30 July 2011

Slovenian Food

The first word that comes to mind when thinking about Slovenian food is 'mushrooms.' They are absolutely everywhere, underfoot on hikes, garnishing most meat dishes. Most often, though, they are sitting pretty at the bottom of a soup bowl under the murky, grey surface of gobava juha. Mushroom soup in Slovenia isn't just slices of button mushrooms with a shitake thrown in here and there for exoticism. It's a veritable crash course in foraging, with each spoonful unearthing a plethora of funghi, all different shapes and sizes and flavors. Since every Slovenian meal begins with soup, gobova juha is pretty much a national menu fixture.
Most people describe the cuisine as 'meaty and hearty' and this applies to soup as well. If something is called a jota instead of a juha (soup), it will be thicker and more filling. This is a cabbage jota, which was a delicious chowder of sauerkraut. I was aware that smoked meat would be involved, but was surprised to find two whole pork ribs hanging out in the veggie bath. Merlin was happy to help me out with them, saying that they were smokey, cured perfection. I can say that it smelled like southern barbecue. Other common jotas involve barley, potatoes and/or radishes and are often referred to as "farmer's soup."
Now onto grains. First of all, yes, that country dijon colored gravy is mushroom. Honestly, if you're not a mushroom person, Slovenian food is just not for you. If you are - like I am - it's heaven. Buckwheat is very popular, showing up in breads, pastries, as groats (a.k.a kasha), as porridge with cracklings on top (Ajdovi Žganci) and in noodle form. This is ajdova krapi, crescent-shaped dumplings made of buckwheat flour and filled with cottage cheese or curd. It was much lighter than it looks, airier inside and less starchy outside than its dumpling sister, Pierogi. For the record: buckwheat is not related to wheat, is gluten free and is widely considered a healthy grain choice. That is, until you sprinkle it with pork trimmings.
Also in the 'lighter-than-it-looks' category is štruklji, Slovenian strudel. We've been served it alongside a number of dishes, here it is next to a big hunk of beef (with mushroom gravy, obviously). They are remarkably delicate and really, really tasty. The dough is stretched as thin as can be by the chef (as our host mother on the Arbijter tourist farm demonstrated to us one evening), then rolled over the filling of choice. Cottage cheese is almost always involved, but fruit, herbs or vegetables can definitely be added in. Then, the long roll is wrapped in cheese cloth, boiled and sliced to serve. The orange stuff on top is fried bread crumbs, which has dusted our other most common side dish: njoki (similar in every way, including pronunciation, to gnocchi). Mrs. Arbijter's njoki were big pillows that appeared to be baked. Strudel in the pot, gnocchi in the oven - you can see the influence of border countries Italy and Austria being given a Slovene twist.
A number of restaurants have been recommended to us as places to eat "enlightened Slovenian cuisine." As far as I can tell, this means that things are a little less lardy and vegetables play a larger part than the usual side salad or steamed cauliflower and broccoli. At Gostilna Lectar in Radovljica, this meant black radish dip served inside of a radish.
At Hotel Rakov Škocjan in Cerknica, it meant a slice of eggplant wrapped up around a spoonful of sweet cheese curd and sprinkled with almond and bučno olje (pumpkinseed oil). It felt so fancy in the middle of the woods, wearing hiking shoes and drinking draught wine. My trout and Merlin's venison, two very, very common Slovenian proteins, were especially delicious.
Oh, trout. It's particularly good in this country, especially around Lake Bohinj. Usually, it's served whole, fried or baked smothered in large amount of garlicky oil. Here, at Lectar, we ordered it smoked as a starter. Have I mentioned that Slovene portions are large? Well, they are, but that's not such a bad thing when you're talking about smoked trout. Unlike a lot of other pork and starch loving countries, fish is definitely given its due respect. Squid and shrimp make appearances on menus even far from the coast - probably because they hold up particularly well to freezing. Last time we were in Slovenia, we visited Piran on the country's small stretch of Adriatic coastline. I had the largest prawns I had seen or have seen since. This time around, though, it's been all postrv all the time.
No post about Slovenian food would be complete without a big shout out to the Styrian oil pumpkin. Since falling in love with pumpkinseed oil in Austria, we've been dying to get our hands on some more of it in Slovenia. These two countries produce large quantities of the oil, as well as the unique gourd from which they are made, in their Styrian regions (Štajerska in Slovenian). The pumpkins are green and orange with a pale yellow flesh and dark seeds. Those dark green roasted pumpkin seeds you buy at the store may very well be from Slovenia, as they are a big export. After a particularly filling meal, we were served cups of wine soaked fruit. Bučno we asked, thinking that the texture was squashy. Yep! Between this, the seeds and the oil, I really want to know if oil pumpkins can survive in Northeastern America. If so, I have a wonderful business idea...

