Things to do in the Slovenian Alps - ten places that made us fall in love and five reasons we want to return
Sunday, 07 October 2018 - 23:12
There are very few countries left in Europe that are not tainted by mass tourism – places where you can still experience the authentic way of life, the local customs, mentality, and tradition. We found Slovenia to be such a place. Rather than working up its growing popularity to turn itself into a tourist destination, the country seems to have worked on infrastructure, on promoting its uniqueness, and on offering high quality services. We have yet to encounter an overcrowded place in Slovenia, the only country I have known so far to make tourism an integral part of the national landscape. Everywhere you go as a visitor you feel welcome and privileged to join in the nation’s way of life. Tourism offices and the Tourism Board's website offer outstanding services but are discreet presences, museums are still very cheap, locals offer authentic accommodation options and have developed ways to welcome you into their daily routine. The Slovene devotion to tradition can be seen in how they preserve homesteads and homes and turn them into accommodation facilities, and in the straightforward way in which they talk about their history or give you recommendations for things to do. At the same time, these warm people look towards the future like few others in the former Eastern Bloc do and are determined to learn history’s lessons in order to ensure both continuity and progress.
It is primarily this attitude that made us fall in love with Slovenia. In fairness, we did not quite get the country on our first visit, maybe because it was a crammed weekend escape and we approached it as a touristic destination. Having now spent a few days at leisure in the Slovenian Alps (effectively the region we explored is called Upper Carniola/Gorenjska), we want to go back and see the rest of the country again. And for sure we want to return to Kranjska Gora. That is why, below, you will find not only the places we visited ranked according to our liking, but also already our check-list of things to see and do on our next visit. If you are interested in our itinerary you can watch the video we filmed during our stay and if you want a personalized circuit the contact button is to your right.
In a lifetime, one encounters only a handful of places that instantly feel like home, like they were a part of your story even before you knew them and it was just a matter of time to discover them. Whenever we come across such locations we group them under “destinations we dream about” together with our future plans, as we are sure to return at some point.
From this point of view, Kranjska Gora totally took us by surprise. We booked our hotel there and decided to make it our base just because of its proximity to the Austrian border and the affordable prices compared to the Lake Bled area.
The initial plan was to discover it for half a day or so and move on, returning late at night and departing early in the morning. Instead, we enjoyed spending time walking its streets and admiring the centuries-old homesteads and houses, going for short walks/hikes (the one along Velika Pišnica to lake Jasna was particularly memorable), having cake at Slascicarna Kala, and talking to locals. One particularly noteworthy encounter was the one at the local museum. The Liznjek’s house, an original Slovenian alpine house from the 17th century, is on the main village path. As you enter, the very knowledgeable, affable, and friendly museum curator Silvester Mirtic welcomes you and happily guides you through the collections. He explains not only the exhibits and the traditional way of life, but also touches upon history, mentalities, and traditions. All in all, one of the best museums visits we have ever had.
In our humble opinion, lake Bohinj is the most spectacular expanse of water in the area. It is almost completely surrounded by mountains, which reflect in its crystal-clear blue-green waters. It is located only 26 km away from lake Bled and the drive through the authentic Slovenian landscape is well worth it. If you can make a longer stop in the area, there are countless things to do here – swimming, kayaking, hiking, skiing, or ice skating, depending on the season. The main settlement on the shores of the lake is Ribčev Laz, where you should not miss the parish church of Saint John and its beautiful gothic frescoes.
Many of Slovenia’s best-preserved rustic villages like Stara Fužina, Studor, and Srednja Vas are clustered around Lake Bohinj, to the pure delight of the aficionados. We went on a short walk to Stara Fužina, which is impressive not only because of its natural setting but also because it illustrates so well the Slovenian way of life. Centuries-old houses are preserved with the utmost care and are tastefully renovated, such that the old and the new can blend uninterruptedly. Locals go about their daily business and you are welcome to join by stopping for a meal or an overnight stay, as many of the houses offer these facilities. The amazing thing is that it does not seem touristic at all, it is just part of the natural order of things.
You have to drive along the stunning emerald-green Soča river and its mountains-bordered valley in order to start to understand the magnitude and scale of the largest mountain battle in history, which took place in the area during World War I. An estimate of 1,2 million casualties were registered in 12 battles over 30 months, and some of the aspects of this battles were immortalized by Ernest Hemingway in his novel A Farewell to Arms.
