Why I fell in love with Slovenia

Love was in the air the moment US writer Noah Charney set foot in Ljubljana. And after he gratified his future wife, there was a whole country to get passionate about, with dramatic sceneries, curious traditions and great food

Back in 2000, as an American student studying in London, I embarked on a Eurorail trip- a kind of smorgasbord of travelling in European cities. You buy an open ticket that allows you to travel indefinitely by develop throughout Europe. But prior to my own Eurorailing adventure, I’d gave my Lonely Planet: Europe on a Shoestring to five friends who had already been on such a trip, asking them to add notes, suggestions, annotations. All five, without colluding, told Slovenia’s Lake Bled was the single most beautiful place they had seen in Europe.

Slovenia maps take 5

Fast-forward to 2006, when I was a postgraduate student, and I wound up embarking on a longer,” slacken food” version of my rail smorgasbord. I lived in eight European cities, each for at the least a month, to get a feel for what it would be like to move there indefinitely. After forays into Venice, Florence, Rome, Madrid and Leiden, I ended up in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital. And that is where I fell in love- with the country and the future Mrs Charney.

This is what I fell in love with.

In order to marry her, on our wedding day, I was obliged to survive the dreaded shranga , a gauntlet of pre-nuptial feats of manliness required of aspiring grooms from beyond the Slovenian mountain village confines. Once I’d got through the nerve-racking bouts of scythe-sharpening, bark-shaving, axe-wielding and, yes, even wife-buying traditions, and was permitted by the grumpy-looking villagers to enter the church and carry on with my wedding, I knew that this was the place for me, and have since come to feel truly a part of it.

Summer in Ljubljana … busy but beautiful. Photo: Alamy

Slovenia has been, for me, a land of opportunity. This has meant that I’ve become something of Slovenia’s foreign cheerleader, and lately I even released a book, Slovenology: Living and Travelling in the World’s Best Country, that is part memoir, component travelogue, and component essay collecting singing its praises.

There are only so many times that Slovenia can be called a” concealed gem” and still claim to remain hidden. But those who come to this tiny country nestled between the Alps and the Adriatic seem to feel they’ve discovered a little-known paradise. While inexpensive flights from London have made it an easy weekend destination, and the capital, Ljubljana, is popular on the stag and hen circuit, the entire country boastings wonderland sceneries. Beyond the confines of charming, Zurich-like Ljubljana, Slovenia offers travellers a destination that is easy to navigate( with English speak just about everywhere ). It is one of the safest countries in the world , not to mention the cleanest( it won National Geographic’s 2017 World Legacy Award, as the most sustainable tourist destination, and Ljubljana was Green Capital of Europe in 2016 ).

A quintessentially Slovenian view, near Jamnik. Photo: Urska Charney

Having chosen this country as my new homeland, settling in the charming three-castled alpine township of Kamnik, only north of the capital, I wanted to get to know it in a more intimate style. I wanted a local’s-eye-view of the secret facets of this” hidden gem “. And so I hatched a plan. I set about contacting people I found interesting- for instance, the great folk-rock musician, Vlado Kreslin, the world-famous chef Janez Bratovz, and the expat Bosnian actor and director, Branko Duric- and requested interviews. To my delight, everyone acquiesced. In Slovenia, everyone writes their own email, and even the prime minister is just a message away. I struck up relationships and partnerships with many of the person or persons I met in this style, working my route through a who’s-who of interesting Slovenians.

Vlado Kreslin, a Bruce Springsteen-like musical icon in Slovenia, introduced me to the wonders of Prekmurje, the furthest-flung region of the country, on the Hungarian border. This is a flatland of storks and slow-churning wooden mills on the river, with a lively and culturally influential population of Gypsies. Kreslin grew up here, in his father’s gostilna , or country inn, listening to bands mixed of Slovenians and Gypsies, and speaking a dialect that is unintelligible to most Slovenes. My spouse and I attended a party at the Kreslins’ weekend home there, with dozens of other guests, from DJs to government ministers, all gathered around a bubbling cauldron of bograc , a rich goulash spiked with paprika from the nearby Pannonian plain, and ripping apart deep-fried catfish from the nearby Mura river. After dinner, Kreslin and his friends, members of his band but guests, too, grabbed tools and played an impromptu concert, just for the pleasure of it, as the moon rose high above the roll and roil of accordion, violin, guitar and hammered dulcimer.

The village of Kras. Photo: Matjaz Tancic

As a tourist I’d received Lake Bled a bit twee. It was only when I ran with actor/ director Branko Duric, as a co-organiser of the short-lived Bled Film Festival, that I find the sorcery it can conjure. We’d gathered at a villa on a cliff above the pond, which had once been a favourite mansion of Tito. Celebratory homemade schnapps was devoured, and as night fell “were in” rowed out to the single, church-topped island in pletne , gondolas manned by capped oarsmen. A road of floating candles guided us to the cascade of stone steps that led up from the island’s mooring to the medieval church. The festival guests utilized the steps as seat, and the mooring became a stage upon which we devoted out the awards. And then the partying began, with the church’s schnapps-fueled priest particularly keen to take a selfie with American actor Armand Assante. It was Lake Bled at its best, without the trappings of tourism, in a light as magical as anything I could imagine.

