Feeling the Green Beat
April 20, 2019
Overlooking the breathtaking Lake Bled
IMAGE: Jošt Gantar
It’s easy to forget that Slovenia gained its independence less than 30 years ago. And that’s because while it remembers its past, its sights are firmly set on the future. The Ten Day War may have decimated the tourism market temporarily, but independent Slovenia has brought it back—sustainable-style.
Despite its small size, Slovenia is home to snow-capped mountains, beaches, numerous rivers, four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, towns and cities rich in history and culture, a countryside bursting with biological diversity and forests that cover half its landscape. It sits at the crossroads of Slavic, German and Romance cultures and offers a climate varying from Mediterranean to Alpine, with summer and winter activities to match. With so much to offer—and protect—Slovenia wisely decided its future lay in combining tourism with sustainability and a care for its environment.
Maja Pak, Director of the Slovenian Tourist Board, says that while Slovenians have an immense respect for their natural environment, they’re happy to “share the green corners” of their country with travellers, and we seem happy to travel there.
This tiny country of just over 2 million people welcomed 5.9 million visitors last year (4.4 million from abroad) and its income from travel exports increased by nearly 12%, reaching a record EUR 2.71 billion. It attracts visitors not just for leisure but also for business (and often, both!), due to its accessibility, top class convention facilities in beautiful, green towns and cities, high quality accommodation, sports and recreation facilities, delicious cuisine, hospitality and competitive pricing.
Around 1 in 8 employed Slovenians now work in tourism and Slovenia has received numerous accolades for its sustainable tourism, including being declared the first Green Country by the Green Destinations organisation after achieving a 96% success rate against its detailed sustainability indicators.
Slovenia is getting it right. So what’s the secret of its success?
Setting the high standards necessary to compete for international sustainable tourism awards while establishing its own scheme to promote and certify green destinations and providers.
The scenic Slap Kozjak (Kozjak Waterfall) pours into an emerald green pool
IMAGE: Tomo Jeseničnik
Slovenia’s Destinations of Excellence
The European Commission established the European Destinations of Excellence (EDEN) project in 2006 to promote the development of sustainable tourism. Destinations compete (initially annually, but now every two years) to be the national winner. Slovenia has been competing since 2008 and now boasts seven winners and fourteen finalists.
A different tourism theme is set for each contest. Eligible destinations must show they’ve developed an economically viable tourism offer based on that theme, and demonstrate a commitment to socially, culturally and environmentally sustainable tourism.
The scheme highlights smaller, less well-known destinations offering visitors high quality, authentic experiences away from the crowds. This brings these destinations the recognition they deserve and a greater slice of the tourism pie while relieving pressure on increasingly overcrowded leisure and business hotspots.
Bird watching at the observatory in Škocjanski zatok
IMAGE: Jošt Gantar
The coastal city of Koper offers culture, history, nature, delicious local produce and a modern outlook, making it a popular stopping point for Mediterranean cruise ships.
Koper has a Venetian feel due to five centuries spent under Venice’s rule and it’s known as ‘the city of a hundred suns’ due to the numerous sun symbols on its many medieval palaces (including the wonderful Praetorian Palace on the central square). Other historical highlights, including the Bell Tower, are part of the city’s guided tours and theme trails.
The coastline and surrounding countryside has just as much to offer: climbing the limestone of the Karst Edge, kayaking, windsurfing, pedal boating, sailing and diving. Alternatively, the Škocjanski Zatok Nature Reserve, tucked away on the Škocjan Inlet on the inland side of the city, offers peace and quiet that’s broken by the sounds of the diverse wildlife making its home there or visiting. There is a marked cycle path and the Reserve has worked hard to increase accessibility for people with limited mobility.
Koper makes sustainability easy for visitors. There are conveniently placed taxi stops and the renewed bus fleet, which includes 12 new low-emission vehicles, can take you to every part of Koper and beyond.
E-Biking in the village of Šmartno, Goriška Brda Hills
IMAGE: Tomo Jeseničnik
Gastronomy is the lifeblood of Brda and Brda’s EDEN award was for local cuisine and gastronomy tourism. Visitors flock to festivals such as the Brda Wine and Cuisine Festival and Dobrovo Cherry Festival, as well as to its vineyards. The sunny slopes produce delicious peaches, olives, grapes and Brda cherries, considered the best in Slovenia. Regional cuisine merges the best of Slovene and Italian dishes with a local twist.
However, Brda isn’t only about gastronomy. Its beautiful landscape and preserved architectural heritage of the picture postcard villages dotting its hills are fundamental to its identity. The entire village of Šmartno is a cultural heritage monument with lovingly preserved buildings, while the beautifully renovated Vipolže mansion and the Church of St. Cross above Kojsko, with its 17th century frescoes and late-Gothic winged altar, are also remarkable. Dobrovo Castle, built around 1600, houses an art gallery, museum--and famous wine cellar (perhaps it’s mostly about the food and the wine).
It’s easy to go green here. Brda offers electric car and electric bike rental (essential for younger or less mobile guests tackling the hills!). The region is connected to the European Bike Network and electric scooters can be hired at several tourist farms, some of which offer packages with, unsurprisingly, meals and wine-tasting! More polenta; less pollution. That’s the message here.
Overlooking the beautiful spa town of Laško
IMAGE: Tomo Jeseničnik
This riverside town, famous for its health and wellness programmes, thermal springs, brewing, herbs, flowers and beekeeping, was awarded its EDEN title for accessible tourism. There’s accommodation that accepts guide dogs, portable induction loops for the hearing impaired, limited mobility access at Thermana Laško and Rimske Terme Spa health resorts and Braille signs in Laško’s health resort park. Many attractions and local producers on the tourist trail have accessible premises too.
Here, beer and flowers come together in Slovenia’s biggest summer festival, with a firework finale not to be missed. You can enjoy a Roman thermal bath, an apitherapy session in a beehive, good beer, delicious honey, traditional or modern health and wellbeing treatments (some with beer and honey) and the local countryside with its abundance of flowers.
The Holy Trinity energy park claims to restore positive energy as the site of multiple energy points that correspond to the body’s chakras or energy centres.
The 13th century church of St Martin’s and Tabor Castle give a sense of history and for a more modern touch, there’s a brewery-themed Escape Room and an outdoor adventure game, Unlock Laško, encourages players to explore the town. Laško also offers tennis, fishing, cycling, horse-riding, paragliding from nearby peaks and a plethora of walking and hiking opportunities in the local hills and beside the River Savinja.
Staying Green: Hotel Thermana Park holds a Slovenia Green Label and alongside its sister hotel, offers meeting rooms, halls and bedrooms with easy access alongside training facilities for the disabled.
Idrija is a must for nature-based tourists and holidaymakers alike
IMAGE: Tomo Jeseničnik
Idrija is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and received its EDEN title in 2011 for its careful preservation of physical sites such as its mine, Gewerkenegg Castle and Museum, the Lace-Making School and the annual festival devoted to the famous Idrija lace. Visitors to the mine see the giant water wheel and the largest preserved steam engine in Europe, passing through one of the oldest preserved mine entrances in Europe before descending to the mine proper. Idrija’s other traditional industry is bobbin lace-making, and the Lace-making School has been there since 1876.
Sustainability is core to this industrial tourism and the local cuisine, where nearly all ingredients are locally sourced. Idrija is famous for Idrija žlikrofi, a type of dumpling that inspires an annual festival. It’s filled with potato, onion and spices and formed into a characteristic shape protected by EU geographical indication. Idrija is also known for smukavc, a seasoned stew of cabbage and potatoes, and želševka, a spring cake with a chive filling.
IDRIJA IZBRANO is a collective trademark for high quality products and services that include locally produced raw materials and reflect the tradition, culture and lifestyle of people in the UNESCO Global Geopark area of Idrija.
Diners tuck into Slovenia's traditional welcome bread Belokranjska Pogača at the family-run Prus Wine Cellar
IMAGE: Tomo Jeseničnik
Kolpa and Bela krajina
The River Kolpa became an EDEN winner for aquatic tourism in 2010. Biking and hiking trails snake alongside a river that has white waters, dams, canyons, gravel beaches and numerous species of wildlife. The warm, clean water makes the 113km-long river ideal for water sports, from kayaking and rafting on the more challenging northern stretch to more gentle pursuits further south. For those who prefer to soak up culture rather than get soaked, at the crossroads of three regions and five nations, there’s a wealth of experiences to enjoy.
The area abounds with legends, traditions and folklore and visitors can enjoy watching traditional dances by the folklore groups who preserve the region’s dance heritage. Other preserved traditions include the ornate decoration of Easter eggs or pisanice in Bela krajina, where villagers also practise loom weaving and Bela krajina embroidery.
Regional food is characterised by the spit-roasting of lambs and piglets. Honey collected from the vast Kočevje forest and belokranjska pogača, a traditional flat cake, are both protected with EU geographical indications and can be washed down with kostelska rakíja, a type of local brandy.
The magnificent Logar Valley in the Kamnik-Savinja Alps is a hiker's paradise
IMAGE: Ana Pogačar
Balancing the preservation of rural areas with the need for and the needs of tourism can be difficult, and Solčavsko was awarded the EDEN title for tourism in protected nature areas.
The region’s three Alpine valleys, Logar Valley, Robanov kot and Matkov kot, attract mountain climbers and mountain bikers in summer and become a go-to destination for skiing (downhill and cross-country), ice climbing and sledding in winter. The Solčavsko Panoramic Road provides a magnificent view of all three valleys and is also the starting point for a hike to Potočka Zijalka, a cave where prehistoric artefacts have been found.
To really appreciate the area, stop at one of the hospitable tourist farms dotted throughout the valleys such as the highest-lying farm in Slovenia, Bukovnik Farm, then travel back down to pastures filled with indigenous Jezersko-Solčava sheep and forests of spruce and larch used in local, sustainable timber industry.
At dinner time, meat eaters can enjoy zgornjesavinjski želodec, a dried meat dish of quality pork and bacon. Cheese lovers can sample mohovt, a salted cottage cheese spiced with cumin and eaten as a side dish or spread on bread. Those with a sweet tooth can head straight for dessert and try ajdnek, a folded cake made of buckwheat dough and filled with walnuts and honey.
Cycling in the Soča Valley
IMAGE: Tomo Jeseničnik
The Soča Valley became a 2008 European Destination of Excellence in the field of tourism and local intangible heritage. Beside the emerald green Soča, one of the cleanest Slovenian rivers, visitors can learn about traditional skills and crafts or about the region’s involvement in the First World War in the museum at Kobarid. The beautiful countryside is equally enjoyable whether experienced via a gentle ramble on marked paths or by more adrenaline-fuelled mountaineering and kayaking.
The indigenous marble trout is an endangered, protected species, but careful and limited fishing is allowed, delivering this delicacy to your plate. Other culinary specialities are Tolminc and Bovec cheeses, products of a rich, centuries-old heritage of mountain cheese-making. A potato dish called čompe, cooked with cottage cheese, is a must-try and for dessert, choose bulje, similar to dough pockets and stuffed with cooked dried pears and plums, spices, sugar, chocolate and walnuts. As for choosing where to eat, the Hiša Franko restaurant near Kobarid has the famous Ana Roš as resident chef, chosen as 2017’s best female chef in the world for Restaurant magazine.
The River Soča is widely popular as an excellent hub for all kinds of water sports
IMAGE: Tomo Jeseničnik
The Green Scheme of Slovenian Tourism
The Green Scheme of Slovenian Tourism (GSST) is a national scheme recognised at an international level. Under the SLOVENIA GREEN umbrella, the scheme unites all sustainable tourism efforts in Slovenia, using global criteria to certify sustainable destinations, service providers and parks. It offers them assessment and improvement tools, and promotes those that achieve the Green Label through the Slovenia Green brand.
All of the scheme’s objectives are in line with sustainable development and demonstrate concern for the economic, social, cultural and natural environment and destinations naturally encourage their local providers to gain sustainability labels to enhance their own green credibility.
To obtain the Slovenia Green Destination label, destinations are evaluated on a number of sustainability criteria. Successful destinations are awarded a Gold, Silver or Bronze label depending on the evaluation. To obtain the Slovenia Green Accommodation or Slovenia Green Travel Agency, the service provider must hold an internationally recognised label also recognised by the GSST, while parks can obtain the Slovenia Green Park label by holding a recognised label or passing assessment according to Slovenia Green standard.
