We Must All Die One Day – In Search Of A Saint (Vilmos Alpor Part Two)

I have never understood the fascination with religious saints. The personages I have so often seen portrayed on stained glass windows of churches and cathedrals in Eastern and Central Europe seem like distant figures that belong as much to myth as reality. The fact that I am not Catholic likely plays into my skepticism about saints. I have never spent much time or effort learning about the various saints illuminated in an amazing array of colors on church windows. That is because the stories I have read about most of them seem a bit too fantastical for my taste. For instance, one of the few saints that I am vaguely familiar with is Saint George, largely because I am fond of the story where he slayed the dragon. Of course, I have never seen a dragon, thus I do not take this tale at face value. I doubt many other people do either.

The story is meant to be metaphorical, but Saint George was a real man. Real men do not face dragons, unless it is the product of someone else’s imagination. All that skepticism aside, I must admit that I do have a favorite saint, one that is contrary to the usual imaginings to them. This saint is a man who will not be found on any stained glass windows, whose life was not the stuff legends are made of and who lived not in some mysterious past, but in a modern one that still lurks within living memory. A man who had human rather than mythological characteristics, but whose acts of humanitarianism were a sign of immortality because they lived on, long after he died. That man was the Hungarian Bishop Vilmos Apor.

Morning - Gyor

Morning – Gyor

A Principled Stand – Under No Illusions
World War II brought out the best in Bishop Vilmos Apor, because he was not a man of his time, but a man of all time. He spearheaded courageous efforts to protect those who were marginalized, discriminated against and threatened by German Nazis, Hungarian Fascists and Soviet Communists. All this was done during the darkest years of the early to mid-1940’s. During this time, he spoke out against the extremist ideologies of Fascism, Nazism and Communism at great personal risk to himself. He also protested the discriminatory treatment of Jews, going so far as to fight against their deportation from Hungary. Among his many actions, he wrote letters to high government officials telling them they were responsible for the destruction of Hungary’s once vibrant Jewish community.

Bishop Apor was under no illusions about what was happening to the Jews. He had learned from sources about what happened to the Jews deported to Auschwitz’s genocidal chambers. Such vocal protestations were out of step with a Hungarian government that had veered radically to the right and German occupation authorities who were hell bent on exterminating all of Hungary’s Jewish citizens.
For Bishop Apor this principled stand was worth it. He saw it as his duty to advocate for the oppressed. There is no way to quantify how many lives he helped save, but there is little doubt that his efforts resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, surviving the war. His efforts came at the highest cost, because he ended up sacrificing his own life to save others.

A Man With A Mission - Bishop Vilmos Apor

A Man With A Mission – Bishop Vilmos Apor

Sacrifices To Save Life – Forced By Circumstances
The siege of Gyor was short-lived. German forces melted away when faced with the Red Army’s overwhelming superiority in men and material. Bishop Apor was busy tending to the needs of the hundreds he had afforded refuge in the cellars of the Bishop’s Palace in the city’s Belvaros. Refugees hid in these cavernous cellars below his residence, seeking to survive a war that would soon be over, but not soon enough to save all their lives. There was the constant threat of being shot, raped or robbed. Gyor’s beautiful Baroque inspired Belvaros was under assault. No one was safe, not even the most powerful spiritual leader in the region. If he had not been forced by circumstances to stay in Gyor due to the siege, Apor would have been further to the south in the town of Koszeg, where he and several other Catholic leaders had been invited to a “conference” with representatives of the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s version of the Nazi party.

The Arrow Cross was upset with Bishop Apor and other Catholic leaders for positions they had taken regarding the defense of what was left of unoccupied Hungary. Bishop Apor wanted the Hungarian government to save the remaining population and cultural treasures of northern Transdanubia by calling off military defense efforts. He knew a fight to the bitter end would be futile. The war in Hungary was lost and continued resistance would only result in getting innocent civilians killed. Bishop Apor’s stance enraged the fanatical leadership of the Arrow Cross. They planned on arresting and imprisoning him. Strangely enough, the conference they had planned might have saved Apor’s life if he had been able to attend because he would not have been in Gyor for the Red Army’s arrival, but that is not what happened.

