Linking the world renowned city of Dubrovnik with the virtually unknown tiny historic centre of the inland town of Kranj in Slovenia is more than unusual, but there are elements that they share in addition to just bringing much pleasure and beauty into the equation.
Both places are fundamentally historic, well preserved without the intrusion of modern buildings and cars together with being very tightly knit. Dubrovnik had fearsome enemies and riches that would be prone to seizure, so they built massive fortifications all around the city. The population was thus hemmed into about 25 acres. Kranj’s historic centre is a bit smaller but their constraint is that it is built on the high promontory above and near the confluence of the river Sava (later merging with the Danube), and the river Kokra; the precipitous slopes provide protection and give long, open views so that the modern buildings below do not intrude.
There are further comparisons; both have airports within easy reach and are ideal for short breaks. Both have a grand main street flanked by atmospheric, less noble parallel streets but Kranj only has one on either side. There are also interesting features beyond their boundaries; Dubrovnik in Croatia with its islands and Kranj with the Alps as a backdrop on one side and on the other, the delightful capital city of Ljubljana just twenty minutes away.
We visited Kranj in December coinciding with the switching on of the St. Nicolas/Christmas lights which are renowned as being spectacular; they lived up to their reputation. It was quite an event with hot spicy wine cups served from stalls together with some casual eats, and lots of little huts selling local crafts. A locally famous pop group performed and other music played followed by a couple of short speeches, which by all accounts were amusing (we don’t speak Slovenian!). A good time was had by all including children who mingled with the friendly crowd without any worries as it is a small and closely knit community.
Our hotel the Actum was situated right in the middle of the old town where it is a privilege to have car access in its pedestrianised centre. However, cars play a much bigger part in the hotel as the décor is somewhat quirky as well as being historic, romantic and comfortable. Rolls Royce was a passion of the former owner so there are lots of photographs and memorabilia, including the rear end of a Silver shadow which now serves as a cocktail cabinet. The passion continues and car rallies both start and pass by the hotel every year. Tatjana Whyte – a very glamorous lady - runs the hotel; she is a widely travelled, fun and interesting with a tremendous amount of local knowledge. We have to return as Tatjana has recommended several intriguing places firmly off the map. Each floor of the hotel has a different approach to the décor; I could not work out why the wine cellar was on an upper floor, possibly because there was a delightful tasting room.
Food is surely high on the criteria for any break and Slovenia has some real unsung treasures and in Kranj there is the Sonet restaurant in the same building as the Actum Hotel. It is outstanding with its modern interpretation of Slovene food. It would be worth travelling a distance to eat there it is so deceptively special. The roe deer dish was the best we have ever tasted; quite amazing both in flavour and softness. For more traditional fayre, we ate well in the equally friendly Stari Mayr restaurant just down the street.
Almost opposite the hotel are a couple of interesting diversions; the local museum and gallery which was the home of France Preseren in the 19th century. You will not go far in Slovenia without bumping into his name as he is their most famous poet and lauded philanthropist. Appropriately, his name means “the good-mooded”.
Overall, you have to say that this is deceptively rather sophisticated miniature town with its culture, buildings by famous architects, individual shops, art galleries, crafts’ workshops and cafés; there is something for everyone including children. A strange feature is the labyrinth of tunnels that run from one side of the promontory to the other plus a few extra routes. They were dug through fairly soft conglomerate rock to provide the population with shelter from the threat of WW2.
A short drive into the countryside will take you to the mountains where you can happily lose yourself in the bliss of peace and quiet on the mountain trails. Before you reach the mountains, there is a rustic but sophisticated estate, surely a contradiction in terms. The Brdo Castle and estate is used by the government to host foreign dignitaries in great style; everything is well maintained and the extensive parkland is rather formally set out, whilst part of an untouched forest is within the curtilage. There is an hotel and conference centre but more interestingly, there are numerous buildings from various periods of history. It is a very pleasant place to wander around and watch the water birds on the lake. However, uniquely, the general public can ride the world famous (Vienna Riding School) Lipizzaner horses; just seeing these aristocrats of the equine world was a treat in its own right.
We all like meeting the local people and eating in local restaurants, nearby the Brdo Castle estate is a film set of a local restaurant. Here the list of global VVIPs who have visited the Gostilna Kristof would make jaundiced journalists salivate at the possibilities of seeing and maybe meeting their elusive targets off duty at a table a few feet away (Americans excluded). The restaurant is picture perfect with everything beautifully presented which includes the skills in the kitchen. The flavours were great whilst helpings were gauged for American appetites.
The capital Ljubljana is only half an hour’s drive away but car parking is expensive there and in short supply. It is a very pleasant alternative and easier to stay in Kranj, and catch a bus or train into Ljubljana. There are plenty of activities such as fishing or cycling on one day, exploring Ljubljana and its castle or the lakes of Bled and Bohinj another.