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october 10, 2004 -> making The slovenians appear

Slovenia is the prettiest country that you did not know existed.  Often confused with its poorer cousin, Slovakia (by no less than George W. Bush), little Slovenia has a serious public relations problem.  It has only added to this problem by choosing a capital city whose name no one can pronounce – Ljubljana (say ‘Lee-oob-Lee-ana' quickly.)  Of course everyone knows where Italy is, and most can spot Croatia on the map, but where is Slovenia?  The answer: right between Italy and Croatia, beneath Austria, at the top of the Adriatic Sea, with a toehold on the coast and its head in the Alps.  That's Slovenia. 

Most countries that you do not know are poor: Moldova, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, French Guyana etc.  But Slovenia is fairly wealthy, with a GDP/Capita of $18,300 – comparable with Portugal.  The capital is modern and sophisticated.  The roads are excellent.  The bus and train stations are clean and well-organized.  There is a star system on all accommodation.  Everyone seems to speak English.  Sure, it is a small country, with only 2 million citizens, but there is no reason that Slovenia should be so overlooked.  Maybe the country just needs a rebranding exercise, a catchy new pseudo-Latin name like “Fortoslovis” or “Sloventure.”  Or maybe drop the ‘slov' altogether.  Slovenia sounds a bit too much like ‘slovenly.' 

Slovenia was the wealthiest and most homogenous of the Yugoslav Republics.  Predominantly Roman Catholic, Slovenia had long benefited from its proximity to imperial Austria.  When Yugoslavia began to unravel, Slovenia was the first to declare independence, in 1991.  Milosevic sent in the Yugoslav forces (by that time, mostly Serbs), who were ignominiously repelled in a 10-day war.  Slovenia was the first former Yugoslav Republic to join the EU, in May 2004.  The strong, stable economy also means that the country is far from cheap.  It has not reached Western European levels, but it is far dearer than its Balkan neighbors. 

Our first stop in Slovenia was Ljubljana, an attractive, clean, thoroughly European city built astride the Ljubljana River.  Art deco facades stood alongside older buildings that seemed transplanted from Prague or Vienna.  Ljubljana is a university town; everyone on the streets seemed in their early twenties.  Hip cafes and restaurants jostled for space along the embankment, which itself was enlivened with artsy posters.  A well-organized produce market sat below the hilltop castle.  In one area, vendors were selling the biggest mushrooms I had ever seen.  At the natural history museum, we watched an amazing video about Slovenia's endemic “human fish,” an evolutionary oddity that looks like a large, pink, smiling earthworm with tiny arms and legs.  Ljubljana is worthy of several days exploring, but we were spoiling for the countryside.  After all, Slovenia touts itself as the “Green Piece of Europe.” 

The wonderful thing about a small country with good transportation is that it does not take long to get anywhere.  Our comfortable bus ride from the capital to Bled, took just over one hour.  Bled is a European travel fantasy.  Densely forested hills drop down to an elliptical lake.  In the western half of the lake rises Slovenian's only island, a leafy hillock occupied by a beautiful Baroque church.  General Tito's grand vacation palace on the southern shore is now a small luxury hotel.  On the eastern shores, a medieval castle squats atop a sheer, grey cliff.  Interesting only to me, the castle had once been the seat of the Bishopric of Brixen.  Locals and visitors walk, run, bicycle and rollerblade along the mostly paved path around the lake.  Rowers skim across the lake's smooth surface; this is the training water of Slovenia's gold medal-winning Olympians.  Small wooden row boats conveyed tourists to the island.  We liked the place, and decided to base ourselves in Bled, with excursions into the Julian Alps and the nearby villages. 

Switzerland, Austria, northern Italy, southeast France - these are the places normally associated with the Alps.  That is why alpine adventures in Slovenia can be so much more enjoyable, and so much cheaper.  The Julian Alps may be the trailing edge of the range (the tallest mountain, Triglav, stands at only 2860 meters) but height is not everything.  Almost the entire expanse of the Julian Alps sits within the Triglav National Park.  We rented a car in Bled and drove to the top of the Vršic Pass.  The views were incredible.  A number of hiking trails branched off from a parking lot at the top of the pass.  We climbed for an hour to a grassy saddle offering tremendous views of the surrounding peaks.  I had hoped to climb to the top of Mala Mojstrovka Peak, but the trail soon became a technical scramble up a precipitous rock face.  It was so steep and dangerous that footholds and cables had been drilled into the rock; we gave up and returned to the saddle for lunch. 

Numerous daily buses link Bled with Bohinj, a much smaller town on the shores of an even larger lake.  The road passes through small farming villages that can only be described as cute (‘quaint' being passé.)  It was cold when we arrived in the early morning; mist completely obscured the lake.  We began to walk along the lake shore.  By the time we reached the western edge of the lake, the mist had risen.  The fall colors were astounding; the autumn palate reflected on the lake surface.  Bled was encircled by hills, but Bohinj was towered over by mountains.  We hurried to the cable car station and rode to the top for an excellent view of the Julian Alps.  On a completely clear day, Triglav is visible from the terminus of the cable car. 

We had seen a lot of Slovenia, but evidently, not enough.  Slovenians are very proud of their caves.  Instead of being impressed that we had visited their country at all, most were indignant that we missed “the best part.”                                                                                                     

“We visited Ljubljana,” we protested, and “and Bled and Bohinj!  We went hiking in the Julian Alps!” 

“Yes,” the Slovenians reply, unmoved.  “These are nice places too, but…” 

“And we've seen a lot of caves.  Australia, China, New Zealand…anyway, we still have yet to see the longest cave system in the world…” we added maliciously, “Mammoth Caves, in Kentucky.”  (To be fair, the Postojna caves are reported to be magnificent.) 

We had never met a Slovenian prior to visiting the country.  Since our visit, however, we have encountered Slovenians in Jordan, Egypt, and Hong Kong.  It got me thinking.  Maybe the Slovenians were always there, invisible to everyone but those who had visited their magical little country.

Scott

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