The sleeper train to Gorizia was about as effective as it was unpleasant, which is to say much of both. Though it whisked us away from Rome in the dark of night and brought us well across Italy's slender frame by early morning, we weren't really able to do much sleeping. For one, it was hot, a crowded little car with us and two more bodies sealed within it, and those two other bodies snored considerably, so it was noisy too. Then there were the frequent interruptions, the train conductors coming and going with gifts and demands, tissues and pillowcases and blankets and little packets of water, one at a time, which we found amusing and our older bunkmate even more so, hearty Croatian laughter booming from deep within his throat as he eyed the little water packet and asked, if I were to translate by tone alone, "what the fuck am I supposed to do with this?"
And then the demands: first our passports, and then our interrail passes, which the conductor informed us, to our mutual alarm, that he'd keep until the morning.
Morning came slowly, painfully slowly, and when it did come, I waited anxiously for the return of those crucial documents. What if they got misplaced? What if the conductor went on break before he approached our stop? Did we even know enough Slovenian, or Croatian, or Italian to ask for the documents if it were to come to that? Yet as I lay dying with dread, there came a knock at the door and then there were the passes, right on time, with the same friendly conductor informing us that our stop was next.
We left the train and stretched our legs and retreated from the unexpected rain into a nearby cafe, and then we half-walked, half-bussed across town to Slovenia, to Slovenia's New Gorizia and Slovenia's new Gorizian train station, both the result of a old Gorizia lost to the Italians (they called it Gorica) some years back. It was a smaller train station, just an old building and some tracks, really, but I liked what I saw of Slovenia already: fog-filled mountains in the midground, artfully painted traincars in the foreground. Our brief time in Slovenia revealed that all Slovenian traincars were painted in this fashion, a tasteful and eclectic mix of mural and graffiti, each and every car different. I don't remember which car we got on, but it took us to Lake Bled, our first true stop in Slovenia.
Bled was a lake town, a small resort complex built around an even smaller lake, the lake sporting a meager circumference of some six kilometers. But what Lake Bled lacked in size it more than made up for in sheer beauty: the lake was among the prettiest lakes—hell, things—I'd ever seen.
Pretty isn't really the right word; Lake Bled was downright gorgeous. First there's the color of the water, a turquoise so rich and vibrant you'd think it was scooped out of the Caribbean itself, or otherwise poached from the depths of Canada's legendary Lake Louise. Then there's the shoreline: a little messy in some spots with the detritus of uninspired luxury lodging, but otherwise wholly beautiful, a varied mix of old stone villas and little grassy parks and, all around, a wonderful lakeside walking trail.
There's a third wonder to Bled as well, beyond its color and its perimeter, and a fourth too. Third is the castle, which sits modesty atop a monolithic butte jutting up from the lake's northern rim, overlooking the lake and its little town from perhaps a hundred feet up, perhaps higher. And finally there's the island: a tiny island in the tiny lake, rising up gently from the water's western end and adorning itself with a majestic little church that rings its bell each hour on the hour.
These are the wonders of Bled, and together, along with the dozen or so rowboats making pilgrimages to and from the church like a maritime conveyerbelt, and the majestic snowcapped Alps providing a magnificent backdrop for the entire scene, the whole place feels like something out of a fairy tale. It's picturesque and it's romantic and it's just so very ... pretty.
We were tired after our seemingly endlessly night and morning of travel, so we worked hastily to find a home for the night, rounding the lake from the southern rim and coming upon a campsite just past the tiny island with its tiny church. We didn't really have the gear to camp, me with a tent just suited for one, and probably not the fortitude either, but the campsite offered a few "glamping" options, "glamor camping" for those seeking a more comfortable communion with nature.
The "glampsites" offered were humble A-frame huts, roughly the size of a queen bed and some footspace, with a detached private bathroom just across the meadow. Pricy as it was for such simple accommodations, it really was a beautiful little space, well-situated and well-built, with a big beautiful window at its rear, and stepping into it, it felt almost like being back at home, back in the loft of the tiny house I'd built a world away, and I loved it instantly.
We showered and grabbed an early dinner and sat by the lake awhile, and then we slept early and well and long, waking the next day feeling wonderfully refreshed. While Abby started her day with a tall cup of coffee by the lake's terrace, I set out for a run, my first in some time, circumnavigating the whole of the lake and finding it to be one of the loveliest jogs of my lifetime. It was a hot one, though, so I rinsed myself off in Lake Bled's cool, crisp waters at the run's end, then rejoined Abbilyn near the terrace.
