Slovenia is now in my Soul

October 2019

Whenever we travel I always wonder what makes a trip or place special? Is it the timing, the people you share it with and meet along the way, the beauty of the country? For Slovenia it was all of these things and I fell deeply in love and felt an immediate sense of belonging.

We decided to spend our fall break on a road trip through Slovenia visiting the towns and surrounding areas of Lake Bled and Kobarid and then swinging back up through Austria staying a night in Zell am See. The inspiration for the trip came one late night watching The Chef’s Table when an episode popped up featuring a female chef named Ana Roš in a remote town in Slovenia called Kobarid. She was named The World’s Best Female Chef in 2017 and together with her husband Valter Kramar run the famous restaurant Hiša Franko. I wouldn’t call Scott and I “foodies”. We do love great food and wine, however, we really are drawn more to the story behind the scenes and the artists who dream and take chances. Ana’s story is so unique and beautiful and I wanted to see it for myself. We were able to get a reservation for Hiša Franko and I made our travel plans around that much anticipated evening.

The first stop for the week was Salzburg, Austria which is a little over three hours from our house. The boys had never been to Salzburg and I thought it would be a nice pit stop on the way to Lake Bled. Salzburg is such and easy, walkable, small city located just over the Austrian border surrounded by the Eastern Alps. We arrived at the Hotel & Villa Auersperg around 1:00 (I had in my mind that we would be up and on the road super early so we would have a full day to explore Salzburg but that didn’t happen!). It is a boutique hotel in the middle of Salzburg within walking distance of everything. Onsite parking is included as well as an arrival cocktail and delicious bio/regionally sourced breakfast. We had to rooms across from each other in the Villa which is the building next to the main house.

I didn’t have much planned for Salzburg knowing that we had a week ahead of hikes and sightseeing. We really just spent our day wandering. My two anchor points were the Hohensalzburg Fortress for a little culture and history and Augustiner Bräu one of my favorite spots in Salzburg for dinner and a cold beer.

The Hohensalzburg Fortress has a dominant presence as it overlooks Salzburg and provides the perfect back drop for the lovely town. Since we had been in the car all morning I insisted we walk up to the fortress and that was definitely not met with much excitement. It is steep but nice walk and really only around 15 minutes from the bottom to top. There is an entrance fee to the fortress and since we were arriving late in the day the our only option was the Footpath Panorama tour which did not include the museum since it was closing. I do think I saw some mental high fives amongst the guys as museums aren’t always on the top of their list. We made the best of our time and the gorgeous day wandering the grounds and then having a snack and drink at the outdoor biergarten watching the sun go down over the Alps. Everyone was refueled as we started our descent back down to town.

We took our time strolling the cobblestone streets on our way to the brewery stopping to play chess on the giant board located in the Kapitelplatz. By the time we made it to the Augustiner Bräu the boys were “starving” and we were dangerously close to things going ugly. An interesting thing about traveling in Germany and Austria is that everyone shares tables. In these large beer halls it is quite acceptable to walk up to a table and ask to join. Talking to strangers is not in my comfort zone but luckily I have a couple of extroverts in my family who like the challenge. Even though the Augustiner was packed being a Saturday evening Scott was quickly able to locate a family that looked like they wouldn’t mind our company even with the “I might die soon from hunger” looks on my boys’ faces. They nicely gave up five chairs, dinner and drinks were purchased and everything was back on track.

We had a chill dinner enjoying the ambience of the brewery and eventually made our way back to our hotel. We woke up to a fantastic breakfast and coffee, packed the car back up and were on our way to Slovenia.

On our drive to Lake Bled we took at detour and stopped in Kranjska Gora at the Planica Nordic Center. The boys wanted to check out a zip line that is claimed as “the steepest zipline in the world”. It goes over the Planica Large Hill, the biggest ski flying hill in the world. After checking it out, they weren’t 100% sure that they still wanted to go but tickets were bought and our time was reserved. I offered to be the photographer and opted out of the zip lining adventure. We had a couple hour wait so went on a short hike and were struck by the beauty of the rugged mountains surrounding us contrasted by the fall colors. Antsy to get back to more exciting activities, our hike was cut short and we headed back to the Nordic Center to check in for the zip lining. Harnesses were fitted, helmets were distribution and we were on our way. A chair lift took us to the top and that’s when nerves started shaking a bit. I do have to say it is pretty darn high. All I could think of were the athletes who stand up there with skis on their feet and over and over decide to make the jump. Definitely a new appreciation for the sport. Scott went first and I knew he was scared silly. He hates height but he put on a brave face and took the leap. One by one they all went down and I met them at the bottom all smiling ear to ear pumping with adrenaline. Definitely a parenting win and good start to our “what are we going to do in Slovenia for week” adventure. Packed back in the car we had a short 45 minute ride to Lake Bled, our home for the next few days.

