All this wellness was very tiring. During the past three days, I’d been massaged with the essence of the Pannonian meadows and steeped in black mineral water; I’d been stimulated with septarian nodules and scrubbed with beer and chocolate; I’d drunk an age-old elixir, slapped out my bad energy and vibrated to the frequency of the sun. Now, finally, sinking into crisp white-cotton sheets, hidden down a dead-end valley, I felt very relaxed.
Slovenia as a whole is something of a balm. With a population of only two million, dotted around a country that’s 60 per cent tree-covered and 90 per cent hill or mountain, there’s a sense in which just being here is like a dose of on-trend shinrin-yoku – forest bathing. But Slovenia also has a history of more specific healing-by-nature, and I was spending a long weekend trying it out.
I started in Moravske Toplice, in far-eastern Prekmurje, which is in a way the least "Slovenian" of regions, being uncharacteristically flat. This is farming country, with wheat fields waving all the way to the Hungarian border. It’s also where a company drilling for oil in the Sixties found a quite different type of "black gold".
Sinking into one of the outdoor pools at the Terme 3,000 spa resort now, I was a little unnerved by the signage: ‘This water has not been disinfected and may contain microorganisms that pose the risk of infectious diseases.’ But I’d been assured that bathing in this inky, mineral-rich hot spring was beneficial for everything from poor circulation and inflammation to pain and stress relief. Similarly, after masseuse Edina had given me a delicious pummelling with herb-infused oils, I was told that being in a room with a couple of rare 15-million-year-old Miocene septaria – rocks high in healing energy, dug up nearby – would help with feelings such as disappointment and despair. I lay there, listening to Phil Collins filtering through the sound system, trying to work out my emotions. Overall, Terme 3,000 seemed a bit old-fashioned, but I rather liked its unpretentious air. Or maybe that was the influence of the rocks?
Certainly good for the system was Prekmurjian cuisine, sampled that evening at nearby Rajh. This fourth-generation family restaurant introduced me to bucno (pumpkin seed oil), good for both bladder issues and taste buds; I developed an instant addiction, slathering the unctuous nuttiness over everything from salad to ice cream. Rajh also served some excellent local grape, in Slovenian-made Rogaska glasses – the very vessels used at Donald Trump’s inauguration (Melania being arguably the world’s most famous Slovene). And the next day, I was Rogaska bound.
The town of Rogaska Slatina, in the more bulbous Savinja region, isn’t known only for its crystalware; it is also famed for its water. Officially discovered in the 17th century and, according to legend, created by the hoof-stamp of Pegasus, the spring here has an extremely high magnesium content. This makes it taste like sucking a salty spanner but it is reputedly excellent for everything from stiff joints to hangovers. ‘Just don’t take too much in one day,’ I was warned, as I filled my beaker from a tap inside the large drinking hall. ‘It has pronounced laxative properties.’
People come from all over to sip Donat Mg, as the water is known, and to check-in for detoxes, retreats or medical rehab at the multi-hotel resort developed here. I nipped into the spa of the Grand Hotel Sava, where I lay listening to Tibetan singing bowls before sweating in the Finnish sauna and braving the cold pool outside. Later, I strolled down the preternaturally neat main promenade, via the older classical buildings and tidy gardens, just as Europe’s great aristocrats – the Habsburgs, Bonapartes and Hohenzollerns – once had.
If Moravske Toplice was retro and Rogaska more historic-luxe, my next stop, the thermal spa centre of Terme Olimia, right on the Croatian border, was more down with the kids. Literally for the
kids was a huge slide-splashy water park, as well as the Termalija family wellness complex, where the whole brood could de-stress. However, I was more interested in the large, adults-only Orhidelia spa, a more contemporary set-up attracting a younger crowd.
The mood was immediately set to cool by the dark-grey, pink-purple colour scheme, the high ceilings, the swim-up bar and the multitude of intimate spaces, including waterbed rooms where you can listen to music via headphones. I floated down one lazy river and was unexpectedly spat into a sort-of aqua auditorium: a dark cavern with disco lights on the ceiling and Jacuzzi jets fizzing at the edges. There’s a daily sauna programme, too. So I tried the ‘sound bath’, which involved lying in a darkened room while a man played a gong, creating an extraordinary wall of sound. ‘The vibrations can last in the body for up to four days,’ he told us. This was more successful than my visit to the hammam, where I began sipping the cup of chocolate I’d been given, just seconds before being told to rub it over my person. It was, incidentally, delicious.
