For first timers in Europe, Slovenia’s easy to overlook. It’s tiny, and gets far less tourist attention than neighboring Austria, Italy, and Croatia. Aside from Melania Trump, it has no globally recognized exports. Or sites.
And try saying Ljubljana out loud. (That’s the name of its capital.) This may be enough to put off some would-be visitors.
So, why is Slovenia worth checking out? Let’s start with these views.
They’re why friends had gushed about Slovenia. The nature. The mountains. Oh, and the dragons.
Yes, dragons. Ljubljana (‘loob-li-ah-nah’) is a city of dragons, in a country of castles.
A country so breathtaking, it might as well have fallen off a Tolkien book cover.
But what distinguishes Slovenia, beauty and mythical creatures aside? Let’s find out.
Slovenia’s a stunning country. She’s also a new one.
Slovenia became independent in 1991. Prior to that, she was part of Yugoslavia. Led by still-polarizing strongman Josip Broz Tito from 1918 until the early 1990s, the communist empire encompassed the modern-day nations of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro (and Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008). Only Fascist and Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1945 interrupted Tito’s nearly forty-year reign.
Slovenia the entity, though, is hardly new. Slovene culture, including language, arts, architecture, food, music, craftmaking, and dance, reaches back centuries.
It is this culture that Slovenes stress when talking about their history.
“We are a nation of poets and artists,” says Mariana, our sprightly guide with Ljubljana Free Tour, on a drizzly November morning. “You do not see any statues of politicians here, do you?” she playfully asks.
Indeed we don’t. We are standing in front of the Pepto-Bismo pink Franciscan Church of the Annunciation, in Prešeren Square. Next to us stands a bronze monument of Slovenia’s most cherished writer, for whom the square is named.
A failed 19th century lawyer-turned-poet whose Zdravljica is now Slovenia’s national anthem, France Prešeren is immortalized staring wistfully across his square…at a bust of his unrequited love, Julija Primic. (Nevermind that the wealthy merchant’s daughter was sixteen when Preseren, in his forties, allegedly fell for her.)
Such stories beget Ljubljana’s marketing as a “city of love” as much as one of literature. (So does its name, which resembles ‘ljubljena,’ or Slovenian for “the beloved.”)
Further romance cred is found at the Butcher’s Bridge, where, in the tradition of Paris’ Pont des Arts, lovers place locks and throw away keys to forever seal their bond. (Deformed statues adorn the bridge too, so…do with that metaphor what you will).
Like 90% of Ljubljana’s most popular sites, the bridge was designed by Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik. He also built the city’s National and University Library and Central Market square, which still hosts a daily farmer’s market.
Plečnik may have influenced Ljubjlana, but he in turn was influenced by the Vienna Secessionists, an Art-Nouveau movement with neo-classical orientation. His library, on the other hand, is straight Italian palazzo (see above).
Italian influence dominates the buildings on the side of the Ljubljanica River where a fire ripped through over a century ago. On the opposite bank, however, reconstruction after a massive 1895 earthquake reflects Viennese sensibilities.
Austrian and Italian influence are felt in other ways, says Mariana. Take the language. Slovenian has its roots in Slavic, but uses the Latin alphabet. German-influenced dialects are spoken in northern parts of the country. (And, to curse, Slovenians have to borrow from Serbian. The Slovenian language “is too cute for such words,” Mariana giggles.)
Shifting borders over the centuries have contributed to Slovenia’s cultural (and demographic) makeup too. Istrian Italians in the northwest enjoy minority rights, as do Hungarians. Serbs, Roma, Croats, Bosniaks, Albanians and other fellow Slavs comprise most of Slovenia’s minority groups, though they make up less than 10% of that total.
It’d be a stretch to call Slovenia purely “Slavic,” though. (Or Austrian, or Italian).
To understand why, you’ve got to go back in time.
“Love and literature” might be Slovenia’s slogan. But her story is really about foreign influences–and suppression.
For over a thousand years, the Slavic Slovenes were ruled by the Franks, the Hapsburgs, the Austrians, Napoleon, Italian Fascists, German Nazis, and Tito.
