Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley) Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley)
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Falling in love (again) with Slovenia, a land of bears, bees, brides and bountiful nature

This article is from the Daily Mail.

As the crow flies, Slovenia’s only island is about 50 miles from the sea. It lies in the middle of Lake Bled.

My wife Jenny and I were staying at the magnificent Hotel Villa Bled, once President Tito’s private residence, and they laid on a boat for us.

If ever there was a picture-postcard setting, this is it. The little island is crowned by the Church of the Assumption. The church’s white bell-tower soars over the red shingle roof against the spectacular backdrop of the Julian Alps.

Our arrival coincided with that of a wedding party. According to tradition, the groom should carry the bride up the 99 steep steps to the church.

Our guide explained: ‘If he doesn’t make it to the top, the boatman who rowed them over to the island can claim first-night privileges!’

In fact, the bride and groom climbed hand-in-hand, dressed in all their finery, for the first 94 steps, then the groom took his bride in his arms and carried her up the last five.

Later that day, we visited Bled Castle, perched high up on a lakeside promontory. No wonder it was once a key stronghold for Napoleon. Then we drove on to Lake Bohinj, and took the cable car to the summit of Mount Vogel, in the heart of Triglav National Park.

On a clear day you get a terrific view of Mount Triglav itself, at almost 9,400 ft more than twice the height of Ben Nevis.

On all sides, the mountain peaks soar above the forest. If you are a lover of nature, Slovenia is ideal. Sixty per cent of the country is covered in forest and around 35 per cent of the land is protected.

But here in Slovenia, it is not a question of isolating man from nature. That magical patchwork landscape of Alpine meadows, rich in flowers and grasses, depends critically on the traditional farming patterns, with the cattle being pastured in the mountains during the summer.

It depends, too, on the vital work of pollination done by bees. We visited Drago Kotnik, beekeeper extraordinaire, in his home in one of the small villages around the lake.

We sampled his honey and inspected the hives. There are dozens of bee-keepers in this part of Slovenia.

You can even take the beehive trail from village to village and learn to appreciate the different tastes. Acacia-flower honey, for example, tastes very different from meadow-flower honey.

We drove from Lake Bohinj to Ljubljana, to spend a day in the Slovenian capital. It was more than 50 years since I had last been in Ljubljana — I was on my way by motorcycle from Oxford to China, following Marco Polo’s route.

I cannot imagine why I left it so long. This is an enchanting city. The Romans called it Emona — you can still see the Roman walls on the left bank of the Ljubljanica river.

There are some medieval buildings, too, and a score of baroque churches. But Ljubljana owes much to the extraordinary efforts of Joze Plecnik, the Slovenian architect who transformed the city.

Late one evening, we walked along the banks of the river to the Triple Bridges, one of Plecnik’s masterpieces.

Students mingled with tourists. The tables were on the pavement and the excellent Slovenian wine was on the tables. Slovenian wine is some of the finest in Europe.

'Why don’t they export more of it?' I asked a local, as he refilled his glass. ‘We prefer to drink it ourselves,’ he said.

On our last day, we visited the extraordinary Postojna Caves. As our guide explained, Slovenia is like a giant Swiss cheese. The porous limestone has created a colossal network of more than 10,000 underground caves.

A toytown train takes visitors on a winding route through weird and wonderful caverns where the stalactites and stalagmites have grown into forms and structures of astonishing beauty and variety.

The tour takes a couple of hours. Right at the end of the trip, you have a chance to view one of the most unusual specimens of Slovenian wildlife: the ‘human fish’, or Proteus anguinus, a small, pink, totally blind salamander (adults are around 10-12 in long) with two pairs of legs.

Slovenia is only about the size of Wales, so by car we were able to cover a lot of ground in one day.

The Lipica studfarm, where the famous white Lipizzaner horses have been bred for more than 400 years, is less than an hour’s drive from the Postojna caves.

The timing of our visit was perfect. We were able to drive in a carriage around the estate, with two magnificent Lipizzaner stallions literally providing the horse-power. And we still had time to enjoy a full-dress ‘performance’ in the recently built arena.

Slovenia doesn’t have a long coastline (around 30 miles), but what it has is definitely worth a visit. If you have time, head for Piran, by far the most attractive seaside town, with its narrow, cobbled streets.

I’m told some enthusiasts swim in the morning and ski in the mountains in the afternoon and still have time for a leisurely, typically Slovenian lunch, such as a goat’s cheese and asparagus starter, with venison for the main course and a rich creamy chocolate dessert to round things off. There are only two million people in Slovenia. Down in the South, near Kocevje, we spent our last long evening in a hide, high up in a tree in what seemed to be a never-ending forest, hoping to see a bear lope out of the wood into our field of vision.

Our guide was a (licensed) hunter, but on this occasion at least, he was a hunter turned conservationist, determined to show us at least one of Slovenia’s 500 brown bears, the largest European population outside Russia.

We didn’t actually see a bear that night, but in a strange way that has only strengthened my determination to return to Slovenia.

Travel Facts

Adria Airways, (www.adria.si), flies from Luton Airport to Ljubljana from £154 return.

Double rooms at Hotel Vila Bled start from £97 B&B (00 386 4 575 37 10, www.vila-bled.si).

Double rooms at the Bohinj Park ECO hotel start from £135 B&B (00 386 8 200 4000, 2864.si).

Double rooms at the Best Western Premiet Hotel Slon Ljubljana start from £113 B&B (00 386 1 470 11 00, www.hotelslon.com).

For more information contact the Slovenian Tourist Board (0870 22 55 305, www.slovenia.info).

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