This Easter, we will return to Slovenia for the second time in as many years. Yet until 2015, I’d hardly heard the country’s name, despite growing up in neighbouring Austria. Suddenly, Slovenian connections seem to be emerging all over the place.
When I was growing up in Austria in the 60s and 70s, Slovenia was part of Tito’s Yugoslavia and lay behind the Iron Curtain. In my imagination, anything connected to the USSR was rendered in monochrome – inaccessible, undesirable, and forbidden. Why would anyone want to go there?
I never had cause to reconsider this attitude until about a year ago, when my wife, Angie, and I began planning a trip to Croatia. Angie, who is originally from Malaysia, mentioned this casually to her sister Denise when visiting her last year in Melbourne. “You’re going where?!” exclaimed her sister. “Croatia’s right next to Slovenia. My best friend is from there.” Thirty minutes later Denise’s friend Renate had joined us to tell Angie all about Slovenia.
|A few facts about Slovenia…
Slovenia is a small central European country with a population of just two million. Part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until it became independent at the end of World War I, Slovenia shares Austria’s mountainous geography. Since joining the EU in 2004, Slovenia has become a moderately well-to-do and modern country, yet has retained a rustic and unspoiled charm. Slovenia produces wonderful wines (mostly whites but also reds) and has endeared itself to us for family restaurants that serve hearty food “like grandma used to make”.
Several of our On the Road in Europe itineraries visit Slovenia (for example, this itinerary here). In 2017 we will be launching an Eastern Europe itinerary that will include the Czech Republic, eastern Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Northern Italy.
“If you do go to Slovenia, I’ll introduce you to my cousin Sanja. You can stay with her!” Just three months later Angie and I met Sanja and her husband Davorin. The couple live and work in Slovenia’s largest national park which takes its name from the country’s tallest mountain, Triglav. Sanja works in a drugstore; Davorin’s work is connected to the national park authority. They have three sons who could be the envy of any parent: courteous and lively, they come home from school to work on the family farm without their parents’ prompting. Much of what the family eats comes from their own land.
After Angie’s meeting with Renate, our trip to Croatia expanded to take in Slovenia as well. While researching our itinerary we thought it
would be nice to stop at some vineyards along the way. A friend recommended Movia, one of Slovenia’s finest winemakers. The vineyard’s owner, Ales, is one of a kind, we heard. Wouldn’t it be something to meet him?
When we plan our holidays, Angie researches the hotels and restaurants; I pick the roads in between. On February 10th last year, we pulled up in front of one of Angie’s selected restaurants, Danilu, on the outskirts of Ljubljana and a member of Jeunes Restaurateur d’Europe. We were served by a fizzy young lady who turned out to be the owner’s daughter. Besides helping out in the family restaurant, she runs a night club and, to our great surprise, counts Movia’s owner Ales among her close friends. A week later we met Ales, shaking his enormous farmer’s hands, and spent an entire afternoon tasting his beautiful wines in his firelit tasting room.
Sinuous roads lead through the Triglavsky park – one, narrow and steep, leads across a tall pass from Kranjska Gora to Soca; another enters from Italy. Less winding, the latter meanders across a lower pass and traces the course of a beautiful river. I could drive on these roads for hours without getting bored: how could one when immersed in this lovely landscape and dreamily following the curvy tarmacked ribbon of road?
We were driving through Triglavsky National Park earlier this year when I suddenly noticed something I hadn’t seen for a while. It was one of those double-take moments: did I just see what I saw? I turned around and back-tracked and then stood in front of, well, was I still in Slovenia? Or had I been transported to Tibet? Right there, in front of me, there were little cairns of stones that I had last seen along the road to Mt. Everest: sacred piles of stones that are constructed to fend off evil and bring good fortune. How had they been transported to Slovenia?
I find myself pondering how it can be that I had to go from Austria to Tibet and then via Malaysia and Australia only to discover Austria’s neighbor Slovenia and its unfathomable connections to places impossibly remote from it.
Sometimes it’s the things planned well in advance that make a journey special, like Angie’s restaurant choices or a particular route I’ve chosen, but at other times it’s the magic of serendipity – a chance collision of people and places – that transforms a journey into a really exceptional experience.