Through Other People’s Eyes – Slovenia’s Soca River Valley: From War To Peace

The two Darja’s, myself and little Alex left Kobarid in search of a battlefield and walked into a scenic wonderland that looked more like a National Park than a former war zone. The Soca River Valley was stunning. It was early spring before the trees had time to blossom. Foliage was sparse, the undergrowth manageable to the eyes. It was thin enough that I could see through much of it, tracing the outlines of ridges and gullies that would have otherwise been hidden in the summer. Mountains began to close in on the river. Crisp, cool air enveloped the valley. The river could be heard and sometimes seen, its presence guiding our path as much as the trail we walked along. Slowly, perceptibly, the terrain became more rugged. The Kobarid Historical Walk was by this point more about nature than war. Relics of the conflagration still straddled the hillsides, but they became increasingly difficult to discern. Nature was eroding them, one day far in the future it would totally defeat them. The fortifications were now totally useless, only of interest to history buffs, thank goodness for that.

Napoleon Bridge over the Soca River - Near Kobarid

Napoleon Bridge over the Soca River – Near Kobarid (Credit: Zairon)

On Military Time – Lines of Defense
On the walk we came across many ruins that indicated the wartime work of soldiers had not yet quite succumbed to nature. There were trenches, tunnels and stone walls. Their longevity had much to do with the craftsmanship and materials from which they were made. It would have taken an incredible amount of manpower just to construct them. In one respect, it was not surprising these remnants had stood the test of time. Time was the key word when it came to them. That was not surprising since the soldiers who constructed and manned what was known as the Italian Line of Defense had a massive amount of time on their hands. We had come here wanting to see where battles had been fought, but the reality of this war, like almost every other, was that the soldiers spent more time idle than they did in battle. This was true on the Soca, despite the prolonged battles to which its name had been given.

We had almost perfect weather while making our way along the trail, the soldiers did not have the luxury of choosing what day to visit this area. The cloudless sky with a bright mid-day sun warmed the air. I doubted the weather could have been much better for this time of year, it was optimal for walking. Would any of us have felt the same if it was rain or snowing? Likely not. Italian soldiers spent days that turned into weeks, weeks that stretched into months, manning these defenses in all seasons and types of weather. This was no day trip or week-long vacation for them, it was a matter of life and death. Most often, that struggle meant staving off boredom while sitting around in the woods as nothing particularly interesting happened. Military duty along this stretch of the Soca could best be described as months and months of boredom, punctuated by a few hours of panic.

In the trenches - Italian Line of Defense, Soca River Valley

In the trenches – Italian Line of Defense, Soca River Valley

The Thunderous Call – A Slap To The Senses
I left the two Darja’s and toddler Alex behind at one point to go inspect a section of defensive works. They were dank and damp even though the weather was dry. It was fascinating to stand in the exact same trenches where Italian soldiers had a century before. There were no historic displays to provide context or explain what went on in the Italian Line of Defense. It was left to the imagination. The odd thing was that I could really get a true feel for what it must have been like. Nothing especially interesting, just staring out into the woods. This occupied my attention for a couple of minutes at most. Having to sit or stand in these woods for a couple of months or years as the soldiers did would have made for an entirely different experience. One that hardly anyone would care to repeat. Reliving history can be a fascinating thought experiment, but the reality is that very few would care to go back and experience the actual event.

Thankfully, the nature offered more satisfying pleasures than the fortifications. The true highlights of the walk were incredible views of the Soca River and its breathtaking gorge. The river waters were astoundingly transparent. Soon the river banks grew closer to one another as we neared the gorge. At one point the river was spanned by what is known as the Napoleon Bridge, constructed in 1750. It seemed that no matter where you went in or near Kobarid there was no escaping military history. In 1797 French troops had crossed a stone bridge here in this same place on their way to the Predil Pass in the Slovenian Alps. Another crossing could be done by a more recently constructed suspension bridge. From there it was on to Slap Kozjak. Slap is a wonderfully unforgettable term in Slovene that means waterfall. After taking a twisting, serpentine footpath across the bright, white limestone valley floor we suddenly came into a gorge that felt more like a natural humidifier. A faintly visible mist cooled the air amid the thunderous call of the falling water.

Slap Kozjak - Soca River Valley

Slap Kozjak – Soca River Valley

Happy Ending – A Land Beyond War
It was hard to square the beauty and peace of the Soca River Valley with the mind-boggling violence which had scarred it during the first half of the 20th century. And not all of it had occurred in the First World War either. The Yugoslav Partisans had set up camp right beside the Napoleon Bridge. Kobarid had been ethnically cleansed more than once. There was nowhere in Europe, east or west, north or south, that was not touched by the two World Wars. Beautiful and remote places, ones now frequented by tourists, had seen acts of violence which would chill the blood of even the hardest men. All that was in the past now, as would be our trip to Kobarid very soon. My Slovene friends had gone out of their way to make my experience memorable. It was, but for reasons I would not have guessed when the day had begun. They seemed just as curious as I was about the places, people and events we discovered together. I saw the Soca River valley through their eyes as well as the Italian soldier’s eyes. It was a battlefield and at the same time, much more than that. A place where people went hiking, enjoyed nature and reflected on history. This land that I had only previously known because of war, was really a place of peace and beauty. History does not have many happy endings, but Kobarid and the Soca River Valley was surely one of them.

Click here for: A Traveler’s Need: A Tourist’s Want – Hungary Over Austria: Gyor Above Everything Else

Seeing Through The Soca – Twelve Battles On The Isonzo: War Without End

The Kobarid Museum was a beginning rather than an end for accessing the history of World War I on the Italian Front. The museum had a wealth of artifacts and world class exhibits, but for the curious this was just the beginning. Nothing beats a visit to the actual sites where the fighting occurred. To strip the veneer of glory from war, one should get as close as possible to where battle occurred. Many of the old lines of fortification still exist, sprawling in the valleys. on the hillsides and atop mountains. The inhospitable terrain has acted to preserve these remnants of war. Just outside the museum begins a five kilometer trail known as the Kobarid Historical Walk, the name is something of a misnomer. The trail is not only about what happened in this area during World War I, it also takes in a wealth of natural and cultural sites. The trail first goes up to the Italian Charnel House, then stays close to the Soca River. The river has been termed by some as the most beautiful in Europe. The setting is enhanced by the mountains which tower in the near distance. The two Darja’s, little Alex and myself set off first for the Italian Charnel House. My Slovene companions never ceased to amaze me, they wanted to make sure I had the best experience possible. I cannot imagine many people, let alone two Slovene women in their 20’s would choose to visit the grounds of a Charnel House. Nevertheless, they did it with open minds and genuine curiosity.

