Sunday, June 30, 2013

the Julian Alps

A truck parks in a field of flowers. It's full of beehives - stacked, colorfully, as is the custom here, one on top of another. Above it -- haze of flying honey bees.

I want a photo of this, but I already pulled off the road, two minutes ago to take a snapshot of a woman working in her stationary hives. (The colors apparently help the bees come back to the right hive.)

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...and for the  goats, perched on the remains of ... something.

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... and perhaps most importantly, for the Soca River -- a color so unique, that you think -- must be algae. Except it isn't. It's all in the particles of limestone here. It's quiet just at this stretch.

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And then there were the photos I stopped for when we were discussing the curiously labor intensive way they have for stacking hay here.

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And of course, there were the views.

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So I let the truck with beehives go. You can't stop for everything.

We are driving from Bled to the Soca valley.

(Leaving early, saying good bye to our sweet little Penzion in Bled, with the pretty breakfast.)

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If you know your geography, you'll know that you have to cross the lower mountains to get from Bled to the Soca Valley. It's a short trip, mileage wise -- maybe 50? But my oh my, does it take a long while! The secondary road (that's all that you have to work with) twists and climbs. I'm in second gear nearly the whole time. And then it goes down -- a dizzying grade, switching, turning. We pass cyclists -- numerous ones. How do they do it?? It is so steep that near the bottom, I have to pause, get out, clear my head, which feels stuffed with cotton. Three hours, to cover such a short stretch of roadway!

If you know your history, your World War I history, you'll recognize the Soca Valley immediately: the place where soldiers died -- more than a million -- entrenched in the mountains that line the valley, Italian against the Austro-Hungarian army -- a horrible series of battles in brutal conditions. (Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms is based in large part on the Soca Front.)

We're staying for our last days in Europe right in the Soca Valley -- near the village of Kobarid. Well, actually, five kilometers up from it -- in the tiny village of Dreznica. Well, actually one kilometer up from that, in the hamlet of Kosec, which means "harvester," like this guy:


We are in the Julian Alps.

One consequence of this remoteness is that the internet, though available, doesn't do the tricks you're used to back home. Flickr photo uploads? Painful. One at a time. I had a choice -- give you a wordy post or a photo post. I chose the latter. I cannot do both.

So,  first, the drive now in the Soca Valley to the village Kobarid. We poke around a little here. Buy some cookies.

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Then, up the mountain toward Dreznice. Here it is, the most picture perfect tiny village (it has a church, but does it even have a store?)

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Arriving at the Kranjc family farm (and rural bed and breakfast and dinner)...


..where we have a room with a view!

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And by three in the afternoon, we are on the trails. Right from the hamlet (which itself has commanding views).

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We see two waterfalls on our trail -- one early on and it's a beaut!


The path is initially forested and so when we finally get a clearing, we take a pause.

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Then up again, up, up -- we use sticks, they help! And then it opens toward a pasture. With views.

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And this is probably the worst part of it for me -- I pause to take photos of the cows. You know, so Alpine bucolic. And oh, isn't that interesting how the bull is flaring his nostrils and making baying noises. (That's bull talk for  get the hell out here, but I did not understand.)

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Ed is up ahead. Suddenly, the bull has had enough of giving me hints. He leaves the pack and comes toward me. Briskly.


But, truthfully, what can Ed do (except to tell me after -- I can't believe you stood around taking photos when the bull was telling you to get lost!)

I was lucky. As I meekly retreated, saying kind words and looking humbled, he stopped, changed his mind and went back to the pack.

The sweat on that one was... tremendous.

Then comes the best part -- we climb through a forest again and come out on this Alpine meadow.

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Words cannot describe it. Photos (at least mine) are inadequate.

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And finally, we come to the final stretch (in total, it's a two hour climb and just about that on the descent)  and here, the sign says DANGER and I get a little nervous, but in truth, the trail is well maintained and in crucial parts, there are steel ropes embedded in the rocks to help you along.

And we come to the second of the waterfalls. It looks puny in the photo. In fact, it's just a faint shower of water. And it is absolutely beautiful.

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Okay, back we go. We are in a hurry. It's after 5 and dinner at the farm is promptly at 7.

Still, a couple of pauses are in order. For the flowers.


In the darkening forest.

