We awake in our hostel (actually it is a pod; we know this because it is called Pod Lipo) the following morning to a drizzling rain, falling from a depressingly dense sky that looks unlikely to lift. But do we care! No, we are still too busy congratulating ourselves on our good fortune with the Pod, courtesy of Hostelbookers.com, which is not only as comfortable as many a travelodge but is also run by the Nicest Man in Eastern Europe, who shows us the free internet connection, free tea and coffee, mysterious workings of the hot water system and loads us with maps and leaflets in a manner so close to sheer joy it almost involved skipping. And it wasn’t a one-off either because we were woken at about 2am by the sound of him doing it all over again for another grateful arrival. The only thing wrong with the place is that the bathroom light continually turns itself on, times out and turns on again, but after I have spent a good thirty minutes in the small hours crouching in my pants and vest in front of what I later discover is a window that opens onto a square and must have the effect of a nice picture-frame for the seven thousand people in the block of flats opposite, I successfully fool the errant light into slumber.
In the kitchen, a foal is pottering about making bacon sandwiches. Not really a foal, of course, a blond male very young human who turns out to be a mathmo from Christs (thus lending further weight to a theory held by my mother that there are only about five thousand people in the world; it’s just that they’re all where you are, whether that be studying at your university, touring in Eastern Europe or queuing in front of you in the Holloway Road Waitrose; I intend to work it up into a paper one of these days). He is incomparably sweet and chatty and unsteady on his little hooves, and volunteers within seconds of meeting me to make me a bacon sandwich. I am sorely tempted because last night I made my first restaurant blunder (ho yes!) by trying to order something involving sausages and pickled cabbage which made my mouth water even in mistranslated English-via-German-via-Serbo-Croat. The waiter made a noise of pity. That is a winter dish only. A winter dish? It’s sausages. I make do with a creamy ink and squid risotto which turns out to be fabulous, but I am still left feeling oddly cheated of a quota of pig product that should have been mine. Pigs 1 – Mortimer 0, and the balance must be redressed. Nonetheless I decline the foal’s kind and wobbly offer, partly because I am afraid it will take him three quarters of an hour and the rest of his pocket money, and partly because I am impatient to get out into Dampest Slovenia and begin the Odyssey in earnest.
One of the great things about being badly travelled (and I am appalling; Judith is better but she makes up for it by not having left the country on her own account this side of the millenium) is that everything is so exciting. Everything. Road crossings, chemists, postmen (actually the postmen really are pretty damn exciting – they wear waistcoats, tight black trousers with silver piping, extremely shiny knee-high boots and ride about on Victorian bicycles. How arresting! as Mr Wingfield might say) We are delighted out of all proportion for example to discover that the pedestrian road crossings give you a countdown to the red lights – so delighted are we that we almost forget that Slovenian Green Men are LIARS and are nearly run over by a tram – and I for one steadfastly refuse throughout the entire trip to cross the road UNTIL the countdown has ended, and the pips that accompanied the countdown suddenly double to a speeding frenzy that is presumably intended to mimic the beating of your own heart as you scurry forth and attempt to outwit the lying little green men.
We meander down to the middle of town easily enough without a map – the streets bend steeply towards the river and we can see the castle high up on the forested crag on the far bank. It’s a very easy place to navigate because the surrounding hills are so sheer – they literally rear up at the ends of the streets – that you cannot be mistaken about which way you’re facing. The houses are curlicued, three-storeyed, ice-cream coloured, with neat little shutters picked out in white and window-basketed with vivid geraniums, like a miniature Napoleonic Paris, the bars are thickly ranged along the river in a pleasant cheek-by-jowl manner that promises much pivo (beer) and little walking, and the willows sweep pleasantly between the bridges. But it’s that shimmering river, the Ljubljanica, that pulls it all together. It is the most remarkable green I’ve seen running water anywhere outside Wales or the west country. It looks like someone has emptied a bucket of green primary school poster paint into it, and it’s so clean its little diamond reflections bounce off the buildings. You feel healthier just looking at it. We are so entranced by the pretty country market town feel that it is something of a shock to remind oneself – when we run across an embassy of some sort, I think – that this is actually a capital city.
How green was our river?
