Why Bela krajina is the hidden gem of Slovenia
I had never even heard about Bela krajina, let alone planned to go there, until I eventually went, because why not? Of all the beautiful places to explore in Slovenia, Bela krajina isn’t exactly the most famous. Ask anybody about Ljubljana and the usual answer is that it is gorgeous. Everybody knows about Lake Bled. And even Lake Bohinj is becoming more and more famous among travelers.
However, ask people about Bela krajina and a blank stare will be the most typical answer. In fact, it makes a good off the beaten path destination. The thing is, I hardly ever try to go off the beaten path. After all, as a proper unsuccessful backpacker, I like exploring all the most touristy places and taking all the most iconic photos. I never really make an effort to go off the beaten path. I just happen there.
Find out why I think I am an unsuccessful backpacker on my post “How to be an unsuccessful backpacker.”
I ended up in Marcahuasi, Peru (and was forced to stay there longer than expected) after following a local tip. I got sick of the buzz of Bocas del Toro, in Panama, and got a good dose of peace and quiet in Playa Las Lajas. And in Costa Rica I found myself as the only foreigner in Sarchi, in the highlands, and enjoyed my time with the locals.
Read more about my adventures in Marchahuasi on my post “Off the beaten path Peru: Marcahuasi.”
But what usually happens when I end up somewhere random is that I fall in love with a place. And sure enough, this is what happened in Bela Krajina. Here, life goes by at a slow pace. In a world where everything is fast and frenetic, it is refreshing to see that in Bela krajina people still value the time they can dedicate to family, friends and to just enjoy life. Who knew that such a place existed in the heart of Europe?
A small region with an interesting history and culture
Bela krajina – it took me a while to memorize this name, that doesn’t sound sweet to my Italian ears, but definitely looks soothing to my eyes. Located at 90 km south-east of Slovenia capital Ljubljana, Bela krajina is the most rural and underdeveloped region of Slovenia. The main cities (if really one wants to call them cities) are Črnomelj, that has around 14000 inhabitants, Metlika, whose population is of about 8000 people, and Semič, where around 4.000 people live.
Other than these 3 cities, there’s a myriad of small, picturesque villages that give a sense of peace and tranquility, such as Primostek, where Big Berry, the Luxury Landscape Resort where I stayed, is located.
Metlika, the most important city in the region, was already inhabited in pre-historic times and had an important role in the defense of the region against the Turkish invasions of the 15th and 16th centuries. Testimony of that is the castle that nowadays is the venue of the Bela Krajina museum, which has a permanent exhibit of artifacts of the region up until the 20th century.
Not far from Metlika, in a village called Rosalnice, there’s a complex known as Tri Fare, which for 7 centuries was the object of pilgrimage. Surrounded by a wall, there is a cemetery and three gothic churches built one next to the other. The reason for building 3 different churches in such a small place are still unknown. What I know for sure is that this place has a special aura.
Part of the history and culture of Bela krajina has to do with wine. I actually knew that Slovenia has a very strong wine tradition, but I got a full grip on how much wine is important in Slovenia as I drove along vineyard after vineyard, along the hills that surround Metlika and Semič. I stopped to take pictures, and I tried the grapes which I found incredibly sweet.
I happened to visit the region right during harvest time, and one too many a celebration for the good harvest meant that the owners of the vineyards were happily drunk and even more welcoming than usual, and offered me a lot of wine (which I never refused, just in case that would be considered rude, I promise).
Among the things I didn’t know, is that Bela Krajina is also quickly developing its own tradition in beer crafting. Vizir craft beers are quickly overtaking the market as a good alternative to Lasko, the most common beer in Slovenia. In keeping with my tradition of trying local beers, I didn’t refuse a tour in the brewery and got (again) happily tipsy.
The cultural traditions of Bela krajina are also reflected in the traditional bread, the Belokranjska Pogača, a focaccia kind of bread that is prepared with cumin seeds and which is present at pretty much every meal – even at breakfast. I love bread, and I got stuffed on Pogača pretty much every day.
Nature at its best
If I were asked to define Bela krajina with a color, it would definitely be green, the color of nature, which here is pristine. Even the Kolpa river, which marks the border with Croatia for 113 km and contributes to making Bela krajina so lush, is green. Its clean waters are among the warmest of Slovenia, and can get up to 30 degrees in the summer – not bad at all for a river. And canoeing along the river is a pleasant (if only a bit hard, if you are as lousy as I am) experience, as well as kayaking and rafting.
The Kolpa river also names the Kolpa Natural Park, a beautiful park where it is possible to spot various species of birds, turtles and otter. Dears and foxes roam free in the region – and actually pop out from nowhere in the middle of the night. In fact, I strongly advise to drive really slowly at night, or else there’s the chance of hitting a dear. Thankfully I was fully aware and responsive when one crossed the street in front of me!
Any nature lover is bound to have a great time in Bela krajina. Here there are plenty of hiking and biking trails, for all levels of difficulty and of various duration. Due to the limited time I had available, I opted for an easy one, following the route of Divji Potok and ended up at some beautiful waterfalls. It was completely quiet – another reminder that this is the least explored region of Slovenia.
The hidden gems of Slovenia
Bela krajina is packed with hidden gems. One of them is the Krupa River, a beautiful source of water that actually looks like the set of a fantasy novel. It’s the kind of place where one can go meditate, for the only sound to be heard is that of the leaves softly swept by the wind. A water mill at the back gives the place an even more intriguing aura.
Another hidden gem in Bela krajina is the Mithraeum of Rozanec, near Črnomelj, one of the most interesting archeological sites in Slovenia (and shockingly free to access – this gives a full idea of how off the beaten path Bela krajina is). The Mithraic religion was based on the cyclical alternation of life and death, and on the conflict between good and evil and the power of redemptive sacrifice. Its origins were found in Persia, from where it spread to the Roman empire adopting elements from other religions. The beautiful Mithraeum of Rozanec can be accessed via a lovely path through a chestnut forest and a narrow path between large rocks.
Not far from the Krupa River, the road follows along the countryside. Turn after turn, Bela krajina proved to be one of the most photogenic places I have ever seen. I stopped in the middle of nowhere to jump in a field, in complete disbelief that places like this still exist in Europe.
On the other side of the road, the remains of the Krupa castle, in Stranska vas, reminded me once again that this region has an interesting history and culture too.
As I left Bela krajina to go back home, I finally understood why people have been raving about Slovenia. It feels like a chest full of treasures that have been hidden for too long, a perfect combination of welcoming, smiling people, beautiful nature and intriguing history. After only one week in Bela krajina, I realized I would love to have more time to explore more of it.
I suppose it is easy to see why I fell in love with Bela krajina. All I can say is that I will go again, and next time I will stay longer.
Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of Big Berry during my stay in Bela krajina. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.