Ljubljana jubbly: sampling the sights of Slovenia
I hail a taxi from Abu Dhabi, and set off on the two-hour drive to Dubai International Airport, ahead of a jam-packed itinerary planned for the next four days.
Our FlyDubai flight takes off, heading towards Croatia.
We arrive at Zagreb Airport, and I barely break stride as I head through passport control and into the baggage area.
We’re still waiting on our luggage. Most of our flight has come and gone, and our group are the only passengers left. Ten minutes later, our bags finally arrive – one piece of luggage was stopped at customs, and because we were checked in as a group, they held back the entire party. Heading out of the terminal, we meet our guide, Petra Lubej. The van taking us to Zgornja Kungota, a small town in the western part of the Slovene Hills, is waiting for us outside.
At the Croatian border, I crane my neck out of the van window to see how far the line of cars runs ahead of us. To our dismay, it’s long. It takes another 20 minutes before we cross into Slovenia.
Our drive so far has brought us through flat farmland and past wooded areas, only becoming more mountainous as we approach our first stop.
This wait is far from surprising, according to Lubej, thanks to a recent surge in tourism. Last year, the number of visitors to the Central European country increased by 14 per cent. Residents of nearby countries – Italy, Austria and Germany – have added Slovenia to their list of affordable holiday options, and are among the top visitors, followed closely by those from Russia.
We eventually arrive at Zgornja Kungota’s Restaurant Denk (www.hisadenk.si), where we have our first of many delicious meals in Slovenia. The third-generation, family-run restaurant mixes modern and simple architecture – floor-to-ceiling windows give the impression of eating alfresco – that creates an effortlessly cool vibe. It’s the food, however, that has gained Denk its reputation as one of the best spots in the country. With seasonal, organic and local dishes, the owners have decided on a no-menu option – the waiter simply offers the option of meat or fish, and head chef Gregor Vracko takes it from there. Though this sounds limited, we’re assured that everyone, from vegetarians to those with coeliac disease, will be catered to.
Over a lunch – or perhaps, technically, dinner – of homemade bread, fresh cucumber soup, and a main of beef done two different ways, our conversation once again turns to tourism. Lubej, a lifelong resident of Ljubljana, is a mechanical engineer by trade, but doubles as a tour guide. It seems that although the three largest moneymakers in the country are electronics, automobiles and pharmaceuticals, the tourism industry is quickly catching up. Many residents, she explains, are either getting into the tourism industry or becoming a tour guide.
Our meal is rounded off with a dessert that includes homemade sorbet. We then take a 20-minute ride south to Maribor. Though it’s technically Slovenia’s second-largest city, it offers a delightful small-town vibe. Cobblestone streets are lined with Baroque-style architecture that survived a plague and two World Wars. Our Maribor guide takes us on a walking tour, starting with the Town Hall, in the city’s main square. The building dates from 1515 and boasts a clock tower that is, at a closer glance, built slightly off-centre. Rumour has it this was the builders’ discrete revenge for being underpaid. Adjacent is the Plague Column, a sculpture by Joseph Straub that was originally built in 1681, but replaced in 1743. The structure is a memorial to the third of the city’s inhabitants who were killed by the epidemic.
We walk on and turn right onto a tiny side street with a slew of cafes and bars, and tonight it’s occupied mainly by students of the local university who have recently returned for the new term. As we make our way to the university, I’m impressed by how safe it all feels. We’re standing in a dimly lit, sparsely populated area of the city after dark, yet I would feel perfectly secure walking alone.
An hour later, our tour concludes at the Drava River, and we’re shuttled to our accommodation for the evening, Chateau Ramsak – a glamping resort located 10 minutes outside the city. The new property, opened last month, comprises five luxury tents and one treehouse, all of which come equipped with a large bed, bathroom, television, dining area and outdoor whirlpool. I fall into bed after what has been a very long day, though find myself woken at 2am by a dog that has found its way into my sleeping area.
