Slovenia Tourism - Not Ready for the Big Time

Slovenia Tourism – Not Ready for the Big Time

I explained why I don’t like living in the U.S. anymore to the manager of Hostel Val in Piran: the work, work, work; money, money, money; buy, buy, buy mentality that has become so pervasive in American culture. She reflected on my comment for a moment before replying, “But it is becoming the same for us.”

Later, after dealing with a sneering woman in the Slovenia tourism office, who might as well have thrown brochures at me, I fled to a place in this enchantingly beautiful village where I knew I could find friendly people: Pirat Restaurant. In a lull moment, the owner  asked how I was enjoying my stay in Piran. Sadly, I had to say that I was disturbed by the unwelcoming attitude and indifference I had experienced from most of the tourism offices around the country. He grimaced and set down his tray on my table. “Life here used to be different,” he explained.  “We did not have a lot, but we had enough. And we enjoyed life. Now we are a tourist destination and we must work much harder. We have less free time, less time to be with friends and enjoy life.”

The waterfront in Piran is beautiful, as is the country, but Slovenian tourism is not ready for the big time

The waterfront in Piran is beautiful, as is the country, but Slovenian tourism is not ready for the big time

The town of Piran, on the cost of Slovenia, was my final stop on a two-and-a-half week of tour of Slovenia. I had begun in the eastern part of the country, in the village of Ptuj (pronounced Pah-TOO-ee), an ancient town on the Amber Trading Route, where cobblestone streets spiral uphill to an historic castle that has withstood untold sieges over the centuries. I’d chosen Ptuj rather than nearby Maribor, the second largest city in Slovenia, after more than three weeks of waiting, unsuccessfully, for a reply from any of three tourism officials I’d emailed. I wasn’t asking for free accommodations, meals, or transportation. I simply asked for their assistance in planning a concise itinerary around the country, as I had only 17 remaining days in the Schengen Zone, of which Slovenia is a member. I just didn’t want to miss anything important.

Ptuj, the oldest town in Slovenia

My email was forwarded around to different agencies, and replies trickled in with apologies that this or that person had been on vacation, but I received no answers to my question. I followed up, and subsequent emails made suggestions for high priced resorts, located in areas that would have been difficult to access without a car (I had made it clear that public transportation would be my only option). When I pointed this out in my replies, it was suggested that I deal with the local offices once I arrived.

The problem was getting to these places to begin with. When I expressed interest in making a day trip from Ptuj to Maribor, the woman at the Maribor tourism office sent me the link to the website for the local bus company. I typed Ptuj in the “From” box, and was presented with more than 20 choices for bus stops around the town. Ditto for Maribor, which offered more than 30 stops. I had no way of knowing which to choose, and no map was available, so I started trying different combinations, to no avail.

Town Hall and main square in Ptuj, Slovenia

Town Hall and main square in Ptuj, Slovenia

I finally gave up on the Maribor contact when she suggested I do the search backward, from Maribor to Ptuj, in order to figure out what stops to choose. Thoroughly disgusted, I turned for help to the owner of Hostel Sonce, where I was staying. I felt much better when she also couldn’t figure it out, not even on the Slovenian version! It all worked out in the end, but only because the tremendously kind owner of Hostel Sonce invited me to go to Maribor with her one day, and spent hours showing me around.

I was faced with similar challenges when it was time to travel from Ptuj to the capital, Ljubljana. The only direct train to Ljubljana arrived after dark, something I never do when visiting a city for the first time. All other trains required two transfers to travel 80 miles! Buses were even worse; not a single bus runs directly from Ptuj to Ljubljana. Again the Hostel Sonce angels came to my rescue, driving me to the train station and explaining to the ticket agent that I wanted to make as few changes as possible but still arrive during daylight hours. She sold me a ticket that required one change of trains, in Pragersko, where I picked up the EC train traveling between Vienna and Ljubljana. This train, though it makes the trip daily, is not shown on any Slovenian train schedule because it does not originate and end in Slovenia.