Italian Charnel House - Kobarid

Italian Charnel House – Kobarid

A Sublime Paradox – The Charnel House
The Italian Charnel House was the first ossuary I have ever visited. I would prefer not to repeat the experience. Despite beautiful weather, it felt weird and gloomy. At the time, we were the only ones on-site. Because it was set on Gradic Hill, the Charnel House stood above the town. At a distance it looked spectacular, closeup it felt more like what it was, a monument to death constructed around a monument to eternal life. Octagonal in shape, its core consists of three concentric circles that narrow and get smaller as they rise. This work surrounds St. Anthony’s Church, which was built on the hill in the late 17th century. The Charnel House’s symmetry, austere exterior and penetrating silence had the effect of making it seem devoid of life. The complex holds the remains of 7,014 Italian Soldiers, both known and unknown. This added to the uneasiness I felt as I walked around it. The architecture may have been designed with reverence in mind, but for me it acted as a barrier. Owing to the material used for its construction and the dramatic scale, it felt sterile and lifeless. I doubt that was what the architect had in mind since the Charnel House was built to honor the dead. The soldier’s remains had been moved to it from nearby Army cemeteries, in this case some things are better left alone.

Those seven thousand soldiers buried in an ossuary surrounded by such incredible natural beauty was a sublime paradox. The fact that ferocious battles had been fought amid this magnificent landscape was difficult to grasp. The Soca River’s trance inducing turquoise waters were said by some to be the most beautiful in all of Europe. I would not disagree with that assessment. Tragically, the Soca was also synonymous with the bloody battles that occurred in northeastern Italy during the war. The Italian version of the river’s name, Isonzo, has been given to the catastrophic battles fought in the area from May 1915 until November 1917 on a front that stretched along the Soca River, in western historiography they are known as the Twelve Battles of the Isonzo. It is hard enough to imagine industrialized warfare taking place along the Soca/Isonzo, but the type of fighting that occurred is just as difficult to comprehend.

Italian infantry leaving their trenches - Ninth Battle of the Isonzo

Italian infantry leaving their trenches – Ninth Battle of the Isonzo

At The Highest Cost – Extremely Offensive
The battles were more like mini campaigns lasting for weeks or months. The 2nd and 4th Battles of the Isonzo each went on for 24 days, the 10th and 11th for 26 days. These battles were just as destructive as any other World War I campaign, but with the added element of rugged topography that made the fighting extremely lethal. Desperate frontal assaults were attempted across the karst (limestone) plateau. When artillery shells exploded on this terrain, rock would splinter in all directions. These deadly projectiles caused horrific casualty rates. The first eleven battles of the Isonzo resulted in over a million casualties. The Italian Army suffered over 60% of them. The astronomical casualty rates were largely due to two factors, the environment in which the armies fought and outdated military tactics that had not caught up with the new technological means transforming warfare.

Prior to the First World War, the side waging the offensive traditionally held the advantage. That was no longer true. Machine guns and mass artillery fire provided an entrenched defensive force with the firepower to withstand a numerically superior attacking force. The Italians waged the offensive during the first eleven battles of the Isonzo to their own detriment. In almost every case, the Austro-Hungarian forces had the advantage of occupying the high ground. The Italians tried largely in vain to dislodge the defenders. What territory they did take came at an unacceptably high cost. It is little wonder that after the Battle of Kobarid (Caporetto) (also known as the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo) was launched on October 24, 1917 by combined Austro-Hungarian/German forces the Italian army collapsed.

The Soca (Isonzo) River near Kobarid

The Soca (Isonzo) River near Kobarid (Credit: Aschroet)

Surrendered To History – The Other Side Of The River
The two Darja’s, Alex and myself made our way along the Kobarid Historical Walk, covering some of the same ground where the Italians were overrun by the  14th Army of the Austro-Hungarian/German forces. This was where years of stalemate vanished in a matter of hours. The Italians surrendered en masse. During the two-week debacle that was the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, thirty Italian soldiers surrendered for every one that was killed. They were done fighting along the Isonzo. The river would no longer be the scene of fighting as the front moved further south. It would now become part of history. The river’s beauty remained, but the years in which it ran red with the blood of thousands forever tarnished its remarkable image. I could not look into the Soca’s transparently turquoise waters without recalling that the river was part of the setting for a series of deadly battles that destroyed over a million lives.

Click here for: Through Other People’s Eyes – Slovenia’s Soca River Valley: From War To Peace

 

 

The True Face Of Battle – Kobard Museum: “Can You Imagine?”

As we got closer to Kobarid the mountains grew taller, creeping ever closer to the Soca River Valley. They broke into folds and fissures, tumbling towards the small town set out below them. After two and a half hours on the road we wound our way into Kobarid. The town was in a gorgeous setting. The Soca River, a vibrant strand of liquid turquoise, slithering down the valley. The mountains hovering above Kobarid were blanketed with thick forests. Behind these mountains were the barren summits of peaks intermittently airbrushed by misty clouds. Kobarid looked like a miniature town compared to the dramatic landscape surrounding it. In his novel A Farewell To Arms, Ernest Hemingway described Kobarid as “A little white town with a campanile in a valley.”

The campanile was still there and many of the houses were white, but their architecture was modern. A much more recent cataclysm than the Great War, an earthquake in 1976, left the town badly damaged. It had come back in style, strikingly clean and quaint, with curving streets and Italianate architecture. Kobarid had a relaxed and peaceful air about it. It may not have been the exotic Caporetto of my imagination, but it still felt a bit like an inland Mediterranean village. The town and setting matched each other perfectly, so much so that it was hard to imagine a World War shattering this bucolic image, but that was exactly what had happened.

Kobarid World War I Museum

Kobarid World War I Museum (Credit: Dani 7C3)

Ominous Monuments – Memories Of A Prolonged Nightmare
There were only two buildings in Kobarid evocative of the war that had made it so famous, the Kobarid Museum and Italian Charnel House. The latter was completed in 1938, in time for Mussolini to make an appearance at its dedication. The Charnel House loomed over the town, an ominous monument to life and death that could be seen from miles away on the road into Kobarid. It was a chilling reminder of the deadly warfare that had brought the area more infamy than glory. Kobarid or Caporetto as the Italians called it has been rated by some as the greatest military disaster in Italian history. Conversely, the Slovenes who now make up the town’s population had a unique experience with that same conflict. As members of the Austro-Hungarian Army they had fought on the winning side in the battle and the losing side of the war. Eventually they ended up with Kobarid on their side of the border, but not before another World War did its destructive work.

The other building, known as the Kobarid Museum, was famous for its portrayal of the war. When we pulled up close to the multi-storied Baroque building housing it, I wondered if it would be as good as advertised. Museums in small provincial towns are usually just that, small and provincial. The Kobarid Museum was supposed to be one of the best. I could hardly wait to see it. The museum was just as good as its reputation. In the entrance foyer were portraits of soldiers like many of the ones I have seen at the beginning of other World War I exhibits. This exhibit area was different because there were tombstones from graves found in the surrounding area, a reminder of where the fighting had led for hundreds of thousands. There were separate rooms set aside for the history of Kobarid, the fighting high up in the Slovenian Alps, how soldiers suffered in the alpine environment, life behind the lines, the fighting along the Soca River valley and the Battle of Kobarid. It was just enough information, but not too much. Most importantly it was memorable.

