What if every day was a beer festival

Ah yes, one of those days again. I’ve written about last year’s beer festival in Maribor in one of my first posts. Now we’re all a year older and I won’t lie to you, I still like a good glass of beer. Problem is, good beer doesn’t come round that easy in our parts. You might think it’s good, but then you haven’t been to a good beer festival. It wasn’t that long ago that you could only get cheap big-brewery pilsners around here, the two big brands being Laško and Union. They’re not much different from every other Becks, Heineken or all those international Pisswassers. They’re good if you don’t have anything else at hand, but otherwise unimpressive.

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Union would be the muck in the red cans. Despite having dozens of craft beers on offer, some people decided to go the usual supermarket route.

It’s been like that for decades, and nobody really minded much. Then, a few years ago, some people obviously got tired of drinking bad beer and independent small-time craft breweries started popping up all over the place and they made some wacky stuff. Perhaps the most internationally acclaimed establishment in the field would be Bevog, which actually operates just across the border in Austria. Still, they’re run by a Slovenian outfit and their know-how has produced some rather splendid brews. Right around that time things started growing and we got a number of craft breweries to choose from – Human Fish, Pelicon and Tektonik, to name a few.

Beer lovers rejoiced as they finally had something of quality to drink and it was soon realised that a good beer festival would go a long way. Sure enough it did, and similar events can now be enjoyed in many cities across the country.

The Makro Beer Fest was the latest such event, hosted at Maribor’s Main Square, just outside the townhouse. Sad to say Maribor has seen better days in years gone by, so events like these are not only good for beer lovers, but for locals in general. It reminds them that the city has a lot to offer and that it’s streets can still be a good place to enjoy a friday evening.

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As well as Slovenian breweries, there were a few from Croatia and Serbia present as well. Above: Kabinet Brewery (SRB)

The event was largely organised by Andej Krštinc, the owner of a nearby speciality beer shop called Pivarna. I really enjoy these old town style small shops and the people who run them. They provide a very emotional alternative to big retail chains and it’s a shame that huge malls and supermarket chains have largely displaced these places that were once full of character.

A call went out asking for volunteers to help setting up the last odds and ends on the morning before the event, and as I had nothing else to do, I decided to bike my way over and lend a hand. A couple of busy hours later we had the stalls and tables set, the brewers had all arrived and it was time to start pouring. I scored a few tasty beers along the way, then got paid in still more beer tokens. It  turned out it was just enough to last me throughout the evening tasting rounds that were to follow.

As darkness fell upon Maribor, crowds came out to enjoy the early autumn night. The weather was perfect for the time of year and the square was bustling with activity.It was a real joy to see people experiencing beer in a completely new way – most were probably used to drinking it from a tankard or straight out of the bottle, and definitely not from what was essentially a wine glass. Still, the nature of craft beer is such that it’s best enjoyed slowly, sip by sip, taking in the smells, colours and tastes of the brew – much like good wine.

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There were more than a dozen different breweries offering 3 or even more beers on tap, so you really couldn’t go through them all. Including offerings from local young guns Lobik, Zmajska pivovara from Zagreb, the well-established Tektonik, and some other chance picks. Drinking mostly big-brewery lagers, you soon forget how much can be got from combining water, yeast, hops and barley. There is endless variety and even within one style of beer the differences in character are incredible.

What is incredible is also the culture behind the craft brewing scene. You meet all sorts of interesting characters at such events. For the most part, people who appreciate this kind of beer are also slightly unique and free-thinking. They really care about their product because it’s a labour of love and hard work. On top of that it’s a huge financial undertaking to start a brewery and keep it running. That glass of beer is not only a good tasting drink, but also a story of dedication, commitment and personal pride. When drinking such brews, one can not look past the people who make it happen and it’s precisely this that adds the experience even more value.

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The face of a man with not a care in the world. Prvo viško pivo from the island of Vis, Croatia

I’m really glad to see craft beers making their way into the mainstream. It’s not quite there yet, but it’s out in force and showing no signs of stopping just yet. If there were only 2 or 3 different beers available a decade ago, we now have shops which provide a selection of products from around the world. There’s still some effort in procuring these brews, specially if you live outside bigger cities, but there is little that can stop a man in search of good beer. It surely looks like the demand is there, and we can hope the supply keeps up with the trend.

Have a look through the rest of the gallery and don’t forget to leave your own thoughts and impressions down below.

The beauty of looking at pictures the old way

The local fire department in which I am a member recently celebrated it’s 90 years of existence.  Now, a 90th anniversary is no small thing, and we celebrated accordingly. There was a big garden party held for the general public, as well as a parade of classic firetrucks and a formal gathering of invited dignitaries the evening before.

Over the recent years I’ve become the go-to photographer in the department – a job that I take great joy in. Of course I am there to do other things beside simply taking pictures, but whenever they need to cover an important event, I’m usually the one to do it. Situations can range from emergency calls to different social gatherings and celebrations, like the one we just had. It’s all on a voluntary basis and no one gets paid to do any of it, which is part of the fun, I think.

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A topic like that deserves a dedicated post though, for I had something else in mind today.

