Slovenia by the Sea
By Katreen Hardt
We’re strolling hand in hand along Stari Trg, a narrow, for pedestrians only, cobblestone street in the heart of Ljubljana ’s Old Town, en route to our favorite bar located along the emerald-green Ljubljanica River.
Since our arrival in Slovenia ’s capital this mid-summer morning, a makeshift stage has been erected amongst the open-air cafés; a hip-looking crowd has gathered to hear the improvised sounds of a local jazz band.
While Matthias, my German boyfriend, and I stop to listen, I note that the store a stone’s throwaway is having a sale on Dolce & Gabbana and Miss Sixty. We veer to the left, a tangerine moon hangs high in the sky over Castle Hill, and – BAM – it’s as if we’ve just flung open the doors to the coolest party this side of the Julian Alps.
This is our fourth visit to Slovenia, a country George W. Bush most notably mistook for Slovakia during his 2000 presidential campaign, but whose similarity with Slovenia ends with being fellow members of the European Union.
Slovenia, which has slightly over two million people and occupies an area comparable in size to Massachusetts, joined the European Union in May 2004. But even before joining the EU and its prior separation from Yugoslavia in 1991, Slovenia has always been a remarkably safe, clean and friendly place to spend time.
With two weeks to re-discover our precious destination gem, Matthias and I rent a car and make a beeline for Bled, a romantic resort and health spa 32 miles northwest of Ljubljana.
In the center of the town’s turquoise-colored Alpine lake, the picturesque Church of the Assumption appears adrift on Slovenia’s one and only island. We spend a few hours at the site of a cute, 1950s-style bathhouse – open June through the end of September – swimming in the lake’s warm, crystal-clear waters, and sunning ourselves below the spectacular cliff top Bled Castle and
surrounded by the vista of green mountains.
After a picnic lunch, we leave Bled, which celebrates its millennium anniversary this year, and head south-west in our Fiat Punto the short distance to beautiful Lake Bohinj, whose tranquil surface reflects Triglav National Park ’s breathtaking display of mountain peaks.
Along the winding road hugging the southern, tree-lined embankment of Slovenia’s largest glacier lake, we follow a series of posters marking the way to Vogel, a ski center located 5,052 feet above sea level, and accessible only by cable car. This is a new experience recommended to us by my Slovenian stepmother, a fearless, venturesome woman who spent last January hitchhiking her way through Chiapas, Mexico. Frankly, I’m a little nervous.
I’m a little surprised to discover that for roughly $12 per person we will reach the upper station in a mere five minutes. Yet, the short trip does provide an awe-inspiring view of the deep dark blue Bohinj lake wreathed in an impressive array of snow-capped mountains including the 9,396-foot Mount Triglav which, according to tradition, every true Slovene is expected to climb at least once in their life.
Furthermore, Vogel turns out to be an excellent starting point for walking tours ranging from super easy to the I’d-hire-a-guide-if-I-were-you difficult.Waiting in line to buy tickets, I contemplate the steel cables running from the lower station, up the side of rocky Mirnjak mountain, and disappearing somewhere high above the Bohinj basin. A descending cable car transporting well over one hundred passengers becomes visible in the distance, a single beam of sunlight glinting on the modern, gondola-style compartment.
A 60-minute trek up a steep gravel path brings us to Orlove glava, where we scramble to catch a seat on the chair lift – the last one of the day – to swoop us back down the hill. The bird’s eye view of the area, accompanied by a sudden eerie silence – save for the occasional creak of a passing chair – renders me speechless.
Famished, and back behind the wheel of the ruby red Punto, we return to Ljubjlana for dinner at Pri Pauli, one of the last bona fide traditional restaurants (gostilna) with outdoor seating and not far from where we’re staying on Gornji Trg.
The waitress, a jovial woman by the name of Zinka, who served me and Matthias our first Slovenian beer (either Union or Lasko, I forget) during our premiere visit to the city in 2001, welcomes us with open arms. She keeps pushing the gibanica, a rich pastry filled with poppy seeds, walnuts, apple and cottage cheese.
Despite having already gorged ourselves on Wienerschnitzel Ljubljana-style (think cordon bleu), a basket of bread, and two small tomato and onion salads, we split a piece of this sweet-tasting dessert dish from the Prekmurje region. Afterwards we order a pelinkovec, an herbal liqueur best served on the rocks with a slice of lemon, said to be good for one’s digestion. (Note: A Slovenian friend, who swears by the medicinal benefits of this bitter aperitif, took a bottle with her on a three-month trip to India and Kashmir. Drinking a glass in the morning, another at night, she never once was sick.)
Off to Brda
We set off for the Brda region the following morning. Its name, which in Slovene means rolling hills, is a simple yet accurate description of the 28 square mile verdant land, directly west of the roaring, aquamarine-colored Soca River. It looks like Tuscany in Italy, with its closely grouped hilltop villages usually encircling a small white church, sloping vineyards, and olive groves as far as the eye can see.
There are plenty of peach and cherry orchards, fig and plum trees. Apricots and chestnuts are also produced in this resplendent far west corner of the country. At the sight of a local peach farmer selling his goods along the roadside, we pull over and buy a basketful of perfectly ripened fruit.
Unfortunately, we’d just missed Brda’s annual Cherry Festival at the end of June. In short, a weekend celebration in the charming town of Dobrovo, with a parade, including Italian groups from the Friuli region, and the sale of homemade cherry jams and pies in praise of the season.
It is the pleasant Mediterranean climate, and the regions close proximity to the Adriatic Sea (on a clear day you can see Aquilea and Grado), that enables Brda grape growers to produce high quality wines to be found on the menu of any high-end restaurant in Ljubljana.
At the Klinec homestead in Medana, and after a long overdue two-shot cappuccino, the energetic and congenial young owner, Aleks Klinec, offers us an impromptu tour of his wine and grappa cellar.
Curious and eager we follow him across the smooth, stone tiles of the terrace overlooking the Italian Friuli, past a gargantuan mulberry tree, and then down a narrow set of whitewashed stairs.
Established by students to promote Slovene poets, it is aA welcome wave of cool, refreshing air hits us as we enter the cellar with its intoxicating treasures. Besides hundreds of bottles of Chardonnay, Rebula, Quela, Verduc, and other indigenous white and red wines, an impressive selection of flavored grappas i.e. peach, walnut, and, of course, cherry align the cellar bar. Over tastings, Aleks tells us about the 7th International Wine and Poetry Festival Klinec will again be hosting at the end of August.
yearly festival where poets and artists from all over Europe partake in readings, concerts and the sampling of vintage wines.
Thirty minutes later we emerge from the cellar, giddy and a tad tipsy, with a six-pack of Klinec bottles in our possession, and a promise to return to the homestead for the festival the following summer.
As farm tourism in the region, but also available throughout Slovenia, provides reasonable overnight accommodations, Matthias and I decide to spend a few nights at Kren, a newly built farmhouse with its orange outer brick still exposed, near Plesivo. Before breakfast, which includes bread rolls, prsut (smoked ham), coffee and juice, we take a leisurely jog through the neighboring villages of Kozana, Dobrovo and Medana.
Heading south toward Slovenia’s 29-mile Adriatic coastline, we pass signs for the Postonja Caves, a world-famous tourist attraction, which I had the uncomfortable pleasure of visiting last summer with my sister, Nicole, and her three young children. Wearing flip-flops and flimsy summer outfits, we were unprepared when the caves’ miniature train dropped us off in the freezing cold Big Mountain cavern where we were then corralled into different groups based on language preference.
Although this wondrous network of galleries and halls is certainly not unimpressive, after forty-five minutes (the tour runs just over two hours) the five of us had seen enough stalagmites and -tites to last a lifetime. Back above ground, we splurged on a late afternoon lunch at the foothills of the worthwhile Predjama Castle, a chalk-white 16th-century Baroque fortress magnificently roosted atop a 400-foot cliff, and located just a few miles north-west of Postonja.
The freeway, with its 80-mph speed limit, comes to an abrupt end outside the industrial port town of Koper. From there, Matthias and I continue in bumper to bumper traffic along a paved road spiraling down toward Slovenia’s littoral. This is the only road accessing the area and during the summer months, especially on weekends, it can be jammed with both locals and tourists alike.
We pass the time trying to decipher the sudden onslaught of Slovene billboards. At the entrance to Piran, nestled on the tip of a narrow peninsula, we’re told to park the Punto – or else pay a high parking fee for taking the car into the small, picturesque town.
Instead of hopping a shuttle bus to Tartinijev Trg, the main square, we walk the distance in less than fifteen minutes, stopping along the way for a couple of generous scoops of lemon gelato. With its Venetian Gothic architecture, labyrinthine alleys, patchwork of red tiled roofs and pastel-colored houses, Piran – its name derived from the Greek word for fire – is the crown jewel of Slovenia ’s coast, the most southern point of the Primorska province.
