Last post from Slovenia - written after returning. Thanks for following. "How do they harvest the grapes that are planted straight down those steep mountains?" The wine cellar guide in Ptuj (pronounced Pit-tooey) looked at me like I had tasted one too many of their lovely wines. "Well they just climb down and pick them." The day before on a loop ride out of Ptuj along the Drava River and into the Haloze wine region on the Croatian border, we had found ourselves at the top of some of these mountains with vineyards planted straight down the steep slopes. I had stood at the top and looked down those almost vertical lines of grapes, so steep that I had held on to a grapevine with one hand and leaned out as far as I could, only to see the grape-laden vines disappear immediately from sight as they plummeted down the steep slope. As I stood hanging on at the top, I assumed the only way to pick the grapes was to anchor at the top with a rope and harness and essentially belay down. So I asked the question again assuming she had not understood. And she just laughed, "Oh no. They just climb down and pick them. They are used to it. There is a saying in Slovenia - Even the goats have sticks." This was the end of a very interesting morning tour of the central wine cellar in the small medieval town of Ptuj in the northeast corner of Slovenia. Wine has been produced here since the Romans, and consistently in the town for over 700 years when the local royalty chartered a monastery and charged them with wine-making. Since then the area has produced wine consistently, and is particularly known for its incredible white wines. We were touring the old Ptuj wine cellar,
"Sorry. Do you speak English?" This comes from one of three grungy and slightly odiferous young men sitting on a bench overlooking the Aegean Sea. "Do you like Rock music? We are a rock band from Estonia." We play rock and roll, blues guitar, Jimi Hendrix ... He hands me a CD with eighteen songs, one named "A Stairway to NO Heaven". "We wrote the songs ourselves." They are dividing their time trying to sell their CD's to everyone who walks by and watching the naked young woman swim in the clear waters of the sea below. The young woman is proving an effective distraction from commerce. They say they are selling these CD's to support their music tour around Europe, which will ultimately end in a show in Bulgaria. They are surprisingly persuasive, and I see people holding their CDs as they walk up and down the promenade of the ancient seaport town of Piran, Slovenia. They assure me that I can buy the CD for good karma, if not for the music. I have to admire their tenacity. But hauling everything on a bicycle has a way of making saying No easier ... Even to charming young rocker wanna-bes who assure me they will make it big and come to the States one day. Plus, sadly experience has taught me to be wary of charming people speaking perfect English with a grand tale to tell and a request for money ... Especially in a place that attracts tourists. There is no telling what's on that CD. I'm in Piran, Slovenia, a former walled city on the very tip of Slovenia on the Aegean Sea. The City was part of the Venetian sea empire for five hundred years, and the walls and cramped old city with winding streets and Venetian styled windows and
"Tree! Tree!" I looked up and wiped the sweat out of my eyes. A little man was gesturing towards a lovely fig tree hanging over the road where Julie and I are standing in the shade, hanging our head and panting, trying to breathe again. He has watched us push our bikes up a hill so steep that it's taken all my effort to slowly creep up the winding road to our missed turn. Calves burning, feet slipping backwards, face bent almost horizontal to the ground with all my weight leaning into the bike to keep it moving slowly forward and up. We must have looked like we needed sustenance. Or a brain transplant. I was wondering what the heck we were doing up that skinny mountain road, too, and cursing the lack of good through bike routes in Slovenia. So we caught our breath and thanked our benefactor and had a snack from his fig tree before climbing back on the bike and heading down a dirt road back down the other side of the mountain. We were learning that those promising little white roads on our navigation app ... while usually gorgeous and scenic and interesting ... were also risky routes for planning bike rides. This was not the first time we were off the bike pushing up unspeakably steep hills. Or looking at a sketchy dirt path wondering if we dared follow the trail further or should admit defeat and try another route. Unfortunately for us, we are both stubborn and found ourselves pressing on more often than turning back. The temperatures were nearly 90 degrees in the afternoons, leading to grumpy hallucinations of Slovenian road builders driving a truck to the top of hills and letting the asphalt roll down where gravity took it. Some of the climbs of the
