The Hidden Paradise of Slovenia
“This is the end of the world,” said my boyfriend before nudging me out of the car and accelerating into the setting sun. We had chosen Slovenia for spring break; we’d rented a stick shift I couldn’t drive, and now he was rushing back to the United States for a family birthday party. My inn was a five-minute walk away, but there was no one in sight.
So there I was, on a lime-green mountain plateau in one of the remotest parts of ex-Yugoslavia. Far above me soared fluorescent-white Alpine peaks, and at my side clustered evergreens so thick you wouldn’t be able to see where you had come from if you wandered in a few steps. We had chosen Slovenia because it seemed to us a sort of one-stop Europe. Hidden in plain sight between Italy, Austria, and the ever more fashionable resorts of Croatia, it includes an opening onto the Mediterranean and a chunk of the Alps. It packs an abundance of contrasting landscapes and cultures into a small space. This could be the downside of traveling in Slovenia, I thought, as I eyeballed the orange suitcase on the grass at my side: The ease with which you can leapfrog between beach and snow, pastel coastal villas and timbered ski chalets, medieval châteaux and modern architecture, copper-colored vineyards and deep-blue caves ensures that you are forever unprepared for what’s next.
Our trip began with a brief hop from Paris to Ljubljana—one hour and forty-five minutes on the plane—and thirty minutes by cab to Lake Bled. Probably the best-known destination in Slovenia, this Alpine retreat has drawn visitors as diverse as Prince Charles, Paul McCartney, Donald Trump, and Laura Bush. Bled also tantalized Yugoslavia’s political class: The country’s strongman, Josip Broz Tito, had a holiday home here.
Disney filmed part of The Chronicles of Narnia in the Soča Valley— and no wonder.
“What’s that big red box?” I asked our driver as we swung around a corner into the village of Bled. “That’s one of Slovenia’s most luxurious hotels,” he said a bit sniffily. “It’s very elegant inside.” So, we discovered, was our own place, the Grand Hotel Toplice, where we were greeted by bow-tied bellhops and political personages smiling out from handsome picture frames in the marbled entry. And yet the architecture of the Toplice—and of many of the hotels next to it—put me in mind of East German housing projects: cubical, characterless, cavernous. The hotel’s exterior stood in jarring contrast to the storybook lake views we spied through the floor-to-ceiling windows, with a castle’s ruins clinging to the cliff wall beyond.
We tossed our suitcases onto the bed unopened, left our marble bath untouched, and scurried past the doormen to the promenade path around the lake. In an instant, we were outnumbered by swans bustling to and fro among the tulip beds.
An oarsman threw me a smile as a swan waddled into his ornately carved gondola. “The birds are king of the lake these days,” he said. And what a lake it is: Off-limits to motorized craft, it sparkles like a spotless mirror. Pines, firs, and willows hug its shores all around; only a single (now snowless) ski slope breaks the charmed green circle.
Leaving the swans behind, we poked our way up a forest trail that climbed slowly to Bled Castle. Daisies pushed up between the irregular stones, and telescopes beckoned. I straddled the castle wall instead and unnerved an elderly French tourist by leaning far out over the waters below.
Perhaps the most otherworldly detail of Lake Bled is the island that sits, like a dollop of fresh whipped cream, on its glazed surface. Even without a telescope I could discern the white church on it, the white stairs, the white boat ramp; I could almost make out the bell in the tower. If you ring this bell powerfully enough, legend has it, the wish you make will come true. In the summer, newlyweds boat over to murmur their prayers, and swimmers arrive from the shore dripping with anticipation.
“If they’re just wearing swimsuits when they get to the bell tower, they’re kicked out for indecent dress,” said a visiting Frenchman, who turned out to have Slovenian family in Bled. “Sometimes they’re so determined, they go back to the mainland for their jackets and ties and come swimming right back in them. They’re often members of a wedding party and have had a bit to drink. There are fabulous weddings here in Bled. Maybe it’s because of the austerity of the Communist period, but Slovenians love to celebrate.”
Untouched river valleys, snowy mountain passes, thick evergreen forests, and a food scene to rival any in the world.
