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October 19, 2011 By:
Slow Lane of Slovenia
It's an iconic photo: a tall spire on a tiny island in the middle of a lake, a brilliant turquoise, amid a backdrop of snow-capped Alps.
It's Lake Bled, and you reach it by taking a gondola-style wooden boat, or swan-shaped boat for two. On the island, 99 steps lead up to a 15th-century Baroque church, a popular wedding destination, and it's considered a good omen if a groom carries his bride up the steps to the top.
From a 13th-century hilltop castle on the shore, the view of the lake, island and Julian Alps in Bohinj, Slovenia's major resort region, are magnificent. Yet this town at the edge of Triglav National Park is just a 40-minute drive from the capital city, Ljubljana.
South of Austria, east of Italy, west of Hungary and north of Croatia, Slovenia, a former state in Yugoslavia and a member of the European Union, is both foreign and hauntingly familiar, and evokes all these countries.
Landscapes resemble Austria and Central Europe generally, with lots of castles, steep mountains, meadows, flower boxes and lakes.
But some seaside towns remind one of a mini-Venice, and there's even a smattering of Ernest Hemingway and military history (his Farewell to Arms is about a World War I battle near a town in Slovenia).
Here, nature is pristine. The Soca River is in such crystalline shades of emerald or light jade-green -- startling indeed to this New Yorker, accustomed to rivers like Hudson and East -- that the Emerald Trail is the nickname for the valley of this Alpine river in western Slovenia, near Italy.
Though the entire country is the size of New Jersey -- you can cross it in about two hours -- Slovenia is a place to savor Europe in the slow lane, the way it used to be.
It's intensely rural, and dining outdoors at a traditional restaurant named Gostilna Rupa, facing an awe-inspiring view near Bled, was a highlight of my trip. So was a dinner at one of over 600 farmhouses that welcome visitors for overnight stays, who serve local foods like risotto and strudels with sweet or savory fillings, reflecting the polyglot history.
Piran, a Venice in miniature (except for the canals), juts into the Adriatic Sea on Slovenia's small coastline, a mere 30 miles long. Its Venetian-Gothic-style buildings recall rule by Venice, which conquered it in the late 13th century, for five centuries.
From its castle, the town looks remarkably like Dubrovnik, but a 17th-century bell tower is modeled after that of St. Mark's in Venice.
Portoroz, the seaside town next door, boasts a luxury hotel that's Slovenia's first on the Conde Nast "Traveler Hot List": The Kempinski Palace, a century-old Belle Epoque hotel whose renovation added a sleek new glass-enclosed annex, gourmet restaurant and spa.
Slovenia's second-biggest city, Maribor, located in the northeast near Austria, had a big and prosperous Jewish community in medieval times, whose synagogue in the 13th or 14th century is one of the country's most important Jewish monuments.
The whitewashed building is now the Maribor Synagogue Cultural Center, where concerts, literary events and exhibits are held, sometimes on Jewish heritage. Maribor has many handsome Baroque and medieval buildings, and its Zidovska Ulica (Jewish street) is in the Old Town near the southwest corner of the town walls.
Maribor will be a European Capital of Culture in 2012, with 4,000 cultural events throughout the year of every type.
Slovenia's oldest town, Ptuj, whose picturesque Old Town is filled with peach, pink, yellow and beige houses with orange roofs, is 12 miles from Maribor. It's crowned by a castle that houses a fascinating museum, whose melange of exhibits range from the history of musical instruments to the country's most famous and biggest carnival.
The former Jewish quarter in Ptuj, now named Jadranska, leads from the Drava River to the main square, lined with pastel 17th- to 19th-century buildings, and a synagogue was once located at 8 Jadranska.
The surrounding countryside is filled with vineyards, and the wine cellars of Slovenia's largest winery lie beneath Ptuj and date back to 1239.
In Kobarid, one of a dozen towns on the Soca Valley's Emerald Trail, a museum is devoted to one of World War I's bloodiest battles, the Battle of Kobarid. The battle is described by Hemingway, who volunteered as a Red Cross ambulance driver on the Italian side of the border, and fell in love with a nurse, Agnes von Kurovsky.
Photos of the writer and his love are displayed at the museum, which won a Council of Europe prize for best museum and evokes the human element of the war -- like the inscription by a German prisoner of war on a door that says his food in an Italian prison was better than his rations in his home unit.
The fact that Italy is three miles away only heightens the meaninglessness and violence of the war.