This past August and September I was lucky to be looking at spending a few weeks traveling in Europe. I had already made plans for a week with friends in Turkey. The timing meant that I had about a week before to do something solo. For me, travel planning is half the fun so I spent a lot of time thinking about possible itineraries and looking at flights.
Switzerland has been at the top of my travel list for a while. Returning to the town where I was born (Bamberg in Northern Bavaria) has been a goal for a long time. The Amalfi Coast, Cinque Terre, and Lake Como in Italy are all places that belong on anyone’s travel vision board. Flights were relatively cheap to and from Portugal. Prague and Budapest seem like must-dos. I have a lot of photos of Norway pinned back when I used Pinterest for wanderlust. And I would never pass up an opportunity to return “home” to Croatia. Do you not see my problem here?…
The determining factors for me were the ability to explore my itinerary meaningful in a week, be ambitious but not too hectic to see what I wanted, and relatively easy and affordable to fly in from Chicago and out to Bodrum in Turkey. So for a road trip through Bavaria, for example, I wanted more time than a week, seeing multiple places even in just one part of Italy felt like I would be in transit too much, and Norway wasn’t as easy to fly to from Chicago and leave to Bodrum.
Instead, what I settled on as the perfect itinerary (and am very grateful I did) was Slovenia! Slovenia had been towards the top of my travel list for a while. For me, the top of my list had coincidentally been the 4 S’s- Singapore, Switzerland, South Africa, and Slovenia. Slovenia had been on my radar primarily because it borders the homeland (Croatia). Both were Catholic republics within Yugoslavia and in my diehard love of all things Croatia and history they often were connected or compared. Additionally, it seemed that I was coming across more and more jaw-dropping pics of Slovenia on Instagram. It also fits my factors of being able to do a meaningful visit in a week and flights weren’t too bad with a connection in Frankfurt from Chicago and a connection in Istanbul to Bodrum. Plus I tend to gravitate towards places that maybe are at least a little bit “off the beaten path.”
After my visit to Slovenia, all I have to say is WHAT. A. PLACE! Germany may be my birthland and Croatia may be my homeland, but Slovenia seriously is now one of my heart-lands (corny but just go with it). For a major part of my visit, the most common thing I said out loud or in my head was “what is this sorcery?!” It was so stunningly beautiful. There’s a sight I will show below where I literally giggled at how blown away I was by the beauty.
I flew in and out of the capital, Ljubliana. That’s pretty standard for visiting Slovenia. I spent a few days there and then a few days in Lake Bled, which is one of the most popular places in Slovenia for its picturesque island church. I also visited Piran, described as a mini-Dubrovnik, on the coast for a few days. I will likely work on blog posts for all three of those but I wanted to start with covering my road trip from Lake Bled to Piran. The quickest and easiest way would have been for me to drive east from Lake Bled back towards Ljubliana and taken the major A1 highway most of the way to Piran. Instead, I continued west and made my way through the Julian Alps and through the Soca River Valley. This was my favorite part of my trip to Slovenia and I could not recommend it more! The reason I made this a part of my trip is that I have a habit now of basing my travel plans off following a country or city’s tourism Instagram account and adding places with the most stunning Instagram photos. It does lead to some great finds but I’ll be honest it is in large part shamelessly motivated for wanting to take really sweet photos for the “Gram.” As you will see Slovenia has some incredibly Instagram-worthy places and several are in the Soca Valley and nearby. Additionally, I have some travel blogger friends Two Wandering Soles that visited the Soca Valley and their post only reinforced the need to include it.
Stops #0-.9999: Sava River (Unplanned)
I started by leaving Lake Bled early in the morning. I think I ended up waking up early and getting on the road because while I had an ambitious itinerary of stops I wasn’t planning to be in that much of a hurry. I am really glad that I did leave early because the sunrise on my drive was incredible. I got on the A2 highway and I soon began to drive along the Sava River. The valley also narrowed and you really experienced how it is bordered by beautiful mountains. I might have started the morning focused on getting to my list of stops along the drive, but I quickly realized how important enjoying the drive itself would be. I kept catching views of the Sava River with mist rising and having the sunrise seem to explode in color over it. I couldn’t stop myself from looking for any opportunity to pull over.