Church of St. George and Hot Springs
After spending three nights at the Hotel Piran, in a slender, comfortable room overlooking the harbor, and getting wonderfully lost trying to find our way from one side of the peninsula to the other, exploring the curving back streets that wind their way up to the Church of St. George, Piran’s most prominent structure, it takes us less than a day to travel to Dolenjska, two regions to the east, where the Krka River flows and thermal spas abound.
Our first stop is Otocec Castle, now a first-class hotel, located on an artificial island in the middle of the mossy green Krka, Slovenia ’s cleanest river, and surrounded by linden trees, whose heart-shaped leaf is often used as the country’s symbol.
"It’s a perfect place for a wedding," I mention to Matthias, who smiles and gives me a gentle peck on the cheek before turning to explore the lovely grounds. Without saying a word, we cross a wooden bridge to the parking lot where my boyfriend of three years promptly rear ends the car into a lone linden tree. Was it something I said?
We flee the scene with minor damage – nothing that isn’t covered under the most basic of insurance plans.
In Smarjeske Toplice we forget our so-called troubles by soaking in a number of natural pools. My favorite is outdoors and in the form of an old basin made of wood. This particular spa, though quaint, is rather simple when compared to some of Prekmurje’s state-of-the-art facilities in the north-east.
For example, Matthias and I spent one New Year’s at Moravske Toplice, a health resort of Las Vegas proportions, immersed in Slovenia’s hottest spring – black thermal water that literally has to be cooled before use – discovered as late as 1960.
Crispy Baked Trout
In the teeny town of Kostanjevica, a hop, skip and a jump east of Smarjeske Toplice, the two of us dine at the well-established Gostilna Zolnir. We share an appetizer plate of struklji, a bland-tasting assortment of boiled buckwheat and wheat dough filled with either cheese or tarragon.
Delicious is the crispy baked trout, mixed salad and potatoes, as is Matthias’ main course of sautéed deer, though he’s none too happy about the side dish – another three pieces of salt-deprived struklji. To wash it all down we order a carafe of the region’s celebrated Cvicek, a dry, light red wine with vinegar-esque qualities. Obviously drinkable, let’s just say the second glass is a lot easier to swallow.
Unfathomably blue skies welcome our return a few days later to Triglav National Park, a nature reserve covering 210,000 acres in the Julian Alps. Entering from the north at Kranjska Gora, two miles short of the Austrian border, our goal is the Vrsic Pass. Corkscrewing our way up the arduous road, paved with light-colored cobblestones by Russian prisoners of war during World War II, we make frequent stops to admire the superb scenery before reaching the saddle, our ultimate destination, at 5,285 feet.
It is here where the two of us start to climb (or crawl, rather) the skirt of a rock ribbed mountain. As we pause to take a sip of water, three middle-aged men donning skis and poles speed past. They shout "Dober dan“, which means "good day" in Slovene, and we return the greeting, considered a park tradition.
Late afternoon, we make a brief stop in Kobarid – called Caporetto in "A Farewell to Arms" by then American war correspondent Ernest Hemingway – made famous by the Soca or Isonzo Front during World War I. It is here where one of the bloodiest and deadliest battles took place; between 1915 and 1917 it is estimated that almost one million people, including soldiers and civilians, were killed.
We visit the Kobarid Museum, recipient of the Council of Europe Award in 1993, where display cases full of weapons, horrific photographs, and remnants of soldier's personal belongings remind us of war's senseless tragedies.
Back to spend the last evening in delightful Ljubljana, whose most famous architect, Joze Plecnik, also designed buildings in Prague – hence the propensity by many to compare the two cities – Matthias and I meander toward the train station and Metelkova city, a sprawling complex of military barracks, now the capital’s alternative cultural center.
We check out Hostel Celica, a former prison housing 20 artistically renovated cells; an impressive building and certainly a unique place to spend the night – next time. With a triangle of burek in hand, a phyllo-layered pastry popular with late-night clubgoers, we head back to Ljubljana’s Old Town, past Zmajski Most, or Dragon Bridge, where perching patina-green dragons are rumored to wag their tails should a virgin cross their path, and take our seats, finally, at Macek, our favorite riverside bar.
Legend says that when God created the world, he had a handful of the most beautiful, most wonderful leftovers, and with these remaining treasures, he created Slovenia. After a whirlwind fourteen days around the country, I couldn’t agree more.
Katreen Hardt, a freelance writer and actress, divides her time between New York and Germany.