By Emily Williams
Once upon a time, in a village far, far away, a Wishing Bell rang out across the calm waters of Lake Bled, pealing out the hopes of a lifetime of happiness for newlyweds.
The flowery language may sound like a fairytale, but this story is a reality for Lillian Jones and Peyton Falkenburg, who wed in May on Lake Bled in Slovenia.
Though neither of them has any genealogical connection to the land, they flew overseas in search of new experiences that embrace old world charm.
As every couple’s story starts somewhere, Lillian and Peyton’s began much earlier than either of them can recall.
“Supposedly we met when we were 3 in Sunday School,” Lillian said, though she cannot recall the encounter.
They grew up in the same grade in school, attending junior high and high school together without too much communication.
The couple’s parents, Virginia and George Jones and Frank and Karle Falkenburg, have been friends for years.
“Virginia used to model with (Karle) back in the ‘80s,” George said. “So we’ve known them for a long time.” They had even joked about the possibility of their children marrying someday.
Though it could have been arranged, Lillian and Peyton’s reconnection occurred naturally.
“It’s not romantic,” Lillian joked. “We were at Otey’s Tavern after a wedding and he asked me to dinner. I just said yes.”
At the time, both Lillian and Peyton had recently moved back to their hometown.
“When I moved back here, I didn’t think I would be here for good,” she said.
Lillian is a lover of travel and seeker of adventure, so a life settled in her hometown seemed out of character.
She spent her early adulthood living in France, Germany, New York and Slovakia, where her older brother, Jackson, lives with his Slovakian wife and their son.
After returning to the Birmingham area, she began working at her father’s Crestline shop, Snoozy’s Kids and george; but it took settling down with Peyton to reseal her hometown roots.
A Southern Element
The proposal was quintessentially Southern, with Peyton surprising her at her grandfather’s hunting camp in south Alabama with four bouquets of flowers.
“Each bouquet spelled out the words Will You Marry Me,” she said. “The first one had willow, iris, laurel and lilly … and so on.”
Even though she was committing to a different life than her younger self had imagined, her dream wedding was every bit the magic she expected and more.
“Peyton proposed to me in August and I had already booked the venue and the wedding planner in July, because this was where I knew I wanted to get married,” she said.
The question on both sets of parents’ minds: Why Slovenia?
The country rests in a nook against the Adriatic Sea with Italy to the west, Austria to the north and Hungary and Croatia to the east.
Right after Lillian and Peyton first started dating, she went on a backpacking trip for a month, beginning in Slovakia to visit family. Her travels finished in the Triglav Mountains on a hiking trip with a guide who pointed out Lake Bled, noting it was a popular wedding destination.
In the center of the lake is Bled Island, an ancient land where traces of prehistoric and early Slovene settlements have been found by archeologists.
The island is most notably home to the legendary Church on the Island – The Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary – which is, itself, steeped in history and folklore. One legend has it that the temple of the Slavic goddess Ziva stood where the church sits but disappeared into thin air during battles between pagans and Christians.
According to Virginia, when Lillian returned from her trip, she “stated that if she ever married, she desired a destination wedding in Bled, Slovenia. With no current fiance, (George and I) listened but were not fully convinced that any such thing would or should ever happen.”
While visiting her son and his family in Slovakia, when the proposal was imminent, Virginia decided to take a road trip through Austria to Bled.
“Charm and scenery, check,” she said.
After one serendipitous meeting with a local wedding planner and a visit to the church, venues and potential guest lodging, all of Virginia’s doubts dissipated.
It was important that a send-off party be hosted in Birmingham for guests who couldn’t make it to a wedding in a foreign country. Not to mention, it would take a bus, boats and staircase of 99 ancient steps to get to the church.
While fewer than 100 people would make it to Slovenia for the wedding, several hundred would go to the pre-wedding party.
“It was a wonderful way to celebrate with all our friends who truly had a connection to Lillian and Peyton and who were so happy for them,” Karle said. “Some of Lillian and Peyton’s friends who couldn’t come to the wedding came from all over the country to celebrate with them at the party. It was very humbling.”
The event, held at The Country Club of Birmingham, included an opulent Champagne, cheese and charcuterie table. It was an opportunity to have a hometown feel that wasn’t to be recreated in Slovenia.
“Peyton proposed to her in the woods, so we went to those same woods and cut down about 60 trees,” George said.
“On Easter Sunday,” Lillian interjected.
“Rented a truck, loaded them up and put them in the East Room at Birmingham Country Club,” George continued. “So, the trees you saw helped decorate it to look like a southern forest.”
