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Ljubljana, Slovenia

Touring with the Hat Guy

timGreg earned his moniker of "Hat Guy" almost one year ago when I met him on the South Pacific island of Samoa. He wore a homemade pixyish hat fashioned from the shed bark of a palm tree and everywhere he went, he left the Samoans in hysterics. I knew then he would be someone worth keeping up with.

At the time I met him, I confused his country Slovenia with Slovakia - a big mistake in hindsight, now that I have a firm grasp of central European geography, but it is a small and new enough country that I should probably spout of a few facts about it before continuing...

Slovenia broke from Yugoslavia in 1991 with one of the strongest economies in eastern Europe. So although it shares borders with Croatia and Hungary to the southeast, it feels much more like its other developed neighbors to the northwest - Austria and Italy. And with a land area as small as Wales and a population of only two million, it is an easy country to tour when you are short on time (especially when your friend has a car!).

We started out in the homey capital city of Ljubljana (sounds like Lyublyana) on a bright Saturday morning, where it seemed everyone was out buying vegetables from a well-organized open market adjacent to the Ljubljana River and the colorful buildings of town. I loved the feel of the city - so full of life and energy, yet with a quaint small-town feel. It is a place where residents actually wait for walk signals before crossing empty intersections and lock their bikes with skimpy chains that could be broken by a single look from a New York City bike thief.

After a quick tour of the city, we screeched up to the castle above town in the blue Mazda convertible that Greg bought as a "fun summer car." Under maximum G's and the sound of a revving engine I learned about his car-racing hobby and the racecar he used to own.

But once I trusted his driving skills, I enjoyed his fast tour of Slovenia. We jumped off the highway to the local roads and approached the Julian Alps on sporty fun-to-drive pavement full of curves and hills. With the top down, the alpine air felt so clean and crisp, while the view of blue sky and cottony clouds hovering over mountain ranges looked spectacular. Greg spouted out Slovenia's old tourism motto, "Welcome to the Sunny Side of the Alps."

We stopped first in Bled, a resort-ish town planted alongside a beautiful green-blue lake. The surrounding mountains added to its charm - covered in droopy pine trees and hosting Bled Castle from high above on a cliff across the water.

Island Church sat on a small piece of land in the center of the lake. When Greg described Slovenia's newlywed tradition of carrying brides up the 100+ stairs of its bell tower, I saw a boat full of well-dressed people singing and rowing out to visit. The bell rang later for good luck, also signaling, no doubt, that a sweaty groom was close to an early heart attack.

We left Bled via steep alpine roads and paused for a short scramble up to the head of the Izvir Soco River, where frigid blue water pours straight from a crack in the mountain. And after a peasant-style lunch in an old farmhouse immortalized by a series of children's movies, we moved out of the mountains and entered a completely different geographical area - the Brda Valley wine region.

One could mistake the Brda Valley's Mediterranean climate, rolling hills, vineyards, and red tile stone homes for Italy's Tuscany region. Indeed, northern Italy is so close you can see the border off in the distance. We climbed up to the top of a tall observation tower and had a 360-degree look around.

Back on the tour, we stopped briefly at the small historic village of Stanjel, which hung somewhere between a quaint small town and ruins. The landscape changed to grassy rolling hills with leafy deciduous trees and we stopped again to catch the tail end of a casual get together in a small village - where the smoke from barbecued pork chops made me almost give up years of being vegetarian.

But we had to continue on, and headed to yet another region of Slovenia, the Adriatic coast shared with eastern Italy and Croatia. We stopped in the holiday town of Portoroz and on this Saturday, in the middle of summer, the streets were rocking with reveling partiers that made me feel like I was the only sober one in town. We found Greg's friends and spent the night in a local vacation home.

