My current drug of choice is travelling to a region as yet uncharted (by me), devoid of expectation — an immense challenge with today’s media saturation. At times, it proves to be a calming narcotic; at others, a muted adrenaline shot. I had no expectations of Ljubljana or Slovenia, my mind a tabula rasa in relation to this Balkan land. Google informed me the area is renowned for its cuisine. Slovenian wine has also apparently gained a reputation. Yet, as a globally known tourist destination, the region appears fresh. If you are a bon vivant (cheap replica or actual), or relish weak moments of gluttony as I do, this is a place to draw arrows around on your map.
Ben is my partner in travel crime and enjoyment of ‘John Coffee’ (our term for caffeine) and IPAs across the globe. He and I frequented a venue called ČinČin Tobačna while in Ljubljana. We happened to pass it upon arriving and leaving our accommodation — rather convenient, it turns out, like the hotel buffet breakfast you keep returning to. Theoretical travel plans morphed into lazier realism. But more so, it was a venue we enjoyed and we would have traversed the city to return to.
Perhaps I felt a vestigial kinship with ČinČin. A few lifetimes or Gregorian calendars ago, I worked in a bar. A few, actually. They weren’t classy affairs, but the experience taught me many things. Perhaps it also corrupted me a little. But only in vices. I always adhered to my morals. It was the late nineties. Garish-coloured drinks. Bourbon and coke. Vodka and orange. Vinyl posing as leather. Bleached hair, not as stark as in the eighties, but destined to become the ombre of the early 21st century. Bourbon and coke. Dance music posing as techno. Fluoro glowsticks. Belts for skirts. Crass saloon bars. All not even worthy of kitsch, just tacky. All that ČinČin is not. It is no doubt a bar established primarily for students, but the patronage spans all ages. ČinČin is the type of bar where love-locked eyes cross through an elegant trail of smoke, not intoxicated drooling and stumbling. Where there are no hamster angles; all angles are the attractive side. Words such as ‘soliloquy’ and ‘prose’ are exchanged. Glasses are chinked, not spilt. Waiters stride and deftly work their drinks trays like tools. I don’t intend to mislead; ČinČin doesn’t fall into classic or elegant or classy. Beyond elegance becomes pompous anyway. It’s rough around the edges, intelligent, unashamedly hip and yet sophisticated only in the ways it feels it needs — good qualities in both bars and men.
In another country or city, ČinČin may have felt so uber cool that I would have avoided it, but here I felt as though it captured a part of Ljubljana; it provided a taste of what the city is all about. This city has rightly earned a ‘hipster guide to’, whether they rest comfortably in this premise or not. Ljubljana is saturated with trendy eateries and bars and thus reminds me in many ways of my home, Melbourne, Australia. They treasure their history and heritage, admirably maintaining their architecture, monuments and culture. To most, there would be nothing quintessentially Slovenian about ČinČin, but this is where we sit. This is where we learnt that zdravo is hello and hvala vam is thank you in Slovene. This is where the noun, Slovenia, grew wings for me. Okay, along with a food festival, the Ljubljanica river and some other venues.
The front doors to ČinČin are an abstract of absinthe and red, a scarlet hue reminiscent of the carnation that is Slovenia’s national flower. The car parking areas surrounding the venue were intermittently crazy, which seems to be a common theme in Ljubljana. Parking here is more a game of stacks on than soldiers in a row. There is no order. Pray you aren’t the first in; otherwise, plan to not move your car for a long time. A long row of bicycles out the front is an indicator of Ljubljana’s love of cycling around its treasured heritage streets and alleyways. A handful of university students at the outdoor tables were consuming coffee and beer on this day — at 10am, to be precise. Anything goes here for consuming and imbibing and it seems to defy the laws of Darwinism: retired couples drink shots alongside their morning coffee; slender women enjoy ice cream at ungodly hours, always. Inside ČinČin, the tunes were a rotation of classic rock and what I assume to be Slovene pop. Tastes of traditional Slovenian folk music can be detected within some of the modern tunes played.
A hint of tobacco seeped in to the venue from the outdoor patrons. This odour combined with the aroma of short, long and all-crust pastry baking and with an intoxicating, subtle floral aroma. The location of a nearby 24-hour bakery had been circled on a map by our accommodation’s reception clerk. He had drawn many circles on the map. A legion of circles and no text. A waxing lyrical on Ljubljana that I was destined never to remember and many circles on a map and no text. It is currently May, so the floral odour may have been from linden trees, some located not far up the street, their flowers blooming through May and June. Slovenians treasure the linden tree, known as LIPA. They create custom linden flower honey (beekeeping is prolific across the land), and they dry the flowers and make bespoke handmade products and herbal tea reputed to improve health. For Slovenians, the archetypes of the linden tree span health, fertility, romance and justice. An à la carte of virtues. I was trying to snort in this divine mutant tobacco-baked goods-floral aroma while remaining socially acceptable. That odour represented the ambrosial experiences across the town that were yet to be experienced. I am a novice food and wine buff and I am not interested in climbing any ranks. My taste buds are at times libertine and not always in unison with my morals or my head. I probably represent exactly 82.5% of the population (who really knows?) in that I enjoy most things, but I enjoy most things done well. With love and care and sanitary utensils, and dedicated hands (that are likewise sanitary). So if you fall into this percentile, if you’re a purveyor of edible things, then you will embrace the food and beverages that Ljubljana puts on its tables.
