This July I discovered a secret that I knew in my heart but had to experience for myself to know it was true. Nestled between Italy, Austria, Croatia, and Hungary is a young country with ancient roots. It is a country straight from a fairytale. People are prone to call it Slovakia. It’s not. It is Slovenia, and without a doubt, it is my favorite place in the world. If you think I am just caught up in my latest adventure, first keep in mind that in the almost three months it took to write this post. I’ve also been traveling to North Carolina, New York, New Hampshire, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium…my husband and I also moved into our new house. After considering all of that, Google, “Lake Bled” and you will see why this article did not just fall victim to a busy life and the next adventure. I “fell in sLOVEnia” – which is to fall in love with this country, the landscape, the food, and the people.
First, lets clear up some confusion. One of the reasons most people have not heard about Slovenia is that it is a relatively new country. Slovenia seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991 and is named as such because of the ethnic majority and their language, Slovene. The land we now call Slovenia has been a part of the Austria-Hungary Empire and the Venetian Republic, among other ruling parties. Slovenia; therefore, exhibits a mix of Austria, Italy, Hungary, and the Balkans. Slovenia entered the European Union in 2004, which is a very big deal for a former communist and relatively tiny country! One travel guide described common traits of Slovenians as having “a Germanic love of cleanliness and order, pragmatism, a quiet conservatism, moderation in almost everything, and a solid work ethic.” This sounds just like my dad…and, probably his dad too…and, probably me, if I’m honest. So, you can see going to Slovenia, for me, was like learning more about myself. It was a journey of self-discovery.
So it should be clear now – part of the reason Slovenia was a secret that my heart already knew is that I am ¼ Slovenian. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother came to Montana, by way of Ellis Island and Michigan, at the beginning of the 20th century from a small village in Slovenia near Crnomelj. They started a dairy in the booming mining town of Butte, Montana. My grandfather, William Metesh, a very industrious man, moved to Philipsburg, married my grandmother, Dutch Winninghoff, and together they built a large family with a 2000-acre cattle ranch, a lumber mill, and a piece of land that is still rich with gold ore.
I never knew my grandfather, but I’ve been searching for him my whole life. I’ve always wanted to meet this man, whom my father so clearly admired. When he tells stories about him, his eyes sparkle with joy and sadness. My father was very young when he passed, but I feel in my heart that he inherited all the good things about my Grandpa Bill – industrious, hardworking, loyal, handsome, and probably his sense of humor.
I had an ancestral calling – but let me be clear – we all have a calling to this fairytale land! Slovenia is BEAUTIFUL! Where it borders with Italy and Austria, you have the Julian Alps, picturesque Lake Bled, and the adventurous Soca Valley. Sharing a border with Italy and Croatia is the coastal and Karst region. The coast is only 25 miles long, but the beautiful town of Piran is a mirror image of Venice in terms of architectural style. This coastal/ Karst region is much like Italy, producing world-class wines, olive oil, truffles, their own version of prosciutto, and many of the inhabitants are bilingual in Slovene and Italian. Karst is a geological term for a land of limestone – limestone is a key ingredient of the world’s most beautiful rock formation caves, such as the Postojna Cave. This region is also the homeland of the famous Lipizzaner Stallions and the site of the original stud farm. In the east and south, which border Hungary and Croatia, there are a variety of spas, resorts, and mineral springs. Slovenians really know how to do wellness. The central plains are where the capital city, Ljubljana is located. Ljubljana is like all the best European cities, on a river, filled with beautiful art and architecture, fine dining, activities, and culture, but without the crowds. The people are incredibly warm and welcoming. I would move there in a second!
While Slovenia is small, there is much to see and having the right guide can make or break your experience. For me, I traveled with an awesome Slovenian company called Roundabout, and they treated us like VIPs. Their attention to detail made sure we saw
almost everything Slovenia had to offer in a 6-day trip. We were accompanied and guided by Aljaz Dvorsak, Mitja Jus, and Tomaz Juvan throughout the entire trip. It seemed like everywhere we went, there was a sparkling wine waiting for us to toast, “Na Zdravje!” (To Your Health). We had countless multi-course meals that were amazing, and they arranged for us insider access to some of Slovenia’s coolest sites. They are genuinely passionate about what they do and proud to showcase their beautiful country to the world. I can’t recommend Roundabout highly enough.
