Nataša Tovirac is a dancer, choreographer, dance pedagogue and yoga instructor. She joined Intakt Dance Studio 27 years ago and became its sole Artistic and Programme Director in 2007. Under her professional guidance Intakt continues its mission of quality dance education and openness to the broader public, while managing to remain an elite contemporary dance institution in Slovenia.
Nataša, who can join your dance studio and what kind of classes are currently taught at Intakt?
Since our inception in 1988, Intakt has been an open organisation. Throughout the years of our existence, we managed to develop an entire vertical of education for children and adolescents from 4 to 16 years of age. This came in addition to the contemporary dance classes for young dancers and enthusiasts at different levels of their dance experience, as well as ballet classes for adults and contemporary dance class for older generations of dancers who have only begun to dance.
As I’m also interested in personal growth, we expanded our programme with Kundalini Yoga and Shakti Dance® - the Yoga of Dance classes about a decade ago.
I think it is safe to say that we are open to pretty much everyone who wants to join, since we cover the entire range of ages and backgrounds with our classes.
I guess you don’t teach all these courses by yourself, so who are the teachers?
As far as teaching is concerned, I originally started with contemporary dance classes for adults. Then I explored methods of teaching contemporary dance to children of various age and added those classes to our programme as well. I’m currently teaching mostly Kundalini yoga and Shakti Dance®- the Yoga of Dance classes, while our team of trusted colleagues are teaching other contemporary dance classes.
One of these is Igor Sviderski, who fell for contemporary dance at about the same time I did, in 1989. Like most of our generation of dancers, Igor studied dance abroad as well as at home, and has like most of our team members received several awards for his work as a dancer, choreographer and dance pedagogue. Igor currently teaches our Thursday Challenge class for adult beginners and Contemporary Dance I.
Another established member of our group is Sabina Schwenner, an award-winning dancer, choreographer and dance pedagogue from Novo mesto with a long repertoire of performances that begins in 1992. Sabina currently teaches the youth groups of Modrini (8-10 years) and Friksi (10-12 years).
There are, however, also younger members of our team, such as the talented Veronika Valdes, who started dancing at the age of four and soon after moved to perform at various local and international stages. In addition to the many awards Veronika earned in her time as a professional dancer, she has also proved indispensable as a teacher of our teen group Indigo (13-16 year olds) and Contemporary dance II.
There are many more teachers who have collaborated with Intakt and still do, among which I should not forget to mention Kristina Aleksova Zavašnik, our teacher for the youngest group Bube I (4-6 years), and also at the other end our older ballet learners (Ballet for Adults). After completion of her secondary education, Kristina joined the Opera and Ballet Ljubljana ensemble in 2002, where she also created several original performances. In 2017 she left the institutional milieu and began devoting herself to performance and contemporary dance.
What kind of a dance is contemporary dance?
Sometimes contemporary dance is misunderstood as the dance which is popular at a certain time, such as hip-hop now, for example. Contemporary dance, however, is an artistic practice with about a century old tradition, technique and aesthetics, which rather than into the fields of sport or entertainment belongs to the category of art. When we talk about contemporary dance we talk about dance as an art form.
If the main concern of sport and entertainment dances, even classical ballet, lays in the display of virtuosity within a certain prescribed sequence of body moves, contemporary dance in contrast focuses on the creation of the unexpected and novel. It presents an artistic tool that can create and communicate socially and emotionally engaged content. It can be critical and daring, as it allows us to go places nobody wants to go.
For these reasons contemporary dance is sometimes prone to taking itself too seriously, forgetting that being playful and cheerful are also worthwhile expressions of life. We dance barefoot, touch each other and play with gravitational forces.
My understanding of contemporary dance as an underlying concept behind the way I have been running the studio is that contemporary dance is a very democratic art form, which needs to remain open to everyone. And this especially important in today’s world of crisis and uncertainty.
We have therefore been placing a special emphasis on the dance education of children, since it is not only important for a child to receive early education in cooperation and mindfulness, as well as become more aware of their body through cheerful play, but it is also of a great importance to enabling future generations to enjoy this art and culture.
You joined Intakt Dance Studio about 27 years ago. How did your involvement progress to where you are now?
My first experience with Intakt was in 1989, when I took a course. Then I left to study at the Flemish Dance Academy in Bruges, and when I returned in 1992 Intakt had already lost some of its initial strength. I was with a group of young, enthusiastic dancers, and together we assumed a much more proactive role. We set up the entire adult education programme and started with our own productions and tours. Between the years 1992 and 1996 the public interest in contemporary dance courses was remarkable, and Intakt experienced a real boom.
We were a group of young dancers and choreographers who also developed as dance educators and created a vivid atmosphere in the courses with the fresh knowledge that we acquired at dance academies abroad. Later, in 1996–2003, Tanja Skok carried out a successful reorganisation and founded the PS Intakt study repertoire group, in which talented and dedicated dancers engaged in a creative process with renowned domestic and foreign choreographers. Many dancers from this period then continued their professional dance journey.
As already mentioned, in 2000 Intakt also acquired a quality creative dance programme for children and teens, which I designed with a group of experienced dance pedagogues.
Then in 2003 Intakt became an independent legal person, The Intakt Dance Studio Society – The Association of Contemporary Dance Artists. Until 2007 the society had been directed jointly by Tanja Skok and me, and since I’ve continued managing the studio on my own.
How can one join, and can adults and children with poor Slovenian skills take classes, too?
We have no language limitations. All the teachers speak English as well and I believe that so do most of our students.
We are also approaching the open-door week starting September 7 - 11, when you can come and try out a class free of charge. Since the number of places is limited due to Covid19 measures, applications are required for these classes as well.
Nataša, thank you very much for talking to us.
Just as one needs to obtain a driving licence in order to drive a car, a boating licence is needed for someone who wishes to operate a boat. But what kind of boats need what kind of licences in Slovenia, and in which waters?
