The Slovenian city of Ljubljana (yoob yee AH nah) spent most of World War II in solitary confinement.
In 1942 Fascist Italy imprisoned the city, encircling it with nineteen miles of barbed wire.
On the perimeter, 206 watchtowers and bunkers were built. Land mines were set. Nearby homes were razed. Twenty-five hundred guards patrolled the wire.
For over three years, Ljubljana was cut off from the rest of the world. The city’s residents struggled to stay alive, as their conditions worsened.
Italy’s intention was to stop the city’s support for Yugoslavia’s anti-Fascist forces. The plan didn’t work.
Throughout the war, the underground movement in Ljubljana succeeded in sneaking people, supplies, and information through secret passages under the wire.
Changing of the guards
The territory now called Slovenia was never a stranger to subjugation.
The Romans held the area for centuries, defending it against invaders such as the Huns. Slavic tribes migrated into the region.
The Franks under Charlemagne took a turn at domination, as did the powerful Venetians. Ottoman Turks raided regularly. Napoléon arrived, followed by the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg dynasty.
Željko, the guide at the World War I Museum in Kobarid, said, “Borders change quickly here.”
In the early 1900s, many Slovenes emigrated to the United States, seeking a better life. The largest population of Slovenes in the world, outside of Slovenia, is in Cleveland, Ohio.
Americans of Slovenian descent include Monkee Micky Dolenz, Olympians Eric Heiden and Peter Vidmar, journalist Charles Kuralt, and politicians Amy Klobuchar and George Voinovich.
During World War I, hundreds of thousands of Slovenes were drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army and over thirty thousand died. Thousands more perished in refugee camps.
After the war Slovenia joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, a forerunner of Yugoslavia.
In World War II, Slovenia was again invaded and, this time, divvied up by Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Hungary. Tens of thousands of citizens were drafted into the German Army.
A resistance movement, the Slovene Partisans, sprang up. Italy and Germany countered with extreme brutality. Suspects were executed. Villages were burned. Twenty-five thousand citizens, 7½ percent of the population, died in Italy’s concentration camps.
After the war, Slovenia helped found the Republic of Yugoslavia. Then, in 1991, the territory seceded and declared its independence. In 2004, Slovenia joined both NATO and the European Union.
The new country is now twenty-eight years old.
“Don’t mistake us for Slovakia”
Having been independent for less than thirty years, Slovenia is still coming of age on the world stage. Its two million citizens are constantly having to explain where their country is located. And that Slovenia is not Slovakia.
“Don’t think of us as part of Eastern Europe,” Slovenes say. “Our entire country lies west of Vienna.“
Although I often travel solo, I decided to join a group to tour Slovenia, as well as Croatia and Bosnia. I knew little about the Adriatics and appreciated someone else arranging transportation and lodging.
Tina, our Slovene guide, provided an introduction to her beloved country.
The euro is Slovenia’s official currency and Slovene its official language. Yet, many inhabitants speak English. “We have to,” Tina said.
Slovenia is approximately the size of New Jersey. Each of Austria, Italy, Hungary, and Croatia are a mere two-hour drive from Ljubljana, the capital city.
Tina told us Slovenes rarely relocate. Eighty-six percent of them own their homes outright and prefer to stay in their home communities. She put the reason into perspective: “To Americans, a hundred years is a long time. To Slovenes, a hundred miles is a long way.”
As a result of its history, the culture of Slovenia is a blend of three—Germanic, Romantic (Italian), and Slavic.
Slovenia reminded me of Switzerland and Austria. The countryside is green and pristine. Over half of it is forested. Its meadows are dotted with chalets.
Its mountain ranges are jagged and snow-blasted. Its rivers run clear.
The country’s Adriatic coastline is only twenty-nine miles long but, as Slovenes like to point out, that’s twenty-nine more miles than has Austria, a former conqueror.
Before the tour kicked off, I spent a couple of days in Ljubljana, exploring the city of three hundred thousand on my own.
According to legend, Jason and the Argonauts killed a monster in Ljubljana’s marshes as they were returning home with the Golden Fleece. The monster, now interpreted as a dragon, is the city’s symbol.
The city’s flag features the dragon perched on top of Ljubljana Castle. Bronze dragons guard the Dragon Bridge. Plush dragon toys are available in every shop.
Another tradition says the dragon is the very one speared by Saint George. The true identity of the dragon’s killer may never be resolved.
Poetry and motion
One of humankind’s greatest inventions is the wheel. The oldest one ever found was discovered in the marshes near Ljubljana. Made of wood, the wheel is sometimes on display in Ljubljana’s city museum. It is estimated to be over five thousand years old.
I rode the funicular to Ljubljana Castle with a passel of Chinese tourists. The castle sits on a hill overlooking the Old Town in the same spot a Roman fort once stood. At night its facade is lit dramatically. The current castle is a recent reconstruction. Not much to see except for the panoramic view of Ljubljana.
I visited the Serbian Orthodox Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius. A christening was underway, but no one seemed to mind me admiring the church’s colorful floor-to-ceiling frescoes.
Metelkova City is a squatters’ village of artists, similar to Copenhagen’s Christiania commune. The colony appropriated a former Austro-Hungarian barracks built in 1882.
In 1993, the compound of seven buildings was turned into art galleries, studios, and nightclubs. Every surface is graffitied.
Much of the fun of Ljubljana is strolling the promenades along both sides of the river. Many of the cobbled streets are traffic-free and crowded with cafés. Artsy pedestrian bridges crisscross the river. In the evening the buildings and bridges are colorfully lit.
The marketplace sprawls along one side, offering fresh produce, flowers, baked goods, dried fruits, nuts, fish, meats, and cheeses.