The Italian Charnel House in Kobarid

The Italian Charnel House in Kobarid

The Hell They Went Through – Images Seared Into The Memory
The true test for me of a first-class museum is if you can remember one specific thing about it. Whether that is an artifact, a photo or a certain exhibit that leaves an unforgettable impression. Kobarid Museum left me with such a memory as seen through the eyes of my friend Darja. While viewing the museum I wondered what the two Darja’s thought of it all. They looked closely at the exhibits just as I did. Their patience with my need to study each exhibit was incredible. I felt embarrassed that the Italian Front, as represented in this museum, was an unending display of chauvinism. Guns and swords, battle flags, photos of trenches, maps of the opposing forces dispositions, uniforms, insignia and medals, this was an all-male affair. Or so it seemed.

It was easy to forget amid all the martial paraphernalia that every soldier who had wielded a weapon was not a son of a bitch, but a mother’s son. Those soldiers in the black and white photographs were not so distant to those who held them in their hearts back home. They were longed for by mothers, sisters and daughters who could not imagine the hell they were going through in northern Italy. What they went through was most graphically depicted in a series of photographs showing the permanent wounds suffered by the soldiers. These were found in the quite fittingly named Black Room, one of the final exhibits. The images were searing. They showed men whose faces had been permanently rearranged by the bullets and shells that were so harmlessly displayed in the other exhibits. These were the true faces of war contorted into grotesque forms that looked sub-human.

The True Face Of Battle - Kobarid Museum

The True Face Of Battle – Kobarid Museum

A Reactionary Gasp – Facing Off
One photo showed a man who nose was misplaced and swollen. His left eye slumped badly, while his right eye was still in its proper place. There were three other photos arranged with this one, each showing men with permanent wounds scarring their faces or what was left of them. When Darja saw this picture her reaction was visceral. A reactionary gasp flew from her mouth, she recoiled in horror, then turned around and looked at me. Her expression said it all, it was one of horrific shock. She was saying to me in unspoken terms, “Can you imagine?” I knew exactly what she meant. In her expression I saw exactly what I was feeling. We had both seen the face of battle, one that nobody ever forgets.

Click here for: Seeing Through The Soca – Twelve Battles On The Isonzo: War Without End

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Power Of An Overactive Imagination – Caporetto To Kobarid: Where Dreams Go To Thrive

The formative moments of my life that motivated me to travel and discover new places only become apparent to me many years after they occurred. What brought me close to the Slovenian- Italian border to visit the village of Kobarid and surrounding Soca River Valley began over thirty years earlier in a tiny town on the edge of Charlotte, North Carolina. My grandparents lived in Derita, a community that has long since been swallowed up by Charlotte. It was here that I spent summer days helping my grandparents in their garden and with yard work. At night, my grandfather would sit on his favorite sofa reading newspapers, magazines and books. That is where I first noticed his monthly veterans paper. He had served in the United States Navy during World War I. This paper was printed for all veterans of the war. He would spend hours reading each issue. Sometimes he recounted stories from his service, which amounted to sitting on a ship in New York Harbor, then being called home earlier than expected when his mother became gravely ill. The stories he told were the beginning of my interest in the war.

My Grandfather - Hawley "Doc" Hunter 1896 -1990, U.S. Navy World War I

My Grandfather – Hawley “Doc” Hunter 1896 -1990, U.S. Navy World War I

Whiteout – A Famously Obscure Front
Two decades later I was visiting with an English friend of mind. We were at his house in Rabun County, Georgia. A professional historian and professor by trade, at that time he was retired. He had a keen interest in the war and was trying to diverse his knowledge of the different fronts. He discussed with me the difficulty in trying to find good books on the army of Austria-Hungary. The Italian Front was the only theater of the war Austria-Hungary fought in that had become part of western historical consciousness. This was almost entirely due to Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel, A Farewell To Arms. Hemingway had been a Red Cross ambulance driver on the Italian side of the front. That conversation piqued my interest in the topic. Not long thereafter I found a newly published book, The White War: Life & Death On The Italian Front 1915-1919 by Mark Thompson. We both read it and agreed that it was the best scholarly work done on the subject.

The White War dealt with the entire theater of the war in northeastern Italy. One of its main focal points was the Battle of Caporetto, a devastating defeat for the Italians that turned into a full-scale retreat. Hemingway evocatively wrote about the chaos of Caporetto in his magnificent narrative. I went back and reread his account. Both books made me long to visit the battlefield. When I traveled to Slovenia, one of my main goals was to visit Caporetto. I knew a day trip was possible from Ljubljana. It would afford me the opportunity to finally realize my passion for this remote front of the war and visit a battlefield where Austria-Hungary (with major German assistance) had won its greatest victory.

The White War by Mark Thompson - Best single volume on The Italian Front during World War I

The White War by Mark Thompson – Best single volume on The Italian Front during World War I

The Name Changes – The Place Stays The Same
Caporetto, the name was magnetically attractive. It sounded mysterious and elegant, like a seaside resort where wealthy Europeans parked their yachts for summer long sojourns. The name started me daydreaming about an exotically glamorous spot on a sun splashed shoreline. Nothing would be further from the truth. I would only understand this after traveling to the town and surrounding battlefield. Luck turned out to be on my side regarding this trip. My Slovenian friend, Darja, despite being eight months pregnant and terribly sick the day before, picked me up at 8:00 a.m. Our first stop on the journey was her sister-in-law’s house, on the outskirts of Ljubljana. The sister-in-law was wonderfully kind and energetic. She also went by the name of Darja. The plan was for her to drive us in her SUV. The two Darja’s hospitality was incredible. They did not want me paying for gas, food or anything else. When I did they got upset. All that was asked of me was to sit beside Alex, Darja II’s son who was less than a year old. He was a pleasant child who spent much of the ride smiling.
I soon discovered that we were and were not heading to Caporetto. After World War II, the border was moved to the east and Caporetto became Kobarid, the name it was known for, first in Yugoslavia and now in Slovenia. I was never able to get used to Kobarid. That name had none of the Mediterranean elegance I associated with the Italian name. What I failed to understand is that the area had been highly contested ground between Slovenes and Italians in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Kobarid is the furthest western town in Slovenia, at best a two-hour drive from Ljubljana. Fortunately, the highway was in perfect condition. Every road we traveled on this trip looked like it had been recently paved. Such infrastructure made it easy to understand why Slovenia had become the poster child for a successful post-communist nation. Large dollops of European Union money had been poured into the country and put to good use. I found myself wishing American highways were modeled after Slovenian ones. The scenery was beautiful, large mountains crept closer the longer we drove. As for the weather, it could not have been more perfect. The previous day’s torrential downpours were now a distant memory as sunshine and blue skies greeted us.

