An ancient word meaning "stone," Slovenia is where the word "Karst" was first coined, and refers to a rocky limestone plateau that links the Soca Valley to Slovenia's tiny piece of Istrian coast. Here you'll find spectacular cave systems, the best of which are the UNESCO-protected Skocjan caves; nearby is Lipica Stud Farm, where the glamorous Lipizzaner horses are sired.

Slovenia's Istrian coast stretches from the bottom edge of the Karst in the north to the Dragonja River in the south, which creates the border with Croatia; this 46km (29-mile) coastline has been a refuge for people since the 7th century, when the Roman Empire collapsed, and the first olive groves and vineyards were established by people fleeing marauders from the east. During the 13th century, these coastal principalities looked to Venice for protection, and so began 500 years of Venetian rule, a period that has imbued the port towns with a distinctive look and attitude that still today make this region a most pleasant sojourn, and possibly the ideal entry into Croatia.