Eating and spa-ing were more intentionally combined at Lasko. This town, a little further west, is known primarily for its healing thermal waters, recognised since at least Roman times, and for its beer: the Lasko Brewery, one of Slovenia’s biggest, was founded in 1825. So it seemed fitting, on arrival at the Thermana Lasko resort, to ignore the brilliant-looking swimming pool and oily Ayurveda programme to opt instead for the ‘Beer Pamper’ – a massage using products made from grains and hops.
After all this wellness – some weird, some wonderful – it was a pleasure to arrive at Vila Planinka. This new retreat, which opened in February, is only a 25-minute drive from Ljubljana airport but felt like unlocking the door to Narnia. There’s only one road into the Jezersko valley and it barely fits, squeezing and twisting between river, rock walls and beech and spruce trees to reach the little village at the end. This idyllic spot, with its oozing glaciers and aquamarine lake, should be a tourist honeypot. But because Austria sits just over the mountains, there was a big military presence here during the Yugoslavia years, which kept development at bay.
Now, Jezersko has a small museum and a church with exquisite 15th-century frescoes. And it has Vila Planinka, built as a simple inn in the Thirties but recently renovated – using only natural materials – into the sort of boutique bolt-hole you dream of finding in the mountains. The villa has a small, aromatic wooden sauna and a cask dispensing gassy, mineral-rich water collected from the nearby spring.
But the wellness here is largely provided by nature. TVs are hidden in cabinets; guests are encouraged to pop their phones into little woollen pockets and forget all about them, concentrating on the view instead. This I did happily: the barmen poured me a locally-made drink called Brisalec Spomina (‘memory eraser’) and I sipped it as the log fire crackled and the rain raced down the big glass windows, turning the valley beyond into a late-era Monet of swimming greens.
In the morning, I took a stroll before breakfast. It was still raining, but it was my last chance for some Slovene therapy before heading home.
Centuries ago, four ‘energy points’ were found hereabout, which are said to have a soothing effect. However, head down against the drizzle, I walked right past one without noticing. I was more affected by Jezersko’s lake, actually a man-made pool created by locals as a reminder of a larger glacial lake that drained away. It was soothing, watching the drops pitter on the surface and the mist lacing its fingers around the surrounding trees.
They say that if you wash your face in this lake every day, you never get old. Or maybe it’s just that if you live here among the mountains, with your phone tucked well out of sight, you don’t really care.
Five places to relax in Slovenia
1. Terme 3,000
Three hotels share the blackwater thermal springs of Moravske Toplice; other facilities include a huge water park, saunas, pools and golf course. The style is a touch old-fashioned but good value: Pannonian meadow massages cost from Dh145; half-board doubles, with use of many facilities, from Dh255pp per night (sava-hotels-resorts.com).
2. Rogaska Slatina
The magnesium-rich spring is surrounded by several hotels offering an array of wellness and medical packages. A week-long, full-board, treatment-packed cleanse starts at a reasonable Dh4,050; a single dose of Donat Mg costs Dh12 (rogaska.si).
3. Terme Olimia
Hotel Sotelia, part-sunk into the hillside, is top choice at this modern wellness complex; tunnels connect it to the funky Orhidelia spa. Half-board doubles with spa entry cost from Dh430pp per night; day-entrance from Dh113 (terme-olimia.com).
4. Thermana Lasko
This riverside resort is highly regarded for its medical and rehabilitation facilities. It has a thermal water park under a glass dome that can be opened in summer. A four-day, half-board Beer Pamper package, including a beer butter massage and brewery tour, costs from Dh1,345pp (thermana.si).
5. Vila Planinka
This guesthouse tucked away in a little valley has alpine-chic rooms and a farm-to-table focused restaurant. B&B doubles from Dh790 (vilaplaninka.com).
The Daily Telegraph