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From bottomless caves and ancient forests to the rolling vineyards that scatter its rural corners, a dense patchwork of lakes, wilderness and mountains make it unlike anywhere else in Europe. But it’s about more than just scenic backdrops. This landscape hides unique sights and one-off experiences, some of which you won’t find anywhere else on Earth, and for those prepared to delve deeper or pedal further, it’s possible to glimpse another world entirely.
Step into the karst caverns of Postojna Cave and you’ll discover a whole other eco-system. Down here, great barrages of stalactites drip from the ceiling like melted sugar, but it’s what exists in its bowels that will surprise you the most. Most visitors overlook the cave’s most important native. Some 150 species live down here, but none are more remarkable than Slovenia’s olm salamander, or ‘baby dragon’. Pale pink and tufted with rose-coloured frills, this blind amphibian spends its entire life down in these caverns and can live as long as a century. The breeding colony here is a lifeline to this endangered species, and the only place on Earth that you can see them within their natural habitat. It’s a remarkable privilege, and in 2016, visitors were even able to see ‘dragon’ hatchlings emerge for the first time.
Those wanting to explore Postojna’s 24km of tunnels further would do no better than to hop on the world’s first cave train. This relic that dates back to 1872 – the birth of tourism in Slovenia – when wealthy visitors were pulled along in carriages by hand. These days it’s all electric as you chug 3.7km into the earth, passing the planet’s only working cave post office.
The greatest gasps here are reserved for Predjama Castle. This 13th-century cave fortress is the stuff of fairytales, and one of the finest examples of its kind. A labyrinth of tunnels made it impossible to lay siege to, and its only vulnerable spot, so legend says, was the toilet, which was given to crumbling during attacks. This was where its lord reportedly met his end, after a servant alerted enemies to his ‘routine’. Yet even today the castle still hides secrets, and visits between May and September reward with tours to the caverns below where a bat colony resides.
Postojna may have its wonders, but there are plenty more one-off experiences to be found in Slovenia’s netherworlds. Krizna Cave is formed of the same karst as its neighbour but is mostly flooded, which makes it far trickier to explore beyond its upper reaches. Some 45 underground lakes spill its depths, 22 of which are navigable by boat. To disturb life here as little as possible, boat and walking tours to the deeper parts are heavily restricted.
Only the lucky few can explore Krizna’s lowest reaches, on seven-hour guided round-trips to the largest hall, the Crystal Mountain cavern. It’s a trip open to just 100 people a year, and the chance to stand where so few others have, amid the rocky folds of its water-sculpted belly, is one of those moments you just don’t forget.
On the other side of the country is the 300-year-old mine at Mount Peca in Mežica. Legends here tell of a mythological king who lies sleeping under the mountain, but its modern history is just as dramatic. Around 19 million tonnes of lead and zinc were removed before it closed 25 years ago, leaving 800km of tunnels behind. Parts are flooded and can be explored by kayak, but it’s the 5km stretch given over to mountain bike tours that make it unlike anywhere else, as you pedal, bump and duck your way through its dimly lit labyrinth. A day out like no other.
Above ground, experiences take on a distinctly wilder edge. Across the rugged Dinaric Alps, great swathes of ancient beech forest spill the land, much of it dating from primeval times. Its continued survival has allowed Slovenia’s ‘Big Three’ – bear, wolf and lynx – to make a comeback, particularly in the southern outposts of Kočevje and Notranjska. It’s also where small-group photo safaris can take you deep into the woods for some once-in-a-lifetime wild encounters.
As with all wildlife, timing is important. In Slovenia, Europe’s westernmost brown bear population only emerges between April and October. But it’s during May, when the older males return to breed, that you’ll see the largest specimens, with photo hides helping you to get incredible close-up photos. The best time to spot the local deer is between mid-September and mid-October, when rutting begins and large herds form in time for the breeding season. It’s around this period that walking tours in Loški Potok let you stroll alongside the herds for a wild encounter that’s all too rare in Europe these days.
What grows in Slovenia is no less remarkable that its wildlife. The landscape makes it perfect for grape cultivation and its main wine regions are no more than a couple of hours’ drive from the capital, yet even here you’ll encounter unforgettable moments.
In the west, vineyard cycle tours of the Vipava Valley in Primorska are a rite of passage, as you explore remote villages, castle ruins and orchards in between dropping in on its top cellar doors (Žorž, Burja, Batič). Chances to sample indigenous grape varieties, such as the aromatic Zelen or fruity Pinela, alongside local delicacies like pršut (prosciutto), are not to be missed. But most curious of all are the natural wines you can find here, and for which Slovenia’s winemakers are famous. A must-visit is the Mlečnik winery, whose organic, unfiltered, unchilled raw orange wines will have you rethink everything you think you know about viticulture.
To the east, it’s less about pedal power. Chateau Ramsak lets you stay in a treehouse on a wine estate in the Styria region, a stone’s throw from Maribor. Sunset vineyard walks, a tasting bar and the largest wine press in Europe all delight, but it’s also a good base for a pilgrimage to the world’s oldest vine in Lent, at the Old Vine House. Even its yearly pruning is a big local event, and if you stick around for the Old Vine Festival, which begins with the first harvest in early October, there’s great local cooking and, of course, superlative wine. Just one more unique memory to add to the rest.
A green boutique global destination for high-end visitors seeking diverse and active experiences, peace, and personal benefits. A destination of five-star experiences. This is the vision of the tourist destination Slovenia, as perceived and pursued by the Slovenian Tourist Board (STB), the central national agency for the promotion of tourism, committed to sustainability.Discover now