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.
Historic sights, art galleries, beautiful countryside – all these are important in a vacation, but one thing you absolutely can’t go without is the food. You have to eat, after all, and a country with poor local cuisine just isn’t going to get many repeat visitors.
Luckily, Slovenia has a distinct cuisine that takes influences from Slavic traditions and its Austrian and Italian neighbors.
The food has a Slavic heartiness to it, with lots of heavy meats, soups and breads. Sausages come in a limitless variety. Pork seems to be the favorite meat, with beef a close second. You can also find venison and game birds on the menu. Despite only having 27 miles of coastline, the Slovenians sure do like fish. Every restaurant I went to had an extensive fish menu. In the mountains you can also get fresh fish from the lakes.
For fast food there’s kebab (no thanks) and burek (yes please!). Burek is a flaky baked pastry filled with various ingredients, usually cheese and/or meat. It’s a bit greasy and heavy, but cheap and good for eating on the go.
Pastries are big for dessert too. A traditional favorite is potica, a rolled up pastry filled with sugary fruit jam and sprinkled with more sugar on top. Walnuts often make it into the mix too. Messy and delicious! Thanks to nearby Italy, gelato is universally available.
%Slideshow-668%Slovenia produces various beers, the most common being two lagers called Union and Laško. Both are good but not particularly notable. There are various microbrews too, including Human Fish Brewery, which produces an excellent stout as well as a Zombie Goat Lager. More interesting are the various liqueurs. I especially liked borovničevec, a blueberry liqueur that’s strong and fruity. Mead is also available thanks to a long tradition of harvesting honey.
Although Slovenia is a wine-growing region that’s beginning to get noticed, I knew nothing about Slovenian wines before I went. Wine writer Rachel Weil recommended Vinakras 2010 Sparkling Teran as a red and the 2011 Pullus Sauvignon Blanc as a white. She also mentioned that the reds were “grape-forward.” Like with most wine terminology, I had no clear idea what that meant. Once I was in Slovenia I discovered that meant the reds often had a pronounced grape flavor, especially the Magolio Zweigelt I brought home for my wife. While these weren’t to my taste (I prefer Rioja) they were well made and I suspect we’ll be hearing more from Slovenian wine in the future.
Being a small country, Slovenia is influenced by its larger neighbors. The Italian presence is especially strong, and you can find pizza and pasta in many restaurants. From Austria you can find strudel filled with nuts, fruit or cheese. This is good news for vegetarians who want to avoid the meat-centric Slavic dishes.
Speaking of meat, the Slovenians love horsemeat, something not very popular in English-speaking countries. When I was in Ljubljana I set out to try some horsemeat. More on that next time!
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.