At one end of the market is a vending machine, the Mlekomat. It dispenses fresh, cold, raw milk, which reminded me of drinking fresh milk at my grandparents’ dairy farm when I was a kid.
I went to a restaurant next to the fish market for dinner. The waiter didn’t speak English. Side by side and word by word, we compared Slovenian and English versions of the same menu until we figured out my order.
At the center of Old Town is a statue of Slovenia’s national poet, France Prešeren, who has been widely translated. In 1989, his poem, “Zdravljica,” was declared the national anthem of Slovenia.
God's blessing on all nations Who long and work for that bright day When o'er earth's habitations No war, no strife shall hold its sway Who long to see That all men free No more shall foes, but neighbors be!
Tina sang an emotional rendition of it for us. “Our poet died,” she said. “Our culture didn’t.”
Hard chairs and cold tea
One man is responsible for Ljubljana’s contemporary urban plan and many of its buildings and bridges—architect Jože Plečnik (PLAYCH neek).
Plečnik earlier worked in Vienna and Prague before returning to his home town. His style is a playful blend of classical and modern.
When Plečnik died in 1957, his nephew walked through the house and photographed every room as it was. The house was then locked and the contents meticulously preserved.
Now a museum, his home seems frozen in time. His personal belongings are scattered throughout. His hat sits on the desk; his eyeglasses on the nightstand. His workspace is cluttered with tools, models, and plans. It looks as though he only just stepped away.
Later, I stopped to visit some of his work—the National and University Library, the colonnaded River Market, the Triple Bridge, the Cobblers Bridge, the outdoor theater in the former Križanke monastery, and French Revolution Square, dedicated to Napoléon.
Plečnik was famously anti-social. He preferred working alone in the home he designed.
Visitors to his unheated anteroom sat on hard chairs and were served cold tea, as encouragement to leave soon.
Climbing and jumping
Our tour headed out of town toward the Julian Alps. We drove through several small villages and farms, tidy with hayracks and gardens. The farms grow wheat, corn, sunflowers, potatoes, and turnips. And honey.
Although bee populations are declining worldwide, the bees in Slovenia are thriving. One out of every two hundred Slovenes is a beekeeper. That adds up to ten thousand beekeepers nationally.
Beekeeping is an ancient and honored craft in Slovenia, tied to its national identity. Nearly two hundred schools teach the trade.
The painted wooden panels of Slovenian beehives are a collectible form of folk art. (See header photo.)
Slovenian honey is now a registered place-of-origin trademark of the European Union.
We stopped in Lake Bled to visit Slovenia’s oldest castle, first mentioned in a deed in 1011. The castle overlooks a lake, in the middle of which is an island, in the middle of which is a church.
We boarded the hand-built, hand-rowed pletna boats for a trip to the island and climbed the ninety-nine steps to the Church of the Assumption. Grooms who carry their brides up the ninety-nine steps must not falter or they risk an unhappy marriage.
While ogling scenery in the mountains, we stopped at the Planica Nordic Center, a winter-sports training complex just a couple of miles from both the Austrian and Italian borders.
Planica has eight ski jumps, more than any other facility in the world.
One jump is the world’s second largest. Inside the center, snow is manufactured to enable cross-country ski training throughout the summer.
Leaves in autumn
While taking dinner orders, Tina explained that fish, when served in Slovenia, arrives whole. “The trout comes with its head,” she said. “The pork without its head.”
We drove through sleepy villages and foggy mountains along the milky blue Soča (SO sha) River.
In Kobarid (KO bah reed) we visited a highly recognized museum focused on the Soča Front of World War I.
Some of the war’s fiercest fighting took place along the Soča, where young Ernest Hemingway served as an ambulance driver. The experience inspired his novel, A Farewell to Arms.
In 1915, Italy invaded the Soča Valley in order to gain strategic access to Vienna and Budapest. Austro-Hungarian forces defended the mountaintops overlooking the valley. Conditions were harsh, particularly during the winter. Over sixty thousand soldiers died in avalanches. Many simply froze to death.
For twenty-nine months, the stalemate continued. In a series of battles along the front, three hundred thousand soldiers died, seven hundred thousand were wounded, and one hundred thousand were MIA. Tens of thousands of civilians died.
Regarding the casualties of World War I, Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti wrote, “We are as the leaves on trees in autumn.”
Eventually Germany entered the battle and, using its new blitzkrieg technique, swept the Italians from the valley in sixty hours.
A year later, Italy took it back with the help of forces from Great Britain, France, and the United States.
Željko, our guide, explained the tragedies of the campaign, being careful not to distinguish between “good guys” and “bad guys.” He pointed to a photo on the wall of Benito Mussolini, the dictator, kissing a young girl on the forehead. “She was my first-grade teacher,” he said.
Running the wire
One morning while exploring Ljubljana, I stumbled upon a race.
Barriers blocked some of the Old Town streets. Colorful banners hung from lampposts. Runners converged on the start from every direction.
I assumed the race was a marathon or charity 5k. Instead, the event featured a thirty-five kilometer walk, twenty-eight and twelve kilometer runs, and a three-kilometer race for children.
The event is held each year as part of Ljubljana’s celebration of its liberation at the end of World War II.
The pathway, called the Trail Along the Wire, follows the course of the fence that once imprisoned the city.
Along the route, runners and walkers pass memorial stones, installed at the previous positions of enemy checkpoints and bunkers.
They traverse the same ground once patrolled by armed guards. They pass through former minefields. They slow briefly at Žale Cemetery, where thousands of the city’s war casualties are buried.
They celebrate freedom.