By the time we reach the outskirts of Ajdovšcina, we're starving. I've been looking forward to returning to Gostišce Pri Lojzetu ever since we ate at the restaurant last October. We take our zlata penina (sparkling white wine) to the portico, which has views of the surrounding hills. But we're soon lured back to our table by the scent of freshly baked bread, which we dip in an addictive horseradish sauce. Next comes buttery tuna sashimi from Croatia, followed by goose prosciutto air-dried for 14 days and smoked with herbs. It's sprinkled with shaved white truffles (gathered from a local forest) and served over a silky purée of potatoes. We skip the soup course and move directly on to asparagus risotto with nettles and "natural nuts of the season."
Before we order dessert, I ask our waiter how far it is to Gorizia, the Italian town where we plan to spend the night.
"Twenty minutes," he says. "Where are you staying?"
"Palazzo Lantieri," I reply.
"Ah! Lantieri! This was once his hunting lodge!" he says, gesturing to the restaurant, also known as Castle Zemono. Without realizing it, we've devoted our entire evening to a 15th-century Austro-Hungarian count.
DAY 3 GORIZIA TO THE BRDA HILLS, 15 MILES
"Sugar is not natural!" says Aleš (pronounced "Alesh") Kristancic, the force behind Movia, Slovenia's oldest privately run winery. "If I use sugar, I take the character out." We're sitting on the terrace of Aleš's house, overlooking Slovenia's Brda Hills and Italy's Friuli–Venezia Giulia region. He's just opened a bottle of puro—a sparkling pink Pinot that won't be released until next year. We've already tasted a fruity sivi pinot (Pinot Grigio), a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, and turno, a fruity blend of three white Pinots. I'm starting to feel dizzy. Fortunately, we won't be driving anywhere; the Kristancics have invited us to stay in one of their spare bedrooms.
Movia is one of Slovenia's best-known wineries, and with good reason. The Kristancics have been harvesting the same vines since 1820, and Aleš has continued his family's tradition of allowing the grapes to ferment naturally, without introducing sulfites or sugar. Sulfites are added at the bottling stage, but only in small amounts. Aleš and his wife, Vesna, have just returned from a two-week marketing trip to the United States, and as Aleš opens a 1998 bottle of Veliko Rosso (Big Red), he ticks off his favorite restaurants in New York's Meatpacking District, several of which now offer his wines. Aleš's fan club is growing: Thomas Keller and Mario Batali serve Movia at their restaurants; Alain Ducasse, who has visited the vineyard twice, has a few vintage bottles in his personal cellar.
Out on the terrace, we're joined by Franc and Lubi Strgar, two of Aleš's oldest friends. The couple emigrated to the States in the fifties and now splits their time between Lake Bled and Scottsdale, Arizona. Franc had a successful career as a structural engineer in the Midwest. In Slovenia, he likes to drive a Cadillac with Minnesota plates.
DAY 4 BRDA HILLS TO LAKE BOHINJ, 94 MILES
The next morning, we set out on one of the most spectacular drives of our trip. From the Brda Hills wine route, we head north, tracing the electric-turquoise Soca River. In the distance—but growing closer with each mile—are the craggy peaks of the Julian Alps. Despite Aleš's insistence that we go canyoning in the Soca, we forge past the adventure-sport town of Bovec and enter Triglav National Park. Ten minutes later, we're ascending the 5,285-foot-high Vršic Pass (pronounced "Ver-shitz"—a word I employ as a curse each time Michael hugs a hairpin turn). There are 50 switchbacks (25 on either side), and plenty of oncoming traffic.
Our reward is Lake Bohinj, Lake Bled's wilder and less touristy sibling. Because it's located in Triglav, Bohinj is protected from development. On the north shore, there are stone steps leading to a rocky clearing. I wade in and gaze up at the mountains, which are reflected in the glassy water.
DAY 5 LAKE BOHINJ TO LAKE BLED, 12 MILES
After a short hike to Slap Savica, the 240-foot waterfall that feeds Lake Bohinj, we press on to Bled. We take a gondola to tiny, tear-shaped Bled Island and each ring the bell in the little Baroque church. Later, from the castle, we have a bird's-eye view of the lake, ringed by snow-capped mountains. I'm suddenly reminded of something Franc Strgar told me. Now that Slovenia is a member of the European Union, its government has begun encouraging high school graduates to work abroad for a few years. "But," Franc said, chuckling, "none of them want to leave Slovenia." I don't blame them.