Have you ever been to Slovenia? Is it on your bucket list of places to visit? No? Well it actually should be. But you know what? It wasn’t on my bucket list either. Which is a shame, because Slovenia actually has a lot to offer.
As part of my work, I visited Slovenia last week. This was actually my second trip to Slovenia, I had already been to Ljubljana for one night back in October. But this time it was for the entire week and it would take me beyond the capital.
For convenience I was based in Ljubljana for the four nights and ventured out to different parts of Slovenia for two meetings a day.
As this work and not a leisure trip, I might have travelled the length and width of Slovenia, but didn’t do much sightseeing obviously.
But you know me. That won’t stop me from sharing my week in Slovenia with you anyway.
It felt like most of Monday was spent actually getting to Ljubljana. Unfortunately there weren’t any suitable direct flights offered that day (there are occasionally, last time I was more lucky. And from May onwards even British Airways will offer a direct flight from London to Ljubljana). But there were a few connecting flights on offer that day, either via Paris, Vienna or Warsaw. I opted for the LOT Polish Airlines flight via Warsaw, departing Heathrow at 6.30 on Monday morning (because what better way to start the week than a 3am alarm).
This was my first time flying LOT Polish Airlines and I didn’t quite know what to expect.
Arriving at Ljubljana airport around 13.30, I was picked up by my clients and we headed directly to the first meeting before I eventually made it to my hotel to check in and settle for the week.
Same as during my first stay in October (and recommended by my clients), I stayed in the Grand Hotel Union. Which is conveniently located in the old town centre, just steps from the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation and Prešeren Square (named after the Slovene poet France Prešeren).
When booking the Grand Union Hotel, it can be a little confusing (or at least it was for me) as there are actually two hotels with the same name. One is the Grand Union Hotel, which is located within the impressive early 20thcentury building that you see as you approach from Prešeren Square.
The other is the Grand Union Business Hotel. Which is located to the back of the other hotel in a newer (not quite as picturesque) building.
Whilst both hotels operate independently in terms of booking, they seem to share most amenities and are in fact interlinked via a walkway.
So first time round, I was meant to book the business hotel however ended up in the front part. This time I knew better and booked the correct one straightaway.
The Grand Union is a 4-star hotel which (in the newer / business part) offers its guests a 24/7 gym and on the 8thfloor a spa area with sauna, steam room, massages and a pool. Whilst the pool and spa area are also open to the public, they are included in the price when staying in one of the hotels. For the massages you will have to pay, but you will get a discount if you are a hotel guest.
The Grand Union offers three different restaurants (which I can’t comment on as I haven’t tried either of them), a café and a bar (the latter I did try during my first stay). So if you don’t feel like going out, you could easily spend the night in without it getting too repetitive. But then again, the old town centre is literally on your doorstep, so you might as well venture out.
Since I had a very early morning and it was pouring with rain by the time I made it to the hotel (paired with the fact that it was already dark) I kept my exploring fairly minimal that evening, only did a quick round through the old town, got myself some dinner and went back to the hotel for an early night.
This was going to be the day that I would venture deeper into Slovenia for the first time. My first meeting was in Vojnik, about an hour away from Ljubljana towards the east, followed by a second meeting in Maribor.
Maribor is the second largest city in Slovenia and apparently well worth a visit for its old town centre, city wall and Maribor Cathedral. Unfortunately I did not actually get a chance to see anything of Maribor at all, other than the car dealership my meeting was held at (and car dealerships are very rarely located in the picturesque setting of the old town centre – Maribor is no exception here).
Driving across the country at least gave me a nice view of the scenery – mountains, lots of green and forests, castles sitting on hilltops and a few patches of snow here and there. Especially the morning drive presented Slovenia in its best light. The rain from the previous day was gone, we had beautiful winter sun and mist was still sitting in the valleys (and no, I did not manage to snap a single half decent photo whilst being driven around, so I cannot share this with you).
