Slow down in Europe’s most serene holiday destination, Slovenia

Couple canoeing on a Slovenian Lake

“Hear the silence for a little while – the sound of nature and your breath,” our sound bath therapist Mina Kunstelj gently prompts, as she lays down her Koshi wind chimes, Himalayan bowls and lyre harp for a moment.

We are in the middle of Lake Bohinj, a peaceful expanse of glassy water in north-west Slovenia. The surrounding verdant forest and Julian Alps cast a deep black mirror image along its length, electric engine switched off as the panoramic boat ride (tdbohinj.si) drifts in tune with our minds.

Lake Bohinj, Slovenia (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Lake Bohinj is the perfect setting for a boat trip or swim. (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

Normally, a sound bath, a therapy designed to help you connect with nature, be mindful and switch off from the stresses of the world, might feel a bit too ‘New Age’ for me. But I go with it and I do feel something serene, almost spiritual, in this heavenly hotspot.

Inner peace

We are treated to a quiet symphony of unusual percussion accompanied by Mina’s dulcet tones expressing love for the forest, for nature, for inner peace, as the boat quietly pushes through the still waters of Slovenia’s largest natural lake, created by glaciers 14,000 years ago during the Ice Age.

When the drone of her Indian shruti box has faded and the gong’s vibrations have dimmed, Mina performs an impressive finale blowing a conch horn, like a call of the wild.

Sound bath therapist Mina Kunstelj blows a conch shell (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Mina’s finale, blowing a conch shell. (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

It’s not hard to feel at one with nature on this lake, which is around half an hour’s drive from its more touristy sister Lake Bled, and sits in a valley within Triglav National Park where the evergreen woods slope almost to the water and the majestic Julian Alps create a lofty backdrop.

The peak of action

Some of the mountain areas, including Vogel, form ski terrain in the winter, while others have become a playground for hikers, bikers, walkers, rock climbers, paragliders and those just wanting to breathe in the cool, clean air.

Legend has it that when God was giving land to the people, he forgot about one undemanding group  patiently waiting their turn. Moved by their humility, he gifted them the land he had earmarked for his own retirement – Bohinj (Boh means God in Slovenian).

Hikers in the Julian Alps (Jost Gantar/slovenia.info/PA))
Hiking is big in the Julian Alps. (Jost Gantar/slovenia.info/PA)

It’s early summer and there are few swimmers in the chilly water, the odd paddleboarder creating light ripples and one canoe in the distance. Apart from that, it’s pretty much deserted and an ideal time to visit before the school holiday crowds invade. It takes around three hours to walk the 12km circumference.

We are staying at Ribčev Laz, on the eastern end of the lake, with landmarks featuring a picturesque bridge, the authentic narrow-spired Church of St John The Baptist and a bronze statue dedicated to four local men who were the first to climb Mount Triglav in 1778.

Ribcev Laz, Slovenia (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Ribčev Laz is a picturesque lakeside town. (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

There are just a few cafes and a smattering of hotels near the water’s edge, including the eco-friendly Hotel Bohinj, recently refurbished with a Scandi feel, awash with wood and natural materials.

There’s a general sense of wellbeing here, from the floor-to-ceiling windows to the morning therapeutic outdoor yoga sessions, all inviting you to connect with nature.

Packs a punch

It may be a small country bordering Croatia and Italy in the south, Austria in the north and Hungary to the northeast, but Slovenia’s outdoor landscape packs a punch, with a lion’s share of mountains, forests, lakes and rivers and even the sea – you can swim in the Adriatic in summer and ski in the Alps in winter.

Boarding a bus to head to the forest – although we are spoilt for choice as 70 per cent of Slovenia is forest, we pass vast swathes of wild flowers in farmers’ fields. It’s the tail-end of the International Wild Flower Festival which celebrates the wild flowers of the Julian Alps.

International Flower Festival in Bohinj (Mojca Odar/Turizem Bohinj/slovenia.info)
Enjoy fields of gorgeous alpine blooms. (Mojca Odar/Turizem Bohinj/slovenia.info/PA)

The event, held for two weeks from the end of May to the beginning of June, showcases an array of botanical treasures in its fields of wild alpine flowers and has been adopted by the local people to promote biodiversity and sustainable practices. It all happens on natural exhibitions stages, whether it’s a farmer’s field, a hillside or beside a grass verge.