We met with Ambrož Jakop, a boat leading instructor at AJ Navtika to learn a bit more about how to get legal on the water and to broaden our perspective on the possibilities for adventure.
Who can apply for a boating licence, what are the limitations?
The boating licence exam can take any person who is 16 and older and has passed the first aid exam and medical examination. Since the latter two are the same one needs for a driving license, holders of any driving license (A, B, C, D etc.) are considered to be medically fit and have passed the first aid test. Until the age of 18, however, a holder of a boat licence may not operate boats longer than 12 metres or speedboats.
Are there different licenses one can get for various categories of boats?
Yes, you can either take the basic test that allows you to handle boats under 7 metres in length and with an engine below 10 horse power (7.35 kW), or the boat guiding test which includes five topics and will allow you to operate boats up to 24 metres and without engine power limitations. Both tests take place in front of the state commission at the Slovenian Maritime Administration, and the acquired licenses are also internationally valid. I teach courses that prepare the candidates for these exams.
Let’s say I pass the boat guiding test. Where can I take my boat then, in the sea or only in rivers and lakes?
Sea and fresh water sailing regimes are regulated by different legislations, which is why separate exams have to take place for taking a boat on the seas or in rivers and lakes. However, not many rivers or lakes in Slovenia have sailing regimes or ones that would allow the presence of boats with a mechanical drive unit.
So one doesn’t need a boating license in order to paddle a kayak or a SUP?
No, a license is not needed for sports equipment and vessels without a mechanical drive unit that are under 3 meters long. There are exceptions, however, such as an eight rowing boat, which is longer than that but doesn’t need to be signed in the boat registry, and therefore can be used without a license.
Where can people take a course to get a licence?
Due to the corona situation, we currently do the first theoretical 12 hours in an online course. The remaining 4 hours of practical charting of sailing direction, we do onsite, wherever a specific course is being held.
How did you become a boating license tutor?
At first I was just a sailing enthusiast. Then I established a sailing club and sailing school for children, sailing school for adults and then various courses. This was about 15 years ago when one still needed a Yachtmaster 100 BT license if you wanted to instruct courses, so I did that too. Soon my hobby turned into my job.
Do you have a boat?
I share a sailboat with my friends, a Y40 (40 feet), designed by the Slovenian architect Andrej Justin.
Where do you usually take it?
Mostly across the Adriatic. We’ve just sailed it from its berth in Koper to Lošinj and back home. Later this summer we are planning to sail alongside Dalmatia. And for this corona year, that will probably be all.
If you'd like to learn more about learning how to sail in Slovenia, then visit AJ Navtica here
Photos: Ambrož Jakop
I use my “professional” Twitter account for three things: occasional reposts of TSN stories, a moshpit for engaging with Brexiteers, and a way to learn Slovenian 280 characters at a time. With regard to the latter I follow local names and dig down into the tweets and replies, hitting Google Translate when needed and saving the texts for printing and study at leisure. It’s a lot of fun, and I like to think I’m progressing, but one person who certainly is Julia Borden, the woman behind the excellent Živjo Luka! account, which documents – a word or phrase at a time – her quest to master the language. Her joy of discovery is beautiful and inspiring, and intrigued by her tweets I sent along some questions to learn more, and she kindly replied…
When I first heard Slovene, I thought people were so friendly because everyone got adorable nicknames. Like Ana became Ani, Marko became Marku. Only once I started to learn the language did I realize that this was simply standard noun conjugation. #Slovenia— ZivjoLuka (@ZivjoLuka) May 6, 2020
Who are you?
My name is Julia Borden. I’m from California and currently live here. I’m a PhD student and avid Slovene learner.
Why the interest in learning Slovenian?
My partner is Slovenian, and even though he speaks English fluently, I’m trying to learn to better communicate with him and his family. The language is really difficult to master, and I’m often frustrated with the grammar. But it’s also interesting linguistically, and I find it to be quite poetic!
I love that the word for plant, "rastlina", comes from the root "rast", which means growth. So a plant is "one that grows". So poetic and reflective of Slovenes being gifted gardeners and plant lovers! #Slovenia #LanguageLearning— ZivjoLuka (@ZivjoLuka) June 19, 2020
I started the account because I wanted to capture everything I was learning and discovering. My partner and I both love basketball and Luka Dončić, and this was around the time that Luka was really becoming a sensation on the Mavs, so I thought it would be fun to base the account on my desire to talk to him one day in his native language. It’s maybe not the full reason I started the account, but it would still be amazing to say “Živjo!” to Luka!
What other languages do you speak, and how difficult do you think Slovenian is?
I’m a native English speaker, and a proficient Spanish speaker. Slovene is my first Slavic language, and man is it tough! The trickiest part is trying to learn the six declination cases, since we don’t have this in English.
Every time I try and say a sentence that requires noun and adjective inflection (which is all of them) I feel like I'm throwing darts at a board. Maybe it's -e? or -a? or -om? I'm right about 5% of the time, and those moments are pure joy. #Slovenia #LanguageLearning— ZivjoLuka (@ZivjoLuka) June 16, 2020
When did you start learning Slovenian?
I started taking an online class through the Slovenian Union of America once a week about a year ago, though it ended in May.
What methods do you use, and why do they appeal to you?
Unfortunately, since not many people speak Slovene outside of Slovenia, there aren’t many easily accessible ways to learn such as through Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, or even university classes. I have 1,2,3 Gremo, and the class worked with the textbook Slovenska Beseda v Živo. Having a class and learning with other people helps a lot, since I’m not living in Slovenia, which would be the best way to learn! I also learn quite a bit through brainstorming ideas for Živjo Luka.