One of the guests at the birthday party was Mr. Albreht, a long-time secretary for the fire department. He is seen in the cover picture sitting in the middle. Though he passed on his duties to the younger generation and mainly enjoys the quiet of his home, he still attends most of the bigger gatherings from time to time. He is also quite an outspoken guy and has asked me on occasion to have a couple of photos developed, so he’d have a memory of the event. Of course I’m happy to oblige – he’s never been pushy about it, always insisted on paying the expenses and is genuinely happy when I bring him the photos.

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It is even more of a satisfaction for me, for several reasons. Firstly, no one ever asks for physical copies any more. I usually just pick out the good pics and post them on Facebook, then tag everyone and wait for the likes to start dropping. Admit it, it’s what we all do. Of course it feels good to see that red notification marker, but there’s no real emotion in it. It can’t compare to actually handing someone the pictures and seeing their reaction for the first time. And we generally don’t even look at pictures on the screen, we just quickly glance over them.

Then there’s the trip to the photo studio. This might be a nuisance in many ways, especially if I had to do it often. As it stands now, on only go there every once in a while, either for Mr. Albreht or the local hiking club, where I’m also a member. The pictures are usually printed in about 30 minutes, just long enough to have any ice cream at the guy across the street. I remember having to wait for days when my dad took his film to be developed when I was a kid. It helps a lot that there’s usually an attractive girl who works there as well. Makes my day easily, a unique selling proposition. I wonder if I’d even be going there if it was an old fat bloke instead of her…

Lastly, there’s the joy of having the actual photos in your hand and delivering them over. It’s a different feeling than simply doing it because someone’s going to pay you. I could have said “yeah ok” when Mr. Albreht asked me for those photos. Then I’d pretend I’d forgotten, who knows when I would see him next and by that time it would have slipped my mind and his completely. The photos would be left in some file on my computer, forgotten like most of the others.

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It took me no time at all to get them. While for some they might be just slips of paper, I’d like to think he’ll look kindly on them. It was funny, he was very upbeat about his funeral plans when we talked. Like he had the whole thing planned out already; who to invite and who not to, what it’s going to look like and so on. He didn’t look terminally ill or anything, but I guess you start thinking about these things when you reach old age.

Or course I wish him luck and good health for however long he wishes to stay with us. But I’m sure those photos I brought him will endure somewhere and mean something to someone. Maybe in a decade or two his grandson will find them in an old album and wonder at the life he lived.

***

So many things are digital these days. From pictures to pastimes and friendships, it all seems rushed and artificial at times. Instead of a smile and a thank you we crave for likes and comment replies, and the talk is often about cats or how some guy fell down the stairs. The story expires as soon as you scroll down to the next irrelevant bit.

If by now you’re still reading, I suggest you stop and look for that dusty box of photos. Bring your granddad along if you still have the chance and listen to his stories. And if you have a hard drive full of pictures, pick out the best ones and invest 20 bucks for a nice album and have them developed. In the end, it’s about you, your past and your memories.

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The Peking to Paris Motor Challenge stops in Maribor; gallery inside

If you are at least a bit into cars and road racing, you must have at some point seen pre-war, black & white films of loud, monstrous machines at places like Le Mans or the Mille Miglia in Italy. Ever since the creation of the automobile, road racers have done their best to push their cars and themselves to the absolute limit and history is full of such legendary sporting events. And while here in Slovenia, we might not have a deep automotive history behind us, a part of it came knocking on my doorstep this afternoon.

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An absolutely gorgeous Bentley Sport Special from 1936

Meet the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge – a continent-crossing endurance rally for vintage cars that takes participants from – you guessed it – Beijing in China to the french capital of Paris. The oldest cars in the race are just about turning 100 years old and they have been doing 500 kilometers per day for the last month across rural China, Mongolia, Russia and the like.

Forget air-conditioned garages and exquisite showrooms, these gems have faced endless dirt roads, snowstorms, scorching heat and more than a handful of technical difficulties. 107 driver-navigator crews have set out a month ago and up to now only 6 have had to drop out. Along the way they are being helped by a total of 10 mechanics in 5 support vehicles, plus other organising staff and members of the national automobile clubs.

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Car #21 is a 1933 Rolls Royce Phantom II by Malaysia’s Hok Kiang Sia & Eric Kuang Rong Sia.

Although speed is important, crews must battle much more than the clock before they reach Paris. Getting these machines to the overnight stay is a big mechanical and navigational challenge and of course the sleeping accommodations aren’t always top-notch either. After 10 hours of battling the steering wheel and the elements, a warm bed is something every participant would eagerly desire. But sometimes, a sleeping bag and tent in the middle of the desert is all they could get.

Like the cars themselves, the event has it’s own unique reputation and history. When the first iteration occurred some of the oldest cars here were considered the best that money could buy at the time. Who knows what stories they might tell if they could speak, but only a lot of love and care of their owners brought them to Maribor today.

Mind you, racing in an event such as this does not come cheap. The cars alone must cost a hefty sum to maintain, and then there is the entry fee. Around 38.000 pounds will get you in, if you have a car that fits the wishes of the organizers. You will be provided a lot of support throughout the race, but it is up to you keep the car running and get to the finish line in Paris.

