Story and photos by Gilly Pickup
Slovenia: Rich in Legend and Stunning Scenery
You have to climb 99 steps in order to reach the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Maria on Bled Island. It’s a popular place for weddings and no wonder, it looks as if it was plucked straight from the pages of a fairytale. Our guide told us that according to tradition the groom should carry the bride up the steps to ensure theirs would be a marriage to last. All I can say is, she would have to be a very light-weight bride...
Fittingly, we had arrived at the minuscule island by the most romantic route, in a pletna, a flat-bottomed, hand crafted boat steered by an oarsman. These boats, similar to Venetian gondolas, hold 12 - 14 passengers and carry on a local tradition dating back generations. The trip, which takes ten minutes, drops you off at the foot of the staircase from where you are free to wander, visit the café, souvenir store and enter the tiny church for which there is an admission fee. If you go in, you can make a wish while pulling the rope attached to the church bell. Local superstition - this country has many - says that if you manage to get the bell to ring when pulling the rope your wish will come true.
This is Slovenia, a pocket-sized country, bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia and the Adriatic Sea. It used to be part of Yugoslavia until that fell apart in 1992 after the death of Marshal Tito. It is picturesque, all rushing waterfalls, scarily deep gorges, dense forests and crystal clear rivers. Compact capital Ljubljana, almost completely rebuilt after an earthquake in 1895, offers examples of Art Nouveau architecture including the Dragon Bridge which spans the Ljubljanica River. Ljubljana’s emblem is a dragon because legend tells that Jason and the Argonauts fought one here.
Our base was the tourist resort of Bled in northwestern Slovenia. Located on the lake of the same name, it has an almost Mediterranean feel and gets busy during summer. Although it doesn’t have much in the way of nightlife it does have plenty of lakefront cafes, restaurants, bars and a rather interesting market selling glassware, lace and handmade goods. Many visitors who come here hire a car; the scenic Julian Alps aren’t too far away and there are a mass of side trips on Bled’s doorstep including the mountain gorge of Vintgar with Slovenia’s highest waterfall and Triglav National Park, one of the oldest in Europe.
Bled itself has a castle perched on a cliff top overlooking the lake. It was home to the Bishops of Brixen for around 800 years. Inside, a small museum holds a collection of weapons and early jewelery while the terrace offers expansive views. Entry costs 10 euros per person but if you book a table at its Castle Restaurant, admission to the castle is free. A tip: when visiting, wear comfortable shoes as the cobblestoned path up the hill is fairly long and steep.
Things To Do
Pay a visit to... Kranjska Gora, an Alpine town and Slovenia’s top ski resort. It is close enough to the Austrian and Italian border to walk or cycle to in a couple of hours. Its main square is lined with cafés and gift shops and it is surrounded by a web of walking trails.
Go to the seaside... hemmed by vineyards and olive groves, picturesque towns Piran and Portoroz are gateways to the country’s beaches. Piran resembles an Italian coastal town, possibly because it was part of the Venetian empire up to the end of the 18th century. Portoroz or Port of Roses, all glitzy casinos and grand hotels, has one of the largest, modern marinas on the Adriatic coast.
Get in touch with nature... at hotel village Pristava Lepena, surrounded by fields of beautiful, white purebred Lippizaner horses. Pristava Lepena offers sauna and fitness facilities and has a tennis court and riding school.
Film Location... for Chronicles of Narnia fans, some scenes were filmed near the mountain village of Bovec which has a stunning waterfall nearby. Bovec offers tourists plenty of adrenaline-producing activities and attracts kayakers, hikers, cyclists and mountain bikers.
Visit an underground world... Head to Postojna Caves. Wander through 20 kilometers of passages to marvel at magnificent caverns, sculpted galleries, chambers, halls and glistening stalactite formations.
Don’t miss... sampling a kremna rezina known locally as kremnita, a vanilla and custard cream dessert with puff pastry base, popular throughout Slovenia. It originated in Bled’s Hotel Park and was created by Itvan Kovačvič, a chef from Serbia who arrived in Bled in 1953. The hotel’s patisserie still turns out the popular dessert, which when translated simply means “cream slice”.
Besides whites, reds and rose wines, the country also produces delicious orange colored wine with a spicy, floral flavour. Although white grapes are used, it is made using the same principles as red wine hence the orange color.
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