Slovenia is geographically blessed. Nestled between the Alps, the Mediterranean to the west, Austria on the east and Croatia in the south, its topography allows a bit of everything, from ski resorts to sandy beaches, 3 prominent wine growing regions and a country rich in forests and caves.
Its capital, Ljubjlana, is a city of 300,000, the largest in a country of 2 million. Situated on the Ljubljanica River, a tributary of the Sava River, the city is overlooked by the Ljubljana Castle. On one side, Art Nouveau buildings stand since much of the older ones were destroyed in a devastating earthquake in 1895. The opposite side, between the Castle and the river, was spared, thus its buildings tend toward Baroque. Both sides of the river boast wide pedestrian ways thanks to a complete automobile ban during the day since 2007 and an array of pedestrian bridges to cross from side to side.
Free Walking Tour:
I started my exploration, as is my preference, with the free walking tour, led by Tina2, as opposed to Tina1 who also leads tours. We met at the main square where a statue of Slovenia’s favourite poet, Joseph Preseren, looks out over the square. A poet, explained Tina2, since Slovenia had until 1991 been ruled by non-Slovenians, so it didn’t have military or political heroes. Slovenian nationalism took hold only in the 16th and 17th century, after the invention of the printing press, when the Slovenian language was widely written down and standardized. Beside the statue is a pink church, the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation, with a tree planted in front to shield worshippers from the nude muse hanging over Mr. Preseren. Needless to say, this only works in summer when leaves are on the tree.
We walked along the river, on the wide, carless roads and crisscrossed Ljubjalna’s famous bridges: the Triple Bridge so named because when the single bridge became too congested with automobiles, footbridges were added on either side. Today, all three are pedestrians (and bicycles) only. We walked over the dragon bridge with its menacing dragon statues guarding the each opening, the butcher’s bridge so named because it connected the butchers in the market to their buyers on the other side and finally, the shoemaker’s bridge. All were very wide, designed to encourage gatherings and conversation.
Tina2 pointed out more landmarks: The Ljubjalna Castle perched high above on a cliff with a steep funicular for those (like me) who didn’t want to hike the stairs. Built originally in the 12th century, the castle today is owned by the state and houses a puppetry museum and a museum of Slovenian History, where costumed characters perform scenes from different eras of Slovenian history. Ljubjalna Cathedral or St. Nicholas’s Cathedral – Slovenia is largely Roman Catholic – soars high and a daily open air market by the Greek style agora, a series of buildings containing covered stalls and selling both fresh food and prepared dishes, dominate the riverside. I indulged in strawberries from the market, sweet and juicy.
Tina2 talked about Slovenian food. Famous for its liqueurs, we were given a tasting of the local, cherry flavoured, schnapps. Being so close to Austria (Vienna is less than 400 kilometers away), bakeries were selling Viennese pastries – the apple strudels were excellent. Souvenir shops sold bottles of honey, enhanced with different ingredients like pepper or lavender. We returned across the river, to see the National and University Library Building – they are one and the same – before ending at Congress Square, Here a magnificent concert hall has stood since 1891, while on the nearby University Building, Tito addressed the gathered masses from its balcony.
Tina2 gave a very succinct history of Slovenia, as follows:
- people have inhabited the land for 30,000 years;
- Jason (of the Argonauts fame) passed through, founded the city according to legend and slew a monster, which has been transformed into a dragon and become the symbol of Ljubjalna and Slovenia;
- the Romans had a small settlement in Ljubjalna; after they left, various tribes inhabited until the 7th century when the Slavs came and settled;
- Italians, Huns and Ottomans all fought over the land, but in the 1500’s it became part of the Austrian/Hungarian empire where it remained until WW1;
- post WW1, it was part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia;
- during WW2, it was occupied by Italians until 1944, then Germans, but sustained little damage;
- it was part of Tito’s Yugoslavia until May, 1991 when it declared independence;
- it suffered only a 10 day war in 1991 and has been left alone since;
- it joined the EU and uses Euros.
Joseph Plecnik House
The name, Joseph Plecnik, was mentioned in reverential terms numerous times. An architect, he is to Ljubjalna what Gaudi is to Barcelona. A native, he studied in Vienna, travelled to Italy and was charged with renovating the Prague Castle before returning home and redesigning much of the city. He was enamoured with ancient Greek and Roman design, thus much of the city has a Mediterranean feel. Wide pathways flank the river, expansive bridges, large squares with fountains and a market mimicking a Greek agora. He designed many of the bridges, squares, churches and the National Library.
He also designed part of his house; it’s a 3 building complex with 2 of the houses purchased to house his brother and housekeeper, but more importantly, to maintain his privacy. Devoutly Catholic and a confirmed bachelor, Plecnik was devoted to his work. He didn’t approve of sports or cinema, but had no hesitation smoking both cigarettes and medically prescribed opium. The 3rd house he purpsoe built. It contains a tower, for no better reason than he always wanted to live in a tower.
The house is preserved as a museum, with tours offered on the hour in English. Our tour of 3 entered through a covered porch filled with religious icons, decorative Greek columns and an uncomfortable chair. In his day, the porch was open to the elements, to discourage visitors from lingering. The main floor consisted of a kitchen, his bedroom complete with a drafting table and tons of books, and a tiny study. There was no living room or dining room. The entire house was constructed to make Plecnik comfortable and no one else. In the upper story of the tower was a large room where his students studied and worked under his tutelage. Completing the structure was a beautiful sunroom with a heating system designed to allow Plecnik to grow plants in the winter, opening to a large garden.
