i feel sLOVEnia
Anything would have seemed amazing after the horrors of Turkey, but Slovenia really is. It lives up to its new slogan (I feel sLOVEnia, as you may have guessed). We were panicking on the train to the airport in Istanbul because, there being two airports there, we were very scared we might go to the wrong one and end up stuck in Turkey forever. We made it, though, and stepped off our plane into cool, grey, sweet-smelling Slovenia. It smelled like mountains and trees. We hadn’t really made any reservations or plans–except for escape from Turkey–and so got in our rental car to go check out the capital, Ljubljana, and then
drive to Triglav national park. Never mind that they’re practically on opposite sides of the country; they’re still only forty minutes apart. While driving around we found a giant chess set in a park, which was very Alice-in-Wonderland or Harry-Potterish, and was fitting, because Slovenia is kind of like a setting for a fairy-tale. It’s the tiniest country I think I’ve ever been to (20,273 square km) but has the Julien Alps, rolling foothills, rushing glacial rivers, Swiss-style cottages and lodges, and towering cliffs and sunny beaches on the Mediterranean coast (which we stayed away from; we were sick of the heat). Slovenia borders Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia, and it shows. Its culture is a healthy and wonderful mix of all of these, plus traditional Slovene culture of course–which seems to be rather Eastern-
European, accordion-based. A lot of the bordering countries have encroached upon Slovenian territory and vice-versa, but I think now the border situations are pretty stable. Slovenia was the first Eastern Bloc country to become part of the EU and has ‘advanced’ (ie become EU material) rapidly. It’s not efficient like Germany (thank God) but it’s a very organized country that’s easy to travel in. And everyone speaks English (everyone in cities, anyway) better than I do.
After a riveting game of chess (Austin won, as always), we headed to Bled, the beautiful and touristy Alpine village. It’s like a fairytale wonderland, with a castle atop cliffs on an island in the middle of a beautiful lake. We camped in Bled itself and in Bojinkski Bela, a few kilometers deeper into the mountains and more rustic camping (it was here that Austin was first exposed to European-style
camping–being packed in like sardines, no trees separating camp sites, lots of RVs, and expensive rates). We found a climbing store, bought a climbing guide, and got in a couple days of climbing (scary, difficult climbing!) before it started to rain. We spent the rainy day at one of Slovenia’s main tourist attractions, Postojna cave. This karst (limestone) formation was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen and definitely worth the admission fee. You take a little train down into what seems like the bowels of the earth, where it’s 10 degrees celcius all year round and limestone-laden water drips down stalactites that have been millions of years in the making. There
are also these very bizarre blind lizards, called olm, who live in the many caves of Slovenia, and were mistaken for baby dragons in times past, which led to many folk tales, apparently. We saw some in Postojna, but they were put in aquariums so the public could see them. 5.3 km of the 205 km cave are open to the public, the longest depth of cave accessible to tourists in the world. There’s one room, called the amphitheater, appropriately, where concerts (usually choral) are often held. Unfortunately I have no pictures of the cave, as they were strictly forbidden. Google it if you want to see it. It’s amazing.
We managed eventually to get up into the Alps, once the rain let up a little. We only had time to spend one night in the mountains, but we made our hike into a long loop so we could see more. Backpacking in Europe is a very different
experience than in America; we didn’t even bring our sleeping bags because there was no need. At the top of most mountains is a ‘mountain hut,’ a very rustic (sometimes not-so-rustic, actually) hotel/inn where you sleep in (usually) communal bedrooms (with LOTS of wool blankets) and order your meals. It was weird to get to the top of a mountain and not sleep out under the stars, but it was kind of nice to have such light packs (although Austin did bring a full-sized umbrella which was given to him by the owner of a gay bar in Ljubljana when we took shelter in his establishment during a rainstorm) and VERY nice to have a roof and heater when the rain started. Nicer still was the chess set and the beers and schnapps. And the kids who ran the place (definitely a university students’ job) made us some delicious goulash for dinner.
We also spent some time in Celje, our new favorite city. It’s definitely a university town; lots of students,
hipsters, and bikes. We stayed in a sterile (but cheap and good enough for us!) hostel a short walk outside of town and spent one day up at the castle museum playing with swords and armor. We spent the rainy days in Celje and when it wasn’t raining, we camped at a farm out by a fabulous, though hidden, climbing site, Kotecnik. The farm was run by the sweetest plump slovenian woman who made HUGE homecooked meals and fabulous bread (for which she had won numerous awards, proudly displayed in her hallway). The meals were 3 Euros a piece and the beers and wine were cheap as well. She gave us free bread and breakfast and when she had leftover desserts, they went straight to us. We couldn’t communicate AT ALL with this woman; she was one of the few Slovenians who spoke no English
(she was a farmer; she had no need for it until she discovered that she lived near Slovenia’s best summer climbing spot). She was also a hunter, and had the funniest fat dachshund, which she insisted was a good hunting dog. We hung out with a couple of Croatian guys who were able to communicate with her because Croatian and Slovenian are very similar. All the farmers in the neighborhood came to her little restaurant/house to drink before work (yup!) and after work to drink more and play the accordion. It was a lively place for being so isolated. One night we and the Croatians were left alone and the mule escaped and we had a very exciting rescue mission which involved chasing, herding, coaxing, and beers.
This woman was really smart, as far as business goes, because her neighbor, whose farm was even more
ideally situated for climbers, HATED climbers and refused to allow them on his property, which led to a much nastier approach to the walls than necessary. Even though her rates are cheap and her meals even cheaper, she must still be making a decent amount of money because she’s in the process of expanding her house into a bed and breakfast. Right now camping is the only option (good enough for us), and it’s a lovely campsite, rustic and idyllic, with sheep speckling the surrounding hills, horses (you can ride them if you ask the woman’s son), and a mule who runs away. The climbing’s great too. It’s in the shade all day (good for the summer) and is beautiful limestone.
After our Kotecnik sojourn (we really didn’t want to leave), we spent one more night in Celje, where we ate horse (colt, actually), which was one of the most delicious meats I have ever tasted (I couldn’t bring myself to have more than a bite, though), and lots of my favorite Slovenian food, zlinkrofi, a pierogi-like dumpling of either savory or sweet varieties. YUM.
Slovenia was the perfect way to end our long vacation (if there is a perfect way to end a vacation), and we spent one more night in Ljubljana, going out for Mexican food (BAD in Europe, but we had to try it) and walking around in a DOWNPOUR. The next morning we took a bus to the airport and got on a plane for Paris, not without complications…I thought I had bought a ticket, but apparently I hadn’t so I had to buy mine at the last minute, but all went well and we said goodbye in the Charles de Gaulle airport for what felt like the 100th time. Austin went back stateside, while I headed to Aurillac, and the rest of the story you know.