Get on the Bus, Gus – Week 13

One of my first records was “The Birds, The Bees & the Monkees.” The Monkees were the 1960s version of today’s modern boy band. Many of the members resembled The Beatles with their mop top hair styles and buoyant lyrics. In 1968 I fell in love with the lead singer of The Monkees, Davy Jones, who sang my favorite song, “Daydream Believer.”

Oh, I could hide ‘neath the wings
Of the bluebird as she sings
The six-o’clock alarm would never ring
But six rings and I rise
Wipe the sleep out of my eyes
The shaving razor’s cold and it stings

Cheer up sleepy Jean
Oh, what can it mean to a
Daydream believer and a
Homecoming queen?

I listened to this song over and over again on my grandmother’s record player in her basement in Chicago. I will never get tired of hearing or singing it. When I was eleven years old I wrote a love letter to Davy Jones and had pictures of him hanging on my bedroom door – a fangirl at heart.

My interpretation of the song’s message is that life is hard, but realizing your dreams and discovering your identity is part of growth. The song talks about high school, a time when I was searching to belong to a group, make friends and discover confidence. For me, high school was a nest of insecurities and exclusivities – a hard line drawn between who was on the inside and who was on the outside. But the song invites inspiration and reminds us that keeping a good attitude can change everything and bring you back to a state where you feel hopeful again – to be able to believe. There’s something about this song that exudes positive energy and feels so magical.

And this song, “Daydream Believer” was the soundtrack for my weekend trip to Slovenia. Boarding the bus from Zadar with a transfer in Zagreb, it takes about 7 hours to get to the capital city, Ljubljana, wedged between Austria and Italy. With two border checks along the way, it offers a change in landscape and weather. November is the wettest month to visit Slovenia and my time in the country was no exception. One of the hotel staff told me he had not seen the sun in 15 days due to heavy rains. Rain was so heavy in the area that international news broke regarding flooding in Venice and a state of emergency was declared. The ocean had risen 1 ½ meters and the rain continued to fall.

Feminist War Literature Tour

Despite the weather, I put on my rain jacket and grabbed my umbrella to venture outdoors. The first tour I scheduled was a Women’s History Walk. The tour guide, Maja, a thirty-year old member of a rock band, was outstanding in her knowledge of history. She told me her mother was also named Danica and we became fast friends on our three-hour walk around town.

During the feminist war tour we discussed women’s critical writings that represented a challenge to the national discourse of patriotism and sacrifice. As we walked, Maja pointed out statues or figures representing female intellectuals, authors philosophers, journalists and social activists that helped record another side of war, the way it changes us slowly from within.

One of the first statues (or in this case a bust) we witnessed in town was Lili Novy, considered one of the most important Slovene female poets. Maja told me how Novy would bind her chest and dress as a man in order to go out to cafes, smoke, sip on coffee and compose her poetry. She liked writing poetry in public coffee shops, but a woman during that time was not allowed to go out unaccompanied. Consequently, Lily Novy concealed her identity in order to move about in the world and buck the system of patriarchy along with other female intellectuals of the time.

The success of some female literature is even larger if we are aware of the fear, injury and pain from traumas accompanying their experience during the time. The wars leading up to the disintegration of Yugoslavia provoked ideological controversy and disagreement among Slovenian women’s peace organizations and feminists regarding the direction of female engagement in everyday life. An identity crisis dominated female narratives of displaced persons in Slovenia, grounded in past experiences.

The guide talks about female writers looking back on pre-war times for something solid to lean on, but the image of our homeland and past can be marked as “yugo-nostalgic.” She goes on, “Our generation talks about the purposelessness of war atrocities and testifies that although we can’t eliminate grief or pain that our mothers and grandmothers still experience, we have to move forward and learn from past shattered narratives.”

The Slovene Writers’ Association was originally founded in 1872 in Ljubljana with the aim of supporting female writers and their families. In the early 1980s the Slovene Writers’ Association became more involved in social questions, particularly issues concerning nationality and creative freedom. During this period a commission for the protection of writing and thinking functioned within the Association and they participated in measures to change the Constitution.

Girl Power

We walk to see another bust of Angela Vode, one of the most vocal supporters of women’s rights in what was first the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia from 1929. Vode was elected president of the Women’s Movement of Yugoslavia, as well as president of the Female Teachers’ Society of Slovenia, with the slogan “for equal work, equal pay.”

In 1922 Vode joined the then illegal Communist Party of Yugoslavia, in what she described as a sincere belief in the fight against injustice. She stuck with the party until 1939, when she was expelled for openly criticizing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that saw Hitler and Stalin agree to carve up Eastern Europe.

