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I feel love

Slovenia has it nailed. It’s taken the LOVE in its name and turned it into a complete marketing campaign that makes efforts by the Hungarian Tourism Board look half-arsed at best. Many years ago, I was in a car with three generations of Slovenian males. All spoke excellent English and I just assumed that they’d each spent time abroad. But no. None of them had ever lived anywhere else. And why would they, they asked, somewhat incredulously, when Slovenia has it all.

They say that when God was creating the world, he gave each country something special, be it lakes, mountains, volcanoes, whatever. He must have gotten a little fed up with all this creating because when it came to Slovenia, he gave it everything: mountains, seas, lakes, waterfalls, valleys, great wine … and the list goes on.

We were en route to Lake Bled when, as often happens on road trips, a sign took my fancy. Ptuj. How would you even begin to pronounce that one, I wondered. (I asked: it’s p-too-ey). Himself had a vague notion that it was the oldest town in the country, so we detoured.

And he was right. As is his wont.

We went to the bank to change some money and were laughed out of it. Despite being neighbours, they’d no interest in Hungarian forints. I was a little taken aback but hey – their call. We found a less discriminating ATM and armed with euro went for a coffee, the first of many mediocre brews we’d have over the next few days (this despite the Coffee Stories fest the town hosts each year). Slovenia might have it all in terms of natural beauty but it has yet to master the brew. The loos in this place were quite something (and it was a nice place), with some unusual wall art going on. You had to pass through the gents to get to the ladies where the picture of a women baring her bits over the urinal might have tempted a weaker man to linger. Interesting to say the least. But these two strikes were it. It was all up from there.

Inhabited since the Stone Age, the town has retained its charm and has capitalised on its history. The juxtaposition of old and new was amusing: ancient Roman tombstones forming a backdrop for motorbikes and camper vans. Love it. We did climb up to the twelfth-century Ptuj Castle but didn’t go in – the view was worth it. And had the old, narrow cobblestone streets been able to speak, they could have told a story or three.

A visit to the Tourist Information Office had us pencilling February 11, 2018 into the diary as the town has its Kurentovanje festival – something similar to the Hairy Man festival at Mohács in Hungary. Definitely one for the books, if we can find accommodation. Apparently it attracts close to 100 000 visitors each years. Nothing like having to plan ahead. And when I go back, the country’s oldest wine cellar is also on my list of things to see. It has a wine that dates back to 1917.

The town is also home to good wine. And apparently produces a Sauvignon Blanc that rated first among lesser equals earlier this year. Another note to self for 2018.

Salon Sauvignon 2017 took place in Ptuj on 20th of May. Dominican Monastery hosted 64 Winemakers from Slovenia (far the most), Austria, Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, France and New Zealand, who offered a chance to explore, evaluate and enjoy 120 samples of Sauvignon Blanc. 

The church was impressive and yet, over the course of the next few days, it would lose a lot of its impressiveness when compared to a chorus of others that thread through the country. The countryside is rife with religious houses and places of worship. It could give Malta a run for its money when it comes to roadside niches. That said, this one comes with its own guitar-playing, football-loving singing priest. That’s hard to beat.

As a reminder of how things are in Slovenia (it’d been a while for me), the stop-off at Ptuj was a great start. The people are lovely – very helpful, friendly, and knowledgeable. They realise the importance of tourism to their livelihoods and know how to work their service accordingly. English is widely spoken, too, and there’s plenty of information available in multiple languages on what’s going on.

Speed limits vary according to the type of motorway – it’s there’s a shoulder, you can do 130 km/h. If not, then the two-lane highways are 110 and country roads are 70. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that I’ll be hearing from the authorities. Don’t forget to get your toll pass before you cross the border – €15 for a week – as the fines for not having one are pretty steep. And do wander off the motorway. There’s no telling what you’ll find.

Flowers behind bars

The older I get, the more I realise how many obsessions I have. Minor ones, admittedly. Perhaps more fixative than obsessive. And the peculiar thing is that although I’ve had them for years, I’m only now noticing them. Take my thing about flowers behind bars.

 

Subotica, Serbia

In Subotica the other day, I found myself taking the long way around to pass a bunch of lilies behind an iron railing. The sun was doing weird things to the petals, creating a ghost-like shimmer that seemed quite fitting, given that the flowers were growing next door to the church.  I was having a particularly ‘fat’ day. I’ve been off off the cigarettes since 1 May (and yes, I meant to put two offs there). I’ve been off them before but not seriously. It’s as if my body knows it too, because, true to fact and form, I’m piling on the pounds and wondering why I’ve given up something I like to become something I loathe.That old story of a skinny girl trapped in a fat body comes to mind – and perhaps that’s what the bars spoke of.

Modica, Sicily

If you want to join the ranks of pedantry, you’d point out that these are lemons, not flowers, but a fence is a fence is a fence. I remember once measuring a three-day hike in terms of the number of lemons I’d need given that I was carrying a litre bottle of gin and an ample supply of tonic. When did I grow up and get sensible? When did I become so serious? When, I wonder, did I start measuring life in terms of deadlines and meetings, airports and airplanes, invoices and reports? How difficult would it be to turn back the clock, rip down that fence and set those lemons free?

I’ve never been a great one for roses. Perhaps I overdosed on fairy tales as a child and had my fill of Rose Red and Rose White. Maybe their association with Valentine’s day has morphed into my subconsciousness and manifested itself as a synonym for commercialism, materialism, and all the bad -isms associated with money. There was a time, back in those wonderful days when I had time, that I would go regularly to Bratislava. I was looking in some silly, romantic way, to get a sense of what it was like to live  during the Cold War and Communism. For me, walking out of that train station is as close as it gets, off-celluloid. I want somehow to get a sense of a time I was never party to; to get a glimpse of what like was like from behind the bars. And yet, quite laughably, we build our prisons. The fences we erect around our little patch of life, fences that keep us in once place (perhaps figuratively rather than literally), doing one thing; fences that somehow shape our vision of who we are. And inside these fences we grow, regardless of those self-imposed limitations. Others looking in see the beauty that we ourselves have long-since disregarded and when they point it out, we dismiss them and their opinions as inessential.

Pliskovica, Slovenija

Perhaps it’s open roses I don’t care for. Ones that have yet to bloom still have that sense of what might be. That sense of wonderment. Something to look forward to. They’re not jaded by life and work and that ever growing list of have-tos. That increasing sense of obligation that comes with so-called maturity. That weight of responsibility augmented by dependency. For them, anything is possible. Youth is on their side and life is rolling out ahead of them, ready to be shaped and molded to their liking. Not for them the daily battle of wills, the fruitless fight against the establishment, the struggle just to start what will fast become just another day.

Budapest, Hungary

I wonder when this fascination started? What triggered this strange collection in my subconsciousness? Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness – the ugliness of captivity. Or even scarier, the representation of having given up – of somehow having decided to settle for life as it is, with all its limitations. Or worse again, the recognition that I’ve bought into the mass mania that values the external manifestation of beauty above anything else. Or maybe I just want a cigarette.