We coaxed our rental car through an impossibly skinny gate and finally pulled up to our apartment in Ljubljana. Night had already fallen on the city. The streets were dark and mostly deserted around our place, and we had that disorienting feeling of flying blind in our new neighborhood. Unsure of what we'd find at this hour, or even what we'd find in this country, we headed to the bar next door and asked if they knew of anyplace that would still be open for dinner.
We were stunned when they pointed us to a Mexican place across the square, with a distinctly Cafe Olé vibe and a beamingly nice host/server who spoke perfect English. Just when you're feeling like you're alone in an exotic location, like nothing could possibly be "normal" here in a former Yugoslav country, Slovenia comfortingly pats you on the back and hands you some sizzlin' fajitas. And while most of our experiences were decidedly more Slovenian than our late-night cantina stop, we would be met with this same warm, welcoming attitude wherever we went.
Once we'd woken up and gotten some coffee at one of Ljubljana's oldest kavarnas, bumping elbows with some cute old ladies clearly in the middle of a first rate gossip session in Slovenian, it was time to get out and explore. We had just one day to spend in Ljubljana before pressing on to Slovenia's Jeruzalem wine region, so we made the most of it with a walking tour around the city's pedestrian center.
We were dazzled by the gorgeous buildings and lengthy history, but we were even more impressed with some of the more modern expressions of the city's culture, such as Metelkova. Seized by rebellious members of the community and squatted in since 1993, these former barracks are a colorful center of arts, music, and culture for the more progressive in Slovenian society. We wandered around and snapped a few photos before hopping in the car for the roughly 3 hour drive to Maribor.
Winding through the vines
As fate would have it, however, we were delayed by an insatiable hunger of the donut variety. Just off the highway to Maribor lies Trojane, a famous pastry mecca that our next Airbnb host tipped us off about. We'd like to say that we split one of the gigantic, hamburger-bun-sized, slightly warm, pillowy soft, peach-marmalade-filled beauties among the three of us, but then we'd be lying.
Our car sitting a little bit lower on its suspension, we pulled into Maribor in the early evening and prepared for our full day of wine tasting tomorrow.
The wine in this region is not particularly famed on a global scale, as much of it is sweeter than western european palates would prefer. Christine really hit the nail on the head, describing one as tasting like the juice that comes with canned peaches.
But not all producers are afraid to experiment with some dry and sparkling vintages, and we had an incredible tasting with our friend Damien at Horvat Wines. We particularly loved their subtle chardonnay and forthcoming brut, which he let us try by opening upside-down in a salad bowl filled with water, since it hadn't yet been corked. The whole shebang felt just like we were at the place of a good friend showing us their homebrew. Magical.
And, of course, the countryside was absolutely gorgeous, with the wine route snaking among rolling hills covered in vineyards and beautiful old buildings dotted in the distance. We might have gotten a little caught off guard by the loveliness of this place, but fortunately we found some folding chairs to regain our composure while we sipped.
Our next stop took us north (and past the donut shop one last time) to the misty hills around Lake Bled, where we settled into our apartment and planned the rest of our time in town around the impending bad weather. Since the next day would certainly be rainy, we decided to save the main attraction for sunnier times and do the short hike up Vintgar Gorge instead.
While we weren't sure about braving the rain, our spirits got a big boost once we laid eyes on the shockingly blue, crystal-clear water—clear enough that we could easily pick out trout swimming against the current as we walked along the trail.
After another short hike the next morning, we made our way to the lake shore to take some of our newly bought wine and salami out for a spin. As there are no motors allowed on Lake Bled, we rented a fantastic little rowboat to get a closer look at the island, and its church, in the center of the lake. The sun was shining, our oarsman Nick was doing all the hard work, and while we probably weren't supposed to have wine bottles and other glass on board, it was a extra-nice touch on an already rosy day. Plus, once you're out there, it's pretty much maritime law.
A slight detour
We hit the road once again for Kobarid, a tiny town on the edge of the Julian Alps. Along the way, the Soča river trails the highway for miles, and we had to pull over a few times out of sheer disbelief. What is UP with that water!?
We thought that the gorge had been impressive, but clearly we hadn't seen anything yet. The icy, listerine-hued Soča had us completely spellbound.
When we finally arrived in Kobarid, the rain started to come down in sheets. What's more, the weather looked grim for next two days. While I tried to figure out what short hikes we could manage in the inclement conditions, Christine and Nick started looking for places we might be able to day-trip to that were predicting sun.
At some point in our brainstorm, we started to realize that things we would have previously considered crazy were somehow feasible in Slovenia, this crossroads of a nation. Care to drive up to Salzburg? That'll be three hours. How about a jaunt over the border to Italy? A mere 20 minutes. Finally, Christine spied a big, friendly-looking sun in the weather forecast for Venice, and with only a two hour drive to get there, we were sold. The next morning, we bid farewell to our understanding host to spend one luxurious day on the canals.
Leaving us with a smile
We had a hard time saying goodbye to Venice in the morning, but had we known that Mini Venice would be waiting for us at the end of our day's travels we would have cheered right up. Once we set our bags down, we fired up Wikipedia and learned that Piran was once a Venetian outpost, so a lot of the buildings in town have that characteristic architectural style we'd come to love.
We spent a long afternoon the next day soaking it all up over a cocktail or several in the main square.
What Piran lacks in canals, it makes up for with its unbelievably friendly, quirky, classically Slovenian inhabitants. They've got a way about them that makes all your anxiety about traveling in a foreign country melt away. Our waiters snuck up on Christine and scared her (much to Nick's and my glee), our gelato scoopers admitted they'd guessed we would come back while we shamelessly ordered our second helping of the day, and a burly man was sent over to us with open hands and a big grin when we asked for a shellfish cracker.
The Slovenian tourism board likes to point out that theirs is the only country with "love" right in the name, but after our incredible week we can say with confidence that they really do back it up.
Goodbye Christine! We're drying off the tears and heading south to comb the coastline of Croatia with my Mom, Cindy.