Vode continued to help the resistance, organizing collections of food and clothing for Slovene refugees and those in labor camps. In 1942 the Italian authorities decided the best way to deal with the enormous amount of refugees was to start executing whomever it deemed “unnecessary.” Vode decided to appeal to Italian leader Benito Mussolini to stop the executions, but her protest was destroyed by the Slovene communists who wanted to be the sole source of protest and resistance in order to enhance their claim to power when the war was over.

In 1947 Vode was arrested, imprisoned, tortured and abused. She was put on trial and charged with treason, accused of being an enemy of the working class, a western spy and any other stereotypically 1940’s communist thing one could be arrested for.

Vode was sentenced to 20 years, but thanks to international fury, she was eventually released, but never truly free. Vode was declared a “non-person,” or human being without any rights whatsoever. She wasn’t allowed to find employment or get medical insurance. She was denied a passport and her name was prohibited from public life. Her works concerning women’s rights in the country, could not be quoted in any way. It was as if Angela Vode never existed. Vode died at 93 years old, but now, over a century later, her book, Women in Contemporary Society, is still relevant today. She captured the differences in genders and supported equality at the same time. For example, she wrote about the roles of husbands and wives in parenting, stating she did not understand, “. . . why a wife by nature would be more destined for motherhood than a husband for fatherhood.” She wrote extensively about gender roles as well as the influence of nature and nurture in those roles, urging women to learn about the past, believing that only by understanding society could one improve one’s position, writing, “…a woman is as integral a part of human society, nation, state and family as a man, and her life and position are equally dependent on all political, economic, and cultural developments, and a demand for her participation in public life is absolutely natural and necessary.”

Witches on Trial

Another stop on our tour was the former jail for witches in Slovenia. In the Middle Ages, a frightening hysteria swept Europe, as thousands of people, mostly women, were condemned as witches and burned at the stake. The Slovenian lands had their share of witch trials and executions, which lasted until the 18th century.

Most of the victims of trials were women, but about 15% were male, and even children and priests were sometimes accused of being witches. Following instructions from a special inquisition manual, the courts forced their victims to admit that they had made pacts with the devil. The witches were blamed for everything from diseases and natural disasters to poor harvests, and the number of witch burnings increased at the time of major social upheavals. Many of the accused were tortured for hours – or even days – before they confessed.

Unlucky in Love

We move toward the center of old town square and see another prominent statue of poet, France Preseren, who composed Slovenia’s national anthem. His gaze looks across the square to the love of his life, Julia Primic, immortalized in a small bust statue on one of the building walls. Preseren was unlucky in love with Julia and they could never wed, despite many years of his yearning for her, even on his deathbed he declared he would never forget Julia. He wrote in “A Wreath Of Sonnets:”

For all Slovenes will then dawn brighter days
And kindlier stars upon their land will gaze,
More brilliant songs will come with better times.

The statue stands not far from the Franciscan Church, on one of the triple bridges. It is one of the key meetup areas near many souvenir shops, tourist information center, restaurants and cafes.

Next, Maja takes me to the university building, founded in 1919, with a naked (and offensive) statue of a woman from Greek mythology. She was considered a muse, but is positioned in an overtly sexual manner. The guide chided, “This was long before the ‘Me Too’ movement,” but certainly it is no joke. To have a statue like this displayed in front of a higher education institution is not only uncomfortable, but inappropriate. “We have talked to several officials, urging them to take it down.” And she adds that the first female university faculty member to ever be granted full-time status in a department was just recently in 2014. “We’ve still got a long way to go,” Maja adds.

We end the tour at the Parliament building, adjacent to the Square of the Revolution. It is a striking landmark with a group of naked statues on display. Architect Vinzo Glanz created the outdoor building display in the 1950s. There are sculptures of men, women and children, workers in different professions, scientists, and parents holding hands in solidarity. Maja explains to me that their garments are shed because of prejudices and putting people into groups. Thank you again Maja for an enlightening view and discussion of influential women in Slovenia.

Slay the Dragon

I walk back to my hotel in the rain and cross Dragon Bridge, one of the oldest bridges in Europe. Ljubljana is connected to dragons, the symbol of the city. Dragons are featured on almost every corner – on bridges, graffiti, at the castle, decorating railings and hanging from buildings.

