Slovenia & Loveable Ljubljana
Text & photos by Marla Norman, TCO Publisher
WHERE? WHY? …was the typical response when I mentioned a trip to Slovenia. Hugely popular with Europeans, Slovenia is still relatively unknown in the U.S. But, Slovenia’s pristine countryside, spectacular Alpine ranges, centuries of history and beautifully preserved cities are attracting travelers worldwide.
Like all of the former Yugoslavia states, Slovenia has experienced many different borders, boundaries and governing bodies. Under control of the Habsburgs in 1335, the interior of the country was diced up into Austrian provinces, while the coastal cities allied with Venice. Then, in the aftermath of World War I, the entire country was annexed into Yugoslavia. Finally, in 1992, Slovenia gained independence and was admitted into the EU in 2004.
A tiny country, half the size of Switzerland, Slovenia is easy to explore – from the Julian Alps and exquisite Lake Bled in the north, to the Adriatic coast and Karst region in the southwest. Vineyards are everywhere – over 28,000 produce excellent wine – but the eastern areas of Maribor and Ptuj are the most prominent.
With its castles, cathedrals, museums and shops – as well as outstanding restaurants and hotels – Ljubljana is a wonderful destination in and of itself. And, Slovenia’s capital also makes a perfect base for day trips to explore the rest of this exceptionally charming country.
LJUBLJANA’S WINSOME WAYS
It’s dusk as I take my first stroll along the Ljublijanica River, following its curves and twists past lively cafes and tree-lined parks. A castle sits on top of a hill looking out over the city. Dragon sculptures guard bridges – and there are many – crisscrossing the river at multiple points.
Amidst umbrellas and tables set out on cobblestone streets, I spot Gostilna Sokol, the restaurant recommended at my hotel. (Read more about this and other restaurants in FOOD QUEST.) A waiter dressed in an oversized traditional Slovenian costume makes me think I’ve landed in the ultimate kitschy tourist dive. But he immediately brings out an excellent local wine along with freshly baked bread and grilled vegetables. I relax, knowing I’m in a tourist dive with great food.
As I finish the meal, a violinist begins to play Mozart on a nearby corner. Notes from his heartfelt rendition mix with evening shadows, clinking glasses, the laughter and conversations of other diners. And I realize I’ve already succumbed to Ljubljana’s considerable charms.
BEWARE THE VIGNETTES!
My day began with a drive through lush, picturesque countryside from Vienna to the Slovenian border. But the idyllic ride was alarmingly interrupted when a large van pulled up and forced me over.
A Policist jumped out and demanded a vignette.
I was clueless. “What’s a vignette?
A wasted hour – Slovenian traffic fines take a long time to process – and €150.00 ($200.00) later, I realized I should have stopped at the border to purchase a €15.00 ($20.00) sticker to travel through Slovenia. There are signs along the highways mentioning vignettes, but they’re small and easy to miss. Needless to say, my first impression of Slovenia was not very positive. Fortunately things improved quickly.
CASTLE IN THE AIR
Slovenia is promoted as Europe’s best-kept secret, but clearly the secret is out! As I stand in line to take a funicular to Ljubljanski Grad (Ljublijana Castle), I’m surrounded by dozens and dozens of tourists, mostly from Europe. A group of French women, all 60-plus, is immediately in front of us, chatting happily. Even when the overly-efficient funicular operator smooshes us all together in the same gondola, the sweet French ladies continue their conversations, oblivious to all.
Out of the gondola, I see why the views from Ljubljanski Grad are such a big draw. They’re spectacular! Old Town Ljublijana, charming up close, is even more appealing from on high. Terra-cotta rooftops, slate green cupolas, river walkways are all perfectly framed by the Julian Alps.
The earliest incarnation of the castle dates back to 1200 BC. The Romans occupied the stronghold as well as the Old Town. But no less than Attila the Hun attacked and destroyed the settlement. Much later, in 1335, the Habsburgs controlled the region and constructed the existing castle fortification system, primarily to thwart attacks from the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th Century, the castle was used as a prison.
Today the fortress is a museum with exhibits portraying the political and geological history of Slovenia – yes, rocks from the Carboniferous period over 300 million years ago.