I had learnt quickly in Europe that it was easiest to order a cappuccino rather than a latte. Although in Melbourne a plethora of coffee options are available and a simple latte suffices, in Ljubljana a latte is not available everywhere, although a cappuccino is universally recognised. Likewise, Ben reverts quickly from ordering a long black order to enjoying an Americano. Or an espresso is a good fallback when a watery black soup is served. Melbourne has, no doubt, reared both of us to coffee snobbery. It’s a curse at times, and we struggled initially with the widespread use of pod machines around Europe. Coffee in the morning is sacred time and a pod is sacrilege while on holiday. Our need was sated when we arrived at ČinČin, the quality caffeine fix a welcome respite for our xenophobic Melbourne palates. I would happily order a Kava s smetano again, and a standard Bela kava was also enjoyable.
Minds break many rules and judge wholeheartedly. Over a cappuccino, mine was assessing the physical appearance of Slovenes. Yes, I was objectifying. The bar staff at ČinČin are primarily male, and, as it turned out, a suitable typecast of the Slovene male in all his glory. Slovene women present confidently and are refreshingly comfortable in their natural beauty. Fashion is unique and varied, not saturated by trends. Up a steep flight of steps cum ladder sat a Slovene femme fatale at her proverbial zenith. Not sure if she owned the entire hood, the student region we were in, solely the venue or none of these, but I trust her name would be Daria or Alina or something else reminiscent of running a large-scale cyber attack on any entity threatening her people’s right to consume Alkoholna pijača whenever they desired. My eyeballs now in a relationship with her from my lower peasant vantage point, I coaxed Ben to trigger my memory for the name of the TV series about Americans and kompromat and that awesome Romanian girl who is revolting against clichéd government-driven gagging of civilians. My brain is a constant victim to the Mandela Effect — it opts to fill in gaps in reality. I needed to know this program. As she was her, in looks anyway. So freakishly similar. Oblivious to our presence, she was glued to a laptop covered in stickers reminiscent of a student’s. This was, after all, a venue surrounded by educational institutions.
The art on the walls of ČinČin is organic with an air of patriotism and perhaps even a hint of rebellion. Along with Serbia and Croatia, Slovenia made up former Yugoslavia. Slovenes only gained their independence as a sovereign nation in 1991, not without an uprising and civilian conflict. So, no surprise that remnants of unrest are evident throughout the city. Slovenian history is rich in fables, yet also roughened over a long expanse of time with unrest and political turbulence. This unique past of the abrasive, the mystical and the patriotic results in the Slovenia of today. Slovenes continue to treasure their many art-forms, markedly literature, evident also by their national culture celebration, a public holiday known as Prešeren Day, revering the nation’s most renowned poet, France Prešeren. For current affairs, The Slovenian Times offers a monthly issue in English. I was still entranced by the wall-art and wondering if one piece resembled their ‘kozolec’, a Slovenian hay rack, usually constructed of wood, now also regarded widely as a national icon. Perhaps just in my head. How the hell did I know what a kozolec was? I’m rather good at absorbing the random and pointless.
Our dedicated and polite bartender, let’s call him Jožef, served two soda waters (mineralna voda) to follow our coffees. He was reserved yet friendly. No fluff, but always helpful and happy to snap into English in any moment. He was a taste of the generally pleasant, conservative yet congenial nature we would encounter during the remainder of our time here. In some areas of Europe, custom does not necessarily include smiles or pleasantries. Service that is short and blunt can leave a bitter aftertaste. Slovenians are not contentious and they get socialism right. The interactions we had while in Ljubljana were laconic yet polite. There is no eye rolling, no quiet contempt. Even a crying baby here sounds softer and more muted, like it is conscious of not being grating to anyone, even though it’s screaming its lungs out. Slovenia appears to be irreverent on how it should exist under the eyes of Mother Europe. The people go about their dailies humbly and with a superlative wisdom underlying their practices and livelihood. Their churches and institutions do not appear pious as in some regions of the world. No strict regimes or caste systems here. My European blood resonated strongly with the conscientious church bells that tolled regularly here, a sound my German mother often yearned for once settled in Australia.
