10 reasons to visit Slovenia in 2015 (and beyond)

Anita Isalska, for CNN Updated 4th March 2015
(CNN) — Slovenia's star is rising in 2015.
The lakes and meadowlands of this small central European country have long been under-visited, but this year's anniversaries and cultural events are luring more travelers than ever before.
The capital city Ljubljana is toasting a double anniversary: two millennia since its foundation and 120 years of renewal after a huge earthquake.
A rare performance of Slovenia's oldest literary work will bring drama to the town of Skofja Loka, while carnivals and wine festivities unfold in Ptuj and Maribor.
This rich calendar, as well as the timelessly beautiful landscapes, makes Slovenia almost unmissable in 2015.

1. Ljubljana's millennial anniversary

Ljubljana: City of Dragons.
At about 300,000 inhabitants, Ljubljana is small for a capital city. But its history is epic: Ljubljana is celebrating 2,000 years since its foundation as a Roman city.
This year sees an additional anniversary, as locals toast 120 years of reinvention since Ljubljana was rocked by a huge earthquake.
The 1895 tremors destroyed 10% of the city's buildings. During its rebuilding, the Vienna Secession period brought new architectural styles to this baroque city.
Modern Ljubljana is beautiful enough to rival Vienna or Prague. Its geranium-pink Franciscan Church in Preseren Square overlooks the interlacing Triple Bridge, with a backdrop of the Julian Alps.
But Ljubljana's dragon emblem truly sets it apart.
Some folklore links the dragon to a monster subdued by Jason and the Argonauts. A more likely source is the dragon-slaying Saint George, patron of Ljubljana Castle's chapel.
These fire-breathing beasts glower from Dragon Bridge, adorn the city's coat of arms and top the castle.

2. Ptuj's pagan carnival

A friendly face at the carnival.
Saint George also points his lance in the northeasterly city of Ptuj.
Near the entrance to the saint's namesake church there is a 14th-century statue of the saint slaying the dragon, which represents paganism. So it's intriguing to see the strong pagan influence of Kurentovanje, a Shrove carnival and Slovenia's most popular springtime folklore event.
This carnival owes its origins to Kurent, an ancient god of hedonism.
In the days before Shrove Tuesday, locals clad in sheepskin, masks and grotesque prosthetic tongues symbolically scare away winter by processing through Ptuj. Children dive out of the way of a devil with a soul-catching net who leads the procession.
The festival's climax sees a cacophony of bell ringing, with costumed revelers brandishing wooden clubs (jezevke) to ward off evil, and clay pots being shattered for luck.
Kurentovanje takes place in Ptuj February 2-17, 2015

3. Postojna's cave-dwelling creatures

Luckily, "baby dragons" dwell exlusively in these Slovenian caves.
When the remarkable creatures of Postojna Caves were first recorded in the 17th century, locals called them baby dragons. Today, we know them as proteus, ghostly pale amphibians native only to this region of Slovenia.
In Postojna, they're a huge tourism draw. An underground train takes visitors through caverns dripping with stalactites to a vivarium full of these strange animals. Scientists are discovering that the proteus is more bizarre than any creature of myth.
The proteus can survive without food for eight to 10 years, and live for up to a century. They're blind, navigating via light-sensitive receptors and by perceiving weak electrical fields.
"Although proteus may be one of the best-researched cave animals, it still holds many secrets," say Dr. Liljana Bizjak Mali and Dr. Boris Bulog of the University of Ljubljana. "We do not yet know if proteus can regenerate like other salamanders, but if they do we could learn much about stem cells, tissue repair and perhaps even cancer."
Postojna Caves, Jamska cesta 28, Postojna; +386 5 70 00 100

4. Lake Bled's romantic legends

From afar, Lake Bled looks like something out of a story book.
Just 15 kilometers shy of Slovenia's border with Austria, the Julian Alps and miles of forest halt abruptly for Lake Bled.
This small alpine lake, overlooked by a towering Romanesque castle, is startling. The lake's bright jade waters lap against dainty Bled Island (Blejski otok). Its most prominent building is the 17th-century Church of the Assumption, which is steeped in romantic tradition.
According to regional lore, a happy marriage is assured to a husband who can carry his bride all 99 paces from the dock into the church. Some 55 wedding ceremonies took place in the island church last year, with many more couples visiting to toll its "wishing bell."
Boat rentals ply the lake for much of the year. Summer visitors can just as easily swim to the island -- thermal springs keep the water a toasty 26 C (79 F). Come winter, when the trees are dusted with snow, ice skaters swirl around the frozen surface of the lake.

