Before World War II, you could present yourself at Bled railway station – with a suitable stack of valises for the journey – and buy yourself a ticket to Luxor as easily as you could to Paris. The rich and privileged of Europe did just that, using the lake resort on the sunny side of the Alps as a pleasant halfway house on the way to and from the mystical east as well as being a destination in its own right.
Even then, a half a century before the 1991 opening of the eight-kilometre-long tunnel through the Karavanken mountains which finally linked Slovenia with the Central European freeway system, or the introduction of the two-hour catamaran service across the Adriatic from Venice, the trek to the pure, warm, emerald green waters and thermal springs by the high peaks of the Julian Alps was deemed well worth the effort.
It is from a balcony of the famed Vila Bled that the allure is most apparent. Take, as I did, any eye line out across the water, past the tear-shaped island with its baroque church of the Assumption, up the sheer cliff on the other side to the striking 11th century castle clinging to the peak, and then out to the Karavankens in the dramatically arrayed distant background (with its imposing Mount Triglav), and you readily understand why this once royal realm has been eulogised and celebrated by poets, painters and photographers.
The balcony in question – now part of a suite in the first hotel of a former Eastern Bloc country to be welcomed into the prestigious Relais & Chateaux chain – was once attached to the office of Yugoslavian communist strongman Marshall Tito (whose mother was a Slovene). First constructed by an Austrian noble in 1885 as a smart two-storey villa resembling an English cottage, the Vila Bled was serving as the summer residence of the old royal family until they were driven into exile by advancing Nazis.
Sturdily rebuilt in 1947 to serve as a guest house for Tito’s official visitors, it played host to the likes of Khrushchev, Ceaucescu (whom Tito loathed) Nehru, Nasser, Bokassa, Indira Ghandi, Hussein, Akihito and, well recalled for the inventory which departed with him, North Korea’s Kim Il Sung.
While German Chancellor Willy Brandt is said to have put the finishing touches to his ‘Ostpolitik’ while in residence, affairs of state did not occupy all the occupants all the time. For a hint of how these illustrious visitors passed their hours within the sturdy Dalmatian marble walls, one needs to ask for a private tour – the pearl of which is Tito’s private cinema.
What first appears to be a dowdy room of aging furnishings is transformed into a compelling cultural time warp as large drapes are drawn back to reveal vast continuous murals of strident socialist realism which are even thin on the ground in Russia these days. The colours are assaulting, the imagery even more so – sheaths of wheat, valiantly wielded sickles, ragged peasant tunics, feet bound in tied rags, bright-eyed children – all surging forward into a glorious tomorrow which never arrived.
Easily the most-visited part of Slovenia – a ’boutique’ country traversed by the sun in all of twelve minutes – Bled comes alive in summer, with a plentiful international tourist flow descending upon the food, the displayed art, the evening concerts and a small casino. However, if you arrive out of season it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that mayor Janez Faifar, until recently the manager of the Vila Bled, will load you into his own car and take you with him as he strides about his domain, not just exposing you to the rustic delights of thousand year-old villages but proving resoundingly that what you’ve never been told about nails and bees can actually be essential information.
The giant nails which still hold together the pylons that support Venice were made (along with 129 other varieties) in Kropa, a tiny village wedged into a slim valley under the Jelovica Plateau. By the boiling base of the steep and fast-flowing Kroparica stream which slices through the famous little steel town is an Iron Forging Museum which recreates the world of the dedicated artisans who, for centuries, turned out fine wrought-iron decorations along with their shafts and spikes (some of which found their way to the New World with Columbus and were prised from planking by sailors who swapped them ashore for necklaces and other considerations).
It is another rare craft that forms the core of the attraction of nearby medieval Radovljica, a craft that grew out of Slovenia’s beekeeping mastery. So advanced in all things apiarian is this little land that more than a thousand trucks are put at the disposal of bees in peak season to better facilitate the honey flow. Not content to just write treatises and export queen bees to the world, the keepers of the hives, from the early 1800s, began painting and decorating them with topical and often quite beautiful folk art.
In some, the devil is depicted sharpening an old woman’s tongue or swapping old wives for nubile young women; in another, two peasants quarrel about the ownership of a cow while a lawyer milks it; and, in another, a funeral procession through a forest sees a hunter borne to his grave by gun-toting animals. It is within the ornate Thurn Manor on the historical public square, near the 1822 Lectar Inn restaurant and former gingerbread bakery, that the Beekeeping Museum displays these amazing original panels and cleverly celebrates an industry that has shaped Slovenian life.
