Ian Middleton: Travel Writer

The Old Lady with the Young Face – Pri Šestici

By Ian Middleton

 

The old man was sitting proudly across the table from me, his silver hair glistening in the sunlight. The twinkle in his eyes and self-satisfied smile on his face beheld the look of someone who had rekindled an old, long-lost love affair at a time in his life when he’d almost given up hope. Janez Gašperin drew deeply upon his cigarette, and then began to tell me his story.

On Slovenska Cesta, in the heart of Ljubljana, sits Gostilna Šestica, a quiet, unassuming building that for many years was just another dilapidated relic of old Ljubljana; her story having faded away along with her pale and crumbling facade.

Gostilna Sestica, the oldest Inn in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

For almost two centuries Šestica was the centre of attention, her vivid and youthful exterior attracting people from all across Slovenia and the rest of Europe. Stagecoaches filled the street outside as their owners dined on great food and downed tankards of local beer or sipped fine wines from its cellar. Songs were sung under the shade of the mighty horse chestnut trees in the patio area out back. Among these was a tune that was to become immortalised in time and known to all as: Pri Šestici (at No. 6). “The old lady with the young face!” said Janez. “This is what they used to call Šestica.

Gostilna Šestica is the oldest inn still standing in Ljubljana today. The first actual record of the building came in 1670 when Baron Janez Vajkard Valvasor drew the house on one of his maps. Back then it was a thatched farmhouse owned by the Grmekovi family. The building was officially established as a gostilna in 1776, but it’s likely it was also running as one long before that date. The Inn first got its name Šestica in 1805, when the Ljubljana municipality began allocating street names and numbers. Slovenska Cesta back then was part of Dunajska Cesta, and the houses were numbered, thus the inn became known as the 6th (Šestica). In 1877 the street was changed along with the house number, but the name remained.

Throughout history a total of eight families have owned Šestica. Janez’s grandparents, Aleš and Terezija Zalaznik, bought the place in 1922. Up until this time the building had remained in the style of an old farmhouse. Under the ownership of the Zalazniks the inn was renovated and modernised for the first time ever. An extension was built and a much larger patio area created.

In 1924 Aleš died and his wife continued to run Šestica until 1936. Terezija made such a huge success of the inn, selling her famous homemade goulash, that the profits were used to finance more businesses, including the construction of a new apartment building across the road, which has become affectionately known as Goulash Palace.

However, with the start of World War 2 the good years were about to come to an end.

Gostilna Sestica

Šestica was passed down to Janez’s mother, Zinca, in 1940 and she ran it for the next two years. By this time though, the war had spread and Zinca was smart enough to know that owning a business during these years could have dire consequences. With the country being invaded on all sides by various factions, each of these would try to demand money and services from the business and if you were to offer your services to one faction, then you were in danger of being shot by one of the other factions. Therefore she calculated that the best option was to rent the inn to another family, let them take the risk, and return when the war was over. A wise woman! Unfortunately though, the communists won and, under the flag of nationalism, began taking properties from the people.

Like many who opposed the communists, Janez’s parents had to flee in 1945 or else be put on trial for treason. They found temporary shelter in the Viktring refugee camp in Austria before escaping to Italy and then heading to Buenos Aires and establishing a Šestica there.

Meanwhile back in Ljubljana the communists had illegally seized Šestica and from 1950 to 1955 the inn was closed to the public and used exclusively by the secret police. In the years that followed Šestica became known as the people’s asset and anyone who tried to lay claim to it would be executed. Proof of the true owners’ identity became lost over time.

Under state ownership Šestica was severely neglected and the old lady’s young face withered through the turbulent years. Throughout all this turmoil, Janez remained in Slovenia even though his parents had escaped, yet he could only stand across the road, watching and lamenting for the place that was stolen from him and his family.

