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6 February 2024

Slovenia: Natural Hospitality

Slovenia, Slovakia, Slavonia – it is no wonder Slovenia is not on our holiday destinations’ radar despite its great appeal.  The country is small but its span of characteristics is wide; from the Alps with skiing and wild flowers to the flatter wine lands (plus big areas of hop gardens), as well as a typical Mediterranean coastline.  Underneath, they have magnificent caves at Postojna which is one of the world’s largest karst monuments.  Despite all these attractions, they have happily escaped being devoured by over-development whilst they go quietly about their business.   
Slovenia is easily located with Austria’s long southern border just over the mountains and Italy lies to the west.  Although we have been there many times, I always have to double check on where the ‘Js’ feature in spelling its capital Ljubljana, a very pleasant un-pressured city dominated by its castle with the atmosphere of a large market town.
Our latest visit started with a flight into Zagreb, neighbouring Croatia’s capital, the small airport has hardly changed in thirty years.  If you have the time, the city is well worth visiting.  We took a hire car and headed north on the motorway passing into Slovenia within half an hour.  You buy a vignette for the duration of your stay on the border for motorway use.  That formality quickly dealt with, we headed for the Castle Otocec Hotel, just over another thirty minutes away.  On sighting the hotel, it was even more attractive than in the photographs, first thoughts were “why move on?” from this picture-perfect location, when we walked into the courtyard of the castle.  That question came up again when we lunched al fresco next day.  Golfers would have an added incentive as there is one of the dozen courses in western Slovenia nearby.  
As one would expect from a Relais & Chateaux member, we were dined and wined like royalty.  The waiters were charming and the local ingredients of the region were transformed into amazing dishes.  Our loin of pork was accompanied with the lightest cheese dumplings and the smoked duck breast with truffled cottage cheese was perfectly balanced.  It just endorses the fact that in this delightful little country there are many hidden gems to be discovered, and can match anywhere in the world with their cuisine and hospitality.  Why else would discerning celebrities such as Piers Brosnan and Sean Connery visit this place unless it is that there is also an excellent golf course and nearby spa?
A couple of mischievous tales; the castle was built on a promontory in the river, the count was more than concerned that his countess was “not keeping his bed warm at night”.  To put an end to her trysts, he had a canal dug to create an island of the site.  In another era, it was reputed that half the village children shared the normally unusual ginger colour of the count’s hair!
Otocec Castle has been very sympathetically restored and furnished in recent years (they all say that), but here particular care had been taken in order to retain the character throughout, the only exception being the design of an external lift.  All the many fittings, furniture and textiles are purpose-designed with the furniture in beautiful solid dark locally sourced walnut.  Our only criticism was that we would have liked a few splashes of bright colours to lift and accentuate the exceptional decor.      
Something that could be repeated endlessly throughout was the fabulous countryside; we dined our first evening at a small but excellent restaurant, the Ostarija just a few miles away from the castle in the spa village of Dolenjske Toplice.  It was another gem, but of a different type and a “must visit” if you are staying at the local spa, although you can also stay in their pension.  Our al fresco dinner in the garden was delicious and it was exciting to eat traditional Slovenian food, but with a thoroughly up to date interpretation.   The presentation and combination of tastes, together with the local wines would please any visitor.  This together with the old world charm of the ‘inn’ and being situated in such a delightful place with such stunning countryside made us quite envious.  Try the spelt with mushrooms, goats’ cheese and fried nettles, or the old style pea soup with chopped walnuts, fried leeks and fried nettles.  (Yes the Slovenes are into foraging and have been for donkey’s years.)
Taking the by-ways rather than the motorway for most of the journey to Ljubljana, we continued in this extraordinarily attractive and tranquil land of a combination of farmland and forestry.  The terrain comprised largely undulating hills; some nearly becoming mountains whilst the roads were very narrow and winding, meeting the occasional bus reminded us that speed was not on the agenda despite the temptations of their potential to have fun.  
Ljubljana is traffic free in the centre but our hotel; the Antiq Palace had access passes with valet parking.  This period gem is a small treasure; romantic, intimate; it has a courtyard garden and the river is a minute’s walk away, if you can get past the little art gallery without dallying, I could go on.  The suites are great and an essential option to take.  Breakfast is served in the hotel and there are restaurants all around.  However, the one time you would appreciate using a taxi is for the climb up to the castle which has been restored incorporating modern features to complement the ancient structure.  It has a buzzy restaurant with a good atmosphere, views across Ljubljana and offers a traditional tourist menu.  
For those who are looking for a modern interpretation of dishes, the JB restaurant is brilliant as the food is very accomplished; we had one of most memorable meals of our lives.  Exciting, innovative tastes with combinations of food paired with excellent Slovenian wines.  However, this is probably food only appreciated by those who are more adventurous with a sophisticated palate as the chef’s expertise is more in line with Heston Blumenthal’s pairing of unlikely tastes.  Janez Bratovz bases his cooking on the tastes – sweet, salty, sour and bitter – using interesting fruit sauces.  For example, scampi rolled in kateffi, lime sauce with fruit and white carrot puree was amazingly delicious.
