If you spend enough time in one country it is difficult to miss or even avoid state holidays. Mid February has a couple of important holidays in Slovenia. Really, any holiday in Slovenia is important. Slovenia has existed as an ethnicity and culture for more than a millennium, it is a history rich with and language and culture. Yet Slovenia as a country has only been existence since 1991. Given the recent addition of Slovenia as a sovereign state the celebration of Slovenian traditions and holidays take on greater relevance. They are an important celebration of Slovenian pride and identity. After two months here we understood the value of recognizing and participating in the national holidays. So participate we did.
At the beginning of February is a ten day rite of spring known as Kurentovanje. The celebration culminates on the final day, Shrove Sunday. On this day, in the city of Ptuj there is a massive parade and the highlight of the parade is the march of the Kurents! The Kurents are huge hairy beasts that embody unrestrained pleasure and the spirit of bacchanal. Most importantly though they are believed to chase away winter with their wooden clubs and waist belts laden with large noisy bells. They also live up to their reputation for seeking pleasure. As they march through the city they seek the attention of the young women lining the streets. The Kurents will reach out and grab a young girl and carry her into the parade. The only way to be released from the grasp of the Kurent is to give him your handkerchief. The noise of the bells, the color, the spectacle and the sheer number of Kurents was amazing. There were over a thousand Kurents in the parade. Solveig and her buddy Zoe were fortunate on a few occasions to escape the hairy grasp of a Kurent. The Kurents bear a striking resemblance to the Krampus by-the-way. No, not the bike.
The 8th of February is the annual Slovenian day of cultural celebration. This is one of the biggest holidays in Slovenia and is a true reflection of how deeply Slovenians value the importance of their art, literature and poetry. The official name of the holiday is Prešeren Day. France Prešeren was a Slovene poet. The holiday celebrates the anniversary of his death on 8, February 1849. The holiday is more than a memorial to his life. It is intended as a day to celebrate all of Slovenia’s art, history and culture. All of the museums are open and entrance is free to everyone. In Prešeren Trg (Square) people will show up and spontaneously recite Prešeren’s poetry from memory. This occurs all day long. It is truly an impressive experience.
The emphasis on culture is pervasive. Even the military abides by the recognition of Slovenian culture and it’s importance to Slovenian identity. The Slovenian military has its battalions and regiments but they are named after Slovenian poets and philosophers rather than tigers, bees, eagles, badgers or whatever animal would intimidate you more than a poet. Again, it is a testament to Slovene identity.
I have to admit, I was eager to experience these Slovenian holidays but the reason I actually did experience them was because at the beginning of February the skiing in Slovenia and nearby Austria was marginal at best. It is really hard to justify a 90 min drive to ski on beautifully groomed runs all day in the bright sunshine. We have been waiting two months for some real snow and deep powder…
With no snow falling the riding in Slovenia has been great. There are so many great rides to do starting here in Ljubljana. Ljubljana is situated in a low lying basin but is surrounded by hills and mountains. It provides an opportunity for a wide variety of rides. All of which I have taken advantage of as long as the roads are dry. This time of year they are usually unrideable.
Hedging is usually what you find Vegas gamblers or Wall Street investors doing. In our case we have hedged against the weather, If the sun shines and the roads are dry it is great for getting out and exploring the country by bike. If the snow falls and the powder is deep it is time to step into the skis. After waiting for almost two months the snow began falling. At first Mother Nature was a tease. The mountains received a couple of centimeters here and there. Definitely nothing to get excited about. Then suddenly and in spite of the grim forecasts the snow began to fall. Loads of it fell in Slovenia, Italy, Austria and all the countries with high alpine mountain ranges. Finally. My bike is going to be dormant for a while but my skis will get a lot of use. I consider it cross-training.
Skiing in Austria (and I have heard Italy) is like skiing nowhere else. The facilities and infrastructure are something to behold. The eight person lifts, the gondolas that span broad valleys, the full service restaurants and lodges that are perched high on alpine ridges apparently well beyond vehicle service, all are exemplary and stunning to behold.
One thing I would have never expected was to take a lift to the top of a mountain by travelling under the mountain. Snow had been falling, the powder was deep and we decided to try out a place called Mölltaler Gletscher. High in the Austrian Alps are a series of glaciers (gletschers). They were hit hard with loads of snow and we went up to enjoy the fruits of Mother Nature’s generosity. In order to get up to the ski area you have to hop on a train from the base. This is not apparent when you arrive in the parking lot. At least for us it was not. All we saw was a mountain, free of any snow, rising in front of us.
We followed the gaggle of skiers walking into the mountain. We followed but were completely perplexed by the scene. No lifts, no gondolas anywhere insight. Only a cave set well into the mountain and everyone was headed that direction. Not sure what else to do we followed. Deep into the mountain we made our way on to a funicular. The train cars were not flat but rather a series of steps. Get in, hang on to your skis and enjoy the ride. With a sudden lurch the train began moving uphill quickly. There was nothing to see. The whole ride was underground. Everyone in the train car kind of awkwardly looking at one another, some folks making small talk – how much did you hear it snowed up there? 20cm? Not bad. Are you staying in the village down below tonight? Oh that place. I hear they serve a great breakfast.
Once we emerged from the tunnel we were greeted with warm bright sunshine. The train traveled underground and uphill for over four kilometers. We gained well over 1200 meters along the way. We disembarked from the train in a basin high up in the treeless alpine. All around us we saw mountains white with fresh fallen snow. This was this first big snowfall in a long time. Coverage was good but it was the first snowfall in weeks and two meters of snow high up in the mountains meant we still had to watch for the occasional protrusions of rocks here and there. Still that much snow also meant that we could ski just about anywhere we saw snow. It is a very rewarding treat to see a bowl that drops 600 meters with nothing obstructing your run. If I cannot be on my bike then being on the skis is a great alternative.
Getting around has been pretty easy. We have a car that has a cargo box on top. It holds all five pairs of skis and our ski poles. I really appreciate having a car, but wow, our car is pretty gutless. Fill the car with five people, our skis and our gear and you have a car that is not eager to climb up over steep mountain passes. The highway speed limit here in Slovenia and Austria is 130 km/hr. Our car, if pushed can manage 140 km/hr. Not fast enough to keep up with the cars that give us fair warning and a couple of flashes of the high beams letting us know they are approaching fast in the same lane and we should move over. It is not uncommon to have a car sit on your bumper moving at 140km/hr or better. Really, that situation should not even arise. When those lights flash in the rear view mirror you do what you can to move into the lane to the right. We try to keep the tempo of traffic but the only time I can hit 140+ km/hr is when the car is empty and the cargo box is removed. It is kinda fun to go over 160km/hr. This time of year it is hard to tell if the road are safe to drive fast. Just like Montana black ice is always a concern.
Maybe the Kurents will do their job and scare away winter. Maybe winter will hang around for a couple more weeks. Who knows. If there is fresh powder in the mountains I will be happy for the purchase winter has on the mountains. If the sun re-affirms it’s dominance I will be eager to get on my bike and continue exploring the marvelous land that Slovenia has to discover.