Monthly Archives: January 2016


This Easter, we will return to Slovenia for the second time in as many years. Yet until 2015, I’d hardly heard the country’s name, despite growing up in neighbouring Austria. Suddenly, Slovenian connections seem to be emerging all over the place.

In the Triglav National Park

In the Triglav National Park

When I was growing up in Austria in the 60s and 70s, Slovenia was part of Tito’s Yugoslavia and lay behind the Iron Curtain. In my imagination, anything connected to the USSR was rendered in monochrome – inaccessible, undesirable, and forbidden. Why would anyone want to go there?

I never had cause to reconsider this attitude until about a year ago, when my wife, Angie, and I began planning a trip to Croatia. Angie, who is originally from Malaysia, mentioned this casually to her sister Denise when visiting her last year in Melbourne.  “You’re going where?!” exclaimed her sister. “Croatia’s right next to Slovenia. My best friend is from there.”  Thirty minutes later Denise’s friend Renate had joined us to tell Angie all about Slovenia.

A few facts about Slovenia…

Slovenia is a small central European country  with a population of just two million. Part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until it became independent at the end of World War I, Slovenia shares Austria’s mountainous geography. Since joining the EU in 2004, Slovenia has become a moderately well-to-do and modern country, yet has retained a rustic and unspoiled charm. Slovenia produces wonderful wines (mostly whites but also reds) and has endeared itself to us for family restaurants that serve hearty food “like grandma used to make”.

Home made in Slovenia

Home made in Slovenia

 

Several of our On the Road in Europe itineraries visit Slovenia (for example, this itinerary here).  In 2017 we will be launching an Eastern Europe itinerary that will include the Czech Republic, eastern Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Northern Italy.

 “If you do go to Slovenia, I’ll introduce you to my cousin Sanja.   You can stay with her!” Just three months later Angie and I met Sanja and her husband Davorin. The couple live and work in Slovenia’s largest national park which takes its name from the country’s tallest mountain, Triglav. Sanja works in a drugstore; Davorin’s work is connected to the national park authority. They have three sons who could be the envy of any parent: courteous and lively, they come home from school to work on the family farm without their parents’ prompting. Much of what the family eats comes from their own land.  

After Angie’s meeting with Renate, our trip to Croatia expanded to take in Slovenia as well. While researching our itinerary we thought it

At Movia

At Movia

would be nice to stop at some vineyards along the way. A friend recommended Movia, one of Slovenia’s finest winemakers. The vineyard’s owner, Ales, is one of a kind, we heard. Wouldn’t it be something to meet him?

When we plan our holidays, Angie researches the hotels and restaurants; I pick the roads in between. On February 10th last year, we pulled up in front of one of Angie’s selected restaurants, Danilu, on the outskirts of Ljubljana and a member of Jeunes Restaurateur d’Europe. We were served by a fizzy young lady who turned out to be the owner’s daughter. Besides helping out in the family restaurant, she runs a night club and, to our great surprise, counts Movia’s owner Ales among her close friends. A week later we met Ales, shaking his enormous farmer’s hands, and spent an entire afternoon tasting his beautiful wines in his firelit tasting room.

On the road in Slovenia

On the Road in Slovenia

Sinuous roads lead through the Triglavsky park – one, narrow and steep, leads across a tall pass from Kranjska Gora to Soca; another enters from Italy. Less winding, the latter meanders across a lower pass and traces the course of a beautiful river. I could drive on these roads for hours without getting bored: how could one when immersed in this lovely landscape and dreamily following the curvy tarmacked ribbon of road?

We were driving through Triglavsky National Park earlier this year when I suddenly noticed something I hadn’t seen for a while. It was one of those double-take moments: did I just see what I saw? I turned around and back-tracked and then stood in front of, well, was I still in Slovenia? Or had I been transported to Tibet? Right there, in front of me, there were little cairns of stones that I had last seen along the road to Mt. Everest: sacred piles of stones that are constructed to fend off evil and bring good fortune. How had they been transported to Slovenia?

Manidui in Slovenia?

Manidui in Slovenia?

I find myself pondering how it can be that I had to go from Austria to Tibet and then via Malaysia and Australia only to discover Austria’s neighbor Slovenia and its unfathomable connections to places impossibly remote from it.