Vilmos Apor Statue - at entrance to Bishop's Palace in Gyor

Vilmos Apor Statue – at entrance to Bishop’s Palace in Gyor

Insurmountable Odds – At The Point Of Exhaustion
Once the short-lived battle for Gyor ended another battle began, this one was between Hungarian civilians and Red Army soldiers. Any woman or group of women was fair game if they ran into Soviet soldiers. They were searching for women who they would then compel to satisfy their desires. This brought them to the cellars below the Bishop’s Residence where hundreds had taken refuge. Each time soldiers would arrive Bishop Apor would meet them outside the entrance. Some were submissive to his authority, while others were belligerent. Despite a language barrier and the lack of a good translator he was able to send them off without incident. This pattern continued with increasing frequency. Bishop Apor worked around the clock to ensure that no woman under his protection was harmed. This brought him to the point of near exhaustion.

In desperation, he sent representatives to ask the Soviet officers now in charge of Gyor for an armed guard to ensure the continued safety of those housed beneath the Bishop’s Palace. The request was denied. The question now became how long Bishop Apor could continue to negotiate with groups of armed soldiers? Every meeting was fraught with risk, the odds of something going badly wrong became insurmountable. On the morning of Good Friday, Bishop is reported to have told those helping him, “We must all die one day, and one had better sacrifice one’s life for a good cause on a day like this.” That day was fast approaching.

Click here for: With The Greatest Of Courage – The Final Journey (Bishop Vilmos Apor Part 3)


The Bishop’s Tomb – An Act Of Faith (Vilmos Apor Part One)

Walking around Gyor’s Belvaros I had little idea that World War II had much effect on the city. If I had not come across the name of Bishop Vilmos Apor in a guidebook I would not have given Gyor’s wartime experience much thought. It turned out that Gyor had suffered grave damage from both allied aerial bombings and the excesses of Soviet soldiers. The Germans “defending” the city did not do it any favors either. They were responsible for shelling the Cathedral and Carmelite Church with mortar fire after evacuating across the Raab River. The Hungarians in Gyor were caught in a lethal crossfire. I found all this terrifying and fascinating. Strangely, this history was not to be discovered in any of the city’s museums. Instead, I would have to learn about it through personal research. In a way, that made sense. There were plenty of people still alive who had living memories of the horrors that took place in the now quiet streets and alleyways I walked along.

The citizens of Gyor must have felt that the trauma of World War II was best left in the past. It had certainly been suppressed by the Soviets who occupied and controlled Hungary after the war. They did not want to call attention to the acts of indiscriminate violence by the Red Army during their so called “liberation” of Hungary. There were no major memorials or noticeable monuments for the losses sustained by Hungarian civilians during this time. The most meaningfully evocative monument to the war in Gyor was a tomb, that of Bishop Vilmos Apor. It was to be found in Gyor Cathedral. By the time I arrived at the Cathedral in the late afternoon, it was closed. That was disappointing, but I knew history does not have opening or closing hours, it does not take holidays or weekends off. History requires active pursuit to rediscover the past. It is brought back to life every time it is studied. Thus, began my journey into Gyor’s World War II experience and by extension the death of Vilmos Apor.

Vilmos Apor - Bishop of Gyor

Vilmos Apor – Bishop of Gyor

Guilt By Association & Provocation – The Red Army In Hungary
In the latter half of 1944 the Red Army invaded Eastern Hungary in pursuit of the German Wehrmacht. They were now entering a region that had not previously been part of the Soviet Union. The Soviets considered Hungary a mortal enemy due to its wartime alliance with Nazi Germany. The Hungarian Army had joined in the German invasion of Soviet territory and in some instances had mistreated the local population. Such acts would not soon be forgotten. When Soviet soldiers swept westward they saw firsthand how their own countrymen had been terrorized. Villages had been burnt to the ground while grain and livestock was stolen from dirt poor peasants. Countless thousands died of starvation. Scores of Soviet citizens had been summarily executed for the most trivial offenses. The Nazis and their allies cut a wide swath of destruction both in their advance and retreat. This stoked the simmering hatred of Soviet soldiers. They awaited the day when revenge could be exacted on all those who associated themselves with fascism.

