Črno Zrno: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

Č is for Črno Zrno

Today we reach the first exotic letter of the Slovenian alphabet; the letter Č. Pronounced “ch”, like “ch” in “church”, there were a few contenders for Č.

I am a fan of Čevapčiči – the Balkan dish of grilled, minced meat shaped into sausages (but without a sausage skin).

Čebela (bee) would also have been a worthy choice; Slovenia is bee mad, and you see hives (called ‘bee houses’) painted bright colours or with traditional folk art, all over the country. But rather than those more obvious choices, I am instead going for Črno Zrno, Ljubljana’s most interesting coffee bar.

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Črno Zrno (pic: Črno Zrno)

Črno Zrno translates as ‘Black Bean’. I first became aware of Črno Zrno from Noah Charney, an American who has settled here and is a long time Slovenophile and prolific author (check out his excellent book: Slovenology). Situated in the old town, on a cobbled street that curls up and around the castle, Črno Zrno is the creation of the Colombian, Alexander Niño Ruiz.

I describe Alex as a coffee scientist. He carefully weighs out his ingredients using an electronic scale and uses glassware that could come from a lab. He imports beans from his native country, then has them roasted in Slovenia to create his own, unique flavours which he loves to share with his customers.

Alex keeps his menu simple but is constantly experimenting with blends and brews. My personal favourite is his delicious cold brew which he serves in wine glasses, but you can also get ‘pour over’ coffee as well as espressos.

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My personal fave: cold brew (pic: Črno Zrno)

His coffee is okusno (delicious) but it’s not just the beans that keep people coming back to Črno Zrno; it’s Alex himself and the very space he has created. An architect by trade, he has turned what could almost be just a passageway, into a stylish and welcoming place. The vaulted ceiling and colourful tiles draw you in to his stage, where he performs his coffee making ‘displays’.

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Črno Zrno sits on a cobbled street in Ljubljana’s old town

He enthusiastically explains where each coffee is grown, referring to a map of his homeland that sits on the wall, allowing him to educate his customers on the geographical diversity of Colombia and the characteristics each region imparts on the flavour of the beans. Alex has visions of how he will evolve his business; he already sells his own bagged beans and various coffee-making hardware. He’s done coffee pairing with local resturants, and there are more ideas to follow, he says.

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Alexander Niño Ruiz – Colombian coffee scientist and creator of Črno Zrno – Ljubljana’s most interesting coffee bar (pic: Črno Zrno)

There’s something about Alex’s warm personality and Latino cheek that draws a certain patron. A meeting place for both the exotic expats of Ljubljana and homegrown locals alike, it’s so small that you inevitably end up talking to whoever else is there. And this, combined with Alex’s knowledge and passion for the coffee he serves, makes Črno Zrno a very regular stop for me.

When I first arrived in Ljubljana, I was looking for somewhere friendly and homely. A place where I might meet an interesting mix of people and enjoy something delicious and unique. I found all those things at Črno Zrno.

Don’t be fooled by its petite nature. Physically it may be small but Črno Zrno punches well above its weight and is a huge asset to Ljubljana’s coffee and social scene, and somewhere I will keep going back to, again and again.

 

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Cockta: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

C is for Cockta

At first it was somewhat slim pickings for the letter C. Consulting my Slovenian-English dictionary, the C-section was lean.

I shortlisted Cerkev (Church) – as there are many pretty ones atop green hills all over Slovenia, Cesta (Road) – as I do enjoy driving the quiet winding mountain roads here, and Copati (Slippers) – the Japanese-like love of wearing slippers AT ALL TIMES when in your home is quite a lovely quirk; slippers are provided for guests, and you better damn-well wear them or else face Slovenian Slipper Wrath from your host.

Then I remembered Cockta. Invented in the 1950s, it’s a Slovenian brand (though now Croatian owned much to Slovenians’ lament) and since I first visited Slovenia in 2007, Cockta has been a reliable source of schoolboy humour.

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She is certainly enjoying a bit of Cockta here. Billboard circa 2012

Originally deemed ‘Yugoslavian Coke’, it shares the colour of its American rival, though unlike coke it is caffeine-free and its flavour is also quite different “coming from 11 of the finest herbal extracts, which are handpicked, carefully inspected and blended into a unique herb cocktail.”

