July 30, 2010

Unfortunately, this is the end.

To be perfectly clear, I was not ready to leave Slovenia.  I am very grateful to have had the experience of the past 6 months.  But 6 months was not enough!  There is still so much more I would have liked to have done.  However, I will just have to keep repeating to myself what several friends told me over the past week: NEXT TIME.

I did have quite a lot to do with trying to sort, pitch, pack and ship the accumulated contents of my flat, but I tried to balance that unhappy task with some fun in my last few days.  I managed to squeeze in one last trip to the beach in Strunjan with my Danish friend Laura.  I went hiking on Vremščica with Miklavž (who’s name, I found out, I have been misspelling for the better part of two months).  This un-pronouncable  mountain in the karst has a spectacular view of Istria (the entire Slovenian coast plus Italy and Croatia) in one direction and the peaks of the Julian Alps in the other.  It seems this is a fairly “local” place, because  I can’t find it in any of my guides.  And, I went to a concert in Izola by an apparently somewhat notorious Croatian punk band.

Istria from Vremščica

Towards the Alps from Vremščica

I will admit that, after I ran out of food in my flat, I tried an Ameriški hot dog from the vendor across the street from my flat.  I also had dinner one night at a restaurant in Markovec (a suburb across the gulf from Koper) that a friend had recommended for their Serbian-style ćevapčići.  We had the ćevapi on lepinja (a flatbread) with a yogurt dressing together with a Serbian salad (similar to a Greek salad with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, feta, etc.).

On the way home from Vremščica, I think I had one of my most authentic gostilna experiences.  We decided to stop at a little gostilna in a place called Lokev.  Clearly we were not locals, so the proprietor brought us a plate of fresh local porcini mushrooms and gave us a brief overview of the 320 some years in which the establishment has been in the hands of his family.  In addition to the mushrooms, we also had kruh (bread), a creamy scrambled egg and mushroom dish, veal with the chopped/baked potato dish that I can never remember the name of, and fresh borovnica (the small wild blueberries, not to be confused with our plump Ameriški borovnica) with vanilja sladoled (vanilla ice cream).

When it was finally time to leave, I arrived at the airport outside Trieste only to find out that the Italian airline was convinced that I did not have a ticket on the flight to Rome – despite the printed confirmation from its American partner through which I had purchased the entire itinerary that said otherwise.  I ended up having to purchase a new ticket for that flight just so that I could make it to Rome and make my remaining flights.  Still, they would only check my bags (2 suitcases!) through Rome, which meant that I had to pick them up, take them across 3 terminals and re-check them in a less than one and a half hour layover.  Honestly, I have no idea how both my bags and myself made it on to that flight.  But, in the end, although I was still sad to leave Slovenia, I was just happy to actually make it to my destination as scheduled.

I am going to miss all of the friends that I made in Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia, as well as the other Americans I met along the way.  I’m going to miss living on the sea.  I’m going to miss teaching in a classroom where I get to look out over the red tile roofs of the old town and the water.  I’m going to miss Evropa pekarna in Koper, not only for their kruh and pastries but also the girls who work there that giggle when I attempt to order in Slovene.  More than any one type of food (although if I had to pick one it would be Istrian pršut), I’m going to miss “experimental eating”.  I think it’s going to take me a while to get out of the habit of mentally describing the food that is in front of me so that I can tell you about it later.  And I’m going to miss all of Slovenia’s amazing landscapes.  It is an absolutely beautiful country.  I am sure that my descriptions did not do it justice, but perhaps some of my pictures over the past 6 months gave you some indication.

But, now that I’m back, I suppose that there are some things I can look forward to – like visiting my family in Ohio, catching up with my friends in Texas, eating cheeseburgers, using Ziplock bags, listening to new American alt-rock, and moving into a flat with a dishwasher!  Beyond that, I will look forward to going back to Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia to see all of those places I didn’t get to and all of those people that I will miss until then.

