Slovenia surprised me in more ways than I expected. Whether it was strolling through the glacial landscapes by Lake Bohinj, or visiting the world’s only underground post office in the Postojna Caves or sitting at dusk in the courtyard of a monastery by the Adriatic Sea as a violinist started to play, this country was a hidden gem for me.
After being dropped off at a lonely bus stop by the side of the road in the middle of Slovenia’s Alpine countryside, I had a 90 minute walk to get to this beautiful lake. Lake Bohinj is perhaps the lesser known cousin of Slovenia’s famed and touristy Lake Bled. It’s certainly not as glamorous, but is quietly charming in its own way. With much fewer people around (mainly locals when I visited), I’m not sure why more visitors don’t come to see this majestic blue-green beauty. It has a convenient walking trail along the edge, so I went for a long stroll at sunset. The Bohinj area is a glacial landscape (there used to be a glacier here several thousand years ago), so all of the scenery – from the bus stop to my homestay to the lake was like walking through a travel magazine. Something in my gut told me that Slovenia would be a country that would have a special place in my heart. And I was right.
Who said there can’t be beaches by lakes?
After a restful night’s sleep and armed with a backpack of food from a shop in the neighbouring village, I set off on a 12km morning walk around the calm Lake Bohinj. There were small but surprisingly decent lake beaches towards the northern end. Most of them were pretty empty in the morning apart from a man watching his labrador playfully bounding in the lake (these dogs clearly love the water).
Lake Bohinj is inside the sweeping Triglav National Park, home to the country’s highest mountain – Mt Triglav. In early times, it was believed a three-headed deity ruling the sky, earth and underworld, lived here. And so this mountain has been closely tied to Slovenia’s national identity. In the 19th century, while Slovenia was ruled by the Habsburg Empire, climbing Triglav became almost a once-per-lifetime pilgrimage to confirm one’s ethnic identity – a tradition that still remains today.
Savica Waterfall | Slap Savica
Deciding to venture a further 2.5km from Lake Bohinj, I went in search of the hidden Savica Waterfall, nestled in the rocky peaks of the Alps.
Interestingly, for quite a significant portion of its path, the water flows unknown to observers, underground. Given the limestone rock is very porous, over time the water has found its way inside the rock. It has forged its own tunnels within the limestone, leading to the creation of different underground lakes that can be up to 40 m long. The water then bursts out at different levels rather mysteriously through fault lines in the middle of an otherwise blank vertical rock face over 70 m high. It drops in two stages before entering the jewel green plunge pool below. I could begin to understand why these falls inspired Slovenia’s greatest poet, France Prešeren, who wrote an epic about a hero who decides to get baptised under the waterfall in order to be with his true love.
#AdminTips: Entry Fee is €3 for adults. It’s a 2-2.5hr hike from the Lake Bohinj and is open from 8AM-5PM Directions: https://www.altitude-activities.com/how-to-get-to-savica-waterfall
Ljubljana is the nation’s main transport interchange. The easiest way I found was to get a bus from Ljubljana to Ribcev Lav via Bled and Bohinjska Bistrica. Alpetour is the major bus operator for this region. Journey time: approximately 2 hours. Price: €9.80. Frequency: Up to 9x daily. When I went past Lake Bled, I could see how busy indeed this area was, with lots of hostels and backpackers pouring into al fresco cafes and bars. Majority of the people on the bus got out at Bled; few remained to go onwards to Lake Bohinj (I jumped off at a little bus stop called Bitnje and walked from there).
Slovenian Karst – Postojna Caves
I learnt about porous limestone in high school geography lessons. But I never associated them with magic and intrigue. All that changed when I explored the Karst region in Slovenia. Rivers suddenly disappear in the limestone plateau into subterranean tunnels and then resurface unexpectedly later down the line. This leads to marvels like the underground Postojna Caves.
I stared incredulously at the train waiting at the entrance to take us deeper into the cave complex. Given this karst cave is one of the world’s largest, you need a train to ferry you from one part to another – it’s the only cave in the world with a train inside it. Strangely enough all of this was discovered relatively recently with the inner parts of the cave explored only in 1818.
