The truth is that I didn’t even know where Slovenia was until a few months ago. I mean, I would see these beautiful pictures on my Instagram feed of castles and lakes but I used to just think… “Somewhere in Europe”. At that time, Europe obviously felt very inaccessible to me. But once I got that Schengen visa in my hands, I went back to look at those photos and realised, “Hey! I can go there too”.

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Don’t judge me. I often go to places just because I want to see if they look as good as they do online. I can’t be the only one? I have no plan… I just go to see and explore without any itinerary. This is exactly what I did in Slovenia. I rented a car and just winged it.

To understand what makes Slovenia so special, you first need to find it on a map so lets begin Panda’s Progressive Geography lesson.

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As you can see, the country sits at the very top of the Adriatic sea, shoulder to shoulder with Italy and Croatia, with its back to the Alps. As such, it’s situated exactly at the crossroads of Europe’s most iconic destinations: Austria’s mountain villages, Italy’s Venetian wine country, the Adriatic’s sun-swept coast, and central Europe’s distinguished Renaissance cities. Though Slovenia’s total area is roughly equal to the size of Kuwait, it manages to embody all of those settings in one country.

Like Serbia, it was once part of Yugoslavia, but it was one of the most prosperous and successful areas of the former republic due to their high standard of living. The country, like many in the area, has struggled, been fought over, taken over and suffered under communist rule for many years. Today, the independent country enjoys a successful economy, is part of the European Union, the Schengen Area and uses the Euro as their currency.

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The good:

Nature

I’ve never seen so much of natural beauty in one small place. As soon as you hit the motorway, you’re surrounded by mountains, forests and all round general beauty. Gosh it’s gorgeous. If I was a passenger you would have a lovely photo of the road and accompanying scenery. But since I was driving, my hands were otherwise occupied trying to adjust to driving a non-automatic car on the side of the road that I still find odd (why did you do this to us damn British imperialists?).

Let’s look at a couple of my photos to illustrate the natural beauty shall we?

First up, sunset view from Bled Castle.

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Just look at those colours… Magical. Bled castle is a CLIMB. I’m relatively fit and it took me longer than it should have because the stairs are endless and oh-so-steep. (When I reached the top, I saw a parking lot and realised that it’s possible to drive there. That’s better if you have a child in a pram or mobility issues).

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Sunrise view over Lake Bled.

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It was a 6km trek from where I was staying (at 6am) but this view was 100% worth the effort. Tip: the best sunrise view is found near the camping site on the northwestern side of the lake. Wish someone had told me that before I started trekking aimlessly. The good thing about this though is that if the sunrise time is 6am, you still have an hour before the sun peeks out from over the mountains so pack a sandwich and take your time.

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Lake Bohinj which is a 30-35 minute drive from Lake Bled.

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Yes you can swim in Lake Bled but the water is dark and ominous. Also there are these huge fish that jump up when you’re trying to look for the prefect sunrise shot. I wouldn’t put my body into this water. Lake Bohinj is another story. Look at the colour of this water!

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It’s popular with the locals for swimming and other water-sports. Tip: parking is limited so go early if you can and oh, remember to pay for your parking at the machines!

Vintgar Gorge is known for its steep depths, vertical walls, rapid river beneath and lush vegetation.

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Its not a relaxing stroll but neither is it a strenuous trek. Tips: Do allocate half a day to explore this in its entirety and DON’T go at 11am (which is what I mistakenly did). It is ridiculously crowded around midday. Earlier is far better!

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Head to Mount Vogel for your view of the Alps and where you certainly feel on top of the world and get great views of the area including Triglav (which is the mountain on the Slovenian flag). For €15 you will catch the cable car up the mountain and you can enjoy these spectacular views:

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It comes close to Hallstatt in Austria… close but not quite. You can also go on a few long hikes once you hit the top of the mountain but lazy pandas prefer to enjoy a slice of cream cake and leave the strenuous activities to the other folks.

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That brings me to my next point about good things in Slovenia:

Dreamy Cream cake… This cream cake is a mixture of cream, custard, goodness, greatness and pastry. If you have a sweet tooth like me, it’s a must try. It’s dense so one slice is enough for two people but hey I was alone so… I figure I deserved it all.

