Slovenia : From the Alps to the Mediterranean
Author : Institute for Mediterranean Studies(HK Professor_Sebastian Mueller)
Slovenia is one of those countries that are often overlooked in the public and in academic circles in context of the Mediterranean. Compared to other countries of the region, Slovenia’s coastline of 43 km with the Adriatic Sea is rather short. Nevertheless, Slovenia reflects the geographical transition from the Mediterranean to the Alps and to the eastern part of Europe in an exemplary way and it demonstrates the difficulties to draw a clear line between the Mediterranean and its neighboring regions when we try to define the area beyond geographical features.
The title of a book from the Slovenian historian Oto Luthar, which is one of the most comprehensive overviews written about Slovenian history in English, characterizes the country in the most appropriate way: Slovenia is “the land between”. This is true for many perspectives. From the geographic point of view the Northwest of Slovenia is dominated by the Alpine mountains and adjacent subalpine mountain ranges. The country’s northeastern area is part of the Pannonian basin, a large plain dominated by rivers and streams. The southern part, on the contrary, belongs to Istria, an also often overlooked peninsula in the north of the Adriatic Sea, and the karst region of the northern tail of the Dinaric Alps. It is of course the southern part of the region that shows the distinctive Mediterranean climate and vegetation. On the political map Slovenia is located between Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Italy, with the mentioned coastline at the Adriatic Sea. Slovenia is a young nation state, albeit its history and the history of the Slovenes goes back to Late Antiquity. The country declared its independence from Yugoslavia at the 25th of June 1991 leading to the Slovenian Independence War which lasted only for 10 days and caused, compared to the following dreadful post-Yugoslav Wars, just a small number of casualties.
The territory confined today by Slovenia’s national borders was in prehistoric and historic times a crucial area for trade and exchange between the Mediterranean and the regions east and north of the Alps. The first Slavic tribes, those people who can be considered more or less the ancestors of the Slovenians, appeared in the region in the late 6th century. Even though the Slovenian territories were affected by the changeful history of Middle Europe, its inhabitants were able to preserve their language and traditions in peaceful coexistence with their neighbors. The Slovenian language belongs to the so-called South Slavic language group and is compared to other Slavic languages quite difficult to learn. Slovenian is today the native language for 88% of the 2 million inhabitants of the country. Nevertheless, due to the presence of Hungarian and Italian speaking minorities, mostly along the national borders, both languages are acknowledged in several municipalities and settlements as second official, administrative languages. Romani, the language spoken by the Rome people, is another element contributing to the lingual diversity of Slovenia. According to a survey conducted by the European Union in 2007, Slovenia is among the top of European countries whose inhabitants speak one or even two foreign languages. In Slovenia this are before all Croatian, English and German.
The geographical and cultural transition from the alpine region to the Mediterranean can be well observed and sensually experienced through the cities from north to south. Starting from the Austrian border close to the city of Klagenfurt and in direction to Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, the landscape is first dominated by the steep towering Alps, which subsequently transition into gentle, though still majestic mountain ranges, and opens more and more into the basin of Ljubljana. Deep green forests alternate with crop fields and meadows.
One of the most famous touristic locations in the northwest of the country is the little town of Bled at a glacial lake. Bled castle, one of the earliest Slovenian fortifications of its kind from the 11th century, is situated on a steep rock above the lake. However, the most famous site and a popular photo motif is the small Bled Island in the middle of the lake. Once a sanctuary for a Slavic goddess, it became after the Christianization of the Slavic tribes the location of a pilgrimage church of the Assumption of Mary.
The first bigger city on the route is Kranj which has, as so many other cities in the eastern middle European region, two faces. One is the successively grown historic city center and the other is the districts of concrete buildings and apartment blocks that do not really fit into the landscape with its impressive panorama of the nearby Alps. Kranj is an important historical site and in medieval times it was the administrative center of the region represented by the prominent Castle Kieselstein
Ljubljana, situated in the heart of Slovenia, is the capital of the country and its cultural as well as its economical center. Also surmounted by an impressive castle located on a hill in the middle of the city, Ljubljana’s city center is particularly dominated by the Ljubljanica River. The cityscape is composed of buildings from different periods starting with structures from medieval times. Buildings in Baroque and Venetian style can be found as well as houses in Vienna Secession style. Places like the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation at Prešeren Square with its typical rich Baroque interior, the main building of the University of Ljubljana, Ljubljana cathedral and many others exude European history more than other prominent European metropolises. Besides the buildings, the natural features around the city and the parks are shaping the face of Ljubljana. The city represents as no other place all the manifold facets of Slovenian identity and creates a unique atmosphere influenced by Alpine, Balkan and Mediterranean elements.
South of Ljubljana the area changes gradually into a typical Mediterranean landscape. The southern karst region of Slovenia is famous for its cave systems among which the Škocjan caves are the most impressive. Prehistoric and historic traces inside the caves are not only testimony for early occupations of the site but also prove connections between the Alpine and Mediterranean region.
Even though the Slovenian coastline is comparably short, it represents a typical Mediterranean or more precisely Adriatic setting. The most beautiful place is undoubtedly Piran, a small town located on a land tongue within the sea. The topography as well as the intact historically grown city center including buildings in Baroque style and the distinctive Venetian style, shape Piran into a unique place. The central place of the town is the Tartini Square, named after the famous composer Guiseppe Tartini who was born in the city. Impressive are the city walls in Venetian style attesting the power and wealth the city maintained during medieval times and the Renaissance. In the south of Piran, directly at the border to Croatia, is the location of one of the most northern, active salines, the Sečoveljske soline.
Slovenia is the land between and it represents the transition from the Mediterranean into its neighboring regions. This transition is fluid as the sea and without sharp borders. The convergence of different cultural styles and languages that created something unique appears in this sense almost like a fractal of the region that stretches along the shores of the ‘sea between the lands’.