Slovenia? Er, where is it?
The capital is Ljubljana? Say that again. One more time? No, never heard of it.
Former Yugoslavia, you say? Right. What does that mean? Oh, really? But they’re not communist anymore? Are you sure?
Can you say Ljubljana again?
They’re in the EU? They use Euros?
Jeez, where have I been?
My prior knowledge of Slovenia proved Rizla thin. Embarrassing, really. So, like a dim sponge, thirsty for knowledge, I flew to Ljubljana, Slovenia, to experience the jamboree that was Pink Week 2014. My driver from the airport was a no-nonsense, silver-haired hulk of a man.
‘The perfect bodyguard for when I’m rich and famous,’ I dreamed, as we sailed past emerald pine forests and snow-capped mountains. Asked for ONE thing he’d advise me to see, or do in Ljubljana, the driver fixed me with a steely stare and said in a deep rumble, ‘I’ll tell you THREE things to do in Ljubljana; party, PARTY and PARTY!’
At that moment, I guess you could say I fell in love with Slovenia and its people. I just KNEW we were going to get along fine. To highlight my driver’s philosophy, he drove me straight from the airport to an al fresco terrace party at the Park Hotel. There was even a roped off red carpet. It was 4pm.
It’s a struggle to maintain Hollywood glamour after stepping off an Easy Jet from soaking Stansted, but the driver’s hedonistic blessings were like blast of magical pixie dust, so we hit the party like Lindsay Lohan. The DJ spun an eclectic set and after a few honey liquor cocktails, I began to wonder whether we were in Ibiza, Athens or Slovenia.
Adding to the surreal scene was a performance from Berlin drag duo; Mataina Vagina and Kaspar Kamaeleon. As they belted out numbers, children frolicking in a nearby playground flocked to the hotel terrace, entranced by the saucy German cabaret. Soon the kids were dancing around the vaguely confused drag queens, who gamely incorporated them into the act. It was like Ru Pauls’ Drag Race Vs Supernanny.
‘Toddlers and drag queens are the FUTURE,’ I toasted, to nobody in particular, washing down gourmet pizza with a Cuba Libre.
After their jaw dropping show, there followed some enthusiastic drinking with the hotel staff, local celebs and the demi monde of Ljubljana. I was then poured into a cab with Mataina and Kaspar, as we were all in residence at Vander Urbani Resort.
As the old town of Ljubljana is pedestrianised, cabs can’t always take you right to the door. This is especially unfortunate when you’re with two drag queens in bright wigs, wearing spike heels and navigating picturesque cobbled streets. There was a circus of wobbling, cackling, gawping, screaming and staggering. Quite a few passing pedestrians just froze in baffled awe. The Baroque architecture and lush riverside proved an unlikely tableau for two technicolor drag queens and their drunken escort.
Vander hotel is a boutique cluster of town houses, joined at the hip and overlooked by Ljubljana Castle. It boasts sixteen luxury rooms designed by SADAR+VUGA. The style is minimal, yet comfortable, sleek and soothing. Basically, you walk into the room and it instantly looks untidy. Sadly, I barely had time to savor the rainfall power shower, rooftop infinity pool or catch a nap on the cruelly comfortable bed. No, sir.
Instead, we got our glad rags on for dinner at As Aperitivo. Dress code: black and white. Mataina and Kaspar were unaware of the evening’s theme and dressed as glam hookers with a dose of Disney. The three of us ricocheted across bridges and up cobbled stairways, leeringly asking locals, ‘Can you tell me where As is?’
THAT question and reactions to THOSE drag queens? Never stopped being funny. As Aperitivo is seemingly the hippest restaurant in Ljubljana. Designed by Nika Zupanc, it features an ancient walnut tree growing right through its core. The food was high-end Italian, with mouth-watering seafood, carnivorous turns and a dizzying wine and cocktail list. With a DJ serving up the soundtrack, much of the restaurant morphed into a dance floor and by the time we left, the bar was jumping. It was fun. There was no pain in the As.
Somewhat randomly, we then ended up in a riverside karaoke bar, largely dominated by boisterous geezers bellowing Slovenian folk ballads, some boosted by a Eurobeat.
Kaspar Kamaeleon, in lurid red wig, grabbed the mic and did a storming Born This Way by Lady Gaga. The rowdy boys sang along enthusiastically and for a blurry moment, we were all united by an electronic song of cod empowerment; drag queens, rugby players, middle class ladies and a gaggle of wine-fuelled homos. We sang it proud, perhaps too loud and THAT was my first night in Ljubljana.
I woke in the morning, somewhat hungover, with dappled sunlight and tree tops tickling the windows. After a truly well executed and tasty Vander breakfast, it was time to wander round the city.
Having left a chilly, rain-lashed London, it was hard not to marvel at this sunny gem with its lush foliage, fairy tale mise-en-scène and gorgeous people. Size-wise, it’s a town rather than a metropolis (population: 300, 000). I strolled through organic markets, heaving with shiny fruit and vegetables. The heaps of strawberries had an aroma that hit like a kiss from a sweet, hot stranger.
Everywhere, people were being sophisticated, civilised and friendly, sipping coffee in hip cafes, chatting on historic bridges or just strolling about, looking content.
‘I am SO not in London,’ I muttered to myself, sipping on fresh carrot juice, in a majestic courtyard, served by beaming, fresh-faced teenagers. The architectural beauty is reminiscent of Paris, but somehow prettier, much less urbanised and blessed with a sincere charm.
It seemed amazing that this city, this COUNTRY, in fact, had never been on my radar. Faced with its five millennia history, Roman ruins, Baroque façades, thriving culture and cheering weather, this seemed like a very unfortunate oversight.
That afternoon, we jumped in a mini bus and drove to Bled. The best part of this trip was our tour guide. He looked like Prince Harry but had an encyclopaedic knowledge of European history. He told us the entire story of Slovenia, from the Romans to the Huns to the Communists, with geological facts thrown in, war stats, notes on industry, Slovenian traditions, folk tales and legends.
What did I learn? That it’s MUCH easier to absorb facts from a teacher if they’re hot. Also, a long drive seems shorter, when pondering life under communist rule, or under your tour guide.
The Alpine town of Bled boasts a lake overlooked by a castle and features an island topped by a medieval church with a Baroque makeover. The aqua marine hues of the water perfectly mirrored the shimmering forests, mountains and the reflection of our own astounded face. On a jetty, stretching into the lake were tables of hors d’oeuvres and champagne. We were treated to kremšnita – vanilla and cream pie.
While gazing across the glacial lake, with a natural beauty that mocked Hollywood CGI, tipping custard pastries down my neck, I decided that life was unlikely to get better. I was happy to die, right there on Lake Bled’s shore with icing sugar dusting my beard.
We sailed to the lake’s island on a traditional pletna- it’s a roofed boat of dubious stability. In the Church of the Assumption, we rang the bell for good luck, gawped at the golden bling and took obscene pictures in the confessional booth. The water surrounding the island seemed Photoshopped into a dreamy bluey hue and was teaming with enormous fish. NOT like the pond in Burgess Park off the Old Kent Rd in my ‘hood.
We had an extraordinary dinner at the Grand Hotel Toplice, an art deco jewel that whispers vintage elegance. Salmon marinated in annis, beef consome with quail’s egg and stuffed leg of guinea fowl with pistachios and celery cream? Er, yum. Decadent, artfully presented and delicious, it was a dramatic gastronomic delight. Quite a departure from my local Chicken Cottage.
After a day of Alpine air, hiking and haute cuisine, it seemed only right to savage our bodies by partying at Ljubjlana’s Klub Tiffany. Housed in The Autonomous Cultural Centre Metelkova, the gay club is essentially a queer corner in a sprawling collection of mini raves. Occupying the former Fourth of July Military Barracks, Metelkova is an alternative art hub of parties, galleries and workshops.
It’s the size of a big warehouse, has the energy and grunge of Dalston and very little pretension. Depending on your location, you could hang with pot smoking anarchists, kids moshing to dub step or gays snogging on podiums. Warning: there’s heaps of shadowy doorways and steps, which are VERY easy stumble on, especially after cheap Slovenian lager from the bar. Seriously, watch your step, kids.
We awoke slightly bruised, very dehydrated and lacking in a memory of the journey home. There followed an attempt to soothe the spirit with a gentle boat ride down the river Ljubljanica. Pine schnapps? At 11am? Da, prosim!
With tree laden banks and a clutch of bridges designed by Plečnik and members of the Vienna Secession, floating down the river felt like being an extra in a Constable painting. If he’d lived in Slovenia, not Suffolk.
Hiking up Velika Planina mountain plateau in the Kamnik Alps proved a lot more challenging to one’s hangover, but was hilariously eased by the presence of a dishy accordion player in knee high boots and suede trousers.
At the summit, we enjoyed a lunch consisting of buckwheat, soured milk, pig fat, cheese and salami- all washed down with pine schnapps. Not ideal for vegans, but that’s Alpine living for you.
The panorama was very Sound of Music and while channeling Julie Andrews, it’s possible to vada historic herder dwellings and the rustic fashions they created with nothing but pine wood, leather and curdled dairy products. The pine bark ponchos are very Lady Gaga.
The finale of Pink Week 2014 was a gala dinner at Ljubljana castle, a grand hill top venue with Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance flourishes. While a big band played pop hits, a pole dancer entertained diners and a big screen brought us highlights of Eurovision. Sat on my table, amongst Slovenian dignitaries and high flyers from Lichtenstein was the Slovenian footballer, Sebastjan Cimirotič.
Like a cross between Vinnie Jones and David Beckham, he proved an exciting guest to share crudities with- happy to party at an LGBT event, but also smart, witty and slightly wild. In fact, post-supper, we jumped in his car with a bunch of reprobates and wound up knocking back beers at As. I drunkenly promised to take him raving in London and to a home match at Millwall. It was that kind of night.
Our final hurrah was at the club K4, which surprised us with its industrial décor, banging sound system and utterly head swinging minimal house. Possibly the best music we’d heard in six months. Somehow we never expected such edgy, unique beats to be found in a Slovenian rave.
Nor did we expect to lose our t-shirt, wake up in an odd part of town and have to do a topless walk of shame back to the hotel, down cobbled streets, with no shades, through throngs of horrified tourists.
But you know what? We held our head up high. In three days, we’d sailed on a lake, dined in a castle, hiked up mountains, eaten soured milk, cruised down the river AND achieved the three things our driver had suggested: Party, party and party.