Slovenia is a spectacular lozenge of territory smack in the heart of central Europe.
From its Alpine peaks to its Adriatic beaches, from its mirrorlike lakes to its bustling baroque cities, it encompasses a wealth of natural beauty, fascinating folkways and deep-rooted history – all crammed into an area the size of Israel that is still enough off the beaten track to make a visit seem like a discovery.
Bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, and with a narrow stretch of coast along the Adriatic Sea, Slovenia formed part of the former Yugoslavia from 1918 until 1991, when it won its independence in a 10-day war. Before that, most of it was under Austro-Hungarian rule. Today, Slovenia is a modern, independent state that's right on target to join NATO and the European Union next year.
I've traveled many times amid Slovenia's mountains, hills and fertile valleys, but never so intensively as when, a few years back, I crisscrossed the country to carry out a detailed survey of sites of Jewish heritage.
My weeklong tour took me from one end of Slovenia to the other – from the ancient Jewish cemetery at Nova Gorica on the Italian border, to the centuries-old synagogue in Maribor, a quaint university town on the Drava river; from the ghosts of medieval Jewish quarters on the Adriatic coast to the remnants of thriving communities destroyed in the Holocaust near the border with Hungary.
It was a fascinating journey that peeled away layer after layer of history and at the same time enabled me to enjoy the extraordinary natural beauty of this compact country – not to mention its local wines and gastronomic specialties.
A few archeological finds date Jewish presence in the region to the fifth century. But the middle ages were the Jewish heyday, and Jewish communities thrived in many towns. Under the Habsburgs, however, Jews were expelled from almost everywhere in the region beginning in the late 15th century.
Unlike other places in Central Europe where Jews were periodically expelled and then readmitted, Jews did not return to the Slovenian settlements, and because of this there are few identifiable Jewish monuments in Slovenia today.
Today's local Jewish community consists of only about 150 members, most of them in the capital, Ljubljana, a charming complex of baroque, medieval and art nouveau architecture that straddles the Ljubljanica River.
Ljubljana boasts the only functioning synagogue in the country – a temporary prayer room set up in an office block. Consecrated earlier this year, it is the first synagogue to operate in Ljubljana in nearly 500 years.
The Jews were expelled from Ljubljana in 1515, and aside from a small, modern, Jewish section in the municipal cemetery, the only reminder of historic Jewish presence are two narrow, intersecting streets in the picturesque city center. Still called Zidovska ulica (Jewish Street) and Zidovska steza (Jewish Path) they mark the site of the medieval Jewish quarter. Nothing is left of the original appearance except the placement of the streets, but the building at No. 4 Zidovska Steza is believed to stand where a synagogue was once located.
Slovenia's main sites of Jewish interest include the cemetery at Nova Gorica, the synagogue in Maribor and a synagogue and Jewish cemetery in Lendava, a quaint little town on the border with Hungary.
The best way to visit them is by car. Distances are relatively short, and motoring will allow you to explore several other Jewish sites along the way – not to mention the stunning scenery.
Ljubljana is within a few hours drive of every other corner of the country and, with its fine restaurants and good hotels, can make a convenient base. But I prefer to move around the country, stopping at wayside inns or smalltown hotels to enable a more leisure exploration of the varied surroundings.
When new borders were drawn after World War II, the town of Gorizia, north of Trieste, was awarded to Italy but its suburbs went to Yugoslavia (now Slovenia) and became the site of a new town called Nova Gorica.
Jews lived in Gorizia for centuries. Though forced into a ghetto in 1698, they developed a thriving silk industry and also worked in many other occupations. When the town was divided in 1947, the former ghetto area on today's via Ascoli and a synagogue built in 1756 remained in the Italian section, and they are well worth a visit.
The synagogue was in use until 1969, when the Jewish community formally dissolved for lack of numbers. Presented to the municipality in 1978, the building was fully restored by regional and municipal authorities and reopened in 1984. It now is home to a fascinating little Jewish museum that combines displays of Judaica with multi-media installations. It also features a separate room devoted to Gorizia's most famous Jewish native, Carlo Michelstaedter, an early 20th century poet, painter and philosopher who committed suicide in 1910.
