Discovering Slovenia

Adventure

Mountains folding over one another, arching up into bony ridges, their slopes draped in forest...

One of the more dishevelled people emerging from Wimbledon train station on the evening of Sunday 3 July was yours truly. I stopped for a moment to catch my breath. I had forgotten what it was like to catch my breath.

Two and a half days before – 60 hours – I had been standing in the exact same spot, watching the first glints of sunlight creep above the buildings. I was bright eyed and nervously eager, but I struggled to recollect much beyond that. Too much had happened. My head was hopping with brand-new, exhilarating memories, all of them competing for attention, like Wack-A-Moles at a fair.

Several weeks earlier I had been given a travelling assignment by My Guide. The premise was brilliantly simple: go to Slovenia – a tiny country nestled in the arms of Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia – for a long weekend, choose someone to go along with you, experience as many things to do in Slovenia as you possibly can, come home and tell everyone about your adventures. Approximately 15 seconds later, I was on the phone to a fellow travel journalist, Dave, asking if he was interested in tagging along (his reaction, most of which is unpublishable, was promising), and soon after that I contacted Ivo, who with his identical twin brother, Rok, and Rok’s partner, Ivana, runs MyDestination.comSlovenia. Our local experts on the ground.

Fast-forward several weeks and Ivo was greeting us with a huge smile at the airport, following a rather harrowing flight from Gatwick (on the approach to Slovenia the pilot seemed intent on performing a barrel roll over some dark mountains that suddenly rose from the plains like the backs of whales emerging from a flat, green ocean, but to our giddy relief never quite managed to pull it off).

Our first stop was Ljubljana (‘loo-bla-nah’), Slovenia’s capital; a delightfully compact, red-roofed city crowned with a medieval castle that sits atop a wooded hill. Less than 300,000 people call this place home, and it shows. There was no traffic to speak of coming into the centre and the pavements were largely devoid of people.

Yet this was a deceptive veneer. Ljubljana is very much the centre of Slovenia; not just in a geographical sense, but also culturally, politically and economically.

“What’s happening in Slovenia is happening here,” Ivo assured us. Presumably it happens indoors.

Before seeing the sights, we checked in at Hostel Celica, voted ‘Hippest Hostel in the World’ by Lonely Planet and included in Rough Guides’ Ultimate 25 Places to Stay in the World. It’s located in the Metelkova area, a kind of grungy paradise filled with obscure bars and cafes, and covered in graffiti (Ivo likened it to Camden in London, after laughing off my wimpy enquiry regarding the safety of the place). The hostel was born from a former military prison, which was used by the Yugoslav Army before they left the country in 1991. The 20 cells were converted to rooms (2-3 people) and each has been individually decorated by one or more artists. While this has ensured each room is unique, all are in keeping with the prison theme, complete with barred doors.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering about the city and I began to succumb to its charms. On the surface it was obviously urban – albeit prettily so, with its cobbled streets and Baroque and Secessionist facades – but there was no tempo, no urgency to the place. It had the languorous ambience of a rustic English village on a hot summer’s day. More people were sitting than not, and the ones who were on their feet were strolling rather than striding.

We crossed the emerald Ljubljanica River, which curves through the city centre, on Dragon Bridge – a beautiful, Art Nouveau structure dominated by four snarling dragon statues atop stone pillars at each corner – before stopping (very) briefly to observe some elderly, costumed people waltzing to accordion music, and then made our way into the web of narrow streets that thread through the Old Town. From here, we hopped on the funicular that leads to Ljubljana Castle, nosed around the manicured grounds and admired the view of the city sprawled below. And as far as general sightseeing goes, that’s your lot.

This was to be a weekend of ‘doing’ things, rather than ‘seeing’ things, and the next day is when the fun (or terrifying ordeals) really started.