We got to Lake Bled with a few hours of sunshine left in the day. I was anxious to get out and explore so we quickly checked into our AirBnb and unloaded the car. Scott really likes to unpack and get settled when we travel and I am perfectly comfortable living out of my bag for a week. I usually try to be patient with this quirk of his but was feeling so much pull to get to the lake and enjoy the day coming to a close. I think he could sense that or maybe he saw the darts shooting at him from my eyes so he pivoted and we decided to head out. The boys wanted to veg for a bit at the apartment and Scott and I were ready for a kid break so everyone was happy with the decision to take a family pause. Our AirBnb was a great setup with enough space for everyone and a great view of the castle on the cliff. Within a five minute walk we were lakeside. At first we thought we were going to go for a short stroll but it ended up turning into a walk around the lake which took us about two hours. It was fabulous and a great reset. We met the boys at the apartment and then headed to a cozy dinner at Oštarija Babji zob a traditional Slovenian restaurant with great service, wine and food.

Monday morning we woke up ready to hit the ground running. Scott and I walked to the bakery to pick up coffee and treats to bribe the boys to get up and fueled for our morning hike through the Soteska Vintgar a gorge located ten minutes from Lake Bled. The gorge is breathtaking. We had a nice hour long hike and then back to our apartment to regroup and grab lunch. The boys were hungry for burgers so we headed to Promenada Burger close to the lake. They voted the burgers the “best they ever had” (which seems to be any meal they eat right now) so I knew they were content and would be tolerant of my plan of taking the cute little boat ride out to the The Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary (the church in the middle of the lake). You can either rent a row boat and paddle yourself out of pay to ride in a Plenta – a large gondola like row boat. We chose the Plenta and were able to just walk up and jump on a boat getting read to depart. The Plenta takes you to the base of the small island and give you an hour to tour which is plenty of time. We enjoyed walking the grounds and taking a pause to enjoy artisanal ice cream served at the gift shop. After the Plenta dropped us back to the shore we trekked up to the Bled Castle to get a glimpse of the lake and church from above. It is an easy 15 minute walk up to the castle and the view is totally worth it. The castle is small and packed with great information about the region, a nice gift shop, restaurant and outdoor cafe that serves delicious hot chocolate. Closing out our busy day we hiked back down to the apartment and grabbed Döner sandwiches for the boys on the way as Scott and I had planned an evening out. After the boys last “feeding” of the day it was adult time and we set out for the ten minute walk to Old Cellar Bled where we had a three course meal and wine pairing waiting for us. We loved everything about Old Cellar Bled. The ambiance, the food, the wine, the service. It was all great and a perfect end to a long day.

Rain was in the forecast for Tuesday so we were looking for an indoor activity. We all agreed it would be cool to check out Postojna Cave about an hour drive from Lake Bled. As we arrived at the cave it was raining buckets so we felt like we had made a pretty good decision. We bought our tickets online for the tour and were super happy with the organization of the park and the seamless process. The tour time is about 1 1/2 hours and incredible. I’m not really a “cave” person but was in awe for the whole tour struck with the beauty of the underground world. My whole crew gave it a “thumbs up”. The Predjama Castle is located close to the cave and had also made the agenda but we were not feeling a castle tour with the rain still pouring down. We decided to head back toward Lake Bled stopping in Ljubljana (the capital of Slovenia) to check out the city. I could feel the crankiness of the crew coming on so as we were pulling into Ljubljana we went to plan B and drove to The Atlantis and indoor pool, water park and sauna. From the warm, steamy, chlorine filled pool we continued to watch the rain come down. I was disappointed not to wander the streets and cafes of Ljubljana but knew it was just an excuse for us to come back someday. After a few hours of swimming we jumped back on the road and headed to our sweet little apartment in Bled. On the way it was voted to get pizzas and eat in the apartment which we all agreed was a perfect way to spend our last night. Scott and I had been eyeing a wine shop that we had walked by many times so decided to stop in on our way to pick up the pizzas. Delicious wines are produced in Slovenia and we had a fun 30 minutes learning about the different regions and grapes and walked out with a case of Slovenian wine to enjoy when we got home. We popped into Pizzeria Rustika to pick up dinner and took our last stroll by the lake on the way home. Lake Bled is absolutely as majestic as it looks in the pictures. We were sad to leave but excited to see more of Slovenia.

We woke up Wednesday morning ready to hit the road for Kobarid. The direct drive was around two hours but we decided to go a bit off the planned route and spend some time at Lake Bohinj on the way. The scenic drive to Bohinj took around 30 minutes. We quickly parked and took a stroll down by the lake. The sky was overcast and a perfect compliment to the fall colors surrounding the stunning lake that looks untouched by man. After a little break we jumped back in the car and headed toward Slap Savica a beautiful waterfall about a ten minute drive past the lake. We parked and took off on the 25 minute pretty much straight uphill hike to the waterfall. The hike is beautiful and well worth the many stone steps it takes to reach the peak. We paused at the top admiring the gorgeous waterfall and then were quickly reminded about the crêpes we had promised the boys at the end of our hike. At the bottom of the trail we settled into a nice table by the fireplace at Koča pri Savici a little mountain lodge and restaurant. The crêpes were yummy, coffee was hot and it was good to warm our bones. We still had a bit of a drive ahead of us and the day was slipping away so we decided to get back on the road. We didn’t make it too far, I’m talking maybe 20 minutes, as the bandaid of the crêpes wore off and the crew was hungry. We pulled off in Polje a village outside of Bohinj and ate a late lunch at Pr’ Pristavc a darling little pizza restaurant located in a hostel/pension. Our waitress was so friendly and the pizza was seriously good. Slovenia is located a stones throw from Italy and shares many of the same flavors. We ate a long slow lunch and were finally back on the road to Kobarid.

