Saturday, May 31, 2014

Breaking Bled

It's that time of year when I head somewhere unusual to take part in the International Whaling Commission. This usually involves three weeks of arguing in some remote town about how many whales there are, threats to whales and dolphins, and the Japanese Government's so-called "scientific whaling", program although it has as much relationship with actual science as  Sarah Palin has to nuclear physics.

This year the meeting is in Bled, Slovenia. A beautiful little town nestling just a hour or so's drive from the Austrian border, nestled in the Alps. The town is on a lake that has a little island at one end on which is a ridiculously picturesque church. Site was a pagan shrine to a goddess of fertility until the 700s, and then when Christianity come to the region it was converted to a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, rather ironically.

On the opposite side of the lake there is a crag with a castle on top, that is straight from gothic horror movie. Although it has to be said that in the sunshine the orange roofs and spires are quite pretty, in a Dracula's holiday home sort of way. 

At the base of the castle is another picturesque church, next to a vine-shrouded Bavarian-style "pub".

Around the  valley are snow-covered mountains, the largest of which Triglav. The mountain is named after a flower,  the triglav or golden horn flower. The golden horn, according to legend is was mythical chamois mountain goat with, unsurprisingly, golden horns. Its name in Slovenian is zlatrog, which makes it sound more like a demon lord from Buffy the Vampire Slayer rather than a dapperly decorated goat. When the golden horn is injured, where its blood drips the pinkish-red trigly flower blooms. The blood of golden horn is also supposed to have healing and other properties. Certainly "zlatrog" beer has the magical properties of forgetfulness, tiredness and an urge to engage in karaoke.

Up in the mountains, besides magic goats, there are also 400-600 or so bears. The region actually has one of the highest densities of black bears in Europe. The fact that one of the main local crafts is bee keeping/ honey making might be a coincidence, or it might have got out on the pooh grapevine that this is the place to visit. On bees, one of the local folk arts is to paint pictures on bee hive panels. Originally this was done to uniquely identify the otherwise identical hives, but the craft it rather took off, and the area is famous for the panel paintings - which often depict folk tales or legends, morality fables, or sometimes even political satire.

Bled has been a bit of a tourist spot since the Middle Ages, when pilgrims would come here. It took off as a resort thanks to Arnold Rikli, a health nut who ran a spa resort here in the 1800s, but not quite in the way you might think. Rikli's health regime included naked hikes up the side of mountains and a diet that would make bland seem exciting. If guests slipped from the spartan regime and snuck into town for food or drink, they would be summarily expelled from the resort. As travel to and from Bled could be difficult, especially in the winter, this led to a lot of very wealthy tourists needing accommodation and food, particularly food and drink that was the antithesis of the minimalist diet that Rikli extolled. As a result several luxiurious hotels, restaurants and a brothel were developed, which began to attract tourists of the non-health nut variety.

About Slovenia

Slovenia was settled by the Romans (it borders current day Italy and Austria in the west). In the 6th century, Slavic tribes moved into Slovenia and  the country is currently 83% slavic in terms of ethnicity. The territory was invaded or ruled by a number of countries including the Hapsburg empire and until the mid 18th hundreds the aristocracy was German-speaking, ruling over Slav peasants. The land was also part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until that collapsed after World War I. During WW1 Slovenia was the site of a Austro-Italian battle front, as allied Italian forces tried to push up into Austro-Hungry and pull troops away from the eastern and western fronts. Nearly 1 million people died in the fighting that the rest of the world has largely forgotten (bear in mind the current population of Slovenia is just 2 million, to get an idea of the massive impact this war had on the country). During the Second World War communist forces in Slovenia held the Nazi's back from spreading into the Adriatic Sea, and subsequently became a communist state, a province in Yugoslavia the larger nation comprised of slavic speaking peoples (Slovenian, Croatian and Serbian).

The country became independent in 1991 after overthrowing the military (the "10 days war") and within four years had joined the European Union, its acceptance in the Union being so rapid because of the country's economic stability and relative political unity compared to it's neighbors.

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