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Ljubljana, the most darling city! It’s rare for someone to include a capital city as part of their good things in a list about a country. I mean I spent 90% of my time outdoors in Slovenia and yet I still think Ljubljana is one of the best bits of Slovenia. Ljubljana is completely unreal.  As in, it literally does not seem like a real place. It’s too clean, too pastel and too nice- kind of like if Disney decided to build a European capital and give it a whimsical unpronounceable name. Just have a look:

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Ljubljana Castle- a true medieval castle dating back to the twelfth century. Perched on top of a large hill in the center of town, it’s visible from basically anywhere. It’s a steep hike up the hill but there are great views of the orange roofed city.

Hold on, I’m not saying it’s better than Prague- oh no Prague has my heart from now until eternity. But Ljubljana is perfect if you want to avoid the Prague crowds but absorb all of that special European charm! Tip: There is an amazing Bosnian restuarant called Sarajevo ’84. GO!

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(And for the record it’s pronounced lyoo-BLYAH-nah.)

The not so good stuff

Poor signage and not so well-maintained roads

Germany, Austria and Czech Republic set my bar pretty high for the quality of roads. Slovenia still needs some work in this area. If you’re driving around the countryside in Slovenia be aware that your average speed will be 40km/h. So if Google Maps says that your destination is 10 minutes away, give yourself 20. You’ll be slowing down on the tiniest of roads to give way to massive hurtling buses that come screeching around every corner.

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Maybe you should just travel by boat?

And as for the signage. Look I’m not an ignorant fool who believes that signs should be in English. I know the name of my destination in the local language and I’m quite happy to follow the signs leading to it. But how about more signs? Especially to actual landmarks like waterfalls (Didn’t make it to Savica waterfall because I got lost twice and subsequently, annoyed) and lakes. Instead of tiny signs that you can literally blink and miss, let’s try something a little more larger for ignorant foreigners like myself. Please?

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Food

I ate one local dish that I enjoyed in Slovenia and that was this trout dish served with risotto. I had it at this rustic restaurant in the valley after exploring Vintgar Gorge. I don’t remember the name, it wasn’t recommended by any website and I literally only stopped there because I was starving. It turned out to be the best thing I ate in Slovenia!

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The next day I asked for a recommendation of where the locals eat and what to order. I was sent to a cosy little place where people were ordering this:

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It’s a black risotto served with cuttlefish. Apparently a must-try in the region, popular with local Slovenians. I’m glad I’m not that fussy of an eater because not only did it look like shoe polish, it had no flavour. Everything else I ate in Slovenia had the taste of raw onions which this panda doesn’t really care for. How about using some spices Slovenia?

The ugly:

Slovenians don’t seem accustomed to people that aren’t from the EU countries. When I landed at Ljubljana airport, the passport control officer called his colleagues to see my South African passport. They then all got involved in a discussion with me about my holiday plans and didn’t even bother to check the details on my Schengen visa! Occasions like this was where I felt special and happy that I was representing my continent (yeah my ego is huge, I have to go big or go home), on this tiny slice of Europe.

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But other times where I was asked if I speak English, wrongfully accused of stealing a lady’s money (it was located in her friends handbag), spoken to in Spanish (and consequently, received exasperated looks when they realised I don’t speak a word of Spanish) and given plenty of unfriendly looks made me see that Slovenia isn’t at all like their friendly neighbours the Czechs or the Serbs. They’re wary of people that look or sound different to them.

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Smile a little Slovenians! You’re part of the EU, the Schengen zone, you use the euro for your overpriced entrance fees and your country is gorgeous. Smiling, returning a greeting and acting less suspicious is going to help more people from my part of the world- or those that look like me but are from another part of the world- visit your delightful country! (Perhaps this is why Melania Trump is never smiling? Must be a Slovenian thing).

In conclusion,

Certain landscapes appear on almost every world traveler’s bucket list: medieval cities traversed by ancient rivers and dotted with streetside cafes, highland meadows of vivid green framed by snowcapped alpine peaks, hillsides draped in terraced grape arbors climbing towards a rustic winery. While globe trekkers may disagree about the particular destinations best suited for each of these vistas, I think it’s safe to say that few would put Slovenia at the top of their list. Which is a shame, because they should. Slovenia is all of those landscapes rolled up into one tiny country.

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You could comfortably explore this tiny country in 4-5 days which makes it a perfect addition to any European itinerary.

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Even in today’s well-traveled world, Europe has managed to keep some of its hidden charms. And Slovenia, tucked away where Germanic, Mediterranean, and Slavic worlds meet, is one of Europe’s most fascinating, yet least visited corners.

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Sunset over Ljulbljana from Ljubljana Castle

Have you been to Slovenia? What did you love and/or hate? Let me know in the comments below!

Peace out pandas car