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

Fanaticism Never Felt So Good– Marton Fuscovics: Euphoria & Misery In Unequal Measure

Two weeks, Rome To Geneva. It sounds like a tourist junket or a fabulous vacation. The distance covered in kilometers is relatively slight, the distance traveled by my favorite tennis player might as well have been from the Mariana Trench to the moon. In the space of a fortnight my outlook on Marton Fucsovics’ 2018 season went from bleak to euphoric. This is what it means to be more than a fan.  When your hopes and dreams ride on match results from half a world away, that is either pathetic or fantastic. Perhaps it is a little bit of both depending on one’s level of desperation. Fanaticism knows no bounds. It is infused with passion, an uncontrollable emotion. And it blows everything, either good or bad, out of proportion.

On the rise - Marton Fucsovics in Geneva

On the rise – Marton Fucsovics in Geneva (Credit Marton Fucsovics/Facebook)

A Failure To Qualify –  The Fall In Rome
My vicarious journey from Rome to Geneva with Marton Fucsovics started with despair and desperation. I had dark forebodings soon after the main draw of the Italian Open was released. I scrutinized it for many minutes, searching in vain for Fucsovics. He was nowhere to be found. This was difficult for me to comprehend. How could he pass up a chance to play one of the most important tournaments of the year? He needed every ranking point he could get to maintain his ranking at #60. Perplexed by his absence, I could not understand why he would skip the tournament. It turned out that I was looking in the wrong place for his name. I finally found him in the qualifying draw. This was the first time in 2018 he had played the qualifying round at any tour event.

Qualifying is difficult at the best of times for those players who have finally made the leap to main draw entry. In this case, just to make it into the main draw Fucsovics would have to win two matches. And even if he won these matches they would not provide him with any ranking points. His first match would be against an Italian I had never heard of, Filippo Baldi. Baldi’s ranking was so low at #370 that he had to be given a wild card just to play in the qualifying. He had never beaten any player in the top 150. Such an opponent would usually signal a victory for Fucsovics. The main threat Baldi presented was that he would be playing on home ground, at his nation’s most prestigious tennis tournament. This factor could not be overlooked. The Italian tennis fan base is known to be raucous, especially at the Italian Open. Just ask Bjorn Borg who became so flustered in the 1978 Italian Open Final against Italy’s favorite son, Adriano Panatta, that he threatened to walk off the court.

Fucsovics was likely to face a tough match against Baldi. The Italian did not disappoint. The match was as just about as close as it possibly could be. They split the first two sets in tiebreakers before Baldi prevailed 7-5 in the third. Fucsovics had nothing to be ashamed of. He fought hard in an environment where his opponent was an overwhelming crowd favorite. Despite his effort, the loss still stung. A fanatic such as myself spends an inordinate amount of time hoping for the best while imagining the worst. My fear was that Fucsovics’ ranking would plummet come June and July when he was due to defend an inordinate amount of ranking points from the previous year. How was he going to cover those points? Fucsovics began answering that question eight days later when he took the court in Geneva.

A Dream Come True - Marton Fucsovics becomes the first Hungarian since 1981 to win a title on the ATP Tour

A Dream Come True – Marton Fucsovics becomes the first Hungarian since 1981 to win a title on the ATP Tour (Credit: Marton Fucsovics/Facebook)

Sinking Heart & Soaring Spirit – Rising From The Ashes
My heart sank when I first saw the draw for Geneva. Fucsovics’ had drawn the second seed, a Spaniard by the name of Gullermo Garcia-Lopez ranked #36 in the world. This is what happens in a lower level tour event when a player is not ranked high enough to garner a seed. Players such as Fucsovics have as good a chance to draw a top player, as they do a qualifier. Judging by his form it would have been a stretch to predict victory. Predicting a rout in his favor would have been lunacy until the improbable happened. Fucsovics destroyed the Spaniard, only losing three games in the process. This was not so much winning as it was dominating. He then managed to win his next match with American Frances Tiafoe in straight sets. At this point I was satisfied. Fucsovics had made it to the quarterfinals, matching his best showing – a quarterfinal in Munich – of the clay court season.

