Daily Press (Sunday)

Simply stroll Slovenia’s secret sights


Plečnik remodeled the city in his distinctiv­e classical-meets-modern style. Like Gaudí shaped Barcelona and Bernini shaped Rome, Plečnik made Ljubljana what it is today.

The Ljubljanic­a River, lined with cafés, restaurant­s and a buzzing outdoor market, bisects the city. The riverfront market is a hive of activity, where big-city Slovenes buy directly from the farmer. And on Fridays, the “Open Kitchen” street-food festival brings out delicately composed dishes from top-name chefs, gut-busting portions of hearty Slovenian grub and an enticing selection of global cuisines.

Spanning the river are several distinctiv­e bridges designed by Plečnik, who walked to work each day and had to live with what he designed. The Triple Bridge is a popular meeting place and a beloved symbol of the city. The bridge seems almost Venetian: a nod to the city’s unique location — midway between Venice and Vienna, linking the Italian and Germanic worlds.

The Cobblers’ Bridge encapsulat­es Plečnik’s style perhaps better than any other structure: simple, clean lines adorned with classical columns.

For a more personal look at the architect, visitors can tour his home, decorated exactly as it was the day Plečnik died in 1957. The house is filled with furniture and bric-a-brac he designed, as well as souvenirs from around the world that inspired him. As you inspect his drawings, equipment and personal items (including his glasses and the hat that he was famous for wearing), you’ll feel as though Plečnik himself invited you over for dinner.

About an hour south of Ljubljana, Slovenia’s Karst region is honeycombe­d with a vast network of caves and undergroun­d rivers. At the Škocjan

Caves, visitors tour a series of large caverns, learning how, drip by drip, stalactite­s grow from spaghetti-thin strands to mighty sequoia-like stone pillars. In the final cavern visitors see, a mighty river crashes below as hikers cross a breathtaki­ng footbridge 150 feet above the torrent. It’s a world where a thousand evil Wizard of Oz monkeys could fly in formation.

Equally dramatic are the Julian Alps, arcing along Slovenia’s northern border. Lake Bled, Slovenia’s top alpine resort, is the best home base for exploring this region. It retains an aura of the Romantic Age, complete with a sweeping alpine panorama, fairytale island, cliff-hanging medieval castle and lakeside promenade. Since the Habsburg days, this is where Slovenes take their guests — whether kings or cousins — to show off the country’s natural wonders.

Lake Bled’s iconic island is the focal point of any visit. To reach the island, visitors ride romantic pletna boats, built by hand from a design passed down from father to son for centuries.

Ninety-nine steps lead from the island’s dock up to the summit — and the Church of the Assumption. On summer Saturdays, a steady procession of brides and grooms heads for the island. It’s traditiona­l for the groom to carry his bride up the steps to prove himself “fit for marriage” (about four out of five are successful).

Handsome villas line the lake, including what was once the vacation getaway of Tito, who huddled here with foreign dignitarie­s like Indira Gandhi and Nikita Khrushchev. After Tito died in 1980, his villa was converted into a classy hotel, offering guests a James Bond ambience.

This fascinatin­g and offbeat corner of Europe is one more example of the Continent’s many hidden charms. With all it has going for it, it’s hard to believe that Slovenia continues to glide beneath most tourists’ radar.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves. com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. This column revisits some of Rick’s favorite places over the past two decades. You can email Rick at rick@ricksteves. com and follow his blog on Facebook.

 ?? ?? Ljubljana’s riverfront promenade is lined with quaint boutiques, great restaurant­s and cafés.
Ljubljana’s riverfront promenade is lined with quaint boutiques, great restaurant­s and cafés.
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