The Tourist Information Centre is glossy, welcoming and professional-looking, in stark contrast to the staff who are uncertain, secretive and behave as if they’ve never really done this sort of thing before and don’t much like it now they’ve tried it. A dour-looking woman backs covertly away from her side of the counter as we approach. Over the next day or two, no matter how determinedly we manipulate the queue, we always seem to end up with this woman, whose day job is clearly supplemented by her work as a field agent for the Slovenian Intelligence service because she is reluctant to tell us anything.
The first thing we want to know about is stamps. We intend to send postcards from every destination no matter what the hardships involved, ha! never let it be said that we are unadventurous.
“You can buy stamps from any post office,” she says, expanding her arms to indicate the bounty of post offices throughout Ljubljana, and then turns to the next customer.
Well, thanks. And there was me thinking that post offices sold antique musical instruments. It is, of course, never true that you can only buy stamps from post offices and the alternative vending points vary in subtle and unlikely ways as you travel across Europe. If you go into a tabaccheria in northern Spain, on the hardly unreasonable assumption that they serve the same functions as French tabacs, and ask for stamps they look at you as if you are from Mars, because of course in Catalunya you can only buy stamps from greengrocers, tree surgeons and vending machine repair shops, tonto. We ask about river tours, and she concedes that they do, indeed, exist. Further cross-examination eludicates that an English-speaking tour takes place at 6.30 each evening and that the boat leaves from “just outside over there” – indicating the south-east quarter of Ljubljana. We think this is probably enough fieldwork for now and set off to Wander Round Aimlessly as is our preference.
We are carried by a flow of tourism up to an immensely juicy-looking vegetable market, where we walk in a happy daze prodding melons and Ljubljanans flit around us like purposeful minnows wearing expressions of tight-lipped tolerance that I recognise because I have one of my own for use in central London. In fact that scene – milling tourists, a graceful stone colonnade arcing round the market square – is vaguely reminiscent of Covent Garden, except that here there is actual food on sale rather than caddies full of organic rosehip tea, small bottles of body lotion costing £75 and thirty-four cuts of Diesel jeans. It is also noticeable that few Londoners these days carry baskets over their arms and having been to Ljubljana I can tell you that we are the poorer for it. We are drawn by a deep, watery succulent smell into the cool lower levels of the colonnade, where we goggle at glistening mounds of fish. We eat purply prismatic trout in the resident restaurant, mine poached, Judith’s grilled, swilling down pivo and Slovenian white, then we lean over the grand Viennese balustrade, gaze at the green river and feed the ducks the last of our bread.
Full of fish.
The waitress hates us. As we are lingering over our drinks making contented noises and creating evil misrule among the ducks (“Heh heh! Look, you got that one on the head again! Hey, let’s try and confuse this one by throwing two bits of bread at once!”), two elderly women with those strange loose patterned dresses and stout shoes worn by elderly women everywhere come in. They hate us too.
I regret, the waitress says, there is currently no room for you.
The two old women tighten their mouths like dogs’ bottoms.
We too regret this very much, they reply ominously.
Ah but so. Would you perhaps like to sit on that little bench a foot away from and facing those two defenceless English girls, clutch your big handbags until your knuckles whiten and turn the awesome power of your Slavic hatred against them?
Yes, they would like that very much, and after a while we are sufficiently unnerved to make good our escape.
We take a spanking new funicular (lovely word, lovely thing) up to the Castle and dive in and out of the various exhibitions as the rain washes periodically over Ljubljana. This wasn’t what I signed up for at all! I have packed for thirty degrees of heat and as a result am having to wear all my warmest clothes at once – a short red stripey dress over jeans with a green cardigan and a brown rain hat. Mysteriously, any three of these seem to meld in fine together and look like products of the disparate indy-hipster wardrobe that they are, but add the fourth and I become Mad Aunt Mortimer of the Balkans. It is going to be a pretty poor look-out if I have to spend the whole trip drinking sweet sherry, using talcum powder and muttering to myself about mothballs, so I do hope the rain stops. I am also rather glum at this point because my camera batteries have apparently not charged successfully (later we try and buy some at a tardis-like shop near the Pod, which sells absolutely everything in the world except the only two things we need to buy, which are batteries and stamps). However, the latter problem looks like being solved when we collapse grumpily, exhausted by a difficult encounter with a pair of 3D glasses and a short film whose voice-over makes us giggle like the cynics we are, onto a red sofa which is, mysteriously, parked under a cloister in the castle bailey. The red sofa has Slovenian writing on its slipcover, but this detains us not at all as it has comfy seats and – joy! – an ash-tray on a stalk at arm-height. (Everyone smokes in the Balkans, so I am taking a treasured eighteen days out of my usual five-a-week huddled in a corner existence to puff away like an industrial chimney without feeling like a social pariah. And much good it does me, I’m sure.) It is only when a brightly-mannered girl approaches with a professional looking camera that we realise we may have stumbled into the middle of something.
