Why Slovenia isn’t overflowing with tourists, we’ll never know. Perhaps it’s because this little country – with a population of just over 2 million – is so well hidden, nestled between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. But as we learnt from a recent springtime visit, it’s precisely that sense of peace, quiet and unspoilt countryside that makes Slovenia one of the most beautiful places to visit in Europe.
The best starting point is Lake Bled, a 25-minute drive from Ljubljana airport. It’s a serene, mirrored lake set against the snowy peaks of the Julian Alps, with a tiny island in the middle that you can row to. One of the best places to admire the blue waters is from Bled’s clifftop castle, with its mystical Romanesque tower that has loomed over the town since the 11th century.
A new restaurant opened at Bled castle last year, aiming to impress with a contemporary take on traditional Slovene cuisine. Decoration-wise, it feels Scandinavian – clean, with candles and petite bouquets of alpine flowers on top of white beech tables. The menu is also fuss-free and natural: try a Gorenjska salad (a northerly region of Slovenia that Bled sits in) with young lettuce, fennel, green apple, buckwheat porridge and sour cream; a platter of local cheeses (the best of which is a yoghurty goats’); or a ‘taste of the Alps’ – Carniolan buckwheat dumplings with tarragon in a rich porcini sauce.
For a post-lunch walk, head to Lake Bohinj (a 30-minute drive from Bled castle) for more mesmerising water views – it’s a peaceful spot, encircled by tufty green mountains. What’s so striking is how unblemished everything is: Slovenians take great care of their country (the capital, Ljubljana, is 2016’s European Green Capital) and over the course of our five-day visit we only saw one piece of litter – a receipt on the floor that we duly picked up and disposed of anyway.
There are large hotels in Slovenia, but to get the real experience (and the best prices) try a farmstead or homestead. They’re run by locals and are usually basic (don’t expect a television), but the houses themselves are quirky and charming – Ročnjek farmstead in the village of Gorjuše, a 30-minute drive from Lake Bled, looks like a mountain log cabin, with a paddock outside for donkeys and rooms that mirror the alpine theme. Dinner is served in a sweet house-on-the-prairie-style room, decorated with pretty cotton curtains and a beautiful (but apparently quite normal in these parts) green ceramic aga in the corner that’s used as an oven, stove and all-round giant radiator.
Dinner at Ročnjek is unmissable. When we visited in April there was only one person on duty, and we expected nothing more than a platter of cold meats; but said person, Jaka Kusterle, turned out to be a great chef. He cooked us a belly-busting feast of home-smoked trout with a kind of horseradish bread sauce; soup made from mushrooms foraged in nearby Pokljuka forest; a salad of wild dandelions, eggs, local olive oil and balsamic vinegar (remember how close to Italy Slovenia is); homemade struckli, rolled like Stromboli, with layers of soft, dough-like pastry and cream cheese; lamb chops cooked with flaked almonds; sweet, rich fillets of locally-shot deer; and slow-cooked beef tomatoes with braised fennel. And that was for two of us.
Another must-visit area is the wine-producing region of Vipava Valley. The scenery is pristine and overwhelmingly green (more than half of Slovenia is forest), with deep valleys where little towns sit and soak up the views, their church spires spiking the vista. Majerija restaurant with rooms, just outside Slap village only half an hour’s drive from Italy’s Trieste, blends into such surroundings, hidden behind vineyards, orchards and meadows that bloom with ingredients – you can pick up to 40 different herbs within a 1km radius of the restaurant.
Instead of filling their usual decorative role, herbs and flowers mould the menu at Majerija. Dandelion leaves are lightly fried in a tempura batter and come with wild flower honey; chives are served whole to create a bitter explosion of flavour; dessert is a fresh sage sorbet with intensely citrusy sorrel; and the homemade basil liquor (not for the faint-hearted) is made from five different types of basil. Just as with Ročnjek farmstead, the best part about dinner here is the locality of the ingredients, a concept that’s second-nature to Slovenians – they don’t even advertise the fact. We tried wild mutton rolled in juniper and coffee (you could see the mountain it once grazed on from our table) and our favourite bottle of wine – a creamy, custard-like sauvignon vert named Kramar after the producer – was made just 45 minutes away, in Dobrovo. Majerija shows the same devotion to seasonality; in warmer months, the food on offer is Mediterranean, but come autumn-time and suddenly it’s a whole different menu, Austro-Hungarian in style, heavier and rich.
Even the accommodation at Majerija is herb-themed (green paint for basil, purple for lavender) and actually sits underground, beneath the restaurant’s herb garden. Rooms manage to be airy and light thanks to a big sun roof, and breakfast includes freshly picked salad leaves, local cheeses, homemade bread and jams (the best of which is cherry and thyme), and pots of just-brewed herbal teas.
