Slovenian Rhapsody

Slovenian Rhapsody

The New York Times

EVENING was fast approaching in the Slovenian town of Piran when the chimes of the Chiesa di San Giorgio reminded me that the piano concerto was about to begin. As the sun slanted across the Adriatic, I hurried toward the vast Tartini Square — named for Giuseppe Tartini, the Baroque-era Italian violinist and composer — past outdoor cafes, where boisterous groups of Slovenians were devouring Balkan sausages and toasting one another — “Na zdravje!” (“To your health!”) — with local Lasko beer.

At the neo-Classical Casa Tartini — the birthplace of the composer — a stout woman with fuchsia hair welcomed me with a hardy “Buona sera!” I found my seat among some couples swapping town gossip in the language of Dante, then opened the program and scanned the family names of the night’s pianists: Mihailic, Pocecco, Levanic, Prodi.

Slovenian, Italian, Slovenian, Italian.

The bicultural mash-up was starting to make my head spin. In what strange land had I arrived?

The Italo-Slavic hybrid on the coast of Slovenia is just one of many surprises in this tiny nation of around two million people. In June, I traveled the length of the country by bus and train — through cities, along shorelines, up mountains — and found more surprises: fairy-tale castles, top-notch designers, wines made by monks, wild wedding parties, giant escargot performing Shakespeare (more on this later), a fruit-bearing plant that appears in the Guinness World Records (ditto), and human fish (best left for the end). And then there is the folkloric city of Maribor, built by the Austrian Hapsburgs and named as a Capital of European Culture for 2012.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is simply the existence of Slovenia, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary as an independent nation this year. Since the Middle Ages, the land of the Slovene people has been repeatedly absorbed by empires and dictatorships — the mercantile Venetians (hence the Italian influence), the Austrian (and later Austro-Hungarian) Empire and finally Yugoslavia, from which the Slovenes separated themselves in 1991 after a 10-day war with the Yugoslav army.

The intervening years have seen a full charge toward European integration. Slovenia was admitted to the European Union in 2004 and adopted the euro in 2007. Its international airport, just outside the capital city of Ljubljana, is in the midst of a 10-year expansion that will further reveal this often overlooked Slavic country to the world.

Exhibit A is certainly Ljubljana, a city that brims with faded Hapsburg glory. After throwing my bag in the wood-lined interior of my room at the cheap but cheerful Hotel Center, I was soon lost in cobbled lanes lined with medieval town houses, Baroque churches and stately 19th-century edifices — and plenty of concrete eyesores left over from decades of Yugoslav Socialism.

Though only 280,000 Slovenes inhabit their capital — including some 50,000 students — the city felt full of energy. Posters trumpeted new spaces like Kino Siska, a former cinema transformed into a performance hall. Along Metalkova Street, a construction site bristled with the almost-finished structure of the city’s most anticipated new venue, the Museum of ContemporaryArt, which will open on Oct. 29. Everywhere, well-dressed Slovenes streamed past on bicycles. Compared with the former Yugoslav capital of Belgrade, Serbia — a lively city beset by grime, gray architecture and dilapidated infrastructure — Ljubljana seemed a kind of Slavic Copenhagen, a portrait of efficiency and prosperity.

“In history we belong more to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and to the West, so we have always been kind of apart, this tiny little bubble that didn’t really fit completely” in Yugoslavia, said Tanja Pak, a 30-something glass designer, as we drank water mixed with elderflower juice in her Ljubljana boutique.

Compared with their cousins in Bosnia, Serbia and the other former components of Yugoslavia, “We always thought that we were more organized,” she went on in excellent English, which nearly everyone under 40 seems to speak. Many Slovenes don’t even think of their country as part of the Balkans, she told me. Like Westerners, she said, “I think we’re obsessed with work.”