I made probably 5-6 stops on what was supposed to be a roughly 45-minute drive to the first stop on my list. Some of those stops were just within a few minutes of each other because so many things caught my eye and more than a few times I backtracked several minutes after finding a place to turn around.
Stop #1: Zelenci Springs
My first planned stop was one I found from the Feel Slovenia Instagram. This is where I am glad some of my travel planning comes from following tourism board Instagrams. I am not sure I would have found and visited Zelenci Springs (also seen as Zelenci Reservoir or Zelenci Nature Preserve) otherwise. Once I saw it though I knew I had to make the stop. Luckily it was only about five minutes west of the town of Kranjska Gora (where I would have otherwise turned to head into the Julian Alps). There is a small parking lot and then it’s a few minutes’ walk to the reservoir itself. When I arrived there was one car that was leaving. Otherwise, I had it all to myself that early in the morning, which was incredible!
You walk through a small woods and then it opens up to where you see the crystal clear turquoise waters ringed in long grass and with the mountains directly in the background. It’s like nature made this for Instagram! This is the place I meant when I said I pretty much giggled about how beautiful and unreal it was. There are some wooden walkways over the reservoir and a basic park observation tower that you can walk up to admire the clear water from different angles. I imagine Zelenci Springs may get busier later in the day but at the time it was so incredibly peaceful and quiet.
Zelenci Springs is actually a major source of the Sava River, which I had just driven along and also experienced a few days earlier running through the middle of the capital, Ljubliana. Zelenci comes from the Slovene word for “green”- zelen. And boy is Zelenci’s green color gorgeous! In fact, I was later informed by Wikipedia that Zelenci is the “deadjectival plural noun” from zelen. While I could pick out “adjective” in that word on closer inspection it did have me first wondering if there’s some sort of word graveyard where words go to die or something?… A quick lookup instead is that it’s “de-” (from) an adjective. Learn something new every day.
Stop #2: Lake Jasna
My next stop was not far from the Zelenci Springs. I backtracked the five minutes to Kranjska Gora and back onto the road that would take me through the Julian Alps. Just about one turn on the road past the main part of town is Lake Jasna. Like Zelenci this is where water and mountains collide for the ultimate in travel eye candy. The water is crystal clear and I was lucky to see the mountain reflected in the water and early morning light.
Lake Jasna is surrounded by a park and a bit of beach. There are a variety of walkways, bridges, and statues throughout. You could spend a lot of time wandering around the lake and it would be a great place to picnic. There also was a small resort with a restaurant along the lake, as well as other hotels across the street (if you want to stop for the night in Kranjska Gora). I parked in the parking lot (which you can pay for with a parking app) at the northern end of the lake and that you will hit first coming from Kranjska Gora.
If by chance you don’t have the time to travel all the way to the Soca River Valley from Lake Bled I would still recommend driving the 45-minutes from Lake Bled to Kranjska Gora to see Zelenci Springs and Lake Jasna before heading back.
Drive Through The Julian Alps
After I left Lake Jasna I began the drive through the Julian Alps. The ascent would probably be a more accurate descriptor though. Slovenia overall has an easy and well-maintained network of highways and roads around the country from what I experienced. The drive through the mountains was entirely safe but was a bit of a surprise probably due more to lack of research on my part. I was expecting more of a modern highway through the mountains (which it was in parts) but I hadn’t really checked any reviews nor closely looked at the map.
The first side I encountered (between Kranjska Gora to the Vrsic Pass) is quite windy and narrow and several parts are old stone potentially still left from when it was originally built. That morning when I was driving I don’t think there was a single car going in the opposite direction (if there was it was only one or two) which made the drive on the narrow parts and turns easier. I was definitely driving slow regardless but if there was a lot of traffic in both directions I think everyone would need to be even more cautious. There also was a moment where I had to stop for a big group of sheep blocking the road, but this was more hilarious than an inconvenience.