Glavni Square in Maribor, Slovenia

Glavni Square in Maribor, Slovenia

The extent of kindness I was shown by the people of Slovenia was remarkable. In Ljubljana, when I asked the bartender at Slamic B&B if they had any Elderflower drinks, he apologized that they didn’t, but the next day he brought me a bottle of Elderflower nectar he’d made at home. In Lake Bled, when nausea forced me to get off the bus and stay the night, the owner of a local B&B went out of her way to make sure I was comfortable, and the next morning helped me figure out how to hike stunning Vintgar Gorge. In Piran, the owner of Pirat Restaurant refused to charge me full price, insisting I was already part of the family, and introduced me to a fellow ex-pat from the Chicago area who, with his lovely wife Sassi, later met me for a fascinating five-hour lunch.

By the time I left Piran on a bus bound for Croatia, I was conflicted about Slovenia. Did I like it or didn’t I? Would I come back? I was pondering these questions as we arrived at the border. I handed my passport over to the immigration official and remarked that because I am an American, I needed to be very sure I got stamped out of the Schengen Zone.

Streets of lovely old Ptuj, Slovenia

Streets of lovely old Ptuj, Slovenia

For anyone planning extensive travel in Europe, understanding Schengen is critical. Largely equivalent to the European Union (EU), which was created to facilitate trade, the Schengen Zone is a second layer that was later added to provide for ease of crossing borders. Prior to Schengen, travelers had to obtain a visa upon entry into every European country. After Schengen, the border controls between member countries disappeared. Americans (as well Canadians, Mexicans, Australians, and many others) obtain a stamp in their passport when they enter the first Schengen country, after which they can pass freely between any of the 26 member countries with no border stops.

The problem occurs because Americans are only allowed to stay in Schengen countries a total of 90 days out of every 180. That does not mean I can leave for a day and come back in for another 90. It means that once I have been in the Schengen Zone for 90 days, I must stay out of any Schengen country for the next 90 days.

Ancient streets of Piran, on the coast of Slovenia

Ancient streets of Piran, on the coast of Slovenia

Complicating matters even more, some members of the EU are not Schengen (England, Ireland, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania, for example), while some non-EU countries have opted in to Schengen (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland). That means I must carefully count my days in Schengen so that I don’t accidentally overstay, and the regulations make it very clear that it is my responsibility to make sure I get a stamp in my passport upon entry and a stamp out when I leave Schengen. Thus my remark to the border official.

He climbed back on the bus a little while later and returned passports to all the other passengers, leaving mine for last. With my passport clutched in his hot little he hand, he demanded, “Where are you going? “To Rovinj,” I answered. “When are you leaving?” Now I was confused. I was at the border, about to leave Slovenia. Perhaps he meant the EU? I shrugged and said, “I don’t know; I’m just traveling around Europe.” He pushed the issue. “You do not have many days left.” “Yes, I know. Today is my 77th day in Schengen. I entered Netherlands on May 20…” He cut me off in mid sentence. “Yes, and you went to Ukraine and came back into Hungary the same day. You have only 13 days left.” Now I was aggravated. He was making sure I knew that he’d examined my passport closely, and being completely passive-aggressive about it. “That’s why I’m going to Croatia, which is NOT Schengen,” I said sharply. When he repeated one last time that I had only 13 days left, I was tempted to tell him I knew how to count, and that if Schengen countries wanted me out so badly, I’d be very happy to spend my money in more welcoming countries. But I held my tongue, knowing that a petty official with too much power and too few brains could cause me grief.

Fountain on Mestnt Square in Slovenia's capital. Ljubljana

Fountain on Mestnt Square in Slovenia’s capital. Ljubljana

Even so, the whole incident worried me. Croatia joined the EU a couple of years ago and was scheduled to join Schengen in June of this year, but their application was delayed until June of 2016, because EU members are concerned that Croatia’s borders are not yet secure enough. But it had been a couple of months since I checked. I was worried something had changed in the interim, so once I was settled in my rental apartment in Rovinj, Croatia I stopped by the local police station.

