As we leave the Soca River Valley and up over a ridge, we drive into some of the best wine-making area of Slovenia. The Karst Region. You can easily see Italy in the distance. Hilly country-side with a dry Mediterranean climate needed for growing great grapes. We stopped at one of the hill-top villages named Smartno. A favorite day trip for our guide, Tina, and her husband on one of their rare days off work and spent together (they are both guides for Rick Steves Tours). Pictures will do a better job describing this charming place with cute boutique shops. And no, I am not waiting for an opportune time to take pictures without tourists. They simply are not there. Another plus of this particular tour.
Thursday, November 13, 2014
Tumbling down the slopes of the Julian Alps, the Soca River is milky green-blue color, fast-moving down the mountain and cuts a mean slot canyon through the rock. Our road follows along the river and passes through small villages. The active wear company, North Face, filmed on location here. The ad on Vimeo is worth watching to really get an idea of the spectacular beauty of the area. http://vimeo.com/97101261 This beautiful, gentle valley was the location of some of the worst fighting and conditions during World War I.
It is only fitting so near to Veteran’s Day that this blog post describes our visit to the Soca River Valley also known as the Italian Front (part of the Eastern Front) during World War I. The Julian Alps and the valley have reminders of the war especially the many cemeteries—nicknamed the “Valley of Cemeteries”—thousands of graves dot the hillsides. One devastating war after another, you would think the human race would remember and learn from our mistakes.
Ernest Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell To Arms, was set here and tells a story of his time spent as an ambulance driver during World War I. I had good intentions of reading the book before the trip; but frankly I struggled to get through The Old Man and The Sea, as required reading in school. Since I have visited, maybe I will give it another go. The area likes to link to Papa Hemingway, especially the village where we spent the night, Kobarid. (The village is known by its Italian name, Caporetto, in the novel.)
In Kobarid we visited the small, but very well-done museum of the Soca Front and World War I. Pictures of the common people (locals, soldiers, nurses) from all sides of the war. Their daily lives, the war strategies/weapons, and the casualties and results of the fighting—over one million died. The museum docent asked that we not take photos of the displays, especially the ones containing pictures of the people.
Had to stop short of completing the museum tour; just too overwhelmingly horrible. Medical attention during the war was minimal and the medical advancements we have today for our soldiers were non-existent in the early 1900s. Those who survived were severely disfigured or suffered internally from chemicals. Photos showing the injuries were displayed and I can understand why we were asked to refrain from taking pictures.
A learning experience, but a tough pill to swallow.
Saturday, November 8, 2014
Up and over the Alps—the Julian Alps—via the Vrsic Pass and the Soca River Valley. I have been over my share of mountain passes, but never one with 50 hairpin turns (24 up, then 26 down). Each one is marked; so there is no denying the count of 50. And never in a large tour bus. The bus would turn ever so, s-l-o-w-l-y, around each.
Our first stop at turn #8, included a quick hike up to a little Russian chapel. A memorial to 10,000 Russian POWs who died building this mountain pass during World War I. Not killed by gunfire, but rather the elements (cold and avalanche) and illness. The chapel was built where the final casualty was found. The wood of the chapel looks like copper. It had that glow in the lowlight of the forest. I had to touch it to be sure it was wood. Beautiful and lovingly maintained.
Next stop at a mountain-top restaurant for some hot chocolate. Had to chuckle at the sign. Bikers Welcome. In the States, a Bikers Welcome sign would indicate a stop for the local Harley motorcycle club. Here, well you can see for yourself in the photo to the left. A group of French adventurers! Only know a bit of French, but a shout out of “Comment Ca Va?! (how’s it going?) to the group brought out the smiles and waving back with the comeback of, “Bien, Merci!” (good, thank-you!) We saw them buzzing past as we headed down the mountain still waving a happy good-bye.
Friday, November 7, 2014
Never saw a ski jump before this trip. And I did not expect to see anyone jumping in September (no snow). Before our tour headed up and over the Julian Alps, we made a quick stop at Planica and watched Olympic hopefuls fly off one of several ski jumps and land gracefully on…..looked like some sort of green PLASTIC! I held my breath when they ejected from the end of the jump, hanging in the air for the longest time and finally I exhaled when they safely came back to earth.
This is the largest ski jump in the world. The location is within Slovenia borders but a short walking distance to Italy and Austria. Another wow. (Photos courtesy of Russ Ruda. One of many great guys on our tour.)