My travel companions - Darja, Darja & Alex

My travel companions – Darja, Darja & Alex

Tripping Out – On A New Road
I was surprised at how normal this trip felt for such a unique situation. Here I was an American obsessed with going to see a World War One battlefield while being driven halfway across a country that had not even existed during the war. I was traveling in a country (Slovenia) that had been part of a different country (Yugoslavia) twenty-five years earlier. All those news reports I had seen on television in the early 1990’s about the dissolution of Yugoslavia now meant something to me. When Yugoslavia suddenly imploded and new borders were drawn, an opportunity to freely travel in the area arose. One that would have previously seemed impossible. In a sense, the political had become personal. To make matters more head spinning, I was traveling with two Slovenian women and a young toddler less than one year old. I have been accused of having an overactive imagination, but I never could have dreamed up such a delightful adventure. This was the kind of life I had always dreamed of. Never knowing who or what comes next while traveling to a place I had never been before. On this trip the rest of my life became an afterthought. This was what I called living.

Click here: The True Face Of Battle – Kobard Museum: “Can You Imagine?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing Is Disbelieving – Bled Castle: Undermining The Past

Lake Bled was just as blessed by history as it was by natural beauty. Bled Castle, towering above the lake’s turbulent waters, stood high on a rocky outcropping. It towered above Aljaz and myself as we made our approach to the main entrance gate. The rocky outcropping on which it stood made the castle stunningly photogenic. More importantly from a historical standpoint, it created a fortress that was nearly impregnable. The approach was lung bursting. Imagine walking up at least a 25% incline on slick cobblestones. My thighs were burning by the halfway point. I consider myself to be in pretty good shape, but I was soon gasping for breath. I could not imagine trying to attack this castle, historically neither could many others. Bled Castle was still standing today in good condition due to the fact that no army could ever really come to terms with how to overcome its natural defenses. It was impossible to conceive of such a conquest. Those who first received rights to the castle were in for the long haul, Bled Castle’s history bore this out.

Stepping stones - Entrance to Bled Castle

Stepping stones – Entrance to Bled Castle

Staying Power – The Bishops of Brixen
One of the joys of travel in Eastern Europe are all the new people, places and events from the past that I get to discover. While this history can seem obscure, upon further examination it often has relevance to modern times. When I first heard “Bishops of Brixen” I thought it had a nice flow to it. Never having heard anything about who or what they were I was curious to learn more. The Bishops of Brixen go all the way back to the start of Bled Castle, over a thousand years ago. They were a group of Catholic Bishops who administered what was known as the Bisphoric of Brixen, an ecclesiastical state that part of the Holy Roman Empire. It was located in what is today the South Tyrol region of Italy. This state was centered around the city of Brixen which can still be visited today. The Bishops of Brixen were given the rights to Bled Castle and the surrounding area by King Henry II (1004 – 1024) of Germany as a reward for their assistance in strengthening German rule in northern Italy.

This was all news to me, as it probably was to almost anyone who visited the castle, other than those who had studied the vagaries of medieval history. The Bishops of Brixen were almost a week’s ride away from Bled Castle. Such trips could be dangerous, if not deadly.  Holding onto the castle meant appointing others to administer it. These included aristocratic leaseholders or land managers. This arrangement worked well enough up until the early modern age. It was not until 1848, with the end of feudalism in the Austrian Empire, that Bled Castle was finally sold off to a wealthy industrialist. Consider the Bishopric of Brixen, which stayed around in one form or another in the Tyrol until 1964. The Bishop’s long lasting rule was helped by the fact that they hardly ruled at all. Instead, they selected managers or leaseholders who took good care of the castle. The formidable position of the castle also helped matters, offering natural protection from enemy attack. With the exception of a peasant uprising, human caused damage was minimal.

Bled Beautiful - The Poetic Words of France Preseren

Bled Beautiful – The Poetic Words of France Preseren

Casting History – In A Different Light
What armies were unable to conquer, nature had a way of undermining. In 1511 an earthquake gravely damaged the castle. Another earthquake in 1690 did more damage, but the castle remained. The two earthquakes led to major reconstruction work which largely created the version of Bled Castle that stands today.  The interior exhibits and rooms did an adequate job of telling the castle’s story. There was a knight’s hall and a chapel to visit, along with the usual assortment of medieval weaponry. Historic furnishings were non-existent, which was no surprise considering the castle’s many temporary residents through the years. Several different architectural styles could be discerned with Romanesque walls, Renaissance outbuildings and the Baroque chapel. The ten Euro entrance fee paid by thousands upon thousands went a long way to keeping the castle in prime condition. The most interesting exhibits related to France Preseren, Slovenia’s national poet.

Preseren’s tumultuous life played out during the first half of the 19th century concurrently with the first stirrings of the Slovenian national awakening. He was a nationalist par excellence, opposing the Austrian grip on power in his homeland. Though Slovenia looked to have more in common with Austria, I was not surprised to find nationalism penetrating the interpretive history of this lakeside redoubt. After all, this was still the Balkans. A hopeless romantic, Preseren was moved by the scenery of Bled. It inspired him to write some of his most famous lines, which included the following verses: “No, Carniola has no prettier scene/Than this, paradise serene”. I wholeheartedly agreed with Preseren’s eloquent assessment. It was rather obvious from the exhibits on Preseren that Slovenia wanted to nationalize the history of the castle. The Bishopric of Brixen, which had profoundly influenced the provenance of the castle for eight centuries, had been a Germanic construct. Now Bled Castle was a possession of the Slovenian state and as such its history was cast in this light.

Lake Bled - The view from Bled Castle

Lake Bled – The view from Bled Castle

All Downhill From Here – No Prettier Scene
The castle had looked incredible from a distance, but upon closer inspection I found it not nearly as impressive. Then again, how could it be? Its setting was so dramatic that everything found within the walls paled in comparison to the view looking up at it from the shoreline. There was one exception though, the view out from the castle across Lake Bled. We stood there staring out at its turbulent waters. Clouds and mist intermingled. We could make out the paths of showers by the raindrops scattering onto the dark surface of the lake. It was quite a show. One so stunning, that I could hardly believe such a vista possible. There is the old cliché that seeing is believing, in this case that was not quite true. It was more like seeing is disbelieving. It was almost impossible for me to believe that such an astonishing view could exist. It was worrisome. What could top the combination of standing atop the walls of Bled Castle, looking out on one of the most beautiful lakes in Europe? It was all downhill from Bled Castle literally and figuratively.

Click here for: The Power Of An Overactive Imagination – Caporetto To Kobarid: Where Dreams Go To Thrive

 

 

 

Slovenia’s Character Of Contradictions – France Preseren: Rejection, Rebellion & Remarkable Verse

A nation’s heroes reflect its inspirations and aspirations. They are revered as the living embodiment of the nation’s character. All national heroes are not created equal though. Many have deeply flawed characters. Sometimes those who have the power to tug at a nation’s heart strings can also sink to levels of depravity more closely associated with the fringes of society. It was hard to believe such a thing about Slovenia’s most heroic and historical personage, a man who was immortalized right in the heart of Ljubljana, Slovenia’s jewel box of a capital city.  The city center, so tidy and quaint, seemed an unlikely place to be standing face to face with the statue of a great man of dubious character. Yet it was this same man who has also become the most venerated person in Slovenian history. A man whose words awakened a firestorm of national feeling.  His words achieved greatness, his deeds brought downfall. France Preseren was a complicated and deeply troubled man, a literary genius who left a legacy behind that made him a Slovenian national hero. This was despite, or perhaps because of the contradictions in his troubled character.

France Preseren - Portrait

France Preseren – Portrait (Credit: Franz Kurz zum Thurn und Goldenstein)

Unintentional Symbolism – A Hero & Scoundrel
I had never heard of France Preseren until I came upon him in the heart of Ljubljana. He occupied an exalted place in the Old Town. His large bronze statue, part of a rather frayed monument, stands in the cobbled square named after Slovenia’s most beloved bard. Presernov trg (Preseren square) is one of the most important public spaces in the Slovenian capital. The iconic Triple Bridge, laid across the Ljublanica River, leads to the square. The marvelous Baroque Church of the Annunciation dominates its north side, while several secessionist style buildings fill in the surrounding spaces, adding an eclectic touch to the scene. The statue of Preseren is part of a larger monument complex. On it, the poet stands straight backed on a pedestal while a naked muse sits on a rock above him. In one of her hands the muse holds a laurel wreath.

The monument in conjunction with its immediate surroundings is loaded with symbolism, much of it unintentional. For instance, off to Preseren’s right is the Church of the Annunciation. Though educated in Catholic schools during his formative years, the rebellious Preseren had a fraught relationship with the church throughout his life. The situation of Preseren’s statue is also fascinating. It faces in the direction where the unrequited love of his life, Julija Primic once lived. Finally, there is the naked muse above Preseren, serving as a reminder of his poetic prowess, seemingly gifted from the literary gods. To those who know about Preseren’s personal life, the muse could also be viewed as temptation or desire always near to his thoughts. Though Preseren’s love for Julija went unrequited, that did not stop him from an endless series of carnal trysts with numerous women. The truth about Preseren is just as complicated as the symbolism surrounding the monument. He was a world class poet and the man who did more than anyone to make Slovenian a literary language. Conversely, he was a drunk, a womanizer and deeply depressed. In other words, France Preseren was both hero and scoundrel.

Julija Primic - The unrequited love

Julija Primic – The unrequited love (Credit: Matevz Langus)

On A Course Of Despair – Rejection, Rebellion & Remarkable Verse
France Preseren was born in Vrba, a tiny village in northern Slovenia not far from Lake Bled. He was one of seven children and the oldest son of a well to do farmer. His mother placed great value on education, making sure all her children were literate and educated. Young France displayed a preternatural intellect from an early age. He was sent to Catholic schools where he learned four different languages – including Latin and Ancient Greek – by the time he was a teenager. His mother pushed him to join the priesthood, but he was too much a rebel for a career in the church. Instead he went off to school in Vienna where he trained to be a lawyer. Moving back to Ljubljana in 1828, he worked for a local law firm. Time and again he applied to start a practice as an independent lawyer, but his applications were consistently denied. Only after the sixth application was he finally approved. Rejection seems to have been a constant theme throughout Preseren’s adult life.

During these years he was cultivating his true talent, poetry. In the early 1830’s his verse reached a new level, as did his love life, after he met the wealthy Julija Simic. A hopeless romantic, Preseren fell deeply in love with her, but could not bring himself to profess his true feelings, likely out of fear that she would not reciprocate. The failure of this relationship set Preseren on a course of despair that would follow him for the rest of his life. He also had numerous run-ins with the church and state. His unfulfilled romantic life, rebellious spirit and literary talent were a potent combination that led him to write remarkable verse. He identified his unrequited feelings with that of the Slovenes own thwarted nationalist aspirations. In the process his verse became the voice of a nation, but only after his life ended. Only a single volume of his poetry was published in his lifetime.

Preseren Monument in Preserenov Trg - Ljubljana

Preseren Monument in Preserenov Trg – Ljubljana (Credit: Nikolai Karaneschev)

Speaking To Slovenians  – A National Creation
The private life and behavior of Preseren casts a long shadow over his heroic reputation. To put it simply, he was a drunkard. To the point, that he destroyed himself with alcohol. He lacked self-control when it came to the bottle. The same was true of his relationships with women. He was the father of three children with Ana Jelovsek. They never married, but she became his common law wife. While they were together he had numerous affairs with other women. Their children ended up in foster care. And yet for a man who was not much of a father to his own, Preseren was known for his kindnesses to children. He often gave them sweets and invited them to dine with him at inns. The same inns that he frequented and drank himself to death. In 1849 he died from cirrhosis of the liver. His life was over, but his legacy has proven lasting.

It is difficult for me to square the life and character of Preseren with that of present day Slovenians. Slovenia has achieved independence and relative prosperity. The people are quiet and industriousness. Drama in Slovenia is more natural than human. Yet their national hero, Preseren, had a personal life no sane Slovenian would want. His sufferings were mostly self-inflicted. Peace, contentment and happiness eluded him. Yet there must be something in both Preseren’s verse and character that speaks to Slovenians. He was in the vanguard of promoting the Slovenian language and in the process creating a nation. All Slovenians owe him a debt of gratitude. They should never forget what Preseren did for Slovenia. At the same time, they should also never forget what he did to himself.

Click here for: Season Of Quiet Madness – Visiting Lake Bled: A Storm Waiting To Explode

 

 

American Friendliness, Eastern European Reticence – The Meaning of Friendship: A Smile In Slovenia 

It has been my experience that the average American’s reputation among Eastern Europeans is not good. Oddly enough, this has little to do with politics, wars or economics. It has more to do with smiling, optimism and naivety. Of course, I am exaggerating a little bit, but only to a certain extent. Anyone who has spent time east of Germany in the Slavic world or in Hungary, Romania and the Balkans will notice that people in those countries rarely smile at strangers. They are not overtly friendly or outgoing (Romanians at times being a notable exception). As an American I find this fascinating. A multitude of experiences has led me to develop some theories about public introversion among Eastern Europeans.

Frowned Upon – Smiles Will Get You Nowhere
One reason for this lack of superficial friendliness likely has to do with the legacy of totalitarian rule. This is especially true among the older generations. Strangers were and still are not to be trusted in many Eastern European societies. For good reason, as a stranger might just work for the state and report on you for something. As ridiculous as this sounds, no American can imagine what it must have been like to live in a Stalinist society. Suspicion of everyone, including family and close friends was endemic to the system. Then there is the hard reality that Eastern Europeans have been conditioned by 20th century history not to have much to smile about. Two World Wars, multiple occupations, radical ideological impositions and corrupt governance are enough to make anyone mind their own business. Americans have been conditioned by history to have the opposite attitude, one of openness and optimism. The future is not to be dreaded because it is filled with promise.

Many Eastern Europeans I have talked to find the American sense of optimism irritating. Coupled with the smiling and lack of formality, this has led to a reputation for naivety. Some will go farther and tell you it is a sign of stupidity. One might think that this would lead to Americans getting taken advantage of when they visit the region, but I believe Eastern Europeans are so disconcerted by this behavior that they would rather run the other way. Perhaps, they believe that Americans are looking to take advantage of them through some sort of veiled trickery. Something gets lost in translation. Eastern Europeans understand Americans, about as much as Americans understand Eastern Europeans, in other words not very well. Americans are stereotyped as wealthy, big headed and self-interested. I have now had multiple Eastern Europeans tell me that the problem with Americans is that they are nice to your face, but friendship is totally on the surface. Americans are friendly to them not because they care. On the contrary they could care less.

Deeply Personal – The Unvarnished Truth
I have made the mistake on several occasions of asking a Hungarian, “How are you?” This pleasant American conversation starter can turn bad real fast. To a Hungarian the question signals that you really want to know how they are feeling and that you care. They will then proceed to tell you the unvarnished truth, which can sometimes descend into a litany of complaints about almost anything that has been troubling them or gone wrong. Listening to the usual spew of pessimism can be off-putting to say the least. Than again, I was the one who asked how they were doing, so they told me. In other words, don’t ask unless you are prepared for the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This experience has dissuaded me from asking Hungarians how they are doing or feeling unless I know them well. I know the answer will not be what I was expecting. Conversely, such a question from a total stranger was not what they were expecting either.

One of the main gripes about Americans that I have heard voiced on numerous occasions is that they are superficial in their friendship. Personal relationships stay on the surface and do not know go any deeper. Americans are more interested in being liked and heard, than they are in being a true friend. In my opinion, this is based upon a misunderstanding. To an American being nice and outgoing is a social norm. Most Americans think this has little to do with true friendship. It is more like shaking hands, something most respectful people do upon meeting someone new. Friendliness is on a professional, rather than a personal level. Such hospitality is certainly good for business, but not for intimacy. Nonetheless, I must admit there is a fair amount of truth to the belief that Americans are more superficial in their personal relationships. I have noticed that friendships tend to be more intimate and personal in Eastern Europe. Conversations tend to go deeper, filled with emotion and sensitivity. The same goes for hospitality, once the ice is broken, the people want to give you the best experience possible. They feel compelled to take care of your every need.

Ljubljana Castle & Slovenia - Light In The Storm

Ljubljana Castle & Slovenia – Light In The Storm

Living Proof – Hospitality Slovenian Style
I mention this because that is exactly what happened to me in Slovenia. I found myself standing in Ljubljana’s Preseren Square waiting to meet my Slovenian friend. The one who I had first met when she spent a summer in a forlorn frontier town on the Great Plains in South Dakota. It was now four years later, she was eight months pregnant, feeling sick and suffering physically. Sure enough, at the appointed time she showed up with a smile beaming from her face. She trudged up to Ljubljana Castle with me, showed me around the Old Town and apologized that she was not feeling better. She had promised to take me to Lake Bled, later that day but in her current state there was no way it was going to happen. Then she came up with another option. Her partner could pick me up later that day and drive me to Bled. This despite a weather forecast calling for torrential downpours later that day. I told her that he did not have to do this. She insisted that I go with him. In addition, she promised to be better tomorrow. Her and her sister-in-law would drive me out to Kobarid several hours from Ljubljana to look at the World War I museum and battlefield there. All because she knew I was interested in this history.

I was stunned. When she was in America I took her around a little bit to see a few National Parks in the area, but it was really no problem for me. I did not expect reciprocal treatment especially from someone on the verge of having a baby. This Slovene’s idea of friendship and hospitality was incredible. It was the not first or last time I would experience the same thing in Eastern Europe. These people who walked around keeping to themselves were disguising the most wonderful inclinations. It would really be a stretch in the United States to find someone you had not seen in years who was willing to do whatever was necessary to provide the best experience possible. Friendship in Slovenia, as in the rest of Eastern Europe, was very different from that in America. It was much better. The next day and a half would provide proof of that.

Click here for: Slovenia’s Character Of Contradictions – France Preseren: Rejection, Rebellion & Remarkable Verse

Plumbing The Depths – The Ljubljanica River: Deep History In A Slovene Stream

My evening walk around Ljubljana’s Old Town had been captivating. The brightly lit civic and residential buildings, the quaint squares and maze of streets served to create an amazing atmosphere. One that revealed a secret world to those who were lucky enough to stumble upon it in the dead of night. The dim light that dawned the next day through a ceiling of luminous clouds exposed yet another secret, just as revealing in its own way. Retracing my footsteps from the previous evening I soon found myself back at the Triple Bridge, one of the Old Town’s most iconic structures. I had noticed it the night before, but never really considered the main reason for its existence, the Ljubljanica River. This watery thread that winds its way through the city, beneath bridges and within a stone’s throw of the elegant Baroque townhouses.  The Ljubljanica is a skinny stream by the standards of rivers, a serpentine waterway that acts as a set piece for the Old Town. Its tepid flow and smooth surface are deceptive though, this little river has had an incredible influence over the history of the area stretching all the way back to prehistory and continuing right up through today.

The Ljubljanica River flowing through Ljubljana

The Ljubljanica River flowing through Ljubljana (Credit: Mihael Grmek)

Bogged Down – A Museum In The Marshland
Watching the Ljubljanica flow languidly through the Old Town, I could never have imagined that such a tepid river held remarkable treasures that most archeologists only dream about. Artifacts both ancient and prehistoric, some of which predate the Slovenes arrival in this area by over 40,000 years, have been preserved in the silt-laden riverbed. For reasons that have yet to be fully identified, the Ljubljanica has yielded over 10,000 artifacts. Some scholars believe that the waterway was sacred and used as a place for cultic offerings. It is not by mistake that so much ancient material ended up settling on the bottom of the river. Several of these finds date all the way back to the Stone Age. Other finds from more recent times include the oldest known wooden wheel in the world (3,500 BC) and a 15-meter long Roman longboat. These finds have occurred along a twelve mile stretch of the Ljubljanica upriver from the city. A stretch that flows through the Ljubljana Marshes. This area of wetlands and peat bogs covers a little less than one percent of the country. This lowland marsh resulted in a natural preserve that has protected prehistoric pile dwellings and other wooden remnants of civilizations both primitive and advanced. The long evolutionary tale of civilization is foretold beneath the Ljubljanica.

The river is such a storehouse of archeological treasures that it has brought a more modern type of hunter and gatherer, those seeking to collect some of this buried treasure for personal gain. They have done so by illegally diving into the waters without a permit. Many of these treasure hunters were not Slovene, but foreigners from other nations who seek to excavate valuable troves of coins, trinkets and ancient weapons. Due to theft, the Slovenian government deemed the river worthy of protection as a cultural site. Since 2003, no one has been allowed to dive into the Ljubljanica’s depths without the proper permit. The law may have come too late. Because most of those who found buried treasure never reported it, artifacts were lost to museums and private collections while the exact places of discovery went undocumented. That makes it extremely difficult to create a coherent understanding of the area’s human history.