Above: early TV advert for Cockta

The official Cockta website describes Cockta through the ages, and has some amusing claims:

“From Sputnik to Moon landings, from champions to revolutionaries, from cosy traditions to great changes, Cockta has not just been there – it has made history.”

In the 1960s, Cockta apparently was “the official beverage of the sixties”. I’m unsure which official body made this so, but it’s quite possible that the Yugoslavian government did actually make Cockta its official drink during this decade.

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Vintage Cockta poster from Yugoslav era

The 1970s was apparently the decade of “Cockta-ing the world”:

“The Beatles disbanded, the Moon was conquered, the rock hardened, the world toughened. The seventies were strange times, and Cockta was both nostalgic, contemporary and futuristic.”

The 1980s was apparently the decade of “Cockta mania”:

“In the decade of one-hit wonders, Cockta was the classic, in the midst of bizarre clothes and hairstyles, Cockta was the ultimate cool, and on the dancefloor Cockta had the best moves.”

I must point out that if a bottle of soft drink had the best moves on the dancefloor, it does not say much for Yugoslavians’ abilities to shake their booties in the night party discotheque clubs of the ‘80s.

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Be careful how you hold your Cock(ta).

Perhaps realising that dancing was not its forte, Cockta got serious in the 1990s, getting involved in politics and apparently playing some sort of role in the dissolution of the Former Yugoslavia:

“Tear down this wall and get me a Cockta! Everything changed in the nineties, from the basic economy to maps. It was a time of exhilaration, and we had our own Ode to Joy in our hands: a cold, perfect Cockta.”

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A Cockta Calendar

Moving into the millennium, Cockta became “a tasteful guide to the things to come, a fizzy reassurance of our choices. The future is cool, and so is Cockta.”

And finally, bringing us to the year 2018, the big news for Cockta lovers is the release of ‘Cockta Original’ along with a label re-design.

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2018:  Cockta Original on the shelves

So there you have it; Slovenia’s answer to Coca-Cola seems to have become a notable part of Slovenian identity, having played a role in Yugoslavian dance culture, geo-politics and youth fashion.

Cockta must also be credited with providing English-speaking visitors with a wealth of crude punning material, the likes of which we have not seen since the Americans invented ‘fanny packs’.

And it tastes pretty good too.

Read more: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

Burek: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

B is for Burek

It would have been a more obvious choice to have chosen Bled, Bohinj or perhaps Bovec for letter B of our A-Ž of Reasons I live in Slovenia. But though I do love all those B locations (Bohinj especially), I have already showcased some of their beauty in the A is for Akvarel entry. And as Slovenia’s poster boys, pictures of both are already widespread, to the point of cliché.

So instead, I choose burek. Though not exclusively a Slovene food (it’s popular all over ex-YU and beyond), it’s a tasty snack, available in every supermarket and bakery in the country. A simple food, it is made from layers of thin, flaky pastry that contain a filling, normally rolled into a sausage shape (and then often curled up like a nautilus) and then baked.

It comes in both sweet (apple, sweet cheese) and savoury varieties. I used to love burek mesni (minced meat) but now I’m really into burek špinačni, a mix of spinach and cheese. There are even some newer varieties such as pizza burek.

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The standard variations of burek

Whilst living in other countries and I have often discovered snack foods that I think would sell well in the UK. Whilst living in rural Japan I came to know and love little steamed buns with different fillings – called man. I suspect burek would also find a market in the UK as a quick, tasty, snack food, likely to be especially popular with the post-boozing crowd.

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snail-style burek

One thing I would like to see is the further innovation of burek fillings. Almost every burek vendor I have ever seen sells the same four or five varieties. Sometimes I think Slovenia is too rooted in ‘tradition’, too set in its ways to try something new and I think the burek industry could benefit from experimenting with new varieties. You can put almost any filling in to burek – so why not try some new things?

If I owned a burek bakery, I would test the following burek varieties:

  • Pesto chicken burek
  • Spicy beef burek
  • Feta and olive burek
  • Caramelised onion and goats’ cheese burek

So the question for burek lovers is: would you like to see new burek varieties or do you think any recipes that veer from the traditional would just be bastardising burek?