Slovenian Churches

Every region in Europe has its own style of church. In some countries, the religious architecture can change from one valley to the next. What's interesting about Slovenian churches is their relatively uniform style - slender, compact spires and simply designed naves - and their number. There are over two thousand in this little country - on some hillsides, we've spotted as many as four.
There are many small village churches, sometimes at both ends of a hamlet. Interestingly, a large majority of the religious buildings are catholic, and the multitude generally doesn't reflect a denominational divide as much as it does the small size of the buildings. In other countries, larger cathedrals were constructed in many parishes, allowing higher numbers of worshipers in each congregation. Here, there are relatively few big chapels, and new churches were built to meet demand.
This shingle roofed church near Žička kartuzija monastery was impressive for its ornateness. The double cupola is more common in this northeastern region of Štajerska, where there's less of a monolithic culture of catholicism. Here, eastern influences from the rest of the former Yugoslavia and from the northern, Germanic countries have mixed more with the Romance architecture of the mediterranean west.
The further a Slovenian church is into the wilderness, the less likely it will have an ornate steeple roof. The onion shape easily gives way to Italianate, square edged spires. Often, these backwoods buildings are the prettiest and most appealing for their sunworn paint and crumbling, simple facades.
The church of Sv Janeza Krstnika, on the shore of Lake Bohinj, is said to be the most beautiful in Slovenia, with classic stylings and 15th century frescoes covering the interior walls. It's especially striking at dusk, when it's lit up and its reflection becomes almost perfect in the still water.

