My “bucket list” is empty!
In recent years, this mental list has had only one item: Visit Slovenia!
I finally went there in at the end of April (2016).
“Slovenia? Where’s that?” you ask.
That’s the response I’ve often gotten when I tell people that I recently visited Slovenia. Either that or just a blank look or “Wasn’t that part of Czechoslovakia?”
“What’s the capital city?” one friend asked.
“Ljubljana,” I replied and got an even more perplexed look.
Another friend who is a retired airline captain and widely traveled shook his head and asked, “Does the capital have an airport?”
Indeed it does. Ljubljana’s Jože Pučnik Airport offers connections to cities throughout Europe and is home base to Adria Airlines, the Slovenian flag carrier. About 1.5 million passengers used the airport in 2015.
It’s not surprising that few Americans know about Slovenia. Of the few who have heard of it even fewer know where it is. It’s not surprising: Slovenia has been an independent nation only since June 25, 1991. Before that it had been a part of various states, ranging from the Roman Empire to Yugoslavia, of which it was a part until it gained its independence.
Slovenia is a small country, 7,827 square miles. East Tennessee, for example, is almost twice as big. Its population is just over 2 million people, a little less than East Tennessee’s 2.3 million. It is a slightly smaller in area than Israel and El Salvador, but with far fewer people.
It is strategically located at a cultural crossroads, bordering Italy to the west, Austria to the north, Hungary to the east, and Croatia to the south. On its southwest, just south of Trieste, Italy, it has a 30-mile coastline on the Adriatic Sea.
The origin of the capital’s name, Ljubljana, is unclear but most agree that it stems from the old Slavic “Ljub” to love. That is bolstered by the verb “ljubiti” (to love) and the noun “ljubljena” (beloved) in Slovene. So many call it “the City of Love.”
I first heard of Slovenia 60 years ago in June 1956 when I was assigned to study the Slovenian language at the U.S. Army Language School in Monterey, Calif. Slovenia was then a part of Communist Yugoslavia, and the Army Security Agency had decided it needed some Slovene speakers to monitor the province’s radio broadcast. There were 16 of us in our group, eight in a class.
After a year of training, we were reasonably fluent in the language, and were assigned to an ASA listening post in a former German Luftwaffe base in Bavaria. My job for most of the 18 months in Germany was as an intelligence analyst, reviewing the intercepts and deciding which should be sent to higher headquarters.
We were not allowed to go to Yugoslavia, but we could use our language skills, and I found many opportunities, including becoming a regular at a Slovenian-owned restaurant in
Vienna where I traveled frequently while dating the girl who would become my wife.
Our language training included learning about the culture and people of Slovenia. Listening to their radio broadcasts, including the regular broadcast stations as well as the police networks we were assigned to monitor, gave us a familiarity with the people of the country.
After my three-year hitch in the Army, I used my Slovene only twice: Once in 1959 to interview a Slovenian engineer who was visiting the Tennessee Valley Authority in Knoxville and again in September 1963 when Marshal Josip Broz Tito, president of Yugoslavia, came to Brasilia on a state visit. I made friends with the Slovenian journalists traveling with him and along with them was invited to a private press meeting.
Though I didn’t get to use the language again, I still had a strong desire to visit Slovenia. In the 1980s, I reconnected with one of my best Army friends, Ed Lanham of Clarksdale, Miss. Ed not only had kept up his language skills, but had visited Slovenia regularly and had many friends there. We made plans in the 1980s to go back there together. Sadly, Ed died before we could make the trip.
My son Edgar was transferred by his company to its headquarters in Rome last year, and he and Angela invited us to visit. Ghislaine and I had been to Rome twice before, once on our honeymoon in 1958 and again on our 40th wedding anniversary in 1998. After we arrived in mid-April for a month’s stay, I told Edgar I had only one request: a visit to Slovenia. After all Ljubljana is only about 300 miles from Rome, closer than the 370-mile trip we frequently make to Charleston, S.C.
Edgar was eager to go with us. Before leaving, I had the good fortune to meet Tomaž Kunstelj, Slovenia’s ambassador to the Vatican. He fired my enthusiasm even more. After my return, we had another delightful conversation following Mass at Marymount School, where his children and my grandchildren are students.
We set out for Ljubljana on a Friday afternoon at the end of April, Edgar and I by the high-speed train to Mestre in northern Italy, daughter-in-law Angela, Ghislaine and grandchildren Danny, Carolina and Sofia by car. We decided to meet in Trieste, which lies on a little strip of land bordering Slovenia on the Adriatic coast.
Our train from Mestre to Trieste turned out to be the last of the day and when we arrived there about 8 o’clock that evening everything was closed in the railway station, making it difficult to get information. We decided to spend the night in Trieste, leave the car there and take a tram up the mountain on Saturday to Opicina-Trieste where we were told we could get a train to Ljubljana. We discovered after walking nearly a mile to the train station that there were no trains on Saturday to Ljubljana. We called taxis and rode the short distance to Sežana, just across the border in Slovenia.
