Wednesday, June 26, 2013

the Slo road

We're eating dinner at a restaurant in Ljubljana called 'Marley and Me.' It's good. Perhaps not authentically Slovenian, but quite fresh and honest. It's teeny tiny and not too crowded (so that three out of the six tables stand empty on a cool, wet Wednesday evening) and the host/partner/owner of the place feels inclined to chat. So I ask him -- is it because of the book? Did you name it because you had a dog named Marley?
Well not really. I have a business partner who is "Marley" and when we opened this place (three years ago) it was called the Lunch Cafe and people got really confused. They kept asking if we only served lunch. So we started calling it Marley and Me, just for fun and then the name stuck.

Then he asks us -- how did you find us?  -- and I think he's talking about the restaurant, but soon it's clear that he's talking about something else. Slovenia. I mean, people outside -- they never heard of Slovenia.

Now that's a nation with an inferiority complex! And I understand it, because I live in a flyover state. Abroad, I assume no one has ever heard of Wisconsin. In the States, I assume no one has ever traveled there.

Still, it's hard to explain why we are here: oh, someone mentioned that it was cheap and relatively undiscovered. That sounds so... insulting (even though if you said that about Wisconsin, I'd be tickled). Or this -- we were listening to this guy talk about biking here and he said it reminded him of Italy only without the crowds. Or another true statement that I'd be reluctant to put out there -- we were looking for some place less popular that France or Italy or even Croatia.

Instead, I assure him that everyone knows of Slovenia and we'd heard such good things about it that we wanted to spend our (precious!) vacation time  here. That's mostly true as well. All but the part about recognizing Slovenia. Many people, in fact, confuse it with Slovakia.

I did not tell him, though, that we came very close to skipping Ljubljana altogether. It's the capital of Slovenia and though not large (pop. 300,000), it's large enough. But, you really have to drive by it to get to the mountains and it seemed cruel not to even stop for a night. So I found a bed and breakfast just outside the city and now here we are. For one night.

But let's go back a little in time, because the first part of the day -- the getting here -- was surely as beautiful as the being here.

So, breakfast, still in Portoroz:

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And by 11, we're heading north and east: to Ljubljana.

If we take the highway, it's a nothing trip. 100 kilometers and you're there.  And we did start off on the highway, just to get us in the right direction. But if I ever needed a reason to get off, it was given to me early on, as I drove through the first tunnel cutting into the mountains (Slovenia is all mountains; there is no flat anything -- it's up and down, no matter where you go). I'm mildly claustrophobic and I HATE driving through long tunnels, especially when I am doing the driving. HATE it. I honestly would have pulled over halfway through and had Ed take the wheel, but there wasn't a place to stop. [We had one more tunnel experience driving into Ljubljana and Ed had a wonderful time teasing me about it as I plunged into the narrow, awful darkness and I vowed hereafter to study the map and identify all the long tunnels so that we can either avoid them or I can hand over the driving to him -- though that, too is problematic, because I think he drives too fast. Can you understand why I love public transportation?]

So we get off the highway. And honestly, we do prefer the small local roads, even here in Slovenia, where they do not mark them at all by name or number, so that you have to know the name of the next village and the one after, or else you're sunk.

Follow along as I post a few photos. It was a far far longer drive than the highway one, but my oh my, was it worth it!

Away from the coast, we get off the highway and pick up the secondary road. It's relatively quiet and it's easy to pull over to take in the views.

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And to detour into a tiny village. This is Crni Kal:

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We imagine that an artist had a passion for this tiny hamlet or, in the alternative, someone had some extra stimulus money for it, because a great number of homes have the most delightful markers in front of them. They're big carvings: nearly the size of me. And quite beautiful. I instantly think that, on my retirement, I ought to do such carvings back home and sell them for a hefty profit. Or, in the alternative, just carve one out for the farmhouse. It can't be terribly hard, can it? Can it?? I have the Polish peasant hands to do it, after all! I pick this one:

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...even as Ed would probably pick this one:

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...though maybe, given our advanced ages, we should compromise on this one:

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I put it on my list of art forms to learn in the years when I have abundant free time.

