Ssh…Slovenia is better out of season
Slovenia is one of Europe’s most breathtaking countries. But the secret is out and it is slowly becoming a popular summer holiday destination, ticking boxes for families, friends and honeymooners alike with sunshine-filled days, fairytale scenery, affordable accommodation and huge range of outdoor activities.
It’s the new Croatia, with tourists converging on the dreamy Lake Bled to take their own snap of what has to be one of the world’s most Instagrammed bodies of water.
But what is this tiny country, smaller than Wales and home to just two million people, like out of season? Even better, I might dare to suggest.
But nobody seems to have caught onto this because when the mist descends and the lakes are too chilly to swim in tourist numbers drop dramatically from a peak of 1.2 million overnight stays in August to just 300,000 in October.
Better in winter
I arrive in the capital city of Ljubljana (romantically meaning ‘beloved’) on a grey October day, the trees turning gorgeous shades of autumn reds and yellows.
Instead of an expected Copenhagen-style buzz, all I hear is the wheels of my suitcase echoing loudly on the cobbles of a deserted street. The only sign of life is a cream bicycle with a cheery red polka dot saddle propped up against a freshly painted white wall under a hanging basket of bright orange flowers.
The architecture is instantly fascinating, with early Baroque style buildings blending with art nouveau facades in terracottas, golden browns and pastel pinks, greens and blues.
Many buildings have peeling paint which adds to the abandoned chic charm, making the sense of discovering an unexplored relic even stronger.
Jože Plečnik’s iconic Triple Bridge connects Ljubljana’s historic and modern towns and is covered in lovers’ padlocks. Everywhere you look there is a cafe.
Where to stay and eat in Ljubljana
Ljubljana is a place to eat, drink and be merry. Home for two nights was the clean and cosy Macek Rooms coffeehouse, reasonably priced, overlooking the river, and just minutes from a tempting selection of cafes, bars, restaurants.
This place would be heaving in summer given its prime location, but in autumn the atmosphere is calm and friendly – my boyfriend and I spent a late afternoon snuggled up in scarves and coats, playing board games and enjoying deliciously frothy chai lattes.
Slovenia’s cuisine is heavily influenced by its bordering countries: Italy, Hungary, Austria and Croatia.
Service is universally slow and the food stodgy, but the waiters are unfailingly welcoming and willing to explain their eclectic menus.
Reservations were thankfully unnecessary out of season meaning we could choose where to eat spontaneously, but the restaurants quickly filled up and never felt soulless.
Try the home-made potato gnocchi with pumpkin seed pesto at the traditional Gujzina and the garlic chilli shrimp and chorizo in red wine tapas at Tabar. For a daytime chocoholic boost, Zvezda’s cakes are mouthwatering, while Paninoteka does a range of yummy sandwiches to take away (hard to find in Ljubljana).
Where to stay and eat near Lake Bled
Next, we headed to the lakes, staying at the idyllic, flower-laden Penzion Kaps in Bled, a five-minute walk from the famous lake.
The hotels and B&Bs in the north west of Slovenia are typically Alpine chalets due to the proximity of the snowy Julian Alps and Triglav National Park.
Strolling around Bled, it’s clear that the town is geared towards the summer months – with casinos, cocktail bars and souvenir shops popping up along the shoreline.
Most had emptied out by mid-October, bar Gostilna Pri Planincu, a rough diamond of a pub with a ceiling covered in number plates stolen from cars all over the world by its globe-trotting, motorbiking landlord.
There was plenty of choice for restaurants, from crispy sea bass with Mediterranean vegetables at the antique-laden Oštarija Peglez’n to huge pizzas at Pizzeria Rustika – perfect for a mid-hike lunch-stop.
Out of season adventures
Hiking 1.6km along the remarkable Vintgar Gorge is a must, especially in autumn when you can take your time to marvel at the natural beauty of the extraordinarily blue water, golden trees and majestic, 13-metre high Šum waterfall without other tourists hurrying you along and obscuring your photographs.
Lake Bohinj is an easy 45-minute bus ride away from Bled – public transport along the tourist routes was still fairly packed in October, so expect to queue in summer.
Surprisingly, this lake is even more magical than Bled, with water as clear as glass reflecting wispy clouds in a cornflower blue sky. To see it from all angles takes five hours, including a halfway fuel-up at Don Andro pizzeria. Frustratingly it was too icy for a dip, but the air was so pure and the entire area so peaceful that a day spent here was the best antidote to busy city life.
The lure of white water rafting, kayaking and swimming in summer may prove too strong for active, adventurous types, but if you want to discover a largely untouched country in its full glory and feel like you’re the only one who knows about it, don’t rule out an autumn getaway to Slovenia.
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