I woke up in Vienna, worked a little during the day, then lugged my shit across the sweltering city to the train station. From there, in a dehydrated, pink-faced fluster, I boarded the train to Slovenia.
I was particularly excited to visit Slovenia because it’s the first country on this trip of which I had absolutely zero knowledge. I’ve been to Portugal, Spain, France and Germany before, and while I’ve never been to Austria, I know they speak German and I know they like sausages and mountains. But Slovenia? No idea.
After a four hour train ride through the mountains, during which I had my ear talked all the way off by a young South African couple (much to the chagrin of all the other passengers, who kept passive-aggressively sighing and putting their earphones in) I arrived in Maribor. Maribor is Slovenia’s second-biggest city. It was a population of around 90,000 people, which is… it’s like a medium town in the UK. Blew my mind a little bit.
I’ve realised on this trip that, although I absolutely love being in transit, I hate arriving places. I just like to move – any mode of transport, any direction. It’s the momentum that’s moreish. Each time I arrive somewhere new I get all anxious and unsure of myself and it takes me the rest of the day to feel settled and get my bearings. The second day in any city is invariably better than the first.
I felt very alone walking through Maribor’s quiet streets. My phone had no signal, which meant I was operating mostly on guesswork. I knew my hostel would be somewhere near the centre of town, and I knew the centre of town would be were most people were heading, and I knew that once I got nearer there would be hotels and I could pinch their WiFi and try open Google Maps to sort myself out. It was an uncanny sensation, realising that I know not one single syllable of language. Not ‘hello’, not ‘help’, not even ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It was disconcerting; it dawned on me all at once that nobody for a thousand miles in any direction knew who the hell I was, nor had any reason to care.
Feeling slightly vulnerable, then, I sweated my way through the town, over a very large bridge, and found my hostel after briefly getting lost in a small wood. I checked in, slung my bags in my empty dorm, and asked the hostel owner – bald dude, goatee – where was good for dinner. He told me everywhere was closed already, but there was a Mexican place down the road that might be open.
“Sweet. Do they take card there?” I asked.
He looked at me at me as though I’d just slapped his mother’s tits.
“My friend, you are in Europe! Of course they take card. This is not Africa.”
I tried to backtrack by explaining that I wasn’t being a patronising Slovenia-racist; that in many places I’ve been on my trip across Europe, it’s been cash only; that his comment about Africa was, in fact, substantially more racist than my own. But it was too late: I had been judged.
It was a weird time in Maribor. As far as I could tell, there was absolutely nobody else staying in my hostel. The backpacker trail across Europe is like an ant colony: incredibly busy corridors of movement back and forth, everybody clambering all over one another. Stray only a little to either side of the established route, however, and you find the locals no longer speak English, prices are quartered, and hostels are ghost towns.
It was quite nice having a four-person dorm to myself, to be honest: I spent a lot of the time nude and farting and talking to myself animatedly. You don’t realise how much you miss such simple pleasures. It only got a bit weird when 9pm hit and the hostel staff all went home and turned the lights off. I stuck my head out of my dorm like a meerkat, listening to my own breathing in the silence of the darkened corridors. I was hungry, having failed to find the Mexican restaurant earlier, so I wandered down to the vending machine on the first floor in only my underpants. Bathed in the glowing blue hum of the machine – the only sign of life in the entire four-storey building – it dawned on my that I was alone in an empty hostel, in an unfamiliar city, in an distant country, and that for all I knew, this wasn’t really a hostel at all but an elaborate crackhead tourist abduction sex-ring mafia scheme, and at midnight there’d be a knock on my door and I’d be dragged out of bed writhing and shrieking to be trucked to some distant yacht where a billionaire nonce would pump me full of heroin and semen for the next thirty years. And then with a little ‘ping’ the Twix I’d selected tumbled out of the vending machine, and I shrugged and ate it on the way back to the dorm because there wasn’t really much I could do about it either way.
I explored Maribor the next day, sitting in various cafes and staring at people and thinking about things. The rivers in Slovenia are a fabulous shade of green – from the water alone you can see you’re not in the UK, even without glancing at the architecture or the mountains that ring the horizon. The town itself is cute enough, with a charming little centre with tiled rooftops and church spires and cobbled squares. In the evening there was a festival taking place, so I pootled around a few venues and watched a few local bands play. There was a pretty cool interpretive dance troupe in the town square; several hundred people gathered to watch these six or seven kids in pastel-coloured t-shirts perform a weird, glitching dance against a makeshift metal railing. I guessed there was a political slant to the performance, but I wasn’t sure who to ask for confirmation.
In the evening I tried to find somewhere to sit and eat, but I gave up after a while because everybody else was in groups and I didn’t want to sit at a table by myself with people looking at me and pitying me. Instead I bought takeaway pizza and went to bed early to watch the last two episodes of Obi Wan Kenobi on my laptop.
The train to Ljubljana was cool; more mountains and sweeping rivers. I saw a giant feline creature sitting in a field an hour after leaving Maribor, and became convinced it was too big to be a cat. I Googled it: big mammals in Slovenia. The answers shocked me: ibex, wolves, bears, lynx.
“Lynx!” I yelped involuntary, much to the surprise of the other passengers.
Pretty wild to have entered a country with nature that can eat you.
Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, has only 200,000 inhabitants. The train station is tiny and low-key, and almost everything within the city is walking distance. I once again lugged my crap to my hostel in the heat, and was mortified upon discovering the place I’d booked for the next two nights: named on Google as ‘Turn Hostel’, the place the map led me to was a dusty, lopsided little building with a sign outside that read ‘English Pub Hostel’. The addresses were identical; I guess they’d renamed it online but not got around to changing the physical sign. I checked in at the pub’s bar, which had lots of framed images of Spitfires and Churchill and Michael Owen and Sherlock Holmes. The décor looked as though the manager of the place had typed in ‘English stuff’ in Google images, then printed the first hundred results out on A4 paper and sellotaped them to the walls.
I made a few friends in the hostel – which, beyond the weird pub reception, was actually quite nice – and went out to explore the city. Ljubljana centres around a big hill with a castle on it, and a river curls through the heart of it, flanked by a dozens of bars and restaurants and about thirty footbridges. There were statues of dragons everywhere, and one statue of what appeared to be a naked man who’d had his head and arms and skin ripped off. I later learned that this is precisely what the statue is supposed to be; it’s Prometheus, all torn up after his daily eagle-pecking. An odd way to decorate one’s city centre: I will say that much.
On my second day I went up to the castle via the world’s most perfectly whelming funicular. The castle had good views over the valley the city sits in, and gave a very clear indication of just how tiny the capital is. I looked at a few suits of armour that were held in glass cabinets in a tower, then made my way back down the mountain; there’s not much to do at the castle beyond stare wistfully out at the mountains.
In the evening I went out with a few backpackers and we ate some gigantic local sausage dish which was delicious albeit very stinky, then we hit up a few bars and made a bunch of Slovenian friends. Every Slovenian I met was super friendly, spoke great English, and genuinely wanted to chat. I got recommendations for the country, learned a few words of the language, and swapped stories.
“You backpackers are all from everywhere,” said one guy I talked to. “For example, if you meet somebody from Italy, he probably lives in Austria, but he grew up in UK and he’s moving to Sweden. If you meet a Slovenian in the world, he grew up in Slovenia and he lives in Slovenia!”
I made friends with a hench Aussie dude called Rob, too. He was due to travel to Lake Bled the next day, which was ideal, because that’s where I was headed as well.
Little did I know, however, that within 48 hours Rob would have very nearly caused my dramatic, ugly and very embarrassing death.