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Slovenia: The tiny, perfect country of Europe w/beaches, mountains, more


This is a compendium (maybe even a gathering) of blog items from a trip I took to Slovenia in the spring of 2009. Four years later it remains one of my favourite trips ever and it’s a country I would LOVE to go back to. Highly recommended with all the thumbs up I can muster.

LAKE BLED, SLOVENIA – Arrived after a stunning flight from Zurich that took us directly over Mt. Triglav in Slovenia and the Julian Alps and came into cute, little Ljubljana airport. Nice folks.

The woman at the rental desk was great. When I told her it had been three years since I drove a manual transmission car but that I thought I’d be okay she paused. “I don’t think,” she said, “you have much choice.”IMG_6585

It was easy, of course, but boy do they go fast around here. A friend in Toronto warned me, but it takes getting used to when you go 130 km in a 130 zone and cars whizz past you.

LAKE BLED

I’ll do more on this in Star Travel this summer, but I gotta say that the Lake Bled area of Slovenia might be the prettiest place I’ve ever seen. There’s a big castle rising out of a cliff that towers over the lake, a pretty, Austrian-style (with apologies to the Slovenian church) church tower, a beautiful island with another lovely church spire and then you look up behind the lake and see jagged alpine peaks. You can walk or ride a bike around the lake with ease and get different views every time you look up.

SOMMELIER? OVER HERE, PLEASE

At the risk of sounding like a wine snob (okay, I admit it), it was pretty funny at dinner tonight. We had lovely food at a new hotel near the town of Bled, with a view of the lake. Really good stuff. The sauvignon blanc was a touch sweet but not bad with the appetizers; pork pate with dried plums and a bit of aspargus. But the waiter recommended a sweet, pink rose with dinner (I think it was called Pink Chicky, and I’m not kidding), even though we had a beef entrecote with goose liver on top. I don’t know about you, but rose and steak to me just doesn’t make it. And it was weird in a country where they are said to grow some darn good red wines. We’ll see.

The wine wasn’t at all bad. In fact, it was pretty decent. But the pairing seemed off.

That being said, it was a great meal. And you have to love the pride Slovenians feel about their country and their food and their wine. I read a guide book that said someone did a poll and found that 98 per cent of Slovenians say their wine is the best in the world. I love that confidence.

SCARY MOUNTAIN DRIVES AND WORLD WAR I HISTORY

IMG_6864 KOBARID, Slovenia – I’m plenty interested in history. But either I’m just not well-read or I have some kind of North American bias.

When I think about World War I, I think about Canadian and American and British troops in western Europe and a bit about Australia’s problems at Gallipoli in Turkey, but I don’t think about the eastern front in this part of Europe so much.

It took a visit to Slovenia this week to shake my memory and recall that Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms was based on his memories of this horrible arm of World War I, where Austria-Hungary faced a major invasion from Italy, which was on Canada’s side in this particular war.

I stayed last night in Kobarid, Slovenia, known to the Italians as Caporetto. It’s been under more governments than you can possibly imagine, but in World War I some of the most horrifying acts of war took place in this part of Europe. There’s an incredibly powerful museum here in Kobarid that’s dedicated to the war, and I hope to write about it soon in Star Travel. They say the Italian losses at Caporetto/Kobarid were so bad that the word Caporetto became an Italian word for something that goes really wrong.

Suffice to say it’s horrifying and awful and compelling and mesmerizing all at the same time. And a real reminder to those of us who’ve never had to serve our country that the people who did deserve a huge debt of gratitude.

It may be the Slovenian pinot blanc talking, but it felt weird to be sitting Tuesday night at the outdoor section of the stunningly good Topli Val restaurant at the Hotel Hvala and dining on sea bass carpaccio, shrimp, crayfish soup (outstanding) and other delights, knowing that less than 100 years ago countless thousands died within shouting distance of my dinner table during the war to end all wars. I enjoyed dinner, for sure, but the thought of those soldiers sticks with me as I write this silly blog.

