Slovenia - the aftermath
Finding my limit
22nd to 29th August 1997
Surely Slovenia is a war-torn and anarchic remnant of a carved up former Yugoslavia, with nothing to commend itself other than to Red Cross relief missions and United Nations peace-keepers? Well that was pretty much what I thought until a certain David Smerdel - El David from The Future internet talker - persuaded me otherwise. It turns out that to the contrary, Slovenia has always been somewhat set apart from the troubles that beset the rest of the region, and aside from some brief military confrontation with the Yugoslav National Army when they declared independence, their recent history has been largely peaceful. Slovenia is now one of the more affluent eastern European nations, and indeed is shortly to join the European Union. David, by way of getting fit for his forthcoming national service, had been in the habit of climbing Pohorje, a "hill" close to his home-town of Maribor, a hill that is in fact higher than most of the UK's mountains! But David was determined that this summer he should climb Triglav, their highest peak at 2864 metres; somehow it was agreed that - in dire need of some serious exercise and character-building achievement - I would join him on this intrepid mission, and thus the wheels of planning were set in motion.
Hitches at the first hurdle
Slovenia may be about to join the European Union, but in many ways you'd hardly believe it. Only their own national airline flies direct to their capital Ljubljana, and obtaining Slovenian currency abroad legitimately is impossible. With Adria Airways having no real competition, the air ticket price was rather expensive, but I figured it would be made up for by a low cost of living during the week, so I gulped, handed over my credit-card details - the first time I had ever used my card, in fact! - and could finally breathe a big sigh of relief that I really was going to go. The currency was more of a problem, with my bank recommending I take "clean US dollar bills", but not able to supply them to me. David advised that pounds sterling would be fine, since there were plenty of bureaux de change offering fairly competitive rates. That turned out to be true, though I remained a little worried until I physically had crisp Slovenian tolars in my hand!
Six miles up
Amazingly enough, the flight to Slovenia was the first time I had ever flown, and I wasn't at all sure what my reaction was going to be. Quite honestly, I found it quite exhilarating, with the speed at take-off and the rapid disappearance of the ground from beneath us a particularly awesome experience. I suffered a little discomfort in my teeth, and my feet may have swollen a bit, but it was generally pleasant and relaxing. The Douglas DC-9 was old but quite comfortable; it should have been an Airbus A320, but as a computer engineer I can't say I was too sorry to be using something with mechanical controls rather than software, and the DC-9 has considerably more leg-room too, apparently. The in-flight service was functional, with the meal edible, and the hostesses' English passable. On the flight out, I could see Germany and Austria, including the Alps - my first sight of the kind of thing were we going to be tackling in the coming week. On the flight back, it was clear for much of the way, with Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium all much of a boring muchness, but it was especially nice that it was clear over London, getting a fantastic view of all the sights, including a beautifully sunlit Buckingham Palace blissfully unaware of the public attention it would receive only a couple of days later.
Arrival at Brnik
And so at about 6.30 on a balmy Friday evening, the DC-9 gently touched down at Brnik airport, just outside Ljubljana. The surrounding countryside seemed so much greener than that of Germany, with little villages and churches scattered about. Passport control was painless enough, as was recovering my baggage - a relief, with the horror stories one hears! David was, thankfully, there and waiting - and looking much like the photograph he had sent me for identification purposes! - and we promptly headed off for Maribor in the family Celica. It was about a two hour drive, via their tolled motorway which doesn't really yet go anywhere in itself but certainly speeds up cross-country journeys, and we were to use it a lot during the following week. We arrived at his family's flat in Maribor with ample time to go out again to his favourite bar, an al fresco affair called Bavaria, which sold the local Lasko Pivo in all its wonderful varieties, generally by the litre glass!
On the Saturday, after doing a little shopping, and finally changing my pounds to tolars, we decided we'd drive up Pohorje, the hill David was generally so fond of walking up, and take a short walk from the ski complex at the top. David had heard there was a rather nice waterfall just a short drive away, so we also visited that, unaware of the condition of the road on the way! We made it though - suspension apparently still intact - and had a pleasant river-side walk which only had a few sections where we had to hang on for dear life. This turned out, in its own way, to be very good practice for the more exciting part of the holiday yet to come. On the Sunday, having bought our expedition supplies, we joined David's parents at their country cottage at Zavrc near the Croatian border - from where the sound of artillery was audible at some points during the recent war - for a typically delicious lunch. Having packed our rucksacks in the evening, we took an early night, setting our alarms for somewhat earlier than 3am...