The darkness is broken by warm pools of light that reveal an otherworldly landscape of giant stalactites and stalagmites. The pin-drop silence is broken by the gentle patter of water droplets falling from the ceiling into pools on the cave floor. The minerals mixed with the water have resulted in cave formations in an array of colours – from red and black to brilliant white. The healing air filling the complex has a humidity of over 90% and is said to help with respiratory ailments. Walking through these caves, halls and passages (some which extend over 20km) was like entering an alien universe. One that was 2 million years old, carved by the Pivka River, with each formation created over several decades.
The surprises didn’t end there. Deep underground, life exists in these caves in the form of cave beetles and blind, pale creatures called olms – aquatic salamanders. Being blind and able to survive for a decade without food, they’re well adapted to life in complete darkness. What struck me most was their life span mirrored humans in an uncanny way – they take 18 years to mature, on average live up to 70, and some even reach a 100 years. Sound familiar?
If someone says underground cave, my mental framework immediately assumes several tens or maybe hundreds of people being able to fit inside simultaneously. But Postojna likes to break all notions. There is a 3000 square metre concert hall (the figure isn’t a typo) which has had concerts since 1927. From operas to Christmas concerts and wedding ceremonies, up to 10,000 people have gathered together in this hall.
An underground post office? No joke, it exists and the only one of its kind is here. Having opened in 1899, it was primarily established for cave visitors and guests at special cave events in the Dance Hall to document their time here. The 19th century equivalent to an Instagram selfie.
Admission fee: €25, you have to go on a guided tour, which is hourly (in English) from 0900-1700. You can skip the queue by buying your ticket online and collecting it at the entrance. It gets cold when you go underground, so wear a warm sweater (temperatures are between 8-10 C) and comfortable shoes. Visitors see 5km in 90 min tours, where an electric train covers part of the distance.
From Piran, there are about 4 daily buses; tickets are €8.30 if bought on the bus, and it takes just under 2 hours. From the capital, Ljubljana – buses run hourly, cost approximately €6.80 and take about an hour to reach. If taking a bus, choose the ones that stop directly outside the cave instead of the ones that go to Postojna town (to avoid a 20 minute walk). From Ljubljana there is also a 60 minute train that runs about 20 times daily, and costs €5.80. In July and August a free shuttle bus connects the train station to the cave (as of Sept 2019).
NOTE: Buses don’t always run on time, a 5-15 min delay could be considered normal. Also, rain and other events could result in 30-45 min delay to bus timings (as was the case for me when I got caught in a downpour). There are no announcements or boards – just be vigilant and keep looking for the right bus to arrive!
Love Venice? Piran might just steal your heart
Atmospheric alleyways, a treasure trove of Venetian Gothic architecture; the smell of fresh calamari grilled with garlic, warm rays of the Mediterranean sun and the refreshing breeze of the sea. Despite having just 47km of coastline, my fondest memories in Slovenia were by the Adriatic Sea, in the well-preserved town of Piran. Since I arrived in mid-Sept, I had mercifully skipped the tourist high season when the towns supposedly heave with visitors. What luck.
In contrast to Lake Bohinj, more of Italy is woven into the fabric of Piran (not least because the Italian border is less than an hour away). A lot of its Italian influence stems from when it was part of the Venetian republic for almost 500 years (13th-18th century) and then again when it was handed over to Italy after WWI for several decades. While most Italians emigrated at the time it was integrated into Yugoslavia, the town retained a lot of its Italian heritage. Piran is bilingual and within moments of getting there, you can feel how its Italian past is a core part of its present fabric – most signs for example are both in Slovenian and Italian. It’s also known for having a very relaxed air – for being easygoing and tolerant; with the famous Italian phrase “lassa pur dir” (let them talk) being etched in the city’s history.
On open-air music concerts in monasteries at dusk
On my first evening, I ambled through the alleyways in Piran to get a sense of the atmosphere of this charming town. Walking along the old town walls in the evening when sunlight and shadows form beautiful shapes was probably one of my most memorable moments. Around a corner was the Minorite Monastery – since the doors were open, I walked in.
