The Complete Guide To Slovenia

With its majestic mountains, romantic lakes and fairy-tale castles, this gem of a country is small but perfectly formed, reports Harriet O'Brien


HEY, GOOD LOOKING...

Slovenia is a little gem of a republic, with Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia on its borders, plus a short stretch of Adriatic coastline - one inch per inhabitant is the curious calculation the tourist board uses to promote its beach life.

About the size of Wales, Slovenia is packed with interesting and dramatic landscapes. And with a population of just two million, to Wales's three million, there's a wonderful sense of space. You can hike or ski on majestic mountains, relax by spectacular lakes, call in at fairy-tale castles, visit vineyards and explore limestone caves, just for starters.

WASN'T IT PART OF YUGOSLAVIA?

Indeed, the industrious Slovenes turned it into the richest of the former Yugoslavian states. They also managed to achieve independence without the scale of bloodshed that characterised struggles elsewhere in the federation. In the summer of 1991, Slovenia announced that it was leaving the Yugoslav Federation, whereupon troops from Belgrade descended. But, after a 10-day war, which cost the lives of just 66 people, peace was brokered through the European Community. By December that year, Slovenia had its own constitution and parliament. It remained unaffected by the violence that ensued in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo. And it has prospered. In 2004, it became the only former Yugoslav republic so far to become a member of the EU. It continues to reap the rewards of the hard work of its polyglot people (as well as Slovene and Croatian, English and Italian are widely spoken), and tourism is growing fast, especially in the Julian Alps.

AAAH... MOUNTAINS

With very good reason, hiking holidays in the Julian Alps are increasingly popular. Not only is this a region of outstanding beauty, there are plenty of walking trails to follow around the Soca Valley, and in the Triglav National Park. The latter is an 83,000-hectare reserve incorporating the head of the valley as well as Slovenia's highest peak, the Triglav (at 2,864m), roughly in the centre of the park.

Among a number of UK travel companies offering holidays in the region, Inntravel (01653 617906; www.inntravel.co.uk) has a six-night independent walking trip from the little-visited Friuli region of Italy into and along Slovenia's Soca Valley. The price, from £718 per person (based on two sharing), includes return flights from Gatwick to Venice, transfers by rail and taxi, six nights' B&B accommodation in comfortable hotels, four dinners, two picnics, walking maps and notes, and luggage transfers.

Meanwhile, Naturetrek (01962 733051; www.naturetrek.co.uk) has an eight-day escorted trip departing in July, the height of the wild-flower season. You stay in the comfortable three-star Hotel Zlatorog at Ukanc, overlooking lovely Lake Bohinj, and from there do moderately strenuous day-long walks to different parts of Triglav National Park. The trip costs from £985 per person, including flights from Heathrow to the capital, Ljubljana, transfers, full-board accommodation (all meals are organic) and expert guiding.

More challenging is KE Adventure's trek across the Julian Alps, culminating in an ascent of Mount Triglav (017687 73966; www.keadventure.com). The ridge-walking can be tough-going, but the views are terrific and scenery sublime. The eight-day holiday costs from £525 per person, departing July, August and September. This includes transfers; two nights in hotels; five nights in mountain huts; all breakfasts and dinners; safety equipment and guidance.

AND OTHER SPORTS?

Bovec in the Soca Valley is, in many respects, the sports capital of Slovenia. Its Kanin Ski Centre ( www.bovec.si) has the highest pistes in the country and offers good conditions between December and late April. In addition, there are extensive cross-country runs as well as facilities for ice- climbing, dog-sledding, snowshoeing and more.

When the snows melt, the area is transformed into a playground for rafting, canyoning, kayaking, mountain-biking and paragliding. Right now, the summer season is getting into swing, although the mountain waters here are still chilly. Operators providing a wide range of activities include Sport Mix (00 386 5 389 6160; www.sportmix.traftbovec.si) and Alpe Sport (00 386 5 389 6350; www.bovecsport.com).

Elsewhere, Slovenia offers trout fishing at Tolmin (00 386 5 381 1710; www.flyfishing.si), as well as horse-riding at Rasinger in the northern resort of Kranjska Gora * *(00 386 4 58 09440; www.kranjska-gora.si) and 3glav Adventures (00 386 4 168 3184; www.3glav-adventures.com), which operates from Bled, near the Triglav National Park and where you get to ride on the Lipizzaner horses, of Spanish Riding School fame, which originate in Slovenia.