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You won’t find air conditioning here. Nor will there be power steering or air bags. You’ll be lucky to have a roof.

It is safe to say that I will most likely not see such a collection of magnificent automobilia ever again in my life. Apart from the general amazement of the gathering, several things stood out for me.

Firstly, that you would even take a 70 or 80 year-old car on such a trip and that it would make it when some of the modern cars would surely struggle a lot more. They are of course specially modified, prepared and maintained on a daily basis, but you would sooner expect them on a pedestal in some museum that out in the dirt of the Slovenian hillsides. I loved seeing them in action, some banged and bruised a big, but roaring noisily none the less.

Then, seeing that a lot of the crews were family based. By the names on the doors you could see the husband-wife connection, or even some father-son pairs as well. Doubtless every duo had to share a special kind of bond towards each other and toward the car as well, to even consider signing up for such a race.

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Bentley Boys

Sometimes I wish we had a car culture that would be similar in spirit to those of other countries like Germany, USA or the United Kingdom. I love stories of cars that have been in the family for decades. In doing so they become part of that family, a prized possession and a way of life. For different reasons I have never seriously considered owning an older, iconic car instead of my current mk 4 Golf, though the wish was in my mind. Either it was for lack of money, space or mechanical skill or something else, I always chose the sensible option.

But now after this event I got to thinking about that classic Mini I always thought was so much fun. Perhaps some day one of them might end up under my roof yet.

***

You are of course invited to look through the rest of the pics from today’s event down below. If you’d like to learn more about the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, I suggest you head over to their official website. Watch out for the superbly stocked gallery as well.

The local classic car club brought some of their gems:

And then there were the participants themselves; you can check the vehicle details and track the race crews on the website.

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Le Mans-style hiking & biking for a good cause

Yesterday I took two of my friends, Sanja and Damijan on a rather special outdoor event in Ruše, just outside Maribor. The local elementary school prepared a 24-hour charity hike & bike which had everyone doing round trips from the starting point to a bar some 3 kilometers up the hill. There was a control point at each end where you checked in, along with some refreshments and music – a pretty simple concept and easy to pull off just about everywhere, but it got people going in a big way.

While the hiking route ran up through forests in a number of ways, cyclists had 6 kms of paved roads to manage, with a rise of around 300 vertical meters. It might not sound a lot, but most of the participants – including us – did multiple repeats, and some went deep into double digits. In fact – in the time of writing this, they’re still at it. The official incentive was that for every lap completed, more would be donated to charity. The event started at 4 pm yesterday (friday) and would run all through the night, finishing 24 hours later. And while the charity aspect was a nice touch, I had the feeling most of the people were there in the spirit of friendly competition. Everyone had that one more notch in their minds, some cyclists even more so, it seemed.

At first we were quite concerned about the weather, which has been acting up in the last couple of days and the forecast wasn’t promising either. Luckily the heavy rain clouds dispersed just hours before the event, the sun came out and so did many of the locals. It was really nice to see such a diverse crowd – schoolkids, young families, pensioners and active runners, all were doing their share to contribute to the experience.

Our own plan was to start late in the afternoon and keep on walking well into the night. Sanja was having some problems with her stomach, but luckily she’s tough as nails and we pressed on regardless. Along the way we met the self-pronounced oldest hiker of the day, looking strong at 87. “You’ll have many hard moments in life,” he said. “But just like hiking, you have to take it one step at a time and eventually you’ll get there.” Talk about spirit.

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Looking down on Maribor

It’s amazing what an active lifestyle can do for a person. Right then I thought of my grandma, who’s been watching TV and doing crossword puzzles for the past 30 years. She’s 86 now, a year younger than the man we met. She has a very hard time managing the three steps at her house.

Pretty soon we came upon Martnica, the finishing point for the first of what would later be three repeats. The hiking route met up with the cyclists and the cafe terrace was packed. It also meant I could gaze my eyes on some rather nice road bikes. Click through the gallery if you’re interested.

 

I’d like to direct your attention to the bright blue Rog Super. In the age when high-performance carbon bikes are commonplace, these retro beauties really stand out. Even more so because Rog is a nostalgic Slovenian bike brand, now sadly a remnant of times gone by. Attempts are being made to restore the name, but I fear the products they will make (if any) won’t have much in common with the factory from decades ago.

You can read a story about Rog and it’s Pony bikes in a fun post called “Only half a turn.”

After looking around and resting a bit, we turned back down and pretty soon the sun went down with us. The clouds were nowhere to be seen and above us opened a canopy of stars worthy of the greatest Hollywood romance. We were far away from the city lights, so the stars were even brighter. Such a wonderful sight, but one many people never even think about any more.  You really should take time to look up at the night sky more often. The view is quite humbling.

So we kept on walking by the light of headlamps into the early morning. The number of people thinned understandably, but there were still small groups or individuals out walking even at 1 am. Altogether we did 3 laps in about 7 hours, stopping at around 2pm. By that time some of the cyclists had done more than 10 repeats and were seriously thinking about breaking last year’s record, said to be at 32 climbs. Not bad for a day’s work. 🙂

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Ride report: AJM Team Time Ride 2016

I’m just back from a great day of cycling at an event called AJM Team Time Ride, a rather splendid, easy-going ride around the vineyard hills just outside the center of Maribor.