Plumbing the depths -Diver in the Ljubljanica River

Plumbing the depths -Diver in the Ljubljanica River (Credit: Arne Hodalic)

Emona & Ljubljana – Worlds Born By The Water
Prior to the 20th century the most transformative historic era for the Ljubljanica was during the Roman Empire from the first through fifth century AD. Though the Ljubljanica only extends for a total length of 40 kilometers (25 miles), its role was vital to extending imperial authority through commercial activity. Standing on the riverbank in the center of Ljubljana today, it is difficult to imagine this relatively slender and shallow river supporting a thriving maritime trade or as a navigable watercourse. During Roman times the settlement of Emona was a busy river port. Boats were constantly coming and going. Six miles downriver from Emona, the Ljubljanica debouched into the Sava River. This tied the trade of Emona into both the greater Danube River Basin and the Northern Adriatic Sea. The Ljubljanica was central to Rome’s ability to exercise control over both the immediate area and its hinterland.

Few watercourses in the world, especially one so lacking in length, can match the Ljubljanica’s combination of natural and human history, let alone its scenic beauty as it flows through the center of Ljubljana. I first happened upon the river in the Old Town. Like so many, I was more enchanted by what stood above or beside the river, rather than the actual waterway. I even wondered for a moment if it was a canal. It was not long before I knew better. The Old Town is famous for the five beautiful bridges laid across the Ljubljanica. The most renowned of these is the Triple Bridge, a unique architectural concoction where the existing Central Bridge was widened with two lateral footbridges. The bridge was also kitted out with Renaissance balustrades and rows of lampposts that evoke a Venetian sensibility. This work was the brainchild of Joze Plecnik, Slovenia’s greatest architect who fancifully redesigned much of the city center during the post-World War I era.

The Central Market in Ljubljana - reflecting off the Ljubljanica River

The Central Market in Ljubljana – reflecting off the Ljubljanica River (Credit: Diego Delso)

At Center Stage – A Watery Thread
Plecnik was able to seamlessly integrate many of his architectural embellishments within the existing environment, including the Ljubljanica. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Central Market, a colonnaded pavilion that gently curves along the river’s right bank just upstream from the Triple Bridge. The integration of this colonnade with the river is seamlessly done. I could easily imagine the colonnade as a ship, floating atop the Ljubljanica’s placid waters. The colonnade was the star of this show, but in concert with the river’s reflective qualities. Here architecture interacted with nature, creating a new way of seeing the city. Plecnik’s imagination using the river to open up a whole new world of artistic possibilities. And in that world, as in all the other ones in this region’s history, the Ljubljanica was at center stage.

Click here for: American Friendliness, Eastern European Reticence – The Meaning of Friendship: A Smile In Slovenia 

 

One Moment For The Rest Of My Life –Ljubljana: The Magic Kingdom of Reality

On a mid-Sunday afternoon, under cloud covered skies, my train pulled into Ljubljana Railway Station (Železniška postaja Ljubljana). I was supposedly back in the Balkans, but I knew that Ljubljana was not viewed with the same disdain or fear as Belgrade, Zagreb or Sarajevo. The breakup of Yugoslavia brought immense suffering and loss of life to Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, but not Slovenia. In their secluded mountain redoubt blessed by good fortune, the Slovenes had enjoyed peace and prosperity. The halcyon years had begun in the early 1990’s and did not abate until the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. Even when the government’s finances faltered, Slovenia was easily bailed out of trouble due to the small scale of its economy. This was a nation that had been blessed by fate. As the capital, Ljubljana, was the main recipient of this good fortune. If only people could learn how to pronounce its bizarre name.

Right on time - Ljubljana Railway Station

Right on time – Ljubljana Railway Station (Credit: Nils Oberg)

Speaking In Slovene – Pronunciation Game
Ljubljana, the name does not exactly roll off the tongue. There is scarcely a more unpronounceable name of a European capital city. A close English friend of mind and Cambridge educated historian, found it good fun to pronounce Ljubljana incorrectly, calling it Jubel-jana. He always enjoyed having a good laugh at the Slovenian capital’s expense. There are many fun ways to pronounce the name incorrectly. These include Lou-lana, which sounds like a kind of 50’s dance number, L-yub-jana, good for throat clearing and L-jub-L-jana, how a small child might give directions. For the record, Ljubljana is pronounced lyoo-blyah-nah. I had to learn and practice the correct pronunciation until I could say it with some degree of confidence.

It is a pity that the name Ljubljana puts so many people off. If only they realized that it means beloved. This is a beautiful meaning for a name and if pronounced correctly it sounds elegant and exotic. Much better than its German derivation, Laibach. I would probably have never made a special trip to the city if it had not been for a Slovenian friend of mine. I had met her one summer while she worked at a job on the high plains of western South Dakota. She was trying to improve her English, which I considered excellent. Slovenes are polyglots, which is understandable when one realizes that the entire nation has a population of only 1.9 million, the same number of people as live in Nebraska. My friend was often given to comparing the cosmopolitan nature of Ljubljana with the wind swept, dried up frontier town she was stuck in all summer. Visiting Ljubljana, I would soon realize why she longed for home.

Vila Veselova - More Like A Mansion

Vila Veselova – More Like A Mansion

Close To Perfect – Mitteleuropa & the Mediterranean Meets the Balkans
It is not just the name that makes Ljubljana so different from other European capital cities. Size wise Ljubljana is tiny by the standards of European cities. With only 290,000 inhabitants, Ljubljana fails to rank in the top one hundred of Europe’s largest cities by population. Though located in the Balkans, it is not really of the Balkans. It is closer to Venice and Vienna, Munich and Zurich than to Belgrade. As I would soon see for myself, it had been influenced as much by Mitteleuropa and the Mediterranean as by the Balkans. My first impression of Ljubljana was as a place where people enjoy life. There was a pleasant spaciousness and provincial charm about the city. The early spring storm clouds hovering above the city were no match for its sunny disposition.

I soon found my hostel, Vila Veselova, where I had booked a private room. Vila Veselova was a two-story villa that felt more like a mansion when judged by the usual standards of a hostel. Calling it a villa certainly sounded much more glamorous. The exterior was painted in a fresh coat of ochre with burgundy trim around the windows. The villa looked like something that would have been built in Austria-Hungary. Ljubljana or Laibach as the Austrians called it, had been one of the nicer cities in the old empire. Sure enough, the villa turned out to be a century old. Upon arrival, I was looking forward to some Slovenian hospitality, having no idea what that meant. Of course, the girl who checked me in turned out to be Polish. Nevertheless, I was happy with my spacious room.

The location of Vila Veselova was close to perfect. The neighborhood was home to several embassies.  It was just a five-minute walk to the Old Town. Across the road was Tivoli Park where I could go for a run in the morning. Once I got settled, it was time to take a walk. I have never been able to contain myself when first arriving in a new city. I feel an uncontrollable urge to visit some part of it before the day comes to an end, no matter the hour or weather. My excitement is akin to Christmas morning, when as a child I would run down the stairs to find a multitude of gifts laid out under a sparkling tree. In this case, the gifts of Ljubljana’s Old Town were laid out beneath the night sky. It made me feel like a child once again.

