Itinerary: Ljubljana – Bled – Bohinj – Triglav National Park – Piran
Sandwiched between Italy, Austria and Croatia, Slovenia is difficult to characterize. Is it Balkan? Is it central Europe? Adriatic? The fact is that since the breakup of Yugoslavia and its accession to the European Union in 2004, Slovenia has developed into a modern country that combines the best of several worlds.
For a long time – that is, from the thirteenth century onwards – what is now Slovenia was part of the Habsburg Empire. This remained so until the early twentieth century, when the First World War put an end to the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Habsburgs. Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia then together formed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, with Belgrade as its capital and center of power.
After the Second World War, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, formed in 1937, under the leadership of the Slovene-Croat leader Josip Broz Tito, took power. Tito soon distanced himself from the Communist Party in Moscow, so that the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia became isolated within the Eastern bloc, but showed more openness towards the West. For example, during the Cold War Yugoslavia was one of the few communist countries behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ that could be visited by western Europeans.
In 1980 Tito dies and that’s the beginning of the end of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. In the years that follow, the call for independence in Slovenia increases, as do the attempts from Belgrade to keep a grip on the constituent republic. In 1990 a large majority of the Slovenian population votes for independence and on June 25, 1991 Slovenia withdraws from the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. A short military action from Belgrade proves fruitless and Slovenia’s independence is a fact. (The further disintegration of Yugoslavia will lead to years of bloodshed in the other republics – Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia.)
On a Thursday morning late August, my flight leaves Amsterdam Airport at half past six to the Slovenian capital Ljubljana. The flight takes about one and a half hours and at a quarter past eight we land at Jože Pučnik Airport, half an hour north of the city.
Ljubljana is much older than the country of which it is the capital. The city was founded in the second century CE as Emona and was then part of the Roman Empire. From the thirteenth century, under the name Laibach, it was part of the Habsburg Empire. After World War II, Ljubljana became the capital of the Republic of Slovenia within the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia and in 1991 the capital of independent Slovenia.
Ljubljana has about 280,000 inhabitants and is known as one of the greenest and most liveable cities in Europe. And rightly so. The emerald-green Ljubljanica River flows through the heart of the city and the historic center is largely car-free, with space for pedestrians and cyclists.
I spend my first day in Ljubljana in the old town, Stare Mesto, on the east bank of the Ljubljanica river. In 1511 a major earthquake took place that largely destroyed the medieval city. In 1895 another major earthquake followed. Much of today’s Ljubljana is the result of reconstruction after that last earthquake.
It’s beautiful sunny, slightly cloudy weather as I walk through the city. First I pass the Zmajski Most, the Dragon Bridge. This bridge was built in 1900-1901, in Art Nouveau style, and has four large dragons on the four corners.
Stare Mesto is also home to Ljubljanski Grad, Ljubljana’s castle, largely dating from the sixteenth century. The castle is located on top of a 375 meter high hill, Grajska Planota. At Vodnikov trg, where the daily fresh produce market is held, I take the funicular up the hill and enter the courtyard of the castle. The Ljubljanski Grad is a popular attraction and in my opinion the grand café, the souvenir shop and the exhibitions detract a bit from the authentic atmosphere of the castle.
After I’ve walked around the castle (on the outside you can see that it’s a castle better than inside) I walk down the hill on the north side and turn left into Ciril Metodov trg. This pretty street ends at Mestni trg, literally Town Square, a square with a fountain with an obelisk in the middle. A little further on is Ljubljana Town Hall, Mestna Hiša. The building dates from 1718 and the small courtyard is freely accessible.
If you turn right at Mestni trg, you will come to Tromostovje, the triple bridge. A single bridge was built here in 1842, but in the early 1930s the Ljubljana architect Jože Plečnik added a pedestrian bridge on both sides. And it has been a popular landmark ever since.
The Tromostovje opens onto Prešernov trg, a large square named after Slovenia’s most famous poet (I confess I didn’t know him). In addition to a statue of the poet, the square is dominated by an unmissable salmon-pink church. But on Prešernov trg you are on the other side of the river and I was going to limit myself to Stare Mesto on my first day… So I walk back and walk along the Cankarjevo nabrežje, the car-free promenade that runs along the Ljubljanica river to the south. The promenade is full of restaurants, cafes and atmospheric terraces on the water (well, more or less on the water, because the river is a lot lower).
I walk up to Čevljarski Most, the shoemaker’s bridge, where in the Middle Ages merchants (and I assume shoemakers) used to do business just outside the city limits to avoid the city tax. Through a small street I arrive at Stari trg, literally Old Square, which together with Mestni trg and Gornji trg forms the main street (actually three elongated squares) of Stare Mesto. Between and above the shops and terraces you will find many centuries-old buildings.
My second day in Ljubljana I take it easy. Not only because I already walked a lot the day before, but also because it’s very hot; during the afternoon it is almost thirty degrees.
