How do you make a small country feel big? That’s easy. You examine its finer details. You shift your focus to what’s immediately around you. You peer down the microscope at the Petri dish.
Take Slovenia: the size of Wales (with the usual apologies to the Welsh for using their country as a measure of national scale), it’s the sort of place that holidaymakers could easily say they had “done” after a few days based in the capital Ljubljana. You’d buy some honey (they are big on bees here), take a day trip to Lake Bled, sample the wines of Maribor in the north-east and then return home with another European country ticked off. Don’t get me wrong – you’d have had a lovely time in the process. There’s a lot to be said for concentrating on the greatest hits of a place, especially when those hits are the gentle, Slovenian sort.
But can you ever really “do” a country, even one as small as Slovenia, like that? Sure, you can see the things that are high on the wish lists of tourists. You can rush about taking selfies with lakes and beehives and 11th-century castles in the background. But painting your holiday in those broad brushstrokes runs the risk of hiding the portrait that lies beneath.
Inntravel’s six-night self-guided Slovenian cycling itinerary completely releases you from those concerns. Our route would take us north-west to the Julian Alps, with a gentle loop over the border into Italy, our luggage borne before us from hotel to hotel. But more importantly, it was full of the minutiae of life, of tiny hidden moments.
We exclaimed at wild pumpkins growing by the side of the road, flower baskets hanging from windows, a child’s slide in an overgrown garden. We saw waterwheels and weirs; clover and tall fields of maize; meadows and ancient oaks. We certainly didn’t “do” Slovenia. Instead we lost ourselves in a tiny tranquil corner of central Europe that it would be easy to overlook had we been travelling at speed.
My family has form when it comes to not getting very far on bicycles, having attempted an Inntravel journey along the Danube a few years ago. Designed to cater for those with young(ish) children, it had been spectacularly successful – a chance for our sons Jamie and Peter to develop a passion for pedals, without ever requiring them to do more than a few miles a day on the flat. This time round we were all older and – in the boys’ case, at least – considerably more muscular. Ripped, even. Suddenly their parents would be the ones holding the gym-bods up. So we opted for a route not specifically created for families, but not particularly demanding either: the perfect balance for our respective stamina sets. We’d be required to cycle between 15 and 24 miles a day, mostly on cycle paths, with the odd not-too-taxing ascent and the corresponding pay off of some gentle downhill stretches here and there.
Our first stop was the hamlet of Ribno, close to Lake Bled, around 22 miles north-west of Ljubljana airport. Hotel Ribno goes big on alpine stylings, with plenty of sturdy woodwork and rustic balconies on show, and is buried in a forest close to the Sava Bohinjka river. We immediately seized the chance for a preprandial stroll along its shores, including a quick-as-you-like plunge into ice-cold water the colour of spearmint, much to the surprise of a couple of local anglers.
Lake Bled itself is extraordinarily easy on the eye: postcard-friendly to the point of being almost saccharine, its shoreline marred only by a couple of ugly hotels that interrupt a natural sweetness of organic blues and greens. It’s also the sort of place that is inevitably submerged with tourists during the summer months.
Arrive by bicycle, though, and you avoid the traffic queues. Not that we were in any particular rush. We’d barely made the 1.2-mile length of the lake before a round of kremsnita, the local cream cake delicacy, intervened.
Then we parked up for a swim to Lake Bled island, which our Inntravel documents assured me was Slovenia’s only natural isle. I won’t lie, it was a bit further out than I’d expected, but topped by St Mary’s church, it was entirely beautiful, so when cramp began to overtake me (my advice: allow dairy-based snacks to digest before you take to the water) at least I had something spiritual to focus on as I pondered whether or not to call upon the lifeguarding skills of my elder son.
We were soon back en route, testing our thighs on the climb to Bled Castle (gloomy, brooding, magnificent) and zigzagging on a 5.5-mile detour to Vintgar Gorge, an extraordinary jagged fissure strung with boardwalks, its waters swirling and rushing towards a hydroelectric dam. You’ve probably worked out by now that the rest of my family are big swimmers. They took the opportunity to plunge into the freezing Radovna river and seemed – at least briefly – to enjoy themselves. I wasn’t going to be fooled twice.