Monday morning therefore was the start of the real fun stuff. We arrived at Savica, in the foothills of the Julian Alps, somewhat north-west of Ljubljana, soon before 7am, with the sun just about rising over the nearby lakes. Grabbing a little breakfast and then donning our boots and rucksacks, we started the ascent out of the valley mist, taking about two hours to climb Komarca , a steep, non-stop, and frequently rather treacherous climb of a "mere" 650 metres, up to the first of seven lakes we were to walk past on the first day. The terrain thereafter was somewhat easier, a mainly gentle steady climb through a rocky and forested valley , until a certain ascent called Hribarice, not one which lingers as a fond memory, made worse by having to lose a good deal of the height just gained, though thankfully the first night's mountain hut was only a relatively short walk after that - though that was a short walk during which we first saw Triglav itself, an awesome sight, and one that certainly worried me somewhat... We arrived at Dolic at about 6pm, and despite not having seen too many people out on the paths, it was very busy at the hut, and we ended up packed rather like sardines in one of the smaller dormitories. I didn't get a good night's sleep, but we still managed to get away by 8am the following morning. It was a relatively easy walk to the base of the final well-defined 400m-high lump that was the peak of Triglav, but then things started getting interesting. It was metal hand-holds and ropes all the way, basically - except where they were needed most, typically - and it took us the best part of two hours to make the final assault to the top, a mere 2864m above sea level.
Alas, as we reached the top, the weather had started to close in somewhat, and the spectacular views down to the Adriatic that we had hoped for were simply out of the question, but there were still some good panoramas of the more nearby terrain . It was pretty busy on the top, many people screaming with delight as they hit the summit, but somehow we managed to avoid our own sense of achievement from being diminished too much by the dismaying sight of a couple of blokes set up with a trestle table selling souvenirs, polaroids and cans of beer. Their Triglav T-shirts, only available from that very table, were a good buy, however, a practical souvenir, and an undoubted conversation starter in the months and years to come, I do suspect.
If the final part of the ascent had been hairy in places, the descent was decidedly dodgy, starting off by walking along a knife-edge with probably a 500m drop on each side, and no ropes where you needed them the most. It was a very slow process, for me in particular - give me an ascent any day! - and it took us well over two hours to reach the Dom Planica hut, really only just below the summit, geographically. We were going to have a late lunch there before walking into the early evening, but that weather which had been closing in before turned into thundery rain, and it didn't take long for us to decide maybe we would stay the night there after all, enjoying a long evening of drinking Lasko Pivo and counting the seconds between the flashes and the rumbles. After a slightly more peaceful night's sleep - despite the best attempts of the venture scouts sharing our dormitory - the following morning was somewhat improved weather-wise , and we got away soon after 6am. The first part of the day's walk took us more or less back to Dolic, from where we largely retraced our steps all the way back, via Hribarice - which was just as bad as it was before - and the lakes, to Savica and the car. At the top of Komarca, it started to rain, which made that part of the descent rather more interesting than had been intended, though amazingly we completed it quicker than we had climbed it two days previously. Savica is a small mountain resort with a few bars, so we we able to grab a celebratory drink before heading back to Maribor via the beautiful lakes of Bohinj and Bled, our mission accomplished in its entirety!
Unsurprisingly, the Thursday back in Maribor was not our most active day of the week! In the afternoon we took the family Yugo - just for a change - into Maribor to do a little shopping and see the sights of this pleasant if somewhat unspectacular town. David needed to stop off at the video game shop on the way back to pick up a steering wheel joystick thing for his computer, which had been in for repair, but when we came to finally leave, the Yugo was dead. The ignition did nothing except click a bit, and the clutch pedal flopped around loosely. Thankfully we were able to contact David's father who came and rescued us, towing the Yugo back to their local workshop. I asked if carrying a tow-rope was legal requirement; it's not, though apparently Yugo drivers tend to - I can't imagine why! Friday was my last day, and we left the flat in good time on the morning, popping back to the bureau de change to change back what money I hadn't spent; of course they could only issue UK bank-notes, not coins, so I got a few tolars back in change, some of which we spent on the motorway toll, but the rest - three crisp bank notes - apparently only worth about 35 pence, were to have to make do as souvenirs! On the way to Brnik airport, we encountered some utterly atrocious weather, the kind of thing we were certainly glad not to have been walking in the mountains during, but the rain had cleared by the time we arrived, and the flight back to Heathrow took off as scheduled at 1.30pm.
And so I left Slovenia behind, those green fields and little villages rapidly disappearing beneath the shrouding clouds. A country I would return to? I'm not sure. No doubt the next time I ever have the opportunity to do so, Slovenia will be part of the European Union, and that will affect many things in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It is a visually attractive country, but one that didn't always seem to have enough to do, unless you were into walking or winter sports. If I returned for a holiday, I would probably go somewhere like Bled or Bohinj - those beautiful lake resorts in the mountains - from where one could, obviously depending on the time of year, walk, ski, sail, canoe, or just relax on the shingle beaches. I was very glad to have visited, however, and opportunities like that are not likely to come around too often.
It is sad in a way that in doing this, struggling at times for breath and energy, I found what is probably my physical limit, realising that anything more ambitious is almost certainly out of the question. But yet, if that was my limit, at least I can say I've been there, I have reached my limit, and done what I could. It would have been far sadder if I had gone my whole life without ever knowing what that limit was.
This account last modified on 4 March 2000 by David Gosnell on behalf of David Smerdel and himself. All photographs ©1997 David Gosnell.