Those of you who missed the weekly email from Scarsdale10583.com last week may be wondering where we went. The answer is, far away. About as far away from Scarsdale as you can get. Here’s the story: Last winter a group of friends from town said they were taking a bike trip to Slovenia and invited my husband and me to join them. Now Slovenia was not on my bucket list – and to be honest I couldn’t even find it on the map. But they promised adventure, companionship and the experience of a lifetime so we took a leap of faith and signed on. To prepare, we biked when we had time, along the parkway and on county bike paths.
In the weeks leading up to the trip a few of the couples who were signed on to go cancelled their trips and sent some fairly ominous emails wishing us luck on the “technical descent” on Day 3 and the mountain pass through the 5,300 foot Vrsic Passage on Day 4. I realized I had not carefully reviewed the itinerary and that my training on the bike and on the tennis court may not have been enough for what the brochure called the “Tour de France worthy assault” that would be required. But it was too late to look back so we pedaled on with our plans, so to speak.
Before the bike trip we travelled to Vienna and were treated to a wonderful retrospective of Klimt’s work and toured Schonbrunn Castle, home of the Hapsburgs who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. We learned that the Austrians had dominated Slovenia – our next destination –from 1456 until the early 20th Century. More interesting was the Austrians' fascination with the beautiful Empress Elizabeth, a.k.a. Sissi, wife of the last Emperor of the empire. According to the audio-guide, the Emperor Franz Joseph I planned to marry Sissi’s older sister but asked for Sissi’s hand instead when she was only 15. Against her will, he moved her from Bohemia to the royal court in Vienna. Obsessed with her ankle-length hair and maintaining her 21-inch waist line, she bucked at court ritual. She refused to eat dinner with the family, avoided her overbearing mother-in-law and later fled to Corfu with her kids. Ultimately, she was murdered by an Italian madman. She has been compared to Princess Di and her image is on every tchotchke in the gift shop. It seems ironic that Austria, home of Freud, has transformed this neurotic and flighty Hungarian into a national folk heroine .... but I digress!
After Vienna it was onto Trieste where we met up with our group to begin the journey through the vineyards of the Friuli region of Italy. Before mounting the bikes, we were given the requisite safety talk and instructions on shifting gears, sharing the road with cars and trucks and avoiding aggressive dogs. I listened carefully thinking that this info could be lifesaving.
The first afternoon was a modest 23-mile ride to our hotel, which would have been doable if not for the fierce wind, called the “Bora” that made the biking doubly hard. The headwind was so strong that we had to pedal even on the downhills to move forward.
On Day 2 I was feeling more confident and though I had already fallen to the back of the pack I was determined to go at my own pace and enjoy the scenery. We passed quiet villages, well-tended gardens and fields of corn and wildflowers as we pedaled in the foothills of some stunning mountains that I learned were the “Julian Alps.” Trying hard to put thoughts of the mountain traverse out of my mind I made a valiant attempt to keep pace with the group.
However, in a flash I realized that the mountains would prove to be the least of my perils. After stopping for a quick drink, I steered my bike onto a narrow road through a shuttered Italian village. As I rounded a curve I felt a sharp sting in my eye and something under my sunglasses. Behind my glasses I felt a bug sting me for a second time. In an effort to free my hands and get off the bike, I rammed on the brakes and suddenly the rear wheel of the bike rose off the ground, pitching me over the handlebars and into the street. Fortunately there were no cars nearby. I found myself stunned on the sidewalk, swiping at my eye while wondering if I was hurt. My husband and a few of my fellow cyclers witnessed my gymnastics and rushed over. A shuttered window above my head opened and an elderly woman offered help, saying, “Banjo?” Miraculously I was completely unscathed. No bruises, no road burn, no cuts and even the bug bite miraculously disappeared. However, it was a humbling start to the challenging trip ahead. Even worse, my husband had to trail me for the balance of the trip, for fear I’d fall again.
The next day we rode 26 miles in the morning before coming to the base of the mountains. At that point the guides offered to take us up an1,100 foot ascent to a mountain village where we would be treated to pizza at a restaurant owned by a comical woman who had spent some time in the Bronx. The majority of us opted for the van, while a few of the more experienced riders braved the climb on their bikes. We were biting into our pizza’s with “rucola and ricotta” when one of the most adept riders showed up at the restaurant and was surprised that his wife was nowhere to be found. Panicked, he asked to use the phone to contact the group leaders to search for her. As he called we heard sirens from an ambulance and our hearts stopped. But luckily, soon after we got a call to say that “Primosch” our fearless Slovenian leader had found our friend sitting in a church yard waiting for directions. Her husband had gotten ahead of her and she had taken a wrong turn on a country road. When the same woman threatened to bike down a narrow pass that descended 1,690 feet after lunch, I grabbed her arm and led her to the van.
The ride over the mountain into Triglav National Park was exhilarating, even in the van. We were told that the steep and winding road had been built by Russian prisoners of war and that many had lost their lives in the process. We were treated to a series of stunning vistas and cascading waterfalls and stopped to watch the rushing turquoise water of the Soca River underneath a wooden footbridge. The hotel accommodations in the park were no match for the scenery. Our room at the Hotel Kanin looked like a dorm room and smelled even worse –so we retreated to the hotel’s indoor pool, where we were given plastic i.d. bracelets and thoroughly sprayed down before we were allowed to jump in. We enjoyed a dinner of fresh sliced prosciuto, tangy parmesasn, wild mushroom rissoto, fresh trout and crisp, dry white wine at a mountain lodge. After the bike ride and the dinner we all slept soundly despite the hard bed and Eastern bloc-style "amenities."
Our trip leaders saved the best for last and the next few days were spent riding to and around Lake Bled, a sparkling alpine lake that’s a famous destination foreastern European travellers. For the final two nights we stayed at the Vila Bled, Tito’s “summer palace.” Though far nicer than the hotel in the park, the Vila was also built of concrete, sparely furnished and austere. The setting was magnificent as it is sited on well-manicured grounds with 95 steps down to a dock on the lake. And if one pristine lake was not enough, we spent the next day traversing the park’s pine forests and rolling fields to travel to Lake Bohinj for a delicious picnic catered by our trip leaders. In a feat of derring-do, even I managed to negotiate ten switchbacks on a steep decline down the mountain to the lake.
We ended the trip with a day in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana. Lively and scenic, the city is reminiscent of Venice and Prague and has lovely architecture, good restaurants and seems to be virtually undiscovered by western tourists. Next time you plan a visit to Eastern Europe, learn to spell Ljubljana and add it to your itinerary.
As my friends promised, it was an unforgettable experience and I am happy we risked it and even happier we came back in one piece.
What else did I learn?
- You can bike farther than you think you can.
- There’s much to discover in Eastern Europe, so brave unfamiliar languages, mundane accommodations and travel off the beaten path.
- Last -- You can’t cover Scarsdale while in Slovenia – thus the break in the website last week!