Ljubljana, Slovenia • September 2016 • Length of Read: 7 Minutes
The following story is an extract from my book We Ordered A Panda: Tales of City-Hopping Around Europe. If you enjoy it then please visit my online bookshop to uncover the full epic road trip.
I was awoken the following morning by the sun blazing through the room-high window pane. The thin sheets hanging from the rail above were failing miserably in their attempt to act as curtains. Glancing around the pink room, tiny little shoes on the floor and Barbie dolls propped up on the dresser, I was initially very confused as to where I was. The sound of muffled Serbian conversation quickly brought me back to my senses, however. The death-staring father was up and about and I didn’t fancy going another round of awkward silences with him. The man had proven to be a world-class performer in hostile greetings. I was going to have to time my escape well.
I stewed in bed for a while, planning an avoidance strategy, when, to my luck, I heard Rudi starting to bark. Excellent. Lara’s dad was going to have to take the dog for a walk. I waited until the front door slammed shut and then made my exit from the sweaty prison cell.
“Morning, Lara,” I yawned.
“Morning, Chris. Why don’t you hop in the shower and by the time you’re ready to go I should be finished packing. There isn’t much in the way of food in the flat so let’s just stop for some brunch in Ljubljana.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” I nodded, pulling a fresh towel out of the hall cupboard. I didn’t know what plans Lara had up her sleeve but was happy to roll with that suggestion. Half an hour later I was plugging our trusty GPS, Tom, into the cigarette lighter. Ben had survived the night without a scratch and with a full tank of petrol was raring to go. I dropped the clutch, released the handbrake, and we were off. The adventure had officially begun.
“Grass stained bare feet. Dove in my front seat. Windshield full of road to run And a gas tank full of freedom.”
When driving in Slovenia, your car must have a valid toll sticker displayed on the windshield. These vignettes, as they are so called, can be purchased from service stations in Slovenia as well as its bordering neighbours. They carry different prices for different classes of vehicle and can be purchased weekly, semi-annually, or for a full year. Our weekly ticket cost €7.50 and as Lara affixed it, Ben took us across our first state line and into country number two.
I’d been told by some friends that the beauty of Lake Bled was unparalleled, so had made a specific request that a stop there should be incorporated into the itinerary. First of all, though, we were heading to Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital city. Lara’s University term was to start on the following Monday, but she had yet to even begin moving her stuff from Trieste to her new student apartment. The girl has to be one of the most chilled out people I’ve ever met and has a maturity and image so far beyond her teenage years that she’s constantly being mistaken for someone in their late twenties. That’s why I enjoy spending time with her so much. She combines the energy of a youngster with the wisdom of a scholar. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I have learnt about the world from simply being in her company.
As we took the motorway exit leading towards Ljubljana city centre, I pulled up to a set of traffic lights and got my first stationary view of the country. This so happened to be of two kids playing in the street. Whilst I’m used to seeing children kicking about a football or trading playing cards, however, never before have I witnessed the pastime which I could only literally describe as ‘throwing rocks at billboards’. Now, granted, my Slovenian is a little poor, but unless they were protesting in a unique way against what the large corporation was advertising, then I’m pretty impressed with their creative, albeit limited, imaginations. Just don’t expect that game to take off in the playgrounds of Scottish schools anytime soon.
I parked Ben in a legitimate space for the first time and we took a stroll down the cobbled pedestrianised area that leads to the canal. The Ljubljanica River is the city’s main artery, and as it peacefully curved through the heart of the historic centre, throngs of tourists populated the cafes and bars which lined its sides; sipping on Lasko beer and basking in the sweet September summer sun. The problem with driving was that I couldn’t join them. At least on the alcohol part. We found an empty table under the shade of an evergreen at an establishment called Fanny & Mary. As my burger and the Italian’s salad were served, I giggled at some of the chalk-written messages on the walls before deciding to have a little fun of my own.
“Have you ever eaten fanny before?” I asked my Lara, sternly. When it comes to self-amusement I am like a little child, and love playing about with slang terms when in the presence of foreigners.
“No, I’ve not,” she responded, clearly having no idea what I was hinting at.
“Now that you’re moving here you should try it more often. The meat in my bun tastes really good.”
“Well, if I wasn’t a vegetarian, then perhaps I would,” she coyly remarked.
