2 perfect days in Slovenia. Day 1 – Exploring the Karst region
Day 1 – Exploring the Karst region
Slovenia is one of Europe’s smallest countries and, squeezed between Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia, it is easy to overlook in favor of its more prominent neighbors. It is precisely because of its compact size (you can get from the capital city of Ljubljana to almost any point of the country in about 3 hours’ drive or less), varied landscape (mountains, lakes, caves, and a tiny stretch of Adriatic coast), and great food and wine that I love this tiny country and would recommend it to anyone, whether as a destination in itself or as an add-on to a trip to Croatia.
This could be done as a day-trip from Ljubljana or as a series of stops if driving between the Istrian Peninsula in Croatia and the Lake Bled (which is how I did it). Do not expect people to speak much English out in the countryside (although many may speak Italian), so having a good local guide and driver who can help with navigating the local roads, provide information, and translate when needed would greatly enhance your experience.
Slovenia’s Karst region is in essence a limestone plateau which occupies the area between Ljubljana, the Adriatic coast, and the Italian border, and is rich in underground rivers which have cut picturesque gorges and extensive cave systems. Many of the caves are open to the public and the two main ones – the Postojna and the Skocjan, are among the country’s top attractions and draw over a million of visitors each year.
Skocjan Cave – Once you arrive at the information center and ticket office, you would join a group in your respective language (the schedule of the guided tours can be found at their website) and be taken by your guide on a short downhill walk to the cave’s entrance. Please wear comfortable walking / hiking shoes and a light jacket as the temperature underground is a constant 53°F. The walk takes about 1.5 hours and covers parts of the cave network with some beautiful geological formations, natural bridges, and an amazing underground canyon. At the cave’s exit, there is a small funicular taking visitors up and out of the gorge. You can take the standard guided tour through the underground canyon, a shorter tour of the ‘new’ part following the Reka River underground, or an extended tour combining both and exploring the entire cave system.
I had been to Postojna before and was curious as to how it compares to Skocjan which is somewhat less-known but its miles of underground passages are UNESCO-protected. I can now say that if I had to pick one, I would recommend visiting the Skocjan Caves. Postojna felt more touristy as its entrance has been developed with the usual collection of souvenir shops and fast-food restaurants and the tour starts with a theme-park-like train ride into the caves and ends with a gift shop. Skojcan, on the other hand, felt more isolated and less crowded and once inside it was straight out of ‘Lord of the Rings’ – dark, huge, and a bit eerie. Please note that taking photos and video is not allowed in the cave.
Not far from Skocjan, ask your driver to stop in the village of Lokev at the Pr’Betanci farm and restaurant to try some of the Karst’s traditional homemade dishes or simply snack on local cheese and prsut (dried ham similar to the Italian prosciutto).
Continuing with your drive further west, you will soon reach the Lipica Horse Farm which was founded in the 16th century in order to provide horses for the Habsburg army and the court in Vienna and nowadays continues the tradition of breeding and training the Lipizzaner white stallions made famous by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace.
If you like horses and / or are traveling with children, then the horse farm should be on your to-do list when visiting Slovenia. Guided tours of the farm and museum in several languages are available daily throughout the year and these include going into the stables and getting a really close look at these gracious creatures. Did you know that Lipizzaners are actually born grey or black and only turn dazzling white when they are about 6 years’ old? In addition, there are riding demonstrations on certain days of the week during the summer season and carriage rides in the surrounding countryside can also be arranged. Best to contact the farm in advance to reconfirm the availability and schedule.
The area around Lipica includes an extensive network of bicycle trails which can be used for trips of different duration and intensity. A good one starts at the horse farm and continues all the way to the Skocjan for a tour of the caves or a walk through the park on top of the caves and then a stop at the village of Lokev for lunch before cycling back to Lipica. Bikes, helmets, and a biking guide can be hired locally. What a gorgeous day would that be with some biking, walking / hiking, local food and wine, and visiting two of Slovenia’s most famed attractions – the Lipica Farm and the UNESCO-protected Skocjan caves?
Just a short half-hour drive north of Lipica, I suggest stopping in the village of Dutovlje which is located in one of the country’s main wine-growing regions and hosts an annual Festival of the Teran wine and Prosciutto in August which includes wine cellar visits, wine and food tastings, performances, and demonstrations of traditional local crafts like wood carving and stone cutting. This whole area is dotted with small wineries and family-run restaurants which offer the chance to not only try delicious homemade food and the robust red Teran wine, but to also meet some of the locals, have a chat, and learn about their everyday life.
We stopped at the Boris Lisjak winery and this turned out to be the highlight of the day. I have visited quite a few wineries and some tend to be more commercial and impersonal as they focus on larger groups visiting on organized tours while others are much more boutique and less touristy.
As is often the case, the personality and approach of the host makes all the difference and thanks to Boris Lisjak our visit was a truly unforgettable experience. A seventh-generation winemaker, Boris is truly passionate about what he does and about the region’s wine traditions. His family’s small wine production specializes in local grape varieties (including the Teran) and the walls of his home are covered by certificates and awards won at oenological competitions throughout the years.
He showed us his wine cellars and then sat to chat with us as we tasted 5 (before I started losing count) of his excellent wines accompanied by thin slices of local cheese and prosciutto ham. Could there possibly be a more perfect end of this wonderful day?!