The next morning, I open my tent to reveal a scene that you would half expect to see plastered onto the cover of a travel brochure. Laid out before me are the rolling hills of the Stajerska region, dotted with yellow farmhouses, set against a striking blue sky. We finish our homemade breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs, bread and various spreads, then hit the road once more, this time west for the village of Solcava and the Logar Valley. Less than two hours later, we’re in the quiet village for a quick history lesson at the tourism centre, Center Rinka, before we hike to Rinka Falls. Though there’s a push to increase tourism in the area, it seems not everyone is on board – on our way out, we’re loudly shushed by an older woman who’s clearly not impressed with our excitable chatter.
A seven-kilometre drive farther up sees us at the foot of the trail that leads to the falls itself. Our guide, a university student, shows the group the way, though I choose to forge ahead alone, because the path is well-marked and easy to navigate. After a summer spent cooped up indoors, the fresh air does me a world of good – these few moments are evidence enough that the connection between nature and well-being is certainly no farce. The 15-minute uphill trek eventually brings me face to face with the 90-metre-high Rinka Falls. Surrounded by the Alps’ craggy peaks, the setting is relaxing and revitalising, with temperatures noticeably dropping the closer you get to the water.
On the walk down, conversation with our guide moves onto Slovenia’s outdoor activities. There’s a burgeoning ski scene, plus kayaking, trekking and cycling. The country enjoys an 11-month high season, with November the only time travellers should avoid, because of fog and unpleasant weather.
We take lunch at Hotel Plesnik (www.plesnik.si), at the foot of the mountains. It offers 29 rooms and its own wellness centre. A host of paid treatments are available, and guests of the property can enjoy the whirlpool, saunas and relaxing area free of charge. Our meal – again sans menu – comprises cauliflower soup, prawn risotto and fish, finished with gooey chocolate fondant.
The group clambers into the van, and we head south to the Slovene capital Ljubljana, where Donald Trump’s wife Melania went to university. That evening we’re booked for dinner at Restaurant JB. Headed by chef Janez Bratovz, it was previously named one of the Top 100 World’s Best Restaurants. Though the atmosphere is unfortunately lacking, the food makes up for it. Everything is a thing of beauty, from the roasted beetroot with beetroot ice cream, horseradish panna cotta and goat’s cheese cream to homemade ravioli filed with cottage cheese, meat and liquorice. The prices aren’t excessive, either – the eight-course taster menu costs €80 (Dh328).
After a busy two days, our leisurely boat trip down the River Ljubljanica the following morning, on a charming wooden boat, is a welcome treat (www.barka-ljubljanica.si; €8 [Dh33] per person). The hour-long tour begins by heading towards Spica, before turning around at Livada and heading towards Ljubljana Castle. As we sail under the Cobblers’ Bridge, towards the Franciscan Church, we’re each handed a generous slice of kremsnita, a sweet cake from the resort town of Bled – the perfect addition to round off the ride.
We disembark back at Novi Trg, and before a city tour, take time to peruse the market that has popped up along the riverbank – sellers hawk everything from handcrafted pottery and jewellery to giant stuffed octopus dolls. The city of more than 275,000 residents, though home to architecture that dates from ancient Roman times, remains the capital of a relatively young nation. Colonised by France from 1805 to 1813, Slovenia was eventually absorbed into the Austro-Hungary Empire from 1848 to 1918, before being absorbed once more, this time into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later to become Yugoslavia. It wasn’t until 1991 that the country gained its independence.
During our tour, we’re again taken down cobblestone streets lined with alfresco dining areas, cafes and shops. We eventually arrive at the oldest part of town, or Stari Trg, before stopping to explore a few of the nearby shops. On one side street, we find everything from stationery and used books to ready-to-wear boutiques and handbag shops. Prices are marked up somewhat in the more touristy areas, but it’s still less than what you would pay in other areas of Europe.
We journey back towards the Croatian border, making a quick stop at the Sentrupert Hayracks Museum, en route to our flight from Zagreb, at 2.20pm.
We land in Dubai and I take an Uber back to Abu Dhabi. I make a mental note that returning to Slovenia in the near future is an absolute must.