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July 24, 2010

Life after Sunny.

Matej suggested we do some exploring in Krajnski Park Logarska Dolina – a landscape park in a glacial valley in the Kamniško-Savinjskih Alps along the border with Austria in northern Slovenia.  Apparently he hadn’t been here before either.   At the risk of sounding jaded, we both agreed that the Julian Alps are more spectacular.  But don’t get me wrong – it was pretty awesome here too.  Slovenia just has so much in the way of amazing landscape scenery in such a small area.  I asked him if he realized how lucky he was to have all of these places so close.  Unfortunately, our exploration was cut somewhat short by the threat of storms, but I think the rain was needed, as there was not much water in the slap (waterfall).

Kamniško-Savinjskih Alps

Rinka Slap

We ate at a sort of gostilna in the park.  It was pretty typical mountain food, so we ended up having the goulash, although it is really more of a hearty winter dish than a middle of the summer one.  The goulash here was almost more of a soup than a stew, with a spicy base, some vegetables, gnocchi, and a bit of sausage.  We also got some ajdovi žganci (hardboiled buckwheat), to mix in with the goulash.  That was new for me.

Goulash and ajdovi žganci.

Anica and Mojca – who I had met at the conference in Serbia – invited me to spend the day with them in western Slovenia.  They work for the Institute of the Republic of Slovenia for Nature Conservation at the regional unit in Nova Gorica, which is a new city (by Central European standards) established after WWII.  The easiest way for me to get there was actually through Italy – I took the bus from Koper to Trieste and then a train from Trieste to the Italian sister city of Gorizia.  We took a circular route through this area that transitions from Mediterranean to Alpine; we came across the karst plateau to the town of Idrija and then followed Reka Idrijca as far as Tolmin before following the Soča back to Nova Gorica/Gorizia.

Anica and Mojca

We visited the Divje Jezero (Wild Lake) and Reka Jezernica (Lake River).  The lake is actually quite small, but the interesting thing about this lake is that it is fed by a karst spring through a siphon that is estimated to run some 200m deep (divers have yet to reach the source).  The river flows from the lake to Reka Idrijca, for all of about 50m, making it the shortest river in Slovenia.  We also saw one of the remaining klavže (Slovene “pyramids”) – a sort of dam that was used to float timber down from the forests to Idrija for use in the mine.

Divje Jezero

A klavže on Reka Idrijca.

In Idrija, we took the tour of the mercury mine on which the town was based.  Mercury was mined here for 500 years in what was one of the world’s largest mines.  Although the mine is no longer working, it is considered such an important part of the town’s history that they have applied for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.  We also visited Grad Gewerkenegg, a 16th century castle that housed the mine administration and is now a museum.  Here we were given a tour of the lace exhibit.  Idrija is almost as famous for its lace as for its mine.  Traditionally, the women of the town would make lace to supplement the miners’ income, and it became such an art that they established a lace school – which is still in operation – and have an annual lace festival.  And, apparently the other thing that Idrija is known for is idrijski žlikrofi – a sort of handmade pasta that is stuffed with potato, bacon and some spice.  Naturally, we stopped at a gostilna to “experience” that as well.

Žlikrofi

I also took the train into Ljubljana one last time for some shopping and some quality time at a cafe on the Ljubljanica.  Ljubljana is really a lovely city.  I would have liked to have been able to spend more time there over the past 6 months – had it not entailed 5 hours on the train round trip.  But, at least the scenery is good along the way.

Reka Ljubljanica

July 18, 2010

Sunny is dead.  She died at 10:03pm.  On Friday night.  In Croatia.

