Tuesday, December 09, 2003

My first foray into Eastern Europe for over seven years didn't start well. Further Italian uphelpfulness (I don't want to talk about it) meant that finding and crossing the border was a painfully slow process. As I eventually found the station in the Slovenian border town of Nova Gorica a train was pulling away. Inevitably it was mine. Checking the timetable I established that it was the very last train of the day going to Lake Bled in the north. It was 3:30pm.

I went instead to the bus station where I discovered that the next bus east to the capital was in four hours time. It was Saturday afternoon, I was in a town of 60s concrete blocks, the weather had turned the whole town grey and nothing was happening. Childhood images of Eastern Europe were being horribly reinforced. Arriving in Ljubljana I went immediately to bed.

It sounds cliche’d but the sun streaming through my window on Sunday morning really did reflect a change in fortune; Thomas Hardy would’ve been proud of nature’s work. Ljubljana was lovely and felt like a great European city – classic baroque architecture, a sweet castle atop a hill (with circular turrets that somehow made me think of Rapunzel), red roof tops, an antique market by the river and grand socialist buildings – just in miniture. It takes about ten minutes to walk across the centre proper and bridges across the river seem to occur every fifty metres or so. The river itself is only about ten metres wide. What’s the average height in Ljubjlana?

You know you’re in a small country when the festivals section of the guidebook includes “a celebration and feast during the short dormouse-hunting season”. There are less than two million people in the country and just over 300,000 of them live in Ljubljana. It is, by far, the dominant city in the country. So, looking at the newspapers and magazines on sale on street corners – there seemed as much choice as Italy – and seeing the country’s handball team play on TV, I got thinking that, if you lived in Ljubljana, you probably know some significant movers and shakers in Slovenian society, just by the law of averages. I guess that’s a good thing – it must bring people closer together – but, on the other hand, there are Daily Mail readers everywhere and they’d be harder to avoid in a society like this.

Slovenia is my new favourite place (bear in mind that nowhere ever holds that title for very long). The capital city has a wonderful name; all those soft letters – ls, bs, ns and js pronouned as ys – mean that it delightfully spins around in your mouth before smoothly slipping out. The Slovenians were charming and their friendliness was as welcoming as any place I’ve been to. (It certainly put my recent Italian experiences into perspective.) Their ability and willingness to speak English made me feel like I was in Scandinavia, especially when I headed north to my original destination in the mountains. All I have written in my notes is “Bled – Magic”. And even now I can’t find any more words to describe it so instead I’ll try and let a picture tell you the 1,000 more it needs:

The picture doesn't tell all. It can't.

Actually, I have just thought of one extra word to describe Bled: cold. Bloody cold. But that barely matters when you have a little church on a little island in a gorgeously blue lake surrounded by snow-topped mountains and overlooked by a medieval castle. It was so enchanting I walked around the lake twice, once on Sunday afternoon and again on Monday morning, passing up the opportunity to visit the other natural attractions in the region. One day, I’m going back.

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