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Exploring Slovenia's Undiscovered Towns

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Photo: Christian Kerber

I may live to regret committing this piece of advice to print, but you should go to Slovenia and you should go soon, because eventually this all-but-unknown country, with its medieval villages, onion-dome spires, idealistic love of the arts, and vigorous wines will no longer be hidden in plain sight. From its borders, clockwise from the north, you can step into Austria, Hungary, Croatia, and Italy. It has Alps and wind-raked valleys, cobblestoned streets and modern highways winding through vineyards and farms. Slovenia is a place where a meandering car can suddenly be overtaken by a buzzing burst of touring cyclists in Day-Glo—it’s like finding oneself in a school of tropical fish—and then in a beat they’re gone, around the bend, heading for the next vowel-deprived village. Trbovlje, Krško, Črnomelj—in Slovene, even nearby Trieste, Italy, is spelled without a single, solitary vowel: Trst. Slovenia is also a place where anything resembling a river in anything resembling a town after dark in summertime will likely as not have great arcing bouquets of fireworks over it, accompanied by the sounds of artillery. Desk clerks, when asked, cannot come up with the occasion. Festival, anniversary? “We just like fireworks,” one confides.

Slovenia was once part of Yugoslavia, which itself was created out of numerous Big Bangs and was, from the end of World War II to the 1990’s, held together under the firm but practical rule of a marshal, Josip Broz Tito, and his successors. Yugoslavia, though far from being an anti-Western country, and far from being an exclusively Socialist state, was part of the Eastern bloc, and when the Soviet Union and the other European Socialist countries began to fall in the late 1980’s, and Tito himself was no longer alive, Slovenia was the first state within Yugoslavia to successfully declare its independence. There was a brief war, which lasted only 10 days, with very few casualties. Soon, of course, all that remained of Yugoslavia was in tragic turmoil, suddenly consumed by the worst kind of identity politics, with Serbians, Croatians, and Bosnians swirling in an orgy of so-called ethnic cleansing.

Yet Slovenia remained remarkably peaceful in this brutal period, and its preference for tranquillity and civility is evident as soon as you enter the country. In 10 days, my girlfriend and I didn’t hear a raised voice, or see an untended garden. In fact, gardening seems like the national pastime, with cascading riots of blooms in every yard, on every balcony, foaming over the sides of ceramic pots and sprawling up walls and over trellises, all carefully groomed into one civil- and civic-minded aesthetic. How is it that every single garden exhibits this elegantly controlled chaos of color, that every stack of firewood looks like some kind of tongue-in-groove wooden puzzle that a genius child put together?

It may simply be that it’s literally a way for a country that has been pressed like a flower between the leaves of a heavy book to bloom again.

Ljubljana

In 1895, when Ljubljana was still a part of the once-powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire (note to American and Chinese oligarchs: all things must pass), the city suffered a major earthquake, and the most historic and picturesque sections of this small city that exist now were in fact built or rebuilt in the early 20th century. The leading architect of the time, Jože Plečnik, remains a revered figure in Slovenia; he designed the monumental Church of St. Francis, the bustling central market, the great university’s immense library, and the city’s emblematic and always busy Triple Bridge, a graceful pedestrian-only cement trident across the narrow Ljubljanica River. His sometimes avant-garde, early modern style can be seen all over the city.

The Slovenes’ reverence for Plečnik is rivaled by the high esteem in which they hold their great national poet, France Prešeren, whose Romantic lyrics written in the mid 19th century have been a spring from which the roots of Slovenia’s national identity have been nourished—in secret during times of subjugation and openly now in this time of autonomy and independence. It is telling of the nature of Slovenian historical consciousness, in this country where identity has been forged independently of political and military power, that a poet and an architect would be such major figures, the subjects of plaques and monuments through the country.

Plečnik and Prešeren have an ideal meeting place in Ljubljana, where a statue of the poet stands a few yards from the Triple Bridge. Cross the water and walk anywhere you want along the riverfront and you see what seems to be an overwhelmingly Slovenian crowd enjoying beers, coffees, wines, gelati, and pizzas in one another’s company in what on a particularly wine-woozy summer afternoon seems to be a cobblestoned paradise of murmuring voices and well-fed dogs. The city center is foot traffic and bikes only, there is no machinery noise to compete with. And now that you mention it, whereas New Yorkers place cell phones on their tables like interactive bread plates, here they seem to have ashtrays instead.