Slovene nationalist movements gained ground in the 1800s, as a partial byproduct of growing interest in Slovenian language and literature. When WWI broke out, though, pan-Slavic nationalism rose. This led to the 1918 formation of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs.
Despite a common cause, each group in this new nation had distinct linguistic and cultural traditions. The country-now-known-as-Slovenia was able to remain largely culturally autonomous and politically influential within this coalition state—until 1929, when it became the Serb-dominated (and highly repressive) Yugoslavia.
Slovene nationalist movements gained strength, but WWII and annexation put those on the back burner. Communism, mostly under Tito, kept them there for three more decades. Not until Yugoslavia’s collapse and a 1989 referendum did Slovenia gain nationhood.
And she was ready. Slovenia’s transition to a stable, multi-party democracy is oft cited as one of the smoothest in post-Communist Europe. (A strong economic engine definitely helped with this; Slovenia contributed a fifth of Yugoslavia’s GDP with just 8% of the population. And she avoided the inter-ethnic warfare terrorizing the rest of the region due to a mostly homogenous population).
Yet Slovenia’s not immune to corruption, or to the rightist anti-immigrant wave currently sweeping Europe. Maybe outside influence will always be a hallmark here.
So then, what makes Slovenia distinctly Slovenian?
Maybe its her unique blend of Austrian, Slavic and Mediterranean sensibilities. A blend that gave rise to an agrarian society with a strong, freethinking literary tradition.
Truly, Slovenia’s love of literature (and education) can’t be overstated. Over 99 percent of adults here can read. (In America, it’s estimated that up to 21 percent of adults can’t). University education in Slovenia is free. (No wonder Ljubljana, home to Slovenia’s biggest university, has 63,000 students. That’s a fifth of the entire city population).
And libraries here? Are in a class by themselves.
This library tradition goes way back. All the way to 1701. That’s when the Seminary Library, Ljubljana’s first public scientific library, opened its magnificent doors.
Greg and I emailed to arrange a donation-based tour. Mateja, the librarian, met us at the door at our appointed time, and then led us through the seminary (still in use) to the gorgeous sanctuary you see above.
Opened by decree of Ljubljana’s leading religious figures, the library contains seven thousand religious and secular books arranged by subject (by someone who must have been the world’s most meticulous librarian). Allow me to nerd out for a moment.
The library also boasts an original fresco painted in 1721 by Italian Giulio Quaglio, whose numerous figures Manteja explained to us in great detail.
In doing so, she corrected my assumptions of conflict between the religious and secular; many of the frescos’ figures, in fact, are nods to Greek philosophers.
While it’s used only for research and tours today, the library stands as testament to Slovenians’ love of knowledge–and beauty.
What else do Slovenians love? Wine.
“Slovenia makes 90 million liters of wine a year. But we only export something like 6 million. So, we drink a lot of wine!” Mariana says.
Nowhere was this more evident than at Ljubljana’s St. Martin’s Wine Festival, where Greg and I ended up on a Saturday afternoon. Six euros of tickets got us six glasses of wine, of our choosing, from among dozens of vendors. (Try finding that deal in Napa.)
We started with bubbly from Bela Krajina, a southeastern region that borders Croatia. and enjoys a Mediterranean climate.
Then we sampled more bubbly. This time, it was red, and made from the country’s flagship grape, Teran. After breaking to check out the world’s weakest Thriller flashmob, we ended with a still, young Teran. (And then, a nap).
Slovenia also makes the brandy Tropinovic (which we sampled in its blueberry form, Borovničevec). Craft beer is getting more popular here too. (Check out our friend Natalie’s DIY craft beer tour of Ljubjlana for more on that).
Slovenians also love sausage and dumplings. (And pretty much anything is fair game for pickling.) Perhaps the most Slovenian of foodstuffs, though, is honey.
Which is why Slovenia loves it some bees.
Saying Slovenians are into beekeeping is like saying Bill Gates dabbles in software. The country has 90,000 beekeepers, out of a population of 2 million.
