Eating And Drinking In Slovenia

Slovenia
Sean McLachlan

Historic sights, art galleries, beautiful countryside – all these are important in a vacation, but one thing you absolutely can’t go without is the food. You have to eat, after all, and a country with poor local cuisine just isn’t going to get many repeat visitors.

Luckily, Slovenia has a distinct cuisine that takes influences from Slavic traditions and its Austrian and Italian neighbors.

The food has a Slavic heartiness to it, with lots of heavy meats, soups and breads. Sausages come in a limitless variety. Pork seems to be the favorite meat, with beef a close second. You can also find venison and game birds on the menu. Despite only having 27 miles of coastline, the Slovenians sure do like fish. Every restaurant I went to had an extensive fish menu. In the mountains you can also get fresh fish from the lakes.

For fast food there’s kebab (no thanks) and burek (yes please!). Burek is a flaky baked pastry filled with various ingredients, usually cheese and/or meat. It’s a bit greasy and heavy, but cheap and good for eating on the go.

Pastries are big for dessert too. A traditional favorite is potica, a rolled up pastry filled with sugary fruit jam and sprinkled with more sugar on top. Walnuts often make it into the mix too. Messy and delicious! Thanks to nearby Italy, gelato is universally available.

%Slideshow-668%Slovenia produces various beers, the most common being two lagers called Union and Laško. Both are good but not particularly notable. There are various microbrews too, including Human Fish Brewery, which produces an excellent stout as well as a Zombie Goat Lager. More interesting are the various liqueurs. I especially liked borovničevec, a blueberry liqueur that’s strong and fruity. Mead is also available thanks to a long tradition of harvesting honey.

Although Slovenia is a wine-growing region that’s beginning to get noticed, I knew nothing about Slovenian wines before I went. Wine writer Rachel Weil recommended Vinakras 2010 Sparkling Teran as a red and the 2011 Pullus Sauvignon Blanc as a white. She also mentioned that the reds were “grape-forward.” Like with most wine terminology, I had no clear idea what that meant. Once I was in Slovenia I discovered that meant the reds often had a pronounced grape flavor, especially the Magolio Zweigelt I brought home for my wife. While these weren’t to my taste (I prefer Rioja) they were well made and I suspect we’ll be hearing more from Slovenian wine in the future.

Being a small country, Slovenia is influenced by its larger neighbors. The Italian presence is especially strong, and you can find pizza and pasta in many restaurants. From Austria you can find strudel filled with nuts, fruit or cheese. This is good news for vegetarians who want to avoid the meat-centric Slavic dishes.

Speaking of meat, the Slovenians love horsemeat, something not very popular in English-speaking countries. When I was in Ljubljana I set out to try some horsemeat. More on that next time!

Check out the rest of my series, “Slovenia: Hikes, History and Horseburgers.”

Coming up next: Horseburgers: Slovenia’s Unusual Delicacy!

Hiking in Triglav National Park, Slovenia

Triglav National Park
Sean McLachlan

We’ve been talking about Slovenia for the past week here on Gadling. It’s got everything you’d expect from a European country: beautiful architecture, medieval churches and castles, world-class museums, a distinct cuisine … but every European country can boast these things. What really sets Slovenia apart?

The countryside. The Julian Alps take up a large part of the country and are full of incredible trails for all levels of hiking ability. You can stroll around Alpine lakes or slog up sheer mountains, have a picnic by an emerald stream or explore remote valleys. Add to this the fact that Slovenia is considerably cheaper than other Alpine countries and you have a hiker’s dream.

The best place to see Slovenia’s nature is Triglav National Park. Slovenia’s only national park takes its name from the country’s highest mountain. Triglav is 9396 feet (2864 meters) tall and offers a challenging climb. Sadly, I went too early in the season to make it up there. It was still snow bound and dangerous without proper equipment.

Instead, I picked an easier but scenic hike to Savica Waterfall. Part of one of the many streams that feeds Lake Bohinj, the largest lake in the park, the waterfall cascades down a steep cliff some 256 feet (78 meters), making it the tallest in the country.

%Slideshow-636%Setting out on a typically rainy day (Ljubljana gets twice the annual rainfall of London), I passed the tranquil Lake Bohinj, a serene alpine lake with fine views of the mountains. Several little chalets and B&Bs sit around its shores, making it a convenient place to base yourself. It’s much less touristy than Lake Bled and has the advantage of actually being located inside Triglav National Park. Lodging can also be found in the many villages scattered throughout the park.

Getting on the trail, I worked my way through a dense forest. The trail, like most in the country, was clearly marked. It was also nearly abandoned. Granted it was raining, but this was one of the most popular hikes in the country and it was already on the cusp of the high tourist season. Except for central Ljubljana and Lake Bled, Slovenia is surprisingly undervisited, yet another advantage to this lovely country.

