Although Boris Johnson is famously prone to blunders, it seems he had the sense to know where he was last week, after stopping by a remote valley in northern Slovenia for a belated honeymoon with wife Carrie.
No mean feat for a head of state to know his basic geography, would you think? But that hasn’t always been the case when it comes to this small Central European country, tucked between the Balkans, the Mediterranean and the Alps. Slovenia became independent from Yugoslavia in 1991, but earlier both Silvio Berlusconi and George W Bush managed to confuse it with its near namesake, Slovakia. Even in 1998, Slovenia received fewer than one million tourists a year. It wasn’t really on anyone’s map.
But somewhere along the line, things changed. Slovenia has emerged from relative travel obscurity to become an unusual holiday favourite. In 2019, the last year of normal travel, over six million people visited. Quite a leap for a country of just 2.1 million, about the size of Wales, about 70 percent hills and mountains, and 60 percent covered in trees, with only a small coastline to its name.
As it turns out, I visited Slovenia long before it was cool. A family holiday to Yugoslavia in the 80s was, now on the map again, somewhere on the northern Croatian coast. I was maybe eight, not caring where I was, just that the sea was cool and blue and the ice was coming. But actually, my strongest memories of that trip are from a bus ride we took one day, away from the beach and into an astonishing – nay, fairytale – land somewhere beyond.
On the long, hot ride, my young mind was blown by a tower-topped island fit for a princess, floating in an emerald green lake; of blind salamanders—so strangely pink-translucent you could see their insides—who lived in caves so big you could explore them by train; of mousy brown horses that were able to mutate into gorgeous white yards and actually learn to dance. We had actually jumped over the border into what would become Slovenia, and I had been fascinated by Lake Bled, Postojna’s caves and stud farms in Lipica. I just didn’t know.
Coming of age
But now everyone has embraced the magic that lies here. Because Slovenia, now in her early 30s, has definitely come of age. It has matured into a destination that has managed to blend its diverse heritage – part Italian chic, Balkan backgrounds, Hungarian flavours, Austrian Gemütlichkeit, free-flowing schnapps and giddy polka – but create something decidedly Slovenian. There is pride in the mix of influences, but it is also a celebration of very home-grown heroes: for example the architect Jože Plečnik, whose thumbprint is all over Ljubljana and whose 150th birthday is celebrated this year, and Anton Janša, the godfather of modern beekeeping.
It’s the atmosphere. But perhaps more obviously appealing to tourists when they finally realize it is that Slovenia offers a bit of everything that is enticing about Europe in a wonderfully compact package.
The coast, although only 29 miles long, is charming. Here you will find the Venetian panache of Piran, the traditional fishing hub of Izola, the lush, protected landscape of the Ankaran Peninsula and many taverns serving the freshest seafood and fine Slovenian wines. Yes, wines – because move a little inland and you’re in one of the country’s most important wine regions (there are more further east), where previously overlooked vineyards are gaining increasing attention.
Then, before long, you will be among the most spectacular mountains: the Julian Alps, the Kamik and Savinja Alps, the Karavanke Alps… The Alps everywhere, made wonderfully accessible thanks to thousands of miles of well-marked trails, a rich mountaineering heritage and a general national love of the outdoors. Even if you’re not feeling particularly energetic, a short walk to a mountain hut for a hearty meal and a shot of schnapps (no matter how early the hour) will make you feel like a de facto Slovenian.
The cozy capital
Ljubljana, the country’s cozy capital, also has many city breaks. It’s just the right size for easy walking, with a beautiful river cutting through it and cafes transitioning into pedestrian streets. There are a number of greatest hits of continental architectural styles: a castle on a hilltop, a medieval and baroque old town, Italian flourishes, secessionist elegance, socialist reminders.
It’s also appealingly eco: named Europe’s Green Capital in 2016, it offers free public transport, car-free streets and vast amounts of green space. In fact, this eco-ethos applies across the country. The international organization Green Destinations declared Slovenia the first green country in the world, and over 100 destinations, accommodation providers, nature parks and attractions here are registered in the Green Scheme of Slovenian Tourism. As travelers increasingly look to make more conscious, sustainable choices, Slovenia is making it easy for them – and may explain why eco-friendly Carrie was so keen to visit.
When I finally returned to Slovenia a few years ago – this time I knew exactly where I was – it was this greenness that initially attracted me. I wanted to walk in the forested hills and along the emerald colored Soca River, and I was keen to stay in the then newly opened eco-resort Vila Planinka (which I did, well before Boris and Carrie showed up). But as I explored from the Julian Alps to the Prekmurje plains, I found much more.
I discovered formal spas once beloved by the Habsburgs rubbing shoulders with state-of-the-art wellness retreats. I explored remnants of past conflicts that have been turned into open-air museums, now explorable by app. I devoured venison stews and traditional štruklji dumplings, but also exquisite Michelin-starred food at Hiša Franko (currently ranked number 21 on the list of the world’s 50 best restaurants). Essentially, I found a self-confident nation keen to preserve its natural appearance and focus on the future while remaining extremely proud of its past. I found a nation that could not be anywhere else.
How to do it
Flights from £49 return, departing London Gatwick on 18 October to Ljubljana on 24 October with easyJet.com.
Read the full review of Vila Planinka here, plus our guide to the best hotels in Slovenia.