The other 2 buildings have exhibits documenting Plecnik’s life, many of his contributions to Slovenia, Vienna and Prague and models of his buildings and replicas of chairs he designed. During WW2, he was able to sidestep the Italian occupiers and complete many of his projects in Ljubjalna, but with the rise of Communism and its dislike of religion, Plecnik grew out of favour despite being a friend of Tito. He died in 1957.
A few years ago, I took a guided tour through the Frank Lloyd Wright House in Chicago. The guide explained and demonstrated how Wright had incorporated his architectural aesthetic into his living quarters. The Plecnik home tour was similar. But unlike Wright, who designed a house to be enjoyed by his family and friends complete with a fantastical playroom, the Plecnik house was utilitarian, with no space for leisure or gatherings, just as Plecnik wanted.
Located just an hour’s drive from Ljubjalna, Lake Bled features on every travel brochure and thousands of Instagram snaps with good reason. It is beautiful. In its tiny, 20,000 square kilometres (smaller than New Jersey) area, Slovenia boasts 60% forest, many of them cascading down its Alps mountains. Nestled in the Julian Alps, Lake Bled is a jewel of a lake, with an island in the centre upon which a monastery and church sit.
Thomas, our bus driver/tour guide dropped my tour group, me and 5 doctors from Venezuela, India and London (via Singapore, but now working for GSK) all attending a paediatrician convention in Ljubjalna, off at the side of the lake and instructed us to find a row boat. A line of traditional large wooden boats called pletnas, each seating 20 people, with a single rower manning the two near upright oars, awaited. Our group and an Asian tour group jumped on and our rower quickly took us to the island.
Upon reaching Bled Island, we climbed the 99 steps to its summit, where a church with more stairs to its bell tower rests. For a small fee, you can climb the bell tower and ring the bell, but the bell ringer in me was dormant, despite the promise of wish granting if I rang the bell. Off on a slight tangent here, but as I was looking up a synonym for bell ringer (I first heard the term “carillons” in Bruge where the bells would play for half an hour, including popular songs and Christmas carols), the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as one who rings bells. Pretty useless definition in my view.
After admiring the view from the lake, our rower returned us to the mainland, where Thomas drove us to the most impressive building surrounding the lake, Bled Castle. Begun about 1004, it was added to, and renovated in, Romanesque and Renaissance fashions. Today, it is a museum, with an inner courtyard, medieval rooms, majestic views of the lake, a honey souvenir shop and a cafe serving the local specialty, cream cake: three layers of decadence consisting of a thin puff pastry atop light vanilla cream and custard, guaranteed to ruin one’s appetite for lunch.
A quick trip back to Ljubjalna for lunch, then an hour drive to the northeast of Slovenia to visit its other main tourist attraction, the Postojna cave and nearby Predjama Castle built into the karst. The castle dates from the Middle Ages and is a typical example of a medieval castle, with a great hall, prison, latrine house, kitchen etc. but, remarkably, constructed in the mouth of a cave.
Slovenians love their caves and Postojna is its most famous, although others, some arguably more spectacular, are nearby. Postojna is the most visited, best set up for tourists and has been a tourist site since 1818 shortly after its latest recent discovery; graffiti inside has been dated to the 11th century. Its 24 kilometres are accessed aboard a 10 minute, 2 kilometre train ride to the middle layer of the cave, 40-60 metres below ground. From there, a guide walked us along a well lit path for 1 1/2 kilometres, pointing out the stalagmites, stalactites and curtain like formations, across and then under the Russian bridge and through cavernous halls where concerts were once held. As caves go, it was gigantic, not at all claustrophobic on the tourist trails and a fitting way to end the day.
Slovenian Wine Tasting:
Slovenia has a long history of wine making. I had been enjoying a white wine made with Malvasia grapes, new to me, dry with just a hint of citrus flavours. Numerous tastings are offered, both as driving tours to various wineries or in city wine bars. I chose the latter. My fellow drinkers, Lloyd and Lee from Singapore, and I entered the Roman era cellar where Clemens led us through the wines. Both Lloyd and Lee worked for the Aviva Insurance Company, yet another former opponent of mine in the Tax Court of Canada. Along with the GSK physician, Slovenia was turning into a walk down my tax litigation lane.
We sampled 7 different wines, beginning with the whites, a dry and not sweet Riesling and then put on blindfolds for a taste test – white or red? After smelling and sipping, Lloyd and I guessed red, Lee white. All of us were wrong – we were drinking a unique Slovenian orange wine, made by fermenting the juice of white grapes with their skin. The resulting wine has the tannins of red wine but the citrus flavour of white wine.
The reds were hearty, full bodied and we finished with a late harvest sweet wine, milder than a Port or Sherry and delicious. Sadly, Slovenian wines will not be coming to a wine store in North America. The vineyards are small and even the largest only produces 6,000 bottles a year, not enough for export.
My visit to Slovenia was pleasant. As it was always under the thumb of this empire or that, it doesn’t have a long, sordid history of military battles or an ugly past to confront. Mostly it was used as a throughway – Romans, Crusaders, Napoleon – all passed it on their way to the East. Being occupied by Italy during WW2 meant little bombing (Allies did bomb it on their way to and from Italy) and the relative lack of ethnic minorities spared it from the worst atrocities following the break-up of Yugoslavia.
Its commitment to the environment is admirable with vast forests, pedestrian and bicycle paths and laudable subterranean recycling system. English is widely spoken, locals are anxious to leave a good impression on visitors and, as of yet, it doesn’t quite attract the hordes of tourists endemic to the Dalmatian coast, my next destination. Stay tuned………