The famous poet and author of the Slovene national anthem France Prešeren once wrote this about the famous Lake Bled:
“No, Carniola has no prettier scene
Than this, resembling paradise serene.”
But after five days, over 400km, countless wine tastings and an ungodly amount of food, I have concluded that he was wrong. During my short time in Slovenia, I found plenty of places in this small but intoxicating country that will take more breaths away than Bled ever could. Of course I'm not saying don't visit Lake Bled, it is indeed the fairy tale setting we see in brochures and on adverts, but venture further afield (which isn't far at all in this compact country) and you'll find sprawling vineyards in Ljutomer-Ormož, Slovenia's answer to Tuscany, small cities flooded by culture and interesting art by local sculptors, a Roman legacy and more outdoor sports and adventure activities than you'll have time for. And what’s more, in spring time, it’ll feel like you’ve got the entire country all to yourself. Here are five things to do in Slovenia in spring:
Cycling and paragliding in Logarska Dolina
If there is anywhere to rival Bled’s beauty it’s here. Cutting through the Savinja Alps near the Austrian border, Logarska Dolina is one of three impressive valleys. Driving into the valley is probably the most impressive part; having navigated the tight, winding mountain roads and followed a small bright-blue river for miles, we turned into Logarska and were dumbfounded by the view that opened up before us. An expanse of green grass, bordered by tall, pine-blanketed mountains, and an enormous grey cliff face baring down on us from the southern end – and no people in sight.
Once you’re over the view (if you can ever get over it), there’s a wealth of sports and activities to keep you occupied. After a lunch of trout, caught fresh from the Soca river, and locally-picked mushrooms at the Rinka visitor centre – just a ten minute drive north of Logarska – we hopped onto an electric bike to find the waterfall at the end of the valley. We cycled along the tarmac track, which in summer is usually littered with other cyclists, walkers and cars, completely alone except for two other walkers. It was peaceful, the sun was shining, the air was fragrant with pine and the ride was easy (thanks to the electric motor in my bike, of course – I dread to think how I’d have fared without it).
We left the bikes at the road to continue on foot, and fifteen minutes later we stood in the refreshing spray of a 90-metre-high waterfall – just what I needed. The ride back down to the rental hut was fast and cool, and while I’d been won over by the dizzying heights of the Savinja Alps towering over me, I had heard the view from above was unrivalled: it was time for some paragliding. Somewhere along the Panoramic Road, which snakes along the side of the valley, I strapped myself to a stranger and his parachute, and together we ran off the side of the mountains to glide over trees, a small scattering of farm houses and a lone church. I decided that paragliding was most definitely the best way to see Logarska Dolina.
Drink wine in the Drava Valley
The Drava Valley is the largest of Slovenia’s wine regions, producing mainly white grapes, and in pursuit of the region’s finest tipples we visited Jeruzalem, a small village in the Ljutomer-Ormož district. On the drive south from Ptuj, this renowned wine country rose out of the flat plains into undulous green hills, covered with newly-planted grapevines. We drove past small farmhouses teetering on the top of mounds, overlooking the elegant swirling lines of the vineyards beneath like a protective mother, and eventually we found our way to the Jeruzalem Ormož winery.
After standing in the fresh, sweet, grassy-smelling air, admiring the alluring view, we retired to the cellar to drink some of the finest wine I’ve ever tasted. Now I’m no wine expert, but there was something truly special about tasting a €250, 42-year-old bottle of Pinot while standing beneath an enormous old wooden wine press.
But of course that wasn’t our first tasting of the day – we’d spent the morning in Ptuj at the Pullus wine cellar where they keep enormous barrels of the stuff, some up to ten thousand litres in capacity. After six tastings of incredibly different but equally delicious wines, we packed four of their bottles into the car and went to lunch with a light head and a large appetite.
Overindulge in Ljubljana
With such a small country comes a tiny capital; Ljubljana is home to only ten per cent of the Slovenia’s population of two million, but by no means is it short of culture, history or a good night out.