Like everywhere else on our itinerary, we would have loved to spend a longer time in the area. The drive through was unfairly short, as there are so many mementos to the calamities of war - cemeteries, fortifications, museums, and monuments. History is documented well in Slovenia, but you should learn from it and move on towards the future. That is why you are advised to have a look at what the area has to offer at present - a plethora of natural attractions (waterfalls, caves, gorges, lakes), outdoor sports facilities, ethnographic and heritage museums, churches, welcoming homes and homesteads are ready for you.
If you follow our adventures for long enough, you will learn that the one thing we invariably end up doing is to cross some mountains. Even if we do not plan to, we cannot resist scenic high-altitude drives. Although quite challenging with a baby in tow, the drive over the 1600 meters high mountain saddle with its 50 hairpins was an unforgettable experience. Unfortunately, we could not stop along the way to see the Russian Chapel (built by Russian war prisoners to Austro-Hungary while they were working on the road), the Heathen Maiden rock formation, Trenta, or the Alpinum Juliana, which were all on our list.
This jewel of a town we discovered due to the rainy conditions on our third day. Its location at the confluence of two branches of the Sora river is very picturesque and gives you the feeling of stepping back in time. If you look further you discover traces of Slovenia’s past in a nutshell, which makes it even more memorable. It is a fortified town reminding if its position as a trade center in the Middle Ages and its role in fending off the Ottomans. It has a uniform Baroque center rebuilt after an earthquake at the beginning of the 16th century, and the Škofja Loka Capuchin monastery keeps a library of about 30,000 volumes. The most prominent of them is the original of the first play written in the Slovene vernacular – the Škofja Loka Passion Play, still re-enacted every six years – as well as the first Slovene translation of the Bible and the first multilingual dictionary of the Slovene language. The castle hill bears witness to more recent events as several mass graves of war and political prisoners from the Second World War can be found here. Nowadays, modern artisan shops are being opened in the cobbled streets, as life must go on.
Located very close to lake Bled, this fantastically well-preserved small town mesmerizes visitors with its position atop a natural promontory. We were greeted authentically by two locals chatting away and enjoying the view over the entire valley below. The parking next to the historic center in Radovlijca is the perfect example of how Slovenia integrates tourism in its daily life – two lanes were freely available for everybody (but only for two hours), while the third lane was reserved for local residents. The tourism information center is the second building you encounter as you head towards the historic center, offering concise and competent advice and a free map of the attractions. The center is pretty much an open-air museum with authentically preserved 15th and 16th-century architecture. Some old Baroque houses have been repurposed to be museums, cafes, or art galleries, and several are open to the public. We particularly wanted to visit the Apiculture Museum specialized in offering information about beekeeping traditions and history. The museum’s impressive collection of 250 hand-painted beehives was what drove us to Radovlijca initially, the Live Gingerbread Workshop is what will bring us back on our next visit!
Although surprising for some of you, I am rating the famous lake Bled quite low on our list. In fairness, we were positively impressed by its bewitching blue waters, the castle perched dramatically on a cliff atop it, the lonely Bled island, the beautiful surrounding landscape. But apart from a few picture-perfect moments around the lake, there was not much else to draw our attention. For outdoor sports, for a walk/a bicycle ride around the lake, the location is absolutely stunning, but as any touristic landmark, we did feel that lake Bled was lacking in authenticity. Or it could just be the very personal fact that the setup of a natural attraction turned into a touristic destination in the past 50 years was a way too familiar sight for somebody who grew up in a country of the former Eastern Bloc.
9.Draga Valley/Begunje/Kamen castle
On the contrary, the afternoon spent on the Draga valley starting from Begunje/Kamen castle was thoroughly authentic. So much so that we had troubles finding the entrance to the castle, tucked away in somebody’s backyard, and our navigation system got utterly lost on the small streets of this charming small settlement. The suggestion of a walk along the Draga valley was adeptly made by the clerk in the Radovlijca tourist information center and it proved to be exactly what we needed – an hour of loneliness amidst mountain springs, forests, and gripping mountain views. As word of warning if you are ever in the area, Begunje is the site of several clearly marked mass graves from the Second World War, one of them right on the Draga valley.
