My final stop in the Balkans was Slovenia, the economic powerhouse of the former Yugoslavia and a charming country resembling Austria and Switzerland. In fact, I couldn’t really see how it fit with countries like Bosnia & Herzegovina or Macedonia – it was like chalk and cheese.
I arrived on Ljubliana station around 8am after a long night on a train from Split in Croatia. The weather was perfect and I was met with Austrian accordion music as I walked onto the town square. Around me the locals were drinking coffee at the various cafés littering the old town. The place had a sort of charm that is difficult to put in words.
Ljubliana is a tiny place and you can easily walk from one side to the other in around 15 minutes. Other than a castle perched on a hill, it is also not exactly packed with attractions, so the best thing to do is to walk around the old city, stopping occasionally for a coffee at one of the many cafés. There is plenty of interesting architecture to admire too:
The following day I headed off to the tiny town of Idrija, in the Northwest corner of the country. Idrija is best known for its Mercury mine, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the historical lace industry. Idrija’s mercury mine is the second oldest in the world, first opened in 1508. Over an eighth of all the mercury ever mined originated from these shafts.
I did a 2 hour tour inside the mine, which was pretty interesting. We also got to see liquid mercury pouring out of the rock face underground, as well as holding a plastic container in which a lead ball floated on 1 kg of liquid mercury (mercury is denser than lead and is the only metal with a melting point below room temperature).
Aside from mercury, Idrija is also known for its lace. While their husbands were sweating in the mines below ground, the wives were supplementing their very modest family incomes by making lace. Idrija is best know for its ribbon lace, a particular type of design characterised by a flowing continuous band encompassing the work. When Slovenia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the designs comprised of very chunky, broad bands, often in the shape of household objects, like fruit baskets or flowers. Later, when Slovenia was partially Italian, the designs became much more detailed and intricate, with fine, narrow bands such as the photo below. I found it very interesting how all-encompassing such colonisations can be.
I booked a room in a city centre apartment with AirBnB. My host turned out to be the local museum curator, Urban. This was incredibly fortunate, because Urban is a super passionate and knowledgeable guy when it comes to his town. I ended up getting a personal tour of the entire museum, the large water wheel, the smeltery, a traditional miner’s house, and a machine workshop, all dotted across different areas of the town.
At around 5pm Urban suggested that we take a 3km walk along the canal (serving the old water wheel) to a dam. Given that I had nothing better to do, and fancied a hike, I agreed. It ended up being the highlight of the day! The canal weaves through the alps, through dense forests, with small waterfalls trickling on all sides. About 100 metres, down to one side, the Idrica River can be seen gushing down the valley.
At one point we briefly left the canal track and walked onto a wooden bridge over the river. Urban is a keen angler and likes to do some fly fishing for the world famous trout that live in the river. We were looking for fish, which were supposed to be coming out in the dusk to feed on insects, but instead we gazed into a thick band of mist forming on the water. It was absolutely beautiful, almost Lord of the Rings-esque!
When we got to the end of the canal, we again crossed the river to hike to a nearby mountain spring. The region is similar to Phong Nha in Vietnam in that it is covered in caves and of karst geological features. One of these are the huge springs where underground rivers surface. The colour of this spring can vary from bright blue to brown, depending on the sunlight and prior rainfall. It is very impressive! Unfortunately the weather was awful and I was unable to take photos, so you will just have to go and see for yourself.
On the way back home we climbed up the surrounding valley to see an old Italian military bunker. The bunker was one of three huge bunkers guarding the valley, which is the only way of passing through the city into southern Slovenia. This part of the country was annexed by the Italians before the Second World War. There is a whole section of the museum dedicated to the years when Idrija was a city in Italy, and it was interesting to see that the locals were only allowed to speak Italian!
Next I was off to the infamous Lake Bled…
I spent four days in Bohinska Bela, a tiny town just outside Bled. The place looks exactly like Austria! I went hiking and swimming every day, enjoying the beautiful weather. There is a small island in the middle of the lake and many people rent rowing boats to visit the church. I decided to opt for the scuba diving option instead, given that the lake water is incredibly clear, with around 6m visibility (which is a lot compared to UK inland sites, I assure you…it is more like 1m in Wraysbury Lake close to Heathrow).
The Slovenians are also known for their fantastic cured meat – Pršut, in particular. As the name would suggest, it is very similar to Italian prosciutto, but I think the Slovenian version has the edge. It goes perfectly with a warm fresh roll and some cold mild cheese, all served with a strong cappuccino. This is what I often had for breakfast, sitting next to the lake and watching the people peeling out from their hotels to soak up the late summer sun.
Overall I thought Slovenia was a truly beautiful country, with great architecture, food, hiking, cycling, swimming, etc. The people are incredibly friendly (much more so than in the rest of the Balkans, where I often found them to be downright rude – particularly in the hospitality industry). The trains and buses are brand new and run regularly and on time. Culturally, musically and architecturally it felt like I was in Austria. It still didn’t quite have the spice of Bosnia & Herzegovina or Montenegro, but it was very pleasant.