Saturday, November 1, 2014
There are several more stops made in Slovenia, but before I describe them I would like to remark on the impressive Slovenian lifestyle. This does not include having a lot of material things, a huge home or having a high income with a lavish lifestyle. In fact the average income is very low (some of us may consider it poverty level). But the majority of Slovenes have pretty much the same income—there is not a big disparity between rich and poor. Their need for a lot of materialistic things does not exist. There are very few billboards or marketing of any sort. In fact, I did not see one and we criss-crossed many of the highways and back roads of this tiny country. (This lack of billboard “junk” on the countryside was so pleasant—the only signage you see is street signs and the name of the village, town or city. They seem to be standardized throughout the country and have a low-profile appearance.)
The family is the center of their life. A sense of home and land is very strong. Homes and land are passed from one generation to the next (all made of stone—lasting hundreds of years). Most often you will find generations living in one home with each floor dedicated to a young family, another to grandma/grandpa each with separate entries (like a condominium). Not one home was unkempt. You will not find rusting vehicles/machinery or trash piles like you so often do in the States. Almost every yard contains a small garden and window boxes hang on the homes stuffed with flowers. The Slovenes see the home and surroundings (yes, even common spaces like parks) as an extension of themselves. And they are spotless.
Relationships with family and friends are tended just as carefully as their environment. It is common to see the cafés filled with locals of all ages catching up with gossip over a cup of coffee (kava). On any day of the week. No one is absorbed watching their smart phone; the focus is on the present company.
I am certainly not an authority on the causes of crime, but in my opinion, this overall sense of belonging, community and pride must contribute to the extremely low crime and non-existent drug use in their country. The Slovenes are struggling economically, but they seem happy. They are happy.
Sunday, October 26, 2014
For you thrill seekers this stop may be three zzz’s rather three stars, but I really enjoy learning about and sampling local produce. In this instance, it was honey. We gave it three thumbs up.
We stopped in our tour guide’s small village near Lake Bled (will describe Tina, her home and family in a future post—she is amazing) to view an ancient beehive and give some locally produced honey a taste test. The art of beekeeping was perfected in the mid-1700’s by a Slovenian farmer and Slovenia has been known for their honey ever since.
The beehives look similar to a post office wall of post boxes, but made of wood painted with different colorful medieval style art on each “box”. Each painted panel helps distinguish each hive. Honey samples included a floral and a pine base. Wow. Extreme flavor in a good way. Reproductions of the beehive panel art are sold in Lake Bled and Ljubljana, but like a fool I forgot to purchase. Arggh!
Saturday, October 25, 2014
Some times the stars line up. All summer the rains have plagued the Balkan Peninsula, but we arrive, the clouds part and the skies clear. Yes, it is good to be us! And we could not be happier with the weather especially for our visit to Lake Bled (pronounced blayd). Our stop after Ljubljana.
Against the blue skies the Julian Alps loom large over the crystal clear blue water of the lake. It just is not enough for this to be a stunningly beautiful lake, but add an island with a Venetian style church (bell tower included). The usual method to visit the church is by Pletna boats. Made by hand with a special design passed from father to son. The family-owned boats have been visiting the island since the 17th century. We elected to walk 3.5 miles around the lake rather than take a boat to the island. But one of our tour members took the boat ride and fell in love with the oarsman. She described his silver-streaked dark, thick wavy hair, tanned craggy face and his stories of generations rowing to the island. Of course, she said, “he was impressively fit from all that rowing –all muscle”. At the end of our tour, she said this was her “wow” moment of the whole trip. Maybe I should have taken the boat…
Lake Bled also boasts a 1,000 year-old castle high on a cliff overlooking the lake. The castle is thoughtfully restored both inside and the outdoor courtyard. Although you can hike to the castle, our tour bus made the stop (thank you for small favors—what a climb!). With only 28 people (all very fit) on the tour, we could easily climb the narrow stone stairways to enjoy the vistas.
The only downside to our visit to Lake Bled was the lack of time. I could easily spend a few days here and we were limited to four hours. Along our walk we saw Tito’s vacation home (open to the public) from a distance and many of the older 19th century villas—simply did not have the time to tour inside (you can send an e-mail from Tito’s personal desk—what a hoot!). Our walk did include a friendly visit with local artist, Bobi. His watercolors were extremely affordable and after purchasing one, he quickly painted a shadow painting of himself and me on the back! I am torn on which side to display.