His next opponent would be the toughest yet, a favored son of Switzerland, three-time Grand Slam tournament champion, Stanislaus Wawrinka. Fucsovics’ lone advantage was that Wawrinka had been nursing an injury earlier in the year and his level of play had dropped. Conversely, Wawrinka was also the two-time defending champion. He was heavily favored to win the match. Predictions are nothing more than opinions built on past performance. In this case, Wawrinka’s past play turned out to mean nothing. Fucsovics started slowly, losing the first two games to Wawrinka, Then, as if by magic his play soared. Astonishingly, he would only lose two more games over the rest of the match. He proceeded to win twelve of the fourteen games on his way to a surprise victory.

Marton Fucsovics - 2018 Geneva champion

Marton Fucsovics – 2018 Geneva champion (Credit: Marton Fucsovics/Facebook)

On The Verge Of Reality – Dreams Dawning

This result had my head swimming with thoughts of what might come next. Everything now seemed possible. If Fucsovics could dominate one of the world’s best players, then he was surely capable of winning the title. This idea had me imagining great things for Fucsovics. At one point, I envisioned him winning a Grand Slam title. The definition of a fanatic is one who imagines his hero winning a Wimbledon crown after a quarterfinal victory in Geneva. I am certain Fucsovics and his coach, Attila Savolt, would have none of this. For tennis pros, it is always crucial to stay in the moment and concentrate on the business at hand. A fanatic such as myself does not adhere to that rule. Almost immediately, I began to study the rankings to see how much Fuscovics would rise depending on if he won or lost in the semifinals or final.

This was a golden opportunity for Hungary’s best player to possibly win a championship. Paradoxically, the closer Fucsovics got to that goal the more relaxed I became. Everything he did in Geneva after the quarterfinals was a bonus. He was now in position to cushion his ranking with a good showing.  Saturday dawned with a renewed sense of hope. That hope nearly expired when Fucsovics went down a set to Steve Johnson, one of the few Americans who excels on clay courts. Fucsovics proceeded to win a close second set, then dominated in the third, winning 6-1. He was now through to the final, the first male player from Hungary to make it this far in over three decades. After years of toiling away on the tour he was one match from a career defining victory. I could hardly believe it. There is a feeling of unreality that sweeps over a fanatic when one of their wildest dreams is on the verge of being realized. Very few times in life or sports do dreams come true, the final in Geneva presented such an opportunity.

In The Zone – Achieving Total Confidence
In truth, I could hardly believe this was happening. The terrible low of Fucsovics’ qualifying loss in Rome seemed to have never happened. I was ignoring the fact that this loss might be the reason for Fucsovics play in Geneva. In the final, he dominated the match against German Peter Gojowczk. Fucsovics was in the zone, a heady place of zen-like calm where the player can do no wrong. Time evaporates, the fear of failure ceases to exist and total confidence is achieved. One of several examples of this in the final was his first serve. It was lethal. Fucsovics won 91% of the points on his first serve. His return game was nearly as good. He won exactly half his return points. This added up to a 6-2, 6-2 victory. Game, set and championship to Fucsovics.

This was his first tour level title, but for Hungarian tennis it was much than that. It broke a title drought for Hungarians on the men’s tour stretching all the way back to Balazs Taroczy, when he won in 1982 at Hilversum. Hungary would also have its first player ranked in the top 50 since Taroczy. Fucsovics would jump to #45 when the rankings were released a day after the final. His career is now on a different trajectory. Winning the Geneva title also help him avoid having to play qualifying for the rest of the year. The title has set me off on another round of wild imaginings, even though I know expectations must be tempered. Fucsovics’ career will always be a work in progress. That is the way professional tennis operates. One week the depths of despair, the next winning a long hoped for title. The past two weeks have been a wild ride, euphoria and misery in unequal measure. Euphoria has won out…for now. This is what means to be a fan of Marton Fucsovics. Fanaticism never felt so good.

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

Madness Is A Matter of Minutes – An Austrian State Of Mind: From Slovakia To Slovenia By Train

My next port of call after Bratislava was Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. I was looking forward to my train journey because most of the trip would take place in Austria, a ride through the magnificent mountains of Mitteleuropa. The allure of Austria had already drawn me away from Bratislava the day before my journey commenced. Vienna may have not been to my liking, but I had high hopes of a happy experience gliding through the alps on the steel rails of Austrian Federal Railways. A daylong jaunt from Slovakia to Slovenia gazing at spectacular and scenic nature was foremost in my mind. I would not be disappointed.

