Exploring somewhere on vacation can often seem like a chore, as you move down a checklist of must-see sights and must-do activities, without really engaging with the streets and the public, lived environment. This is a particular shame in Slovenia, where the pleasures of its small towns and cities are perhaps best enjoyed by allowing yourself to get lost and wander as you move between the prescribed points of interest, safe in the knowledge that you’re never far from the centre. But how to structure such trips to allow for serendipity, discovery and success in terms of a new place known well? How to plan to be surprised without ruining the surprise?
One way is to let someone else take control of the situation, and a novel approach to this can be found in a new venture by three women working out of Murska Sobota, under the name Stride & Seek. We’ll get to the details later on, but for now just know that we were intrigued by the project and sent Hayley Handford-Brown, one of the founders, a few questions about her life and work in Slovenia that she kindly answered.
Where you before moving to Slovenia, and what brought you here?
I lived in Lincolnshire, which is fairly rural but quite flat, before coming to Slovenia. So, one of the things that really attracted us to Slovenia was the countryside, and the feeling of getting away from it all that we have here, whilst still having all the amenities you need on your doorstep. I love how safe I feel here and how friendly and neighbourly people are.
What were some of the challenges you faced on moving here, and how did you deal with them?
We actually bought our house here 10 years before we relocated so were well acquainted with the area. Also, in that time, my parents bought a house and retired here six years before we made the big leap. I suppose we had the luxury of time to become aware of any challenges that we may face and made plans for them.
The biggest challenge that we didn’t anticipate was how hard the language would be to grasp. During those 10 years, we visited twice a year, every year but during this period we were renovating either our property or my parents, so didn’t get out and about much and had the mentality that once we lived here, we would learn the language, be so immersed in it that it would come to us. Even though I’ve had lessons and learnt languages before (in fact, I quite like learning languages – it’s something I did at university!) it’s just such a difficult language. And what with one thing and another, haven’t been able to devote as much time as I would have liked to learn it. Oh, and sometimes when you do get the confidence to try and speak it, it’s all wrong and you’re not understood which can be very disheartening!
What were you doing here before Stride & Seek?
Stride & Seek Mini Adventures came about after a discussion I had about the concept with an expat business woman, I was picking her brain about something and she just enquired about our future plans. If she hadn’t had asked that question at that point then Mini Adventures wouldn’t be what it is now.
In the UK, we had been franchisees for the leading treasure hunt company, and having been in Slovenia for a while at that time knew that it would be a good concept here, but it wasn’t something I could do on my own – I really wanted Slovene business partners. So, she actually set me up with a Slovene lady she knew that would be perfectly suited, a bit like a blind date for a business partner, and it worked! Katja (the blind date) had a colleague who she brought on board so Tamara joined us and one became three.
The product we offer is pretty different to what I was doing in the UK, which has been great as we have really been able to be creative and imaginative with our Mini Adventures. And we all have different areas of expertise. Katja is responsible for marketing and sales, Tamara writes and translates the Mini Adventures, I write and do the operational side of things, as well as developing any new concepts. We are only at the start of our journey and have lots of exciting things in the pipeline.
The team at Stride & Seek
For people who haven’t visited your website yet (in English and Slovene), can you talk me through the experience of doing a Mini Adventure?
A Mini Adventure features a hand drawn map of your chosen city or town leading you on a self-guided tour by visiting the markers on the map where a clue has to be found and solved. Discovering the place in a different and unique way. A story accompanies the adventure, usually loosely based on a legend or myth of that location which sets up the mission ahead.
It’s great fun for all ages. Kids love running around looking for the clues and adults get to exercise their brains as some of the clues are more challenging. And it’s good old-fashioned fun. We love the fact that our product brings people together, making memories and getting them away from screens and devices. It’s perfect if you have friends visiting and you want to show them the area or if you just want a day out getting reacquainted with a place.
It’s educational too as well as healthy (don’t let the kids know, though!) as we feature information about the landmarks our “Seekers” are seeing on their adventure. Our Mini Adventures thus make people more aware of what’s around them whilst exploring rather than just wandering around aimlessly on their own.
Some of the finer details of buildings, statues and monuments are often overlooked. One of our reviewers said of the Ljubljana Mini Adventure he did that although he grew up in Ljubljana, he discovered landmarks he’d never seen before. We include more than just the more popular sights, we love the unusual!
What are some things you’ve learned making these adventures?