A 15-minute drive from Majerija is Goče, the oldest village in Vipava Valley and perhaps the most beautiful, too – winding streets, old stone houses with brightly painted shutters and views over the Italian Dolomites interrupted only by the village’s terracotta roofs. There are no obvious signs of tourism here, only a homemade sign leading to Cejkotova house and cellar where the Mesesnel family has been making wine for generations (their candle-lit wine cellar is 700 years old and is one of 75 in Goče alone). Pop in for lunch – Davorin Mesesnel, who shows guests round, makes a mean frtalja (basically a fat pancake loaded with herbs) – and a taste of ribolla, pinela or cabernet sauvignon wine. One of the best things we tried was a 12-year-old dessert wine that tasted of smoky prunes; a characteristic, Davorin told us, down to the fact that his neighbour had a billowing chimney the year that wine was made.
If you’re in the area, you must also visit Dvorec Zemono. It’s a restaurant run by Tomaž Kavčič, a charismatic chef and Slovene who’s often praised for modernising his homeland’s cuisine (although he lays all the credit at his mother’s door, Katja Kavčič). It’s a stunning building – a 17th century hunting lodge that was once the summer residence of a Venetian count – with original frescos inside and a beautiful lawn outside that overlooks Slovenia’s greenery.
Food at Zemono is modern, playful and multi-sensory. Expect egg shells filled with a yolky soup and curls of radicchio stuffed with dehydrated apricots, both served in a moss-lined egg box; sticks of raw tuna and creamy prawns dipped into a bowl of buttery smoked trout foam; pickled sardines in a creamy matte sauce; deconstructed beef soup with test tubes (literally) of intense parsley, carrot and tomato reductions; scallops baked in clay with bright violet carrots; and beef cheeks cooked for 13 hours at 74C until they collapse at the slightest prod. As for dessert, it’s gin sorbet accompanied by juniper-infused dry ice; or a hilarious ‘whoops!’ ice cream bomb that [spoiler alert] our waiter purposefully smashed onto our plate, Jackson Pollock style. It’s more experience than meal, and one that you wouldn’t want to leave Slovenia without.
Lisjak restaurant is also worth a visit, though its food is far more humble. Young Peter Lisjak is an enthusiastic wine maker (the fourth generation) who will happily show you his impressive cellar downstairs; our favourite bottle was the 2013 rosé, a honeyed and creamy merlot/barbera blend. Sip alongside a tapas-style meal including a hops and wild asparagus salad; onion and prosciutto bread made to Peter’s grandma’s recipe; home-cured prosciutto with sweet, Parmesan-style cheese; and little clouds of gnocchi (grandma’s recipe again) in a light asparagus sauce. To finish, try tender shoulder of beef cooked majestically over an open fire. Lisjak plans to launch its own accommodation, but in the meantime nearby Saksida homestead offers basic rooms with a surprisingly luxurious breakfast (probably the best of our stay) – velvety polenta with egg yolk, acid milk, wild asparagus and rich, almost malty prosciutto.
Another must-visit restaurant is Hiša Franko, right on the Italian border (we drove into Italy three times just to get there). It’s run by Ana Roš – who will star in season two of Netflix’s Chef’s Tables this year – and champions the same eat-local eat-seasonal principles so revered by the Slovenes. Wild herbs, flowers, nuts and mushrooms all come from within walking distance, and Ana aims to cook and serve her ingredients on the same day that they’re picked. Even the bread is made from fermented apples instead of yeast (one can be sourced locally, the other cannot); it has the bitter tang of a sourdough, delicious with Ana’s whipped butter.
Rich red walls, Persian rugs, antique furniture and a birch tree in the middle of the room makes for a cosy dining room with plenty to look at. We began with paper-thin cheese wafers made from raw cows’ milk, and crisp asparagus tempura dipped into a celery and hazelnut cream – both delicately presented, but bold on flavour. The first dish of a five-course menu was a colourful bowl of young beetroot, sunchokes and tiny meadow plants, with snails (juicy, soft, rich) and a ‘melting egg yolk’ that had only the slightest film on it – a credit to its freshness. Next, pasta filled with salty, molten sheep cottage cheese alongside creamy langoustines from the Slovenian coast; and locally-caught trout with sharp pink grapefruit, foamed trout liver and a salsify cream.
Then, our favourite course: meltingly tender roebuck, so rich and juicy, with a twice-smoked apple sauce (one of the best accompaniments to venison we’ve ever had), buttery bread soufflé and a birch syrup that tasted like Marmite. Dessert was a pretty ensemble of smoked milk, ‘tuile of apple core’, cumin-spiked cream and caramelised bread – a take, says Ana in the menu notes, on Slovenian director Jan Cvitkovič’s film, Kruh in mleko (bread and milk).
