Slovenia – Hidden gem of the Balkans: Part 1

When searching for a winter holiday this year we were very indecisive about every destination we saw; that is, until our Google search came back with Slovenia. Sure I’d heard of Slovenia and seen pictures of the church on the lake but never did I consider a holiday there; instantly drawn in by the beauty of Bled and the mystery of the country I searched more and more, I learnt the name of the capital, Ljubljana, even if I couldn’t pronounce it at first, it’s lube-lee-anna, I saw the sights and beauty that I wanted to see in real life: Bled, Bohinj, Triglav National Park, Ljubljana’s architecture, Medieval castles, caves to explore; I could go on for this entire post on what there is to do in Slovenia but instead I’m going to tell you what we did do.

After a hellish 14 hour travel day we arrived in Slovenia on a Sunday night, bad idea. Our plan was: land, get some food, explore the city a little; just to stretch our legs if anything. This would have been a great idea had we planned for everything we found out once we arrived in Ljubljana but I’ll be making a separate post about travel advice and things I’ve learnt along the way. So we landed, searched for a restaurant, nowhere we could find was open so we just wandered around admiring the gorgeous city by night and getting our bearings; the frozen fountains, the snow, the churches, the random bars that were open keeping people out of the cold and the most prominent building: Ljubljana castle atop a hill overlooking the entire city.

Found a nice house, wasn’t for sale

The next day, our first real holiday day, we explored the city properly, finally got some food and got to play in the snow. We started off with food in Pizzeria Focolus, being so close to Italy we had faith in this place; as soon as we walked in we were greeted by a server who said hello to us in about four different languages before seating us. A short while after our pizzas arrived and we were not wrong: stone-baked, fresh and amazing with tons of different choices at great prices, if you’re a fan of pizza you’ll be a fan of Focolus. After stuffing ourselves and taking some of it away as we couldn’t finish we headed to the park that the castle sat above. We’re from a coastal city in England so we don’t really get snow, so when the taxi driver from the airport told us “it’s a shame for you we didn’t get much snow this year” he didn’t know how wrong he was when we saw 6 inches of fluffy white bliss; therefore we opted for the scenic route to the castle, climbing the hills and small paths, making snowballs and generally acting like we were never allowed to go outside: I highly recommend doing this rather than walking up the well signposted clear track straight to the top or getting the lift from the city. We also happened to find a few extra bits heading this way, the castle vineyard, a few modern sculptures and a small shrine, after a lot of online searches, I still don’t know who she was.

If anyone knows who she is I’d love to know

So 2 hours of snowy frolicking later we finally got to the castle; found an adorable tree swing outside, and naturally, took all the appropriate pictures and headed inside. The castle itself has been undergoing full renovations since the 1960’s but was initially constructed around the 11th century. You can walk around the inner courtyard, go up onto the ramparts and explore inside the walls for free, there is a small price of €5 to explore the museum of Slovenian history, museum of Slovenian puppetry, viewing of the virtual castle construction and changes over the centuries and, for me the most impressive bit of the castle, the climb up to the top of the viewing tower looking out over the entire of the city, marshes beyond it and mountains beyond that. On a clear day, we were told, you can see most of Slovenia from that tower; naturally we stopped for 10 minutes to take it in and enjoy one of the most regal cigarette breaks ever had before descending back in to the city and our hostel.

A quick shower later we realised how hungry we were, before we’d even gotten to Slovenia we found a place we wanted to eat in Ljubljana: Pop’s Place. A small gastropub, on the edge of the river that cuts through Ljubljana, specialising in burgers and craft beers, they had about 30 different bottles on offer ranging from 5-11%, light or dark, gluten free options, lageresque choices for people less avid about craft beers. Everything about Pop’s was ten out of ten; the service, the burgers, the atmosphere and the beer, the city even had a power cut and the staff just came around and handed out candles to all the tables which led to one of the cutest photos ever taken. Every burger in Pop’s is made with Slovenian  grass fed beef aged for 30 days, blended on the day and served on their signature brioche/ poppy seed buns; we went for 3 Silverton burgers, which in Pop’s is a burger, cooked to your liking, served with cheddar, locally cured bacon and their signature BBQ sauce and we added a side of fries covered in herbs and Parmesan, which you have to get if you go there. The man that I assumed was the owner approached us a couple of minutes after and quite confidently asked us “So, is that the best burger you ever had?” he knew we were going to say yes; it melted in our mouths. It’s hard to rave about something that can be boiled down to being called a bacon cheeseburger; but this was more than your 99p burger from Mcdonalds, it was fresh and local, you could tell care was taken at every step to make sure this was the best product they could put on a plate, well wooden board. They didn’t want mass customer turnover, they wanted mass customer satisfaction.

Obligatory food photo while travelling

I can’t express enough praise for Pop’s, I work in the hospitality industry and everything they did was 100%, they knew what the customer wanted, they had immense product knowledge and actually really cared about what they did. I wolfed down my burger before they even had chance to drop off condiments for the fries and one of the servers asked us if we got our sauces and I said “Yeah, wasn’t quite quick enough for me though.” Joking about how I’d eaten so quickly, he immediately went and got us an extra set of fries, I obviously felt incredibly rude and had to explain I wasn’t complaining. Later he asked us whether we were enjoying the drinks, I just made a comment on how the first one was more my kind of drink, he walked away and a minute later dropped a new beer and glass at the table. When we decided to leave and settle the bill we dropped them quite a big tip as it was incredible for us, we weren’t sure if this was the norm for service in Slovenia or not but either way it blew everything we were used to away and they had deserved so much more in our eyes, they gave us a cool bottle opener for it so we even got a souvenir to one of the nicest establishments I’d ever been to.

We were trying to win couple of the year in work, don’t judge us

So that was the end of our day in Ljubljana, I’m going to end this one here and drop the rest of the Slovenia trip in a separate post, so make sure to return for Bled, Bohinj, buses and more.

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