Europe Travel

Slovenia: Europe’s hidden gem

Lake Bled at twilight. Credit: Edwardwexler

This is the ultimate Never Judge a Book by its Cover travel tale.

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The setting is August 2014, in a pokey old-school train carriage from Salzburg, Austria to Ljubljana, Slovenia.

My friend Molly and I were almost a week in to a 14 day inter-railing trip around Eastern Europe, and Slovenia was on the list purely because Molly had read a novel set in its capital, which stuck in her mind.

As we pulled into the grey, graffiti-ridden station surrounded by miserable looking tower blocks, which didn’t look too dissimilar to that of my home town which I had left a week earlier, we had doubts.

A friendly Italian lady in our carriage screwed her face up when she realised this was our stop and made broken expressions as to why we should just continue on to Croatia with her. Croatia, with its sun-soaked beaches and exciting islands to explore, was a tempting choice next to the grim-looking concrete jungle that stood before us from the train window.

In the seconds before the doors closed, we decided to give the city a chance, with the firm possibility of returning to the station and hopping on the next train to Croatia firmly in our minds. Polluted, littered streets, towering vandalised billboards and grey skies to match the grey buildings adorned the walk from the station to our hostel, a school which was converted into a backpackers’ for the summer season.

Add to that the decapitated pigeon that lay on the ground by the entrance, and it’s safe to say we assumed our time in Ljubljana numbered.

I’ve always tried to live by the age old phrase ‘Never Judge a Book by its Cover’, but the turn-around from the girl who stood before this poor headless bird and the girl who left Slovenia having had two days in what would become her favourite place in Europe, is concrete proof that this saying could not be more true.

After checking in to what was quite a cool school-turned-hostel, we made what would be the best decision of the trip and decided to have a wander and give the city a chance.

After dinner and a few drinks on the grey but warm Friday afternoon, we were beginning to realise that the centre of the city itself was pretty cool – a hub of culture, pretty buildings and bridges with a lively square filled with music and buzzing bars, cafes and restaurants.

As we explored the streets, we were drawn into a tour operator who was offering a white water rafting trip up in the mountains the next day. As backpackers on a budget, we found it pricey but booked in anyway as we hadn’t really ‘splurged’ on anything yet and were yearning for a bit of adventure.

Ljubljana's Franciscan Church of the Annunciation or 'the pink church' by night. Credit: Adbar

Ljubljana’s Franciscan Church of the Annunciation or ‘the pink church’ by night. Credit: Adbar

The trip would commence at 6am at the pink church the next morning, and as it was nearing 11pm we headed back to bed down.

As we walked towards the pink church in the heart of the city on what was yet again a warm but grey, drizzly day the next morning, we found ourselves the subjects of a Stranger Danger story. A young looking guy in a tracksuit, who we later learned was our tour guide Nik, pulled up alongside us in a flash looking car to ask us if we were part of the tour.

We were expecting the standard clapped out looking tour bus full of fellow trip goers waiting at the pink church, so we were wary, and knowing that we could quite possibly end up on the news, we jumped in anyway to pick up our third and final rafting buddy, an Australian called Henry.

Molly, Henners and I ready to raft.

Molly, Henners and I ready to raft.

The weather was miserable as Nik maneuvered our car onto a car train, which took us on the most beautiful journey through forest-covered hills to Bled. Once off the other side, we ventured up in to the Julian Alps and around Triglav National Park, passing key tourist destination Lake Bled, to the Soca River for rafting.

Honestly, I never had any huge sense of adventure until I did this trip – I really got bit by the bug while rafting. The moody weather just added to the atmosphere as we traversed across the gushing river around corners and through rocks with our guide, Alan.

Surrounded by a majestic setting of crystal waters, lush greenery, towering mountains and low hanging clouds and mist made me feel like I was rafting through a fairy tale, it was that beautiful and so much fun.

Sadly, the rain, alongside Molly’s car sickness, did hinder the rest of our tour further up in to the winding alps. Nik did his best to assure us that there was much more to the trip had the rain not been so heavy, taking us to the spots that he was able to safely take us to, snapping photos of us standing on many a bridge.

One of our many bridge visits, tiredness taking hold (as you can see in our eyes!)

One of our many bridge visits, tiredness taking hold (as you can see in our eyes!)

After a trip to the toilet for car-sick Molly and more bridges than we could handle, we headed to a cute little cafe by the side of Lake Bled to enjoy a much-needed coffee and a famous Bled cream cake.

It was a ten out of ten day despite the weather, but I imagine it’s extra special with blue skies and sun; something which I plan to put to the test in the future.

A quick nap back at our school hostel, a make-up touch up and a €3.50 bottle of red wine later and we were ready to meet Australian Henners again to see what Slovenia had to offer in terms of nightlife, which it turns out is just as much as it has to offer in scenery.

We were taken up by street escalator to a large club with fairly cheap drinks, a massive unisex bathroom, rooftop gardens, bikini-clad women dancing on the bars and great music. It was an awesome end to a short but sweet time in the country and I recommend it to anyone.

Almost three years later and many more countries traveled, it’s remained the top of my list ever since.

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