One trg (square) leads to the next—past a fair-trade children’s clothing store for idealistic young couples, galleries showing local artists, a shop devoted entirely to locally harvested salt and several others to gelato—until we are on Stari Trg, one of the most beautiful streets in Ljubljana. Following the wave-patterned sidewalk around the corner we’re at Gornji Trg and the Antiq Hotel, which was not very long ago a carpentry shop, and which is now firmly and delightfully exploring its own Mitteleuropa personality, with rattling teacups, floral carpeting, handmade lace (a Slovenian specialty), steep staircases that would befit Dr. Caligari himself, and hallways full of sudden right turns and unexpected windows. Our room’s windows open up to the hotel’s back garden. It is here that we discover our first Slovenian to raise his voice. But in all fairness, it needs to be pointed out that this shrieking lad is not quite two years old, and he seems to be conversing with a butterscotch-colored house cat that could double as an ottoman. It is also here that we discover—and now, for a moment, Slovenia does become the setting for a horror story—we have neglected to pack our powerful sleeping pills. Do our shrieks rival those of the two-year-old? No, not at all. We tell ourselves that if need be we can secure new pills—better pills! stronger!—at some local pharmacy, where we will be able to get them without a prescription. We make a stab at sleep au naturel and end up instead back outside sitting along the water, watching random fireworks above and a group of folk dancers below, on a platform just above the Ljubljanica. After that, gelato, and a late-night stroll across the Dragon Bridge, adorned at its corners with queasily realistic dragons, their scales, claws, and ribbed wings the perfect metaphor for first-night-in-a-foreign-country insomnia.

Thought: when you are traveling, there are certain things you can never understand. To wit, that mid-morning throng of teenagers, mostly girls, approaching the Triple Bridge, filling the air with their laughter; one of them carrying an inflatable penis, six feet tall, as pink as bubblegum.

The best thing to do is keep walking along the intermittently clearly marked path from the city center, and in about 15 cardiovascular, birdsongy minutes, there it is, the city’s most prominent landmark, Ljubljana Castle, built in the ninth century, rebuilt in the 16th, and variously used as a home for ruling nobles, a jail, a poorhouse, and a military fortress.

Up top, there’s a lovely outdoor café and a stall offering free books and magazines to anyone who wants to loll in the sun and read. But most of the people here have hiked up for the magnificent views of the serene city below, its spires, its practically motionless canal, and its strong sense of a people holding their collective breath while the storms of history pass over.

Having failed to sleep at one Antiq Hotel we seek to change our luck by checking in to the rather more luxurious (yet equally offbeat) Antiq Palace Hotel & Spa. Once a palazzo built for a wealthy and well-placed Austrian family as their in-town residence, when the Austrians fled Ljubljana during the chaos of World War I, the majestic and graceful stone structure was converted into an apartment house. But as the years passed, it eventually became derelict, and would remain so until two locals purchased it a few years ago and transformed this spectacular space into a showcase for their taste, a living example of their idea of comfort, intimacy, and luxury.

With its thick walls and high ceilings (most of them still bearing the original frescoes), the hotel stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and the rooms themselves are immense and eccentrically homey in their décor. In its public spaces, the hotel is a mix of courtyard and columns, whitewashed walls and Art Deco sconces. The winding, narrow street was built near one of the walls of Emona, as the city was called in its ancient Roman incarnation. Now the street is home to one of the city’s great music schools, and guests at the Antiq Palace can dine in the courtyard with background music supplied by students honing their skills a few hundred feet away.

The sounds of music are not only in the courtyard, but come pouring through the open French windows of our suite after dark. A block from the hotel in the newly restored Congress Square (designed by the ubiquitous Plečnik),  1,100 musicians and singers are rehearsing for a gala performance of Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8, with teams of technicians setting up the stage and the sound system, and trumpeters accustoming themselves to their places on the stone balconies of the buildings that line the square.