“I’ve never seen so many edible flowers,” I said over dinner that night in the Vila Bled, the pillared former summer house of Tito. Our table faced the island, and we had just been served an amuse-bouche that accommodated not merely flowers (on top of foie gras mousse) but a flowerpot. The cupcake-size red planter had white asparagus “growing” out of it, as well as yellow blossoms and sprigs of herbs; the “soil” was composed of sweet potato chips. A dusting of the chef’s signature purple saffron put one in mind of pollen. Slovenia’s new chefs, I discovered, pull out all the stops, and an increasing number are acquiring international reputations and Michelin stars.
If our last supper in Bled left me wanting to abandon Paris for Slovenia, so too did our first supper in a hidden little bistro in Ljubljana. We took a cab to Slovenia’s capital, spent an afternoon wandering its painted squares, exploring its twisty pedestrian alleys, meandering along its bustling café-lined river, ducking into an offbeat museum or two, and peering at the hilltop castle that defines its skyline. In the evening, we followed our Ljubljana-born hotel owner’s orders and headed to a labyrinthine little dining establishment called Špajza.
The hostess led us from room to room—each seating about a dozen people—to a flagstone courtyard complete with outdoor oven and abundant foliage. I decided, however, that I’d prefer sitting close to the restaurant’s wine cellar in the front, having already begun to develop a taste for Slovenia’s crisp wines and rainbow-flavored liqueurs. Sweet on alcohol and strong on fruit production, the Slovenians often mix the two to produce some playful concoctions: I started this meal with a sparkling strawberry wine and finished with a cherry liqueur, while my boyfriend gulped straight grappa—hundred proof, homemade.
In between these brackets we feasted on goose breast with local truffles and almonds, cod carpaccio and chili on spinach, seasonal asparagus with bacon, and gnocchi made with fresh cottage cheese—and still more truffles. We passed on the horse-meat goulash and instead sopped up wild garlic and nettle soup with fresh-baked bread. As in Bled, the amuse-bouches arrived with spring blossoms—sculptures of salmon mousse, dill, and purple petals. “Slovenian cuisine is the best of Italian combined with the best of German,” said our waitress. But I’m not certain the description goes far enough. Slovenian fare is more startling than German or Italian, more sweet-and-savory, more meticulously presented, and more adventurous.
The city’s Old Town and castle are the backdrop for drinks at the Skyscraper Café.
In a liquored haze, we strolled down to Ljubljana’s oldest bridge to absorb the architectural touches of one of the country’s best-loved sons. Jože Plečnik is to Ljubljana what Antoni Gaudí is to Barcelona: He is credited with creating the city’s puckish, extravagant personality. Trained as an architect in Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century, Plečnik returned to his native Slovenia in the 1920s and set about redesigning the capital.
Enamored as he was of classical and Italianate architecture, Plečnik built a Slovenian version of Venice’s Rialto Bridge, constructed arcaded market halls, scattered offbeat Roman columns around town, and created fantastic fountains and eccentric street lanterns. And yet he himself was not at all extravagant. Leaning back against one of the Roman pillars on the medieval Cobbler’s Bridge, I could almost see as far as his house at the edge of Ljubljana. We had visited it that afternoon and been struck by its asceticism.
“Here is the movable lamp Plečnik invented to plug into different outlets of the house, depending on where he needed it,” our guide had said, holding up a bare lightbulb on a cable. “He didn’t think every room needed its own light. He did not want to waste electricity.”
Indeed, Plečnik did not use warm water, nor did he heat his home (where—not surprisingly—he lived alone). He hated comfortable chairs. “If you’re too comfortable, you don’t get work done,” he used to say. Nominated for sainthood after his death, he was denied the honor by the Vatican because of courtly letter exchanges he had maintained with two women abroad whom he rarely, if ever, saw.
Taking a few steps downstream from the Cobbler’s Bridge, we stumbled into Ljubljana’s primary-colored riverside piazza, Prešeren Square. In the center looms a statue of Slovenia’s favorite poet, France Prešeren. “He gave voice to Slovenian national identity in the nineteenth century,” said a man selling waffle cones next to the statue. “He was among the first to write poetry in Slovenian rather than in German”—then the Austro-Hungarian empire’s language of choice.
Prešeren’s poems were love poems—and his statue faces a town house on the far side of the square where his muse, the thirty-year-younger Julija Primic lived. Julija was not responsive to Prešeren’s advances, opting to marry money instead of poetry. Unperturbed, he continued to celebrate her in his work while bestowing his erotic attentions on the mother of his three illegitimate children—and on dozens of serving girls with whom he is said to have caroused in Ljubljana’s watering holes. “Every bar girl was his love,” said the ice-cream salesman, with a gleam in his eye as though Prešeren’s achievements were his own.
