Looking for a quick getaway in 2018? Head to Slovenia and its picturesque capital Ljubljana, says Paul Kirkwood.
A calm and attractive capital, the Alps and lakes, caves and a quirky castle, water sports galore and no need to drive far. Those were the main draws of Slovenia for my family and I along with the fact that it was like Croatia next door but less visited. Not many people can name the Slovenian capital and fewer still spell it. We also had problems pronouncing it until our final day there.
Ljubljana (“loob-lee-ah-nah”) was a gentle introduction to a country only the size of Wales. We almost felt relieved there was no list of showpiece attractions to tick off the list. We were free to amble at leisure, which was just as well seeing as our three days there coincided with a heatwave. The main appeal of the city’s most famous landmark, the Triple Bridge, was a sprinkler suspended over the adjacent square with a sign saying: “The area with Ljubljana’s own weather.”
The bridge, like so many other buildings in the city, was designed by the country’s most famous son, Jože Plečnik. Though highly renowned, Plečnik comes across as a great tinkerer, keen to leave his mark on buildings that weren’t even his. We passed a pyramid he’d set into the remains of a Roman wall and he would’ve got his hands on the castle, the city’s biggest attraction, given half a chance as an exhibition of his plans within the walls explained.
Ljubljana’s most famous daughter? That would be Melania Trump who studied in the city. “Land of the US First Lady” tours are available at €89. We declined and, instead, used the capital as a base to explore two of the country’s foremost attractions, which, handily, are very close together and reachable in an afternoon. The first of them was Predjama Castle, dramatically located in front of a cave and complete with torture chamber, and the second was Postojna Caves, the most visited caves in Europe with 7,000 visitors per day in high season and so extensive that a train takes 10 minutes to reach the heart of the complex.
On the drive to our second base, we escaped the crowds at the recently redeveloped Planica Nordic Centre. Slovenians are fanatical about ski-jumping and have set several world records here, making the arena almost their equivalent to Wembley. We had great fun climbing up the 1,900 or so steps to the top and then posing at the take-off point, crouching with arms stiff by our sides. We were en route to Bovec, a bustling, outdoorsy town close to the Alps where the big draw is the whitewater rafting, some of the best in Europe. Sadly, given a drought, it was very much blue water for us but at least my rickety knees survived the voyage in tact.
Far more challenging was an ascent of Svinjak, the peak that looms over the town. It proved to be as relentlessly staircase steep as it looked so we aborted. All was not lost, though, since on our descent we encountered a wonderfully peaceful spot, although a century ago the opposite applied. A brief diversion from the path led to a 200-metre long concrete trench with masoned walls which connects two gun positions with a kitchen, an observation post, two dormitories for 40 men and a shelter for 20 soldiers. The trench had 150 crenels for riflemen. The fortification was part of the Bovec blockade system built by the Austro-Hungarian army to defend the area from the Italian forces on the other side of the Alps.
What made the place so evocative was the lack of tourist attraction clutter. There was a single explanatory panel and that was it. No tickets, no opening hours and no signs telling you where to go and not to go which extended to the highlight of the fort, huge storage caves cut into the sides of the mountain. Men lived like bears.
I donned the headtorch again the next day to explore another war relic, the remains of Fort Hermann hewn into a rock face 60 metres above the road next to the fully restored Fort Kluze. Despite boasting walls two metres thick, Hermann was destroyed by a rain of 3,840 Italian grenades. I clambered over the collapsed masonry, peered into the rooms, some knee deep in water, and descended a long ladder into the tunnels and staircases which led to shooting positions over the valley.
The tranquil mood pervaded our final base, Lake Bohinj. Surrounded by the Julian Alps, the waters were supremely serene, the perfect spot for waterboarding, kayaking, rowing, swimming or just lazing in the shade of pine trees with the bridge and 15th century church at the head of the lake providing a postcard backdrop.
You can take the cable car up to the ski slopes and ascend the 1,535-metre Vogel, trek to the Boka waterfall or take the eight-mile path around the lake which for us was an ideal last day. Our tour included the best of both town and country.