While it can be difficult to plan a wedding in a country you hardly know, those preparations went seamlessly, Lillian said. In fact, she said, that was easy compared to the guest list of a few hundred who attended the send-off.
Lillian’s key to success: use a Slovene wedding planner.
They worked with Petra of DA Petra, and their praises for her are copious.
Lillian noted, as she and her mother barely knew the area, it was important to hire someone who was familiar with Bled.
“We truly had to trust her recommendations for the florist, photographer, videographer, priest, organist, soloist, hairdresser, makeup artist, wedding music … all while working closely with us through the planning process, all beyond expectation,” Virginia said.
A Time in Slovenia
The five-day affair in Slovenia fully embraced the surrounding culture.
“None of our guests – except for me, my mom and one other guy – had ever been to this country, which was the goal, to bring everyone to a new place and experience something completely new together,” Lillian said.
The Jones’ spent their first night in Slovenia with family.
“Arriving on Monday for the Friday wedding was really lovely,” Virginia said. “This allowed us to spend time with our families and guests that landed during the week. All could enjoy activities unique to the area.”
The week was spent touring, fishing, golfing and visiting until Thursday, when a traditional rehearsal dinner was held at Bled Castle, which sits on the highest point in the area, overlooking the lake.
The festivities started with a “standing reception,” with traditional food and wine including local sausages and cheeses. Folk dancers and musicians performed and invited guests to dance with them.
A seated dinner followed, with the menu offering such foods as venison, a local fish called zander and a cream cake. Then Champagne bottles were sabered.
“This was special because the sword that was used was sent over to Bled by Peyton’s godmother, on which she had it inscribed with their names and date, but it also said, “Saber the moments of your life,’” Karle said.
The wedding day was peaceful, according to both families.
Lillian wore a remake of Virginia’s wedding dress, Birmingham-based designer Katherine Vier crafting a comfortable, yet ornate gown featuring lace borrowed from its inspiration.
Peyton’s niece, McKay, was the flower girl and Lillian’s nephew, Bennett, was ring bearer, walking in an outfit that had been worn by his father 28 years prior. There were no bridesmaids or groomsmen.
In the early evening, the guests boarded small boats and were taken to the church, then Lillian, Karle, George and Virginia made their way in. The church doors opened and Lillian and George faced their small group of close family and friends as well as a perfectly polished, gold-leaf laden church.
“Peyton didn’t see me until I walked down the aisle, which was really special,” Lillian said.
Conforming to Slovene tradition, Virginia was seated on the right, rather than following the American tradition of being seated on the left.
“My favorite moment was when I walked into the church and Frank and Peyton were standing there at the back of the church,” Karle said. “I loved that Peyton walked me down the aisle and then Frank and Peyton took that last little walk down the aisle together before Peyton married the love of his life.”
The ceremony was conducted in English by the head of the Lutheran Church in Slovenia, but everyone said the Lord’s Prayer in their native tongue. The prayer was spoken in Slovene, English, Slovak and, by one guest, German.
At the end of the ceremony, the couple rang the church wishing bell, circa 1534. Under one legend, that would portend a happy marriage for Peyton and Lillian.
“Because it’s a tourist destination, you only have a short amount of time before the church re-opens for tours,” Lillian said. “When we were walking out with guests throwing rose petals – tourists were there throwing rose petals with them.”
The tourist participation helped make the church exit even more of a spectacle, Lillian said. A few of them were even able to snag a selfie with the bride.
Lillian and Peyton posed for photos while guests began partaking in the tradition of wedding cake and champagne. The couple then descended the 99 stairs so that Peyton could carry Lillian back up them, another luck-bestowing Slovene tradition.
Carrying Lillian and her large dress up the old, misshapen steps was one of the most difficult tasks of the trip. “He couldn’t see the steps under her dress, so I was behind him telling him, ‘Step. Step. Step,’” George said.
“And I was telling him, ‘Breathe. Breathe. Breathe,’” Lillian joked.
The crowd returned to the hotel for dinner, dancing and several Slovakian wedding games, and a party that went until 3 a.m., Virginia said. Lillian’s older brother Jackson emceed the reception and led the games. In one, a few men were seated in front of a blindfolded Lillian with one pant leg rolled up, and she had to pick which leg was Peyton’s.
“At midnight they brought out a big pot of goulash and bread,” George said. “Because, by then, you’re hungry again and it soaks up a bit of the wine that you have had.”
The following day was laid back and the newlyweds had a chance to bid farewell to their friends and family before leaving for their honeymoon.
The couple spent the time following their wedding visiting the Baltics, spending time in countries they had never seen before, such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Copenhagen, searching for new experiences.