Tuesday, July 23, 2013

To rip off the official slogan: sLOVEnia

 Thirteen years ago this summer I graduated college and embarked on a three month backpacking trip around Europe that would be my first taste of life on the road.  This week, I plied some of the same train routes that I took all those summers ago, visiting a friend in Munich before heading over for a conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia.  And, while I am a grown-up now, with my roll-aboard competing for valuable luggage rack real estate with those overstuffed backpacks, some combination of nostalgia and the majestic scenery of the Julian Alps led me to revisit those carefree days… by making mainly ill-advised decisions to go rock-climbing and jump off a bridge.

The trip started in Munich last weekend, where less than two hours after stepping off the plane, I was sitting in the Englischer garden with a liter of beer in my hand.  Next day it was off to do what turned out to be warm up hiking in the Volderalpen (foothills) in southern Germany.  I am told that Bavaria is apparently the Texas of Germany.  And hiking for Germans is a bit like fishing for Americans (in that it is an excellent reason to be drunk before lunch).  Our 9:30 am train to the mountains certainly had its share of the “it’s noon somewhere” crowd.  But the day was complete with lederhosen (not on me), hills, cows, and all other things lusty and robust and Bavarian.

Then it was off to the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana.  Now admittedly this is a consequence of growing up in the ‘80s and coloring all those countries with the same red crayon, but I was expecting amber glass and overpasses (the staples of my post-communist stereotypes), but I was shocked to learn that no one actually mentioned to Slovenia that it was supposed to be behind the Iron Curtain.  My tour guide explained that Slovenians had always considered themselves to be much more like their nearby cousins in Austrian and Italy (which, if you were a robust Bavarian hiker, got an early start, and packed a full six-pack, you could reasonably walk to).  And perhaps not surprisingly they were the first ones over the boards into the EU, a choice that they are perhaps rethinking these days.

So Slovenia has beautiful architecture and a wine industry.   And, since it is Europe and you can do these things, they permanently closed the downtown to traffic, making it essentially a walking and biking city.  They have a massive city park that you run on wooded trails until it is prudent to take the “bear warning” signs seriously.  Plus they have a castle and a dragon bridge, which links to the city’s history in that it is supposedly where Jason (of Argonauts fame) slew a dragon (or, if you are Catholic and willing to allow a healthy amount of suspension-of-disbelief in your miracle stories, St. George). 

But that is not even remotely the best bits of Slovenia.  After wrapping up at the conference, I decided to take a two-day stop in Bled on my way back to Munich.  Bled is famous from having Slovenia’s only island (which they of course put a church on) and for being close to Slovenia’s only national park, Triglav, which contains the incredible Emerald River and numerous ways for your knees to remind you that you are no longer 20 years old. 

The Emerald River is named for the Wizard-of-Oz color of the water (which I tried to capture with the camera but could not get the color quite right).  And my 12 hour day tour of the park included hiking, swimming, rafting, viewing of ruins of WWI fortifications (when Triglav was very close to the front lines), waterfall, taking a train through the center of a mountain, and, as I mentioned above, jumping off a bridge.  The bridge jump wasn’t an obligatory stop on the trip, but we were going anyway because the two 20 year old Australians with us were quite keen on the idea.  They say the bridge is somewhere between 35 and 50 feet above the river, depending on the water level in the dam.  And, as there was no additional charge for this little adventure, and the van was going to be stopped anyway while the Aussie kids jumped, what excuse did I really have not to?  (It is the same rational that leads me not to count the free oatmeal raisin cookies at the lunch seminar towards my daily caloric intake.)  And I guess it was a long way down, but I don’t really remember, because I was too busy focusing on the fact that my heart stopped the millisecond that I hit the water.  Jumping off bridge – not a problem – landing in 100 ft deep snow melt – huge problem.  Though it either effectively iced my aching knees, or temporarily shocks my system into worrying about other things. 

So how to follow that up the next day?  Well, the tour company offered half-day “Intro to Rock Climbing” lessons.  The class was taught by a guy named “Boogie,” who was closer to my father’s age than mine, had a steel gray crew cut and not an ounce of fat on him, and was clearly at least partially descended from the mythical wood sprites and faeries, because he was small enough that he and I wore the same size shoe.  I didn’t fall off the mountain – mainly thanks to ropes and Boogie.  Boogie’s assessment is that I had some natural ability, but that I needed to do more push-ups.  This coming from a guy that probably does sets of 10 in between mouthfuls of his morning muesli. 

Then it was a bit more hiking on the afternoon, and an evening at the annual Bled Festival, which featured a Rolling Stones cover band, sausage made from every sort of woodland creature (aren’t black bears endangered?), and capped off by thousands of candles being floated in eggshells on Bled Lake (which looks incredible and photographs like crap).

And now I am on a train back to Munich and then back to the really real world of Washington DC.  Every time the train doors open I take huge gulps of Alpine air, as I have heard reports that the weather in DC has been a bit “sunny side of hell” lately…


Erin Browne said...

Now come to NY so we can go rock climbing together!

Tammy Barlow said...
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