishing and tennis are all locally available. Also (and especially) we can arrange a wine tasting for you at one or two of Slovenia's best wineries nearby in the Vipava valley.
As we have said, since we started Slovene Dream, Kendov Dvorec has become the 'go-to' hotel for us when we absolutely wanted (or even needed) a place to stay that always hit the button. And it still is.
A little further up the valley is Želinc, a very friendly family-run hotel that has that rarest of things in Slovenia: a swimming pool. And close by is the socialist-looking (but family-owned) Hotel Cerkno, a hotel I would recommend not least because of the welcome (and the food!). They also have a fab ski-lodge hotel.
Since we started Slovene Dream, we have endeavoured to find the best of Slovenia - and send you there on holiday. But with all the best will in the world, we cannot find any accommodation in the coastal towns that you would be happy with... let alone us.
However, the four main towns on the Slovenian coast - and their hinterland - are great places to wander around, while taking in plenty of sea air: a grand day out. Lots of lovely buildings, alleyways and places of interest to get interested in - the salt pans just outside Piran, for instance.
And the hinterland is just where you'll find our two little gems: one a self-catering cottage - Villa Lavanda - set in a large garden with a swimming pool, the other a lovely B&B hotel - Casa Oasa - also with a swimming pool.
Almost since we started Slovene Dream, we have been urged, nudged, tempted and bludgeoned into extending our territory into Italy. We already knew from experience that local Italians crossed the border frequently to taste the best of Slovenia (for instance in the restaurants of Kobarid, Goriška Brda, the Vipava valley and Dolenjska), so it followed that there must be a cultural connection - especially given that a whole swathe of what is now Italy used to be Slovenia. And vice versa (as the Italians used to say).
Many of the wine makers we knew in Goriška Brda told us how many of the wines of Collio and Friuli were in fact made by ethnic Slovenians (as can be seen by many of the makers' names), while one of our favouritest-ever chefs - Ana Roš at Hiša Franko - had done some of the bludgeoning with regard to Italian eateries, including La Subida.
So, with all this shoving going on, we went and had a little look around... and in fact decided to stay for five nights at La Subida during our 2012 summer holidays. Yup - it was that good!
Down in Trieste we also have the slightly quirky L'Albero Nascosto, a must if you want ot investigate the wonders of this old Italian port.
The distinctly bumpy bits of Kranjska Gora: this is the properly mountainous region of Slovenia. Home of the country's national emblem, Mount Triglav (pron. Triglow), which soars imperiously above the Triglav National Park.
The area is rich in thousands of plant and animal species, while the human inhabitants are jolly friendly. If you like mountains and snow, this is the place for you (it is also the place for World skiing championships and the world's longest ski jump, at Planica). If you like mountains but don't like snow, it's also fantastic in the summer.
It's true that most of the large hotels in town are owned by the horrible HIT group, but in recent years a number of independents have started to emerge - and rightly so, as this pretty little alpine town deserves them!
In the town itself is the fully-pampering self catering Hiša Neža, replete with whirlpool baths, saunas and moutain views. Around the corner in the little village of Podkoren is the distinctly Jocasta Innes inspired Vitranc hotel, and its self catering partner, Belopeški Dvori.
A region that kind of hovers between Ljubljana, the coast, Idrija and Brda, Kras (Slovenian for karst) is yet another of Slovenia's distinctive landscapes. The underlying limestone provides a very specific soil for growing vines... or pigs, as the region's pršut is the best.
The geography's geology also makes for amazing cave networks: the Škocjan caves being some of the most impressive... in the world. Like many European countries, Kras is endowed with its very own wind - the Burja: a seriously annoying phenomenon during the winter and early spring.
The Vipava Valley is one of Slovenia's most important wine making regions - important if you're at all interested in grown-up wines that is - and is worth the trip to sample some of the country's finer wines.
Two of Slovenia's best restaurants are also here, one of which is Zemono. Having eaten here previously, we took our best man and missus there after our wedding. The owner/chef, Tomi Kavčič served us one of the most memorable meals ever.
