One of Europe’s best kept secrets, this irresistibly beautiful country is easy to fall in love with, says Sudeshna Ghosh.
One might go to Slovenia for the emerald lakes, picture-perfect alpine scenery, and overall awe-inspiring landscapes, but what one might stay for – and believe me, it isn’t unusual for people to come here for a holiday, and never leave! – is the interesting, varied culinary scene, which is definitely having a moment right now. Within its compact size, this country nestled in the foothills of the Julian Alps, probably has more cultural and natural riches to offer per square foot than most countries.
Often compared to Prague – with the same historic and architectural charm, but without the tourist throngs – Ljubljana (the J is silent), the Slovenian capital, is tiny, as befits this tiny nation bordered by Austria, Italy, Croatia and Hungary. Like most other European capitals, the city’s cobbled streets are paved with history – Ljulblana was a medieval settlement that went on to be an administrative centre for the Austrian empire with its strategic location between the Adriatic and Danube trade route, and later, part of communist Yogoslavia, having been occupied by Italian fascists in between, to become an independent nation in 1991. This history remains intact in the pedestrian-friendly city centre where the Baroque and Art Nouveau-style buildings dating back to the 1600s are interspersed with more modern 19th century architectural structures. Comfortably coupling that historic charm is an effortlessly trendy vibe and modern sophistication that exudes from the city’s up-and-coming design scene and its people – friendly and patriotic, but in a quiet, unflamboyant way, Slovenes are the best ambassadors of their nation’s many attractions.
Most of the action in the city takes place along the Ljublanca riverfront, with a multitude of cafes, restaurants and bars where you can stop for a leisurely drink, great wood-fired pizzas (it is mere hours from the Italian border after all), coffee, or traditional Slovene fare. The Macek Café, one of Ljublana’s oldest, is a bit of a local institution, with its rustic-style interiors made up of exposed brick walls decorated with photo frames and prime waterfront alfresco area – perfect for people-watching and brew-savouring.
After a wander along the river that snakes its way through the city and its many bridges (from the historic Triple Bridge to the now ubiquitous lock bridge – in Ljublana’s case, a contemporary glass structure where lovers seal their love with padlocks that have their keys thrown into the river), past the main Preseren square and Town Hall, you would have worked up an appetite. Make your way up the short uphill track then, to the Ljublanski Grad, or Ljublana castle, for a gourmet meal accompanied by stunning city views, at the Strelec restaurant, set in one of the castle’s archer’s tower.
Drawing upon the castle’s medieval heritage, the restaurant epitomises the marriage of history with modernism, both in its décor and the menu. The historic architectural elements have been carefully preserved, with modern glass and metal fitting into the stone construction in a way that somehow works. This fusion is reflected in the creative menu designed by food historian Jenez Bogatej, and Slovene celebrity chef Igor Jagodic where you can expect reinventions of traditional Slovenian cuisine in a stylishly elegant setting. Here, the wait staff may be dressed in medieval costume, but are well-versed on contemporary cuisine and viticulture and are happy to recommend from their poetically titled menu which includes gourmet dishes like Poor people’s bread (potatoes stuffed with egg yolk, potato foam, truffles, chervil, red wine and truffle reduction, grated truffles); Brook trout fillet with quail egg, horseradish snow, chervil cream (with the fish coming from nearby streams); and What about town’s hunters? (saddle of venison, roast beets on coarse salt, buckwheat rolls stuffed with foie gras, black walnut), along with an array of soups, a Slovenian staple, and classic desserts like apple strudel.
Contemporary interpretations of the traditional is what chefs in Ljublana are clearly excited about now, as is also evidenced at the über-trendy Vander restaurant. Sited in the Vander Urbani resort (see Travel Diary), the restaurant offers fresh, seasonally-inspired traditional Slovenian cuisine with a contemporary twist. The glass and chrome interiors, as well as an alfresco area spilling out into the narrow pedestrian alley it sits on, may be as modern as it gets, but the philosophy espoused by chef de cuisine Benjamin Launay goes right back to basics – the menu changes not only with the seasons, but also on what is available at the markets each day, Vander’s in-house ‘gatherers’ source produce from local forests to use in the cooking, and each dish is cooked to respectfully showcase the ingredient. The proof is in the (delicious) pudding – or, in this case, the starter and main too! – as the outlet buzzes with the lively activity of local gourmands most evenings and weekends.
Another restaurant celebrating local produce is the soon-to-open The 5 Kitchen, an international cuisine restaurant from an Indian entrepreneur, which, inspired by the cuisine of five main continents and five tastes, will offer a small, regularly-changing menu based on what is seasonally available.
And if international flavours is what you’re after, then, make like the locals, and head to Hood burger, which offers gourmet burgers made with ingredients from Slovenian producers, out of a converted shipping container, in a supermarket parking lot of a residential area.
In fact, in Slovenia, the idea of eating sustainably – whether it’s sourcing local or nose-to-tail consumption – appears to have been a way of life long before it became a fashionable term around the world. The traditional cuisine encompasses influences from the Balkan region, the Mediterranean, and the Alps. And so embedded is locavorism in the culture, that even within the 20,000 odd sq.km space, there are 24 different gastronomic regions. Therefore, there isn’t one single description for Slovenian cuisine, as you might find the prevalence of Italian-style pasta dishes near the western border with Italy, and more heavy Hungarian-influenced goulashes in the north-east. Typically hearty, sausages and local cheeses play a starring role in the cuisine throughout, alongside meats – particularly pork – and seasonal vegetables. Almost everything is made with what is available locally, and all the parts of each ingredient is used where possible.
