Touring with the Hat Guy
Ljubljana, Slovenia - (map)
Greg earned his moniker of "Hat Guy" almost one year ago when I met him on the South Pacific island of Samoa. He wore a homemade pixyish hat fashioned from the shed bark of a palm tree and everywhere he went, he left the Samoans in hysterics. I knew then he would be someone worth keeping up with.
At the time I met him, I confused his country Slovenia with Slovakia - a big mistake in hindsight, now that I have a firm grasp of central European geography, but it is a small and new enough country that I should probably spout of a few facts about it before continuing...
Slovenia broke from Yugoslavia in 1991 with one of the strongest economies in eastern Europe. So although it shares borders with Croatia and Hungary to the southeast, it feels much more like its other developed neighbors to the northwest - Austria and Italy. And with a land area as small as Wales and a population of only two million, it is an easy country to tour when you are short on time (especially when your friend has a car!).
We started out in the homey capital city of Ljubljana (sounds like Lyublyana) on a bright Saturday morning, where it seemed everyone was out buying vegetables from a well-organized open market adjacent to the Ljubljana River and the colorful buildings of town. I loved the feel of the city - so full of life and energy, yet with a quaint small-town feel. It is a place where residents actually wait for walk signals before crossing empty intersections and lock their bikes with skimpy chains that could be broken by a single look from a New York City bike thief.
After a quick tour of the city, we screeched up to the castle above town in the blue Mazda convertible that Greg bought as a "fun summer car." Under maximum G's and the sound of a revving engine I learned about his car-racing hobby and the racecar he used to own.
But once I trusted his driving skills, I enjoyed his fast tour of Slovenia. We jumped off the highway to the local roads and approached the Julian Alps on sporty fun-to-drive pavement full of curves and hills. With the top down, the alpine air felt so clean and crisp, while the view of blue sky and cottony clouds hovering over mountain ranges looked spectacular. Greg spouted out Slovenia's old tourism motto, "Welcome to the Sunny Side of the Alps."
We stopped first in Bled, a resort-ish town planted alongside a beautiful green-blue lake. The surrounding mountains added to its charm - covered in droopy pine trees and hosting Bled Castle from high above on a cliff across the water.
Island Church sat on a small piece of land in the center of the lake. When Greg described Slovenia's newlywed tradition of carrying brides up the 100+ stairs of its bell tower, I saw a boat full of well-dressed people singing and rowing out to visit. The bell rang later for good luck, also signaling, no doubt, that a sweaty groom was close to an early heart attack.
We left Bled via steep alpine roads and paused for a short scramble up to the head of the Izvir Soco River, where frigid blue water pours straight from a crack in the mountain. And after a peasant-style lunch in an old farmhouse immortalized by a series of children's movies, we moved out of the mountains and entered a completely different geographical area - the Brda Valley wine region.
One could mistake the Brda Valley's Mediterranean climate, rolling hills, vineyards, and red tile stone homes for Italy's Tuscany region. Indeed, northern Italy is so close you can see the border off in the distance. We climbed up to the top of a tall observation tower and had a 360-degree look around.
Back on the tour, we stopped briefly at the small historic village of Stanjel, which hung somewhere between a quaint small town and ruins. The landscape changed to grassy rolling hills with leafy deciduous trees and we stopped again to catch the tail end of a casual get together in a small village - where the smoke from barbecued pork chops made me almost give up years of being vegetarian.
But we had to continue on, and headed to yet another region of Slovenia, the Adriatic coast shared with eastern Italy and Croatia. We stopped in the holiday town of Portoroz and on this Saturday, in the middle of summer, the streets were rocking with reveling partiers that made me feel like I was the only sober one in town. We found Greg's friends and spent the night in a local vacation home.
It isn't often that I get to see fun cities, historic villages, alpine mountains, Mediterranean vineyards, and coastal areas all in one day. But that is what makes Slovenia special - so much packed into one little place.