There are few things more satisfying then a good nap. I like my sleep but like too many people these days I rarely indulge myself in a proper kip. Maybe it’s the screens or the never-ending fear of missing out. Maybe its nervousness or a preoccupation of the mind but whatever it is I’ve always been a night owl and prefer to work in the small hours. This makes fitting in with the nine to five difficult. I know I’m being silly, apparently it only takes six weeks to build a habit including waking up early but it only takes one night to bugger it all up. I’m a man of singular nights.
Venice destroyed the sleeping routine. Having arrived in the early morning I spent three days walking and slept maybe 8 hours in total leaving again at midnight. Riding east along the coastal roads to Slovenia I ran out of steam by 6am. I found a bench in a small town which looked so appealing for a short nap. I closed my eyes only to be assaulted by mosquitos again. So I wearily dragged myself to a cafe, ate and fell asleep at my table. I think I woke up an hour later drooling and headed off again still dog tired. I was too tired to continue so I sought out nap spots. Luckily I have a hammock so I decided to eat lunch on an intersection between two small roads with some perfectly positioned trees. It was the best decision I could have made that day. I could hear the cars nearby but it was just peaceful enough for me to get a good three hours. I have no idea what anyone passing by must have thought but I love that the hammock gives me the freedom to do that.
Leaving at around 3pm that day I knew I didn’t have far before reaching Trieste the last Italian city before crossing the border to Slovenia. It was by and large flat country and there were some nice cyclepaths. The Mediterranean Eurovelo route in fact makes up part of it. Its not so much a cycle path, more a road that might one day have a path if the EU ever gets its act together to fund a proper route. It snakes its way along the coast and inland too. It runs through a few small towns and some vineyard estates until finally culminating in the beautiful cliff side road to Trieste.
I love high sea roads with stunning views, nothing beats them except maybe going on a descent from a mountain pass. Trieste was not a city that I planned to stay in at all so continuing my day of odd sleeping places I found a spot where the locals take a dip in the sea just before you get to the main town. It came complete with open air showers and a jetty. I arrived in time to enjoy a swim and shower before waiting till all was quiet I then wrapped myself, my bike and the bench I was using as a bed in my tarp like the true vagabond I am. Bliss… well almost it was a bit windy. I always find it funny how most people ignore street sleepers. When you sleep in plain view in the street you become one of the ignored. Its like you’re part of the furniture or maybe there is a level of acceptance of your presence. So long as you don’t bother others they don’t bother you. I guess thats why many of us find it easy to avert our eyes when we pass the homeless instead of showing curiosity or empathy we pity or avoid them.
The sound of early morning joggers and the Adriatic lapping at the rocks below my sleeping spot woke me the next morning. I think I startled a few joggers as I emerged from my cocoon in my underpants and stretched. I packed my sleeping gear and brewed some coffee on the stove enjoying the warm breeze while reading. After taking another dip in the sea I packed up and was on my way toward the city centre by 10am. Today was going to be an internet day. I could tell by the clouds. After a little bit of sightseeing I found a nice little cafe and hunkered down out of the summer storm with my Kindle and my phone and whiled away a few hours in comfort. Before I left the cafe I planned the route on my phone and saw that the border crossing required a heavy climb over what are essentially the foothills of the Eastern Alps – in fact that pretty much sums up the landscape of of Slovenia.
I was heading for Ljubljana, a three day ride from Trieste and apparently a very beautiful and bike-friendly capital city. The idea was to head from there to Serbia… things changed but we’ll get to that. By the time I set off from Trieste it was about 5.30pm and the climb was pretty hard but not bad and the view of the coast was worth it. I could go another three hours before darkness set in and I was maybe 2 hours from the border. I’m usually good at estimating how far and fast I can go on the bike in this case though I slightly overestimated how far I could go that day and had barely crossed the border before it was pitch black.