That obsession has paid off nicely in her case. On a nearby pedestal, the afternoon sun filtered orange through some exquisite glassworks that have garnered Ms. Pak two honorable mentions from the prestigious Germany-based Red Dot Awards: V-shaped shot glasses with delicately etched bases, and an ultrathin water carafe that tapers upward in curvy undulations. Next to them stood some spherical drinking glasses resembling drops of rain. Ms. Pak is hardly the only Slovene racking up international honors these days. Everything from Kolpa bathroom fixtures to Petric skis has nabbed a Red Dot, helping to elevate Slovenia into a design destination. Its profile has been further boosted by homegrown galas like the annual Month of Design (October to November) and Biennial of Graphic Arts (September to November this year).

As something of a design fetishist, I threaded through Ljubljana to uncover its old and new talents, starting with the grande dame of Ljubljana fashion, Marjeta Groselj.

“I’m hidden a little, but people always find me,” said Ms. Groselj, as she welcomed me to her minuscule boutique just off Slovenska Cesta boulevard.

Dressed in black and sporting red lipstick, with her dark hair pulled back, she resembled a retired flamenco dancer. Around us, shelves were filled with leather handbags, many brightly colored and each hand-constructed the on-site studio, where Ms. Groselj has worked for the last 45 years. She went into the back and emerged with one of her latest works, a two-foot-long tubular clutch made from gray snakeskin. She unrolled it and rolled it again like a sleeping bag, and said just one word: “Python.”

By the time I found Niti Niti, a new women’s wear boutique along the riverbank, anyone trailing me would have been convinced that I was a cross-dresser. (I deny this.) Within were rows of gauzy sweaters and dresses in soft reds and oranges. Some looked as though they were created of tiny rings, like chain mail.

“Stainless steel covered with silk,” said the designer, a tall redhead named Simona Muc who used to work as an architect. “I like to play with structure and lightness and transparency.”

THAT night, a funicular climbed the forested hill in the city center and deposited me at Ljubljana Castle for a meal in its new courtyard restaurant, Gostilna na Gradu. The year-old establishment prides itself on using organic products and elevating old world Slovenian recipes rather than dishing out the same predictable mix of Italian, Austrian and Serbian fare, as most local restaurants do. Soon the waiters were rushing over the paving stones to deliver me an amuse-bouche made from nuggets of smoky pork fat, followed by finely sliced beef tongue and robust potato ravioli ringed with a zesty lamb ragout. These were barnyard dishes, displayed with the Slovenian eye for design.

Down in the twinkling city, music began to rise from the Baroque plazas along the Ljubljanica River. I followed the strains of an avant-Muzak-like take on “Summertime” to Presernov Square, where hundreds of spectators were watching two humanoid snails perform Kama Sutra positions on an open-air stage. Absorbing the scene in the moonlight, I wondered: Would Shakespeare even recognize his own hand buried underneath this unorthodox interpretation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”? It looked more like a midsummer night’s acid trip.

The soundtrack changed to jazz in a narrow lane called Stari Trg, home to the SKUC cultural center. A combo grooved through some bebop and then made way for a Slovenian woman who read aloud in her native language from a short story. Sitting alongside me in seats seemingly torn from 1970s jalopies, a dozen guys and girls in thrift-store duds nodded appreciatively at the neo-Beat Generation scene.

Finally, Far Eastern chimes and percussion beckoned from theEqurna Gallery, completing the evening’s unusual cultural odyssey. Weaving my way through throngs of well-heeled diplomatic types and cool kids in drainpipe jeans, I caught glimpses of a small Balinese woman in a shimmery dress in the center, performing a cosmic dance on a floor strewn with flower petals.

But the real draw was the geometric paintings on the white walls around here. Made Wianta, a top Indonesian artist more often seen in New York or Beijing, was making his Slovenian debut.

A woman with a triangle of curly hair — the gallery owner, Taja Vidmar Brejc — introduced the artist and reminisced about the days when she and her friends first dared to showcase works that didn’t toe the Socialist party line.

“This was the first gallery in Yugoslavia that was private and not part of the state,” Ms. Brejc said, explaining that the institution was started in the 1980s, before Yugoslavia embarked on its bloody disintegration. “It was started by a group of artists who didn’t agree with official art.”