If you read the Tripadvisor reviews there are stark contrasts; some diners do not appreciate the modern cooking style and would be much happier at the castle restaurant, whilst more sophisticated palates are more than happy.  If it is good enough for Heston Blumenthal, it is good enough for us.  
JB is located just a short distance from the very centre, it is worth the walk up Miklosiceva Cesta (street) as there are some early 20th architectural gems along the way.  The century old building is very imposing as it was built by a leading insurance company as their headquarters and they wanted to impress; they succeeded and remain there today.  However, the JB restaurant occupies a couple of grand dining rooms; the décor reflects the style of the belle epoch of the transatlantic liners; beautiful cherry wood panelling and plenty of very stylish chandeliers.  There is a big contrast between lunch and dinner; as it is in the business area, there is a real bustle at lunch time.  In the evenings it is romantically very quiet indeed.  
The resort of Bled is famous for its lake, a ‘must see’ as the castle sits on top of a high cliff on the lake’s edge.  In the middle of the lake is an islet on which there is a tiny church, a film set in waiting.  Bled is relatively expensive for Slovenia but if you do decide to stay over, our choice is the Triglav Hotel as it is probably the best and most characterful hotel on the delightful shores of Lake Bled.  It is not only charming but has the best position overlooking the lake, directly opposite the islet (If you are getting married, you would be hard put to find a more romantic venue than the small newly re-consecrated frescoed chapel up at the castle).  Sheer fairy-tale magic.
The Triglav was the first hotel built by the lake in 1906 and renovated/restored in 2009.  They have a brilliant restaurant (predictably Restavracija 1906) serving delicious food together with great Slovenian wines.  However, it is a must to book for dinner as it so popular.  The view from the dining room across the Lake is absolutely stunning, the hotel should be featured in any ‘World’s Top 10 Best Hotels for Romantic Views’.  Nothing is too much trouble for the staff and the swimming pool, together with the therapeutic massages, are worth visiting.  This is the perfect place to stay for either a skiing trip or at any time you want to have a blissful break.
Nearby is Bohinj, again with a lake but with a very different atmosphere; darker and more remote but equally inviting.  Our visit coincided with their annual alpine flower festival;it is a part of an international scheme to protect unspoilt wild flower meadows.  A great success as we attended the launch in the large village hall; a few short speeches, lots of entertainment followed by an al fresco supper complete with wine; no tickets needed and no charges; for a super evening.  Where else would you find such generous hospitality?   
Again, the food was not only unusual but ambrosial.  The chef, Gozec Joze, (don’t you just love these wonderful Eastern European names) produced a wonderful Japanese knotweed barley risotto partly to obtain revenge on the thug for its invasive nature.  But it is just another example of the locals foraging skills!  Gozec can be found at Gostilna Danica a camp site surrounded by jewelled flower meadows beneath snow-capped mountains just outside Bohinj.
This is a very popular cycling area, the best way to get going is to visit Hike and Bike in Bohinj, not only do they rent everything from solid touring bikes to novel downhill only bikes (carried in backpacks) without pedals.  The proprietor ‘Greg’ is also a guide who will find, plan or sort out anything you throw at him: very useful and obliging.
Whilst in Bohinj we stayed in a new, very flexible purpose-built holiday chalet/pension.  We went self-catering in an apartment but they can cater for large parties as their two chalets are linked underground.  It all works extremely well except SatNavs get very lost; initially directions are essential.    
Before leaving this area, there are a couple of communities you would regret missing; Radovljica, is large village, it happens to be the county town but got left behind in development.  The centre is an historic little piece of the ‘real’ Slovenia with an amazing bee museum which is quite fascinating, as there is much history attached to the local industry. We can guarantee you will never have seen such extraordinary beehives.
Whilst in Radovljica pop into one the quaint little shops to buy some sweet treats.  The bee chocolates are historic and the town even has a chocolate festival among the other many traditional events held throughout the year. Kropa is a charming village still with a metalwork small industry, for centuries it specialised in making nails.  There is a super very old-fashioned restaurant, the Gostilna p’r Kovac, the building is 400 years old and the dishes equally traditional. 
Young and old alike find a whole range of interests and activities all around this small country, the experiences invariably refresh the jaded as they relax and just go with the flow.  We find the Slovenes good company as they are born story tellers and their intuitive hospitality is quite remarkable. 
Grad (Castle) Otocec Hotel:
Ostarija Restaurant:
Ljubljana Tourist Office:
Antiq Palace Hotel:
JB Restaurant:
Bled Tourist office:
Triglav Hotel:
Bohinj Tourist Office:    
Hike and Bike:
Bohinj Camp Site:
Radovljica Tourist Information Centre:
Kropa Restaurant:
Travel and Ski Insurance: