Most people think of Lake Bled when they think of Slovenia, myself included. Everyone has seen the fairy tale looking church on the tiny island in the middle of a lake emerging from the morning fog or winter snow. Everyone has heard of the wedding ritual where the groom carries his bride to be up the many steps from the boat landing to the church. What, apparently, Slovenia’s tourism board forgot to mention was the rest of this simply stunning and diverse country that sits quietly between other tourist hotspots such as Italy, Croatia and Austria.
We flew into Slovenia’s main airport, Jože Pučnik Airport, which is a short drive from the capital, Ljubljana. Passport control was swift and and painless and we quickly picked up our pre-booked rental car. A free upgrade to a larger car was later a blessing in disguise when negotiating the numerous hair pin bends in the mountains.
Immediately going against most normal itineraries we bypassed the capital and headed down towards the coast via the stunning Predjama Castle. This spectacular sight is built right into the rocks and infamously is known as the place where Erazem Predjamski, in the 15th century, resisted a siege for a year and sneaked out through a secret tunnel in the night to pick cherries which he then threw at the soldiers whilst mocking them. Parking is free (though a bit tight) and there are plenty of small cafes around offering decent panini and local beer. Entrance into the castle is chargeable but wandering around outside is free and offers a much better view!
Leaving the castle behind, we followed the regional road back before re-joining the dual carriage-way main trunk road. After winding our way across huge bridges with stunning views below, we briefly dropped into Trieste, Italy (for ice cream and a cold drink) before hitting the coast road which finally led to Piran. This gorgeous sea side town doesn’t allow cars (other than for a few locals) and has a barrier system on the approach. Guests booked into hotels are allowed to drive in, drop off their bags and then exit the town leaving the cars parked in the multi story car parks built down the cliff side. Most hotels will offer a pick up service for free and in general it’s cheaper to book the car park via them too.
We had booked in the, easy to remember, Hotel Piran which was situated right on the sea edge with small waves gently lapping against the quay side which was full of locals sun bathing and swimming in the (slightly) cold but refreshing sea. We were lucky to have a balcony on a high floor giving a stunning view over the bay towards Croatia. In the evening after a quick cocktail on the roof top bar in the hotel whilst watching the sun set over the sea, we joined the locals promenading before settling down in a water side restaurant. The following morning we ate a great buffet breakfast whilst sat outside in the warm morning air before being taken back to the carpark to collect our car.
We retraced our steps slightly but bypassed Italy, before starting to follow the Soca valley up into the foot hills. Immediately its green emerald colour became apparent shining in the sunlight. Having seen photos of this river, we assumed that they were all slightly photoshopped but it really is as green as the photos show. We followed the valley to Tolmin where we had an Airbnb apartment booked for the night. Quickly dropping our bags off, we jumped back into the car and drove the short distance to the start of the Tolmin gorge (locals call it Tolminska Korita) walk. This circular walk follows the river, past a thermal pool (hard to get to now following a rock fall), over a few small wooden bridges before steeply climbing back up and round before joining the road back down to the starting point. Taking around 1.5 hours, the colour of the river was even more striking contrasting against the dark rocks. At the start/end there is a restaurant doing a roaring trade in the local dish, Frika, which is grated cheese fried in fat with a variety of eggs, potatoes and meats. We (luckily) ordered one to share and were soon in a food coma and barely able to make it back to the car, let alone walk another step.
The next day we left the valley road and headed towards the Vršič Pass which is the highest road pass in Slovenia and in the eastern Julian alps. Before that though, we diverted slightly to take a short hike to Slap Kozjak; a waterfall within a cave which is believed to be inhabited by fairys. And you can totally believe that whilst hiking through the lush green forest, over wooden crude bridges and following the increasingly narrow valley before popping out into the circular stone bowl into which the green water pours. However to me, it was the incredibly green river that you pass on the way in and out which stood out as the main attraction. Surrounded by trees on both sides, mountains in the distance and a way river bed, the colour was even more evident than before.
Leaving the river behind we continued into the foothills before starting to climb the mountain pass. Built during World War I by Russian prisoners of war, this road consists of 50 hairpin bends (numbered on the road) and the original cobbles are still in use in some of the sections. Impassable during winter due to snow, there is a small wooden Russian church part way down built by the POWs to commemorate their fallen comrades. A few restaurants are scattered along the pass, mainly to feed passing hikers but definitely ideal for a quick pit stop or two!