Settling the tab it was then back on the road. This time heading towards colder weather as Zac Brown Band soundtracked our drive north. We stopped just short of Bled to refuel and pick up some snacks. As Lara stood there in the shop, torn between ‘salt and butter’ or ‘paprika’ flavour crisps, I looked through the glass window at the large group having lunch in the pit stop café patio area. Multiple families were sharing a long table together, the adults all drinking and smoking in their suits and dresses whilst equally smartly dressed children ran around, hyper on candy. Back in the car park, Lara argued in the heat that she wanted to drive, despite the fact that she’d only held her license for 6 months and the minimum requirement was one year. Traditional music blared from the speakers of one of the station wagons as yet more smartly dressed individuals of varying generations hung around drinking and smoking. It was only when I noticed the confetti and ribbons tied around the wing mirrors that I eventually put all the pieces of this strange jigsaw together. There was a gas station wedding taking place. Suddenly the boys throwing rocks at the billboard in Ljubljana seemed like the most normal people in the world.
Passing a dinosaur park with a model T-Rex in the yard, we coasted down a narrow hill towards the glistening body of water before us. I imagined it to be what Jurassic Park may have turned out to be had the production team wasted their whole budget on hookers and cocaine during pre-production. The boutique hotels and cafes that lined the street gave way to open grassy areas and trails as the road then wrapped its way around the picture-postcard vista. As we circumnavigated this wonder of nature the medieval castle clinging to the edge of a rocky cliff oversaw our every movement, whilst the bells of the islet church in the middle of the emerald-green lake informed us that is was 2pm. The backdrop of the Julian Alps was so epic that I almost crashed into the barrier multiple times from being transfused by their beauty.
There is no free parking at Lake Bled, with everything there designed to get tourists to cough up as much money as possible. I swung into a gravel car park, where a chubby woman proceeded to knock on our window and inform us that it would cost €5 for the day. We only wanted to stay for a couple hours but, apparently, this price was non-negotiable. Either that or she was not able to do simple arithmetic. In attempting to direct us into an empty space at the back of the lot, I became convinced that she may have been a few brain cells short of a complete cranium. A few sandwiches short of a picnic, if you will; a few playing cards short of a full deck.
The tranquillity of the lake seems to have broken its banks and taken hold of the residents fortunate enough to call this Slovenian paradise home. Life was so peaceful, in fact, that we saw a woman spending her afternoon dusting the outside of her house. Not the path and porch, mind you, but actually brushing the walls of her bungalow with a little duster. I initially questioned how anyone could settle for such an existence, letting the years tick over with no other purpose. It then struck me that her look of content is one everyone is searching for, whether they subconsciously know it or not. Lara and I passed her abode and took a romantic stroll along a portion of the wooden decking which has been constructed right by the water’s edge. So close, you could dip your toe in the shimmering aqua. Gazing out at the distant shore on the other side a full 2km away, I couldn’t help but smile. Despite being a tourist trap, one million dollars couldn’t buy what I had. The perfect horizon; a beautiful girl by my side; and the pleasure of going nowhere fast. If money didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter anyway.
A guy pulling on the oars of a rowing boat came into view. His girlfriend was sat opposite, pointing a massive SLR camera with an extension lens attached at him. She was desperately attempting to get ‘the money shot’ image of her man tensing under the resistance of the current whilst the church and castle shone in the background. They wheeled about a couple of times for second and third takes, before evidently being satisfied with the result. As they trundled back to shore we meandered back to Ben, our trusted Corsa. After a 9-point turn to get out of the car park, which had since been blocked up like it was a used-car auction house, we were again on the road, and this time heading through the Alps to Austria; cheesy music blaring from the speakers.
“Let's go crazy, crazy, crazy 'til we see the sun. I know we only met but let's pretend it's love. And never, never, never stop for anyone. Tonight let's get some and live while we're young.”
And when I write ‘through the Alps’, I really mean through the Alps. Opening just a fortnight after I was born, in June 1991, the 5 miles long Karawanks Tunnel connects the Austrian A11 Autobahn to the Slovenian motorway network. I don’t know who Kara is, or who she wanks off, but I do know that it costs a ridiculous €7.50 each way to drive through her tunnel and isn’t for those with a dislike of confined spaces. You would have thought Lara was being buried alive from her hyperventilating response to entering the darkness, and the girl managed to chain-smoke three cigarettes as a result before we exited to the sun setting over the sleepy mountain town of Villach at the other side. I parked up and we went in search of a much-needed coffee in country number three.