There is a great deal that I want to share about my two weeks in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but until I find the time to gather my thoughts, here are my latest adventures from Slovenia.
After a two day layover in Zagreb, spent mostly wandering and eating, it was time to move on. My initial plan was to work my way across former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria to Turkey by early October, but finding that this part of the world has much more to offer than a five week journey can tackle, I have pushed that arbitrary deadline off to December. The new schedule gives me about two months to widen the map and circle around, trekking as far North as Slovakia, winding down through the scenic mountains of Transylvania and fully covering the Balkans as I complete the circuit on the Albanian coast…at least that’s the plan for now.
Sticking to the newly outlined route, the next destination was Ljubljana, a mere 140 kilometers away. Arriving at the bus station in Zagreb, the elderly woman at the ticket office explained that I could only buy a ticket on the bus, so I waited in the empty station as the late morning heat slowly dawned on the city. The minutes quickly passed as I chatted with a fellow backpacker, who turned out to be the cousin of a friend from university…one of the many encounters on my trip that keep making our small world even smaller.
As the departure time approached, a large crowd formed at the terminal and proceeded to tackle the driver upon the arrival of the bus. As the impatient hoard filed in, I tried to communicate with the driver and his decorated English lexicon comprised solely of the phrase “ticket no, money no.” I later found out that this elegant concoction meant that if I didn’t have a ticket and there was room, I would ride for free. Considering myself lucky, I squeezed into the line of ticketless passengers and waited. After a few minutes, the driver announced that there were exactly five free spots, and my luck turned as I counted the five early birds queued in front of me.
Left behind in a cloud of exhaust with a young backpacker from Taiwan and a Bulgarian girl who didn’t speak English, I returned the frustrated stares of my new travel companions as we searched for a plan B. A bus was out of the question, as the next available one was in the middle of the night. Soon, the three of us were running through the streets of Zagreb towards that plan B, rushing to catch the last train to Ljubljana. With a few minutes to spare, we threw ourselves into the first empty cabin and took a deep breath.
It’s interesting how one hurdle can make way for unexpectedly fortunate experiences. Despite losing a few hours and paying several extra euros, I was immediately rewarded for my efforts with a breathtakingly scenic ride through the Slovenian countryside.
Joining me in admiring the view was a vibrant group of passengers, consisting of my Taiwanese friend, an American from the town neighboring mine in Los Angeles, a newlywed American-German couple in their 20’s, and a born-and-raised Ljubljanian living in London. The animated conversation that ensued rapidly consumed the minutes of our already short journey.
Exchanging contact information and parting ways, the group dissipated while the Slovenian guy, Matija, and I headed into town for a beer. After walking through the city and reaching his local bar, we spent a few hours drinking and chatting, at the end of which Matija invited me to spend a few days at his cousins’ old farm house in a village outside of Ljubljana. Having paid for a hostel that night, I agreed to meet up the following day.
The following afternoon, Matija and his friend, Nate, picked me up and within half an hour we arrived in the small village of Lipica. Taking its name after a linden tree that grows in the area, this settlement of a little over a dozen farms and houses is nestled between acres of corn fields, a few kilometers away from the medieval town of Škofja Loka. Our car passed by a row of renovated houses from the 1960’s and pulled up to a large, antiquated house at the end of the drive.
The house was quite a sight, and I spent the first few minutes marveling as I explored the property. Lacking any heating system apart from the large, brick furnace in the center of the house, the floors had already begun to trap the cold brought on by the late summer nights. Most of the building had been continuously repaired and renovated over the years, but parts of the home dated back over a millennium. The interior seemed endless as expansive rooms opened up into numerous other spacious sections of the property. Positioned just a few meters in front of the entrance was an old barn that had even more sights in store.
After a tour of the surroundings, we went out to the backyard. Hundreds of tiny yellow spots on an expanding green carpet are the first things that meet the eye. The enclosure we found ourselves in was an orchard, consisting of several magnificent apple trees interspersed with newly developing pear trees, grape vines and a neighboring garden. Unripened apples too heavy for their branches were scattered all across the low cut grass, pairing a sweet smell to its colorful appearance. Overlooking the garden was a smaller house, soon to be where I would stay. In these beautiful surroundings, we spent a pleasant afternoon consisting of relaxing on the back porch and enjoying the fresh company only experienced with new friends.
Soon it was off to bed…
Waking up to a slightly chilly, grey morning sky, a nice cup of strong, black coffee prepared by Matija’s cousin, Cene, brought on the nostalgic memories of lazy Sunday mornings back home (not homesick quite yet!). With most of the family members off on vacation trips, the house felt even bigger and emptier with only the three of us, getting a little more company when Cene’s twin brother, Nace, joined in the evenings after work. However, scarcely was our isolation from the mundane ebb and flow of distant city life felt, as we were soon finding many things to do in the yard…and it all started with a sling.
Soon our launching turned into tossing, and a bucket was set in the middle of the yard as our target. Having an endless supply of material at our disposal, we were covering every square meter, hurling apples from all corners. What started as simple fun took on a competitive turn when Cene joined us, wagering a sink full of dirty breakfast dishes to the player with the worst aim. Embarrassingly awful shots followed until Cene guaranteed his safety with a high lob that sent his apple straight into the bucket, leaving Matija and I to battle it off. After what seemed like an eternity, I heard my rotten apple splatter against the distant plastic, and I claimed my victory with a sigh of relief.
Feeling confident with his performance, Cene quickly devised a new challenge, this time adding a little efficiency to our competition. All of the apples in the yard needed to be collected, as they would be the last unripe batch to fall. A large compost lay at the bottom of the hill just past the garden, and the fallen fruit needed to eventually make their way over there. Deciding that it would only be fitting to throw this time around, a shovel was stuck into the ground at the top of the slope, forming our new target. New rules – the first person to hit the target would get to relax while the other two picked the apples and added them to the compost. And in the process, all apples that missed the target would roll down to the compost. This time Matija didn’t mess around, and within a few minutes he nailed the target. Tired out by the games and deciding to split the punishment, we all took a hand in picking and had successfully cleaned up within a few hours.
And what better reward for a hard day’s work than delicious stew prepared with fresh vegetables from the garden, accentuated by the light smoky flavor from the brick furnace’s first fire of the season.
Although it was Matija’s last night, my gracious hosts Cene and Nace invited me to stay with them for a few extra days, an offer I gladly accepted. We sent Matija off with a great last night consisting of hours around the common room table playing heated hands of Tarok. New to the traditional Slovenian card game, it took me a while to get accustomed to the unique set of over-sized, ornate playing cards, but due to this trump game’s similarity to card games that I frequently play, it wasn’t long before we had well-paced and exciting rounds.
I ended up spending five days with Nace and Cene, finding it hard to leave such warm company who made their gorgeous house in Lipica feel like home. Exploring Ljubljana or the neighboring medieval town of Škofja Loka by day was even more enjoyable knowing . I can’t thank Matija, Cene and Nace enough for their kindness and hospitality, and I look forward to revisiting my friends and the unforgettable surroundings that Lipica has to offer.