“We had a lot problems” with the authorities, Ms. Brejc continued. At the time, it must have been impossible to predict that the gallery would become a participant in international art fairs likeArt Basel and Art Forum Berlin. She sipped from her plastic cup of wine with a grin. “Nobody believed that we would succeed. But we did succeed.”

In the morning, a bus carried me through a landscape of pine forests and distant jagged hills. After two hours, one of Slovenia’s best-kept secrets opened up on the horizon: the boundless blue of the Adriatic.

Only about 30 miles long, Slovenia’s coast is scarcely a crumb between the seaside expanses of Italy above and Croatia below. And that’s precisely its allure. While foreign tourists flood Trieste and Dubrovnik, only cognoscenti frequent Slovenia’s rustic seaside villages.

I DEBARKED in Piran, set on a slender finger of land pointing into the sea. During the centuries that the Austrians were occupying the rest of Slovenia, the wily Venetians were running a lucrative salt trade here, using the profits to build one of the loveliest settlements on the Adriatic. Houses with orange tile roofs pack the web of tiny lanes. Town houses radiate sherbet colors — peach, lime, strawberry. Only the down-at-the heels marina, with its rusted railings and creaky dinghies, blighted the postcard image.

Tanja Pak had spoken of the work ethic in most of Slovenia, but there appeared to be little in Piran. Bodies in swimsuits lay splayed along the bulkheads as if they had staggered over from a lotus eaters’ binge. Old men played chess on benches, and a glass-bottom sightseeing ship coasted lazily offshore. It seemed that all ambition had melted under the sun and been lapped away by the waves.

The hardest-working people seemed to be those grilling the sardines and Serbian-style pljeskavica sa sirom — ground beef topped with cheese — that I ordered in the Pizzeria Riva, one of many Italo-Sloveno-Balko terrace restaurants along the seafront. It was then that I faced the only pressing decision one faces in Piran: whether to drink Union pivo (beer) or Lasko pivo. I buckled under the pressure and ordered both.

Later, as I lost myself in the shady alleyways, some animated bodies appeared. “Questa chiesa ...” a guide was saying to an Italian tour group as they trooped past the yellow facade of the 15th-century Our Lady of Consolation church. They were reveling in the details of Piran’s many medieval houses of worship: the arcaded cloister of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, the rectangular clock tower of the Church of St. George, which is a scale replica of the Campanile of San Marco in Venice.

In Tartini Square, I noticed a familiar woman: Marilyn Monroe. Her painted face smiled from the windows of the neo-Classical-style Palazzo Trevisini. Inside I found “Splendid Pop,” an exhibition of Pop Art lithographs set to last through this month. The Velvet Underground echoed through galleries hung with Tom Wesselmann’s topless women. Roy Lichtenstein’s pointillist comic-strip cows and Andy Warhol’s Marilyns filled other rooms. The Factory, improbably, had landed in this languorous Slovenian town.

Suddenly, a clamor of drums and trumpets erupted outside, and a wildly shouting wedding party flooded out of the municipal court house next door. The dolled-up guests, holding flutes of Slovenian sparkling wine, began to dance the kolo. A man with a megaphone shouted encouragement, as spectators clapped and whistled. A young Slovenian woman translated the lyrics for me as something like “It’s a day when everyone is in love / But I am alone and have no one.”

In midafternoon another wedding party streamed out of city hall, hoisted a different bride and groom, and danced again to a brass band. Then, improbably, a third did the same.

THE weather turned rainy on the long bus and train journey to Maribor, a quaint stone-and-wood city near the Austrian border. Pastel town houses disappeared, replaced by stolid Hapsburg buildings. Behind them loomed the green Pohorje Mountains, grooved with skiruns awaiting winter snows. Beyond those, hills and fields bloomed with grapes.

Posters and banners around the cobbled streets trumpeted the city’s star turn as a European Capital of Culture next year, but I was seeking a different sort of culture: viticulture.