Akvarel: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

A is for Akvarel: Watercolour

I’ve been visiting Slovenia for over a decade, but the dashing splendor is yet to wear off. I’ve decided to compile a series of A to Ž posts that share some of the reasons that I now live in Slovenia.

We shall commence our Slovenian alphabet aerobics, with the word Akvarel. The literal translation is ‘watercolour’ as in the type of painting, however, I’m taking some artistic license of my own and using it to mean ‘the colour of the water’. Because the colour of the lakes and rivers here never gets old. Here are some pictures I’ve taken of The Slovenian Blues (and greens, and aquamarines) over the years.

 

 

 

Phallic Fertility Symbols Found in Forests of Koroška

Over the last six months of wandering the wilds of Koroška, I have stumbled upon several representations of wangers. Are these some ancient Slovenian fertility charm, or is it just the lumberjacks having a laugh?

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A pine plonker found in forest near Breg

Certainly, with the wooden willies, some effort has gone into finding and shaping of not just the winky, but the arms, legs and face. And in some cases, several wood wangers have been stockpiled, presumably for future distribution to areas where fertility rates are below average.

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A cache of wood wangers, as found in the forests around Breg

During the heavy snows of the Koroška winters, when the forests were largely impassable, the ingenious locals instead took to crafting giant snow schlongs. Impessive attention to detail can be seen in their work suggesting this is more than mere child’s play. Indeed, they have gone to great lengths on their rendition of follicles on the cobblers here. Such art deserves wider recognition.

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Giant snow schlong as seen on road to Breg, Koroška, Slovenia

I am yet to ascertain whether the snow and wood winkies of Koroška are purely for fun, or whether there is some fertility function surrounding their construction, but I will keep you posted on any new John Tompsons that appear in the vicinity.

My Favourite Axe: a weekend of woodcutting

Slovenia, like much of Europe, had experienced a heavy winter. The copious snow combined with some vicious windstorms had done its damage to the trees around Breg House; many had limbs dangling, some had been brought down completely.

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Now that the spring melt had arrived and the patches of snow were rapidly retreating, it was time to tackle these now-defunct trees so I headed up to Breg for the Velika noč (Easter) weekend to spend some time sawing, chain-sawing, splitting and stacking wood.

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The (hand) tools for the job

As the trees were ‘windblown’ I had to consult my brother (who is a tree surgeon) on the best way to tackle them. There are numerous forces of compression and tension at work, and with one tree lying atop the other, I had to be careful to dismember the tangle in the correct order to avoid me being crushed to death by a falling trunk.

My brother also advised me that it was ok to use sunflower cooking oil in my chainsaw (since I’d run out of chainsaw oil and being the Easter holiday, the shops were closed). The sunflower oil ‘hack’ worked and my chainsaw powered on through the job.

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My brother told me I could use sunflower oil in my chainsaw as a temporary substitute. So I did.

Sawing up wood by hand is tiring but I prefer it for many jobs, especially when dismembering a fallen tree in a tangle of branches. However, using a chainsaw to slice up trunks and limbs is satisfyingly fast and there’s a joy in sinking the chain-teeth into a log and watching it almost melt through the wood it like a hot-knife in butter. Apart from when your chainsaw gets wedged in the tree – which thankfully only happened once during this operation.

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The dream team: chainsaw and axe

But no wood work is more fun than splitting thick trunks and limbs, into fire-sized logs. For this I use my Struc Slovenian-made splitting axe or ‘maul’. Mauls have a fat, wedge-shaped blade which forces the wood apart, helping it to split more easily along its grain.

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Check my wedge: maul head

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Axes: turning wood into firewood since the Iron Age

However, my favourite axe is a smaller one that I bought in Britain some years ago, and never had much use for it, but at Breg House, it’s the perfect tool for splitting wood into kindling, or snedding. Snedding is removing side branches from a larger limb or trunk. This can also be done with a saw or chainsaw, but a good axe is a quick and fun way to do it. This axe is perfect for both jobs – it’s perfectly weighted, nice and sharp and just feels great in the hand.

