To describe Slovenia as a “hidden gem” or an undiscovered destination would probably sound presumptuous. After all, it is already a fairly popular hiking destination. That being said, when you discover the sheer scale of beauty on offer in this tiny country, a mere two hours on a plane from the UK, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve stumbled upon a well-kept secret.

Nestled between the Alps and the Adriatic, encircled by Italy, Austria and Hungary and bordered by Croatia to the South, Slovenia is a gem hidden in plain sight. Admittedly part of my own sense of exploring an “undiscovered” land derived from the timing of my trip. Hikers generally flock to Slovenia for the warm summers, while others come to ski in the mountains during the freezing winters. 

It was mid-October when I went with my family on a trip to Robanov Kot — a peaceful valley tucked away in a remote corner of northern Slovenia, consisting of farms scattered on green meadows, set against the towering peaks of the Alps. It distinctly felt like the season was winding down. As we drove past steep-roofed wooden chalets, we could see locals stacking logs outside their homes, preparing to hibernate for the long winter months ahead. 

Despite the scarce visitors, it was great weather to explore: cold, crisp and sunny. Snow dusted the mountain tops overlooking the valley, but the meadows were still green and dotted with cows from the mountain dairy.

We stayed in a small chalet, but upon arrival, discovered that the valley boasted one family-run inn owned by an old Slovenian lady. Dinner, she told us, would be served at 6 pm by her daughter-in-law. Mealtimes felt a little as though we were intruding on a local get-together; our waitress — the daughter-in-law — served beers to several friends while grandchildren darted in and out of the kitchen. 

But we weren’t the only guests: a group of smartly-dressed German hunters were also feasting after a busy day scouring the hills for chamois — an agile goat antelope found in mountainous areas of Europe. The menu was filled with good, hearty, wholesome mountain food. We were warmed by mushroom soup, dumplings, and blueberry liquor — a local speciality. 

As we hiked and biked across nearby valleys over the next few days, we quickly discovered just how little variation there was in local cuisine. A familiar six items cropped up on the menu of every chalet serving food in the area; mushroom soup, beef noodle soup, dumplings, trout, apple pie and a strange, muddy-looking grain (which tasted a little like a pile of mud too). The predictability of the menu might sound like a drawback but it soon became oddly comforting. 

It was largely young men who attended these meals, stopping off for a beer after a day out farming or felling conifer trees. Forestry, logging and rearing cattle are the main industries in the area. 

Everyone appears to be working on the land, and the pride locals take in their robust agricultural community is unmistakable. Centuries-old ways of life are little changed. The area feels caught almost in a time warp, offering a glimpse of mountain life as it once was, or how I imagine alpine villages in Austria and Switzerland may have looked 100-odd years ago before they were ravaged by tourists. 

Many of the farms in the valley have belonged to the same families since the 15th century. Even those who fall on hard times will go to desperate lengths to avoid selling their land, the young waitress in the Robanov Kot inn told me.

Those in the area may be country bumpkins, but they are stylish ones. Over the course of the week, I spotted a host of locals dressed head to toe in felt — a popular material for ventures in the Slovenian outdoors. 

Sadly, the felt store in the nearest village, 2 km north of our valley, was open just once a week. So I never got a chance to purchase the beautiful hand-embroidered felt boots I wistfully admired through the shop window. 

In fact, it seems Slovenians generally have a lax attitude to opening hours during the low season. We were forced to return three times to the village tourist shop, for instance, owing to the extended lunch breaks enjoyed by the young man behind the desk. But unreliable opening hours do not reflect how welcoming the locals are. Almost every Slovenian we interacted with was laid back but extremely friendly.

Everyone seems to be connected in this close-knit community. My mum was disappointed to learn that her plan to prolong my trip by marrying me to the handsome man from the tourist shop was destined to fail. Alas, he is already wedded to the nice waitress from the hotel in our valley. A waitress who seemed curiously clued up on the technical glitch we’d experienced with the heater in our chalet. It was her husband, she later disclosed, who came to fix it while we were out — sent out on behalf of his aunt who owns the place we were staying in. 

A travel piece on Slovenia without any reference to its spectacular lakes would feel incomplete. And as we neared the end of our trip, we left the remote Robanov Kot valley and headed south towards the well-trodden paths – or well-crossed waters — of Lake Bled.

It’s not hard to see why Bled has put Slovenia on the map: the water is turquoise, a fairytale church floats on a small islet in the centre of the lake, and a picture-perfect medieval castle overlooks it from a rocky cliffside.

However, the spot which truly stole our hearts was located 20 km away: the less developed, quieter and utterly gorgeous Lake Bohinj. Against a backdrop of mountains, the complete clarity of Bohinj’s water is truly specular. Every peak is sharply reflected in the glistening lake. 

One such reflection is the peak of Mount Triglav — Slovenia’s highest summit, and something of a national symbol. It is said that every true Slovene should climb to the top of Triglav at least once in their lifetime. Tourists are encouraged to do so too. Disclaimer: I didn’t make it up there. But perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. 

Since my mum’s attempts to marry me off to a local were a flop, I will need as many reasons as possible to return to this beautiful country.