Just how large—and small—Slovenia is we saw over the next couple of days when we rented a car and began to zigzag from the mountains to the sea and back, from a pristine valley called Logarska Dolina, in the easterly Alps near Austria, to the sunnily dilapidated Mediterranean peninsula town of Piran; from the Italianate wine country, Goriška Brda, back to the Alps (this time westerly) and their pistachio-green Soča River rapids. None of our jaunts took more than two and a half hours. Each felt transformative.
Slovenia is one hour 45 minutes by air from Paris, two hours from London. Fly to the capital, Ljubljana, or if you’re heading for coastal and vineyard Slovenia, consider flying into Trieste, Italy, ten minutes from the border.
From Ljubljana we first followed the curvaceous but well-paved road into the remote eastern Kamniško-Savinjske Alps. After a shameful number of wrong turns, we realized that our GPS device was confused by hairpin curves. And given the scarcity of street signs—and the way Slovenian names change half their letters depending on grammatical context—it was an adventure to arrive at Logarska Dolina. But arrive we did.
It was snowing and icicles clung to the needles of the trees as we pulled onto the S-shaped road that runs the length of this meadowed valley before disappearing into the Alps. We parked next to our tree house chalet, the Hotel Plesnik. Happily, the Hotel Plesnik had nothing in common with the Plečnik home we’d just seen in Llubljana: Heat and light were abundant, and the leather armchairs by the fireplace in the restaurant were extraordinarily cozy.
We headed to the heated indoor pool, slithered back and forth in its warm waters, and gazed out of floor-to-ceiling windows at the white flakes wafting down over the green valley. Like fish in an aquarium, we eyed the world beyond the pane, knowing full well that we could not survive in it. When we tried—when we attempted, the next morning, to find the highly recommended panoramic road through this part of the Alps—we got lost, mired in mud and sleet, and discouraged. Still, we saw unforgettable things before we turned back: rolling hills and deep chasms appearing out of the mist; yellow and red churches that looked like they had just been built with wooden blocks by a child, with one yellow cube for the house and one red triangle for the steeple; forests with so many kinds of green they resembled a patchwork quilt—olive green, apple green, neon green, yellow green, dark green, khaki green, mint green, sea green.
From Logarska Dolina, we headed for the sea. On the way, we stopped for an excursion to Predjama Castle. Located in Slovenia’s limestone region, the Karst, halfway between the capital and the coast, Predjama is set into a raw white cliff overlooking a rushing brook.
“We can’t visit the inside of the castle today because the bats are sleeping,” said the girl at the ticket office. “Until May each year, they hibernate in the lower parts of the castle, and we don’t want to wake them up.” She told us about the fifteenth-century robber knight named Erasmus who resided among these bats. Erasmus made a career of emerging from his hiding place to rob rich travelers and occasionally lock them up downstairs in the hope of a ransom.
“All of the people in the villages loved Erasmus,” she said. “He was the Robin Hood of the countryside, only he didn’t rob from the rich to give to the poor; he robbed from the rich to give to himself! Makes him like modern politicians.”
Legend has it that he was buried across from the castle by a maiden who loved him, and who planted a linden tree on the spot where his body still lies. I wandered over to the linden tree, now many hundreds of years old. It looks out over a grassy ridge toward the castle. On this spring day—with the bats still slumbering and a fine drizzle descending—I was transcendentally alone.
Slovenia puts you in mind of fairy tales. Growing up in Los Angeles, I had read the stories of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm with the attention appropriate to a daughter of German immigrants—but their backdrops and concerns seemed to me absurdly foreign. I was more haunted by empty lots than dark woods, had worse dreams of being struck by an SUV than ambushed by the Big Bad Wolf. Forests and fountains, castles and cobblestones, yellow braids and black bats, and even baskets full of berries were for me the stuff of illustrated books, not the stuff of reality. But after a few days in Slovenia, it felt like I had slipped full-bodied into those books.
From the Karst, we managed to arrive on the Slovenian coast in less than an hour. The Adriatic—the same sea shared with Italy (just ten minutes away) and Croatia (not much farther)—was like a twirling tinsel gown in the sunlight when we climbed out of our rental car in Piran. I kicked my shoes onto the promenade path and sauntered into the water.