A basketball phrase for y'all: if you sink a basketball into the net it’s called “brez kosti” which means “boneless”. @luka7doncic we Americans out here tryin to learn some SLOVENE! Retweet so Luka knows we exist :) #Slovenia #LanguageLearning— ZivjoLuka (@ZivjoLuka) June 12, 2020
Do you plan on visiting Slovenia?
I’ve been to Slovenia a couple of times, and I was planning to go again this June, but the coronavirus prevented that from happening.
What are some of the words, phrases that you find most interesting?
I absolutely love the unique idioms and phrases that Slovene has! Like “pojdite v gosjem redu”, “to imam v malem prstu”, and especially “tristo kosmatih medvedov”.
Next time you encounter a toddler with too much energy who is zooming around, you can do as the Slovenes do and tell them "imaš sršene v riti!" ("you have hornets up your butt!"). #Slovenia #LanguageLearning— ZivjoLuka (@ZivjoLuka) May 25, 2020
How are you enjoying Twitter?
I’ve received some really great comments from people on Twitter, pointing out nuances of the language I hadn’t noticed or thought about. It’s been a great way to learn that takes me beyond the pages of a textbook.
Slovene has formal & informal "you". So if I say to a Slovene grandma "Kako si?" (how are you (informal)) she could say "Vikaj me!" (say formal "you" to me!) which is an informal way to tell me to be more formal. Meta manners. #Slovenia #LanguageLearning— ZivjoLuka (@ZivjoLuka) May 17, 2020
With the introduction over, and a few examples shown in this story, it’s time for you to head over to Twitter and follow Živjo Luka!. But also click here to check out all our stories on learning Slovenian.
Where are you from, and how did you come to be in Slovenia?
I am from Uganda and I moved to Slovenia at the end of 2014 to join my boyfriend, who’s now become my husband.
How do you keep yourself busy here?
I travel a bit and I hold meetings and am passionate about talking about Uganda and some of the countries I have been to, to students or a group of people ready to travel to Uganda.
How is your Slovenian, and how well integrated do you feel with Slovenians?
It has taken time but I am improving each day with the language. I have a couple of Slovenian friends and so far I have got all my educational documents evaluated in Slovenia. I was worried that my education wouldn’t be recognised, but it was and my MBA still stands.
What has been your experience of culture shock?
Ah, this has been asked of me many times, and I have to think about it now since I’ve have spent some time here and travel a lot, things which shocked me are not issues anymore.
But I have to say that it was shocking at first when people seemed to either fear sitting near me or kept a distance. I kept on thinking what had I done or how I looked to be intimidating?. I came right from Africa to Slovenia and I didn’t know anyone or anybody except my husband, who is not very outgoing. I feared people more than they feared me. Someone even shouted at me at Zvezda Park ... if I was looking for ships. Now I laugh at all this because I don’t have time for such kind of people.
And of course I can’t forget the winter and summer. So hot and so cold for someone who is from Uganda, with an average temperature of 28 degrees. I come from central Uganda. The equator line is literally five minutes’ walk away from my home.
Also, although I’m not very social I came from an environment where I knew my neighbours and they knew me even when we lived in different houses. Now I live in a block but it took me time to know the people next door. Still, I feel accepted here.
Among other projects, Catherine also runs an Etsy store selling handmade African inspired products
Is there an organized African community in Slovenia?
Now this is a very interesting question. There quite a number of people who have opened up organisations relating to African communities and so on. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also organises an African Days event every year to try to introduce the African countries to Slovenia in business perspective.
There’s nothing else that puts Africans together as a group for now, but I created a Facebook group for African Women in Slovenia where we help each other with information and we are few so we kind of know ourselves in a way. But as Ugandans living in Slovenia, we have a WhatsApp group and we meet every year for lunch to welcome anyone new and also to catch up.
Other things to mention are the Inštitut za afriške študije, the Afro Studio Black Diamond hair salon in Ljubljana, along with the Afriška Trgovina Petit Afrique store, and of course the restaurant Skhuna, on Trubarjeva cesta and the Nigerian Chamber of Commerce.
Why did you start your YouTube channel?
I realised that people know so little about Africa as a continent but they seem to talk about it in general. I want to show that there is more to Africa than the wars, hunger and diseases.
Some people know me as a person who talks about the effect of voluntourism. I am vocal about it because a big number of people don’t have any idea that charity and volunteering is more beneficial to the person doing it than the person they think they are helping.
If anyone is interested in learning more about Africa, then I recommend they subscribe and follow it, here.
John Bills is the author of four books on Europe's better half, electronic versions of which are currently available at special lockdown prices, including a great deal on all four - just under £10 (or just over €11) for the lot with the promo code ENDOFDAYS at poshlostbooks.
Slovene history is littered with no shortage of talented writers. Quite the opposite, in fact, and I’d wager that this small chicken-shaped land has produced more wordsmiths per square kilometre than any other country in Europe. Fertile ground for the eloquent, that’s for sure. Every period of the nation’s history features men and women who have excelled in storytelling, taking the events and circumstances of the time to fashion tales that are as vital today as they were then.
The writer has many jobs, many roles that must be played in the theatre of everyday life. Entertainers for sure, there must always be an engagement, but books go beyond mere titillation. Ljubljana-born Vitomil Zupan said it best in Leviatan (Leviathan [obviously]), an epic piece of work that details the day to day existence inside a Yugoslav prison; “…the wordsmith must be a chronicler of his times, and a chronicler must not be disgusted by anything”. In Zupan’s era, there was a lot to be disgusted by, but the modernist man turned his nose up at not a thing. In doing so, he became one of Slovenia’s most celebrated 20th-century writers, a man famed for his unwavering obsession with the edges of existence, his rapacious sexual appetite and a steely charm that positively bellowed “Hi, I’m your mum’s new boyfriend”. His life was eventful in all possible ways, but it was also a fascinating picture of Slovene creativity in those early Yugoslav days. Stigma, expression, productivity and oppression, repeated.