Next stop on the way was the Škocjan Caves, one of the largest cave systems in the world and possibly one of the most amazing natural wonders I’ve ever seen. I arrived at midnight in the village of Skocjan and camped in the open again marvelling at the stars. The next morning I got up and wondered around once again in my underpants as two student wandered by. I could hear an American accent and a Spanish accent belonging to Juan Sehuanes of Columbia who studies neurobiology and Eric McDermott – an American studying neural and behavioural science. We started chatting and it turned out they both study at Tubingen. I told them I had been there only two months before and then Eric recognised me as the dude who helped win the sports day for the house I was staying in. Coincidence or fate… ooooh spooky. Anyways their summer project here was rather curious: Acoustical analysis of orthopterans synchronisation or in other words they were trying to see how grasshoppers communicate with each other by playing back different grasshopper sounds. Being a total geek I had the Spock reaction – “fascinating”. After an interesting conversation about their work which verges on the level of Dr Doolittle absurdity, I was invited for a beer at their digs and allowed to cook a meal for myself. I set off to view the caves knowing I could leave my gear in relative safety.
The only way I can describe the Škocjan Caves is to compare it to being in the grand canyon (or at least a part of it) but in complete darkness. As you descend in to the cave the man-made corridors that have been dug into the rock are claustrophobic and we had to wait as each group passed through section by section. Lighting in the caves is kept to a bare minimum, switched on only as we passed through because it damages the delicate ecosystem within. Any light causes bacteria to grow on the walls untouched by light for so many millenia. Pictures are strictly forbidden but here are a sneaky couple that I took when the guide wasn’t looking!
Some of the remnants of the climbs and routes of early cavers are still visible. Spelunking must have been the first truly extreme sport. The places they got to in the cave are so high up and so dangerous that the early explorers had to have been adrenaline junkies. The main cavern is so large you could stack a couple of football stadiums inside of it. Despite it’s insane size the cave has flooded to almost two thirds of its height in the past. The mighty Reka River (a name which translates as River River) runs through the cave system and can be heard frothing at the bottom. The path through the main cave takes you around the walls at a height of 150 meters or so above the cavern floor. Looking forward at the ant-like presence of the groups ahead of us left me in awe as it gave me a sense of the sheer scale of this thing. I felt like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, all it needs to top off the experience is a mine cart ride out of the other side.
Leaving for Ljubljana late in the afternoon I decided to stop at dusk at a cafe in a small town not too far down the road. I was greeted by a smiling waitress named Klavdia or Claudia for the English crowd. She was amused by my rather loud cycle jersey and was happy that I spoke English. Italian the usual tourists that stop by expect her to know their language and rarely make the effort to speak hers – sounds like the English.
I told her my plan to find a campsite out of town and sleep for the night but she told me not to do that instead she insisted I should stay at her farm down the road. After a quick call to her parents to let them know she was taking home a strange man for the night it was settled. When her shift ended I followed her scooter home through dark country lanes. It was so nice of her to offer me a place to stay but she went even further allowed me to use the bathroom for a hot shower and cooked me a meal. I’m always amazed at the kindness of strangers especially when all they want in return is to hear your story. I told her I would sleep under the stars without my tent and she looked at me worried that I might be cold or get rained on. I told her that the British always expect rain but that I had heard there were bears in this part of Europe. She confirmed this and I felt the slightest twinge of fear in my balls but I tried not to think about it.
I slept like a baby and woke the next morning to Klavdia’s smiling face and a cup of tea she had brought me. I really lucked out because when I got up I was treated to a full cooked breakfast. The farm in daylight was beautiful, I’m not exactly sure what her family farmed but the grounds around the house were surrounded by woods and rolling hills with manicured lawns and a garden in full bloom. It would have been nice to stay and volunteer to work on the farm for a few days but I had to keep moving. Actually I’m not sure why I had to keep moving but like The Littlest Hobo there was something propelling me on.
It was about 2pm when I finally left to go to Ljubljana and I still hadn’t figured out where I was going to stay but there are hostels everywhere and I had the feeling I’d be forking out cash. I had attempted to use Couchsurfing to find a host without any sort of luck. Couchsurfers are a bit of a weird bunch. If you don’t mention something from their profile in your message to them they get all arsey or just don’t respond. Some of them even put in some random information into their profile that they expect you to put into your note so if you haven’t bothered reading you can be caught out.
Its all quite pathetic – either you want to host people or you don’t. I don’t expect people to know me or even want to stay with me from some bullshit I write on my profile. I fully expect its purely about location, timing and whether or not I come across as a weirdo. I also don’t expect guests to hangout with me when I host them. It’s their trip and I ain’t a tour guide but I’ll do my best to make them feel at home. I’ve had some rude responses from Couchsurfers just for asking to stay and some guys are purely on it to try and get chicks to sleep with them. Warmshowers hosts on the other hand are super friendly, really understanding about short notice requests and are usually fellow cyclists who understand that after a long ride sometimes you just want to chill, not tell your life story.