Gorizia's historic Jewish cemetery is on the Slovenian side of the border, in the area called Rozna Dolina, an easy walk of a few hundred yards from the main border crossing point. Here are arranged about 900 tombstones. Most of them date from the 19th century, but some were brought to this site from an earlier, now destroyed cemetery. The oldest stone is believed be a monument from 1371 honoring "Regina, daughter of Zerach, wife of Benedetto" which was brought to Gorizia from Maribor in 1831.
Most of the stones are low, grey markers with flat rectangular or square faces and rounded tops. Some are very thick, presenting a massive three dimensional form. For most, the only decoration is the epitaph and date of death, framed within a border. A very few of the older stones have slightly more elaborate shapes, some with scalloped curves. Erosion is taking its toll, and many are scarcely legible.
Among the few tombstones with decorative carving are tombs of several members of the important Morpurgo family (originating in Maribor – called “Marburg” in German), which show the Morpurgo family emblem of Jonah in the mouth of the whale. Carlo Michelstaedter's grave is marked by a simple upright stone, like a post with a curved back, bearing simply his name and dates.
From Nova Gorica it's an easy, hour-long drive to Ljubljana, but it is worth making a detour off the main road to the beautiful little village of Stanjel, renowned for its castle and formal gardens. In the valley below are the haunting remains of an Austro-Hungarian World War I military cemetery. All that is left are the massive stone pillars of the gates, a huge temple-like monument, and about five scattered grave markers. Two of these are of Jewish soldiers, each bearing a star of David.
If you have time, continue on to the Adriatic coast before heading to Ljubljana. Here, just south of the Italian city of Trieste, the ancient ports of Koper and Piran both bear traces of their former Jewish quarters.
Piran, one of the most beautiful small towns on the entire Adriatic coast, retains a Venetian air, with fine examples of Venetian-gothic architecture and an early 17th-century church tower that is virtually a copy of the bell tower of St. Mark's in Venice.
Jews here were confined to a ghetto in 1714, but even before that they lived around what is still called Zidovski trg -- Jewish square, a small space in the heart of the old town, which is entered through two low archways and surrounded by evocative, multistory buildings, similar to the ghetto architecture in Venice. In the 1980s, the area underwent renovation, and the entire quarter surrounding the square was renamed "The Jewish Square Quarter." The Church of St. Stephen adjoins Zidovski trg, and some historical sources say it was built on the site of the medieval synagogue.
In Koper (known in Italian as Capodistria), another lovely port, the former Zidovska ulica (Jewish street) is now called Triglavska ulica, a short, narrow, slightly curving street of five houses perpendicular to Cevljarska ulica.
Maribor is about a two-hour drive northeast of Ljubljana and can also be reached easily by a fast, Intercity train. Situated on the Drava River, the town grew up around a fortress built nearly 1,000 years ago. Today, Maribor is a lively university town whose historic center is a picturesque mix of medieval and Baroque architecture. Its recently restored medieval synagogue is one of the few synagogues from that era in central Europe and, along with the cemetery in Nova Gorica, is one of Slovenia's most important Jewish relics.
Maribor in fact was the stronghold of Slovenia's medieval Jewish population. A Jewish community is first mentioned in the late 13th century, but Jews probably settled here even earlier. Maribor's Regional Museum displays the tombstone of the town's first known rabbi, who died in 1379. Rabbi Israel Isserlein (1390-1460), one of the foremost rabbis in Germany in the 15th century, lived in Maribor for about 20 years.
Jews prospered in Maribor as artisans, bankers, moneylenders and merchants whose commercial interests extended to Italy, Hungary and Moravia. Then, Emperor Maximilian I ordered all the Jews expelled as of Jan. 6, 1497. Few Jews have lived in the town since then.
Maribor's synagogue stands in the former medievial Jewish quarter, still known as Zidovska ulica (Jewish street), which lies in the old town near the south-west corner of the town walls, above the Drava. This building is believed to date from the 13th century. When the Jews were expelled, the synagogue was bought by a local judge, who already in 1501 converted it into a church, which functioned until the late 18th century. It was then turned into a warehouse and, later, a dwelling. Long empty, the building underwent fullscale restoration in the 1990s, and in 2001 it was reopened as a cultural center administered by the Regional Museum. The only physical evidence that the building was once a synagogue is the large niche in the eastern wall, presumably for the Ark. There are longterm plans to establish a Jewish museum and research center in the restored building.