Two hours later we pulled into Kobarid. You would honestly miss it if it wasn’t your destination. It is a tiny little town nestled in the mountains and doesn’t look like much at first glance. Google maps had enough of us at this point and was being very difficult locating our AirBnb. We finally found it and made our way into what would be our new home for a couple of days. This apartment ended up being one of the best AirBnbs we have rented. It was newly renovated and cutely decorated with a boat theme as the River Soča is the pulse of this town and valley. Day had turned into night at this point and we were all ready to settle in for the evening. Scott and I decided to break out one of the bottles of wine we bought in Bled. We enjoyed our wine while getting our plan together for the next day.

We woke up early on Thursday and snuck out for a cup of coffee and to pick up fresh pastries. I had planned a pretty big hike for the day and wanted to get moving. Our dinner reservation at Hiša Franko was at 7:30 so we had to make sure to plan our day and meals around that end point. I like to use the app Komoot to plan our hikes. It usually keeps us on track and gives a pretty good estimation for the length and time. My anchor points for this hike were Sacrario dei Caduti di Caporetto, crossing the River Soča via the suspension bridge, Slap Kozjak and Napoleon’s Bridge. We set out from our apartment on foot and were quickly on an uphill path exploring the beautiful trails. The hike ended up being around 7 miles (we may have been slightly lost a couple of times) and took us around four hours. It was one of my favorite hikes we have ever done. Stunning, beautiful, breathtaking are all words that I’m not sure are strong enough to describe it. To experience the beauty and energy of the River Soča and surrounding valley is simply magical. I could have kept going but hunger called and the boys including the big one were ready to wrap up our outdoor time. We strolled back into Kobarid and were able to get a table at Hiša Polonka a tiny little restaurant with an inviting blue facade that ended up having an incredible menu and super friendly staff. Scott and I both just had a small snack as it was getting close to messing with our dinner but the boys throughly enjoyed perfectly cooked burgers and homemade Kobariški štruklji a traditional Slovenian dessert.

Our much anticipated evening at Hiša Franko had arrived and we were ready. The restaurant is located just outside of town and our lovely AirBnb host offered to give us a ride since it was off season and we were having a hard time getting a taxi. She picked us up at 7:15 and we were at the restaurant cocktail in hand by 7:30. We were promptly seated at are table and the service began. A set eleven course meal is offered on a daily basis and we chose to do the wine pairing. I could go on and on about the food, the presentation, the sommelier carefully describing every wine, the service because of course it was all amazing. The thing that stood out to both of us was the unassuming atmosphere combined with the world famous food plated like a piece of art. We have been to many amazing restaurants around the world and so much is lost on us when it feels too fancy and fussy. We were blown away when Ana Roš personally served us two of the courses and loved that she gave the stage to her other chefs presenting their courses which they all did with pride and passion. Ana Roš is a woman who has paved her own path and created an experience that captures the heart and soul of Slovenia. You feel it the moment you walk through the doors of Hiša Franko. The experience was everything we thought it would be and more.

It was time to leave Slovenia. After a lazy morning we got on the road heading to our final destination, Zell am See in Austria. I like to break up our drives and thought it would be nice to stay in a fancy hotel for the last night of our holiday. After four hours we pulled into The Grand Hotel and it is exactly as the name states: Grand. It was the last night the hotel was open before they close down to prepare for the Christmas and ski season. Because it was off-season and the last night open, I was able to get an amazing deal on the Empress Elisabeth Suite that included half board, a private fireplace, terrace overlooking the lake and personal sauna. Seriously. We felt like royalty. We had no plans for our short stay in Zell am See so decided to wander the town before dinner. It was pretty quiet which I am sure was the calm before the storm of the upcoming seasons. The lake is gorgeous, town is a really cute and definitely has a fun ski vibe. Heading back to the hotel we got dressed up for dinner (out of our hiking clothes at least). We all enjoyed the very filling meal and headed to bed reflecting on the week and looking forward to getting home to our own beds and sweet dog Artie. After a delicious breakfast we packed up the car for the last time of the week and got on the road to head home.

There is a raw beauty that you feel in the landscape and people of Slovenia. It feels untouched and untamed while at the same time beating with a modern vibe. It is a really well kept secret amongst all who have fallen in love with the country. I think often about the Soča Valley and when we will return.

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