Vitomil Zupan was born just a couple of months before World War I began, and it didn’t take long for his life to encounter turbulence. His father was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army, and the Habsburg force had a pretty wretched record over the first years of the Great War. Casualties were high, and Mr. Zupan was one of the dead. Young Vitomil lived through the war and was a creative schoolchild, but his restlessness and ability to seek out trouble often, well, got him into trouble. The apex of this was a game of Russian Roulette gone wrong, a game that took place when Vitomil was just 17. His hand was on the trigger, his friend’s body was at the end of the barrel, the chamber was loaded. Russian Roulette is one of the few games that go wrong by going right. Zupan was expelled from school (a fairly light punishment, in hindsight), and he chose to hit the road.
Vitomil travelled long and far, crisscrossing the Mediterranean in search of new experiences and fresh excitement. His was a true vagabond existence, jumping from city to city and job to job, meeting people and moving on as often as was necessary. He worked as a sailor, a house painter, a ski instructor and more, even having a stint as a boxer. A strong jaw will take you far, never forget that. Zupan moved from Europe to the Middle East and North Africa, learning languages, cavorting with foreigners, learning how to thrive in new environments and in unfamiliar surroundings. Remember kids, if you can travel, travel.
Zupan returned to Ljubljana and continued his education, but he spent more time studying medical textbooks than concentrating on his own studies, feeding a constant need to understand his own emotions and tumultuous moods. The latter was dramatically exacerbated by the onset of World War II, which makes a lot of sense. Zupan immediately joined the Liberation Front and fought against the Italians, experiencing a number of battles before being captured and arrested. He was first sent to Čiginj concentration camp (near Tolmin), before being moved to the newly-opened Gonars camp in the north of Italy.
Established in February 1942, Gonars was a fascist camp specifically for Slovenes and Croats, people the Italians deemed ‘inferior’ and ‘barbaric’, those living in borderlands that Mussolini had his seedy eyes and grubby hands on. 5,343 men, women and children (1,643 children, to be precise) arrived just two days after it was opened, and the transports continued from there. Some of history’s most notable Slovenes were among them, men such as Jakob Savinšek, Bojan Štih, France Balantič and many more. Vitomil Zupan was another.
Vitomil Zupan managed to escape Gonars, and he immediately joined the growing Partisan movement Slovene, initially fighting on the frontlines before moving into the cultural department. He wrote plays that championed the socialist cause, encouraging Yugoslav patriotism in his fellow fighters and providing much-needed escape along the way. Following the war, he was rewarded with honours and a position at Radio Ljubljana, before the holy grail of a Prešeren Award for his novel ‘Birth in a Storm’ in 1947. Then Yugoslavia and the USSR had the big falling out, and it all went to the dogs.
Zupan himself put it best when he said that ‘there comes a time when one man can ruin ten people, but ten people can’t help one man’. The split filled Yugoslavia with pride, it was making its own way after all, but it also filled the halls of power with neurosis and paranoia. The national liberation, the class revolution that followed and the eventual split from the Soviet Union, these were holy subjects that were nigh on untouchable. Zupan was one of the few people honest enough to mention the shades of grey, to point out that everyone can be involved in a revolution but not everyone becomes a revolutionary, which explains the prisons. Those prisons would soon host Vitomil Zupan.
Truth be told, he was an easy target. He was a controversial cultural figure, one who was openly and passionately in touch with the more erotic desires of the mind, a man who had travelled extensively, spoke multiple languages, was comfortable in the presence of foreigners and was ruggedly handsome to boot. Oh, and that whole ‘shooting his friend’ thing. Zupan was sentenced to 15 years in prison, a term that was almost immediately increased to 18 because of his conduct in court. To prison he went, less for his ideas and more for who he was, what he knew and who he knew it about. There was no evidence, and barely any more of a defence.
Zupan only served seven of his 18 years, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that the experience was full of cheer. His already-compromised health took a turn for the worse, and for years he wasn’t allowed to read or write. He worked around these restrictions through character, ingenuity and how poorly-policed the jails were, compiling enough ideas and notes for one of his most famous pieces of work. Published in 1982, Leviatan (Leviathan) is a narrative of this time in prison, a torturous study of humanity that covers day to day atrocities, sexual frustration and release, violence, boredom and no small amount of black humour. The novel doesn’t really have a story outside of ‘this is what life is actually like in prison’. It is a vital piece of work.
Zupan’s major break came seven years prior, with the much-loved Menuet za kitaro (A Minuet for Guitar). This novel focused on his time in the war, a book based half during that conflict and half in the more relaxed atmosphere of a 1970s Spanish holiday resort, where soldiers from opposing sides (a Slovene Partisan and a Nazi) try to make sense of the whole thing. It covers all sides and all interpretations of the war and is every bit as ambitious as that suggests, and features one of the most pathetic, banal, poignant and perfect character deaths in the history of conflict fiction. It was adapted for film in 1980, given the new moniker Nasvidenje v naslednji vojni (See You in the Next War) in the process. A second Prešeren Award came in 1984, this time for his entire body of work.
There is a disjointed feel to Vitomil Zupan’s life story, a collection of contradictions that only seem to happen to those tasked with chronicling history in fictional form and blessed with the ability to do so. He was arguably more successful than any other persecuted writer from what was Yugoslavia. He won awards, experienced commercial and critical success, yet no publisher would go near his work in its original form. He wrote the most expressive Slovene books of his generation, but almost all of these works were heavily censored by the humdrum and the grey. He lived a life of tumult, adventure and penury, but everything seemed to happen to him so that he could write about it.
