Sunday, October 14, 2012

Steam Train Ride to Sosa Valley, Slovenia

As part of our journey to Rovinj at the end of September, we passed through Ljubljana.  We visited the castle and had a grand time.  While we were there we discovered the possibility of taking a steam train across Slovenia to the border of Italy.  Known as the Soca Valley, we later found the Italian name is Isonzo, a name we all remember from our study of World War I.  Over 600,000 soldiers lost their lives there.  The valley is the setting of Hemingway's novel, Farewell to Arms.  But we learned all that later.  Upon reflection, it is almost impossible to believe that such a beautiful place could be the site of so much suffering.

We traveled from Rovinj back to Ljubljana on Friday, October 12.  We left the Ljubljana Railway Station early Saturday morning.  We traveled to Jesenice Slovenia which is just south of the Austrian border.
With a huge self-important huff, the steam engine was ready to go.
Along with the conductor and the accordion player.  I didn't get to know the conductor too well, but the accordion player and I became good friends.  The detail about not sharing a common language was of no consequence.  Toward the end of the excursion, he told the group, "She's English, but she's OK."  I felt like I had passed a test.
Another huff and another official.  There's just something about a man in uniform!
Our compartment matched the uniforms of our train staff.  However, Stanley and I agreed it wasn't so much more antique than the compartment we shared between Budapest and Zagreb two years ago.  By the end of the excursion those benches had become very hard indeed.
This is the face of a man who got up way too early.   I attribute the glassy eyes to a total lack of caffeine.  I looked worse!
And we were off!
First stop was Bled Jezero where we saw a reenactment of the opening of the Bohinj Railroad by Franz Ferdinand, his girlfriend Mitzi, and an unidentified guard who later checked our compartment for bombs and other contraband.
With the clicking and clacking of iron wheels, the huffing and puffing of that big engine, and the screaming whistle blowing holes in the sky, we rolled on leaving a cloud of smoke that seemed to hang forever in the valleys and cinders in search of a dry twig.  Thankfully, the world was still damp from the previous week's rain.  But even then, I wondered!  
In addition to all the fruit growing, this is a fine area for timber.  I can't begin to tell you how much lumber we saw stacked in this one yard and there were lots of yards equally well supplied.
Franz and Mitzi paid us a visit.
And my friend the accordion player dropped by to play Spanish Eyes.  
On through the Julian Alps.  Past villages, clear water, and miles of pasture.  Sometimes, you could catch all three at once.
And sometimes there was nothing but an abandoned castle on a rocky knoll.
Where there were people, there were gardens.  I saw very little in the way of green grassy yards, but I saw thousands of gardens.
A stop to check the oil and fill up on fuel.  
The accordion player provided food for the soul.
Some folks just couldn't control themselves.
And Stanley and I finally had enough caffeine to properly wake up.
Another bend in the tracks.  A little farther up the mountain.  Around one more bend.  There is was - The Soca river.  The valley it created was so deep and narrow there was little room for villages.  There was barely enough room for the tracks.  
Finally, we reached the top.  We transferred to a bus that took us to Dobrovo.  It looked like the Tower of Babel and sounded like it, too.  There is no telling how many languages were being spoken at any one time on that tower.  I sent Stanley up while I enjoyed speaking English with a primary school English teacher from Budapest and a retired gentleman from San Antonio Texas.

The pictures Stanley took from the top are stunning.  Grapevines and fruit trees as far as you can see.  Just a few miles from the Adriatic, tucked into the shelter of the Julian Alps, this area provides ideal year-round climate for fruit.  The people who live here have learned how to use every square inch of the soil.  Terraced mountainsides capture the warmth of the sun and the precious rain.
The lunch was a little bit cheesy - and there was no cheese on the menu - but we enjoyed our table companions.  
Especially these two!

After lunch we had a few minutes to explore on our own.  The scenery was breath taking.
We visited the winery, but I couldn't get too excited.  It was magnificent, but pretty much the same as large wineries around the world.  I was impressed with the number of grape growers who participate in the coop.  Over 450!  I believe that when you get 450 growers of anything to cooperate, you've achieved something wonderful!
As of now, this is the only wine produced there available in the United States.  If you find it, try any one of the whites.
The walls of the tasting room were lined with old photos.  I love this one.  
LOL!  How funny!  After lunch entertainment!
Our guide gathered us all up.  Enough wine and merriment.  We were off to Smartno!  Now why did I think that was funny?
Smartno is a village that looked like this just a few years ago.  An ancient village that had been left to ruin.  Amazing what a combination of money, hard work, and concentrated effort can accomplish.

Look at it shine now.
It is still a work in progress, but it's come so far!
I love this photo that shows how one of the buildings looked in 1999 and how it appeared in 2002.
This is a poster I saw in town.  It has nothing to do with the reconstruction of Smartno - well, maybe it does!
One more look at the never-ending vineyards.
On to our final destination, Nova Gorica where we would board the train for the trip back to Jesenice.
Here's the train station and right in front of the station
is this plaque in the piazza.  In 1947, following World War II, many parts of Europe were reassigned.  Goriza was taken from Slovenia and given to Italy.  Slovenia developed a new Gorica or Nova Gorica.  By 2004 both Italy and Slovenia were part of the European Union so they dismantled the wall that had served to divide the two countries and this plaque is the only reminder of the former border.  Stanley and I stood with one foot in each country.

The trip back was uneventful.  Darkness fell quickly in the mountains.  By the time we reached Jesenice, it was pitch black and cold.  There is almost always at least one person in every group who speaks English.  As we waited for our train back to Ljubljana in the cold dark, I joked that someone should have brought the whiskey and black coffee.  One woman clearly understood what I said.  She laughed and translated for the others.  Another one said something that I didn't totally understand, but I did get the word 'schnapps.'  The English speaker told me that the woman had schnapps she was willing to share.  Not wanting to drink out of her bottle, I declined, but wait . . . she not only had a bottle of schnapps, she had a container of little plastic cups.  She was obviously prepared to share. 

I relate this story only for educational purposes.  If you are ever half-frozen waiting for a train, forget the whiskey and black coffee.  Look for the lady with the schnapps.  I never learned her name or what language she spoke, but I do want to say, "Thank you!"