There’s a nod to all this in the food, as during the festival chefs draw inspiration from the flowers of the surrounding meadows, decorating their plates with dainty petals and sprigs from the local flora and fauna and incorporating other local ingredients such as honey in the mix.

Floral menus, foraging workshops, ornithological and botanical tours are all available during the festival, along with folk concerts, cooking art and photographic exhibitions, although many are smaller, community-run events.

Cable car to Mount Vogel, Slovenia (Mitja Sodja, tirizem Bohinj/slovenia.info/PA)
Cable car to Mount Vogel. (Mitja Sodja/Turizem Bohinj/slovenia.info/PA)

More wild flowers can be seen on Mount Vogel, accessible via a cable car (about $45 return) from Ukanc, where we reach the summit of 1535m in minutes, and enjoy a spectacular view of the lake at the bottom of the valley.

Protected wilderness

Andre, a tour guide for Triglav National Park, explains that the park, which covers 4 per cent of the country, is a protected area, not only for its peat bogs – an important asset for biodiversity – but also species including the capercaillie grouse, rock ptarmigan and lynx, all protected by park rangers.

Later, exploring the dense spruce forest at Pokljuka Plateau, we join Darija Cvikl, a lecturer and specialist in forest therapy who takes us through its rejuvenating power, stressing that its benefits have been well measured and researched.

Forest therapy in Slovenia (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Hannah tries forest therapy in Pokljuka Plateau. (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

Terpenes – organic compounds produced by various plants, including spruce needles – significantly improve adults’ mental health by decreasing stress, reducing depression and are anti-tumour activators, she tells us.

“Each terpene has its own healing effect, whether it be psychological relaxation, or anti-virus therapy, or for cardiovascular diseases, or psychosomatic problems,” she explains.

Sitting in a circle within the forest brush, at an altitude of 1000m, we close our eyes and follow her breathing exercises – she recommends the Wim Hof technique – counting the breaths as the terpenes do their work. Can’t say I feel hugely different, but the clean air and forest surroundings certainly feels therapeutic.

Forest therapy in Slovenia (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
The group breathes in the rejuvenating power of the forest. (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

Tourism in this field is still in its infancy, but visitors should make sure they book an accredited forest therapy practitioner (healing-forest-certification.org/isft) for such an experience, she advises.

Passing pretty white churches with narrow steeples and buttermilk walls, tiny alpine villages hidden in the forest, our final stop is Savica Waterfall (about $7), one of the most popular tourist sites which in the height of summer you’d need to book but today we just walk in.

The water flow from the Triglav Lakes Valley divides into two streams, producing two falls – one at 78m high, the other 25m.

Hannah Stephenson at Savica Waterfall (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Hannah at Savica Waterfall. (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

It takes 20 minutes and a lot of uphill steps past great glacial rocks to reach the small viewing platform at the top, but the view is an Instagrammer’s dream. I’m told, it’s best to see it in late May, while the snow is still melting in the mountains and the fall is at its most powerful.

Back at Lake Bohinj at sunset, the water is calmer, little rowing boats are docked at simple wooden jetties and even the fish surfacing in the shallows at the beginning of the day seem less active.

Seems to me that God had the right idea for his place of retirement.

How to plan your trip

For more information on Bohinj, visit bohinj.si.

For information on Slovenia, visit slovenia.info/en.

A certified Forest Bathing Experience or a Forest Therapy Walk in the Julian Alps can be provided by Maja Šilc (Unique Slovenia Experience, from $50 per person; hikeandbike.si/experiences/forest-g/forest-melody-bohinj/)

Book Mina Kunstelj and her sound baths as a stationary experience in different locations in Bohinj (costs depend on location and duration)  minabindi.kunstelj@gmail.com.

Have you ever been to Slovenia? Did you enjoy it? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

Also read: A monastery stay can be a heavenly choice when it comes to your next holiday

– With PA

Written by Hannah Stephenson

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