Where’s Slovenia – and why is Ljubljana so popular?

Slovenia caught our imagination in 2014.

Colleagues spoke of remarkable alpine and forest scenery; of a pristine country with a high standard of living – part of the Balkans but particularly modern and prosperous; and a friendly, multilingual people with amazing traditional food.

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Before then, about all we knew was that Slovenia brushed up against the Alps while also bordering the Mediterranean; had played in the 2010 World Cup; and was home to Lake Bled, regularly named among the most beautiful places on earth.

Our interest was piqued further when we heard that Slovenia’s cobble-stone capital, Ljubljana, was being described as ‘the new Prague’.

And the more we researched, the more Slovenia intriged us.

For a start, it seemed like a cultural melting pot.

Unlike its Balkan neighbours, the area had been largely controlled for much of its history by the Habsburgs of Austria, creating a vastly different heritage.

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However, there’d also been some rule by Bavarian Dukes, while parts of Slovenia’s Adriatic Coast had been part of the Republic of Venice.

Slovenia is the most industrialized and urbanized of all the former Yugoslav republics, despite having a population of only about two-and-a-half-million.

It is also a ‘green capital’ of Europe, with substantial emphasis on environmental protection.

There are large areas of mountains, limestone plateau, dense forest and rural farmland.

Hiking trails criss-cross the country and Slovenia is known for outdoor and extreme sports.

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Our initial visit to this fascinating country started in Ljubljana.

What we found was a fairytale city of rare beauty.

Close to Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, the ancient capital of Slovenia is easy to reach and has an attractive Old Town alongside the pretty Ljubljanica River.

This pedestrian-only city centre boasts strikingly colourful architecture; outdoor cafes and coffee shops; wide public squares; cobblestone streets; museums, a big university; and Baroque fountains, sculptures and monuments.

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And above it all sits the imposing Ljubjiana Castle, an 11th Century fortress that can be reached by glass-sided funicular railway or by several walking trails.

From the castle towers, you can see across the red rooftops of the Old Town and over the suburbs of Ljubjiana to the snow-topped Julian Alps in the distance.

Ljubljana Castle towers are ascended using twisting circular steel ladders.

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Everywhere you look in Central Ljubljana there are superbly preserved Art Nouveau buildings, many housing cultural and artistic institutions, such as museums and art galleries.

Others host shops, banks and businesses.

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The fact that Ljubjiana has less than 300,000 permanent residents gives the city a particularly friendly and laid-back atmosphere

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Ljubjiana University, with 63,000 students, also helps give the city a vibrancy, as well as boosting the strong local art and music scene.

At Ljubljana’s centre is Preseren square, just a short walk from the Old Town across the three-pronged Triple Bridge.

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The square is surrounded by beautiful historic architecture, including the salmon-coloured Franciscan Church of the Annuncian.

This among several eye-catching churches in Ljubljana’s heart.

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Slovenia is a modern country in every sense and its capital city has many trendy bars, including Metelkova Mestre, a former army building that was taken over by squatters and is home to fringe art centres, alternative clubs and music venues.

Other travellers may be more interested in the city’s vibrant cafe scene, stunning architecture and range of museums and galleries.

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And Ljubljana has a growing reputation as a foodies paradise, with many restaurants serving a range of traditional Slovenian fare, including mushroom soup, pork sausages, beef dishes and chicken paprika with dumplings.

Overall, this is a wonderful destination for travellers of any age.

It is particularly accessible because the majority of the city’s wonderful attractions are concentrated within its Old Town and easily reached on foot.

The city well and truly lives up to its reputation as a hidden European jewell.

We suggest you experience Ljubljana and Slovenia in general  before the mass tourist market swoops.

Age-Friendly score:

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9/10 – Ljubiana is flat and easy to get around – even though the central city is largely vehicle-free. The attractions of the old town are close together. Most of the museums and lovely old buildings contains lifts and are wheelchair accessible. The castle can be reached by funicular railway and the city is well served by planes, coaches and trains.

Note: the writer flew to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines.

Ljubljana Stunning Slovenia

Incredible story of the white stallions

The Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria is well known internationally, but only recently did we realise the incredible story behind the Lipizzaner horses.