Indeed, you can visit the Lipizzaner stud farm (00 386 5 739 1580; www.lipica.org) at Lipica in the karst country of the south. This extraordinary limestone plateau also presents great opportunities for cavers and potholers, with a vast network of underground rivers and caverns to explore.

For those with energy to burn, Lakes and Mountains (01243 792 442; www.lakes-mountains.co.uk) offers a seven-night self-catering holiday at Kranjska Gora. The village has Lake Jasna and the Triglav National Park on its doorstep, so there is an almost dizzying choice of outdoor pursuits. The price, from £427 per person based on two sharing, covers flights on Adria Airways from Gatwick or Stansted to Ljubljana, car hire and accommodation at Vitranc Apartments, close to the supermarket and other shops.

WHAT ABOUT THOSE CASTLES?

Slovenia's most celebrated castle is at Bled. Despite an ugly blot of Soviet-style hotels and gaggles of summer visitors, this lakeside town remains amazingly unspoilt, and sublimely pretty. Its baroque church, set on an islet in the middle of the lake, is almost absurdly scenic, while its medieval fortress is a romantic wonder of ramparts, moats and towers. The castle museum presents a history of both the building and the town; it opens 8am-8pm daily, admission 850 Slovene tolars (abbreviated to SIT, £2.40).

Of the country's many other castles (there are a good 40 you can visit), Predjama, in the southern cave country, is one of the most impressive. Set in the yawning mouth of a cavern halfway up a cliff, the current four-storey building dates from the 16th century, but it is probable that a fortress has stood on the site since the 13th century. The castle is open daily, 9am-6pm, admission SIT1,200 (£3.40).

Over in the east of Slovenia is Ptuj, a glorious, if hard to pronounce, medieval town on the Drava river. It's crammed with monasteries and churches, and the city museum is housed in a dramatic 12th-century castle (open daily, 9am-6pm; admission SIT700/£2). Inside are musical instruments, tapestries, paintings and more, but perhaps best of all are the panoramic views of the town from the castle's windows.

Further south, near the booming town of Novo Mesto, you can stay in Otocec Castle. Dreamily set on an island in the Krka river, the building dates from the 16th century. It was refurbished to repair damage sustained during the Second World War and is now one of Slovenia's most renowned luxury hotels, with its gracious grounds, tennis courts, sauna and well-regarded restaurant. Holiday Options (0870 420 8372; www.holidayoptions.co.uk) offers a seven-night package there from £662 per person. This includes flights from Gatwick to Ljubljana, transfers and half-board accommodation.

I'D LIKE A CITY BREAK...

Ljubljana is the perfect size for a weekend trip. With its baroque churches, castle hovering on a hill, willow-fringed walkways and charming bridges, Slovenia's neat, green and compact capital can easily be explored on foot. Don't miss the open-air market beside the 18th-century cathedral of St Nicholas on Pogacarjev trg; daily except Sunday.

Since 1953, the city has hosted an annual summer festival, which this year runs from the end of May until September ( www.ljubljanafestival.si). The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna State Ballet and the State Kuban Cossack Chorus will be performing. Short breaks to Ljubljana are offered by Regent Holidays (0870 499 0911; www.regent-holidays.co.uk) from £295 per person. The price covers flights from Gatwick and three nights' B&B at the Hotel Park.

Accommodation in the capital is uninspiring, with one exception: the Hostel Celica (00 386 1 230 9700; www.hostelcelica.si), a former prison that is now one of the most stylish hostels in Europe. It doubles as an art gallery, and even if you are not staying there you can turn up any day at 2pm for a tour. If you decide to stay, a four-bedded room - ideal for families - costs €80 (£57) a night, including breakfast.

LAZY DAYS?

The two main resorts along Slovenia's 47km stretch of Adriatic coast couldn't be more different. Portoroz is lined with restaurants, bars and high-rise hotels. In high summer it is noisy and packed with sun-worshippers, so it's fun for people-watching but not exactly peaceful. Pretty Piran, meanwhile, is a treasure of Venetian architecture. Dating back to the 13th-century, when it was controlled by the Venetian Republic, its old town is a national monument. There's plenty to see, but actual beach life is limited to a short stretch east of town.