I had just spent a rather pleasant day visiting my friend Renata.  We visited the Faculty of Tourism and Hotel Management (University of Rijeka) where she works, located in the coastal town of Ika.  Then we walked the seaside promenade to Opatija, an Austrian-era resort town that is still popular today, and later visited the medieval hilltop town of Kastav, above Opatija.  We met up with Renata’s husband for dinner in Lovran.  (In case you are wondering, we had the turkey roulade stuffed with ham and cheese, gnocchi, mixed vegetables, mixed salad and flat bread.)  We had a  sunset swim in the sea at Ičići, and ended the day with a leisurely ice cream that was so fresh that it was almost the same consistency as the whipped cream.

Renata in one of the villa gardens.

On the promenade.

Then, as I started for Koper, the car died as soon as I reached the highway outside of Rijeka.  Despite the general misfortune of the situation (having my unofficially rented car break down on a Friday night, nowhere near home, in a foreign country, where I don’t speak the language and don’t have AAA), I consider myself to be extremely fortunate.  I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Luka and Ingrid – a young Slovenian couple who are truly the best good Samaritans in the world for everything they did for me that night.  Likewise for Miro and Dolores – who are the best landlords and friends for coming to get me in the middle of Slovenia in the middle of the night.

Earlier in the week, I had set out to visit some of the places in the coastal/karst region that aren’t far from Koper but I hadn’t been able to get to before now because of transportation logistics.  (Read: You can’t get there without a car.)  One afternoon I made the short drive to Grad Sočerb.  Honestly, I don’t remember who told me about this place.  It wasn’t in any of my guidebooks, and I didn’t see a sign for it until after I could already see the castle.  The interior has been converted into a restaurant (which wasn’t open), so there’s not much to see, but it is situated on top of a hill near the Italian border and provides a good view of both Koper and Trieste.

Grad Sočerb

Another morning I went to the Krajinski Park Sečoveljske Soline (Sečovlje Salina Nature Park).  Fortunately, my guidebook was very specific that you had to pass the Slovenian border control but NOT the Croatian one (they’re not far apart), otherwise, I never would have seen the tiny sign next to the little dirt road that serves as the entrance to the park.  Although the info said to leave your car at the gate and walk the couple of kilometers to the museum – which I did – apparently that was more of a “guideline”, because a couple of Swiss tourists picked me up about halfway.  No complaints.  It was hot.  The girl at the museum (who turned out to one of my host’s geography students) was very informative.  They still produce some salt there, but it is a landscape of ruins now that has been preserved for natural and cultural heritage.

These ruined seasonal workers' houses have only been abandoned for about 50 years.

The salt pans.

The salt - they handed us bags and that scoop and let us both take some with us.

I had always intended to visit the Škocjanske Jame regional park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, but I had been avoiding it because it’s an hour by foot from the nearest train station.  I know this because my parents actually did that a couple of years ago.  No photos are permitted in the cave, but they wouldn’t do it justice anyway.  The Šumeča jama (murmuring cave), where the Reka (literally the “River” river) runs through the enormous cavern, is breathtaking – something either out of a fantasy story or the inspiration for one.  After the tour of the cave, I took the long way back to the visitors’ center around the perimeter of the Velika Dolina (Big Valley) at the cave’s natural entrance.

Some perspective on Velika Dolina - if you look closely, you can see the church tower on the top of the cliff.

With Sunny’s untimely demise, I have obviously had to make some changes in my plans for my last week in Slovenia.  It seems that, although Slovenia is a small country, I am not going to make it to all of the places I wanted to visit before I have to leave.  But I don’t want to think about that yet.

July 12, 2010

I can’t believe another week has gone by already.  I seem to be rather rapidly running out of time.  My laptop has crashed (again), apparently infected with a host of viruses, so I am updating from the kabinet.  Like many university campuses in summer, it’s pretty dead around here…

The staff at the U.S. Embassy invited me – as the U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Slovenia – to sit on the committee to select the Slovenian Fulbright Scholars and Students to the U.S.  In addition to myself, the committee consisted of someone from the embassy, and Slovenians from various academic fields and ministries.  So, in the past week, I spent a couple of days in Ljubljana where we interviewed candidates from both the physical and social sciences.  It was a very interesting process and a good experience for me.

