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  • Jamie Shannon

Back in Croatia and towards Slovenia. The land of Robin Hood

Having made my way through the border, I followed the road north past the famous Plitvicka National Park and on towards the town of Slunj. I had wanted to visit the park but it was a combination of factors that had stopped me in the end. I think it’s a world heritage site or something and because of this very fact and also because it was still high season, I knew of course that it would be liberally swimming with people. With this in mind, I knew that I just couldn’t go there as the thousands of people entering the park would just be shuffling along in unimpeded lines admiring everything they saw, like a human conveyer belt.

And so it was that I found myself cycling straight past it before joining the main highway a little further ahead. I came to the village that catered to the throngs of people that visit the park and it was naturally buzzing with people; café’s, restaurants, shops and caravans. I needed some water and so went into the campground and found the bathroom area where I filled up. It was so busy in fact that no one would even know that I wasn’t a paying visitor and so I wheeled my bicycle around to the shower block and decided it was a good time to wash myself.

I came out ten minutes later refreshed and wheeled my bicycle back towards the entrance where I half expected someone to ask me if I was staying there. This never happened of course and I couldn’t quite believe how easy it was.

Back on the road, I passed through small villages where almost every second home revealed itself to be a guesthouse and began to realise that camping tonight would be more difficult than it had been previously. The road I was on was quite narrow, and with this being the main road to Zagreb, trucks thundered past constantly. I pulled off the road whenever I spotted them in my mirror but on the odd occasion I missed them, they would send me shaking violently from side to side in their wake. Not the best thing to happen when you know there would be a convoy of cars following in their wake.

That 'perfect' camping spot isn't always so perfect

As it approached evening, I saw a small gap in the trees by the side of the road beyond which lay a small forest that was obviously being logged as there were tree stumps and sawdust everywhere. I figured that If I was gone early enough, then no one would know. I had to push my bike down a steep track that led deep into the trees to a spot that looked seemingly invisible to the outside.

I woke up very early early the following morning but then found myself still feeling very tired from the climbs of the previous few days and so drifted off back to sleep. It wasn’t until 9am that woke up again to the sound of a tractor moving through the forest. I had missed my opportunity. Maybe this was actually someone’s land. It didn’t look like it the night before but then again, most land is owned by someone these days.

As I poked my head out of my tent, I could see a man chopping wood through the trees and so immediately got to work packing away my stuff, very carefully and very quietly. I found myself just sitting and waiting for him to leave, willing him to leave so I could go. Having piled the wood in his trailer, he would climb back into his tractor. Thinking this was it, he would move only five metres or so and continue the chopping all over again. This went on three or four more times until he was perhaps five metres from where I was. Thoughts of police and fines entered my mind. I even thought about perhaps offering my services as a lumberjack as payment, but I decided to wait a few more minutes..

Eventually he got in his tractor again and moved further away and deeper into the woods thus giving me my opportunity to get the hell out of their undetected. I did it!

With the landscape being mostly hilly and so probably not ripe for farming, most of the land, or the land that I had passed through seemed very much untamed and covered in thick vegetation. It was a very welcome break after Spain in particular.

When I eventually came to the last town before the border, I couldn’t locate any signs to Slovenia. For some reason, all the signs pointed to very small villages. With my map certainly not up to the job, I decided it was best to follow the traffic. I wasn’t sure it was the correct way but as the number of trucks increased on the road I was now travelling on, my hopes increased too. Before long, I was crossing the river that marked the border between Croatia and Slovenia.

Crossing over into Slovenia - meet Europes friendliest border guards

Once again, it was manned and manned by the friendliest police I have ever met. The Slovenian officer was asking me all sorts of questions and when I asked if I could fill my water bottles, he took me in the office and even gave me some apples. I think I’m going to enjoy this country very much.

They say that ninety percent of Slovenia is still covered in forest but nothing, I can assure you, can prepare you for just how true this statement is. It’s really like the lost land of Robin Hood here. It’s amazing and it’s not just because it’s a mountainous country either. Even the flat areas were thickly forested thus I knew I would have no problems camping whatsoever.

I turned off the main highway shortly after and decided to take a ‘short cut’ through the rural roads towards the Slovenian town of Crnomelj. The terrain was hilly to say the least and it was exhaustive work climbing up and down the steep and wandering one lane roads. Everything was so picture-perfect however and you could immediately tell this is by far the wealthiest of the former Yugoslav states; the houses were sleek and modern, the gardens well-tended and the inhabitants looked prosperous.

