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Slovenia is a hidden gem
Slovenia is a hidden gem

At first, the question was "why Slovenia?" Why make a detour to this small country, somewhat out of the way, a place with lingering connotations of a communist past? The delights of neighbouring Italy and Austria are all too tempting, not to mention the deservedly popular Adriatic seaside towns and islands of adjoining Croatia.

Within a day or two of your arrival, that question is almost guaranteed to be turned on its head: "Why didn't I know about this place before?"

Half of Slovenia is clothed in forest, and snow-streaked alpine peaks loom up within easy reach of urban areas. The climate offers everything you'd expect in the heart of Europe: four seasons, each quintessentially European, from balmy summer days to alpine snowdrift. The Slovenes are fresh-air fiends who relish canoeing, kayaking, climbing and skiing, each in its season. What's more, Slovenian towns and cities, compact though they be, retain their original charm yet feel very much in touch with the rest of 21st-century Europe.

Slovenia broke free from the remnants of communist Yugoslavia in 1991. The conflict lasted 10 days and cost 66 lives - Slovenia almost completely avoided the carnage and misery of the Balkan wars of the 90s. One would struggle to spot any surviving red stars or statues of revolutionary heroes.

The Slovenes are Slavs deep down but their long history as a province of the Austro- Hungarian Empire bequeathed a heritage and a mindset that seem very largely Germanic. Slovenia today is a card-carrying member of the EU whose heart is in Central Europe, not Eastern Europe or the Balkans.

There's no better way to reach Ljubljana, the capital, than by riding the 1906 trunk railway line which runs south-west from imperial Vienna. Alternatively, the short journey north-east from Trieste, the Adriatic seaport which now forms a tongue of Italian territory, is equally pleasant. Italian trains terminate at Trieste but it is easy enough to catch a morning bus to Sezana, just inside Slovenia, then continue on by train. Sezana, incidentally, is home to the Lipica Stud Farm which has been breeding the famous Lipizzaner horses since 1580.

A smart coach ferries us from Trieste up to Opicina on the rocky limestone ridge above the seaport, then on through lushly forested hill country and on past a locked-up border post into Sezana, where the rustic, weatherboard station appears at first glance to be closed for business. A ticket clerk is on duty, however, and willingly sells us tickets on the twin-carriage train departing very shortly for Ljubljana - in fact, it seems to be waiting just for the two of us. A smiling conductress ushers us onboard and the train sets forth through evergreen forests, fertile pastures and bucolic hamlets. Red-capped stationmasters stand by as the train glides into and out of each whistle-stop station.

The compact, sophisticated Slovenian capital comes complete with urban river and hilltop castle. What more could you ask? Broadband internet connections? Da, no problem.

Ljubljana's "inner suburbs" are rustic enough to accommodate garden plots alongside period cottages and small bars, where blondes perch on stools all afternoon. Closer to the city centre, the castle looks down from its hilltop on to the banks of the Lubljanica, lined with smart alfresco cafes. This is not the Anglo-Saxon world: cigarette smoke wafts unheeded between cafe tables, dogs shuffle up to their owners' chairs, drunks are conspicuously absent.

The Central Market in Ljubljana has been set up with an eye to aesthetics, beneath the spires of St Nicholas. Impossibly perfect pears, cherries, strawberries, smoky yellow mushrooms and forest berries. Tuck into the gingerbread, or take home a plaited straw figurine.

The ornate riverside colonnades standing near the market, the Triple Bridge and more civic improvements are all the inspiration of the prolific architect Joze Plecnik (1872-1957), an intensely religious - and productive - local hero.

A summer storm threatens: where shall we take refuge? Le Petit Paris cafe, situated near French Revolution Square and the university quarter, provides shelter, hot coffee, cakes and amusing people-watching. We identify the three phases of courtship, from barely suppressed sexuality (repeated leg crossing) through purely intellectual to the occasional aggressively self-sufficient single woman. Later, three rough looking men happily feed scraps of their chocolate flan to a large dog.