After Slovenia’s independence in 1991, Janez scrutinised the law for two years and then fought a long legal battle in the courts to prove his family’s ownership of Šestica, which by this time was being run by the state-owned Gostinsko Podjetje Vič. By 1995 Janez had won his case, but ownership was only passed to him under the condition that he continues to lease the business to Gostinsko Podjetje Vič for a predetermined time.

On Christmas Eve 2007, while many children slept soundly in their beds waiting for Santa to bring them the present they’ve always wanted, Janez Gašperin had finally received the present he had long dreamed of: reclaiming full control of his legacy.

By this time the years of neglect were showing. The colour had faded from the old lady’s face and the water stains looked like tears of sadness on her cheeks. Janez entered into a partnership with three others and together they drew up plans for a huge refurbishment and restoration project. Finally, after many decades, the old lady has been given a facelift and has regained her youthful complexion.

Entrance to Gostilna Sestica

Entering Gostilna Šestica is like walking through time. The restoration project has remained faithful to the inn’s original appearance and they now offer a diverse mix of traditional Slovene food served alongside more modern international dishes. You have the choice of eating in the main area, a bright, spacious, wood-panelled room with a high stone ceiling and walls lined with photos from the old days. You can also eat in the Prešeren room, an atmospherically lit area dedicated to the great Slovene poet. A variety of illustrations line the walls, each representing a different impression of him; as no one apparently knew exactly what he looked like. If you prefer the great outdoors then dine in the patio area out back under the shady chestnut trees. The inn also boasts many large function rooms for parties or business lunches.

Every Friday evening the inn hosts a Slovenian night where live folk music is played alongside a traditional Slovenian three course meal. Janez hopes to one day re-discover the complete lyrics to Pri Šestici, and once again hear the old lady’s theme song echoing through her spacious interior. And you can even try Terezija’s famous homemade goulash, the dish that built an empire.

 

NB: This article was originally published in Ljubljana Life magazine

Visit the Gostilna Šestica Website here: http://www.sestica.si/





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An Oasis of Healing Nestled Among the Verdant Hills of the East

It’s virtually impossible to travel in Slovenia without noticing its abundance of health spas. However, Rogaška Slatina is not only unique, but encompasses a wealth of hidden gems. It has a long history of quality glassmaking, and among the surrounding foothills you’ll find wine cellars and picturesque villages each with its own story to tell.

There aren’t many places in the world where you could indulge yourself in some of life’s wicked pleasures, wine and good food, and then ease your guilt by purging your body of all the unhealthy elements of that pleasure by simply drinking a glass of water.

Rogaška Slatina is located about 110kms east of Ljubljana. From the motorway either take the exit for central Celje, or continue on to the next exit and head to Šentjur. From here simply follow the signs and the road will take you into the heart of the town.

This is Slovenia’s oldest spa town. Nestled among the lovely hills of the Macelj range, Boc, its highest peak (960m) overlooks the town. The summit’s viewing tower affords a magnificent panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. A special flower blooms here only at Easter time, called the velikonocnica, and the area is now a protected nature reserve

The town itself grew up around several natural springs that have been known since the Romans and Celts were here. However, it wasn’t until a written analysis was published in 1572 in a book called Pisson by Leonhard Thurneysser that its fame began to spread.

Word of this miracle water spread as far as the imperial court in Vienna and soon people began to flood here, including many famous names such as: Emperor Ferdinand, Franz Liszt and the French Bonapartes. In 1803 the head of the Styrian government, Count Ferdinand Attems, established the first spa resort here. This soon grew into one of Europe’s most popular and grandest, and in 2003 the resort celebrated its 200th anniversary.

The town emblem is the winged-horse Pegasus. Local legend tells of how the Greek God Apollo was riding through the nearby mountain range when he commanded Pegasus to rise up on his hind legs and repeatedly slam his front hooves down hard in order to open the spring.

