Tuesday, January 17, 2006


PHOTOS Lubljana - Maribor - Slovenian Coast - Postojna
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As I was pulling out of New Carlton train station on my way to New York, I said to myself, “I am going to finish this part of my story before I reach Manhattan. The cafe is already open and the smell of a freshly brewed Amtrak coffee lures me in. So, here I am, sitting alone in the cafe car on the train to the Big Apple, sipping on a cup of joe contemplating how to get this story moving

PHOTOS Lubljana - Maribor - Slovenian Coast - Postojna
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Luka, Mateja and Igor picked me up at Vienna airport and after a day spent in the Austrian capital, we drove back to their hometown of Maribor, Slovenia.

This was not my first time here. Back in the old Yugoslav days, when I was still in my teens, I traveled through Slovenia with a group of Red Star Belgrade soccer fans on the way to the European Champions League finals in Bari, Italy. Red Star won the trophy for the first time in history.

So, my plan was to spend a couple of days in Maribor and perhaps even go to Belgrade, Serbia to spend New Years Eve. Actually, believe it or not, more than 60 buses full of young Slovenes were heading to Belgrade within a day or two of my arrival to celebrate the New Years. Belgrade is well known for it's wild “river rafting” parties but this year I was ready to see what my northern neighbors had been doing all these years.

PHOTOS Lubljana - Maribor - Slovenian Coast - Postojna
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Frankly, growing up, on of my biggest fears was the wicked Slovenian winters as Slovenia sits in the chilly Julian Alps. To my surprise, however, it was a beautiful sunny day as we drove through the sleepy bare-bone vineyards hills behind Maribor. Maribor is the administrative center of Stajerska region and the second largest city in Slovenia.

I was so excited to finally meet Mateja's and Igor's families. Igor, Mateja and Luka live just outside of Maribor, in a hillside neighborhood and Mateja's parents live next door. For my first dinner, Mateja's mom, Anka, prepared amazing Slovenian Christmas specialties and we had some excellent Slovenian Refosk wine. Slovenian food is a sort of a blend between Italian, German and Balkan food. Prior to my visit, I had no idea Slovenia even had a wine industry at all. During my visit, I have learned that besides the fact that Slovenes are proud of their rich vine culture, they actually own the oldest live wine tree (StaraTrta) in the world-see bellow.

PHOTOS Lubljana - Maribor - Slovenian Coast - Postojna
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The next morning, Mateja laid out the plan. In the next few days I would get to see much of Maribor, the Slovenian Adriatic coast, the country's capital (Ljubljana) and the world famous Postojna Caves. At this point I had no plans for the New Years Eve and I was happy to leave it up to my dear hosts.

For the first couple of days the weather was absolutely amazing. We walked through the old town of Maribor, enjoyed a beautiful afternoon on the banks of river Drava and hiked local hills behind the Piramida. Piramida is the hillside fortress ruins of the old city. Next, we went to see the family business. Mr. Franc Krajnc, Mateja's dad, owns a Citroen dealership (Avto Plus) and service center in downtown Maribor. Mateja, Mateja's brother Mishek, and Igor, all work for the dealership.

PHOTOS Lubljana - Maribor - Slovenian Coast - Postojna
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On the third day of my visit, it was time to take a trip around the country. Luckily, the distances between tourist attractions are less than a couple of hours long-perfect!

Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital was our first stop. On the way, we picked up Robi and Nina and visited the Lubljana fortress and the famous old town where we had an authentic dinner in a beautiful downtown restaurant. I had a typical Slovenian dish consisting of some grilled pork sausage links and sourkraut while Luka was munching on some organic Slovenian baby food. After dinner we drove straight to the coastal town of Portoroz (Portorose), where they own a beautiful condominium with the view of the Adriatic sea. As we were getting out of the the capital the snow begun to fall and the temperature dropped drastically. It was a perfect time to escape to the coast.

PHOTOS Lubljana - Maribor - Slovenian Coast - Postojna
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The Slovenian coast is simply beautiful. We were up early, had some breakfast and decided to take a long walk along the coast up to Piran (Pirano). Piran is a bustling coastal town sitting in a tiny peninsula overlooking the north part of Croatian Istria. Piran's old town is as dramatic as any East Adriatic coastal town like Montenegro's Budva or even Croatia's Dubrovnik. This area of Slovenia is a very popular travel destination in the summertime. Exhausted from a long day of walking, we decided to stay in and play a balloon-ball head bounce game. This was hilarious! I do not recall laughing this hard in a long time.

The next day we decided to drive back east to Postojna Cave (Postojna Jama). Postojna is the most fascinating cave I've ever visited. Twenty kilometers of caves were carved out by the underground river. The cave was discovered by the local villager a little over a hundred years ago. Luka was very excited to see the cave as well. Recently, the Slovenian government built a mini train to make the visit as more enjoyable for tourist. Also, there is an amazing creature that lives in this cave and I had to see it. Proteus anguinus in Greek mythology represents a sea-god, and I think that is where the name of this little creature originates. I finally caught a glimpse of it on my way out, making this visit complete. As we were walking out, our little expedition was greeted by at least a foot of snow and cheerful vendors selling delicious honey and famous Slovenian pear brandy, locally known as Viljamovka. I had to take a bottle home.