The next day, after I had gotten my tent up, I found it was still only seven and so I had plenty of time to have a walk around the forest just admiring things really. It was really nice just to walk around in virgin woodland.

The mountains and forest all around made everything seem insignificant. I still couldn’t get my head around just how much of the land hasn’t been cultivated or urbanised. It’s really quite astonishing and beautiful too.

A little later, the road began to snake its way up from the valley floor and over the mountains that surround it. At the top, well almost at the top, I stopped by a bench for a breather where two guys whom were working on the side of the road and upon seeing the sweat dripping down my face handed me a fresh bottle of water. I couldn’t have been happier. What a welcome!

I stopped to have some more lunch a little later in a park when a strange man waddled over, stared at me and said something in Slovenian. I said I didn’t speak Slovenian to which he replied even louder in Slovenian. I told him that I still did not understand at which point he wandered off again. I don’t know why people, upon hearing that you speak another language, decide the best thing to do is increase the volume with which they speak. It amazes me.

I took a road off the main highway and through the smaller country roads that would lead me eventually to Ljubljana, the capital. As I made my way through the village that marked the beginning of the road, I found to my dismay that it was gravel. I hate gravel, I really do. I would sooner rather cycle on a motorway full of caravans and dusty trucks than along a bumpy and dusty gravel road. Imagine my delight when I found that it was mostly that dusty, sandy type of gravel and very well compacted. This lifted my spirts immensely and, for a time at least, I almost forgot I was ascending.

Chance encounters - cycle touring really does bring opportunities

An odd thing happened a little later. I passed a young woman and her two children by the side of the road and decided to go back. Not to speak to them or anything, but rather because I spotted a view where I wanted to linger for a few seconds. As I had already passed her however, I felt the need to say something so as to not look too strange. I said something like, “beautiful view eh”? She then agreed and asked where I was from and what I was doing, the usual questions you ask someone who looks dirty and is clearly in need of a shower and a hot meal.

I said I had lived in the Netherlands previously. I couldn’t quite believe her response when she said her husband was Dutch. This is, I’d like to say, a Slovenian lady in a small village, absolutely nowhere near anywhere that a normal visitor or tourist would venture. And here is me, on a bicycle and for the twenty minutes she may have been walking along that road in all the day’s hours, I happen to pass by at the right time. If I had not gone back to look at the view, I would never have even spoken to her. The world does work in mysterious ways. I still believe in random chaos though.

She invited me back to her home down in the valley below and when I got there, was greeted by a man at the door who I immediately realised was Dutch. He was tall and had wavy blonde hair. Unmistakable.

In the morning and after thanking them for their wonderful hospitality, I made my way to Ljubljana, half expecting to encounter at least one doggedly steep climb but alas, it never came. I was thrilled.

I cycled the final few km’s to Ljubljana where I found my hostel without too much fuss and a warm shower. I was looking forward to some well-earned rest and a wander about.

It was a strange kind of hostel as the reception was situated just off the main street and set back within a small alleyway. My room was located along the main street facing the canal and set entirely apart from the main building.

I stopped after a couple of hours and found what looked like a small café with an arresting terrace where I could watch the world go by. There were no spare tables available and so I asked two guys if I could sit at their table . Obviously, they spoke Flemish and were from a place near Ghent, a small village actually and a village that I had in fact travelled through on my way back to Manchester. It just doesn’t get any stranger!

The beer flowed lavishly and at these prices, who could say no? I think we must have been there for three hours at least and were joined later by another guy whom was sat inside, a busker from Poland. Later on and after we had had some food, we walked across a bridge where some people were busking, singing in both German and Slovenian. The crowd wasn’t so big and they weren’t overly impressive to be honest. After a few minutes, the busker whom we'll call him Stephan because that was his name, got up and asked if he could sing with them. After a couple more songs he got up and joined in. The transformation couldn’t have been more different. It was incredible. I mean this guy sang with soul and passion and engaged the audience. After a few minutes, the crowd had grown exponentially and it was amazing to watch. He only did one song however and I felt quite proud to have him come and sit back with us once he was done. He was that good.

We found our way later on to a place called “the ghetto”. A sprawling estate of old industrial buildings painted from floor to ceiling in graffiti. Bars were open everywhere and the place was packed. It was really quite cool. Stephan incidentally had nowhere to sleep and so I offered him the floor of my hostel room. He was quite pleased with that.

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