I’m chagrined to admit that at first I found it a challenge to locate Slovenia on a map. In my somewhat limited experience of Central Europe, Slovenia was one of those countries that you only really heard about at the Eurovision Song Contest. But its mystique was what really made me excited about my visit to this lesser-known and relatively new member of the European Union. Nestled between Italy, Austria and Croatia, this former Yugoslavian state is a melting pot of surprises, beautiful clichés and hangovers.
I’m sat on a pletna, a Slovenian row-boat, on the beautiful, picture-postcard, Alpine flanked Lake Bled, in the northwest of the country – it is as if I’m in some surreal Balkan dream, coasting slowly towards the Blejski Otok, Slovenia’s only island and the focal point of the lake, home to a Gothic-Baroque fusion, 15th century church. Our hard-faced ferryman mutters that it is considered good luck to ring its church bell at the top of the island’s hundred steps from the jetty and a nuptial rite to carry your loved one up – prompting a break in the still, rural silence as I debate with my partner as to who would carry who.
Our ferryman chortles; our exchange didn’t seem to phase him. After all, he has been rowing here for forty nine years and has clearly seen it all. Bled is in his blood – the lake’s boatmen can only pass the trade down to relatives and it was his intention in one year to pass on his oars, just as his ancestors had to him. The country is steeped in traditions like this, but not a lot of it is actually “Slovenian” as we know it. Our rower reminds us that it is his children who consider themselves Slovenian, he spent most of his life being Yuglosavian and his parents, were Austro- Hungarian – each generation its own sense of identity, and language. And on the subject of language, like most locals, he’s multi-lingual, with English, German, Italian, Croatian and Russian at the tip of his tongue, as well as the vernacular.
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