While the rain hardly let up for the entire day, in one way I was grateful for it. Low clouds rolled over the mountaintops, making for a constantly changing scene. At times all but the verdant slopes would be hidden from view, and then the clouds would suddenly lift and the snowcapped peaks would glint in a brief patch of sunlight. Clouds lingered in the steeply cut valleys, rising like curtains between the forested ridges.

The trail crisscrossed an Alpine stream that was a bright, stunning shade of green. Passing by a few farms set amid fields full of yellow wildflowers, the trail began to ascend. After a rough mile or two it ended at a vista point overlooking the waterfall.

When I first got there, the clouds were hanging low and the water looked like it was spouting from the sky itself. Then the clouds broke up and I could see where the waterfall was cutting through the top of a cliff high above. Savica waterfall is set in a narrow cleft in the side of a mountain, and looking out you have a good vantage point to see several other mountains.

As I headed back the clouds finally broke up for good. The sky cleared and I got to see the Julian Alps in all their glory. I only wished I had more time in Slovenia to explore more of them.

Check out the rest of my series, “Slovenia: Hikes, History and Horseburgers.”

Coming up next: Eating and Drinking in Slovenia!

Lake Bled: A Tourist Trap In Slovenia You Really Must See

Lake Bled
Sean McLachlan

If you don’t already know that Lake Bled is the most popular tourist attraction in Slovenia you’ll know it the moment you arrive. There’s a casino. There’s a Shamrock Irish Pub. There’s even one of those tourist buses made up to look like a choo-choo train. It’s horrible.

But look out across the emerald-green water sparkling in the sunshine and all that disappears. Instead, you see a storybook landscape – a lush little island with a church spire peeking out over the greenery, snow-covered Alps beyond and, on one shore, a steep cliff atop which looms a formidable castle. It’s like something from Wagner.

The best way to see Lake Bled is to take a slow stroll around it. A path makes the entire 3.7-mile circuit. Most of the hotels and nearly all the businesses are clustered into one small town, so you soon leave the noise and people behind. Much of the walk is shaded and you can admire the lake from all angles. At one point there’s a sign for Osojnica hill. A moderately challenging 15-minute climb will reward you with fine views of the island and its church.

Most visitors head up to Bled Castle, one of the most impressive of Slovenia’s many castles. It’s a 16th-century fortress/manor house built on 11th-century foundations. While picturesque from afar, I’d recommend not visiting it because you’ll spoil the illusion. As soon as you enter the front gate someone shouts, “Smile!” and snaps your photo. When you leave they’ll offer you an image of yourself looking slightly surprised and confused for only €6.50 ($8.60).

%Slideshow-599%Once you make it past the photographer, you can visit an old-style print shop, where you can buy handmade prints; or you can visit the wine cellar, where you can buy wine; or you can visit the smithy with its fake forge and array of metalwork for sale. The only redeeming spots are the fine little castle church with its 16th-century frescoes and the views over Lake Bled. Since you can get just as good views from Osojnica hill for free, there’s really not much need to come here.

While Bled Island and its Church of the Assumption are equally touristy, they feel slightly less spoiled than the castle. At least people aren’t trying to sell you something all the time. The approach is nicer too – instead of slogging up a steep hill, you’re rowed across the lake on a gondola. When I went to the lakeside to catch a boat, a tour bus pulled up and disgorged a huge crowd of South Koreans, mostly women in their 50s with a couple of camera-toting husbands in tow.

We all piled into three gondolas and set out. The women in one of the boats started singing and their voices carried nicely over the water. I shared the stern of my boat with two ladies. Everyone thought this was funny for some reason and started snapping photos of us. The lone Korean man in our boat stood up to take a shot and, figuring I’d give him something to talk about back home, I put my arms around the two women. They started giggling. For them, at least, I’m still a young man.

The photographer gave me a wide grin and took our photograph. After he sat down one of the women turned to me and said, “That’s my husband.”

Oops.

The man must have overheard because he laughed. Then he pointed at me and said, “You kimchi.”

I swear to God that’s what he said. “You kimchi.”

Maybe Gadling’s resident Korea expert can shed some light on this?

Once we got off the boat, the oarsman grumpily announced that we only had half an hour. That’s plenty of time because the island is tiny. A quiet little path goes around the edge. It took me barely five minutes to make the circuit even though I kept stopping to take pictures. Then I rejoined my temporary travel companions in the church.