From Prešernov trg I walk into the Miklošičeva cesta. Around the square and in this street are several large buildings in Art Nouveau style, dating from the early twentieth century. Then I walk again along the Ljubljanica river and the terraces up to the St. James Bridge and back on the other side. This is the pedestrianized promenade Breg, where the harbor of Ljubljana once was.
Novi trg, literally New Square, was located just outside the city in the Middle Ages (the river was the city boundary). Near Novi trg you will find the university library, also a creation of architect Joče Plečnik. A little way to the north is Kongresni trg, a beautiful square with the University of Ljubljana building on the south and a green park, Park Zvezda, on the north.
The center of Ljubljana is very compact, you can explore everything on foot. I think Ljubljana is a really beautiful, nice city. Beautiful architecture, largely pedestrianized streets, many terraces, the river and a friendly atmosphere. And in many places, whether you are walking along the Ljubljanica, or standing on a square in Center, or on the Tromostovje bridge, the hill with the castle looms in the background.
In the afternoon I spend some time in Tivoli Park, a large green park on the edge of the center. Then I look for a spot on one of the terraces along the Ljubljanica river, where I choose from the many local wines produced in Slovenia. Interesting fact: in Slovenia wine is not served by the glass, but by the decilitre. That’s half a glass, or a small glass, depending on how big your glass is and how much you pour into it. The prices on the wine list are therefore per deciliter. If you prefer a well-filled glass, you can order a double (or “two deci”).
The next morning I pick up my rental car at Ljubljana train station. In less than an hour I drive to Bled, a small village (just over five thousand inhabitants) in the north of Slovenia. I park the car in the village and walk towards the lake. It’s probably the most photographed place in Slovenia: Blejsko jezero, or Lake Bled, a clear blue-green lake of one and a half by two kilometers, with a small island in the middle with a picturesque church. Picture perfect.
I walk around the entire lake, a beautiful walk (but also quite warm at 25 degrees) of more than six kilometers. From the shore you have a beautiful view over the lake, with the mountains of the Julian Alps in the background. These mountains belong to the southeastern Alps and dominate all of the northwestern part of Slovenia.
On the north side of the lake, on a one hundred meters high rock, stands Blejski grad, the castle of Bled. The medieval castle was originally built in the eleventh century, but in its present form, including towers and ramparts, dates from the sixteenth century. It is a bit of a climb up, but from the castle you have a beautiful view over Lake Bled.
In the early afternoon I completed the walk around the lake. I then drive to the Vintgar gorge, a few miles north of Bled. Here, the Radovna River flows through a narrow gorge. A boardwalk runs along the rocks for a mile into the gorge. It is a beautiful walk, despite the fact that by now it has started to rain. The gorge is exuberantly overgrown, the rocks rise steeply, and together they form a spectacular backdrop for the river and the small waterfalls.
At the end of the afternoon I arrive at my overnight stay in Bohinjska Bela, a tiny village near Bled.
Radovljica and Škofja Loka
On Sunday, my fourth day in Slovenia, I visit two historic villages: Radovljica and Škofja Loka. Early in the morning there were a few heavy thunderstorms, but the rest of the day the weather is beautiful: partly cloudy and about 25 degrees.
Radovljica (less than six thousand inhabitants) is a 15-minute drive from Bled. It’s a medieval town around the elongated square Linhartov trg. On the square are numerous pastel-colored buildings from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It’s like stepping back in time. At the edge of the village you have a beautiful view over a green plain and the Julian Alps. From here you can also see Triglav, at 2,864 meters the highest mountain in the Julian Alps – and the highest one Slovenia.
Škofja Loka, between Bled and Ljubljana, is one of the oldest towns in Slovenia. The old town (a national monument) is located on the south bank of the river Selška Sora. The fourteenth century bridge Kapucinski Most leads into the town, the thirteenth century castle Loški grad (now a museum) towers high above it.
The heart of the town is formed by the large square Mestni trg. Here you will also find large sixteenth-century bourgeois houses with pastel-colored facades. Homanova Hiša on the corner of Mestni trg even dates from 1511. Some of the facades still have seventeenth century paintings. And around the square are many picturesque old streets. All very photogenic.
On Monday morning I drive from Bohinjska Bela in half an hour to Ribčev Laz, a small village on the Bohinj jezero, the Bohinj Lake. When I arrive at the lake it’s partly cloudy and halfway up the mountains there is still morning fog. The clear water is emerald green. The medieval church and the stone bridge by the lake make for a photogenic picture. Lake Bohinj does not have an islet and castle, like Lake Bled, but it is just as beautiful. And (slightly) less touristy than Bled. (Both Ljubljana, Bled and Bohinj are quite touristy. The number of cars with a Dutch license plate that I come across is shocking…)
At a quarter to ten I start my walk today. From Lake Bohinj you can walk to the nearby village of Stara Fužina in fifteen minutes and from there it’s not far to the Korita Mostnice, or the Mostnica gorge. The Mostnica Gorge is located in Triglavski Narodni Park, a large protected nature reserve in northwestern Slovenia. The Triglavski Narodni Park encompasses almost the entire Julian Alps on Slovenian territory and, in addition to mountains, is also home to forests, lakes, waterfalls and gorges.