This bloodlust would first be unleashed on a defenseless Hungarian civilian population.  Word of mass rapes and bestial brutality towards women of all ages soon filtered out from Nyiregyhaza, the first larger city the Red Army occupied in Hungary. Revenge was the motivating factor behind such behavior. The same violent acts occurred in cities across Hungary as the Red Army continued its westward advance. Hungarian civilians hid or fled to save themselves from the ferocity of Red Army soldiers numb to violence after years of war and fortified with liquid courage by copious amounts of alcohol they discovered while looting. Stories of the atrocities inflicted upon civilians moved fast. People in the farther reaches of western Hungary knew what awaited them if they stayed in their homes. Many had no other choice, but to hope for the best. Just six weeks before the war would come to an end, the Red Army began an attack on Gyor. Within a couple of days German resistance had been defeated. Once the Germans retreated from the city, Hungarian civilians were left to fend for themselves.

Monument of Vilmos Apor at the Bishop's Palace in Gyor

Monument of Vilmos Apor at the Bishop’s Palace in Gyor (Credit: MrPanyGoff)

In Defense Of The Defenseless – Feats Of Courage
On March 28, 1945, just a few days short of Easter, the Red Army occupied Gyor. With no resistance left to oppose them, drunken Soviet soldiers began to prowl the city looking for women. Several times they came to the residence of Bishop Apor, leader of the Diocese of Gyor. In the cellar of his residence, Apor was housing between 300 to 400 women, children and the elderly.  Apor had spent weeks preparing for the coming battle, by procuring food and other essential supplies. He helped protect many able-bodied men from Gyor by sending them to stay at his country residence outside of the city. Meanwhile, he administered help to the most defenseless. The women hiding in the cellar sought to avoid the same fate that had already left tens of thousands of other Hungarian women traumatized or worse. The Bishop’s Palace in Gyor was a good place to hide. Apor was highly respected for his courage. Those sheltered at his residence must have believed that if he could not protect them, then no one could. He was beloved by many in the city, though it was a long way from his birthplace on the eastern frontiers of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Vilmos Apor was born in the eastern Transylvanian city of Segesvar (present day Sighisoara, Romania) in 1892, when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents were part of the Hungarian nobility and his father worked as an official in Vienna. The father died when young Vilmos was only six, leaving his mother to raise the family. She was a devout Catholic with an abiding faith, loving but also a disciplinarian. She procured for her son a Jesuit education that eventually moved him toward a career in the priesthood. After ordination he was assigned to the city of Gyula, in southeastern Hungary. Soon after arriving he setup an office that offered protective services to women. In this beginning, lay the seeds of Vilmos’ actions three decades later in Gyor, a city that he was appointed bishop in 1941 and where he would tragically die just four years later.

Click here for: We Must All Die One Day – In Search Of A Saint (Vilmos Apor Part Two)


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

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




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

A torrential downpour had descended upon Ljubljana. The rain pounded the roof at my hostel, Vila Veselova. I stood just inside the entrance staring out the window. The weather forecast had called for thunderstorms and steady showers all day. The rain showed no sign of letting up. I had been lucky to avoid the worst of it as I raced back from the Old Town to the hostel. Now I stared out the window only half-expecting the arrival of Aljaz, my Slovenian friend’s partner. He had been talked into driving me an hour north of the city to visit Lake Bled. In this downpour I could not believe anyone would go out unless they absolutely had to. While watching the raindrops bouncing off the pavement I was shocked to see him pull up. Aljaz was a total stranger to me. I only knew of him by word of mouth. His knowledge of me was the same. This was a Slovenian style blind date for travelers. I was up for a little adventure, especially when compared to the dreary option of staying indoors and watching it rain. As soon as I got in the car introductions were exchanged. Within five minutes I was completely at ease. Aljaz was preternaturally calm and very well spoken. His English was excellent. Not long after we left the city, the rain stopped falling. I was going to be able to see Lake Bled despite the weather.

