The vintage, friends, is over,
And here sweet wine makes, once again,
Sad eyes and hearts recover,
Puts fire in every vein,
Drowns dull care
And summons hope out of despair.
– France Preseren,1844. A Toast, Slovenian national anthem.
Winding rivers and stone bridges, open markets and old squares, a hilltop castle and jaw-dropping Art Nouveau… Never mind the fact that LJUBLJANA is impossible to spell, the romantic capital of Slovenia would surely cast a spell on you!
After an adventurous month in Corsica, tempting the devil by hiking the legendary GR20, I find a gem of a country to chill. Sandwiched between Austria to the North, Italy to the West, and Croatia on the East and the South, sweet little Slovenia boasts an astonishing mix of mountains and the sea, picturesque lakes and World Heritage caves, medieval cities and Venetian towns, and very drinkable sweet wines. For a week, I roam around fairy-tale Ljubljana in a dream-like state before venturing out to scenic Lake Bohinj and Bled in the Julian Alps, the impressive Skocjan Caves, and the gorgeous town of Piran where, tempted by the devil in his dream, the violinist and composer Giuseppe Tartini delivered us his immortal Violin Sonata in G Minor. Music and nature, Adriatic sunsets over the Mediterranean sea… What else does one need to be happy?
By the River Ljubljanica
In the small central square of Ljubljana, the statue of the poet stares fixedly at something. If you follow his gaze, you will see, on the other side of the square, the face of a woman carved into the stone of one of the houses. That was where Julia had lived. Even after death, Prešeren gaze for all eternity on his impossible love.
– Paulo Coelho, Veronika Decides to Die
Everything starts in the Preseren Square, remembered for the beloved poet – whose name means happy! – who wrote the Slovenian national anthem. Will each be free. No more shall foes, but neighbours be! Radiating from this centre of peace and happiness, one crisscrosses a network of picturesque old bridges towards the medieval core of romantic Ljubljana. Churches and monasteries, bustling markets next to quiet squares, and a pretty 900-year-old castle with a commanding view… the quaint capital city has so much to offer.
A disastrous earthquake in 1895 gave this once provincial capital of the Austro Hungarian empire an opportunity to be reborn. Joze Plecnik who studied under the Viennese architect, Otto Wagner, had the vision to build a modern 20th century city with plenty of public spaces – squares, parks, streets, promenades, bridges – and cultural institutions, giving the city a completely new identity. Above all, Secessionist Ljubljana along Miklosiceva street between Preseren Square and the train station is so stunning that alone is worth a trip to Slovenia.
What impresses me the most, however, is a certain old way of life that seems to have disappeared in our corner of the world but remains stubbornly upheld here. Whether it is a morning ritual at a river-side cafe, leisure book hunting along the quai, happy hour by the Ljubjanica river, or exploring alternative culture at the Metelkova Art Centre, the former headquarter of the Yugoslav National Army, Slovenian dolce vita leaves a strong impression on every visitor.
Paradise in Triglav
Most visits to Slovenia include a compulsory stop in Lake Bled , but I prefer the more tranquil and less commercial twin sister in Bohinj. Only a two-hour bus ride away, one enters an entirely different universe of Alpine valleys and pristine lakes. One of Europe’s oldest parks, Triglav National Park is a little known gem filled with gorges and waterfalls, back country trails and secluded mountain huts. In this gorgeous autumn morning, a mist that has enveloped the lake is slowly lifting. I feel perfectly content to stroll around before making my way to bustling Bled…
Entering the Skocjan Underworld
The UNESCO World Heritage site of the Skocjan Caves is the most impressive cave system I have ever visited. The canyon is over two-km long and up to 150 metres high! According to archeological artefacts, the Škocjan underworld held great spiritual power and attracted pilgrims from as far as Greece. An underground torrent runs through the caves along series of cascades, making the visit an adrenaline-filled visual and auditory spectacle.
Welcome to my hometown, one of the most beautiful towns on the Adriatic coast. Not far away from here, there is a cluster of a thousand tiny houses resting on a peninsula as if on an old ship. The town got rich by selling white gold to the Venetian Republic and Austrian Empire; that is why the townspeople say that Piran grew on salt. This is where I spent my youth with peaceful and strong waves, with sweet salt flower, olive trees and the diverse Istrian culture, which left a mark on my muse and helped chisel out the Maestro of Nations.
– Violinist and Composer, Giuseppe Tartini 1692–1770.
My last port of call is Piran, the most beautiful town on the Slovenian coast. Part of the Venetian empire from late 13th C to the end of the 18th C, Piran feels like an Italian city but without the crowds. From Tartinijev Square, one meanders through the narrow lanes of old town towards the sea and St. George Church with a marvellous view of the city and harbour from the bell tower. A street musician plays harp in the backdrop of yet another timeless Istrian sunset. In this magical city, one lingers, transported by the bountiful sun and sea, and the mesmerizing music of Tartini…
Some places are so rich that the wealth of impressions and experiences far surpasses the time one spends there. In addition to its history and culture, it is the bold spirit of the Slovenes that touch me the most. Few visitors might remember that it is the Slovenes who stood up against Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslavia leader, by walking away from the Congress on January 20 1990 and declaring independence the following year, paving way for other republics to follow suit before the dissolution of former Yugoslavia. Perhaps no one sums up the national character better than Vitomil Zupan, the Slovene Hemingway, in his best known classic, Minuet For Guitar: On Twenty-Five Shots. Freedom has always come with a heavy price tag in this region, and we are grateful for brave Slovenia in making history. Will each be free. No more shall foes, but neighbours be!
With a gigantic effort, man, with his knowledge and imagination, breaks out of his cramped environment into everything he is. Which is on Earth. And it spreads into everything — whatever there is, everywhere, in all times and spaces of the universe. Then every now and then he must return to this and here. Into your dangerous surroundings. And run again into the air, into the water, into the earth’s labyrinths. Into the volcanic lava, into the constellations.
– Vitomil Zupan, Minuet For Guitar: On Twenty-Five Shots
This is part of a series on my three-month journey revisiting the Balkans in 2022.
Next: La Dolce Vita: Croatia!
Traversing the Balkans: Bosnia and Herzegovina
Traversing the Balkans: Kosovo
Traversing the Balkans: North Macedonia
Traversing the Balkans: Albania
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan