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Published: January 28th 2011
I ignored all the warnings. My host Matej had promised to be unaccommodating and even said her house was full of poison, but I decided to visit her anyway. It turned out to be a great decision, and in the tiny village of Vinska Gora, Matej and her boyfriend Zdrocco ended up being some of the kindest people I’d met on my trip.
First she served me a vegetable soup, and we shared a glass of wine together. Then, along with her independent-minded and friendly dog Don, we set out amongst the freshly blooming sprouts of spring plants, and up the slopes of the South-easternmost Slovenian Alps. The view of Matej’s valley was absolutely stunning, even from our starting point. As we passed through wooded areas, and climbed up into the sky on this sunny afternoon, it was hard to believe my own senses.
Matej, a beautiful 38-year-old woman, grew up in this area. She pointed to the village where her mother came from, and then showed me her father’s village – an indiscernible 30 meters apart from her mother’s.
By the time we returned home from our walk, her boyfriend was waiting with his Fiat to take me on
At a fine Slovenian restaurant.
a brief tour of the nearby city of Velenje. In just a minute we were through the city, and the sun was setting anyway. Fascinating were the massive ski jumps in the center of town. Never in my life had I seen such ski jumps. The two of them haggled about the history of the city’s lake (and whether or not it had been moved), and we decided to have traditional Slovenian food for dinner, so that I had the chance to absorb the authentic flavor.
We tried and failed at two restaurants, before we found a great one that was still open at 730 on a Sunday evening. We were the only guests, and happily accepted their full attention.
The young waitress had short hair, dyed bright red. She didn’t speak any English, but Matej translated effortlessly for me. There were four dinner choices, and Zdrocco encouraged me to go with the sausage, potatoes, sauerkraut and pork plate. It looked and smelled so fantastic that I had to take a picture.
Zdrocco is a jack-of-all trades. He is a motorcycle mechanic and former racer, and he drives his fiat like a Porsche 914. While we were driving, his
Along the highway in east Slovenia
friend passed him in his Lamborghini, which he later offered to let me sit in.
After our evening was through, I received the rare privilege of WASHING MY CLOTHES. Zdrocco is the first person I’ve met in the entire continent of Europe to actually posses a drying machine for clothes!
The ride to Maribor
I waited until the afternoon to get underway, but the promised rain arrived in drizzle, and really it wasn’t that unpleasant. Every time I ride in the rain or the drizzle, it seems I end up with a dusting of white on my pleather jacket, looking like some type of chalk or a pigeon with diarrhea was dashing ahead of me along the way.
I’d told Matej of the stark contrast I’d noted between the Slovenian countryside, and the city of Ljubljana. If someone only came to the city, they may conclude that Slovenia was a lame place to visit, with little to offer. But the country is brilliant. It’s not that it’s uniquely colorful, I haven’t found it to be so, but the constant mountain/valley pattern provides plenty of dramatic vistas.
Slovenia’s Second City
I arrived in Maribor with about a two hours to spare
Slovenia's Second City rests upon the river.
before meeting my host Peter at the most fantastic mall I’d ever seen.
Having to park the bike with my bags on it (I carried the computer along with me, I wouldn’t leave it for a minute), I decided to park it at the police station. I asked a cop with about 250lbs of meat on him if that would be all right, and he instructed me to park it directly in front of his window, and he’d watch it for me. Score. It later struck me as totally obscure that the officer had no questions at all for the American with the overloaded Vespa – but I’m glad he didn’t, as my time in the Schengen zone had elapsed and I was in technical violation.
The old vine
The tourist office told me to walk through the old square and down by the river I could find the oldest living vine in the world. Indeed, after a walk along a bicycle path and a little gloomy reflection about having lost my mobile phone somewhere, I found “The Old Vine,” of the Slovenian Modra Kavcina variety, reportedly over 400 years old. I was as impressed as hell, and I got
At the Old Vine
Brennan stands in front of the oldest living vine in the world.
a good look at the knotty, twisted veins of the beast while I imagined all the events that thing had lived through. I think Jamestown was just founded when that vine sprouted. In its lifespan, it will have seen the beginning and the end of the Spanish, French, British Russian and American empires.