On, shall we say, unofficial business, I took Sunny out to eastern Slovenia.  I have no idea how many castles Slovenia has, but I managed to visit 3 more of them (and saw several more from the road).

16th century map of regional castles (Grad Brežice)

The 13th century Grad Otečec (near Novo Mesto) has a great appearance as Slovenia’s only island castle on Reka Krka, but I didn’t go inside since it is now a 5-star hotel.

Grad Otočec

The 16th century Grad Brežice has an unprepossessing appearance inside the town of the same name – especially compared with the others I visited – but it has some absolutely amazing floor-to-ceiling frescoed halls and a very decent museum, complete with multilingual information sheets in each room.

The Knights Hall - Grad Brežice

The third – I’m not going to lie – looked closer on the map than it really was.  Primarily because it was on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere.  But, since Sunny and I are getting more used to each other, it was actually kind of fun.  Grad Podsreda, also dating back to the 13th century, has a fantastic situation.  There’s not much to the interior, although the best part is definitely the attic, which is not only cool in itself but also has an exhibit of photographs on local people and places.

Grad Podsreda

I also decided to visit Zagreb because, from where I was at the time, I was about as close as I was probably going to get.  On this trip at least.  I admit, it was a quick, guerilla-style visit, but I am waiting for Leo to give me a more thorough tour next year!  I loosely followed the walking tour of the upper and lower towns and grabbed lunch at a sidewalk cafe (a toasted pršut and mozzarella focaccia, with some sort of spread that I couldn’t identify…?).  Then I drove back to Koper through Croatia.  That part of the country is pretty mountainous and almost rivals Slovenia in scenery.  Almost.

Zagreb from the Upper Town

One of the "horseshoe" parks in Zagreb.

Lots of St. George imagery here as well as Ljubljana.

Also, I finally went swimming in the Adriatic.  Slovenia’s coast isn’t that long, and I thought I’d pretty much been over all of it, but this place was new to me.  It’s part of the Strunjan Nature Preserve, and you have to walk down a cliff to get to the wide stone “beach”.  It’s worth it.  If you swim far enough out, you can see each Koper, Piran and Trieste, but also look back at the deer grazing on the cliff behind you.  Not bad.

Apparently there’s always more I can learn about Istrian food.  My guide in all things Istrian, Miklas (although he’s actually from the Alps!), took me to what he declared to be the best seafood restaurant on the coast in Portorož.  They were out of their specialty (octopus!) that evening, so we had to settle for a mixed grill in olive oil with potatoes and a local malvazija.  It would have made a nice photo.  Apparently we were hungry.

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July 4, 2010

Some of what I’ve been up to in the past week…

As it has been quite hot (for all non-Texans) during the days, Miklas took me into the Istrian hills one evening.  You don’t have to go far inland, but it feels miles away from the coast.  He took me to some of the old villages with traditional stone houses.  Although he primarily lives in Strasbourg, France to work with the Council of Europe, he spends part of his time here restoring one such house.  One of the places we visited was Abitanti, which is largely abandoned and in ruins.  We were walking around the village when we came across a man restoring one of the houses who invited us in for a glass of refošk.

An abandoned traditional stone house in Abitanti.

Ruins in the Istrian hills.

We also trekked through the brush off the side of the road to get to the ruins of an old castle or fortress in the hills that apparently few people know about, as well as for the great view.  We were going to take a circular route through Istria, which would have involved crossing the border into Croatia – we were exploring, right? – so naturally we were on an obscure back road when we came to a closed border checkpoint.  The officer came out to talk to us (and by us, I mean Miklas).  He explained that it was really only for local use but that he might be able to make an exception for us.  Then he looked at our passports and decided that he might be able to make an exception for Miklas…but not for me.  We had to go back.  We ended up eating a late dinner of Istrian stew (a spicy gnocchi and chicken) at a little gostilna/restaurant in the hills overlooking the Gulf of Capodistria.

