Several years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine from Slovenia who was surprised to hear how much I loved Hungary. She said that many Slovenians thought of Hungary as a rural country with agriculture as the main pursuit. They imagined it as a land filled with farmers toiling in fields and cultivating crops. My friend grew up on the outskirts of Ljubljana, the small cosmopolitan capital city of Slovenia, surrounded by natural beauty. To her, the mountainous landscape and wild nature which could be seen in the distance from her hometown was Slovenia. Her view of the country was framed by this point of reference, while farming was something done in a far-off land beyond her nation’s borders by people who spoke an unintelligible language. A century earlier, Ljubljana had been part of Austria-Hungary, but it was part of the Austrian half of that empire, as was much of Slovenia. Her perspective was valid up to a point, but I soon discovered there was not one Slovenia, there were many. One version of Slovenia would have surprised her, because it includes farmers toiling in fields, some of them Hungarian, but the majority native Slovenians.
A Lot Of Mountains, A Little Bit Of Everything – Slovenian Landscapes
It is hard not to think of Slovenia as a land of mountains. The country includes both the Julian and Kamnik-Savinja Alps, which offer soaring, snow-capped vistas. Many travelers to Slovenia come away with the impression that it is a sort of southern Switzerland, or Austria on the cheap, such is the allure of its landscape and the relative affordability of visiting this tiny Balkan country. Slovenia loves to cultivate the image of a mountainous nation to boost its tourist trade, which is a mainstay of the economy. Even the national flag helps sells the mountain ideal. The tallest peak, Mount Triglav, can be found gracing the flag. Slovenia does have many mountains, but it also has a region laden with limestone which is home to teeming vineyards aboveground and wondrous caves just below the surface. If that is not enough, there is also a tiny bit of coastline with the city of Piran glowing radiant on the sun washed slopes of the Adriatic Sea. Slovenia is blessed by natural diversity and beauty that is the envy of many a larger nation. At its most magnificent, imagine a country with peaks like those found in Switzerland, Carlsbad like caves and a tiny bit of Cote d’Azure coastline thrown in for good measure, that is stereotypical Slovenia.
One landscape that this portrayal lacks can be found cultivated on Slovenia’s eastern frontier, located in an area known as the Prekmurje. Imagine a combination of pancake flat fields, rolling terrain and bucolic hills stretching out onto a limitless horizon. It is this landscape, one usually associated with Hungary, that marks out the easternmost region of Slovenia. It is no coincidence that Hungarians have a deep history in the Prekmurje, as well as an influential presence there still today. The Prekmurje is the remotest and least visited part of Slovenia. One would think that in a country as small as Slovenia it would be hard to find a very remote area. Slovenia is almost the exact same size as Massachusetts, but it has three and a half times fewer people. The smallest proportion of the Slovenian population is not in a secluded landscape, tucked away somewhere deep in the mountains. Instead, it can be found out in the open spaces of the Prekmurje. It is one of those landscapes where everyone can see you, but no one is watching.
On The Other Side – A Land Beyond The Mur
The Prekmurje is a world apart and has been ever since it came under the control of Slovenians as part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later to become Yugoslavia, in 1919. The region had been part of the Kingdom of Hungary since the 12th century, but the population had been majority Slovene for many centuries. In the chaotic aftermath of the First World War, there was a first half mad attempt at self-government, when the short-lived Republic of Prekmurje was formed. This was one of many revolutionary iterations that arose on what had formerly been the territory of Austria-Hungary. The Republic was soon dissolved and incorporated into the new South Slav Kingdom.
Not only was the region in a new country, but around this time it was given the name it is still known by today, Prekmurje, meaning “territory on the other side of the Mur River”. Prior to this, much of the region had been known as the Slovenian March. It was the Mur River that helped define and isolate the territory. Not until 1924 was the first bridge constructed over the Mur, providing a tangible connection with the new Kingdom to which it now belonged. Though it was under new administration, the way of life continued much as before, agrarian and centered around small villages. This has continued right up until today. Since the 1920’s the Prekmurje has been part of four different countries, Yugoslavia, Hungary again, Yugoslavia again and Slovenia. The overlords may have changed, but the way of life remained relatively the same.
Lucky Landscape – Preservation Of The Pastoral
The Prekmurje is one of those timeless places that technology only managed to touch ever so lightly. The 20th century brought better roads and railways making travel times much faster, but it did not change what most people did for a living. Mechanization made farming more efficient and better transport brought agricultural products to market faster. Mechanization also meant less workers on the farm, which led to smaller families and those same transport links carried the young away to greater opportunities in cities. In a world transformed by the industrial age, the rural nature of the Prekmurje proved relatively immune to ideological, political and economic disruptions. The land itself was protected as much by luck as fate. Case in point, during the 1960’s when test wells were drilled in a search for oil around Moravske Toplice, hot springs were discovered. Now thermal baths rather than oil derricks can be found there. Remoteness and a lack of natural resources have preserved the Prekmurje’s pastoral character, but while the lifeways have stayed relatively the same, the people holding power in the region has undergone dramatic change.