As it happened I stopped at a cafe just outside Ljubljana and decided to message a Couchsurfing/Warmshowers host who never replied to me. I just asked if she would be up for a drink and whether she could show me around. Almost instantly she responded, apologising for missing my earlier request then she told me to come stay. Hoorah! The girl in question Aygul, is Korean and also a cycle tourist who has travelled solo for 14 months in central Asia. Having previously lived in Turkey for about 8 years she decided she wanted a change and moved to Slovenia only a few months before. Her modest apartment has a great view over the whole city from the East.
The first evening we decided to go and meet some other Couchsurfers who’d announced they were having a get together via the app in one of the central parks. The hosts were mainly guys (typical) there were some guest couples and a few groups of singles. I greedily helped myself to some of the barbecued meat on offer and cracked open some beers. It was a strange atmosphere. I could sense a weird obligation that the guests must have been feeling to hang out with their hosts something I did not feel with mine. What was funny was watching one of the hosts take a shine to Aygul – I think he liked asian chicks because he couldn’t stop pawing at her and fawning over her. She was obviously uncomfortable and later I asked why she didn’t say something she just shrugged and says she gets that a lot here and that it was annoying but she wasn’t too bothered. We both laughed at how clumsy the guy’s advances had been and how obviously drunk he was.
I seriously think that for most travellers these days AirBnB has killed the couchsurfing phenomenon to a certain extent. Most people want a place to stay that’s cheap, clean and feels like a home away from home they don’t want to be obligated to a host because lets face it they are spending money to go on holiday and chill. You have to have a certain kind of tolerance to be a guest or host. Long term travel is best done by being hosted though because accommodation costs can be ridiculous and it’s nice to get to know the locals and how they actually live. I’ll probably try Couchsurfing more outside of Europe where I think people are a bit less picky about their guests and way less judgemental about how you request to stay.
The next day Aygul announced that three more guests might come, two boys and a girl also Korean. She asked if I minded, I said no. That night four people were crammed in her one bedroom apartment three of us in her room and one in the kitchen! They were really funny and totally addicted to taking selfies constantly on their phones the whole time.
We toured the city centre together and checked out the old town, 5000 photographs later we came back home via Metalkova. If any of you have ever been to Copenhagen’s Christania district Metalkova is a sort of mini equivalent. Its a small former military barracks that has been squatted by artists and the like becoming a sort of autonomous zone and a local venue and hangout of hippies, hipsters, the alternative and youth crowd in general.
It’s quite a cool place with a chill vibe and some very interesting murals, sculpture and repurposed buildings. I was able to get my bike fixed for free by a volunteer mechanic. On my way to Venice I had bent a few teeth on my rear cassette which was causing me some problems shifting gears. The mechanic also showed me how my fork wasn’t secure it would have snapped if I left it that loose so we fixed that and in return I bought him some beers for the help.
I spent my 34th birthday getting drunk, watching the German tourists play some sort of epic drinking game in the middle of Metalkova and wandering through the different bars chatting to locals, some Syrian refugees and tourists. I pleaded with some undecided American tourist not to vote Trump. Trump is President now so obviously my pleas fell on deaf ears. I got a bit more drunk and started playing on the monkey bars before I noticed some dude annoying a bunch of tourists. He was plainly drunk and I ended up intervening and spending the last part of the evening chatting to a misogynistic idiot purely to distract and prevent him from being a tosser and starting a fight with others. Hopefully my 35th birthday (probably somewhere in Uzbekistan) will finish off with something a bit more fun.
Slovenia is an untouched gem of a country with a perfect landscape for cycling and camping and really friendly people. I didn’t get to see the left-wing philosopher Zizek on his home turf unfortunately, though I have seen him in London, but if I did I’d probably slap him in the face for saying he would vote for Trump! It’s definitely a place I could return to and explore for its natural beauty and small towns. Also if you didn’t see this guy in my feed you need to check out Clement Slakonja a Slovenian comedian whose impersonations are spot on, two of his crowdfunded videos follow below.