ALPINE TERROR

On a lighter note, I’m pleased to say I survived the drive Tuesday from Lake Bled to Kobarid. The road took me up into the mountains high above Kranskja Gora, with some 51 switchbacks and an elevation change of several thousand feet into territory still covered with ice and snow, although not on the road, thank goodness.

Going up was easy, but the drive down was definitely white knuckle territory; 25 hairpin turns on the way down from the summit, with maybe a 4,000 foot elevation drop in the space of about five or eight kilometers. I must have driven the locals crazy, but it was all I could do to keep my eye on the road and not freak out. It’s a remarkably beautiful drive, like combining Highway 1 in California or the drive to Hana in Maui with the jagged mountain scenery of the Banff-to-Jasper circuit – on a steep hill. I still feel butterflies thinking about it, to tell you the truth.

A LOVELY IMAGE

Having dinner last night when I saw a 30-something man ride up the street on his bike, his two-year-old (or so) daugher sitting in a car seat above the handlebars on a perfect, summer-y night. She was cute as a proverbial button. Neither of them was wearing a helmet, this not being Toronto, and they didn’t seem to care.

The father (we surmise) rolled up the street and stopped his bike in front of a bar. A waiter, who obviously knows father and daughter, came out and gave her hair a little tousle. The little girl gave him a big smile.

A minute later, the waiter came back from the bar with a giant vanilla ice cream cone. I couldn’t see the little girl’s face but I’m sure she was beaming as her dad (again, I’m surmising here) slowly pedalled away. I kept thinking that I have no idea what will happen in her life but that she certainly has to feel loved. And that’s worth a lot.IMG_6827

DON HENLEY…AND BRUCE

Maybe it’s just me, but music plays a central part in my travel memories. I was looking over my notes on the balcony of my hotel room in Kobarid when the Eagles’ song “How Long” came playing from the bar across the street. I’m sure that five years from now when I hear that song I’ll picture the restaurant/bar and the mountains rising in the distance and the colour of the sky, just as I always think of a trip to Zermatt, Switzerland in 1984 when I hear Bruce Springsteen singing “Drive All Night.” I hadn’t heard much North American music on that trip so it was quite cool to hear it in our small hotel while my wife and I had a meal. I heard it on the radio again a few weeks ago while on the eastern shore of Virginia. I was listening to the E Street/Bruce station on XM/Sirius radio (a wonderful invention) and a DJ/Bruce fan from, I believe, Denmark was playing it and explaining that he thinks it’s Springsteen’s best song ever, which is a stretch as far as I’m concerned but that’s what’s great about music.

Now I’m typing in the cafe at the hotel here, waiting for the rain to stop, and they’re playing “Steal My Sunshine,” by Toronto’s Len (appropo given the weather). Haven’t heard this one in a while, and whatever happened to Len, anyway?

I turned on the radio on my out of the airport in Ljubljana on Monday and heard the song “Never Ending Story,” which was my oldest son’s favourite song when he was, oh, about three years old (sorry, kid, don’t mean to embarrass you). It’s not a great piece of music but the memories of my repeatedly spinning the single for my young son were so strong that I couldn’t help singing along.

And I can’t leave the subject of pop music in Europe without thinking about how I kept hearing the pop hit Gloria (not the Van Morrison G-L-O-R-I-A but the poppish version by Italy’s Umberto Tozzi, later covered by Laura Branigan for North America) in nearby Italy when I first came over the pond in 1979. Hearing that song always takes me back to the train station in Rome, where I heard it repeatedly in August of that year. Mind you, I remember that train station a little more for meeting a girl from Don Mills who I’ve been lucky to be married to for almost 28 years.

THE TINY PERFECT COUNTRY, CAVING, A BEAUTIFUL COAST, AND COCOA PUFFS

PORTOROZ, Slovenia – With apologies to former Toronto Mayor and good guy David Crombie, I’m stealing the line about him and applying it to this small but inspiring country.

I think one of the slogans I’ve heard tourism officials here use is “Where Europe comes to meet.” That’s pretty good. As I was driving to the tiny, little section of the Adriatic that the powers that be left for Slovenia (about 48 km in all; a billionth the size of Croatia’s coastline), I was thinking about how there are so many varieties of topography and culture in the country.

