‘Hidden gem’ Slovenia has been in the news a lot, thanks to the new First Lady. But while most travelers will visit Ljubljana and Lake Bled, what other secrets does this gorgeous little country hold? Dr. Noah Charney, a professor of art history, shares his favorite finds of his adopted homeland of Slovenia.
Slovenia has been called a ‘hidden gem’ so many times that you have to wonder if it can still be considered hidden. But while Melania Trump has ensured that the name of this former Yugoslav country is no longer met with the same confused facial expression (and one hopes that it will cease to be conflated with Slovakia), it remains a destination that only the wisest and most curious travelers have actually visited. It is a great place for what has come to be called ‘soft adventure’ travels—it is supremely safe, well-organized, easy to navigate and easy to access, so visiting is not exactly like hitchhiking to Myanmar, but it has enough exoticism and wonderful sites to make it feel like a special treasure discovered by each visitor.
But where to begin? There are the obvious places (the capital, Ljubljana, and the postcard idyllic Lake Bled), but peeling back the veil we can find still-hidden facets within this hidden gem. As an American living many years in Slovenia, I’m frequently asked what to see that might be off the beaten path.
Here are my ten recommendations for cultural adventures in Slovenia, ‘the sunny side of the Alps.’
Slovenia is studded with dramatic castles, and while dozens of them were destroyed (sadly, many for now good reason, by Partisans after the Second World War, who disapproved of their feudal association), many remain. Few are as spectacular as Predjamski Grad, which is carved into a sheer cliff face. A 15th century resident, Erazem Luegger, held out against an opposing force for months, until a servant ratted him out, signaling to the enemy when “nature was calling,” so they could aim a cannonball directly at the castle’s toilette.
There are elaborate karst limestone cave systems beneath much of Slovenia. While Postojnska Jama gets most of the tourist attention (and as a result can be crowded and a bit Disney-fied), I prefer Skocjanska Jama. Descend into the depths like a chapter in Lord of the Rings, and you just might encounter a “human fish,” proteus anguina, which is a blind, cave-dwelling amphibian with translucent skin that resembles human flesh. They were long thought to be baby dragons.
Villagers used to gather inside fortified churches, in case of the unfortunately frequent plunder expeditions by Turks over the centuries. One of the most impressive is the tiny church of the Holy Trinity in Hrastovlje, which contains an amazing “Dance of Death” fresco cycle from around 1490, by Janez of Ljubljana. Showing people from all walks of life, from kings to peasants, who are made equal in the inevitability of death, this theme can be found throughout Europe and is meant to bring a measure of cold comfort to those who see it. These frescoes had been plastered over at some point, and so their restoration, only back in 1949, means that they are remarkably well-preserved, one of the best such examples in the world.
If the karst caves recall the mines of Moria from Tolkeinn’s books, then Velika Planina, a grassy mountain-top plateau which has been used to graze animals for millennia, looks like a stand-in for The Shire. The traditional, oddly-shaped wooden huts of the shepherds could certainly house Hobbits, and the terrain is lovely in the snow (midnight Christmas mass at the miniature wooden church of Saint Mary of the Snows makes for a magical visit). It’s even atmospheric in the fog, with the distant, eerie clang of cowbells and shadowy figures emerging from the clouds, only to be swallowed up again.
While Lake Bled gets most of the tourist attention (and is ridiculously picturesque), the town itself is a slightly down-on-the-heels 1950s resort. The award for idyllic Alpine town centers is tied between Radovljica (next to Bled) and Kamnik (25 minutes north of Ljubljana). Both feature pedestrianized sections, rows of uninterrupted, 18th century burger homes, red slate tile roofs, church towers, and utter late Baroque loveliness.
The beautiful small city of Ptuj (pronounced, delightfully, puh-too-ee) is ground zero for the annual Kurentovanje, which might qualify as the most bizarre European spectacle you could see. Celebrated around Lent, it features men dressed as monsters, called kurenti, with sheepskin suits, oversized masked with wooden faces and long, dangling leather tongues, bull’s horns, belts strapped with cow bells, and carrying clubs tipped with hedgehog quills. Leftover from pre-Christian rites of spring, these kurenti dance and make noise in an annual parade to chase away evil spirits and the winter, and usher in the spring.
Coastal Slovenia is a former Venetian colony, and the towns of Piran and Koper are particularly interesting, with Piran more photogenic, and Koper with more on offer. Piran was home to Giuseppe Tartini, one of the greatest violinists in history and a fine late Baroque composer. Listen to his masterpiece, “The Devil’s Trill,” which is meant to be one of the hardest pieces to perform ever written (and which, the story goes, he dreamt in a vision of the Devil and quickly composed upon waking). Most art in Slovenia is, to be honest, B or C-level. It was not a wealthy enough territory to attract the very cream of European artistry. But there are some real highlights, including a surprise altarpiece by Venetian master, Carpaccio, at Koper Cathedral.
The river-straddling small town of Kostanjevica na Krki, comprised of an island in the Krka River and the banks on either side, includes a memorable fortified Cistercian monastery. First built in 1234, it includes a white-washed church, an elaborately-frescoed gateway, and is now scattered with modern sculpture, particularly in the forma viva style.
The monasteries of Slovenia hold great treasures, but almost none of them are regularly open to the public, though this doesn’t mean you can’t access them. It requires phoning ahead and speaking with a priest, which is part of the fun. In Ljubljana, the Jesuit seminary has an astounding painted Baroque library that almost none of Ljubljana’s residents have seen, and even fewer visitors, since it requires making an appointment and is not advertised. Another surprise library is at the Franciscan seminary in Kamnik: a collection of around 10,000 tomes, including priceless incunabula (the earliest printed books).
Those who visit Ljubljana inevitably are impressed with the genius loci of the place, modernist mystic architect, Jože Plečnik. A rough contemporary of Gaudi, most of his work (aside from his renovation of Prague Castle and a few buildings in Vienna) is in Slovenia, and Ljubljana has the good fortune that he designed dozens of major buildings in the city, as well as portions of the city itself. Ljubljana truly bears his mark, and just about any intriguing building you see while wandering the streets is likely to be his. His house, now an award-winning museum, is probably the best place to begin and get to know him, and then you can walk a winding Plečnik path through the city center.