The train journey from Salzburg to Villach and then onto Ljubljana is extraordinarily pretty. We travel through the Alps for most of the way, gorgeous velvety green slopes, clumps of fir trees, plunging gorges and towering peaks above these. The villages and ski resorts are immaculate. Hang gliders hovering over the valleys instead of skiers on the slopes at the moment. Though there are patches of snow and glaciers on some of the crags. It’s also extraordinary because of the speed of the train, which is exceedingly slow, partly presumably because we are going slightly, just slightly, uphill and partly because we are stopping at quite a few of the small villages.
Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is small, (just 278,853 called Ljubljana home), but painstakingly renovated and beautiful. Another gem of a city, with a castle up top and amazing views. It’s a blend of Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque, with some more colourful twentieth century thrown in for good measure.
In ancient Roman times a city called Emona stood in this area. Ljubljana dates back to the 12th century. It was under Habsburg rule from the Middle Ages until the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. After World War II, Ljubljana became the capital of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia, a region of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This was its status when I last visited. When Slovenia became independent in 1991 Ljubljana became the capital of the newly formed state.
The curving Ljubljanica River, lined with busy eateries, divides the city's old town from its commercial hub. Ljubljana has pleasant green spaces and plenty of museums, It’s also full of beautiful people, parading round in designer clothes and shopping in all the high-end shops that line the cobbled streets. The castle, high above, is reached by a funicular, very similar to Salzburg, though the castle and associated climb are both considerably smaller. The views are less impressive too, but there are red roofed houses, a few winding streets and the peaks of the Julian Alps beckoning in the distance.
Most of the more up market restaurants are to be found alongside the river. Slovenian fare, Michelin plaques and burgers (of course, but often of wagyu status here) marked by square cream umbrellas. There are several plazas with fountains and statues and some fancy new (or newly renovated) bridges. The busy market is an interesting wander. There’s plenty of cheaper food round here from a refined version of an outdoor food hall, advertising all manner of local edibles – fish, pork, stew, sausages and dumplings. And cafes serving up scrumptious looking flaky cakes.
I’ve left one whole day to indulge by the rooftop pool in the Vander Urbani Hotel. The food is excellent and most of the staff extra friendly and helpful. It’s an ultra-stylish establishment with silver furnishings – think the Delano in miniature. And I have a Zen room. It’ a shame there’s nowhere to put my case without disturbing the Zen. And Covid, with subsequent staff reductions means that cleaning and restaurant staff are somewhat disorganised. There’s linen spilling out of the closet adjacent to my room, rather spoiling the elegance of the décor. And service is exceptionally slow….
A day trip out to the coast. Less than an hour's drive from Ljubljana, is a huge karst area with several cave systems and more castles. Predjama Castle is described as ‘A Fairy-tale Castle Embraced by Rock’. Originally constructed in the Middle Ages, but rebuilt in the renaissance style, it's perched right in the middle of a 123-metre-high cliff ,inside a cave mouth in south-central Slovenia, …it’s a great viewpoint. I’ve told driver Martin I want to take some good photos, so he’s taken on the challenge.
Also in the area are the Postojna caves I saw on my first visit, when they were run by the government. They’re now privately owned and exorbitantly expensive. Just down the road the Skocjan Caves, UNESCO listed and more interesting, Martin assures me, as they are ‘more natural’. One of the largest underground canyons in the world and home to four miles of underground passages, vast chambers, and waterfalls, linked by a system of outdoor walkways. We admire it from a platform high above the plunging gorge.
Our third viewpoint is from a peak high above Trieste, on the border with Italy. This has long been the border between Venetian and Austrian dominions, so naturally there's a castle, Socerb, or rather its ruins. It's deserted in the Time of Covid, but it's an excellent place for defence. We are looking south, down Slovenia’s meagre 24 mile length of coastline to the one and only main national port of Kope and the Istrian peninsula. I happen to mention that I’ve never been to Trieste, so Martin decrees he will slide into Italy on our way south. It’s unfortunate that the customs officers have slowed the traffic back into Slovenia to do quick Covid scans. It’s also fortunate that we don’t get stopped, as I don’t have my passport with me.