As luck would have it, I was visiting at the tail end of the Tartini Festival (Aug-Sept), a month-long classical music festival that takes place in venues across town, including the courtyard of the monastery I had just walked into. With tickets at a reasonable €15, I raced to purchase one. Dedicated to the local maestro Giuseppe Tartini, the 90 minute open-air concert I went to was at dusk. While the sound quality may have been better in a hall, sitting in the cloisters seeing the sky change from a brilliant pink to moonlit darkness and feeling the refreshing ocean breeze brush past our faces, made the warm harmonies of the violin and harpsichord feel that much more special.
Calamari and tiramisu? Tell me where.
I was orienting myself in the glorious Trg 1 Maja – the previous centre of town, once called the Old Square. Looking around at the numerous alleyways and side streets radiating from it with tall pastel-coloured gothic buildings and their large windows, I could definitely see why people would describe Piran as the perfect antidote to Venice. At the same time, I spied Cantina Klat. A no-nonsense, hole-in-the-wall eatery under a grapevine canopy, with its windows open and the aroma of grilled seafood wafting my way. With generously-sized mains being approximately €10-12, it is great value. My plate of grilled calamari with polenta (€10.80) was so good that I ended eating there four times during my stay. The menu is written on a blackboard displayed next to the self-service window. You know your dish is ready when the bell clangs and a wooden fish with your number dangles on a rope near the window – by which time you’ve already been salivating for a good five minutes at the sight and smell of other dishes that the people around you have been eating.
Labi’s Cafe was a cafe by the seafront where a large cappuccino and tiramisu knock you back €1.8 and €2.5 respectively. With friendly servers who don’t mind you sitting al fresco, sipping a coffee and reading for hours at sunset, it’s a cozy spot to give your wandering feet a brief respite.
“Every year the armed forces go on a roadshow to most of the main cities in Slovenia,” Captain Robert tells me (he’s in charge of recruitment). They do it to interact with the public, especially school children, display what equipment the army has and generally show the personable side of the country’s armed forces. Anyone and everyone (including curious visitors like myself) can come, ask questions and see how their weapons work. Slovenia’s army is just shy of 10,000 and has troops currently positioned in Lebanon, Kosovo and Afghanistan (Captain Robert served a stint in Kosovo).
I took the opportunity to jump onboard a small navy ship called ‘Browning’ where Officer Lauris showed me their new Belgian automatic gun. Perhaps my experience as a child, growing up in the midst of a civil war in Sri Lanka, lead me to believe that any dealing with the armed forces involved maintaining distance, not speaking unless spoken to, and perhaps even being slightly scared. I was mentally re-writing my old preconceptions by interacting with the extremely friendly, patient Slovenian army officers who were eager to explain what they did and answer all our questions.
Perching for sunset
Having grown up on an island, nothing makes me feel more at peace than watching sunsets by the sea in solitude. It was almost as if Piran, with its ideal location at the edge of the Istrian peninsula, knew this. I found myself finishing my evening passeggiata (stroll) by walking up the cobbled street to the hilltop Cathedral of St George every evening while I was there. To stare through the metal grille inside the baroque cathedral with its iconic bell tower; to watch the rays of the setting sun bathing the town in gold; to witness the sky transform from orange to rose, and to be enchanted by lightening bolts illuminating the sky one night.
Lake Bohinj to Piran: I walked 1h15 min to Bohinjska Bistrika bus station with the aim of leaving at 06:15 in the morning. The most convenient route is to actually backtrack to Ljubljana and connect onto another bus there. Buses leave more or less hourly at 55 past, so I got the 07:55 bus which got into Ljubljana 2 hours later. From Ljubljana to Piran / Portoroz, there are about 6 buses daily, with most departures happening earlier in the day (journey time of 2-3hrs). I found the bus website to be excellent – easy to navigate and had all the required information.
Piran to Ljubljana: A bus runs roughly 3 times daily to Ljubljana via Postojna, taking just 2.5-3 hours, with a reduced service over the weekend.
I found Piran quite expensive since I was booking last minute (unless I chose a hostel). So I opted instead to stay in the neighbouring town of Portoroz. In some ways, it reminded me of (a much cheaper) Monaco – with its swish beach resort, swanky hotels, casinos and yachts, devoid of charm or character. It’s a great option though if Piran is full or too expensive, being only a 30 min walk / short bus ride away.