Wednesday morning Margaret & I hopped back into our trusty rented Nissan Micra, and hit the road southbound to Slovenia.
As an american driving the toll roads through northern Italy and Austria, I was amazed at the number of long tunnels burrowing through the alps. On the toll roads, you don't drive over mountain passes - you drive under the mountains. As our Austrian friends noted, it doesn't snow in the tunnels.
By the time we entered Slovenia it was raining again. As quickly as possible, at Jesenice, we got off the toll road and took the small backroads. It's immediately obvious that these small winding roads are perfectly suited for cycling. The countryside in the northwest part of the country is both mountainous and pastoral. Sweeping valleys between steep alpine peaks.
We rolled into Bled ahead of schedule and had time to walk through the small town and get our bearings before meeting with our friends from the Slovenian ski team for lunch. It was great to see Marko, Barbara and Vesna again. For the rest of my life, I will remember Slovenian creme cake!
Over lunch on Wednesday afternoon, Vesna and Barbara volunteered to be our guides for an outing on Thursday. They met us bright and early and off we went. Vesna has a sponsor deal on a sporty car, and it's pretty easy to spot on the road.
Barb and Vesna took us to explore the "Postojnske Jame" and "Prejamski Grad" (pronounced "postoinshki yama" and "preyamshki grod"). The first of these, Postojnske Jame, is the biggest of the karst caves in SLO... ..this cave is nearly 21km long and has 3 levels. We were able to cover about 4km of the cave. It was pretty spectacular. Huge open areas with ceilings as high as 150 feet... Giant stelagmites and stelagtites. Amazing. Apparently there are 9000 caves that have been located in the karst formations in Slovenija. Caves are a good place to be when it's raining and cold outside. (Note: with no lights on it's very dark ; - )
Prejamski Grad is a castle built into the side of a mountain, which backs up onto a couple of cave entrances that also connect to the big karst cave system. It was easily defended because it was built into the side of a cliff (1200's), and also easily evacuated by stealth through escape routes into the cave tunnels. Some robber-barron was able to withstand a one-year siege because he could go out for pizza and beer through the back tunnel.
Here in SLO, a country smaller than Vermont, there are a grand total of 250 ski racers (including the youngest juniors), and a grand total of 6 women competitors over the age of 20, but 4 of them are world cup skiers. They love skiing, and yet they work pretty hard at it and don't muck about. And they're terrific tour guides.... Margaret and I had a blast. Only 9 months until the Olympic games and these young women have every week scheduled already.
After a long lunch, we said "hvala & lahko noč" to Barb and Vesna and headed back to Italy late in the afternoon. (hvala = thanks; lahko noč = good night... ...my SLO is limited, but those two things are part of my vocab so I use them often).
...by the way, I got stopped by the polezia in Slovenija on Thursday morning. I felt like we were in a spy movie... Two cop cars escorted me to the side of the highway at an exit, then one of them sped off. The offficer came to the window and asked in broken slavic lilting pseudo-english (after figuring out that we don't speak SLO or ITI) if we could hand over our "papers". I suddenly felt like it was a Le Carre' plot... I knew i wasn't going too fast (only 90mph, and getting passed like I was in a ski race). He inspected all of our documentation (passports, licenses, registrations, & my Hank Aaron baseball card). It turns out that I had failed to turn my lights on (lights required during daytime here) and also I didn't have the "vinjet" (pronounced "vignette") permit to drive on the toll road, and I was subject to a $e350 fine. BUT we were right by a shop that happened to sell vinjet tags (and killer cappucinos, I might add), so the officer let me off --- I had to buy a 6 month tag for $e35, but that's much cheaper than the consequences.. The cappucino was only 1 euro, so the total for a cappucino and driving permit was only a little more than a cappucino in JFK airport. Soooo, if anyone needs a toll-road pass for SLO, i've got one with 5 months and 30 days of remaining time.
We decided that I'm probably the only one who has visited Austria and Slovenia who hasn't seen big mountains. The rain and low clouds put a cap on the scenery this week. Too bad. Having said that, I can tell you with no qualms that SLO has some absolutely beautiful country for cycling (backroads everywhere and not many people). Add hiking, skiing, etc. The only catch in SLO is that the language is a real jaw-cracker... ....on the other hand, everyone knows english.
Margaret was very surprised that the language seemed very soft compared to german (she was expecting gutteral harsh tones). It has much softer consanants and some rolled "R's" and is not harsh at all to hear. We got some 2-on-2 tutoring on pronunciation, and at least for a few days I'll be able to pronounce some words with out destroying them too badly.
Okay that's waaaayyyyy too much. Across the street from our hotel Thursday night we got some really nice cheese (2 kinds, actually), a bottle of Montepuciano d'Abruzzo, and a fresh baguette, for $e10. sigh. Hvala; Lahko noč, -mark