Slovenia: Time for Bled

Click to follow
The Independent Online
What's Croat for `I'll have another one please'?

David Sims finds out, as he sips his way around Slovenia

Janis Fajifar drives an old yellow Zastafa 750 motorcar. It spluttered and hiccupped its way up the steep hills around Bled. He was taking me to Bled Castle for a better view of the oval, emerald-green lake and the Baroque church on its tiny island.

From the castle we looked down at the lake. To one side is the old Bled, Austrian in style. On the other side are characterless Fifties and Sixties concrete buildings. We could see men rowing gondolas across to the island church. The boatmen stand at the stern grasping two large, crossed oars and heave their burdens over the water.

The church is small, but it still manages to cram in six side chapels, a marble pulpit, a high, golden altar and several 15th-century frescos. "The Church of the Virgin Maria is one of the holiest places of the Slovene people," said Janis.

From the church the Bell of Wishes rang out its doleful tones as tourists strained at the bell rope. "In 1809 our women saved the island from the French. The women heard that French troops were going to plunder the church. So they took all the boats over to the island. The French spent three days finding other boats - and then they rowed themselves to the island. But they realised that they should not touch the gold and silver. So they said that everything in the church belonged to the French government, but it should not be removed. Later, a piece of folk theatre was played all over Austro-Hungary called The Courageous Women of Bled, as a symbol of resistance against the French."

I needed courage of a different sort the the next day. Practising Croat for "I'll have another one please" at the bar of the Pri Planinchu had seemed amusing at the time, but the resulting hangover was brutal. We set off for Radovljica in search of a cure.

The village has a crumbling charm, its medieval houses decorated with frescos of the area's history. Although the paint is peeling and the colours are fading, I wasn't disappointed - and I found something of a hangover cure in the excellent bar, Gostilna Lectar, where mushroom soup was served in a hollowed-out loaf of bread. Here Janis and I parted company: I gave his car one last push and made for the train to Ljubljana.

Five minutes from the transport hub of Ljubljana, colour smacked me in the eyes: the pink Franciscan Church of the Annunciation, the cream and burgundy geometric patterns on the Co-operative Bank, the Italianate pharmacy where I bought aspirin folded into white paper.

It is said that wherever you go in the world you will meet kids wearing Michael Jackson T-shirts, and Coke concessionaires doing a roaring trade. Before too long you'll also be able to have a perfectly pulled pint of Guinness. There is an Irish bar in Ljubljana. A new friend, Rok, took me to Patrick's. I was the only Irishman there, and this was the place to be. We fell into conversation with the Prime Minister's secretary, then Rok introduced me to a young journalist who had been jailed for publishing a draft political plan for an independent Slovenia in the late Eighties. The prison sentence had led to demonstrations as the people of Ljubljana came out on to the streets to support the journalist and his colleagues. It was this protest, I was told, that had led to Slovenia seceding from the crumbling Yugoslavia. "Slainte," I said, and raised my glass.

I was destined for more clinking glasses the next day. Rok and I drove east to Jerusalem, the wine-growing region. In abreathtakingly beautiful village, with yellow and pink buildings enhanced by the morning sun, we wandered into a bar which still had a stern Sixties motto: "You will enjoy yourself in our glorious people's republic". Here men in pinstriped suits were drinking schnapps and beer. Below thier suits were mud-covered shoes. Church bells were ringing as we left; a bride, flanked by her supporters, was walking up the Tarmac road. Her husband-to-be was even better supported by his friends - one at each arm - who helped him out of the bar we had just been in.

We pressed on to Ormoz, a few yards from the Croatian border. Here we spent Saturday afternoon on the terraces - where the grapes are grown. Outside, the only sound is the klack, klack, klack of wind rattles used to chase away birds. Inside, it is altogether more convivial: in the tiny cellar of Curin Prapotnik we tasted a dozen wines of increasingly good quality, up to ice wine made from grapes picked in the depth of winter.

That evening we were warmly invited to big festivities in town. My imagination had been fired with ideas about wine celebrations and traditional music, so it was with some disappointment that we arrived at the Hotel Ormoz where the band was playing Linda Ronstadt's "Blue Bayou". Far from celebrating Slovenia's cultural past, tonight we were to witness the launch of a new range of Renault cars. As the band struck up the Bellamy Brothers' "Let Your Love Flow" I began to make my excuses, only to find that I was considered to be a VIP. I gave up gracefully and spent the night discussing the relative merits of Slovene beer with an Italian rugby team - also VIPs, as it turned out.

Next morning, on the way to the airport, Rok took me to another village for another schnapps cure. As the sun came out I reflected that if you have never had a Saturday night on the Slovene-Croatian border discussing gassy beers with an Italian rugby team, you've really never had a Saturday night.

bled bound

Getting there: The only direct flights between the UK and Slovenia are operated by Adria Airways (0171-437 0143), which flies non-stop between Heathrow and Ljubljana. The lowest return fare is pounds 239 before April (pounds 262 thereafter), which must be booked one week in advance and should include a Saturday night. There are regular buses between Ljubljana and Bled, taking around 90 minutes to cover the 33-mile journey.

Further information: the Slovenian tourist office moved last Monday to 49 Conduit Street, London W1R 9FB (0171-287 7133).