Hiking in Slovenia: Bled Buddies
Sunday, March 21, 2004
I saw Zlatorog.
This may not come as earth-shaking news in the heart of the American empire, but in the Julian Alps, the mythical animal god still holds sway. From his kingdom on the slopes of Mount Triglav to the labels of Lasko beer bottles, the golden-horned chamois is ubiquitous throughout Slovenia, one of the last unspoiled pockets of Eastern Europe.
Were Catholicism not so pervasive here, it would be tempting to call outdoor recreation the religion of this former Yugoslavian republic, which declared independence in 1991. Skiing, hiking, mountain climbing, cycling, kayaking and just about any other sport that involves mountains, rivers and adrenaline rushes are as plentiful as summer wild flowers, especially in the Gorenjska, the northwest area that encompasses Triglav National Park.
At about 209,000 acres, Triglav is one of Europe's largest national parks, with a storybook landscape of dramatic mountain peaks, picturesque farming valleys, shimmering Alpine lakes and historical attractions that span centuries. The castle overlooking Lake Bled dates back to the 11th century, while just 20 miles away, monuments and old fortifications mark the bloody Isonzo Front of World War I. The park is dominated by Mount Triglav (9,396 feet), the triple-peaked symbol of Slovenia, and offers more than 4,350 miles of crisscrossing trails suitable for everything from an afternoon stroll to a two-week outing.
Despite its size, Triglav may be one of the best-kept secrets in Europe, chiefly because of its setting. Unlike many Americans, most Europeans know the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia, but it's still an easy country to overlook -- about half the size of Switzerland, typically a fly-over or drive-through on the way to northern Italy or Croatia's Dalmatian Coast. That keeps the crowds down, especially tourists, especially in the spring and fall. During a week in the country in September, I saw a total of two other Americans -- and that was at the airport.
Slovenia also sits along one of the most intriguing folds of Europe, the economic and political fault line where socialism is making a fitful transition to capitalism, a unique moment in history that cuts both ways for travelers. It can be amazingly cheap. Transportation (car rental, train fares) tends to run at Western rates, but if you're not terribly demanding otherwise, you can live on about $50 a day.
It can also be amazingly backward. In the Czech Republic, where I live, foreigners are still regarded with suspicion, and a simple request ("Can I get some ice?") will often earn you a haughty, insulting look -- if the waiter even acknowledges your English.
In this swirl of cross-cultural influences, Slovenia has struck an attractive balance. Under former president Tito's comparatively relaxed form of socialism, Slovenians never developed the closed mindset typical of many Iron Curtain countries. As a result, the people are remarkably open and accommodating to visitors, catering to tourists with Western-style service and amenities. But they're also determined to keep the best of their Old World heritage. Most of the country is still undeveloped, charmingly rural in character and proud of it.
Nothing in Slovenia is more than a two- or three-hour drive away, and a couple of hours after landing in the capital of Ljubljana, I was having lunch on the shore of Lake Bled.
Chances are you've seen a photo of Lake Bled without realizing it. The ice-blue Alpine lake is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and has a tiny island in the center graced by a baroque church steeple -- a postcard shot often used as an emblem of Old World Europe. The photos don't lie; it's stunningly beautiful.
Away from the water, however, the town of Bled is tricked up like a junior Lake Tahoe, with a casino, resort hotels and rows of souvenir shops. I was walking the south shore of the lake contemplating my next move when the water became dappled with raindrops and a storm blew in -- one of those mountain thunderstorms with driving sheets of rain that send every living thing scrambling for cover.
And so it was that I found myself in the timbered shelter of the Blegas gostilna (pub), drying out and talking baseball with Luka, an eager young Slovenian athlete. On a trip to the United States in 1997, Luka had the good fortune to see the Cleveland Indians in their prime.