Greetings! If you haven’t guessed, I’m Amy Boyington. I’m a historian, writer, blogger and PhD, interested in everything from Georgian architecture to the role of women in the 18th century to landscape gardening, with just about everything in between. I’m also really keen on exploring countries and cities that deserve more attention, especially from a historical perspective. The two countries I’ve recently been most enthusiastic about are Slovenia and Croatia, and so getting the chance to explore them was a real treat. Here is my itinerary, including all the historical gems that I discovered.
Ptuj, Slovenia, the first stop on my journey
“Ptuj is the oldest recorded city in Slovenia.” When I come across a detail like this, it really my interest. One of the great things about being a historian in Europe is that the past is literally everywhere. History can be seen and understood from street names, buildings, even urban design. Ptuj is a great example of a place where you can connect with the past just by strolling through the city. Humans have inhabited this place since the Stone Age, and because it sits on a strategic location at a crossing of the Drava River, along a prehistoric trade route between the Baltic Sea and the Adriatic, it has had a rich background. It has seen a half dozen empires come and go, from the Romans to the Astro-Hungarians. Today, it stands proud with all these threads of history woven into the tapestry that it represents.
In Ptuj, I visited several places that I highly recommend. The Ptuj Castle is a marvelous example of a 12th century defensive fortress, and many of the instruments, arms, traditional masks, and tapestries are on display for anyone to see. The other place I highly recommend is the city’s old town, a peaceful place filled with gorgeous two-story townhouses covered in red shingles, narrow cobbled streets, and charming squares.
Other spots in Ptuj that deserve your attention: St. George’s Church, the Regional Museum, and Ptuj City Hall.
Rijeka, Croatia, a coastal city like no other
Rijeka is a beautiful coastal city in Croatia, known for its picturesque old town and lively cultural scene. But I was drawn to this place for another reason: the richness of its past. So many events of European significance took place here such as the attack by the Frankish troops of Charlemagne or the signing of the Law codex of Vinodol, one of the oldest such codes in Europe. You can retrace them if you know where to look. One anecdote comes to my mind. In 1919, the Italian poet and propagandist-in-chief, Gabriele D’Annunzio, swooped into the port of what was then called Fiume and claimed it for Italy. He quickly installed himself in the main palace. It took Mussolini little time to remove him, but for that short period, Rijeka was the poet’s personal domain. Which palace did he occupy? The Governor’s Palace, which still stands in the north of the city. If this bit of forgotten history grabs your attention, visit the place where it happened. You can see the rooms where D’Annunzio tried to take over the city.
The other iconic Rijeka location for history buffs is the Trsat Castle, dramatically located on a steep hill almost 140 meters (450 feet) above sea level. This semi-ruined fortification is one of the oldest structures used for defense on the Croatian coast and dates to the 13th century. Through Trsat Castle, you can understand much about the seafaring people who call this land home. Its history, which is pan-European and involves the Frankopan Dukes of Krk, the Irish-born count Laval Nugent, and a commander in the Austrian army is fascinating. Today, the castle is an example of romantic neoclassical Biedermeier design. Last but not least, it has a café and art gallery and hosts open-air concerts in the summer.
Pula, Croatia, a regional hub for archaeology and culture
One of my favorite places in the Balkans is, hands down, Pula. For me, it blends two things I love: a sunny paradise with a significant Roman past. As you probably know, the Romans left a footprint across much of southern Europe and beyond. Yet only some of their grand structures remain intact today. Pula happens to be home to two of the best-preserved examples. The Pula Area, which dates from the 1st century CE, is one of the best remaining Roman amphitheaters. In fact, it is the 6th largest amphitheater from the Roman era and is still in use today. Can you imagine attending a concert or event in a venue that’s some 2000 years old? That’s possible in Pula, and for me, it’s a true thrill.
The other building from Roman times that you must see is the Temple of Augustus, one of the two best-preserved Roman temples outside of Italy. Dedicated to Augustus, the first Roman emperor, it was probably built between 27 BCE and 14 CE. The temple once formed part of a triad consisting of three buildings. At the center there once stood a basilica, flanked with two temples, the one to the east the Temple of Augustus, the one to the west, the Temple of Diana. As an architecture geek, I must add this anecdote: In the sixteenth-century, Andrea Palladio included the description of the temple in “I quattro libri dell’architettura,” a highly influential book on the principles of classical architecture. The way I see it, if Palladio included it, it’s worth seeing!
To be sure, all these experiences will make you build up a mighty thirst. After a nice glass of water, I recommend trying the aperitif, Rakija. Sometimes flavored with honey or mistletoe, it can be found in any market or artisan shop and adds some nice zing to any cocktail.