The other is Majerija - a restaurant it took us six years to try (they were always on vacation when we were!). But it was worth the wait, because not only is the food of the very best quality, but they've just opened a B&B... under the vegetable garden! Definitely worth a stay for a couple of nights to explore the local vineyards.
Ljubljana's lights are as bright as any city's. It's also drop-dead gorgeous, has many fine restaurants, cafes and bars (many of which are open air in the summer), there's a lovely river to walk beside, the best concert venue we've ever been to (Križanke), local designer shops aplenty, a wonderful farmer's market right in the centre of the city; it's also big enough to be engrossing and small enough to walk anywhere.
Plus the unmissable Odprta Kuchna (Open Kitchen) event every Friday in the market, where loads of the country's best chefs sell their wares from stalls throughout the summer days.
Oh, and the head massage in my hairdresser's is the nearest thing to heaven on earth.
And a castle!
A magical city by anyone's reckoning, Ljubljana will captivate you with its charms, especially since the mayor has been sprinkling his own special 'magic' around the city. We don't like to ask where the magic came from but frankly, the improvements to the city over the past few years have been simply astonishing, turning what used to be a little backwoods town into one of the loveliest cities in Europe.
Unlike in some silly countries (like almost everywhere), the capital is slap bang in the middle of the country, making it an excellent base for further exploring.
Since the opening of the Antiq in Gornji trg (on the edge of the Old Town), a number of other hoteliers have taken competition to the extreme, by having 'A' as the first letter of their hotels. Such silliness! So as a mild punishment, we'll present them in an otherbetical list:
- Slamič is a B&B on the eastern edge of the Old Town, owned by the arty Arnold family (they also hold artistic events at the hotel. The beds are sumptuous, the breakfasts very good and the parking is free!
- The Antiq is Ljubljana's first boutique-y hotel and has been a favourite of our customers since it opened.
- Dvor Tacen is a relatively new hotel but is now one of our firm favourites. Although on the edge of town (towards the airport) folks from 'normal' conurbations should try to realise that Ljubljana is comparatively tiny.
- The Angel, being an 'A' hotel, is also in Gornji trg - with the Allegro and the Antiq. The latter two are very similar in aspect, while the former is rather more accomplished.
- On the other hand the Ahotel is nowhere near that lot, being on the southern edge, nearer to the ring road. Another of our personal favourites - we've stayed here often - comfortable, away from the hubbub... and a damn fine wine list!
- The Vander is really something else: a very stylish, cutting edge design throughout that is somehow hidden within the old traditional buildings beside the river. A very fine restaurant indeed, plus a small infinity pool on the roof.
- Cubo, a development of a restaurant across town of the same name, is a very nice, very modern hotel with lovely rooms... and yet another fine restaurant.
- The Antiq Palace and Spa was originally owned by the owner of the Antiq... and still is (but he doesn't own the Antiq anymore). I know, confusing isn't it? Situated just behind the university and on the edge of the Old Town, this is a seriously up-market place to spend a few nights.
The Logar valley has been poorly served by the tourist industry, which is a huge shame, because it is arguably one of the most beautiful alpine valleys in Europe. During our first visit some years ago, I remember sitting outside a hotel on a summery afternoon, sipping a beer and disolving into a fit of giggles, as the panorama in front of us exactly epitomised the term 'chocolate box'.
Although the area is perfect for mountainous (but not necessarily strenous) exploring, we decided that that particular hotel was not up to scratch, so we have always simply arranged for our customers to visit for a day trip.
Not any longer, as we now have Raduha: a hotel that admittedly has the usual compliment of sleeping arrangements (i.e. bedrooms in a building), but also some unusual accommodation, including a tree house, a hay rack and a stable... all of which have been kitted with beautiful interiors, making this one of Slovenia's very best hotels. Furthermore, the cuisine is absolutely divine!
Prekmurje (pron. Prekmooria) and Prlekija (pron. Prlekiya) make up the region - called Pomurje - that straddles the Mura river that cuts through the north east corner of the country. It is a part of the Pannonian Plain and borders Austria to the north, Hungary to the north east and Croatia to the east. It is one of Slovenia's wine-growing regions - sadly defined throughout the 70s by the deadly, excerable Ljutomer Rizling that almost swamped our sceptr'd isle... and put a whole generation off wine for good.