With the exception of the Soča Valley, which hopes to gain its Green Label next year, all the European Destinations of Excellence above also hold the Slovenia Green Label, while the destinations which follow are all Slovenia Green Gold Label holders.
Electric-powered Kavalirs and bicycles are the modus operandi of getting around in Ljubljana
IMAGE: Nea Culpa d.o.o.
Ljubljana describes itself as “a city with a green soul,” and its commitment to sustainability has seen it receive numerous accolades and awards, including Best of Cities category 2019 and Best Destination of Europe in 2018 and Green Capital of 2016. It’s truly the green jewel in Slovenia’s sustainability crown.
So how did it achieve this?
Firstly, it was ahead of the curve. Many of the city’s buildings and bridges were built or renovated by Jože Plečnik, an architectural pioneer. He sought to model Ljubljana on Ancient Athens, focusing on harmony with the natural environment and using modern approaches to ensure sustainable mobility. Plečnik's best known works include the National and University Library building, the Ljubljanica river embankments, the Triple Bridge and the Central Market.
Add to this the city centre’s forward-thinking ban on cars back in 2008, its early move towards zero waste, its bike-friendly streets, its urban eco-friendly electric train taking visitors on a circular tour around major attractions and its extensive green space—even in the city centre—and it’s clear that most other European cities are playing catch up.
It’s a city where you can enjoy a woodland walk, a bike tour or a leisurely river ride, challenge yourself to a little kayaking or SUP boarding, buy local produce or enjoy traditional, regional cuisine exemplified by the Taste Ljubljana brand. It’s “twin green hearts”, the Tivoli and Golovec parks, offer a network of scenic hiking trails or you can visit the Botanic Gardens.
It’s also a place where modernity and history sit comfortably together. Trendy restaurants line the riverside but take nothing away from the beauty of the older buildings such as Ljubljana Castle. Some of these restaurants provide jobs to people difficult to employ—just one of Ljubljana’s many projects based on sustainable, socially responsible principles. What’s not to love?
Staying Green: The owners of the Trnulja Estate, just outside Ljubljana, are committed to sustainability. Apartments are made from recycled materials and the menu features organic produce from their own farm.
Bled Castle is the oldest castle in Slovenia
IMAGE: Matevž Lenarčič
Bled, with its beautiful lake, Alpine backdrop, mild climate and thermal springs is a well-established tourist hotspot. A 6km walk around the lake lets walkers and cyclists admire not only the lake and its wildlife, but also Bled’s castle on its hill and the lake island, home to the gothic Church of the Mother of God. The legends and history surrounding the island and church, together with a wishing bell, hermitage and other interesting buildings, make a visit essential (and there’s a 99 stone-step staircase to ensure you get your exercise).
You can explore the area by hiring an electric bicycle or taking a ride in one of the fijakerji, (traditional horse-drawn buggies), and to see the lake from the lake, take a boat trip or hire a rowing boat. Bled isn’t all about the lake, though, and nearby is stunning 1.6km long Vintgar gorge, with its waterfalls, rapids and man-made attractions like the single-arch stone bridge of the Bohinj railway, crossing 33.5m above the trail.
The 300m long cave under Babji zob is also worth venturing out of town for, with beautiful stalactites including rarer spiral forms called helictites, while the caves of Iglica, just above Bohinjska Bela, hide a 24m high waterfall. A wooden stairway next to the waterfall leads to the top of the cliff and breath-taking views, while the surrounding cliffs are a big draw for climbers.
Staying Green: The Hotel Astoria holds a Slovenia Green label and uses 100% renewable energy. It also offers meeting facilities and free bicycle hire, useful for exploring after a busy day of discussion. Hotel Savica Garni, also a Green Label holder, has conference facilities and is committed to energy saving measures and using local and seasonal produce.
Morning mist covers the vineyards of Podčetrtek
IMAGE: Slovenian Tourist Board
“In Podčetrtek, you will never be bored,” claims the town’s website. A bold but true claim. Half of Podčetrtek lies in Kozjansko Regional Park, one of the oldest and largest protected areas in Slovenia and a member of the European NATURA 2000 and UNESCO MAB (Man and Biosphere) programmes. Famous for its biodiversity and preservation of heirloom fruits varieties, the Park even has its own apple, grown in one of its most protected habitats. This apple has become a symbol for the area’s history and sustainable principles.
