In First Lady's hometown in Slovenia, the business is Melania
Posted July 22, 2018 6:02 p.m. EDT
Updated July 22, 2018 10:02 p.m. EDT
SEVNICA, Slovenia — Melania cake. Melania cream. Melania wine. Melania tea. Melania slippers. Melania salami. Melania chocolate-coated apple slices.
There are few products that the enterprising burghers of Sevnica, a small, rural Slovenian town where Melania Trump spent her formative years, have not sought to brand in honor of the first lady of the United States.
Copyright restrictions mean that most of the items merely allude to her identity: The wine is called “First Lady,” while the slippers (a silvery number garnished with a fluffy white rabbit’s tail) are called “White House.”
But legal kerfuffles aside, Trump has been good for Sevnica (pronounced SEH-oo-nee-tsa) — a town of around 5,000 that sits in a forest-lined river valley some 90 minutes by car from Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.
The town’s only hotel reopened earlier this year. The annual tourist traffic — helped, of course, by Melania-themed tours — has risen by 15 percent, to 20,000 visitors, in the three years since Trump’s husband, then a real estate mogul and a star of reality television, became a front-runner for the presidency.
“After Melania, things really changed,” said Srecko Ocvirk, the town’s mayor. “Now we have tourists from all over the world.”
At Kopitarna, the shoe company that makes the Melania-themed slippers, staff members saluted Trump for putting Slovenia on the map. “Many other people,” said Marija Balinc, an export manager, “thought we were called Slovakia.”
But press a little harder, and there are signs the novelty is wearing thin, even for people like Lidija Ogorevc, one of the local guides who occasionally takes tourists on a tour of the town’s Melania-related sites for about $35 a head.
“Yes, that is the Melania wine,” Ogorevc sighed on a recent tour, as she breezed past a bottle of First Lady on sale at the town’s 12th-century castle.
“But this,” she added, pointing to a nearby bottle of Grajska Kri, a Blaufränkisch red, “this is the top wine.”
These days, Ogorevc does not hide her indifference to all the commotion over Melania. “For me, I really don’t really care about these things,” Ogorevc said, not seeming to mind how this might sound on a Melania tour. “Sevnica has much more to show than just this story.”
For Ogorevc, the glory of Sevnica is its castle, on a nearby hill with dreamy views of the Sava river below. “Can you imagine what it’s like in summer?” she said, gazing across the valley from the doors of the castle. “Wow, really nice!”
Her mood darkened as we drove back down into Sevnica, and parked outside a communist-era tower on the edge of town.
“Now we are making a stop at the apartment block where they lived,” she said, referring to the future first lady, then named Melanija Knavs, and her family.
Then she gestured vaguely at the building, and shrugged.
“But I can’t tell you exactly where they lived because I don’t have that information,” she said, a little irritably.
Over in the town’s tourist office, visitors can buy a book about Trump’s early life — “Melania Trump: The Slovenian Side of the Story” — and a wide range of First Lady products, including the chocolate-coated apple slices.
But the head of the local tourist board, Mojca Pernovsek, would agree to an interview only if the subject of Melania was left untouched.
There is so much else to talk about, Pernovsek said. The valley the village sits in. The hiking. The wood-chopping. The men-only salami festival. The wine festival (for all genders). The fishing and beer festivals. And, of course, the castle.
But, Pernovsek said, “I don’t want to talk about politics.”
Until 2016, when Trump rose to global prominence, there would have been little reason to ask.
Sevnica was then better known as a minor industrial hub, housing Kopitarna, one of Slovenia’s oldest shoe companies; Stilles, a furniture company that supplies international hotels; and Slovenia’s largest lingerie company, Lisca.
When Trump was a child, her mother, Amalija, worked at another clothing factory, which has since closed. Her father, Viktor, is reported to have sold car parts. Few residents remember them from that time — not even Ocvirk, the mayor, who is just a year older than Trump, and would have attended the local elementary school at the same time.
Trump left Sevnica about 30 years ago, first to study in Ljubljana in the late 1980s, and then a few years later to work in the United States. For some of the town’s younger generation, born after Trump left, the association is still exciting.
“I don’t know her as a person, I am just very proud that she’s from my town,” said Maja Kozole Popadic, a cafe owner who sells a Melania-themed apple pie. “For someone from this small town to become first lady of the United States is such a big thing for us.”
But Trump has not made a public return to Sevnica, or Slovenia, since becoming first lady, and for most the connection remains primarily a commercial opportunity.
At the Rondo restaurant, diners can sample a “Presidential Burger” — in which the bun is topped with a frizzy slice of fried cheese that looks convincingly similar to President Donald Trump’s mop of hair.
The staff members, however, do not all share the same excitement for all things Donald and Melania.
“I think at the time when he was elected, people were excited, but now it’s kind of worn out,” said Mia Podlesnik, a young waitress at Rondo. “Marrying someone — I don’t think that’s really an accomplishment.”