We left Greece just as the smog was beginning to seep into Athens. Flying with Air Serbia, we had to change planes in Belgrade for Zagreb, and got our first taste of the craziness of all these new borders in what used to be a unified country (made a bit unpleasant by the incompetent fascism of the Serbian airport security police). We splurged in Zagreb and stayed at the Hotel Esplanade, the 90-year-old grande dame of hotels built as a stop for the famed Orient Express. The whole place reminded me ever so much of The Grand Budapest Hotel, from the incredibly discreet concierge to the bellhops and lovely reception people, who liked us so much (?) that they upgraded us to a lavish suite! I had a real massage in a real massage room, with natural herbal balms made by the hotel’s pharmacist. It was heavenly. And the best breakfast buffet I’ve ever seen.
Back at the Zagreb airport, we had a wonderful interaction with the nice men running the Avis car rental agency, all of them fluent in English and accommodating and funny. We ended up with a VW Up!–yes, that’s the name of the car–and drove off on the excellent roads toward Slovenia. We had to pass through the silly customs stops that these new borders require, and buy a car pass to drive through Slovenia, but we did get stamps in our passports, and were able to use Euros instead of the funny money in Croatia, called kuna.
Spring is definitely the time of year to come to this part of the world. Flowers were blooming everywhere, and the wonderful forested hills looked positively fluffy, with white flowering fruit trees mingled in with the bright green of early spring beeches, as well as majestic pine trees. We were coming to Slovenia because George’s old friend Thos Lesser’s father came from a small town called Ribnica, which we finally determined was the Ribnica in Slovenia (there are 4 of them in what used to be the Austro-Hungarian Empire!). Since the place was on our route to Plitvice and then Dubrovnik, it seemed as good a reason as any to travel here. And through the wonders of all the online booking sites, we found a place in the near vicinity to stay.
And here is where the story gets so charming. We were about 40 km. from Ljubljana, the only big town in Slovenia, so deep into the countryside in a place outside of Stari Trg–Slovenian is very short on vowels, we went through another village named Vrh–called Markovec. We arrived at the guesthouse to be greeted by a lovely young woman named Barbara, wearing silver elephant earrings and a stylish dress. She ws joined by her father Joze Tisler, who was delighted to find that we weren’t visiting Greeks but Americans who could speak German. He had been a manager of a big plastics factory in the Tito days, and he knew everything about the region. He was able to substantiate that Ribnica had many families named ”Lesar”, Thos’s father’s original surname before it was changed at Ellis Island. It turned out that his wife ran a language school on the ground floor of the guesthouse, teaching German to school children and visitors. The picture of them at the top was taken in the classroom where he invited George to drink wine from his daughter in law’s vineyard. So here we were, in the heart of this
small country, having a three-way conversation with this elegant old gent and his daughter who was as hip and into culture as if she lived in London. The world has become a very small and 21st-century place, and it is such a joy to make these acquaintances. The next morning, when we were leaving, Herr Tisler came by and brought George a great bottle of red wine from his daughter-in-law’s vineyard.
So we departed with happy memories for our very short drive to Ribnica. Along the way we stopped at the neighboring town that had a marvelous fruit stand and a supermarket that had everything–maybe not avocados or Mexican food, but just about everything else. And then we entered Ribnica.
We were impressed! This small town, where 100 years ago people had to leave for America and other places because there was no work, now appears to be a prosperous, one could even say, thriving community. We walked across the charming river (Bistrica) to the old castle, which is now the town museum (closed until the summer), where we found memorials to the town’s war dead. There were several Lesars on the lists, so we know we found Thos’s ancestral home!
Then, in a fortuitous turn, we came upon the town’s handicraft center, a fantastically well-organized center fostering the teaching and promotion of the traditional crafts of the region. This part of Slovenia has been known for its woodwork and basketmaking since the 15th century, when it was granted special privileges to market their wares across the Empire. We were so excited by what they had to sell and display that we bought all kinds of wonderful objects made out of wood and reeds. The center even had
a master craftsman on hand giving demonstrations of how to make basket reeds from a hazelwood branch. The center teaches classes, has an art gallery, and gives lectures on folkloric topics. Very well-designed and active, modern and attuned to the larger world. Just our kind of place, and we have Thos and Mern to thank for the opportunity of discovering Slovenia! We ended our stay in Ribnica with a great meal at the restaurant the Center’s curator recommended. Again, we were pleased by how consciously up to date was this inn. We had locally grown and made products, including bear prosciutto and boar’s meat salami! (Slovenia has lots of brown bears, so many that Markovec, where we stayed, is known for its see-bears-in-the-wild tours.)
George wrote a note to Thos and Mern that he mailed from Ribnica, after which we travelled on to Croatia and the unbelievable experience of Plitvice. That will have to wait for another day, since it has taken me days to finish this entry, given ”connectivity issues” in this part of the world. But we liked Slovenia so much that we are now planning to spend a few days in Ljubljana after our stay in Trieste.