“Slovenia? Why do you want to go there?”
In the run up to my last trip, now a distant rose-tinged memory as we enter our fifth week of COVID-19 lockdown, I heard this question so many times.
Truthfully, I’d been obsessed with visiting Slovenia for over four years when snapshots of Lake Bled started creeping into my Instagram feed. Ever since, I’ve greedily devoured images of the snow-capped mountains and glassy lakes with an innate knowledge that this would become one of my favourite countries. I was right. But I had no idea that the best of days would be spent in the Julian Alps, a region I’d barely heard of.
Stretching from northern Italy to Slovenia the Julian Alps are by no means a hidden gem. The skiing and winter sports hub is encompassed within Triglav National Park, named for Slovenia’s highest mountain. Understandably, it’s hugely popular with tourists from the surrounding countries but receives moderately little press from UK bloggers. Until Musement kindly offered us a chance to spend the day on their Julian Alps experience, I had no idea about the almost gut-wrenchingly beautiful landscapes that awaited us.
After a mishap with our Airbnb door chain that left us convinced we’d be locked in for the remainder of our trip, the relief when arriving at our pick up point in time was palpable. As we were travelling within two kilometres of the Italian border, the world’s worst COVID-affected country at the time, we had a briefing and mandatory hand sanitiser from our lovely guide Barbara before we set off.
“Don’t worry” she smiled at us. “The borders are carrying out very strict checks.”
On a clear day, you get a sense of Slovenia’s powerful landscapes from the moment your flight touches down. Tree-lined mountains fringe the skyline across lush green fields, seemingly distant but you can reach them from Ljubljana in just over an hour. This is a country where even driving is an experience: both New Zealand and Switzerland’s truly awesome scenery came to mind as we headed out of the city.
Just over an hour later we pulled into our first stop, Lake Zelenci. Just five minutes walk from the road, we crunched over the track to the sound of birds chirping. In the summer months the forest would be lush and rustling; in March, some snow and ice still clung to the ground with the occasional glimpse of snow-capped peak through half-bare trees making up for the chill.
We emerged into a clearing and immediately stopped in our tracks. Sunken in winter-browned grasses, the vivid blue Lake Zelenci winked at us in the sunlight, showing off its glorious shine with barely a whisper of wind to ripple the surface.
After the mandatory photo op, Barbara retreated to the road with the parting words “no swimming allowed” – a reminder of the care Slovenians take to look after their environment. The lake is filled with spring water, noteable from the tiny bubbles emerging from the bottom, which keep the temperature constant throughout the year. Even in winter, it never freezes.
Despite how close the lake is to the road, we felt a million miles from civilisation. I could barely stop snapping pictures, my eyes constantly drawn to that blue colour – definitely one of my favourite shades in the world. To take in the whole scene, climbing the steps to viewing platform is a a must-do if you’re able.
I couldn’t help feeling lucky to be visiting during lower season. Throughout the summer months, I’m sure this pathway is absolutely crammed with visitors – not that I don’t blame them. But the lack of others meant we could marvel, laugh like idiots and parade around taking stupid photos for as long as we wanted, with no pressure. It feels like a luxury to have the chance to savour every part of a place this pure and beautiful. I can’t imagine wanting to leave after any number of minutes but sadly, the time came.
In recent weeks, walking through eerily quiet streets has become the new normal as humanity battles through a pandemic. Visiting Kranjska Gora was our first taste of how we would live for the coming months, although we had no idea at the time.
On the short drive from Lake Zelenci to one of Slovenia’s most famous ski resorts, Barbara regaled us with tales of the winter sports that drives hordes of people to its streets each year. The hour was early so maybe we didn’t read too wildly into the silent yet beautiful roads. From the sprawling house design, all immaculately kept, to the ever-present grand backdrop, Kranjska Gora looks like the very pinacle of an alpine village.
We peeked down the street at Liznjek House, a museum housed in a renovated 18th century farmhouse, but then we spied a local cafe with cakes piled high. The weather, warm in the sun but icy cold in the shade, called for indulgence so we chose hot chocolates so thick you could eat them with a spoon. True winter cuisine.
Just a couple of kilometres from the town lies Lake Jansa, an hugely popular attraction for Slovenians during the summer months. The Julian Alps frame the twin alpine lakes beautifully, a powerful sight against the completely transparent water. The water is far greener than Lake Zelenci, making it breathtaking in a different way entirely. During the summer months, the trees surrounding the lake burst into life and from pictures, only seem to heighten this magical hue.
Zlatorog, the mythical Slovenian ipex so famous they named a beer after him, stands guard proudly at the entrance to the nearest lake – a photo opportunity you can’t miss. We also befriended a bronze chap reading on a bench within a frame, although we never found out his name. Answers on a postcard please.
A traditional Slovenian lunch
It’s true what they say: mountain air, much like crisp sea air, gives you one big appetite. Even after our double chocolate binge a few hours earlier, we were ready to balance out the sweet with savoury. As a vegetarian, I wasn’t sure how much traditional Slovenian cuisine I’d be able to sample but Barbara assured us it wasn’t a problem as we drove towards Gostišče “UH” Kavalar. This restaurant and B&B is located just two minutes drive from the Italian border – great to know if you’re planning a trip during safer times.
After our starter of delicious but highly unphotogenic (to my untrained lens) mushroom soup, we tucked into “Rateski Krapi” or Rateče fritters – dumplings usually filled with with cottage cheese but these used polenta instead. They were tasty, but heavy on the stomach, so the addition of cranberry sauce on the side provided a much-needed bite of sweetness. I couldn’t tell you the Slovenian name of the dessert we enjoyed but it was basically arctic roll, a hugely underrated dessert in my opinion. Anyone else harbouring a soft spot for that weird frozen cake/ice cream combination?
Bellies full and lakes exhausted, we sadly packed ourselves into the car one last time for our drive back to Ljubljana. After some day trips you feel satisfied but this left me hungry for more – lakes, not dumplings. The tour is the perfect taste of exactly why Slovenia is a getaway to be enjoyed all year round and I can’t help but think we visited on one of the best possible days to explore. The mountains still boasted snowy peaks yet the sky was blue, the sun warm and lakes sparkling. And best of all, we could enjoy it all without the summer crowds.
As I mentioned earlier, we were lucky enough to be offered this experience by Musement who offer plenty of tours from Ljubljana. As a hub of exclusive or ‘hidden gem’ activities with locally-run tours, we likely wouldn’t have discovered these lakes without their advice. Even above the more touristy lakes Bled and Bohinj, I’d recommend Lakes Jansa and Zelenci in the Julian Alps as must-see destinations in this alpine gem. And isn’t being suprised by places you never knew existed what travel is really about?
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