The Mostnica gorge is two kilometers long. The path runs through the forest on both sides of the Mostice river (which allows you to do a round trip). The river has eroded the rocks, resulting in small waterfalls, rock formations, potholes and pools of emerald green water. Part of the gorge is low and wide, at its deepest point it is twenty meters deep and only one meter wide.
At the end of the Mostnica gorge you walk into the Planina Voje, the Voje valley. The valley has the typical U-shape that is characteristic of valleys carved by a glacier. The Voje Valley consists mainly of grassland and is surrounded by the mountains of the Julian Alps. A beautiful environment.
At the end of the Voje valley it’s still a short walk to the slap Mostnice, the Mostnica waterfall. It’s a beautiful 21 meter high, slender waterfall, beautifully situated between the rocks and glistening in the sun.
It’s a nice final point of the walk, that is to say: the way there, because I also have to go back. The way back goes a bit faster than the way there and at a quarter past two I am back in Ribčev Laz, after fifteen kilometers and 3.5 hours of walking.
The next morning after breakfast I take the bus from Ribčev Laz to Ukanc, a village on the other side of Lake Bohinj. Here you can take a cable car up to Mount Vogel. This costs no less than 28 euros (return trip) for a four-minute ride. Slovenia is not an expensive country, except for two things: tourist attractions (you have to pay for everything and the entrance fees are sometimes steep) and parking fees (parking is paid almost everywhere and relatively expensive, three euros per hour is no exception).
Anyway, after four minutes you are a thousand meters higher and you have a fantastic view over Lake Bohinj and the surrounding mountains. Vogel is a popular ski resort in winter, and in summer you can hike over the alpine meadows. I walk part of the trail that eventually leads to the top of Mount Vogel, but I won’t walk that far today.
Back down again I walk from Ukanc back to Ribčev Laz, a walk of five kilometers, with forest on my right and Lake Bohinj on my left. Back in Ribčev Laz it is time to relax in the park, overlooking the lake.
On Wednesday morning it’s cloudy and raining, a good time to leave the Bohinj region. In just over two hours I drive from the northwest of Slovenia to the southwest of the country. To the coast, because even though Slovenia is sandwiched between Italy, Austria and Croatia, the country also has a 47 kilometer long coastline on the Adriatic Sea.
Piran is located at the westernmost tip of a peninsula, between the Gulf of Trieste and the Adriatic Sea. This extremely photogenic town, with less than four thousand inhabitants, has a well-preserved old town. In the narrow streets and small squares you not only imagine yourself back in time, you also imagine yourself in Italy. (Not very surprising: Italian Trieste is only twenty kilometers away, and the border between Italy and Slovenia was once drawn fairly arbitrarily here.)
The large, more or less oval square Tartinijev trg is the heart of historic Piran. The square is paved with marble and surrounded by stately old buildings, such as the courthouse and the nineteenth-century town hall. The square was once the harbor of old Piran and was filled in in 1894. The beautiful square, which, like Saint Mark’s Square in Venice, opens onto the harbor on one side, would not look out of place in that same Venice.
And that’s not the only parallel with Venice. Behind the pastel-colored facades on the square, the Zvonik, the clock tower, towers above everything. The freestanding tower was built in 1609, following the example of the Campanile in Venice. East of the bell tower, a few hundred meters of the medieval city wall has been preserved. From here you also have a beautiful view over Piran and the Gulf of Trieste.
Wandering through the old streets you will automatically come to the Trg 1 Maja. This somewhat smaller square was the heart of old Piran (when Tartinijev trg was still water). The center of the square is a bit higher, because a cistern (water reservoir) was built there in the nineteenth century, which provided the town with fresh water. There are now attractive terraces between the pastel-colored (and peeling) facades.
I stroll extensively through the old streets, across Tartinijev trg, along the boulevard on the south side of the town (where there is plenty of swimming and people lying in the sun), past the lighthouse on the tip of the peninsula, and again through the narrow streets back. Piran feels far away from the mountains of Triglav Narodni Park and breathes the atmosphere of an Adriatic coastal town.
Unlike the rain at the start of the day, it’s fantastic sunny summer weather. Ideal to eat fish on a terrace by the harbor and end the day with a glass of local malvacija. On Thursday I drive back to Ljubljana, where I return the rental car and walk into the city for a while. I make it a relaxed last afternoon. On Friday morning I fly back home.
I’ve been positively surprised by Slovenia. The atmospheric capital Ljubljana, the beautiful mountains and nature of Triglav Narodni Park, the photogenic historic towns and the Adriatic atmosphere in Piran. I’ve only been in Slovenia for a week, but could have easily entertained me twice as long.