We'll probably never know what possessed the president of Georgia to authorize an invasion into the largely Russia-supported breakaway region of South Ossettia, but a butterfly flaps its wings in the jungle, and the next thing you know you find yourself flying into Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. See, we were supposed to be filming an episode of Word Travels in a little known Eastern European country called Georgia. So few people knew it existed I had to explain that we weren't flying back to the USA to film in Atlanta, but rather were scheduled to spend a week around Tbilisi, where I was to learn about Georgian Martial Arts (yes, they have their own martial art in Georgia) and Georgian traditional winemaking. Then Georgia picks a fight with Russia, and you know what they say about antagonizing bears...the Russians invade, and suddenly, Georgia makes world headlines for two weeks as Europe sees war for the first time in years. Russian troops advance into the interior of the country amidst calls on both sides of genocide, while the Georgian president learns that having the USA as an ally doesn't mean shit when it comes to misguided and misinformed military posturing. Needless to say, Georgia is dropped from our itinerary just as quickly as the Georgian army dropped their weapons in the face of the Russian onslaught. So I'm looking at flights from Istanbul, since that is where we'd be the week before, and wouldn't you know it, there's a direct flight to Slovenia. "I've heard Slovenia is pretty beautiful," and a couple phone calls and emails later, our smashing production manager Leah tells us we've found our replacement country. Pack your bags folks, we're going to the Eurozone.
I'll say this for Slovenia. It is pretty beautiful. The natural assets of the small Central European country are ideal for postcards; all green meadows, mountains and farmland. Since adopting the Euro in 2007, it's also prosperous and entirely civilized. Excellent roads and infrastructure, towns and cities spit-polished clean. I didn't see a piece of trash on the streets of Ljubljana all week, human and otherwise. The capital city is so quintessentially European - cobblestones, churches, squares, canals, outdoor cafes, parks, bicycle lanes - with a tiny dash of an alternative art scene, and thousands of well dressed students. Parts of the city, pronounced Yoobli-yana, remind me of St Petersburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Budapest. While Slovenian history goes back way over a thousand years, it has always been considered an affluent region of whomever happened to be conquering it. Nobility from the Romans, the Austrians, the Croats, the Serbs, the Italians, Germans and later the Communists all enjoyed the splendour and beauty of the country. In former Yugoslavia, it was considered the pearl of the union, until Tito kicked the bucket in Ljubljana and Slovenia pushed for independence in 1991. No crazy riots, no disappearances, no mass political turmoil. Instead, the very civilized, almost refrained population of 2 million shifted into the European Union with an almost uncanny ease. Today it is part of NATO, the Schengen, the Council of Europe, the Eurozone, and all those other clubs that separates modern Europe from the so-called riff-raff. "We learned from the mistakes of other countries," explains my guide Tillin, motoring though electronic tolls at alarming speed. Sure prices went up with the Euro, but Europe is expensive. This is not Eastern Europe, laced with corruption and volatile politics. This is not Western Europe, overrun with tourists and $19 cups of coffee. We're right in the centre, a few hours drive from Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. And while Slovenia might lack the edge of these countries, it certainly contains some of the best components of all of them.
Take Bled for example. A medieval castle overlooks an azure freshwater lake. Mountains cradle the horizon, green forests and meandering roads lining the water. In the centre is an island with a church, the spire a striking symbol of tradition. A thousand years ago, Slavs worshipped the goddess of love and fertility here. By the 11th century, the first church was built, the current steeple added in the 16th century. Today, wedding parties come from all over Europe for the spectacular setting, and so the groom can carry his bride up the 99 steps (if he can make it) and ring the bell three times for good fortune (easier said than done). On a sunny day, when the water has a crystal glow and traditional wooden rowboats ferry people to the island, it's so picturesque you'd think you stumbled into the airbrushed cover of a fantasy novel. Bled has been a holiday destination for centuries, mainly for European royalty and health-minded nobility. A famous sanatorium lined it shores, as did summer palaces, now mostly hotels and restaurants. Further up the road in Bohinj, I decided to see the surrounding Julian Alps the best way I know how - from the seat of a paraglider. I joined Borot from PAC Sports as we took a gondola and ski chair to our launch pad at Vogel.
Paragliding has become immensely popular the world over, partly because it allows us to fly, partly because it's relatively safe, and partly because it's easy to transport and set up a parachute on the edge of a mountain. A 25kg backpack contains my artificial wings, and my tandem instructor knows how to operate them. All I have to do is run until there's no more ground beneath my feet, sit back, and take in the magnificent scenery. On a day like today, I see an emerald lake buttressed up against the mountains (including Triglav Mountain, the highest peak in the country). I see the land flattening out into farmland manicured so smooth it could be a giant fairway. The early morning fog burns away, the colours of the landscape pop beneath a bright summer sky. Paragliding is as gentle as a shopping bag blowing in the wind, less a thrill sport than chance for anyone, of any age, to get high amongst the mountains, and get a birds eye view of the world below.
Continue reading Robin's report at: http://www.moderngonzo.com/reports/slovenia.html
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