There are actually an indeterminate number of springs in the area of Rogaška, but the most famous of these is Donat Mg, which is bottled and distributed all around the country. The water from this spring is a veritable cocktail of minerals, but most importantly, it contains an unusually high level of magnesium; an important element for many of the biochemical processes in our bodies. People don’t just come here for a relaxing holiday; they come here to get well. Magnesium is not only said to help illnesses such as heart and liver disease, but can also help reduce high blood pressure, cholesterol, constipation, excess stomach acids, heartburn and obesity.

But there is more to Rogaška Slatina than just its famous spa. The town also has a long history of producing high quality glassware, one of which is Rogaška Crystal. The origins of Rogaška’s glassmaking tradition can be traced as far back as 1665.

The outskirts contain a scattering of pretty villages each with its own church, and many have their own legend as to the origins of the church. Sv. Lenart, where a beautiful tall church greets you upon arrival, is a tiny hamlet wedged into the hills. Local legend says that a church was built here in 1000AD, but a massive earthquake hit the region causing the church to sink into the ground. It was hidden by vegetation for hundreds of years until one day, while some animals were chewing on the grass, the bell rang and the church was rediscovered.

The surrounding karst hills are completely full of water, hence the reason for it’s abundance of springs. In the small village of Zg. Gabernik, where farmhouses dot the verdant hills and a great rocky outcrop looms over them, legend tells of an underground lake where a great dragon sleeps. Locals believe that when the weather is stormy, the dragon is stirring.

After a day of luxurious pampering, or hiking, you can relax at one of the many wine cellars where you can try the municipality’s superb wines.

Mineral baths, mud treatment and lymph drainage.

It not as bad as it sounds. Lymph drainage is not a form of medieval torture, but a type of massage in which excess liquids that collect in the body’s tissues are drained and is just one of many healing therapies on the list at Zdravlišce Rogaška.

Zdravliški Trg forms the heart of Rogaška Slatina. Lining this historic square you’ll be spoilt for choice for ways in which to pamper all your aches and pains, and indulge yourself in a wealth of beauty rituals.

In the circular drinking hall you can sample the water straight from its source via dispensers. There are two types: Donat Mg, and Styria. Try the Styria first, but try not to grimace at its sour taste. The bottled versions are refined, but being straight from the spring this is much stronger. The Donat is mildly more palatable and also the better of the two, health-wise.

If you are here to cure a particular ailment, the adjacent 12-storey building has a number of qualified doctors on hand to prescribe the necessary treatment. The mineral baths are ideal for improving blood circulation, due to the high concentration of carbon dioxide in the water. Other rheumatic treatments on offer involve herbal mud packs made from volcanic clay and mixed with the local water.

Whether you are sick, or otherwise fit and healthy and simply want to relax and de-stress, you can head for the thermal mineral swimming pools. Or you can participate in one of the many health programmes, choose from a long list of massages, or if you prefer to be more active, visit the large sports complex.

The art of glassmaking.

A tour of Rogaška Crystal is an absolute must. Watch with fascination as a beautiful piece of crystal glass is produced from a glowing red blob taken from the 1400°C furnace, and blown with expert precision in order to shape the outline, before being placed it into a mould for the finishing touch.

Visit Rogaška Crystal website

In the shop you can indulged yourself by wandering through the exquisite collection of glassware with renewed appreciation for the care, hard work and artistic craft that has gone into making them, and if your pockets are deep enough, come away with a souvenir of the tour.

Spring of the kings

If you have time, take a drive through the gorgeous rolling green hills surrounding the town. Stop for a drink at the nearby village of Sp. Kostrivnica where Kraljevi Vrelec has been restored to its original glory, just as it was in 1857. The keeper of the well is Marija, who opens it to the public twice a week, or by prior arrangement for groups. Years ago Celtic coins were found at the bottom of the well.

Hiking the trail

The nearby hills also offer a large network of walking trails, shown clearly on the tourist office map. The most popular hike is to the summit of Boc. You can either start your hike from town, or if you are pushed for time, drive as far as the Church of St. Nicholas. From the church follow the marked trail to the top and enjoy the view.