Valery Gergiev, the Russian conductor, and an orchestra and chorus made up primarily of Slovenes and Croatians carry the impromptu audience of passersby, diners and drinkers, and wide-awake travelers through a spellbinding performance that captures the reach and ambition of this profound work. Much better than sleeping, even if sleeping were an option.

Ptuj

From Ljubljana to Ptuj is an easy drive on well-marked roads through luscious farmland, crops cultivated at 60-degree angles, pole beans as tall as two men, fields of corn, and a steady procession of small towns, each one pinned to the landscape by a church spire. Ptuj straddles the Drava River, green as grass, but clear enough to show the vigorous webbed feet of the mallards etching chevrons as they move upstream.

The town itself is a medieval maze of one-way streets, where women in capri pants somehow are able to nimbly negotiate the ankle-snapping cobblestones in defiant high heels. Here, too, the cafés are full of conversation, relaxing, smoking, talking—miraculously immune to the fiendish tirade of Europop music, songs consisting of a techno beat with random American phrases repeated over and over, a cringe-inducing and increasingly common misrepresentation of our culture.

Despite its susceptibility to this manufactured madness, Ptuj is also the home of several serious schools of music, and as we walk along the Drava watching the lazy life of the river, from an open window wafts the sound of a fledgling string quartet. Ptuj has been open for business since the Stone Age. It has been home to Celts, Magyars, Slavs, and various Hapsburgs, whose double chins and imperious stares are on display in supposedly flattering portraits housed in the town’s great castle. Room after room of these vain faces are putting us on edge, not to mention their finery and table settings on display in glass cases and, most challenging of all, depictions of The Odyssey with cavorting noblemen and their girlfriends woven into tall tapestries. It’s possible we need a nap.

Out of there and then onto the street, where we find a used-book shop and spend what seems like a long, long, Salvador-Dalí-melted-clock amount of time browsing, finally purchasing a reader’s guide to The Godfather and a British edition of The Great Gatsby, in which U.K. readers are alerted to the eccentricities of American English, such as our failure to put an s at the end of toward.

Half a block away is the Hotel Mitra, where the wellness center looks like a high-tech cavern, with stone floors and linen drapes separating the cubicles and a hot tub big enough for the Basie band. Massages ensue but they don’t push us any further toward[s] sleep.

“It is called lekarna,” a woman in the neighborhood explains, answering our question about locating a nearby pharmacy. We follow her directions and find ourselves at a busy bus stop in front of a dry cleaner, retrace our steps and find ourselves in the quaint courtyard of a car-repair shop, retrace those steps until we come to some actual steps, take them, and eventually find ourselves at and then in the pharmacy, where I find myself inanely re-enacting the charade I went through when I went to buy my first condom, long ago and far away. We are both of us now nervously perusing hot-water bottles, sunblock, and scrunchies, while the young pharmacist, whose platinum dye job has failed to lighten her mood, watches balefully.

Finally, I give her a piece of paper upon which I have carefully written the sleeping potion’s generic name.

She seems neither shocked nor surprised. “You must go to emergency room,” she responds in a flat monotone.

We don’t really see how we can go to an emergency room in the middle of the afternoon saying, “We can’t sleep!” But her tone has us cowed, shamed, and we end up buying some herbal product that she says might do us some good.

Bled

The landscape between Ptuj and Bled has the beautiful, utilitarian contours of a sailor’s knot, and we drive, winding our way through vineyards, up and down steep roads lined with limestone that is piebald with moss. Our resting place, just outside Idrija, is the Hotel Kendov Dvorec, a graceful manor decorated with handmade lace and a Princess Grace type of Catholicism—cherubs lolling on tabletops and pedestals indoors and out. Vaguely ecclesiastical Muzak whispers from unseen speakers.

We eat a long, slow dinner sitting on a high terrace. The waiter hadn’t so much memorized the menu as internalized it, steepling his fingers and closing his eyes to recite the items as they were brought out, plate after plate: a cold appetizer of smoked fish with chive cottage cheese and asparagus; a hot appetizer of polenta pillows in a lamb ragoût; cabbage soup made only with inexplicably emphasized “outer leaves” and served with traditional chive bread; venison from the hills beyond with wild mushrooms for one of us, and trout with wild mushrooms for the other; panna cotta with wild berries for dessert.

