By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 16, 2002

I HAD MY HEART set on traveling to Croatia's Dalmatian Coast, but missed the planning meeting where assignments for the Travel section are decided. So here I am in Bled, Slovenia.

Gliding over a clear blue Alpine lake, beneath a castled cliff. In a gondola-like boat rowed by an old man. Headed for a tiny island topped by an ancient church.

Beneath my seat, for an island picnic, is a bottle of earthy red wine from a family-owned vineyard off the main road, prosciutto cured in the rafters of a nearby barn, and homemade cheese.

And this town, where the royal families of Europe once vacationed in the summer palace of a Serbian king, is not even the highlight of my adventure in Slovenia. That would probably be Kobarid, or the ride on a Lipizzaner stallion, high across an Alpine orchard of flowering pear and apple trees. Nestled in the valley below: vistas of church spires and red-tiled roofs, with Italian villages to the west, Slovenian towns to the east.

On a five-day trip to this small country bordered by Italy, Austria, Croatia and Hungary, I've had one very good dinner. All of the other meals have been fantastic.

With luck like this, I may never have to attend a planning meeting again.

In some ways, I feel ashamed of my former ignorance of this small nation, although even President George W. Bush confused Slovenia, formerly part of the late Yugoslavia, with Slovakia, of the late Czechoslovakia.

In other ways, I'm gratified to know that there are still hidden gems in the world. Hidden at least from Americans like me, who tend to know only slivers of Eastern Europe, most often as sites of recent conflict.

Unlike other fragments of Yugoslavia, Slovenia won independence relatively easily, with a 10-day battle and 66 deaths. The names of every person who died, no matter which side, are engraved on a memorial in the capital of Ljubljana -- a memorial that is, in my mind, a monument to the tolerance and spirit of the Slovenian people.

"Slovenia?" asked a friend who heard where I was headed. "Is that where the word 'slovenly' came from?"

Judging from the tidy nation I saw, I can't imagine it. In fact, numerous times during my visit, I thought to myself that if the Creator had taken more than seven days and gotten into details like borders, He might have created Slovenia as a condensed showcase for some of His best works.

Okay, I'll draw in some Appalachian-style mountains and an Alpine range for skiing. Lakes, vineyards and fields for sheep or golf courses.

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