Along the way, there is a place to stop called the Russian Chapel. If you’re wondering why there is a Russian chapel in the middle of Slovenia it is because the road I was driving on was originally built by Russian prisoners-of-war during World War I. Slovenia at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and it was decided there needed to be a military road through the pass to more easily move troops and supplies to the border with Italy. Austria-Hungary and Italy/Russia were on opposite sides of the war- the Central Powers vs. the Allies respectively. The road was built in 1915 in less than a year but because it needed to be available for military use at all times the Russian prisoners-of-war continued to work the road and clear it of snow. Unfortunately in March of 1916 an avalanche killed about 110 prisoners and 7 guards. The Russian church was both a place of worship built by the Russian prisoners-of-war and a memorial to those lost in the avalanche.
By the time I got to the Vrsic Pass, I think either I thought it was just a restaurant and not the highpoint or I was sort of hyper-focused on driving after being very alert on the first part of the drive. For whatever reason, I drove past the parking and viewpoint and kept going. If I could re-do it I would stop because the views looking down from the Vrsic Pass were really stunning. I would have liked to stop at the highest point and take a few pictures. I did make a few stops when there was a place to pull over further down the road. The part of the drive from the Vrsic Pass to the town of Trenta was still windy but was more of a modern highway (no cobblestone or sheep) although there were still narrower parts without defined lanes. The road continues to be steep and windy right until it hits the Soca River and then the descent was much more gradual.
Stop #3: Soca River Viewpoints
So Stop #3 is a bit misleading because I not only made so many uncounted stops both along the Sava River and during the drive through Vrsic Pass (I probably was up to Stop #25+), but also because the Soca River “stop” is really stops with a gigantic pluralized capital S. The Soca River feels like one of our planet’s greatest gift. You’ll want to stop everywhere to see the river up close. There were a ton of people hiking and walking along the way and honestly wish I had been able to see it that way.
If you’re doing the drive I would say stop wherever as often as you can and want. There are two stops I will specifically recommend though:
- Mala Korita Soce (Small Soca Gorge)– this is an easy place to get close to the river gorge without it being too much of a drop-off and without a lot of vegetation. The major selling point of this is a beautiful stone bridge over the river that makes for a really great picture. Here is a link to the coordinates on Google Maps. It was easy to pull over and park nearby.
- Grand Canyon of Soca– this is a larger and steeper gorge than Mala Korita Soce. There are two places I would recommend stopping- either A) here or B) here. The first stop has a nice walking bridge across the gorge but parking was full when I got there. The second stop was also busy but I was able to find a spot. There is a road bridge crossing the river nearby there. My recommendation would be to park at one and walk along the gorge or the highway to the other. They are a little over 500m from each other on the road. There is another small pull-off in-between these two stops but I didn’t find the gorge there as impressive and there was not a lot of space to park. This gorge not only has a much steeper drop off than Mala Korita Soce but has a lot more vegetation and the rocks are more precarious. I would make sure to have good shoes and exercise caution. I walked on the highway between both stops I’ve highlighted. Traffic was relatively sparse and slow but you should of course be alert if you walk on the road. There looked to be a path along the opposite side of the gorge but I saw a family that appeared to be moving slowly through some vegetation so I am not sure how well-cleared it is. The section of the trail closest to each stop/the bridges were relatively well cleared. You should use your best judgment on how close you get to the edge depending on the view you want to get. A little bit past the second stop is where the gorge is the widest (this is what is marked on Google Maps as the Grand Canyon of Soca) and right before the Soca River exits the gorge. It is easier to walk along the gorge there. There were also quite many people swimming and hanging out as the river exits the gorge, widens, and calms.
Stop #4: Bovec
My plan had initially been to drive first from Lake Bled to Lake Bohinj in the morning and then backtrack to make the drive through the Julian Alps and Soca River Valley. I had marked off all the sights between Bled and my hotel for the night in Bovec. I ended up not going out of the way to Lake Bohinj and so I made good time getting to Bovec. I ended up seeing some sights that were past Bovec on this same day but I will save that for a Part II of this road trip blog.