Another day I took the (mid-morning) train to Ljubljana to pick up Sunny.

Sunny. Sometimes also referred to as "the Fulbright car" or just "the car".

Ted had her (unlike Serbian cars that I learned are all male – by grammar – Sunny is clearly female) last year, and Lisa had her this year.  Lisa is now back in Maine, so Sunny has passed to me while I am here before the next generation of Fulbrighters arrive.  Keep in mind I haven’t driven a stick in a good 10 years, and even then it was only about once a year, typically on the West Virginia turnpike where I only had to roll through the occasional toll booth…

But, after I successfully made it out of downtown Ljubljana and back to Koper, I decided to take her out for a drive for fun.  The next day, I headed east to the Snežik mountains.  I first visited the grad (castle) and then planned to spend the rest of the day exploring the hiking trails in the mountains.  Unfortunately, access to the trails had been cut off that day for some sort of backwoods archery game.

Grad Snežik

The reason I couldn't go hiking. (Look closely - I think they got it.)

Miklas couldn’t believe it when he found out that no one had taken me to Muggia yet – a cute little town about 6 kilometers north of Koper – so another evening we made the pilgrimage across the (in this case nonexistent) border for an Italian spritzer (aperol and prosecco with a bit of fruit – which is different from a Slovenian spritzer) at a cafe on the marina underneath the castello.

And today, my host Anton invited me to his house for a 4th of July picnic.  We had a sort of Austrian soup (mainly broth with some type of sausage?), fresh bread, čevapčiči from the grill served with gorčica (mustard) and hren (horseradish), a spicy spiral sausage also from the grill, green salad with jogurt dressing, Greek salad, a main dish of zajec (rabbit) with krompir (potatoes) and korenje (carrots), chocolate cake, and ice cream with Kahlúa.  Does anyone have any idea how exhausting it is to try to remember all of this food – in 2 languages no less?!

Try explaining to everyone you meet why you want to take a picture of your plate.

A bit of product placement for Cockta here - no? Cockta is a 1950s era Slovenian alternative to foreign soft drinks.

June 28, 2010

I was home for all of 13 hours.

After spending the better part of a day on the train coming back from Italy, I did some emergency laundry and went to bed so I could get to the station for the 5:23am train to Ljubljana (the one I had sworn never to take).  But I had to get to Ljubljana early to meet up with Dane for another very long day on the train – this time to Serbia.  By the time we arrived in Novi Sad about 7pm, we made straight for the pizzeria across from the train station like we hadn’t eaten all day.  Oh, wait…  We missed both the Slovenian (who lost) and US matches (who has since lost) but arrived just in time for the start of Serbia (who also lost – does anyone else see a pattern here?).

Novi Sad from Petrovaradin Fortress.

Novi Sad.

We were in Novi Sad for an academic conference on “geotourism” with a mix of geographers, geologists and tourism specialists mostly from Central Europe and the UK.  There were 2 full days of presentations (including my own) and a 1 day field excursion in Vojvodina province (despite the near-Tuscan climatic conditions) that was run by the geologists.  I now know more about loess than I could have imagined.

Loess.

The Danube. At a loess site.

For the foodies – ah, so much food…so little space.  One day for lunch, Dane and I went to a little restaurant with big wood slab tables/benches and had krompirača.  There were big skillets filled with concentric rings of stuffed pastries (presumably a cousin to Slovenia’s burek), in this case, potato.  They cut out and weighed each portion and served it with a thin yogurt.  Two portions of that, one serving of a jabolka slatke version (a sweeter apple-filled pastry), a beer and a water cost us 500 dinars – about 5 euros.

The other day, I went into the city center with Tijanna who had come up from Beograd.  She had heard that the thing to have in Novi Sad was an “index sandwich”.  It took us a while to find a stand that made these sandwiches, but the woman there enthusiastically made us enormous sandwiches of toasted buns with grilled cheese, ham, veggies, sour cream and a chili sauce, and wrapped them so we could eat while we walked around the city.  That cost all of 120 dinars apiece.

We had very nice dinners  at the conference every evening (interestingly enough in the lobby of the faculty) with various types of cold meats and cheeses, breads, at least two kinds of meats as an entree, cooked and pickled vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, sweet peppers, mushrooms, purple cabbage and eggplant), salad that resembled an unseasoned coleslaw, and pastries or cake.  One night I asked my table full of Serbians if this was typical food.  They told me there were too many vegetables.

At night, we went into the center to listen to live music.  We saw a couple of cover bands playing a combination of classic American rock songs and Serbian rock.  We also went to a basement pub for ethnic Serbian music – the kind where everyone sings along.  The guys translated some of the lyrics for me, but it’s probably one of those things that are lost in translation.

For Dragan, Nemanja and Stevan – who showed me a “typical” Saturday night in Novi Sad that was anything but typical for me – you guys have ensured that I will always have great memories of Serbia!  I hope to be back sooner rather than later…

June 21, 2010

Under the Tuscan rain...in Bagni di Lucca

I took the train across Italy to meet my parents in Tuscany.  It rained.  Sometimes most of the day.  Sometimes part of the day.  But every single day, with one exception.  Apparently this – summer trips to Europe in which it rains a lot – is an annual occurrence for them.  In which case, I’m not sure I want to travel with them again…  (Just kidding, guys.)

We managed a visit to Florence (one morning in a driving rain and another day with rain in the morning, midday and again late afternoon), had a pretty dismal day in Lucca, and some decent weather for part of the day in Pisa and Siena.  On our only rain-free day, we visited Pistoia – which had a lovely, untouristed piazza – and the beach resort town of Viareggio.  Keep in mind, on the beach, I still had to wear the same jeans and hoodie as in the photo above.

Siena's Piazza del Campo (where the annual Palio horse race is held - see "Quantom of Solace") in a brief moment of blue sky.

My mom and dad in Il Campo (Siena).

Piazza del Duomo (Pistoia)

In one of the more interesting occurrences of the trip, we got caught in a thunderstorm in Lucca and ducked into the Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Mansi.  My dad inquired about the advertised teacher discount, but the ticket agent told us that the discount was not for Americans.  We thought perhaps the discount was just for EU citizens – even though that was not stated – and my dad asked if that was the case.  But the agent said no.  In fact, he told us that the discount actually applied to everyone – except Americans.

Lucca from Torre d'Ore

We thought that we had chosen the best day (weather-wise) to visit the Cinque Terre, but when we got to the first town, Riomaggiore, it was…raining (surprise).  Because there had been so much rain, almost all of the hiking trails linking the towns were closed.  We were able to walk the first stage – along with a whole lot of other people – to Manarola, at which time the rain finally stopped, and it turned into a pretty nice afternoon.  From that point on, we had to take the train between towns.  The towns were lovely, but I think we were all a little disappointed by how overcrowded and overcommercialized they were.  I think the experience might have been different if we had been able to get out on the trails.

Manarola, Cinque Terre

By accident, we found out that Pisa’s annual Regatta di San Ranieri was being held when we were in town, so we decided to check it out.  Apparently the regatta has traditions that date back to the Middle Ages, where teams representing the four quarters of the city compete in a rowing race on the River Arno; the first team to reach the boat at the finish line, climb a cable up the mast, and capture the banner wins.  But I just found all of this out by Googling.  At the time, we had no idea what was going on.  A few minutes after the race started, they disappeared around a bend in the river.  After about 45 minutes, we were bored and almost left, but we assumed there was more to come since the crowd was still there.  Finally, we did see them return up the river, but we were too far away to see the climber capture the banner.

