An Excellent Eastern European Adventure – Part 1 - Slovenia
After reading Te᷃a Obreht’s novel, The Tiger’s Wife, I was intrigued enough to plan a trip to the former Yugoslavia to explore the countryside and the cities, the places where her characters came alive, jumping off the pages into my heart. Although I didn’t make it as far east as Belgrade, “the City” as referenced in the book, I was able to feel that I found my way into this land of struggle, of Balkan wars, of recovery and renewed vibrancy.
Unlike most American travelers, I have the advantage of having a close friend who lives in Europe and is just as adventurous as I am when it comes to exploring new places. In fact, I would say that my friend Lily is the reason I have the courage, because she has such great instincts and this uncanny ability to talk with anyone she meets. She also has a car and a husband, who was generous enough to travel with us on this trip, and who did all of the driving. I know, I know…I have a charmed travel life. But hey, give me credit that I own up to it right at the start. This trip was incredibly economical because of the circumstances. And it allowed for exploration.
After flying into Florence and spending a few relaxing days in Lily’s Tuscan country home (I’m sighing too), we drove about four hours, north and east, into Slovenia. Our destination the first day was Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia. On the way we were hoping to find the caves near Postojna, and hopefully see Predjama Castle. We didn’t have any reservations, no GPS, and no smart phones. We did have a road map. I love acting my age. Ha.
Luckily, very clear signage is ubiquitous in Slovenia. We easily located Postojnska Jama, the huge labyrinth of Karst caves discovered in the 17th century and made accessible to the public in 1819. A small train transports groups of about 100 people at a time deep into the cavern, where the temperature is a chilly 45 degrees Fahrenheit. After a brief walk through a portal, guided tours are available in six different languages. Due to the large English group, we opted to join the Italian group of about ten. The caves are awe-inspiring, with tremendous lattice-like structures hanging like veils from the ceiling, stalagmites and stalactites punctuating the cold air, made even more amazing when hearing that it takes about 100 years to form even just a few millimeters of these structures that now tower like lime-encrusted pipe organs. The walk with the guide was about two miles in length, wrapping around to end at a large aquarium-like structure that housed the only living species found inside the cave – an eyeless newt-like creature that can survive, if necessary, for up to ten years without food. It is easy to imagine that this cave may have been the inspiration for JRR Tolkien as he began creating the fantasy world that would lead to The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and other mystical adventures set in “Middle Earth”.
Next stop, just a few kilometers up the mountain, was Predjama Castle, a castle built in Medieval times, expanded during the Renaissance, with restoration still in progress. The castle is perched on a cliff above the Karst hole of the Lokva Stream, and was an especially effective hideout, as it has numerous secret exits into the caves behind and below it. The first castle was built on the site in the 12th century, and its most famous resident, Erazem, lived there at the end of the 13th century. Legend has it that he drove the King’s bounty hunters crazy by eluding them for years until finally he met his end…
Back on the road, our plan was to locate the center of Ljubljana, explore, and find a room for the night. We consulted the local tourist information center, where they were happy to call and find us a room. We arrived in this capital city on a Friday night, and were immediately captivated by an amazing youthful culture. Ljubljana was vibrant; pulsating, like the quickening one feels seeing a beautiful dancer untying her hair to reveal long luxurious locks sweeping down over her shoulders. Wow. Everywhere I turned there was beauty, ancient and fresh. The architecture was lovely, muted pastels along a soft meandering river, an old cobbler’s bridge, outdoor café’s beckoning… It was pure magic, this place. There were folk dances in the town square, choral concerts along the river, and the sense of a deep and rich cultural heritage was omnipresent. Ljubljana has an incredible history of music, art, drama, dance, architecture, and gardens.
It is difficult to fathom that during WWII the German army occupied this city, and for three years it was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. After the war, it became the capital of Slovenia, one of the six republics constituting the social Yugoslavia. On December 23, 1990, Slovenia became an independent country, and entered the European Union in 2004. Today it thrives, offering an indescribable array of sensory experiences for both the young and old.
After dodging a chilly rain, we had an excellent dinner which included local cuisine and beer, and later we enjoyed tea in a cozy café. The next day was spent at the central market, architectural triumph of Joz᷃e Ple᷃cnik. We enjoyed soaking in the sunshine as we admired the flower vendors, the performance artists, the fruits, vegetables, homemade sausages, cheeses, and more. Along the river we found a lovely spot set aside as “Library Under Trees” where the city had books, magazines and benches under an arbor of vines. People of all ages were relaxing and reading, children with their parents, teenagers with each other. It struck me how wonderful this was to see in our electronic age. In fact, we saw very little cell phone use in Slovenia, or any part of Eastern Europe. Instead people were talking with each other, sharing real experiences, and building relationships. How fresh. How inspiring.
Library Under the Trees, Ljubljana, Slovenia
Becky Burns, our Soulful Traveler editor, is an
educator living in the Chicago area. Her column will give you insight
and inspiration, taking you to the core or essence of the travel
experience, something we all feel as a result of exploration and
discovery. Look for her monthly postings describing local exploits in
and around Chicago, regional road trips in the Midwest, national adventures from coast to coast, and overseas excursions. You are bound to be inspired and enriched, nodding your head in agreement as a familiar reminiscence comes to light again. You can find her work at www.beckyburns.com or www.soothethespirit.com