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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Surrounded by Slovenia

Did you know that in Italy, every bathroom installed is required to have a bidet? This isn’t a detail I ever thought I’d miss. Then I saw Slovenian toilet paper.

Toilet paper reminds me of melaena, and melaena is almost Melania. I had forgotten, until a brochure at the Ljubljana tourist office eagerly reminded me, that the current U.S. First Lady is originally from Slovenia. Given that Melania doesn’t live in the White House or anywhere near Washington, D.C., she’s probably forgotten she’s the First Lady too. At least it's not my taxes paying for her second home.

To be fair to Melania, she is reported to speak six languages, which is five more than most American citizens (as she now is). I’ve been trying to find her birth certificate over here in Slovenia, but have been too busy enjoying the country! 

We got here by way of Trieste, a city that, while almost totally surrounded by Slovenia, is actually part of Italy.

Trieste is a good example of how national boundaries develop over time, and often arbitrarily. We tend to think of modern nation-states as sacred, but they aren’t ahistorical. The boundaries between England and Wales, or Switzerland and Italy, have not always been the same; and Trieste was part of the Roman, Holy Roman, and Austro-Hungarian Empires for most of its history. Even today, the “Italian unity” vaunted by its main piazza is not popular with everyone in town:
Which flag do we wrap ourselves in?
I started this post with toilets and I won't spend the rest of this paragraph on them, but as we’ve established, this is an important part of traveling. And I cannot speak highly enough of our experience so far in Europe, despite the occasional cash requirement or toilette à la turque (just look it up). In particular, the actual flushing effectiveness, which you’d think would be standard in today’s plumbing, puts certain facilities at “home” quite to shame. But that’s not the only thing I like about this continent: From Barcelona and all through Italy, women of all ages are riding motorbikes, making not the slightest concession in fashion, except to wear helmets. I will never get tired of that.

As if to emphasize that, at least historically, we were closer to Austria than Italy, a string quartet was playing outside our apartment in Trieste. The music seemed to drift in for hours, and it took me a while to figure out that it was coming from the courtyard across the street. It turned out every night to have live performances that we could hear. On the last night, I investigated and finally realised the space being used was a lavatoio. I am not sure exactly how to translate this, but it was a laundry where women used to wash linens in traditional basins. San Giacomo's is the last one in Trieste still in existence. 

Now a museum to the “soap industry,” it contained some striking pictures of what these washbasins used to look like in use. A spread from America’s Life magazine in the 1950s made Italian urban life look much, much longer ago. I couldn’t read the Italian, of course, but this museum reminded me a bit of John’s in Connemara—somebody’s old stuff idiosyncratically put together, a labor of love.
There’s no sign anymore of the lavatoio in Muggia, a seaside town just on the border with Slovenia. We got the boat here on impulse across the Gulf of Trieste. Beaches, I discovered in Trieste, are just sidewalks that people sunbathe on or climb off into the Adriatic Sea. It looked kind of fun, but there was something Yugoslav about it too, with the ugly freighters chugging past out of the harbor.

Chiesa Greco-Ortodossa di San Nicolò
Chiesa Serbo-Ortodossa di San Spiridone
All the countries we’ve been in since the U.K. are Roman Catholic, but Trieste has a Greek Orthodox Church, a Serbian Orthodox Church, and a synagogue all within walking distance. Despite official policy, it seems there was religious pluralism during the long reign of Empress Maria Theresa, the only female and last ruler of the Hapsburg dynasty.

Sinagoga, detail
Speaking of the Hapsburgs, they also ruled Slovenia. During the twentieth century the Slovenes were united with Croats and Serbs in Yugoslavia, which is why I never learned about this country in school, but for most of its history Slovenia was part of Austria or various earlier incarnations of that empire. The greatest mountain battle ever fought was here, during the First World War, between Italy (then on the side of the Allies) and Austria-Hungary. From 1915 to 1917 Italy tried eleven offensives, finally being driven back at the twelfth. The cost was 300,000 dead.

Today, Ljubljana is a gorgeous small capital with little sign of its Yugoslav past. Slovenia proudly claims to be the greenest, i.e. most ecological, country in Europe, and it looks it, with solar panels and green trees everywhere. I haven’t seen such care taken with separating recycling bins since I lived in Toronto. 

Our great experience started with our Airbnb host, who went above and beyond in offering to pick us up from the bus station! On the way here, he pointed out various things, including the local church, which is how we learned that “all” Slovenians (more like 58%) are Roman Catholic. T. said she was too, and he expressed surprise that there are Catholics in England, considering Henry! So that is how we ended up talking about Henry VIII on the drive into Ljubljana.

