Where am I? From my hotel bedroom before breakfast I can see, against a wooded background, a row of small cottages, some quaintly antique, some concretely contemporary, their terraced gardens thick with miscellaneous foliage, sunflowers and roses and plots of vegetables. Washing hangs on a line; there is an ironing board on a balcony; a housewife spots us and waves; a man next door is busy polishing his already spotless Citroën. Somebody has drawn a tastefully sexy graffito on a wall.
Down the road the town square is plastered with photographs of male and female candidates in next week’s local elections, every one of them, it seems, supernally good-looking. Two hikers with Nordic poles stride into the morning, almost, but not quite, singing a merry hiking song. My hotel offers me 44 television channels in five languages, and a culinary speciality of the house, an old coaching inn that has fed imperial princes in its time, is turnip soup with sausages. After breakfast I can either be, within a couple of hours, swimming on an enchanted coast line, or in the depths of an Alpine forest with bears in it.
Where am I? Why, in Slovenia, the most delightful small country of 21st-century Europe, about which I have nothing in the least disagreeable to report.
When God devised Slovenia, I like to think in my creationist moments, he smiled. The independent Slovene republic has existed only since 1991 – and of all the new states that have emerged in our times, Slovenia is surely the luckiest. It seems to me to be just the right size and shape for human or national happiness – about as big as Wales, with two million people living generally amicably in it, with grand mountains and fertile flatlands, a lovely ancient capital and 30-odd miles of coastline on the Adriatic Sea, just enough for a port and a string of holiday towns.
It is not very rich, but not very poor either. Its neighbours – Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia – are generally well-disposed, give or take a frontier irritation, and it is a member of Europe, of Nato and of the United Nations. Its history is interesting, its Slavic language sounds fascinating – “the day before yesterday” in Slovene is predvčerajšnjim – and it is conveniently equipped for that prerequisite of small nations in our time, upmarket tourism.
Koper is a busy industrialised port, serving not only Slovenia, but the Slav hinterland beyond; the smaller coastal towns, inherited from the Venetian empire of long ago, live by tourism, so that their exquisitely Italianate piazzas and campaniles are invested with car parks and cafés and camp sites. But all sorts of artistic and architectural treasures are there to be found in Koper, and in half an hour you can be away from the razzmatazz, away from the echoes of Italy, and among the simpler allure of Slovenian Slovenia.
This can be exploitative too, mind you. Visitors have flocked to the little lake of Bled, in the north, ever since the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and even then the church-crowned islet in the middle of it was so universal a tourist icon that watercolours of it hung in drawing rooms from Budapest to Vienna. The nearby Julian Alps have their ski centres and chair-lifts, too, and flotillas of coaches convey package tourists to the myriad caves, long since illuminated and supplied with local legends. As for the celebrated stud-farm of Lipice, where the white Lipizzaner horses are bred, horse-lovers from all over Europe flock to stay at the two in-house hotels, learn to ride the Lipizzaners and watch them exercise. But the real delight of the place is to wander around the stables all by yourself, and meet some of those 400 glorious animals muzzle-to-muzzle, so to speak, unharnessed, unprimped and not on show at all.
For even some of the famous sites of Slovenia are restrained in their display. A genuine prodigy, to my mind, is the medieval castle of Predjama, which was for centuries the home of reclusive aristocrats and the lair of princely brigands. It is not remote nowadays, but the winding road up there gives no hint of drama until quite suddenly, beyond its attendant hamlet, there stands the white castle, grim and strange, half in and half out of the rock wall – behind it the gloomy vault of a cavern, below it a sheer cliff pock-marked with holes and tunnels. There is a café, but nothing touristy weakens the experience of Predjama, no glitz; only a sense of strange and cruel suggestion makes you stand there silently, with your coffee cup in your hand, staring at that weird construction in the rock.
Ljubljana, the Slovene capital, with its 300,000 people, is similarly unassertive. Its outskirts are ordinary, and its largely medieval centre seems to me rather like a show town in an architectural exhibition, very pretty, very festive, very nice as though one of these days it might be taken to pieces again and packed off somewhere else. A castle crowns it, with a gigantic national flag flying high, and a little river meanders through its centre, crossed by fanciful bridges.
Everyone in Ljubljana seems to be having a good time. Countless al fresco cafes line the riverbanks, and they are all full and animated. Twenty or thirty small boys were being taught to rollerskate when I was there, and a whole stretch of street was closed off to allow them hilariously to hurl themselves up and down, frequently colliding or collapsing into uncontrollable laughter. Nearby, one of their mothers, herself on skates, was killing time by pushing a baby about in a pram.
The streets of the old city are wide, very clean and extremely prosperous. Music often blares through the central square, where the merriest of the river crossings multiplies itself and becomes the ornamental Triple Bridge; big amiable dogs abound; an immense open-air market sells everything from pomegranates to bath-plugs; a thousand restaurants flourish; the magnificent Renaissance-Classical colonnade which embellishes the city centre turns out to be not Renaissance-Classical at all, but the work of Jose Plecnik (died 1957).
God evidently still smiles on Ljubljana, but then he smiles on all Slovenia. Here are two little cameos of ordinary Slovenian travel, with no sights to see, no rollerskating schoolboys, no fierce eyrie-castles, no Venetian campaniles or Habsburgian beauty spots.
First we go to the upper valley of the Sava Bohinska river, in the lee of the Julian Alps, where white village basks almost within sight of Mount Triglav, the country’s highest peak. It is a very green, wide, semi-Alpine valley, edged with high hills, and the four or five little villages almost run into one another. They are all white-washed and clustered, with deep eaves and higgledy-piggledy lanes, and one has a little church with a fresco of St Christopher on its southern wall.
Every which way stand the tall white houses, with wide gardens full of flowers, and nothing much seems to be happening. The calm is absolute. Here and there we come across a man hosing down his tractor, or a woman with a bag of onions. Cats sit contentedly in the middle of fields. At an unexpectedly suave village restaurant they serve us grilled trout fresh from the river, with Slovenian Tokai wine and bread from the kitchen oven. God smiles, without a doubt, upon the Sava Bohinska valley.
And here, in contrast, we find ourselves lost somewhere east of Kranj. Helplessly we consult our map, hopefully we look for somebody to ask the way, and presently there somehow seems to sidle into our company half a dozen Slovene men and a very talkative Slovene woman. Between us we speak five languages, but we are fluent only in our own, and gradually our discussions descend into farce: “It’s that way, for sure.” “No it’s the other, they haven’t been through Preddvor.” “No, no of course they haven’t, they came the Cerklje way – they should go back the way they came then, they should have gone by Duplice.” “No, no, no, look here, look at the map …”
And so, as the map gets more and more crumpled, the arguments louder, the languages ever more incomprehensible, we subside into impotent merriment, shake hands with each other, and, chuckling still, go our various ways. We ourselves are no wiser about our situation, so we leave the car on the grassy verge and go for a drink instead.
God looks down upon that Slovenian scene, too, and now he laughs out loud.
Jan Morris is the author of more than 40 books, including most recently a novel ‘Hav’, published by Faber
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