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Long term readers of this blog know that ever since we quit our jobs to travel the world in 2015, we’ve been playing this game we like to call “Schengen Bingo”.
For those that don’t know, Schengen is the area in Europe consisting of 27 countries without internal border controls. Travellers can freely move through this area without border checks between the countries. With our Canadian passport, we can only stay in the Schengen zone for maximum 90 days.
During our 9 to 5 days, we only had 3 weeks’ vacation so 90 days was an eternity but when you’re retired and nomadic, 90 days goes by pretty quickly. So, we made up a game to visit every country in the European Schengen zone and collect stamps on our passport like a bingo card:
When we got a working holiday visa from Germany back in 2018, we easily went to 70% of the 26 Schengen countries in just one year. But there was always one country that alluded us, one country that was our “white whale”
I’m happy to report that this time, since our last stop, Croatia, was only 3 hours away, we finally made it there! That means we now only have Luxembourg and Liechtenstein left, and after that we’ll be able to yell “Schengen Bingo!”
Let me tell you about Slovenia, the underrated European country that blew me away the most.
Before coming to Slovenia, we learned all about Yugoslavia and its controversial leader, Josep Tito, from the “Croatia Homeland War tour” in Zagreb and how eerily similar that situation is to the current situation in Ukraine. Our education continued in Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia. We learned that this small country of only 2 million people, somehow managed to produce ¾ of the economic output in Yugoslavia, despite consisting of only 9% of the population.
Coming from the laid-back Dalmatian coast of Croatia, this felt pretty weird. I stopped relying on bus schedules in Croatia because delays were par for the course, but in Slovenia, everything was efficiently run and executed with precision, which reminded me a lot of Switzerland. The nature was another aspect that gave me Swiss déjà vu, but we’ll get to that in a second.
We also learned that there as a special cake called “kremna rezina”, invented just for Tito to impress his dignitaries while showing off Lake Bled. Lake Bled js one of the most popular attractions in Slovenia, with a church in the middle of an alpine lake and a medieval castle on the top of a cliff, so we had to try it. Our tour guide waxed poetic about this pastry, and how it was only available from the cafes in Lake Bled, so I had high expectations.
I sat down, found a table with a view, and ordered the delicacy. Then adorably it was brought to me via a robot waiter made to look like cat:
The view out the window was mesmerizing, but the cake itself was underwhelming. Made up of 3 layers: phyllo dough and icing sugar on top, whipping cream in the middle, and egg custard on the bottom.
Maybe the guide set my expectations too high or maybe I’m into more intense flavours but to me, it was eating a tasteless brick of cream. I just don’t get all the hype.
Clearly, I was the exception since the “Park Restaurant and Café” beside lake Bled sells 2000 of these cakes a day.
The Nature, oh, the Nature
There’s a lake 1.5 hours from Ljubljana called Lake Bohinj, which means “God’s place,” and as soon as I got there I could see why.
There were several times where I had to stop and gape at the scenery because my eyes just couldn’t believe it wasn’t a screensaver.
The only other time I had this feeling was in Switzerland. Even their alpine cabins looked a lot like Swiss chalets.
The biggest difference, however, is that Slovenia is surprisingly affordable and one of the least expensive places we’ve been to in Europe. Since it didn’t have Game of Thrones driving up the prices, it was much cheaper, less crowded, and far better value than Croatia.
So Slovenia is essentially Switzerland without the eye-watering price tag.
Most people think of Lake Bled when they think of Slovenia, but I enjoyed Bohinj far more as there were less crowds and the nature was more beautiful.
That being said, it’s still worth it to visit Lake Bled. There are many buses that go there from Ljubljana (far more than buses that go to Bohinj) and a ticket will cost you only €2/person each way.
Plus, there’s a quite a few attractions there, like this castle on top of a hill with incredible views:
A boat ride to the uninhabited tiny island in the center of the lake with a church and coffee shop on it (it will only take you 5 mins walk around the entire island—I timed it):
And this amazing hike that gives you a bird’s eye view of the entire lake:
Just look for the “Mala Osojnica Trailhead” on Google Maps. Be aware that if you’re afraid heights, this steep, nearly completely vertical ladder might be too much for you:
Another thing that stands out in Slovenia are the underground caves. And not just any underground caves, caves the size of entire football stadiums and some are even used to host concerts due to their excellent acoustics.
We went to Postojna cave, which is the most touristy one. There are many other, better, off the beaten path caves like the Skocjan Caves or the Predjama Cave but we decided to save them for next time.
Despite it being touristy and feeling like a Disney attraction (you sit in a little train that takes you to the center of the cave, much the same way you would a Disney ride), I still enjoyed the audio guide. If you go to Postojna, choose the audio guide instead of the human guide (both are included in your ticket) because it’s difficult to hear when you’re walking around in a big group.
We learned that it takes an entire 1,000 years to grow just 1 inch of stalactite or stalagmite! And since many of these formations reached the ceiling of the skyscraper high cave, we could see that they were millions of years old.
We were also told about something called a “baby dragon” or “human fish” which dwells deep in the waters of the underground caves.
I thought, maybe the Slovenians were trying to make like the Croatians and cash out on the sweet sweet Game of Thrones mania, but turns out this “baby dragon” was simply a salamander that can swim and feeds on small crabs, worms, and snails. The crazy thing is that it can survive years without food! Imagine how fast we’d be able to get to FI if we had that ability.
In ancient times, people believed they were the young offspring of dragons and so gave them that name.
Other than the breathtaking nature, the second thing that stood out to me about Slovenia was the incredibly nice people. Our AirBnb host was kind enough to go out of his way to pick us up from the bus station (the only other time that happened was in Chiang Mai). Not only that, when we went to change our bus ticket time to leave Slovenia and didn’t have enough change on us for the 81 cents change fee (they wouldn’t take credit card and there were no ATMs nearby), a nice lady in line behind us just paid the fee for us. Slovenians, you rock!
For the best views in Ljubljana, make sure you go to the Nebotičnik Skyscraper, which has a nice café where you can order delicious treats like “Gibanica”, which is a Slovenia apple strudel, for only a few euros.
If you just order a coffee or dessert, the restaurant lets you sit there and enjoy the view for as long as you want.
You can also climb up to the Ljubljana castle which is free to enter.
One of our favourite restaurants in Ljubljana is “Druga Violina” (or “Second Violin”) which not only had great food at an unbelievable price, but also employs people with special needs. It’s not often I find businesses that combine value, quality, pragmatism, and empathy, so I was very impressed with this place and we ate here many times.
We got a set meal for lunch of soup, main, and appetizer for only €6.50 per person. Everything was full of flavour and made my belly happy.
We also ate štruklji in the “My Dumplings Of Slovenia” restaurant which is a cheese dumpling with different fillings that looked like a log cake. It kind of reminded me of the štrukli in Croatia but less creamy and less like a casserole.
To go with this Slovenia specialty, we ordered Jota, which is Slovenia sauerkraut and bean soup, which ended up being one of my favourite comfort foods.
We also went to the Open Kitchen Market, located in Pogcarjev Trg, which was open on Fridays between 10:00 AM and 9:00 PM, with a large variety of traditional Slovenia food as well as international cuisines.
While strolling around the market, I noticed that, apparently, Slovenia is also rich in bears because we saw a few signs for bear salami all around the town.
I didn’t try any, but to anyone who’s adventurous enough to try it, please let me know how it tastes.
Here’s how much we spent in Slovenia:
|Category||Cost in USD/couple per day||Cost in CAD/couple per day||Notes|
|Accommodations||$43||$58||We found an AirBnb 30 mins walk from downtown that was clean, comfortable and came with en-suite dishwasher and laundry. The host was amazing and went out of his way to drive us. The price of AirBnbs in Slovenia varies depending on the time of year you go. Try to avoid the busy July and August summer months.|
|Food||$30 ($20 eating out, $10 groceries)||$41 ($27 eating out, $14 groceries)||Eating out was inexpensive and hearty Slovenia meals were on average around €6-8/person. We mostly ate out for lunch and cooked for dinner. Groceries were also pretty inexpensive.|
|Transportation||$13||$18||Our host was nice enough to give us some preloaded transit cards, so we only needed to top it up twice. Each ride on the bus was €2 or less. |
Getting out to places like Lake Bled, Bohinj, and Postojna was easy and cheap via the bus for only €2-4/person round trip. Crazy right? I feel like because they are tourist destinations, the cost must be subsidized to be that low.
We also spent €12 and €16 per person to take boats to the middle of the lake in Bled and Bohinj and getting from Zagreb to Ljubljana cost only €9/person.
|Entertainment||$19||$26||The most expensive entertainment cost was the entrance to the Postojna cave which was €28 each and included an audio-guide and train ride. We also went to a day spa which cost €24/person for the whole day.|
There were enough free attractions like the hike above Lake Bled, walking tours, Bohinj, and the Ljubljana castle that you don’t have to spend much money on entertainment in Slovenia at all. Its gorgeous nature is the entertainment.
|Total||$105||$143||We splurged a bit more on spas, boat rides, and meals out since we only spent a week in Slovenia, so the cost is a bit on the higher side compared to how much it would be if you lived here long term. Compared to how much we spent in Switzerland ($154 USD, $210 CAD) with a crappier Airbnb, without splurging on spas, or eating out at all, Slovenia was a steal. The nature in Slovenia is so breathtaking that I constantly forgot that I wasn’t in Switzerland. So, you’re getting all the natural beauty at 1/2 or even 1/3 of the price.|
Here’s what our Airbnb looked like:
If you’ve never been to Slovenia, add that to your European bucket list because it turned out to be one of my favourite countries. Plus, it’s just an easy and convenient 3-hour train ride from Zagreb, Croatia, so if you’re visiting anyways, why not tack on a few extra days to see a place that looks like Switzerland while saving tons of money and avoiding crowds in the process!
What do you think? Have you ever been to Slovenia?
Announcement: We will be doing a Livestream on March 15, 2023 8pm EST with our friends at Passiv, where we will chat about how we use their tool to make investing easier, manage our dividends, and basically live our kick-ass nomadic retired life!
Be sure to go there and mark it as “Interested” so we know how many people will be attending. If you do, you will automatically be entered into a draw to win 5 t-shirts from Passiv, which is exactly the kind of nerd cred that you need in your life 🙂
Click here to add it to your calendars:
Hope to see you there!
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