Approaching SloveniaApproaching SloveniaDragon Bridge, LjubljanaDragon Bridge, LjubljanaOld Town, Ljubljana (Credit: Will Jones)Old Town, Ljubljana (Credit: Will Jones)Old Town, Ljubljana (Credit: Will Jones)Old Town, Ljubljana (Credit: Will Jones)Hostel CelicaHostel CelicaOld Town, LjubljanaOld Town, LjubljanaOld Town, Ljubljana (Credit: Will Jones)Old Town, Ljubljana (Credit: Will Jones)Metelkova, LjubljanaMetelkova, Ljubljana

“You awake?”

“Urgh.”

We had been comatose for all of five hours.

It was 6 a.m.

And we were late.

Dave came crashing down from his half of the room (it was divided vertically rather than horizontally) and hobbled out to the communal bathroom, while I flung anything of value into my bag. The previous night had been spent at the wonderfully cosy Gostilna Šestica where we feasted on traditional Slovenian cuisine (sausages the size of baseball bats, dumplings and succulent pork chops, all sloshed down with a frankly irresponsible amount of wine) with Ivo, Rok and Ivana. They were waiting for us in the car now, and laughed as we stumbled out into the early morning sun, blinking in a state of exhausted confusion.

The real adventure had begun.

As we drove away from Ljubljana, heading northwest towards the small town of Kranjska Gora – a popular base for skiers in winter; hikers in summer – the scenery became absolutely spectacular. We drove through a huge valley, punctuated by small settlements with short, steep roofs, and dominated on each side by pine-forested slopes. And looming above those, the jagged peaks of the Slovenian Alps resting like a stone crown against the pale blue sky.

Not that Dave had noticed, for the moment he sits down in a car, he falls asleep. And he’s not a graceful sleeper – head rolled back, mouth wide open, peculiar grunting noises. It’s not his fault; he literally has no control over the issue. In retrospect, it probably would have been kinder to allow him a side seat, rather than the middle one, squashed between myself and Ivana. In any case, I’m quite used to it, having known him for many years, but Ivana looked genuinely concerned for his well-being. On especially sharp bends, he would swing violently towards one of us, like a corpse falling out a closet.

This provided some common ground for the four of us who were conscious, and we were soon chatting away like old mates. When silence fell, I would ask probing questions, like: “What are those wooden drying-rack things we keep driving past?” This particular query prompted much discussion between the three locals, and culminated in me carefully noting down the word ‘Kozolec’, which I later discovered translates to ‘wooden drying-rack’. There’s even a page dedicated to them on Wikipedia, if you’re interested.

The road took us up into Triglav National Park, which contains almost the entire Slovene part of the Julian Alps. Even now, at the height of summer, there were blotches of snow on the higher reaches, golden in the sunlight, and as we climbed, the air became distinctly crisp. After countless hairpin bends, we reached Vršic Pass (the highest mountain pass in the country) and hopped out to take in the view.

I had predicted the roof of Slovenia would be a stunning sight, but that didn’t stop my jaw loosening when faced with it. Mountains folding over one another all the way to the horizon, arching up into bony ridges, their slopes part-draped in green forest; and due to the exceptional clarity of the air, even the farthest ones looked like they’d been drawn onto the sky with a sharp pencil.

After the obligatory snaps, we began the descent into the Trenta Valley, which would lead us to our first adventure: white-water rafting down the Soca River.

The Julian AlpsThe Julian AlpsKanal Kanal Vipavska ValleyVipavska ValleyVr?ic Pass, Triglav National ParkVr?ic Pass, Triglav National ParkSolkan BridgeSolkan Bridge

The full account of this excursion will appear as a separate story in the near future, but I can tell you it began with a sedate paddle downstream, enjoying the scenery and the warm sun on our faces, and it ended with me shrieking like a banshee, clinging on to a boulder as ice cold rapids cascaded down my spine. It would be my fourth intimate encounter with the glacially sourced Soca River in less than an hour.

My fifth would arrive slightly later in the day, when I plummeted towards it at terminal velocity during a bungee jump from a (hideously high) bridge. Again, all will be revealed in the near future, but to give you a taster, I once again shrieked like a banshee, and once again nearly suffered heart failure.