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My favourite axe

My third axe – a ‘Viking’ – was somewhat of an impulse buy. I saw it in the local DIY store, Inpos, in Ravne na Koroškem, and I just had to have it. I love the shape of the handle and the colour of the blade. It can also be used for snedding or splitting kindling, but as it’s a little lighter, it’s not quite got the oomph of my fave axe. However I like the way it looks and its light weight means it would make a great ‘travel axe’ for a camping trip.

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The Viking; my smallest but sexiest axe

I spent two days dismembering two fallen fruit trees, hacking, sawing, lugging, splitting then finally stacking the wood in my Kozolec – a Slovenian hay rack which doubles as my log store. With a hot Slovenian summer, those logs should be ready to burn in my Piazzetta stove this winter, and therefore I hope never again to suffer the great log famine of winter 2017/18.

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Pimp my log pile: a fine mix of freshly cut apple, plum and a touch of elder

One of the benefits of doing a bit of hard graft at Breg House, is that my kindly neighbours ensure I am kept well fed throughout the day. Numerous rounds of potica, an elevensies break consisting of Turkish coffee, homemade biscuits, and a shot of their schnapps (in Slovenia it’s perfectly normal to drink schnapps in the morning and/or whilst operating chainsaws or other heavy machinery), as well as a beef and horseradish lunch.

My neighbours also invited me round for ‘Easter breakfast’ which is a big deal here. Everyone eats bread, ham and boiled eggs mixed with horseradish. It was delicious, but I was to later experience the somewhat noxious side effect of eating six eggs before 9am.

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Elevensies for loggers at Breg House, courtesy of my amazing neighbours: homemade biscuits, turkish coffee, and schnapps

I got back to Ljubljana early evening, feeling zonked. One of the things I love about being at Breg is that there’s always physical work to be done, and despite the weariness from a day’s logging – doing it feels good. Especially with potica and schnapps.

 

 

Snowshoeing at Dom na Slemenu

In early February, with thick, fresh snow on the ground, I headed to the inn of Dom na Slemenu. Run by my friends Rajko and Darinka (who previously ran the inn at Pikovo) it offers one of the most beautiful views in the area as well as delicious, hearty food, so it’s a regular destination for me.

My goal was to explore some of the trails in the forest via snow shoe and take some pictures of what was quite a magical snowscape. Below are a selection of snaps from my visit.

 

Fighting Ice: Breg House vs The Deep Cold

It had been over a week since ‘The Beast From The East’, an arctic-born storm, had iced over much of Europe. Although I had been absent from Slovenia when it hit, I knew temperatures had fallen as low as -16C at Breg House.

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Green flames in my Piazetta logburner

Breg is completely unheated during my absence, so temperatures inside the house tend to hover around 5c above what they are outside. I know this because I have become obsessed with the temperature in different parts of the house and have stationed thermometers in almost every room.

Although vastly better insulated now then when we first bought it, Breg house is not known for its ability to retain heat or keep out the cold. And when temperatures plummet so low for so long, no amount of insulation will stave off the cold in a house with no heat source. So it was likely around -10c inside, during the worst of storm.

What did surprise me was that even though it was a week since the Beast From The East had passed, the effects were still very present in Breg. For example, it was the first time I had seen the water in the toilet bowls completely frozen. And I mean completely; not just a layer of ice on top, but a solid, ice plug, all the way around the u-bend.

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Want ice for your G&T? Ice plug from the u-bend; this is after considerable melting with hot water freed it.

 

I normally empty all the toilet cisterns, but I had evidently forgotten to empty one, and that too had frozen into a solid block of ice.  This led to a mini-flood when I  turned on the main water supply, as water was unable to drain into the overflow, and instead came shooting out of the top of the cistern. Even the kettle which I had left about a third full had a block of ice in.

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Block of ice in the kettle

But the most incredible example of the power of ice was the total destruction of my electric towel radiator. Here, a blade of frozen water had burst through the body of the radiator, spreading the metal seam and bursting out like an infant alien xenomorph bursts through the ribcage of its host. Except that it would have been an extremely slow-motion version.

With one toilet cistern and one radiator dead, the ice was winning. But on a positive note, my water supply itself was still working, and most importantly, the pipes coming into the house, which I always feared vunerable to freezing, had survived unscathed.

Also encouraging was the survival of my water heater, that sits in the same room as the toilet cistern which had frozen solid. I always empty about half the water out, so there would have been some water left inside, but it seemed to work almost straight away, suggesting that the remaining water hadn’t frozen, or if it had, only a thin layer rather than into a solid ice block.

