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Bled Castle, pictured just as the sun broke through spring storm clouds

Nestled inbetween towering alps and the Adriatic Sea, Slovenia is one of Europe’s most picturesque countries. It has some of the most stunning mountainscapes in Europe, a lake that could be out of a classic fairy tale, and a quiet slice of Mediterranean coastline only 46km long.

The view from the window of as you fly into the compact capital Ljubljana is of green fields and forest-covered hills; no megacity urban sprawl here.

Slovenia has been an independent country for a little more than 20 years, and a member of the EU for a decade. Always more westward-looking than the other republics which made up Socialist Yugoslavia, Slovenia has a similar feel to the Tirol region shared by Austria and Italy. Ljubljana is a pint-sized metropolis; with a population of 300,000 it’s one of Europe’s smallest capitals. The central old town is a perfect place for street photography. The central meeting place is around Triple Bridge (Tromostovje), three bridges that meet over the Ljubljana River around Preseren Square. A miniature model of the city, carved out of bronze, is a photogenic centrepiece, and cobbled streets full of boutiques, cafes and antique shops radiating from the central square. In one I saw an old Soviet radio the size of a sofa, a Communist relic from the days of Tito and Socialist Yugoslavia.

Ljubljana’s not a grittily atmospheric place; anyone expecting post-Communist grimness will be sorely disappointed. Like Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, there are echoes of the Hapsburg dynasty which once ruled this part of the world, a central European gentility you can still see in the city’s Art Nouveau buildings.

Spring brings riots of colour in the city streets after the grey gloom of winter; the streets alive with flowers . The cafes crowding around the river banks – especially along Cankarjevo Nabresze, across the river from the university – is a great place for people watching and candid photography. One of the cafes, Macek, includes dozens of pictures of drinkers and people promenading outside on its walls; proof that it’s one of the best spots in the city to watch the world go by. In spring this is even more

Strange light, reflected from a building on the other side of the street

Slovenia’s most scenic spot, however, isn’t the capital, but Lake Bled, about 50km northwest of the capital. Located in the foothills of the Julian Alps, the lake is well-known to rowers and kayakers (it’s held the World Rowing Championships four times) but even more famed for its castle and church. Bled Castle, arranged on a rocky precipice looking out over the northern shore of the lake, is a Gothic masterpiece and a stunning photographic location in its own right. But it’s the tiny island in the middle of the lake that has made Bled a postcard favourite. The Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church sits on Bled Island, a forested teardrop in Lake Bled’s icy glacial water. There’s only one way out here – unless you fancy swimming – and that’s to take the rowboats that line the quayside in Bled town.The lake’s cold, clear waters are beautifully flat, and at the island’s edges huge lake fish cruise silently under the tree shadows. The Slovenian tourist authorities haven’t been shy about making the most of this lake-based highlight, but it’s not hard to find peaceful spots. This part of the Julian Alps is not short of hiking trails, and many of those surrounding Bled give dazzling views of the lake and the castle.

One of my favourite pics taken on this trip was up at the castle. A wedding reception was taking place there, and the happy couple had obviously been toasted on the balcony overlooking the lake. One champagne flute had been dropped, and the sight of this broken glass, overlooking one of the most scenic spots to be found in this part of Europe, was a shot that had to be taken.

Check out more of my Slovenia pics on Flickr here.

An almost deserted street in central Ljubljana… one of the few houses not abandoned
Bled Island, pictured from the quayside, soon after morning rain
Saturated reds, shot on Kodak Ektachrome slide film
Storm clouds and a shattered glass over Lake Bled
Calm waters and cloudy skies

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Stephen Dowling
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