First, some history:
Josip Broz Tito established a communist government in the country then known as Yugoslavia. Fiercely independent, Tito managed to distance himself and his country from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Soviet domination. During the entire Cold War period, Tito took his country down a liberalized path in agriculture, management of workers, trade with Western nations, art, education, and travel between the West and Yugoslavia. He was a strongman who managed to hold together a nation of independent-minded regions. When he died on May 4, 1980, in Ljubljana, it was the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia. Divisive leadership followed and differences became more pronounced. By 1991 parts of the country were in rebellion. Slovenia declared its independence and fought a ten-day war with Serbia. Other regions, like Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, endured longer and more costly wars but Slovenia emerged relatively unscathed. As its neighbors fought, Slovenia grew and prospered.
As of 2004, it is a member of NATO and the European Union, now using the Euro as its currency, with a healthy economy, a stable democracy, and a large welcome mat for tourists. A nation of just two million people and the size of New Jersey, it stretches from the Julian Alps, through the plains, to the shores of the Adriatic Sea. Mount Triglav is the highest peak in the mountains and it can be snow-capped even in June.
My vote for the prettiest place in the mountains is Bled and its perfect lake. Given the number of foreign visitors, Bled is popular with lots of people. Some have dubbed it one of the most magnificent mountain resort areas in Europe. Lake Bled is encircled by thick forests and rugged Alpine peaks. And up on a rocky cliff overlooking the town is the stately 16 th Century Grad, or castle. The view from the Grad is grand. And one’s eyes are drawn downward to that little green dot in the middle of the lake. In fact, it’s the only permanent island in the entire country and home of the Church of the Assumption, which attracted early Christians as early as the 9 th Century. The only way to get to the island is on the non-motorized boats, called pletnas. Lake Bled does not permit any motor boats. The pletnas are hand-made by the 18 local families who have special licenses to operate them and they remind visitors of Venice.
You can glide across the waters of Lake Bled, you can swim them, and you can take the waters. The town is blessed with a series of springs, chilly at first, but bracing and refreshing after an initial jolt. The upper classes have been coming to Bled for scores of years for the pleasure of it.
Across the lake from the village center, there’s a former royal retreat which is now a posh hotel. But it was once a place to relax and rest for President Tito himself. He spent a lot of time here and one of his passions was watching Western movies. His favorite actor was John Wayne. Of course.
Deeper in the mountains, the resort area of Bohinj is enchanting. It’s located within Slovenia’s only National Park. Lake Bohinj is the country’s largest lake, 2.5 miles long. Trails take hikers up into the Alps, complete with flower-filled pastures in Summer and deep snow in Winter. Like Bled, Bohinj is a teeming tourist town in all kinds of weather.
Heading southeast, the mountains give way to the fertile plains around Skofja Loka, among the best-preserved towns in Slovenia. Walk across one of Europe’s oldest stone bridges into the charming town square. Then, march up the hill to the old fortress which protected the hamlet from invaders. Most visitors enjoy a stop at the centuries-old Inn, which is still in operation. My favorite room is the kitchen, with walls charred from years of cooking.
The Slovenian capital is Ljubljana, the place where Tito died. It is one of the tiniest capital cities I’ve encountered but its Old Town is magnetic. Lovely bridges cross the Sava River. I enjoyed the Triple Bridge and the Cobbler’s Bridge. The latter dates from the 13 th Century. (The locals set up shop each weekend from June through October at an Arts and Crafts market, between the Cobbler’s and Triple Bridges). But Ljubljana itself is much older than that, with roots going back to Roman times. Ruins and relics are evident across the city’s Old Town. High above this district, the 1,000-year-old Grad (castle) lords over the small city below. Be sure to march up the steps to the top of the castle tower; the view is stupendous.
Southwest of the capital, Postojna Caves are four million years old and the most popular attraction in the country. Actually there are seven caverns, stretching some 13 miles down into the rocky depths. You hop on a train and descend into the well-lit caves. Bring a jacket because the temperature down there is a constant 47 degrees F. There are absolutely amazing formations within the chasm but equally interesting is a resident of the darkness down here: proteus anguinus is a pure white, blind Salamander and it’s the only creature capable of surviving in the cool, damp, dark environment. Peter Stevin, the Postojna Caves manager, says the number of visitors is rising steadily and more foreigners are now coming to look. He, like most Slovenians, is not shy to say Postojna Caves are the most beautiful caverns anywhere in the world.
After you come up above ground again, take a nine-mile drive to Predjama Castle, carved into the mouth of a rock cliff. There’s been a fortress on the spot since the 12 th Century. Legend says it was once home to a wily knight and in his honor, the castle holds regular jousting competitions by contemporary knights.
Finally, as you head toward Slovenia’s portion of the Istrian Peninsula and the Adriatic coast, don’t miss the town of Lipice, birthplace of the famous stud farm of the Lipizzaner horses. The farm holds demonstrations by the prominent ponies most days of the week.
On the food front, there’s a mouth-watering dessert served in Bled that you really should sink your teeth into. It’s called Kremna Rezina, a vanilla custard and cream cake that melts in your mouth and warms your heart. Have a slice with strong coffee and think only warm thoughts.