Spring is not far off and there is much to be done in Breg House this year. The more time I spend here, the more I see what works and what doesn’t; it’s an ever evolving, ever improving project and 2018 should see some major tasks going ahead.

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Skiing to My Local Pub: Powder Snow at Pikovo

I was now living in Ljubljana, but with reports that Koroška already had 60cm of snow on the ground and more on the way, I couldn’t resist heading back to the Hinterland.

I have maintained a lifelong love of snow. Not just snowboarding or skiing, but walking in it, taking pictures of it, and just being out in The Great White Deep is one of my greatest pleasures.

My new car was put to the test and passed easily. In 4×4 mode it fired up the snow-covered track with not the slightest hesitation. Pikovo, a small mountain inn lies even further up the mountain, and with the roads up there covered in over half a meter of snow, it was the perfect day to try out my new touring skis.

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Snow road? Snow problem in 4WD mode

I attached the skins to the base of the skis, threw some water, chocolate and extra clothes into my backpack, and began skinning up the slope behind my house which leads to the road to Pikovo. I’ve done a fair bit of snowshoeing in the past, normally with a snowboard strapped to my back, but ski touring is far more efficient.

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skinning up

The skis glide over the surface of the snow, the skins prevent you from slipping backwards even on steep inclines, and the lightweight boots and bindings mean that overall, you’re carrying less weight and moving much faster than with a board on your back.

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The forest was beautifully silent. The sporadic ‘whumpfff’ of snow falling from a tree, the only sound. The first half of the route was quite steep, and with the deep snow, it was hard going. I had to stop frequently to catch my breath. Once at the pinnacle I found the other side had been ploughed more recently leaving just a couple of centimetres of snow on the road.

The underside of my skis would have preferred a deeper covering, but it was enough to ride over, albeit with the occasional p-tex gouging stone taking a bite. I reconfigured my bindings into downhill mode, and skied most of the way, although there were several flat parts where I had to free my heel and employ more of a ‘cross-country ski’ technique.

It took me nigh on two hours to reach Pikovo. It’s always a pretty spot but covered in pillows of snow it looked even better. Nataša and Felix, the proprietors, welcomed me in and served me gulash washed down with a Laško pivo. Sometimes I meet other people at Pikovo, but today it was my own personal bar and restaurant. Conversation was limited as my Slovene is still extremely basic, but this is a perfect place to practice, as their English is also basic, so it puts us on an even keel.

When it comes to communication, I’ve found a little can go a long way. Although I must sound like a caveman, we were able to share some conversation and learn a little more about each other.

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The gulash was a welcome meal after the two hour journey

The gulash hit the spot and after resting for an hour, it was time to make my way back to Breg. I kept the skins on for the first half, as it’s mainly flat, but upon reaching the ‘peak’ it was back into downhill mode and deep snow.

It was deep but not so steep, so I had to ski in my own tracks for most of the ride or I came to a halt, but I did cut through a couple of sections where powerlines run, and I got a nice taste of Slovenian powder.

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Powerline cuttings provide powder pistes from Pikovo

It’s a great little ski-hike, and one I’ll do again and again whenever conditions permit.

How to Get a Temporary Residents Permit in Slovenia: what I learned

My first attempt at getting a Temporary Resident’s Permit in Slovenia was an unpleasant, unsuccessful failure.

I take most of the blame as I was not prepared in all areas and didn’t have a Slovenian speaker with me. However, the particular Upravna Enota (government administrator) who I spoke to was completely uncooperative, picked holes in everything, and succeeded in being as unhelpful as possible, ensuring that I left her office with nothing but a bad mood.

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Even the forms are confusing. It’s the navy blue one you need.

For my second attempt, I wanted to ensure I had all my bases covered so I reached out to the Expats In Slovenia community to ask for their advice. It quickly became apparent that there were no definitive rules on exactly what you needed, or how long it would take to get the permit.

There were differing accounts of what documents people had had to show, and the time taken to receive the permit ranged from two weeks to seven months! So it seems that it will depend to a large extent on which office you go to, what your exact situation is, and which upravna enota officer you actually get on the day.

