The Most Underrated Country in Europe

There's a small little country buried just south of the Austrian Alps and just north of the dense forests and stunning beaches of Croatia which often is overlooked by travelers from across the globe. Never in a million years would I have predicted a country in former Yugoslavia to become one of my all-time favorite countries to visit, but alas, it is. Slovenia has got to be one of the most underrated and absolutely incredible countries I've ever been able to visit, and I of all the countries in Europe I've seen, this one takes the cake with having something for everyone!

I arrived in Slovenia following two weeks in Croatia where I enjoyed what I thought would be some of the most scenic and picturesque landscapes in all of Europe. My friend who I met up with in Zagreb is actually from a small town in Slovenia called Ribinica, roughly forty-five minutes southeast of Ljubljana (pronounced Lube-yana), the capital of Slovenia. Upon arriving to Slovenia, we headed straight to the Ljubljana airport to pick up one of my best and oldest friends in the world, Chelsea, from back in Michigan! We had planned out a few days to spend together in Europe while she was in France for a work conference, and our paths luckily were able to cross in Slovenia. 

View of Ljubljana and the castle from above

Once picking her up, myself, Toni, his friend Aljousa, and Chelsea headed off to the city and spent the evening wandering through Ljubljana. We grabbed some cheap and delicious burek (it's amazing) at a street food stand and walked through the city, taking in the all of the activity of the night. Aljousa gave us a history lesson in a number of the buildings we walked past during the night, and it was nice to see the downtown area at night. After a long day of traveling for all of us, though, we headed back home to get a decent night's sleep before a busy day touring the city in daylight the following morning. 

Our second full day in Ljubljana started with a tour of the castle atop the hill followed by lunch along the river. The castle was, at this point, the most picturesque I'd seen in all of Europe and had such an amazing view of the city below. It has a full museum inside about the history of the castle, video's of the castle's origins, and an entire area dedicated the history of puppetry in the country. 

Our lunch along the river proved to be just as nice as it was a beautiful fall day in the city and perfect for sitting outside and enjoying the fall colors (this will become a theme in this post, but we timed our days in Slovenia just right for the fall colors). 

My friend Toni picked us up after lunch and showed us around the city a bit more, visiting the park, some of the government's most important buildings, and the pool where he began his career in Slovenia (we swam together in college FYI). We ended the afternoon by grabbing drinks atop one of the highest buildings in the city, though, and took in a nice view from above. Ljubljana is a pretty easy city to see in a day or two as it's quite small and condensed, and if you don't plan to do loads of museums while there, you can walk the entire town in just a few hours. After seeing Ljubljana for a couple of days, Chelsea and I were ready to head out onto the real adventure over the next four days by heading into the mountains to see some more of the Slovenian countryside.

Our morning walk near Lake Bohinj

We awoke on Monday morning and made our way through the pouring rain to where we believed our rental car would be ready and waiting for us to pick up. Finding the location of the Enterprise office seemed easy enough from the map, and after a little planning the evening before we felt we could get to it quite easily by taking a bus out of town and walking just a short ways. What we believed would be a short walk turned into a thirty minute trek through the rain to an office building hiding VERY far away from where we expected it would be. In hindsight we should have listened more closely to who we were renting from when choosing Enterprise (remember..."They'll pick you up"). Unfortunately we didn't think of this the night before, and being the stubborn traveler I am I insisted on us getting there on our own. Once finding the office and drying off a bit, though, we gathered ourselves and loaded into the car to head north out of Ljubjlana toward Bled, rated as one of the most picturesque towns in all of Europe.

On our way to Bled we meandered through a couple of other small villages along the way, explored a castle here, wandered through an old church there, and eventually made our way through the off-and-on rain throughout the day to Bled. Since it was quite late in the afternoon by the time we arrived we resorted to just stopping at the tourism office, picking up a few* maps of the area, finding our Airbnb for the evening, and cooking an amazing dinner together in our very chilly and very artsy art-gallery accommodation for the night. 

The next day we planned for a jam-packed day, and got an early start by heading to Lake Bohinj, a long, narrow lake roughly thirty minutes west of Bled. It was a beautiful, sunny morning (something we hadn't seen in a few days), and we hoped that our views of Bojinj and Bled for the day would be nothing short of spectacular. Unfortunately in Bohinj, the lake was completely socked in with fog and it was difficult to fully grasp the magnitude of the mountains towering above the lake on both sides, but we still found some amazing views, great hiking trails, and an awesome waterfall where the fog lifted for just long enough to see a bit of the mountains above. 