Paths are beaten to and beyond the doors of these museums between mid-April and mid-October, when the 2,500 beds in beloved Bled have been claimed. Part of the seduction secret is a certain serenity. There are no motored vessels allowed on the 500-metre-high lake. Twenty families have inherited rights to operate the gondola boats called pletnas that softly snake across the water to what is the only true island in Slovenia. Blekski Otok has borne a Christian church since the 9th century though there is evidence that it was a site of pagan worship for the early Slavs well before that.
Now, the dimensions of landmarks are normally the fine print in guidebooks but it is worth knowing that, when the recession of the Ice Age Bohinj Glacier gouged out Lake Bled, it left a cavity just a whisker over two kilometres long. The length would not have been of any great significance to the primitive Slavs of the 7th century but it certainly was to aspiring Olympians of the 20th century who became aware that the official length of a rowing course was, yes, two kilometres. With a fortuitous, slightly off-centre placement of the island allowing the sleek craft to glide just past it, the rowers of Bled were able to practice, day in and day out; their disciplined labour culminating, at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, in the first gold medal for a new nation.
Heroes they are, in Bled and beyond, their praises sung and their visages displayed in the snug and stylish capital of Ljubljana, where a true cafe society is carried on under a castle backdrop amid a network of decorative bridges and buildings, waterways, narrow streets and busy markets.
It is the level of sophistication that comes as the first great surprise, though it really shouldn’t. Tucked into a curve in the Adriatic alongside Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, with Trieste literally just down the road, Vienna and Rome thirty minutes away by air, and Venice, Salzburg and Munich a few hours away by road, Ljubljana is thoroughly European.
Indeed, with its castles, crafts, alps, lakes, ports, culture, fertile farms, annual jazz festival and layers of linguistics, Slovenia is very much Europe in microcosm. It was French novelist Charles Nodier who, greatly impressed by the national flair for languages, once compared it to “an Academy of Arts and Sciences”.
What irks the fine citizens most in this lush land (after Scandinavia, it is the greenest in all Europe – more than two-thirds wooded) is being, as the popular phrase puts it, tarred with the Balkan brush. It is here in the art-laden coffee bars and restaurants of a safe and civilised city of just 300,000, where young policeman in goatee beards stroll with a smile past art-house cinema clubs frequented by chattering students in jagged fashions, that you keep hearing the exasperated refrain. It comes somewhere between the seasoned pork with field mushroom soup and the fragrant apple or violet ice cream: we were a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire for a thousand years and of Yugoslavia for seventy years but all anybody remembers is the last part.
“Even during the communist years, we were always somewhere in between – not socialist, not capitalist” offered a young man called Tomaz in the grounds of his old university. “We could travel internationally. If you wanted something that wasn’t available, you went to Trieste and bought it. We never felt that we couldn’t talk about anything we wished; we even had great rock’n’roll here.” Slovenia’s exit from the disintegrating Balkan state in 1991 was relatively painless, all over and done with in ten days of half-hearted sabre rattling by Belgrade. And, over the next decade, the entrepreneurial citizens prospered nicely in their bread basket land, untouched by the horrors in Bosnia or Kosovo. It was even overlooked by the criminal gangs that preyed on those disrupted and disputed republics.
The impact of world perception was harsh when it came to tourism. In 1991, a million visitors a year came to the extraordinary Postojna Caves, west of Ljubljana toward the coast. A decade on, the admissions were less than half a million (though they’ve climbed upward since). Far and away the greatest loss was on the part of those who chose not to come to it or to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Skocjan caves, for only around the Spanish/French Basque region are there comparable subterranean complexes.
Long known as “a cheese land” the Slovenia depths are patterned by some 7,000 caves, with only 20 open to the public. Described by English sculptor Henry Moore as “Nature’s most wonderful gallery”, the two-million-year-old Postojna is comprised of more than 25 kilometres of gloriously sculptured chambers, galleries, halls and river beds. Guides have been taking paying customers along the trails for almost two hundred years; with the aid of railway carriages since 1872 and electric illumination since 1884. Over 30 million people have passed through, in constant temperatures of 8-9 degrees centigrade.
The tentacles of these caves extend to the startling Predjamski Castle – a Robber Baron’s retreat castle where boiling oil really was poured from parapets. The dramatic setting of this four-storey structure, in the open mouth of a cavern halfway up a mountainside, made it a hotly contested property some five hundred years ago. The best legends are attached to Slovenia’s Robin Hood, one Erazem Lueger, who used the secret passages and caves to pillage the countryside and return to the impregnable, drawbridged castle. He met his inevitable end while performing his ablutions in a vulnerable water closet, having been betrayed by a servant to an Austrian cannon post.