Travelling in Slovenia, we visited the Lipizzaner Stud at Lipica, said to be the world’s oldest continuously operating facility of its type with a foundation date of 1580.

slovenia-305986__340Apparently, the Lipizzaner’s ancestors can be traced to 800AD – a cross between local Karst breeds beloved by the Romans for chariot racing and Berber horses from Spain.

As we watched these magnificent animals running in the paddocks at Lipica, we were told that the stud and its horses had, in fact, been evacuated in 1796, 1805 and 1809, when it was threatened by Napoleon’s armies

In World War I, the Lipizzaners were moved to a site near Vienna – and during the Second World War the Nazis took them to Germany and then on to a Wehrmacht-controlled stud farm near Hostau in Czechslovakia

From there, the story becomes almost unbelievable.

As the war wound to a close, American troops, apparently with the knowledge of the surrendering Germans, undertook an astonishing mission to secure the horses ahead of the advancing Soviet forces.

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According to some accounts, 350 horses – about 100 of the best Arabs in Europe, top thoroughbred racehorses and trotters, hundreds of Russian Cossack horses, and some 250 Lipizzaners – were rounded up by the Americans and moved 130 miles along roads to Mannsbach in central Germany.

This exercise, apparently named ‘Operation Cowboy’ later became the basis of a Disney movie ‘Miracle of the White Stallions’.

Later, a number of Lipizzaners were transported to the Austrian State Stud at Piber for use in the Spanish Riding Schooll.

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Eventually, about 11 horses were given back to Yugoslavia and the stud at Lipica, on the Karst Plateau, began the task of rebuilding its stock.

The breeding farm was renovated; a riding and training school opened; and in the 1960’s the legendary home of the Lipizzaners was opened to visitors.

Lipizzaner foals are always born dark colored, and gradually, with each change of coat, go lighter, until by the age of 4-10 years, they are pure white.

However about one in 200 remain brown or black.

Featured attractions Lipica Slovenia

In Slovenia, don’t miss our oldest musical instrument?

If you visit the charming city of Ljubljana, in Central Europe, make sure you see ‘the flute’.

With a long history, the capital of Slovenia on the Ljubljanica River, is rich in cultural attractions, including the country’s National Museum.

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The National Museum of Slovenia, Ljubljana

And one of the most interesting exhibits in the museum is thought to be possibly the world’s oldest musical instrument.

The ‘Divje Babe Flute’ is a piece of bone from a cave bear with neatly spaced holes pierced down one side.

Discovered in 1995 at the Divje Babe archeological park in northwestern Slovenia, the bone is thought to be as much as 43,100 years old.

There are apparently three schools of thought about the origin of the ‘flute’.

Some say it was made made by Neanderthals as a musical instrument.

Others argue that it was probably fashioned by Cro-Magnons – and yet others speculate that the aligned holes may have been caused by the teeth of an animal.

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When we visited Ljubljana, the ‘flute’ was advertised as possibly the country’s leading cultural attraction and seemed to be regarded as a source of national pride.

The National Museum of Slovenia (above) is housed in a neo-Renaissance palace built between 1883 and 1885.

As well as the Neanderthal flute, the museum’s exhibitions include the ‘Vače Situla’, a famous early Iron Age ritual vessel found in the village of Vače, along with many archaeological finds from Ancient Roman occupation, when Ljubljana was known as Emona.

The museum received our top marks for being ‘age-friendly’.  It provides access for wheelchair and baby strollers – and has a lift to move between the floors.

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Oozing with charm, Ljubljana is also fast gaining a reputation as a city of romance, spurred by its beautiful views, inspiring stories, old world architecture and abundant greenery.

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Piran’s fascinating history

In Slovenia, there’s a local joke that nothing is more than one hour away.

In a compact country that has only 43 kilometres of coastline, it’s fairly easy to move from centre to centre and one geographical feature to another.

In one direction, you’ll encounter stunning snow-capped alps and beautiful Lake Bled; in another is the striking capital city of Ljubljana; Italy is one hour away in yet another direction; or some of the world’s biggest limestone caves beneath the Karst Plateau.

And, in the country’s south-west is the charming medieval walled town of Piran, on the Adriatic Coast.

Long regarded as a hidden treasure by travellers in the know and the source of acclaimed world class salt, Fleur de Sel, Piran is a remarkably attractive and photogenic old port town with a complex history.  These days, visitors flock to the town to enjoy community events, the culinary offerings and natural attractions

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We travelled to Piran because we’d heard so much about its astonishing mixture of architecture that reflects an unusual history – to say the least!

For example:

  • by the 7th Century, Piran was under Byzantine rule
  • in about 952 AD, it became part of the Holy Roman Empire.
  • from 1283 to 1797, Piran was in the Republic of Venice
  • in 1797, it was annexed to the Austrian Empire
  • between 1806 and 1814, it was ceded to the Napoleonic Empire
  • at the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th Century, Piran was Austro-Hungarian
  • after the First World War, the town was ceded to Italy.
  • in 1954, Piran was annexed to Yugoslavia – and much of its population chose to move to Italy or abroard.
  • since 1991, the town has been part of Slovenia.

If that isn’t confusing enough, the town is bilingual, with both Slovene and Italian listed as official languages.

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And, its municipality borders Croatia to the south and faces Italy across the Gulf of Trieste and the Adriatic Sea.

This melting pot of history gives Piran a distinctive and attractive appearance.

The Venetian influence is strong, with an imposing town square and sweep of red rooftops.

The remains of the town wall have a Roman look, although in reality they have been altered several times through the years.

There are three walls, dating to the 7th Century and a total of seven gates or entrances to the town.

And the medieval feel is also pronounced, with a lot of narrow streets and compact houses.

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And through its complex history, Piran flourished largely because of its salt pans, which were established in 804 AD.

We walked to the remains of the third town wall and nearby St George’s Church which dominates the main hill above the town .

Then we strolled along the breakwall to the tip of Piran peninsula, watching young swimmers braving the cold waters of the Adriatic.

After a coffee in one of the many cafes and seafood restaurants along the waterfront, we returned to Tartini Square, named after one of the towns most famous residents – the 17th Century violinist, Giuseppe Tartini

It may be only an hour away from everywhere in Slovenia, but medieval Piran is a stunning Adriatic coastal resort that is a ‘must see’ when visiting Slovenia.

Senior-friendly mark: 7 out of 10.  Although the town centre and foreshore are flat, there are a lot of steep and narrow streets that cannot be avoided in such an old city

Note: The writer was flown to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines

Piran Slovenia

Slovenia’s magical underground

We were standing in a massive underground canyon, our words lost amid the near-deafening roar of crashing water.

Despite lighting on the walls, the roof was too high to see and in the darkness below us, the River Reka – swollen by recent rain – thundered under our tiny bridge.

It was an awe-inspiring scene in Europe’s biggest known underground canyon – part of the Skocjan Caves in north-eastern Slovenia.

Statistics can’t adequately prepare you

We’d been told the statistics: the cavern is 308 metres long, 89 metres wide on average and 106 metres high, with the tallest point of the ceiling some 146 metres above the Reka River.

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Caves entrance

But, this didn’t really prepare for the almost frightening spectacle that confronted us deep beneath the gorges of Slovenia.

The enormous size of the underground canyon is what places Škocjan Caves among the most famous underground features in the world.

Although they have been mentioned since the 2nd Century BC, some of the caves have yet to be fully explored.

Spectacular gorge

The Reka River flows through a scenic four-kilometre gorge before it disappears underground to surge through the limestone caves.

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River Reka gorge

During a visit to Slovenia, we caught a bus from the capital Ljubljana to visit the Skocjan Caves Regional Park. And we were certainly impressed.

Our party wound its way through the massive chambers of the Skocjan network using stairs and concrete paths that cling to the walls. The bridge over the Reka River was certainly a highlight.

Later, we negotiated a winding stairway out of the caves area and caught a furnicular railway to the top of the gorge, before lunching in the nearby village of Matavun.

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Global significance

The Skocjan network is of such importance globally that it has been on the UNESCO list of natural and cultural world heritage sites since 1986.

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Although steep, the area is popular with hikers and numerous footpaths, mountain trails and even cycling paths criss-cross the area.

Skocjan Caves are in north-eastern Slovenia, about 47 kilometres from Ljubljana.

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Senior-friendly mark: 5/10. It’s difficult to make ancient limestone caves wheelchair accessible.  However, we are reasonably fit – and were able to negotiate the caves without problem.

Note: The writer was flown to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines.

Credit: Main photograph with thanks to the Skocjan Caves Regional Park authority.

Skocjan Caves Slovenia

Astonishing Lake Bled

Lake Bled regularly tops lists of the world’s most beautiful place – and it’s easy to see why.

We knew that the lake – in north-western Slovenia – would be something special, but that didn’t fully prepare us for the reality


Picture this : sitting among alpine meadows and pine forests under the snow-capped Julian Alps, is a mirror-like waterway.

At one end of Lake Bled, a medieval castle is perched high above the water on a 130-metre sheer rock cliff.


In the middle, bells regularly peal from a church on a tiny, lush green island.

Gondola-like traditional Pletna boats dot the lake, carrying people from the villas and towns around the shoreline.


Some of the rowing boats carry pilgrims making a visit to the island church of the Assumption of Mary. On arrival, they face a climb of 98 stone steps to reach the chapel on Slovenia’s only island.

The boat ride took us about 15 minutes and the views from the water were breath-taking.

Long believed to have healing properties, the water of Lake Bled glistens emerald-green when the sun shines.

The air is crisp and there are beds of flowers and carefully-tended parks everywhere you turn.


During our visit, in late Autumn, the trees were losing their leaves, but retained their colour.

If you desire, there is a six kilometre walk around the lake and the surrounding alpine areas are popular for kayaking and mountain biking.

The nearby Triglav National Park can easily be reached by bus from Lake Bled.

As we found throughout Slovenia, local wines and food specialties are served at the restaurants in the town of Bled.

This includes the famous Bled cake, the kremna rezina, which consists of a thick layer of cream and an even thicker layer of vanilla custard sandwiched between slices of thin crispy pastry.


It’s hard to look dignified while eating the cake, but we couldn’t fault the taste.

We also enjoyed Kranjska klobasa, a juicy pork sausage that is said to come from the nearby town of Kranj.


The sheer beauty of Lake Bled induces a relaxation that is rare during a hectic travel schedule.

Slovenia is widely being described as the undiscovered jewell of Europe.

We suggest that, for its sheer natural beauty alone, Lake Bled is one of the shiniest parts of that jewell.

Senior-friendly mark: 7/10 – It’s possible to drive to Bled Castle, although we easily negotiated the steep walking trails.  The town itself is flat, although there are a lot of steps to the island church. Bled is easily reached by train, bus and car,

Note: the writer flew to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines

Lake Bled Slovenia

Where Robin Hood was caught with his pants down

In a quiet part of Slovenia sits a spectacular castle with a great story.

The 12th Century Predjama Castle is nestled in the mouth of a cave, under a 123 metre overhanging limestone rock face close to the Italian border.

Predjama Castle’s sheltered position has helped preserve the remarkable structure.

But it’s a tale from 1484 – complete with heroism and more than a little humor – that has made the castle famous world-wide.

A rebellious Knight, Erazem Lueger – known as Slovenia’s Robin Hood – holed up in the impregnable castle while regularly robbing caravans passing between Vienna, Austria and The Italian port of Trieste.

The fed-up governor of Trieste finally laid siege to Predjama Castle, in an attempt to starve out Lueger.

However, the robber baron used a hidden path through cave tunnels to go out for food – and taunted the besieging soldiers by throwing them scraps.

Eventually, a servant was bribed into revealing the castle’s only weakness – it had a toilet located outside the main walls on the upper level.

That servant fed Lueger some dodgy meat and then signaled to the Italian forces that our hero had made a run for the loo.

The soldiers fired one ball from a catapult, hitting the target – and catching their nemesis with his pants down.

Exit Slovenia’s Robin Hood.

The castle survived, however, and is now one of the most spectacular such attractions in Europe.

Predjama castle is in Slovenia, north-west of the town of Postojna.

Off the highways, it’s on a route that winds through mountains and green hills.

Note: the writer flew to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airways.

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Predjama Castle Slovenia