Riding the rails across Austria

Riding the rails across Austria (Credit: Haneburger)

On The Clock – Delayed Distractions
Just beyond Wiener Neustadt, the train began twisting and turning, snaking its way around snowcapped mountains and through thick forests. The scenery was so stunningly impressive that the journey seemed like one taken by a tourist train rather than an intercity route. I could hardly believe that for the cost of a regular ticket, passengers were provided with such magnificent panoramas. Gone was the vanity of Vienna, replaced by the beauty of alpine Austria. I felt the urge to give a full-throated yodel of approval, place a feather in my baseball cap and purchase a lifetime supply of lederhosen at the next stop.

There was only one drawback to the journey, the train car contained an innovation I have only experienced in Austria and hope to never see again, a time clock. One might ask, what could possibly be wrong with making sure passengers know the time? Well nothing, except for the fact that the clock not only told the time, but it also kept a running count of how much ahead or behind the train was running. Thus, if the train hit a stretch of the route with switchbacks and corkscrew turns it would fall a few minutes behind its appointed arrival time. Then on more even terrain, the train would make up the lost time. For example, the clock would show the train running three minutes late, then two minutes ahead of time. It went back and forth throughout the journey. Unfortunately, this clock distracted me from the enchanting scenery. It became an obsession for me, watching it change with each surge or short delay of the train.

Villach Railway Station - destroyed by bombing during World War II

Villach Railway Station – destroyed by bombing during World War II

An Obsession For Order – Carinthian Controls
This time clock on the train represented for me the ultimate symbol of a Teutonic neurosis bent on achieving the greatest efficiency. Managing time was ultimately an impulse of control. The constant reminder of whether the train would arrive earlier or later was a distraction from the beautiful landscape all along the route. Austrian Federal Railways made arriving at the correct time an issue of utmost importance. Most maddening of all, despite being behind or ahead of the arrival time throughout this leg of my journey, the train ended up arriving right on-time. This rendered all my clockwatching utterly pointless. Perhaps I should have been more grateful to Austrian railways, as they were helping me keep track of the time since I had to make a very tight connection. My train arrived in Villach, the second largest city in the Austrian province of Carinthia, at 12:46 p.m.  The connecting train was due to arrive at 12:53 p.m. I have always had a terrible fear of missing a connection. The timeclock had only served to exacerbate this fear.

Standing on the platform waiting with others for the train from Villach to Ljubljana I secretly wished I had missed my connection. Villach looked like a wonderful place to spend the afternoon. This small city of 60,000 people is set out along the Drau River with the alps looming in the near distance. Like almost every place I have ever seen in Austria it looked clean, tidy and well run. This was a far cry from its status at the end of World War II. Villach had been bombed an incredible 75 times during the war, 85% of its buildings had been destroyed. Later I would find a photo of Villach’s Central Railway Station at the end of the war, or I should say what was left of it. The roof was totally collapsed from bomb damage and the walls covered by debris. This photo could have been of almost anywhere in Villach at the time. To imagine that it would become the prosperous provincial city that exists today would have been unimaginable at the end of the war. I have the utmost respect for Austrian organization, industriousness and thrift. This ethos rebuilt a nation that lay in ruins just sixty years before. The world could do with more of their work ethic and efficiency, but the time clocks on trains need to go.

Carinthian beauty - View across the Drau River in Villach

Carinthian beauty – View across the Drau River in Villach (Credit: Gugganij)

Better Than The Rest  – Land of The Slovenes
The train to Ljubljana showed up right on time. I no longer had to worry about a time clock, since the rest of this journey would take place on Slovenian railways. Slovenia was the wealthiest of the former European communist countries, the richest of the seven nations that had been formed from the ruins of Yugoslavia and an outlier in the Balkans, a place of peace and relative prosperity. Nevertheless, the difference in development between Slovenia and Austria became apparent when I entered the Slovenian railway car. The seats were old and worn, the interior nowhere near as comfortable as the Austrian trains and everything had a retro feel to it. The compartments looked just like the ones found in Slovakia or Hungary, old but not obsolete. It was functional and that was good enough for me. Besides, there was no time clock to display delays.

Slovenia had a reputation as being Austria-lite, due to its relative prosperity, mountainous landscape and it historical connection with the Habsburg Empire which had ruled it for centuries. The breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s had brought Slovenia back to where many Slovenes felt it belonged, closer to Austria and Italy in the European fold. Since then, it had joined the European Union, converted to the Euro and been promoted as a post-communist success story. As the train crossed over the border into Slovenia, I imagined entering a prosperous little mountain kingdom. A fairy tale land of shining mountains and glittering lakes. I would soon discover the truth, both dirty and delightful.

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