Vitomil Zupan died in Ljubljana on May 14, 1987 (the same day as Rita Hayworth, believe it or not). One of Slovenia’s most important and influential modernist writers, he is to the Slovene literary canon what Hemingway and Solzhenitsyn are to the west, combined. Such lazy comparisons are often difficult to avoid, especially when the stern eyes and imperturbable moustache of Vitomil Zupan, your mum’s new boyfriend, gaze in your direction.
John Bills is the author of four books on Europe's better half, electronic versions of which are currently available at special lockdown prices, including a great deal on all four - just under £10 (or just over €11) for the lot with the promo code ENDOFDAYS at poshlostbooks. You can enjoy more of his work on Total Slovenia News here.
John Bills is the author of four books on Europe's better half, electronic versions of which are currently available at special lockdown prices, including a great deal on all four - just under £10 (or just over €11) for the lot with the promo code ENDOFDAYS at poshlostbooks. The text below comes from An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery - as entertaining as it is educational, and as good as it is long, and at well over 500 pages it's very long indeed.
Who is the greatest swimmer of all time? Ask any chap on the street and they'll probably run away due to the strange question, but if they do manage to answer they will come out with the usual suspects. Mark Spitz, Ian Thorpe, Michael Phelps, maybe some other Olympians. The archetypical swimmer, the athletic body, the elegant technique, the great smile and in Spitz's example, the textbook moustache. What if I told you that none of the above can rightly claim to be the greatest swimmer of the human race? What if I told you that at the pinnacle of swimming you will find an overweight man, who may or may not be a raging alcoholic, born in the village of Mokronog in southeastern Slovenia? Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Martin Strel.
Who? Well, pretty much all you need to know is written above. Martin Strel was born in Mokronog on October 1, 1954. He’s overweight. He drinks a lot of alcohol. Oh, and he swims big rivers, from start to finish. And by big rivers, I mean BIG rivers. We're talking Danube big. Mississippi big. Yangtze big. AMAZON big. Martin Strel has created a legend of himself by swimming from the start of a river to the end of a river, usually in an astonishingly quick time, all in the name of greater awareness for the plight of the world’s rivers.
Mokronog itself has had little or no impact on the history of the world. It was once the centre of the leather industry, but the big factory was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943. 11 years later, Martin Strel entered the world. His early years were fraught with difficulty, as his father frequently veered into the abusive territory. As the legend goes, and with Strel the legend is as valid as the truth, his first swim was an attempt to escape the violence of his father. The tales continue, as he supposedly learned to swim by damming the Mirna river to create a pool. One day, when Strel was 10, a troop of soldiers raced in his pool, with a crate of beer for the winner. Despite being half their size and less than half their age, Strel won the race, and subsequently the beer. He has been swimming and drinking ever since.
He went to Ljubljana as a teenager, where he worked an assortment of odd jobs such as paperboy, mechanic and bricklayer. He was discovered, Hollywood style, at the age of 24, by the Yugoslav long-distance swimming coach. Within three months he had completed his first 20-mile race. It was his swimming ability that allowed him to get away with what must surely be a record 42 desertions of the Yugoslav army in his one-year service. That or his ability to complete a Rubik's cube in under a minute. He needed a job post-army though, so he became an infrequent guitar teacher (he's the finest flamenco guitarist in Slovenia) but mostly a professional gambler. Gambling, it could be argued, is the only thing he loves as much as swimming. And alcohol.
His first big swim came in 1992 when he swam the 63 mile Krka river in 28 hours. Non-stop. It was a cold and miserable experience, understandably, but it gave Strel something approaching a new goal, a new mission in life. He was going to do all he could to promote awareness of the state of the rivers of the world, of their pollution, of their decline. As he said himself, without water we are truly nothing. He was going to do this by swimming the longest, most imposing rivers in the world, and he practiced by becoming the first man to swim from Africa to Europe, in 1997. Seven had perished attempting this feat before him. He swam the Danube, the second-longest river in central Europe at 1,867m, in just 58 days. During this swim, he also managed to set a world record for the longest continual swim, when he swam 313 miles in 84 hours, non-stop.
Just let that sink in for a second. 313 miles. Three Hundred, and Thirteen miles. For 84, Eighty-Four hours non-stop. Doing anything for 84 hours is difficult. Heck, doing any single act for four hours is hard enough. Being awake for 24 hours is often impossible. But swimming, for 84 hours? Awe my friends, awe and respect.
He followed this feat by swimming the length of the Mississippi, two thousand three hundred and fifty miles, in 68 days. Then, he swam the Yangtze, China's behemoth (2,487m), in an astonishing 51 days, all the while dodging waste and corpses in one of the most polluted rivers in the world. This was all in preparation for his ultimate challenge, possibly the ultimate challenge in the world of big river swimming. It might not be the longest river in the world, but it is the most difficult regarding swimming. I'm talking about the Amazon.
To describe the Amazon swim as a challenge is a grand understatement. It is doing a disservice to what Strel achieved with this swim. It was such a huge, ambitious project, that a documentary was to be made about it, entitled 'Big River Man'. Strel swam 3,274 miles in 66 days, sleeping around four to five hours a night at most. He could rarely see below the surface of the dirty water and constantly had to deal with the threats of pirates and with tribes that were hostile to his presence and considered Strel to be a demon. This without mentioning the animals that live in the Amazon, the dangerous bastards that Strel would contend with on a day-to-day basis.
The list is pretty much the most terrifying list of all. The Amazon is home to the Bull Shark, the shark that is believed to have killed more humans than any other of its kind. Then there are the piranhas, often considered the most vicious of all fish, stingrays, electric eels, crocodiles, catfish that swallow dogs whole and snakes, oh the snakes. There are so many different types of snake in the Amazon. Oh yeah, and the Candiru, which gets into you through any orifice, locks itself in with a spike and then feeds on your blood. It's most famous route is through your urine, by the way, that is to say through your urethra and up your schlong. This isn’t exactly true, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be heading to the Amazon riverside for a tinkle any time soon. The natives don't swim here, so how would an obese alcohol-fuelled Slovene cope?