Lake Bled

There is a small break in the rain and I decide to head out of the city about an hour away to Lake Bled. A guide picks me up and within the first ten minutes in describing Slovenia, the word corruption seeps into the conversation again. In the village we call them (politicians) “fat buts.” It is a euphemism for taking bribes. According to the tour guide, all of the officials, members of parliament and businessmen create complex and highly lucrative schemes to plunder the state budget. Ordinary Slovenes have seen living standards stagnate, while a handful of oligarchs have become billionaires.

He talks about his hometown, a village called Idrija. “I got my first phone line in 1983.” Idrija had the second largest mercury mine in the world. For centuries it was considered to the center of scientific and technological progress in the region. The Mercury Mine was the main source of financial stability, dating back to 1490. Over 500 years Idrija exported over 100,000 tons of this liquid metal. But in 1986 the mine closed for commercial, geological, and ecological reasons. The guide said, “All life was based around the mine. My grandfather and father worked in the mine. And now what can we do?”

He quickly switched topics to another change in industry and culture in Slovenia. He commented, “The Chinese have taken over Velenie (another local village) and completely changed the culture because of the appliance Hisense. It’s one of the largest manufacturers in Europe, but it changes everything. We are work differently. We don’t want to be treated like slaves in Slovenia because we’ve been through enough.”

Onto the next serious topic of car conversation about his family being forced to speak German during World War II because his country was a German occupied zone. “We were marginalized and almost lost our language.” Although Slovene was the official language, people were no longer free to express affiliation with their nation or national community, to foster and give expression to their culture, or to use their language. During World War II, all the three occupational forces, German, Italian and Hungarian, condemned Slovenians to ethnocide. The most drastic deportations were carried out by German occupants. The German leadership assigned responsibility for the “Slovenian question” to various offices under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler, the state secretary for reinforcement of Germanness. The Germans planned to deport between 220,000 and 260,000 Slovenians. First they brought them to collecting camps and they were shipped to Germany, Croatia and Serbia. The deportation was carried out in waves: the first were nationally feeling Slovenes, followed by those who moved to Slovenian territory after 1914, and finally peope whose estates and property were needed for German colonization. The three ideologies, fascism, nazism and communism, resulted in huge migrations from the Slovenian territory.

Kings and Queens

As we walk around beautiful Lake Bled, the guide points to a few extravagant multi-million dollar homes he says are owned by war profiteers. And the corruption goes on. Despite this display of wealth and corruption, the guide has fond memories of sovereignty, safety and power during Yugoslavia. He says, “The breakup of the former Yugoslav federation ruined the central system in place, which contributed to stable economy – we had our own houses and vacation houses. We knew where our food was coming from.” He rejects the changes after the war of independence in the 1990s (he describes Slovenia’s 10-day war and quips that “ex-communist were purposely put on the front line”) and argues that economic depression now exists because Yugoslavia has fallen. He continues, “It wasn’t a socialist straight-jacket. We should not have abandoned it. The unification of Yugoslavia as a single state had strong economies, modernization and level of productivity. We could trade well, live well. If you get along with your masters, you will get everything you want. No, you will get everything you need.”

We hike up toward the castle at Lake Bled, perched on top of a 125 meter high cliff. It is gothic style and built in 1011. King Henry II donated the area of Bled to the church of Brixen. The king granted the bishop full possession of the area including churches, forts, buildings, forests, hunting grounds, meadows, pastures, mills and fishing grounds. The king issued the deed as part of his broader political activities that mainly consisted of seeking support from the church lords of Brixen, a strategically important area between Italy and Germany, but also in the spirit of the time, to redeem the souls of King Otto III. This deed had permanent cultural and spiritual consequences for the local Slavic population.

Looking out from the castle, you can see a beautiful view of Bled island, an important representative of Slovenian cultural and natural heritage. The Slavic goddess Živa dates back to 7th century. Before the arrival of Christianity in Bled area, the island represented a sanctuary for all Slavic pagans. In the battles between members of pagan and Christian religion, the people ruined and destroyed the pagan sanctuary and built the Church for all Christians. In 17th century they built the church and chapel, St. Mary’s on Bled Island.

We were going to take a boat to the island, but it started raining again. The only boats allowed in the lake are called plentas. Pletna boats are traditionally manufactured by the locals and are operated by a single oarsman. They are family owned. The mute swan population is also popular on the lake.

Toward the end of our walk we stop for a famous treat, a slice of Kreme Rezina, a cream and custard whipped cream and puff pastry – delicious!

Be Well

Slovenes are extreme in sports. The guide brags, “We like chasing an adrenaline high in skiing, sky diving, hang gliding, rock climbing and bungee jumping. The more dangerous, the better.” Lake Bled is home for Olympic rowing and training. The area also boasts the first man to ski down Mount Everest. And most noted is Arnold Rikli, the Schweizer or Swissman. Rikli encouraged people to come to Lake Bled as a place of pilgrimage because of its healing springs. He was the first to promote spa tourism in the mid 19th century and founded a Natural Health Institute focusing on vegetarianism, nudism (in the woods!) and massage.

