The Fernweh-farer: Escape from Ljubljana
Along with a handful of other Eastern European cities, Ljubljana is in the midst of discovery. The modest capital of Slovenia likely shutters at the regularity with which it has arrived on various “hidden gems” lists. One only assumes this divides a local populace into a group eager for increasing opportunity and those concerned citizens with the unavoidable cultural encroachment. Early returns indicate the city is doing a commendable job maintaining equilibrium.
I arrived in Ljubljana on Easter weekend and the city seemed barely stirred from slumber. Unbeknownst to me, several European cities observe the holiday into the ensuing Monday. This robbed me of my usual plan of action once I get settled in - specifically, rambling to the nearest grocer or market to pick up basic provisions for the days ahead. And by provisions, I mean local cheese, meats, bread and a bottle of local wine (or with southeast Asia, “local” Italian wine).
Local markets generally provide a snapshot of a new location that I find precious. First, one can instantly discern the monetary cost of the city. The more you travel, the better you learn what staples to look for on shelves for comparison’s sake. Second, shoppers are often in what I call “legitimate local’s mode” while shopping for groceries. They have a mission to carry out, you have a mission to carry out, we are all in this collectively and the same general customs of etiquette and behavior apply in grocers regardless of country. This immediately injects one into the new environment and forces instant interaction.
So it compelled me to get creative from the outset. After all, I would not make do on the apple and granola bar I pilfered from the airport lounge I detoured into upon landing at Ljubljana‘s airport. Pro tip, if you have airport lounge access, always check their policy for arrival entry. Many allow it and it is an effective way to tuck away a few snacks in your bag for what is often a lengthy trip into your ultimate destination via public transport or ride share.
With some scavenged together goods and a bottle of local wine from my courteous Airbnb host, I was ready to embark on an exploration of this capital city of approximately 275,000 inhabitants. The footprint is small by European standards, or at least it appeared that way. As my host was leaving after checking me in, she casually commented, “I will see you this week.”
When I responded that I was quite self-sufficient and would not require checking up on or cleaning, she clarified, “Ljubljana is small. We’ll see each other out and about most likely.” She was correct. In the four days I spent exploring the city on foot, we crossed paths on two occasions.
Ljubljana came out from under Soviet rule and the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991. However, unlike a few other post-Soviet countries, Ljubljana does not display the same level of residual grit and well-worn grime left behind by the combination of conflict and economic depression. Instead, one encounters an idealized medieval setting that can be both charming and occasionally smacking of contrived fairytale.
As I steered around the spotless cobblestone streets framed by pristinely clean walls bare of amateur art or soot, I continued wondering if these were just Hollywood production facades empty of any actual construction on the backside and braced by wooden panels.
To be sure, this is not the case. The city has a decidedly authentic past earned through struggle. Still, you cannot visit without a sense that the entire city receives a pressure washing each night while locals and visitors alike peacefully dream of which world-class gelato shop they will haunt the coming day. Pro tip, try them all (why not, right?) but the standard bearer is Vigo in the center of the Old Town square.
After a few dedicated days of aimlessly strolling the city, it was time to explore a little further into what Slovenia offered. Luckily, I made the wise decision to rent a car that would offer somewhat more flexibility. One of the key reasons that I added Slovenia to my itinerary was a day trip to the Julian Alps, and Lake Bled specifically.
From the casual thumbed scrolling social media follower to seasoned travel experts, many are acquainted with the vision of Lake Bled. A perfectly framed island in the midst of a glacial lake provides the setting for a crimson-covered cathedral consecrated to the Assumption of Mary. All sides of the basin and surrounding town of Bled, nestle under snow-capped crests of the jagged Julian Alp range.
I departed while the rest of Ljubljana slept to seize the sunrise. The spot sits roughly thirty miles outside of the capital and is reachable via new highway infrastructure of perfect lane lines and devoid of imperfections, along with any noticeable speed limit signage. Despite the early hour, my rental stayed in the right lane as fellow road warrior flew past me at speeds I could assume approached 90 mph based on my comparative pace.
Fortunately, I was conducting my trip on a weekday morning. I was briefed beforehand that the traffic can back up significantly given the limited valley roads that promote access to the Bled community. The toughest challenge I found was resisting the impulse to frequent every official rest area, or those of my own creative execution, to behold the breathtaking surrounding valleys and hillsides with both my eyes and lens.