The church has some lovely 14th-century frescoes but that’s not why people come here. They come here to ring the bell. There’s some local legend about how it gives you luck for some reason or other. I didn’t bother to write it down since it was probably made up for tourists anyway. Still, I wasn’t about to pass up the chance for some good luck and I got in line with the rest. A sign on the floor gave strict instructions not to swing from the bell rope. Most of the women did anyway.

That bell rang and rang. Since a steady stream of visitors passes through the island, you can hear that bell ringing from early in the morning until sunset. It hardly ever seems to stop. Lake Bled has a lot of luck to give.

The women thought I was very strong because I could ring the bell without swinging from it. Thanks, ladies! Maybe that was the luck the bell had for me – the admiration of a crowd of middle-aged South Koreans. It’s not much, but how much magic do you expect from a tourist trap?

Despite all this nonsense, is Lake Bled still worth a visit? Oh yes. It is simply beautiful. Even in a steady downpour it had a majestic quality to it, and when the clouds broke it became one of the most beautiful spots I’ve seen in 25 years and 34 countries of travel. I would suggest visiting Lake Bled but actually staying at the less-visited but equally beautiful Lake Bohinj in Triglav National Park. More on that in the next post.

Check out the rest of my series, “Slovenia: Hikes, History and Horseburgers.”

Coming up next: Hiking in Triglav National Park!

Like Castles? Go To Slovenia

castles, LjubljanaThe little nation of Slovenia is situated on a crossroads. On the southeastern edge of the Alps and on the way to the rest of the Balkans and to central Europe, it’s seen more than its fair share of invading armies.

No wonder, then, that this country that’s slightly smaller than New Jersey has some 700 castles. Many are in ruins thanks to those invading armies, while others were dismantled during the Communist era as “symbols of feudalism.”

Luckily many survive. The one most visitors see first is Ljubljana Castle in Slovenia’s capital. It dominates the city’s skyline from a high hill. This easily defended position has been fortified since prehistoric times. The present castle dates from the 15th century with extensive expansions and remodeling in later centuries.

For many years the castle was used as a prison, with important prisoners stuck in cramped, dingy cells while the less fortunate were put in a stone pit covered with an iron grille. Some were hauled out of their confinement to work the well pump, which was turned by a big wooden wheel in which the prisoners walked like human hamsters.

Just inside the front gate was another well, this one a fake. A little water at the bottom masked its real purpose, as a secret tunnel to the outside. A small crawlway in the side led to a spot just outside the wall, and just underneath the castle toilet. This wasn’t too pleasant for any messenger sent through there, but it did ensure that enemies wouldn’t happen upon the entrance.

%Slideshow-589%From atop the watchtower you’ll get sweeping views of the city and much of the country too. On a clear day you can see a third of Slovenia, even as far as the Austrian border, marked by a chain of jagged peaks to the north. Also don’t miss the 18th century chapel adorned with the colorful crests of the provincial governors.

One of the best places to see castles in Slovenia is Kamnik, a small town 45 minutes by bus from Ljubljana amid the foothills to the Alps. There you can easily visit three castles in one day and get a taste for some of the hiking Slovenia has to offer, all in an easy day trip from the Ljubljana.

Kamnik was an important town in the Middle Ages and had to be protected. On a hill at the center of town is Mali Grad (“Little Castle”), dating back to the 11th century. One square tower and some crumbled walls remain, as well as an unusual two-story Romanesque chapel with some Renaissance frescoes. On another hill at the edge of town is Zaprice Castle, built in the 16th century and more of a fortified manor house than a castle. Its sentry towers provide a good field of fire into town and during World War Two the Gestapo took it over as their local headquarters. Now it’s an interesting and child-friendly museum of the region’s history. The lawn has an open-air exhibition of old granaries.

Both are worth a visit, but the best of Kamnik’s three castles requires a hike up a steep hill close to town. Climbing a dirt trail through forest, every now and then the foliage breaks to provide views of the town and the Alps beyond. Then, after twenty-minute, moderately strenuous walk and a final switchback, you come across a castle gate nearly covered with greenery.

This is Stari Grad (“Old Castle”). Built in the 13th century, it has crumbled into an overgrown, postcard-perfect place offering the best views in the local area. The Alps take up a large swath of the view and the town and outlying fields are laid out below. It’s a quiet spot, and a perfect place to while away some time admiring the scenery and wondering about the people who once lived in these decayed ruins.

Note: the train is well marked for the entire route except for one fork in the trail, where the directional arrow is misleading. See the photo in the slideshow to know which way to go. If you go the wrong way (50% chance considering how clear the sign is) you’ll end up ascending an even bigger hill. It offers nice views too, but lacks a castle.

Check out the rest of my series, “Slovenia: Hikes, History, and Horseburgers.”

