Google a blank map of Europe, and pinpoint Slovenia on it. Go ahead, I’ll give you a minute.
Nope, that’s Slovakia. I’ll give you a hint: it’s tiny and it’s in the Balkans.
No, I think that’s Latvia. Or Estonia. Balkans, not Baltics. Hard, isn’t it?
When I first visited the country about ten years ago, Slovenia was a completely unknown quantity for me. But when I rounded a corner in our rental car and Lake Bohinj stretched out in front of us, framed by the soaring peaks of the Julian Alps, I knew that it was a quantity I liked.
We came around that very same corner a few weeks back, and I must admit I was slightly disconcerted by the scene in front of us. All the natural beauty of the lake was still there, but upon its placid surface paddled dozens of rental kayaks and canoes, and on its pebbly shores stretched thousands of holidaymakers. Cars clogged the narrow stone bridge over the River Sava, hemmed in by tourists toting fins and floats, while tour buses tried to execute 27-point turns on roads originally built for oxcarts and carriages.
It was a sweltering Saturday in the middle of August, and every day tripper from Ljubljana, the country’s capital, was escaping the heat and crowds of the city. Funny thing about escaping crowds en masse, however – the crowds come with you.
Well, that was the weekend, but on Sunday afternoon the throngs thinned considerably, and, while it was still much busier than the April lake we had known nearly a decade earlier, it was comparatively serene.
Dammed by the moraine of retreating glaciers, Lake Bohinj, the largest permanent lake in Slovenia, is fed by both the Savica River and underground springs, and is known for its startling clarity, its stunning alpine setting, and its healthy population of lake, brown and rainbow trout, char, and grayling.
Spring and autumn are best for fishing, before rising lake temperatures drive the fish down into deep pockets of cooler water. The rivers and waterfalls are at their most spectacular with the snow melt of spring, of course, and the contrast of green meadows filled with alpine wildflowers and the snow-capped peaks is spectacular.
All of Slovenia’s rivers are restricted to fly-fishing only and have strict catch limits, ensuring a large population of fish. The marble trout, a massive species reaching weights of over 22 kg, or about 50 pounds, is something of a holy grail in the fly-fishing community, and many anglers dream of hooking one in the Soča River’s almost impossibly-azure waters.
Bohinj Lake is less restrictive, allowing for spin and bait fishing as well. It’s a great place for kids to fish, since the large chub that cruise the shallows are easy to catch with anything from bread to cheese to worms. Fishing licenses can be purchased at the Tourist Information Center in Ribcev Laz, as well as a few other spots on the lake’s southern shore.
Midsummer’s heat brings with it larger crowds. The tradeoff is that the lake has warmed enough to make swimming perfectly comfortable, and older kids might have more to entertain them in the hustle and bustle. If you’re looking for a more secluded swimming hole, walk behind the Hotel Bohinj, and take the path on the right that passes behind the tennis courts. It’s a short 100-meter walk to the Sava River, where a wide, deep pool opens out below a narrow gorge. One shoreline is shallow, great for the kids, but the far side has cliffs perfect for jumping off of into the clear green water. It was a 5-minute walk from the house where we stayed, and on weekdays we had it pretty much to ourselves.
There is, of course, great hiking in the area, and you can pick up a good map with descriptions of hikes at the Tourist Information Center for 5€.
An easy, kid-friendly route is to circumnavigate the lake. You can start at the stone bridge at the eastern end of the lake, in the village of Ribcev Laz, and take the path along the northern shore, which winds through the woods to the village of Ukanc, about 2 ½ hours away. There you can continue on the lakeside trail, but it parallels the road and is much less scenic. A better option is to take the electric ferry boat (no combustion engines are allowed on the lake) back to Ribcev Laz. The guides provide interesting and entertaining information on the thirty-minute ride.
Ribnica Stream runs down a narrow valley and slips through the picturesque village of Srednja Vas. The trail head is just beyond Pri Hrvatu inn and restaurant, a lovely spot to grab a bite to eat, with tables overlooking the stream and the 18th century Baroque church of St. Martin. The trail is a fairly level out-and-back, lined with wild cyclamen and scores of other wildflowers, culminating in the Ribnica Falls, about a 45-minute stroll from the village.
Mostnica Gorge is a far more spectacular hike, at times rising high above the narrow canyon to glimpse the river snaking through the worn stone, at times dipping down to the water’s edge where the river curls sinuously through sluices and bowls and drops over innumerable ledges. The water is a clear emerald green and very, very cold. If you decide to swim it will undoubtedly be little more than a quick plunge followed by a far more extensive period of shivering. The trail starts in the village of Stara Fužina, and if you’re traveling with young children, it will take at least 1 ½ hours to reach the Slap Mostnica (waterfall). Pack a picnic lunch to eat on the river, or stop at one of the two mountain huts along the way. Bring some cash in any case, as there is a small entrance fee to enter the gorge. Mostnica was my favorite hike of the trip, and here’s why.