We were lucky enough to arrive on a Friday night, which meant the Open Kitchen was going on. Street food for sale in the cathedral square from all sorts of vendors, and you could pay a deposit and carry around a real wine glass. Imagine, trusting adults to drink out of glass and not break it! I was surprised how many different languages and accents I heard there, yet Ljubljana doesn’t feel overcrowded. 

It has a lot going for it, Slovenia. It’s inexpensive, under the radar yet easy to navigate, and English would appear to be the unofficial second language. I learned “Hi” and “Thank you,” of course, but I’ve rarely had to use my third emergency phrase, “Do you speak English?” Slovenians just do. They must know that Slovene, unlike French or Spanish, is not a language foreign visitors are likely to have learned.

The food is good. You can get hearty, Central European-type fare, but the real glory would seem to be the desserts. Kremna rezina, a cream cake traditionally served in Bled, was nice; Prekmurska gibanica was nicer. I can best describe the latter as a mixup of cheesecake, a kind of nut roll we used to get in Lakeside, Ohio, and warm baklava.

I thought walking up to Ljubljana Castle was overrated. You get better views from the top of Nebotičnik, “Skyscraper,” but don’t bother ordering at the terrace cafe—they didn’t have anything we wanted, even though it was listed on the menu! Just go up there and admire the 360-degree views. It’s only 12 stories, but when it was built in 1933, this Art Deco skyscraper was the tallest building in the Balkans.

But cruising the Ljubljanica River was fun, as was Šmarna Gora, “Mount Saint Mary.” Well, ask T. if the hike was fun. It was short, but hard; relentlessly uphill, and in such heat! As I’ve mentioned, I’m training to trek Mt. Kilimanjaro for the charity Oxfam (see sidebar). The preparations aren’t always easy, but the views of the Julian Alps were worth it.
View from Šmarna Gora

Slovenia itself just feels easy. Not just language and value for money, but how easily accessible Šmarna Gora is from Ljubljana; just hop on a bus like the locals. Another bus, a little further, and you’re in Bled, which is the picture postcard view of Slovenia.
Church of the Assumption, Lake Bled, with the Julian Alps in the background
It must be breathtaking at other times of year too. As it’s August and we’re having a heat wave, we walked the (relatively easy) 6 km around the lake, then plunged in! Again, just like the locals. 
Bled castle, above the public swimming area
Ljubljana is the most “backpacker” location I feel that we’ve been in so far. Many people here are obviously on vacation including Slovenians, but there’s no mistaking the many people carrying their possessions around, many in backpacks larger than ours. (They are younger.) I even bumped into one familiar-looking guy on the street. He had been on our bus from Trieste, so we had the where have you been, where are you going conversation. So refreshingly different from “Where are you from?” Or, worse, “What do you do?”

It’s a different world out here. Slovenia, the first new (to me) country on these travels. I love it!

P.S. We've had a lot of gelato in the past few weeks, but Cacao on the riverbank in Ljubljana is the best. In fact, their white peach ice cream is the best ice cream I've ever had in my life, except (maybe) the peach you used to be able to get on Lake Erie in Ohio, with pieces of real peach in it. I might go get some more!


VK Powell said...

Still loving your updates and am quite impressed with the availability of internet connections to keep us posted. Well done, you!

Hugs to you both.

VK Powell said...

Still enjoying your travels and am impressed with the availability of internet connections to keep us updated.

Hugs to you both.

Unknown said...

Jacqui ....I think I might have commented in an earlier posting how beautiful I thought Trieste was (40 years ago) ....I loved your description of Slovenia and the pictures and the detail..those wonderful surprising interesting details...I find those kind of "travel details" fascinating and I love your blog because you reminded me of all those 'glittering discoveries'....except I never had the discipline to get the spelling right or I'd lose my notes before I left the county....Slovenia sounds wonderful...who knew!? thank you thank you thank you for each of your posts...they are such an enjoyable to read and think about and wish we were with you two! one last thing would one go about pronouncing LJUBLJANA? Gheez! Love your accounts! UB

J. E. Knowles said...

Thank you so much, VK!

J. E. Knowles said...

UB--T. says catch a plane and we will meet you in the Czech Republic.

Anonymous said...

Splendid pictures, captivating descriptions, and two gustatory references to Lakeside--we could almost taste the nutroll and peach ice cream! Groove & Pop