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On the piste in Slovenia


‘Where are you from?’ I asked two girls I’d just met.

‘Slovenia,’ replied one of them.

‘Ah yes.’

‘Do you know where it is?’ she asked.

‘Of course, it’s the country next to the Czech Republic.’

They both glared at me and said in stereo, ‘No it’s not! It’s between Italy and Austria!’

It was on that day many years ago that helped put my ignorance in check and also helped me to impress a beautiful Slovenian girl I met in Spain who asked me the same thing. That beautiful girl is now my girlfriend, and she too gets very upset at people who don’t know where Slovenia is, and at people who think it is a poor, eastern-block country. Slovenia is none of the above, and is truly one of Europe’s best-kept secrets.

I boarded a Ryanair flight to Trieste in Italy, which borders Slovenia. My girlfriend, Nika, picked me up in her car. Lying on the Mediterranean coast, the border country was sunny and warm. Two hours later however, we were at Lake Bohinj in the Julian Alps, and it was not so warm and sunny.

I have never been so cold in all my life. It was minus 15ºC. We drove to the little lakeside village of Ribčev Laz (One of 20 villages in the Bohinj district) and booked into the family-owned Gasperin B&B, whose lighted Christmas tree and polished-pine interior exuded a welcoming warmth. The parents and their two sons had all worked together, building the house over a number of years. Excellent English was spoken by the son Peter, who lives there with his English girlfriend.

‘You obviously love it here then,’ I said.

‘How can you not love it here?’ she replied, and then opened a brochure to reveal a breathtaking aerial photo of Lake Bohinj.

All was quiet in town. I threw on several layers of thermals, wrapped a scarf around my entire face, pulled my woolly hat over my ears and we both headed out to the nearest pub. To help warm me up I ordered a honey brandy, which slid slowly down my throat, warming the airways as it went, and was absolutely delicious. After a few questions Nika found out that it was homemade and that I could buy a bottle from a nearby pub. So we did.

The next morning we set out for a snowy walk along the 12km walking trail that circles the lake. Lake Bohinj lies in the Triglav National Park, named after Mt Triglav; which at 2864m is Slovenia’s highest mountain. A little further east lies the town of Bled, whose lake of the same name with its ancient castle sitting high upon a cliff overlooking the lake, and island church is a mecca for the holidaymaker. However, Bohinj is far less commercial. At a length of 4100m, width 1200m and 45m at its deepest point, Bohinj is the largest and deepest lake in Slovenia. It lies wedged in a glacial valley of the Julian Alps, surrounded on all sides by soaring mountain backdrops that glistened in the crisp mountain air. The view from our room had been a picture postcard scene of snowy alpine landscape.

The sun was out, the sky was blue and this immensely beautiful lake seemed to go on forever. The Julian Alps and the forested shore of the lake were perfectly reflected in its still water. I would have gasped for breath at the first sight of it, if the cold wasn’t already causing me to do so. A bridge across the lake provided a picture perfect view, and some people were fishing down along the shore. The entire area was peaceful and serene. The icy snow made a crunching sound beneath our feet as we trudged into the alpine forest looking like two giant teddy bears.

During our walk we had been passed by a cross country skier, and a few families dragging their children on sleds. The sleds invoked memories of sledding in my youth, when we actually got snow in the winter. Bohinj and Bled lakes often freeze over during the winter, and are a wonderful sight to see. Locals and tourists alike walk across the ice, some pushing children in prams.

As you would imagine, this superb mountain range also provides many other winter sports. There are three ski resorts around Bohinj: Vogel, Kobla and Soriska planina.

At an altitude of 1800m, Vogel, which lies at the opposite end of the lake, is the most popular. Access to the slopes is via the newly built cable car, which is a truly death-defying vertical ride through a narrow valley on its steep slopes. Through the windows I watched as Lake Bohinj shrank in size and soon became a puddle surrounded by an immense rocky landscape of grand proportions. From the top the view is panoramic.

Nika’s father grew up here, but they now all live in the capital, Ljubljana. However, Ljubljana is only 75kms from Bohinj, so they regularly came here. Nika could ski from an early age, so fortunately I wasn’t in need of hiring one of the many instructors on offer at the ski centre here on the edge of the slopes. However, I was in need of a pair of skis, and was amazed at how cheap it was to hire a set for the day. This also included boots and ski suit, so fairly soon I was looking like James Bond, ready to ski down the mountain to save England. Once out on the slopes though, I looked more like Harry from Dumb & Dumber.

It’s also possible to simply walk around the ski slopes, which is a great thing to do in itself. We had done this a couple of days before, having taken one of the ski lifts across to the other side and walked back along the edges of the slopes. Watching all the other skiers it looked so easy. Children barely higher than my knees came zooming past at incredible speeds.

It’s a whole lot different though, when you are the one on the skis.

Having locked my boots into place, I began to edge forward slightly. I held the two ski sticks in my hands, and assumed a confident posture. That confident posture soon changed when I began sliding uncontrollably down the hill and ended up in a crumpled heap at the bottom. As I lifted my head out of the snow, a child skied past me and I could hear Nika laughing at the top of the hill.

The next day we tried out snowboarding. This time the tables were turned, and I was the slightly better snowboarder, having done skateboarding in my youth. It’s not as easy, but the principle is the same and therefore I actually managed to stay upright for sustained periods before crashing uncontrollably into a snowdrift, and leaving in it the imprint of my body.

Vogel is one of the best places to learn to ski. Many of the slopes are short and not too steep. But it does have a few longer, steeper slopes for the more seasoned skiers. Equipment hire is cheap, and instructors are available for group or one to one tuition. There is also a great restaurant where you can warm yourself up with hot drinks and delicious food.

Back in the village we found plenty of places to eat. Eating out in Slovenia is good value for money and a meal for two with drinks costs the same as a meal for one in my home country. Most of us associate Italy as having the best pizzas, but the Slovenian pizzerias could easily challenge that belief. It’s common in many restaurants here to cook a meal upon request, if the ingredients are available. Such is the way of the Slovenian people, who during my week here I had found to be some of the most welcoming and friendly people I’d known.

Having been independent from the former Yugoslavia for fifteen years now, this tiny country is struggling to be recognised by the outside world and shake off the stigma of its past. Contrary to popular belief, Slovenia is actually one of the most affluent of the ten countries that have joined the EU. I’ve little doubt that soon less people will be making the mistake I made pinpointing it on the map, and soon places like Lake Bohinj will become synonymous with other famous lakes around the world. So I suggest you go see it before that happens.

Ian Middleton is a freelance travel writer and photographer from the UK. He is the author of three travel narrative books and one travel guide to ancient Ireland, Mysterious World: Ireland. Ian has also written for several magazines, including Mysterious World, backpacker Ireland, Walking World Ireland, Take your car UK and the Slovenia Times newspaper. Ian’s photography has been published in Mysterious World: Ireland, Masa Acher magazine, Bradt Travel Guides and the Slovenia Times newspaper. For more information visit his website: http://www.ian-middleton.co.uk

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