Canadians know that any country sitting in the shadow of a more popular neighbour is often overlooked. Spare a thought for Slovenia, that small nation in Central Europe within sight – quite literally – of Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. While international visitors to Europe might beeline to nearby Venice or Milan, Salzburg, Budapest or even Zagreb, many would be hard pressed to locate Ljubljana on the map, much less be able to pronounce it. Slovenia lacks the attention of its more famous neighbours, but discovering its historical capital, frosted peaks, glimmering lakes and lush countryside, it’s clear this modest nation can compete with all of them.
With its central location and abundant natural beauty, Slovenia was considered a prize territory for the conquering armies of Rome, Austria-Hungary, Croatia, Germany, Serbia, Italy, and finally, the Communists who incorporated it into Yugoslavia. Claiming its independence with an impressive lack of political turmoil in 1991, Slovenia officially joined the European Union in 2004, adopting the euro but keeping its identity intact. The nation of two million people has quietly got on with the business of becoming one of the most prosperous, stable, and successful of all the post-Soviet states. It frequently ranks among Europe’s best economies, scores big in lifestyle indexes, and it really wants you to not confuse it with Slovakia, a different (and take it from me, less impressive) country altogether.
As I wander the streets and canals of old Ljubljana (say it with me: Yoo-bli-yana), I’m reminded of Copenhagen, Stockholm and Budapest. Yet Ljubljana feels cleaner and more civilized than those capitals, immaculately maintained with arty cafes, old world architecture, copper Church steeples, ample bike lanes and manicured parks. Locals roam about, stylishly dressed in that casual, modern European manner of looking fantastic without much effort. I take care not to trip on the city’s polished cobblestone for fear of cutting myself on those striking Slavic cheekbones. Students bike across the Games of Thrones-ish Dragon Bridge and distinctive Triple Bridge, the public art is impressive, and even the urban graffiti is tasteful. Overlooked by the 900-year-old Ljubljana Castle, the capital is a template for any great European capital, with half the tourists.
I expect to find more visitor’s at Slovenia’s premier tourist attraction, historic Lake Bled. Sitting at the foothills of the towering Julian Alps, you might have seen images of the lake on screensavers or Instagram or any platform hoping to illicit a ‘wow, where the hell is that?’ response. It had taken me less than an hour to drive the smooth highway from Ljubljana, and ‘WOW’ got cap-locked when Lake Bled came into view. Framed by mountains and thick forest, the placid, emerald-coloured water has a small island in the centre with a notable European landmark. The gothic Church of Mary the Queen was first consecrated in the twelfth century, and restored to its current state in the seventeenth century. “Europe,” as Eddie Izzard remarks, “where History comes from.” Long before the island became a site of Christian pilgrimage, it was a cult centre for Slavs to worship the Goddess of Love and Fertility. Fittingly, couples flock from around Europe for destination weddings in one of several grand lakeside hotels, the remains of former royal palaces. Tradition holds that grooms must carry their bride up ninety-nine steps to the chapel, and ring the famous bell three times for good luck. Judging by the strain I see on the flummoxed faces of several men, carrying anyone up ninety-nine steep steps and then ringing a heavy bell is more difficult than it appears. The rest of us will just fall in love with the warm, azure water, four-hundred-year-old rowboat transportation (called pletnas), lovely ambiance and a location so striking you’d think it had been airbrushed onto the cover of a romance novel.
Visitors to Slovenia often complain they should have allotted more time. More time to explore the notably affordable all-season mountain resorts. More time to hike, fish, bike, raft, and enjoy the country’s abundant outdoor splendor. More time to visit Lipica, the ‘cradle of the race’ of the unicorn-white Lipizzaner horse that have dazzled dressage events for centuries. More time for show caves, the world’s deepest underground canyon, the robber-thief Predjama Castle, or visits to old churches and abbeys. The country is compact and easy to get around, English is widely spoken, and the local cuisine draws heavily on the best traditions of its neighbours: outstanding beer influenced by Hungary; pizza, gelato and coffee by Italy; schnitzels and pastries by Austria.
Yes, we know all about living in the rain shadow of a more famous country that soaks up the world’s attention. This is why Canadians will particularly appreciate that quiet, overlooked and underrated Slovenia might just be the most enticing country in all of Europe – east, west, and otherwise.
During the course of my travels, I’ve chanced upon some places so romantically charged that I could hear the blues tugging on my heartstrings. Since it’s my job to share my secrets, I present a gallery, alternatively titled: 8 Places I Really Did Not Want to be Travelling Single.
Sunset from the Rose Garden, Cappadocia, Turkey
It’s a remarkable view over a remarkable landscape. Thousands of strange rock formations can be found in this region of central Turkey, where people have lived in caves for thousands of years, and “fairy chimneys” pointing at the sky give an alien charm. A popular sunset spot called the Rose Garden is a short drive from the main town of Gorome. Here, the rocks glow as pink as the cheeks of the lovers enjoying the moment. The fairy chimneys are also undeniably phallic, just in case you needed something to stroke your imagination.