I’ve learnt so much more about Slovenia from producing these Mini Adventures, not just from a tourist prospective either, because they are for locals and tourists alike. I have particularly enjoyed learning about the history and legends of our locations and get a real buzz out of writing the story that accompany the adventure. And we have quite a few locations already, even though we are just starting out. We currently offer Celje, Lake Bled, Ljubljana, Maribor, Murska Sobota, Ptuj, Piran and Bad Radkersburg. We have Škofja Loka, Graz, Budapest and Bratislava coming very soon. And in the next three months – Kranj, Velenje, Zagreb and Varaždin will be added to the catalogue. So, we are keeping very busy but we still have time for a chat if you see us out about, looking intently at statues with a notebook and camera in hand, be sure to say hello!
A conversation with the woman behind the only restaurant with Lebanese food in Ljubljana
I’m a Trubarejva cesta partisan, decidedly on the side of this short street in downtown Ljubljana that still manages a mix of high and low, rich and poor. It starts in Prešeren Square with the fashion labels of Emporium, and ends with the graffiti-covered squat of Tovarana Rog. Most of the businesses are run by the owner / managers, and the diversity seen in its food offerings – European, African, Asian and Middle Eastern – is reflected in the people who live, work and play there.
Having moved here after two decades in Asia I love the colour and activity of this street, the grassroots entrepreneurialism and its multi-racial, multi-ethnic character. For me, it’s a model of what a more vibrant Slovenia could be if it looked to the future and took the opportunities that seem to be left on the table for a more interesting, brighter and open life.
The subject of this edition of Meet the People is someone who exemplifies all of the good qualities I see here, and who has turned them into a successful business. It’s Alja Hafner Taha, who runs Libanonske meze in drugi užitki (Lebanese meze and other delights), a very popular restaurant that’s slightly hidden away in a basement, between a building that houses a sex store and another that offers marijuana growing supplies. Walking through the door and down the few steps feels like you’re moving down into another world, an effect aided by the décor, music and – of course – the aromas of a Middle Eastern kitchen, which you’ll have to imagine as you look at the pictures and read my interview with Alja…
What’s your background?
My father is from Palestine, and he came here to study mechanical engineering in the 60s, then fell in love with a blonde, green-eyed Slovene, my mom, a Slovenian from Trieste.
A couple of years after I was born we left the country, and my dad was an engineer for various foreign companies in Arabic countries, and so for the next decade or so our lives revolved around his work. We started in Algeria, then Iraq, England, then Italy, then to Jordan, and then back here.
I went to eight schools in 11 years,. It’s hard to keep track of it all, but I went to English, French, Italian schools, although in an Arabic environment. I didn’t go to any Arabic school, but my father made sure his children had private lessons in the language.
What language did you use at home?
At home I used to speak Slovene with my mom, Arabic with my dad, but since both of them spoke Slovene I eventually switched to that with my father.
How did you end up back in Slovenia?
I studied in Venice, then in the States. When I finished there I got an offer of an internship in America. Now I liked the university system in America - in Italy it was ridiculous, you were left to your own devices, and if you lacked discipline then it just dragged on forever, like in Slovenia –, but I really wanted to come back here for the lifestyle and the culture, which in the States I really didn’t like, and I did that in ‘97
I spent the first couple of years in Koper, then I moved to Ljubljana and worked in marketing, specifically in advertising.
Did your international experience help with that?
I don’t know. The industry in Slovenia is as good as anywhere in Europe, so perhaps not, but certainly my background helped me be more flexible, adaptable, less surprised by things.
So how did you make the move to running a restaurant?
Well, I had a good career, but I wanted a change, and food – the hospitality part if it – was the thing I really felt a passion for. This is something from my upbringing, we always had a full house.
My mother was a great cook, so was my father. When we lived abroad our home was like a hub for dinner parties, garden parties, and I loved it, the whole thing, the preparation and so on, was very fulfilling, emotionally. It was also very eclectic, because we had my mother’s cooking, my father’s cooking, my mother cooking my father’s food, and vice versa, plus all the dishes we picked up on our travels.
What about your cooking?
I didn’t really start cooking and enjoying it until my mid-20s, but then I really got into it. I’d have, say, 50 people over at my place.
Is it easier to do that with Middle Eastern food?
No, Slovene food’s actually easier to cook for big groups. The food that I cooked then, like the food we cook here, takes a lot of preparation, which is true for most Middle Eastern food. For example, the restaurant opens at 11:30, but work in the kitchen starts at 07:00, because we make nearly everything fresh here, including the pitta bread, every day. We don’t have a lot of space, we don’t have huge refrigerators and freezers to make it all days in advance. We make everything fresh every day, apart from harissa (a chili paste) and makdous, which is small pickled eggplants with walnut, and those are Lebanese, which we get from Vienna.
Is sourcing ingredients difficult?
At first it was difficult, but now it’s easy because we have all our contacts. If you want to make it at home you can buy the same stuff in Ljubljana, but if you’re a restaurant you need to get it closer to the source, and get it cheaper. For our vegetables and meat we get those from the market. We have a small scale butcher so we know where it comes from. For things like tahini, makdous, beer and wine we have a Lebanese importer in Vienna.
