There are jokes which not only need not be told, they need not be invented. These are the ones which require only that you deliver the punchline. You do that, and your listeners instantly picture all that must have preceded it. For example: "'We couldn't get back into Yugoslavia, and this was nearly as good.'" Slovenia broke away from Yugoslavia, joined the EU, and now wants the Yugoslavian leftovers in the EU with it. Isn't that...funny?

My fourth trip to Slovenia would also be my first to Croatia: a walk from the Alps to the Adriatic. I knew what the pull was, for me. It was gravity - the Adriatic is lower than the Alps. But for Slovenia? What's the story? Are slivovitz duties discouragingly high? And is it within the power of Brussels to lower them?


I almost always say that the plane ride is the least interesting part of the trip. And I'm almost always wrong. For one thing, "Ljubljana" never fails to look exotic on a plane ticket. Only "Guayaquil" rivals it for such durable foreignness. For another thing, I was killing time in Munich waiting for my onward flight and decided to have a döner, which is very good and widely available and bears an unambiguously Turkish name. Because of that, and because the fryman looked Middle Eastern, I ordered in Turkish. Well, it turned out the guy was Kurdish, from Iraq. "I do not like Turkey," he said, in English, twice. He was not happy, even though he had a job. Although maybe the job just made things worse.

By the way, I was being polite: "looked Middle Eastern" sounds better than "looked borderline-psycho." The permanent stubble, the eyes dead as craters, the aptitude for and yet ineptitude at standing around and doing nothing. Middle Eastern males would sit around and do nothing except they keep forgetting to bring chairs.


Just over the Alps from icy Munich, at the Brnik aerodrome it was sunny and 50 degrees, and I no longer minded the unscheduled delay that got me here at three in the afternoon. The plan was to walk off the airplane and just keep going, and that is what I did. There were the Alps - perfect. I grinned at them. This was exactly how the beginning of the trip was supposed to look. I might as well say right here that throughout the trip, I would marvel at the exceptional beauty, which somehow I had missed on my previous visits. Sure, the country had always looked fine, but now it was a whole lot better. Only after I got back home did I realize that never before had I traveled with eyeglasses.

At about 5:15, the sun lit the mountain behind me and the church south of me. Ahead, the Sava River reposed in a bosky calm. Across a rain-damp meadow, I saw a hotel, and veered up a country lane. But the place was empty. At the door there was only a dozing St. Bernard, the first I'd ever met. I'd met 200-lb. mastiffs; this dog was bigger. It could kill you by sitting on you. The beast stirred and began to growl. I resumed the highway and kept walking.


Later, when I crossed into Croatia, I'd observe that the dogs had suddenly got smaller. But until that happened, they were big and brash and numerous, unlike their owners, who were invisible. Perhaps the dogs had eaten them.

On Monday morning the mission was to travel very close to, then circle around, Ljubljana. I joined rush-hour traffic, walking about as fast as it. In the suburb of Šentvid (St. Vitus, who has lots of places named after him in this part of the world...Local Boy Makes Good?), I missed my turn and wound up entering the capital. At the perimeter road I decided to follow it counterclockwise as best as I could.

This worked pretty well. I passed through some not-terribly-low-income housing; then I found a dirt road through a woodland, closely paralleling the limited-access highway, and was able to move very comfortably without ever really knowing where I was. When this path quit on me, I had to zigzag over the highway, which frustrated me. At one point I started to mutter to myself loudly, until I noticed someone quite close to me. I was embarrassed, then relaxed; cell phones are so tiny that he couldn't be sure I didn't have one.

Finally I found a fine little tree-shaded road, and could light out. From miles away I could see a village and a highway, so I knew I was getting somewhere. The village proved to be Dobrova, which was on my map. After that was Podsmreka, where I pretended to be Dave Barry and said, "Podsmreka, which means 'Under The Smreka.'" (It means Under The Spruce.) Then, Brezovica, today's target. There was no hotel here, so I took the eight-minute train ride back to Ljubljana and found a place.


On Tuesday morning I bussed back to Brezovica and got walking again. This was not a particularly scenic day, as the road I was following was always within view or at least earshot of the Ljubljana-Koper tollway. Still, I was happy. I don't know about you, but I am not at all put off by arrivals in towns with highly vowel-lean names like Vrhnika. Doesn't make me zaskrbljen, "worried" - that's one of my favorite Slovene words, because it has six consonants in a row.

Vrhnika looked OK. Before it, there was a small town whose firehouse had painted on its side the Slovene translation of "In heaven there is no beer/That's why we drink it here." After it, there was a memorial to two local boys killed in the 1991 War For Slovenia. For a country that has scarcely won or lost anything, Slovenia has lots of little war memorials. Near the airport, I'd seen one to the Home Guard; back in the projects I'd seen one noting, archly perhaps, the "passage" of the Partisans. Here, only because I was warm, I took off my hat. Then I realized how appropriate the gesture was, and stood at attention for a minute. I wonder what passing motorists thought.

Just before Logatec, there was a long tree-lined straightaway. I was visible from a mile off, yet drivers careened, honking irritably at me. I saw a shrine of a different sort, a candle and a cross to the memory of a too-young man dying in a non-war year, a traffic fatality obviously, and thought: what is this, an Indian reservation?


Back to Ljubljana - where I saw Cyrillic graffiti reading "Chetnik Pride" - and back again to Logatec. The girl in the bus station threw me by asking, "Upper Logatec or Lower Logatec?" I said I didn't know. My ticket said neither.

