Melania Trump tourism: First lady's hometown Sevnica lures visitors

It may have brightly painted walls and leafy gardens, but Savo Kladnik Elementary School is unlikely to be on anyone's must-visit travel list.

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John Malathronas (CNN)
(CNN) — It may have brightly painted walls and leafy gardens, but Savo Kladnik Elementary School is unlikely to be on anyone's must-visit travel list.

Or at least that was the case until November 2016, when a certain former pupil -- Melania Trump -- was revealed as the next first lady of the United States.

Now Savo Kladnik, named after a political activist slain in World War II, is one of the key stops on a tour of the Slovenian town of Sevnica where the third Mrs. Trump spent her formative years.

While the rest of Slovenia has been somewhat slow to capitalize on arguably its most famous former citizen, Sevnica and the surrounding region of Posavje is taking full advantage to become a travel destination.

The US President's wife was born Melanija Knavs (pronounced Knauss,) in nearby Novo Mesto, but grew up in Sevnica, now an industrial town with a population of around 5,000.

Janez Levstik, a retired factory worker who now runs Melania Trump tours of the town, remembers the first lady as a child, describing the one-time model as a "nice girl" who was "good at school."

First Lady brand salami

Melania Trump's mother, Amalija Knavs, was fashion designer at the now-closed Jutranjka clothing, which operated alongside the still-open Kopitarna Shoes and Lisca Underwear factories.

Sevnica's industrial backdrop may not sound glamorous but, says Levstik, helped set Melania on the road to becoming one of the planet's most photographed women.

"Melania was a model in Jutranjka from a young age because her mother took her there to try out the clothes she'd designed," Levstik says while pointing out the factory worker apartment blocks where the family lived.

The first lady's presence is felt often while walking around the town, which covers an area of about five square kilometers.

Cafe Julija on the main street offers a delicious "Melania" cake made with an apple and almond filling in a housing of white chocolate. The cake also has edible gold streaks, perhaps reflecting the US President's apparent love of bling.

The Kruhek bakery and coffee shop (Trg svobode 40, 8290 Sevnica; +386 7 816 08 80) sells the Prva Dama (translated as "first lady" in Slovenian) -- an apple pie, complete with an embossed "M" and a tiny American flag, for $2 apiece.

Inside Sevnica Castle, which looks imperiously over the 13th century old town center, visitors can buy various products from "First Lady." The brand has no actual connection to the US President's wife and notably avoids using her actual name or image.

These include beauty creams as well as bottles of red wine, tea, pralines with raspberry filling and two local specialties -- cured salami sausage and apple slices dipped in chocolate.

The Melania effect

It's not just Sevnica that has benefited from the Melania Trump connection. The nearby town of Raka has also gained from the association.

The prime spot here is the church of St. Lawrence, a typical Slovenian basilica with an onion dome, unusually large for such a small village. This late Baroque beauty has several works of art inside such as a 1742 organ, a gilded altar and a 1796 painting of St. Lawrence by Slovenian artist Leopold Layer.

However, it's the green marble baptismal font that parish priest Franc Levicar guides visitors to with barely-concealed pride.

"This is where Melania was baptized on June 14, 1970," he says, adding that the first lady's maternal family are from this area. "Melania's uncle still lives a few hundred meters away down the hill."

Modest roots

Melania Trump's grandfather was a farmer who cultivated Raka's pride and joy -- an endemic type of red onion, the Raska C'bula, which is available to taste at Gostliina Tratnik, a restaurant opposite the church (Raka 47, 8274 Raka; +386 51 840 888)

The soft and sweet onion is known locally as "the bacon of the poor," because people eat it raw with bread. Tried on a thin crust pizza with cheese and prosciutto, it's remarkably aromatic.

"The Burpee Seeds Company, based in Warminster Pennsylvania, wrote to us requesting seeds," the priest adds. "We hope they will be sown in the White House garden."

The Posavje countryside, where Melania Trump grew up, is a beautiful hill-strewn region, crisscrossed by rivers like the Mirna and the Krka, fringed by primeval forests of pine, fir, oak and beech.

Among the most beautiful areas is Kozjansko Regional Park, east of Sevnica.

Kostanjevica na Krki, Slovenia's Venice, is the regional jewel, a medieval town built on an island on the river Krka with three highly Instagram-worthy bridges. The oldest building is the church of St. Jakob, which dates from 1220 and is formed of a mixture of architectural styles, with a Romanesque entrance embraced by a Gothic portal.

Kostanjevica's Cistercian monastery, now an art gallery, is decidedly baroque, while its large garden, the Forma Viva, is an open-air museum full of weathered oak sculptures.

The monastery is also the birthplace of arguably the most famous of Slovenia's wines, Cvicek, a ruby red, fruity blend of red and, unusually, white grapes.

There are many beautiful castles in the area -- among them the fairytale-style Otocec Castle and Renaissance fortress Brezice -- but the most evocative is Rajhenburg Castle, located outside Krsko.

It's an austere, Romanesque building with an unenviable reputation as the deportation center for Slovenians during World War II.

A permanent exhibition inside details how Slovenia was to be "Aryanized" during the German occupation, with villagers who didn't look the part uprooted and transported to Germany.

Close-knit community

Levicar's parents were two such deportees. They returned to Sevnica after the war with no money to find the family house was in ruin.

"They began their life from scratch. Someone from the village gave my father some seeds to start his farm," he says.

A walk Sevnica's upscale Ribnik quarter finds residents washing their cars outside their garages while children play soccer in the street.

Among residential properties is a black and white modern villa with a US-style mailbox. It's owned by the Knavs family, and Melania Trump's mother stays here when she's in town, which isn't often these days.

Heading toward Sevnica's Nadvoz bridge, Levstik points at one particular house.

"I helped build this one," she says. "During the communist era, we didn't have banks and mortgages. Me and my neighbors built our houses together.

"One Saturday they came to build mine, the weekend after it was the turn of someone else. Most of Sevnica's private houses were built like that. Afterwards we held a big thank you feast on Saturday nights," she says with a tinge of nostalgia.

Such close-knit bonhomie still exists today in the region. Each village has its own women's groups, volunteer fire service, heritage clubs and wine associations. And, on the evidence of a reported $25,000 donation to a local village clinic after the birth of her son Barron, it seems it's a community that Melania Trump still feels a part of.

How to get there

The Posavje region is best reached by rented car from the capital Ljubljana.

Until May 2018 Sevnica didn't even have a proper hotel, with visitors being offered farm stays in the vicinity.

Hotel Ajdovec (1, Trg svobode, 8290 Sevnica; +386 7 816 10 60) has now opened. It's undistinguished but comfortable enough to have hosted the Slovenian President.

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