Slovenia

IT used to be the northernmost section of the old nation of Yugoslavia. It is a land filled with baroque cities and Alpine lakes, fine wines and Adriatic resorts, all of it virtually unaffected by Yugoslavia’s civil war in the 1990s.

Yet Slovenia is so little-known to Australian tourists that most confuse it with Slovakia — and couldn’t find it on a map either.

This nation of just over two million souls is also quite compact – Slovenia is about a third the size of Tasmania, making it ideal for a relaxing drive holiday.

Its relative anonymity is a boon, since Slovenia — tucked under the Julian Alps just south of Austria and east of Italy — receives only a fraction of the crowds that drive up the hotel prices and travel costs in its Western neighbours. Hotels that go for around $120 in the capital, Ljubljana, would easily cost twice that just across the borders in Vienna or Venice, and a restaurant meal with multiple courses and a bottle of fine Slovenian Riesling rarely rings in above $35 per person. Slovenia is a slice of Europe as it was 40 years ago – affordable, accessible and just waiting to be explored.

Ljubljana is a mere 3 1/4 hours by train from Trieste. a three-hour flight from London, or 1 1/2 hours from Berlin.

The nation is full of scenic gems, but atop this list is the gorgeous Soca River valley.

The river’s beauty – a river tinged emerald by calcium carbonate from the surrounding limestone mountains – belies its bloody role in World War I, when as many as one million lives (by some estimates) were lost near the river between 1915 and 1917. If that sounds familiar to Hemingway fans, it’s because he set “A Farewell to Arms” here – though he used the Italian name for the river and called it the Isonzo Front.

Also quite unmissable is the fairy-tale scenery of Lake Bled, Slovenia’s premier Alpine resort. The little blue lake is surrounded by the craggy Julian Alp peaks of Triglav National Park, popular for rafting and mountain biking.

Bled’s real claims to fame is the lake’s tiny wooded island, spiked with a baroque church steeple, and the 1000- year-old castle sitting atop a cliff at the water’s edge. The walk around the lake is packed with photographable viewing points and secluded vales.

It’s a quick drive from Bled to Ljubljana, a capital city blessed with streets lined by Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings, a bustling daily market in the square between the cathedral and the cafe-lined promenades of the Ljubljanica River, and a castle watching over it all from a bluff high above the narrow medieval alleys of the ancient city core.

When we visited the castle on a warm October afternoon, local folk dressed in period costumes were staging a colourful pageant complete with knights, a lovely princess and a handful of downtrodden serfs. It was photo ops galore.

Lubljana is often touted as an alternative to Prague. This tiny capital lacks Prague’s great museums and superlative sights — but it also lacks Prague’s crowds and hyper- inflated prices.

It’s very much a young person’s city, with bars and restaurants lining the river and teeming with students and youthful professionals. Just metres from the river, we dined on an intensely flavourful wild boar stew washed down with a fine local red.

When you are ready to leave the city, take a day trip to the Adriatic coast and the tiny, ancient port town of Piran on the Istrian Peninsula.

The flavour of this overgrown fishing village is decidedly Italian, with pasta and fish on the menu and Venetian architecture on the buildings. Pop into a cafe near Piran’s main Prvomajski Square, order a glass of wine or Union beer, breathe the sea air and get a taste of the Europe that used to be.

For sheer jaw-dropping wonder, spend half a day at dramatic Skocjan Caves, a World Heritage Site. A train takes the crowds into this giant chasm with its myriad stalagtites and wonderous expanses. Tours are offered in a bewildering variety of languages. Less than ahalf an hour’s drive away is Predjama Castle, built into the rock cavern some 123 metres above the countryside and thus virtually impregnable. It is every kid’s ideal take on what a medieval castle ought to look like.

We also enjoyed a visit to Lipica stud farm, where Lipizzaner horses have been bred, give or take a few wars, since 1580; and the tasting rooms of some of Slovenia’s best winemakers.

Two hours north is Triglav National Park, an unspoiled tract of snow-dusted Alps, forests of larch and spruce, and meadows speckled with gentian and edelweiss.

Though development within Triglav is strictly regulated, the park contains dozens of villages where Slovenes live and sell agricultural products like sheep cheese or wool or run restaurants, hotels or tourist farms.

You are in the middle of the Julian Alps now, a place of lovely little villages and a reflecting lake that surely must be one of the ultimate beauty spots of Europe.