Zagreb and Slovenia

My notes to self – not yet for public consumption: Next day got a latte at Pécsi kave then drove to Zagreb lots of trucks and small villages pretty 230 arrived till 430 then crawled in traffic to Ljubljana horrible traffic border check in Hungary Asked me what I did to got to all those countries when I said I’m a writer the guy seemed impressed I like Hungarians  their spirit = after a worried sleep because had to wake at 730 drove through villages of eastern Croatia very quaint especially hilly forests Zagreb is a sprawling city with a beautiful grand boulevard like andrassy Utca in Budapest I parked and walked up hill to nice old palaces and lovely gated yards and over to other side through park near main cathedral and castle Potemkin village for tourists no parking got ticket crawled out at 420 2 miles in 35 minutes then border horrible wood smoke and dense low fog bought vignette for Slovenia and headed to Ljubljana parked near congress building and walked to river and up to castle stayed till 1030 talking with a Urban of kobasa shop had been watch repair his dad’s shop talked about sailing wants to sail around world or at least Caribbean and Polynesia then drove to bled and looked for camping spot found one at 1215pm near bohinj very wet night rained all night woke late not good sleep because of latte drove to bohinj and basttica had strudel and walked a bit at lake raining took photos and drove around lake and small villages didn’t want to stay another day because it rained all day then Stara fasow then to bled and castle and walk along lake drove toward Austria by mistake back to Ljubljana asked yogurt shop to charge phone and did and walked around great department store and home of dreams bookstore with roald Dahl in window crossed dragon bridge and found kobasa again got soup and talked to Petra about politics and history of Slovenia and Yugoslavia and why they weren’t destroyed by Serbs in 1990s she recommended visiting coast so after nice talk I set GPs for koper but saw sign for skojcan caves and got off highway and looked for woods passed through several villages

After driving through several villages and  noticing that there seemed to be villages every couple of miles in this part of Slovenia, the karstic limestone plateau inland and higher in elevation than Trieste and the coast.  I finally saw a steep gravel road to my right and barely made it up in first gear.  It was one of the steepest roads I’d gone up all summer.  I wasn’t sure I’d be able to back down and hoped there would be a place wide enough to turn around at some point further up the road.  I lucked out and found a spur road about a mile up.  The forest here was almost completely denuded, and a wood pile lay on one side of the road, a rock wall on the other.  I was grateful to be far enough away from village homes (I hoped).  A few dogs barked and seemed too close for comfort, but I hoped the barking would cease after a while.  There was the strange sound of a train or railroad which I heard throughout the night.  Once it sounded like a car was driving up the steep gravel road, and I prayed that they wouldn’t mind me camping there.  Luckily the car never appeared.

I set my alarm for 9:30am as there was a cave tour at 10am at Skojcan cave.  I packed quickly and rushed down the hill to the cave parking lot, arriving at 9:55.  Yikes.  Breathlessly I looked for someone to buy a ticket but no one was there.  I asked the man in the gift shop and he said there must be someone there.  I looked again.  No one.  Finally, a few minutes to 10, 2 women took their places in the Kassa.  Phew.  I bought a ticket and waited a few minutes for the tour to start.  The next one wasn’t till 2pm, so it was a big deal to catch the 10am tour.  The young woman who was leading the tour was very nice.  She led it in English (I’d been on one other cave tour this summer in Slovakian), so I understood what she was saying.

I’d been on the same cave tour in 2007 when I’d come with 2 friends, Tom and Baker to Dubrovnik Croatia.  We’d planned to take a boat trip along the islands of the Dalmatian coast, but Tom got really sick and ended up in the hospital for the entire time.  I was thrown on my own resources and had to improvise a trip on the spur of the moment.  I was to meet my mom and Bob (and his kids) in Sestri Levanti on the Italian riviera 3 weeks later.  After exploring Dubrovnik and Cavtat by foot, I took a bus to the ferry to Korcula and then took a ferry to Hvar.  I slept on the beach below the main town of Korcula.  Marco Polo had been born on the island, I found out.  I met a nice man who took me around the island on his motorcycle.  There were some lovely beaches there, and I really liked the peacefulness that the place exuded.  The ferry trip to Hvar was really lovely.  I loved the small island and found a great place to stay, recommended by two women who were just leaving the cozy little bed and breakfast run by a German couple.  I had unlimited black tea and a lovely view of the sea from my terrace.  I decided to walk to another part of the island and ended up on the road for hours.  It was a Sunday and no one (literally) was on the road.  I couldn’t speak Croatian but was able to communicate that I was trying to get to the next village.