Lounging in a sleepy bistro later that afternoon, slurping down a hefty portion of the chunkiest and tastiest fish soup I believe I’ve ever consumed, I was struggling to comprehend my location. Just hours before, we had been standing on a majestic mountain pass, shivering in the biting wind and looking at patches of icy snow, and now here we were gazing out over the sun-kissed waters of the Mediterranean, gleaming yachts bobbing in a harbour, watching people stroll past in flip-flops and sun glasses and clutching ice creams.

We had driven from the historic village of Solkan, where the bungee jump took place (it’s also famed for having the largest stone arch bridge in the world, a quite magnificent edifice over which a railway runs), through the rolling, bottle-green vineyards of the Vipava Valley before passing through Nova Gorica (Slovenia’s answer to Las Vegas), and finally ending up at Izola, a pretty fishing village on the Istrian Coast. Izola is a tranquil place with a gorgeously dilapidated old town, and all too frequently overlooked – perhaps to its advantage – by holidaymakers who flock to the more established towns of Piran and Koper, which sit a few kilometres away to the west and east respectively.

That evening, after a long drive back to Ljubljana, we checked in at the Hotel Park before dashing back out again to sample some of the city’s nightlife on an organised pub crawl. Regrettably, I remember little from this point, but did have the good sense to take approximately 7 million photographs – as I’m prone to do on these occasions – and to scribble some observations on the palm of my left hand with a cocktail stick, so again, a full rundown will be appearing soon.

Izola Izola Rok, Will, Ivana, DaveRok, Will, Ivana, DaveIzola Izola

“You awake?”

Silence.

We had been comatose for all of four hours.

It was 7 a.m.

And we were late. Again.

Day three – and our last – was upon us, and in typical fashion we bumbled out the hotel, bickering, and clambered into the car, apologising. Dave promptly passed out and I tentatively quizzed Ivo, Rok and Ivana on Slovenian skydiving fatality statistics.

I’d never skydived before – or white-water rafted or bungee jumped for that matter – so this was yet another first for me. I am desperate to tell you about it – desperate! – but once again, I must cut off there. The most incredible experience of my life – and potentially yours, too, if you follow in our footsteps – is a story in its own right and, like the others, will be coming soon to a computer screen near you.

Lake Bled was up next – one of Slovenia’s premier and most iconic attractions, and it was immediately clear why. It’s just stunning really. Backed with mountains, the turquoise lake is dominated by a fairy-tale castle perched atop a dramatic escarpment on the north shore, and a tiny islet in the middle, out of which rises a beautiful Baroque church. It’s the kind of place you could happily just gawp at for a year or so – but we didn’t have a year, we had four hours. Two of them were spent flying through sweet smelling pine forest on zip lines and the like at an adventure park on a hill overlooking the lake, and the second two were spent enjoying a rather splendiferous lunch at the Hotel Triglav.

A mad dash to the airport, lots of hugs and handshakes, a two hour flight to Gatwick, one more handshake and a 35-minute train journey later, I emerged from Wimbledon station, utterly dishevelled, exhausted and quite short of breath.

The sun had long since sunk behind the buildings, turning the sky lilac. A red bus pulled over, people got off, people got on, and then it rumbled away. A drunk man stumbled against a lamppost, regained his balance, palmed his forehead and giggled. A stationary taxi driver eyed my bags, then questioned me with his eyes.

This was all weirdly normal.

I flashed back to crashing through foaming rapids, skimming over boulders and exclaiming at magnificent surrounds. I shivered as I remembered the feeling of hopeless dread that came just before plummeting from a bridge and watching a milky turquoise river hurtle towards me. I recalled with sheer delight lying face down on a whooshing cushion of air, surveying the ground – a mosaic of softly undulating fields, a beautiful blue lake cradled by mountains – stay exactly as it was.

I couldn’t decide which was more impressive: the sheer amount we managed to cram into the weekend, or the sheer amount Slovenia – the eighth smallest country in Europe – manages to cram into its borders; achingly quaint cities, pristine mountains, frothing rivers, fairy-tale lakes, superlative vineyards – it’s even claimed some of the Med!

And then I thought: How in God’s name am I supposed to get all this into words?

Lake BledLake Bled