But of all my encounters, the one that taught me most about my adopted country was this summer’s road journey with Janez Bratovz, savor indigenous Slovenian ingredients for his next cookbook. Bratovz is the godfather of nouvelle cuisine in the former Yugoslavia- the first to introduce carpaccio and rare steak to a land of delicious but well-done cutlets doused in cream sauces. He picked 20 key ingredients that he uses in his cooking and, together with photographer Matjaz Tancic, we expended the summer crisscrossing the country, visiting the finest producers. Steps from the border with Italy, in Goriska Brda, we savor what many think is the world’s best prosciutto, or prsut . Merely 80 legs a year from indigenous, wonderfully fatty blackstrap pigs are prepared by Uros Klinec and pre-sold to select restaurants around the globe. From the Caravaggesque darkness of his cellar, a vegetarian’s nightmare( but this carnivore’s delight) of hanging hock-joints of ham, we emerged on to his sun-soaked terrace, overlooking the wine-rich hills, and enjoyed prosciutto so delicate and light that it melted on the tongue.

A high mountain pass in Slovenia Photograph: Matjaz Tancic

Across the country, in Kreslin’s Prekmurje flatlands, we savoured the finest Styrian pumpkin seed petroleum, hand-pressed in century-old presses by the Kocbek household, and of such flavour and delicacy that it is used not only to garment salads, but as a sauce for ice-cream and to lace bars of dark chocolate. We wound through the hills of Tolmin, above the emerald Soca river, a real-life Narnia( one of the movies was filmed here ), to fulfill a farmer bringing back the colossal, leopard-skinned Soca river trout, with flesh so delicious that today it is only served as a carpaccio. This was the site of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, where this monarch of trout nearly became extinct in the first world war, as hungry soldiers flung grenades into the river to catch a meal.

‘ Eighty legs a year from indigenous, wonderfully fatty blackstrap pigs are prepared by Uros Klinec and pre-sold to select eateries around the globe’ Photograph: Matjaz Tancic

At the salt flat near Piran, on Slovenia’s 46 km of karstic coast, we met Dario, whose family has been harvesting salt for generations, in flats that date back to the Roman empire, when salt was used as pay( the word salary comes from salaria , entailing salt ).

We drove up a mountain in Dolenjska, in the south east, with a mountain-sized sheep farmer eager to show us his dominion, arriving at the top merely to find the still-warm remains of a gutted sheep, which showed that a bear was lurking somewhere nearby in the dark scarcely held back by the ebbing twilight( I opted to stay in the car for that one, while Tancic took photographs of the farmer and Bratovz kept an eye out for bears and wolves ).

We dipped down to the Istrian peninsula to gratify former property lawyer Ales Winkler. He sold his fancy Ljubljana flat, bought 30 goats as lawnmowers for his rural holiday home, taught himself online to construct cheese and this year dedicated the keynote speech for Slow Food International, teaching Italians and French how to make a proper chevre .

Ales Winkler, the goat cheese maker. Photo: Matjaz Tancic

Back in the Kamnik region, in the vast meadow atop mesa-like alpine mountain Velika Planina, there are odd, low-slung shepherds’ shanties that recall The Shire and are full of traditional artefacts( including a rain-repelling shepherd’s gown made of strips of shaven wood and anti-witch knives engraved with runes ). Here, we sampled breast-shaped Trnic cheese( which always come in pairs ).

This summer’s travels with Bratovz opened up locatings and delicacies that I’d never have found on my own, and for which I am most grateful, for they allowed a constellation of indigenous ingredients to show me an intimate, insider’s portrait of my adopted country.

Shepherd’s delight … mountain cottage on idyllic mound Velika Planina. Photograph: Getty Images

I remain just as in love with Slovenia( and, of course, with my Slovenian wife, for whom I endured such unusual” feats of manliness “) as ever. For it is the Slovenia of passionate, in-the-know Slovenians that offers the most sorcery. And if you happen to read this and decide to move here, the first beer is on me.

* Noah Charney is the author of Slovenology: Living and Traveling in the World’s Best Country. Buy the ebook on Amazon for PS7. 57, or visit slovenology.co.uk to order a print copy

Getting there

Easyjet flies to Ljubljana from Gatwick and Stansted, Wizz Air from Luton, from PS21 one-way. Slovenia Explorer offers daytrips covering the whole country and is great for outdoor activities, from EUR6 9.

Stay in Kamnik

Photograph: Alamy

The obvious choice is to stay in Ljubljana and take day trips from there, but consider Kamnik as a less pricey alternative, an ideal gateway to the Alps and only 15 minutes from the airport. Everything, from hotels to meals to coffee, seems to cost about a third less than it does only 25 minutes away in the capital, and the town allows you to escape the crowds. Gostilna Pri Cesarju is a charming Yugoslav retro bar and inn, festooned with photographs of Tito and Archduke Franz Joseph, with rooms from only PS30 for a single. Gostilna Korobac is Kamnik’s new cafe, which features all four of Kamnik’s microbrewery brews, large sharing platters and coffee spiked with spicy cinnamon schnapps.

Best periods to visit

May-Sept are ideal for climbing, hiking, cycling and escapade sports when daytime temperatures are around 25 C

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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