Long story short, I took a ferry to Split, walked around the old city and Trogir, then took an overnight train to Zagreb.  I had a rude awakening when I arrived in the train station at 6:30am.  I had fallen asleep and the conductor literally threw my pack out the window and I almost followed.  I walked around the main boulevard of town for several hours till my next train to Ljubljana.  I fell in love with Ljublana, then rented a car and explored Triglav national park (and Bled and Bohinj), as well as going to Skojcan caves.  And that’s where my story starts.  That first cave tour was lovely.  It was a small group, maybe 5 people, and the guide was a well versed Slovenian young man.  He told me that he was tired of living in the small village next to the cave, as the locals (especially old women) watched his every move and would gossip nonstop.  He longed to live in a city and have the anonymity of a stranger.  What I remembered of the tour was that the track was very uneven and rocky, the caves were huge and impressive, and that the early Celts had dropped offerings of swords and small metal figurines where the Reka goes underground at the cave mouth.

On today’s tour I had the distinct impression that the small path I saw next to the river had been our trail 9 years ago. I was wrong.  We had walked the same 3 km trail that we were walking today, only it wasn’t paved.  Thus the uneven ground.  It’s interesting how one’s memory is fallible and subject to exaggeration.  As my friend says, exagerration for effect.  I don’t even have to try, I come by it honestly.  I guess it’s the nature of memory.  Subject to error.  There’s a great book I recently encountered, The Invisible Gorilla, which talks about this very subject and the various ways that memory is fallible.  At least I’m not alone in this.

I walked with the guide to the beginning of the cave and asked about the trees on the limestone.  She said that Venice had completely denuded the native oak forest, and had replanted black pine in the 1800s.  Apparently oak is starting to repopulate the area, which is a nice feature.  I saw photos of what it looked like in the 1800s.  Pretty horrible.  Just grass on top of rocks.  I guess they planted trees mostly to slow the erosion that had started an avalanche of slides.  She said that this year they’d broken their record for the most tourists.  Last summer they had 130,000.  This year they already were at 140,000, and she said there would be a lot more tourists before the end of the year.  We had about 40 or 50 people on our tour today.  An impressive number for October 20, especially because it’d been raining for the last week or so.

I love this cave system.  It’s fascinating, beautiful, and unique, especially since the Reka River had water in it.  Enough to make a loud roar in the last 2 rooms of the cave where it was present.  We weren’t allowed to take photos, though I snuck a couple.  Didn’t come out well, because I didn’t use flash.  Ah well.  Wasn’t meant to take them anyway.

I finally see the end in sight.  I have 12 full days to go before I fly home, which feels a lot more manageable than 6 months.  I know I’ll miss my nomadic lifestyle and outdoor camping, as well as waking up to the birds and other critters.  I go to bed almost every night to the sound of rustling and strange bird calls.  It’s amazing that there’s any nature left in Europe, given how much urbanisation has transpired and for so long.  Several countries have made conserted efforts to preserve and set aside tracts of land for conservation purposes.  Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland, and Germany, but even Eastern Europe was remarkably wild.  Except for major logging, which has cleared all but the tiniest trees, there is an amazing amount of undeveloped land amidst the small villages of Hungary, Croatia, Czech Republic, Poland, LIthuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, Armenia and Slovakia, for example.

I took a small dirt road through the town of Skojcan, where there is only one old woman now living, and through the back roads.  I saw a farmer and his wife gathering apples with a tractor, and the old church that stands atop the karstic cave system that is now a UNESCO world heritage site (since 1986).  I was making my way to Lipica, the Lipizzaner horse farm that has been in continuous operation since 1580 when it was established under the Habsburg dynasty.  It has been operating ever since, even when wars devastated the surrounding land.  The horses were moved a number of times, and during the Napoleonic Wars the stud book was destroyed.  The farm created a new one after some years.  I made it for the 2pm tour, and spent the next hour trying to understand what the guide was saying.  Not only did he have a very thick Slavic accent, but his turn of phrase was odd.  It took all my skills developed as a kid trying to understand to my father and relatives’ heavy Polish accents to get the gist of what he was saying.  I was with a group of 3 other Americans.  Apparently they didn’t understand him either from the questions they asked.