We learned quite a bit about this bee-related love (and history) at the Slovene Ethnographic Museum‘s temporary exhibition, “Where Bees Are At Home.”
And they certainly are: check out this sweet apiary.
Slovenians pride themselves on the beauty of their apiaries, some of which are large enough to use sauna-like for health and wellness purposes. The decorative panels have long been decorated with religious and later humorous motifs.
Seeing this exhibition, we got our first glimpse of the other Slovenia (perhaps, its most representative side). The pastoral one. The one with those views.
We couldn’t wait to see more.
Months before, we’d booked a stay on a “tourist farm” near Bled. An hour outside of Ljubjlana, Bled and its environs feel worlds apart. Yet they’re all part of what make Slovenia the hybrid nation it is–all in a country the size of New Jersey.
Reviews of the farm, Dolinar Krainer, promised bucolic views, warm hospitality, and homemade goat cheese. It was an easy sell.
Our host Iza graciously picked us up from the bus stop, and shuttled us a few (very ) uphill kilometers to the farm. A nurturer with frenetic energy, she got us settled in, and then had her son deliver a couple of mountain bikes so that we could trek to town.
We set out right away for Lake Bled. The unmistakable crown jewel of the area, and maybe all of Slovenia, Lake Bled has an island with a church smack dab in her middle. And, as if that weren’t enough, there’s also a castle.
We hiked 20 minutes up to the medieval-era Bled Castle. We opted to take in the views, and forego the 11 euro entrance fee to check out its small museum. Time was also of the essence: we had to peddle back up the hill to the farm before dark (which comes around 5 pm this time of year).
The next day, we took a more leisurely and romantic approach. The day began with a delicious breakfast-for-two that was as “locally sourced” as you can get.
“Goat cheese, goat cheese with fennel, cherry jam, tomatoes, butter, all from farm,” Iza announced as we surveyed the immaculate spread. She poured us some freshly mashed apple juice, which, once I tried it, made me vow I’d never drink store-bought stuff again.
Sublimely full, we visited the benefactors of our meal. Then, with a pack of sandwiches Iza insisted we take, we hiked to the lake, where we rented a rowboat and paddle out to the island.
Legend dictates a groom must carry his bride up the ninety-nine stone steps before ringing the bell in the church for good luck. (Needless to say, Greg’s grateful we’re already married).
We opted instead for a picnic lunch overlooking the lake before paddling back to shore.
When we got back from our hike, the farm was noticeably noisier than when we’d left.
The Germans had arrived.
A group of six friends from Bavaria were on their yearly pilgrimage to Dolinar. And not for the farm, or the lake, but for the music.
A former professional musician, Iza’s husband is now a teacher. But every so often, he dusts off his accordion and jams with a few locals. The Germans had driven five and a half hours for a private show and dinner.
As the farm’s only other guests, we got invited too.
Iza’s dinner was just as delicious and locally-sourced as breakfast. Risotto with mushrooms, a light soup of root vegetables, and potatoes, salad and lamb rounded out our hearty four-hour meal.
(“Is this the lamb we met earlier?” Greg clarified. “No,” Iza assured us. “Another one.”)
The band was in full force and the drinks flowed accordingly. Iza’s neighbor played too, proving folk’s passage through generations hasn’t stopped.
We clapped and smiled through most of the songs (which were sung in Slovenian and German), but did get a moment to shine when the guitarist dedicated Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line” to “the guests from California.”
After dessert, and many toasts, we said our goodbyes and thank yous and headed to bed. (The music, and prousts, lasted well past that, leading to a few tired-looking Germans the next morning). After one more delicious breakfast, we said our goodbyes to Iza and the farm, to return back to the other Slovenia–Ljubjlana–once more.
It’s tempting to define Slovenia as “not quite.” As in, not quite Slavic, Italian, or Austrian.
But she’s actually quite a lot of things. Educated. Agrarian. Picturesque. Anarchistic, artistic, and embracing of trends (for better or worse) currently sweeping Europe.
Taken together, that’s quite a lot, for a country of just two million people.
(And however many million bees, sheep and goats).
Thanks to Iza for our fantastic farm stay! Zagreb or bust.