"There is no end. There are no jobs here for Italians, much less for immigrants." Our Goritzia hotel clerk is visibly agitated as she quizzed us about the United States and tells us how she wants to move to America but can't find a job even though she travels there twice a year. She speculated that the biggest influence on Italy's liberal immigration policy was the Pope - especially this Pope who is so inclusive of everyone. But she says the people are angry. Then she asks us about Donald Trump - whose anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stance and promises to build a wall between the US and Mexico has gotten the world's attention. We tell her we hope he does not become our President. We don't believe he will win. But I am not so sure she sees Trump as the same extremist we do. She has been living under a government that she blames for the immigration policies that she believes threaten her - and her country. She believes Italy has operated with the completely opposite philosophy and immigration policies that Trump touts, though my limited research into the asylum rules seems to indicate that asylum is dictated by European Union rules rather than Italian policies ... Though I'm sure the reality is more complicated. But regardless of the policies that actually govern asylum and immigration, it's clear that this woman finds them threatening to her way of life and she fears the consequences of more migrant immigration as her country becomes the gateway. It is also clear is that all of Europe is struggling under the weight of the exodus from North Africa of war and economic refugees that now fill their cities with different cultures and religions and dress and economic dependents. Immigrants come from Libya, Syria and other beleaguered countries
The menu tonight has pasta. And goulash. And even goulash on pasta. A typical menu at a typical restaurant here. Gorizia Italy is a true border town. It also lies in the heart of one of the most contested areas of Europe over the last century. The result is a cultural blend of Italian meets Austrian meets Balkan meets Slavic. Gorizia was the front lines of some of the bloodiest trench warfare of World War I - still called the Great War here unlike other countries when the atrocities of WWI were overshadowed by the horrors of WWII. This is where Earnest Hemingway drove the ambulance for Italy and was wounded, and wrote A Farewell to Arms about that bloody experience. It was here in Gorizia that the Italians managed to push the Austrian-Hungarian Empire back after years of trench warfare and successful invasion that almost reached Venice. And the town of Gorizia was the tipping point on the Italian front for victory near the end of the war. The Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI rewarded Italy with this former Austrian town that had been part of the Hapsburg empire ... along with other chunks of territory that reduced Austria to a relatively small, landlocked country. Italy lost over one million in that war. Slovenia was a subject state of the Austria and part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and many of the men who lived in this area were sent to the Eastern Front to fight Russia for Austria. The turmoil continued when the new State of Yugoslavia - including the country now known as Slovenia - was created and eventually became Communist under Tito, establishing a tense cold war border. The new communist government built a new city on the Communist side of Gorica at the edge of town called Nova
We couldn't resist. The international bike trail known as the Alpe-Adria was just too tempting. A bike trail that stretched from Salzburg Austria to the Adriatic resort town of Grado, Italy. We had joined the trail after we left Bled, Slovenia as we worked our way around the high Julian Alps of North Western Slovenia. Gorgeous riding through a valley with granite mountains on either side of the trail ... a former railway that has been converted to a dreamy bike trail. Former rail stations now serve as bike trail cafes for snacks and coffee breaks as the trail rolled first west and then turned south. The trail was packed with bike pilgrims all making the journey to the sea. Familiar faces from the trail appeared again at restaurants and strolling the streets in the towns and cities along the way, with waves and conversations. And best of all, after the strenuous climbing through the mountains of Slovenia, the Alpe-Adria route offered a dreamy downhill profile ... Miles of coasting on smooth trail rarely turning a pedal. It was so tempting to continue on through Italy to the sea that we simply couldn't resist and caved to temptation. Italy has worked its magic once again. And so since posting from Valbruna, Italy on the border of Austria, we biked for five straight days working our way to the Adriatic with a few minor detours. And after reaching our destination when we rolled into Grado yesterday afternoon as the thermometer topped 90 degrees, we stayed over night and the next morning headed back north to the Italian/Slovenian border town of Gorizia. This trail - The Alpe Adria - would be a fabulous trail for a first time self-supported bicyclist learning how to bike tour. Just make sure you head from Salzburg to the sea not
Oh Italy. There always seems to be a reason to go back. This time, as I write this from Gemona, Italy in the North Eastern province of Fruila, we find ourselves here because, simply, we could not find a good route via bike through Slovenia's Julian Alps with our heavy loaded touring bikes. The leg-wrecking alpine passes with their multiple switchbacks and 15% grades seemed stupid to attempt at the beginning of a long ride, regardless of how tempting they might be on my super-light Orbea unburdened by panniers stuffed with gear. And the mountain bike trails offered challenges for Julie's skinnier tires. So, after riding 70km northeast from Ljubliana to the Slovenian resort town of Bled in the Julian Alps and spending a day taking in the Bled Triathlon, we headed north again to the valley on the border of Slovenia and Austria and caught the gorgeous international bike trail through the Alps into Italy. The cycling has been gorgeous - though challenging. The mountains are spectacular. Wildflowers line green valleys and grey granite peaks pierce the blue sky.
