One of my first records was “The Birds, The Bees & the Monkees.”
The Monkees were the 1960s version of today’s modern boy band. Many of the
members resembled The Beatles with their mop top hair styles and buoyant
lyrics. In 1968 I fell in love with the lead singer of The Monkees, Davy Jones,
who sang my favorite song, “Daydream Believer.”
Oh, I could hide ‘neath the wings
Of the bluebird as she sings
The six-o’clock alarm would never ring
But six rings and I rise
Wipe the sleep out of my eyes
The shaving razor’s cold and it stings
Cheer up sleepy Jean
Oh, what can it mean to a
Daydream believer and a
I listened to this song over and over again on my grandmother’s record
player in her basement in Chicago. I will never get tired of hearing or singing
it. When I was eleven years old I wrote a love letter to Davy Jones and had
pictures of him hanging on my bedroom door – a fangirl at heart.
My interpretation of the song’s message is that life is hard, but
realizing your dreams and discovering your identity is part of growth. The song
talks about high school, a time when I was searching to belong to a group, make
friends and discover confidence. For me, high school was a nest of insecurities
and exclusivities – a hard line drawn between who was on the inside and who was
on the outside. But the song invites inspiration and reminds us that keeping a
good attitude can change everything and bring you back to a state where you
feel hopeful again – to be able to believe. There’s something about this song
that exudes positive energy and feels so magical.
And this song, “Daydream Believer” was the soundtrack for my weekend
trip to Slovenia. Boarding the bus from Zadar with a transfer in Zagreb, it
takes about 7 hours to get to the capital city, Ljubljana, wedged between
Austria and Italy. With two border checks along the way, it offers a change in
landscape and weather. November is the wettest month to visit Slovenia and my
time in the country was no exception. One of the hotel staff told me he had not
seen the sun in 15 days due to heavy rains. Rain was so heavy in the area that
international news broke regarding flooding in Venice and a state of emergency
was declared. The ocean had risen 1 ½ meters and the rain continued to fall.
Feminist War Literature Tour
Despite the weather, I put on my rain jacket and grabbed my umbrella to
venture outdoors. The first tour I scheduled was a Women’s History Walk. The
tour guide, Maja, a thirty-year old member of a rock band, was outstanding in
her knowledge of history. She told me her mother was also named Danica and we became
fast friends on our three-hour walk around town.
the feminist war tour we discussed women’s critical writings that represented a
challenge to the national discourse of patriotism and sacrifice. As we walked,
Maja pointed out statues or figures representing female intellectuals, authors
philosophers, journalists and social activists that helped record another side
of war, the way it changes us slowly from within.
One of the first statues (or
in this case a bust) we witnessed in town was Lili Novy, considered one of the
most important Slovene female poets. Maja told me how Novy would bind her chest
and dress as a man in order to go out to cafes, smoke, sip on coffee and
compose her poetry. She liked writing poetry in public coffee shops, but a
woman during that time was not allowed to go out unaccompanied. Consequently, Lily
Novy concealed her identity in order to move about in the world and buck the
system of patriarchy along with other female intellectuals of the time.
The success of some female literature is even larger if we are
aware of the fear, injury and pain from traumas accompanying their experience
during the time. The wars leading up to the disintegration of Yugoslavia
provoked ideological controversy and disagreement among Slovenian women’s peace
organizations and feminists regarding the direction of female engagement in everyday
life. An identity crisis dominated female narratives of displaced persons in Slovenia,
grounded in past experiences.
The guide talks about female writers looking back on pre-war times
for something solid to lean on, but the image of our homeland and past can be
marked as “yugo-nostalgic.” She goes on, “Our generation talks about the
purposelessness of war atrocities and testifies that although we can’t
eliminate grief or pain that our mothers and grandmothers still experience, we
have to move forward and learn from past shattered narratives.”
The Slovene Writers’ Association was
originally founded in 1872 in Ljubljana with the aim of supporting female writers
and their families. In the early 1980s the Slovene Writers’ Association became
more involved in social questions, particularly issues concerning nationality
and creative freedom. During this period a commission for the protection of
writing and thinking functioned within the Association and they participated in
measures to change the Constitution.
We walk to see another bust of Angela Vode,
one of the most vocal supporters of women’s rights in what was first the
Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia from
1929. Vode was elected president of the Women’s Movement of Yugoslavia, as well
as president of the Female Teachers’ Society of Slovenia, with the slogan “for
equal work, equal pay.”
In 1922 Vode joined the then illegal
Communist Party of Yugoslavia, in what she described as a sincere belief in the
fight against injustice. She stuck with the party until 1939, when she was
expelled for openly criticizing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that saw Hitler and
Stalin agree to carve up Eastern Europe.
