A Life in Travel

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I Feel Slovenia | A Closer Look #009

IMG_063_20181130-201354_1 Kurt and Anne Kutay trekking the Julian Alps of Slovenia.

Slovenia is a must-visit sleeper in a hidden corner of Europe. When Anne and I first traveled there with our friends, wine-experts, and culinary co-trip leaders, David and Ruth Arista, we laughed, hiked, rode bikes, dined, sipped and cried our way through this hidden gem of Central Europe. Straddled between Italy, Croatia, Austria and Hungary, it lies at the intersection of Slavic, German, and Italian influences, sharing the best of these worlds in its own blended culture between the Adriatic coast and Alps of western Europe on the border of the Balkan region and former Yugoslav frontier.

The Julian Alps are as beautiful as their Italian, Austrian and Swiss relatives less the tourists.

Slovenia may compare in size to New Jersey, but what it encompasses in landscapes and beauty is more representative of the continental US and western Europe combined. Our 10-day adventure included hut to hut hikes in the Julian Alps, riding e-bikes on back roads of the Soca River Valley, exploring underground cavernous formations, wine tastings among vineyards, and walks along pristine rivers flowing into picturesque lakes surrounded by medieval towns and castles in the sky. Waterfront promenades on the Adriatic coast of the Istrian peninsula and pedestrian walks along the banks of the Ljubljana River in the capital city are teaming with cafes.

Barrel tasting in the Brda wine region of Slovenia.

Everything we anticipated about the 8-course wine-paired dinner served up by Celebrity Chef Ana Ros was beyond belief. Ana had just been declared the Best Female Chef in the World, and together with her husband Valter they deliver the true terroir of the region through seasonal dishes and Slovenian wines at Hisa Franko Restaurant in their country villa near Kobarid in the fairytale Soca River Valley where Disney filmed part of The Chronicles of Narnia. The small dining room now gets booked up 6-12 months in advance and you can see why when you watch their family story that helped up Slovenia on the map featured on Season 2 Episode 5 of Netflix Chef's Table.

The crystal clear turquoise colored Soca River offers world class trout fishing and beautiful Class III river rafting.

While Ana and Valter rocked it at Hisa Franko, we were delightfully surprised throughout our journey by the vast range of memorable gastronomic experiences including hearty soups, breads and fresh local cheeses in mountain huts and the traditional Slovenian dishes in country restaurants like Gostilna Lector in the village of Radovljica, a 13-15C village old town where owner Jože Andrejaš played harmonica that brought us to tears. 

Hiking among the craggy peaks, pine forest and alpine meadows of the Julian Alps in Triglav National Park, we felt like we were in the Austrian Alps but without the flood of hikers in the more popular northern range, so we designed our new trip Trekking the Julian Alps Hut-to-Hut. Our guide Ursula is definitely one of the 250,000 Slovenians, out of just 2 million inhabitants of the country, who are members of a mountain hiking club. The first day out of the beautiful capital city Ljubjiana it becomes obvious why this is a nation of mountaineers: little more than 30 minutes away from the city is a gondola that whisks you up and away to a scene from the Sound of Music on the alpine plateau of Velika Planina. We hiked around and then warmed up over a hearty lunch in a mountain hut (barley stew with beans), then drove down to our mountain lodge in the Logarska Valley in a Yosemite Valley-like setting. Ruth dined on venison stew served over a croquette of wild mushroom with a Movia red blend from region of Brda. 

Dropping down the western flank of the Julian Alps, the Soca River Valley and wine region of Slovenia takes on the air of the Adriatic and Venetian influences of Italy on its northern border. Italian is widely spoken here in the Goriska Brda region where Slovenia is making a reputation of international fame for its world-class Rebula, Pinot Grigio, Merlot and Cabernet Franc by small vintners welcoming visitors to share their knack for combining ancient techniques with new technologies. The beautiful villas, vineyards and orchards of cherries, peaches, apricots and olive trees of this countryside are reminiscent of Italy without the crowds. 

Atelier Kramer shares his love of wine and American rock and roll.

 There are so many vinters to visit here, we stopped in for a tasting with Atelier Kramer, who is Valter's brother from Hisa Franko restaurant in the Soca Valley. Kramer Vineyards is a husband and wife family operation, both of whom studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice and then fell in love with the piece of land in Goriska Brda. Like so many small vintners here, the wine was as delicious and interesting as their life story, and in this case, Atelier's love of American rock and roll that he spun on LPs along with patters of charcutier, cheese and olives. He was at Kurt Cobain's last concert which was in Ljubjiana, and his favorite all-time concert was Metallica.

Less than an hour drive southwest is your opportunity to visit the Venice of Slovenia, but without guess what: the crowds. In fact, the seaside town of Piran on the Adriatic coast was a former territory of the Venetian empire with its neo-Gothic cobblestone alleyways, bell tower, and historic townhouses painted brightly capped in red ceramic tile. It's an ideal place to sip espresso in open-air cafes in the historic town center and walk along the promenade and quaint marinas where dinner is served on seaside tables overlooking colorful wooden fishing boats plying the rocky coastline.

Explore Piran on the Adriatic coast a former territory of the Venetian empire.

Trips to Slovenia are easily combined with nearby cities and bordering countries. Flights into the capital city Ljubljana are 45 minutes from Paris or two hours from London. It's just a two-hour drive from Zagreb, Croatia, a ferry across the Adriatic between Piran and Venice, and you can easily connect by land or air to Salzberg, Vienna, or travel south through the Istrian Peninsula to Rovinj and the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.

For more information about trips to Slovenia, don't hesitate to give me a call at 800-345-4453.

Keeping it wild,

Kurt Kutay

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