Although this was posted in 2008, it was written in 1996. Slovenia has seen many positive changes since then and is even more enchanting.
Janez drives an old yellow Zastafa 750 motorcar. It splutters and hiccoughs its way up the steep hills around Bled. From Bled Castle 300 meters high we gazed at the oval emerald green lake and the Baroque church which sits on its tiny island. “It is a museum of life in the castle. To find the historical artifacts of Slovenia, you have to go to Boston’s Peabody Museum and see the collection called The Treasures of Carniola. The Duchess of Mechlanburg sold off everything in 1936 in Zurich.” To one side the old Bled, Austrian in its style. We could see men row gondolas across to the island church.
The boatmen stand at the stern grasping two large crossed oars and heave their burdens over the water. The island church is small but it still manages to cram in six side chapels, a marble pulpit, high golden alter and on the walls and 15th century frescos. “The Church of the Virgin Maria is one of the holiest places of the Slovene people.” Janez told me. From the church The Bell of Wishes rings it doleful tones as tourists strain at the bell rope. “The most important thing there is the Bell of Wishes. In 1809 our women saved the island from the French. The women heard that they were going to plunder the church and take the gold and silver. It was not very much but in their eyes it was a lot.” Janis explained that the women took all the boats over to the island. The French took three days to bring boats from another lake. “They rowed to the island and although the French won a little battle they realized that they should not touch such a shrine. So they said that everything in the church belongs to the French government, but it should not be removed.” Later, a piece of folk theatre was played all over Austro-Hungary called The Courageous Women of Bled “as a symbol of resistance against the Godless French.”
By lunch time on the second day of my visit we were off to Radovljica in search of a hangover cure. After the visit to Bled castle I had started practicing Slovene for “I’ll have another one please” at the bar of Pri Planinchu. Being a minority language, the Slovenes do not expect visitors to speak their language. The younger people speak English, the older, German. All were made to learn Croat at school. My attempts at their language appeared to provide the waitress literally seconds of amusement. I excused myself but she replied “You’re doing very well.” Late that night, Janez and I had ended some where in the hills drinking Slovene wine, schnapps, beer and what ever else the generous people could throw at the thirsty traveller.
Radovljica is beautiful but deteriorating. [It has since made a recovery and the old main street ins beautiful.] More recent photographs show a remarkable improvement. The medieval houses in the village were decorated with frescos of the area’s history but the paint is pealing and the colors fading. In the excellent bar Gostilna Lectar we were given mushroom soup served in a hollowed out loaf of bread. It is a warm friendly wood paneled place where time has no meaning, but I had a train to catch and after pushing Janez’s Zastiva down hill to start it, I took the forty-five minute trip to Ljubljana.
Five minutes from the transport hub of Ljubljana which is the train and bus station, colour smacked me in the eyes, even through the drizzle; the pink Franciscan Church of the Annunciation, the cream and burgundy geometric patterns on the Co-operative Bank, the Italianate Pharmacy where I bought aspirin which the assistant carefully folded into white paper – no nasty logo plastered plastic bags here. Gregor Styre, told me about the influence architect Joze Plecnik had had on the old city. He began his work in his native Ljubljana in 1921 reshaping the city. “For Plechnik, Ljubljana was the first city of the north, and the last city of the Mediterranean.
There are a lot of connections in style between this city and Vienna, because Slovenia was part of Austria for so long. And there are connections with Venice – especially the Joze Plecnik bridges remind you of the Rialto in Venice. Some streets especially in the centre are like Vienna and Prague too.”
It is said that where ever you go in the world even to the most remote lands, when you get there all the kids will be wearing Michael Jackson T-shirts and the CokaCola seller will be doing a roaring trade. Before too long you’ll be able to have a perfectly pulled pint of Guinness. There is an Irish bar in Ljubljana. A new friend Rok took me to “Patrick’s” where we drank with the Prime Minister’s secretary and one of the young journalists who had been jailed for publishing a draft political plan for an independent Slovenia in the late 80’s. Because of what he published he was sent to prison, the people of Ljubljana came out onto the streets to support him and his colleagues. The demonstrations led to Slovenia seceding from the crumbling Yugoslavia and setting off on the road to independence.
An Evening on the Croatian Border
After a minimal number of hours of sleep, Rok took the road to the east. We had been travelling for about an hour and a half and were on our way to Jerusalem, the wine growing region. The drizzle had cleared at last when we pulled into a small village for another cure of schnapps and espresso. The village sat on a river and was heartbreakingly beautiful. Yellow and pink buildings reflected the morning sun. It could have been Pragersko. My mind was too dull and my notebook was still asleep. In a bar which still had the stern 1960’s “You will enjoy your self in our glorious people’s republic” several men in pinstripe suits shared a bottle of schnapps and several beers. “Farmers” said Rok. Below the Sunday suits were mud covered shoes. As we left the bar a church bell rang. It was the fairy tale middle European church, the sort of place that a romantic might want to draw up to in a horse drawn carriage for their wedding. Here in this busy market village, the bride and her supporters walked up the tarmac road in her white dress with and gripping her tiny bouquet. Her husband to be was even better supported by his friends – one at each arm – who helped him out of the bar we had been in.
An hour later we were in Ormož a few yards from the Croatian boarder. There were to be festivities tonight with VIPs and parties and we were invited. My imagination was fired with ideas about wine celebrations and traditional music and dancing. The only disappointment so far on this trip had been the absence of the traditional folk of Slovenia so tonight would make up for it. First though we were to spend Saturday afternoon on the terraces. The only sound here is the klack, klack, klack, of the kloptotek wind rattles that were used to chase hungry birds.
In the tiny cellar of Curin-Prapotnik we tasted a dozen wines of increasingly good quality up to ice wine made from grapes picked in the depth of winter which produced less than 100 litres each year. The group had grown to about 10 by now and we must have sunk a good 3% of the best vintage.
Expectations of a traditional evening of Slovenian dance and music began to ebb when we checked into Hotel Ormož. The band were rehearsing. They were singing Linda Rondstat’s “Blue Bayou”. The celebration was in the wine region but it had to do with the economic development not the cultural traditions of Slovenia. Tonight those gathered were to witness the launch the new collection of Renault cars. The VIPs were the head of Renault in Slovenia and his head of the marketing. I wandered off to bed as the band played The Bellamy Brother’s “Let Your Love Flow”. Within fifteen minutes the phone rang. It was Rok who called me back to the ballroom. It appeared that I too was one of the VIPs and was required to attend. Giving up gracefully I spent the rest of the night with an Italian rugby team – also VIPs as it turned out. The conversation turned to which of the two Slovene beers was less likely to give you the farts.
The next morning we were homeward bound. Arriving at the airport early for the flight, Rok took me off to another village and to another bar for another schnapps cure. Sitting in the garden, and the sun came out. I reflected that if you have never had a Saturday night on the Slovene/Croatian boarder discussing gassy beers with an Italian rugby team, you’ve really never had a Saturday night. I was on my way home, but already couldn’t wait to come back.e
The good news is that I have come back many times since and now consider Bled a second home and Janez – who no longer has a Zaztafa!