Sometimes it’s the things planned well in advance that make a journey special, like Angie’s restaurant choices or a particular route I’ve chosen, but at other times it’s the magic of serendipity – a chance collision of people and places – that transforms a journey into a really exceptional experience.

Manidui in Tibet!

Manidui in Tibet!

Peter

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Snub nosed monkey - Ron Yue

Snub nosed monkey – Ron Yue

There is a certain romance about traveling in northwest Yunnan. Perhaps it is the isolation of driving through remote deep river valleys, or experiencing the ancient way of life that prevails here, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Maybe it is the chance of close-up encounters with snub-nosed monkeys in lush mountain forests, or it could simply be the serenity of relaxing in the region’s surprisingly beautiful lodges and boutique hotels.

 

Lijiang Old Town - Ron Yue

Lijiang Old Town – Ron Yue

I love taking quiet early morning strolls along twisting cobbled lanes and over little bridges through the ancient town of Lijiang, and listening to the steady, mesmerizing chanting of monks in a particular candle-lit chapel. When I come here, I love to soak up the tranquillity of these surroundings, whether walking amongst fluttering prayer flags around a secluded forested shrine, or looking out over a sea of rice fields at dusk.

 

Tibetan Prayer Flags - Ron Yue

Tibetan Prayer Flags – Ron Yue

 

Shangri-La’s Ganden Sumtseling Monastery - Ron Yue

Shangri-La’s Ganden Sumtseling Monastery – Ron Yue

There’s something here to appeal to the most jaded traveller, but moments of sheer magic lie in wait here for keen photographers. One chilly fall morning, on the last day of a photography trip, I convinced our group to head over to a location where I thought we would have a fantastic view of Shangri-La’s Ganden Sumtseling Monastery in the distance. I had never been to this particular spot at sunrise before, but my intuition was telling me that I needed to go there. As we waited for the sun to appear, I could see smoke rising from the chimneys of Tibetan homes and mist off the nearby lake swirling up around the monastery. All that we needed was a bit of sunlight to add the final touches. When the first rays glistened off the monastery’s golden roof, the mountains behind still in shadow, the scene was transformed. We excitedly photographed for the next little while, forgetting about the bite of morning cold. When it came time to leave for the airport and begin our journey home, I thought to myself again as I had many times before, “What is photography if not the art of painting with light?”

 Ron-Signature_white

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On the way

(Josh Barnett on www.total911.com)

Fifteen minutes of pleasure is quite something when it comes to some activities – or so Dr. Tatiana of Sex Advice to all Creation fame, tells me – but when it comes to driving, I have high expectations.  I grew up careening through the Austrian Alps, where the roads are gorgeous and men do go the distance, and in my Alpine Republic no one would get out of bed for fifteen minutes of driving, no matter how sinewy, how sensual, how sexy the road might possibly be.

“Try the Horse Shoe Pass”, my friend suggested in response to my question “Where should I go for a bit of driving fun?” The route my friend is describing – the Horse Shoe pass from Llangollen along the A543 and the A5104 – will take no more than fifteen minutes or so to drive.  But it’s two to three hours from London; add in coming back and it’s nearly six hours.  Six hours of highway driving, on a Friday for god’s sake, for a quarter of an hour on a sinewy road?

Alas, I left Austria a long time ago and now I am desperate.  The bright sunshine of this lovely autumn day makes the decision for me and I set out northwest on the M40 toward Birmingham.  I’m not even an hour on the road when clouds begin to line the distant horizon.  Still, the sun is overhead and almost the entire sky a solid blue.

But by the time I leave Birmingham behind, rain has set in and my spirits are as dull as the sky overhead.  I take the M6 north, the M54 toward Telford, then I’m on the A5 toward Shrewsbury.   The rain now is not falling, but sweeping across me in near-horizontal sheets chased by low-hanging clouds.

I enter Wales and, bereft of dreams of fifteen minutes of bliss, I contemplate the down-to-earth challenge of pronouncing Welsh words without vowels.  (Later in the day I see a place name that takes the cake: “Pllgwyngyll”.  Thank heavens that’s not where I am going because I wouldn’t, in my life, be able to ask for directions to it.)

Twenty five miles to Llangollen.   The road is covered with, and made slippery by, brown, mushy leaves.   At the rate that I am going, the many speed camera signs that I see –  Camerau Cyflymder Heddlu – seem pointless.   Who could possibly speed? And indeed, there don’t seem to be any speed cameras, only these signs, like powerless scarecrows, an empty threat as far as I could tell.