This year Ljubljana celebrates 2000 years since it became an important Roman settlement along a trade route from the Mediterranean coast. So in a bid to explore all-things-Roman and stuff our faces with great cake, we took a food tour around the city with Top Ljubljana Foods – and we came away with far more than just a full stomach. Five restaurants and eight tastings later we found ourselves towering above the city at Neboticnik (which means “skyscraper”), mapping our route on the streets below over some excellent Prekmurska Gibanica (a layered fruit cake), and admiring the snow-topped alps beckoning us from beyond.
We’d eaten seafood from the Slovenian coast in a restaurant by the fish market, sipped a rich red from the western wine regions in a famous bar, sampled a protected Carniolan sausage in a shop run by a watchmaker, eaten Bosnian barbequed meat and sipped Turkish coffee by the river. It was just a small taster of the 24 wildly different cuisines available in Slovenia and a history lesson in the city’s people and politics. We walked down the two most important streets in Roman Ljubljana, stood in squares where market traders used to be punished for cheating their customers and passed all kinds of architecture from classical houses in the old town, to the much-debated modern extension of the Opera house near Park Tivoli. Some of the buildings, simple as they were, spoke volumes about the country’s political discourse: we noted how TR3, an enormous, ugly grey tower block home to Slovenia’s banks, stood threateningly tall above the understated Parliament building.
Later that evening, despite the plethora of rock gigs and club nights at our disposal, we opted to enjoy a bottle of Slovenian red by the river (thanks to the city’s trusting open-bottle policy) and admire the illuminated medieval hill-top castle from below.
Taste the simple life on a tourist farm
Agriculture is a huge part of life in Slovenia; in 2005 there were over 70,000 farms across the country, producing some of the essential ingredients for their 176 traditional dishes, such as pumpkins for pumpkin seed oil and pork for dried meats. Hundreds of these estates open up their doors to tourists nowadays, giving people the opportunity to stay on working farm and experience the back-to-basic nature of agricultural life.
At Firbas Tourist Farm – run by Bojan and his parents – we ate only foods that were produced on their land and drank wine only from small local vineyard. As we stood, after dark, drinking a 22-year-old Pinot in his neighbour’s tiny eight-barrel cellar, we toasted with the farm boys, who’d just rocked up in a giant John Deere tractor (complete with bright lights and a booming sound system) after a hard day on the fields. They spoke little English, and my knowledge of Slovenian was too simple, but we communicated through our wine with a simple “cheers”, or “na zdravje”.
Have it all in Maribor
This small city of just 100,000 people really packs a punch. If you haven’t got time to get active in Logarska or drink wine in Jeruzalem, then spent your days in Maribor. It promises culture on par with the capital, with its jazz cafes and art exhibitions, and beauty to challenge even Bled’s picturesque landscapes. In just one day we ate a traditional Slovenian lunch of štefani pečenka (a beef meatloaf stuffed with a boiled egg), took a walking tour through the city to learn some of its history and politics, and visited the world’s oldest grapevine at 400 years old, from which grapes are harvested once a year during a festival and whose wine is given only to influential guests of the city (it’s rumoured that Pope John Paul II received two small bottles during his visit to the cellar).
But the main surprise in Maribor is the city’s close connection with nature. Over the river sits Pohorje, a ski-resort-turned-adventure-playground in spring, where you can get the adrenaline going on two wheels at the Bike Park in the forest, or try your hand at the single track PohorJet which sends you hurtling down the ski slope at up to 30mph.
Just a five minute drive from central Maribor is the Drava Center, an eco-centre, built mainly from timber and chestnut wood from the surrounding forests, that offers water-based activities for children and adults along the Drava River. We spent the late afternoon watching the changeable April weather from grass-covered loungers on the Drava café balcony, sipping coffee and eating gibanica (a sweet cake made from pastry and cottage cheese), before venturing onto the waters in a canoe. The surrounding green hills made a perfect backdrop to the wonderfully blue waters around us, and for a brief moment the sun came out to warm us and I forgot we were anywhere near a major city at all.