I went on this tour with a group of other millennials from an organization called Young Travel Professionals. If you need proof that it is not just my Slovenian-American (possibly biased) opinion that Slovenia should absolutely be your next vacation, check out my travel companion’s opinions on the topic: here, here, and here.
Think I overrated Slovenia? Need more specifics? No problem.
Foodies: You’ll be delighted! Slovenia is the European melting pot of your dreams. Imagine a country whose gastronomic influences are blended between Italy, Austria, Hungary, and the Mediterranean. From the west – prosciutto, polenta, and truffles. From the north – sausage, sauerkraut, and pork. From the east – goulash. From the south – grilled meats and vegetables. You will be in heaven.
All the food prepared here is crafted in an artisanal way, with great pride. Most establishments practice farm-to-table. In fact, my favorite meal in Slovenia was my first at Gostilna Na Burji in Dragonjo, near the Italian border. We ate their home-cured prosciutto and salami, locally pressed olive, oil, homemade truffle pasta, steak from a local ranch, and fruits and vegetables from their own garden. For those steak snobs like me, that steak (and every steak I had) was cooked and tasted perfect! If you are not convinced yet of Slovenia’s stature in the global culinary scene, you probably did not see this episode of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” featuring Ana Ros, the world’s best female chef in 2017 and her restaurant, Hisa Franko. If you want to go there and eat, be warned, their reservations are booked months in advance. Oh, I almost forgot dessert! Try the famous Lake Bled Cream Cake, Kremsnita. It’s to die for!
Winos: There is nothing worse than over-promising to winos – just ask my mom, a
certified wine instructor! There are regions whose wine is underrated because it is under-par, others because of unique flavor profiles, and finally others who are small and are not widely known. Slovenia is undoubtedly the latter. Slovenian wine is of high quality. Everywhere I went in the country I was able to try multiple examples of the local varietals, and I was never disappointed. Winemakers have been making wine there for centuries. Similar to the wines of northern Italy and white wines from Austria, but always slightly different, there was a new experience to have with each sniff and sip. The region of Goriska Brda is particularly famous for its quality of wines, such as Rebula, Malvazija, Tokaj, and orange wines, like Movia’s Lunar. This region also produces quality Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Grigio wines. If you are a true wine lover, I challenge you to travel to Slovenia and explore the different regions and varietals, paired with the unique combination of food.
Adventure Seekers: For every season, Slovenia has no shortage of thrill-seeking adventures. In the summer, one can enjoy white-water rafting, spelunking in one the many caves of the Karst region, rock climbing, paragliding, mountain biking, horse- riding, kayaking, and scuba diving. Many of these activities can be accomplished in the Soca River valley or in the Triglav National Park with the backdrop of the Julian Alps. In the winter, an adventure-seeker can alpine ski, cross-country ski, hike/ski-tour, snowshoe, and snowraft.
Relax and Unplug: Whether you seek to disconnect from daily obligations and savor
nature in a glamping site or you prefer to restore your body, mind, and soul in one of Slovenia’s many spa resorts, you will be able to relax and unplug. For the glampers, Slovenia has really begun to capitalize on its growing tourism industry and natural beauty, by steadily increasing luxury camping sites. Chateau Ramsak is one of those places. It’s a vineyard and glamping site just outside of Maribor on the eastern side of the country. When I visited, I could just see myself spending a romantic evening (or three) under the stars in plush accommodations, surrounded by vineyards, and drinking fabulous wine!