Happily, that has since changed and there are now many excellent artisan wine makers in the region - notably, Čurin, Hlebec, Kogl, Miro Ištanic, and Puklavec. Indeed, the old industrial wine behemoth that churned out all that sickly engine cleaner all those years ago has been taken over by an old Slovenian wine family and turned into the country's largest producer of quality wines! That's P&F - or Puklavec and Friends to you.
It is also the origin of one of the world's great cakes: Gibanica.
Being flatter than most of the rest of the country, it is great for walking and biking. Much of the food is influenced by the neighbouring Hungarians - Bograč (game stew laced with paprika) being the most famous.
Up in the vineyards around Jeruzalem (named by crusaders on their way back from slaughtering foreigners) you will find the warmest welcome in all of Slovenia. Hlebec is a wine tourist farm that will have you wanting to stay for a few more days than you booked - not least because you'll be 'fed and watered' to the max.
At the other extreme of the accommodation spectrum is the stunningly beautiful Sončna Hiša (Sun House), full of glass, sunshine and wellness-ness. No kitchen here (although the breakfasts are superb), but you will be near a couple of Slovenia's finest restaurants, Rajh and Tramšek.
As far as we are concerned, the most beautiful valley in Europe. Dominated by one of the world's most stunning - and officially one of Europe's four cleanest - rivers: the Soča (pron. Sotcha).
You'll never forget the Soča, as its incredible turquoise colour will flow right into your memory and stay there. From its source it flows about 100km down to the Adriatic, through beautiful and almost clichéd mountain scenery, splashing its rich hue through old forests, vertiginous limestone mountains and Sound of Music meadows rich in alpine flora.
From south to north the habitation in the Soča valley slowly transforms itself from Italian/Adriatic (red-roofed houses with pale limewash walls), to Alpine (pine/stone construction with snow-ready roofs). Boutique hotels, chalet hotels, hotel hotels and pensions are all available and all but one of them welcomes children (but that one is very special indeed).
Whether you are looking for action and adventure, romance and tranquility or a family break, there will be a place for you in the Soča valley.
For us at Slovene Dream, it all started here when we were married at Pristava Lepena. Comprising little alpine chalets dotted between the trees and surrounded by majestic, benign mountains, Lepena has a magical charm that will infect you for years after your stay.
Five minutes away is the town of Bovec, where you'll find a plethora of activity companies offering river sports, paragliding, climbing, biking and all manner of exhausting pastimes for all ages and all levels of fitness and expertise. Here you will also find two rather excellent hotels: the brand new alpine lodge of Sanje ob Soči (Soča Dreams) and the truly gorgeous Dobra Vila, a 'throwforward' to the nineteen-thirties.
A little way down the valley is the town of Kobarid, where you'll find yet more activity companies, the brilliant WWI museum, the Kozjak waterfall (about 30 minutes walk away), the Walk of Peace... and some of the best food in Slovenia!
When we first met Ana Roš and her partner Valter Kramer, they had not been running Hiša Franko for long, but it was obvious that greater things were developing for the Soča Valley. Ana is now one of Europe's finest chefs, Valter is a cheese and wine expert and their hotel is a doozy.
In the centre of town is the family-owned Hvala Hotel and Topli Val restaurant. The hotel itself offers pretty standard - and comfortable - accommodation, apart from its two suites, which are absolutely brilliant! The dining is superb: this is some of the best fish cooking we've ever had. In the whole world.
And last of all, fittingly, we come to Heaven, which is what Nebesa means in Slovenian. Just do what you can to stay - even if it's only for a couple of nights.
Compare and Contrast:
For Brits to get a grip on how large Slovenia is, many people like to compare it to the size of Wales. But it's true what they say: size isn't everything...
- Wales: Snowdonia
- Slovenia: Alps
- Wales: Irish Sea
- Slovenia: Adriatic
- Wales: Chapel
- Slovenia: Vineyards
- Wales: Cardiff
- Slovenia: Ljubljana
Best to travel a bit, look you.