Regatta di San Ranieri (the climber is on the front)

We had some good food.  We made a picnic out of supplies we had picked up at various markets, including some focaccia, fresh mozerella, prosciutto, pastries and prosecco.  We also found a great little neighborhood pizzeria, and had dinner in a spaghetteria in Pisa – my dad’s professed highlight of the trip – where we had vina de la casa, caprese, spaghetti with Genovese pesto, and cioccolata panna e fragole for dolce.

Caprese

Pasta

Dolce

June 14, 2010

Last week the annual meeting of geographers from Slovenia’s three universities (Ljubljana, Maribor and Primorska) was held in Koper.  In the morning, there was a seemingly lively discussion (it was in Slovene) of geographic concepts like space, place, region and landscape in the context of Slovenia.  In the afternoon, we visited a vineyard in Korte – in the hills above Izola – where the owner gave us a tour (also in Slovene).  Occasionally I catch a word I know, like trta (vine), belo (white), rdeč (red) and hiša vino (house wine).  There was a selection of malvazija, refošk, cabernet sauvignon and rumeni muskat wines for tasting along with a dish “on the spoon” (i.e. soup), kruh (bread), sir (cheese), salama (salami) and olives.  Clearly I learned the important words first.

Kortenica Vineyard

Kortenica cellar

Over the weekend, I decided to visit Izola with my borrowed skates.  The town isn’t far – a couple kilometers or so from Koper – and connected by the old coastal railroad turned seaside promenade/multi-use path.  I had been through the town many times but had never stopped to walk around.  I had to get going early (although I have no intention of clarifying my definition of early) because it is getting quite hot now.  Who would have thought I’d be saying that?  Of course, my parents are coming to the continent this week – and the temperature is supposed to drop 10°F and it’s supposed to rain every day.  Thanks a lot guys.

Izola Marina

For those who don’t know – which would probably be me if I wasn’t here – the 2010 FIFA World Cup has started.  Apparently football is not quite as big here as it is in other countries – but it’s still big.  I consider it a sort of cultural experience.  I watched the first match on a big screen in the Slovenian version of a biergarten in the middle of Titov Trg, which was pretty cool, and I watched the U.S.-England tie over čevapčiči with an international group consisting of another American, a couple of Hungarians and a Dane.  Slovenia won their first match over Algeria, and the U.S. is up next for them later this week, which would be fun, but I will be in Italy for that.

The World Cup - against the backdrop of the Pretorian Palace

June 10, 2010

In honor of Italy’s Day of the Republic – meaning that Flo didn’t have to work – we went to Hrastovlje.  It’s a little Slovenian Istrian town with the surprisingly impressive 12th century stone Church of the Holy Trinity: the small church, inside the walls, is more or less covered floor-to-ceiling with medieval frescoes that were uncovered from layers of whitewash in the middle of the 20th century.  They have a very helpful English audio interpretation of the dozens of painted panels, including the famous Dance of Death.

Flo and AnneTT at Hrastovlje

Then we had lunch at the little gostilna.  We ordered…and eventually they brought us food.  Food that, as it turns out, wasn’t what we ordered.  Then we looked around and noticed that everyone had the same dish.  We were okay with it, but we did wonder why there was a fairly comprehensive, multilingual menu?  There was 2 types of pork and sausage with gorčica (mustard) and ajvar (made from pepper and eggplant), potatoes, stewed vegetables, and fresh baked bread.  At the end, they brought us a small glass of a nice liquor made from teran wine.  With all that food, we just decided we wouldn’t eat the rest of the day…

Gostilna Švab at Hrastovlje

Not what we ordered...but good.

…And then I got invited to an impromptu dinner party/wine tasting.  Of course I couldn’t say no to that!  There were 8 of us – including 5 Slovenes and 3 Americans.  We didn’t eat until quite late (very Mediterranean), though, so it almost doesn’t count, right?  We had salad, grilled scampi and an enormous tuna steak that was cooked in a sort of sweet sauce made from brown sugar, honey, red wine, mint and some other fresh herbs; there was an assortment of wines from Slovenia, France and Hungary, including an absolutely amazing white bordeaux.