It isn't often that I get to see fun cities, historic villages, alpine mountains, Mediterranean vineyards, and coastal areas all in one day. But that is what makes Slovenia special - so much packed into one little place. top

The 1882 Opera building in Slovenia's capital of Ljubljana, constructed in the neo-Renaissance style by Czech architects Hrasky and Hruby. A dragon guards the threshold of the Dragon Bridge (Zmajski Most), built 1901, in Slovenia's capital Ljubljana. The facade of Ljubljana's produce market lies adjacent to the picturesque Ljubljanica River. The historic buildings along the Ljubljanica River. The Triple Bridge (Tromostavje), originally opened in 1842, crosses the Ljubljanica River in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana.

Julian Alps, Slovenia

Photos

timPhoto check-in. top

The historic Bled Castle in Slovenia's Julian Alps held royalty for over 800 years. It overlooks the beautiful Lake Bled from a steep 100-meter high cliff. Here on Bled Island in the middle of Bled Lake, newlywed husbands carry their brides up the stairs of the church to ring its bell for good luck As they say in Slovenia,

Stanjel Village, Slovenia

Photos

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Sunset streams in through an arch in the small Slovenian village of Stanjel. The village lays somewhere between historic ruins and a living town, hosting a castle and overgrown gardens.

Branik, Slovenia

Fairy Tale

timThe Castle Story as it came to be known should begin with the "Once Upon a Time" start of fairy tales, as it involves all of the classic ingredients of a good story - love, castles, and a princess (of sorts).

The prince, my Slovenian friend Greg, related the story to me on the side of a winding country road within view of a real castle, an enormous stone building nestled among tress on the side of a mountain. The story goes a little like this...

Prince Greg worked hard and provided well for the princess Simona as a successful businessman. But all was not well in the kingdom, as the princess felt neglected by the prince who spent far to many hours at work focusing on his career.

Discussions came and went, yet prince Greg still focused on work over Simona. So the princess left in despair and forced the prince to re-evaluate his priorities more seriously.

He soon understood that his life was unbalanced. But how could the prince make amends?

He started by enlisting the help of his friends and in just five short days, carried out his plan to win the princess back.

Greg's CastleFirst, he needed a castle for his kingdom, which after much negotiation he rented from a private owner. Then he crafted an excuse to lure the princess away from the city and to his new palatial home.

As it turns out, Simona occasionally worked as an event hostess to supplement her income while attending university. So Greg had the general manager of a marketing agency call her with the job of hosting a five year anniversary party of a fictitious company. A company secretary followed up with details and a project manager delivered the princess to the castle on the appointed day, requesting her to report upstairs to start setting up.

A rose greeted the princess on the stairs with a note quoting the first line of a poem by the famous Slovenian poet France Preseren. A few stairs later, another rose appeared with the next line of the poem. Farther up, two more notes completed the stanza, which loosely translated reads:

I hoped and waited for a long time, then said good-bye to hope and fear. My heart is empty, there is no luck. I want my hope and fear back.
Petals from 36 roses lay sprinkled around the floor at the top of the stairs around a single large rose with a note explaining to the princess the real reason she had been summoned to the castle. The note explained that their relationship had been good and could be good again, if only Simona would look over the wall and make a wish. If she did so, whatever she believed at that moment would come true.

But sadly the princess didn't make her wish, she looked instead for the prince who watched her from above. They talked at length, but Simona left the castle and Prince Greg unconvinced - she decided to stay away from the kingdom.

Thought this story should have a happy ending? Me too, and if I wasn't travelling I'd add a "Vote for Greg" button so that we could all have a say. But the tale may not be over yet and if you have any good ideas for Greg to help him reunite with his princess, you can send him a note!


It has been six months since I wrote this story and I am now home, more or less settled and planning new adventures. But all this time the prince has been working hard for his princess. And who should write me this morning but the prince himself, bearing good news from Slovenia. The princess is back in the kingdom and read this web entry for the first time just the other day.

Simona herself finished the story with its only appropriate ending. She added, "and they lived happily to the end of their days." - Jan 29, 2002 top