SLOVENIA  -  30 years on
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Weeks 9 & 10 news:   Primorska & Notranjska regions:

In a country the size of Slovenia, you are never far from someone else's border. Our travels so far had taken us along the Austrian, Hungarian and Croatian borders; now over in the west in Primorska, it was finally the turn of Italy. It has been a busy 2 weeks.

Click on map right for details of our route →

It was still raining when we left Ostrava, not ideal weather for the challenging drive over the Vršič (pronounced Vir-shich) Pass. The narrow road climbs from Kranjska Gora in the north, to a height of 1,611m (around 5,500 feet) at the summit - 24 hairpin bends going up and 26 on the equally steep descent south into the upper Trenta valley. To keep track of progress, each hairpin is signed with its number and height. The road was originally built by Russian POWs in WW 1, to supply Austro-Hungarian armies in the Soča valley - more of that later. 1000s of these unfortunate Russians died of starvation, disease, fatigue and avalanches, working on such a brazen construction project over these awesome mountains. Low cloud denied us the planned walk at the top of the pass and even views down to the south were limited. As we began the descent, the valley suddenly fell away startlingly before us - 3,500 feet straight down. The hairpins came thick and fast, and the signs ticked off the height loss like an altimeter. Down, down and down again, thankfully rounding hairpin 50 into the scattered alpine farming hamlet of Trenta, where we spent an excellent 3 days at Camp Triglav (Photo 1). The craggy limestone headwall of the Trenta valley, rising 4,000 feet above our camp, glowed fluorescent orange in the evening sunlight, and it was in this magnificent setting that we received from Nick and Pete an emailed copy of the scan showing our tiny future grandchild - that was quite a moment.

We camped right beside the upper Soča, very much this week's river and one of Europe's most spectacular white-water kayaking rivers. We climbed up to the river's source, where it gushed out of a Karst cave high up on the mountainside and fell in torrents down the gorge - an impressive river right from its very source. We also spent a satisfying time at the Alpinum Juliana, an alpine garden first laid out in 1926 by an amateur botanist from Trieste. Little was in flower here in Sept, but the labelled plants did allow Sheila to identify several alpines seen at higher altitudes still in flower.

We moved on further down the Soča to camp near Bovec at Camp Liza. The valley and surrounding high mountains were the scene of bitter fighting during WW I. In 1915, the Italians invaded SW Slovenia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire allied with Germany. Just as in Flanders, the fighting got bogged down in trench-warfare all along the Soča valley down to the Adriatic - known as the Soča Front. All through 2 winters, both sides occupied fortified lines of defence at 6,500 feet along the very crest- line of the mountains. The stalemate lasted for over 2 years with little gain on either side, until the Austrians (including Slovenes) with German reinforcements and armour, launched a massive counter-offensive, driving the Italians back with horrendous losses on both sides. But in the post-war territorial carve-up following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy gained control of Trieste (which accounts for that peculiar bulge on the map) and the whole of Primorska which was held until after Italy's defeat in WW II. In this largely unknown corner of Slovenia, over 1 million were killed along the Soča Front. There are war-cemeteries everywhere as well as remains of grisly fortifications which we visited - trenches, barbed-wire, gun-emplacements, dugouts and shell craters. We paid our respects at one of the war-cemeteries high up in the Koritnica valley (Photo 2), which contained over 900 graves - row after row of black iron crosses, set out in grim chronological order of slaughter. But by late 1917, the rate of human attrition was such that there was a serious shortage - not of ammunition, but of graves and crosses; multiple graves contained 5 unnamed burials with crude iron crosses. These poor men who died for the 'Old lie' (as Wilfred Owen called it) enjoyed in death a gruesome continuation of soldierly comradeship. The horrors were brought home even more closely when the 75 year-old owner of the campsite told us how this had then been the family farm. When the abomination of trench-warfare had enveloped the Soča valley, his mother and grandmother had been forced to flee; when they returned 3 years later after the war, "Alles kaput", he said. He showed us a 1915 picture of what was now the campsite, with lines of mortars for firing gas-shells - one of these mortars was still in place in a corner, a grisly reminder of these horrors, and an empty gas shell stood in the office.

Bovec has also had more than its share of natural disasters in the form of earthquakes and landslides. Buildings in the small town still show cracks from the 1998 earthquake, and are shored up with wooden props. We intended to upload our last web-site at the library but it was closed. When we asked why, we were told that it had just re-opened after the last earthquake, then a major tremor in July this year brought the ceiling crashing down again - you could question whether this was a safe place in which to hang around! But in spite of all this horrific history and more recent disasters, we celebrated Sheila's birthday with what was the last BBQ of this trip - evenings are just becoming too dark, chilly and dewy. And we also experienced yet another example of fine Slovenian hospitality: the family at the campsite realised the significance of the date from our passports and presented Sheila with a bottle of Bilberry Schnapps as a birthday gift. There is no doubt that Camp Liza at Bovec gets our award as best campsite of the trip, for its setting, facilities and most of all for the hospitality shown to us there.

Further down the Soča near Kobarid, scene of yet more WW I horrors, we enjoyed several excellent days exploring the river's startlingly spectacular gorges (Photo 3) and the surrounding hills. While here, rain in the valley fell as this year's first snow on the higher peaks over 1000m - quite a sight. The nights were getting distinctly colder and trees gaining their autumn colours.

It was time to part company with the Soča, as we moved eastwards to wild-camp up in the hills to visit the Franja Partisan Hospital set up during WW II to treat wounded partisans. The clandestine hospital was hidden in the confines of the overhanging and wooded Pasica Ravine, and approached by a steep winding path. The 13 camouflaged huts had space for 120 wounded, and included an operating hut, X-ray machine and power supply generated by HEP from the gorge torrent (Photo 4). Medical supplies were dropped by parachute by the Allies, and between 1943 and liberation in 1945, over 500 were treated here including a downed American pilot. Although a different setting from Baza 20 high in the Rog forests, the achievements here were equally impressive.

Our next stop was Idrija, a small town set among hills, and famous for mercury mining. The town's excellent museum illustrated the history and technology of this curious industry, the toxic effects of which were so damaging to miners' health that the town still has Slovenia's largest psychiatric hospital. The displays included a 3 inch steel ball floating in a bowl of mercury. The world-wide move towards less toxic metals brought the mine's closure in 1995, but part remains open as a museum. Having experienced lignite and lead mines, we had to see a mercury mine - it sounded like the mythical treacle mines of childhood. Most of the mercury was mined as cinnabar ore for smelting, but at one point we were shown droplets of native mercury oozing from the rock. The visit was yet another uniquely fascinating experience.

Moving SW for our final days in Slovenia, we travelled into Karst limestone country to camp at Postojna. The local star-attraction is the enormous show-cave, but outrageously excessive commercialisation totally detracted from the cave's splendours. Far more appealing was the hugely impressive cave system at Škocjan (pronounced Shkots-yan), set in an area of classic Karst features. The River Reka flowing through the cave has carved out over the millennia a 300m long, 60m wide and 100m high subterranean canyon - a most amazing and fearful sight, along which the path threads a way at high level. The cave emerges into the bottom of a massive dolina, the floor of another long-collapsed cave some 100m deep (Photo 5). If you are planning to visit Slovenia, do your wallet a favour - forget Postojna and visit the more worthwhile Škocjan. 

The area's other key attraction is the world-renowned Lipica Riding School and stud farm, founded in 1580 to provide stylish horses for the Habsburg court's royal stables. We spent a fascinating day there visiting the stables, seeing the horses at close quarters and attending the classical demonstration of dressage - horses doing things that equine anatomy suggests as unlikely. The elegant white Lipizzaner horses' performances now are a show-piece of the Slovenian Republic (photo 6).

Slovenia has its general election on Sunday, and for the past month posters for the many parties have been seen everywhere. Talk is that the Social Democrats, who have been in government since independence, will be ousted by a swing to the right. But unfortunately we shall leave on Saturday to begin the long journey home, after a few days en route in Venice. We'll try to publish one more web before our return.

  Sheila and Paul                                                                                         Published: 2 October 2004

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This week's music: one final piece of Slovenian jolly schmaltz to conclude our visit, and extra photos for this edition as it's been a busy fortnight

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