Tuesday afternoon, my new Lebanese friend Eli, who I met at immigration classes, called me and asked if I wanted to go to Slovenia for the weekend…Slovenia?! I didn’t actually know where it is, exactly (bad geography teacher!), but my first response to any question that begins with “do you want to go to…” is, yes.
I know it’s in Eastern Europe, which is an area I have traveled very little (just Czech Republic), but then with a moments more research (thanks wikipedia!), I discover that it’s a part of former Yugoslavia. Now, being a child of the Cold War, I think Yugoslavia, I think dank, overcrowded orphanages, bloody Balkan wars, dismal grey communism , not good things. But also, being a traveler, I think ‘cheap!’ and ‘cool stuff to see!’
A little more research shows that actually, Slovenia is the richest, most Western Balkan country, and the most stable. They avoided all the Balkan war nastiness actually. They were the first former Yugoslavian country accepted into the EU, and have a standard of living on par with anywhere else in Western Europe, although they are currently experiencing high unemployment (like a lot of Europe).
Anyway, we left Friday afternoon at 2, driving Eli’s car, across Italy (crossing northern Italy takes a long time, 8 hours), Eli, me, and his french colleague Fred. Road Trip!! We got into Slovenia late, and the plan was to stay with some girls who Eli had met though the website www.couchsurfing.org , a pretty interesting little thing for those who don’t know. Won’t spend much time explaining the site, but it’s a pretty cool site that connects travelers with other travelers, and/or places to crash for a few nights. So, the girls said we could stay with them for the weekend. The first girl, Barbara lived out in the countryside (most of Slovenia is countryside) with her parents, and they were all very sweet and nice, and her mom made a lovely breakfast for us, and her father sent us along the way with some bottles of Medini (spelling?) a local liquor distilled with honey (yummy drunk).
A word about Slovenia: it’s a quite varied country, as a part of it is on the Mediterranean, a part is impassable mountains, and a part is rolling plains, all in a tiny country you can drive border to border the long ways in about 3 hours. Much of it is rural and sparsely populated, a lot of thick mountain forests. Also, I was corrected, Slovenia is Central, Not Eastern, Europe. In our American Cold War thinking, we often divide Europe into Free West, and Communist East. But in fact, there’s the whole middle ground of Central Europe that get’s brushed into east, but isn’t, geographically or culturally.
In fact, while Yugoslavia was communist, it wasn’t Stalinist, and they retained a fairly autonomous country which did business with the West and East. Marshal Tito was the dictator for many years, but for a dictator, he was a pretty mild one. Yugoslavian communism was the most humane communism on the market actually. But in the end, no one likes dictatorships and being poor, so they turned free market republic when the rest of the communist countries dropped the act too. I talked with the girls’ parents about life under Tito, and they said that Slovenians often think that life, while more shabby under communism, was more fair and just to the masses, rather than the feast or famine economies of capitalism.
Anyway, later that day, we saw some famous ski slopes and the town of Mirabor (second biggest in Slovenia, with a whopping 100,000 population), and there, the ancient grandfather of wine, the oldest living and grape producing wine vine in the world (400 years old). Then, off to the capital Ljubjana, to meet up with Rebeka and Ana. A note about Slovenian language. It’s weird. They don’t use a lot vowels. C sounds like “ch”, DR sounds like “ch”, Z sounds like “ch” in fact, pretty much the whole language is either a “ya” sound (like Ljubjana, which is pronounced Loobyanna), a “ch” sound, or “szz” (I still can’t make that sound) sound. The word for hello is “Pozdravljeni.« I didn't say Hello very often...
The word for “square” (like plaza) is spelt “trg”. Yup. No vowels. There’s a few other words that I can’t remember but they were spelt something like this “Drznjsco” or something. With help from our hosts, I was able to learn a few phrases of Slovenian though. Not quite as good as Eli though, being Lebanese, he is fluently multilingual, and was able to pick up a bit more than I. Poor Fred, being French, had a harder time at it, as French can’t generally speak any other language besides French.
We met Ana’s parents, and they made us a lovely dinner. A word about Slovenian culture. While a Slavic people, they are very culturally close to the Austrians, and as such, their culture is kind of a cross between the boastful Slavic, and the restrained Germanic. An interesting mix. Also, they all speak very good English. Their architecture tends to remind me of the solid and square northern European buildings, with little ornamentation.
Anyway, we spent the night drinking heartily in the lovely capital city of Ljubjana until late. The next day we went to check out these enormous caves of Postojna in the countryside. These caves were HUGE. Caves are typically pretty tight and claustrophobic, but not these ones. You could fit hundreds of people comfortably in them. I’m not a big caver, but these were pretty spectacular, giant open spaces where Batman could comfortably live. Check out the photos on link above.
That night we had some terrible Slovenian diner food and walked around getting drunk in the rain. It was fun. The next morning, back on the road, 10 hours to France! It was a lovely three days graciously provided by our lovely hosts, Rebeka, Ana, and Barbara. But on the road back to France, there was one other thing to check out, Pradjama, the Castle in the Cave. Basically, some medieval lord decided to build a fortress into a giant cave on a cliff, to make it nearly impregnable. Check out the photos. We toured the castle/cave, which was cool, but the coolest part, the cave under the castle was closed because the winter rains had caused the subterranean river to rise. Bummer, but still, pretty cool. All in all, a great little road trip with a great group of people.