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Melania Trump’s home country of Slovenia — a small Central European nation that declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, which marked the beginning of the region’s devastating wars — has made headlines since her husband was elected. But as a recent visit reveals, there’s more to this picturesque part of the world than the first lady’s stateside celebrity status.
(Funny enough, the Slovenians we met didn’t bring her up in conversation at all.)
With its natural wonders, incredible array of food, active local wine industry and new hotels, Slovenia lures folks interested in exploring a corner of Europe that’s refreshingly untouristed.
Unlike nearby nations of the former Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia, Slovenia faced relatively little psychological and physical damage from the regional conflict.
It’s a developed country about the size of Massachusetts that’s easy to explore via rental car, thanks to a highly developed and well-maintained highway system. Here’s a primer for a first-time visit.
Ljubljana — Slovenia’s quaint capital, whose population hovers around 275,000 — is one of Europe’s smallest capital cities, but it boasts a surprisingly bustling dining scene. On a Friday or Saturday night, near the notable cluster of three bridges called Tromostovje in the center of town, pretty young locals flock to the club-like AS Aperitivo. While local DJs spin beats, clean-cut twenty- and thirtysomethings nibble on pasta and meat plates — ask for the thin-sliced Tagliata Nevio sirloin — and sip Aperol spritzes.
The high volume can make conversation a challenge. For a low-key vibe, head to JB Restavracija, helmed by one of Slovenia’s top chefs, Janez Bratovž. There, small dishes — like an egg yolk fried with pork cracklings on the spot — pair nicely with Slovenian wines and chic mauve-toned interiors.
In daylight, when the weather’s fair, take a funicular up to the hilltop Ljubljana Castle for an outside seat at Gostilna na Gradu in the castle’s courtyard. Chef Ana Roš — named World’s Best Female Chef 2017 by the World’s 50 Best restaurant awards franchise — debuted this spot with her husband, sommelier Valter Kramar, and chef Svetozar Raspopović in 2009. Opt for the cheese-stuffed zucchini flowers with a glass of local Lambrusco while wiling away an afternoon.
Even outside of Ljubljana, the culinary offerings prove impressive. Slovenia — whose neighbors include Italy to the west, Austria to the north and Hungary to the east — showcases a curious crossroads of these nations’ cuisines. Those who visit the Vogel ski resort in the Julian Alps, a mountain range in northern Slovenia, can nosh on Hungarian goulash and Austrian apple strudel after hitting the slopes.
Closer to Italy, the influences shift. At Cejkotova Domačija — a cozy restaurant in the small village of Goče, around 20 miles from the Italian border — diners can order homemade prosciutto and pancetta served with freshly made cheeses. Meanwhile, the hillside Gredič hotel in Dobrovo — which stands a mere 150 feet from Italy — serves a number of seafood-centric pasta dishes whose stars are fished fresh from the nearby Gulf of Trieste (from $117).
But for a sweet fix that’s native to Slovenia, grab a slice of potica — a sweet walnut roll. Locals say the best is baked at Dvor Jezeršek, a charming eatery with wood-beamed ceilings about 3 miles from the Ljubljana airport.
It’s time for a drink. The country is also home to the Goriška Brda wine region, a stunning landscape of verdant hills, cypress trees and leafy vineyards that’s lovingly called “Slovenia’s Tuscany.”
Luckily, its fantastic wines live up to the nickname.
But before sampling them, don’t miss a panoramic view of the area from a local landmark. Near the village of Šmartno stands the Gonjače Lookout Tower. The unattractive structure with a circular staircase (which is, somewhat disconcertingly, a bit wobbly) looks to wide vistas of rolling hills and the red-roofed towns that dot them.
Scamper down, and it’s time to taste some local blends. It’s a zippy drive to Hiša Štekar, a 1986-opened winery, restaurant and inn. Its wines include a merlot, a rosé and a rebula (Italian white), which visitors sip while munching on cheesy polenta and chicken dishes.
A tour of its wine cellar is also available. For a more festive scene, Šmartno hosts St. Martin’s Feast on Nov. 11 — an annual event in which over 30 local winemakers set up shop in abandoned homes to offer tastings of their own varietals.
Slovenia also offers a feast of natural splendor.
For peak fall foliage, head to the forested Lake Bohinj — a blue-green expanse nestled in the Julian Alps that’s the country’s largest lake. Hikers can trek their way through a 7-mile loop around Bohinj underneath a canopy of changing leaves in the shadows of the mountains above.
Another nearby option for a hike: Slap Savica, a breathtaking cliffside waterfall whose crystalline cascades collect in a beautiful pool.
The path to the waterfall from the trail’s base is worth taking, but a 20- to 25-minute uphill arrival.
Another aquatic attraction, Lake Bled isn’t a far drive away. Known for its postcard-perfect scenery — a large lake surrounded by mountains and punctuated with a small island in the middle — Bled draws busloads of tourists. Still, hire a boat to head out to Bled Island, where visitors can head inside the Catholic Church of the Assumption to make a wish while ringing its bell. For sheltered sightseeing, head around an hour south to Postojna Cave, where paths lead through grand caverns pierced with towering stalagmites and dripping stalactites ($30).
Increasing waves of visitors have led to much-needed new hotel development.
Ljubljana’s freshest arrival is the September-opened InterContinental (from $235). This 165-room stay features a plush ground-level lounge, an 18th-floor gym and spa and a 20th-floor restaurant — all of which look out to nearby mountains through floor-to-ceiling windows. Last year also marked the reopening of the 80-room Hotel Jama, near Postojna Cave, after a chic redesign. It originally debuted in 1971 (from $116).
Swissair and Austrian Airlines fly from New York to Slovenia via their European hubs.
For a more affordable fare, Turkish Airlines operates a JFK-Ljubljana route with a brief stop in Istanbul (from $789 this fall).