The Park is enough to keep you busy and Podčetrtek has over 35km of cycling routes. But you can also wander along the Sotla River; discover the world of bees and try their honey; go golfing; watch chocolate being made by hand (and taste some!); stroll through green vineyards sampling wines from expert vintners; explore the herbal garden and old apothecary of the colourful Olimje Minorite Monastery; visit a brewery and enjoy beer-tasting; explore Jelenov Ridge and Jelenov Greben to feed the reindeer and enjoy a delicious meal; make a splash at the Aqualuna water park; visit The Land of Fairytales and Imagination amusement park; explore a water mill; enjoy the thermal springs and wellbeing facilities at the Terme Olimia spa; or visit the Romanesque Podsreda Castle.
The Grand Hotel Rogaška Resort is the perfect destination for a relaxing spa treatment
IMAGE: Jure Kravanja
Rogaška Slatina has 400 years of history as a health resort and the source of Donat Mg mineral water, and wellness centres, indoor and outdoor pools, saunas, spa hotels and medical facilities have ‘sprung up’ around the springs. Legend has it that Apollo told Pegasus to strike the ground near Rogatec with his hoof, opening up Roitschocrene, the springs of Rogaška. Pegasus has become a symbol for the springs and the town, so expect to see him about!
The town’s also known for high quality, handmade lead crystal products, keeping the 350 year-old tradition of local glassmaking alive. Visitors can take a guided tour of the Rogaška glassworks, watch glassblowers in action and buy glassware in the factory shop.
For nature lovers, hiking trails of varying difficulty head into the countryside, while the Spa Park is home to thousands of trees and plants. Much of the local area is part of the NATURA 2000 scheme, protected for its landscape and biodiversity, including rare trees such as the ginkgo.
When it’s time to refuel, travel down the Rogaška Wine Road, stopping at tourist farms and vineyards to taste local wine and delicacies such as Mlinci Potica cake. Made from three to five mlinci flatbreads, with a walnut or egg and cheese filling, it was once an Easter dish but is now enjoyed year round. Delicious!
The picturesque village of Štanjel is one of the oldest settlements in the Karst Region
IMAGE: Komen Municipality
The Komen area of the Karst is a region of village communities where trees are important. An ancient lime tree in Sveto, thought to be around 500 years old, is a traditional meeting place for villagers, while the Fabianis mulberry tree in Kobdilj is the largest mulberry in Slovenia and a national monument. Several hundred years old, it survived while the buildings around it were destroyed by war.
The area offers three forests: the Cirje Forest Park, with a footpath leading to the monument dedicated to Avgust Kofol, who reforested the surroundings of Komen; the Obršljan forest; and the forest of Draga, Komen, which encompasses the Austro-Hungarian military cemetery. War also touches Grofova jama (Grof`s cave), which sits below the peak of Grmada Hill. 350 metres long and 50 metres deep, it was partially adapted for use as a shelter for Austro-Hungarian soldiers. This part of the cave is open to visitors. The surrounding area is littered with the remains of prehistoric hill forts, trenches and underground chambers.
When you’ve finished exploring caves, forts and forests for the day, enjoy local dishes, which are seasonal and include herbs, wild plants and fruit. You’ll find venison and lamb prepared in a myriad of ways, and hearty soups and minestrones feature too, including jota, a thick minestrone soup with sauerkraut or turnip, potatoes, beans.
The lush pastures at Ojstrica, Koroška
IMAGE: Tomo Jeseničnik
The First Green Country
The awards keep coming for the first Green County and numerous Slovenian destinations appear in the Top 100 Sustainable Destinations list every year. In 2017, the Slovenian Tourist Board was awarded the National Geographic World Legacy Destination Leadership award.
“Slovenia is recognised as one of the most sustainability-driven countries, which is both an honour and at the same time, a great obligation to further develop our green direction. There is no way back, the entire world is watching us now," said Director Maja Pak in her acceptance speech.
"Sustainability in tourism and sustainability in day-to-day life is the only way today if we hope to preserve the future."
Whether you’re chasing cultural highs or pursuing nature’s pleasures, Slovenia has something to offer for all tastes. Plan your next sustainable holiday by visiting:
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