Although Boris Johnson is famously prone to blunders, it seems even he had the wit to know where he was last week, having popped to a remote valley in northern Slovenia for a belated honeymoon with his wife Carrie.
No great achievement for a head of government to know his basic geography, you’d think? But that hasn’t always been the case when it comes to this small Central European country, tucked between the Balkans, the Med and the Alps. Slovenia became independent from Yugoslavia in 1991 but, in the past, both Silvio Berlusconi and George W Bush managed to confuse it with its near-namesake, Slovakia. Even by 1998, Slovenia was welcoming fewer than a million tourists a year. It wasn’t really on anyone’s map.
However, somewhere along the line, things changed. Slovenia has emerged from relative travel obscurity to become an offbeat holiday favourite. In 2019, the last year of normal travel, over six million people visited. Quite the leap for a country of only 2.1 million, roughly the size of Wales, around 70 per cent hills and mountains, and 60 per cent cloaked in trees, with only a smidgen of coastline to its name.
As it turns out, I visited Slovenia long before it was cool. A family holiday to Yugoslavia in the Eighties was, poring over maps again now, somewhere on the north Croatian coast. I was maybe eight, with no care for where I was, just that the sea was cool and blue and the ice cream forthcoming. But, actually, my strongest memories of that trip are from a coach excursion we took one day, away from the beach and into an astonishing – nay, fairytale – land somewhere beyond.
On that long, hot trip my young mind was blown by a tower-topped island fit for a princess, floating in an emerald lake; by blind salamanders – so weirdly pinkish-translucent you could see their insides – that lived in caves so big you could explore them by train; by mousy-brown horses that were able to mutate into dashing white steeds and essentially learn to dance. We had, in fact, hopped over the border into what would become Slovenia and I’d been entranced by Lake Bled, Postojna’s caves and the stud farms of Lipica. I just didn’t know it.
Coming of age
But now everyone has cottoned on to the magic that lies here. Because Slovenia, now in its early 30s, has definitely come of age. It has matured into a destination that’s managed to stir together its diverse heritage – part Italian chic, Balkan backstories, Hungarian flavours, Austrian Gemütlichkeit, free-flowing schnapps and giddy polka – but create something definitively Slovene. There’s pride in the mix of influences but there’s also a celebration of very homegrown heroes: for instance the architect Jože Plečnik, whose thumbprint is all over Ljubljana and whose 150th birthday is being celebrated this year, and Anton Janša, the godfather of modern beekeeping.
That’s the vibe. But perhaps more obviously appealing to tourists when they finally realise it is that Slovenia offers a little bit of everything that’s enticing about Europe, in a wonderfully compact package.
The coast, though just 29 miles long, is charming. Here you’ll find the Venetian panache of Piran, the traditional fishing hub of Izola, the lush, protected landscapes of the Ankaran peninsula and plenty of tavernas serving up the freshest seafood and fine Slovenia wines. Yes, wines – because move inland a little and you’re in one the country’s main wine-growing regions (there are more further east), where previously overlooked vineyards are garnering increasing attention.
Then, before long, you’re among the most spectacular mountains: the Julian Alps, the Kamik and Savinja Alps, the Karavanke Alps… Alps everywhere, rendered wonderfully accessible thanks to thousands of miles of well-marked trails, a rich mountaineering heritage and a general national love of the outdoors. Even if you’re not feeling especially energetic, a short walk to a mountain hut for a dish of something hearty and a shot of schnapps (no matter how early the hour) will make you feel like a de facto Slovene.
The comely capital
Ljubljana, the country’s comely capital, ticks plenty of city break boxes too. It’s just the right size for easy wandering, with a pretty river slicing through it and cafes over-spilling onto pedestrianised streets. There’s a potted greatest hits of continental architectural styles: a hilltop castle, a medieval and baroque Old Town, Italianate flourishes, Secessionist elegance, Socialist reminders.
It’s also appealingly eco: named Europe’s Green Capital in 2016, it offers free public transport, car-less streets and enormous amounts of green space. Indeed, this eco-ethos applies countrywide. The Green Destinations international organisation declared Slovenia the first green country in the world, and over 100 destinations, accommodation providers, natural parks and attractions here are signed up to the Green Scheme of Slovenian Tourism. As travellers increasingly look to make more mindful, sustainable choices, Slovenia is making it easy for them – and might explain why eco-minded Carrie was so keen to visit.
When I finally returned to Slovenia a few years ago – this time knowing exactly where I was – it was this greenness that initially drew me. I wanted to walk in the forested hills and alongside the emerald-hued Soca River, and I was keen to stay in the then newly opened Vila Planinka eco-resort (which I did, well before Boris and Carrie turned up). But exploring from the Julian Alps to the Prekmurje plains, I found a whole lot more.
I discovered formal spa resorts that were once beloved by the Habsburgs rubbing up next to state-of-the-art wellness retreats. I explored remnants of past conflicts that have been sensitively turned into outdoor museums, now explorable by app. I gobbled up deer stews and traditional štruklji dumplings but also exquisite Michelin-starred cuisine at Hiša Franko (currently ranked number 21 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list). Essentially, I found a confident nation keen to safeguard its natural good looks and focus on its future while remaining fiercely proud of its past. I found a nation that couldn’t be anywhere else.
How to do it
Flights from £49 return, departing London Gatwick Oct 18 to Ljubljana Oct 24 with easyJet.com.