Vode continued to help the resistance,
organizing collections of food and clothing for Slovene refugees and those in
labor camps. In 1942 the Italian authorities decided the best way to deal with the
enormous amount of refugees was to start executing whomever it deemed “unnecessary.”
Vode decided to appeal to Italian leader Benito Mussolini to stop the
executions, but her protest was destroyed by the Slovene communists who wanted
to be the sole source of protest and resistance in order to enhance their claim
to power when the war was over.
In 1947 Vode was arrested, imprisoned,
tortured and abused. She was put on trial and charged with treason, accused of
being an enemy of the working class, a western spy and any other
stereotypically 1940’s communist thing one could be arrested for.
Vode was sentenced to 20 years, but thanks to
international fury, she was eventually released, but never truly free. Vode was
declared a “non-person,” or human being without any rights whatsoever. She
wasn’t allowed to find employment or get medical insurance. She was denied a
passport and her name was prohibited from public life. Her works concerning
women’s rights in the country, could not be quoted in any way. It was as if
Angela Vode never existed. Vode died at 93 years old, but now, over a century
later, her book, Women in Contemporary
Society, is still relevant today. She captured the differences in genders
and supported equality at the same time. For example, she wrote about the roles
of husbands and wives in parenting, stating she did not understand, “. . . why
a wife by nature would be more destined for motherhood than a husband for
fatherhood.” She wrote extensively about gender roles as well as the influence
of nature and nurture in those roles, urging women to learn about the past,
believing that only by understanding society could one improve one’s position,
writing, “…a woman is as integral a part of human society, nation, state and
family as a man, and her life and position are equally dependent on all
political, economic, and cultural developments, and a demand for her
participation in public life is absolutely natural and necessary.”
Another stop on our tour was the former jail
for witches in Slovenia. In the Middle Ages, a frightening hysteria swept
Europe, as thousands of people, mostly women, were condemned as witches and burned
at the stake. The Slovenian lands had their share of witch trials and
executions, which lasted until the 18th century.
Most of the victims of trials were women, but
about 15% were male, and even children and priests were sometimes accused of
being witches. Following instructions from a special inquisition manual, the
courts forced their victims to admit that they had made pacts with the devil.
The witches were blamed for everything from diseases and natural disasters to
poor harvests, and the number of witch burnings increased at the time of major
social upheavals. Many of the accused were tortured for hours – or even days –
before they confessed.
Unlucky in Love
We move toward the center of old town square and see another
prominent statue of poet, France
Preseren, who composed Slovenia’s national anthem. His gaze looks across the
square to the love of his life, Julia Primic, immortalized in a small bust
statue on one of the building walls. Preseren was unlucky in love with Julia
and they could never wed, despite many years of his yearning for her, even on
his deathbed he declared he would never forget Julia. He wrote in “A Wreath Of
For all Slovenes will then dawn brighter
And kindlier stars upon their land will gaze,
More brilliant songs will come with better times.
The statue stands not far from the Franciscan Church, on one of the triple bridges. It is one of the key meetup areas near many souvenir shops, tourist information center, restaurants and cafes.
Next, Maja takes me to the university building, founded in 1919, with a naked (and offensive) statue of a woman from Greek mythology. She was considered a muse, but is positioned in an overtly sexual manner. The guide chided, “This was long before the ‘Me Too’ movement,” but certainly it is no joke. To have a statue like this displayed in front of a higher education institution is not only uncomfortable, but inappropriate. “We have talked to several officials, urging them to take it down.” And she adds that the first female university faculty member to ever be granted full-time status in a department was just recently in 2014. “We’ve still got a long way to go,” Maja adds.
We end the tour at the Parliament building, adjacent to the Square of the Revolution. It is a striking landmark with a group of naked statues on display. Architect Vinzo Glanz created the outdoor building display in the 1950s. There are sculptures of men, women and children, workers in different professions, scientists, and parents holding hands in solidarity. Maja explains to me that their garments are shed because of prejudices and putting people into groups. Thank you again Maja for an enlightening view and discussion of influential women in Slovenia.
Slay the Dragon
I walk back to my hotel in the rain and cross Dragon Bridge, one of the
oldest bridges in Europe. Ljubljana is connected to dragons, the symbol of the
city. Dragons are featured on almost every corner – on bridges, graffiti, at
the castle, decorating railings and hanging from buildings.
There is a small break in the
rain and I decide to head out of the city about an hour away to Lake Bled. A
guide picks me up and within the first ten minutes in describing Slovenia, the
word corruption seeps into the
conversation again. In the village we call them (politicians) “fat buts.” It is
a euphemism for taking bribes. According to the tour guide, all of the officials,
members of parliament and businessmen create complex and highly lucrative
schemes to plunder the state budget. Ordinary Slovenes have seen living
standards stagnate, while a handful of oligarchs have become billionaires.