Less than 10 miles south of Hiša Franko is Nebesa, a little cluster of mountainous chalets that, coincidentally, is run by Bojan and Katja Roš – chef Ana’s parents. It’s a short drive, but a pretty shaky one too: the road climbs to 900m above sea level, twisting sharply until you reach what feels like the tallest peak in the country. Nebesa means ‘heaven’ in Slovenian and it feels exactly that: peaceful, blissfully quiet and fresh, with four wooden chalets (Bojan and Katja’s take on a shepherd’s hamlet) overlooking the dazzlingly turquoise Isonzo river. Inside they’re sleek and comfortable, with a kitchenette (the fridge comes filled with cheese, beer, butter and jam), modern bathroom, low-lying bed on a mezzanine level and a glass-fronted living room that frames the valley below beautifully. It feels spiritual and cleansing, especially when sat on your own terrace, swaddled in a fluffy cloak with only the call of a cuckoo to interrupt the stillness.
If that wasn’t idyllic enough, Nebesa is also home to a glass-fronted spa equipped with two wooden saunas and Kneipp-style hydrotherapy treatments. Even better, for foodies at least, is the all-you-can-eat pantry: it’s open 24/7 and is stocked with local prosciutto and cheeses; bread; cake; fruit; their own red and white wine; and Slovenian beer. Because there’s no restaurant at Nebesa, guests pile plates high and eat picnic-style back in their chalet – a brilliant idea, and one that we relished after eating so many meals out. It’s the same for breakfast, so you can enjoy your first meal of the day in pyjamas, however late you like.
What with the views, picnics and state-of-the-art spa, there’s no real reason to leave Nebesa. Just enjoy it for the zen-like haven that it is. But if you do get itchy feet, there are beautiful walks all around the area with wild flowers, birds and deer to spot – it used to be a ski resort, so expect steep climbs.
Before you fly home, stay a night or two in Slovenia’s charming capital city, Ljubljana. It’s a small place, polished and colourful, with beautiful Baroque architecture and lantern-lined riverside walkways that sprout restaurant tables come evening time. It feels Mediterranean in that sense, but also looks a little Austrian – like Salzburg, but without the tourists. Plus did we mention how unbelievably clean everywhere is? The bridges and fountains all look buffed and shiny, and there are neat rows of various bins on every corner – even at Open Kitchen, the city’s Friday food market, there are attendants to help visitors decide which bin to use.
Speaking of which, try to be in Ljubljana on a Friday, specifically for Open Kitchen. We counted at least 50 different chefs in Pogačarjev trg square when we visited, each one promoting a different cuisine (try a bottle of Slovenian Pelicon craft beer or a plate of ‘kaiserschmarrn’ – Austrian shredded pancakes caked in icing sugar) under the shelter of stripy green-and-white canopies. It’s an electric here-comes-the-weekend atmosphere and a particularly perfect place to be when the sun is shining.
The best way to explore Ljubljana is by foot, and it’s a good idea to buy a Ljubljana 24 hour card as soon as you arrive – it lets you into more than 15 attractions, gives free city bus travel and includes a guided tour, all for just over 20 euros. With this magic card (we wore ours out), you can even rent a bike, take the Ljubljana castle funicular, and ride a river boat, all for free. Which means you’ll have more to spend on dinner at JB, one of the smartest restaurants in Ljubljana. Here prosciutto is carved into paper thin slices at the table, soft jazz plays in the background, and the floor is made of marble – it’s the kind of place you’d dress up for. Food is elegant and precise: Adriatic tuna sashimi was clean and colourful, the fish filled with a vibrant soy bean and seaweed cream; thin parcels of ravioli came stuffed with pistachios, cottage cheese and goose liver so smooth and sweet that it tasted like butterscotch; and beef cheeks are served in their own juices, with burnt carrots and a velvety kohlrabi puree.
Of all the European trips we’ve been on, a tour of Slovenia’s waters, vineyards, forests, meadows and endearing capital city is among the most rewarding. And it’s exactly that landscape that lends Slovenia such a thriving, natural food scene rooted in the principles of eating locally and seasonally; an ethos inherent to all the food producers, restaurateurs and wine-makers we met on our trip. For foodies who aren’t afraid to don a pair of walking socks, it’s hard to imagine a better holiday.
Written by Charlotte Morgan, June 2016
For more information on Slovenia, visit slovenia.info
Wizz Air operates four weekly 2hr 20 min flights to Ljubljana on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from London Luton. Fares start from £18.49 for a one-way ticket, including taxes and non-optional charges. wizzair.com
Image credits: Charlotte Morgan and Turizem Ljubljana