Also, the other day I went back to Trieste with Ted who, despite having been a Fulbright in Koper last year, had never really explored the city.  We walked around the old part of the city, visited the 15th century Castello San Giusto – which I had not done before – and had pasta at a sidewalk cafe that, as we discovered, offered more Greek dishes than Italian ones…?

View of Chiesa San Giusto and the Adriatic from the castle in Trieste

June 7, 2010

Do I really have to go home?

I fell in love with Slovenia this weekend.

Don’t get me wrong, I have really enjoyed the time I’ve already spent here, and Koper is a lovely town, but the mountains have my heart.  I spent the weekend exploring the Julian Alps in northwestern Slovenia – much of which is covered by the country’s only national park, Triglav – with Matej.  So that I didn’t have to take the 5:23am train (which I had previously sworn I would never do), I went to his house near Ljubljana on Friday night, and we went in to the city for taquitos and cervezas at Ljubljana’s cantina.  Seriously.

On Saturday morning we drove north to the area where Slovenia comes together with both Austria and Italy.  We first visited the Planica ski jumps, which hosts one of the world’s biggest competitions and holds more world records than any other site.  We drove to the Vršič Pass – the highest mountain pass in Slovenia – on a mountain road known for having some 50 hairpin turns.  It was an amazing clear day, and the scenery was spectacular.  There was still snow on the ground here.  We ate lunch at the pass to enjoy the views, which were far better than the beef goulash.  Matej speculated that the cow had recently been discovered frozen under an avalanche.

The view from Vršič Pass

The Vršič goulash

From there, we went down the other side into the Trenta Valley.  We did some hiking along the River Soča before heading up to see the source, which is a cave in the rock wall.  It’s not a long hike to the source, but it starts to get steeper…and rockier…and narrower…until you find yourself standing on a little ledge with your back against the cliff and clinging to (not clipped to) a wire with a drop down to rocks and rushing water beneath you.  It was a little scary.

Climbing to the Soča source

Not sure this shot adequately captures the feeling of looking down while standing on the ledge...

The Soča is a beautiful, clear, impossibly turquoise river surrounded by incredible mountain views (best enjoyed when not hanging off a cliff).  We spent much of the afternoon following the river, part of which is a whitewater kayaking course, the site of another international competition.

Matej on Reka Soča

Whitewater kayaking on the Soča

Also in the Soča Valley, we saw the Kulže Fortress (Trdnjava Kluže) on the Koritnica gorge, which has been the site of fortification most likely from the Roman times, defending the country against Turkish invasions, burned by Napoleonic French, and shelled during World War I.  The Soča Front between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies devastated the region and resulted in an estimated one million casualties.

Cemetery on the Soča Front

We drove back through Italy – which apparently actually is the shorter way – completing the day at Laghi di Fusine as the sun was setting, before heading home.

Lago di Fusine and Mangart Mountain in the Italian/Slovenian borderlands

On Sunday, we had a leisurely day around Bled, hiking in Vintgar Gorge and visiting Bled Castle (Blejski Grad) positioned on a cliff with great views over the fairy tale lake (also the site of world rowing championships and an international regatta).  We walked down to the lake from the castle and had the apparently famous Bled cake, sitting on a terrace overlooking the lake and directly across from the castle.  It’s a shame it’s so hard to find scenic spots in Slovenia, isn’t it?

Vintgar Gorge

Lake Bled from the castle

Blejski Grad

I took the last train back to Koper from Ljubljana and picked up a kebab to eat as I walked home from the station.  The nice man at the stall asked me if there was a word in English for “eating while walking”.  Is there an equivalent/better phrase?  I couldn’t think of anything, mainly because – as often as I do it here – I couldn’t think of an occasion where I eat while walking when I’m at home.  If I get take out, I drive home and eat it on my couch with my feet on the coffee table…