Ljubljana Castle

The next day I went solo and walked to explore Ljubljana Castle. You can take a short ride on the funicular or walk along the footpaths. The viewing tower offers a 360-degree panorama of the city. Within the grounds of the castle are numerous presentations and exhibitions, including the Permanent Exhibition of Slovenian History.

Stories of St. George involved in the fights between pagans and Christians, defeating the terrifying dragon are found on plaques throughout the castle walls. The castle has a chronology of rulers starting from the Middle Ages with the arrival of Emperor Frederick III of Habsburg.

With a 900 year history the castle is one of Ljubljana’s main attractions. The castle prison first opened in 1815, intended for both men and women who could be jailed for up to 10 years. At the outbreak of World War I, the castle prison was used for political prisoners of war — the most numerous were Serbians, along with Russians, Englishmen and Frenchmen.

Hiking at Lake Bohinj

Slovenia is a hiker’s paradise. In fact, Ljubljana was voted the best green city in 2016. They are very eco-friendly and pursue recycling with gusto. This was my last day in country and I was told not to leave without hiking at Lake Bohinj. Since I don’t have a car, I contacted another tour guide company, Alpine Adventures, to take me to the area. They picked me up at 8:00 a.m. and by 9:30 a.m. – two avid hikers in their twenties and one who was a national ice climbing champion. I became intimidated when they pulled out their Ipad and showed me some of the routes they had planned for a 7-hour day of hiking. They were extra pumped because this was the first break in the torrential rains and they brought very sophisticated camera equipment to capture the many, many waterfalls at their peak of water power.

Before we started, they suggested stopping at a charming alpine restaurant called Strudl’l Gostilinca. They ordered a round of delicious Štruklji, a traditional cooked pie with fillings of buckwheat, cottage cheese and tarragon.

Our first hike was about an hour to Savica Waterfall. France Pešeren wrote about it in his poem, “Baptism at the Savica.” The beech trees were prominent in the forest with spruce trees toward the top of the peaks. We hiked up the path and were treated to a powerful cascade of water. Both guides were taking more pictures than I was because the waterfall was overflowing. “It’s really skinny in the summer,” they commented, snapping pictures and capturing video. The views were stunning and the air was fresh and clean.

The next hike was about 2 ½ hours up and even longer on the way down (my knees!), but incredibly majestic the entire way. I have never seen so many waterfalls coming out of crevices with the rains causing rapids to powerfully flow through the forests. It reminded me of a fairytale and in fact we came upon a sign that noted the “legend of the white fairies.” The fairies move through these woods with their long hair, flowing over the rocks like mist. And watch out for Zlatorog, in Slovene folklore, a Goldhorn white chamois buck. Zlatorog’s golden horns were the key to a treasure hidden in the mountains around Triglav, but he can be very protective of the treasure if you are looking for it, watch out, he may push you over the precipice, stroking his horns along the stones so that gold dusk smokes from them. There are many stories of the woods. The guides told me that dwarfs also live among the rocks in Triglav National Park.

I strongly suggest going with guides in the forest because about half way through our hike, one of the guides told me to follow his footsteps closely. When I asked why I should watch my steps, he told me about the thousands of tunnels underneath the forest that are yet to be discovered. “Many people fall into the tunnels because they are covered with leaves.” In the middle of World War II, Germans made a system of tunnels under Kranj for protection under bomb attacks. We stayed above the tunnels, but just knowing they were underneath us was fascinating.

Our next hike was to the top of a mountain glacier above Lake Bohinj. One of the guides opened a metal box and in it were a few pens and a journal. He asked me to sign the journal. “Everyone who climbs these mountains signs a different journal so if something happens, we know who was here.” From up top we saw beams of sun shining on the village below and the lake in the distance. This breathtaking panoramic summit was named after the priest Valentin Vodnik. It had magnificent views of the Bohinj basin and surrounding Julian Alps mountain range. The Julian Alps were named after Julius Caesar. The second highest peak is 2,775 meters high, which lies in Italy. Lake Bohinj is the biggest lake in Triglav National Park, the only Slovenian National Park. Looking out onto the high altitude mountains with deeply cut glacial valleys, lakes, rivers and gorges was a hiking extravaganza. Lake Bohinj is rich in forestry and picturesque villages, coupled with nature protection and conservation.


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