As you might have read in one of my previous posts, it’s a “race” where teams of 2-4 people compete in getting as close as possible to the average time of all teams. Sounds a bit complicated, right? Here’s how it works: Each team rides around the course together and their time is recorded at the end. When all teams finish an average time is calculated and the team that finishes with a time as close as possible to it is crowned the winner. Of course you never know what the actual average time is going to be, so it’s pure guesswork how fast or slow you should be going, or indeed how many Spritzer* stops you should make.

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More than 220 team set out on a route that started in the village of Kamnica and went into the surrounding hills, which are a pallet of forests, meadows and vineyards. This meant a constant up-and-down mix of tarmac and dirt roads and even though the course was only about 25 kilometers long, it still took some time to complete. Mainly it was because of the hundreds of cyclist sharing the roads with you, but people also paused a lot at the many wine producers opening their doors to the masses cycling by.

The “most average team wins” concept kept pace low as well. Riders had plenty of time to make the hilly round trip, so no one was in a hurry to get back. I took my friends Nejc and Gregor with me and we entered as Prazni Krigli, or “The Empty Tankard Team”. We each strapped a beer tankard to our backpack and set off. Right around the first couple of corners came the biggest climb of the course which could seriously ruin your (otherwise quite perfect) day, if you weren’t prepared mentally or physically. Some were already stepping off and pushing their bikes through the forest, cursing their teammates for talking them into ever doing the ride.

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Because of the local geography, the route was quite tricky and unpredictable.There was very little flat terrain. Short, steep hills prevented you from seeing very far ahead and there wasn’t a definite last climb where you could give it your all. You couldn’t really tell how much you still had to go. Even if you thought you were safe for a while, the road picked up sharply just around the corner.

Not that there was any need to go fast. We made good time, avoided most of the wine cellars and even though we helped one lady with a puncture and had lunch before going back to finish the clock, we were still 10 minutes faster than average. Prizes were given out to the winners (2 secs from average) and runners-up (4 secs from average), as well as a host of other achievements. Sadly our team failed to grab any of the prizes – holiday packages in Malta, Greece and Turkey, Scott mountain bikes and Briko cycling gear all escaped our grasp.

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Someone once told Nejc (left) that he looked like Antonio Banderas. Now he won’t stop talking about it.

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While we sadly didn’t get anything at the giveaway, nature more than made up for it and rewarded us with great views and lovely weather.In the end we had a great time and were quite proud of ourselves for having completed the course. As the leader of our team I was most pleased that both Nejc and Gregor, who are not that into cycling as I am, came with me, pushed through the hard bits and enjoyed a wonderful day. To me, that’s a lot more important than winning any prize or title. I hope they’ll come with me again when the time comes to spin the pedals some more.

The AJM Team Time Ride has now been going on for around 7 years, and I believe it’ll be here for at least that many more. With quality sponsors, a large turnout from all over the country and great organisational support, the event has nowhere to go but up. I believe we’ll be there to see how it goes next year, hopefully with some international teams as well.

Some more pictures for you down below, and click here if you want to go to the AJM TTR home page for more info.

For more on cycling in Maribor and the surrounding area, visit the official tourist info site.

*Just to let you know if you don’t already. A spritzer (or špricer, as we call it) is a glass of wine mixed with sparkling water. Served cold and very refreshing. 🙂

Fun cycling ahead!

Finally something that’s cycling-related. When I first started out this site I had this grand vision of how I would ride my bike as far as the eye can see and bring you a million and one amazing stories. Since then my blog has been overrun by posts about hiking, random trips and other miscellaneous adventures. In the midst of all that, cycling has taken a back seat. It’s not that I’ve quit riding my bike, it’s just that I mostly do it on the same old routes and there’s really nothing much to write about.

Until now!

I’m pleased to report that in less than two weeks from now I’ll be taking part in a couple of rather promising cycling events with hopefully a big turnout, great company and nice weather. They’re both recreational events, meant purely for enjoyment on your bike and don’t fall into the category of racing in any real way. Here’s a brief overview of both of them.

AJM Team Time Ride 2016 – May 29th

The AJM Time Ride has over the years gained a reputation as a solid, well organised and much visited cycling event. The route starts in Kamnica, a suburb just north-west of Maribor and then winds it’s way for 25 kilometers and considerable height gains through the surrounding hills, forests and vineyards. Much of the route follows dirt roads, so the Specialized Diverge will probably be left at home, to be replaced by my Felt QX70, left on the picture below. Ever since the Diverge appeared at the house, the Felt has been somewhat pushed to the back and this will be a great opportunity to spend some time with the iron horse again.

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Preparations are under way! My friend Nejc brought his bike around and we gave it a good once-over, so it’ll be ready for the big day.