Bovec (pronounced Bo-vitz) is a beautiful little town that almost has an alpine/mountain town look to me even though it lies in a quite flat valley. I would recommend it as a home base for Soca River Valley. There are numerous hotels, restaurants, and a few stores (both for groceries and outdoor adventures). Even though my hotel was along the main highway and on the edge of the town I found the town small enough to be easily walkable.
Miscellaneous Photos From The Drive
If there was something I would change about my day (I still have to write another blog post about the sights seen in the second half) I would have taken more time on the drive from Lake Bled to Bovec. This would have included stopping at the top of the Vrsic Pass like I already mentioned. I also would have taken more time to walk and hike longer at each of my stops and really enjoy the Soca River. If I had one extra day in my trip I would have loved to have spent an extra night in Bovec and done a long hike along the river/in the area. I might even have taken one night from my time in Piran and added to Bovec on a re-do of this trip (I go back and forth on that). That said, I could have done a lot more longer stops and mini-hikes (15-30 minutes) along my drive since I made such good time.
I would also recommend starting early from Lake Bled like I did both because sights like Zelenci and Lake Jasna were empty/not crowded, but also I was glad I didn’t hit any/many opposing cars on the narrow road from Kranjska Gora to the Vrsic Pass (although I would have been fine if I had).
Part of me does wonder if I should have done Lake Bohinj with the good time that I made, but I think that would have been better to do with an extra night in Lake Bled versus trying to rush to do a quick stop in the morning to “check it off” without really experiencing it. The stops I had on my radar for Lake Bohinj are included on a Google Map I linked below. Additionally, the lake is part of the larger Triglav National Park and I would recommend researching all there is to do there if you have more time in Slovenia.
You can check out more photos from this and other parts of my trip on my Instagram (shameless plug)- PDXerMIAmian. There are posts back in August 2019 as well as a Slovenia story.
- A link to a Google Map I created for sights within Slovenia and including the ones mentioned can be found here
- Official Kranjska Gora Tourism Website– this has info on Zelenci Springs, Lake Jasna, and the drive through the Julian Alps
- Official Soca Valley Tourism Website– I found this to be helpful for identifying sights in the Soca River Valley and finding logistical information (like parking).
- Car Rental: I would recommend renting a car if you are not doing some sort of guided tour. I do believe there are buses that could get you to Kranjska Gora and Bovec from places like Ljubliana and Lake Bled but you would not be able to go at your own pace and see many of these stops along the way. One possibility could be taking buses but staying the night in Kranjska Gora and Bovec separately. That would allow you to likely see many of these stops by hiking, biking, or taking local transportation from those towns as home bases.
- International Driver’s Permit: An international driver’s permit is required for Slovenia if you have a U.S. driver’s license (and I believe the rental car agency checked mine). I got mine through AAA. It took about 15 minutes filling out the paperwork, taking a photo, and paying the fee.
- Tolls: Cars using the highways in Slovenia must display a purchased vignette. If you are renting a car in Slovenia then this should be provided. There was not a specific charge for a vignette on my bill but it might have been (or a part of) a “registration fee” I was charged of 3 Euros per day. If you are renting a car in another country (might check if agencies in neighboring countries like Italy or Croatia have it as an option to add-on) or driving your own car you will need to purchase one in Slovenia. They are sold in weekly, monthly, and yearly options for cars. The weekly option is 15 Euros as of posting. The Slovene tourism board, I Feel Slovenia, has a helpful website with info on pricing and sales locations. The fine is several hundred Euros if caught without the vignette (which seems to be checked mostly at the border but better safe than sorry).
- Google Maps: This is less applicable to the sights mentioned in this blog post but Google Maps worked fine for getting to major towns and places. It was less reliable though in terms of directions to smaller sights. One time it wanted to send me down a golf course “road” that was clearly not for cars. I would always double-check the directions are taking major routes and not a random backroad to “save” a minute. Additionally, many sights in Slovenia (not any listed here though) have off-site parking lots and shuttles and that often isn’t accounted for by Google Maps directions. Make sure to check signs as you get close to your destination (which might direct you differently than Google Maps to parking) and do your research on parking ahead of time (I try to include that in the info I share though).
