Slovenia is playing England in the World Cup today and we’d wager that you probably know a lot more about one country than the other. So here’s a quick user’s guide to Slovenia.
UPDATE: If you’re a Brit who already booked a holiday in Slovenia for this year with one of eight UK travel companies, the Slovenian Tourist Board has a treat for you, depending on how far the Slovenian team goes in the World Cup. If they advance to the quarter-finals, you get 25% back, if they make it to the semi-finals, you get 50% back, and if the Slovenian team wins, you get a 100% refund! Details here.
Slovenia has the oldest vine in the world, one of the smallest mammals in world (the Etruscan shrew), and one of the largest populations of brown bears in Europe. Its stud farm for Lipizzaner horses has been operating since 1580. Nearly 60% of the country is forested. Although it’s a bit smaller than New Jersey, Slovenia has 4300 miles [7000 km] of hiking trails with 165 mountain huts. Slovenians celebrate the Saltworkers’ Festival, the Cabbage Festival, Chestnut Sunday and Bean Day, among other gastronomic events. For the past several years Slovenian schoolchildren have danced in the world’s largest synchronized quadrille on the last day of school.
Traveler’s editor, Keith Bellows, visited Slovenia a few years ago, and wrote up his impressions for a special feature we ran on spontaneous journeys. Read his essay on the country after the jump.
Suddenly Slovenia, by Keith Bellows
I had no plans to go to Slovenia. And then I met Rok Kvaternik, who said, simply, “Come to my country and you’ll never forget it. The food will astonish you.” He should know, considering he published 30 Finest Flavours of Slovenia.
“You’ll see castles and monasteries and limestone caves and Alpine scenery–and who knows what else.” That’s when I said yes. When it comes to travel, the potential for surprise closes the deal.
Googling the place, I learned that the country’s salt is coveted by high-end eateries from Manhattan to Tokyo, and that “karst”–the word for limestone, derived from a region here–is one of Slovenia’s contributions to the world’s vocabulary. Formerly part of Yugoslavia, a nation the map no longer acknowledges, Slovenia was once the domain of the Habsburgs and part of the Holy Roman Empire. Independent in 1991, it assumed the presidency of the European Union in 2008. But, of course, surprise rewards the least prepared.
An hour after landing at Brnik Airport, and meeting Rok, we were helicoptering at 6,000 feet (1,829 meters) over this doughnut hole of Europe, which is handily poised between Vienna and Venice. “Slovenia is hardly bigger than an Australian sheep farm, with two million people,” said Rok. We swept over a rumpled rug of peaks (and a valley that is in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms),
traveling from Slovenia’s Alpine borders with Austria and Italy to its sliver of Adriatic coastline. We banked past 9,400-foot (2,865-meter) Mount Triglav, which graces Slovenia’s flag; zigzagged along Slovenia’s border with Croatia; then clattered home as the sun set off the left side of the copter and the moon rose to the right.
We later toured medieval castles in Bled and Ljubljana, and took a walk through Pleterje, a six-centuries-old Carthusian monastery whose residents still take a vow of silence. We toured Ljubljana’s fog-shrouded market and cobblestoned streets. For hours, we explored Postojna cave, an underground limestone labyrinth of eerie silence and chill beauty.
I slept at Alpine retreats, one guarded by a pair of immense Newfoundland dogs, another graced by five ebony Lipizzaner horses, a breed that originated in Slovenia. And from my hotel on Lake Bled, near the retreat of former Yugoslav dictator Marshal Tito, I surveyed the nation’s only island.
And, of course, we ate. Mouthwatering salami, struklji
(cottage cheese strudel), homemade butter and jams and cheese, fish as I’ve never had it prepared, and bread that I still dream about. And I endlessly watched the rhapsody of world-class wine work its liquid magic.
On my last night, we had our farewell dinner with a group that included an adventurer bent on circumnavigating the globe via the poles and Slovenia’s ex-prime minister, who jammed on the harmonica with a former world accordion champ.
But that was not my most memorable night in Slovenia. No, that would be the evening we spent at Pikol, which Rok assured me was one of the country’s finest restaurants. Over wave upon wave of exquisitely prepared dishes, Rok and I talked. During our trip, our conversations had gone from surface chatter to itineraries to world politics. But on this evening, things became deeply personal. Our nationalities didn’t matter. Our themes were universal. The relationship of host and visitor slipped away. I recalled my first encounter with Rok, this ebullient man who simply wanted to share his country with me. I didn’t know him then, but I think I know him now. Travel engenders intimacy. In five short, spontaneous days I had discovered more than a country. I had made a new friend.
Photo of the view from Ljubljana Castle by Stephen Marckx, from Intelligent Travel’s Flickr pool
I Heart My City: Petra’s Ljubljana
Slovenia Country Guide
Treasures From a Slovenian River
Surprising Facts about Slovenia