“Ha ha ha that’s so funny!” she smiles fixedly as we ham it up. God alone knows what it is we are advertising. Maybe the writing says “Everybody in Ljubljana hates us”, “These people are laughing now, but eventually they will die of lung cancer and YOUR taxes will pay for their palliative care” or “Rights for arms-dealers (and Rupert Murdoch isn’t that bad either)”. I gave her my email address in the hope of getting them sent on to us but I haven’t heard from her – if you happen to be down Slovenia-way anytime soon and you see me on a billboard, do let me know. But my budding promotions career is almost cut short when we climb up the castle tower. This is done via an Escher-like iron staircase enclosed by red railings which appears to be wilfully playing with reality. People who I can hear above me are suddenly below me without having passed me on the stairs, people are stepping out for a breather onto stone ledges to which I do not appear to have access. Have I entered a nightmare? Am I still back at the pod? Worse still, am I actually still in Muswell Hill and about to miss the plane?
When we get to the top, all is explained by another entrance opposite ours – there are two staircases winding round each other like a strand of DNA, but I am too busy to remark upon this at the time because I am clutching frenziedly at solid matter as I goggle over the edge. The top of the tower is small – about ten feet square, and most of the middle is taken up by the hoods of the two iron stair-cases – and there are battlements up to about waist height, but in between the crenellations are great big chunks of nothing, and no railings (there’s no room) between Mortimer and a sheer drop of six hundred feet. Looking up at the Ljubljanan flag is somehow even worse, as what was a pretty little fluttering penant from the ground is actually a great five-foot long violently kicking piece of canvas, and provides perspective of a sort I could well do without.
“Just imagine… if you had a moment of madness…” says Judith with what seems to me to be inappropriate excitement. This moment of madness theme is one we will revisit, I’m sorry to say, but at the time I merely gulp and take my eyes off the mind-stretching deathleap below. By the time we have descended and meandered down the wooded hillside by means of a zig-zagging cinder path that presents challenges to our flip-flops, the rain has cleared off and the evening is turning calm and even a little warm. Encouraged, we mooch down to the river to catch our evening boat tour. There is a reluctance, which we are now realising is characteristic of Slovenia, to have anything to do with such fripperies as advertising. Slovenians appear charmingly confused by the notion that people might want to visit their country. It takes us a good few minutes to locate the pier from which the boat will depart and its total desertion does not give us confidence. There is no ticket booth, but there is a small sign that says we may, if we wish, purchase tickets at the Tourist Information Centre.
We troop back there, and ask our handler straight out if this is true.
“Yes,” she says.
Then why in the name of arse didn’t you sell us the tickets this morning? The tickets are €7.50 each, so paying for both of us I hand over a €20 note. She looks at it with distaste.
“Haven’t you got anything smaller?”
She loses interest in us and leaves a brow-beaten colleague to locate our change, which he does only with difficulty because the backlit digital tills appear to be art installations rather than operative machines. As I wait a shattered looking couple enter, backpacked to the nines, and fall against the counter. I smile knowingly at them in a one-traveller-to-another manner, intending to empathise with the self-imposed plight of trudging into a tourist office in a strange city at 6pm with nowhere to stay, though unfortunately as the physical evidence of my ‘packer status is currently lacking, they may just think I am laughing at their appearance. Downcast, they turn hopefully to Control.
“Where is the nearest campsite, please?”
“Five kilometres away,” she says, and resolutely turns her back on them.
He asked too many questions in the Tourist Information Centre…
Join OUR HEROES again next time as they GET ON THE BOAT and quickly CAUSE EVERYONE TO HATE THEM EVEN MORE!