Slovenia enriches a trip’s history, dishes, and treks
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia — The view ahead was something like the Swiss Alps overlaid on Yosemite Valley, except sized down and without the crowds. “Isn’t this unbelievable?” my mother said for what felt like the fifth time. A lone road tracked a green dale surrounded first by forest, then steep scree, then a cirque of white-and-gray peaks more than 7,000 feet tall. Down below were open meadows sprinkled with apple trees and a couple of alpine-style buildings that together comprise the settlement of Logarska Dolina.
My parents, both retired and in their 60s, and I, in my 30s, were happy to have arrived in this isolated place at all. We had missed or misidentified the turnoff to the Logar Valley more than once on the way here, nearly going down a forest service route and then almost overshooting into Austria. We were all a little exhausted from having taken an earlier shortcut of switchback dirt roads over a pass instead of following a smoothly paved route the long way around.
For years, Germans and other European travelers have passed through this country on the way to Croatia’s popular Adriatic beaches, bypassing authentic and unspoiled options in Slovenia. In planning the trip, we’d almost done the same.
Instead we found a charming country of just over 2 million people — the population would fit in New York four times over — open to sharing their lives and food and magnificent landscapes with visitors. At one stop, the patroness of a farmhouse that rents rooms counseled us not to rush to check in before trying a complimentary taste of her family’s honey liquor — the flowers, bees, honey, and alcohol all produced on the farm: “First you must drink, it’s the Slovenian way. Then we can get to business.”
Our trip started in Ljubljana, the capital and largest city. Young, energetic, and drawn to the streets, the people here — seemingly all 300,000 of them on a nice evening — gather near the bridges and plazas near the Ljubljanica River. Street musicians entertain small crowds, young professionals zip by on bicycles in work clothes, and college students carouse on the steps of buildings that evoke various architectural eras in a city built and rebuilt after devastating earthquakes in 1511 and 1895: Venetian, Viennese, and contemporary.
Ljubljana, though lively, is a great place to slow down with a coffee or beer. We walked through narrow streets packed with boutiques and painted with cute graffiti. We huffed the short distance up to Ljubljana Castle — at different times used for nobility, as a prison, and to house peasants — for grand views of snowy mountains on the horizon. And we sampled the beer at the weekly open-air food market, Odprta Kuhna, that wouldn’t be out of place in Boston or San Francisco.
From Ljubljana we headed for the mountains, valleys, and rivers that Slovenia is famous for, but not until we learned an essential lesson about driving here: Nothing is that far away, and there are only a few major roads to follow. When I asked the associate at the car rental place how to find a specific route that passed through a few towns on the way to the mountains, his answer was succinct, “Go out the parking lot and turn right.”
And that’s what we did, moving along the flatlands outside the capital to the north, and then west through Tolmin and Kobarid on the Italian border, where the mountains rose and colorful specks floating on thermals turned out to be hang- and paragliders.
At one time, this area was ravaged by the gas attacks and carnage of World War I. Ernest Hemingway famously wrote about the Battle of Caporetto, which took place close to Kobarid, in “A Farewell to Arms.” Now, the Soca River, colored a brilliant emerald-turquoise, attracts legions of thrill-seekers who come for the rafting, kayaking, and canyoneering.
We mostly hiked. The forest around Kobarid was dense with beech trees, small flowers, mushrooms, and crumbling white rocks. We passed by the foundations of ruins hundreds of years old and World War I-era pillboxes and trenches, and explored a semihidden waterfall at the back of a narrow slot in the rock.
“Do you hear that too?” my mother said midway up a very steep hike she and I went on. My father, whose knee isn’t in perfect shape, waited below, happy to have a chance to read and drink a coffee at a cafe halfway between Kobarid and Bovec.
We’d been hearing the intermittent ringing of a bell for about 15 minutes. My fear of stumbling upon a brown bear — of which there are roughly 500 to 700 in Slovenia — was momentarily relieved when a half-dozen white, brown, and black goats came bounding down from above. But a different fear arose as the largest of the bunch, a fellow with a brass bell around his neck and 10-inch horns, charged us. “Stand behind me,” I told my mother, my voice inflected with adrenaline, as I held up my tripod.
But as quickly as the goat had charged, he came to a halt. And then he proceeded to lick the tripod where I had handled it — presumably for the salt. The goats continued to harass us, and other hikers, for the next 20 or so minutes, always trying to lick at the sweat on our hands, backpacks, or the steel cables bolted to the rock that we used for support on particularly narrow, steep sections of trail.
That evening, we drove past Bovec to an organic family farm just outside Trenta where we’d spend the night. Pri Plajerju, as the farm is called, is like scores that dot the Slovenian countryside. These so-called tourist farms are akin to bed-and-breakfasts where the family running the place also grows or raises most of its food.
In Trenta, we hiked a section of the Soca River Trail in Triglav National Park to the river’s source — an otherworldly spring coming out of a small cave partway up the base of a mountain. We crossed the emerald river over shaky footbridges, scrambled over rooty paths, and peered upward at crags speckled with snow. From Trenta, our trip meandered through a whole world of landscapes in a matter of days. First we crossed the cold, craggy Vrsic Pass, at just over 5,000 feet in the Julian Alps, before staying at the beautiful tourist farm PSNAK with its honey liquor.
That night, my mother was effusive as we ate outside at a farm table and chatted with a young couple who were also guests. She said she was particularly impressed with the variety of landscapes, the friendliness of the Slovenes, and the short distances between our destinations.
I had to agree. After all, even with mixed physical abilities, a generous age gap, and varied interests, my parents and I found the trip compelling. Compared with our last trip, an equally successful three-week adventure to Southeast Asia, this vacation felt altogether more relaxing and regenerative.
After PSNAK, we made day trips to the milky-blue waters of Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj, each surrounded by lush mountains and bathed in warm weather. Then we continued to the secluded valley at Logarska Dolina.
A bout of bad weather and a 24-hour bug meant we were unable to visit the massive Postonja or Skocjan caves. Instead, we drove to Slovenia’s tiny coast — a 26-mile-long strip on the Adriatic Sea squeezed between Italy and Croatia — to spend a couple of hours wandering around Piran, a town that was once a part of the Republic of Venice, and whose architecture remains very much Italian and medieval. Here, the hillsides were painted in golden, Mediterranean hues, and dotted with olive trees, and peach and cherry orchards. The sea lapped in tiny waves at a harbor filled with pleasure craft. And my father went feverishly in search of gelato.