June 2000

When I learned that business would take me to Milan in June, I immediately started looking for an “exotic” place to visit nearby. While Italy is always a feast and relatively out of the way corners could still be found there, it and its neighbors France, Switzerland and Austria are well known tourist workhorses. Yet straight due east on the map there was an almost blank spot not usually included in package tours – Slovenia. A fragment of the former Yugoslavia, it was the first to split off and be let go at the price of a war that lasted only 10 days. For me it would have an added appeal as the first Slavic (besides my own country of origin) and the first post-communist country to visit. It also has a reputation as the most successful and most westernized East-European country. My son, a graduate student on a summer break, was among many who volunteered to carry my suitcases on this trip, and he was the lucky one chosen for the job.

Reaching Slovenia proved to be a less trivial task than I had hoped. As a fan of freedom to stop and go wherever and whenever I want, I prefer to drive, but getting there from here by car turned out to be almost impossible. Most major rental companies don’t allow their cars from the West to be driven to the East, thus lumping a vast territory from Albania to Estonia and from Slovenia to Siberia into one huge verboten pile. Luckily, one company, Europecar, had a special fleet consisting apparently of 2 cars allowed to cross the phantom Iron Curtain at a premium fee. Not surprisingly, at the border crossing to Slovenia, south of Trieste, only Italian guards did any checking and they were interested more in the legitimacy of our relationship with the car than our insignificant personas. Assured that our Class A Mercedes, a tinny-van with a footprint smaller than a Volkswagen Bug’s, was not going to be rustled (a separate form from the rental office certified that we were allowed to take the car to Slovenia) the Italians waved us through and we barely had to slow down for their Slovene colleagues.

Our first stop in Slovenia was the medieval and renaissance town of Piran located on a triangular cape jutting into the Adriatic. Crossing the town line was tougher than entering the country. There was no parking space available in Piran that evening! Fortunately, we had an email reservation with an in-town hotel that promised parking, and were let through by the town guard (isn’t that truly medieval) on the strength of our word. Miraculously, a room with a balcony on the sea really was waiting for us. But not parking… On the round main square, Tartinjev Trg,  the town’s favorite son, Giuseppe Tartini, of the Devil’s Trill Sonata fame and a contemporary of Handel, was conducting a tightly composed parking harmony from his pedestal. (See more about my relation to the composer in Tartini and I.) Suddenly, a soundblast shook the entire town. In the following half-hour it was repeated twice. It was coming from the open windows of bars and restaurants in reaction to three goals scored by the Slovenian soccer team in the first game of the European Cup against, of all teams, their former countrymen, the Yugoslavs.  Happy for our hosts, we finally managed to find a spot on the circle for our baby Mercedes and retired for the night, only to learn in the morning that the Yugoslavs managed to even the score without, however,  causing any sound effects on the streets of Piran.

Next morning, when the sun rose over the Croatian shore across the bay, the streets and the beaches were still empty but a visitor came from the sea: a speed ferry from Venice, Piran’s erstwhile master. It takes 2.5 hours to cross the Adriatic to reach Venice. With its pastel-colored, tile-roofed buildings, a square, pyramid-capped campanile of Sveti Yuri church on the hill and the baroque elegance of Tartini’s own neighborhood, Piran did not hide its Venetian origins. But where can you climb an ancient town wall on the hill and have a compact red and white triangle amid the sea of blue float in the palm of your hand? Only in Piran: Venice is too big and flat.

Slovenia being precisely equal in size to Massachusetts, reaching Ljubljana, the capital located in the center of the country, from the coast does not take longer than an hour and a half. However, we made a few detours on the way. One was a quick loop to the Istrian tip of Croatia, primarily to notch another country on our list. The next was a stop by the carved into a cliff Predjamski grad, the castle of the robber (in the original sense of the word) Baron Erasmus Lueger. And finally, we descended into the netherworld of one of the largest underground canyons in the world, Škocjanske jame (Škocjan Caves), carved in Karst. Some views appeared indeed like a Grand Canyon transported underground, though sadly with my photo equipment I could not record it properly.

Ljubljana is touted in some tourist guides as a Prague without the crowds. It’s probably a stretch, except for the crowds part, but the city is a pleasant collection of architectural  goodies, from the medieval Grad on the hill over the river Ljubljanica, through the baroque Old Ljubljana and all the way to the Art Nouveau and Viennese Secession-style blocks in the center. It’s only 300 miles from Vienna, after all. The collection is topped by the works of the idiosyncratic Jože Plečnik, an early 20th century architect who changed the face of central Ljubljana as dramatically as Baron Hausmann did for  Paris 50 years earlier. Among Plečnik’s creations is the Triple Bridge over The Ljubljanica (Tromostovje) which has become the focal point and signature piece of the city.

The 19th century Austro-Hungarian heritage is evident throughout Ljubljana. The main square, Kongresni Trg, is named after one of the Congresses of the Holy Alliance of the European monarchs, who gathered in the city almost 200 years ago to make sure the Napoleonic upheavals and their revolutionary spirit stayed firmly in the past. The city’s cultural connections, however, go much further back and much wider afield. The National Gallery, a collection of Slovene art from the early middle ages through the age of romantic nationalism, presents a story of nation-shaping for a people which last had its own state a millennium ago. But the gallery also contained an exhibition on Žiga Herberstein, a 16th century Habsburg diplomat whose Slovene ancestry and the knowledge of the language allowed him to travel as an ambassador to the court of Ivan the Terrible’s dad and give the West its first in-depth description of mysterious Muscovy. (See more on Herberstein, one of my favorite historic personalities, and his book here.) Luckily, we had a recommendation to the Director of the National Gallery Andrej Smrekar, a classmate at the Harvard graduate arts history program of my Massachusetts German friends, as well as Gabriela von Habsburg (of those very Habsburgs who employed the Freiherr von Herberstein). He gave us a tour of the gallery and then even accompanied for a while around the town.

