! In LjublJana everyone meets in the central square by the monument of France Preseren, Slovenia’s favourite poet.

Back in 1905 at the unveiling, there was a gasp from the crowd. The artist had included a semi-naked lady in his creation, doubtless to keep the poor chap company on lonely nights?

Not much of a deal I would have thought, having just come from Italy where most statues resemble ads for Roman nudist resorts.

The problem was the location - Right outside The Franciscan Church of The Annunciation. A horrified Pastor covered her in sheets before mass. Concerned local ladies dressed her in woollen underwear to ward off winter chills. The model was summarily run out of town.

Slovenia is one of those gems you happen upon. I was planning a trip to Venice and Vienna – Both high on my bucket list but 3 weeks in “culture-mode” seemed a little intense. I needed a break between them.

You’d love Slovenia, said my friend helpfully. We escaped there after spending time with my Austrian in-laws. It’s right up your alley.

The train arrives at exactly 5.45pm as promised. I wheel my pack four blocks down the road to the pedestrianised “Old Town.” Two blonde female rockers are giving it their all from a riverside stage. With 17000 students in a population of around 200,000, all ages must be catered to!

Accordionists, guitarists, folksingers, are dotted throughout the riverside cafes already buzzing with laughter.

My suite at The Best Western costs the same as a closet in Venice and includes an excellent breakfast.

There are bikes to rent and oversized golf carts to move the less energetic around the centre. There’s even a funicular to reach the castle overlooking the town. I head out for dinner and avoid Colt’s Foot and Mush (apparently polenta) in favour of risotto.

Oh yes I am already liking this place. What can a country half the size of Switzerland with a population of just 2 million have to offer? My pint-sized Yaris arrives at 9am. Perfect for one man and a backpack. Should run on the smell of an oily rag?

I have it all worked out – Well sort of. I am heading for Bled – Pictures show an outrageously beautiful lake with a baroque church sitting on it’s own island. Was the congregation expected to swim, I wondered to myself? Add in a castle perched on the cliff and you have the ultimate Kodak moment in waiting!

Of course things never quite work out. It seems that every village I pass has something extra special to offer. A superb church. A waterfall. Historic buildings. Window boxes drooling with geraniums. Ladies scything hay. Others setting it up on kozolecs – roofed hay racks resembling extra wide ladders.

It is the end of May and spring flowers turn uncut pastures into a kaleidoscope of colour.

Somehow I am lost in a village above Bled where perfectly blacktopped roads become perfectly black-topped cart tracks. Others have obviously made the same mistake and overhanging barn roofs have taken a beating.

The little town of Bled is in chaos. Roadworks have blocked traffic. Parking is at a premium. I leave the Yaris in the priest’s spot behind a church and clamber down a grassy bank to the lake. There’s no chance a tow truck could make it through.

A tourist “train” adds me to the Welsh rugby team already on board and for a few Euros I can do the circuit with photo stops along the way! Yes Bled is a stunning tourist spot and deserves more time but I’m on a tight schedule.

I head into the Julian Alps, amazed at the sheer greenness of the countryside. I drive up and up until I feel I can touch the glaciers. Keeners are cycling the route and I am impressed.

I am constantly getting lost. Signposts along minor roads are thin. Most Slovenes speak some English and all are humorous and helpful. I point to the map and show my intended destination to a farmer feeding his goats. He splits his sides with amusement. I am 100kms off track! Oh well at least I’ve seen some of the prettiest villages to date.

Kranjska Gora is Slovenia’s top ski resort and a hot spot for hiking and mountaineering in Triglav National Park. It also marks the beginning of the Vrisic Pass, a spectacular switchback that climbs up to 1600 metres before dropping into The Soca Valley. River rafters and trout fishermen in hip waders share The Soca River which is a remarkable teal green from glacial dust.

I push on through the grape growing region between Nova Gorica and Sezana. I spot the name TITO on a hillside before the dark clouds become torrential rain. As part of Tito’s Jugoslavia, Slovenia produced 20% of the economy with only 8% of the population. No wonder they opted for early independence in 1991.

Slovenia managed to retain a sliver of Adriatic coastline in an area which has seen much historic reorganization over time. I am headed for Piran the seaside jewel. Signage is again limited and after a few miss-hits I am on the right track for the little town only to find my way blocked by a parking lot. Now what?

Seems that tourists park a 1/2 mile up the hill and take a shuttle bus to the centre. “Where’s the bus?” I ask the attendant – “Lift” he says pointing to the elevator. I try it and simply wind up on the lower level and head back up for advice.

Despite a long line of cars waiting to leave, he locks the office, comes down the elevator, walks me down some steps then along the road and around the corner. Eureka, the bus. He grins and returns to his customers. Slovenes are like this!

It’s a perfect little Venetian-Gothic place with a pretty fishing harbour and few roads - just narrow alleys. The manager of The Hotel Tartini sees my Canadian passport and becomes emotional.

“Leonard Cohen is my super-hero, I drove all the way to Zagreb to see him. Come here,” he beckons me behind the desk to his computer, “My brother took a video and put it on U-Tube. I will give you a good rate!”

I share a delightful fish dinner with an English father taking a week to bond with his 14-year-old daughter and head back to my hotel.

The freeway to Ljubljana is wide, efficient and happily, well signed. It is rush hour when I hit the downtown maze of one-way streets. I park my car illegally and find a policeman. “Where is The Hotel Slon?” I ask in a frustrated tone.

“Well,” he says with a grin “If you are feeling brave you can drive two blocks to a sign that says ‘NO LEFT TURN.’ Turn left and it’s on your left hand side. Otherwise you can turn right and do a U-turn at the lights and come back down the road.”

“Aha,” I replied. “So you can arrest me and throw me in jail and add the fine to The Annual Policeman’s Ball fund?” But he meant it. Slovenes are like that – Even the police!

There is much to see in this proud prosperous little country. Grazing Lippizaner stallions in Lipica – Back in 1508, when Slovenia was still part of Austria, Archduke Charles established a stud farm here which still survives.

The caves at Postojna are Slovenia’s single most popular tourist destination. A railway takes hundreds of screaming tourists through 4 km’s of tunnels into a world of stalagmites and stalactites.

But as I look back it’s really the kind helpful people and the green lush countryside that caused me to constantly enter: “I am really loving this country” in my journal. Too bad if it sounds like a hackneyed MacDonald’s ad!


GETTING THERE: EasyJet has flights from Stansted to Ljubljana. Ryan Air flies from Stansted to Maribor. There is a bus/train service to/from Venice and a summer catamaran service from Venice to Piran on Wednesdays.

I rented my Yaris from local Ines rent-a-car for 3 days for 93 Euros info@rentacarplus.si - The best deal I could find.

Not a problem.

Slovenia is fast being discovered by hikers, bikers, climbers, fishermen, kayakers and farm-stayers. You will find Old Ljubljana as welcoming and cosy as a favourite blanket!



Copyright © 2012 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.