LJUBLJANA, Slovenia (AP) — When Melanija Knavs drove around Ljubljana in a fluffy skirt on a metallic blue Vespa with her boyfriend in the late 1980s, the Slovenian capital was a sleepy town that offered little excitement to rare visitors.
Over the past two decades since she left her native Slovenia, became a model known as Melania Knauss and married American billionaire Donald Trump, Ljubljana has turned from a gray and drab place with almost no nightlife, into a lively and picturesque city filled with restaurants, cafes and nightclubs packed with foreigners.
The heart of the city has been closed to traffic, though, so Mrs. Trump would no longer be able to ride by scooter to her favorite cafe, then called the Horse's Tail, near Tromostovje — the charming stone triple bridge in the heart of the city decorated with small dragon-like statues.
She would also hardly recognize the renovated downtown since she last visited.
The city is dominated by a majestic castle on a hill by the river Ljubljana that splits the town into two. At night, the castle is lit bright green, the city's traditional color. A boat cruise along the river reveals spectacular architecture while street artists play music and perform for visitors.
The city's center on the banks of the river offers romantic dining and other excellent culinary offerings, including an open kitchen on Fridays when chefs prepare international dishes on makeshift stands that serve as an open-air market the other days of the week.
Slovenia, which has become one of Europe's hottest nature destinations after splitting from Yugoslavia in 1991, is privileged to have both an opening onto the Adriatic Sea as well as chunks of the Alps. It is also known for tasty wines and food specialties such as Kranjska klobasa, a juicy pork sausage, or struklji, a traditional Slovene pastry with various fillings.
Slovenia has often been confused in the past with another small central European state, Slovakia. But since Donald Trump joined the presidential race in the U.S., his wife and potential first lady have come into public limelight, along with the country where she was born and raised.
"Whatever you think of Melania, she put Slovenia on the map of the world," said Janez Bosnjak, a Ljubljana resident.
Born in the hilly industrial town of Sevnica in 1970 when Slovenia was part of Communist Yugoslavia, Mrs. Trump's early life has come under media scrutiny — especially after her official biography had her graduating from the Ljubljana university.
Rok Bogataj, who knew her when they studied at the Faculty of Architecture, said she regularly attended lectures but did not graduate.
"I had an impression that she had serious ambitions to finish her studies, but one day she simply disappeared. We heard that she decided to become a fashion model and that she went to Milano," Bogataj said.
For tourists, Ljubljana is the perfect jumping-off point for daily trips to other attractions. The city is the eco-friendly European Green Capital for 2016, and it's located in central Slovenia. The country, which has 2 million people, offers an abundance of contrasting landscapes and cultures and is proud of being the only country in the world with the word "love" in its name.
More than 2.4 million tourists visited in 2014, according to international arrivals statistics cited by the World Bank, more than triple the number who visited in 1995.
One must-see destination northwest of Ljubljana is Lake Bled where emerald-green waters create a spectacular landscape, with a lush, tiny island and a church tower peeking out of evergreens surrounded by the rocky Julian Alps.
It was at lakeside Grand Hotel Toplice in Bled where Mrs. Trump introduced Donald Trump to her parents during their brief visit to Slovenia in July 2002, two years before they engaged. It is believed that it was the last time that the former model visited her native country.
Not far from Bled are the seaside towns of Piran, called the Venice of Slovenia because of the colorful Venetian gothic mansions, and Portoroz, a French-Riviera style resort with luxurious hotels lining along a sandy beach.
It was in Portoroz in 1992 where Mrs. Trump got a big break in her modeling career when Slovenia's women magazine Jana staged its "Look of the Year" contest. She took the second place that gave her the invitation to cast for an international modeling agency in Milan.
"Melania was one of the girls who participated at the event," said Jana's editor Bernarda Jeklin. "I wouldn't say that Melania was outstanding. She was quiet, introverted. But what I remember were her dangerous, tiger-like green eyes."