|Tito and Me|
Tito's bed was big and wide and white. Puffy pillows and a cool bare polished boards gave the room an almost monastic look and maybe it was a good thing that Mr President wasn't actually in the bed when I was invited to sleep there. From all I knew of him, he had been a restless soul.
In fact he may never have slept in this particular room, although he could have as Vila Bled was his guest house, the dorm where he put up his friends high and low. Haile Selassie, King Hussein, Kruschev, Nehru , Indira Gandhi and Nasser all stayed here at one time or another, and they certainly would have been as wowed as I was with the neatly framed postcard view of Lake Bled and its island church through both the bedroom and lounge room windows. They surely would have been just as happy to relax over a meal on the shaded terrace too, again with that magic view across the lake to the thousand-year-old fortress of Bled Castle on the opposite cliffs.
Josip Broz Tito was born near Klanjec in Croatia in 1892. He adopted both the name of Tito, as well as communism, the latter after being taken prisoner by the Russians in World War 1. In mid-1941 he was responsible for organising partisan forces in Yugoslavia and their efforts resulted in pinning down 30 enemy divisions, and a price of 100,000 gold marks being levied on his head. His guile and cunning saw him nose to nose with Mihailovich, a rival partisan leader, and finally won him favour with the Allies.
In the ensuing Yugoslav Federal Republic, communism reigned supreme, and Tito reigned in the country, first as prime minister, then as president. Stalin regarded him as 'a dangerous revisionist', his party was non-aligned, and he favoured 'positive neutralism'. He had friends, but he certainly had enemies too. Nevertheless in 1974, he was elected as president-for-life, but his term finished within a few years when he died at 88 in 1980.
A decade later 88 percent of voters indicated their desire for an independent Slovenia and six months after that the country declared its independence. An ensuing ten-day skirmish with Belgrade forces ended peaceably and with few casualties. Slovenia was set free. It would be many bloody years, though before other parts of the former Yugoslavia could follow their lead.
Vila Bled began when Tito was a toddler. Originally the home of an Austrian noble, it became home to royalty after its purchase by the King of Yugoslavia following WWI. The next war interrupted their plans for rebuilding and they fled. Constructed from the same marble as the White House in Washington, with sumptuous panelling inside and high ceilings, the villa was ideal for Tito's needs as a showplace to foreigners.
Yet it would be too simplistic to sum up Slovenia in terms of Tito, for in its 14-hundred-year history he was but a blip. And you cannot draw conclusions from its geography either. Now a self-governing republic about half the size of Switzerland, with a population of just two million, Slovenia is 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 – Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Italy – and enjoys secure and friendly relations with each.
Like Switzerland, the borders are influential. In the north Austrian foods, hearty and rich dominate menus. On the tiny coastal strip, Slovenia's Riviera, the ambience is Mediterranean and relaxed. Seafood, pizza, and pasta, help you remember that Italy is in sight and still dominates the history books, for this area was under Venetian rule for 500 years with Italian responsibility for the area persisting until as recently as 1954.
At the port of Piran, we stay at Hotel Tartini that opens onto the main square of the same name, and featuring a statue of the great 18th-century composer who was born here. Nearby the red gothic 15th-century Venetian House was built by a wealthy Venetian merchant for his beautiful young mistress. If you crane your neck backwards, you can see high under the eaves, a stone relief of a lion with a ribbon in its mouth. Centuries later, the cheeky message survives: Lassa Pur Dir – let them talk – it challenges.
Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana, (pronounced Lyoo-blyee-AHN-a, a name you can almost chew) of course brings the melting pot together. 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 Ljubljanica River as it lazily loops past sites dating back to Roman times.
This city, with a population now numbering about 300,000, has survived the Huns, Romans, Ostrogoths and goodness knows who else. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, the Hapsburgs provided the necessary impetus to for it to become a major trading and episcopal force, a prominent centre of Protestant reformation. Luckily its magnificent city buildings mostly escaped destruction by war, and you can wander for hours in the Old Town, slipping back centuries as you do.
Ljubljana's most recent symbol is a golden dragon, wings poised for flight, mouth open as if in mid-shout. Ljubljana's residents love to tell visitors that the dragons at the Dragons Bridge wag their tails whenever a virgin passes by!
Centuries old, yet brand new; a single country yet composed of the essence of several others; with three distinct climates and enough lakes, mountains, beaches and plains to cater for every activity, Slovenia is impossible to pigeonhole.
Tito's bias towards 'positive neutralism' seems to have been passed down in this country, without any political baggage. Today's Slovenia is comfortably at home in Europe, relaxed with its neighbours, hospitable to its guests.
In fact I would have been happy to stay in Tito's bed a good while longer.- Sally Hammond