Early the next morning, we leave the Hotel Kendov and drive to Bled.

Pronounced just like it looks, there’s the town Bled and the Lake Bled and then the Vila Bled, where we’re staying. If you believed in vampires, this is where they would have their country home, and yet it’s the opposite of gloomy: a sun-drenched town clustered around a brilliant blue lake, at the center of which is a fairy-tale island with a church, set upon in the summer months by boats bearing brides and their grooms.

We hike what seems like straight up the side of a cliff to Bled Castle, which turned 1,000 in 2011 and presides over not just the lake and the town but also what seems like the entire vast blue and green region, the views from its parapets and stone stairways sweeping and majestic. There’s a museum that tells the history of the region, a chapel, a Gutenberg printing press, an herbal gallery, and a restaurant.

Going back down the same way we came, we then take a turn around Lake Bled. As always, the trail is perfectly groomed but doesn’t lose its path-through-the-forest quality. Hemlock and chestnut and wildflowers, stands of blooming phlox, bikers, joggers, and clusters of middle-class day-trippers splashing on the public beaches with their children and Chihuahuas, two large cygnets and a hissing parent swan, a gelato stand, small flocks of ducks swimming along the banks and dozing on the grass. The luxury lakeside hotels make their presence known mostly in understated ways—brass-plated names on ivy-covered fences and boat landings accessible only by key. Ours has a wide staircase up from the water to an open-air veranda and restaurant.

The Vila Bled served as a summer residence for the Yugoslav royal family and then for Tito, and the hotel staff is happy to show us through his quarters, a maze of polished oak cabinetry and floors with an incongruous number of coat hooks and a wall of sheer curtains overlooking trees and lake. A mural in the villa’s music room depicts the revolution, culminating in a mother with a child on her shoulder—a kind of socialist-realist Madonna and Child—muscles rippling, eyes radiating joy and purpose, waving a banner with a red star, an iconography that seems both thrilling and sad, coming as it does in this building at the end of a long columned driveway and a parking lot dotted with late-model German cars.

Piran

A discovery we make the next day, strolling through the oval-shaped and marble-clad Tartini Square in Piran, a medieval town on the tip of the Slovenian seaboard: regarding gelato, it’s possible to have chocolate that is too dark. It made us thirsty.

Tartini Square is home to St. Peter’s Church and is surrounded by alleys opening onto alleys opening onto stairways and small, ancient-looking shops—parking is on the edge of all this, so it’s only unmotorized traffic through the cool stone streets. Five minutes’ walking in any direction and the sea, or the Gulf of Piran, is visible. Although there are most certainly better dining establishments down the intriguing streets of Piran, we go for the waterfront promenade, where we can watch the sunset and people at the same time. The air turns a dark blue and a jazz combo starts up two doors down from our chosen spot.

Our hotel is a couple of miles away, in Portorož: the Kempinski Palace, an opulent establishment overlooking a more traditional and touristed beachfront. At a late breakfast on the formal dining-room terrace, the buffet tables are laden with food as photogenic as the (other) diners. The house-baked cereal—dark wheat twigs; cashew quarters; crumbly granola—makes muesli look like Captain Crunch. We’re slowly being schooled in the Slovenian aesthetic, just in time to leave.

We have of course also been sleeping through the night, no thanks to the herbal remedy from Ptuj, which has had as much impact on our sleep patterns as would wearing a white belt. What has allowed us to rest is that we have become accustomed to the bucolic mysteries of the place, and now it’s time to go home. For me, heading home is one of the greatest pleasures of travel, but today my heart is heavy, and it takes me a few moments to realize why.

For the most part, when we travel we are always there a bit after the fact, chasing the thing that has already occurred. So much of traveling is doing what other travelers have done, but Slovenia, perhaps more than any place we have ever visited, belongs to us. Yes, it is a secret place, but it cannot remain so for much longer.

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