Spa and Wellness: For the people that prefer to be pampered in a spa resort, look no further than Slovenia! Slovenians are very invested in health and wellness, and this is reflected in lodging across the country, with many standard hotels offering extensive
fitness and wellness facilities. The spa resorts are like Disney World-level wellness centers. Slovenia is rich with thermal springs; so, many spas are found around these natural geological features and are integrated into the natural environment. I got to spend an afternoon at an amazing spa resort, Terme Olimje in eastern Slovenia. First, we had a delicious and healthy lunch in the spa café. Then we swam in the dozens of different thermal treatment rooms, ranging from, rapid rivers, and geysers, to whirlpools, as well as a variety of saunas and steam rooms. Words and images cannot adequately explain how you feel in this setting. They’ve thought of every sense from scented steam showers to audio therapy pools, which play classical music when you submerge your ears in the water! Couples and families alike would enjoy this experience.
History Buffs: This probably goes without saying, but Slovenia has a rich and interesting history. From its most recent history succeeding from Yugoslavia in a 10-day war to become an independent state in 1991 – to its more distant history of Roman Legionnaire occupation in the towns of Celje and Ptuj, where some of the best Roman ruins can be seen. If you’re into military history, there are a couple of military museums you’ll want to check out: (1) the Kobarid Museum, which won the award for “Best European Museum in 1993” and features exhibits from the gruesome and bloody Isonzo Front of WWI; and (2) the Park of Military History is one of the largest and most comprehensive military history museums in Europe, which includes interactive exhibits such as experiencing a submarine from the inside.
Artists, Architects, and Designers: Ljubljana is chock-full of beautiful examples of Art Nouveau architecture, such as the Grand Hotel Union (I stayed there for four nights).
Ljubljana’s celebrated architect, Joze Plecnik re-designed and planned the city starting in the 1920’s. His mark is left all over the city, from the Triple Bridge, the Central Market, and the National and University Library building. Ljubljana has several premier art galleries showcasing art from the Middle Ages to contemporary art. One of the most interesting visits I paid while in Slovenia was to a former prison converted to one of the highest rated hostels in the world, Hostel Celica. This hostel is located in the Metelkova neighborhood of Ljubljana, which was once a military center. The hostel building was a prison from the Austro-Hungarian Army in the 1880’s. In the 1990’s, the Yugoslav Army left the building and neighborhood. Artists sought refuge and creative spaces in the abandoned building and in 2003 the building was transformed into a youth hostel. The whole Metelkova neighborhood is decorated with street art, and the hostel is a work of art itself. Prison cells turned into hostel rooms were individually decorated and designed by different artists to transform the space into something that was once dreary to now inspiring.
Luxury: Stay at the Five Star Grand Hotel Toplice on Lake Bled, with a view that looks like a page from a fairytale book. Or, if you prefer a view of the Adriatic, stay at the Five Star Kempinski Palace in Portoroz. While in Ljubljana, stay in the sleek and modernly appointed, Hotel Cubo.
Family: Slovenia is one of the safest countries in the world. Families can feel safe and secure traveling throughout the country. The first time I visited Slovenia, I was about nine years old. We lived in Vicenza, Italy and took a day trip over the border to see the Postojna Caves and the Predjama Castle, both of which are very cool to see as a child! Everywhere I traveled in Slovenia, I saw families out with their children. Many of the restaurants also had small play areas set aside for children. Every generation in your group will find something entertaining to do.
Romance: From wine tasting to spa treatments, to fine dining, boat rides on Lake Bled, Adriatic Sea views, and majestic landscapes, you are sure to be able to find romance on a trip to Slovenia. For a first, second, or third honeymoon…or just to reconnect with your partner – what better place than a land reflecting a real-life fairytale?
What are you waiting for? If I haven’t convinced you yet that your next vacation should be to Slovenia, I don’t know if I can convince you of anything. I can’t wait to go back. I want to take my husband and daughter to experience it as a family, but I also want to take my dad and siblings to experience the land of our heritage. Honestly, I would love to move there!
If you are ready to start planning a trip to Slovenia, reach out to me by filling out our trip planning form, and we’ll work together to create a trip that will bring you and your loved ones together in an unforgettable way.
In the meantime, Na Zdravje!
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