Leaving Bled the next day we passed up into the hills and through the Radovna Valley, where meadow met river via maize field and elm forest, and swallows swooped. There is something wonderful about being given an access-all-areas pass to this world of tiny villages, rinky-dink bridges, garden flowers and cow bells. Slow travel? This felt more like time travel, a rural wonderland that – if you screwed your eyes up – seemed unchanged for centuries.
At Gozd Martuljek the spell was momentarily broken. Hotel Spik is a vast modern edifice that was probably quite the thing in 2008 when it was built, but is now a place that only Star Trek fans could truly love. The facilities are excellent – an indoor pool, badminton courts, volleyball, a playground for younger children – and the rooms themselves are smart, sleek affairs, but the vast glass-walled restaurant served up strangely stodgy buffet meals in a faintly chaotic atmosphere. One feature redeemed it all, though. Once you are inside, instead of looking at the hotel, you have the Gillette-sharp peaks of the Spik mountain to gawp at from your balcony: bare, brutal rock alternately hung with mist or glittering white in the summer sun, a bed of pine trees at its base.
We spent a day in the Upper Sava Valley, heading west towards the town of Kranjska Gora, where Austria, Italy and Slovenia intersect. Pelotons of young Slovenians shoaled past us occasionally, as well as more gingery rollerbladers, taking advantage of a cycle path that had been a railway line until the Sixties. The coffee got better as we headed towards Italy, too. A little cafe-bar next to the artificial Lake Jasna where we stopped for yet another swim gave the first hint of Illy, then after we’d criss-crossed the Sava Dolinka river a few times we were suddenly across the border and pedalling upwards to the twin Laghi di Fusine (the “inferior” lower lake being far more picturesque that the upper, “superior” one).
Here, at restaurant Edelweiss, we bagged the last of the strudel (mama could only face making a certain number each day, said her daughter, our waitress) before another round of excellent coffee saw us turn back towards Hotel Spik, via the extraordinary, precipitous Martuljek waterfalls, which are guarded by a strange forest of cairns, created by hundreds of slow travellers such as ourselves over the years.
We picked up the pace a little – only a little – after that. It was 23 miles gently downhill all the way to the Radovljica Plain and the village of Begunje, our next stop. En route, the town of Jesenice is big on steel manufacturing, with a peculiar hangar-like outdoor museum sprayed with graffiti and home to a selection of retired industrial machinery, the original purpose of which defeated us. We freewheeled on to tiny Breznica, once home to Anton Jansa, Slovenia’s bee-keeping hero of the 18th century. A shed’s worth of drawer-like painted beehives marked the spot, but no bees were home when we visited. They probably wouldn’t have approved of such dilettante travellers anyway. As Jansa himself noted of bees: “amongst all God’s beings there are none so hard working”.
Lambergh Chateau & Hotel at Begunje is a delight, the main accommodation building rising like a curvy Stickle Brick next to the chateau itself, with views out over the plain. While couples were shown round what is clearly a sought-after wedding venue, we explored the nearby forest, the ruined Kamen Castle at the top of the village, and Katzenstein Castle, a 16th-century complex that housed thousands of prisoners during the Nazi occupation from 1941-45. Here the sobering Museum of Hostages memorialises the inscriptions carved by inmates on the walls of the tiny cells.
It was all a bit jollier at the nearby Avsenik Restaurant. They were getting set up for the annual Slovenian accordion folk festival, a big deal in Begunje, and the streets had already begun to fill with merry chaps clad in leather breeches. It turned out we were missing the big shindig by just a day, an oversight that divided opinion among my family.
And then it was back to Bled, via the town of Radovljica, set on a rocky promontory above the Sava river, where Linhart Square retains its gracious layout from the 14th century. Rather than explore its renaissance town houses and palaces fully, we wolfed down a couple more kremsnita in preparation for a final activity that made me realise exactly why slow travel beats fast travel hands down.
There’s a summer toboggan slope above the shore of Lake Bled: steep and unnerving. It runs on a rail and you have to get a chairlift to the top. I had no wish to try it, but the boys fancied a go, as did hundreds of other people, it seemed. We waited about three quarters of an hour for our ticket to be called, then queued for the lift, and queued at the top some more. Finally, it was our turn. One by one we hurtled downwards for, ooh, several seconds of boneshaking terror, seeing nothing on the descent but blurry grass and – in my case – my own white knuckles on the brake.
The Daily Telegraph