Slovenia's other major surviving Jewish heritage site is in the small town of Lendava, on the border with Hungary in the region known as Prekmurje in the northeast corner of the country. Prekmurje formed part of Hungary until the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, and the Jews who settled here in the late 18th century came mainly from around the Hungarian town of Zalaegerszeg, not far across today's border. Prekmurje was occupied by the Hungarians in World War II, and more than 460 Jews, most of them from the town of Murska Sobota, were deported to Auschwitz in 1944.
Dominated by a hilltop castle, Lendava sits amid a landscape of undulating farmland at the edge of the Pannonian plain. Its synagogue, a boxy, rectangular brick structure with a peaked roof that was built in the late 1860s, was heavily damaged during World War II and, later, sold to the municipality. It was recently restored as a local culture center. It stands next to a modern new Hungarian Culture Center, designed by the prominent Hungarian architect Imre Makovec in a style using Hungarian national elements,
Lendava's evocative Jewish cemetery stands near the village of Dolga Vas, just outside town. Entry is through a pale yellow ceremonial hall with a big arched central door flanked by two arched windows. The tombstones are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they surround a simple Holocaust memorial to Prekmurje Jews erected in 1947. Another monument to local Holocaust victims stands on the site of the Jewish cemetery in nearby Murska Sobota. The local Museum in Murska Sobota has a small exhibit on local Jewish history.
What to Eat
Slovenian food is heavily influenced by central European cooking (dumplings and sauerkraut) but also by Italian, Hungarian and Balkan cuisine. Inland as well as coastal restaurants specialize in fresh fish grilled with garlic, and country inns serve excellent local trout. Desserts, such as the multi-layered Prekmurje gibanica, are deliciously calorific.
One of my favorite places to eat in Ljubljana -- perfect for a light lunch -- is the little fish restaurant in the central market complex, directly underneath the row of fishmonger shops, overlooking the river. Here you can have a big plate of fresh sardines or whitebait, plus salad, for the equivalent of a few Euros. In Maribor, try the cozy Novi Svet restaurant, tucked away on Slomskov trg, in the heart of the Baroque old town, in the building that in the 18th century housed Maribor's first cafe. The last time I was there, I had garlic soup, grilled sole and blitva - chard cooked Dalmatian style with garlic and potatoes, washed down by an excellent local white wine, for about 20 Euro.
Where to stay
Ljubljana is as charming a city as one can find in Mitteleuropa. But before Slovenia gained its independence in 1991, its hotels were hardly that. What a difference a few years makes, and you can select your hotel online, through www.jewishcommunity.si These thoughts:
The Grand Hotel Union has the best location in town -- a few steps from central Presernov square. The hotel has a Business building and an Executive building -- he former was built in the 1970s, the latter in Austro-Hungarian days and both have been newly refurbished. Prices begin around $90.
Tel.: +386 1 308 19 58
Fax: +386 1 308 19 08
e-mail: hotel.union [at] gh-union.si (hotel[dot]union[at]gh-union[dot]si)
The Slon (Best Western) Premier is a 1930s art deco style building. Refurbished in the 1990s. Prices start around $100.
Slovenska cesta 34
Tel.: ++386 1 470 11 31
Fax: ++386 1 470 11 33
e-mail : sales [at] hotelslon.com (sales[at]hotelslon[dot]com)
You could drive down to Piran for the day, but this is such a lovely jewel box of a city, why not stay the night? There are a few 1980s-era mammoth package-tour hotels outside the city. They fill up in mid-summer and are as spare as one can get. A favorite is directly in the center, the Hotel Giuseppe Tartini. This completely restored 45 room hotel has cheerfully done up rooms that start at around $55 per night. I have this contact information:
Hotel G. Tartini
Tartinijev Trg 15
Tel: +386 66 746 221
Fax +386 66 567 11 665
I had a pleasant stay in the modern, four-star Hotel Piramida. It's centrally located within walking distance of the inner city, Jewish sites and the train station and has a sauna and fitness room.
Ulica Heroja Slandra 10
Tel: +386 2 234 4400
Fax: +386 2 234 4360
email: piramida [at] termemb.si (piramida[at]termemb[dot]si)
USEFUL WEB SITES
www.jewishcommunity.si The Web Site of the Slovenian Jewish Community
www.michelstaedter.it Information on Carlo Michelstaedter
www.sinagoga-lendava.net/index.htm Web site of the synagogue at Lendava
Ruth Ellen Gruber
Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe
University of California Press