28 July 2011

Bled and Bohinj

There are two beautiful lakes in the northeastern Gorenjska region of Slovenia. Lakes Bled and Bohinj are both bounded by forested mountains and high pastures. They’re separated only by about fifteen miles of valley, but feel worlds apart. Bohinj’s shores are an outdoor playground for paragliders and hikers, but are otherwise mostly deserted. Around Bled – which is blessed with this perfect crag castle and a much photographed island church – the holidaymakers and locals have more ostentatious tastes.
The waters of both Bled and Bohinj are a deep, aquamarine color that catches the light and seems murkier than it really is. Wooden boats dot the surfaces, rented out by the hour from stands on the shore. Both lakes are full of trout, which end up on area tables and menus.
Bled could be famous simply for its views and the castle, but there’s also a magnificent and unique centerpiece – Bled Island, which is an icon of Slovenian tourism and of the lake region in general. It’s topped by the striking Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary, built in 1465, whose bells chime the hour and echo softly over the water. On a walk around the lake’s perimeter, we watched the light change on the steeple and followed a swimmer’s progress as he made his slow way from the shore to the church staircase.
Bled is undoubtedly the tourist capital of Slovenia, and there are more German, Italian, French and American accents than Slovenian ones. It’s a glamorous place, in its own way, with the feel of an upscale ski town or an old seaside resort. While there are endless opportunities for hiking and climbing in the mountains around town, most people stay close to the shore and the shopping district, drinking and dining at the sleek bars and slowly parading their luxury cars along the main street. Tour buses come in for the afternoon. Large, stately hotels ring the water.
Not far away, Bohinj lies quiet and serene. Here, there are no castles or magnificent buildings (though the pretty churches of Sv Janeza Krstnika and Sv Duh have plenty of charm and history). Its beauty is hardly understated, though; with steep sides and pebbled coves, the lake has a natural grandeur that is breathtaking and refreshing. Its famous mists materialize early in the evening and lift late in the morning, burning off in long tendrils that hang in curls over the peaks.
While there are a few places to stay close to the shore, most of the tourism infrastructure is condensed into the little village of Ribčev Laz, at the eastern point of the lake. Most of the rest of the coast is protected as part of Triglav National Park, and the northern shore is entirely deserted. Pastures and cornfields stretch up a secondary valley in the direction of Stara Fužina, and its common to hear cowbells clanking around the lake as the Cika heifers graze amongst the trees.
There’s a pretty pathway that circumnavigates Bohinj, passing by a campsite and crossing over the Savica river on the western end. Three years ago, we walked it in the rain and felt a peaceful solitude. This time, it was sunnier and less muddy. These strange tubs – unused and inexplicable – confused us on both walks. They seem to be hooked up to piping, but are mostly full of leaves and gunk.
When we left Gorenjska, we were glad to get away from the tourists and slip back into the backwoods and unspoiled villages of Slovenia’s less traveled regions. It was sad to leave these two lakes behind, though. We’ve found ourselves missing the morning mists and beautiful trails – we regret not taking a boat out, not going for a swim, not lingering a little longer to take in the views from the peaks around.
One night we stopped at this Bohinj pier on our way home from dinner. The water was motionless and glassy and the lake was silent. From the bridge over the outlet, dozens of camera flashes flickered, but there were barely any other terrestrial lights. We lingered for a while until the mosquitos drove us away, taking in the quiet and promising ourselves that we’d come back here.

27 July 2011

I Never Went to Summer Camp

For the last four months, we've been camping. Well, that's not entirely true. Just about fifty percent of our nights have been spent in a tent. So, we've seen a fair share of campgrounds. Some of them reminded us of gated communities, others skewed toward retirement homes, all were perfectly lovely. But Camp Danica nearby to Lake Bohinj felt like summer camp - and since I never went to summer camp, it was a particular thrill.
There was a whole program of entertainment. Mondays were "Circus Workshop," where kids (and adults who pleased) could try their hand at juggling, stilt-walking, etc. Tuesdays brought a magic show with special guest assistant "Bear." Slovenians really do like bears. Wednesdays encouraged folk dancing, Thursdays were campfire stories, and so on and so forth. While there were a number of younger children there with their parents, the majority of the minor population consisted of scouts. All at once, over two dozen teenage boys and girls arrived in a bus that specified "Scouts" sans gender. At the dishwashing station, we heard two boys chastise another for forgetting his "necker" - - that's when we realized the troop was British.
An older contingent all seemed to be there to climb Mount Triglav, which popped out dramatically now and then in the grey, foggy scenery. The weather was mostly bleak, very cold and often rainy, but people remained in good spirits. So close to the Julian Alps and Slovenia's highest peak (Triglav), the campsite attracts a lot of guests that are using it as a jumping off point. The morning that we left, a handful of older men surveyed the paragliding conditions. In the evenings, campers about our age filled 'Allo 'Allo, the campsite pub. Never have I been in a bar where a customer asks for the remote control to turn the volume up on a nature documentary. The footage showed Slovenians climbing K2 and the viewers were captivated. Never, either, have I been at a bar where headlamps were the "it" accessory. I took mine off to be more civil only to find myself feeling like the only girl at the sleepover without pierced ears.
Where all this turns particularly Slovenian is the presence of the campground chickens. There were three of them, spotted when we first arrived and bid farewell when we left three days later. At first, we thought they belonged to the French family whose camper they lingered around most. "Oh, how French. They brought chickens so that they'd have fresh eggs!" I quipped. The family left and the birds remained. We still are partial to believing they were the property of a camper, but it's very possible that they were simply campground chickens. Hey, why not?
Luckily, you didn't need to chase the birdies around for fresh eggs. Parked near reception each morning was a bakery van. It sold bread, eggs and honey liquor. We only felt the first two were necessary for a well-balanced breakfast. Just one block away was the milk automat Merlin's already mentioned. Only in Slovenia would you feel like you were inside the pages of a Patagonia catalog, volunteering at a day care and vacationing on a farm at the same time - all on a campsite.