An attractive cafe provides the perfect finish for castle tours. Enjoy lunch or a glass of wine, while gazing out over Ljubljana and the snow-capped Alps.
LJUBLJANA’S ARCHITECTURAL STYLE
An earthquake destroyed much of Ljubljana in 1895, but traces of the city’s Baroque past are still very much in evidence in the Old Town, with its ornate facades, carved doors and slightly-sinister fountains. The ornate and vibrantly-pink Franciskanska Cerkev (Franciscan Church) – a beloved Ljubljana landmark – was built between 1646 and 1660, the altar designed by Francesco Robba.
Robbov Vodnjak (Robba’s Fountain) is another main feature of the Old Town. Sculptor Francesco Robba was inspired by Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers on the Piazza Navona in Rome. His own fountain represents the three main rivers that flow through Ljubljana: Ljubljanica, Sava and Krka.
The reconstruction that followed the devastating earthquake was heavily influenced by Viennese Secessionist style. Jože Plečnik became the primary architect to oversee those projects and is the figure most associated with Ljubljana’s modern identity. Originally born in Slovenia, Plečnik went on to study in Vienna with Otto Wagner, the most prominent of Vienna’s Art Nouveau or Secessionist-style architects. Wagner is also considered the father of 20th-century architecture.
While working under Wagner, Plečnik designed a number of important buildings in Vienna: the Langer House, Zacherlhaus and Heilig-Geist-Kirche (Church of the Holy Ghost). Later, Plečnik was appointed chief architect for the 1920 renovation of Prague Castle – a massive project.
Finally, in 1921, Plečnik returned to his native Slovenia and took over major projects, in particular the Slovene National and University Library and the Triple Bridge – a construction so iconic, it’s considered the official symbol of Slovenia. Plečnik also designed many of the city’s parks and squares or added architectural design elements to existing structures.
The open-air market at Vodnik Square, is another Plečnik design. Well worth a visit, the market is bustling – filled with luscious fruit, vegetables and flowers. An elegant colonnade, runs the length of the market, facing the river – a perfect spot for an impromptu picnic and a chance to observe Ljubljana’s unique beauty.
Slovenia, one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world, is also home to the world’s oldest grape vine and the largest wine cellar in Europe (two miles of underground tunnels) both are located in Maribor. (More about Maribor here.)
Additionally, over 28,000 vineyards produce approximately 80 million liters of wine. Not bad, considering Slovenia is the size of New Jersey!
So, it seems appropriate, after a long day of touring Ljubljana, to relax with a glass or two of Slovenia’s finest wine. Vinotkea Movia (Mestni trg 2) is located in the heart of Old Town, next to the Town Hall. The bar itself is tiny, but the wine selection is enormous with a broad range of Slovenian wines including wines from the Movia Estate itself, a vineyard dating back to the 1700’s.
Movia’s owner, Aleš Kristančič, represents the eighth generation to manage the property — an impressive legacy. Considered one of the finest producers in the region, Kristančič studied winemaking at the University of Padua’s Conegliano campus and served apprenticeships at Bordeaux’s Château Pétrus and Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
A few Slovenian wines to sample, including several from Movia Vineyards:
Movia Lunar Chardonnay – One of the biodynamic wines produced at Movia – hence the name. When first poured, the wine appears cloudy, perhaps because it’s organic. The nose is herbaceous. The flavors are crisp with nice minerality.
Movia Veliko Rdeče – 70% Merlot, 20% Pinot Noir, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged 6 years in French oak. Slovenian wines are typically a single varietal. The fact that this Veliko Rdeče is a blend also makes it interesting.
Zanut Sauvignon Blanc – Matured 11 months in stainless steel tanks. Typically has an intense nose, with appealing butterscotch flavors.
Čotar Vitovska – Luminous gold color, crisp with a dash of citrus and honey. Vitovska is a cross between Prosecco Tondo and Malvasia Bianca Lunga.
In addition to the wines, Vinoteka Movia also serves a tempting assortment of small plates: pâté, prosciutto, and fragrant local cheeses with impressively large chunks of mouth-watering truffles. Dipping sauces ranging from fig marmalade to house-made mustards compliment the meats and cheeses.
Once you’ve selected a wine, relax, sip slowly and savor the big flavors produced by this small but dynamically creative city. Just be sure to hang on to your vignette.