Do you make many changes to suit local tastes, or is this authentic Lebanese food in Ljubljana?
Being authentic is important to us, but the name Lebanese Meze & Other Delights means we have some room for food that’s not from the Levant. That said, the only things we had to adapt were the level of sourness in some dishes and the amount of garlic, which are both a lot higher in Lebanon. But if we get Lebanese guests we make sure they have a plate of lemons, or if, say, we have Palestinians we put some olive oil on the table.
And has the menu changed much over the years?
The menu changes a little with the seasons, but in general it stays the same. Because I’d experimented with this food on friends for years beforehand, I was pretty confident about the dishes were going to have, so I had a strong vision, which is one we still follow.
Did your background in advertising come in useful?
One thing I learned in marketing was that the worst thing you can do is panic and make big changes in direction or the basic concept, plus my background in events management transferred pretty well to the restaurant business. That’s not say it was easy, because I had a lot to learn, but when there were problems or challenges I either had the skills needed to deal with them, or knew people who could help.
But the main problem in running a successful restaurant isn’t anything big, it’s consistency, its doing things extremely well day in day out. And that’s all in the details, not just the food but the way it’s served, the way the place looks, the music that’s played, the cleanliness, the energy that permeates the whole team.
What about the staff here?
We’ve been very lucky with our team. At first we looked at bringing in a cook from abroad, but that involves a lot of paperwork, and is quite risky, because maybe they come here, you help set up a new life, and then they don’t like it. So we got a local guy, a great chef, Matjaž , who’s been here since day one. He manages a staff of Middle Eastern cooks, and the rest of the staff have all been the same for the last year and a half, so they really know what they’re doing. I help out sometimes, when needed, but managing a restaurant and cooking there too is the way to madness, it’s impossible.
Do you have any changes to the menu planned for winter?
Yes, we always change it a little with the seasons, with some heartier food in the winter, but not too much, as there’s always a danger you end up disappointing regulars, which we have a lot of, because you’ve taken a favourite off the menu. Like I said before, quality is paramount, but consistency is the key to success here.
If you’d like to try some of the Lebanese food shown here, which is highly recommended, then you can find Libanonske meze in drugi užitki at 45 Trubarjeva cesta, Ljubljana 1000. The opening hours are Opening hours: Tuesday - Thursday: 11:30 - 22:00; Friday, Saturday: 11:30 - 23:00; Sunday, Monday: Closed. The website is here, while the Facebook is here.
We recently promoted the upcoming improv course being run by IGLU Theatre, and while researching that we got in touch with Vid Sodnik, a man you might recognize from stage, screen and numerous billboards around the country, making his way in the small but vibrant Slovene arts scene. Our interest thus aroused, we sent a few questions about his work, and about some Slovenian cultural products that he recommends, and he was kind enough the reply.
We saw some promotion for a Jungian workshop in Ljubljana, as taught by Anglica Horvatic, from Croatia, and were interested in how she came to this work, and what the workshop would involve. We thus sent along some questions, and she was kind enough to send back some answers.
Davy Sims is a man of many parts, and some of those are based in Slovenia, where he advises on media strategies and writes about his love of Bled, wine, and the country in general. You can find out a lot more about Davy’s work at his website, but to learn more about the man behind it we sent him a few questions, which he was kind enough to answer.
First, a note on terminology. I recently went on Alternative Ljubljana’s first English-language LGBT tour, and when going back into the early years of the more open scene, back in the 1980s, the term used was LG, which later became LGBT. More recently this was extended to LGBTQ, LGBTQI, LGBTQI+ and so on, with more missing letters to be added, just like the rainbow flag has evolved to show different parts of the spectrum. However, as a personal preference I’m averse to long acronyms that have to be spelled out, and four letters, like BYOB or MDMA, seem about right, with a nice, percussive rhythm. So for the purposes of this article we’ll be using LGBT, and I’ll also be using the terms gay and lesbian rather freely, with the former being a catch-all term for all the colours of the rainbow.
We’ve interviewed a number of authors in the nine months since we launched, and today we meet with another, Mateja Klarič, who started out as a journalist at the national broadcaster before being forced out of her work, and then started a new career as a writer.
Last week we introduced a new app, Ljubljana by Wheelchair, sponsored by the City of Ljubljana and made by Aljoša Škaper. We were so impressed we got in touch with Aljoša the same day to learn more about the project, but also more about him, and how he recently gained a new perspective on the city.
We went to Bovec and spoke with Miha Mihelič about safety on the River Soča, as well as life as a river guide in Slovenia and elsewhere.