Well, he went mad, quite obviously, but he managed to complete the course without any interaction with the animals other than a brief spat with some piranhas. He claims that this is all because of the respect he showed the nature, that and the fact he was escorted a large portion of the way by a group of pink dolphins. That sounds like something out of a crazy dream obviously, and it might be, but the fact is that Martin Strel swam the length of the Amazon, a distance that is longer than the width of the Atlantic Ocean. Let that sink in as well, because holy moly that is a loooooooong river. He did this whilst under immense pressure due to the increased profile and huge production that came along with it. Many livelihoods depending on his being able to continue swimming. His skin blistered to the point where he had to swim in a home-made cloth mask which looks like that worn by an insane asylum dweller in the nineteenth century. His doctor even made him sign a waiver stating that he was swimming against her advice. But still, he did it. Somehow, he did it.
Whatever your opinion of him, it is difficult to not view the achievements of Martin Strel with awe and respect. He drinks two bottles of wine a day and is a fervent believer in the benefits of being overweight. If I was swimming 52 miles a day, I would require some sort of fatty reserves, and Strel has them in abundance. He is a very bullish, confident man, prone to embellishment. Why wouldn't he be? Every time I attempt to criticise the man, I keep coming back to thoughts of his swims. The length of the freakin’ Amazon. Let the guy be rude, he swam for 84 hours non-stop. He's earned the right to be insane.
I wouldn't just say Martin Strel is the greatest swimmer in history. I'd go so far as to say he is the greatest athlete in the history of the world. A modern-day Atlas.
John Bills is the author of four books on Europe's better half, electronic versions of which are currently available at special lockdown prices, including a great deal on all four - just under £10 (or just over €11) for the lot with the promo code ENDOFDAYS at poshlostbooks. The text above comes from An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery - as entertaining as it is educational, and as good as it is long, and at well over 500 pages it's very long indeed. You can learn more about Martin Strel at the man's website, and even go open water swimming with the tour company he and his family run, when this whole covid-19 thing is over.
Where are you from, what brought you to Slovenia, when, and where do you live now?
We're originally from Liverpool, UK. After getting married, we quit our jobs and sold everything to travel the world with the intention of finding a new country to live in. As part of the trip we spent three weeks in the Balkans, where we fell in love with Slovenia. A massive love was the natural wine! After the trip, we went back to the UK, had our daughter and five months later, March 2019, moved to Šiška, Ljubljana.
What were your first impressions of the country?
We love how compact Slovenia is, the sea, lakes, mountains, forest, access to other nearby countries; the fresh food, farmers markets and natural wine. Slovenia is the way people should live.
We walked to the park on Saturday and there was the lake, as usual, but that day it was frozen, with teenagers playing ice hockey and young children skating around.... I love the joy small things can bring to people here.
What’s your experience of culture shock been like?
The biggest culture shock has been the unexpected Slovenian holidays (e.g. St Martins Day) that our kitchen cupboards weren’t prepared for!
Language is our main hurdle but we have been using language apps and books and will probably start lessons soon.
What do you do for a living here?
Both worked in finance in the UK, and now my husband works from home here and I have just finished my first prenatal yoga and positive birthing class, in English. The most difficult part will be working out how/where best to advertise.
What’s your background with yoga?
What are the benefits of yoga for pregnant women?
Yoga has so many benefits at all stages of life. It's especially good for pregnant ladies because the poses are gentle and can be adapted to everyone, irrelevant of flexibility or fitness. Particular benefits include, strengthening the important muscles and increasing flexibility, making mum more comfortable in her ever-changing body, reducing stress and improving sleep, and enhancing the connection between mum and baby.
And my yoga classes have the added benefit of giving mum confidence as she learns how to birth with pleasure and trust herself.
Where and when will the classes be held?
1-2-1 classes can be arranged anywhere. I have three classes per week scheduled in Rudnik, Bikram Yoga Ljubljana (it's a beautiful hot yoga studio – but it will not be hot for my classes). And I'm looking for venues both in the centre and in Šiška too.
Where did you live before Slovenia, and what brought you here?
We were living in Istanbul, Turkey. Last year we came to Ljubljana for a vacation and we loved the country. Actually, we always had an idea of moving abroad. After this trip, we decided to move to Slovenia, because when you compare it with İstanbul here is so green, so peaceful, and there’s no traffic. If you are a tourist, İstanbul is a beautiful city but if you are living and working there it’s too hard to live. Such as, everyday I have to go to work and it takes two hours going and two hours coming back. It is really exhausting. So all these reasons brought us to Slovenia.
How was the process of moving here?
After our trip, we talked with some consulting firms about the investment conditions to get a visa. We evaluated these and decided they suited us. Then we started to look at property to buy in Slovenia, we used bolha.com and nepremicnine.net, but we could not find anything and so we came to Slovenia once more. We visited Ljubljana, Portorož, Koper and Maribor. That’s how we found our store in Maribor.
Overall, the experience of this was really good. We were travelling to different cities and at the same time we were looking for a place which was good for us.
However, we were told that making an investment is the best option if you want to move here, you don’t need to wait too long and can get your visa within three months. But in fact it took much more than more than three months, eight months in total, and that was hard and stressful for us.
Have you started to learn Slovene?
We applied for the governments language course, but when we went we saw that they were teaching Slovene with Slovene. There is no class from English to Slovene. This is a problem for us, but we’re trying to learn at home with some online courses.
What work did you do back home?
Both of us have bachelor’s degrees and graduated from İstanbul University. After I graduated from the business administration department I worked as an auditor for four years and after that worked two years in a bank as a senior specialist in the financial reporting department. Omer, my husband, graduated in tourism management, and worked in the tourism sector. Then he took a bakery course and learned how to become a pastry chef. He had a bakery/café in İstanbul for five years before we came here.
What’s your business in Maribor?
We opened our restaurant three months ago. We make large baked potato, mix it with butter and mozzarella cheese (like a puree) and put different types of salad on it. This is a special kind of Turkish street food. We also have waffles with a different toppings. And of course, we have original Turkish baklava, Turkish coffee and Turkish tea.
Where can people find out more about your work?
We have a Facebook page, Istanbul kumpir & waffle, and Instagram page istanbulkumpirandwaffle. The best thing is to come and visit us and try some Turkish street food, at Slovenska Ulica 42, 2000 Maribor.
STA, 21 January 2020 - Marija Frlan, who will celebrate her 100th birthday on Holocaust Remembrance Day, spent the last year of WWII in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She told the STA ahead of her birthday she was not surprised when Nazi secret police came for her, because she had worked against the Germans.
Members of the Nazi secret police came for her in the spring of 1943 and first took her to forced labour. She had to clean and tidy Gestapo offices and other rooms in Škofja Loka for nine months.
During that time, Frlan helped an incarcerated female Partisan, so she was not surprised when she was brought in for questioning and took to prison in Begunje na Gorenjskem.
Her husband was also incarcerated at the time and killed soon after.
After more than two months in Begunje, Frlan and other prisoners were taken to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, north of Berlin.
"We walked from Begunje to Lesce in the snow and waited for the train there, which took us to Munich, where we changed trains and then drove straight to there," she recalls.
Ravensbrück was the biggest concentration camp for women between 1939 and 1945, and also had a male section in the final years. Some 120,000 women and children of 30 nationalities were brought there.
More than 80% were political prisoners, including Frlan.
She said she had made new acquaintances at commemorative events of former internees. But all Slovenians did not all knew each other while at the camp, because they were divided in two sections.
She said no respect could be felt at the camp. "They were Germans, we were convicts."
Being accustomed to hard work since early age, Frlan made it through all the hardships. She said she had quickly learned it was best to stay quiet, calm and not make any trouble.
But even in this ordeal, the internees made some moments even pleasant for themselves. "There's plenty of memories, even a bright moment now and there, I can't deny that."
Frlan spent 13 months at the camp and was liberated on 27 April 1945. But on their way home, the former internees feared both the Red Army and German soldiers and were hiding from them all.
Her journey back to Slovenia in a group of 30 people, including some men, took one month. They walked home but used any transport available along the way.
Frlan remembers the last train they took in Austria before reaching Maribor. "There were some soldiers there, and I didn't know who they were. They told us to get off, so we did, then we got back on, but they told us to get off again.
"So we asked why, if we just want to get home, and they said that whoever comes to Yugoslavia gets shot. But since we were so used to it all we said ok, so we will die at home if we didn't up here."
The soldiers' threat did not materialise, but the group was taken to questioning in Ljubljana after which Frlan could return to her home town of Škofja Loka, but there was noting there waiting for her. "I came home to nothing, neither a husband, nor apartment nor a bed."
Accompanied by a security guard she searched other people's homes to find her property. "My husband was a carpenter, he made everything himself. I got the entire kitchen, a bed and a closet," she said about her quest.
She slowly got back to her feet, found a small apartment and a job and later started a family. "I'm used to everything. There was more bad than good, but life goes on," said Frlan who will turn 100 on 27 January, the day that the UN declared International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
On 27 January 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration and death camp, was liberated by the Red Army.
If you’ve registered for a free account, you can watch an interview with Marija Frlan on the RTV Slovenia website (in Slovenian, with Slovenian subtitles – just hit CC in the lower right).
People come to Slovenia for many reasons, some more unusual than others, and “en route to Mongolia” has to be one of the more interesting. Even more so when done on the back of a bicycle and with the aim of collecting good news about tackling the climate crisis on the way. So when we came across the story of Mike Elm we had to find out more, and sent along some questions that he kindly answered in between time in the saddle.
What brings you to Slovenia?
I’m currently on the “New Story Ride”, an epic bike-packing adventure that started in Vienna on 24th November 2019 and is heading towards Mongolia over the next two years. The New Story Ride was inspired by my partner Rosie Watson, who set off from the UK in August this year on the New Story Run [see more about that here].
Through the ride I’m finding and telling stories of how people are living and creating businesses and systems that make for a happier, more cooperative, compassionate and fun world whilst tackling the climate crisis.
E(lectric) mail in Cerkno
How are you getting around?
I’ve been lent a Ridgeback 603 GS Mountain which is a sturdy steel-framed mountain bike, with 26 inch wheels. It’s got chunky but slick tyres, so it can handle a decent amount of off road.
With Rosie at Hotel Park
Where have you been so far?
I entered Slovenia over the Ponte Victoria Emanuelle III near Breginj, and was kindly taken into a house for the night in Homec. From there I went to Slap ob Idrijici where I was again generously hosted after I asked if I could camp. Then because of a closed road I ended up with a big snowy cycle to Škofja Loka along the incredible rivers, with a swim in Soča. Then from Škofja Loka I went to Ljubljana in the snow, and stayed there four days. I met Rosie there and we were generously lent an apartment for three nights and then the very eco-friendly B&B Hotel Park hosted us for the final night.
From Ljubljana I went along the beautiful Krka valley, camped one night just at the start of it. Then was hosted in Novo Mesto before going to Zagreb.
The creative use of bikes in Ljubljana
What are your impressions of the country?
This was my third visit to Slovenia – I’ve only ever come on bicycle. I think it’s a beautiful, understated country. I love seeing the vegetables growing outside people's houses across the country. I hadn’t appreciated how impressive Ljubljana's people-friendly, car-free, city centre is before. This time I really saw how special it is, and how much others should learn from the city!
When I knocked on a door in Homec at 6pm it was dark and cold. I asked if I could camp in their garden, and they quickly agreed, but then asked wouldn’t I rather sleep indoors?
This was the third time I’d ever knocked on a stranger's door and asked if I could camp, but the first time someone had taken me in. The couple were so kind, and their house was absolutely beautiful, it was a really special experience and I left with such a warm feeling, and many treats for the road!
This started off a string of generosity from people right across the country.
Urška my host in Homec
On the way to Škofja Loka I’d stopped in Cerkno for a coffee recharge and got chatting to a friendly guy in the café. He’d told me about a natural heated pool somewhere past Podpleče. I couldn’t resist trying to find it, instead of going along the more direct road to Škofja Loka.
The road where I thought the pools should be had a sign saying it was closed, I guessed maybe that was only for cars. I’d already gone up and down over a big hill so I wasn’t about to turn around. The road was closed, though, with a huge mound of rubble and diggers blocking the way.
I backtracked a kilometre, and found the road leading to Mrovljev Gric, which was very uphill, and as I started up it began to snow. By the time I was at the top of the hill there was snow covering everything and then: The first ‘crash’ of the New Story Slide… I mean Ride.
The hour and half of penguin-footed pushing the bike down the snowy hill in the dark was one thing, but the final 20km on a road proved the biggest challenge.
The relief of being off the hill evaporated, or was smothered by the slippery new snow, and the dark reality of a road populated by obnoxiously fast cars. Driving is one thing, but doing so close to a cyclist and occasionally beeping is very unnecessary. It was almost with tears in my eyes I met Rosie at Ziva and Matej’s house outside Škofja Loka. Accompanied by Prince’s “Purple Rain” blaring out of my coat.
How can people help or learn more about your project?
The most important thing is for people to start creating and telling a new story, one that makes a better, happier, more fun world that isn’t going to end in climate catastrophe. What that means is going to be different for everyone. People can help the New Story Ride directly through offering places to stay, a meal, or contributing to the GoFundMe page, and reaching out to share stories that could be visited along the way.
Where are you going next?
I’m now in Croatia, on the car-free island of Silba. I’m looking for pieces of the new story as I go down the coast, intending to visit other islands too, and then I may go to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia if the winter isn’t going to be too hard. I also plan to go to Albania, as the mayor of Tirana is doing interesting work to make the city bike and people friendly. Then maybe Greece, before Bulgaria to take the boat across the Black Sea to Georgia, Azerbaijan and then most likely across the Caspian Sea, if it’s not possible to visit Iran. Then intend to travel through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, back to Kazakhstan and then either through some of Russia or China to reach Mongolia. Simple, right?
We recently attended an annual gathering of sinologists, and were curious about what people get up to after they graduate. One person with an interesting answer was Roman Križanič, CEO of Deseti brat and an active tour guide based in Slovenia and South East Asia.
How long have you been in the tour guide business, and how has your work changed over the years?
I‘ve been involved in organizing and guiding adventure and active tours for the last 20 years. The first trips were mostly to China, as I was a Sinology student at the University of Ljubljana. After that the focus was on SE Asia in winter, as more and more summers were reserved for exploring and touring Slovenia and neighboring countries. It became my routine: spend winters in Asia – Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Malaysia, and of course China and Taiwan – then summers in Slovenia. The best of weather all year round – escaping winter.
It’s also great because I can combine showing amazing places around the world to guests from Slovenia, and beautiful places in Slovenia to visitors from all over the world. I mostly run tours to Asia through my travel agency, Deseti brat. In Slovenia we’re a group of enthusiastic friends gathered around the TrekTrek travel agency. Our dedicated work has also been recognized by some of the world’s best tour operators and organizations in the US, including National Geographic, as we are their main partner in the area.
What size groups do you work with?
Keeping groups small, a max of 10 to 12 people, is one of the main advantages of traveling with us. We’ll remember your name within the first day and can take you to almost every corner of the country. We avoid big buses and walk or bike whenever possible. We love off the beaten track places, which you can visit on foot or in small van along some stunning country roads. And yes, smaller groups are more likely to get invited to people’s homes!
Do you have any standard tours of Slovenia, or are they always customized?
We do both. We know our country very well, we know amazing local hosts, we can bring you to the best restaurants, from home cooking to world class chefs, you can join us on the most scenic hikes in the Julian Alps or meditation style easy strolls through green forest, alpine valleys, and meadows. Get in touch with us and we will come up with the best tour based on your wishes.
My favorite tours in Slovenia combine active days with culinary experiences. What more you can wish for than summiting a peak with great views or cycling a few hours next to a pristine river and then biting into the amazing Slovenian food. One of best tours I did was Slovenia combined with Istria and Dalmatia in Croatia. The variety of places, scenery, food, and climate on that trip was just mind blowing.
In general I’ll always be a big fan of outdoor activities, but no extremes. And it’s this passion for this type of traveling I try to bring to our tours.
What things tend be highlights of your tours in Slovenia?
Hiking and biking are probably most popular, and I’m happy that with these more and more people follow our advice and we explore less known places. That said, I guess it’s hard to resist the beauty of Lake Bled and some caves.
Which places outside Slovenia are you favorite to visit for pleasure?
My favorite place in last few years is Raja Ampat, an amazing archipelago west of West Papua in Indonesia. Marine life at its best, amazing snorkeling, diving and island hopping. Great for active holidays for anyone that likes sea activities. I love to get into a sea kayak and quietly paddle around hidden lagoons and stop at coral reefs or just to say hi to ocean mantas, turtles or even whales. I’ve been leading to Raja Ampat for four years now.
Where haven’t you been that you’d like to visit?
Please don’t ask me this. Are trips to Mars already open? If not, I still have many places to visit around the world, including some around Slovenia. But it looks like the USA and its national parks will be next – too many friends are inviting over.
Where can people learn more about your work, and maybe book a tour?