In the east, where I won’t have a chance to visit this time, they say there’s a distinct Hungarian feel, with spas and quiet country charm and wineries. To the south and east, they say it has a Croatian feel. I can look out my hotel window as I write and see the northernmost Croatian section of Istria. In the northern mountains near Kransjka Gora and Lake Bled, it’s an alpine environment that feels Austrian or even Swiss. Then, yesterday, I drove through the tunnel that separates the central part of western Slovenia from the Adriatic and suddenly there were Italian signs and a church campanile and red-tile roofs and flowering, pink oleander bushes and palm trees.

It’s like, “Four Countries, One Guidebook.” But I don’t want to sell the Slovenians short by simply saying it’s like four other countries, or three or six. It’s Slovenia. Perhaps in Trieste they think their part of Italy feels Croatian or Slovenian, and it probably does.IMG_6916

A woman I spoke with the other day, probably in her mid 40’s but I wasn’t about to ask, said she’s already had four currencies in her country. They had the Yugoslavian dinar for the longest time, then there was no real currency for a while after Slovenia initially separated in 1990. After that came the official Slovenian currency, the tolar. Then, a few years ago, they came part of the EU and now have euros, which hurts the exchange rate. That being said, you still can get a terrific cappucino in smaller cities for 90 European cents, about $1.50 Canadian, and hotel rooms in places like Kobarid can be had for about $80-$100 Canadian dollars).

But four currencies in 40 years? Considering they had Yugoslavian money in 1989, it’s actually four currencies in 20 years, which is about one-half the time that Hazel McCallion has been working as mayor of Mississauga.

GREAT DRIVES

Because of its wrinkled topography, with towering alps and deep river valleys, western Slovenia is one wonderful place to drive a car. There’s one major highway in the country, and that’s about it. The rest of the roads tend to be two-lane affairs and dip and swirl and rise and fall with the land, and it’s an absolute blast. A pain when there’s construction, but a lot of fun if you’ve got a small car and you can roll down the window on a late May afternoon.

Not sure if it’s really dangerous to drive here, but I keep seeing warning signs for everything from deer on the road to sliding motorcycles to landslides, narrow passages and potential winter ice. Makes you think twice but I didn’t see any motorcyclists sliding into fields filled with deer or cows waiting to leap onto the road.

Also, the Slovenians are great about pointing you in the direction of the next town or village. Even with a lousy tourist map I only got lost once and that was for five minutes. Of course, I bought a real map at the next gas station just to make sure it didn’t happen again. Anyway, the signs are great. But in the country they never tell you how far away that next village is. The highways are super but in the country I guess they figure it’s mostly locals and they all know that it’s 11 kilometers from Idrija to Godovic.

In Canada, of course, it’s overkill. “Next McDonald’s four km.” “Next rest stop, three km.” “Next rest stop, two km.” “Better stop and pee now, buddy, ’cause your next chance is in Chatham in two hours.”

SPELUNKING IN SKOCJAN

They have a tremendous cave system in Slovenia. There’s a large system near Postojna, about halfway between the capital, Ljubljana, and the Adriatic. The one I checked out was at Skocjan, and it was tremendous. Huge, towering stalagmites and icicle-like stalactices by the thousands, huge grottoes, a running river at the bottom and a vast array of colours. The only thing missing was Gollum and Bilbo Baggins.

It was a nice, 90-minute walk, including a ride up a funicular at the end and a glorious view out to the countryside from a vantage point that was distinctly undersold by the well-meaning tour guide.

As I was waiting to get my ticket, a guy in front of me who sounded Russian was being told that, because of a big thunderstorm in these parts on Wednesday, the ticket office’s lines were down and they couldn’t take his credit card. He looked completely disconsolate as he had no cash for he and his friends to get in.

One of the workers shrugged and said, “I’ll drive you to the ATM in town.”

