Ddid you see the news about boris johnson at the end of his honeymoon on sunday? Relaxed and demurely happy, the prime minister stood outside his five-star eco-hotel, Vila Planinka, and raved about everything he and Carrie had been doing: cycling, climbing mountains, jumping into lakes and seeing “amazing things”.
A few eyebrows were undoubtedly raised. Johnson certainly never struck me as the climbing type, although every honeymooner strives to be the best. But what might have caught people off guard was what the Prime Minister said next. “So,” he continued, “a huge thank you to Slovenia, the only country in the world that has love in its name.”
“Hold on,” you might imagine the nation saying on their communal sofa. “Is he let’s say Slovenia?”
I mean no disrespect when I point out that this quiet, unassuming Central European country is not the usual honeymoon destination for world leaders. It is regularly overlooked in favor of neighboring Italy, Austria and Croatia; despite more than 30 years of independence from the former Yugoslavia, I expect that most Britons may still find it difficult to place Slovenia on the map. In 2019, it received just 160,000 visitors from the UK, compared to 6.4 million in Italy. Worse, many still confuse it with Slovakia – most famously by George W Bush when he was on the US presidential campaign trail.
It’s not entirely our fault. For most of its history, Slovenia was not Slovenia at all, but a country within Austria-Hungary, then Italy and Yugoslavia. But if anything should have alerted us to this EU member, it’s a continent’s worth of scenery crammed into a country you can cross in three hours.
Few places in Europe offer the pristine, cinematic beauty of Slovenia. The website of Villa Planinka talks about “natural energy combined with the power of centuries-old forests and clear streams”; surrounded by nature, you will “slow down, harmonize your rhythm with your inner balance”. You’ll read it, roll your eyes, and then realize that it’s all true.
It’s a big deal in the northwest. After two days of wandering around the lovely, laid-back capital Ljubljana, you will feel for the first time at Lake Bled. The best Slovenian resort remains Disneyesque: a calm lake with gondolas; baroque church on the island; the horizon of peaks. And yet Bled now has too many tourists to balance, domestic or otherwise. Instagrammers came too – the queues stretched for the classic shot on my last visit.
Lake Bohinj is Bled without tourist buses; two and a half miles of sapphires and greens in a jewel box perched on the country’s highest peaks. Here you can lose happy days diving in a canoe that you rent from Alpinsport (alpinsport.si), day walk to the Julian Alps in the Triglav National Park. In the surrounding sun-silvered dairy villages, farmers seat you in barns smelling of fresh hay to feed you their cheeses, and inns serve slivovica (plum wine) to the sound of accordion polkas — niche, but nice.
Head around the Julian Alps to the Soča (pronounced “so-cha”) valley for a week-long trip. Behind Kranjska Gora, the highest Slovenian road climbs into a valley that is stunningly beautiful even by Slovenian standards. For rafting, go to Bovec, and for food, go to Kobarid, where the landscape is more lush, the architecture changes from alpine huts to villas, and the chirping of “Bye, bye!” in shops. Piran, a pocket of the former ruling Venice that floated to the eastern Adriatic, rounds off a colorful week.
Cyclists can’t get enough of going from the mountains to the sea (try the Saddle Skedaddle tours; skedaddle.com). The country, which prides itself on its green ethics, is dizzying with cycling routes – it’s no coincidence that Tadej Pogačar, a national hero, won the Tour de France twice and finished second this year. Despite the fact that the driving time on the highways is short (it’s quite slow on the A roads), Slovenia rewards those who explore.
I assume that the Johnsons partly chose Villa Planinka because it is tucked away in the Jezerski valley. There are no crowds up here along the Austrian border, only jagged mountains ahead and in the nearby Logarska dolina a valley of dreamlike perfection. You spend the night there in farm tourism. It’s so quiet you can almost hear the mountains sighing.
Rafting in the Soča valley
The couple also visited Postojna Cave, which is on the UNESCO list, an hour south of Ljubljana; impressive if it is touristic (you visit by land train). Instead, I would recommend the Škocjan Caves — more raw, almost Tolkeian in scale, plus a gateway to wine villages in the Vipava Valley and the Karst.