Back to the hamlet. It has a lovely church spire -- though I have to say, it was especially lovely because it was the first one we came across up close and personal on this day. There would be many others.

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The hamlet is mostly refreshed and the houses looked quite updated. But there are some older homes as well. Like this one:


Okay. can't dally too long. We continue on the lovely rural road. Up one mountain, down on the other side. Until I see a turn off for Lipica. If there is a running theme through this trip it is that of the linden tree -- Lipa in Polish and Slovene, too, and this particular village is a variation on that name and indeed, there are quite a number of tall, tall linden trees along the road as it dips into the valleys...

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...and yes, they are in full bloom!

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...but Lipica is recognizable not only for the Lipa tree. It is the village where the Spanish white horse was brought in many centuries ago for breeding purposes. For the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. And you will still find the stud farm here, for the Lipizzan horses that dance and prance to the delight of so many who come to watch -- in Vienna. (The Lipizzan name is an Italian variation on Lipica because this village was, until 1947, part of Italy and before that -- part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- you remember: confusing, shifting borders!)

So I see the signpost for Lipica and I say -- let's detour to it! (Ever since I was a kid and saw the Disney film in the 1960s - the Miracle of the White Stallions, I've been rather in awe of these horses. I saw them rehearse once in Vienna many many decades ago, but I never, well, touched one!)

We take the detour and my oh my, is it a detour worth taking! You drive past acre after ace of paddock -- sweet meadow grasses, with the occasional oak for shade... And grazing there, you'll soon spot the horses.

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They're born dark brown and as they mature, they turn white.


Breathtakingly beautiful. And not shy. Here's one being exercised:

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And here's one coming up to the fence for a rub:


Ed, too, cannot resist.

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It's an utterly enchanting moment. No one else around. Just you and the horses and the oaks, grasses and lindens...

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Completely, utterly unforgettable.

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We retrace our steps and return to the road meandering onwards toward Ljubljana. Past hamlets with houses with tiled rooftops and chimneys and occasionally, a stork in a chimney...

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And then the clouds begin to roll in. Truly, some dramatic photos are a matter of talent, and some are accidentally well executed, and then some are just a question of being at the right place at the right time and knowing when to stop and take out the camera. This one belongs to the last group:

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And now we are pulling into the little town by the raging river (just outside of Ljubljana) -- the place where I booked us a room -- at the Dvor Tacen b&b and cafe. I have little doubt that it will be the gem of our entire trip here. It's very simple on the outside, but beautifully maintained (and quite inexpensive if you book early). Definitely a cut above what we typically wind up with given our budget (in Slovenia: not to exceed $100, taxes and breakfast included).

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And then the clouds burst and the rains came down.

The room is so lovely, so quiet, so comfortable -- why leave? So we linger. And linger. And by 6, the rains let up and still we linger...

...until I force myself to say -- it's not raining hard anymore and the b&b has umbrellas and we really should visit Ljubljana.

It's a 25 minute ride by city bus and we choose to go that way only to avoid meandering through a place that takes seriously the idea that the heart of a city should be car free.

The Old Town isn't expansive, but it is very pretty and we spend a bit of time there, especially along the river bank...

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But not too long, not too leisurely because there is still at least the threat of rain (though some don't mind that at all)...

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...and besides, we want to eat dinner and the last bus back to our b&b by the river leaves a few minutes after 9 (and I could do a whole paragraph on how high tech public transportation here is -- people use Smart Phones to pay and each stop has a display indicating how many minutes until the next bus arrives).

So we eat our meal at the Marley & Me and we chat to the proprietor (finally a person who, in addition to Slovenian, Italian and German, also happens to speak English very very well) and then it's time to head back, along the wet streets of a very pretty little city...

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( that, just the tiniest bit reminds me of Poland.)