THE TINY, PERFECT COUNTRY, STUNNING CAVES AND...COCOA PUFFS!
PORTOROZ, Slovenia - With apologies to former Toronto Mayor and good guy David Crombie, I'm stealing the line about him and applying it to this small but inspiring country.
I think one of the slogans I've heard tourism officials here use is "Where Europe comes to meet." That's pretty good. As I was driving to the tiny, little section of the Adriatic that the powers that be left for Slovenia (about 48 km in all; a billionth the size of Croatia's coastline), I was thinking about how there are so many varieties of topography and culture in the country.
In the east, where I won't have a chance to visit this time, they say there's a distinct Hungarian feel, with spas and quiet country charm and wineries. To the south and east, they say it has a Croatian feel. I can look out my hotel window as I write and see the northernmost Croatian section of Istria. In the northern mountains near Kransjka Gora and Lake Bled, it's an alpine environment that feels Austrian or even Swiss. Then, yesterday, I drove through the tunnel that separates the central part of western Slovenia from the Adriatic and suddenly there were Italian signs and a church campanile and red-tile roofs and flowering, pink oleander bushes and palm trees.
It's like, "Four Countries, One Guidebook." But I don't want to sell the Slovenians short by simply saying it's like four other countries, or three or six. It's Slovenia. Perhaps in Trieste they think their part of Italy feels Croatian or Slovenian, and it probably does.
A woman I spoke with the other day, probably in her mid 40's but I wasn't about to ask, said she's already had four currencies in her country. They had the Yugoslavian dinar for the longest time, then there was no real currency for a while after Slovenia initially separated in 1990. After that came the official Slovenian currency, the tolar. Then, a few years ago, they came part of the EU and now have euros, which hurts the exchange rate. That being said, you still can get a terrific cappucino in smaller cities for 90 European cents, about $1.50 Canadian, and hotel rooms in places like Kobarid can be had for about $80-$100 Canadian dollars).
But four currencies in 40 years? Considering they had Yugoslavian money in 1989, it's actually four currencies in 20 years, which is about one-half the time that Hazel McCallion has been working as mayor of Mississauga.
Because of its wrinkled topography, with towering alps and deep river valleys, western Slovenia is one wonderful place to drive a car. There's one major highway in the country, and that's about it. The rest of the roads tend to be two-lane affairs and dip and swirl and rise and fall with the land, and it's an absolute blast. A pain when there's construction, but a lot of fun if you've got a small car and you can roll down the window on a late May afternoon.
Not sure if it's really dangerous to drive here, but I keep seeing warning signs for everything from deer on the road to sliding motorcycles to landslides, narrow passages and potential winter ice. Makes you think twice but I didn't see any motorcyclists sliding into fields filled with deer or cows waiting to leap onto the road.
Also, the Slovenians are great about pointing you in the direction of the next town or village. Even with a lousy tourist map I only got lost once and that was for five minutes. Of course, I bought a real map at the next gas station just to make sure it didn't happen again. Anyway, the signs are great. But in the country they never tell you how far away that next village is. The highways are super but in the country I guess they figure it's mostly locals and they all know that it's 11 kilometers from Idrija to Godovic.
In Canada, of course, it's overkill. "Next McDonald's four km." "Next rest stop, three km." "Next rest stop, two km." "Better stop and pee now, buddy, 'cause your next chance is in Chatham in two hours."
SPELUNKING IN SKOCJAN
They have a tremendous cave system in Slovenia. There's a large system near Postojna, about halfway between the capital, Ljubljana, and the Adriatic. The one I checked out was at Skocjan, and it was tremendous. Huge, towering stalagmites and icicle-like stalactices by the thousands, huge grottoes, a running river at the bottom and a vast array of colours. The only thing missing was Gollum and Bilbo Baggins.
It was a nice, 90-minute walk, including a ride up a funicular at the end and a glorious view out to the countryside from a vantage point that was distinctly undersold by the well-meaning tour guide.
As I was waiting to get my ticket, a guy in front of me who sounded Russian was being told that, because of a big thunderstorm in these parts on Wednesday, the ticket office's lines were down and they couldn't take his credit card. He looked completely disconsolate as he had no cash for he and his friends to get in.
One of the workers shrugged and said, "I'll drive you to the ATM in town."
The Russian chap kept talking about his bad luck and asking if they could fix the machine. Again, the worker said, "I have a car; I'll drive you to the bank machine."
KOOKOO FOR COCOA PUFFS
Geez, at breakfast in Kobarid on Wednesday and granola, corn flakes and cocoa puffs. It was the same day after day at the Turin Olympic media village, minus the granola, and it nearly sent me around the bend.
So, what happens today? I get up for an incredibly lavish breakfast (sorry about that, folks) at the Kempinski Palace in Portoroz and, in amongst the lovely breads and yogurts and fruits and nuts and cold meats and omelet fixings and fresh juices and sparkling wine, what do I see? You guessed it - a lovely little bowl filled with tiny, round chocolate balls of cereal.
We have Italians and Slovenians in Toronto. CAN SOMEONE PLEASE EXPLAIN THIS TO ME?