PHOTOS Lubljana - Maribor - Slovenian Coast - Postojna
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Next thing you know, were were back in snow-covered Maribor. The last few days flew by. I was having such a great time that I decided to spend the rest of my trip here. And then a great surprise. I was invited to Igor's parent's house where I literally got 'a taste' of Bosnia. Nedo and Tatjana, prepared a typical Bosnian dish, Bosanski lonac, hard to describe but sort of Hugarian goulash meets Turkish stew. I had three plates and am dreaming of a bite right now. Slovenia truly is a cultural crossroads, where East Europe meets the West. My friend Igor moved to Slovenia with his parents from Bosnia in the early 80's. Igor and I go way back and were friends early in childhood. Actually, Igor is only 4 days younger than me and our mothers were together in the hospital. We must have waved at each across the nursery, because I can't even remember how we met.

Igor is sort of a celebrity in his hometown of Maribor. He is a boxing champion and has represented Slovenia on numerous occasions. I am so happy we found each other again. During the last Bosnian war we lost touch and hadn't heard much about each other for almost ten years. Last summer I run into Igor's uncle, Marin, in Teslic (videoBlog) and immediately called him up. Shortly after I returned from my round-the-world trip back home to Washington DC, Igor, his wife Mateja and one year old son Luka came to visit.

Back to the story. It was a Friday, December 30th, and Igor and I decided to go out and check out the night life in Maribor. I remember singing a Serbian karaoke tune on the stage in the night club. It was all I remember from that night...

PHOTOS Lubljana - Maribor - Slovenian Coast - Postojna
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Sretno Novo Leto! (Happy New Year!)

New Years Eve party came as the greatest surprise. Mishek, Mateja's brother invited me to join his friend in celebrating the New Years Eve in a popular fashion. Many locals chose Pohorje, a famous ski resort annually hosting the Golden Fox world championship. Pohorje sits just outside of Maribor and is the place to be for New Years Eve.

Sometimes around 8pm on New Year' eve, Mishek picked me up from Igor's place and we drove off to his girlfriends condo right in front of Pohorje. As we walked in, Mishek's friends were drinking champagne and dancing to the tunes of a Serbian turbo-folk mega star Ceca. Now this was little weird but I guess she is still very popular in the Balkans. I should have known that Slovenians getting down to Ceca would be the sign an unforgettable night.

We were all fully dressed up in ski uniforms. Since I obviously did not have my ski gear handy, Mishek let me use one of his ensembles. I was not sure what to expect. Each one of us was carrying small backpacks packed with bottles of champagne, wine and treats. I've noticed that half of my bag was filled with veal Milanese or Vienna schnitzel. At 5 am, it proved to be the best schnitzel I've ever had. I could see the lights of Pohorje and gondola movement from the balcony. After a few bottles of champagne, we took off to the mountain

PHOTOS Lubljana - Maribor - Slovenian Coast - Postojna
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It was just about 9pm. Roughly two hundred people were waiting at the gate to get into a gondola and catch a 20 minute ride up the mountain. As we ascended, the view of the city fading away under the clouds was idyllic. As I stepped out of the gondola huge camp fires appeared right in front of the hotel and the music in the background started throbbing. People jumping, dancing, screaming, singing and plain old happy to have made it this far. We were all sharing food and drinks and eagerly awaiting the countdown. It was a very cold night but the mingling body heat of hundreds of people in front of SUV size camp fires that would have made Tom Hanks on castaway island very jealous.

The setting was perfect. Fireworks covering the clear night sky as I am standing on top of the snow covered mountain drinking champagne. The champagne bubbles, as they erupt in my plastic glass mix with the clearest pine forest essence I have ever experienced. Mishek is keeping a close eye on me, making sure I am having fun.

After the fireworks, people started to descend down the ski run. Some on sleds, skies, plastic bags and who knows what else. The best thing about this descent was that the party was far from over. Every few hundred yards we would stop by a mountain cabin bar for a drink, all together about a dozen I think. Just before sunrise we finally came down to the parking lot, absolutely exhausted and ready for bed. As far as I know, everybody made it down the mountain. This was probably the best New Years Eve party I've ever been to. I must come back and do this again. Mishek, thank you your hospitality, I owe you one.

After a good day of rest, I took a train back to Austria to catch a flight home. While looking at the mountain slopes through the window I thought how fortunate I am to have and be in contact with family and friends all around the world. Thank you all for sharing your lives with me...

more trevelogues...

bosnia & h'govina
serbia & montenegro
-> serbia
-> montenegro
republic of south africa