EuropeVirtual Travel Tales

Off to the land of beech and honey

Predjama Castle, Predjama, Slovenia
Predjama Castle, Predjama, Slovenia by Chris Yang

The former Yugoslavia. The evocative phrase attached to an enormously complex and fraught section of recent history. If you want to see beyond the forests and beautiful natural landscapes of Slovenia and to better understand its people, it’s useful to have a grasp on some of the forces that have shaped the country as it stands today.

Land of the southern Slavs

In the 20th century alone Slovenia experienced many different identities. At the end of World War I the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved and Croatia and Slovenia joined forces, declaring independence in late 1918. Serbia merged with them just over a month later and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was established, later being renamed the Kingdom of Jugoslavija, or ‘Land of the southern Slavs’.

Over the next few years, the Slovenian borders with Austria, Italy and Hungary continued to be contested and various skirmishes and international treaties had a huge impact on the people living in these regions. Land along the Italian border was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy as part of an Allied treaty to thank Italy for changing sides during the war. Over 300,000 Slovenes living in this region were assimilated — then almost a third of the whole population. It’s hard to imagine what that would have been like to live through.

Between the two World Wars, Slovenia also saw the rapid rise of both left and right radicalism in politics. It was the most industrialised and westernised part of Yugoslavia, with a strong culture of arts and literature. Modernist architecture was big and the larger cities of Ljubljana and Maribor experienced a lot of urban renewal due their relative wealth.

The Second World War

In World War II, Slovenia was annexed and absorbed entirely by Hungary and Nazi Germany in the north and by Fascist Italy in the south. Many citizens from the north were transported to labour camps in Germany and forced to work on farms or in factories.

The Liberation Front of the Slovene Nation, the province’s largest anti-Fascist resistance movement fought for independence from the occupying forces, clashing with the German-funded Slovene Home Guard.

From one republic to the next

Set up after World War II as a federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia usurped the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia each had their branch of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia party, with issues between the republics being dealt with at a federal level. For economic and political reasons, many Slovenes left in the decades that followed, firstly to Argentina and later to Canada and Australia.

Protests around autonomy and their repression, massive foreign debt exacerbated by the 1973 oil crisis and a push towards democracy saw an increase tensions in Slovenian society during the 1980s. In 1990 the independent Republic of Slovenia was announced and in 2004 the country joined NATO and the European Union. Not only did they have independence but a Eurovision win was now firmly in their sights.

Experiencing the buzz

History aside for the moment, Leroy and I are really in Slovenia today for the bees. Yes, you heard right. Long-time fans of the stripey invertebrates, we’re timing our visit to coincide with the inaugural World Bee Day that Slovenia has been campaigning so hard to have recognised by the UN. And now it has been, with bee-related events happening all around the world. Hurrah!

While we’re not planning on attending the official conference (a little out of our league), we are determined to taste-test as many local honeys as possible — including from Slovenia’s famous native bee, the Carniolan or ‘grizzly’ bee. And preferably with the soft rolls straight from the oven that Slovenes like to eat for breakfast. And strong Turkish coffee made in a beautiful cezve from Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina. And fresh fruit. You’re getting the picture.

Straight to the top

But I’m getting carried away. First things first. We wanted our very first view of Slovenia to be from the highest point in the land: the summit of Mount Triglav (or ‘Three Heads’). It’s said that every ‘true’ Slovenian should stand on the top of Triglav once in their lives but, fortunately for us non-Slovenes, it doesn’t specify how the summit should be reached.

A return trip would usually take expert hikers twelve hours, which is eleven hours more than we had up our sleeves if we wanted to do even half the things we’re planning to today. Generally it’s recommended that you hire a guide and stay overnight in one of the mountain huts near the top, returning to the base on the second day. And this, of course, is where virtual travel really comes into its own.

A blip, a rush of cold air… and Leroy and I found ourselves in the predawn darkness on the summit. It was close to freezing and I was so glad we’d worn down jackets. Leroy, as you know, despises getting up early and I’d had to convince him that the sunrise would be worth it. It was.

The Julian Alps came into focus around us as the early morning sunlight stretched across them. An enormous Golden Eagle landed a few metres from us (we froze), eyed us fiercely for a moment, then swooped into the glacier-carved valleys below (we exhaled shakily). We joked about one of us being snatched by an eagle and what an interesting story that would make back home, but really we were aware how lucky we’d been to see one so close.

So, what’s up next?

Next we’re off to the village of Breznica for breakfast and to see what the World Bee Day celebrations have to offer. We’ve heard rumours of folk music, market stalls with local produce and, of course, honey. I guess the place will be swarming* with people.

One of the metaphorical carrots I dangled in front of Leroy (to entice him out of bed while it was still dark) was an opportunity to go whitewater rafting on the astounding turquoise waters of the Šoca River. It means backtracking to the western side of the Triglav National Park, but in virtual travel terms that correlates to precisely nothing. We can be there virtually in a flash.

A change of clothes later, we’ll probably head south towards the Croatian border to the Škocjan Caves. Less touristy than the more accessible Postojna Cave — and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site — the 6km of caverns, soaring walls and whirlpools are meant to be well worth the trip. And one we’re more than willing to try. The guided walk takes about an hour and a half, and involves clambering up and down 550 steps, so I’m guessing we might be a little stiff tomorrow.

Predjama Castle is next on our action-packed itinerary. Halfway between the caves and the capital, the castle is a 13th-century four-storey fortress built into the side of a cliff (which you can see in the main picture above). It has all the works: a drawbridge over a raging river, holes in the wall for pouring boiling oil onto the heads of enemies, a gloomy dungeon and a turbulent history. We have to go.

Ljubljana

After all that exercise and fresh air, we’ll head to the capital of Ljubljana, with its castle on the hill and striking old town made up of a mix of Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings, its green spaces and university population, and its many, many bicycles.

I’m going to suggest we drop into Manna for a late lunch. They do a creative take on traditional Slovenian dishes and I’m keen to try some of their vegetarian offerings, as well as sample the distinctive pumpkin seed oil which is often used in salad dressings throughout the country. I’m sure Leroy will order the tasting menu, but if I tell him I think that’s what he’ll order, he’ll order something completely different just to be contrary.

I’m hoping we’ll have time to explore some of Modernist architect Jože Plečnik‘s buildings before we drop into Metelkova Mesto, the ‘alternative culture centre’ and artist cooperative that emerged from a squat in a former army barracks. Metelkova is home to quite a few clubs as well as hosting art performances, exhibitions and occasional festivals. I saw that a clown cabaret ‘not suitable for children’ is on tonight for the princely entrance fee of €4. We might go for the experience if it fits in with tonight’s plans.

We’re having dinner with yet another one of Leroy’s international coterie of friends. Pablo, a native of Mendoza in Argentina, met his wife Katja while studying in London. They’ve been back in Slovenia now for a few years and are excited to catch up with us. It should be fun, whatever we end up doing. That reminds me; we’d better pick up some local wine to take them as a thank you present.

* bee pun for my pun-loving father

Googlr Map of Slovenia

If you’re reading this and have no idea what’s going on, this post should explain everything.