Europe's friendliest country: small country, big heart

Max Davidson finds everyone smiling in a nation of forests and old-fashioned charm.

Is there a friendlier country in Europe than Slovenia? The man at passport control greets us like long-lost relatives. The policeman in the baggage hall is grinning from ear to ear. And the man at the car-hire desk is so pleased to see us that he insists on buying us a cup of coffee.

For the first-time visitor to Slovenia, the uncomplicated warmth of the welcome makes an indelible impression. Like Ireland, like Estonia, it is a small country with a big heart.

The capital, Ljubljana, is a few architectural gems short of being a Prague or Krakow. Shopping options are limited, particularly on a Sunday when half the city closes down, but head for the old town and pull up a chair at one of the cafes, teeming with people, beside the river.

The afternoon sun falls on cobbled streets, dainty bridges, old churches shaded by spreading trees. The river glides so quietly that you hardly notice it but the human pageant is incessant: backpackers, feral teenagers, businessmen clutching briefcases, babies in prams, old men in berets, very large women walking very small dogs.

It is people-watching heaven - with a fabulous dinner to follow. They like their food here: hearty meat dishes are followed by equally hearty desserts packed with walnuts and poppy seeds.

But Ljubljana, though charming, is not Slovenia's trump card. The best of the country is to be found in the unspoilt rural areas, particularly in the mountains abutting the Austrian border. Slovenia is the third most wooded country in Europe, after Finland and Sweden, and you get a sense of that as you drive north from the capital, following the scent of pine needles with one forest blending seamlessly into another.

The tallest mountains still have a covering of snow but the meadows are a riot of colour: crocuses, dandelions, even the odd wild strawberry, peeping through the grass. Clear rivers wind through dappled valleys, past fields of cows that look so happy you expect them to burst into song.

We spend the night in the medieval city of Radovljica, eating like kings in the panelled dining room of the Pension Lectar, a rabbit warren of wooden beams, mullion windows and creaky staircases. The hotel doubles as a gingerbread factory and in the basement you can watch women in long white dresses producing exquisitely decorated delicacies, as staff have been doing for hundreds of years.


Then we drive to Lake Bled, probably the best-known tourist attraction in Slovenia, dominated by an 11th-century castle perched on a rocky outcrop like a brooding bird of prey. You can walk around the lake in an hour but we take nearly three and a half, stopping at a cafe, then taking a boat across to the island in the middle of the lake, where a flight of steps leads to the tiny Church of the Assumption of Mary. There is a wedding just finishing and, as the bells toll across the lake, even the bride finds time to flash us one of those ubiquitous Slovenian smiles.

After a stop at an arboretum and a drive through the majestic Logarska Dolina, a glacial alpine valley, we spend our final night at a tourist farm at Robanov Kot. We have been feeling a bit dubious about this part of the itinerary. Will we be expected to milk the cows in the morning? However, our fears are quickly assuaged by our jovial host and her numerous extended family, who are up half the night singing folk songs to celebrate a first communion.

The next morning, after a large breakfast, we take a walk along the valley, hugging the banks of the river, which tinkles amiably in the background. In the tumbledown farmhouses, with their pigsties, painted beehives and carefully tended vegetable gardens, there is a vivid sense of an unchanging rural community rooted in family life. The mountain scenery is glorious but the human landscape - at least what we glimpse of it - also tugs strongly at the heartstrings.

As a middle-aged couple in anoraks approach, hiking in the opposite direction, we know, before they have got within a hundred metres, that they will greet us with ear-to-ear smiles. Slovenia is that sort of place.


Getting there

Singapore Airlines has a fare to Ljubljana for about $2400, to Singapore (8hr), then Lufthansa to Frankfurt (13hr), then Ljubljana (1hr 15min). Fare is low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including tax.

Just Slovenia has a week-long trip to Slovenia from £710 a person ($1240), twin share, including return flight from Gatwick to Ljubljana, car hire and seven nights' accommodation with breakfast.

- Telegraph, London