We checked out and retraced our route from the day before, hoping to find a boat rental for a few hours on the lake. Alas, our search was cut short by the sudden arrival of some ominous clouds overhead, a sudden wind that worked the lake's gentle waters into a frenzy of wild waves. It seemed a terrible time for an aquatic adventure.
Instead, we followed the lake north to Castle Bled—Grad Bled as the Slovenians call it—and hiked our way up its steep flank, realizing, as we arrived at the castle sweaty and panting, just how well-situated it was to guard against would-be attackers. But it was just as well-situated for earnest and peaceful travelers seeking an unforgettable view of Bled from above, and this castle indisputably offered the best in town. From it's balcony we could see all of it: the lake, the resorts, our glampsite and that little island, all that and the plains and the trains and the rains too, thick dark clouds dragging themselves across the mountain ridge, scraping up against its peaks and dumping their punctured entrails on whatever stood in their way, which fortunately for us, was the surrounding mountains on not the elevated castle atop which we stood.
We did catch the drizzle, however, the storm's last hurrah after its decimation against the Alps, and so we sought shelter inside the repurposed castle, which now served as a museum of Bled's fascinating history, and we drank in whatever information we could find as the lush greens outside drank in the last of the rain's misty droplets.
When the sky began to return to its beautiful bright blue, we descended the castle and hopped a bus to the train station, where we boarded another painted traincar en route to Slovenia's capital of Ljubljana.
Abbilyn and I were giddy with excitement. Ljubljana sounded perfect: "one of Europe's greenest and most liveable capitals," Lonely Planet had promised, with "minimalist design" and "beautiful alabaster bridges" and, oh, a center entirely off-limits to cars, "leaving the leafy banks of the emerald-green Ljubljanica River free for pedestrians and cyclists." Plus, we had never even heard of it, assuring us that it was a city more off the beaten path than others we'd seen. And then, of course, there was the simply joy of saying—or trying—to pronounce its name, which Abby and I had turned into something of a running joke the night before.
Ljubljana is pronounced lyo-blyah-nah, which seems easy enough when read, but to speak it is to twist your tongue into a configuration it's not quite used to, those mischievous js-turned-ys throwing everything out of whack, so what ends up coming out is something more like lyo-blyahhhhh-nah or lyo-blyah-nyah or lyo-blahblahblahblah, which later becomes lub-jub and then lubba-lubba and then chumbawamba and later, simply, the Blaj. We eventually learned that it was acceptable to simply drop the js and say it loo-bon-a, certainly more acceptable than calling it jib-jab, and so we did that ... at least while in earshot of others.
However you say it, we were excited, and Ljubljana did not disappoint. The train station was but a ten-minute walk from the city center, and eight minutes in the cars suddenly disappeared, and in their place were people, happy people, walking people and cycling people and people just standing around, people drinking beers at riverside bars and people sipping tea at neighboring cafes. They all seemed so happy, and why not? The place was beautiful: its cobblestone streets and its lush trees, the tranquil river and the generous sprinkling of pedestrian bridges across it, lovely architecture and hilly vistas and, just like Bled, a fortress overlooking the whole city from right above.
We checked into a hostel along the river, dropped our things, and then did as the locals did, strolling about the pleasant center, stopping for a glass of wine, and later filling our stomachs with a hearty Indian meal at the far end of the river. We slept, and woke the next day ready to explore: first a walk through Ljubljana's artsy shops, then an outdoor market, followed by a trek up to the fortress's splendid views, and then back down to Ljubljana's history museum, its library, and a fascinating exhibit on the modernist architecture of Prague.
Though we both fell in love with Ljubljana, it was a small city and we had a big itinerary for Abbilyn's remaining time in Europe, so we retreated from the quiet city center later that afternoon back toward the train station, with its noise and its cars, detouring along the way to the post office for a long overdue errand.
Before I left for Europe, I'd packed carefully and deliberately and meticulously and sparingly, taking only what I thought were the absolute essentials. And for the most part, I'd felt good about my packlist. I'd replaced the Toms with sneakers and I'd supplemented the zip-off pants with a pair of lightweight jeans, but otherwise had no firm regrets. I did, however, have ambivalent regrets, two of them: my tent and my sleeping bag.
Friends had told me not to bring the pair, that it was silly, that it was Europe and Europe was an absolute hostel haven, that I wouldn't do much camping and that those items would do nothing but weigh me down. And I'd retort that they were so light, under four pounds together—less than my water bottle when full!—and that I was fine camping in city parks for a quiet or late night. And indeed, I had made use of them in Cannes, and again in Bologna.
But four pounds feels like forty after fifteen miles of walking, and though the gear was light and compact, it still dominated the space in my small pack. And there it had sat for weeks without much use, and the uses it had received were plagued with strange noises of the night, so although I knew there was a chance it'd earn its keep after Abbilyn's departure, the idea of traveling without them, traveling even lighter, won me over.