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In the pasture, where the cows and bull had their say,  it's quiet now. They've gone on to graze elsewhere. The skies are cloudy, the views no less spectacular.

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Alright. Back at the farm, dinner could not be more fresh, more honest. Mushroom soup (we pick them by the waterfall!).

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We asked for no red meat and so we are spared the baby lamb. Chicken and cabbage and wild garlic tart. And potatoes.

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And dessert.

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And a cat, watching us stumble back, stiff, tired, to our room.


Saturday, June 29, 2013

all about the lake


If there is a high chance of rain in the forecast, you cannot plan long hikes.

So, they say there is a high chance of rain (in the afternoon). We'll keep things simple. Stay closer to home. Closer to the lake in Bled.

Breakfast first. Lovely actually. Straightforward and good.

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Then what? I look at the map of the area. There's a trail to the west of us that seems to climb a bit for a (possibly) commanding view of the lake. We can do that. If the rain stays away, we can go even higher. More views. More hiking. All good.

Three Peaks and an Animal

We start on the path that circumnavigates the lake. It takes about an hour to complete the whole circle, but we only want to do half of it -- to get to the western shores.

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...and take the trails up the hills from there.

Even in popular tourist spots, no one ever strays onto trails that lead up and away from the center. With the exception, of course: a woman runs past us, nimbly jogging up the very steep path. Ed comments -- don't you just hate it when they run up and down the mountain like that? I answer -- maybe she's the next Slovenian star of the Olympics? 

Just so you know, the weather holds and we actually scale three small (and connected) peaks today. Most of our climbing results in similar views toward the lake:

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But one actually turns us away from it and and I have to say - it is my favorite.

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Why do I love being in the mountains so much? I'm not a great candidate for hiking the most challenging trails (I cannot get near an edge with a sudden drop; I CANNOT!).  When I ask Ed that, he responds -- ever been to Nebraska? Mountain land is far more interesting....

True. So true.  More views? Okay, one from another peak:

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(self timer!)

But even within the mountain forest, there is just so much to love. An example -- the twisted, curvy trees...

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In between the second and third peaks, we are in a forest that sees very few people passing through it. And here is where I hear the noise of animal. You can't always tell what kind of animal, but when you are in a forest and you hear that pronounced sound of movement, you know.

I stop. I look toward the sound. There it is! But what? A mountain goat? Something with antlers or horns, but what? I did not have my pocket zoom camera, so I'll leave you with this and you can send me your best guesses.


My, what big muscles you have!

We come down from our hike. And we both are just so drawn to the water.

Want to rent a boat?
I can't even remember who suggested it first, but here we are, tired and stretched after our trek and we both want to be out row row rowing a boat.

So we do just that.
One hour -- the guy with the half dozen boats by the shore tells us. Is enough to island and back.

I think it's a spiffy boat! And I insist on rowing us out! Ed acts as coxswain.

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I do good time and so I go around the island just for the hell of it. And then we pull up -- just as the drizzle comes down on us.

The island is empty now. No wonder. Who would row out in the rain?

I tell Ed: the tradition is for newlyweds to run up the stairs to the chapel on the island holding hands -- for luck!

I grab him by the hand and we start the ascent -- and then, I can see it!  -- his mind starts spinning and he wiggles and groans and tries not to finish the course, but I hold him to it and, laughing, I ask -- what are you so afraid of?


He rows us back using his best possible muscle power.


Merrily merrily merrily merrily, life is but a dream.


Cake, Villa Bled and Old Communists

One of the oddest encounters for us in Slovenia was during our first dinner in Portoroz. A young couple (from Sweden) at the table next to ours was eyeing my appetizer.
Is that good? He asks about our anchovies.
Yes, but very salty. Try it -- I hand over a forkful. It's easy to be informal over food.
We return to eating our respective foods,  but I guess our curious Swedes were feeling they owed us one, because after a while she hands over some shrimp she had ordered.
It's okay, I ordered that too.
They were the ones who were just coming back from Bled (yes, that was the mountain part of their holiday). When I told them we'd be stopping there as well, they mentioned Villa Bled. You must go there -- the food is excellent.

What's strange about the comment is that Villa Bled is a discreet but sumptuous hotel -- probably one of the loveliest in the country. Rooms are at seven times what we're paying at the Penzion Kaps. I imagine dinners there are equally pricy. We would never eat there.