“It’s not that warm yet, but it will be in two weeks,” I was told by a fisherman. He was on his way to one of the many waterfront tavernas with a trout he had just caught and wanted the chef to prepare for him. “By May it’s ninety-five degrees around here—and the sea is lukewarm!”
In the meantime there was the town, which was hot. Built on a peninsula, Piran has a church on one hill, a castle on another, and a tangle of alleys within. Narrowing and widening at whim, meandering into herb gardens, funneling into stairs, tumbling into piazzas, and opening onto the sea when you least expect it, these alleys cast a spell. I followed them at random, discovering here a little wine bar, there a fruit stand, here a patch of oregano, there a bench, here a bakery, there a dog looking down at me from a geranium-filled window.
Slovenian cuisine blends German and Italian. Here, grilled octopus with wild garlic puree at Ljubljana’s Špajza restaurant.
I stopped at a place with a big oak barrel at the door and asked the waiter what I should have. He brought me a frothy local beer. Soon afterward, he arrived with a plate of sheep cheese served with salt, pepper, and olive oil. I sat in the sunlight and let joy wash in. Clumps of crabgrass emerged between the stones of 1st of May Square; the painted houses all around were the color of a summer citrus cocktail—lemon yellow, golden yellow, tangerine, pink grapefruit, peach sherbet, apricot, and lime. There was a bit of white marble splashed across the square too, like sugar icing. It’s my favorite square in Slovenia, I decided.
“A glass of wine?” asked the waiter.
From Piran, we turned toward the Julian Alps, close to the Italian border. It was time for my boyfriend to head back to the States. Just the previous morning I had waded into the Adriatic in a bikini. Now I was standing on an Alpine plateau, watching him putter off in our rental car. He’d dropped me at Pristava Lepena, a collection of eight cottages tucked among the pines. “My hands are pretty dirty,” said a husky voice behind me. I found myself face-to-face with a swarthy man with a white beard. He rubbed his hands together genially. “I’ve been feeding the horses and goats.”
“You’re not afraid of horses and goats are you?” came a second voice from the half-light. A dark-haired woman was smiling at me. “Come in,” she said, motioning me into the orange glow of the honey-colored house and seating me at a great wooden table, which, upon closer inspection, was an intact tree trunk flattened on one side.
My hosts, Milan and Silvia Dolenc, met in Manhattan, where he was a civil engineer and she was working for the United Nations. He is Slovenian, she Uruguayan, and on their first date they went horseback riding in upstate New York. Now they run Pristava Lepena, and that night I found myself sleeping in a cottage all my own, with a wood fire, after a late-night meal at the on-site restaurant they rent to a Slovenian couple.
The next morning, I saw white Lipizzaner horses grazing in the mountain clearing as the Soča River unfurled in the valley below. Celebrated for their grace, intelligence, and parade presence, Lipizzaners are one of Slovenia’s national prides. I attempted a ride that morning under the judicious eye of the apple-cheeked young horse trainer. It felt like being seated on a moving throne.
Later, Silvia and I were sipping Goriška Brda’s best-known wine, white rebula, with the Julian Alps etched against the electric-blue sky like great black origami beasts. Our conversation turned to World War I. If there is one thing the Soča River Valley is known for among historians, it’s the number of dead during the First World War: 600,000. “The ground is fertilized with the bodies of soldiers,” said Silvia.
“How could this happen?” I asked.
The Italians attacked Austria-Hungary by passing through Slovenia. Only when the despairing Slovenian troops summoned the support of the Germans did the Slovenians emerge victorious.
One witness to this carnage was the young American ambulance driver Ernest Hemingway. His experience became A Farewell to Arms. There is a war museum in Kobarid, a half-hour’s drive from Pristava Lepena, that memorializes the fighting which prompted Hemingway to write his most harrowing work.
“But you know what?” Silvia said. “The people in this area have made something good of this now. They have regular ‘peace hikes’ that go by the old barracks and visit the old surveillance points. They are usually very beautiful places, you know. And the people who go on these tours stop there and pray for peace.”
I hired a driver to lead me out of the mountains. The granddaughter of a Slovenian soldier slain in the Battle of Kobarid, Megi Kravanja is a redhead who skydives and skis, snowboards and rides horses. She drove me expertly back to the Llubljana airport in an hour and a half flat.
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