- I can’t speak to the strength of Apple Maps’ directions since I didn’t use it for driving but I will say that Apple Maps loads much quicker for me if you’re ever having internet issues (and haven’t downloaded the offline version of Google Maps). I wonder if it’s potentially because Google Maps has so much extra information (things to explore, restaurants, etc.) that needs to load. But it’s something I keep in mind when I am walking around and want a map to get my bearings and/or walking directions and the internet is spotty.
- I stayed at the Hotel Mangart Superior in Bovec. This looked to be a relatively newer hotel. It was along the highway that goes along the edge of the town. It was about an 8-10 minute walk to what I saw as the center of Bovec. I chose the hotel mainly on price but found it to be clean, simple, and quiet (did not hear the highway). Since I was only staying one night and not doing much in Bovec itself I did not mind the location at all. When I went to look a month or so out from my trip it did seem like a lot of hotels in Bovec were already full, which may be reflective of the smaller town and late August still being a busy travel time. So it might be helpful to plan your hotel in Bovec in advance compared to places like Ljubliana and Lake Bled. The only amenities I used were the free parking and WiFi but there is a restaurant on the premises. It’s surrounded by farmland and has views of the mountains that surround the valley and Bovec.
- For fellow gluten-free travelers I have found the Find Me Gluten app and Tripadvisor to be pretty good at finding gluten-free options in Europe although there was nothing in Bovec that I found gluten-free “special” worth highlighting (ate things that were naturally gluten-free).
Cell Phone Plan:
- Since I was driving it was great to have cell phone data although you can download maps on Google Maps for offline use. I had no trouble with cell reception on the Slovenia network AT&T had me on. I paid AT&T $10 a day for its International Pass which allows me to use my U.S. plan’s data allotment abroad. That is a bit steep and if I had been in Slovenia longer than a week I would have considered seeing the prices for a Slovenian SIM card.
- I had no trouble with language in Slovenia. Many Slovenes speak English and this certainly was the case at hotels and restaurants and I found even in less touristy stores or gas stations English was spoken. Reminds me to be grateful English is often the language of travel and how I need to practice my German and Spanish more…
- It’s great to learn simple phrases when visiting countries even if English is widely spoken. I enjoyed Slovene because it is similar or the same to many Croatian phrases:
- “Hello”- “Zdravo”
- “Please”- “Prosim”
- “Thank You”- “Hvala”
- “Excuse Me/Sorry”- “Oprostite”
- “Good Morning”- “Dobro jutro”
- “Good Afternoon”/”Good Day”- “Dobro dan”
- “Good Night”- “Lahko noč”
- “Do you speak English?”- “Govorite angleško?”
- “Sorry, only English”- “Oprostite, samo angleško”
- “Yes”- “Da”
- “No”- “Ne”
- Currency: Euros are the currency in Slovenia. I found credit cards widely accepted and ATMs common even in smaller towns like Bovec. Many parking locations for sights had either a machine that accepted credit cards or instructions to use a parking app.
- Visas: One does not need a visa for Slovenia when coming with a valid passport from the U.S. if your visit to the entire Schengen Zone (of which Slovenia is a part along with many other EU countries) is less than 90 days. For most travelers that won’t be an issue but you can learn more details here at the U.S. Embassy’s website.
- Vaccines: At the time of posting routine the CDC was recommending routine vaccines many in the United States already have for most travelers to Slovenia.
- Electricity: You will need to bring an adapter if coming from the United States (although some hotels may have USB charging ports). I have loved my universal travel adapter but Slovenia plugs are Type-F if you want to buy a specific one. More info here. A lot of the common electronics today (chargers for phones, tablets, computers, etc.) you may be bringing are likely designed for both the voltage in Slovenia (~220V) and the United States (~120V). Double-check electronics you’re bringing though to see if there is a range listed. If it is only for around 120V you will need to buy a converter to ensure your electronics don’t get fried by the higher voltage in Slovenia.
- Tipping: Fodor’s and a few other websites I checked mentioned that 10% is generally customary for meals and higher if the service is better. I went off of this recommendation.