It was a bit of a hassle, but for me just arriving finally in Slovenia was a great moment. Ghislaine and I took advantage of our wait to walk around the pretty little town of Sežana. The first thing I was struck by was the how clean everything was, something I would note all during our four-day stay in Slovenia.
The train which took us two stops to Divača, where we were told to detrain and get on a waiting bus for the remainder of the trip to Ljubljana.
We arrived in the capital late in the afternoon and walked the four blocks from the bus-rail station to the City Hotel on Dalmatinova Ulica. I initially wanted to stay at the Slon Hotel, a traditional place I remembered from my language studies because of its unusual name. “Slon” means “elephant” in Slovene. But it was undergoing renovations and we decided on the newer City Hotel, which turned out to be a good choice.
After checking into our rooms, discovering that we were the first guests in the newly renovated rooms in our wing, we took a walking tour of Ljubljana with me as guide. Using a tourist map from the hotel and my 60-year memories of the maps we had studied at ALS, we walked over to Slovenska Cesta (Slovene street), renamed from “Titova” street after independence, I assume. Much of the central business section of town is a pedestrian mall filled with little shops and restaurants.
We walked past the 13-story “Nebotičnik,” once the tallest building in Slovenia whose name means “skyscraper” in Slovene. We cut across the central promenade to Prešernov Trg (square), named in honor of 19th century Slovenian poet France Prešeren whose statue dominates the center of the square. From there went across the Ljubljanica River via the Triple Bridge (Tromostovje) and walked to the Cathedral of St. Nicholas. We continued along the riverside market, closed on the weekend, to the famous Dragon Bridge. We crossed the river again and walked along the row of restaurants and bars along the riverbank, the outside tables filled with young people despite the chilly temperatures.
Our walk ended at the Allegria Restaurant on Nazorjeva ulica in the center of the promenade. We chose the restaurant at random, but it turned out to be an excellent choice; delicious food, a great atmosphere and reasonable prices.
The next day, Sunday, it was drizzling a cold rain. We attended Mass at the cathedral then toured the imposing Ljubljana Castle a medieval fortress that sits atop a hill overlooking the city and reachable by a 230-foot funicular that seems to rise almost vertically providing a spectacular view of the city and, on a clear day, the Alps to the north.
After the castle tour, Edgar, Angela and the children departed for Trieste and the drive back to Rome. Ghislaine and I stayed over for two more nights.
We had hoped to do some shopping and sightseeing as well as visiting the Ljubljana University, which has an exchange program with the University of Tennessee School of Journalism where I taught for several years, but we had not realized that Monday, May 2, was the Labor Day holiday in Slovenia. All the shops were closed and it was still raining. We had a nice lunch in another downtown restaurant and then, since the rain had stopped, decided to take the walking tour of the city with a professional guide. It was similar to the tour I had led on our first day, but included many more interesting landmarks such as the opera house, the Philharmonic building, and the various government buildings. Our guide, a young history graduate from Ljubljana University, was very knowledgeable.
She was a bit startled when I asked her if she knew where the secret police headquarters under the communist regime was located. She said she had not idea, and was curious as to why I was asking.
“Just wondered,” I said. I don’t think she was satisfied, but she didn’t pursue it. I found out later in Rome from Ambassador Kunstelj that we had walked past it several times. Oh, well, next time.
Several people have asked if I was able to remember much of my Slovene. I didn’t remember very much at all, and certainly when people were speaking at a normal rate, I could not understand anything except a word here and there. I have often heard that a language once acquired stays with you, buried somewhere in the depths of your memory. If that is true, mine is buried much too deep to resurrect in a short visit to Slovenia. Perhaps with more time.
Among the things that I did remember, one of the key words was pivo — beer. I like beer and our professors had told us how great Union pivo was. I discovered quickly that a national debate still rages over the relative merits of Union and Laško beers, the two main brands in the country. Union is brewed in Ljubljana and, as might be expected, favored by the residents of the capital. Laško is brewed in the second largest city, Maribor, in the northwest. I tried both several times and was unable to decide which was best. I liked both.
All in all, we had a brief but delightful visit to this city that I had discovered in my language training so many years ago. A beautiful, friendly, clean city, it was far above my expectations. The city is a blend of modern buildings and beautifully maintained older buildings in a variety of architectural styles, some dating back to the Roman Empire. Following a devastating earthquake in 1511, the city was rebuilt largely in the Venetian baroque style. Another serious earthquake in 1895 leveled 10 percent of its 1,400 buildings. Many were rebuilt in a Viennese style popular at the time.
My impression of Slovenia in general is that this youthful country, having found its independence, is making an impression far beyond its relatively small size. Yes, Slovenia, like other European countries, was hard hit by the worldwide recession of recent years, but apparently is recovering nicely without any expensive bailout from the European Union, of which it is a part.
It has its share of problems still, but what country doesn’t?
