I don’t think I realized what a high pitch squeal I have, at least when cheering for sports, until we watched the United States play Slovenia in the World Cup. We found ourselves in Bovec, Slovenia on the afternoon of the game, which is a small town in the mountains consisting of less than 2000 inhabitants. The pouring rain dashed any hopes of watching the game at the big screen television set up on Bovec’s main street. We only had about two or three other options, so we ducked into a local bar and found a spot towards the back of the room.
We quickly realized that we would probably stay incognito until the United States scored, as everyone was focused intently on the game. Plus, despite all our tough talk on the way to the bar, I realized that I am a wuss and did not have the guts to barge in a bar full of Slovenians chanting, USA! USA! USA!
In the first half, Slovenia looked strong. We watched the bar go wild when Slovenia scored a goal.
Then, in the second half, it happened. The United States scored. Sean and I both let out cheers from the back of the room. Only the two people in front of us whipped around to face us and not the whole bar, as I had feared. Luckily, they were pleasant and did not run us out of the bar. Although I had notions of good natured ribbing and cross-cultural interactions, this World Cup business was serious, especially for a small country like Slovenia. No matter how good Slovenian athletes may be, there are simply less of them. For a country as small as Slovenia, who had a scrappy fight to qualify for the World Cup in the first place, it must be frustrating to not beat the United States in a sport that is so huge in Slovenia, yet so insignificant in the United States. I almost started wishing Slovenia could win, but then my American competitiveness and pride kicked in. As it turns out, Slovenia and America tied, leaving many of the Slovenians glum. What did you think of the game? we were asked. Slovenia was robbed, they said, even though it was the United States who had what would have been the winning goal taken away from them for no apparent reason. I’m just glad we weren’t around the following week when the United States scored a winning goal against Algeria at the last minute. America’s win caused it to edge past Slovenia to advance to the next round along with England. Luckily, we were long gone by then.
[And unfortunately, before I got to post this, the US was knocked out by Ghana. So that's that.]
Bovec is known as the adventure capital of the Soca River valley, so of course we had to partake in some adventure. We opted for rafting, the cheapest option, and something we had done once before on the rivers in Richmond, Virginia. (There are actually class III and IV rapids right by the city of Richmond). We chose a company that had good reviews and had been in business for about 20 years (we suppose since the fall of communism).
We ended up rafting with a big stag party – otherwise known as a bachelor party. I was the only girl in a group of about 12 Italian guys and Sean. If only I had pictures of Sean and I, surrounded by the Italians, with too small wetsuits and silly looking helmets. If the Italians were not drunk, they were certainly slap happy. There was much singing, roughhousing, and silliness, which pretty much set the tone for the trip. When we went rafting in Richmond, there were lots of rules, instructions, and seriousness. In Slovenia, it was the opposite. There were some instructions, and we wore life jackets, wet suits, and helmets. But about 15 minutes into the trip down the river, all trust in our guide was lost. He told us to prop ourselves up on the side of the boat so that we could paddle faster. Suspicious, everyone did as he said. Two seconds later, I found myself in the freezing cold river, sputtering and flailing around, along with everyone else in our raft – except the guide.
Being intentionally pushed overboard pretty much erased any credibility the guide had. Not to mention the guide’s directions for us to intentionally ram the raft onto rocks or the other raft with the rest of the Italians (both much to the delight of our Italian raftmates). So it was hard to know if our guide was serious when he said things like, anyone want to jump off that rock? It is about 700 meters high but it is really fun! or we need to paddle hard up here, because at least four people die here every year.
It was unseasonably cold and rained every day except one while we were in Slovenia, and this Saturday was no exception. The rain was constant while we were on the river. This company had advertised that they would go out rain or shine, and would never cancel, just delay if it was storming too bad. As we rafted down the river, we heard loud claps of thunder and saw at least one bolt of lightening. I kept glancing at Sean, wondering if the rain or shine policy really was a good idea.
We knew we were a long way from home when the guide had everyone get off the raft and flipped it up onto a rock. He instructed everyone not just to slide down the raft, but to run down it. Despite my wariness of the guide, I suppose I trusted that we would not land on a pile of jagged rocks or get caught in a huge undercurrent when our guide started doing backflips in the air into the water.
Although a risk taker I am not (not counting the part where I gave up a career and house to travel the world), it was fun to loosen up a bit and splash around in the water. Plus, actually rafting the rapids was pretty neat as well. The rapids were not huge, but fast enough to give you a little thrill as you sailed down the river. It was wild to be out there in rushing blue-green waters, tree covered mountains on either side, soaking wet, with pouring rain beating down on your face and roars of thunder overhead. Especially because we did not, in fact, get struck by lightening.
Part three: Bovec/Soca River Valley
As magical as Bled was, I was rather drawn to Bovec and the Soca River Valley. To get there, we drove the Vrsic pass through the Julian Alps: a road built mainly by Russian WWI POWs with 50 hairpin turns rising up and then down again through the mountains.
When you land on the other side of the mountains, you are greeted by the Soca River, a river with clear pale turquoise waters.