Why do you need a temporary resident permit in Slovenia?

In Slovenia you can buy a house, rent an apartment and do most other things, without getting the permit. However, I discovered to my alarm, that one thing you cannot do, is register a car. I discovered this after I’d bought and paid for a car, so was then left with my avto sitting on the forecourt of the car dealership for several weeks, with me unable to drive it off into the sunset. This sped me to action in trying to get my temporary permit, but also led to my failed first attempt.

You can stay up to three months in Slovenia without a permit, but if you’re planning on staying longer, then you should apply for one. This is especially important if you’re from the UK and are planning on staying a long time, because you’ll want to be able to show that you have been living in Slovenia before the dreaded Brexit day deadline. You can read the Slovenian government’s official info on residents’ permits/visas here.

What I actually needed to get my resident’s permit in Slovenia

(take photocopies and originals)

  1. Someone who speaks Slovenian and English (or your native tongue)

My first nightmare upravna enota claimed that they were ‘forbidden to speak any language other than Slovenian’. From what I’ve heard from other expats, this could be true, but certainly is not always adhered to; several people said they have spoken English with UPs. However, if you get an uncooperative one (as I did), you’ll be stuck. So you’ll have a far greater chance of success if you bring a Slovene+English speaker with you to translate.

  1. Passport
  1. Healthcare insurance certificate

You need to be able to show you are covered for any emergency medical care that you may require whilst in Slovenia. I used Vzajemna who were helpful and efficient.

  1. Slovenian Bank statement showing sufficient funds

No-one seems to be able to tell you exactly how much money you need to have in total but I worked on the basis of at least €350 per month for 12 months. The statement needs to be printed by the bank and stamped with their official stamp. (They LOVE stamping things in Slovenia. If there’s a piece of paper that can be stamped, then Goddanm it, stamp it they will).

  1. Passport-sized photograph

What I took but didn’t need

(Other expats said they had been asked for these things, but in the end they were not required for my application).

  1. Six months’ worth of my UK bank statements
  1. Accommodation Rental agreement contract

This was not required for my application but will be required when I go to pick up the permit, as I then need to register my address.

  1. Police registration document

You’re supposed to register with the local police if you’re staying any longer than three days in Slovenia. If you’re in staying in ‘official’ accommodation (eg hotel or campsite), they take your passport details so you don’t have to do it yourself, but if you’re in an AirBnb or staying with friends, you’re legally required to go to the local police station and register your presence. I strongly suspect the vast majority of people don’t bother doing this.

  1. Birth Certificate

A Tale of Two Upravna Enotas: What I learned

I have now personally experienced how different two different upravna enotas can be. I’ll say now that they were in different regions of Slovenia, one of them is likely to have had much more experience of dealing with foreigners, and I was better prepared the second time. But still, the difference was stark.

One told me I didn’t have enough money (even when I did), questioned the source of my funds, and demanded to see six months of UK statements. The other was perfectly satisfied with my single Slovenian bank statement and said no more on the subject.

One made a fuss that I didn’t have a Slovenian telephone number. The other didn’t even ask for a telephone number.

One demanded I have a police registration document. The other made no mention whatsoever of this.

One was clearly being obstructive for the sake of it, the other was just getting the job done.

Compared to my first experience, my second visit went extremely smoothly. In total, the whole process took around 30 minutes, with a 15 minute wait to be seen. They said I would receive my permit in 3 weeks.

Registering A Car in Slovenia: Pro Tip

As I didn’t want to have to wait over a month to be able to get my car and drive in Slovenia, I discovered a completely legitimate way around having to wait for my temporary resident permit to turn up.

All you need is a Slovenian friend who you trust completely and who are willing to register the car in their name. This means that they are the legal owner of the car, but with their permission (and it’s worth also getting a special document from the AMZS (the Slovenian equivalent of the AA) which shows that you are legally allowed to drive it.  Apparently this is not required within Slovenia, but if you’re driving outside of the country, it will keep you out of trouble if you’re stopped by the police.

Yet again – a big najlepša hvala to my Slovenian prijatelji Ivo and Vanja for helping me out. Without you I’d have no car and no permit.

Do you have any tips, advice or experiences you want to share about getting a temporary resident permit in Slovenia? Add a comment below.