Oh, BTW, I Thoroughly Recommend Slovenia
I’m not big on counting countries. But it hadn’t escaped my notice that I hadn’t visited a new country for a whole two years, although Poland was at least new to Zac. And so, since we were in Europe for Christmas and therefore, even in an El Niño year, craving snow, we booked flights to Ljubljana on a whim.
The death of the guidebook has been long anticipated, but I’m still a big fan of a chunk of ex-tree when it comes to visiting any new country (don’t get me started on TripAdvisor): this one was the Lonely Planet Guide to Eastern Europe.
But I digress…. We landed up in the resort of Kranjska Gora, Slovenia’s largest ski resort, and, as we learned through painful experience, home to the Ski World Cup’s single steepest slalom slope, with a corking 59% incline. (Think something rather like this, but with people who’ve been skiing since they could stand whizzing past. The whole experience was so staggeringly British I almost died of embarrassment.)
And, somewhat to my surprise, Slovenia is absolutely splendid. I thoroughly recommend a visit at any time of year.
First up, there are the mountains. Eminently satisfactory, jagged mountains, which frame the capital city, dominate the ski slopes and make both its famously picturesque lakes (that’s Bohinj and Bled – Bohinj is much less touristed) so stunning.
Secondly, there’s the size. Slovenia is absolutely tiny – roughly the size of Massachusetts, and significantly smaller than Sicily. It’s almost impossible to spend more than three hours in the car, and you can go from ski slopes to seaside in just a couple of hours.
Thirdly, the people. Slovenians are mountain and forest people – almost two-thirds of Slovenia is forest. They’re passionate about the environment and, like many people who live in small, recently reconstituted nations, keen to make visitors fall in love with their country. It’s hard to escape many social situations without a shot of blueberry liqueur or grappa-esque brandy.
Fourthly, there’s an absolute welter of things to do. There are stellar caves, none of which we got to, because skiing, fascinating medieval towns (ditto), pristine landscapes, and even a treehouse resort where you can sleep in pods hung from the trees (not in winter). Not to mention the interesting food, which combines elements of Hungarian, Polish, Austrian and Italian cuisine with some ingredients that are all their own – go buckwheat!
The skiing? Well, it was great to be on skis, and in an environment that pretty (I snapped the photo above on my cheap Samsung smartphone over coffee). However, March is the best season for skiing Slovenia, fact fans, and between January and El Niño, many lifts and pistes were shut, despite the presence of snow cannon, which is how we ended up on a World Cup slalom slope.
Kranjska Gora, almost like Caesar’s Gaul, is divided into four parts (you can download a current piste map here). To the far left, around the Kekec chair lift – hire your gear here as it’s cheapest and the guys are fab – are beginner and intermediate slopes. The centre, around the Vitranc lift, is good for intermediates.
You would be unwise to ascend the Podkoren ski lift unless you’re firmly on the advanced side of intermediate: Slovenian red runs can have an incline of up to 39%, and that tempting-looking red run from the top is narrow (and was closed when we visited). Far to the right is Planica, another beginner-intermediate zone which was closed for the duration of our visit.
We had a lot of fun. If you like long, long runs (like the ones we had in Bansko, Bulgaria ), then Kranjska Gora is probably not for you: the less well-known Bohinj is, I understand, a better bet for this. If you want fun skiing, beautiful mountains and interesting food at a fraction of the price of the French (let alone Austrian!) Alps, then Kranjska Gora is right up your street (search CrystalSki for late deals).
If the snow looks ropy – this is not a high resort, so I wouldn’t visit in December, and I’d check the webcams before booking in an El Niño year – then buy your lift pass and hire your gear in day or half-day chunks. I would strongly recommend hiring a car: while Slovenian buses are modern and reliable, car hire is super-cheap and opens not only the entire country but Italy and Austria, both of which are hiking distance from Kranjska Gora.
The capital, Ljubljana, is startlingly beautiful, dominated by a castle on a hill in the river, and framed by those glorious mountains. I’d put it up there with Venice, Florence, Paris and Gdansk Old Town on my list of eye-catching European cities. Ljubljana is dinky – just 400,000 population – so a cinch to navigate on foot, while the castle, the river and sundry easily distinguishable bridges make it almost impossible to get lost.
This is splendid wandering territory, with charming parks, lovingly restored bright riverside houses, a selection of galleries, museums and churches, and an impressive selection of cafe-bars, which, as often in Central Europe, will equip you with blankets to enable you to sit outside on even the chillier evenings. (Ljubljana was briefly a Napoleonic capital, so has more architecture than you’d expect for the size, although I really wouldn’t bother with the library.)
Still, as I say – you should totally go! Even if it’s just a minibreak: stroll up to the castle for a 100% Slovenian meal at the excellent Gostilna na Gradu, wander the waterfront, hire a car, and take your pick of the country’s myriad attractions. If you’ve got leisure – and oh how I miss this! – you can hop on a ferry to Venice or a train to most anywhere in mainland Europe, while Turkish Airlines has some tempting flights to Istanbul.
Cheapskate? Hostel 24 is a friendly place in a quiet location twixt river and castle with perfectly serviceable ensuite doubles for virtually pennies on Agoda: request a first-floor room. In funds? Splurge on the stylish, 16th-century Antiq Palace but check rates on Agoda first.