What to Drink in Europe’s Secret City Ljubljana


Ljubljana, the Capital of Slovenia


e arrived on a quiet and dark Monday night, just before 11 p.m., and when we got inside “the ring” we hit a red light — as we did, my boyfriend Eric turned to me and said casually, “This is the most dangerous part of town.” Suddenly, I was very on edge and wishing I had stayed in Florence for the week instead of driving with him up to Ljubljana (where he played his first two seasons of professional volleyball) to visit some old teammates.

After checking into our hotel, we got back in the car to go for a beer at Union Brewery and to have some traditional Slovenian sausages. Bleary-eyed after a four-hour photoshoot and 4-course meal in Florence that same day (not to mention the 7-hour drive), I couldn’t even focus on what was placed before me. As Eric rose his phone to take a photo of my first sip of Union unfiltered lager, he smiled as I relaxed from the tip of my tongue all the way through my spine. The sweet, creamy, yeasty lager was more flavorful than any beer I had ever had to date. For the rest of the trip, I referred to the “nefiltrirano” as “beer snack” because it was so flavorful and bread-y.

Ljubljana, Slovenia. Saute Magazine with Molly Goodman.

So, I thought, Maybe this trip wasn’t such a bad idea after all. The lager was more than a post-drive relaxant, this beer had the unique ability through its flavor, mouthfeel, and finish to change my whole perspective of the country of Slovenia. I felt like I had struck gold.

Eric and I chatted over what we’d do for the next few days: sightsee, eat, hang out with friends, go to a volleyball game, and head out to Lake Bled for a hike and some cream cake. Nevertheless, through the whole conversation I was distracted because I knew that if the beer was this good, there might also be some wine nearby worth tasting. Afterall, I did notice that we drove through Veneto and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia on our way north and cringed as we passed vineyards full of budding vines, “Why can’t we just stay in Italy?” I thought. I went to sleep that night wondering what this place had to offer, whether I had vastly overlooked this trip. If the famed vines of Italy gave way to the velvet-green mountains of Slovenia, this could really be something.

When we woke up in the morning, I was excited to chase my hunch. Eric told me we would drive back to the center of town to sightsee and visit the castle. I thought, “Ok. Cool. Castle, whatever. I’ve seen castles. Italy has castles. But what about the wine of Slovenia? Is it any good? Could it be the little sister Italy never told us she had?”

Once we parked the car and wandered our way through Congress Square, we were approached by a news crew. No, I’m not kidding. We barely had a moment to say hello before the news reporter thrust a microphone at my face and said, “How do you define beauty?” I laughed and pointed at the square around us. We were surrounded by beauty. As we walked through the square and the rest of the town, I discovered I was even more right than I had known.

The city of Ljubljana feels a little bit like a practical joke. Did they construct this place like Disneyland? To appear romantically antiquated but is so clean and new? I expected that at any moment, a stagehand might appear to roll the set away and reveal a gray city littered with trash and crammed with cars. But it never happened. The delicate lamps hung on the buildings like ornaments, the boats skated along the blue-green water as they ducked under the canopy of bridges, and all the people seemed to make eye contact and smile as if to say, “I’m glad you’re here, enjoy yourself.” The pedestrian-only city center went about its morning; patio tables along the river were set, bread was delivered to restaurants, and people bartered over the price of vegetables in the market. All the while, a small castle stood protectively on a hill covered with shades of emerald and chartreuse as the whole city bustled on foot beneath it.

While I walked in awe through the city with Eric, I waited expectantly for the opening song “Bonjour” from Disney’s cartoon “Beauty and the Beast” to start at any moment. In my daze, we passed a little shop called Vineria del Ponte; a woman stood outside holding a tray of “Borovničke,” a blueberry flavored liqueur which is regarded as a Slovenian specialty. We had a taste, and I peeked over her shoulder towards the inside of the little shop and saw wine bottles lined up on wooden shelves. “Do you own this wine shop?” I asked her. “Yes! I’m Antonella,” the woman answered. I peered further inside and saw words on bottles I didn’t recognize. I turned to Eric and nearly squealed. We stepped inside the little wine shop and bought four bottles of typical Slovenian wines. We bought a dry aromatic white, “Malvazija” by Bordon; a fresh-wine called “Šipon furmint” by Dveri Pax, a winery run by monks; a typical Slovenian full-bodied red also by Bordon called Refošk, and finally a Teran which is a light red wine with high minerality and pleasant acidity.

On the whole, the wines were more revealing of the dynamic range of Slovenian wine than they were independently good or memorable. They reflected a more significant theme and emotion that I had been feeling since my arrival in Slovenia: it’s more than you could expect. It’s richer, more beautiful, more lively and more undisturbed than any of the other ten European countries I have visited. This wine was spectacular because it traditionally connected to its culture, but that thread was in direct competition with the wine’s ability to be new, different and in every way, fresh.

The day that we left Slovenia for Italy, we decided to have one last lunch to say goodbye to Eric’s old European home-town and for me to offer my gratitude in unveiling her secret city. We ordered Croque Madames and glasses of Kobal Sauvignon Blanc, “It was only macerated for 72 hours, then aged quickly on fine lees,” the waiter said as the wine hurried into my hollow glass. The sip hit my lips like the secret that Slovenia had been whispering into my ear since I had arrived; this country – and its wines – are an unturned stone of surprise.

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