Main building of Ljubljana University - at Congress Square (Congresni Trg)

Main building of Ljubljana University – at Congress Square (Congresni Trg)

Eye Catching –  Watching A Whole New World
There was hardly anyone on the streets. I had this charming cityscape of Mitteleuropa mostly to myself. I went window shopping on a whole new world. I stood outside restaurants and watched Slovenes downing glasses of rich red wine and eating sumptuous meals. I quietly walked through the winding streets and spacious squares of the Old Town, listening to muffled voices and high heels clicking across cobblestones. I spent much of the time strolling around Congress Square (Congresni trg) and the star shaped park laid out at its center. Around me were architectural confections of Baroque, Classicist and Neo-Renaissance design coated in an eye-catching array of colors. Here was the heart of Ljubljana, quietly beating on this one night.  It felt as though I had entered a magic kingdom of reality rather than fantasy. The kind of moment that I will spend the rest of my life missing.

Click here: Plumbing The Depths – The Ljubljanica River: Deep History In A Slovene Stream

Crossing The Karawanks – Villach to Ljubljana: The Other Side Is Midnight

One of the great joys of travel is the discovery of everything that is waiting to be discovered. People who have heard me talk about my travels in Eastern Europe will often remark that I have been everywhere, as if such a thing is possible, let alone plausible. This remark baffles me because I am constantly astounded by all the different discoveries I have made in the region. I often find myself in places I have never heard of, learning about things I could never have imagined. One such discovery occurred on my train trip from Villach to Ljubljana. I did not realize it at the time, but I was crossing a natural dividing line that defined peoples, places, cultures and borders. A north-south fault line by which Central Europe was separated from Eastern Europe. The present-day border between Austria and Slovenia was officially set in 1920, but this border is much, much older than that.

Millions of years old when measured by geologic, rather than biologic time. This border was not drawn by man, but by nature. It consists of the Karawanks range, a massive limestone protrusion of mountains which separates the Klagenfurt Basin of southern Austria from the Ljubljana Basin of northern Slovenia. The range, which at 120 kilometers across is one of the longest in Europe, creates a barrier that historically has helped define the political geography of the region. Today it divides Austria and Slovenia, six-hundred and fifty years ago the Karawanks divided the Duchy of Carinthia from the Duchy of Carniola. Modern engineering and transport innovations are now able to bridge much of this natural divide. I was able to cross it in the comfort of a train, the miracle of modern transport carrying me from north to south in a little over an hour. A journey made with such ease, that it made me momentarily forget just how difficult it used to be.

Mountain hut in the Karawanks - Golica Peak

Mountain hut in the Karawanks – Golica Peak (Credit: Ales Krivec)

Bordering On Insanity – Choosing Sides
My train from Villach made its way through the Karawanks at a slow, but steady pace. I was keen on getting a first glimpse of Slovenia. Unfortunately, it was impossible to figure out when and where the train crossed the border. When Slovenia joined the Schengen Area in 2007, the border posts with Austria were rendered obsolete. Unlike in the past when the train would have stopped for passport control, now it kept chugging through the valley. I was glad to avoid those old delays, but I must admit that I have always been excited by crossing borders. It is as though you are being allowed or denied special permission to enter a forbidden land. The other side is midnight, the unknown.

Some of my most memorable experiences in Eastern Europe have come at border crossings in Ukraine, Romania and Bosnia. To be honest, without a border crossing I was at a loss in finding the exact place where Austria came to an end and Slovenia began. My best guess is that I crossed the border somewhere in the darkness of the eight kilometer (five mile) long Karawanken Tunnel. This seamless crossing of the border did nothing to betray the rancor and violence proceeding its creation in 1920. It is hard to imagine now, but less than a century ago the area was fiercely contested between Slovenes and Austrians. In the aftermath of the First World War paramilitaries roamed the Karawanks. Nationalists on both sides of the range fought to ensure that as much territory as possible would be included in the First Republic of Austria or the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (the predecessor to Yugoslavia).

The border was only set after a plebiscite which decided that everything north of the Karawanks crest would be part of Austria, south of it would go to the Kingdom.  Though Austria was soundly defeated in World War II, the border held. Geography and geology had informed geopolitics. Nowadays, Slovenia is no longer looking to be separated from Austria. On the contrary, Slovenia wants to integrate its economy with Austria. The search for prosperity trumps past grievances. The border between the two has softened and is likely to stay that way. Communism and Yugoslavia look more like aberrations in Slovenia’s history. A return to the Austrian influenced past is taking place.

Railway tunnel through the Karawanks - On the Austria-Slovenia border

Railway tunnel through the Karawanks – On the Austria-Slovenia border (Credit: Robert 25260)

Mining The Mountains – Digging Up The Past
The fact that I was now in Slovenia did not truly become apparent until the train entered the outskirts of Jesenice.  This was the first sizable town the train stopped at in Slovenia. Jesenice was set astride the Sava River and surrounded by mountains. It should have been very beautiful, but it was not. There were grimy looking structures that bore the hallmarks of heavy industry. Piles of dirt and gravel were strewn about. This industrial blight screamed communism. It was certainly not the introduction to Slovenia that I was expecting. My guidebook for Slovenia did not have a single word on Jesenice. If I could have added an entry it would have said, “Jesnice is set in a lovely valley marred by derelict industry.” I felt the legacy of Titoism hung over this valley. For a moment, I wondered if I was in Slovenia or Yugoslavia. The communist mania for heavy industry marred many a beautiful landscape, so I should not have been surprised by what I was seeing. For some reason I thought Slovenia would be different. Not in Jesenice. Cleaning up this mess would take a whole lot longer than twenty-five years.

To be fair, industry has been part of Jesenice’s history for as long as written documentation of the town has existed. Ironworks were first located in the area during the Middle Ages. In the late 19th century the pace of industrial development rapidly increased, as industrialization led to more efficient methods of manufacturing steel. The largest boom occurred following World War II when the ironworks, smelters and steel mills were expanded in the effort to rebuild Yugoslavia from the extensive destruction caused by World War II. Like most communist spawned heavy industry, the early 1990’s sounded a death knell. The industrial behemoths in Jesnice could not compete in an efficient, market-oriented economy without massive state subsidies and protectionist measures. This led to the abandonment of outdated infrastructure as well as piles of residue. Some mining continued in the area, but it no longer could support much of the town’s economy. Thus, there had been population loss and economic recession.

The Way It Used To Be - Ironworks in Jesenice 1961

The Way It Used To Be – Ironworks in Jesenice 1961 (Credit: Joze Gal)

A Cloud Of Dust – The Yugoslav Past
Jesenice was the Slovenia no one talked about or just wanted to forget. Left to simmer in a cloud of dust by economic and political forces beyond its control, the town had seen better days. It was an unsuccessful story in a Slovenia that was looking forward, while at the same time turning its back on the Yugoslav past. History and a large proportion of the population had left Jesenice behind, so did the train. It moved on down the line, onward to Ljubljana, a city with a much brighter future. I was glad to keep on moving.

Click here: One Moment For The Rest Of My Life – Ljubljana: The Magic Kingdom of Reailty