He told us about history of the farm, the studs and mares currently on the farm, their daily dressage and exercise workouts, and other aspects of life on the farm.  No horses were working out at the time of the tour.  They were all resting in their pens.  He said they leave them in the pens 17 hours every day.  Something about making them disciplined, rather than running around outside.  Interesting.  People have tried to do that to me, but with little success.  Maybe I’d be more disciplined if I were locked in a pen.  Might be a good way to get me to finish my blog.  I’ll have to try isolation therapy.  A lot of writers essentially lock themselves in their rooms for 8 hours a day.  Amy Tan’s husband serves her meals in her room.  I’ll have to get a husband ;>.

I spent 45 minutes in the museum, which had interesting information about the horses and the history of the farm.  They used to allow the studs to inseminate the mares naturally, but now use artificial insemination, which allows them to control when the foals will be born and cuts down on injuries.  The farm has an unbroken history from 1580, when it was established by the Habsburg Dynasty.  Until the end of WWI with the breaking up of the AustroHungarian empire, the Lipica farm supplied the horses for the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.  Since 1918, the horses from Lipica have performed in dressage events onsite and Vienna has other pools to choose from.  I also went to the gallery of Andrej Conesci (sp?), a Slovenian artist from the Bauhaus school who spent his last years in Lipica.  Interesting work. I liked his portrait engravings the most.  Then I walked along the lanes that radiate out like spokes from the historical center, and saw the mares and foals grazing in a field.  It was nice to see the studs in their stalls, and the mares in theirs.  The studs were pretty high strung, and a lot of them were kicking their stalls.

Our guide talked about horse whispering, and seemed to be doing a fair bit of it himself, scratching the horses behind their ears and talking soothingly to them.  He pointed out the alpha male of the bunch, and showed us the scars on some of the not so lucky males.  He said the trainers fight over who will get to break the alpha male.  Reminds me of the myth surrounding Alexander the Great about him taming a great stallion when he was a boy.  He noticed that the horse was afraid of its shadow and made sure never to let it see its shadow.  Smart thinking.

From Lipica I headed to Koper, which had been recommended me by Petra, a politically astute young woman in Ljubljana who works at Klobasara where I had soup the night before and had a nice conversation with Urban, the son of the owner.  She asked me what I thought about the US presidential election and told me some tales of corruption in the Slovenian government.  On the way to Koper I crossed the Italian border, which was luckily no trouble.  I ddin’t even have to stop, unlike the Hungary-Croatia border crossing, which was replete with a long bridge and barbed wire in the middle.  It reminded me of crossing from Georgia to Abkhazia, except it didn’t have a huge gun tied in a knot like the one pointed at Abkhazia from the Georgian side.  How festive.

Koper is a lovely walled town that was actually an island for much of its history.  So it has retained its medieval appearance more or less in tact, other than aerial bombardment sustained during WW II.  Almost every town I’ve been in across Europe was bombed either by the allies, the axis powers, or both.  Slovenia only has 46 kilometres of coast along the Adriatic.  Nevertheless the coastal towns in Slovenia are for the most part not sprawling or Las Vegas-like, but quite lovely and authentic.  Unlike Trieste, which appears as a huge sprawling port town that extends for miles along the coast.  In any case, I spent an hour walking around Koper, till it got dark at 6pm.  I bought some really tasty artesenal chocolate at a small shop that made their own.  And took lots of photos as I walked down narrow streets and admired the old architecture and surviving town gate and walls.

Then I headed to Isola, which had been recommended to me, and found a parking place right next to the port.  Most likely an illegal spot, but it was 7pm and I wasn’t planning on being long.  I took a nice walk along the sea wall, walked into some older neighbourhoods, and then down toward the central square, weaving my way in and out.  I ended up getting disoriented and couldn’t find my car.  I asked a woman where the promenade was and she pointed left and left.  Wrong promenade.  Now I was really lost.  Luckily I had my phone and a bit of battery left.  I opened my offline GPS app, Here, and it showed me where I was.  Phew.  I was able to wind my way back.  Then I looked for a place to use wifi and charge my phone.  I found the Hotel Marina, a very friendly place with a nice view and good staff.  I made friends with Andrej, and we talked about politics and whether or not it was good to stay informed.  He was of the opinion that it was depressing and that there wasn’t much that could be done in response.  I suggested that it might be good to strike a balance between discouraging and hopeful news.

Mostly I spent the time writing my blog, which is what I always do when I have the chance.  I spent too long chatting with Andrej at the end of the night, because when I drove off to find a pace to camp, it had already started raining quite hard.  I set up my tent in the rain, and everything got wet, including my down bag.  Not good.  It was a crappy night to put it mildly. Thunder and lightning, which I usually like, crashed and flashed all night long, with hard rain falling intermittently.  I slept on a turnout along a road that ran along the edge of a quiet bay, though cars seems to pass all night long. I was afraid of being towed, as I’d seen a sign warning that any parked cars would be towed a few kilmeteres back.  I figured that I’d wake up in time to stop a determined tow truck.  Somehow I made it through the night.  I barely slept, though.  So I woke extremely groggy and hoped I wodln’t pass out while driving.

