Chasing Dragons

 

Already a hot destination in Europe, Slovenia now beckons the rest of the world.

 

This article was first published on Food and Travel 

Every century or so, a slumbering dragon awakes—and now, it is Slovenia’s turn. A dragon is their symbol, as it is for so many other European countries, decorating the flag of capital Ljubljana and guarding the city’s most famous bridge, aptly named Dragon Bridge. Legend has it that the bridge’s four dragons were slain by Jason and his Argonauts—who then went on to found the city—and now stand immortalised in green copper, purportedly coming to life when a virgin crosses their path.

 

Such are the folklore and fairy tales that run deep in this slice of Eastern Europe, which, after 20 years of independence following the break up of Yugoslavia, is ready to show the world its treasures—most of which are natural wonders. More than half of this country is blanketed in thick woods—a rarity in an industrialised continent—broken by staggering alpine mountain ranges, navy blue lakes and small towns that inhabit a bygone era. Sandwiched by Hungary to the east, Austria to the north, Italy to the west and Croatia to the south, Slovenia shares its natural landscape with its neighbours. It also enjoys a small stretch of the Adriatic coast, along which rolling hills, seaside spa resorts and villas of the wealthy can be found. Fortunately for visitors, Slovenia is a small country, which means that one can get from city to mountain to coast in a very short space of time.

 

With so much rich terrain, it’s no wonder that Slovenia is known for its handsome produce. In abundance is sweet honey, Karst ham smoked by the winds that blow through black pine forests, a surprisingly wide and good variety of homemade wines, the finest sea salt and plump fruit, vegetables and meat, which can be delightfully experienced in one of the capital’s many

authentic restaurants or a weekend farmers’ market.

 

Another draw is Slovenia’s well-preserved history. From its tribal days in prehistoric times, to its role in the Holy Roman Empire, to its nationalist period, the 20th-century wars, the formation and subsequent dismantling of Yugoslavia, evidence of Slovenia’s past is seen in relics scattered across the country. Cave dwellings, churches, castles, cobblestoned towns and rural settlements where age-old agricultural methods are still practiced, all mixed with Soviet architecture, make Slovenia a living museum, where the past coexists with the present, not yet relegated to heritage institutions.

The Slovenian Capital Start your dragon trail in Ljubljana. A small, charming capital, Ljubljana is an easy city to visit, with walking streets, little traffic and clear orientation.

 

Concentrate on the Old Town by the river, which bubbles with artisanal boutiques, galleries, riverside craft stalls, free concerts during the summer, and the cosiest little cafes where one could linger all day long. The city’s students, indie artists and hip and trendy gather here, and their chatter fills the air.

 

For a dose of city history, visit the Town Hall where there are several monuments of the city’s past. But a more interesting way to absorb the city’s heritage is to walk the river’s bridges. From the famed Dragon Bridge to Cobbler’s Bridge, Triple Bridge and the modern Lovers’ Bridge at Central Market, each bridge tells a tale and reveals a dimension of the city’s history and culture.

 

In the evening, take a funicular railway up to Ljubljana Castle. Apart from the spectacular view, 

come at the right time, the big Summer Festival. Don’t be surprised if you see a bride and groom strolling by—the Castle’s quaint chapel is one of the most popular wedding venues in the city.

 

If you are in the city on a weekend, do not miss the Sunday market. Taking up the whole of Vodnik Square, it is a rich harvest of organic farm produce, homemade preserves, pickles and dried herbs and meats, freshly cooked food and a technicolour explosion of newly cut flowers. You must try the

buckwheat pizza, served hot out of a wood-fire oven and topped with cottage cheese—there is nothing else like it. Market lovers can lose themselves for hours here, nosing through stall after stall, resisting the urge to fill up a suitcase with goods you know won’t survive the trip home.

 

Good hotels are in short supply in Ljubljana. The best the city has to offer right now is Hotel Slon (Slovenska cesta 34, SI-1000 Ljubljana, ph: +386 1 470 1100. www.hotelslon.com) an adequate but no frills, functional place that will do but not delight. Its location right by the Old Town is perfect though.

 

Lake Bled

Large swaths of Slovenia are rural and once outside the city, you are instantly in idyllic countryside. Scenery ranges from rugged wilderness to smooth farmland, with Mother Nature’s hand as far as the eye can see. A favourite stop for tourists and Slovenians alike is Lake Bled, about an hour

northwest of Ljubljana.

 

Formed by melted ice, this lake sits in a picturesque glacial valley. It is dominated by the medieval Church of St Mary, which overlooks the surrounds from its vantage point on an island in the middle of the lake’s emerald green waters. Local boatmen will take you to the island for a small fee, from which a flight of stairs leads to the church. Inside hangs a large wishing bell, whose pleasant clang will have preceded it, sounded mainly by visitors who, once here, ring the bell to make their obligatory wish.

 

Another pocket of Bled’s history lies in Bled Castle. Perched on a cliff, it is reached by winding roads that cut through Bled town, a pretty holiday village. At the Castle, learn about the area’s past in well-presented exhibitions and have a go at the world’s earliest printing press, the Gutenberg, a functional specimen of which is on display. From the exhibits, you will see that the Bled area once constituted farms and untouched backwoods—and in some ways, little has changed. Holiday homes, campsites and Soviet-style resorts have been added to the landscape, but the pastoral backdrop remains. A guardian of this natural setting is Triglav National Park. Huddling the Bled area, the

Park is criss-crossed with hiking trails that will bring you into the world of the Julian Alps, with clear rocky streams, unexplored caves and dramatic gorges unspoiled by time or man.

 

Unlike in the capital, there are interesting and sufficiently lavish places to stay in Bled. The accommodation of choice has to be Villa Bled (Cesta Svobode 26, 4260 Bled, ph: +386 4 579 1500. www.villa-bled.com). The former private residence of Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito, this villa-turnedfancy hotel has been preserved in more or less its original state. Furnishings, lighting, fitting and rooms have all been kept as they were when the dictator lived here. Sit in Tito’s armchair, have a drink at his bar and even sleep on his bed—and get a glimpse of privilege in the Communist era. It is an odd combination of luxury and austerity—there is comfort but it is bare, there is wealth but it is sterile. Still, it is a scoop of history that you are unlikely to find elsewhere.

 

The Adriatic Coast

Head southwest from Ljubljana and you hit Slovenia’s strip of the Adriatic Coast. It shares this coastline with Croatia and Italy, and from its promontories you can see both in the horizon. This is the Riviera of Slovenia, where the rich and happy come to play—basking on the beach, soaking in

saunas or trying their luck in the casinos. The country’s best accommodation is found here, especially in the seafront town of Potoroz. Sprawling, glitzy hotels like the Grand Hotel Palace (Obala 33, Portoroz 6320, ph: +386 5 692 9001. www.lifeclass.net) provide spacious rooms, uninterrupted sea views

and saunas that are so popular here. On the beach are restaurants, cafes and discos that, while can be a little tacky, offer a pleasant night out.

 

A short drive from Potoroz is the hilly town of Piron. Spend at least a day exploring the narrow streets of its ancient quarter, where higgledypiggledy buildings encircle a town square that still bears remnants of Piron’s centuries-old seafaring relationship with nearby Venice. For a bird’s eye view, walk up to the Church of St George, from where you can take in the silhouette of crooked chimneys in the old town, and a beckoning coast of piercing blue waters and pebbled beaches broken up by saltwater swimming pools, seaside bed and breakfasts, and swimmers and scuba divers.