The trip from Venice to the airport is serene in the early morning fog. We find Sixt, the car rental agency, fairly easily. They have our reservation. So far so good. When the attractive Italian woman working the counter asks where we are going, we nonchalantly list our destinations: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia. She smiles broadly until we get to Bosnia. “Not an EU country.” she says. “Not possible take rental car there.” WTF?!?!!? We are stunned. Bosnia is smack in the middle of our itinerary. We have to go through Bosnia to get to southern Croatia. We have hotels booked in Sarajevo, the capital.
We are at a bit of a loss but we take the car anyway, agreeing that we will figure out an alternate plan when we get to where we are going today, to Ljubljana, Slovenia.
It starts raining as we are leaving the airport. We can’t figure the GPS out. Once we figure out how to program our destination into it and how to change the language from German to English, we can’t get the volume up. Craig is driving with the device held to his ear. The car is a stick shift. He could use three hands. One to steer, one to shift and one to hold the GPS.
We are arguing about who should drive. Craig, of course, thinks he should. I cannot read maps or the GPS while we are moving because of my motion sickness. It makes sense for me to drive and Craig to navigate, but he won’t hear of it. We drive back and forth on the same road several times as the GPS keeps telling us to make u-turns. Tension reaches a height when I again insist it makes best use of our skill sets for me to drive. Craig slams on the brakes, gets out of the driver’s seat and angrily tells me he is tired of my incessant whinging.
Needless to say, this is my perspective. But, hey, it’s my story. Craig would add that I got cranky and negative as soon as we found out about the not possible take rental car to Bosnian fiasco. But really, who wouldn’t?!
Anyway, our 3 week road trip through the Balkans is not off to an auspicious start, to say the least.
Nevertheless, I take the wheel, we both take a big breath in and out, and keep our mouths shut for a while. Craig fixes the volume on the GPS. We program Ljubljana as our destination and get on the freeway.
The rain intensifies. The traffic whizzes by at speeds well over 120 kms/hr, even when the road signs and the GPS tell us to slow to 50. We get lost getting into Ljubljjana, partly because the GPS is only 90% accurate, and will make fatal errors at critical moments. Once in the city, the traffic is stop and go and we make very slow progress, but are getting closer to our hotel. The map we have bought and the GPS are agreeing on our route. We are a block away and about to turn down the street our hotel is on … but it is barricaded by roadworks. We can’t make the turn. We have to stay in the stalled traffic, go around the block and drive the wrong way on the one-way street our hotel is on. Geeeezzzzz!!!!
The B & B Slamic – http://slamic.si/?lang=sl – is a cozy inn on the edge of the central historic area, within walking distance of the main sights. Our room is warm and welcoming. We figure out a way to get to Sarajevo without taking the rental car, thanks to a cheap Expedia deal on flights. We go out for a celebratory glass of wine to end a stressful day, toasting our good fortune to have made it, and that no one died getting here, even though we felt like strangling each other at several times on the way.
Ljubljana (yes, its a mouthful, but the j is silent), the capital of Slovenia, is a small alpine city. It could be in Austria, which is just to the north. In fact, for centuries Slovenia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The area was invaded by Attila the Hun, Napoleon and the Ottoman Turks but was largely protected by the Austrian Hapsburgs.
After WWI, when the empire collapsed, Slovenia joined Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo to form the new country of Yugoslavia. This lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union. A short 10-day war between Slovenia and Serbia ensued while the war to the south, between Bosnia and Serbia, was much worse and lasted much longer. Slovenia became an independent European Union state and is now the most successful, economically, of all of the former Yugoslavian states.
It is one of the greenest countries in Europe, both in terms of environmental consciousness and percentage of land that is forested. Ljubljana is one of the wettest cities in Europe, which explains the downpour that we arrive in and the lushness of the gardens.
The language is full of consonants, especially c, h, j, k, v and z. Imagine playing Scrabble here? Some words string a bunch of consonants together with no vowels in between. Like “trg”, which means market. We learn the word for thank you, “hvala”, but not much more. The service folk speak good English, so we manage just fine.
The anglo-ness is remarkable. Where are all of the Syrian and north African refugees? We’d seen many brown skinned people in Italy, but none here. Apart from a few oriental tourists, we are in a sea of white.
We have two nights here. One day to see the castle, the bridges over the Ljubljana River, the cathedral and the museum. As well, we visit the Modern Art Museum, which consists of a lot of political and historical art, with an emphasis on war. A bit odd, given the relatively peaceful traditions in Slovenia.
These sights are all very nice, but what is more amazing is the street-level culture. It is very laid-back and cosmopolitan, with a bit of an edgy hipster vibe. Think Portland, or Saskatoon.
Both sides of the river are lined with outdoor cafes serving delicious food that is a welcomed change from the pasta & pizza of Italy. And although the traffic coming into the city was awful, the historical centre is car-free. Fashionably dressed professional looking locals ride their bikes. The prices are at least half what we were paying in Italy. And there are very few tourists. Ljubljana is, without a doubt, a hidden gem.