Vintgar Gorge, outside of the town of Bled, is both stunningly gorgeous and dismayingly crowded. The icy aqua water races for about 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) through a narrow canyon, which ends suddenly and dramatically in the 26 meter (85-foot) Šum waterfall. Wooden galleries take you through the mossy gorge, making it an easy walk but also causing much of the pedestrian congestion. Bus tours disgorge their loads at the upstream end, and at times the bank lines of visitors have difficulty squeezing past each other on the narrow walkways. While Vintgar Gorge is absolutely worth a visit, keep in mind that, as in most popular places, it pays to get a very early start.
The cable car up Vogel is the steepest in Europe, and whisks you up the mountain in under five minutes. You’ll barely have time to enjoy the views, so spend some time at the cable car station to take it all in. At the top, there are a number of trails radiating out from the cable car, some bringing you back down to the lake. With the two kids and their 77 year-old grandmother, we opted instead to take the chairlift even farther up the mountain and casually stroll around the area. There’s nice mountain hut near the summit offering food and drink, and a restaurant back down at the cable car station.
Of course, if you’re there in the summer you’ll want to spend some time in water warm enough not to cause heart attack, either in Lake Bohinj itself or in the Sava River. Both are amazing places to swim, and we’ve got the photographic evidence to prove it.
Where to Stay:
There are two main villages on Lake Bohinj, one at either end. Neither has the feel of a real, viable town in its own right – both seem to have developed around the tourist trade. The payoff is that you have easy access to the lake and its services, including sailboat and rowboat rentals, ferries, and kayaks and canoes to take down the Sava River.
Ribcev Laz, at the eastern tip of the lake, may be the better choice of the two, with the lovely Church of St. John the Baptist, with elements dating back to the beginning of the 15th century, just over an arching stone bridge. Here you’ll find most of the boat rentals, the passenger ferry, tourist info center, and a Mercator supermarket. We stayed here, and having the Sava River and a lovely little gorge right behind the house made up for the town’s lack of quaintness.
But if quaint is what you’re after, there are two villages northeast of the lake which positively ooze the stuff. The farming communities of Stara Fužina and Srednja Vas are far more picturesque than the lakeside villages, and are more appealing if you’re looking for a more ‘genuine’ Slovenian experience. Both have narrow streets lined with traditional wooden homes, their balconies invariably draped with exuberant geraniums, impatiens, and alyssum. (In fact, the Slovenes seem slightly obsessed with window boxes, and home owners seem to vie with each other for the best displays, much to everyone’s benefit.)
Approximately 1 ½ km (1 mile) from the lake – about a 20-minute walk – Stara Fužina is the larger of the two, and provides more lodging opportunities, as well as a small supermarket. Srednja Vas is another 30 minutes on foot beyond that. While it’s doable, if you’re taking the kids to the lake with any frequency, the hour-long walk there is probably going to be a drag. There is a large grassy car park just before the lake if you want to drive.
Bohinj’s official web site has extensive listings in several categories, and is your best resource for lodging. We actually found our house rental through Holiday Lettings, and were very pleased with the location and the layout of the property. NB: The town of Bohinj (aka Bohinjska Bistrica), while nice enough, is some distance from the lake and probably not where you want to stay.
Where to Eat:
Ribcev Laz has three decidedly mediocre dining options. Perhaps the best is at the Hotel Jezero, which has a terrace that at least offers nice views of the lake. Not really all that enthusiastically recommended, but well, if you must.
Ukanc has an excellent Italian restaurant in Don Andro. Pleasant outdoor seating, friendly staff, and wonderful food at very reasonable prices. Lunch for three adults and two kids, with dessert and coffee, came in at under 40€. Very highly recommended.
As mentioned earlier, Pri Hrvatu in Srednja Vas is an excellent option. Nice outdoor seating with great views, and tasty country-style cuisine. Highly recommended.
If you have kids, Gostilna Rupa, also in Srednja Vas, is worth visiting just for the incredibly cool playground alone. Thursday nights are renowned for the spit-roasted suckling pig, and we weren’t disappointed, although vegetarians might want to sit with their backs to the piggy slowly rotisseriing over the coals of the open oven. Nice wine, marvelous setting, great food. Extremely highly recommended.
“Fairytale” is a word that crops up a lot in descriptions of Slovenia in general, and Lakes Bohinj and Bled in particular, and indeed part of “Prince Caspian,” of the”Chronicles of Narnia” series, was filmed in the area. While the term gets a lot of overtime in tourist literature, in the case of Slovenia I just can’t argue with it. The jagged peaks of Triglav National Park biting the sky like dragon’s teeth, the supernaturally blue-green alpine lakes, the fern-laden gorges carving through misty valleys – it’s a truly mythical place, the stuff of fantasy and fable.
Google a blank map of Slovenia, and find it. Then get on Travelocity, and get yourself there.