There are a lot of little towns in the valley, but we especially liked Bovec, a town with less than 2,000 people that is surrounded by mountains on all sides. More on our adventures in Bovec to come.
Part four: Piran
It is hard to ignore the call of the sea, so we headed south to Piran, a quaint town smushed onto a peninsula jutting out into the Adriatic Sea. Very close to Italy, we heard just as much Italian as we did Slovenian. The rain did not let up for most of the time we were there, confining us mostly to our room or a coffee shop, but when it did shine, Piran woke up out of its slumber. We were befuddled by everyone’s proclivity to lay out on rocks or concrete. All seemed very uncomfortable, but I suppose if there is no beach, you make own of your own.
We liked Piran, but it didn’t seem to have a lot of things to do. There were not many shops, and most sold touristy junk. Most of the restaurants served the same types of food, including sea bass upwards of $40. Fish may cost $40 in places like Pittsburgh when it is flown in fresh from far flung places daily, but I couldn’t understand how fish could cost that much in a town next to the sea. I later read that the Adriatic Sea has been overfished, forcing fishers to go further and further away. Piran may be worth a visit if you have lots of time, but we think out of the places we saw, the best parts of Slovenia lie north.
Part Two: Lake Bled
One of the overused phrases in travel is picture perfect or just like a postcard. Yet I’m not sure what else one could say about Lake Bled. It has a small island in the middle of a lake, with a church built in the 1600s rising 99 steps above the lake. It has a castle up on a hill, overlooking the lake, and mountains on all sides. Even in the pouring rain, Lake Bled looked special. When the sun finally broke through the clouds in the early evening, it looked surreal.
Close to Bled is the Vintgar Gorge, where a rickety wooden path first built in 1893 leads you into the gorge alongside the rushing river. In places, the water was completely clear, and more often than not, it was a turquoise shade. It was really awesome.
Before we went on this trip, I must confess that I really knew absolutely nothing about Slovenia. For some unknown reason, I just assumed it was some provincial country in Eastern Europe and I never could keep it straight with Slovakia.
Apparently I am not the only one. We’re from the United States, I told the very friendly and chatty receptionist at one of our hotels. This is our first time in Slovenia. We didn’t know much about it before we came, but we really like it. She smiled and said, Oh, I am so glad you like it. Most people from the United States do not know the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia. Um, guilty, as charged. I guess it is all good though because when we told her we were from Pennsylvania, she asked if that was where Dracula was from.
Most of you are probably smarter than me, but in the off chance you have not kept up with your world geography since elementary school, let me introduce you to Slovenia. It became a country when it dissolved from Yugoslavia in 1991. I am not sure where I got the provincial idea from, especially considering Slovenia had the strongest economy in Yugoslavia, obtained membership in the E.U. in 2004, and in 2007, was the first former communist country to adopt the the euro. Slovenia borders Austria, Italy, and Croatia. Its landscape includes mountains (the Julian Alps in the northeast), lakes, caves, and a small coastline on the Adriatic Sea. Slovenia is a tiny country – most destinations can be reached from the capital, Ljubjlana, in a couple of hours. Yet even though we spent a week there, we didn’t see any of the eastern part of the country. For such a small country, Slovenia has a lot to offer.
Part One: Ljubjlana
For starters, the capital, Ljubjlana, is an adorable city made all the more easy to enjoy because of its big, yet small, size. It is by far the biggest city in Slovenia, but it only has about 300,000 people. (By the way, best we can tell, it is pronounced something like Lube-blahn-ya. Locals seemed to differ. It took us the better part of the week to figure out how to say it, which made it interesting when we were trying to ask if we were at the right train station. Is this Lub…um, where are we?) Lively bars and cafes lined the river. In the center of town, a trio of bridges crossed the river. There was some sort of festival going on when we were there, so every night you could take in a free outdoor ballet performance of Madame Butterfly. It has a large fruit market, which we heard expands on Saturdays. There are still some relics of communist buildings (such as the hotel in which we stayed our second night), but for the most part, Ljubjlana is an attractive city that definitely warrants a visit.
If you go, do check out Compa, which serves homemade beer and a mean platter of grilled meat, vegetables and cheese. Don’t check out Hostel Most until their renovations are finished. For some crazy reason, we took a room there and we even saw it first. Located along the river, it will be very nice when it is finished. They are actually renting out unfinished rooms. And people are actually stupid enough to pay for them (albeit getting a discount). I guess it didn’t occur to us to keep looking because prior to the trip, we grew accustomed to living in a state of disarray. It didn’t take long to start having flashbacks to our four years of renovations, most of which were spent living much like Hostel Most: dirty floors, no baseboard or casing, wires sticking out of walls, plastic sheeting hanging from the walls, and drywall dust everywhere. Sean says I was starry eyed over the magic words: private bath, free wifi, and discount. When we realized we had no place to hang our laundry to dry in fear that it would touch the floors, and that we were constantly wearing shoes in the room, we moved to a drab, communist looking hotel. We sold our house for a reason, after all.