Enjoy the delights of spectacular Slovenia

NEVER has so much been packed into such a small country.Dobberdan and welcome to Slovenia, a land of diverse scenery and climate, from alpine peaks and lakes, to wine-growing plateau and Mediterranean coastal waters.

Saturday, 29th September 2007, 10:38 am
Updated Saturday, 29th September 2007, 10:38 am

Add spectacular castles, medieval towns, underground caves, snow-capped alps, thermal spa waters and salt pans plus the unbelievable views of Lake Bled and Piran.

All of this and more in a country about the size of Wales.

Nothing can prepare you for your first sight of Lake Bled. It may only be 2km wide and 1380 metres long but the emerald green water with a backdrop of pine forests and mountains is a truly magical once-seen-never-forgotten moment.

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Not surprisingly, it's Slovenia's most popular resort and so attracts a multitude of tourists - it's advisable to steer clear of the real peak season.

Thankfully, it has not succumbed to commercialism, apart from being part of the country-wide Casino culture which draws visiting Italians like moths to a flame.

In contrast the medieval town of Piran, on the tip of the country's tiny coastline, is full of Venetian charm with its harbour, narrow, paved streets and the creamy marble Tartini Square (named after the world famous violinist).

It's lapped by the waters of the Adriatic with Croatia to the left and Italy to the right.

That's the beauty of a two centre holiday, you really do get to experience the best of both worlds.

We stayed in Bled for the first week. The lake dominates the town and there are various ways of getting round it (6.5km all in), the cheapest and most healthy option being to walk, otherwise cycle, take a horse-drawn carriage or the road tourist train.

Another alternative is to to swim or row across - boats are available to hire at an hourly rate of between 10 to 15 euros.

The destination for such diehards is Bled Island, the only true isle in Slovenia. We took advantage of the country's answer to the gondola, the pletna which seats around 20, has a cloth-covered canopy and is 'powered' by a boatman who stands up at the rear of the boat and somehow manoeuvres two large oars in a forward, twisting motion.

He'll take you to the island and stay half-an-hour while you climb the 99 steps and have a look around the church (3 euros which also includes entry to the small museum) where it's tradition to ring the bell and make a wish.

Weddings have been held here and another tradition is for the groom to carry his bride up all the steps. No comment! All in all it costs just 10 euros for the pletna ride there and back, which is great value.

To get the best views of the picturesque town of Piran walk the walls. Then treat yourself to lunch or dinner at one of the eateries, most of which overlook the sea. Food and wine are very reasonably priced.

Places to go and

things to do:

n Walking/hiking: There are a number of signposted walks around Bled (check them out on the map from the tourist information).

For the best views of the lake try Walk No6 which is from the southwest corner of the lake to the summit of Velika Osojnica, a fair climb of around 756 metres. Stunning view from the top, even more so, towards sunset. Allow three hours.

Further afield: Take a bus ride to Lake Bohinj and then the cable car ride to the top of Mount Vogel. A walkers paradise. The bus service is frequent and cheap. Look out for the taxi buses - they'll look out for you - as they'll offer to take you to or from your destination for the same money.

n Bled Castle: Fairytale cliff-top medieval building which dates back to the 11th century and houses a museum and 16th century Gothic chapel plus a rather 'touristy' printworks and wine cellar. Entrance fee is six euros but the incredible views are free.

n Vintgar Gorge: Easily accessible from Lake Bled. There are 1,600 metres of wooden walkways which criss-cross the swirling Radovna river four times. Spectacular. Well worth the six euros entrance fee. Carry on from the 13-metre high Sum waterfall through a wooded area to the 15th century church of St Catherine at Hom and from here you get a panoramic view of the whole of Bled.

n Wine: Slovenia produces around 23 million gallons each year but very little is exported as the locals drink most of it. Boths reds and whites have a fast-growing reputation for quality. Wine lovers should take advantage of the Taste of Slovenia Tour in the South West of the country which includes a bus and train ride plus a guided tour and tasting at one of the leading wine producers, Goriska Brda in Dobrovo. Some of their best wine sells for as little as 10 euros and it's very quaffable. The tour also includes a boat trip for lunch and dinner at a hillside restaurant.

n Coffee and cakes: If you like cakes you'll be in gastro heaven. Coffee and cake is a popular afternoon pastime in Slovenia, so no trouble here in doing what the locals do! Suss out the Brown Bear (near the bus station in Bled) which is great value. Coffee only costs one euro and cake around two or three euros but they're huge slices. Go for the specialities such as Gibanica which is a pastry filled with walnuts, apple, cottage cheese and poppy seeds and topped with cream or the potica which is a cross between a nut roll and apple strudel.

Postojna Caves: Another magical experience. Okay it's touristy but I defy anyone not to be impressed by the vast array of awe-inspiring stalactites and stalagmites in bizarre shapes of needles, columns, pillars, icicles and 'spaghetti.'

The first part is by train which takes you deep into the vast cavern and you're then taken on a guided tour.

Watch out for the Russian Bridge which was built by World War One prisoners.

You'll also be able to see the unique 'human fish,' a kind of salamander which is blind and can go for years without food. Take a jumper and/or a waterproof jacket as the temperature is only around eight degrees centigrade.

This particular tour was linked with the world famous Lipizzaner horses most of whom, although born black or grey, turn white within three years. A trip around the stud farm at Lipica ended with a classic horse and rider performance in the parade ring.

n Weather watch: Can be changeable around Lake Bled, particularly in the mountains, but sunshine all the way in Piran.

n Hotels: We stayed in the four-star Hotel Golf while in Lake Bled. It's in an elevated position and gives fantastic views of the lake and the surrounding mountains. Just two minutes walk from centre of town. Superb spa centre with large indoor pool, whirlpools, sauna, steam room, gym, wellness treatments, massage and other spa facilities.

Hot and cold breakfast buffet and tasty buffet-style three course evening meal. Wine: Half a carafe for 6 euros.

Hotel Slovenia in the centre of the bustling 'riviera' style resort of Portoroz, which is a short bus ride or 30-minute walk to Piran. Four star; use of unique leisure complex with indoor and outdoor pools plus sun terrace. Private grassed 'beach' front and bathing area in the sea but you have to pay for umbrella and sun loungers (5 euros each).

Buffet-style breakfast and evening meal but quality of main course very disappointing.

If you get the chance visit the Wai Thai temple of wellbeing in the adjoining Hotel Riviera. I had a traditional Thai massage with aromatic oils - 52 euros for 50 minutes. Amazing ... but the less said about the disposable posing pouch the better!FACTFILE

Crystal Lakes (tel: 0870 403 0543, www.crystallakes.co.uk) offers holidays to Slovenia – to the mountains the lakes and to the coast.

A two centre holiday where you combine a week's stay at Lake Bled and a week at the coast costs from 597 including return flights from Doncaster/Sheffield, seven nights half board in the Hotel Park on Lake Bled, seven nights half board in the Hotel Salinera on the Slovenian coast and all transfers.

You can combine all three in the new package called 'A Taste of Slovenia' where you stay three nights in Kranjska Gora in the mountains and four nights on Lake Bohinj with an 'away day' visit to the city of Ljubljana with prices from 419 per person including return flights from Doncaster/Sheffield airport, all transfers and half board.