I explained the situation to the officers and asked if Croatia was Schengen. “You are American?” I nodded. “When did you arrive?” I told them I’d just gotten off the bus from Slovenia. “Ever been here before?” I said it was my first time ever in Croatia. “Don’t worry, don’t worry! Croatia is not Schengen. You can stay here 90 days out of every 180 days. Have a good time in our country.” And with that, they smiled and waved me out of their office.

My next stop was the local tourist office to get a map and find out what was happening around town. Not only was I provided with a selection of brochures, the woman who assisted me spent 15 minutes describing things to see and events to attend in Rovinj. So, back to my conundrum. Am I glad I visited Slovenia? Absolutely. It’s a beautiful country. Will I ever go back? Let’s just say it wouldn’t be my first choice.

30 Comments on “Slovenia Tourism – Not Ready for the Big Time

  1. Dear Barbara, this was the most realistic article about Slovenia so far. I am sorry you had some bad experiences in tourist services in Slovenia. It is not the first time I hear that from travel writers and other travel bloggers.

    I would say that give a try to Slovenia again in the future and explore more, go local, meet the locals, come to Soca valley, visit Vipava valley and Brda region. I could easily guide you around Goriska region my home region. I wish you save traveling. Vesna

    • Hi Vesna: I will likely come back to Slovenia some day and would love to take you up on your offer. I’d especially love to stay in your gust house. I can’t say when that will be, but when it happens I’ll be sure to get in touch. Thanks so much for continuing to read my blog.

  2. Dear Barbara,
    Thank you for your well written observations of our country. It is a delight to read of the enchantingly beautiful villages you enjoyed, the bartender at Slamic B&B who brought you his home made elderflower nectar and the owner of Pirat Restaurant who refused to charge you full price, insisting that you were part of the family. This is what we would expect from a visit to Slovenia!

    As a country in our 25th year, we are working hard to provide a welcome and service to visitors. We are aware that our online public transport information ‘needs to be brought into the 21st century’ and will inform the right authorities of the areas that need to improve.

    We do hope you will decide to return to Slovenia in the near future and please let us know if you come. We will be happy to help you with your visit.

    Best wishes,
    Slovenian Tourist Board
    E: [email protected]
    W: http://www.slovenia.info

    • Thank you very much for your comment. I will contact you again should I decide to return.

  3. Barbara,
    I really enjoyed this article. As someone mentioned above, you didn’t coat your experience in sugar, which I think is so important for several reasons.
    As someone who works for a company in Barcelona, I’m always running into visitors from the United States and other non-Schengen countries. Most people (I don’t have specific numbers) could care less about their 90/180 requirements, opting to forego the rules to have a good time.
    While I understand that people don’t want to go through the trouble of doing things the right way, I also know that following travel rules is one of the best ways to respect a country or region.
    I applaud your efforts to do things the right way. Thank you!
    -J.R.

    • Thank you so much J.R. I always try to stick to the rules – if I don’t and get caught, it means bot being able to return to the region for a while, which would certainly be bad for my career 🙂

  4. Hi Barbara,

    I found your website today and have spent some very pleasant time browsing through your articles and photos. Thank you for your honest account of your time in Slovenia. As the first commenter said, only too often travel blogs are full with sugar-coated tales and it was good to read a real personal story.
    Best wishes,

    Rossi

    • Thanks so much Rossi. I don’t really like writing bad reviews, but I always feel I owe it to my readers to tell the truth. I appreciated you comment.

  5. Hi Barbara, it is interesting to hear your honest perspective on Slovenia. Too often travel experiences are sugar coated. I understand your frustrations and glad you got to have some great connections in among the negatives. I have never been but look forward to going soon with an open mind. Thanks

    • Hi Aaron: Even though I had some disappointing interactions with the government services, the local people are lovely and the scenery is gorgeous. Definitely worth a trip.

  6. Sorry you had such difficulty. I spent August 2015 in Slovenia and relied upon public transportation exclusively. I had no trouble booking buses and trains and found the Tourist Information Centers to be very helpful. Most guidebooks warn about the difficulties of travelling in Slovenia on the weekend – you just have to work around it. I highly recommend Slovenia as a tourist destination.