Along the tiny stretch of Slovenian coast, on the Adriatic corner, edging forward slowly in the weekend traffic, through Kope and along tree lined roads to Portoroz, a glitzy seaside resort with casinos and the venerable Kempinski Palace Hotel. Last time I was here this was all Yugoslavia. Portorož has been described in The Telegraph as Coney Island, Blackpool and Bondi Beach rolled into one. It has a nice wide, beach with wooden piers. This is the country’s only real stretch of sand, so it's packed tight with sunbeds and umbrellas. Martin tells me that the government have offered 200 euro incentives (per person) to visit the coast and maintain business. That’s certainly worked.
The Venetian town of Piran is my main goal. The town walls were constructed to protect the town from Ottoman incursions. In the middle of the town is the Tartini Square, with a monument in memory of composer and violinist Giuseppe Tartini. Tartini’s house, first mentioned in 1384, (so well before his time) is one of the oldest in town. There are also the Municipal Palace (city hall on Tartini Square), Loggia and Benečanka, amongst others. On the hill, (up steep narrow steps - it's easy to get lost), above the town is the biggest and most important church, the Saint George's Church, with a Franciscan monastery nearby.
By the sea, it’s reminiscent of Syracuse, a peninsula of pretty houses and bars, ending at a small church with an unusual octagonal tower. The beach is a minimal strip of shingle, below the town walls. The locals have adjusted with stairs direct into the water and the jetty and walkway areas abutting the walkways and the walls are covered with towels and sunbeds. It’s delightfully charming, the tower of the church shooting into the sky above the main square, with its city hall and many cafes dishing up coffee and ice cream. The cool is welcome in the searing heat. especially when I have climbed up the endless steps for the view across town.
After I’ve had a good saunter round (and an ice cream) I join the locals in the sea.
Bled is half an hour’s drive from Ljubljana today. It’s a satisfyingly scenic journey into the Julian Alps. Mount Triglav is elusive again, but the iconic views of Lake Bled, with its little church on the centre of a tear shaped island, framed by mountain peaks are still breath-taking. If you’ve seen a picture of Slovenia you’ve almost certainly seen Lake Bled.
I’m returning to revive my memories. Last time I came here we drove all the way from the United Kingdom, over the border from Austria. Slovenia was then part of Yugoslavia, Communist territory, under Tito’s reign and arguably the only easily visitable country behind the Iron Curtain. It took longer before, to travel the 33 mile distance, on what was then dirt roads - we got a puncture.
It’s a weekend and the Slovenians are out in force, so this time its traffic jams, slowing the pace to painfully slow, approaching the lake area. Martin circumnavigates the water, lying to the officials who are trying to restrict the flow of vehicles. He produces a yellow taxi sign which he clamps to his roof and tells them that he’s taking me to the camp site. Which he does. And that’s when I remember that this is where I stayed last time I was here. The campsite is on the shores of the lake and we ate fish lunches in lakeside restaurants. The uniformed waiters didn’t speak English, but they still had some German, so that’s how we ordered our trout.
Then, I’m deposited to wander alone on the lakeside paths and bask in the sunshine with my book. The water is glacial green, with perfect reflections. The fairyland castle, with its lofty position on a crag above the lake and the church both contribute to the stunning scenes. The church, with its tiny onion dome, has a 52 metre tower and 99 stone steps. Tradition says that if the groom can carry the bride up the steps on the day of their wedding and ring the bell, he may make a wish inside the church. It doesn’t say it will come true.
I've read that mild thermal springs warm the water, but I can't see anyone swimming and I'm not tempted. And now, suddenly, it's raining and this is no passing shower. I thought this was supposed to be 'The Sunny Side of the Alps?' I hurry back uphill to the little town of Bled and shelter. It seems a good time to sample the local pastry delicacy - a custard slice known as kremsnita. Martin insists I eat it in a traditional family bakery that is renowned for having produced these for many years. My cake is nice enough, but doesn’t get my wholehearted approval. I would rather have cream.
A final stop - the haystack is a Slovenian symbol and there’s a famous wooden hayrick store, Simončič, on our way home
I’ve had a lovely time. But Ljubljana is my last stop on my Covid Tour and now I’m heading home. Read more about Slovenia here.
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