But, coffee and the Cake of Bled -- now that's another matter. Especially since the Swedish guys intrigued me with their stories of the interior of the beautiful hotel/restaurant.

I say the Cake of Bled because the pastry that we see in nearly every Slovenian bakery actually is called that -- invented the year I was born (1953), it's celebrating its 60th and I have to say, it's been tempting us every day of our trip here. For obvious reasons: it's a variation of the mille feuille: take away a layer of pastry, load on the creme patisserie, add a layer of whipped cream and boom! You got yourself a 200 gram Cake of Bled.

And so we walk up the steps of the subdued and stately Villa, pick a table overlooking the lake and indulge.

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And after, I go inside and ask the person at the desk -- a gentleman my age with impeccable if accented English -- about the portrait in the small room by the reception (knowing damn well who it is, but it's a conversation starter).

Oh, that is Tito, but you might not recognize him as it is the only painting of him where he is not wearing his military uniform.

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And the photograph? Up on the wall in the bar?


That's him and his wife, here, at the Villa.
He then tells me the history of the place: once a summer home of the royal family, it was reconstructed during World War II and, when Tito took power, finished and handed over to him.
So this was his summer home?
The Slovenian clerk laughs: Tito had "homes" all over Yugoslavia! But he entertained many dignitaries here. And you should visit the upstairs room where he liked to watch movies. You'll see murals depicting World War II.

I go upstairs and what I find is so... impressive, for lack of a better word, that I go back and get Ed to also have a look. Along the length of two walls there are dramatic scenes from the war, culminating in a mural depicting a victorious postwar Yugoslavia. (The black square in the Yugoslav flag is an opening in the wall for the movie projector. This was indeed Tito's own movie viewing room.)

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Should I ask the clerk about Tito? -- I  ask Ed.
Why not? -- I know he never would answer differently. Still, I'm reassured.

Tito? The clerk looks at me, as if trying to gauge my position in all of this. Well, especially now that Slovenia is suffering during the recession, some of us, people like me, we look back to those times and think it wasn't so bad then. And even at the time, we thought that he was a good leader. I grew up under him and my life was good. In fact, I felt that we were much more secure than my own son is now.

I tell him that I was born in Poland, but he quickly cuts me off -- that's different. We were open here, in this country -- we all could travel, we were open...
I wanted to say a word about Poland, to clarify things for him, but I was more interested in hearing his story, so I kept silent.
Of course, the union of all these states -- Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia... that was artificial. You could not sustain it...

Indeed you could not.

I think about the shifting tides: systems of governance come and go. Some benefit, others lose and then others benefit and still others lose. I think how people in the west always speak of the communist block, as if there was unity of thought, of governance here, in east-central Europe when actually we, in Poland had little in common with those in Yugoslavia and even less in common with those in East Germany and almost nothing in common with those in the Soviet Union.

The benevolent authoritarian leader. Is that even workable? Of course, at different times during my childhood in Poland, we had versions of those as well. We didn't have military rule (nor the murderous impulse that goes with it, judging by Tito's rise to power),  at least not until the very last years of authoritarian rule and at that point, Poland's military leader was hardly revered. He was, then and now, hated for standing in the way of what was perceived as progress. Though perhaps some old communists would explain that everything that happened in Poland, including during the period of martial law, happened with a fearful eye toward the east. The "WWSUS?" attitude. (What Would the Soviet Union Say?). But I digress.

What?? No Dinner??

Ed wants to return to yesterday's dinner venue. Hmmm.... it's  slightly drizzling. It's cold. Our dinner place was an outside affair. What are the chances of it being open?

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We set out anyway. Ed is so keen on the food there. It's as if every other place in town was bound to disappoint. That place or rust.

We arrive just as the cook is closing the gate: sorry, the rain, the cold -- we are going home.
Of course you are. No other sane person is coming here to eat out in the cold! I understand. So... where do you suggest we eat? Ask a cook and you'll get an honest answer. He points us to a place in town. A fish place.




Of our month away from home, I've thought that our very last days on this side of the ocean (tomorrow and the two days after) should be the ones where we, Ed and I, are most in sync, most satisfied (and most eager to look forward to the next trip and the one after).

So, did I pick right? Find out tomorrow.