That day I managed to get back to Ljubljana early enough to actually see it in daylight. So after quickly dropping my work stuff in the hotel and changing into more comfortable shoes, I went off to explore Ljubljana. I didn’t really make any plans of where to go, I just walked along the various streets, crossed the bridges, went into some of the churches and generally enjoyed the evening. And that evening I sure was rewarded with a glorious sunset, bathing the old town centre of Ljubljana in the most stunning light.
As a little treat (or shall we call it dinner?), I bought myself a Bled crème cake, as I really wanted to try it (and I knew Bled unfortunately wasn’t on my itinerary at all that week, not even close to any of my meetings).
And to work it off again, I gave the gym a try as well (well actually I had been on best behaviour and made full use of the gym every single evening during my stay. But only so I could justify having cake and chocolate and red wine).
Day 3 meant another drive through Slovenia, this time to the northeast of the country to Murska Sobota in Lower Styria. Murska Sobota is actually fairly close to the Austrian border (just around 20km away) and it is only about 75km to Graz. So whilst I don’t speak any Slovenian and the dealer spoke only some English, we eventually found a common language – German.
With the meeting over, the dealer treated us to some local delicacies for lunch, a selection of different hams and cold cuts along with fresh bread and regional spreads. Good thing I am neither vegetarian nor coeliac. And lets forget about that diet for a little while as well, shall we?
With the second meeting in Šmartno ob Paki over, we got back to Ljubljana around 5pm, so I had about half an hour daylight left for my next round of exploring. This time I decided to head the other way and walk towards the train station and increase my circle gradually (unfortunately I must say the train station doesn’t quite make it to my list of Top 10 Things to see in Ljubljana), before eventually heading back to the hotel and getting ready to meet my clients for dinner.
For our fourth day it was a trip to the south of Slovenia. What a change that was. We were heading to Koper, Slovenia’s third largest city (if you can call a town with 25.000 inhabitants large), located on the Adriatic coast. Just a few kilometres away from the Italian border and about 20km away from Trieste, arriving at this port town felt like you were in Italy, complete with olive trees. That being said, Koper is actually officially bilingual, with both Slovenian and Italian language, so it will also sound as if you were in Italy.
The drive from Ljubljana to Koper (around 100km / 1.5 hours) gave me a good round up of the diversity Slovenia has to offer. From 4 inches of snow 20 minutes outside Ljubljana to palm trees and Mediterranean sea I had it all that day. And it did feel a little surreal. Every time our route took us through a tunnel both the weather and the scenery seemed to change completely, making it a rather interesting drive.
To get a great view over Koper and the bay the dealer took us for lunch up in the mountains.
And since the meetings that day were fairly quick, my clients kindly drove me to Portorož (or Portorose in Italian, meaning ‘Port of Roses’) for a walk along the sea front and a quick tour of town.
It being end of January, the town was obviously fairly quiet and the beaches relatively deserted, but judging by the hotels and casinos lined up along the beachfront you can imagine how busy this place gets in summer (it is the ideal weekend getaway distance from central Slovenia / Ljubljana after all).
Koper and Portorož look like the kind of area I would like to come back and spend a little more time in.
Next to Portorož is the ‘Sečoveljske Soline’, the largest Slovenian salt work, where to this day sea salt is still being farmed in the traditionally way in large evaporating ponds.
And if you are into cycling (well I am not, but Mr T is), there is apparently a really picturesque cycling path, the ‘Parenzana D8’ (highly recommended by my clients) which leads from Trieste in Italy along the coast of Slovenia all the way into Croatia, where it eventually ends in Poreč. A total of 118km, following an old narrow train route that is no longer in use.
On the drive back to Ljubljana we once again made our way through the variety of landscapes and Slovenian weathers and came past the Postojna Cave and the Škocjan Cave, two of the largest Karst cave systems, highly recommended by my clients (Škocjan Cave actually is an Unesco World Heritage Site). Needless to say, during this trip there was no time to visit those, but should I ever make it back to Slovenia (I mean as a holiday, not a work trip) at least one of them would make it onto my list of things to do and see in Slovenia.