  7. How I wish we could share a good dinner and an evening of conversation about Slovenia, Croatia (especially Rovinj which I love) and the cursed Schengen rules! I’m planning six months to a year of travel in Europe in 2016 and I’m worried about the “zone” for the first time. I’ve read that the 90-day rule is really being enforced now. I’ve decided to spend the summer in the UK and Ireland — 90 days — then to return to the continent.

    • Hi Libbie: You’ve chosen the perfect solution, as neither England or Ireland are Schengen and Americans can stay up to 6 months. Also, you could opt to spend 90 days in Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania, all of which are EU but not yet Schengen. Or, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro are neither EU or Schengen, so they are also options. My best tip is to make very sure your passport has been stamped whenever you leave a Schengen country for a non-Schengen one. I always tell the Immigration that I must have this done. Usually, it is no problem at all. If you need to know anything else you can certainly email me directly. Happy to help any way I can.

  8. How interesting! Your Slovenian experiences remind me a lot of Poland. I’ve met some very nice Poles on my travels around the country especially in the SW corner near Wroclaw. However, I’ve also met many unfriendly taxi drivers, sales clerks and restaurant workers that were either rude or pretended not to understand my basic Polish. It’s been a frustrating experience to say the least!

    • Hi Joy: Yes, I found it a bit difficult to get around Poland, too, but I had the distinct feeling that in the case of Poland, it was more an issue of them not speaking English, where in Slovenia it was just downright indifference and laziness.

  9. Read this with interest and a little concern – off to Slovenia for solo trip in couple of weeks – planning Ljubljana, Bled, caves – hope the bus & tourist offices are helpful!

    • You’ll be fine but note that bus services are less frequent in the fall

    • Hi Sharon: I will say that the best of all the government tourist offices was in Ljubljana. They gave me good advice about Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj, and even a good bus schedule. The bus station is easy to find and there are many buses a day to that area, so like Terry said, you’ll be fine.

  10. As a Slovenian myself, I was horrified to read about your experience, and I apologize in the name of our country. It’s really a scandal for border control to harass travelers and aggressively remind them about the expiration of their Schengen visa. After all, you weren’t breaking any laws, you were just so close to overstaying, so why do they have to remind you? The EU has become a very unwelcoming state. I’m sure there’s more flexibility in the US, where you come from, as the friendliness of the US border control is world famous. I have never been to the US, though, but I feel that they treat travelers at the border much nicer than those in Schengen. I’ve heard only good things from the Mexican border.

    Secondly, while it’s nice to hear that my fellow Slovenian people went out of their way to show you hospitality at their own expense and free time, I think that’s really besides the point in this context, since our tourist offices have no brochures at hand, nor do they have the knowledge to find direct buses, that in some cases don’t even exist, because Slovenia is small, and some routes don’t yield enough profit to cover the cost. Nevertheless, the Slovenian government should consider to pass a law, that will make a direct bus connections from Ptuj to Ljubljana compulsory.

    I hope you had a much better time in Croatia, they are much more famous for tourism and hospitality. I hope you make it to Dubrovnik, it’s a pure undiscovered gem with very few tourists, and quite affordable local delicacies.

    • Hi Novak: Thanks so much for your comment. It demonstrates the kind of compassion and friendliness I experienced from the Slovenian people. I wish I could say I agree about U.S. immigration, but I find them to be horrible as well, and I’m a U.S. citizen. I did really love Croatia and found the official tourist agencies there to be much more helpful.

  11. I only experienced Slovenia on a day-trip to Ljubljana from Trieste. We didn’t have any contact with ‘officialdom’ or the tourist office, but everyone else we met … guides, stallholders and restaurant staff … were so helpful and friendly, and the city so clean and beautiful, we felt we must return sometime.

    Only real issue was the food. We wanted to try some Slovenian food specialties, and each of us chose a different kind of sausage. Neither were really to our tastes, and the kindest thing I can say is I wouldn’t cross town to buy any.

