Unknown charms of Slovenia
Slovenia is the “most delightful small country of 21st-century Europe,” said Jan Morris in the Financial Times. A neighbor of Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia, the content little country quietly boasts impressive mountains, “fertile flatlands,” and a short stretch of coastline along the Adriatic Sea. “Just the right size and shape for human or national happiness,” it only gained independence when it split off from Yugoslavia in 1991. “A castle crowns” the capital, Ljubljana, and through its center winds a small river, “crossed by fanciful bridges” and lined with “countless al fresco cafes.” For centuries, the village of Lipice has proudly called itself home to the world-renowned Lipizzaner stallions. Horse lovers can wander through the stables or saddle up and ride one of the 400 snow-white mounts. Just north is “tourist icon” Lake Bled as well as the grassy, “semi-Alpine” Sava Bohinska river valley. “Edged with high hills,” the valley offers views of Slovenia’s highest peak, Mount Triglav, and the clusters of “whitewashed” villages nestled below it. Contact: Slovenia.info
Liechtenstein: Little big country
Getting to Liechtenstein may “discourage the casual visitor,” but it’s worth the trouble, said John Wray in The New York Times. Though this “tiny” country sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria can be crossed on foot in hours, just getting there takes nearly as long. Because there’s no airport, visitors usually ride the hour-plus train ride in from Zurich—and the last five miles to the border must be traversed by bus, taxi, bicycle, or donkey. Although Lichtenstein feels like a “little village,” it has an unexpected vertical vastness that leaves you feeling “rather miniature.” Once you cross the Rhine and “its verdant chessboard of forests and fields,” you’ll catch sight of the Three Sisters, the principality’s signature peaks, towering over the “densely settled” Samina Valley, “broken here and there by tile-roofed farmhouses and hanging meadows” that burst green in the distance. Moving eastward, you’ll pass into the country’s only hinterland, full of “bright blue beehives, close-cropped meadows, and shadowy forests.” Hike up to Pfälzerhütte, a “squat, cheery mountain hut” that straddles Liechtenstein and Austria, for a mountaineer’s meal, known here as bergsteigeressen. Only in “the navel of Europe” can you eat “penne from Italy, sausage from Bavaria, speck from Austria,” and cheese from Switzerland.
Luxembourg’s war-torn past
Unlike most small countries tucked into mountains, Luxembourg has always been “in the middle of things,” said Susan Spano in the Los Angeles Times. France and Germany have “left their marks” on this “battle-tested” country over the years, but it somehow survived both world wars to carve out “a niche of its own” within a united Europe. A “crossroad of cultures” and histories, Luxembourg today stands as the only remaining sovereign grand duchy. Its capital, Luxembourg City, is one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The town was originally built as a fortress, “on a plateau deeply cut by the Alzette and Pétrusse rivers,” and is still protected by “three rings of walls, 24 forts, and 14 miles of tunnels.” Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these fortifications—along with the old town inside—are a reminder of all the country has withstood. So is the “beautifully manicured” Luxembourg American Cemetery, just outside the ramparts in the district of Hamm. Headstones pay tribute to the more than 5,000 U.S. soldiers who lost their lives helping to free the “war-ravaged” country from German occupation and establish it as the unique state it is today.
Austria’s Lake Country
“It’s more than the scenery that keeps me coming back” to Salzkammergut, said P.F. Kluge in National Geographic Traveler. Austria’s Lake Country, the region just east of Salzburg and north of Slovenia, is “a haven of mountain views, vintage hotels, and village life.” Each of its 76 pristine lakes—and the villages that surround them—is packed with history. Bad Ischl, the summer capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was once a “world-class playground” for writers, painters, and musicians, among them Giacomo Meyerbeer, Felix Mendelssohn, and Gustav Mahler. Johannes Brahms wrote the tune to his famous “Lullaby” here, and Franz Lehár, known best for his operettas, is still celebrated with an annual festival. Altaussee, an Alpine village nestled between pine forests and mountains, is full of quaint hotels managed by “lederhosen-wearing” proprietors. Lake Toplitzsee, referred to by some as “Hitler’s Lake,” served as a Nazi naval testing station during the 1940s. “Small, cold, and murky with a dangerous, tree-lined bottom,” it lends an eerie cast to the “pastoral lake country” while adding another layer to its “tangled” yet stirring history.