Drifting Amongst the Firebugs, Malaysia
Picture the scene: You’re floating down a river just after dusk, the silence broken by wooden oars dipping into the still water. An old man rows in the traditional fashion – standing at the bow, his back towards you, his leathered arms in perfect rhythm with each stroke. The night is young, the air is warm. All of sudden, you see a tiny flash of light, then another, then another. Rounding a bend, your jaw drops as the trees on either side of the river look like lights in a disco, pulsing with thousands upon thousands of tiny neon flashes. Firebugs glow as part of their mating ritual, and the romance of such a moment is thick. I turn to my guide: “You’re a great guy Mr Kabir, but right now, I kind of wish you were a single girl.”
To which he replies: “No offence Mr Robin, but I wish the same.” Unfortunately, firebugs hate posing for photos, so here’s the river before the disco opens.
Overnight in a Bedouin Tent, Wadi Rum, Jordan
Deserts are hot places to be, just like our most feverish romantic dreams. In Wadi Rum - a desolate but beautiful valley of sand, punctuated by mountains of rock - it is possible to ride into the desert on camel, and spend the night in a traditional Bedouin tent. A gourmet meal is cooked in ancient fashion; by baking meats and vegetables beneath the hot sand, served with pita, salad, humus, and all the delicious trimmings. You’re free to explore the surrounding rock hills, feeling the dry air blowing in your hair, listen to the crackle of the fire while shooting stars spray across the clear night sky. It was an incredible night, pity I was being filmed by the Word Travels crew, and, with no one to cuddle with, picked up a nasty cold.
Bled Island, Bled, Slovenia
Slovenia is a jewel of a country in central Europe, and the waters of Lake Bled shimmer with an emerald glow. European aristocrats have always flocked to its quiet summer shores, and in the middle of the lake rests the country’s only natural island, a striking view for the first-time visitor. The first church was built here in the 11th century, the current steeple dates to the 1500’s, and 99 steps lead up to sanctuary. Legend has it that if a groom can carry his bride up the stairs, it will be a lasting and successful marriage. It might be too much a feat in this day and age, but the romance and beauty of the island, coupled with the surrounding Julian Alps, are better than flowers and a box of chocolates.
Blackwater Rafting, Waitomo, New Zealand
Somewhat similar to our Malaysia experience, only this time, we’re in the water, underground, and floating through caves on a rubber tube. It’s a typically adventurous activity for visitors to New Zealand, so how does this end up on my Romance list? Deep in the caves, it is pitch dark save for the light of your headlamp. A wetsuit keeps you warm, but the cool underground stream rushing over your skin cannot help but get the goose bumps flaring. Eventually, you make your way to a cavern where you sit in a big, black rubber tube, link your legs around your partner, and float downstream like waterproof doughnuts. Your guide asks you to switch off your light, and then you see them: a milky way of stars, deep in the earth. Phosphorus glow worms twinkle, and all you can hear is the drip of water, and the breathless sigh of those around you.
The Locks of the 3 Gorges Dam, China
It’s been described as the most ambitious engineering project in history, a marvel of science, the redesign of nature by man. China has damned the Yangzte, the third biggest river in the world, and the 3 Gorges Dam, the world’s largest, will generate the equivalent energy of 18 nuclear power plants upon completion. Cruises have been operating for years, and sit outside, in the early morning humidity, while massive transfer and cargo ships make their way through the five immense locks. Intelligence, power, size and ambition are all aphrodisiacs, and they all meet right here, as your ship drops metres at a time, protected from disaster by the ominous gates that hold back the floods. It’s a surreal experience, and oddly enough, an exotically romantic one too.
Ilha Grande, Brazil
This photo was taken in Ilha Grande, but to be honest, it could be anywhere in Brazil. Anywhere in a country where couples will randomly start dancing on old cobblestone, sometimes to music that’s only playing in their heads. Public displays of affection don’t go down in Canada too well, but in Brazil, and throughout Latin America, it is common sight to see couples smooching their lips off, at the dinner table, on the streets, hell, even in a bank meeting. And it’s not just the young folks either. Elderly lovers are as into it as the teenagers. The result is an undeniable atmosphere of romance, where love is proudly on display, and if you feel like you need to watch, well, then, go ahead.
Badeschiff Bar, Berlin, Germany
Why swim in the river, when you can swim in a swimming pool in the river? Another warm summer night, and the hip beach bars that have sprung up alongside Berlin’s Spree River are starting to get busy. DJ’s are playing some smooth jazzy beats, the cocktails have umbrellas, and it’s the perfect time to strip down and take a dip in the pool. Swimming over water is a weirdly romantic, not to mention wet, surprise, here in the heart of the Berlin.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.