I am now only a few minutes away from Llangollen where the A542 turns off to lead north over the Horse Shoe Pass.  The fifteen minutes are about to begin, but it seems less likely than ever that it will be a magical experience.

Horse Shoe Pass 2

(from northdownsadvancedmotorcyclists)

But miracles do happen.  And so, let the fifteen minutes begin.   The instant I cross the bridge over the river Dee in Llangollen, the wind picks up and carries away the driving rain, leaving behind only a faint drizzle which, a few breaths later, vanishes altogether.  All that remains, for the moment, is the wind and the low scudding clouds.  In less than two minutes, I’ve left Llangollen behind, cranked up Anastacia Not that Kind and started up the Horse Shoe Pass.  It begins with a few long-stretching bends and then twists through two serpentines along the left slope of a wide valley from which protrude thin slices of sharp-angled, black-grey slate.

Four minutes.   I have reached the top of the pass, all 1,367 feet of it, no more than the height of an Alpine valley.   On my right, I am invited to buy Horse Shoe Gifts at the improbably named Ponderosa Café.   My heart beat has just revved up.  You mean, this is it?  Yes, as far as the Horse Shoe is concerned, but no need to take a cold shower just yet.

As I begin the descent into the Northern Wales highlands that stretch away from me for as far as my eyes can see, the cloud cover cracks open to my left and the darting rays of the setting sun burst through, at 3:30 in the afternoon.  It is one of those eerie moments when the world appears brighter then it is ever meant to be.  The lid of clouds is still near-black and covers the earth from due East all the way across to the peep hole through which the sun unleashes its bursts of light.  The contrast is startling.  It should be dark, dark almost as at night, but it isn’t.  The landscape lights up as if shone upon by a thousand suns.  The grass is so green it jumps off the fields and the shadow of anything that stands in the way of the sun is as sharp as the blade of a razor.  Everything is so near I can touch it with my eyes and my hands.  The horizontal rays of the sun are streaming across the Welsh hills to set them alight.

Eight minutes.  I turn left to enter the A5104 and am now driving West, directly into the sun.  I am electrified by the landscape and my rushing through it.  The black shadows of white sheep.  A rainbow with colours as sharp and iridescent as ever I have seen, no more than two to three hundred yards from base to base, stands mightily before me, almost inviting me to drive through it to enter a different world. Occasionally, puddles and cattle grids make my car float for a split second and send a shiver through my spine.   Leafless trees, ghosts of summer, fly toward and then through me.   A flock of migrating birds flickers low across the road, as if trying to avoid colliding with the ominous cloud ceiling.  The road itself is narrow and beautifully winding, not too tight, but certainly also not too straight.  The surface is sealed with rough, gripping tarmac for the most part and lined by hedges, some of them high-growing bushes, neatly trimmed, others walls of rocks diligently and carefully stacked one on top of the other.  Very British.

Horse Shoe Pass 1

(simonkit on pentaxdslr.eu)

Twelve minutes.   As I drive into the sun, hip-hopping from turn to turn, I am squinting my eyes.  The world glistens because everything is still drenched.  The meadows are soaked.  The road is streaming and steaming.  The birds’ feathers are damp.   The trees are dripping.   The sky, too, is wet.    Everything I see sparkles and my eyes are filled with flashes of light, most of them white, some of them red or yellow or orange, cascades of turning leaves gleaming in the light.

I ride my car, spur it on and will it to move.  Yet it has its own life and its own rhythms that it presses on me.  One moment, I am entirely relaxed and made pliable from doing what I love, not minding in the least being thrown around by an animated object with whom I am wholly entwined and together as one.  A moment later, I am nervously excited as every turn, and every shift, makes the car teeter on a slippery edge, giving me all the symptoms of fear while, at once, making me quiver with all the sensations of pleasure.

Fourteen minutes.  No, no, this mustn’t be.  I don’t want to see what I am seeing, but there it is.  Only a few hundred yards away, the A5104 rejoins the A5.  As I come to a halt and look right and then left onto the empty A5, the sun disappears behind a cloud, the spectacle fades with the fall of the curtain.  I turn off Anastacia.  There is near-darkness, stillness and silence, except for my heart pounding.  Fifteen minutes.

Peter

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