Following the road down and towards Bled, we swung right before the town itself along the lake shoreline to find our next Airbnb apartment. Described as overlooking the lake (it was), with stunning views (it did) and within walking distance to Bled (it wasn’t), this clearly student type converted house with a shared kitchen wasn’t what we’d normally book but options are limited in Bled with most large hotels getting less than perfect reviews. Nevertheless we dropped our bags off and walked down to the lake edge (which took significantly longer than expected) and followed the well designed man made path that circles the lake. In a few spots, closer to the town, several large gondolas were located touting for business and taking people out to the star attraction of Bled – the church on the island. As a word of warning – these gondolas only depart when they have 8 or more people on board. Which can take some time in low season…
The trip across the lake was worth it though (the inside of the church not so much, but the bell tower gives great views). The gondoliers really worked hard for their money and the strain was clearly evident on ours who needed a half way point breather! After 30 mins we climbed back into the boat and began the relatively long journey back to shore. That night we ate in the highly recommended Pizzeria Rustika whose “personal” pizzas were huge and very varied. A starlight walk back to our apartment completed a pretty special day.
The next morning we awoke to the sound of heavy rain and the sight of low clouds covering the view. Pulling on waterproof clothing and shoes, we headed to Vintgar gorge which is a short drive out of Bled. This 1600m wooden walkway follows the green river crisscrossing over the river to Sum waterfall (yes it’s actually called Sum waterfall). Despite the rain, it was still busy with some coaches pulling in as we arrived. In the summer months, it must be heaving so I’d suggest doing it during a week day if possible. The whole walk, although wet, was spectacular with a little snack bar at each end. After drying of a little, we headed to Bled castle. You can either reach it on foot using one of three trails sign posted Grad, or you can drive up and park a shorter and easier walk away. There is an entrance fee but bizarrely that entitles you to a free drink in the lovely outside cafe which surely most people do anyway. We did and took full advantage of the incredible view across the lake and into the mountains opposite. We also got completely sold to by a monk (possibly pretend) selling wine made in the castle (also possibly made up) but in such a nice and friendly way that it was hard to say no! That night we ate in the delicious Orkarina restaurant which is Indian styled with influences of other cultures carefully mixed in. Luckily we got the last table so I’d suggest booking in advance if you are planning on going here during the busier months. Also worth noting that the nearby carparks are free after certain hours – check the signs where you park though.
The final day in Bled, we drove to Bohinj lake which is about 26km away along an easy to navigate road which partly follows the river and partly follows a train line. Bohinj itself is tourist heavy but the lake is stunning, surrounded by mountains, crystal emerald clear water and the odd nudist or two! A tourist small ferry does a loop around the lake but alternatively, simply lying on the lake shore and braving the slightly cold water is more than an inviting idea.
For the final two nights, we had stayed in a totally off grid wooden cabin situated in the high woods above Bled which we found on Airbnb. Using solar panels to power a few lights and a clever wood burner which kept the cabin warm and the water hot, this hidden gem had its own outdoor fire pit and it’s own private edible dormice hiding in the rafters. Even more hidden was the cafe bar on the way to the cabin with simply stunning views over Bled and towards the mountains of Austria in the distance. This type of accommodation isn’t for everyone though so drop me a comment below if this is your thing and I’ll give you more details.
For our final night in Slovenia, we headed back to Ljubljana to stay in a hotel situated just outside of the car free city centre. With a network of large canals crisscrossed by bridges including the unique triple bridges, you could be forgiven thinking that you were in Venice or Amsterdam. Named European Green Capital 2016, the city seems proud of the recognition with little litter on the streets but plenty of bikes and canal boats offering an alternative way to get around. The castle is the main attraction accessible via the funicular railway or windy steep paths. With stunning views from the Outlook tower, the castle has been converted to hold two restaurants, a quirky puppet museum and an art display. That night, after a tasty meal beside the canal in one of the many restaurants, we tried a few of the huge number of bars scattered all over the pedestrian only area before heading back to our hotel before our flight home the next day.