That’s what everyone asked me when I’d reveal our destination. You see, every summer I take a big trip with my father. This is a long-standing tradition of ours (the rest of the family comes if/when it can), and people who know this often ask, “Where to this year?” But I had never been asked, “Um, why there?!”, and certainly not by everyone. Nor would I have struggled to answer that question. Until Slovenia.
Technically I went there in 1999. Back then it was just a border stop to pass through on my way from Italy to Croatia, a place to buy cheap cartons of harsh cigarettes. That was the impression given by Croatian companions anyhow. In that memory it is a grungy post-communist sad face. (Shows how little I knew.)
So it’s true. I didn’t know what was leading us there. My dad just picked it. He couldn’t even remember why. He just did. And we could only say, “Why not?” But if you were to ask me now, after 2 weeks relaxing around this diverse micro-Europe, I could give you plenty of reasons Slovenia isn’t only worth it, it deserves a spot at the very top of any Europe-lover’s list. Let me count the ways:
1) All of the Europes in one
“Europe” can mean different things to different people. Usually one has a favorite flavor: the Slavic, Germanic or Mediterranean one. Unless you’re racing through the continent on a whistle-stop tour, it’s pretty impossible to experience all three on one visit. Unless you go to Slovenia.
Even though this gorgeous little country is just the size of Massachusetts, it seems to inhabit the perfect vortex of all three Europes, like a snow globe capturing an entire continent’s landmark charms. In a land that can be driven across in 3-5 hours you’ll find Alpine villages in the NW, Venetian gems on its 27 miles of Mediterranean coastline, and Slavic traditions holding out to the East. Smack in the middle is Ljubljana, where Slovenia’s own architectural genius spruced up the capital of all three with his own brand of classicism.
2) It has an unnatural share of top-shelf attractions.
From one of my favorite castles ever (which both Lonely Planet and Rick Steves shamefully said had little of interest inside: Humph!), to the fresh air of the Julian Alps and the calming Lake Bled, to freakishly blue-green waters, unique prehistoric artifacts, misty-hilled vineyards, outstanding cave systems (one is deservedly a UNESCO World Heritage site), and its own piece of Adriatic coast…it’s downright weird how much variety is packed into so little square mileage.
3) Yet, it’s relatively “undiscovered”.
While I kind of hate that travel concept – “undiscovered” – because it often smacks of narcissism, it certainly does well to describe the feeling of incredulity when self-touring through a country with surprisingly low prices and great infrastructure, yet few crowds or traffic. Which leads me to reasons 4-6…
4) It’s inexpensive.
I can’t remember the last time I saw some of (what I considered) the best sites in Europe, to the tune of 35E ($43) per night accommodation with breakfast and 1,60E ($2) cappuccinos. (Never?) In fact, we made a game of finding the most expensive coffee we could, our version of the BigMac index. After splurging on 8E ($10) coffees in Venice, it was such a thrill to hit the price ceiling at 2E ($2.50); that honor belongs to the rooftop cafe of Ljubljana’s landmark “skyscraper” Neboticnik. Neither the riverfront cafes along the Ljubljanica nor the seaside views from the coast matched that modest price apex. Across the country, few entry prices approached (what I would consider) the quality of their attractions, and we only stumbled upon one “tourist trap” (and a lot of people would disagree with me on that one).
5) It’s uncrowded…
Slovenian roads are well-maintained yet blissfully quiet; I have never known driving in a foreign country to be such a relaxing affair. Other drivers are polite, full stop. They might pass when you’re slow on the thrilling hairpins, but rarely with an air of impatience. I got tailgated perhaps once.
6) …and friendly.
Slovenians are so graciously pleasant and helpful, one is tempted to suspect they just haven’t had enough tourists to find them annoying yet. Barring two random moments of petty rudeness (and really, that’s an amazing statistic, no?) I wanted to hug every Slovenian I met, so lovely they were. Once or twice we practically begged someone to stop trying to help us, we felt we were being such an inconvenience. But in each case they persisted as if it were a point of pride, until succeeding with a smile and more contacts for our onward journey.
These elements combine into nothing short of a truly rare charm – one strong enough to have sold this girl’s father on a retirement fantasy. I’ll be mad at the country if they tempt him 5 hours in the opposite direction from me, but at least it’ll be a joy to visit.