He talks about his hometown, a village called
Idrija. “I got my first phone line in 1983.” Idrija had the second largest
mercury mine in the world. For centuries it was considered to the center of
scientific and technological progress in the region. The Mercury Mine was the
main source of financial stability, dating back to 1490. Over 500 years Idrija
exported over 100,000 tons of this liquid metal. But in 1986 the mine closed for commercial, geological, and
ecological reasons. The guide said, “All life was based around the mine. My
grandfather and father worked in the mine. And now what can we do?”
He quickly switched topics to another change
in industry and culture in Slovenia. He commented, “The Chinese have taken over Velenie (another local
village) and completely changed the culture because of the appliance Hisense.
It’s one of the largest manufacturers in Europe, but it changes everything. We
are work differently. We don’t want to be treated like slaves in Slovenia
because we’ve been through enough.”
Onto the next serious topic
of car conversation about his family being forced to speak German during World
War II because his country was a German occupied zone. “We were marginalized
and almost lost our language.” Although Slovene was the official language, people
were no longer free to express affiliation with their nation or national
community, to foster and give expression to their culture, or to use their
language. During World War II, all the three occupational forces, German,
Italian and Hungarian, condemned Slovenians to ethnocide. The most drastic
deportations were carried out by German occupants. The German leadership
assigned responsibility for the “Slovenian question” to various offices under
the leadership of Heinrich Himmler, the state secretary for reinforcement of Germanness.
The Germans planned to deport between 220,000 and 260,000 Slovenians. First
they brought them to collecting camps and they were shipped to Germany, Croatia
and Serbia. The deportation was carried out in waves: the first were nationally
feeling Slovenes, followed by those who moved to Slovenian territory after 1914,
and finally peope whose estates and property were needed for German
colonization. The three ideologies, fascism, nazism and communism, resulted in
huge migrations from the Slovenian territory.
Kings and Queens
As we walk around beautiful Lake
Bled, the guide points to a few extravagant multi-million dollar homes he says
are owned by war profiteers. And the corruption goes on. Despite this display
of wealth and corruption, the guide has fond memories of sovereignty, safety
and power during Yugoslavia. He says, “The breakup of the former Yugoslav
federation ruined the central system in place, which contributed to stable
economy – we had our own houses and vacation houses. We knew where our food was
coming from.” He rejects the changes after the war of independence in the 1990s
(he describes Slovenia’s 10-day war and quips that “ex-communist were purposely
put on the front line”) and argues that economic depression now exists because
Yugoslavia has fallen. He continues, “It wasn’t a socialist straight-jacket. We
should not have abandoned it. The unification of Yugoslavia as a single state
had strong economies, modernization and level of productivity. We could trade
well, live well. If you get along with your masters, you will get everything
you want. No, you will get everything you need.”
We hike up toward the castle
at Lake Bled, perched on top of a 125 meter high cliff. It is gothic style and
built in 1011. King Henry II donated the area of Bled to the church of Brixen. The
king granted the bishop full possession of the area including churches, forts,
buildings, forests, hunting grounds, meadows, pastures, mills and fishing
grounds. The king issued the deed as part of his broader political activities
that mainly consisted of seeking support from the church lords of Brixen, a
strategically important area between Italy and Germany, but also in the spirit
of the time, to redeem the souls of King Otto III. This deed had permanent
cultural and spiritual consequences for the local Slavic population.
Looking out from the castle,
you can see a beautiful view of Bled island, an important representative of
Slovenian cultural and natural heritage. The Slavic goddess Živa dates back to
7th century. Before the arrival of Christianity in Bled area, the island
represented a sanctuary for all Slavic pagans. In the battles between members
of pagan and Christian religion, the people ruined and destroyed the pagan
sanctuary and built the Church for all Christians. In 17th century
they built the church and chapel, St. Mary’s on Bled Island.
We were going to take a boat to the island, but it started raining again. The only boats allowed in the lake are called plentas. Pletna boats are traditionally manufactured by the locals and are operated by a single oarsman. They are family owned. The mute swan population is also popular on the lake.
Toward the end of our walk we
stop for a famous treat, a slice of Kreme Rezina, a cream and custard whipped
cream and puff pastry – delicious!