    But, you can’t judge a country’s cuisine by just one dish.

    • I didn’t try any of the sausages because I’m a vegetarian, but I’m surprised to hear you say they weren’t very good. Seems like everyone I saw was eating sausages.

  12. Hi Barbara,

    If you are going to the south of Croatia, I highly recommend a visit to Hvar island, about an hour by fast ferry from Split. This is the low season and the crowds will be gone. Some of the clubs and restaurants will be closed or have reduced hours, but that makes exploring easier and more enjoyable. Best of all, room and hostel rates are reduced.

    It has been five years since I was in Hvar and I was pleased to learn just now that my friend Luka Viscovic is still in business with Luka’s Lodge, a hostel. I had met Luka a year earlier when he was visiting California. Luka met me at the ferry and we went immediately to a barbecue of fresh sardines that he got from his fisherman cousin. I had never had barbecued sardines before and I didn’t know what to expect, but it was a great meal.

    I will keep this short. Reading Trip Advisor, many of the comments reflect my experience at Luka’s Lodge.

    http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g303808-d1183558-Reviews-Luka_s_Lodge-Hvar_Hvar_Island_Split_Dalmatia_County_Dalmatia.html

    Here is Luka’s phone number: +385 21 742 118

    The phone will likely be answered by the maid/cook, who speaks Croatian and some German.

    Here is Luka’s Facebook page with a link for hostel reservations. Last month he had a special of 15 euros per night. Might even be cheaper this month.

    https://www.facebook.com/lukaslodge

    • Hi Ken: Hvar was on my list, but my last 5 days in Croatia were nothing but rain, so I never made it. However, I plan to return to Croatia next spring and will go then. I also want to get to a couple of the other islands in the area, and up to Zadar, and down to Dubrovnik. I quite fell in love with Croatia!

  13. Barbara, I was so disappointed to read your less than glowing report on your time in Slovenia. After returning home from a whirlwind 9 months traveling around the world last year I was often questioned regarding my favorite places. Without fail I mentioned Bled as my favorite “small town” stop. I sincerely hope that some point in the future you will return and have a more favorable experience.

    • Thanks for your comment Joanne. I may well return one day, but in the short term there are so many places I haven’t yet seen that it will be a while. I agree with you that it is a beautiful country and, like you, I did very much like the Lake Bled/Bohinj area.

  14. I am so glad for this report, as I had had Slovenia in mind for a “new” (to me) country to explore. (And for me, too, the only other time it was Yugoslavia!) I met several wonderful travellers from Slovenia while I was in Scotland last year and they were enthusiastic about people visiting their country. It does sound as though the Powers That Be, or at least the ones who deal with the tourists, were not prepared for the influx of tourists from so many different parts of the world, and being Schengen, the tourists expect a more “western Europe” level of readiness. As so often is the case, the Regular People are happy to meet strangers, but the ones dealing commercially with tourism are not up to snuff. Your photos are so beautiful; I’m glad that you could enjoy your travels at that level, at least!

    • Hi Irene: It’s worth going, because the country is so beautiful and the people are quite friendly. Just be prepared not to get much help from the tourist offices, other than the one in Ljubljana, which was pretty decent.

  15. How interesting. Last time I went to Slovenia… it was still part of what once was Yugoslavia.

    Tourism was not much developed, and while I remember well the beauty of the country I also have clearly in mind that people were not the friendliest I met around Europe. Already back then, Croatia was more welcoming and able to deal with tourists, perhaps because being closer to the Austrian and Italian border they had more exchanges.

    It’s not the first time I read of Slovenia not being very welcoming (then, of course, there are always awesome people), which is a pity. This happens sometimes when a place suddenly becomes a popular tourist destination. Lots of people arrive, but the locals are not ready. Hopefully, this will change in the near future.

    • Hi Simon: I’m sorry you had the same experience, but thanks for sharing it here, as it makes me more comfortable that I’m not the only one who has had difficult interactions. Without a doubt, Croatia was miles ahead of Slovenia in infrastructure and tourist services.

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