Gifts From Slovenia And Italy

When a trip is over, it’s always nice to open your suitcase and have a little bit of it still with you. I enjoy bringing gifts back to my wife and son so they can share my experiences. While on a recent trip to Slovenia and Italy, I kept an eye out for things they might like.

My trip started at a book festival in Gorizia, Italy. In between the book stalls of Italian publishers and the big tents where authors gave talks, I noticed several West African guys going around with backpacks full of used books for sale. They admitted they didn’t have work papers but they were still out pounding the pavement in the rain. This bit of entrepreneurship didn’t occur to the 12 percent of Italians who are unemployed. Or perhaps they couldn’t be bothered. The difference between people from the Third World and the First was never clearer.

One guy had a book on African cooking. Since my wife reads Italian and wants to learn how to cook African cuisine, I had found my first gift. I also picked up a couple of Italian cooking magazines in Venice. Selfish gifts? Oh yes. I’m looking forward to seeing some of these recipes on the dinner table!

In the unselfish gift category I got some Slovenian honey for my honey-loving honey. It’s a great choice as a gift because it tastes different in every region. I also brought back a bottle of Slovenian wine, another taste that varies from region to region.

Also popping out of my suitcase was a T-shirt for the kid. He loves it because there’s a “dragon” on it (actually it’s a griffin). A couple of refrigerator magnets made their way home too. You can never have too many refrigerator magnets, because you can never receive too many postcards and you need refrigerator magnets to hold them all.

Looking for more gift ideas? Check out our posts on gifts from Estonia and gifts from Japan and Greece. And drop by the comments section to share what you like to bring home!

Horseburgers: Slovenia’s Unusual Delicacy

The horse has been with us for thousands of years. A loyal steed that has pulled plows, helped us migrate to new lands and carried us into battle, there is no more noble animal. We’ve honored the horse in myth, art and song, so what more fitting end to this fine beast than to eat it?

Horse meat is a good source of iron and is a free-range meat that’s low in fat. Horses produce far less methane than cows, so they’re easier on the environment too. As I mentioned in my post about Slovenian cuisine, Slovenia is one of the many European countries where horse is considered a delicacy. I’d never tried it before so while I was in the capital Ljubljana I decided to set out to one of the most popular places to eat horse – a horseburger stand called Hot Horse.

The branch I went to is in Tivoli Park, a large green area filled with families enjoying a sunny weekend. Hot Horse is located right next to a kid’s play park offering slides and games. No pony rides, though. That would have made my day.

Hot Horse looks like pretty much any other fast food place you’ve seen, with garish colors and plastic furniture. I ordered a horseburger, small fries, and a Coke for €6.50 ($8.67). As you can see, the thing was huge and slathered with ketchup and mayonnaise. I had to scrape much of this off to actually taste the horse meat.So how was it? OK. It does have a distinct flavor, a bit like beef but more mild with kind of a nutty taste. I enjoyed it but wasn’t converted. Of course, I was eating a horseburger in a fast food joint and not a horse steak at some fine restaurant, so perhaps I wasn’t experiencing horse meat at its best. Still, I came away more glad for the experience than impressed by my meal.

This made me think of all the other exotic meats I’ve tried – kangaroo, bison, alligator, ostrich – and how I wasn’t converted to them either. There’s a reason that beef, chicken and pork are the most popular meats around the world. They’re the most flexible, able to take on all sorts of different flavors depending on the recipe. They’re also cheap and easy to raise.

While the big three aren’t my favorites (venison takes first place, followed by game birds) they constitute 95 percent of my meat intake because they are easy to find, easy to prepare and easy to afford.

So if you’re in Slovenia, try out some horse. Just don’t expect Hot Horse to rival to Burger King anytime soon.

Check out the rest of my series, “Slovenia: Hikes, History and Horseburgers.”

Coming up next: Ten Random Observations About Slovenia!

Ljubljana: Why Slovenia’s Cool Capital Needs To Be On Your Bucket List

Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, has been trumpeted by travel writers for a good 10 years now, yet this artsy little city of 270,000 still doesn’t get overrun with tourists. Perhaps it’s because it’s surrounded by better-known countries like Italy and Croatia; perhaps people confuse it with Slovakia; perhaps people still have old Communist imagery in their heads. Whatever it is, you can visit this cheap, fun capital without being trampled by photo-snapping hordes like in Paris or Prague.