While I looked it over in admiration, I noticed that part of it was disconnected, just hanging up there with the rest. A perfect cutting! I scooped it up and put it in my bag, later planting it with my friend Peter in the yard on his hillside. We just scored a world treasure!
My friend Peter
Peter’s home is a huge and modern peach creation, perched on top of a valley at the end of a long and winding dirt driveway. I was amazed I that I was able to keep it upright as I scooted the Vespa up the steep, damp driveway that first night. I knew immediately that I wouldn’t make it down safely when I left with my luggage on board, and so asked if he would carry my bags down in his car when it was time for me to go. There
are no curtains in my bedroom, and early each morning, the full glory of the day arrives at about six o’clock, peeling open your eyes and demanding that you appreciate the misty view of the whole grand valley just underneath you.
Peter works as a Computer Aided Design engineer, and sells recumbent bicycles as a hobby. Biking is his first love, and excess love-making had worn out his knees; he’d been rehabbing his leg just before he came to meet me. Peter had biked all the way to Bordeaux in the last year, and was always scheming new trips.
Humbling family experience; supper with kind strangers
Today was another episode of “This life of unpredictable brilliance.” I decided that I’m going to try to make a list of all that has been given to me, and all that I’ve lost, and show just how far I am in the plus.
Grusena is a community of maybe 100 people, living along the vineyard-covered hillsides of NE Slovenia, near the “village” of Kungota. After a brief jaunt into Austria to buy a new notepad (because it was so temptingly close), I asked for directions to the Elsnik family’s home. I received approximate
I think Brennan just climbed a small peak.
directions from a kind man who wanted to speak to me in German. When I arrived at the wrong address, a kind young woman named Drinka told me she couldn’t help me, but invited me to lunch anyway. They did find the number and address of an Elsnik in the phone book, and I later set off in pursuit.
Lunch was brilliant though, with a table full of interesting faces, though I couldn’t understand a word that they said. My Slovenian Lexicon includes just three words: Hwalla (thank you), Sirodniki (relatives), and Adio (goodbye). I’m thinking I should learn more of these though, as I just discovered two more Slovenian ancestors, bringing the total to four.
At my lunch table sat a tall man who looked like a Slovenian Ryan Stiles that had slept in a dumpster for just one night. Next to Stiles was his brother, who looked like George Clooney would if he had dropped about a foot in height, with a squat face that made his chin appear longer than it actually was. Their father had a flat red Irish face and wore sweater-vest under a badged maroon coat that you’d expect them to award someone who
showed up to play in The Masters drunk. Their mother was the sweetest bear of a woman, appearing even taller than me as she sat down next to me at the table. Drinka’s two children hug-fought each other and smiled at me while we ate their traditional foods.
One last try
After I left, I intended to give up my search for the Elsnik clan and return early to write. Something compelled me to try the next road over, and two sets of directions later (everyone knows absolutely EVERYONE here), I was climbing up the hillsides and following a street sign that said “Elsnik.” When I arrived, I was eventually greeted by a friendly worker named “Marko,” who introduced me to my cousin, Gregor. Gregor was skeptical of our family connection, until I later emailed him the name of the person who had actually matched with me on FTDNA.com. He was in a hurry to join the whole town, attending a funeral (nobody wants to be late
to a funeral!), and so we decided to email each other. He gave me two bottles of their fine wine, and took some pictures of the beautiful estate.
In the next week or
so, Peter has agreed to ride his bike out to the vineyard, and bring them the scion I took from the old vine in Maribor. This is certainly the best solution for the plant. I’m excited about this.
Peter told me that he had taken up cycling several years ago after he broke up with his long-term girlfriend. He needed something to do with his time and passion, so he took to cycling. At one point, he cycled for 25 hours straight, 420km. I was amazed. That’s longer than my trip from Lyon to Marseilles.
Because he’s re-habbing his knee, he’s riding a hand-bike, which he allowed me to try. He rode it 40km just last weekend. I rode around and it felt like a death trap, as the rotating hand bars always seemed to want to pinch my legs, and the steering was more of a lazy suggestion.
The next day, I was off to get lost once more on the way to the Slovenian metropolis of Ptuj (the country’s 8th largest city, with 18,000 people).
