07/01/2014 10:00 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2014

The Magical Dolphins of Slovenia

The first time I saw dolphins was in Slovenia, when it was still called Yugoslavia, while on vacation with my parents. We lived in Paris and most summers my parents rented a small flat of two rooms in the coastal village of Piran, where we usually spent a few weeks at the time. Why they chose that location was never questioned by my unaware self, but I know now that they had multiple reasons; it was a lot less expensive than renting a house in Italy, the next door country. It was a lot less crowded than Spain, a favorite destination for many French tourists. It was also much closer than Greece.

Piran is located a couple of hours south of Venice (Italy), three hours north of the border with Croatia, and a 12 hour drive from Paris. We would stop twice on our way down; the first stop would be at the beginning of Provence in Avignon, and the second in Venice, never a city to be missed. One of my first memories in life is standing on the Saint Mark place in the center of Venice when I was five years old, trying to feed pigeons, and as my father was taking a picture of me, a bird came pecking me on the top of my head, and I started bawling. I still have the photograph. Cute.

The Adriatic coastline was as, if no even more, beautiful than the famed shores of Italy. My mother had fallen in love with the culture, the food, the music, and the landscapes. We had a tiny apartment at the top of a tall and skinny house, with the grandest of view, beyond stone walls we could see the ocean and the beach, watch sunsets and we were high-enough perched that the silence was dominant, even in mid-day, when the market below was in full swing.

Our cozy rented place had a large kitchen with a wood table used as a dining room, a very large room with four beds lying against the walls, and an amazing terrace where my brothers preferred to sleep on stone benches outfitted with flat outdoor striped cushions. The center of the outside patio had an old iron pit to build a small fire. We did not know then about marshmallows, but we sometimes made toasts on the flames. We had kittens one summer that lived on the terrace where the mommy cat had chosen to give birth, and decided to stay even after we arrived.

The huge bathroom (I've lived in apartments smaller than this) was out in the hallway a few steps down, and meant to be used by several apartments, but since we were the only ones on that floor, we never saw anybody else using the facility, and we got used to keep our private things in it. The room was adorned with bright indigo tiles on the walls, the floors, and the ceiling, had a gigantic blue bathtub, and a large stained glass window. A chaise in a corner started my love of sofas in bathrooms, whenever feasible.

The coast of Slovenia is lined with gentle hills falling down to the sea, secret coves of transparent waters and tropical plants and flowers. Multiple medieval villages of stone houses and narrow streets sometimes look like they belong inside a fairytale picture book. It's a very whimsical-looking country. A lot of the architecture of Piran is clearly Venetian in style.

My parents, my two bothers and I used to travel a lot. We traced every country in Europe, each summer for weeks when we were off from school. My mother was a geography/history teacher, so she had the same months of vacation as us kids, and my father, being a civil servant of somewhat high rank, was able to take off quite often.

The ocean there was warm all the time, day and night, of course this was summer, but the Adriatic Sea around the coast was famous at that very spot for the strong hot current running through the waters of the gulf of Piran. One day a the beach, half sand and half pebbles, when I must have been eight or nine years old, I was in the water about waist high, when the kids around me started screaming and running out of the surf. Not understanding what they were saying, I tried to look for a reason to their screams; I was a little blinded by the high sun, and finally saw a few adults gesturing for all to get back to land.

A gigantic wave of large animals was swimming right there in a few feet of water, maybe 20 or 30 of them, and while most swimmers first believed they were sharks, they all returned to the ocean when somebody cleared the way, recognizing that the large mammals were in fact dolphins. I never had the time to get out of the water, and then I did not want to. The gentle beasts were showing off for us, jumping and bobbing in front of our eyes, some turned around and did it again. My heart was pounding from being within reaching distance to the animals; they looked much larger than I thought they were.

The feeling of softness and calm coming from the dolphins cruising along was overwhelming and I stayed in the water for hours hoping to see them coming back. It was only 15 or 20 minutes of my life, but those minutes are still with me today. It started my life-long interest in dolphins, and I was more than happy when I moved to Florida to be able to help in the rehab program of MARS (Marine Animal Rescue Society) based in the Florida Keys, where I was able to care for a stranded dolphin named Eclipse (as it appeared on an eclipse night.)

The sick dolphin had to be tended at all times for a few weeks, as it was barely able to swim on its own, so rescuers and helpers (like me) had to walk alongside it in the lagoon where it was kept 24 hours a day. A wonderful experience for me - a great job from the rescue team allowed Eclipse to be later released to the wild. Each time I see a dolphin cruising the waters where I live now is a treat I will never get tired of.

Yugoslavia (named as such until 1991) was a magical summer destination for us. I was never concerned by the politics or the pressures the country had to deal with, my parents never talked to us about politics, and we were simply unaware tourists, not the mission-driven visitors some have become nowadays. A few people spoke French, some Italian and Spanish, which were the languages spoken by my family. It was long after we stopped going to Yugoslavia that the tragic events of the breaking of the country happened. In 1991 Slovenia declared its independence from Yugoslavia.

We visited many churches and several marketplace I remember fondly, they were so exotic for a girl from Paris...they had straw hats and tropical fruits, colorful embroidered long skirts and cute little white lace corset blouses. I adored the small dogs running around the medieval town - simply owing the streets and finding their way home on their own. I had never seen dogs roaming a city without being on a leash.

Today Slovenia and neighboring Croatia are again very popular destinations for tourists. Still cheaper than most countries around, more beautiful than some too, the historic villages, famous wines, tranquil coves and beaches are no longer a secret; the established stability of the country makes it a great vacation place I wouldn't mind returning to, and perhaps even see more dolphins!

See pictures of Slovenia here: