After being derailed and left hanging without a car, I was not sure what to do next. I had plans to drive to Slovenia to visit friends, but that was part of a larger idea to wander the countryside with a car. Without a car, getting to Slovenia is a nightmare. Did it even make sense any longer?
Slovenia isn’t so far from Italy. At least not on a map. It’s just next door, up and around the corner from Venice. It’s a small, mountainous country of about 2 million people and shares many cultural characteristics with its alpine neighbors such as Austria. Problem is, trains from Italy don’t connect to Slovenian transit. A two hour drive from Venice amounts to a 9 hour train ride.
Why would that be on my list for Nico’s trip anyway? Italy has an endless supply of things to see and do, so why go all the way up there? Friends, for one thing, but also because I’m half Slovenian. My mother’s family comes from Slovenia originally and are very proud of their heritage. I grew up going to events at the Slovenian Lodge, where my grandfather was the band leader for a popular Slovenian polka group. I remember in high school a teacher once told me that my family wasn’t Slovenian, I was mistaken because Slovenia was not a country. This made no sense to me. Of course it was! (No, it wasn’t.) I was terribly disappointed on my first visit to find that people in Slovenia didn’t listen to Slovenian polka anymore, and in fact the whole culture of the Slovenian lodge of my childhood had nothing to do with the actual country of Slovenia.
I had not been back to Slovenia in many years and figured this would be a good time to go. Friends of mine from Seattle, Andrew and Natasha Villone, had moved to Slovenia a couple of years ago and we’d been trying to arrange a visit for some time. Andrew is also a tour guide, running his own tours in Slovenia and Eastern Europe, and his move was a practical one to be closer to his job. Their move was featured on House Hunters International last year. When it played in the US the first time, I Skyped with Andrew so he could watch it live. The show has now played in Slovenia and they are sort of local celebrities in their village because of it.
Our driving plan was not happening, but Andrew kindly volunteered to drive 90 minutes each way to come get us at the border. We hopped the train, first the fast train to Venice and then a local train to Gorizia, a town on the border. As I watched the countryside whisk by, I had a terrible longing for my own vehicle. Seeing all of those inviting little villages tucked into the hills reminded me of lovely days spent wandering with a rental car, as I often do on my days off. But curled up next to me, my little sweetheart was enjoying the high speed FrecciaRossa (Red Arrow) that took us to Venice, speeding along at almost 300 km/hour. I often have to adjust my perception, travel on that train is a common thing for me but he’d never been on any real train before, so everything was exciting. The dining car absolutely tickled him. “I’m so glad we don’t have a car mama!” You’ve got to love the enthusiasm of kids to set your priorities in order.
Andrew met us in Gorizia and drove us back to his house. I hadn’t been to Slovenia in almost 20 years and it looked nothing like I remembered. Gorgeous modern highways, lots of trees, tidy little villages, rolling fields of corn. I’d have sworn I was back in Seattle.
Andrew and Natasha live just outside of Kranj, a medium sized town with one of the biggest shopping malls in the region. They have everything they need there, including a fabulous public library that even puts Seattle to shame. They chose to move here partly to give their kids a lifestyle that was closer to how it used to be in the US. Raising a kid in Seattle these days is weirdly competitive, high pressure and overly structured. They were looking to raise kids that didn’t have to lock the front door or schedule play dates months in advance, kids that could ride their bikes to the library alone without fear of a call to CPS. They found that in Slovenia and I kind of envy it.
Our days at their house were not meant to be power sightseeing days, and Nico was relieved to have kids to play with. I was happy to visit with my friends and to see what Natasha was working on. She’s from Russia and is an artist who paints in the naieve style. Her paintings look like dreams. The photo above is one she gave me and hangs proudly over my fireplace.
One day we strolled into the village and wandered around, enjoying a slice of European life that had nothing to do with tourism. I was on a hunt for Potica (pa-TEE- tsah), a sort of pastry filled with a nut and spice paste that my grandmother used to make. There aren’t a whole lot of Slovenians in the world, finding this particular pastry is not a happening thing in the US. Once I found a bakery, I got so excited that I’m sure the baker thought I was mental. Nico didn’t see what the big deal was, but my sister texted me envious messages.
We spent an evening in the captial of Slovenia, Ljubljana (lee-oo-blee-Ah-nah) and explored the town. I was stunned by how beautiful the city was. On my last visit, the main center was far from lively. Andrew told me that they have done some major projects to restore the city center and make it more pedestrian friendly. It was absolutely jammed with people, and I must say, it is one of the most pleasant city centers I’ve seen in Europe. The architecture is mostly Art Nouveau, my favorite style. There were street performers and food carts, as well as a weird art installation that produced constant rain on the main square. I even found a boutique Potica shop, selling tiny bite-sized cakes! Heaven!
We didn’t have an agenda, and with three wee ones in tow it wasn’t going to be up to us anyhow. The kids found a guy blowing giant bubbles in the street and ran off to catch them while Andrew and I watched. Sometimes the best sight is the theater of the street.
On our final day in Slovenia, we were joined by my Rick Steves colleague and friend Sašo Golub. He and his wife both work with me and have kids the same age. He has a van that he uses for private tours and we packed his kids, Nico and I plus Andrew and his family in it for a countryside adventure. Three adults to five kids…hmmmm, outnumbered!
I had no idea what I wanted to see, which is the typical problem of a tour guide on vacation, so I told him to pick something fun that a kid would like. He picked a nature walk and a winter sports center tucked away at the base of the Julian Alps. Skiing is big here and they have found a way to make use of the facility year round. In the winter they have a heated indoor parking garage. In summer the same garage is chilled and filled up with snow for cross-country skiers. I’d forgotten my skis though, couldn’t fit them in my carry-on, so we improvised by skiing on a virtual ski jump.
After a long lunch, we headed up into the mountains to a tiny Russian chapel. Sašo pointed out how nice the roads were, they had just been paved for a visit to the chapel by Vladimir Putin. Clearly we’ve left Western Europe. In the woods around the chapel Nico played with the kids, building bridges and dams on a little creek. Sašo’s kids didn’t speak English, Andrew’s kids speak English but prefer Russian, but all kids speak the language of playtime in the dirt.
I’d never seen Lake Bled before, it was the end of the day and the kids were expiring, so we did a lap around it in the van. Such a beautiful sight. As a reward for their compliance, we took the kids to a dessert shop and gorged ourselves on decadent desserts. Nico found out that they have a gelato flavor called “Mr. Nico”, which happens to be what his nana calls him.
It was good to slow down a bit and just let the kids lead the days and play. As I packed up that night, Nico watched a Russian cartoon with the kids and I thought through what my next move was going to be. The license had arrived at home and was now in transit via overnight mail. Overnight to Italy takes 5 days, by the way. That’s sooooo Italian. We were headed to the Cinque Terre next and didn’t need a car, which was good, except for the transit time from Slovenia was a bummer. One car ride, four trains and about nine hours. Oh well, lots of time to snuggle and watch movies with my baby. Right now, I wouldn’t mind that at all.
Coming soon- Episode Four: Nico the Italian