Slovenes are extreme in
sports. The guide brags, “We like chasing an adrenaline high in skiing, sky
diving, hang gliding, rock climbing and bungee jumping. The more dangerous, the
better.” Lake Bled is home for Olympic rowing and training. The area also
boasts the first man to ski down Mount Everest. And most noted is Arnold Rikli,
the Schweizer or Swissman. Rikli encouraged people to come to
Lake Bled as a place of pilgrimage because of its healing springs. He was the
first to promote spa tourism in the mid 19th century and founded a
Natural Health Institute focusing on vegetarianism, nudism (in the woods!) and
The next day I went solo and walked to explore Ljubljana Castle. You can take a short ride on the funicular or walk along the footpaths. The viewing tower offers a 360-degree panorama of the city. Within the grounds of the castle are numerous presentations and exhibitions, including the Permanent Exhibition of Slovenian History.
Stories of St. George involved in the fights
between pagans and Christians, defeating the terrifying dragon are found on
plaques throughout the castle walls. The castle has a chronology of rulers starting
from the Middle Ages with the arrival of Emperor Frederick III of Habsburg.
With a 900 year history the castle is one of Ljubljana’s
main attractions. The castle prison first opened in
1815, intended for both men and women who could be jailed for up to 10 years.
At the outbreak of World War I, the castle prison was used for political
prisoners of war — the most numerous were Serbians, along with Russians,
Englishmen and Frenchmen.
Hiking at Lake Bohinj
Slovenia is a hiker’s paradise. In fact, Ljubljana was voted the best green city in 2016. They are very eco-friendly and pursue recycling with gusto. This was my last day in country and I was told not to leave without hiking at Lake Bohinj. Since I don’t have a car, I contacted another tour guide company, Alpine Adventures, to take me to the area. They picked me up at 8:00 a.m. and by 9:30 a.m. – two avid hikers in their twenties and one who was a national ice climbing champion. I became intimidated when they pulled out their Ipad and showed me some of the routes they had planned for a 7-hour day of hiking. They were extra pumped because this was the first break in the torrential rains and they brought very sophisticated camera equipment to capture the many, many waterfalls at their peak of water power.
Before we started, they suggested stopping at a charming alpine restaurant called Strudl’l Gostilinca. They ordered a round of delicious Štruklji, a traditional cooked pie with fillings of buckwheat, cottage cheese and tarragon.
Our first hike was about an hour to Savica Waterfall. France Pešeren wrote about it in his poem, “Baptism at the Savica.” The beech trees were prominent in the forest with spruce trees toward the top of the peaks. We hiked up the path and were treated to a powerful cascade of water. Both guides were taking more pictures than I was because the waterfall was overflowing. “It’s really skinny in the summer,” they commented, snapping pictures and capturing video. The views were stunning and the air was fresh and clean.
The next hike was about 2 ½ hours up and even longer on the way down
(my knees!), but incredibly majestic the entire way. I have never seen so many
waterfalls coming out of crevices with the rains causing rapids to powerfully
flow through the forests. It reminded me of a fairytale and in fact we came
upon a sign that noted the “legend of the white fairies.” The fairies move
through these woods with their long hair, flowing over the rocks like mist. And
watch out for Zlatorog, in Slovene folklore, a Goldhorn white chamois buck.
Zlatorog’s golden horns were the key to a treasure hidden in the mountains
around Triglav, but he can be very protective of the treasure if you are
looking for it, watch out, he may push you over the precipice, stroking his
horns along the stones so that gold dusk smokes from them. There are many
stories of the woods. The guides told me that dwarfs also live among the rocks
in Triglav National Park.
I strongly suggest going with guides in the forest because about half
way through our hike, one of the guides told me to follow his footsteps
closely. When I asked why I should watch my steps, he told me about the
thousands of tunnels underneath the forest that are yet to be discovered. “Many
people fall into the tunnels because they are covered with leaves.” In the
middle of World War II, Germans made a system of tunnels under Kranj for
protection under bomb attacks. We stayed above the tunnels, but just knowing
they were underneath us was fascinating.
Our next hike was to the top of a mountain glacier above Lake Bohinj.
One of the guides opened a metal box and in it were a few pens and a journal.
He asked me to sign the journal. “Everyone who climbs these mountains signs a
different journal so if something happens, we know who was here.” From up top
we saw beams of sun shining on the village below and the lake in the distance. This
breathtaking panoramic summit was named after the priest Valentin Vodnik. It
had magnificent views of the Bohinj basin and surrounding Julian Alps mountain
range. The Julian Alps were named after Julius Caesar. The second highest peak
is 2,775 meters high, which lies in Italy. Lake Bohinj is the biggest lake in Triglav
National Park, the only Slovenian National Park. Looking out onto the high
altitude mountains with deeply cut glacial valleys, lakes, rivers and gorges
was a hiking extravaganza. Lake Bohinj is rich in forestry and picturesque
villages, coupled with nature protection and conservation.