Thanks to the little detour to Portorož, dusk was already settling by the time I got back to the hotel. But since this was my last evening in Ljubljana, I was determined to go and see some more whilst I could. My original plan was to go into the National Gallery, which has longer opening hours on Thursdays. But then I got a little distracted by the buildings around me and instead of going in, just looked at the outside of the building (and the Opera and Museum of Modern Art and the Methodist Church and and….) and went for a quick walk in Tivoli Park instead (which to that point I had completely missed on my walking tours through Ljubljana).
As the National Gallery was celebrating its 100thyear in 2018, it had 100 of its masterpieces showcased either side of the central promenade in Tivoli Park, which were still up in January, so I did see some of the art on display in the National Gallery after all, albeit on posters and in the freezing cold.
With my last walking tour of Ljubljana over, I decided it was also time to finally give that roof top pool in my hotel a try. I did not go to the spa or book myself a massage, instead I just went for a half hour swim in the pool (I was the only one actually in the water, therefore disturbing everyone else’s peace and quiet who were just sitting there on the loungers, enjoying a drink and either waiting for their spa appointment or chilling a little more after their spa or sauna visit.
By now this was beginning to feel like a very long week. Don’t get me wrong. I did enjoy my time in Slovenia and exploring Ljubljana, but doing two meetings a day was starting to take its toll. At this point I really just wanted to go home.
For the last meeting of the trip we headed East to Brežice, close to the Croatian border and Zagreb.
Whilst I did not see anything of Brežice (but apparently there is a castle, water tower and cast iron bridge worth seeing, should you ever get to that part of the world), on the way back we made a quick stop at Otočec Castle, the only water castle in Slovenia. With the oldest bits dating back to the 13thcentury, it was extended twice over the centuries, destroyed by a fire during WWII and eventually restored in the 1950s and has since been used as a hotel and restaurant.
My flight back to London was another connecting flight via Warsaw.
And this time I had to actually check in my luggage, since my client gave me a nice bottle of Slovenian red wine as a leaving gift (and I didn’t feel like downing that whilst waiting at security).
So what did I think of Slovenia?
To be honest, I didn’t really have much knowledge of Slovenia before I came here (other than it being part of former Yugoslavia obviously), but I must say I was positively surprised by Slovenia. It is a beautiful country and despite being rather small (with just above 20.000sqkm and 2 million inhabitants it is about a quarter of neighbour Austria – both in population and size) it has a very diverse landscape from Mediterranean seaside to snow-capped mountains, loads of picturesque castles, caves and lakes.
As I was here for work, I missed out on most sightseeing, but I am very tempted to come back here for a proper holiday, take a road trip through Slovenia and discover all it has to offer. Including Lake Bled, which I missed completely this time, despite it only being 50 km from Ljubljana, but in the completely different direction from any of my meetings.
As so often when I travel for a whole week, I was knackered by the end of week. But I left with loads of good memories and impressions of a country and city that probably wouldn’t ever have made it onto my bucket list.
General info when travelling to Slovenia
Slovenia is part of the EU (so no roaming charges if you are from another EU country ). Its currency is the Euro and they use the standard European two pin plugs (so if you are heading here from the UK, don’t forget to change currency and bring a plug adaptor).
If you decide to take a road trip through Slovenia, it might be worth mentioning that you will need to buy a vignette that allows you to use the motorways. The vignette for cars costs 15 EUR for a week (or 30 for a month if you plan on staying longer), which is relatively cheap, compared to some other European countries and it will need to be displayed in your windscreen. Before the introduction of the vignette around 10 years ago, you needed to frequently stop and pay road toll at tollbooths along the way (a bit like when you are using the motorways in France). Whilst these are no longer in use, they have yet to be fully demolished, so you will frequently drive through those abandoned toll stations. But don’t let that confuse you. As long as you have the vignette displayed you don’t need to stop or pay anything extra.
So tell me, have you been to Slovenia yet? What did you think of the country?