The thin, long-haired young man stopped his skateboard and spoke with Julie while I photographed a red mural that was painted on an abandoned building by the river. "You should go to Metelkova," he said. He handed us a glossy postcard of the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum. "It's only 15 minute walk. " Then he looked at me, "There is lots of graffiti there." That got my attention. I love street art if it is intelligent. Graffiti and murals tell stories. They can say more about a culture - and its less promoted counterculture - than any museum or tour. Plus ... I love photographing those colors and the contrast of bright paint scrawled on pompous or boringly functional buildings. The next morning, our geeky tourist maps in hand, we set off north along the maze of streets and eventually found what Ljubljana locals describe as a "City within a City", rows of art-covered walls and sculpture and graffiti sprawling across several blocks and unmistakably our destination. Metelkova is one of the largest squats in Europe. It is a sprawl of old army barracks and a former prison that were taken over as housing after Slovenian Independence in 1991 when artists moved in to the vacant buildings and started their own community. The city did not - and still does not - like them. They are tolerated however - perhaps because people here seem to hold the area as a special place which may be a product of the decades of socialism under Tito and the spirit of a brand new democracy. They have turned their entire community into a creative haven for alternative artists. Today, over twenty years after moving into those abandoned buildings, they still squat and live there live there rent and tax free. Metelkova has become accepted enough now by the
Slovenia! Small, but mighty. Big Alps. Good food and wine. A love of the outdoors. Castles. I'm here with my bike and a friend for three weeks with plans to circle this small but packed country with detours into some of its neighbors ... Italy, Croatia, maybe Austria and Hungary. But today we are getting organized, building our bikes, catching up on sleep and checking out the fabulous capital of Ljubljana (pronounced Lube JAHN Yah). As I write this a band playing the salsa street party and lots of Cuban sound has my toes tapping and is doing a grand job of keeping me awake to get on the right sleep schedule for our 9 hour time difference. This town thrums. The entire city center is pedestrian and bicycle only and the difference in noise and carefree mobility is remarkable compared to dodging cars in my Seattle neighborhood. It's an old city that integrates the modern and a sense of humor. A modern metal sculpture of a headless man with tail is profiled by the stately columned buldings lining the river. And young people sip beer and snack in the dozens of outdoor cafes - looking equally at home in their casual shorts and blue hair as the older generations strolling arm in arm along the river. This city seems to have retained a unique personality - maybe like Portland , OR has managed to stay unique despite the growth and change around it. Perhaps because it's still hidden from the tourist throngs of neighoring Italy, Vienna and Croatian coast. We are looking forward to seeing more as we ride around and roam through this country at the deliciously slow bicycle pace that enables a visitor to really experience a place and meet interesting folks. And based on the courtesy and
The smell roasting pork had me looking longingly back over my shoulder at the grill with a gutted piglet spinning over the coals, lovingly basted by a man who clearly took his pig very seriously. At my near-wrecking of the bike as I smiled and waved, the little group gathered around the spit waived me down and beckoned us over. We just smiled ourselves into something special. We were riding west into Mikulov, a small town in the center of Moravian wine country. I was bored ... the Greenways trail we had been following had spent too many miles on the barren trail through the border no-man's land. The communist government had cleared everything along this strip so they could patrol and shoot whatever moved without obstruction. And they had done such a thorough job I had lost interest in the ride beyond marveling at the difference between the cultural desert we traveled and the rest of this rich country that had amazed. So I led us off the trail onto a little detour into a small town seeking something a little more interesting. Seek and you shall find. As we rode past a little wine cellar road outside of the village my nose let me to roast pig and a wine-making party. Crates of white reisling and purple cabernet grapes picked that morning waited in a trailer across the road. The cellar buzzed with a family busily shoveling grapes and juice that had just been crushed into a barrel with a screw lid to squish out the last of the juice. A young boy used a strainer to take out debris. A man with a garden hose syphoned the juice into a larger bucket into the lower level of the brick cellar. The walls of the lower cellar are gunky with white mildew and mold.