It’s only when you stop staring at the landscape that you notice something else: Slovenians are lovely. In the puzzle of nations that made up Yugoslavia, it continues to be defined by the traditional virtues of hard bribery and honesty. People remain polite to a fault. The worst domestic insult is “Da te brne koškoš”. “Three hundred furry bears!” considered mature cursing. And yes, they all speak English.
I haven’t mentioned the food yet, and not only because Vila Planinka has bear cheeks on the menu. The Michelin people have finally understood a country that takes cleanliness seriously.
At Kobarid, Hisa Franko Ane Ros is listed on the World’s Top 50 Restaurants list, which also declared her the best chef of 2017 (hisafranko.com). She works in the pastoral hinterland of much-overlooked country, but ask her why and she’ll tell you about the extraordinary ingredients of the surrounding farmers, fishermen and foragers. I won’t bore you with the details of my eight courses. Suffice it to say, the sour milk ice cream with parsley gratin and porcini crumble sounded crazy, but it was amazing.
By a happy coincidence, the Soča ends at the Goriška Brdy, the lost twin of the Italian wine-growing district of Collio, which was only recently rediscovered after the Yugoslav collectivization. In addition to elegant national flag-bearers such as Movia in Čegle and small organic estates such as Klinec in Medana, the Briška cooperative winery is owned by 680 owners and produces approximately 24 million bottles per year.
During my visit, the organic growers asked me to call them local prosciutto (prosciutto) in the kitchens to talk about natural wines for hours. None of us were in a hurry. The sun was shining. Another bottle was opened. My schedule slipped. This never happens in Europe’s better-known wine destinations, but being overlooked has its perks.
Cox & Kings has a new one-week tour from Ljubljana to Piran via Bled from £1,545pp, plus seven-day bespoke food and wine tours from £4,845pp (coxandkings.co.uk). Saddle Skedaddle offers seven-night self-guided tours and hotel cycling tours from £775pp (skedaddle.com)
Tamara Hinson in Vila Planinka
My stay at Villa Planinka, Boris’s Slovenian honeymoon hotel
Unlike Boris Johnson, when I stayed in Villa Planinka three years ago, I was not about to be fired. But I needed time, and the 23-room boutique hotel – in an Alpine valley full of natural springs, glassy lakes and whistling marmots – offered exactly that.
Employees at Westminster who complained that Johnson was hard to track down would have even less chance of doing so here — guests are encouraged to turn off their phones and turn on out-of-office notifications.
The rooms are alpine-chic and bring the outdoors in – faux fur blankets, local larch and low armchairs strategically placed next to telescopes for a view of the Slovenian starry sky. The huge windows mean that what lies behind them is the star of the show – if Carrie Johnson was looking here for background inspiration, I suspect she may have come away disappointed.
Natural energy points (a bit like ley lines) are said to surround the property, which is an hour’s drive north of Ljubljana. Whether or not there was any real magic during my stay is debatable, but I certainly felt relaxed as I lounged in the garden, looking out towards the jagged peaks that separate Slovenia from Austria.
The property is seriously sustainable (the owners even claim that the cooling effects of the Skuta Glacier negate the need for air conditioning). The hotel’s water comes from a nearby spring – its high manganese content is said to help anyone with circulatory problems, resulting in an almost constant line of villagers at the nearby well, made from a hollowed-out log.
Biodegradable material is composted and food is locally sourced. This includes the hotel’s famous bear ham, which has a delicious, venison-like earthy note. The waiter assured me that Slovenia’s brown bear population was thriving, adding that as a child he had groaned when he saw his mother heading off into the forest with a rifle – this meant that the bear was undoubtedly back on the menu.
Further, my hikes included breathless hikes in the mountains I could see from the window and a day trip to Predjama, an 800-year-old castle partially hidden in a crevice in a 123m cliff, about an hour and a half away by car. The castle is near the Postojna Cave, where I drove past the stalagmites on the world’s first cave railway.
With the news of the Johnsons’ honeymoon in Villa Planinka, I longed to return. And who knows, maybe next time I’ll meet Boris when we’re filling our bottles at the fountain, exchanging pleasantries about cooling water.
Tamara Hinson was a guest of Villa Planinka, which offers bed and breakfast for two people from £212 (vilaplaninka.com). Flight to Ljubljana