Legends also abound along Slovenia’s scant 47 kilometres of coastline, much of which was only incorporated into Yugoslavia in the mid-1950s. In summer months, it takes on a decided Cote d’Azur tone, with the coastal towns of Portoroz, Piran, Izola, Koper and Ankaran boasting 120 hotels between them, and around a million and a quarter visitors staying overnight in Portoroz alone – drawn by its beaches and popular health resorts.
At the heart of the appeal, apart from the strong international atmosphere, is the coast’s very Mediterranean climate, noticeably warmer that the rest of the country. In wintry January, temperatures rarely go below 4-5 degrees centigrade and, in July, sit around 21-2. Izola lays claim to the furthermost north olive trees in the world capable of yielding good quality oil; though that is but part of its bounty – citrus fruits, pines, palms, oleander, rosemary, laurel, tomatoes and paprika adding to an agricultural mix more Sicily than Slovenia.
The centrepiece of the coast, occupying the tip of a slender dogleg peninsula, is Piran (Pirano to the ubiquitous Italians). A rich merchant port, a ‘free town’ with its own statute in the 13th century, it is famed for a Venetian Gothic Old Town, layers of high ancient town walls, a flourishing arts community, and a small harbour marina for which the term picturesque is more than apt.
With a name derived from either the Celtic word bior-dun (town on a hill) or the Greek word pyr (fire), this atmospheric old trading chest seaport has been handed from one conqueror to another over the centuries, with each occupant – be they Celts, Romans, barbarians, Byzantines, Obers, Slavs, Franks, the Patriarchs of Aquileai, Venetians, Italians, Germans, Austrians or Yugoslavs – leaving something tangible behind.
Within a 17th century palace along this small harbour, in front of Tartini Square (named after violinist/composer Giuseppe Tartini who found world fame with his infamous Devil’s Trill sonata) is a place of exhibition every bit as engaging as Bled’s nail and bees houses of wonder. Take the marble staircase up to the Sergej Masera Maritime Museum and you enter a time when navies ruled the world and commanded all trade, when fires were lit each night in the Punta district on the tip of the peninsula at Cape Madonna to guide ships heavy with precious cargo into port. A time also when the masts of Venetian ships, the frames of galleons and the walls of Venetian houses were made from high, straight oak trees plundered from Slovenia’s Karst region, where the caves reside (and where some hills are forever denuded).
Slovenia’s icons, as one learns within these walls, didn’t all play their way into chamber music fame or row into Olympic record books. The man who discovered that Baja California, in Mexico, was a peninsula and not an island 350 years ago was Slovenian. One Baron Marko Anton Kapus, a Jesuit Abbot. They’ve put him on a postage stamp. A new nation takes its heroes where it can.
Thanks to Italian nationals, who account for 90 per cent of the custom, the ‘Slovenia Riviera’ has a strong casino culture. During the communist years, locals were not allowed entry to those gaming centres set up to fleece foreign currency from the region and so developed no taste for gambling. However, with only four legal casinos in Italy there is an unquenchable appetite from that part of the world for the spin of the roulette wheel and the slap of the blackjack table which Slovenia, with its swish and highly professional emporiums of chance, is pleased to help satisfy.
Somehow the gamblers fit easily into a visitor flow that includes young British and European internet surfers who lob into Trieste from London on bargain charter tickets and treat the border as if it were not there (in many ways, it isn’t). What they all find is often more than they came seeking, for surprises are plentiful. Take, for but one example, the Casa Del Papa in Ljubljana, a restaurant/bar cum nightclub devoted to Ernest Hemingway displaying a simply astounding array of ‘Papa’ and Cuban visuals over its three floors.
There is something decidedly comfortable about this country, with its often staggering diversity and inexpensive pricing, and something undeniably appealing about a people who are said to have a Mediterranean temperament with a touch of Nordic reserve combined with earthy Slav charm and sincerity. There is a sense of wry and dry humour that seems to be ingrained in those people who survive terms as Soviet Satellites. Ask Janez Faifar about the origins of the name Bled and he may respond: “In German, it means crazy, in Russian, it refers to a whore and, in French, it comes out as ‘a lost village in the mountains’. Maybe two out of three isn’t bad.”
For the moment, these good folk are waiting for the world to catch up. It may insist, at least for the moment, on seeing Slovenia as Balkan rather than Adriatic or Alpine but they will keep politely correcting the record. As they know better than most, everything changes in time.
P.S. For a time, after my departure, Janez Faifar became the Mayor of Bled. An eminently wise elevation.
©2002 Words and photography by Glenn A. Baker