Slovenia Doesn’t Need the “Melania Factor”

This week marks one year since we moved to Slovenia, an anniversary that naturally prompts some reflecting (and perhaps a return to the blog). Life in this country–its remarkable landscapes, charmingly blunt people, and joie de vivre–almost defies description.

That’s why the so-called “Melania factor”–the idea that Melania Trump is boosting tourism to Slovenia–does the country no justice. I have no contempt for the First Lady,  but I can’t help but roll my eyes at the editors and journalists who think she is a clever angle from which to cover this country. I’m looking at you, NewsweekFox, Politico, Reuters, Bloomberg, and so on.

Sure, I can appreciate that Melania’s notoriety brings more attention to this tiny country tucked inconspicuously between many better-known neighbors. But is she “so popular” that Americans are “desperate to see” where she is from? Doubtful. The numbers agree: tourism was already on the rise for years before the Trump presidency–each of the last four years has seen a new record number of visitors.

So, what is driving record numbers of tourists to Slovenia?

The abundance and variety of natural beauty

Slovenia’s most popular coastal town, Piran, looking lovely even in late winter.

From the soaring Julian Alps to the rocky Adriatic coastline and the rolling vineyards, karst caves, alpine valleys, and turquoise lakes and rivers in between, Slovenia is a feast for the senses. Best of all, the country’s diverse landscape is packed into an area smaller than Massachusetts. From Ljubljana, you can reach the coast, the mountains, wine country, or even another country (Italy, Austria, Croatia, and Hungary) in two hours or less.

No filter, the Soca River is actually this color.

Visitors can lounge by the coast, explore the damp underbelly of a raging waterfall, sip a glass at a picturesque vineyard, venture through caves on foot or by kayak, climb up or ski down the otherworldly Julian Alps, take advantage of thousands of miles of walking and biking trails, raft down crystal clear rivers, and have time to spare and relax in a cafe along the Ljubljanica River.

Triglav National Park is a hiker’s paradise. Apparently you’re not truly a Slovene until you’ve hiked the eponymous Mt. Triglav, the country’s highest peak.

The fairytale landscapes remain enjoyable in all seasons. The verdant greens give way to beautiful fall foliage, which eventually surrenders to snow-capped mountains, making Slovenia a destination worth multiple visits. Most towns adorn their buildings with lights and erect small Christmas markets in a convivial winter kick-off. Snow doesn’t slow anyone down: hikers strap on snowshoes and skiing is practically a birth rite. Winter sport enthusiasts can enjoy resorts like Krvavec and Vogel at a fraction of the cost of those found in Switzerland or Austria.

Baby swans usher in spring at Lake Bled, the best-known site in Slovenia.

The quiet charm of Europe, without the crowds or the cost

There are good reasons so many people visit the likes of London, Paris, and Rome. But navigating the crush of humanity in those cities takes away from the sights and prevents you from making the most of your time. We are now those people who complain about taking a day trip over to Venice for fear of cruise shippers packing every inch of navigable space. Our loathing is not unique; the city of 55,000 saw more than 20 million visitors last year, triggering protests from local Venetians who argue that tourism “eroded their quality of life, damaging the environment and driving residents away”.

The inescapable crush of humanity in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, an accurate depiction of nearly every inch of Venice during the summer months.

You can breath a sigh of relief (and fresher air) in Slovenia. The tiny neighbor to the east falls on the opposite end of the spectrum, comparatively calm even in the peak summer months. Tourists abound in Ljubljana, Bled, and a handful of other sites pimped out by Lonely Planet and travel agencies, but it pales in comparison to other major European landmarks. And for the true escapists, the rest of the country remains virtually untouristed. I can’t remember the last time I waited in a long line, struggled to find a parking space, or felt jostled by a crowd in Slovenia.

Exploring the labyrinth of empty alleys in Izola, the Slovenian coast’s best kept secret

Here, you can enjoy coffee at a cafe or savor a meal at a restaurant that isn’t gouging you for average fare. Book an AirBnB or hotel at a fraction of the cost of major European capitals. Stroll through cobblestone streets and quaint neighborhoods in which people still live, laundry drying overhead and children’s toys strewn about. Hike paths with more paw prints than boot marks. Take your time lining up a camera angle without fear that someone (or an entire tour group) will interrupt your perfect shot. Browse the morning market with no doubt that the products are handmade in Slovenia.

Who needs Venice when you have Ljubljana?

The emerging culinary scene

We’re not foodies, but it seems like we’re outliers in that sense. Fans of Chef’s Table will already know that local chef Ana Ros was named female chef of the year in 2016, a title sure to draw in salivating tourists. Even if you’re not the pinky-out type, the food scene leaves nothing to be desired except another slice or a second scoop. From grass-fed beef to preservative-free gelato, Slovenes take the quality of their food seriously.

