By Bridget McLeese Frerichs
The common reactions we received after detailing our upcoming travel plans were curious looks and questions. "How did you pick Slovenia?" "Is there still a war going on there?"
With just more than 20,000 square kilometers, about the same size as New Jersey, and 2 million people, the pint-sized country in central Europe is not exactly a hoppin' tourist destination.
Admittedly, we wouldn't have been going there had it not been on the way from our arrival city, Prague, and final destination, much more tourist-centric Croatia. But Slovenia's pristine countryside and quaint towns certainly made it worth a short side trip.
Arriving from Prague on the overnight train (12 hours, $240 each for a sleeper car with six bunks), we rolled into the capital city, Ljubljana (lyoo-BLYAH-nah; population 216,200), at 6 a.m. While gathering our belongings, we talked with our Ljubljanan bunkmate, who offered advice on what to see and how to navigate the city.
Never being ones to hop into a taxi and not needing public transportation for such a short walk, we started off with his directions. As we stopped to consult our map (Lonely Planet Slovenia) and ensure we were still on the right path, a passerby, the first we'd seen on the streets so early on a Sunday morning, stopped to ask if we needed assistance.
Since he was headed toward the city center also, we tagged along. It turned out the early riser was actually a night owl, on his way home from the previous night's festivities. After a brief walk and humorous conversation, we took a break from the weight of our backpacks in Presernov Trg, the central square linking Center and the Old Town.
I was delighted; less than 20 minutes in a new city and already I felt welcome after conversations with two locals.
As beautiful and intriguing as Prague had been, the tourist-filled streets and sights made genuine interactions few and far between. While much smaller, and not as fairytale-esque as I found Prague to be, Ljubljana was already proving to be a charming city, with numerous foot bridges crossing the small Ljubljanica River, stunning architecture and a hilltop castle overlooking it all.
Easily navigating the quiet cobblestone streets, we wandered through the pedestrianized squares and riverfront, stumbled upon the ancient sights of the city and eventually made our way to Lonely Planet-recommended La Petit Cafe.
Our next stop was accessible by public transportation, but our short timeline called for the convenience of a rental car (two days, $207). Not necessarily at the top of every visitor's list, Bohinj (pop. 5,225) was a must on our itinerary since it was the site of the 56th Kravji Bal (Cow's Ball).
Our minimal pre-trip research led us to look further into this daylong "zany" festival, held sometime in mid-September, "traditionally marking the return of the cows from the mountains to the valleys." Details online were hard to come by, but we did find a few pictures and a date, which conveniently coincided with when we would be passing through Slovenia.
The breathtaking scene of hovering mountains surrounding full picnic tables, beer and food tents, and music and dancing portrayed in the pictures was exactly what we found. Oh, yes, and lots of cows.
After a 3K walk from Hostel Pod Voglum ($25 each), we arrived just in time for the parade of traditionally-dressed Slovenians waltzing alongside their cows, as spectators cheered and snapped pictures. Making our way to the numerous vendors, we sampled some of the best food we would find throughout our entire trip and browsed the authentic handmade crafts.
We were thoroughly entertained with the folk dancing and music — and what we can only assume was the crowning of some prize cows with wreaths of flowers and oversized cow bells. The fact that we couldn't understand a word of the happenings mattered little. We were surprisingly comforted that the announcer rarely translated from Slovenian, and that many of the vendors didn't seem to understand or speak English very well.
This was real Slovenia. Real custom and culture that hadn't been manipulated to accommodate tourists. We ate, drank and conversed with locals. Much of the evening was spent with a particularly chatty group of guys who had been continuously raising their shot glasses, shouting "Na zdravje!" (Cheers!). They even treated us to an after-hours accordion performance in the parking lot, as we talked about tourism in Balkan countries, Slovenia's turbulent history, and their current rocky relationship with neighboring Croatia.
Although the Cow's Ball might have been the highlight, the following two days in Slovenia did not disappoint. After a quiet canoe trip on Lake Bohinj and a short hike in the Julian Alps, we headed down the road a scenic 26 kilometers to Bled. Famous for its small, emerald-green lake and tiny island, the quintessential Bled experience is a piloted gondola ride ($16 each) out to explore the romantic 15th century staircase, baroque church and ring the wishing bell.
Add in touring Bled's medieval castle perched on the cliff-side and savoring Slovenia's traditional kremna rezina dessert in the town of its birth, and you can see why it was hard to leave.
But leave we did, heading back to Ljubljana to experience the city on a weekday, with cafe tables spilling into the squares and streets bustling with well-dressed residents.
After a sprint to the train station (that's another story), we boarded a south-bound train to Croatia's capital, Zagreb (four hours, $23 each), and said goodbye to the unspoiled natural wonders, friendly people and fabulous food of Slovenia.
Not only worth the detour, but worth another trip in itself.
Bridget McLeese Frerichs lives in Champaign with her husband and works at Crisis Nursery in Urbana. Among other things, she enjoys spending time with friends and family, running, antiquing and traveling.