From Slovenia With Love
So, if the rest of my life were to be as wonderful as my last week was, I would be a very very very lucky little human. I experienced one of my first real snowfalls, a trip to a beautiful new country, and a fascinating start to what’s shaping up to be an engaging and enlightening semester of classes.
On Monday we started classes at l’ecole de management. I’m only taking one class through that school, and the rest through l’institute d’etudes politiques. The class that I started this week is titled Economy of Happiness and looks like it will be one of the most interesting classes I’ve ever taken. This semester we will be discussing why capitalism and liberal democracy, both of which justify themselves on the grounds that they produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, still leave people dissatisfied with their lives. The class will cover research into how important variables like wealth, marriage, parenthood, job satisfaction, unemployment rates, and economic growth, are to an individual’s happiness. Additionally, the curriculum includes recent work in economics of happiness that relate to critical issues such as quality of life, sustainable development, and measures of economic performance. As both an economics and political science student, I honestly couldn’t be more excited about this class.
We also have two classes at the château, teachers from the University of Strasbourg come in to teach one class on European identity and another on the history of the European Union. Both professors are incredibly engaging and passionate about what they’re teaching. It’s nice to only have thirteen or so students in those classes, and the convenience of having a class just across the hall can’t really be beat.
On Friday, I headed out to the school at around 9pm with a couple of girls from the Georgia State program to embark on a very very long journey to Slovenia via bus. It was at least eleven hours but totally worth it. We stayed at a prison turned army barrack turned hostel named Hostel Celica. Our room was literally a prison cell and even had prison bars over the door. On the ground floor, they had almost a miniature museum where they had preserved two isolation cells. There were no lights down there, and it was honestly pretty creepy, but also incredibly cool. The people working at the hostel were outstandingly warm and welcoming. In fact, all of the people in Slovenia were. They were always ready to offer restaurant or museum suggestions.
The food in Slovenia is quite distinctive but clearly exhibits Mediterranean, Polish or German, and American influences. During our first breakfast in the city, we had Nutella hot chocolate, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t a Slovenian specialty, just another example of Europe’s obsession with Nutella.
After breakfast we walked around the city and shopped through the markets. I quickly bought another pair of socks and doubled up right then and there. Slovenia was significantly colder than Strasbourg and at that point I had already started to lose feeling in my toes. The day was pretty overcast, and Ljubljana castle, which overlooks the city, was looking particularly ominous. We found our way to the base of the mountain and bought a ticket to ride the gondola up to castle and tour it. The view from the top of the tallest tower was incredible, despite the weather.
The castle was originally built in the 11th century, and has an impressive history. According to archeologically surveys, the hill that the castle is built on has been settled since 1200 BCE. Since then, it has been a Roman army stronghold, an arsenal, barracks, a military hospital, a prison, and finally a museum. We had an audio tour of the grounds, which I enjoyed but sort of sped through because it was pretty freezing. Within the castle we also visited a Ljubljana history museum and a museum on Slovenian puppetry, which were both super interesting and very very warm.
Ljubljana is covered in beautiful bridges. The first that we came across was the Dragon Bridge. Legend has it that Jason was the founder of Ljubljana, and he and his Argonauts killed a dragon. This is one of the four dragon statues in the bridge, each of which was produced in Vienna. The bridge is often regarded as the most beautiful bridge produced by the Vienna Secession. According to local legends, when a virgin crosses the bridge, the dragons will wag their tails. And apparently, some local people have nicknamed this structure “mother-in-law” because of its fiery nature.
The most well known and impressive bridge, or rather series of bridges, in Ljubljana is the Triple Bridge. The center bridge was built in 1842 and named Franz’s Bridge in honor of Archduke Franz Karl of Austria. In order to prevent the original stone arch bridge from being a bottleneck, the architect Jože Plečnik designed two footbridges to be built at a slight angle on each side of Franz’s bridge in 1929.
Saturday night we had dinner at a traditional Slovenian restaurant recommended by the hostel and then found a tiny Slovenian wine bar near the main square called Movia. We shared a fantastic bottle of wine and discussed our travel plans with our bartender for a good while. We headed back pretty early in anticipation of an early wake-up the next day for our bus to a nearby city named Bled, famous for its beautiful lake. The bar tender told us that it would not be nearly as beautiful in winter as it is in summer, but I was pretty determined to give it a chance.
Obviously, the 6am wake up was well worth it. The bus ride was over an hour each way and we only had a couple hours to spend at the lake before we had to head back to Ljubljana to catch the bus ride home to Strasbourg, but two hours was just enough to take in this view. If this is what Lake Bled looks like in the dead of winter, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to visit in summer.
The water was remarkably clear and we were followed around by swans and ducks throughout our entire stroll alongside the water’s edge. This seemed particularly appropriate, as the swan is the symbol of Lake Bled. This swan, in particular, was an excellent model.
After a long walk and some breakfast, we had to make our way back to the bus stop to return to Ljubljana. Unlike the 7am bus ride, I actually was awake for this drive and got some awesome views of the Slovenian country side. Slovenia is a severely underrated country.
We got back to Ljubljana just in time for a quick lunch and last stroll through the city. We hopped on our bus at around 3pm, and arrived back in Strasbourg at around 2am. It was a bit inconvenient to leave Slovenia so early, as I would have enjoyed a little more time to explore (there was a gondola ride up to a overlook at Lake Bled that was calling my name). But leaving while there was still a little bit of daylight left was nice because this time we could appreciate the breathtaking drive through Austria and Germany.
For anyone looking to travel through Europe in the future, please please please consider Slovenia. Even though it tends to be overlooked, its proximity to both Italy and Croatia in addition to its beautiful cities, mountains and lakes makes it well worth the visit.
I was happy to return to my bed at the château, but I’m also itching to get out and explore more of Europe. Thursday night we head to Munich and Salzburg for the weekend. Time is flying by, and I can’t believe it’s already been three weeks since I arrived. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the semester has in store!
P.S. – Just in case you were wondering… (and I know you were)
Rachel is a Strasbourg alumna, dog mom, and bona fide politico. While on study abroad, she wrote for the University of Florida “Global Gators” blog and later served as an On-Campus Ambassador for the CEPA Foundation. She has since completed her Bachelor with a double major in Political Science and Economics at UF and now works in DC as a Staff Assistant in the US House of Representatives.