A bearded mountain of a man sporting long black hair and demonic tattoos is lying on a pink inflatable couch, slowly drifting down the turquoise Soca River. He’s holding a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and as he floats by his heavy metal brethren – themselves waist high in the chilly alpine water – he smirks. Cruising behind him are two five-liter plastic buckets, fitted and sealed with 8-inch speakers blasting out a soundtrack of extreme death metal. And towering above are the emerald green Julian Alps – part of the Southern Limestone Alps that stretch from northeastern Italy to Slovenia. They cast shadows on the rippling water below, darkening sections of the river as the burning sun tracks westward across a cobalt-blue sky.
This is the kind of scene you’d expect to see inside a glossy travel brochure, captioned with “pristine paradise” or “idyllic surrounds” or “mother nature at her finest.” It’s certainly not an image you’d associate with a heavy metal music festival. But here in Tolmin, 100-km north of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, the metalhead contingent comes to town each July for the annual Metaldays Music Festival – a five-day affair of mischievous merriment accompanied by some of the most extreme music on the planet, surprisingly set in an environment that couldn’t be more of a contrast.
I’d come to cover the event for a music magazine back in Australia, and it served as my basic introduction to the Central European country that, let’s face it, hardly gets any attention at all – but oh it should! True, it’s not as famous as France and Italy and remains vast uncharted territory for most travellers. But Slovenia is definitely worth visiting.
I didn’t have any trouble meeting locals and making friends at the festival for one thing, and the reason is simple: Slovenians are a friendly bunch and totally open to meeting new people, which is definitely a good thing when you’re sharing a mosh-pit with them; copping an elbow to the face has never been – and will never be – on my travel bucket-list! Perhaps their friendliness has to do with Slovenia’s relatively small population of just over two million, actually making it one of the most sparsely populated countries in Europe. Even its diminutive capital, Ljubljana, looks and feels more like a small town rather than a big city, and is full of approachable locals that are always ready to point you in the right direction and provide helpful advice in English – just like what you’d find in any country town!
Slovenians are a friendly bunch and totally open to meeting new people, which is definitely a good thing when you’re sharing a mosh-pit…
It also helps that Slovenia has always been open to new ideas and people. Even in the days of old Yugoslavia, Slovenians were the most open of the bunch, and identified equally with the Western values of Central Europe along with its strong Slavic culture. Thankfully that remains very much the case today.
In between all the head banging, beer guzzling, and general mayhem of the festival, it was easy to forget that just outside the confines of the festival lay a whole world of adventure waiting to be explored. But then you’d see a group of metalheads kayaking or rafting down the Soca River and you’d quickly find yourself itching to get active and do some adventuring of your own!
Hikers and cyclists in Slovenia are well served with thousands of miles of trails and tracks zig-zagging their way throughout the country, especially in the Julian Alps and the Triglav National Park. There’s also the cycle from Lake Bled to Lake Bohinj which is especially stunning. In winter, skiers and boarders can hit the slopes at Kranjska Gora – Slovenia’s skiing capital. Those looking for a challenging yet rewarding experience can climb Slovenia’s tallest mountain, Mount Triglav (2,864m), which is practically a rite of passage for all Slovenians and will make you even more popular with the locals. Hell, it’d probably get you a free drink at the bar!
…just outside the confines of the festival lay a whole world of adventure waiting to be explored
There are also caves to explore, such as the subterranean worlds at Postojna and UNESCO World Heritage-listed Skocjan; rock climbing routes to ascend, most of which are drilled into Triglav’s north face; and underwater worlds to discover in the sparkling blue Adriatic Sea. Of course, you could also just jump out of a plane for the ultimate adrenaline rush, or paraglide over alpine lakes with god-like views over charming hamlets and fishing boats.
The food vans and outlets were especially busy during the festival – turns out swimming in the Soca River, navigating through crowds of European metalheads, and sampling the local suds stirs the appetite. And thankfully, Slovenians know how to beat the hunger pangs into feeble submission with glorious food!
Slovenian cooking takes a little inspiration from Italy (pizza, aka pica), Hungary (goulash, aka golaz) and Austria (Schnitzel, aka dunajski zrezek) to create tantalizing menus that use locally sourced ingredients, including the freshest seafood down in the port city of Piran perched on the Adriatic. Indeed, behind Slovenia’s rustic charm lies a world of culinary sophistication, borne from centuries of cross-cultural influence from its neighbors.
And then there’s the booze. Slovenia’s national beer, Union, owes its roots to an Austrian entrepreneur who brought the intoxicating combination of hops and barley to the country – or so I’m told by a slightly inebriated new friend. But it’s Slovenian wine that’s the real stand-out. Although its reputation hasn’t exactly made it beyond Slovenia’s national borders, wine aficionados in the know flock to Slovenian vineyards like metalheads flock to Metallica shows!
Slovenians know how to beat the hunger pangs into feeble submission with glorious food!
Most of the wine produced in Slovenia is grown in the Vipava Valley, which enjoys a warm Mediterranean environment that’s perfectly suited to harvesting wine. In fact, as I’m informed by the friendly waiter at a riverside café in Ljubljana after the festival wraps up, Slovenian reds and whites often give Italian varieties a run for their money, and are up there with the best of them. And as I order my second glass of Teran – a Slovenian red made from Refosco vine grapes – I cannot help but agree.
Wine aficionados in the know flock to Slovenian vineyards like metalheads flock to Metallica shows!
So if your idea of the perfect holiday involves gorgeous vistas, a dose of adventure, friendly locals and delicious food and wine, then Slovenia has your name written all over it. And you don’t even need to be a metalhead to enjoy it!