A storm waiting to explode - Lake Bled on an early spring day

A storm waiting to explode – Lake Bled on an early spring day

Magnetic Attraction – An Emerald In The Sunlight

I must confess that my main reason for going to Lake Bled was the same as for everyone else, because it is listed as a must-see. When visiting a country as small in size as Slovenia, one would be remiss not to visit its most famous attraction. In this regard I was being a typical tourist and following in the footsteps of many others. Lake Bled has acted as a magnet for travelers since the 19th century, attracting the rich and famous, the politically powerful and millions of tourists. Prior to World War II, Yugoslavia’s royalty vacationed on its shores. During his decades long rule, Yugoslavia’s dictator Josip Tito hosted such communist luminaries as Walter Ullbricht and Nicolae Ceaucescu. His old villa at the lake is now the luxury Hotel Vila Bled. The lake is also the only place in Slovenia that the current American president Donald Trump has visited in his wife Melania’s homeland. They all came here for the same reason, Lake Bled’s stunning beauty.

The lake’s setting is second to none. On a clear day, the snowcapped Julian Alps provide a perfect backdrop. The highest peak in Slovenia, Mt. Triglav, can sometimes be spied from the shoreline. Closer to the lake, thick forests fringe the hillsides and atop one stands the cliff top Bled Castle. Over a thousand years old, this sentinel of stone acts as a constant reminder of the lake’s importance to the history of this region. Beneath the castle stretches Lake Bled, shimmering emerald in the sunlight. At the center of the lake there is a singular island crowned with a chapel. It is as if nature and man conspired to create the most picturesque setting possible. Alas, on the day we arrived upon the shores of Lake Bled, the skies were still heavy, threatening another cloudburst at any moment. The lake’s waters dark and mysterious. At times its surface would be transformed into a liquid silver by shafts of light shooting through the clouds. To stand upon that shoreline wondering if the storm clouds would finally explode was worth the effort it took to come here.

Pletnas - Awaiting summer at lake Bled

Pletnas – Awaiting summer at lake Bled

Lonely Contentment – Time Ticking Backwards In Bled

As for the town of Bled, it had that look of drab desolation that stalks resorts in the off season. A place that has no idea what to do with itself without crowds. At this moment, it was impossible to imagine the hundreds of thousands of tourists who descend upon the town each year. There was a feeling of vacancy and death. Here was a place meant for the summer. Love felt impossible at this moment. Bled was suffering through its season of quiet madness. I could only imagine what it must be like for those left in exile here from October through March. Cleaning empty rooms, preparing table settings for meals that would never happen and listlessly smiling at the few forlorn strangers who came to call during this, the lonely season. It felt like the kind of place where time starts ticking backwards.

I was lucky though. Aljaz was the best kind of guide, one who stayed by my side offering up a few words of reverence for the stunning view set out before us. I could tell by the way he looked out on the lake that he was intimately familiar with such scenery. Lake Bled stood as a proxy for all of Slovenia’s mountain wonders hidden deep within those hills and mountains looming in the distance. Attached to the shoreline was a dock attended only by absence. Chained to it were a couple of the handmade, flat-bottomed boats known as “pletna”. They floated in the water, waiting on tourists who would never arrive. These boats were a little bit of Venice set adrift on a Slovenian sea. The ferrymen – known as “pletners” – were all that was missing. They had abandoned their homemade watercraft to the elements on this day. I found these pletnas without their pletners or passengers a scene of lonely contentment.

Cast in stone - Bled Castle

Cast in stone – Bled Castle (Credit: Claran Roarty)

Wonder Of The World – Cast In Stone

We were just about the only ones standing on the lake shore. With rain clouds beginning to swirl overhead, Bled Castle beckoned us. It only seemed natural. Castles always prove attractive, they are the supermodels that stand up for history. Bled Castle was positively seductive. We could not help but notice it. The castle demanded our attention. It stood on a rocky promontory above Lake Bled. It could not have been better sited for both defensive and photogenic purposes. Formidable and beautiful, the castle hovered on the precipice, defying gravity. Walking up to it felt both dangerous and daring. I could hardly control myself. This was more than a castle, it was a wonder of the world cast in stone.

Click here for: Seeing Is Disbelieving – Bled Castle: Undermining The Past

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