I drove along the road to the end, and took a short walk onto the promontory peninsula.  Then I turned back and headed toward Piran.  On the way I saw a lovely wooden boat and noticed a whole fleet of them in various states of disrepair.  An older gentleman who appeared to live in a hut nearby saw my interest.  I knew that most people spoke Italian in this part of Istria, owing to the 5 centuries of Venetian occupation, so I asked him in Italian that I really like wooden boats.  He invited me to look, saying “tutto aperto” (all open, basically help yourself).  I walked in and out of the moored boats, taking photos in the morning light.  Moments like that are the ones that I treasure and usually remember for months and years.  It’s the little things that really do make an impression.

I then drove to Piran, buying some bread and cheese at the local market and then parking near the cemetery at the top of the hill and walking down into town.  The main square was lovely and apparently had marked the edge of the sea in times past.  Many of the stately buildings fronting the square had the Venetian winged lion somewhere on their facade, and the distinctive gothic narrow windows unique to Venetian architecture.  It started to rain and I saw that many people had parked in the old town, so I returned to my car and drove down to the old town in search of a spot.  I had a rude awakening when I arrived at the entrance to the town, though.  There was a gate and a sight that said only season pass holders were allowed.  I sighed and drove back up the hill, finding a parking spot that was supposed to be for locals only told my chances.  I explored the Franciscan monastery and church (and small treasury, lapidarium, and crypt) at the top of the hill before descending down the steep hills that make the town so charming.

Like many quaint coastal towns, Piran spent most of its history as a fishing village. Only when the fishing industry took a dive in the last 40 years and the tourist industry in such authentic places inversely grew, did Purin begin to ply its trade as a tourist town.  I love getting lost on winding alleys and walked to the northernmost city gate that marked the edge of town.  The sea wall extended for what looked like miles, and the sea crashed petulantly alongside, still riled up after last night’s storm. Then I walked along the sea wall toward the south border of town, taking photos of the small harbor and eating a tiramisu at the theatre cafe.  As I walked along, I spied an interesting building that looked like a boat.  It was a gallery with photos of locals from the 1950s or 60s and 2015 in the same pose and facial expression.  What a hoot!  And sad.  It was great seeing adults posing with broad grins, or goofing around with friends, sitting in funny poses.  And sad to see that in some photos, there were people noticeably absent.  And interesting to see that many of the landmarks remained unchanged.  No wonder Piran is a tourist draw.

When I came down the gallery stairs, the woman at the desk asked me where I was from. I told her and she broke into a big smile.  “I love the Bay Area!” she cried.  It turns out she’d lived in Oakland for 9 years in the 1980s early 1990s and had loved living there.  She reminisced that part of her heart was still there.    It was nice to meet someone who had actually lived in the Bay Area and knew what a wonderful place it is.  While many Europeans like San Francisco for its European ambience, few have actually lived in the area.  She told me that she was so open when she came back from her time there, and used to take people in off the street and give them a place to stay.  She was living at a friend’s place when she moved back and ended up there for 9 years.  Apparently there was no shower and running water was an issue, but she loved the freedom she felt upon her return.  I loved her bold spirit and generosity.  She felt bad that she couldn’t host me and gave me a pomegranate fresh from her tree.  And bought me a cappuccino, which was such a lovely gesture.

I had already made several friends during the few days I’d been in Slovenia.  Things were looking up for me, and I was (and am) looking forward to finally going home.  I’m trying to balance being present and enjoying where I am and letting myself look forward to going home.  I bid Sonja goodbye, and invited her to visit if and when she was next in the Bay Area.  I truly hope I see her again.  She was a firecracker.  Then I wound my way back to my car, expecting to find a ticket on my windshield.  It was a miracle.  No ticket!  Maybe it was making up for all the tickets I’d already accumulated.

Whatever the reason, I was happy to have one less than anticipated.  From Piran I drove down through Potorosz, the neighbouring coastal town that is less charming and more a modern tourist town.  It had some nice buildings, including an old hotel and hillside residences.  I wanted to explore the inland areas of Istria, and bid Slovenia goodbye as I crossed into Croatia and headed toward Groznjan, a small artists colony and typical hill town reminiscent of many in Umbria and Tuscany.

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