Looking Back on Slovenia
(Oli) April 5th: we’d assumed the weather would prove true to the local forecast of thunderstorms first thing followed by clearer skies in the afternoon so we didn’t bother packing up the night before. Deciding instead to have a lie in in the comfort of Nino and Jen’s cosy outhouse. As it turned out we opened the curtains to reveal fantastic riding conditions: a gentle breeze and sunshine. Even so, we decided to stick with the plan not to rush off and spent the morning making notes about the week just gone either side of an excursion to the local bakery to fetch a small brioche loaf and a couple of those soft fluffy Chelsea bun style pastries, before tidying up slowly and reloading the bikes. We intended to take a route high above Trieste and not descend any monster slopes that we may later have to heave ourselves back up. Heading out towards the border with Slovenia which lay beyond Basovizza. As usually happens around borders the shapes and features of the village buildings began to change - becoming more rural and rough-hewn in their brickwork - faded colours and darker wood - and the vehicles began to feel a little more eastern, especially an old abandoned fire truck which was a faded peeling orange and largely skeletal. Not much bigger than a VW camper it looked like something plucked from a 1960's toy box. As a rule; the further east we’ve travelled through Northern Italy, the better the surfaces of the roads. And this continued to be the case. Up in the thickly wooded hillsides above Trieste we discovered wide roads, undulating and winding their way around the cliffs with barely another vehicle on them. And all as smoothly finished in tarmac as a Gran Prix circuit. Having paused in a now majority Slovenian-speaking cafe to write and then post some postcards it was pretty much lunchtime and we since we seem to be in a perpetual state of hungriness whilst riding it wasn’t hard a hard decision to stop when we found a restaurant in the woods; Locanda Mario, not far from the Ciclopedonale Giordano Cottur. Especially when we realised they had a working wifi connection and we could potentially upload a couple of articles and pictures. We met Winfried and Brigite, two hikers from Germany. Seated at adjacent tables we enjoyed lunch together before heading our separate ways. Ruth had downloaded a mapping application recommended by Blanca so we decided to try it out. The route it proposed took us back up the hill we’d coasted down, and back on ourselves in a loop towards Trieste again, before coming up a series of switchbacks into Slovenia, and up into the raised mountainsides near Črnotiče. We were a bit dubious as it essentially undid much of the distance we’d covered and put us back down in the valley, which we knew we’d have to climb back out of at some point. But needless to say, we decided to give it a go. The roads were amazing and I was enjoying being on an up and down route again, complete with the spectacular views only hills and mountains bring. As a result though it was slower going. And Ruth felt it was too sudden a jolt back into the hill-riding thing. Our route gave us no time to warm the legs back up and ease us gently into the inclines. It threw us back in at the steep end.
And now only three hours till sunset. We’d intended to do a shorter day of 58 kilometres but this had been increased by the change in route and now included an overall ascent of 2300m and an overall descent of 2100. On top of this, it was the day after a rest day, and the bikes always seem to feel heavier the first day back. Ruth describes it as cycling through treacle. If only we could scoop a little up and get a bit of an energy boost. We did find beautiful winding lanes and roads once we’d finished the steepest climbs though. We discovered ourselves on a plateau with the sun setting over the sea, now far behind us, and indigo clouds and rock faces in front of us to the east. The first people we encountered in Slovenia who we were able to stop and have a chat with were Nadha and Zlatko. There were out collecting old bits of abandoned electrical items; wires and sockets and the like, from the side of the road. We assumed we’d have a mime conversation, filled with gestures and smiles, but Nadha spoke some English and confirmed our route towards Buzet for us. I think they were in the fifties. Thick dark hair, tufty eyebrows, and shorter set; they looked wonderful against the setting sun, chatting to Ruth, up on the hillside with a single track winding lane disappearing off in either direction, no buildings to be seen for the time being. We waved goodbye and chose the right hand fork that lay before us. Nadha had confirmed you could get to Buzet this way; through the village, under the tramline, and continue past the sign for a cemetery. She said it was quieter, though the road surface was rougher. Following the single track lane we found ourselves in a wild looking world, punctuated by layered hillside villages with old looking cars, painted gutters, painted wheels fixed up on painted walls, Narnia-worthy sodium-coloured streetlamp and little gangs of curious looking kittens. Cows now roamed with bells round their necks and every so often deer would rush across the lane in little groups of three of four. Skipping high with legs tucked up close to their bellies these were fast wirey deer that barely resembled the red deer back home. As they flew across the road in front of us, scarcely touching the ground, they appeared more akin to gazelles. Turning a corner we disturbed the hugest black boar with a rogue squeaky brake. The creature was so big Ruth thought it was a bear at first. It seemed to take up the width of the single track lane. Unfortunately it took one look at us and crashed off into the trees before I could get a picture.