There’s a fun trick to the Time Ride. It’s not about getting to the finish first, rather it’s about being the most average team on the track. Teams of 2-4 riders set out together in short intervals and complete the preset route. Their time is logged and when all the teams finish, an average time is calculated as the benchmark. The team that gets closest to that average time is then considered the winner and takes home a holiday package in Malta, Turkey or Greece. Special prizes will be given out to the team with the best selfie from the top of the course, so we should definitely do something about that. I’ll be taking my GoPro with me, and we’ll see what we can come up with.

This is the first time I’ll be taking part in the event. I wanted to go for the last 2 years, but never managed due to other setbacks Here’s a video from 2014:

Apparently more than 150 teams have signed up already, which means upwards of 500 riders tackling the course. Let’s just hope the weather holds up. 🙂

8th Europark Bike Marathon – May 28th

Europark is the biggest shopping mall in Maribor and they’ve done a good job of organising an annual cycling event for the last couple of years. This is actually just a day before the Team Time Ride and even more laid back. The setup here is that there are 6 or so starting points all around the Styria region and then everyone meets up at the mall. Again there’ll be a prize giveaway from the sponsors, some music, food and beer.

Though it’s called a Marathon, in reality the route we’re taking is only about 40 kilometers long, so combined with getting to the start site and then back home it should make about 60-70, an mostly flat. I’ve done the event last year and won a wristwatch in the giveaway, but it turned out to be a shabby chic women’s watch with a rubber band and fake diamonds around the encasing. Gave it to my mom who was really pleased for the first five minutes, then never wore it again.

I’ll try to bring back at least some pictures if not videos from both of the events, so follow the blog and come back for more. I’ll try my best to get The Small Country Cyclist back into cycling waters, (though hiking is still cool, don’t forget that).

Hope to see you soon and have a great time! 🙂

 

The 24th Rus Hike on Sljeme, Croatia

The local hiking club organised an outing to neighbouring Croatia today, where we attended the 24th traditional Rus Hike (originally called Rusov pohod) on a hill called Sljeme, just outside the capital city of Zagreb. I’ve written about Zagreb before and sad to say I wasn’t very impressed. The city looked bleak during my last visit which was just before Christmas, but I kept my hopes up this time. I seem to dislike big city centers, especially the ones which still have a taste of socialism on them. Green hills and spring forests are something else completely though, and spending a saturday with a bus full of jolly hikers sounds like a recipe for some good fun.

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It has to be said that our club is pretty small and to even fill up a bus is an achievement in itself. On top of that a big part of our membership consists of pensioners (as is evident from the above picture). Not the perfect demographic to hang out with, you might think, but Ah! Think again. If anyone knows how to have fun and enjoy the outdoors it’s old gray hikers who have been doing it for decades and never leave home without something to drink – and by that I don’t mean fruit juice. They’ll also never leave you in a rut, always look out for everyone else and make damn sure you’re not thirsty, hungry or generally feeling down.

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White wine, red wine, Jaegermeister, forest fruit liquor, schnapps – it’s all in those backpacks somewhere. Best of all, it’s mostly home made.

Lately I’ve been trying to bring some of my friends into the hiking game and so far I’m pleased with the results. Damjan and Sanja, friends from the fire department chose to come along and right after boarding the bus we took up seats in the back row, much like high school kids might have done.

It was about an hours drive to Zagreb with a mandatory break mid-way for an early breakfast and already there were cakes and cookies going around, along with coffee and small bottles of questionable contents. After a short drive through downtown Zagreb we eventually made it to the start point at the lower tourist information office. There we were handed small booklets containing a map and a control paper which you’d stamp at checkpoints along the way, to prove you’ve done the whole trail. At the finish point you’d then be given the final seal of approval and if this was your 3rd, 5th, 7th or 10th time completing the Rus Hike, you’d even recieve a badge or a plaque. Fancy!

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It was my first time though and I was just trying to take in the sights. As you can see, the official name of the organising club is PD Ericsson – Nikola Tesla Zagreb, but the name of the hike comes from it’s founder, Antun Željko Matišin- Rus. The first time this hike was organised was in 1993.

By now it’s become quite a big deal with attendance from Croatia and many surrounding countries, including Slovenia, Hungary, Bosnia and so on. Heading up, we got mixed up in another large group of hikers and walked in a tight bunch for a while. As this is technically not a hard or steep trail, there were people of all kinds here – from locals looking for a workout to older ladies walking their dogs. There was even a small group of high school girls with last night’s makeup and fake leather handbags instead of proper backpacks.

Tired of rubbing shoulders on a narrow trail we soon decided it was time for a new break, some more pastries, perhaps a sandwich and most definitely a passaround of chosen liquors.

By now you can probably see what it all looked like. A lot of sitting and standing around, drinking booze and having fun before moving on to some other place to sit and drink. Well, you wouldn’t be far wrong by thinking that. In such events walking pace is kept low to accomodate everyone and the only thing you have to do is to forget the outside world and enjoy the company and beautiful scenery around you.

But just to assure you it wasn’t all just reckless consumption, here’s a picture to prove it.

