Friday 22 June 2018

A walk across the rooftops in Slovenia

 

Ljubljana is one of the prettiest and most atmospheric cities in the world
Ljubljana is one of the prettiest and most atmospheric cities in the world
Madeleine at beautiful Lake Bled with an ambience out of a Gothic novel
Madeleine Keane

Madeleine Keane

'A second Eden, full of charm and grace' is how Slovenia's greatest poet France Preseren described Lake Bled.

On a crisp winter day, its surface still as the proverbial mill pond, these legendary waters reflect an eerie beauty. Located in a glacial valley and surrounded by the majestic Julian Alps, for many years this was considered the finest health resort of the Austrian empire, and catered for pampered aristocrats who visited its sanatorium for the cures of Swiss hydropathist Arnold Rikli.

Two buildings dominate this absurdly picturesque place: Vila Bled, built in 1947 as a summer residence for Marshal Tito, and the medieval eponymous castle, believed to be the country's oldest, which towers 130 metres above the lake's north shore.

We are on a mid-December break in nearby Ljubljana, entrancing capital of Slovenia, celebrated for the architecture of Joze Plecnik and the city's sustainable approach to everything from reducing traffic to the preservation of important green landmarks such as one of Europe's oldest botanical gardens. No wonder it was EU Green Capital in 2016.

Madeleine at beautiful Lake Bled with an ambience out of a Gothic novel
Madeleine at beautiful Lake Bled with an ambience out of a Gothic novel

Ljubljana is small but the presence of a university gives it great energy. It's the week before Christmas and the bars and restaurants lining the rivers are packed with students. There's something about this city: elegant and vivacious, it wears its riveting history with dignity. The absence from the old centre of cars - a few years ago its dynamic mayor announced his ambition to make Ljubljana the most beautiful city in the world - makes for a very calm and clean ambience.

I'm staying in the Grand Hotel Union; one of the city's finest. It was built for the Hungarian monarchy in the 20th century and retains an old-fashioned grandeur and glamour. Nearby, in the great main square an enormous Christmas tree sparkles with thousands of white lights. Its statuesque loveliness and twinkle has earned it the nickname 'Melania' after a local girl who found fame and fortune on another continent. So there's an element of Trumptonia in Slovenia with Melania-centric tours, cakes, pies, honey and even a First Lady wine.

We take the funicular up to the castle from Ljubljana. It was built in the 15th century, and you can easily while away a beguiling morning here, getting a 360 degree panoramic view of the city, exploring the paintings in the Gothic Chapel of St George, discovering the exhibition on Slovenian history as well as the Museum of Puppetry. Ironically, time didn't allow for their 'Time Machine' guided tour which I gather is as entertaining as it is educational. We eat in the Archer's Tower where a starter of marinated veal with pickled Jerusalem artichoke and smoked goose liver, and dessert of cooked milk with cinnamon flowers and milk granita will linger long in the memory.

In 1895, when Ljubljana was still a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a major earthquake razed much of it so parts were rebuilt in the early 20th century. Plecnik, the leading architect of the time, remains a revered figure in Slovenia; he designed the monumental Church of St Francis, the bustling central market, the university's immense library, and the famous Triple Bridge, a graceful pedestrian-only cement trident across the narrow Ljubljanica river. Plecnik's home, now preserved as a museum is well worth a visit.

Slovenia's location - it neighbours Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia - makes for a rich, diverse experience. I love the fact that to get there I fly into Venice and out of Zurich. It has its own slice of Adriatic Riviera (between Italy and Croatia) but it's December so we're cave rather than coast bound. Less than an hour's drive away, the caves at Postojna have their very own Indiana Jones type train. We hurtle through dark caverns past stalactites and stalagmites. Carved from limestone by the waters of the river Pivka over millennia, and open for more than two centuries with 24km of tunnels and passages, this natural wonder has attracted millions of visitors from all over the world.

At Christmas they put on a Living Nativity - an extraordinary spectacle which presents the seasonal story through the staging of 16 scenes from the Bible. We are visiting just days before it goes live and are lucky enough to witness rehearsals. So one minute we're striding through the Stygian corridors, we round a corner and there, balancing high up on a stalagmite is an angel belting out Ave Maria. It is a bit cheesy but also very moving. These caves are home too to the endangered Proteus anguinis, that's the blind salamander to you and me, also known as 'the human fish' because of its pale pink skin, or as locals would have it 'baby dragon'.

The night is drawing in so unfortunately there isn't time to visit Predjama Castle, just up the road from here, and the Guinness World Record holder for the biggest cave castle in the world: it has been perched in the middle of a 123 metre high cliff for more than 800 years.

And the magic keeps happening. In keeping with the fairy-tale nature of the place we visit Radovljica, a sweet, sleepy town and home to the bee-keeping centre where you can learn all about Slovenia's thriving apiculture. We visit the gingerbread museum and enjoy a short history and demonstration of the craft. Charmingly we are invited to decorate our own gingerbread heart. Mine will later will take pride of place on my Christmas tree.

But back to Bled. A local ferried us across the lake in a pletna (traditional boat) to the Church of the Assumption on Bled Island where, legend has it if you ring the bell, your secret wishes come true. The bell, made in the early 16th century, is said to have been a gift from the pope. The story goes that he gave it to the church after the original, sent to the island by an inconsolable widow in remembrance of her late husband, sank to the bottom of the lake in a storm. I ring the bell and a few days later, my wish comes true, ensuring that a revisit to this memorable place is definitely on the cards.

Getting there

Ryanair flies from Dublin to Venice  Treviso airport from €34.99 one-way (ryanair.com). Transfer to Slovenia, around two hours.

Ryanair from Dublin to London Gatwick from €19.99 one-way. EasyJet from London Gatwick to Ljubljana airport from £38.82 one-way. (www.ryanair.com; www.easyjet.com)

Go Opti - a professional transportation company providing transfers from Ljubljana airport or from any other airports around Slovenia (Trieste, Venice, Graz, Villach, Zagreb, Vienna, Munich). (www.goopti.com)

Grand Hotel Union, Ljubljana - Double room from €120 per night (www.union-hotels.eu/en/grand- hotel-union/)

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