During the boom years from independence in 1991 to the downturn in 2008, the country made remarkable strides in upgrading its infrastructure. The roads we saw were excellent. Ljubljana sports many modern buildings, including four that are taller than the Nebotičnik, the country’s tallest building when it was built in 1933. Three of the four taller structures were built after independence. The tallest is the 20-story Crystal Palace, opened in 2011 in the northwestern part of the city. We saw it only from the distance.
My research on Slovenia showed that the country has an incredible literacy rate of 99.7 percent. Children are taught English from the early grades in school and most young people we encountered were perfectly fluent in English. Many, particularly older Slovenians from areas near the borders, speak German, Italian, Hungarian and/or Serbo-Croatian. Our street tour guide was fluent in English, German and Hungarian.
With its beautiful Alpine regions and resorts, lakes such as Lake Bled, and the Adriatic coast, Slovenia is a natural tourist destination. It drew nearly 2.5 million tourists in 2014, including more than 65,000 from the United States, according to Slovenian government statistics.
Our next hurdle turned out to be getting back to Rome. After getting conflicting information from the Internet and the hotel concierge, we decided to walk up to the train station to find out when we could get a train. The only train, I was told, would leave around 9 p.m. and with a change in Austria would arrive in Rome the next morning. We didn’t want to spend that much time on the train so we walked over to the adjacent bus station and learned we could get a bus to Mestre at 8:15 the next morning. From Mestre, we could get hourly trains to Rome. We bought our tickets and returned to the hotel for a leisurely dinner.
Tuesday was a bright, sunny day, a relief after two days of rain and gray skies. We arose early, had breakfast, checked out of the hotel and walked to the bus depot, arriving well before our departure time. But we couldn’t find our bus. I started asking drivers up and down the line of 20 or so buses parked there. It was a true test of my Slovene because none of the drivers admitted to speaking any English. Some, from Croatia and perhaps other countries, couldn’t speak Slovene. Finally, as time was running out, I found a driver who spoke German. My German is not quite as rusty as my Slovene so I was able to find out from him that the Mestre bus would leave from slot 25 — fünfundzwanzig. Giving him a sincere “vielen dank,” I ran back up the rank of buses waving wildly at Ghislaine who was waiting for me across the street. Our bus — actually a large van — was just pulling out of slot 25. The driver stopped and let us on, joining four female passengers already seated.
The ride to Mestre was swift and beautiful. I again was amazed at how well kept the roads were, both in Slovenia and Italy.
In Mestre, the van pulled up to a stop, not at a bus station, but in a somewhat seedy-looking industrial neighborhood. The driver told us to get off, but gave no further explanation. I looked around to see about catching a taxi to the train station, but there were no cabs around.
Just then another van pulled up from the opposite direction. It stopped and several passengers got off and crossed the street to the one we had just left. We were motioned to get on the new van. It took us to the nearby railway station. I have no idea why our original van could not go all the way to the station.
I have but one regret about our trip: We were in Slovenia a total of about 72 hours from the moment we crossed the border going in until we crossed it again on our return. That’s not nearly enough time to begin to really appreciate and enjoy all this small but beautiful country has to offer.
So, while I was able to delete “Visit Slovenia” from my bucket list, I now have a new item on it: “Go back to Slovenia; stay longer; see more of the country.”
An after thought
A pretty bird
Toward the end of our Slovene language course, I heard about a church in San Francisco that had a Mass in Slovenian. I couldn’t convince any of my fellow students to go with me so I went alone to the Church of the Nativity of Our Lord and attended the Slovene-language Mass. It was in April, “Good Shepherd Sunday” and the Gospel reading from St. John 10:11 was: “Jaz sem dobri pastir. Dobri pastir daje svoje življenje za ovce.” (“I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”)
After the Mass, I waited for the priest and, speaking in Slovene, introduced myself and explained how I had learned the language. He was impressed and invited me to come to lunch at the rectory. Several parishioners were there pitching in to prepare the lunch and I was immersed in the language and culture in a way I never had been at ALS.
At one point, I goofed. Talking to some parishioners as we cleaned up after lunch, I pointed out the window over the sink and said what I thought was, “Such a pretty bird” (“Taka lepa ptica.”) There was sudden silence around me. The woman I was helping said, “I think you mean ‘ptica.’” I agreed, but had no idea what I had actually said until I returned to Monterey and asked one of my professors. He was horrified and where I had heard that word. He was even more horrified when I told him. Turns out the word was a very profane term for a woman’s private parts.
Fortunately, the priest and his parishioners understood and accepted that it was an honest mistake. Later that afternoon, the priest and I attended a celebration at the Slovenian community center. After that, he told me about a great new group he had heard of that was performing at a club called the hungry i. The group was the Kingston Trio, which about a year later would become a national sensation with their hit song “Tom Dooley.”
Unfortunately, I can’t remember the priest’s name.
Footnote: Our professors at ALS quickly introduced a couple of classes and slang and profanity to make sure we didn’t make such mistakes again.