12 January 2014

CRF: The Best of Slovenia

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." It's been more than a year since we returned from Europe, and we've started to get seriously nostalgic.  To give us all an extra travel fix, we're posting some of our favorite photos that never made it onto the blog.  Here are our favorite unpublished memories and pictures of Slovenia - truly one of our favorite countries.
Slovenia held a special place in our heart years before this trip and we were a little worried about tarnishing it.  You see,  it was the first "weird" place we had ever travelled together.  Our former trips included the post-collegiate trifecta of France, India and Amsterdam.  One of us had read an article about Slovenia in a magazine and the idea of the place stuck (along with Lake Baikal in Siberia, which seemed a little less doable).  We went, in 2006, without knowing how to pronounce the name of its capital and came back its biggest ambassadors, dubbing it "The Vermont of Europe" and encouraging everyone we knew to visit.
It was both more "European" than we'd expected (what does that word mean anyway?) and quirkier than we could have imagined (a doormouse museum?).  It felt like a discovery, a magical place.  One day we were driving through foliage that could rival New England, the next we were eating shellfish on a blip of Mediterranean coast.  There were gorges and caves, castleshorse burgers.  Our farm stay had a pet bear, the capital had parking spots dedicated to electric cars ("way back" in 2006) and a Sunday flea market that finally served up that slice of Slav we were expecting.  Revisiting the country, after traveling to places even further afield, we worried it would feel…. predictable.  Or, dare I say, average.  And then, this happened...
The water caves of Križna Jama are special.  They really are.  They are that solitary, unknowable, ancient thing that lurks at the edges of human existence.  There are human remains in the entryway that date back ten millennia.  One travels for hours by headlight, in blowup rafts, past the oldest of earth's rocky bones.  There are creatures there, in those depths, that exist literally nowhere else in the universe.  No more than eight people a day are allowed in.  All of this, accessed through a rock in the deep Slovenian forest.  By some wonderful twist of fate, our guide was a photographer himself and the photos he prompted us to take are some of our favorites of the trip, inextricably linked to the memory of snapping them.
When we're asked that inevitable question - "what country did you like best?" - we have no idea what to say.  Phrased: "what was the most memorable experience you had?" the answer would be easier.  Križna Jama is the experience we call up when we mean "unbelievable."
The Slovenian karst is full of caves - there's the theme-park-like Postojnska jama and the outlandish cave-castle of Grad Predjama, with hundreds of other caverns in between - but there is none to match the grandeur of Škocjanske jame.  We've been twice, but photos aren't allowed in the main caverns, so we never blogged about it.  This is a picture of the exit, which actually feels small at the end of the tour.  Notice the full-grown trees being dwarfed by the archway.
The main cavern in Škocjanske jame is so large that standing inside, with the lights off, feels like standing outside on a dark night.  You can hear a river flowing, a hundred feet below the walkway.  You feel damp cave-breezes and gusts.  It's the largest enclosed space you can imagine.  A friend brought along on our second visit was nervous.  "I'm claustrophobic," she explained, logically reasoning that this would make spelunking unpleasant.  Škocjanske jame conjures the exact opposite feeling.  All you feel is the expanse, your own smallness.  You feel anything but trapped.  You feel like you're on the edge of something that is somehow even bigger.  
At the very top of Rogla Ski Resort, in the Zreče region, we came across this funny group of schoolchildren filing onto a down-slope chairlift.  Even though it was midsummer, it was cold and blustery in the Julian Alps.
We had hiked up from the endearing, bizarre deer farm that we were staying at, Tourist Farm Arbajter.  Our hosts cooked us venison dinners and gave us homemade borovnica (blueberry schnapps).  We loved it there and promised to return with our family one day.
Slovenia's glamor spot is lake Bled.  It's the Slovenian stuff of postcards.  The rolley-bags outnumber backpacks and footwear gets noticeably less clunky.  It's easy to see how one could be content dropping in on Bled and being whisked back away without ever setting foot in the more rugged landscape surrounding it.  Retirees rent rowboats by the hour.  Young, fashionable people sunbathe on the grassy shores.
Slovenia is very much a tale of two lakes, Bled and Bohinj.  Both are beautiful, but we actually prefer Bohinj, nearby, which has zero luxury hotels.
At some point in our trip, we began taking photos of local candy.  It's the little things.  These were a cross between Necco wafers and hole-less life savers.  We just liked the packaging, really.
We considered doing a post about the unusual and emblematic Slovenian roofed hayracks (called toplarji), but never got all the pictures we wanted.  Here's an old toplar surrounded by modern digging equipment.  It's not easy to find prime examples of the old Slovene way of life, because the country doesn't dwell on its past.  History in Slovenia has been relegated to the national parks, culinary tradition, a few quaint castles and their excellent museums.  Everyone looks forward.
Despite its diminutive size, Ljubljana (pronounced "loob-lee-yah-na") easily feels the most modern of the former Yugoslavian capitals.  It's demeanor mirrors the national spirit: lighthearted, friendly, unpretentious.
Slovenia was the first republic to gain independence from post-Tito Yugoslavia, and there wasn't much violence during the breakaway.  Compared to Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia or even Croatia, the country has few scars and better memories.
We love this red picture of a tiny, communist-era Zastava (nicknamed "Fičo" in Slovenia and "Fikjo" in Macedonia, where we posted about them) against a high-tech construction site. About a block from here, we saw a tractor pulling bales of hay through downtown Ljubljana.
Like Slovenian food, Slovenian wine is pretty basic.  It's also cheap, tasty and plentiful.  For a while, we were working on a vini-post that didn't get finished.  It was going to be about the vineyards of the Vipava and Štájerska regions, but we never got the cornerstone picture or experience that a good piece needs.  It was still fun to try.
We took this picture at a  courtyard "vinotok" in the colorful wine town of Slovenska Konjice. Underripe grapes hung from an arbor over our heads.  If it had been September instead of July, we probably would have had a great, boozy post.
We're still crazy about Slovenia.  Comparing it objectively to its neighbors, it might seem a little boring.  It has nothing to rival the history and cuisine of Italy.  It's mountains aren't as impressive as Austria's.  Ljubljana doesn't hold a candle to Hungary's Budapest, and it's tiny bit of coast is barely a blip next to Croatia's sprawling seafront.
But Slovenia has a bit of everything, and also possesses maybe the most pleasant vibe of any European country.  It's always at the top of our list of recommendations - especially because of all those caves
To see all our posts from Slovenia, just click here.
To see all the Cutting Room Floor posts, with great pictures from the other 49 countries, just click here.

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