This is the first photo I took in Ljubljana and it sums up my impression of the place: family-friendly, lots of culture and a few surprises. Like why there are all those shoes hanging up everywhere.

To get oriented I took the Ljubljana Free Walking Tour, which lasted a bit more than two hours and was hugely informative. A local university student named Neja led us all over her city’s historic center and gave us a great introduction to Ljubljana and Slovenia. She even explained the shoes. University students throw them up there at the end of term. The “shoe wire” I photographed is right next to Cobblers Bridge but apparently that’s just a coincidence. There are several wires adorned with footwear all over town.


The historic center is a delight for anyone who likes colorful architecture. Vienna Secession, a central European take on Art Nouveau, was big here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and colorful examples flank the river that runs through the center of town. There’s plenty of Baroque buildings too along with an unfortunate scattering of concrete Communist monstrosities. Apparently living and working in an attractive building was thought to be symbolic of capitalist decadence or something. Fortunately most of the worst examples of Communist ugliness are outside the historic center.Architecture isn’t the only culture you’ll find. Ljubljana is a great place for drinking and dining. Slovenia has a distinct cuisine that I’ll cover later in this series. The city’s restaurants offer a wide sampling of other cuisines too, especially Italian. The bar scene isn’t as active as most European capitals but is good enough for a night out. One odd little place is Pr’Skelet at Ljubljanska cesta 1b, where you go down into a cellar made up to look like a medieval dungeon filled with skeletons. Their cocktail menu is numbers more than 180 strong mixes. Try more than a couple and you’ll end up as part of the decoration.

Like the nightlife, shopping is not too extensive but still worth checking out. Antique and bookshops abound, and the farmers market next to the Triple Bridge by the river is worth going to for local delicacies such as wine, honey, mead, fruit and produce.

Most visitors head on up the hill overlooking town to see Ljubljana’s castle, the nation’s most popular attraction. Slovenia is at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and has lots of great castles. I’ll be talking about them in my next post.

The city has several good museums. The best is the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum with its large collection of folk art and interactive displays about life in traditional and modern Slovenia. Numerous video panels feature interviews with Slovenians young and old about everything from contemporary views on religion to being a World War II partisan. It’s a really good way to learn more about the people you’re visiting.

An even better way is to hook up with the local Couchsurfing community, which runs weekly meetings open to all. I went to one and had a great evening learning about the country, sampling various unusual liquors and ending up with more invitations to go out that week than I had time to accept. As I’ve mentioned before, Couchsurfing is more than a free place to stay, it’s also a ready-made community welcoming you with open arms.

One thing that struck me again and again while meeting Slovenians was their repeated assertion that they are distinct from the rest of former Yugoslavia. There’s a common saying here: “Yugoslavians are brothers in blood, cousins in language, and foreigners in culture.” One said his nation was different than the rest of the former Yugoslav republics because it had spent many years as a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while they had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

The civil war in Yugoslavia is still fresh in people’s memory, even though Slovenia managed to avoid the worst of it. One university student, too young to have many clear memories of the war itself, almost broke down in tears as she talked about it. The war hasn’t left scars; it has left open wounds. I haven’t been to any other parts of former Yugoslavia but I imagine the emotional damage of the people there must be far worse.

Despite a harsh past and a troubled economic present, Slovenians seemed determined to enjoy themselves. Parks and cafes are full and people take long strolls along the river. Through most of their long history, Slovenians have been ruled by other nations. Independence has given everyone new hope.

One big advantage to the little nation of Slovenia is that it’s cheaper than most of the rest of Europe, certainly cheaper than any other nation that has a piece of the Alps to show off. A nice single room in the heart of downtown was 64 euros, breakfast included. A meal for one with wine rarely went over 15 euros. And since the city is so small you probably won’t spend anything on transportation costs.

So if you’re looking for a relatively cheap European destination with plenty to offer, consider Slovenia, and check out the rest of this series for more information.

This is the first in a new series, “Slovenia: Hikes, History, and Horseburgers.”

Coming up next: Like Castles? Go to Slovenia!