We continued forwards, rolling along side by side, discussing the pros and cons of happening across boars and bears. We concluded we didn’t know what the correct etiquette with bears would be, were we to happen across one. Note to selves; check bear etiquette. It was now dark and the camping spot we were aiming for near Buzet was a few kilometres away still. As we were weighing up our options we came across a sign for a hostel in the village of Zazid. This was the first and only sign we’d seen. Hand-painted on a piece of wood on the side of a stone building in the street. Would it be open? We had no basis to assume either way.
Fingers crossed. We pulled in to a crazy-paving style of drive way with washing lines full of bedsheets blowing gently in the evening breeze. It felt promising. A light was on inside. This was great. The light went off. I quickly got off the bike and knocked gently at the now dark window. A woman came out and smiled - she told us they weren’t really open as they didn’t have heating at the moment but she would check with her husband. We had been planning to sleep in a tent and assured her heating would be no issue from our point of view. And waiting a while - now sat on a bench besides the bikes - enjoyed the feeling of a non-saddle-shaped surface under bum. Trusting that we'd soon get the thumbs-up to stay we stared at the starry sky and felt truly relaxed. Dušan, who ran the hostel, proved to speak fantastic English and having enquired about our route through Central Asia, asked how our Russian was as he made up bunks. He laughed at my sheepish reply that we didn’t have a word between us. The next morning we left the hostel around half twelve having had a wide ranging and often off-piste conversation with Dušan about his own experiences travelling, the Zazid locals, the war, kindness, his business; the hostel, & of course last but not least; the bike. 'The Holy Machine' as he called it: both a cross and an infinity symbol. I liked Dušan's enthusiasm for life. He is a fascinating but contradictory character to say the least. He studied Russian, history, & philosophy and is absolutely forthright in his opinions. He seems to need nobody but also runs a hostel inspired by a handful he stayed at in Australia & New Zealand during the nineties. Remote hostels which he said made you feel immediately welcome; as though they'd been expecting you.
'Hostels that were like homes in magical places’. Despite this appreciation of homes from home & his chatty enthusiastic demeanour he claims to be a solitary person at heart who doesn't need to feel integrated with the local Zazid community. He says the villagers resent him for doing well & that he's achieved more in ten years, 'slowly crafting his hostel from the crumbling ruin it once was until it became a home & then a successful business', than some of them will in a lifetime. He says his kindness to them is that he 'nods & smiles to them in the street'. And theirs to him is that they 'quietly tolerate him'. I guess their disparity has found a balance even if it does sound a little awkward. He was full of outlandish statements but it moved me when he began to talk about his wife, Tina. 'I never thought I'd find one special person who I could share time with but we spend 24-7 together here & are very happy'. He looked so sincere & earnest. 'Our eyes met on two bikes going in different directions. I never thought I'd find someone like her but I did and i'm very grateful.' They seem very happy together. Laughing together as they go about their daily chores. Tina has a sparkle in her eye & smiles a lot. A life shared with Dušan, however eccentric & opinionated, clearly makes her happy too if the brief snapshot of their lives that we've witnessed is anything to go by. We had another leisurely morning and again departed late - around half twelve. Something I suggested to Ruth we’d need to change as we enter hotter climates; to which she responded by rolling her eyes and sticking our her tongue. Dušan had advised us on a route that avoided hills but we promptly missed a turning & end up in the bottom of a valley. It didn’t really matter. Our time in Slovenia had barely lasted 24 hours so it was nice to stretch the day out a little and explore what beautiful and rugged scenery there was between Zazid and the Croatian border.