The idyllic rural backwater of Slovenia – or so it seems as you pick apples from trees, grapes from the vine, and mushrooms from the forest floor – is easy to mistake for some sort of green rural fairyland, and very relaxing if you do. Yet a fierce Slavic spirit and a vibrant counter-culture lie just behind the wooden-shuttered farmhouses and stone baroque facades.
Part of the Hapsburg Empire since the fourteenth century, Slovenia took its first steps to independence in the 1840s when literati began to standardise the Slovenian language Following the demise of the Hapsburgs in WWI, Slovenes joined Serbs and Croats to form a federated Slavic nation. This became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia prior to Nazi occupation during WWII. The Partisan Army put up one hell of a guerrilla fight, and part-Slovene war hero Josip Broz Tito emerged as the leader of the new communist Yugoslavia.
Tito, who smoked cigars and wooed movie stars, didn’t let being a communist dictator get in the way of his individuality. His peculiar style has left some unusual legacies, like Nova Gorica, built in the 50s and now a casino town that lures Italian gamblers across the border.
As the Soviet bloc imploded in 1991, Slovenia negotiated the famous and only peaceful secession from Yugoslavia. There was a war but soldiers were confused about who the enemy was, and after charmingly disarming each other – or disarmingly charming each other – it was all over in ten days.
The country can be less proud of supplying arms to its warring Balkan neighbours. The person allegedly behind that disgrace is current Slovenian prime minister Janez Janša. Rumours abound that he has bought a farm in Australia to which he will abscond at the close of his current term.
From this tumult Slovenia emerged as a modern, peaceful, democratic nation, with the EU’s highest proportion of churches and tractors. Its ageing population is counterbalanced by a radical youth counterculture which, far from being underground, is on full display in Metelkova City.
My Slovenian host, with a haircut that makes his head look like an acorn, a Masters in Sociology and a penchant for drugs and experimental jazz, took me to a squat that has been running since 1993. Originally an army barracks, it became disused but now is dense with street art, live music venues and ever-growing art installations that you can sit in/on and drink and chat (or shout, which the Slavs love so). It’s all self-organised, a flagship for anarchy, and since none of it is supposed to be there, the rules do not apply. The highly awarded Celica Youth Hostel provides ‘must stay’ budget accommodation in the heart of Metelkova.
Other Slovenian ‘musts’ are: a boat trip on the picturesque Lake Bled followed by traditional cream cake on the sun-drenched deck of the Park Hotel, rafting on the Soca River, Gorze Plecnik’s modernist/traditional architecture in the nation’s capital Ljubljana, and most important of all, visiting a milk machine. These uniquely Slovenian vending machines are owned, maintained and refilled by local dairy farmers. You can buy a bottle or bring your own, and for 50c per litre fill it with fresh, unpasteurised, unhomogenised milk. – Amen. Let’s bring one to Byron!
Slovenia is generally easy on the wallet, with food and accommodation exceptional value for a western democracy. Speaking of democracy, politics in Slovenia took a turn for the worse at the last election when the Green Party accidentally got itself kicked off the ballot paper. Legislation designed to end male-dominated politics required a certain ratio of male/female candidates from each party. Failing to consider that the rule also applied ‘the other way’ to their exceptionally high proportion of female candidates, the party exceeded the ratio and were removed. This is not relevant, just too ironic.
It’s now lunchtime. I’m going to chance it with some wild mushrooms we picked yesterday in the forest. My friend assures me they’re fine…