Today's hike was very pretty. The sun came out, and the roadbed was well up the mountainsides: with this light at this angle, valleys seem huge. It was hard to tell distances on my little government-issue tourist map, and I was surprised to find, just a few kilometers beyond Planina, the restaurant I'd made a tricky and useless detour to on my bicycle trip last May. It had been closed that day, and I'd gone on hungry. Today, I looked at the nearby war memorial, this one for a successful evacuation. Gettysburg it was not.

I lunched, this time, in Postojna. The restaurant was especially pleasant, and I could not imagine why chewing gum was on the menu. I mean, it was listed on the menu. I could have asked the waiter, "How's the chewing gum today?" I had sausage and beer and a big dense loaf of bread, a campaign ration if ever there was one.

The hotel, also in Postojna, was not like the restaurant. Poky though not quite shabby, it made me think of the Tito years, during which perhaps Bulgarian laborers from Margarine Factory #28 had stayed precisely one government-issue week at it. In bed, I listened to my radio. There was some fine a cappella choral work in Slovene, and there were jazzy tunes which made me think of early '60's romantic comedies set on the Dalmatian coast. I bet the Yugoslavian film industry produced a lot of those, and I bet some of them were pretty good.


I was sore, and had been for most of this trip. Though I was certain I'd reach my goal, I'd allotted an extra day for it, and wondered now if I would need it. Then somebody pulled over and offered me a ride. It was just a couple of miles into the town of Pivka. I was off my feet for five minutes at most. But that was all it took to revitalize me. Though I left my benefactor confused - not understanding how it was that my grandparents came from what is now Slovenia and yet did not speak Slovene, he uttered the Slovene equivalent of "uh-huh," putting the skeptical stress on the Slovene equivalent of the second syllable - I felt wonderful.

My goal today was Ilirska Bistrica, which I pretended meant Small Albanian Bistro. Maybe I should have said "Small Albanian Bistro," because I never did learn where the stress falls in "Ilirska Bistrica," and you've got to get that right in this language or nobody understands you. Anyhow, I felt so good that I decided to take the longer and what might have been the more scenic route, via Knežak. In that village there was the one and only sign I've ever seen in this country written in Serbo-Croatian: a historical marker. The Slovene equivalent was right next to it. Seems that right here, the Partisans first got news of the war's end. "Somewhere other than on this spot in 1945, people other than us did something we heard about and liked."

Just kidding. It didn't really say that. It also didn't say, "And then we sent them a telegram thanking them."


The next morning's bus ride from Postojna back to Ilirska Bistrica followed my foot route, but it looked nowhere near as good. I stared at the spot in the wind-flattened grass where I'd lunched, then swung my head to the valley opposite: nope. The sun wasn't quite in the right place, and the fog wasn't either. I had been so lucky. Even when snowflakes got on my eyeglasses. (Generally, ophthalmologists in Texas don't warn you about that sort of thing.)

To the Adriatic, then. The road, the only one to Rijeka, was narrow and uncrowded. Later, when I saw how beautiful the Adriatic was, I'd have to assume that in the summer months this road was narrow and jam-packed. For now, though, I was just wondering what rijeka (Serbo-Croatian, "river") Rijeka was named after. South of Ilirska Bistrica, there was a river called simply River. Was that it?

At the border, formalities were minimal. I mean, they were zero - my passport wasn't stamped. So: back in Yugoslavia, and it is nearly as good. I've already mentioned the dogs. Signs looked strange...Serbo-Croatian and Slovene are just close enough to make you think they should be the same. As for the land, it looked the way the carst is supposed to look, with big ugly slabs of limestone and a whole lot of unthrifty brush. The World War I battlefields up in Slovenia and Italy just aren't this way. Lucky Slovenia and Italy.

Right about noon, I glimpsed the sea. I still had an hour and half of trooping to do, though. The highway forked, and I made what proved to be the splendid decision to go to Opatija, not Rijeka. The latter was farther - that was my only reason at that moment. Rijeka is all right. It looks a lot like Trieste, big, industrial, and with almost exactly the same elbow-bend-in-the-Adriatic physical situation. But while Koper looks very much Trieste's poor relation, Opatija is wealthy and lustrous. I had to do all that extra trooping not just to get to Opatija, but to find a hotel I could afford.

When I did, it was perfect. Seventh floor, directly above the sparkling bay. My energy at once returned, and I went right back out. And all I could think as I wandered the fine old Italian town was Wow, I can't believe the Communists didn't ruin this place. Maybe old Yugoslavia wasn't so awful after all. Although you would have had to be the Bulgarian Commissar of Margarine to stay at my hotel.

Or to eat at the restaurant I patronized. For my celebratory meal I picked šašlik Gruzija, Georgian-style shish kebab, and a couple of tall Karlovakos. It took ages to arrive and none of it was especially good, but the view was fine through the big windows and the waiter was great buddies with a party of German tourists. Also, in the U.S. we just don't have restaurants where you can bring your dog AND smoke cigarettes.

Feeling great, I forgave the restaurant its food and its beer and its service and its expense, and also decided the Croatian aptitude for the German language really wasn't that sinister - one of Tito's mock-generous concessions had been to let Yugoslavs go work in Germany and send home hard currency. So maybe they weren't Nazis after all. I did find it odd, though, that a middle-aged Slovene couple sitting near me didn't speak Serbo-Croatian to the waiter. They were old enough to have been Yugoslavs themselves. Yet, ordering with difficulty, they seemed more foreign than anyone else here. In postwar Yugoslavia, no language was official; in the EU, all languages are. You can say Don't get the šašlik! any way you want, and it'll be translated for you.

© 2005 J.A.Hutter

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