Slovenia's forth biggest settlement is dramatically situated atop the Kokra River canyon, while its old town is embraced by the Sava River. Unfortunately, we arrived in Kranj on a cold, rainy Saturday evening, and we did get a feeling of everything being a bit bleak and deserted. Compared to other sites in the country the old town center is not as well renovated, but we did get a very warm welcome from the local tourist office. It is home to several landmarks worth visiting, as the Prešeren House dedicated to Slovenia’s most celebrated poet, the Gorenjska Museum (regional archaeology and folk culture) in the former town hall, as well as the church with the grandest hall in the country. What surprised us is how deserted everything was, as well as the bar next to the Church of the Holy Rosary (see photo). All in all not too impressive, but we are ready to give it a second chance on our next visit alongside the places on the list below.
Five more reasons to go back
As we set off on our first day, we were having a chat with the receptionist about roads and distances and our plans to cover as much of the area as possible within a few days. Behind us, a lady was waiting patiently and smiling warmly. When we were done, she explained that she and her husband were coming back to the area every year for the past fifteen years and still did not get enough. Having been in Kranjska Gora for only a few hours, her words already seemed right, not exaggerated at all. While most countries seem to up their game in what touristic attractions are concerned, in a tendency to exaggerate the various options in every area, in Slovenia they seem to rather tone it down. At the end of our stay, the list of locations that still arouse our interest is as long as the list of things we did see. Below are our top five priorities for the next visit.
Every morning as we were driving east from Kranjska Gora towards Jesenice, a sign and a subjugating Alpine scenery were luring us to stop and explore the Vrata valley. For those who are not into climbing, the 10 km walk along the glacier valley is an invitation to be spellbound by the majesty of the Julian Alps and their highest peak, the Triglav. A stop-over at the two Peričnik waterfalls is a must, and we wholeheartedly promise to not leave out this experience from our next itinerary in the Slovenian Alps.
2.Ukanc, Vogel, and Slap Savica
From lake Bohinj our initial plan was to go to the small village of Ukanc where you can take the famous cable car to the Vogel resort at 1922 meters for breathtaking views of mount Triglav that are rumored to be the best in the Julian Alps. The Slap Savica pair of waterfalls that feed the Sava river is within walking distance from Ukanc, and this is a walking trail we do plan to follow on our next visit. This time around we had to choose between it and the drive over the Vršič pass, and we do not regret choosing the latter.
Situated only 9 km away from the Italian border, the air of Kobarid is definitely Mediterranean, which is normal as it was occupied by Italy in the period between the two world wars. The famous battle of the Soča front that took place here was not only documented by Ernest Hemingway but is also the topic of the excellent Kobarid Museum, which was on my list this time as well.
As our baby was sound asleep when we reached it, we simply drove through and decided to take next time the 5 km long Kobarid historical walk that links together natural sights such as the Kozjak waterfall with historical monuments. We’ll also be back for one of the many famous Italian restaurants.
4.Vintgar Gorge and Pokljuka Gorge
There were two hikes we would have loved to make in the Bled area, each about 2 km long, to see the Vintgar and Pokljuka gorges. The first one is more accessible as wooden walkways were constructed and is considered a major tourist attraction, while the second one is along a river bed. At present both were an overreach to do with a 10 months old in tow, but Ilinca will be one year older next year.
5.Kamnik, Velika Planina, and the Kamnisko-Savinjske Alps
The quiet town of Kamnik is the capital of a region of extreme beauty, which we did not manage to reach mainly due to the distance of driving from and back to Kranjska Gora. From Kamnik one can take the world’s fourth longest unsupported cable car to the 1666m popular walking destination of Velika Planina. On this plateau, local herdsmen graze their cattle while visitors can see the only one hut which survived German destruction during WWII and is nowadays preserved as a museum. Preskar’s hut is one walking hour away from the landing point of the cable car.
Also, 20 km east of Kamnik you can start the 40 km drive through the Kamnisko-Savinjske Alps, which couples beautiful landscape with unspoiled villages. For half day hikes, one can stop at Logarska Dolina and Robanov Kot. Thus, we plan to stay a couple of days in the area and maybe book our accommodations in the traditional small-town Luče ob Savinji, where most of the local infrastructure is located.
I do not wish to write a conclusion to this article, as our love story with Slovenia is still in its beginning phase. We get stomach butterflies every time we think of our last date and are overjoyed with excitement while planning our next encounter. Our future endeavors will be focused on discovering the ideal accommodation in terms of the local homes and homesteads, and we also plan to go for a tour rather than day trips from a steady base, as we will go more into detail in each region. In the meantime, we would be very happy to personalize this itinerary for you, as it would mean that our enthusiasm was contagious enough to convince you to visit Slovenia. You know where that contact button is!
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