Photo Of The Day: Venice Of The East

In travel media, we hear a lot of city comparisons: Ljubljana is the new Prague. Shanghai aims to be the Paris of the East. Looking at today’s Photo of the Day, you’ll think, “Wow, that looks like Venice. But in the East!” Taken by Flickr user Ver Argulla in western Thailand, the photo shows the floating market of Damnoen Saduak. Its proximity to Bangkok has made it a big tourist attraction, and while it may have lost its authenticity as a market for locals to grow and sell food, it still makes for a stunning photo.

Show us the next Rome of the North, and add your travel photos to the Gadling Flickr pool for the next Photo of the Day.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Ver Argulla Jr]

Vagabond Tales: Eavesdropping On An Elderly Soldier In A Rural Slovenian Café

The great nation of Slovenia has a wealth of many things, but it only has one island.

No, it’s not located off of the coastline that some have dubbed the Mini-Riviera. Rather, it’s set up in the mountains in the middle of a pristine retreat famously known as Lake Bled. It is a teardrop-shaped island in the middle of a placid lake. There are no inhabitants, and the main building is a 15th-century church where it’s popular for a groom to carry his bride up the 99 steps, which lead to the bell tower.

To call the setting of Lake Bled magical is not only a cliché, but also a travesty of justice; this place could be the setting upon which Disneyland was founded – the Magic Kingdom a replica of this sanctuary tucked at the base of the Julian Alps.

As fellow Gadling blogger Meg Nesterov pointed out in her article “10 Reasons To Travel To Ljubljana,” Slovenia is also home to a charming capital city, which features canals to rival Venice or Amsterdam, great wine, tasty food, affable locals and a massive castle, which stoically towers above the city.

Unbeknownst to many people, Slovenia is also reputed to be the birthplace of skiing, a sport which emerged out of the rugged mountains, which blanket the scenic northwest.

More than any of this, however, Slovenia is the site of one of the most intriguing conversations I’ve ever had the chance to be a part of – and I wasn’t even playing a speaking role. Rather, from the corner booth of a small café in Lake Bled, I craned my neck away from my potato rosti in an effort to make out the conversation taking place between two European youths and an elderly American soldier.”This is my 35th year in a row of returning to Europe,” boasted the fully gray and heavily wrinkled man. “Every year I bring my wife to somewhere new and we see what a beautiful place this has become.”

Seated with him at the four-person table were his wife and the two aforementioned youth, two German boys of about 20 years old traveling together on a backpacking tour of Europe.

“It’s good to come back here,” continued the elderly American. “It wasn’t always like this, you know. I first came to Europe when I was your age.”

Seeing as we were the only two tables seated at the café on this misty day in early June – the throngs of summer crowds still a few weeks away – it was easy for me to eavesdrop on their ongoing conversation. At first, I was intrigued simply to hear an American voice; now I was intrigued by his story.

The man explained to his two breakfast companions he had first come to Europe in his early-20s once America jumped into World War II. He spent lots of time in Germany, not far from their hometown.

For over a year, he fought the Germans on a convoluted course across Europe upon which he admitted to being exposed to a lot of suffering. A lot of friendships were forged, he claimed, but many more were lost.

Surprisingly, despite all the horrors he alluded to being a part of, he exhibited no traces of animosity towards the men on the other side of the line.

“You know,” he nodded with a wink of his eye, “the boys I was fighting against really just looked a lot like you.”

Obviously humbled, yet wholly intrigued, from my vantage point, it was remarkable to see the genuine interest of the two German youth in hearing testimony from this living piece of history who experienced so much of what modern Germans consider to be a shameful past.

They peppered him with questions about Germany during the 1940’s, but at the same time were respectful enough not to pry.

Even if they had, however, it was apparent that enough time had passed in this veteran’s life that wounds had healed, scores had been settled, and in this nearly empty café in rural Slovenia, they were just four humans enjoying a hearty breakfast together.

Standing to leave after finishing half his meal, the traveling former soldier steadied himself with a hand on the table and used the other to push off his knee as he slowly rose to his feet.

“It’s been really nice talking with you boys,” he offered with a wink and a smile. “You two enjoy your travels and be safe. Don’t worry, breakfast is on me.”

Tossing a fistful of Slovenian tolars onto the table (Slovenia changed to the Euro in 2007), the group exchanged final pleasantries and went about their respective lives, almost certain to never meet anywhere again.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.

[Image credit: globalclaire on Flickr]