A spinning Fräulein Maria would be wholly content in these sprawling meadows of knee-high greenery and pristinely placed dabs of wildflower color.
The sunrise mission pushed me on despite my pangs to flick the right turn blinker repeatedly. As I wound tight twists and gradually climbed altitude, the car navigation voice gave me incremental updates on the time of arrival. The decree “arrived at your destination” preceded my final rounded curve in lockstep.
Laid out before me was a view of the still lake and accompanying island I had virtually visited in so many wanderlust-inspired images. Despite the established room temperature interior of my rental, the bumps that accompany a cold crisp morning were there and sincere.
I drew a lap around the lake to get my bearings. The surrounding road is approximately a four mile loop and, depending on the angle you seek, locating a home base to park can prove demanding. One pass was all I required and I had my post on the southeast border of the lake. One should not overburden themselves with uncovering the perfect parking lot at the perfect price. The prices are rather consistent and, honestly, even a brief walk will manifest itself into a lengthy walk once you trek and wonder to yourself, “does it become even better a little further down the trail?”
I spent hours traversing the lake’s surroundings and realizing what the whimsical little village of Bled offered, and those minutes will remain with me in perpetuity. Breathtaking scenic vistas, foul and wildlife seemingly trained to pose and frame images perfectly, and smiling locals eager to give guidance on the locality and share delicious baked goods to satiate all those steps taken.
Speaking of baked goods, one indigenous to the Bled community could warrant a return ban if left un-sampled: the Bled cream slice. There are a few choices available to try this stacked delicacy but I embraced the long-established lodge confines of Confectionary Zima. Their skilled pastry chefs produce a weighted balance of vanilla and sweet cream sandwiched between a wonderfully crisp puff pastry base and roof. While not the most delicate creation to consume just jump in with certainty and make a mess. Residents reserve all judgment.
Spending a full day at Lake Bled can easily merit a fruitful journey, but I had another stop in the mountains that justified a block of the lingering daylight ahead of me. Just thirty minutes to the west of Bled sits the somehow even more tranquil Lake Bohinj, and it was crying for well-earned recognition.
On its own, the drive warrants the trip between the two. Passing through small communities of resident producers and craftspeople tending to their fields, splitting timber and stacking the results into expertly framed pyramids, or gazing out on the same vistas that had me riveted. I thought, “surely this vista could never yield complacency towards its beauty…right?” The glint in the eyes of locals and the zeal with which they talked of their little carved out part of the globe relieved my concerns that jadedness knows no bounds.
Bohinj capitalizes on the recreational usage of the surrounding peaks and waterways. Competition runs high for kayaking or canoeing on one of the multi-colored vessels that anchor on the still waters like a bundle of Crayola’s on a glass table. In the distance, I watched as paragliders nestled under canopies that gave the crafts on the water a run for their money in terms of vibrancy slowly made their way down the slope. The circumference of the lake served as track for road biking pelotons.
Nearby, a young boy picked up several glossy rounded stones that led to the splashing crest of the waters and wound-up to skip them three to four hops across the top shelf. Barely gathering any moisture until they ultimately settled with a “kerplunk” and gave in to gravity.
I did not wish to leave, but it was necessary. With dusk quickly approaching and the sun rapidly sinking, so were the temperatures I was ill-prepared to weather out. Plus, the rental car was expected back in Ljubljana and I still had about an hour’s drive back to the city. A quick stop at one of the roadside stands I passed on the drive in equipped me with some roasted nuts for the trip. They filled the car with the slightest hint of toasted campfire and that, coupled with the alpenglow of the Julian Alps in my rearview mirror, made for a damn-near-perfect car ride.
Back in the old town of Ljubljana the following day, I reflected on the day before as I pulled up to a booth at Vigo for one final serving of dense, creamy gelato. Although it had been just hours since the excursion, it seemed like ages had passed and nothing Ljubljana could bear that day would live up to the escapism that I knew lay just miles outside the city.
Hence, my one regret about my time in Slovenia. While Ljubljana is a must-see and offers many conveniences that might prove challenging to find in the countryside, I regard it as an excellent home base to explore the beauty of the Slovenian countryside. In hindsight, the car rental and the autonomy it offered should have extended over more days and provided for more time unearthing happy discoveries around hairpin valley turns.
But this is the preeminent beauty of travel. It delivers unique experiences and reward in the moment, while always producing a sip of what new explorations exist and how a fresh approach upon return can generate new wonder. It is what keeps us coming back and keeps us going forward. I will do both