“For most of the last 20 years, our winemakers were sleeping a little bit,” said Sasa Arsenovic, owner of the Rozmarin restaurant, as we drank Slovenian merlot and talked about the long history of local winemaking. “But in the last five years they have begun to wake up.”

The proof was all around the sleek establishment, which Mr. Arsenovic, a former professional tennis player, opened in 2006. A tasting menu with paired Slovenian wines beckoned from the card, while a wall of bottles for sale peeked out from the next room.

As the region’s winemakers have emerged from slumber, Maribor’s cobbled streets have begun to fill with wine restaurants and tasting rooms, sometimes in unlikely places. Traipse into Vodni Stolp, a 16th-century water tower near Maribor’s medieval synagogue, and you find the Vinoteka Maribor wine bar. In Svobode Square I found the two-year-old Vinag wine boutique and joined a few other visitors for a guided tour of its mold-covered stone cellar, filled with some 150 huge wooden barrels. Afterward, we indulged in glasses of crisp Mariborcan (a blend of local white grapes) and a lackluster chardonnay (proving that some winemakers are still in somnambulist mode).

But the most famous personality in the Maribor wine world — one recognized by Guinness World Records — stood spread out in front of a white house on Vojasniska street: the world's oldest vine.

Planted more than 400 years ago with red zametovka grapes, the vine survived the invasions of the Ottoman Turks, endured Napoleon’s armies when they seized Slovenia for a few years, withstood a 19th-century phylloxera epidemic that ravaged vineyards across Europe, emerged from two World Wars, suffered obscurity in the postwar decades, and finally found glory in 2007 with the creation of the Old Vine House, which is both a museum and wine shop.

“Last year it produced 59 kilos of grapes,” Vesna Horvat, the young director, told me. The coming harvest, she assured, would be the occasion of a citywide bacchanal.

Could we sample its wine, I asked? She shook her head.

“We put the wine in very small bottles of 2.5 deciliters and use them as a protocol gift, “ she said. “They are only for visiting officials. Bill Clinton has a bottle. So does Arnold Schwarzenegger, the pope and the emperor of Japan.”

Devastated, I decided to drown my sorrows at the museum’s bar. Soon a young guide named Jernej Lubet was pouring a rosé from the Gaube label and some honey-sweet welschriesling from Vinag. The star was a smooth, dry white wine made from a local grape called sipon. Mr. Lubet explained that the winemaker, Dveri-Pax, is operated by an order of Benedictine monks that has been around since the 12th century. The grape, he said, earned its curious name when Napoleon’s soldiers occupied the area in the early 1800s.

“They tasted the wine and said ‘Si bon! Si bon!’ But the restaurateurs didn’t speak French. They just heard “Sipon! Sipon!”

Slovenia’s final surprise was niched in the rugged karst region, beneath the village of Postojna. Next to a tunnel bored into a hillside, I joined some other tourists and boarded a narrow-gauge train that shot off into the Postojna Cave. Forests of stalactites, sharp and menacing, hung above. Stalagmites, some as high as flagpoles, jutted from the cave floor. The train stopped and our guide, Katja, explained that the 13 miles of caves and wild stone shapes were formed by erosion and dripping water from the Pivka River.

Our group continued on foot, snaking downward into the whorls of nature’s intestines, through claustrophobic channels and cathedral-like chambers. The strange shapes became ever more surreal: piles of gargantuan jellyfish; seas of brain coral; oversize mushroom clusters.

Soon, a glass and metal case, the size of a truck, materialized. Inside, pale salamander-like creatures clung to rocks. These were the Proteus anguinus, residents of the deep caves, transferred to this artificial habitat.

“We call them ‘human fish’ for two reasons,” Katja said. “One is that they can live up to 100 years, like us. And also because they have white skin, like ours.”

Our group boarded the train and shot back through the darkness, contemplating what we had witnessed: little known, ruggedly beautiful and populated with unexpected characters. For a moment, this curious underground world seemed the perfect metaphor for Slovenia itself.