A good holiday combination for water lovers is offered by Inghams (020-8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk). Its two-centre trips provide an opportunity to visit Slovenia's lakelands and also get a taste of coastal life. A one-week break staying at the Hotel Astoria on Lake Bled and then at the three-star Hotel Piran in Piran costs from £544 per person in June, including return flights from Gatwick to Ljubljana, transfers and half-board accommodation (flights are also available from Birmingham, Manchester and Stansted for a supplement).

A more extensive trip along the Adriatic coast is arranged by Peregrine Adventures (01635 872 300; www.peregrineadventures.co.uk). Its 21-day Soul of the Adriatic escorted tour is a cultural adventure starting in Ljubljana and taking in Bled and the caves of Slovenia's karst country before proceeding down Croatia's Dalmatian coast and returning to Ljubljana inland through Bosnia-Hercegovina. The holiday costs from £3,595 in August. The price includes all accommodation, with breakfast in comfortable hotels, guidance, land transport and all sightseeing fees, but excludes air travel to Ljubljana since there are many low-cost flight options to choose from.

GO ON THEN...

If you are travelling from south-east England, the options are multiplying. This month, Wizz Air (00 48 22 351 94 99; www.wizzair.com) began flying from Luton to Ljubljana, in competition with British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) and Adria (020-7734 4630; www.adria.si) from Gatwick, and easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) from Stansted. From Manchester, Adria flies on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Ljubljana's airport is out at Brnik, 27km north-west of the capital, occupying one of the few large patches of flat ground in Slovenia. From the airport, buses leave on the hour to Ljubljana, and to Kranj, which is handy if your destination is in the north of Slovenia. See www.alpetour.si for schedules.

If you are heading for the far south of the country, Rijeka in Croatia - soon to be served by easyJet from Luton and Bristol - could be useful. One final option: Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Trieste in Italy, from where there are connecting buses direct to the Slovenian coast.

HOW ABOUT LOCAL FLAVOUR?

Among its wide range of holidays across the country, Just Slovenia (01373 814230; www.justslovenia.co.uk) offers the opportunity to sample some excellent regional fare, and get right off the beaten track. Its self-drive Food and Wine Trail is a one-week trip with accommodation in farmhouses that provide home-cooked local specialities and, in many cases, also offer their own wine. Three nights are spent in the Vipaya Valley within easy driving distance of the Soca river and the Lipica stud farm. At Arkade Farm the owners cook Primorska dishes such as pork fillet in vine leaves, and serve their own award-winning cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. You proceed to the Savinja Alps for a night at Pensione Raduha, where Martine, a former Slovene Cook of the Year, offers dishes such as wild-garlic soup and venison in pine-nut sauce. The final three nights are spent in the Pohorje Hills of north-eastern Slovenia. Accommodation is at Urska Farm, with its own vineyard, smokehouse - and sauna. The holiday is excellent value, costing from just £499 per person, based on two travelling in late May or August, and including flights from Gatwick to Ljubljana, car hire and half-board accommodation.

AND OTHER REMOTE REACHES?

The little-visited orchards and vineyards of eastern Slovenia are the stunning backdrop to Explore's new Villages and Vineyards seven-night cycling trip (0870 333 4001; www.explore.co.uk). The biking route is graded as "moderate". It starts at Kostanievica on the Krka river and takes in the picturesque wine-growing area of Trska Gora, the traditional hamlets of the Bela Krajina region, the roaring Lahinja river and medieval Kostel castle, with plenty of opportunities to stop and taste the produce of this semi-secret region. The holiday costs from £695 per person for August and September departures, including flights from Gatwick to Ljubljana, road transfers, cycle hire, hotel and village-inn accommodation with breakfast, maps, and the services of a tour leader.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

The Slovenia Tourist Office in the UK is based in an appropriately rural location, at South Marlands, Itchingfield, Horsham, West Sussex RH13 0NN (0870 2255 305; www.slovenia-tourism.si). Comprehensive guide books on Slovenia include the Lonely Planet 2004 updated edition (£12.99) and Bradt's 2005 guide (£12.99).

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