The Russian chap kept talking about his bad luck and asking if they could fix the machine. Again, the worker said, “I have a car; I’ll drive you to the bank machine.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s go!.”

Great people.

KOOKOO FOR COCOA PUFFS

Geez, at breakfast in Kobarid on Wednesday and granola, corn flakes and cocoa puffs. It was the same day after day at the Turin Olympic media village, minus the granola, and it nearly sent me around the bend.

So, what happens today? I get up for an incredibly lavish breakfast (sorry about that, folks) at the Kempinski Palace in Portoroz and, in amongst the lovely breads and yogurts and fruits and nuts and cold meats and omelet fixings and fresh juices and sparkling wine, what do I see? You guessed it – a lovely little bowl filled with tiny, round chocolate balls of cereal.

Can someone please explain?

FINAL IMPRESSIONS

PIRAN, Slovenia – It’s all in the timing.

I had a great tour of this lovely town on the Istrian peninsula today. It’s much like a non-crowded Dubrovnik or Split, I’m told, but with Italian coffee, good pizza and gelato.

Anyway, I was snapping pictures (isn’t digital photography wonderful?) at the top of the church tower that dominates the town when I figured, “OIMG_7259kay, 437 pictures is enough.” Sure as you know what, I got halfway down and suddenly the bells started pealing to announce the noon hour. Of course, if I’d stayed up a minute longer I’d have great shots of about a half dozen teenage girls screaming and yelling from the noise of 12 enormous bells that were hanging two feet from their heads.

Damn.

On the other hand, I got a break at dinner. It was only so-so, and I was feeling a little tired so I left the little seaside cafe and wandered out to the point, or punta, to see the sun go down. Just as I got there, I spotted a guy in yellow pants sitting on the rocks, with his girlfriend, also in yellow, sitting in front of him. They were caressing one another and dreaming and watching the sun get ready to do its finale so I snuck up behind them and started taking some pictures. A couple came out pretty well for an amateur with a $450 camera.

PIVO, NOT PINOT

I probably haven’t made many fans in the Slovenian wine industry with my comments about their viniculture. I had some stuff today that was really, really bad. But I had some lovely Cabernet the other night and some decent Merlot. It’s not cheap, but they do make some pretty good wines over here.

The beer (which they call pivo) on the other hand, is cheap. And quite good. I’ve had a couple Union beers (it’s pronounced Oon-yun) and tonight had a Lasko, which seems a little more full-bodied but still within the lightish-lager neighborhood I tend to inhabit. Quite tasty, both of them.

HEY, LADY – KNOCK IT OFF!

Forgot to mention that during our walk in the Skocjan caves the other day we had to walk along a narrow ledge (with a very well-built fence next to us, mind you, but still). It had to be several hundred feet down to a river that runs through the bottom of the cave. I don’t like heights, so I just kept my head down most of the time, focussing on the path ahead of me and not looking over the edge.

We got to a large, wooden bridge over a huge chasm and I started to get the willies. It was fine, probably because I didn’t look down, but about halfway across some woman started jumping up and down to show her husband/boyfriend how strong the bridge was. Now THAT I could’ve done without.

MOVE OVER, LOU GEHRIG

So, I’m about ready to come home. I had a couple days in Zurich and several more days bombing around Slovenia in a rental car; eating great food and staying in (mostly) great hotels and seeing some spectacular scenery and meeting wonderul Slovenian people.

So I’ll close by paraphrasing the Great Lou Gehrig and his famous farewell speech at Yankee Stadium. With apologies to The Iron Horse, I feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

MEA CULPA

2013 update: Somehow in here, maybe because I was there on a weekend when I don’t blog, I know realize that I missed writing about Ljubljana. But it’s a fabulous city; a bit like Salzburg in that there are onion dome churches and a small castle on a hill and a pretty river. But nobody is hawking Mozart chocolates or Mozart hockey sticks or Mozart underwear, at least not that  I saw. There are beautiful plazas and excellent restaurants and old, winding streets and pretty bridges over the river and lots of outdoor patios. A really, really underrated city.

 

 

 

 

 

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