Step Back in Time in Slovenia
Words & Images: Jill Worrall
An early autumn morning is a perfect time to cycle around Slovenia’s Lake Bled. Wraiths of mist hang over the mirror-like water, blurring the golden reflection of the trees that line the shore. In the middle of this small lake beneath the Julian Alps is a tiny island, topped with a 17th century baroque chapel. A set of 99 steps leads up to the Church of the Assumption, challenge enough on a warm day but especially so if you happen to be a Slovenian bridegroom.
TRADITION DICTATES THAT A groom who can carry his bride up these steps (and then into the chapel to ring the bell and make a wish) will ensure good luck for their union. I’ve watched several young men and their brides borne across the lake in Lake Bled’s own version of a gondola, the women smiling and serene, their new husbands contemplating the stairway with trepidation.
They have even more reason to worry if their brides have over-indulged in another Bled speciality, what must be the world’s most calorific custard square. Imagine a premium New Zealand custard square and then add about a centimetre of whipped cream under the top pastry layer. The result: truly decadence on a plate, a potential nightmare for new Slovenian husbands and, in my case, two circuits of the 6km lakeshore on a hired bike to try to burn off some of the calories.
The lake circuit took me past a substantial villa where the former president of Yugoslavia, Marshal Tito, used to stay and, beneath Bled Castle that perches 100 metres atop a cliff on the lake edge. Its turrets and ramparts (part of which date back to the 11th century) create a quintessentially fairytale European picture.
Lake Bled, in many ways, encapsulates the magic of Slovenia, which until 1991 was part of the former Federation of Yugoslavia. With a population of just over two million people and more than 50 per cent of its countryside still clothed in forest, this is a tranquil corner of Europe without mass tourism. Villages of medieval houses and cobblestoned streets; remnants of the Austro-Hungarian and Venetian empires, all live on amidst alpine scenery, Adriatic coastline and undulating meadows.
Some of those meadows, close to the Italian border and the sea, are home to another Slovenian treasure: the Lipizzaner horses at the Lipica Stud Farm.
Lipica is the original stud farm of these horses, the most famous of which are the stars of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. However, although a long time ago Lipica stallions were provided to the riding school, the Vienna-based school now sources its horses from a stud farm within Austria.
Despite the horses’ fame there are only about 3000 in the world (400 of which live here), so Lipica is still a very special place and vital to the horses’ ongoing survival. Breeding is very carefully controlled to ensure the stock stays pure – in fact the horses’ lineage can be traced back to six of the foundation stallions in the 18th century.
Lipizzaners originated in Spain and were first brought to Lipica in 1580. These Spanish horses were a mix of horses from the Berber coast in North Africa, Andalusian and other Iberian Peninsula horses. They were taken to Lipica by the Habsburg emperor Maximilian II and crossed with other breeds (including a now extinct Italian horse). Arabian horses were bred into the mix from about 1810.
Today we almost always think of Lipizzaners as white horses. In fact they don’t begin to turn white until they are about six years old.
The Habsburgs established the stud because they wanted to breed horses for the newly fashionable art of riding (as opposed to using horses simply for battle, transport and farming). The result is that today the Lipizzaners are regarded as one of the finest, if not the finest, riding horses in the world.
But there were many occasions over the intervening 400 years when the world nearly lost the Lipizzaners altogether. On numerous occasions the Lipica stud farm had to be evacuated; the first time in 1797 following the invasion by Napoleon, then again in 1802 into Hungary during a French occupation.
The 20th century was possibly the time of greatest upheaval for the horses. They were moved to safe havens in both the First and Second World Wars. The most famous of these escapes was probably that of 1945, when the Russians were advancing from the east into formerly German-occupied territory that included Lipica. There were fears that the Russians might have used the precious horses for meat, so at the command of General Patton (who had ridden in the Olympics) they were once again moved to safety.
Even the most non-horsey of visitors succumbs to the charms of the horses of Lipica. Stud farm visits include the chance to walk through the historic stables and, surreptitiously, stroke the noses of the beautiful stallions in their looseboxes. Outside, black foals cavort under the lime trees that dot the estate. There’s a show too, where, set to music, expert riders put the stallions through their paces.
Not far away is the karst (limestone) cave complex of Postojna, one of the largest in the world. An electric train hurtles visitors deep underground to walk through caverns festooned with stalactites and stalagmites. One of the largest caverns can accommodate up to 10,000 people for concerts. In one smaller cave when I visited last, a group of green-caped choristers was singing, their voices soaring into the inky cave depths. Down here too is an aquarium featuring the caves’ strangest inhabitants, the so-called human fish, a blind salamander that can live for up to 100 years.
In the hills near Postojna is another storybook castle, Predjama. This is a 16th century construction built halfway up a cliff and across the entrance of a huge cave. This was once the home of the robber baron Erazem, who became legendary for resisting a siege by the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor for a year and day. The story goes that Erazem had access to a secret tunnel enabling him to keep his castle stocked with food and drink from a nearby village, including a supply of cherries with which he used to pelt the besieging army.
Eventually though, he was undone, when a traitorous servant gave away the whereabouts of the castle privy (which unfortunately was in the centre of the castle and facing out of the ravine) and the times, rather literally, of Erazem’s movements. A single cannonball ended both the siege and Erazem’s life.
Far to the east of Predjama, where Slovenia’s territory narrows and is surrounded on three sides by by Austria, Hungary and Croatia, lies the small town of Ptuj on the banks of the Drava River.
Founded by the Romans in the 1sth century AD, Ptuj became an important medieval trading centre, as well as the home to two important monasteries. It too has its own castle but I love the beautifully restored main street, where locals and visitors alike sit on the cobblestone pavement to quaff coffee in the morning and Slovenian wine in the evening.
There’s a riverside restaurant nearby and at sunset, as the mist rises, flotillas of swans often glide past, glowing gold in the sunlight. The medieval monks probably witnessed very much the same scene.