Nowhere is this better experienced than in the central market, a colourful open-air farmers’ market in the Vodnik square steps away from the riverfront and city centre. Open every morning except Sundays, here you can browse among stalls selling fine fresh produce, local delicacies, bakery and dairy products, fresh flowers and even arts & crafts, and you are bound to pick up a foodie souvenir or two, to take home.
The market is also good place to sample regional Slovene specialties such as the Karst dry-cured ham, prsut, that develops a unique taste thanks to the unique micro-climate of the Karst region which enjoys salty Mediterranean air. The kranjska klobasa, or traditional smoked sausage, is also a must-try – not dissimilar to the better known Polish sausages, it is a mark of the nation’s Balkan heritage.
While there is much more to Slovenian cuisine than the typically East European sausages, potatoes and ancient grains like buckwheat and millet, a good place to get a taste for the classic cuisine is Sokol – a traditional Gostilna (inn) located in a historic building in the city centre, to try a filling, peasant-style feast. Although a little bit touristy, it’s popular for a reason, offering a peek into tradition in terms of atmosphere, food, and wine.
Slovenia’s wines are probably one of the most under-rated in Europe (and I can’t shake the feeling they don’t mind keeping it their own private national treasure), with local vineyards, particularly in the Brda region (see Don’t-miss destinations) producing some beautiful wines that benefit from the rich terroir and unique climatic conditions. Most Slovene wines are white, but they also have some varieties of red.
Another foodie fact about Slovenia that not many people know about is their salt. Gourmet salts drawn from the Secovlje salt basin on Slovenia’s Adriatic coast using centuries-old natural methods have led to them becoming a prized possession amongst leading chefs; you too can add some to your pantry at surprisingly affordable prices at Piranske Soline, a salt haven filled with more salt varieties than you thought existed, and accessories to match, also located conveniently in the Ljubljana city centre.
This is just one of many of Slovenia’s seductive secrets, that one could easily spend weeks discovering. And Ljublana, for all it has to offer, is but a starting point for exploring more. Yes, one might go to Slovenia for the emerald lakes and picture-perfect alpine scenery – if they are in the know. It is simply a matter of time before the rest of the world wakes up to what they’ve been missing, so my recommendation would be to make it to unspoilt Slovenia before they arrive.
Most of Slovenia’s best known nature spots are a short drive or day-trip distance from Ljublana. These three are must-visits:
Scenic Soca The Soca valley in Western Slovenia, with the clear-enough-to-see-through alpine river rushing through it, is an Instagrammer’s delight, with jaw-dropping landscapes everywhere you turn. The Triglav National Park is a conservation area with a pretty, pastoral feel; there are are plenty of small B&Bs and guesthouses to check in to, dotted across the region, for an overnight stay. Pristava Lepena is a charming, rustic-style hideaway tucked away in a forested mountainside, where the elegant white-linen restaurant, complete with inviting fireplace, serves up contemporary versions of regional specialties, with a focus on local ingredients – whether it’s trout from the nearby Soca river, or pasta with wild mushrooms. They also offer accommodation.
Beautiful Bled Popular as a weekend getaway for Slovenes as well as a destination for international tourists, the glacial Bled lake in the Carniola region is a glimmering gem in Slovenia’s crown. A Medieval castle, Slovenia’s oldest, perched precariously at a cliff edge on an island in the middle of the lake might be its biggest tourist draw, but the little town that has developed along the lake’s banks is also lovely for a meander and a meal. Try Peglez restaurant, on the main strip bordering the lake, for hearty, honest food that is generous both in portion sizes and flavour, served up in a rustic, Provencal ambience, with friendly service to match. Bled’s other claim to fame is the Kremna Rezina, a layered vanilla and custard cream cake that originates from here. Light yet decadent, enjoy this delicious cake with coffee while soaking in the gorgeous views at the one of the lakefront restaurants.
Gorgeous Goriska BrdaSlovenia’s best known wine region, Brda, located near the western border with Italy, boasts stunning vistas of rolling hills carpeted with vineyards, and dotted with charming, historic red-roofed hamlets. Stop by Klet Dobrovo, a traditional wine cellar housed in a historic castle, to sample some fine wines, while munching on fresh cheese, bread and ham – it’s the ultimate summation of life’s simple pleasures!
Getting there While Ljubljana has an international airport, the easiest direct flight from Dubai is to Vienna, from where Slovenia is a two-three hour drive away; both Emirates (www.emirates.com) and Austrian airlines (www.austrian.com) offer flights. Rent a car from Hertz’s convenient airport location, who offer a wide selection of vehicles of all sizes and specs (www.hertz.at), and enjoy the scenic journey across European countryside.
Staying there The Vander Urbani resort is a trendy, sexy, stylish boutique hotel located in the heart of the city, where four inter-connected heritage townhouses has been converted to morph into a designer destination – it is a member of the elite Design Hotels collection. With just 16 rooms, the careful and clever use of space gives the compact hotel a luxe vibe, complete with a lovely little rooftop pool. A steel grey and violet colour scheme, along with exposed concrete walls and mirrors, come together to create a space that is modern minimalist, yet never cold, with no compromises made on the luxury front – whether it’s the Frette linens, Molton Brown bathroom amenities or the attention to detail in the little touches. Room rates start from US$167 (around Dhs600), visit www.vanderhotel.com.