Learn more about Slovenia culture, food, people, history, tourism, geography, life in Yugoslavia, war, and more in Part I, Part II, and Part III of my interview with Slovenia Tour Guide Marijan Kriskovic.
While many people may not know a lot about Slovenia, it is rich in culture and history and has played an important role in this region of Europe. Situated between Italy and Croatia, this small country sometimes gets overlooked by the beaches in Croatia or the history and culture of Italy and neighboring Venice.
After putting together a travel guide to Slovenia, I wanted to share a more personal side of the country with stories from someone who grew up there, experienced the war, and knows what it means to be Slovenian.
In part I of my interview with Slovenian tour guide and friend Marijan Kriskovic, we examined what life was like in Yugoslavia growing up under Tito and what effect this had on Slovenia before and during the war. In part II, we explore more of modern Slovenia and it’s culture and geography as Marijan talks about the food, people, the landscape and places to see, and Slovenia’s role in the European economy.
10. Describe the Slovenian people. What essential quality defines them.
In every aspect of their culture Slovenes are defined by their position at the crossroads of Central European/Germanic and Mediterranean/Italian world on the other, developing about half way on the trading routes between Venice and Vienna.
So some typical Slovenian qualities would coincide with some stereotypically Germanic qualities like punctuality, tidiness, order and precision, hardworking etc. but at the same time those qualities wouldn’t manifest themselves in the same stereotypically uptight way as they blend with the aspects of the Mediterranean culture. So everything has a much lighter note and one can find packed cafes any time of the day, open air markets etc.
When you work, it is important to work hard and perform well, but when it is your time off, you should enjoy it to the fullest as well.
11. What are some typical Slovene dishes and cuisine? What is one food every visitor should try?
I would like to think that as with other things, Slovenia tends to take the best aspects of the worlds that meet on this spot. That means, that you would find a reference to typical “German” foods like schnitzels, various sausages, sauerkraut and the rest of the central European “pork and potato” style cuisine, as well as light Mediterranean salads, pasta dishes and fish seasoned with some of the best local olive oil. Don’t forget a few slightly spicy and sweet touches of the Hungarian cuisine from the East.
There is huge variety to be found in between, as every corner of Slovenia has adopted these outside influences and incorporated them in a unique way creating a vast range of dishes indigenous to a small area alone. One can spend a whole holiday just exploring these culinary delights and trying to pair them off with the different wines that the various, and without exception excellent, wine regions of Slovenia have to offer.
12. Ljubljana is probably one of the least recognized capital cities in Europe. You went to school there. Tell me about the city, a little about its history, and some of the sights.
The people of Ljubljana like to think of it as a city done to the measure of man. It has a population of just under 300000 (still by far the largest city in the country) and has a touch of quaintness and familiarity usually found in small towns, which makes it particularly endearing to first time visitors.
At the same time, being the country’s capital, it has the seat of the government and its branches, a large University, many cultural institutions, theaters, museums etc. and still all this in a relatively small and walkable/cyclable size.
It is a very green city, with nature never being more than a few steps away, but more than anything else, it is the young student population that shapes its spirit. With the University numbering roughly around 60000 and its parts spread thruought the city, every 5th inhabitant is a student.
Ljubljana is also a city which is particularly appealing to artists and musicians many of which focus on the historic and most charming part nested along the Ljubljanica river with the medieval castle sitting on top of a hill above the old city. This is the same area which is most abundant with sights like vibrant daily farmers market, riverside cafes and cute, hip designer shops. All of this is set amidst beautiful historical buildings ranging from Roman ruins to medieval and baroque houses all the way to art nouveau and contemporary structures blending together perfectly. It is indeed a very livable city that offers a lot in a small package.
13. What makes Slovenia so unique and different from the rest of the former Yugoslavian countries?
The republics of Yugoslavia were all very different and unique in their own way with big cultural differences. Slovenia was the one which was always considered to be the most “western” of them all and therefore a place where things just run better. Many people from the former Yugoslavia would have seen Slovenians as more reserved in comparison to the more outgoing “party-oriented” cultures in the south. While that might not be entirely true, things do tend to be more modest and low key compared to the rest of the region.
14. Tell me about the geography of Slovenia. It has an incredibly diverse landscape. What are the different regions and what are they known for?