So to the post office we went, where after an extremely frightening encounter with an emotionally turbulent woman behind the desk, and a hefty sixty-euro fee to ship the tent, the bag, and some additional incidentals Abby and I threw in, our package was sealed and sent on its way—my comfortable sense of guaranteed shelter each night sent with it.
It was a decision I'd come to regret at times, and be thankful for most other times, but at the moment, I was ecstatic at the weight of my pack—"Abby, look how thin it looks! Feel it ... isn't it so light?"—and I felt like skipping to the train station, as happy as a Quasimodo who'd just lost his hunch.
It was nearly a three-hour ride to Zagreb, punctuated by an intimidating troop of scruffy men boarding the train at the Croatian border and barking for passports, and we arrived to town late and and tired and cloaked in darkness. Our first order of business was to trade in our remaining euros for Croatian dollars, the kuna, each kuna worth about six euros or roughly eight dollars, and so we left the exchange office with nearly two thousand kuna between us, which felt a lot to be carrying around, in any currency I suppose, in that dark, unknown city. Thankfully the tram was just steps away, and our hostel a ten-minute walk from tram's end, and we instantly felt better, the stress of travel washing away as soon as our bags and our bodies hit the twin beds.
We were tired, but the hostel had a good vibe and one the friendliest hosts I'd ever met, a man who seemed more interested in ensuring his travelers were safe and entertained than that he made much of a profit off them. So when he said there was wine downstairs and to help ourselves, we did just that, passing the remainder of the evening with a half-dozen others like us, hailing from the States and Denmark and Finland and everywhere in between.
The next morning, we set off to explore Croatia. Our plan, if you recall, had been to do so by rail, getting the most we could out of the crescent-shaped country's fledgling rail service. But it was slow and limited, and I had a few days earlier discovered that car rentals were dirt cheap—like, $12 per day—so we instead booked one of those, preferring the greater freedom it would offer.
The car was at the airport, so we took a cab there and picked up the roomy sedan. It turned out to be a manual, which I had never learned to operate, but fortunately Abbilyn was skilled enough in driving stick for the both us, so with her behind the wheel we hurtled toward the Croatian coast with me sitting uselessly in the passenger seat.
We got some car snacks along the way, a disgusting assortment of paprika potato chips and sesame sticks and orange-filled chocolate and, for Abby, an even more disgusting bag of "sour spaghetti straws," which I didn't dare try, and we ate the car snacks at a disgusting pace, feeling roundly disgusted with ourselves before we even reached the water. The water came to us, though, in the form of momentary downpours and sudden showers, blackened clouds sometimes foretelling rain, and other times it just coming from nowhere, from the perfectly blue sky above. It never lasted for more than a few minutes, thankfully windshield wipers clicking perpetually on and off and on again. We reached the coast about an hour after leaving Zagreb, maybe more, but with the unpredictable precipitation we just continued heading south, arriving in Split by late afternoon.
Split, we'd heard, was a great little beach town, a go-to destination for Croats on holiday, really any European on holiday, a launch point for many of Croatia's beautiful little islands dotting the coastline. It was directly on our route, and sounded worth a visit, and the sky looked a little clearer by this point, so we entered the town and steered toward the beach and found ourselves stumped when we simply ... couldn't find it.
We lacked a map, and my phone lacked service in Croatia, but we knew the shore was to the west, and we knew how to point ourselves west toward the setting sun, yet hard as we tried, that little town of Split kept pointing us back the way we'd come, its winding streets pushing us away, keeping us out. We couldn't seem to find a single sign for the beach, no pictogram of toddlers toiling in the sand or rounded stick figures breast-stroking through curvy lines, not a solitary symbol in that damn beach town pointing us in the way of the beach. Beyond that, the Split we'd seen during those forty-five minutes circling the city was ugly, its streets dirty and plain and its drivers rowdy and rude; why were we wasting daylight on this place anyway?
Vexed, we called it quits and split from Split, continuing along the congested coast toward more promising places. We were pleased to find a neighboring beach town a dozen kilometers south, one that actually opened up right onto the sand, so we pulled over and parked the car, moments later parking ourselves onto two cushiony beachside chairs just steps from the calm blue Adriatic. We shared a beer or two in silence staring out at the sea, letting the gentle cresting and crashing waves do all the talking, and then we headed back to the car, dismayed to find a parking ticket on the windshield (oops), but otherwise feeling much more relaxed since our escape from the labyrinthine Split.
