It's 7 p.m. as we drive into Ljubljana, and the light is beginning to fade. Italianate buildings are painted in Easter-egg shades—butter, mauve, coral. Families stroll along the Ljubljanica River eating gelato; students sit in cafés smoking. Somewhere, a cellist is rehearsing a Bach suite. I peer up at the city's medieval castle. Have we stumbled into a fairy tale?
In fact, my boyfriend, Michael, and I are in Slovenia. The small Alpine nation—east of Italy and north of Croatia—first seduced us last fall. Now we've returned for a five-day drive: from Ljubljana, the capital, to the coast, then north along the Italian border (an up-and-coming wine region) to the Julian Alps.
DAY 1 LJUBLJANA TO PORTOROŽ, 66 MILES
Slovenian art has been pushing boundaries since at least the 1980's with the avant-garde collective Neue Slowenische Kunst. Since then, the country has continued to turn out provocative artists with international reputations. Before we start our drive, we stop by Ljubljana's Museum of Modern Art, where I'm absorbed by Gabrijel Stupica's Modernist collages and Zoran Mušic's ghoulish etchings of Dachau.
On the A1 highway, which heads southwest from Ljubljana to the Adriatic coast, we pass green fields, cows, and an occasional barn. As we climb the hill toward Trieste, the fertile landscape gives way to rocky cliffs topped with evergreens. This is the province of Notranjska, home to one of the largest cave systems in the world, the 12-mile-long Postojnska Jama. But we bypass the caves in favor of a detour to Hrastovlje to see the Church of the Holy Trinity, a rare example of southern Romanesque architecture that contains a series of Gothic frescoes.
The village of Hrastovlje (population 145) is not easy to find. Like dedicated pilgrims, you must have faith. We turn off the highway just after the 7,158-foot-long Crni Kal bridge and careen down twisting roads, past heather-covered hills and lush pine forests, for 10 long miles.
Inside the church, a local woman switches on an English-language tape that takes us through the frescoes. Painted in the late 1400's by Johannes de Castuo, the pictures served as a Biblia pauperum—they taught illiterate parishioners the stories of the Bible. Eventually we are drawn to the spectacular danse macabre. Twelve skeletons merrily escort a sampling of humanity—from a naked child and a beggar to a queen and a pope—to an open coffin.
Afterward we drive past the industrial towns of Izola and Koper, then on to Portorož, Slovenia's Atlantic City. We've come not to gamble but to take the waters, at the Thermae Palace Spa and Thalassotherapy Center, known for its sea cures: salt water, mud, and mineral baths.
At dusk, we walk to Piran, an ancient town—filled with 13th-century architecture—that juts out into the Adriatic. By the time we reach its marble-paved plaza, Tartinijev Trg (Square), the sun has already set. Kids scramble around, kicking a soccer ball. We stop at Restaurant Neptun for a simple meal of fish, shrimp risotto, and sautéed spinach. I ask the owner's teenage son what Piran means. "Pirate," he says. "You can still find shipwrecks out there, just off the marina."
DAY 2 PORTOROŽ TO GORIZIA, ITALY, 50 MILES
In the morning, while Michael is being pummeled by jets of sea water, I have a "fango pack." The local Istrian loam is rich in microalgae and plankton, and is said to be able to heal a variety of ailments, from rheumatic disease to skin rashes. I'm only hoping for a glowing complexion. A young Slovenian therapist leads me to my own room and tells me to undress. Just as I'm about to ask her what that plastic pipe jutting from the ceiling is for, she turns a valve, and a torrent of hot, viscous mud spurts from it. Fango plumbing! She catches the mud in a basin and pours it over the treatment table. "Lie down!" she orders. It's still hot, so I ﬂinch. "Your ﬁrst time?" she asks. When the mud has cooled a bit, I let myself sink into it. Then, she slathers my entire front and wraps me in a cocoon of plastic wrap. I'm left to marinate for 20 minutes.
It would take a week to sample all of the treatments here—and many guests do just that. But we want to make it to the Lipizzan stud farm by 2 P.M.
Before World War I, when Slovenia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the horses bred in Lipica were used by Austria's Spanish Riding school. We arrive in time for a half-hour dressage performance, during which the best-trained stallions prance around to a disco version of Flight of the Bumblebee. The studs weave past one another, meet in the center of the field, and then spiral out diagonally, doing a sideways skip. In one pas de deux, two stallions execute a rhythmical canter called changement (a flying change) and then pirouette. We clap in awe, but wonder how the poor animals can put up with the techno-ballet Muzak.
The drive north from Lipica to the hilltop town of Stanjel takes us through the limestone-rich Karst region, up hairpin turns, past wineries, farms, and blink-and-you-miss-them villages. Stanjel, perched high above the plateau, is one of these. There's nothing to do here except gape at the 360-degree views from the Fabiani Path, named for the architect (and former Stanjel mayor) Max Fabiani. Stanjel is so small that we feel as though we're trespassing.