After exploring the city along the charming Ljubljanica river, we returned to ČinČin for an early evening pijte before retiring for the day. I was feeling a little beige. They say that when you travel you take yourself with you. Bills still exist, their weight often compounded with travel expenses. The complex matrix that is me I still carry. All that said, venturing to new regions, terrain or venues provides novel tastes, smells and experiences, at times worthy of recoiling and at times ambrosial, both unsurpassed with the groundhog of everyday life. On this particular evening, in a venue as hip and cool as ČinČin, I was acutely feeling my own calendar years. Also, as we were only a few days into our trip, I was finding it difficult to fully drain work from my system. I perused the menu, a gospel in this moment. I requested a blended elixir from the most attractive bottle on the shelf. Note: not the most expensive looking, just the most attractive — I’m a sucker for packaging. So, my escapism of choice while my roaming eye noted all the spritely, young, attractive females and males within and without was whatever was in that most attractive of bottles (which I couldn’t read from a seated position, or perhaps because of my increasingly dubious eyesight). The suns and moons we experienced in Ljubljana allowed the human I was devoid of through the everyday back home to leach back into my being. So it was. And it was grand.
My blended drink turned out to be a Negroni. Lovely, but a touch, or mile, too far on the bitter side, appropriate for an element of my current mood. I regret that we didn’t delve into any of the local distilled options. Zganje is the generic Slovene term for brandy or schnapps from fruit. Common types are slivovka (plum), sadjevec (mixed fruit), visnjevec (sour cherries), borovnicke (blueberry), brinjevec (juniper berry) and medica (honey). All varieties can be explored in more detail through a countryside sojourn (soft-tops and billowing scarves optional), with custom distilleries dotted across Slovenia. I would love to join the dots on some of their wineries and appreciate firsthand their dedicated beekeeping efforts, but alas, there was no time for that on this trip.
The glassware the Negroni was served in raised my mood a few notches. Yes, glass in select forms has that kind of power over me. Along with exorbitantly high thread count sheets and dinner-plate-sized showerheads. Crystal coupes, whiskey tumblers, highballs, champagne saucers (which I like to call Josephines), chalice glasses, Copa del Balon and anything that mimics a Wilhelm Wagenfeld design… select glassware will undoubtedly make the drink taste better, a vessel made for a seltzer, the finer of which would be made by Baccarat or Swarovski. These labels, however, much too exquisite for my harlequin hands and lips. Our progressive venue-hopping over our time in Ljubljana was to reveal that many venues throughout the town stock enviable glassware, the vintage cut-crystal tumblers and stemmed varieties. Ben, predictably, ordered an IPA. The craft beer scene here arguably puts Melbourne’s to shame. On this day Ben was bittered out. We had ventured to their flagship craft brewery, Human Fish, and sampled one of their better-known IPAs, SIPA. Ben getting ‘hopped’ out had never actually happened before. So, of course, he soldiered on with another IPA. Soldier, or typical male? A bit of both perhaps. He had already enjoyed their domestic local, Laško. The Slovenian craft beer scene is saturated with IPAs with sky-rocketing IBU levels, so if IPAs are your bag, Ljubljana is your place. Hops are grown and harvested throughout Slovenia and the area’s domestic commercial brewer, Laško, makes the most of this in their production and marketing. The wines are likewise top quality. Local varieties include pinela and zelen (whites), and teran or rebula (reds). The three main wine regions in Slovenia are Posrasvska (primarily white, sparkling and dessert wines), Posavska (Cvicek — a unique sour red wine), and Primorska (white, red and blended varietals).
All musing on beauty, purging, glassware and beer strength aside, my age is my age and I should embrace it. Risking written copy that may be worthy of a Pond’s Cold Cream advert, the moments you feel more (rather than less) attractive make life seem that little bit more spritely. It by no means douses any ability to enjoy a beautiful sunset or moments with loved ones, but those moments where vanishing cream feels more apt than cold cream no one enjoys. I currently had vanishing cream feels.
The food, drinks, sights, culture and architecture in Ljubljana all rank high. I found, however, that it was the people that got a strong hold on me. Okay, equal bullseye with the drinks. To an outsider looking in, they are far from a bourgeois society by any definitions of the term, although they may well feel that is the life they live. Their verdant and industrious nature matches the atmosphere of the ever-growing city. They are introverted, yet not submissive. Through its history and culture, Slovenia has distilled some of the best parts of its neighbours, Austria, Hungary, Italy — Concentrated them, rendered them, sieved them and squished them into the small space which is now Ljubljana.
And so, I finally remembered who the Slovene femme fatale, Daria, reminded me of: Katarina Cas, who played Sofia Vesik in Berlin Station. Almost an exact replica, and upon googling, it turns out Katarina Cas is Slovenian, not Romanian. Isn’t that fitting.