Just a suckling pig served up streetside during Open Kitchen, a weekly open-air food festival that brings the city’s best restaurants together in the market square.

It’s hard to define “Slovene food”, but it’s a delicious fusion influenced heavily by whichever bordering country is closest. Delicate prosciutto will be sliced off the shank in front of you at the market and any respectable bakery (of which there are many) will serve up flaky burek stuffed with spinach or cheese. Wash it down with one of many local craft beers or Slovenian wine, which I’m told is just as good as anything from Italy or France at a fraction of the cost.

If you ask me, the best food in Slovenia is whatever is in season at the local farmers’ market.

Sure, they commit some food sins (tartar sauce on pizza), but anyone traveling with an appetite will not regret Slovenia.

The safety and cleanliness

These aren’t necessarily criteria you consider when planning a European vacation, but they are qualities you’ll notice – and appreciate – when you’re here. Slovenia has a well-deserved reputation of being safe, like walk down an alley at 2am wearing headphones safe. Should you need help for some reason, there is little to no language barrier to worry about, as virtually all Slovenes (especially younger generations) speak near-perfect English.

Just recently, Ljubljana converted much of its downtown into pedestrian-only areas.

Slovenia is also the cleanest, greenest place I’ve ever enjoyed. Ljubljana was aptly named Europe’s “Green Capital” in 2016. Fewer cars are allowed downtown, bikes are the favored mode of transportation, and recycling is a commandment. You may be confused when trying to sort your trash among the various color-coded bins, but your experience will be better for the effort.

The rich traditions and authentic experiences

Surely you’ve heard that travel is a window into another culture, but sometimes the view looks a little altered, a little inauthentic. Even the mayor of Paris shut down the Parisian Christmas market because the longstanding market “wasn’t good enough for Paris”. Unsurprisingly in these times, most of the items for sale weren’t truly French, but trinkets made in China.

Slovenia rarely comes off that way. Sure, there are tour groups and a couple people hawking “I feel Slovenia” t-shirts in Ljubljana, and Lake Bled is a little too scripted for my taste, but that’s basically the extent of it. There are comparatively few pre-packaged, mass-marketed tourist traps to be found in Slovenia, at least for the time being.

That said, there is always something entertaining going on, with events taking place for the sake of tradition rather than tourism. During the weeklong Kurentovanje celebration in Ptuj, thousands of Slovenes dress as kurents, debaucherous bell-clad folk creatures who dance through the streets to scare away winter. At the opening weekend parade, it was mainly just us and the kurents and it was obvious they would be out their dancing whether we were watching or not.

Kurents dancing through the snowy streets of Ptuj during Kurentovanje. (February 2018)

The history, both recent and ancient

Most people reading this are older than the country of Slovenia, but this area’s history should not be an afterthought for visitors. From medieval castles to the Hapsburg Empire to the World Wars, Slovenia has seen it all.

You can stroll Ljubljana’s Sunday antique market, where you’re bound to find plenty of Nazi paraphernalia, maps of Yugoslavia, and mortar shells turned into tchotchkes. The mountains along the Italian and Austrian borders are lined with old forts and defensive positions from WWI, with well-maintained trails leading the way for those who want to walk through foxholes or hunker down in a bunker.

Wildflowers growing at the base of the Predel Fortress, originally built during the Napoleonic Wars and used as a military warehouse during WWI.

There is no shortage of ancient history, either. The area that is now Ljubljana was once the Roman city of Emona. Just down the road from our apartment, a major road has been closed for months to exhume a handful of two-thousand-plus-year-old tombs. Cities like Celje and Ptuj have maintained old Roman walls and castles. Tucked away in Hrastovlje is a 15th-century church adorned with impressive frescoes.

The Church of the Holy Trinity in Hrastovlje is best known for this “Dance of the Dead” fresco, showing Death himself escorting people from all walks of life to face their common end.

The proximity to the beaten path

For someone making a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe, Slovenia might not fulfill any of the classic European bucket list items. But as mentioned above, spending an entire trip in Italy, Austria, or Croatia can be costly, crowded, and cookie-cutter. Slovenia offers an affordable, enjoyable jumping off point to any of these places, with easy day or weekend trips to the canals of Venice, the beaches of Croatia, the slopes of Austria, or the thermal baths of Budapest.

Once you set foot in Slovenia, though, you might just forget about those other places.

Is it so crazy to think that tourism has increased because Slovenia is actually a wonderful place to visit? As more European travelers seek respite from the overcrowding, the overpricing, the inauthentic, and the inhospitable, Slovenia presents itself as an obvious choice.

The country is small in size, but huge in charm, beauty, hospitality, and value. That is something travelers really are “desperate to see”.

The Slovenian experience summed up on a cafe sign.

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