Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Slovenia, considered

It's 17:07 and we are in the parking lot of something that looks like a military barrack. Or is it that my mind wanders to military barracks here, in Kobarid? The building before us is actually the Planika Dairy Museum of Cheese.
We'll give it five more minutes -- I say to Ed. The sign says open from 17 until 19. We'd already wiled away twenty minutes at a cafe across the street waiting for the gates to swing open.

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It's strange that we should bother waiting. It's not as if we're museum-hungry. We'd given over plenty of time to the Military Museum in the village. Though perhaps I shouldn't start there. Because the day for us didn't start there. So, as always, let's go back to the beginning.

When you are given the best view room in a beautifully positioned Alpine guest house, you have to start each day with a reverent look outside. The way the mountains reflect the light (the sunrise is behind us), the way the clouds arrange themselves around the summits -- each morning it's all different. Fresh and beautiful.

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Breakfast downstairs is between 8 and 9 and we are, as usual, the laggards. It's not that we sleep late. We've begun sleeping irregularly again. Sleep, wake up, write, read, sleep -- it's all confused and off schedule. It must be that we are gearing toward a return home, to a different time zone.

The breakfast at the wonderful Turisticna Kmetija Kranjc is always a little different, though always with the farm cheeses of the region and home made yogurt, home made jams, local honey.

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We eat well here.

The plan for today is to hike close to the village of Kobarid. The clouds suggest that it may rain. Or not. In any case, we don't want to be caught in it high in the mountains. And we had our grand hike yesterday. Let's do something different. Ed suggests the trail that would take us from the Military Museum, to landmarks scattered just to the north and then, crossing the Soca River -- to the falls that create another water source for the Soca.

It's a great little itinerary, though we decide to do it backwards -- the falls first, in case the weather turns on us.

We drive down to Kobarid, leave the car by the Napoleon Bridge (his army crossed here at one point and so he gets to have a bridge named after him), and head upstream along the Soca.

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It's lovely here!

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In the flower studded meadow, there is a row of beehives (unusual to see them unstacked here) and not surprisingly, the bees are extremely active. Lucky guys: they don't suffer a lack of blooms in Slovenia (our honey bees, on the other hand, have been deprived of them; our vast fields of corn and soy, lawns sheered to a crew cut, even our orchards with short blooming seasons, don't do them any favors).

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The trail now turns toward the forest and climbs just a little. And again we come across the remains of the Italian line of defense, left over from World War I.

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Still climbing up, we see that we are entering a ravine. We're not the only ones on this particular stretch. Several families make the trip up very slippery surfaces to see the Kozjak Falls. I'm left thinking -- would I take my kids here? You really have to hang on to the cable to get to the best view of the falls. Would I say "be super careful" too many times?

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The falls behind us, we cross the wooden foot bridge over the Soca. A bridge had been built on this spot during that awful war. Today's bridge is meant for the innocent traffic of visitors.

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On the other side, we do a steep climb to a hill ridge line. The walk now is through the forest - one that offers a perfect amount of shade for when the sun occasionally cracks through the clouds. In general, clouds dominate, but it's much warmer than it was yesterday. Summer weather.

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And finally we arrive at the Italian Charnel House. Mussolini had it built in 1938 to honor the fallen Italian soldiers from the awful war (Kobarid was in these years under Italian rule). As if there would be no other war. As if Kobarid was heading toward a peaceful era, where one could look back and reflect on the horror of past aggressions.

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Mussolini had moved the remains of 7014 known and unknown Italian soldiers who lost their lives in the Soca Front -- taking them from local military cemeteries and honoring them here, in this house of corpses. We walk slowly around the edifice, reading the names, understanding the pain that each death caused to those left behind, feeling the irony of this Mussolini gesture and the exclusive pride in the Italian sacrifice, ignoring the pain felt, too, by Slovenian people who lost lives as well, in addition to losing pasture lands, cattle, a livelihood that had been very much centered on the mountains towering over the Soca River.

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We are alone at this monument that looms over Kobarid. Somehow I'm not surprised. (We read that the monument is maintained by the Italian government -- adding another layer of strange complexity to the place.)

 From here, it is a descent along the road to Kobarid itself. Oh, let me remember the encounter with a this time familiar animal -- one who also enjoys raiding the meadows.

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Back in Kobarid now, we need a break from history. Where else to take it if not on the bench in the center of the village. With cookies from the same store that we visited on our first day here.

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And now we're ready for the Military Museum. And it looks like it is ready for us. The attendant tells us that she will do a showing of a film, in English , on the Soca Front. We sit through it, alone in an small auditorium with empty chairs.

