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Slovenia

The country of Slovenia almost never comes up in discussion – except most recently with the influx of migrants at their border. There's a lack of common vernacular on this tiny country the size of New Jersey, with people – including me until a year ago – grasping at geographic and cultural straws: Balkans? Yugoslavia? Something to do with Slovakia?

After my week long trip throughout a huge chunk of Central and Western Slovenia, I want to urge you to learn more, and as quickly as possible, but like a classic hipster protecting their newly discovered musician or just opened vintage clothes store, I do so with slight trepidation. Slovenia doesn't need a marketing campaign or an influx of "36 hours in Ljubljana" style stories. Hard as it might be to grasp in our media-saturated, look-at-me culture, Slovenia seems content to remain relatively contained. It's still a new country, at least in this iteration, joining the United Nations in 1992 and the European Union in 2004, after previous identities as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then a member of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia after the First World War, and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia after the Second World War.

Slovenia is also a country that can shrug its shoulders at unknown parts of their history, including 600 years "where not much is known" (a near direct quote in a museum at Ljubljana Castle). Missing historic details aside, their present is incredibly appealing. This tiny country is like a mini Switzerland, Italy, and Austria, with a touch of Hungary and Croatia skirting around the corners.

I'm not trying to paint a picture of a country without problems or with no desire for growth, but it does seem that citizens and government alike recognize what they already have, and have plans for a sustainable future. "What they have" includes stunningly beautiful wine regions that create wine that rivals the best I've had anywhere (and wines that rarely leave the country). The country has impressive and scary mountain passes, postcard worthy alpine villages, cerulean colored rivers, too many caves and waterfalls to count, and a culture shaped around tradition, especially the tradition of gardening.

As we learned from the bed and breakfast we stayed at in the Soca River Valley, the free calendar passed out at hardware stores includes the phases of the moon so that people can garden according to biodynamic principles. Gardening culture isn't championed or encouraged; it just is. As such, on drives, walks, and runs, we passed neatly tended and overflowing gardens--these weren't hobby gardens with a few tomatoes or basil, but serious and diversified gardens designed to feed the family. Functionality aside, the gardens were also grown in aesthetically pleasing ways as a reminder that gardening can be beautiful and remain productive. And I don't think I saw a single window without a colorful flower box; even a castle in a cave that we visited was decorated with colorful window-boxes – perhaps in an effort to make the chilly and imposing castle a touch more welcoming.

In Slovenia, the natural beauty shines, and the homes, nearly all with neat, beautiful metal roofs, merge easily into their surroundings. When I studied abroad in Copenhagen, my most lasting memory is of the concept of hygge – a word that doesn't have a direct English translation, but essentially means the act of coming together and relating with each other, in a cozy manner, frequently with candles. The Slovene language must have a word for this too, because the idea of conversation, of conviviality, and of connection, was present in all the interactions I either observed or took part in. We were struck by this observation when we scanned the room at a bar-chocolate-patisserie-smoothie place (it worked!). If I had been in America, or certainly other places in the world, I know I would have spotted a few people on their laptops, cell phones placed on the table in arm's reach, groups of people exhibiting body posture where one dominated and the others leaned back. But at this cafe, I saw engagement and felt the joy that comes from connection and being real, the mask removed.

We spent three days in Ljubljana, wandering the jewel box downtown, visiting the castle, and enjoying several wine bars. We also took a day trip to Lake Bled, and despite the fog, and thus the lack of stunning alpine views that the cover of my guidebook shows, we still couldn't help but gasp at the beauty. We took a gondola ride to the center island in the lake. These gondolas are handmade and navigated by skilled boatman who methodically paddle the 30 minutes out to the island and the 30 minutes back. The lake had a layer of mist on it, but the island was visible. As the tip of my nose started to chill, and I stared straight ahead at the slowly approaching island, the only noise behind me was the rhythmic paddling of the oarsman; we were in the middle of the lake, with other people, and all was still and calm.

We spent another three nights in the Soca River Valley, near Mt Triglav, at a lovingly restored guesthouse that we both easily could have simply moved into. Our original plan was to hike in the surrounding mountains, but the rain had other plans, and so on our first two days in that region, we pivoted and visited a cave that had 23 underground lakes you could boat on (for 7 hours!). We boated on one, just ourselves and our guide, in near complete darkness. This cave is unsupported, which means there are no extra lights or platforms. It's a cave in its natural form, and the cave guides are careful to ensure that despite occasional human traffic, it stays that way, and they take care to track the effect of human footfalls on the cave's weathering.

We also visited the castle in the cave (the one with the flower boxes), winding our way through the chilly rooms and then back into the secluded cave that connected to the main castle, wondering about the people who had lived here, and the ingenuity of tucking a castle directly into a cave. We spent our sunny day in the Gorenjska and Goriska regions with my camera nearly always at my eye – either at a waterfall, the brightly colored town of Kanal, or the Goriska Brda wine region. When the sun was out, the twisty windy roads transformed into pull-over viewpoints at nearly every turn, and the bubbly river below seemed less treacherous and more inviting.

I hope to return to Slovenia sooner rather than later, anxious to experience it in the spring or summer, to hike, to visit the eastern section of the country. I hope Slovenia is able to remain the gem it is – aware of its important geographical position and willing to grow sustainably and carefully, but keeping a pulse on what's really important.