The only place where we had not made an advance hotel reservation was Lake Bled, a small gem in the Julian Alps, 40 miles northwest from Ljubljana. This could have been a serious mistake: not one but two conventions descended on Bled that day and all the hotels were booked, as a Kompas travel agent on the main drag of Ljubljana, Slovenska Cesta, explained to me. Fortunately, we usually have all the local tourist literature sent to us in advance, and that included a list of private rooms around the lake. One call procured us a room with a balcony right on the shore in a quiet far corner of the lake. Breakfast was brought to the room promptly at the ordered time in the morning, all for $40 a night for two. As all restaurant service in Slovenia, this room service was delivered in the formal style of the bygone empire.

The view from the balcony seemed too pretty to be real: an island in the middle of the lake with a belfry and a requisite legend of its bell (see more on it below), a castle high up on the mountain on the opposite shore, and local gondolas, called pletnas, gliding quietly across the water in competition with horse-drawn fiakers circling the lake. The lake is small, 2 by 1 kilometers in size. There are not many lakes in the Alps where you can walk all the way around on a paved embankment with street lamps romantically lit at night. Our pletnar, the pletna gondolier, enlightened us about some big shots who haunted this alpine corner: Tito, whose villa graced the nearest hillside above the lake, was good: he held things stable (he was actually half-Slovene, it turned out). Tito also improved the environment: at his orders a small field of water lilies was planted in the lake in the shadow of his villa. White swans were in residence nearby. They, likewise, were probably still following  the decrees of the long dead Marshal. President Clinton, who visited Slovenia recently, was pretty good, too, according to the pletnar: he kept that jerk Milošević in check. The pletna had to be hired as the only conveyance to the island (Blejski otok) in the middle of the lake. The island was a small hill with a church on top, in the middle of which a rope from the belltower was hanging invitingly. Omitting the gory details of the bell legend, the bell had a reputation of fulfilling the dreams of those ringing it, while making a wish. The bell was accordingly christened as Zvonček želja (Bell of desire). Ilya and I both rang it (me wishing probably the same thing for him that he wished for himself). I am pretty certain that particular wish came true, though it took a little while.

From Bled, a surprisingly tough climb over the Vršič Pass in the Julian Alps with 50 hairpin turns took us to the valley of the Soča and the town of Kobarid. “Papa” Hemingway is a marquee name the world over. The creators of the Kobarid Museum felt that way, too, and put a big picture of him with the trademark beard right at the entrance. They have a reasonable claim to it, since the museum is dedicated to the World War I battle of Caporetto (Kobarid in Slovene) recounted in A Farewell to Arms. The Italians were badly routed after their attempt to move up the valley of the Isonzo River (Soča in Slovene). A walk on the historic battlefield trail shows why. The several mile long trail winds its way  along the shores of the Soča. Pushing enemy troops through  this valley is like trying to sweep dust up the wall.

High up on a hill, there is a grandiose mausoleum – ossuary where the bones of 7000 Italians fallen in the battle of Caporetto, 5000 of them unknown, have been gathered. Like many such monuments, this one was constructed when the area was part of Italy, under Mussolini. It is imposing and blends well with the surrounding majestic scenery, but it’s hard not to notice that it has some common motifs with the design of the future World War II Memorial in Washington. Indeed, memories of other wars are also present at Kobarid. There is a graceful Napoleonov Most (Napoleon’s Bridge) over the Soča which the most famous of all invaders crossed two centuries ago. A section of the museum is dedicated to World War II, primarily the anti-fascist partisans (remember, this is part of the former Yugoslavia). A brief inspection of the Italian observation dugouts in the steep riverbank, and we head to the nearby Italy, back to the road more traveled.

On the practical side, most Slovenes are multilingual. Almost everybody speaks Italian in the Adriatic region and German all over the country. Many speak English, but not all very well, so Slovene occasionally comes in handy.  This may present a nice challenge for those baby boomers who succumbed to the fad of studying Russian in the sixties. Both languages are Slavic and, although not always mutually intelligible, unlike in the times of Žiga Herberstein, knowing one still helps with the other.

If you go… [this information is sure outdated, but I leave it untouched as a historic record]

It is possible to get to Ljubljana by air through a combination of airlines with changes of planes in Europe, but the only non-stop flight from Boston to any vicinity of Slovenia is to Milan by Alitalia. It is also less expensive than the alternatives. Most major car rental companies don’t allow their cars into Eastern Europe. Europecar (800-223-5555) is an exception. An 8-day rental cost about $800, more expensive than a Western Europe only option. Car rentals within Slovenia (e.g., from Hertz) are slightly more expensive yet.

Hotel Piran in Piran was $75 per night with breakfast. It is best reached through email A dinner for two at its affiliated seaside restaurant, Tri Vdove,  was $34. Hotel Slon in Ljubljana, a four-star establishment, charged $110 per night. It is part of the Best Western chain and can be booked through Best Western’s standard reservation number. Bed & Breakfast Pension Pletna on Lake Bled cost $40 per night. No email there (phone +386 64-743-702). Brochures with lists of hotels and private accommodations can be obtained from the Slovenian Tourist Office in New York, (212) 358-9686. Also check