26 July 2011

Putting the Gorge in Gorgeous

The first time we visited the Vintgar Gorge, in October 2008, it was grey and rainy. We showed up, bought our tickets from a man who was very surprised to hear we weren't students (we're far too honest to accept an untruthful discount) and traversed the slippery wooden walkway. Then, we were surprised to find two other couples trekking the boards after encountering only a handful of foreigners during the whole week prior. This time, at the height of the high season on a non-rainy day, it didn't surprise us too much to find the parking lot full. It's hard to get too upset about it when this is your scenery.
The walkway was built and opened to the public in 1893, two years after the gorge was discovered. So, it has a long and esteemed tourist tradition, especially in Slovenian terms. Of course, it's been renovated a few times, but it remains simple and wooden, giving you that extra material connection to the natural setting. Metal stairs and platforms would feel so incongruous. Most of the trail hugs the canyon walls, crisscrossing the water every so often. It's not steep or difficult or remotely dangerous, but somehow you still sort of feel like the access is special, exclusive, almost magical.
Water rushes thunderously in some sections, frothing up against the rocks. This is the Radovna river, which carved the gorge out after being detoured by a glacier at the end of the last ice age. At other turns, the water laps gently into pools, turquoise and clear enough to see fish swimming beneath. The walkway takes advantage of a few natural indents in the rock walls, providing picnic tables and resting spots. It's easy enough to walk down to a rocky shore here and there and pose on a fallen tree.
The 1600 meter path culminates in the Šum waterfall, which literally means "noisy" waterfall. Boy, does it crash. It's 26 meters high, which is over 75 feet for all of you back home. Standing at the designated 'photo point,' at least 150 feet away, our lenses were still sprayed with mist.
We continued on after the gorge, as we had three years ago, on a marked trail down toward Bled. Vintgar is within walking distance of Lake Bled, making it an easy outing if you're staying at one of the multitude of hotels near the water. Last time we navigated our way along the path, we met a friendly salamander. This time, we had a human run-in. We couldn't successfully communicate with either.

At Saint Catherine's Church, an old pilgrimage site which still has remnants of its 15th century fortification, we looked down at Zasip and, further on, Bled. The clouds were beginning to move into place for a short rain shower that would wet our windshield on the drive home. Mount Triglav stuck up amongst the mountain views and we wondered how many of the hikers we saw setting out early this morning from our campsite were up at the top at the moment. Then, after the short breather, we backtracked to Vintgar.
Our walk back through the gorge was much quieter - as far as people go, the rapids still roared. Now we know, even in the summertime, traffic at one of the most popular natural wonders in the country dies down a little after 2pm. Moving along at our own speed, relatively alone, we were reminded of that first visit again and decided that it was more beautiful than we'd remembered. Water always looks better under a bluer sky.

