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Slovenia’s best-kept secret

The last stop on our Slovenian tour, the Vipava Valley, had been the deciding factor in our decision to visit this tiny post-Yugoslavian country. Long after we had agreed to spend two weeks in Croatia with S’s parents, we were still debating what to do with our third week of our R&R. Slovenia was a possibility, as were Serbia, Montenegro, and several other Balkan destinations. What tipped the scales in Slovenia’s favor, in addition to recommendations from friends, was a timely article in the New York Times travel section.

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This is the second time we have followed a NYTimes travel recommendation, and in both instances they were spot on. Not far from the Vipava Valley lies the Karst plateau, whose massive cave systems rank among Slovenia’s most popular tourist destinations. That Vipava remains largely overlooked by the busloads of tourists who come to gawk at the stalagmites and stalactites in the Karst can only be counted as a blessing.

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We stayed in a superb guesthouse in Kodreti, a speck of a village that was just a ten-minute drive from the valley’s eponymous central town but felt as if it was a remote outpost of a forgotten civilization, worlds away from other living souls. Our room opened onto a verdant pasture where a few cows lazily grazed. We could glimpse several more houses and the steeple of an old stone church. The rest was green everywhere the eye could see. We’re pretty sure that the guesthouse’s address — Kodreti 15 — signified that there were only fourteen other houses in the entire village. It was the epitome of idyllic tranquility.

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It wasn’t the serenity or lovely countryside views that drew us to the region, however. Kodreti, along with dozens of other hamlets, lies along several wine routes that criss-cross the Vipava Valley. We sampled a few pleasant wines at the guesthouse — all professionally bottled and labeled, but produced in limited quantities by local wineries. One had been made by the guesthouse owner’s brother, another — which had recently won a Slovenian wine competition — had been bottled by a neighbor.

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Many establishments served good local wine on tap — the waiter would simply bring an uncorked bottle to the table and then charge for the amount that was consumed at mere pennies by the glass. We also sampled a few nicer varieties, which were fully deserving of their higher price tag. Our favorite was the Rebula — an orange wine made by aging white grapes for seven years. What’s more, Vipava is dotted with chef-owned restaurants whose culinary creations are nothing short of divine. In fact, D filled several pages in his journal raving about all the delicious dishes we sampled.

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Artisanal food and drink are reason enough to spend a couple of nights in the Vipava Valley. Its proximity to the Karst meant that we also were able to largely skip the crowds while seeing the region’s sights. We visited caves, saw castles, and ended our first afternoon at the Lipica stud farm, which was founded in the 16th century to breed Europe’s finest war stallions. Once there was no longer any need for an equine contribution to the military, the Lipicaner horses started being groomed for show.

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We later figured out that our visit to Lipica stemmed from a misunderstanding. Neither one of us found the idea of visiting a horse farm particularly exciting, but both somehow got the mistaken impression that the other wanted to go. In trying to be accommodating towards each other, we wound up at a place that was pretty but felt very much like a tourist trap. What must have been a quiet horse breeding operation at one point has turned into a tourist goldmine bent on maximizing profit.

We learned a few interesting tidbits during an overpriced hour-long tour of the stables, petted some horses, and then watched a dressage exhibition, whose monotony was punctuated by non-descriptive announcements in five different languages. S left bemused and underwhelmed. D enjoyed the historical factoids, but the finer points of dressage were equally lost on him.

And yet we don’t regret the visit one bit because of all the places we visited during our three weeks in the Balkans, the Lipica stud farm was by far Munchkin’s favorite. At 6 months, he was mainly just along for the ride throughout our travels, but at Lipica he all of a sudden perked up. He was transfixed when we brought him eye to eye with the horses in the stables. And despite usually being unable to keep still more than a minute or two, he somehow sat on D’s lap through the entire 45-minute dressage exhibition, intently moving his head to and fro to follow the horses, as if he was at a tennis match. The pure joy he derived from watching the horses far outweighed our hang-ups and instantly made the visit worthwhile.

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