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The “stop&go” tempo resumed all throughout the day. Here’s the big difference between hiking alone and being a part of such a big group. When going alone, or with a friend, girlfriend, wife etc., you basically just take things you’re going to need yourself. And I think this is even more true for younger people. Here though – at least in Slovenia – everyone brings stuff to share with everyone else and no one plans on taking anything back home. It makes for constant social interaction and makes one feel truly a part of something bigger, even though everyone else is 30 years their senior.

And so the pace continued throughout the day and our group went on gently climbing and descending along the green hillsides. Ultimately the route brought us to the top Sljeme, which is just over 1000 meters high. As befits a city such as Zagreb, the hill is a popular recreation point for it’s inhabitants and it boasts appropriate infrastructure. It’s easily reachable by car (or even bicycle) and has hotels, cafe bars and even a ski slope awaiting your pleasure. The views were equally as pleasing and a group photo was in order.

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We were very near to the end of our hike, but the day wasn’t done yet – not as long as our backpacks still had something in them. Our bus was waiting not far below the top, so we went to cash in our control tickets and the proceeded with the festivities. It turned out there was enough food still on the bus to host a small wedding and it just wouldn’t do to bring any of it home. When that was mostly done, it was off to the nearest cafe for some lounging in the warm spring sun. My eyes grew heavy then and all I could think was taking a nap somewhere comfy. Here’s me on the left, with Damjan holding onto his beer.IMG_8993Beer done, it was time to really start back. You’d think by that time our supplies would be dwindling, but… There were hidden caches still to be used up. People walked up and down the bus offering whatever they had left – more wine, spirits and even some pretzels this time. We even stopped one more time on the one-hour long journey. It was like nobody really wanted to go home.

Please don’t get me wrong – under no circumstances am I trying to endorse drinking or encourage anyone to drink while hiking. Serious injuries can and doubtless have occured before, not to mention simply acting like an annoying idiot while under the influence. We all go on group hikes to enjoy each other’s company and spend time outdoors. You don’t need alco to have fun, but if you do decide to bring some with you, take care to use it sparingly.

Old firefighting stories take me back to a different time

Something a bit different than hiking and cycling today. If you’ve been around before or you happen to know me personally, you’ll know that beside everything else, I also spend quite some time at my local volunteer fire department.

Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that there are many people who take firefighting a lot more seriously, even though it’s mostly done on a volunteer basis. We are at a point here in Slovenia where pretty much every village has it’s own department and sometimes whole families help out with whatever needs doing in the community. For some, it’s a way of life they’re born into and a village of 150 people will have 120 members in the FD. Sure, they may not all run out to help when the siren sounds, but there are fireman-based competitions, parades, meetings and educational seminars to attend and in most towns, firemen (and women) often help out other groups in the vicinity. It’s a great way to spend time and do something productive, meet new people and help them out in any way that we can. And today was one of such days.

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Public exercises offer great photo opportunities.

Enter my friend Lovro, who at about 21 years old has been a firefighter for more than 10 years. Besides not really thinking about much else in the world he also collects old firefighting items – anything from helmets, suits, badges, and documents to extinguishers, sprinklers and ladders. It has long ago gotten to a point where they’ve moved the family car out of the garage and put in all kinds of things, and even the garage is now becoming too small. I’ll have to go around and bring back some good photos.

So he talks to people and gets his stuff from all over the world. Some local, some from far off places Today he called me up and said he’s got an old ladder waiting for him and we should go pick it up. A remnant of a big industrial fire company that closed it’s doors along with the car factory it served back in the times of Socialism. The company was called TAM and employed about 8000 workers back in it’s heyday, even though half of them didn’t bother working too much. The factory produced trucks and military vehicles and sold them throughout Yugoslavia and other similarly minded countries.

Our department keeps one of their old vehicles, a TAM 125 T10 from around 1980. It isn’t used much any more, but we grab every chance we get to take it out. It requires a C-class license to drive it and luckily I have one and let me tell you – it’s a brute to drive. You need arms of steel to turn the wheel, surgical precision and much practice to actually change gears, a lot of patience and of course time. It’s painfully slow, ineffective and you have to shout over the sound of the engine. Even still, it’s the best thing I’ve ever driven and it brings a massive smile on my face.

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Though replaced with modern machinery, the old beast is still well loved and respected.
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Even getting it started is a mind boggling process. Good luck stealing it. 🙂

And so four of us took the roaring old truck and went to fetch the ladder (you can see the hook on the roof). The fun part was, there was an old man waiting there to greet us, a long-time commander of the TAM fire department and full of stories. I lived not far away from the factory grounds all through my youth and felt even more connected to his anecdotes.In a way, he looked a bit like our truck – slow and out of his time, but don’t think less of people simply because of their age. If you give them a chance and take time to listen to their stories, you might see the world around you in a completely new perspective.

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I failed to catch his name, but over a beer he told us about a housing estate 2 minutes away from where I lived for years – there were apartment blocks there now, but way back when it used to be shacks for workers. “They didn’t even have their own toilets. Everyone had to use communal ones across the street.” Imagine living in a place like that for any number of years.