Coming up next: Lake Bled: A Tourist Trap in Slovenia You Really Must See!

Ljubljana: Why Slovenia’s Cool Capital Needs To Be On Your Bucket List

Ljubljana
Sean McLachlan

Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, has been trumpeted by travel writers for a good 10 years now, yet this artsy little city of 270,000 still doesn’t get overrun with tourists. Perhaps it’s because it’s surrounded by better-known countries like Italy and Croatia; perhaps people confuse it with Slovakia; perhaps people still have old Communist imagery in their heads. Whatever it is, you can visit this cheap, fun capital without being trampled by photo-snapping hordes like in Paris or Prague.

This is the first photo I took in Ljubljana and it sums up my impression of the place: family-friendly, lots of culture and a few surprises. Like why there are all those shoes hanging up everywhere.

To get oriented I took the Ljubljana Free Walking Tour, which lasted a bit more than two hours and was hugely informative. A local university student named Neja led us all over her city’s historic center and gave us a great introduction to Ljubljana and Slovenia. She even explained the shoes. University students throw them up there at the end of term. The “shoe wire” I photographed is right next to Cobblers Bridge but apparently that’s just a coincidence. There are several wires adorned with footwear all over town.

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The historic center is a delight for anyone who likes colorful architecture. Vienna Secession, a central European take on Art Nouveau, was big here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and colorful examples flank the river that runs through the center of town. There’s plenty of Baroque buildings too along with an unfortunate scattering of concrete Communist monstrosities. Apparently living and working in an attractive building was thought to be symbolic of capitalist decadence or something. Fortunately most of the worst examples of Communist ugliness are outside the historic center.Architecture isn’t the only culture you’ll find. Ljubljana is a great place for drinking and dining. Slovenia has a distinct cuisine that I’ll cover later in this series. The city’s restaurants offer a wide sampling of other cuisines too, especially Italian. The bar scene isn’t as active as most European capitals but is good enough for a night out. One odd little place is Pr’Skelet at Ljubljanska cesta 1b, where you go down into a cellar made up to look like a medieval dungeon filled with skeletons. Their cocktail menu is numbers more than 180 strong mixes. Try more than a couple and you’ll end up as part of the decoration.

Like the nightlife, shopping is not too extensive but still worth checking out. Antique and bookshops abound, and the farmers market next to the Triple Bridge by the river is worth going to for local delicacies such as wine, honey, mead, fruit and produce.

Most visitors head on up the hill overlooking town to see Ljubljana’s castle, the nation’s most popular attraction. Slovenia is at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and has lots of great castles. I’ll be talking about them in my next post.

The city has several good museums. The best is the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum with its large collection of folk art and interactive displays about life in traditional and modern Slovenia. Numerous video panels feature interviews with Slovenians young and old about everything from contemporary views on religion to being a World War II partisan. It’s a really good way to learn more about the people you’re visiting.

An even better way is to hook up with the local Couchsurfing community, which runs weekly meetings open to all. I went to one and had a great evening learning about the country, sampling various unusual liquors and ending up with more invitations to go out that week than I had time to accept. As I’ve mentioned before, Couchsurfing is more than a free place to stay, it’s also a ready-made community welcoming you with open arms.

One thing that struck me again and again while meeting Slovenians was their repeated assertion that they are distinct from the rest of former Yugoslavia. There’s a common saying here: “Yugoslavians are brothers in blood, cousins in language, and foreigners in culture.” One said his nation was different than the rest of the former Yugoslav republics because it had spent many years as a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while they had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

The civil war in Yugoslavia is still fresh in people’s memory, even though Slovenia managed to avoid the worst of it. One university student, too young to have many clear memories of the war itself, almost broke down in tears as she talked about it. The war hasn’t left scars; it has left open wounds. I haven’t been to any other parts of former Yugoslavia but I imagine the emotional damage of the people there must be far worse.

Despite a harsh past and a troubled economic present, Slovenians seemed determined to enjoy themselves. Parks and cafes are full and people take long strolls along the river. Through most of their long history, Slovenians have been ruled by other nations. Independence has given everyone new hope.

One big advantage to the little nation of Slovenia is that it’s cheaper than most of the rest of Europe, certainly cheaper than any other nation that has a piece of the Alps to show off. A nice single room in the heart of downtown was 64 euros, breakfast included. A meal for one with wine rarely went over 15 euros. And since the city is so small you probably won’t spend anything on transportation costs.

So if you’re looking for a relatively cheap European destination with plenty to offer, consider Slovenia, and check out the rest of this series for more information.

This is the first in a new series, “Slovenia: Hikes, History, and Horseburgers.”

Coming up next: Like Castles? Go to Slovenia!