A cold, crisp November wind brushes against my face as I walk on to the balcony of the woodland cottage in the hills outside of Ljubljana. I can smell the scent of freshly brewed Turkish coffee from the kitchen below. Paula, my long lost surrogate Slovenian mother, prepares breakfast for her daughter, Rosie and I while we prepare ourselves for the day ahead. I walk into the warm kitchen, Paula takes me in her arms and gives me a strong, loving hug. She kisses me on both cheeks and says “Kelly! Good morning, did you sleep well? You must have your schnapps before you eat. It’s a Slovenian tradition – it starts your digestion for the day.” I smile fondly. This amazing woman was there for me for so much of my childhood. She hugged me when I was sad, gave me strudel and strong coffee, showed me the value of good, honest and hard work, gave me a home away from home. And here she is, this time sharing her homeland with me, this strong woman who has been through so much in her life. Always caring and never expecting anything in return.
Paula, Frenk and their three children were our neighbours when I was a child. They had travelled as a young couple from Yugoslavia in the late 1950’s to start a new life in Zambia. My brother and I spent countless afternoons swimming in their fresh water pool, misbehaving in the hot Zambian sun, eating Slovenian meals and hearing stories about their homeland. Paula now spends her summers in Ljubljana. I had not seen her in 15 years. This was my chance to re-connect and experience the beautiful country Paula had always talked so passionately about.
Rosie and I travelled to Slovenia in November when the seasons were changing. We arrived at Ljubljana airport to be greeted by the welcoming words “Dobrodosli v Sloveniji” which I would hear many times during my visit. I was welcomed so warmly by all the wonderful Slovene people I met. They are said to be hard working, diligent and proud people, and most importantly, friendly. I became an honorary Slovene within days and actively encouraged to learn slovenscina throughout my visit.
Our journey from the airport depicted some of the tragic events that affected several parts of Slovenia were affected by ice storms in February 2014 causing damage to the once beautiful forests. Time, effort and millions of Euros had been spent clearing dead trees to make way for new growth. This did not detract from the exceptional natural beauty of the country marketed as Green Slovenia. The country has a remarkable range of landscapes, from mountains and hills to valleys and lakes, forests, caves and seaside. Travelling through Slovenia gives you the impression that you were travelling through different countries in a short space of time. And for those with historical religious interests, one will not need to travel far to find one of the almost 3000 churches, chapels and monuments scattered across the beautiful landscape.
With so many places to visit, it was difficult to see everything in a few days. Our travels took us to a selection of historical and natural places, spending the days exploring, sampling classic food, wine and schnapps.
Lake Bled in the Gorenjska region is truly picturesque. A day is well worth spending wandering through Bled Castle on the hill, following the celebrated history of Bled as shown in the museum, circumnavigating the misty lake – roughly a 7 km walk, and finishing off with drinking coffee and eating Bled cream cake in a devil themed cafe, Devil Bar Caffe.
Postojnska Jama in the Notranjska-Karst region is a 24 km network of karst caves carved out by the Pivka river. Cave train tours take you through the natural caves filled with shallow pools of clear water and shy cave dwelling creatures towered by magnificent stalagmites and stalactites, some with crystals that sparkle in the artificial light.
Just a few kilometres from Postojnska Jama is Predjama Grad, the picturesque site of a castle built into the side of a rock face with a network of caves beneath the castle carved out by a stream called the Lokva. Most rooms in the castle have been renovated and restored accurately depicting 700 years of history.
Slovenia is blessed with several thermal spas and health resorts. The thermal water is rich in calcium and magnesium which boasts many health benefits and therapeutic effects. Just half a day in the rejuvenating thermal waters of Terme Snovik, a spa outside of Kamnik left me feeling revitalised.
And not to forget the Slovene cuisine! The days would bring countless authentic Slovenian dishes and drinks. My favourites were the garlic soup – richly aromatic, shockingly tasty and not as overpowering as one may think (I was lucky enough to be given the recipe by the head chef of Pizzeria Izba near Terme Snovik). Gobova juha, a fragrant, steaming homemade mushroom soup served with fresh bread. Potica, a traditional dessert made from rolled dough and each layer filled with sweet and savoury filling such as tarragon and fruit.
As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. The days passed too quickly, without a chance to explore the beauty of Ljubljana, the city itself. All good things can be revisited and I know I will be back to visit Paula and her family and friends again in the country that she praised on numerous occasions – the beauty, the people, the food, the schnapps, the climate. Gorgeous Slovenia, until we meet again – dokler se spet srecava.
See more photographs on Facebook: Gregarious Gecko
Special thanks to Paula Babnik, Rosi Babnik, Ana Volgemut and her family (and Gaya), Lynda Culp (and Cookie).