Slovenia: The hidden jewel of Europe?

One of the best-kept secrets about Slovenia, and one that is well-worth experiencing, is its long tradition of first-rate medical spas.

Slovenia castle521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Slovenia castle521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In December 2003, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi played host to Slovenian premier Anton Rop, whose country is adjacent to Italy’s northeastern frontier.
“I’m very happy to be here today,” Berlusconi told the assembled journalists, “with the prime minister of Slovakia” – obviously confusing his neighbor, a former Yugoslav republic, with one of the successor states to Czechoslovakia.
Several months later, in an interview with The New York Times, Rop drolly recalled the incident, noting with a healthy degree of diplomatic understatement that “it was very strange.”
But this episode, and numerous others like it over the years, underlines the extent to which Slovenia is often overlooked, despite being located in the heart of central Europe and a member in good standing of both NATO and the European Union.
This relative obscurity is perhaps not surprising given that Slovenia has been an independent nation only since June 1991, when it broke away from Yugoslavia. But in light of the country’s breathtaking natural beauty, it is hard to understand why more Israelis have not discovered this hidden jewel of a destination.
Indeed, from Alpine peaks to Adriatic beaches, Slovenia really does have something for everyone. The rolling hills and lush green landscape are dotted with fairy-tale castles and crystal-clear lakes, whose sheer splendor and glory rival that of Switzerland. Pristine forests and picturesque towns give a visitor the feeling that he has been transported to a place that only exists in postcards.
Nonetheless, only a little more than 30,000 Israelis visit the country annually.
Those that do inevitably make their way to some of the country’s best-known spots, such as Ljubljana (pronounced Lyub-lyana), the quiet and somewhat sleepy Slovenian capital, or Lake Bled, with its iconic 800-year old castle perched atop a hill on an island.
But perhaps one of the best-kept secrets about Slovenia, and one that is well-worth experiencing, is its long tradition of first-rate medical spas, which for generations have attracted European royalty and elites.
This is particularly true in the eastern part of the country in the town of Rogaska Slatina, which borders the wine-rich Kozjan hills and is home to unique springs that are the source of water with naturally high magnesium content.
For over 400 years, the curative and therapeutic powers of the water, which is known as Donat Mg, have been the stuff of legend throughout the central and eastern part of the continent, and there are even archeological findings that suggest the Romans may have exploited Rogaska’s springs as well.
“Donat MG mineral water is the richest magnesium water in the world,” says Sasa Jakos, marketing director for the Rogaska Medical Center, the leading medical spa in Slovenia. “Maybe there are other waters with high contents of magnesium but unfortunately they contain so many other elements that they are not drinkable.”
Magnesium is an essential mineral to the human body, yet various surveys indicate that many people’s intake of it is insufficient. Critical to the formation of bones and teeth, magnesium plays a role in the transmission of nerve signals and also assists the body with processing fat and protein. Magnesium deficiencies have been linked to a range of ailments such as fatigue, gastrointestinal issues and depression.
As a result, people seeking specialized treatment for these and a range of other conditions have been streaming into Rogaska, with the dual aim of reviving their bodies and relaxing their souls.
But Rogaska should not be confused with the kind of spa that one might find on a vacation resort, where the highlight might be a soothing massage followed by a dip in the hot tub. “We are a perfect place for people who want to relax and to improve their health, but we are not the right place for those who are just looking for fun,” Jakos explains. “This is not a touristic center – it is a spa with very sophisticated programs for people who want to get better.”
Each visitor is assessed by medical professionals, who monitor treatment and oversee the patient’s progress. The center boasts a team of doctors specializing in areas such as cardiology, gastroenterology, psychiatry, dermatology and plastic surgery. Nutritionists and physical therapists are on staff as well, and are available to work with people looking to improve their diet or address nagging muscular problems.
“Rogaska is a very special European spa because it combines all the elements of a traditional spa with a top-notch medical center for people suffering from maladies such as diabetes, osteoporosis or high cholesterol,” Jakos notes. “If they would like to lose weight, or shape their body or just look younger, then Rogaska is the place for them.”
Even the consumption of the Donat Mg mineral water is carefully structured, and tailored to suit the specific needs of the visitor. Thus, for example, a patient suffering from rheumatological issues might select a course of balneotherapy, which combines a series of mineral baths, thermal wraps and the intake of Donat Mg. The amount and type of Donat Mg to be used, and even the time at which it is consumed, are all prescribed by a physician. In addition to the treatment of medical issues, the Rogaska Medical Center utilizes state-of-the-art procedures and equipment for those seeking to enhance their outward appearance. Hair transplants, liposuction, acne treatment and the removal of skin lesions are just some of the “pathways to beauty” that Rogaska has to offer.
The center hopes that its professional staff, beautiful surroundings and reasonable prices will entice greater numbers of foreign tourists, particularly Israelis, to make use of its facilities.
“Israelis have been coming to Rogaska for more than 20 years,” Jakos says. “But in recent years not as many have come and we want to improve this. Many Israelis have a tradition of spending the holidays in European spas because they know that our treatments are a source of good health.”
For those who do make the journey to Rogaska, it is worth taking a trip to Maribor, Slovenia’s second-largest city, which lies just 49 km. to the north and was home to a thriving Jewish community that dated back to the 13th century.
Rabbi Israel Isserlein, one of the most important Ashkenazi rabbis of the 15th century, lived in Maribor and may have been born there. A student of the Maharil (Rabbi Yaakov Moelin), he headed a yeshiva in Maribor and wrote an important work of responsa titled Trumat Hadeshen, which was later utilized by Rabbi Moshe Isserles in the preparation of his glosses on the Shulhan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law).
Despite playing a central part in Maribor’s social and commercial life, the city’s Jews were forced to leave in 1496 when Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire ordered them expelled from the regions of Styria and Carinthia.
The synagogue which had served Maribor’s Jews for more than a century was then turned into a Catholic church. It later served as a military warehouse and art gallery before undergoing renovations a decade ago. It has been transformed into a museum, which now houses an exhibition on the history of the local Jewish community.
From a Jewish point of view, there is not a great deal else to see in Slovenia. A Jewish cemetery dating back to the 14th century can be found in the town of Nova Gorica, along the border with Italy, and a 19th-century synagogue building still stands in Lendava, close to the Hungarian frontier.
For centuries, the Jews of the Slovene lands were forced to live in ghettos. Then, starting in the late 15th century and over the next 200 years, Jews were repeatedly expelled from various parts of the country.
In the 19th century, even after Jewish settlement in Slovenia was once again permitted, few Jews chose to make their homes there, a fact that historians attribute to widespread anti-Semitism that existed among the Slovene population.
During the Holocaust, most of Slovenian Jewry was murdered. It is particularly noteworthy that while states such as Croatia and Serbia respectively had 107 and 131 Righteous Among the Nations, who were recognized by Yad Vashem for rescuing Jews, Slovenia had a paltry six such gentiles.
More recently, in an article last year, the spokesman of the Slovenian Jewish Association was asked if it was fun to be Jewish in Slovenia. He answered, “No,” citing anti-Semitism he had experienced.
And this writer found himself the subject of many stares while in Slovenia, due to the kippa perched atop his head.
In 2003, a small synagogue opened in Ljubljana, which until then was the only European capital that did not have a Jewish house of worship. Just 130 people are formally registered as members of the Jewish community, and there is no full-time spiritual leader. Rabbi Ariel Haddad of the Chabad House of Trieste, Italy, serves as non-resident rabbi.
If you do find yourself in Ljubljana, another site that is well worth visiting is the nearby magnificent series of underground caves in Postojna, which has been attracting visitors from around the globe for more than two centuries. A specially built underground train takes visitors deep into a subterranean world, where you can spend 90 minutes on a walking tour among the most monumental stalactites and stalagmites you will likely ever see. Referred to by locals as the “Queen of Caves,” Postojna is nature at its most stunning, a place where the handiwork of the Creator is patently manifest.
Near Postojna is a fine example of man’s handicraft as well, in the form of the Predjama Castle, a four-story structure built centuries ago into the side of a 123-meter-high rocky cliff. It is said to have a secret underground passage leading to the Postojna Caves, which enabled knights to sneak into nearby towns for supplies when necessary.
Slovenia is clearly a land that has been blessed with physical splendor and, in the past two decades at least, a great deal of tranquility. Its past vis-à-vis the Jews is decidedly sad and checkered, like much of the rest of Europe, and for the historically conscious visitor this is difficult to ignore.
But if you are merely looking for a place that offers a respite from the rush of daily life, the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia awaits. ■ The writer was a guest of the Rogaska Medical Center, the Rogaska Grand Sava Hotel and Round the World Travel.