It was maybe five, maybe six, and though we'd intended to work slowly down the coast and back up again over four broad days, it seemed just as well to bottom out on the first day and have a better sense of our pace for the remaining three, so with a few remaining hours of daylight left, Abby and I—Abby, really; I was still useless in the passenger seat—made for our southernmost point of our little road trip, the walled city of Dubrovnik.
The drive there was just as beautiful as it had been throughout most of Croatia, Split nonwithstanding: truly gorgeous vistas of Oregonian mountains and Californian coastline and Montanan meadows, the green grasses and the rolling hills of Idaho, the little houses on the hillsides of West Virginia. It felt like home—maybe not home-home, not DC-home, but America-home—a welcome and familiar sight and feel to my weary traveler's eyes and soul.
The setting sun made it all the better, of course, bright blue giving way to a beautiful blend of purples and oranges that cast azure rays on everything around us. While thankful for the beauty, sunset meant impending darkness right around the corner, and our hopes of reaching Dubrovnik by dusk were consequently crushed. But dropping out of our race against the sun meant we could stop and grab a bite to eat without penalty, our stomachs both begging for something more substantial than the car snacks we'd torn through back around noon, so we pulled into the next tiny town we found—all of them tiny towns so far south—and stepped out of the humming car in front of Ploce's sole restaurant.
It was a modest place, a bit of a Greek feel to it, an enclosed patio and a bar further within. As we entered, a table of locals halted their conversation and leered at us, and by the time we arrived at the bar, the whole restaurant and its dozen patrons were sitting or standing in some sort of stunned silence, something akin to that cliched cinematic moment when the needle drags along the record like the pull of a zipper and the music stops short, and then you hear that spoon always clang against a plate somewhere out of frame.
We looked at each other as the men looked at us, or maybe just at Abby, and just as we began backing away to leave, apparently very out of place, a stout older woman sidled up next to Abby, greeted us in French, and ushered us hastily toward a table with an arm around Abby's waist. Out on the patio, where the crowd was a little thinner, we sat and fumbled awkwardly through the menu, averting eyes from the sustained stares of the table of men whom we'd passed as we entered.
We ordered a cabbage salad to share and I asked for a plate of spaghetti, and Abby decided on the Steak Monaco though I'm not sure why, and the food all came and wasn't very good at all, but we were famished so we ate what we could as fast as we could, and then we paid the bill and rushed out of that little restaurant and that little town, leaving Ploce behind us and Dubrovnik in our sights.
Croatia hugs the eastern bank of the Adriatic Sea for hundreds of kilometers, all the way from Slovenia to Montenegro, but in the brutal breakup of Yugoslavia it lost a thin sliver of that coastline to neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, just a tiny five-kilometer stretch that interrupts Croatia and actually makes it quite impossible to traverse the entire length of the nation without passing through a bit of Bosnia. It's one of the few areas of greater Europe still with a controlled border, so as we neared the flashing lights of the customs station, I pawed through our packs—finally, some purpose!—for our passports, and we crawled toward the first of four walled windows with needless nervousness.
We passed the passports to a Croat official, who passed them back and waved us along three feet to an entirely new window, where we passed them to a Bosnian official, who waved us along three miles through that little Bosnian appendage to yet another window, where we passed them to yet another Bosnian official, who waved us along yet another three feet to yet another window with yet another Croat official, who then waved us along to—finally!—explore the remaining section of Croatia without silly interruption.
Maybe an hour later, maybe more or less—it was late and we were tired so it's hard to remember—we approached Dubrovnik, a walled city at the very tail end of the long Croatian crescent. We'd heard Dubrovnik described as something of a wonder, a must-do while in Europe and certainly while in the Balkans, a perfectly-preserved kingdom, really, eighty-foot-tall walls boxing in an ancient town with just two points of entry. And ancient as it is, Dubrovnik's old city is closed to cars, making it one of the few remaining relics of a time when places were built to the scale of people and not machines.
Because Dubrovnik was closed to cars, the roads outside Dubrovnik were littered with them, all parked haphazardly along the grassy curbs in the way you might find spillover vehicles stashed away along a road outside a music festival or county fair. The cars went on for miles, and we weren't really sure where the road to Dubrovnik began, our only waypoint being the beautifully lit kingdom itself somewhere out on a peninsula in the distance.
We drove back and forth twice, not really knowing where it was okay to park and not really having any place to sleep once we did, and we were well past the point of exhaustion, so rather than nestle in amongst the thousands of vehicles angling off the main road, we turned into some sort of seaside apartment complex and pulled into one of its many open parking spaces and clicked off the engine, feeling decently safe in the quiet lot. And there, with the twinkling city down below us and the blackened Adriatic all around it, amongst the stars and the cars and the bars, we slept.