One of his anecdotes confirmed how easy it was to get a job in those times. “My friend’s son just finished engineering school, so the guy asked me if I could help him find somewhere to work. I went to the HR manager at the factory. She said they’d just took on some people and didn’t have any more space. So I turned around to go and said I’ll make her life hell, just like that. I knew a couple of people. Before I even left the building she called me back and said to bring the boy’s CV. In the end they took on 12 people – 6 of them didn’t even have a place to sit at the office. They just told them to walk around the halls a bit, talk to people. Play some chess. And that’s what they did. And what’s more,  his pay was much higher than mine.”

He had plenty of firefighting stories as well. Apparently they had an old American fire truck back in the 60s and 70s which they used to bring supplies to the cottages and hotels on surrounding hills. “Winters were colder back then, and there was more snow too. We had to climb up twisty hill roads with those trucks, and nobody plowed them either. One of the trucks didn’t even have a roof – snow was up to my cabin sometimes, and it came across the windshield and onto my seat. So before long I had to start throwing it out, all while trying to see the road. It was cold as hell, but you were sweating just from the effort of steering the truck and shifting gears. We had no electronics to help you back then, it was all mechanical. Sometimes it took two people just to turn the wheel.”

Think of it what you will, but I believe the stories weren’t made up. They had no reason to be and I’ve heard many similar things before. These days, it seems like a whole other world to hear of it. And that’s what makes it so special – such first-hand accounts get lost as time goes on and sooner or later there is no one left to tell them.

So if you do get the chance to talk to someone like that – even your grandparents – take a few minutes out of your day and listen carefully. With time come many great stories and a very different view of the world.

 

A strong hiking step into 2016

Having established in one of my previous posts that people around here love to hike and climb mountains, that consequently means we have a number of hiking clubs. One such local club exists a short walk from my home and though I am a member, I’ve never really participated much in their group events. The members are good people, but not exactly my age group and the demographic never fitted me much.

Then I ran into one of the said members a while ago, a sweet lady with short gray hair, a smile always on her lips. She’s one of those people everyone knows in a small town like mine. We talked for a while and I asked her how the club is doing – I knew they were always going places, but save for once I never attended. Her eyes lit up at that and she told me there’s a traditional new year’s hike to the top of Boč (pronounced a bit like botch, with a deeper o) that’s been held for the last 25 years or so, starting on January 1st at 10 am at the usual meeting point in the center of town.

What a great idea! I’d have something to do on the first day of the year, instead of sleeping all day and being generally worthless. And if I managed to go to bed reasonably early after celebrating the new year, I’d even get a good night’s sleep. At least that’s what I thought.

It was a tough call. I semi-promised to show up and that was promise enough to make me get up after about 4 hours of sleep. I even managed to convince one of my frineds, she convinced one of her friends and owing mostly to both of them and the lady from the club as well, I booted up, dressed reasonably warm and made my way to the meet.

I was surprised to see a group of about 15 people there, greeting each newcomer with a smile and a warm handshake. Just that first moment made me lose all doubt of waking up and if the year was to be judged by the first day, this was looking to be a good year indeed. We waited a while longer, then made our way to the base of the hill, about 20 minutes drive away.

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It was a windy zero when we reached the top

Now, Boč is a great ol’ place for hiking. The top lies at 978 meters above sea level and while there are several different trails to get there, the one we chose took about 2 hours to summit. Nothing major, but with the right company it has the chance of seriously making your day. This is the highest hill in this part of the country and from the observation tower on top you can see as far as the Alps on a clear day.

The company itself was great as well. Sure, they were mostly older people in their 50s, 60s or even 70s, but you must remember that some have a lifetime of walking behind them. The first of these organised annual events happened around the time I was born and many of these ladies and gentlemen have summited every worthwhile hill and mountain in the country, plus countless abroad. Some were mountain guides with years or decades of experience. They might be old of age, but with age come experience, countless stories and a knowing of how to properly enjoy these things. Plus, if the need arose, I have no doubt they could outpace many a younger hiker, me included.

The tempo was not hard in any way. Some were doubtless feeling a bit tired from the night before, so no one was in a rush. We made frequent stops and every time hip flasks were passed up and down the column to warm our bodies a bit. They say no true hiker goes out without a few drops his personal choice of liquor – home made herb or fruit schnapps, whiskey, rum or rakija perhaps, all are welcome and provide a great boost to morale and good grounds for discussion.

Luckily the sun was starting to shine as we continued our ascent.  We stopped at a big cross and said our prayers, wishing everyone a happy new year once again and a safe step in future adventures. There has not been a major accident in more than 25 years of the hiking club, a commendable and perhaps the most important fact of all. Hills and mountains are beautiful places, but they can be dangerous as well.

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The summit was not far away now. Interestingly, there is an army base with a big comms tower there as well and I was surprised to find out they even had missile launch sites back in the day. Maybe they still do, who knows. Alongside the base there is also a smaller, faded-green metal observation tower that you can climb to get some of the best views around. There was still mist around the valleys and I only had my phone to take pictures with, so I can’t give you anything better. I’ll make sure to post some more photos at a more apropriate time.

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Down below the tower someone started serving pig snout with bread and cheese. It was another tradition, one to help us plough on ahead through the thick and thin, just as the pigs do. A curious way of doing things, I thought, but I played along. I’m not much of a gourmet, but the snout tasted well enough, and if it helps me get through the year safe and sound, that’s all the better.