The main advantage of Slovenia is the fact that it is small but offers an incredible diversity of landscapes and cultures due to its geographical position in between the Alps and the Adriatic.
A good example is the capital – Ljubljana, situated merely 8 miles from the exact center of the country. For instance, from Ljubljana you can take your car and drive an hour to Austria, Croatia, Italy or two hours to Hungary. Within a 2.5 hour drive lies Venice, 3.5 Vienna, 4.5 Munich.
One hour, you could be skiing up in the Alps, with the first slopes being only 10 miles away. Within that same hour enjoy the benefits of a mild Mediterranean climate sipping your coffee in Trieste on the Adriatic sea.
Check out one of the most beautiful Alpine villages and lakes that is a true gem of Slovenia – Lake Bled.
Starting in the east, in the region of Prekmurje on the edges of the Panonian flatlands one would find endless plains and fields going over into a landscape of rolling hills lined with vineyards and quaint villages of the Stiriya region. A similar type landscape continues to the south into lower Carniola or Dolenjska and heading up north into upper Carniola or Gorenjska region with its high Alpine vistas reminiscent of places in Austria or Switzerland.
Finally in the west is Primorska or the coastal region with a mild Mediteranean climate and very distinct Venetian towns like Piran or Izola separated by the interior by a highland plateau dominated by limestone – the Karst. In Slovenia Karst is the name of a region and at the same time of the type of landscape which was passed on to all the world languages as a scientific term.
One of the most famous Karst phenomena, which are shaped by the interaction of limestone and the water dissolving it, are caves. There are some 10000 cave sites in Slovenia including the Skocjan caves (Unesco world heritage site with one of the worlds deepest underground river canyons) and Postojna (Europe’s 2nd largest cave).
Another worthwhile geological feature are the numerous hot springs resulting in many spa resorts which can be found across the country, particularly in its south and east.
15. What’s your favorite place to visit in Slovenia? Where’s a destination that most people don’t know about or wouldn’t find in a guidebook but should visit?
My personal favorite have always been Slovenia’s mountains. One can spend days or even weeks hiking through the Alpine highlands dotted with mountain huts amid fairytale-like nature, waterfalls and lakes to snow capped peaks. The area is criss crossed by well marked hiking paths which can lead you beyond to Austria and Switzerland, all the way to the French Alps.
Particularly interesting are the sights in the western mountain ranges where on the former borders between the Austrian empire and Italy where a series of fortresses and tunnels was supposed to fix the demarcation line. In the area around the Isonzo river in WWI this border resulted in one of the main battle fronts of that period immortalized among others by Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms.
Countless historical sites of this huge military and engineering undertaking can still be visited here placed in some of the most inspiring Alpine scenary anywhere. On these trails one can allways find hidden spots that are special and unique to each visitor.
16. Slovenia seems to be a country that seems to be doing OK economically and many of the people speak English. What is the current economic outlook for Slovenia?
For the past 20 years since its independence (and even before in Yugoslavia) Slovenia has done remarkably well with a high and steady growth rate supported by a stable political system. Its economy is very diversified, but some of the most known and successfull branches would be pharmaceutical and electronics industry.
Slovenia’s main natural resource is its people and with a good state sponsored education system the general population offers a good base for a capable and multilingual workforce which is able to prove itself well beyond the borders of this small country with its high quality products. Unfortunately, due to its size, the economy is also very dependent for its exports and trade on other larger economies in the area, particularly Germany, Austria and Italy.
As the recent crisis hit Europe and the world, Slovenia is obviously not immune to its effects. Even though things are nowhere nearly as bad as in some other European countries, unemployment is on the rise and the recession has given a negative sign to the countries growth rate. Everybody is hoping for better times, but the real decisions and events are taking place beyond the borders of little Slovenia.
For more information on Slovenia, contact Slovenia’s tourist board where Maribor is this 2012 European Capital of Culture. Find interesting facts, guides, and information for everything Slovenia. And follow them on Twitter @SloveniaInfo.
Marijan Kriskovic is a native of Slovenia and is part Slovenian and part Croatian. He spent his formative years in Croatia but has roots in Slovenia. He also studied in Ljubljana and currently works as a tour guide for a number of tour companies, including Rick Steves. He is a newlywed who loves to travel and still calls Slovenia home.