Sleepy villages and dragons.

If you prefer the country life there are several good tourist farms where you can stay and sample the rural life of the Rogaška municipality. Zgorni Gabernik is a small village locked into the foothills of Boc, where one such tourist farm holds a dominant position overlooking the verdant hills, rivalled only by a great rocky outcrop which looms over the entire village. The hollow clunking of the Klopotec, wooden wind-powered rattles designed to scare off birds, will fill the air. If you hear thunder in the night it might be the dragon snoring; or a local farmer.

A desert oasis in the otherwise green hills.

For something you’re not likely to see everyday, take a trip out to the village of Cerovec pod Bocem and take a look at Paviljon Kaktej, an interesting display of cacti that were once the proud collection of a local man, who handed them over when he became too old to tend them.

An evening of wine tasting.

A perfect end to a perfect day. In Cerovec you can reflect on the day’s events at Vinoteka Klet Kregar, while munching on cheese and salami and tasting a variety of wines as you stare out across the endless green fields to the distant mountains. The people here in Rogaška Slatina are so friendly and welcoming, and it seems like a world away from the bustle of the city, but in fact it’s just 1½ hours from Ljubljana.

Visit Vinoteka Klet Kregar website



Janče, The Garden of East Ljubljana

Janče is known locally as the Triglav of the Ljubljana area. Although it may pale in comparison to the mighty mountain, at 792 metres high this small hilltop village is the highest point in the Zasavsko Hribovje mountain range that dominates the eastern horizon of Ljubljana, and offers unrivalled panoramic views into the Besnica valley and across the capital, as well as being the hub for two of the area’s great walking trails.

The wonderfully fresh air breathes life back into your tired lungs. The only sound to be heard is that of the wind gently rustling the leaves on the trees, before one breaks off and flutters through the air on its way to the ground. A farmer loads his trailer full of fruit as his faithful dog sits panting under the shade of an apple tree. The noon bells toll in the nearby church of Saint Nicholas. And the view across the valley is one of rich autumnal colours interspersed with small villages where church spires stand proud above the farmhouses. And to think it’s just 25kms from the city centre.

The Blueberry Trail

The quickest way is out through the suburbs of Polje and Zalog, then on to Podgrad. The village of Podgrad is the starting point for one of the region’s three popular tourist trails: the Blueberry Trail (Borovniceva Pohodna Pot). Podgrad means “under the castle” and this relates to the two medieval castles that once sat on the hills above the town. Small remains of the Stari Grad (old castle), on the Kašelj hill, are all that are left. These trails were designed by the Besnica-Jance tourist organisation, whose aim is to preserve the fragile farming community in the area. With the increasing difficulties faced by everyone these days, landowners are looking for other ways to maintain their farms and livelihoods. Like many people in remote areas, they are turning to tourism in order to do this, and with great success. The many farms dotted along the trails offer traditional Slovenian produce such as strawberries, cherries, peaches, plums, apples, potatoes and sweet chestnuts, and homemade pastries, schnapps, fruit juices, salami and sausages.

The Blueberry trail is primarily a hiking track that winds through the beautiful Besnica Valley. The start of the trail is just a few kilometres from the city centre, and makes an ideal afternoon or full day out not only for small groups or individuals, but for the entire family. The hike is not very demanding, so will make an easy day out for the children who can get to experience the wonders of nature while embarking on an adventure through the fairytale beauty of these forests.
The trail is well maintained and also signposted. To hike the entire length on foot will take around 4 hours one way. You will either have to walk back, or arrange transport from Janče.

As you leave Podgrad the sign directs you up into the hills past one of the many tourist farms in the area. The trail runs along a forest track that leads into the hills past the village of Tomaž and on to Vnajnarje, where it branches off left and partly follows the country road to Janče.
As the name suggests, you can pick the blueberry fruit along the way. You can also visit the many tourist farms and purchase homemade food, drink and condiments. For something different, stop in Gabrje where there is a herbalist farm specialising in herbal remedies.