25 July 2011

The High Gorenjska Meadows

In Upper Carniola (or Gorenjska, in Slovene), Slovenian brown Cika cows have always been important. For centuries, the people of these mountains have been producing rich butter and cheese, grazing their herds on the highland meadows and moving between the valleys and the peaks as the seasons warmed and cooled. In the region around Lake Bohinj, this way of life has barely been interrupted.
Besides simple curd cheeses and butter, the lake region boasts a number of stronger and more complex specialties. Mohant, a soft and pungent cheese, is usually served in little balls and has an intriguing, moldy-sweet taste. Tolminc, with the small holes, is milder and nuttier, with a beautiful milkiness. There are also mild, swiss-style aged varieties that have become more popular in modern times. They're easy to find everywhere, but a good place to taste a sampling of them is at the small cafe Planšar ("Herder"), in Stara Fužina.
Before the 1870's, the Gornjska province dairies produced butter, which was mostly sold in Trieste, across what is now the Italian border to the west. Once modern cheese making techniques reached the region, though, the focus shifted to longer lasting and more salable hard cheeses, and small mountain dairies began to cook their milk in these hanging copper pots. As recently as the 1970's the Yugoslavian government was supplying similar vessels to farmers here in order to subsidize production. At the dairy museum, just across from Planšar, there are a number of old implements, a deconstructed alpine herder's hut and a slew of interesting photographs from years past.
In the summer, the cows are generally grazing on high, remote fields. But during the colder months, they're brought down into the valleys where it's warmer and they can be closer to the villages. In these lower elevations, traditional double hayracks abound - though they often house balers and mowers now, with most of the winter feed wrapped up in bales nearby. Still, the structures are quite common, particularly in the fields around Studor. These regionally-peculiar buildings are topped with an overhead storage space, often used for drying corn.
We took a hike up into the upper villages, where the buildings are spare and sparse. Overlooking Bohinj, these communities are remote and hemmed in by woodland - the cows were higher up still, in the forest and above the tree line, but there were signs that the herders were around. A young couple cut hay with scythes, an older man chopped wood, a few dogs yipped when we walked by.
Down in Bohinjska Bistrica, the largest town in the valley, a convenient "Mlekomat" supplies cold, whole milk from a spout (one euro for a liter). If you don't have your own container, this dairy-ATM also has bottles for sale - twenty cents for a plastic liter jug, fifty for a liter glass jar. It's all very easy, and there are instructions in a multitude of languages. We sprang for the glass bottle, which seemed nicer and more permanent.

24 July 2011

Castle Hunting: Grad Snežnik

What Snežnik castle has is charm - and not a whole lot else. It has been rebuilt and retouched numerous times, and exists now as the display case for a collection of provincial, late 19th century furnishings and knick-knacks. This is not a high-walled fortress perched high atop a cliff. It's a sweet, cheerful manor set in parkland, with a few geese in the "moat" and fewer visitors knocking at the door.
We parked our car under a few huge elm trees - there's no formal parking lot - and walked around for a little while until the next tour was about to start. It feels lonely and magical, with a quietness not often associated with tourist sites. A woman swept the castle bridge with a twig broom and smiled when we approached.
A young woman, quite out of breath, sold us tickets and ushered us through the front door. We were alone with her, but she seemed perfectly content to lead such a small group. She talked very little about the building itself, but gave us quite a bit of information about the last owners and their furniture.
Confiscated by the communists shortly after the second world war, Snežnik's interiors were preserved almost in the exact state that they had been in before nationalization. "Some paintings and things were traded," our guide told us. "They traded for, like, a bottle of wine or something small like that. But everything is back here. Except the wine." According to her, the biggest renovation project that had to be undertaken before the castle was re-opened was a ceiling restoration and a "big cleaning." Photos weren't allowed, but she assured us that she wasn't watching and that we could get away with it as long as we didn't use flash.
Despite it's current quaint prettiness, Snežnik has a long history and has remained mostly unchanged since the end of the 15th century. A partial foundation for the castle, however, dates to the beginning of the 13th century. Originally, the fortress consisted of two independently situated towers connected by a bridge. It served as a remote outpost and re-horsing station for a number of kings and military leaders in the greater Austrian and Magyar kingdoms of the middle ages. The expansion included a larger cellar and much more room, though the added walls were needed more for habitation than military function.
During the 1860's, a terrace and two turrets - visible in unplastered stone above - were added for romantic effect, and the land around Snežnik was converted into parkland. Additionally, a fourth floor was added. The upper windows are clearly wider and more indefensible than the lower ones, and the roof is made of more costly terra cotta, rather than wooden shingles. Further, the approach bridge has been made permanent, which is more convenient but more difficult to defend.
Of course, nobody has to defend the castle now - it's even left alone by tourists and tour groups. In the heart of rural Slovenia, even a building this well preserved and freshly painted tends to be ignored.

