|Slovenia - with Love in its heart|
Heart-shaped linden leaves are a symbol of Slovenia. They turn up on all sorts of promotional material and right now the real ones are heaping at my feet, rustling dryly in the early autumn breeze in the centre of this small town nudging the Austrian border. It's traditional, I am told, to plant a linden tree in the main square of any town and I can see why. Their shade is wide and complete, sheltering all comers from sun and rain.
The Slovenian word for linden, or common lime, is lipa, and I run into it again across the country towards what is possibly the world's shortest coastline – a forty-six-kilometre notch between Italy and Croatia. The name of the town of Lipica, when you pronounce it right, sounds like 'lepizza' and from there it is just a syllable or so away from the famous Lipizzaner horses that cavort in all their white-maned glory at the famous Spanish Riding Academy in Vienna.
The farm is open daily in summer and there exhibition performances several days a week at Lipica, but it is a toned-down affair, worth seeing, but not what the place is really about. For this is the stud farm – the breeding facilities – established in 1580 by Austrian Arch-Duke Charles, now with 280 horses stabled and run on 311 hectares. Here the dappled grey foals grow to maturity, gradually turning whiter until they are channelled into their life work: some to stud, others for dressage or riding hacks, still others as brood mares.
There is a definite heirarchy here. The studs are prized specimens, settled in their own stalls, their names, age, and height emblazoned proudly on the gate. In the 'girls' yard, the oldest mare has status, invariably leading the pack in a brief but gleeful gallop each afternoon when they are let out of their yards and head to the pasture. It is her right and you see the younger ones, eager for a takeover, yet somehow subdued by her status, break step to let her lead the wild gallop – a wild, white blur as they head off up the shaded lane.
The problem with visiting any new country is you run a risk of confusion. And Slovenia is no different. In fact it is worse. Knowledgeable mis-informants will tell you that it is really Slovakia (or Slovania), or that it is part of Yugoslavia, and that it has been relatively recently war-torn and therefore unsafe, or at the best, uneasy.
Wrong, on all counts!
Slovenia is a self-governing republic about half the size of Switzerland, established in 1991 and, with a population of just two million, positioned neatly just across the Gulf of Venice at the top right hand corner of Italy. Almost land-locked, it is bordered by four countries and enjoys secure and friendly relations with each.
Such is the history of this corner of Europe, borders in these parts have shifted continuously for centuries, so it is no surprise to see traces of cultures and languages leaking across today's lines on the map.
And nowhere is this more evident than in the cuisine. In Gorenjska, where I began my initiation into things Slovenian, Austria is just next door. You could call them their 'wurst neighbours' – as each meal offers platters of sausages and cured meats, surprising in their generosity and variety. Days later in the Karst region, also noted for its magnificent limestone caves, it was the famous smoked hams of the region and then, at the coast, in Piran, an ancient town cramped into a narrow peninsula, I had one of the best pizzas ever – a legacy, no doubt of the Italian border just kilometres away, and 500 years of Venetian rule.
Honey features in every dessert and it comes from ancient beehives in the fields, each painted with folkloric images of myths and legends. Who knows? Maybe they make the honey all that much sweeter.
Croatia forms the southern border and we sighted its hillsides as we drove to the now deserted salt works south of Piran. Here long-legged white birds wade the watery fields where workers once stooped throughout their back-breaking days, scraping up the prized greyish crystals. They lived in rooms built over the storage areas, with windows opening on both sides so they could scrutinise the weather, for an unexpected rainstorm could destroy drying heaps of salt in moments.
To the east, Hungary forms the final border with Slovenia. Here the land levels to farmland, vastly different to the Julian Alps in the west. In those mountains, while the road is well made and the high climb is easy, a dark Russian chapel along the way pays mute tribute to the reason. Mountain peaks rising to 2864 metres, and scarred by deluges of scree, loom high above the road, giving evidence to the prevalence of avalanches. And it was here in 1916, that over 400 Russian war prisoners, deployed to build this road, perished as the blinding weight of one thundered onto them.
It's strange to leave a country's capital until last in a visit, yet that is the way we did it. Brnik airport is 23 kilometres north of Ljubljana (pronounced Lyoo-blyee-AHN-a) a name you can almost chew – couldn't you just keep saying it? – so we initially headed further north, to Bled, a small town that hugs the shores of two-kilometre-long Lake Bled, which in turn showcases a tiny island church, a Christian site since the 9th century.
The cobalt waters, elegant spire, and mighty 11th century Bled Castle as a backdrop on the cliff behind are almost too much. It is nearly too lovely, too movie-perfect, as if contrived simply to suit the shutter-bugging visitors.
Rather the castle served as the seat of the Bishops of Brixen for centuries, and fortunately it is possible to drive to the castle although the climb would certainly help you to appreciate the view and the supremely positioned restaurant even more.
Yet Slovenia is never your average tourist destination. The simple hand-propelled gondolas that take visitors to the island, and the relative lack of tour buses and ubiquitous souvenir clap-trap, redeem the place, allowing you to ooh and aah without embarrassment. It really is a knockout.
But back to Ljubljana, our last stop. Like many European cities, it is best dealt with on foot. By car it is confusing and slow. Walking, though, you have time to admire the beautifully preserved and restored buildings; you can dawdle through the shopping precincts, linger in a riverside cafe or bar, or simply lean on one of the many bridges and gaze at the Ljubljana River as it lazily loops past buildings dating back to Roman times.
Yet good roads and pretty postcard scenes and fine buildings are just part of it. As any visitor knows, it is the people that make a country. 'Slovenia has love in its heart' the marketing people say to help us remember it correctly – and truly, its people are the heart of Slovenia.
We dined one evening in a 500 year-old bakery, Gostilna Lectar, at Radovljica, near Bled. The meal was authentic and I could have eaten 'sausage in hog's grease' or 'smoked hog's stomach', but settled instead for something more familiar – buckwheat mash and mushroom soup.
The real specialty came though when Joze Andrejas, the gostilna (restaurant) owner, beckoned us to an upstairs room, dug in his pocket and brought out a harmonica. For ten minutes he entertained us with toe-tapping mouth-organ magic. Admitting he has two sets of twins, a busy restaurant and no time to pursue his love of music, he communicated in a universal language.
Then, in the little English he had, he told us why.
"I get so busy, I have not time to play this – so now I do it for my customers." And, as he escorted us to the door, he pressed a decorated heart-shaped gingerbread cookie into my hand.
I couldn't simply eat it. I have it still, of course, a sweet – and absolutely appropriate – symbol of Slovenia.
- Sally Hammond
GETTING THERE: Adria Airlines are the national carrier of Slovenia, or you may drive from other parts of Europe.
GETTING AROUND: Rental cars are an ideal way to travel. Drive on the right, good roads.
CURRENCY: Euros. ATMs widely available.
VISA: not necessary for Australian passport holders.
TIME: Central European time.
POPULATION: two million
CLIMATE: Varies from Mediterranean at the coast to Alpine in the mountains.
ACCOMMODATION: All levels from camping sites, farm stay and bed and breakfasts to luxury hotels. Vila Bled, now a Relais & Chateaux property, overlooking the lake and church was a guest house for Tito's official visitors.
FOOD: Varies according to the area. Italian at the coast, Austrian influences nearer to the north, central European towards Hungary.
LANGUAGE: Slovene, with others widely spoken.
SHOPPING: Albanian filigree, Idrian lace, wrought iron.
Have you travelled to Slovenia? What did you like best about it?