There is often a moment, as I enter a new country, one where I don’t speak the language, when I feel completely unprepared, all at sea, and very vulnerable. I think this is even more disconcerting when driving across a border, because at least at international airports there is a degree of English spoken, signs to taxis, and (usually) a hotel booked. You’ve had the time in the air to adjust, and on arrival you settle into the new country and language more gradually. But physically crossing a border means that you instantly cross from one environment to the next, and for a moment, your perception shifts and everything is different. When we first came to Europe, we picked up a car in Paris, and drove to Switzerland. We were fine, my schoolgirl 6th Form French was adequate, and driving (without GPS) was easy. We drove from Geneva to Bern in the afternoon, and I remember the shock of entering Bern, discovering that we were now in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and finding that German was not a language I was prepared for. The husband of course points out that he feels like this in most non-English-speaking countries, with the exception of Thailand, and doesn’t understand why it is a shock to me.
I had that same feeling of disorientation about two hours after leaving the apartment. We crossed the border – well prepared, having bought the requisite Vignette for driving on the highways at an Italian autostop on the highway earlier – and suddenly, we were aliens! But soon we could see that the highway wasn’t as busy as the Italian autostradas, and our destinations were well signposted. And the scenery opened up. Any feelings of disorientation were quickly replaced with delight, and self-congratulations on our decision to stay the night. (At first we thought we’d go just for a day. But we started looking at the maps, estimated how long it would take us, and would it give us enough time to see what we wanted to see, and importantly, to spend time with the friends we planned to meet. So the night before we left, we got onto the internet, and booked a hotel. It was the right decision.)
We left the highway just past the capital city, and found ourselves driving through lovely countryside, crops in the fields, hay racks, and small villages with elegant churches. There were mountains to the north, and vast swathes of forest, real forest, thick forest, Red Riding Hood forest that looks like the Big Bad Wolf is lurking nearby.
And soon we reached the small and beautiful town of Skofja Loka, about 20 kms out of Ljubljana. Yes, if you haven’t guessed we were in tiny Slovenia. It is a small country, but – like the friends we had gone to meet – it is very welcoming. We spent a wonderful day with them, learning about Slovenia, life under the communists when it was part of Yugoslavia, independence, and life now. We explored their home town, talked and talked, and they kindly provided lots of advice for our drive back to Italy the next day.
We left late in the afternoon, heading into Ljubljana, for an evening stroll around the elegant centre of the city. It was warm, crowds of locals and international tourists were out, buskers entertained, and the cafes, bars and restaurants along the river were packed with people enjoying the evening. An after dinner gelato was the perfect ending to a great day.
Slovenia is very much part of Europe, just south of Austria (once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire), and neighbouring Italy. The lack of border controls (since Croatia joined the EU in July this year, the country now has no land border work for a thousand customs/immigrations officers), and the use of the euro – unlike our detour earlier in the month to Switzerland – made it very easy for us to pop into the country for a day or two. The ease with which Europeans can visit different countries is very strange for island dwellers like us. But it is one of the charms of visiting Europe, crossing borders easily and finding different languages, geography, food, culture, politics and history.
Our second day in Slovenia involved driving north. We took our time, popping in to see a church near where our friends plan to build a house, and stopping to see the famous Lake Bled, with its lake, island in the middle, and castle on a cliff. In the summer, the water in the lake is a warm 23 degrees. It looked an idyllic place to swim. But I need say no more about stunning Lake Bled. After all, picture, thousand words, etc.
We took our time leaving Slovenia. We stayed off the autostradas, and enjoyed the very scenic Vrsic Pass, very close to the border with Austria. The Italian Front of the First World War moved across this whole area back to Vittorio Veneto (where we were staying), and the road across the pass was built by Russian prisoners of war in 1915. It would have been anything but easy labour, on the steep slopes and in the depths of winter. We passed through ski villages, and now, in the height of summer, the pass was filled with motorcyclists loving the thrill of the bends, cyclists (sources of admiration and disbelief) climbing to 1600 metres and cruising back down the other side, and tourists there to enjoy the scenery. There were few spots to stop to photograph the scenery, so you shall have to take our word for it that it is beautiful. We picnicked near the top of the pass – enjoying a famous Lake Bled Cream Cake which is (for my kiwi readers) essentially a perfect South Canterbury custard square, without the icing, but with the decadent addition of whipped cream between the custard and the pastry top – before we continued along the windy roads, envying the many tourists staying (as we wished we could) and walking the many trails in the mountains and through the valleys alongside fast-running rivers. Finally, another pass took us back into Italy, where we relented and rode the autostradas again. We only stayed a night in Slovenia, but wished we had stayed more. From travellers, that’s the highest compliment we can give.