The Land of Bees

There are a lot of bees in Slovenia. I'm not sure about the numbers, but I can see and hear them everywhere. Kranjic hives - the ones that look like card catalogs - can be spotted on the side of the road about as often as stop signs. Most of the time, they're on wheels, pulled into a sunny spot or a corner with particular bee promise. Sometimes, they're more permanent structures, resembling barns with a single wall painted in a colorful checked pattern.
The love affair between country and insect began in the 16th century when buckwheat was first planted in Alpine regions. Bees are fans of that grain, so they swarmed places like Carniola and soon became a huge part of the land's agriculture. Beekeeping hit its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries with honey and wax galore. Nowadays, pollen and propolis are bigger moneymakers, used as elixirs and in homeopathic medicine.
Naturally, we visited the Beekeeping Museum in the very pretty town of Radovljica to learn more. It turns out that apiculture hasn't just been important to Slovenians - Slovenians have been important to apiculture. The practice of keeping bees in drawers - or kranjic hives - is a Slovene invention. The development allowed keepers to remove honeycombs without destroying the hive. Previously, bees were kept in hollowed out logs or other whole structures. So, basically, it was like switching from a piggy bank to a cash register. Open, close, cha-ching, no hammer crash necessary.
There were some amazing old tools in the museum: hives, honey presses, queen bee carriers that looked like a wicker birdcage from a doll's house. A large part of the collection centered around Anton Jansa, "the father of modern beekeeping," who had the bright idea of smoking bees out of the hives to collect their honey along with other things and became a leading bee scholar. Pages from his most famous works were displayed and the science of it all was explained a highly understandable way.
He also helped develop the Carniolan Grey honeybee, Slovenia's other big contribution to apiculture. The species is considered hearty and near-perfect for honeymaking, and about a third of the 30,000 queen bees bred in Slovenia each year are exported. Here he is painted onto a hive board.
Painting the panjske končnice (front boards) of the hives were all the rage in the mid 18th century and is considered the most popular form of Slovenian folk art. Professional artists were hired to decorate the panels, first with scenes from the Old Testament in a 'baroque folk' style. The gallery of boards at the museum was amazing. Motifs graduated from biblical to slightly profane over time. Scenes depicting bee-covered Jesuses hanging out with pipe-smoking beekeepers were popular, as were thieving bears and horned devils. The landscapes were particularly beautiful.
We'd actually spotted this hive a day earlier and took its photo excitedly. The museum stressed that the painting as a serious artform died off and if any examples can be spotted nowadays, they are simply 'kitsch.' Well, kitschiness aside, we were pretty psyched to have found this little coloring book of a place. A few originals folk panels still exist around the country, protected as historic monuments, including Anton Janša's beehive in Breznica. We haven't visited, but it looks amazing.
The museum was really pretty awesome. There were a handful of incredible hives that looked just like sculptures. Two were fashioned into churches, there was a ten foot high wooden man in the hallway, but this figure was our favorite. He stood about six feet tall and had a discreet slot in his side. Other cool displays showcased the beekeeper's calendar, some fun facts about the little striped buggers themselves and a room with a queen bee soundtrack. It was amazing to listen to them screech and bleat in a chorus that sounded like bad ambient music. I will never be able to see a bee or a beehive (omnipresent in the countryside of this continent) and not think of Slovenia again.

"A bee is like a word; it has honey and a sting." - Slovenian proverb
"Bees?!?" - Gob Bluth