If countries ever replace celebrities as the subject of historical TV show Who Do You Think You Are?, the BBC would be advised to dedicate an entire series to Slovenia.
Sandwiched between Italy and Croatia, this sapling state is one of Europe’s most disputed patches of land and the focus of more bitter custody battles than the Jackson clan. Hidden behind the Iron Curtain for much of the last century, this little gem was the first Yugoslavian state to gain its passport into Europe. Slovenia celebrated its 18th birthday in June and is now keen to scream out to the rest of the continent that it has finally come of age.
Slovenians were forced to change passports six times as the Austo-Hungarian Empire, then Italy, Germany and three incarnations of Yugoslavian communist states all came and went. There have also been four currencies circulated since the 1970s. Talk about an identity crisis.
Heaping insult on injury, since earning longed-for independence in 1991 Slovenia has endured the embarrassment of being mistaken for Slovakia, another former Soviet satellite state that gained independence around the same time. But after a visit to this land of Alpine peaks and resorts, visitors are unlikely to confuse the two again.
The capital of Lubljana has a cosmopolitan heritage born from the many cultures that has shaped it over the centuries. Architect and national hero Joze Plecnik, who built many of Vienna and Prague’s public buildings before turning his spirit level on his home city, famously said: ‘If Prague and Vienna had a daughter, they would call it Ljubljana.’ Drab communist buildings emphasise the majesty of his masterpieces like the Church of St Francis with its ornate towering belfry and the bizarre three-lane Tromostovje Bridge across Ljubljanica River that flows through the centre of town.
Bridges do more than just get keep feet dry – they are symbols of the city. The most famous is Dragon Bridge, guarded by four mythical beasts recalling Jason (of Jason and the Argonauts) slaying the ferocious Ljubljana dragon. A weather-worn statue of France Preseren, the 19th century poet who composed the national anthem, looms above the central square.
Heartbroken Preseren’s unrequited love hovers provocatively above him, topless and agonisingly out of reach. Such public indecency outraged members of the local Franciscan Church, compelling priests and congregants to climb the statue to dress Preseren’s naked muse to protect her modesty.
Another iconic statue sits outside the vast National and University Library (another Plecnik masterpiece and the focal point for the city’s 50,000 students). A huge figure of Moses stands on a first-floor plinth, one hand pointing up to the library reading room, the other down to the student bar below as if to say: ‘Let my students drink!’
You can follow old Moses’ command and pop in for a Snakebite and Black (or whatever the local students are drinking), or opt for hundreds of other bars, cafes and restaurants dotted around the city. Slovenian food and drink borrows from the best of its neighbours and invaders – pizza from Italy, goulash from Hungary and sausage from Germany, plus plenty of cabbage, pork and black pudding.
Most restaurants are built for convenience rather than cordon bleu, and the fast food comes no faster than when it is made from a horse. A quick trot around Tivoli Park (designed by that man Plecnik again) takes you to the Hot Horse burger bar. Popular with the after-pub crowd, this equestrian snack is Slovenia’s version of the late-night donner kebab and is traditionally washed down with a bottle of the local Lasko beer.
In this country the size of Wales, everywhere is less than a two-hour drive from the capital, including two of Europe’s arguably finest natural wonders. Slovenia has seven thousand caves to explore and the Skocjan Caves in the Kras region are certain to make your jaw drop further than the 250,000-year-old stalactites hanging from the limestone ceilings.
More than 200 metres deep and three miles long, the acoustics in this vast cavernous system are so loud that an echo travels one mile and can be heard for 12 seconds (so it’s best not to whisper anything nasty about your guide).
Visitors cross wooden footbridges 50 metres above waterfalls, rivers and underground chambers alive with bats and crickets.
An hour’s drive north lies the exquisite Lake Bled. Calling this paradise lake beneath the Alps ‘picturesque’ is like calling the Sistine Chapel ‘interior design’. Snow-peaked mountains and emerald-green forests provide the backdrop for the 15th century church perched on an island in the middle of the still glacial water. It is reached on a gondola-like boat called a ‘pletna’, and legend dictates that new arrivals must ring the church’s wishing bell. The church hosts daily weddings, with husbands-to-be obliged to carry their bride up the 99 steep stone steps leading to the main hall. Success depends on the groom’s fitness and strength, a helpful following wind and, of course, the size of the bride.
Slovenia’s slither of Adriatic coastline is just 25-miles long (and even this is disputed by Croatia) and home to the resort towns of Piran and Portoroz. Piran is made up of narrow alleyways, cobbled streets, terracotta rooftops, a quaint town square untouched by time and St George Church, a scaled-down replica of the Church of St Marco in Venice.
Portoroz is a modern resort town and a playground for the rich and famous with packed bars and nightclubs lining the promenade. It is home to the stunning Hotel Kempinski Palace, the country’s most luxurious hotel which reopened in 2008 after a £40million renovation. Leonardo di Caprio was among the guests during my stay. It’s just a two-hour boat boat ride from Portoroz into Venice’s Grand Canal, but visitors can also sample Italy by popping across the open border a few miles away to see the historic town of Trieste, the former home of Irish poet James Joyce.
Slovenians admire Italians but suspect they talk too much. Italians, on the other hand, appreciate their neighbour’s exquisite scenery but not their border road signs, which have been defaced with hand-written Italian translations. As if Slovenia hasn’t struggled for long enough to establish its national identity.
If you do decide to hop across the border, it’s best to ignore the graffiti road signs and, of course, remember that you’ll be returning to Slovenia, not Slovakia.
• First published at http://www.dailymail.co.uk