"Ljubljana? Where is this place?" The immigration officer at New Delhi airport holds up my Turkish Airlines Boarding Pass and his counterpart across the partition. He gets no reply, most likely because the other officer doesn't want to admit he was equally clueless. While I wait, I helpfully open a political map of Europe on my phone and and pointed out Slovenia -- which lies across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, wedged between Austria and Croatia -- to the puzzled officer. Ljubljana (pronounced "Lubliana") is the Capital."Turkish Airlines flies to really strange places!" he grunts in acknowledgment. Next, he looks at me a bit doubtfully. "Madam, it a very small country. What will you do there for one whole week?"
The question made me a bit nervous because I knew little about the country other than what I'd read in tourist brochures. But at the end of my week in Slovenia, I found I'd run out of time but not out of things to do.
There's something for everyone in Slovenia, which has made it among the fastest-growing tourist destination in Europe. This little part of former Yugoslavia is among the greenest country in the world, with almost 60% of the country being under protected forest cover.
In the north border Austria are alpine lakes and ski-slopes, the east has natural hot-water springs with medicinal waters that have made Slovenia a spa destination, and the South has UNESCO-protected mysterious underground caverns with stalagmites and stalagmites that change shape and colour at every turn, and the west has the deep blue Adriatic Sea.
What's astounding is that everything is less than two hours away, and if you base yourself in Ljubljana, in the heart of Slovenia, you're an hour away from the snow, sand and thermal springs.
Ljubljana, with it's historic churches, charming plazas, medieval bridges, contemporary museums, packed nightclubs, Mechilin-star restaurants and street cafés on creative offers you the best of Europe at half the cost. The Ljubljanica river meanders through the picturesque old city centre, which is overlooked by a hilltop castle with a funicular.
The architecture is a mix of styles with the country's communist past, with its severe minimalistic architecture, sits comfortably with the gothic churches and Baroque and Art Nouveau mansions. While the oldest remains date back to Roman times, the old city is defined by its Baroque architecture that was used when major earthquake destroyed most of it in1511, and its Vienna Secession style, which was used after another major quake in 1895. In the late 20th century, parts of Ljubljana were redesigned by architect Edvard Ravnikar.
A city within the city is Metelkova Mesto, which is the alternative culture hub in the centre of Ljubljana with several clubs, live music spaces, artists' studios and galleries. This self-declared 'Autonomous Culture Zone' consists of seven buildings that were part of army barracks, which include a former prison (now Celica Hostel). Commune residents take their role as planners of the city's social and cultural activities very seriously, so though Metelkova appears somnolent during the day, it transforms into Ljubljana's best after-dark destination for those who want to party.
Postojna Caves and Predjama Castle
Postojna Caves is a network of 20 kilometres of underground passages, galleries and chambers with calcite formations, stalactites and stalagmites abounding in a variety of shapes and colours. It the world's largest "classic karst" cave system -- area of irregular limestone fissures, sinkholes, underground streams, and caverns -- and the most visited in Europe.
An open train weaving through the breathtaking underground netherworld takes you to the main chambers, where you're left to wander through tunnels across caverns, gorges and steams. The temperature inside the caves ranges from 8 to 10° C through the year, so dress warm. The visit lasts an hour and a half to two hours, depending on how many places you choose to stop.
Predjama Castle is the original Eagle's Nest castle, sitting perched high up in a vertical cliff, 9 km from the Postojna Caves. This picturesque and impregnable castle has been perched at the top of a 123-metre high cliff for more than 700 years next to the River Lokva, which mysteriously disappears underground deep down below the castle.
The castle was home to the knight Erazem of Predjama, who rebelled against the king in the 15th century and withstood years of siege by sneaking in food and supplies into the castle through a secret passage that opened at the top of the mountain. Predjama Castle fell after he was betrayed by his servant and killed in his toilet! Wildlife fans can visit the batcave under the castle from May to September.
The fairytale alpine town of Bled on the shore of a glacial lake with crystal blue-green water is Slovenia's second-most popular destination after Postojna Caves. You can take a walk around it's shore -- it's circumference is 6 km and it roughly takes a an hour -- go rowing, diving or swimming in summer. Mild thermal springs warm the water to a swimmable 26° C from June through August.
The most recognisable symbol of the lake is the little island in its centre with a church and belltower. The Church of the Assumption replaced a temple of ŽIva, the ancient Slavic goddess of love, after the local population converted from paganism to Christianity in 745 CE. The church gained its present Baroque appearance in the middle of the 17th century after the building of the Chapel of Virgin Mary with a staircase of the 99 stone steps leading up to it. Keeping up with tradition, grooms still carry their brides all the way up the 99 steps to get married in the island church!
Piran and Portoroz
Gourmands insist on nothing less that Piran salt, produced at the longest-functioning, artisan saltpans on the Adriatic in Europe, but a visit to the city from where the salt gets its name transports you to the sunny Mediterranean in less than one hour from alpine Bled. With a distinct architectural style tied to its Venetian history, Piran is a city of medieval streets that lead to a church and bell tower with sweeping views of the town and clear blue sea. This is where Slav and the Roman worlds meet, with the official languages being Slovene and Italian. On a clear day, you can see Venice in the west, snowy Alps in the north and from some places, Croatian Istria.
Piran and Portorož are situated between the sea and two nature parks, the Secovlje Salina Nature Park and Strunjan Nature Park. Up on the high hills of the hinterland, there are several picturesque villages that are known for their cold-pressed extravirgin olive oil and organic honey.
Portorož is closely connected to the saltpans and their natural elements—salt, brine, and fango mud—that turned this town with thermal springs into a healing hub in the 19th century. Apart from its spas and resorts, the city hosts Internautica, an international boat show every May, and the annual Festival of Slovenian Film (Festival Slovenskega Filma ) that gives the Vesna awards for achievements in Slovenian cinematography.
There are no direct flights from India to Slovenia, but there are flights to Ljubljana from all major cities in Europe.