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We were in Austria in December 2010, when we saw the Karawanken mountain range in the Eastern Alps. We then drove through an eight mile tunnel under those mountains and, when we saw daylight again, we found ourselves in a new country called Slovenia, which had gained its independence in 1991 at the time of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Prior to that independence, Slovenia had always been a reluctant part of larger countries, but Slovenia has always had its own language and culture. 88 per cent of its people voted for independence in the plebiscite which led to it. Why then, you well may ask, does this small and newly independent country of only 2 million people need its own language, when it is today very much part of Europe? After all, Slovenia has since independence joined the European Union, NATO and the United Nations and its currency is the Euro. The answer is that 2 million people are more than enough to enable a language to thrive. Most of my own ancestors lived on the border between the English counties of Devon and Cornwall and the Cornish language still thrives in that part of England, where the population is tiny in relation to that of Slovenia. Therefore, while I do not resent the people of Slovenia speaking in Slovene, I do resent the complications of that language. For example, in Slovene the letter “J” is placed in many words where it is silent and has no function to perform. For another example, many place names begin with three or four consonants. How does one pronounce the names of the following cities – Vrhnika, Crnomelj and Trzic? Why be so stingy with the vowels?
The first city in Slovenia that we visited was the capital, Ljubljana, a name which is also something of a tongue twister. On a hill overlooking the city stands Ljubljana Castle, built in the 12th century and enlarged in the 15th century. We drove through a tunnel underneath the castle, although this did not take us nearly as long as traversing the Karawanken Tunnel earlier. After leaving the capital, we headed towards the south west corner of the country, where Slovenia adjoins the Adriatic Sea for a distance of only 29 miles. However, the very short length of this coastline has not prevented Slovenia from organizing its own navy. Until this month, the Slovenian Navy only had one vessel, which is a patrol boat. A second patrol boat has this month been acquired from Russia.
On our way from Ljubljanca to the Adriatic, we passed Slovenia’s famous caves at Postojno. These caves were lighted by electricity in 1884, before even electricity was available in Ljubljanca. The caves have had their own railway since 1872. There are many stalactites and stalagmites. The caves also contain a giant concert hall, with perfect acoustics, capable of seating over 10,000 people. They are the largest underground caves in Europe.
Continuing our journey to the sea, we left Postojno behind us and visited the Slovenian town of Lipica, where the famous Lipizzaner breed of horses are developed before being shown at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. We saw the stud farm which was established in Lipica in 16th century by the Hapsburg family, the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and controlled by them until the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. It is ironic that the Hapsburgs should have played so large a part in the creation of perfect breeding in the equine world, when historians are generally agreed that inbreeding within their own dynasty was largely responsible for the end of the Hapsburgs. At least these horses were not allowed to marry siblings and first cousins! Lipizzaner is the only breed of horse now produced in Slovenia and is therefore recognized as its national animal. A pair of Lipizzaner even appears on Slovenia’s 20 cent euro coin.
The territory through which we were passing was where the American and Russian forces collided in April 1945 at the end of World War Two. The Austrians in charge of the stud farm at that time were determined that their Lipizzaner horses be preserved. It was feared that some had already been killed and eaten by the advancing Russian forces. To that end, Austrians sought the help of the commander of the US forces, General George S Patton, Jr, a man who knew and loved horses. The story is that the Lipizzaners performed at a show especially arranged for Patton, who was so impressed that he took them under his protection and consequently the breed survived. This story is the subject of the film, Miracle of the White Stallions, which was released by Disney in 1963.
And so we finally reached the coast of the Adriatic Sea and left Slovenia, happy to see that this democratic little country had survived its long nightmare of socialism and was now prospering.