Lake Bled and the church on the island

After Lake Bohinj we headed back into Bled and capitalized on the sunny skies and beautiful fall weather in town by paddling on a row boat to the island in the middle of Lake Bled, hiking to an amazing viewpoint overlooking the lake and castle below for lunch, and exploring the castle atop the cliff next to the lake for the afternoon. Lake Bled has got to be one of the most picturesque and photogenic places I've ever seen, and it was made even better by the fall colors that accompanied the trees on the surrounding mountains. We were really lucky to have such a clear day in this town as it was literally like something out of a fairy tale or a Disney movie. It was so cool and Chelsea and I both were happy to have spent the afternoon there enjoying the views.

After Bled we loaded up the car and continued our journey through the Julian Alps. Our end goal for the day was in a town on the west side of Slovenia called Boved. In order to get to this town, though, we decided to take the mountain pass which we were somewhat unsure about due to the rain/snow (in the mountains) the last couple of days. It was clear from Bled that the mountains had quite a bit of snow, but we weren't positive if the pass was clear to get all the way through to Bovec. Luckily the top, though a chilly 33 degrees Fahrenheit, was clear of ice and only had a half an inch or so of snow on the side of the road and we were able to pass without any issues. The drive both up and down the mountain was extremely twisty-turny, though, and gave way to an exciting few 180 degree turns during the drive. As we came out of the mountains and made our way into Bovec, we stopped along the way and explored the crystal blue waters of the Soca River along the way, finding a few caves and ravines along the way which we paused to take some pictures by. Finally, after a very long and at times nauseating drive, we arrived in Bovec and settled down in our hostel for the night. Bovec itself is a very cool town, and in the summer months I imagine it is quite busy as it is an adventure sport town full of white water rafting, rock climbing, and hiking. Unfortunately due to it being near freezing the night we arrived, we decided to bypass the adventure sports for the following day and continue south toward Italy, our next destination in our road trip around Slovenia.

Trieste, Italy is only a short two hour drive from Bovec, and we made it there very smoothly by early afternoon the next day. Trieste has loads to do as well, but due to our short time frame in Italy, we only really visited one of the nearby castles and a few other building of note within the city. We were lucky, though, to arrive at Castle Miramare just around sunset, and after a couple of hours of roaming through the gardens and the inside of the castle, we sat on the pier along the water and watched the sun set over the Italian city. Trieste is the only town in Italy I ultimately visited during my trip (Chelsea studied abroad in Italy and has seen her fair share of the country), but from what I saw I know that it's a destination I'd like to visit again. 

The Predjama castle built into the side of a cliff and cave (opening can be seen at the top of building).

We left Italy early the following morning and made our way back into Slovenia and toward the Postojna (pronounce Pos-toy-na) caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site. We had heard many great things about the caves and also about a nearby castle literally built into the cliffside. We knew we had to take a visit. The caves proved to be just as impressive as we'd heard, and we took a two-hour tour of the interior of them by boarding a train that rides about five kilometers into the interior of them. They are one of the most extensive cave systems in the entire world, and we trekked around inside for quite a while before eventually making our way back out into the daylight. A little further up the road we found the cliffside castle, Predjama (pronounced Pred-yama...if you haven't noticed, the j is pronounced like a y in Slovenian). This castle of the four we saw during our four days in Slovenia and Italy, was by far the most impressive and was absolutely unbelievable to see inside of. The strategy that went into the construction of this castle built more than 500 years ago was unlike anything I'd ever seen, and we were both blown away by the way in which it has survived the test of time. 

Following the castle and caves, we made our way back to Llubljana for one last night in the city. We enjoyed dinner with Toni and his girlfriend and retired for the night as we all had early mornings the following day. All-in-all Slovenia was a sensational destination and a must-see on my list of European destinations. Like I said before it has something for everyone from castles to mountains to skiing to hiking to cities and museums and everything in between. If you're ever thinking about an unlikely destination vacation, consider putting Slovenia at the top of your list. You won't regret it.

 

*Actually it was 8 because the woman at the desk just kept handing us more and more and more and more and more and more maps.