With that we started back down. You can go up one way and down the other, and if you do, you soon end up at a large cottage surrounded by grass meadows, ideal for summer picnics and similar events. The main hall itself seats close to a hundred and once again we made a stop here. Tea and wine were quickly served and the other hikers quickly recognised friends from other clubs already enjoying the warm and friendly surroundings. A teenager was playing folk songs on an accordion – something I seldom listen to, but here it felt right on the mark. The waitress kept bringing bottles of white wine and everyone else pulled out everything they were still carrying in their backpacks – slices of smoked meat, cheese, homemade cookies, jaffa cakes – you name it, they had it. And they were not about to take anything back down.

If you can, close your eyes and try to imagine being in a busy alpine cottage after a hard day on the trail. It may be one of the best feelings in the world and such folk music makes the perfect background.

As the wine bottles became ever emptier many people took to the dancefloor, which in turn became more crowded than many of the parties the night before. I had a feeling this could have gone on well into the evening, but we still had to get back to the car before darkness fell.

I guess all of the rituals came through in the end. Everyone returned hapy and smiling, and what was most important – safe as well. The decision to go was right in all respects, despite the uninvting weather in the morning. I can now say the year started the best way possible and I can only hope it goes on to end in the same way as well.

Have a safe and adventure-filled year and try not to shy away from opportunities such as these – in the end, they might be the ones that give you the fondest memories.

All the best in 2016 to all of you!

Festive evenings in Ljubljana

December is traditionally a time of good spirits, christmas cheers and mulled wine. A time to reflect on the year behind us and plan new exciting adventures in the one ahead. It’s also a great excause to have some fun in the company of good frineds.

I just came back from the tongue-twisting town that is Ljubljana, our capital and largest city with about 300.000 inhabitants. My primary reason for being there in the first place was to addend the end of year gettogether of the Slovenian branch of Hostelling International. That basically meant a bunch of keen young travellers hanging out, sharing stories and having a good time. Once again my friend Dušan came along – it was his idea originally as he’s been a member for several years.

 

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The meeting place was the Tresor Hostel in Ljubljana’s city center. Tresor or “Vault” has a unique backstory of being situated in a former bank – hence the name and features all the modern amenities a traveller might want. 24-hour reception with a bar, common areas with various events, spaces for larger gatherings, self-service laundry, free wi-fi and computer corner, bike and even longboard rental, you name it, they got it. You can choose between private rooms and dormitories with up to 10 beds which provide basic furnishings, but you don’t really need more. Following the bank-turned-hostel trend, every room is fashioned after a specific currency, with old bank notes and money-related quotes painted on the walls. Most importantly, everything looks and feels clean, modern, friendly and well managed.

About a dozen of us gathered in front of the hostel and set off on a guided walk of the city center with our guide (in the red jacket on the picture) throwing out handfuls of facts about the history of the streets, buildings, architects, musicians and political events long gone by. It was perhaps a bit hard to follow at times, but I’m certainly not one to disrespect knowledge. Along the way we were taking in the sights, sounds and smells coming from the many stands selling mulled wine and other assorted gourmet products to masses of happy townsfolk. Every time I come to Ljubljana I’m amazed at how busy the streets are even on a weekday evening. The Ljubljanica river gives the city great continuity with shops, pubs and restaurants lined along both banks. The whole center is a big pedestrian zone, so you can walk freely without the hustle and bustle of motorised traffic. Many small bridges over the river connect the banks wonderfully.

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After the walkaround it was time to retreat to the hostel where we settled in for some story sharing and a movie – vote chose The Bucket List with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Just as we settled in pizzas and beer arrived and we had to pause the movie. You can’t keep food waiting, you know how it gets cold and all.

Well fed, movie over, me and Dušan hit the street again in search of some good brews. Luckily for a man like me, pubs around Ljubljana offer a wide selection of domestic and international craft beers. Dušan suggested a pub he knew and it turned out a hit. I ordered myself a Hobgoblin while he went of a more traditional Guinness on tap.

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Good beer sadly not being cheap, we decided to call it quits and end the day with one more walk along the festive streets. I find it fascinating how much more alive Ljubljana is compared to my home town Maribor, which is the second biggest in the country, but nowhere near as busy. Much like the Tresor hostel, the city center is clean and well looked after – you’ll hardly see grafitti tags, broken benches and full trash bins here. The authorities take good care to keep the streets tidy and the tourists love it.

With the hour getting quite late, we made our way back to Tresor. Dušan had to get back home early in the morning while I wanted to take in the sights a bit more. Sadly the day was gray, cold and not at all pleasant. After a bit of a morning stroll and an ascent to the castle above the city, I figured I had enough. My camera would have to wait for a sunnier day and all that was left was to make my way back home.

I’ve come to realise that Ljubljana is a city which I should definitely visit more often. When I do you’ll surely hear about it, but in the meanwhile, click on their official tourist page for more goodies.

And I wouldn’t be at all mad at you if you followed my site and swung by some other time as well. 🙂