Avoiding the freeway tolls, I navigated by the sun, through one country road and onto the next. I glided over the slinky
Seriously, can you imagine anyone ordering this from the picture?
asphalt laid expertly over the carpet of green fields snaking between the valleys. My music selection for the day cycled between Radiohead, Turkish folk music, Italian jazz and Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk album. The latter is nearly always a constant in my playlist.
Ptuj is actually quite impressive in its downtown square, offering just enough to entertain a slow-moving couple for an entire weekend. Castle and river – check. Cathedral – check. Cobblestone downtown streets and a market – check. There may be more, but I only hung around for about 30 minutes. Here’s my exciting story. I walked into the tourist office and demanded to know what I should do with my half hour there. He told me to see the castle, but after one look at the hill it was resting upon, I decided against it. I asked the man if there was a good bakery, and he gave me directions to Donner Kebab. Donner Kebab is not a bakery; it’s a horrible place that sells overpriced pocket sandwiches. The “hot dog” and ‘Cheers dog” on their advertisements looked like someone had fished them out of a garbage bin.
Lapse: More Slovenian Family
After Ptuj, I navigated through some
One of the Lupse family homes.
of the narrowest roads I’d seen to arrive at a miniature village called Doblezice. There, I stopped a couple of people and asked until I found the home of the Lupse family, another of my cousins. And once again, I was quite lucky because my cousin Matjaz spoke fluent English. He had trouble believing me at first, and kept asking if I was playing a joke when I told him I was his American cousin who had crossed Europe to meet him. He told me that the Lupse family had moved to that
valley over two hundred years ago from Romania. They produced wine grapes on their land, but in recent years the value of the grapes had fallen so low that it was no longer worth the effort to raise them. Matjaz, who had studied for school for organized agriculture at Kranj, was itching to travel somewhere
, but he didn’t know where.
We were both in a hurry, and agreed to keep in touch.
After a few disputed and disallowed border crossing attempts …. Croatia idiotically allowed me to enter their territory, and nobody seemed to mind that I was violating several international agreements by having overstayed my welcome
Brennan and Matjaz
With my cousin Matjaz.
with in the Schengen zone. All was well as I weaved my way along the dirty gray roads of the Hrvatska Republika…
Cut from the piece
…At the mall, I met Peter at a place called the Ginger Bar. I was two seconds from ordering an expensive drink to wait for him, when he arrived and saved me a couple of euros by suggesting we hit the road. ..
… (Peter) He gets up at 5:50 each morning, and is off to work by 6:30. For dinner just bread…
… After a morning of getting disastrously lost looking for the Maribor train station (I received terrible directions at least twice, sending me in the wrong direction), I arrived at the rail station a full 25 minutes behind schedule to meet Peter. By good fortune, Peter was late also, so he wasn’t waiting for me the entire time. We made a quick handoff, and said our goodbyes….
… On the subject of “dogs”, I should mention that extremely intelligent canines have reached the status of recurring theme over the last three days. Matej had a great dog back in Vinska Gora, and my cousin Matjaz had a very intelligent
one today. As did Dunja, my next host, in Zagreb. All three of their owners talk to their dogs and swear they have a level of non-verbal communication as well…
… Next came the tricky part. I followed my directions to the next border crossing to Croatia, and was nearly home free until the guard informed me that this was only a crossing for local residents – not international passengers. It wasn’t so bad, when I learned that I would have to travel down the road another 5 kilometers to cross. I set out and worked my way to the crossing that the guard had described. Of course this wasn’t the right crossing either, so I had to drive another 15km to the right one.
To my great relief, the guard hardly noticed that I’d overstayed my Visa in the EU by about a month, since they didn’t stamp it in Monaco, The Vatican or San Marino. He gave me my exit stamp, and soon I was rolling on down to Croatia, and soon I was weaving along the dirty gray roads of the Hrvatska Republika…
…This morning I was very concerned about getting lost. There were no real dependable
directions on which I could rely to arrive at the area of my family, the Elchnig’s. There weren’t even dependable directions for getting out of the mini-commune that I was sort-of located in. However, studying the map and satellite photos, I got a reasonable idea and set out. I memorized every building along the way, hoping it would save me from an episode of being horribly lost (see the end of my Lyon, France posting). It worked….
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