Strawberries and a fat dragon

If you are hiking with children, make it more exciting by taking them on the local dragon hunt. The area around Janče was once known as the land of the strawberries. Local legend tells of a man who brought back seeds from his travels around the world and left them to his daughter when he died (I could think of better inheritances). The seeds were planted and for a time the region enjoyed the fruits of this inheritance. That is until one day a local farmer became consumed with jealousy and put a spell on an egg, which ultimately hatched into a dragon that proceeded to roam the land eating all the strawberries. When he ate the last strawberry he was so heavy that he sank into the ground near a waterfall, never to be seen again. The children’s playground outside the tourist farm in Janče has been designed to resemble a dragon to commemorate this story and is where your child will find its dragon.

As the highest point, Janče offers outstanding views across the Besnica Valley. Sit for a while and enjoy the tranquillity of this peaceful village, visit the lovely baroque church or enjoy traditional homemade dished in the Alpine Hut.

The Fruit Road

At this time of year the countryside is resplendent with autumn colours splattered across the landscape like an artist’s pallet. Many of the trees bear the ripened fruits that you can purchase from the nearby tourist farms. Try the delicious homemade apple cider.

The church of Saint Marjeta in Prezganje in the Jance hills to the east of Ljubljana, Slovenia

The area between Janče and Javor is known as the Fruit Road (Sadna Cesta). The best way is to cycle or drive. Head through Janče and follow the road towards Volavje. The view from the village is dominated by the Church of Marjeta (Sv. Marjeta), which sits on the hilltop of Prežganje. This beautiful church is partially obscured by a huge horse chestnut tree, one of many mighty old trees in the Besnica Valley. On a clear day you can get a perfect view of both the Julian Alps and Kamnik Alps in the north of Slovenia from this church Back down on the road a signed trail leads down to the Pecovje Tufa waterfall, which is where the dragon now lies underground.

The Chestnut Trail

 

The small village of Sadinja Vas is the starting point for the Chestnut Trail (Kostanjeva Pohodna Pot). If you don’t have your own transport then take the no 13 bus from Ljubljana to the last stop. Walking the trail will take four hours and cycling 1½. A good level of fitness is needed for both. From here the trail heads up into the hills towards Cešnjica and Zagradišce, up over Babna Gora and on to Javor by country road framed on either side by trees. Join the locals as they collect the fallen chestnuts that dot the roadside. From St. Anna’s Church in Javor you can marvel at the gorgeous views of Ljubljana before continuing on along a ridge to the small hilltop village of Mali Vrh. Here you will join the Forest Nature Science Path (Gozdna Naravoslovna Ucna Pot), where regular signs represent pages of a book that is designed to teach you all about nature and the forest, of which over two thirds cover these hills. It’s possible to catch the last bus back from Trebeljevo, but check the timetable as they don’t run late.

Autumn in the Jance hills. From here you get a great view of the western mountains.

A great time to visit Janče is during the annual Strawberry Sunday and Chestnut Sunday. They take place around June and October. For exact dates check with the tourist office in Ljubljana. Or visit the Fruit Trail website for dates, unfortunately only in Slovene: http://sadnacesta.si/

Events page here: http://sadnacesta.si/category/sadna-cesta/tradicionalne-prireditve/

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View across to the mountains at sunset, seen from a hill in prezganje in the Jance hills to the east of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

View across to the church of Saint Nicholas and the village of Jance at sunset, in the hilly region to the east of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunset winter view across a hill in prezganje, just across from the church. Footprints are leading up to a shrine. The shrine is to Jesus Christ, built to commemorate the first visit of Pope John Paul the second to Slovenia in 1996. From this hill you get a panoramic view of Sneznik and Krim mountain in the west, and the Julian Alps in the north.

View across to the Krim mountain at sunset, seen from a hill in prezganje in the Jance hills to the east of Ljubljana, Slovenia.







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