And then we look at the numerous photos depicting not only the Soca Front, but, too, the disruption of life in Kobarid itself. And, just as you think you cannot take in any more sad photos and heart wrenching photos, there are yet other rooms, moving forward in history, right to World War II and the fighting between the Partisans and the Nazi invaders.

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Ed is hugely interested in detail. Me, I've reached my point of saturation and so I wait outside as he finishes his scrutiny of the exhibits.  And this is how it comes to be 16:30 and we are now with only one last possible visit on our list -- a visit to the cheese museum.

Except that, despite the posted hours, it's closed.

I see a man in the freight area and I wave him down. Ed shakes his head -- maybe you should let it go? But even though I was only mildly interested in walking through another museum, the fact that I couldn't do it, made me determined. It should be open, it should!

And in fact, in a few minutes, the gate does open and a young woman rushes over from the market across the lot. Sorry, I forgot to unlock the gate. We come over only when there are visitors.

She proceeds to tell us about the story of cheese, as made from milk collected from dairies up in the mountains that tower over Kobarid. A diet of Alpine grasses gives the milk a special taste -- she explains. The cheeses? First class! Protected now and produced here, some in the style of an emmenthal, others with brine using salt from Portoroz!

Here's the funny thing about this visit to the cheese museum -- it pulls things together for me: the cheese, the wars, the meadows, the mountains, the farm animals, the people in the village which has been our home for three days -- it's all part of the same story. Our wonderful young "cheese guide" shows us a map of pastures in the area. She shows us ones that never recovered from World War I: families moved on to other work, the fields, once full of sheep and cows, stand bare.

One pasture, however, that was restored is the Planina Zaprikraj -- the place we visited on our hike, where the farmers also make their own cheese.
Is that cheese sold here?
Oh no! They do their own thing in the summer, up there in the mountains. In the winter, they bring the heard down and then they sell us their milk.

Where do they bring the herd to? 
Their home is really in Dreznice. 
Oh, we know Dreznice! We are staying just outside of it!
With the Kranjc family.

Are you? Irena (Urska's mother) works here -- she is in management. Her mother makes beautiful lace. Lovely people, aren't they?

We can't buy cheese -- there's no point to it. We're leaving in the morning and besides, the Kranjc family gives us plenty for breakfast. But a bottle of kefir made from this special, non-homogenized milk? Most certainly!

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And I don't know if I am simply impressionable, or maybe it is true that the Alpine meadows create a luxurious, special milk, but honestly, that is the damn best kefir I have ever tasted.

As I look at the shelves of the little shop within the museum, I see that they have honey, in jars painted by hand by local artists. If I buy a jar, that means I'll have to send my suitcase through on the flight back. Is it worth it?

Yes it is.

As I make the purchase, she asks the inevitable: how did you find us, out here in this corner?
Ed says -- oh, it's easy you're right here on the tourist map.
Again the confusion. He thinks cheese museum, she thinks Slovenia.

We walk back to our car across Napoleon's bridge, where a French tourist snaps the following photo.

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And now it's 7 and we are back in the hamlet perched above Kobarid...

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...sitting now on the deck of the Kranjc farmhouse, eating dinner prepared by Urska and her mother, Irena.

Vegetable soup (a mixture of garden spinach, kohlrabi, cauliflower, cabbage).

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And salad and for us (the no red meat types), a special course of Soca trout. Which is beyond wonderful.

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At the end of dinner, I ask Urska if anyone in the family still crotchets.
Yes, my grandmother Taja does. 
How old is she?
Oh, 92.
Would she sell a small piece of her work?
I'll ask her, but I don't think so. She never sells her stuff.

Urska and her mother are the ones you'll likely see most of at the guest house. But there are other family members who help out as well: Urska's brother (and his wife and their two girls), her father, her partner. And now I see that the Taja is there as well, living here all these years when Kobarid switched from being Slovenian then Italian then occupied by the Nazis, then under the rule of Tito's Partisans, then split in half -- between the Americans and the Yugoslavs, then purely Yugoslav and now, finally, since 1991 -- Slovenian again. Taja witnessed it all. And, too, the avalanche and the earthquake that demolished homes in the village (the last big one in 1976) -- in this tiny hamlet where you would think nothing ever changes, she lived through all that.

I'm wasting my time writing about a childhood in Poland. I should be writing about Taja instead.

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Except, there's the matter of the language. And, of course, I do not live here. I live in a farmhouse in Wisconsin and I'm going home on Wednesday.