We travel north to the lakeside resort of Bled, Slovenia's best-known destination. The surrounding Julian Alps form a striking backdrop to Lake Bled, a venue for international rowing championships, and the valley of the Sava.

Cloudy skies and drizzle dampen the drop-dead gorgeous views of the lake and its castle, but simple pleasures remain unspoilt: lush, unmown meadows bursting with wildflowers, ancient apple and cherry trees pregnant with the promise of next season's fruit, glimpses of snow-streaked flanks.

The outlying streets of the township are dotted with chalet-style homes like the one at Jarske 4, where our 󌍚 ($52) secures an entire apartment: a pocket-sized bedroom up under the eaves, a private bath, kitchenette and lounge. Stocking up on groceries isn't easy on a Sunday; we raid the shelves of a Mercator mini-market five minutes before closing time.

Anka, our hostess, is a 62-year-old widow with two adult children, the daughter still living with her mother. And there's a tangible connection to my native island of Tasmania: Anka and her late husband were enthusiastic rowers, once travelling to a world championship staged on a Tasmanian lake.

Monday dawns with the threat of more rain but fresh snowfalls gleam through gaps in the clouds that shroud the mountain flanks. We ride the local bus to Radovljica, a fortified medieval town only minutes away. Radovljica is set on high ground above a lush valley ringed by the Julian Alps, including the snow-capped Triglav, at 2864m the nation's summit in every way.

At the heart of the town Linhartov Trg (Linhart Square, named for an 18th century playwright and historian born here), forms a traffic-free rectangle bounded by a perfect assemblage which includes a palatial manor, a baroque church and other heritage buildings. Some now serve as atmospheric gostilna (inns).

With sunshine breaking through the clouds, we decide to pass up the bee-keeping and gingerbread museums and instead take a chance on lunch at Gostilna Lectar, furnished throughout with period bric-a-brac. The back terrace offers mountain views to die for.

A waitress in peasant-style blouse and billowing skirt serves our lunch of black sausage and two further varieties of sausage, roast pork, savoury mashed potato, sauerkraut, home-made horseradish, egg-and-potato fritata - and more. Hauling our well-lined stomachs back to Lake Bled, we strike out on a sunlit stroll around the lake, impossibly picturesque with its postcard- perfect island.

Bled Castle looks down from a sheer crag.

A perfect morning beckons next day but we must move on, making tracks for the Bled Jezero station nested amongst the pines on the far side of the lake. The gingerbread station building with Art Deco flourishes is a treat in itself, and the stationmaster has nurtured a vegetable garden beside the platform. The morning train runs south-west to Nova Gorica on the Italian border, following the lime-green Sava River along the old trunk line from Vienna down to the Adriatic. We have the carriage almost to ourselves, catching glimpses of alpine hamlets and the town of Bohinjska Bistrica, a popular visitor destination. Geraniums flourish in station window boxes; red-capped stationmasters wave us through.

Last stop, all change. Where's the Italian border? Nova Gorica becomes Gorizia beyond a line of planter pots on Piazza Transalpina, and the Cold War is but a distant memory.

We'd like to return to join in the fun of the annual Kurentovanje festival, when fearsome masked spirits called Kurents dance through the streets of provincial Ptuj, or to climb Triglav, a rite of passage in itself, or just roam the back streets of Koper, Piran or Izola, the old Venetian towns of Slovenia's Adriatic coast.

  • fact file *

·Slovenia uses the euro. Costs are a little lower than in Austria or Italy.

·Ljubljana is served by European regional carriers, including Slovenia's Adria Airways with road or rail transport from hubs such as Venice, Milan or Vienna. Slovenian Railways is at slo-zeleznice.si while Austrian railways is at oebb.at/en

·Eurail passes must be purchased before arriving in Europe and may prove worthwhile if you combine Slovenia with Austria, Croatia and/or Hungary. See eurailnet.com. For more on Slovenia, see slovenia.info