5. Skofja Loka's Passion Play

Slovenia's best-loved medieval town.
In 2015, visitors to Skofja Loka have a rare chance to experience Slovenia's vibrant literary history.
The medieval town is home to the oldest complete dramatic text ever written in the Slovene language, the Skofja Loka Passion Play (Skofjeloski pasijon). The original manuscript is closely guarded by the local monastery and only irregularly performed. This year 32,000 visitors are expected to watch a cast of 640 actors bring the play to life as a procession around multiple locations in the medieval town.
"Local involvement is intense," says the play's project manager Matej Mohoric Peternelj. "We call it the Passion spirit."
Performances will take place in the town from March 21 to April 12, 2015.
Tickets can be booked at pasijon.si.

6. Idrija, town of quicksilver and lace

Mercury and lace seem to bear little relation, but in Idrija they're cornerstones of local tradition. Mercury mines brought Idrija wealth. They're the reason for Idrija's spot on UNESCO's World Heritage list.
But it's the centuries-old tradition of lace making that's given area a thriving new voice.
More than 400 children and 150 adult students have come to try their hand at crafting intricate bobbin lace in Idrija over the past half-decade. Some arrive from as far afield as South Africa and the United States.
Today, visitors are as likely to buy lace-embellished garters and jeans as more traditional souvenirs.
"Fashion was, and still is, important for lace making," says Metka Fortuna. With 12 years as a lace-making teacher and now a head of the Idrija Lace School for nine years, Fortuna has watched the development of this intricate craft.
"Older lace makers now cooperate with students to create products interesting for younger generations."
You can experience both sides of Idrija's local pride with a descent of Anthony's Shaft and a visit to the lace making school.

7. Maribor's multicultural cuisine

Slovenia's second largest city acquired polish as 2012's European Capital of Culture. But Maribor's enduring attraction dangles at the end of a vine.
The Old Vine in Maribor's Lent neighborhood is said to be the world's oldest living grapevine.
Maribor grew to prominence through a wine-growing trade that began in the Middle Ages, with a flourishing Jewish community at its heart.
One famous vine has lasted throughout Maribor's vinicultural history. Wine pressed from the fruit of this 400-year-old vine is gifted to dignitaries as a symbolic key to Maribor. A ceremony adds pomp to the harvesting of the vine annually in early October. Year-round, the Old Vine House welcomes visitors to savor wine and history in equal measure.
The Old Vine House, Vojasniska 8, Maribor; +386 2 25 15 100

8. Iconic Mount Triglav

Triglav National Park.
Triglav National Park in Slovenia's northwest covers nearly 3% of the country's area.
Two million visitors arrive annually to hike around Bohinj, Slovenia's largest glacial lake, and to waterfalls like 78-meter-high Savica.
The crowning attraction is Mount Triglav. This 2,864-meter mountain in Slovenia's only national park is a recurring motif in Slovene art, film and music, and a cherished emblem of national identity. As Slovenia's highest point, Mount Triglav remains a symbolic lightning rod for national identity.
It's from Triglav's summit that the Slovene flag was unfurled at the country's 1991 independence. The country's former president, Milan Kucan, even declared climbing the mountain a duty for every Slovene national.
There are trails around Triglav National Park to suit all abilities, but long hikes should only be undertaken with experienced guides.
Triglav National Park, Ljubljanska cesta 27, Bled; +386 4 57 80 200

9. Sentrupert's rural nostalgia

The Slovenian kozolec has grown from being a simple agrarian tool into a symbol of national pride. Visitors are sometimes bemused by the local fondness for the kozolec, a distinctive hay rack found throughout Slovenia's meadowlands. Often decorated with latticed woodwork, the most elaborate hay racks are status symbols for farmers.
In 2013, a dedicated open-air museum in Sentrupert began to showcase the kozolec and its history.
To most local people they're much more than a farming tool: they're a tangible reminder of expert craftsmanship, eliciting powerful nostalgia for Slovenia's past.
The Land of Hayracks, Dezela kozolcev Sentrupert, d.o.o., Sentrupert; +386 8 20 52 85510

10. Piran's fusion food

Squeezed between Italy and Croatia, Slovene Istria has the vibe of the Italian Riviera.
The star attraction of this 43-kilometer stretch of coast is Piran, a grand coral-roofed city lapped by the Adriatic's navy blue waters. Here in Slovenia's most southwesterly tip, Italian and Slovene are both official languages.
The cuisine too has different influences.
Istria is known for rich olive oils and sweet Malvasia wine. Italian flavors come through in pastas and risottos scattered with shellfish. Croatian staples are also popular, such as octopus salads and gulas (stew).
In this same region, salt is panned from the Mediterranean's most northerly salt flats in Secovlje in a method unchanged for seven centuries. As in so many places in Slovenia, tradition reigns supreme.
Midsummer brings most of Piran's visitors, but shoulder season (April-May and September-October) has lovely weather without crowds.
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