Salzburg was added to our itinerary quite late in the planning process. Originally, we pencilled in the capital of kitsch for three nights – after visiting Salzburg two years ago, I figured anything more would be a waste of time – but one night in Salzburg was later sacrificed for a longer stay at the Sulzenauhutte.
It’s not that I don’t like Salzburg. It’s got plenty to offer Sound of Music fanatics, Mozart groupies and architects of a Baroque bent. We are none of these things.
Our two days in Salzburg were then effectively cut to one due to an all-day thunder storm, purloining any chance of day trip and marshalling our stay around nearby restaurants and a three hour stroll through the city centre.
The poor weather did, however, provide ample time to complete a number of outstanding errands, namely some freelance work for me and some last minute accommodations bookings for Tam. It was an exciting 48 hours, made all the more memorable by another round of insect bites in our room.
Itchy and suffering cabin fever, we departed Salzburg for the capital of Ljubljana in Slovenia. A former Yugoslavian state now flourishing in the European Union, Slovenia is a blend of Germanic work ethic and Mediterranean lifestyle. Its capital, described as a pocket-sized Prague, is full of coffee shops, Zara outlets, hairdressers and river-side restaurants. In fact, Ljubljanan-style capitalism is so well plastered over its socialist walls, it’s hard to believe the place was still part of Yugoslavia only 20 years ago.
Remnants of the old system still persist. In Slovenia, university degrees only cost a few hundred euros per year; our tour guide was shocked to hear my HECS debt, totalling tens of thousands, will probably never get paid off. But such largesse is unlikely to remain as Slovenia, caught up in the Euro-zone debt crisis, makes moves to reduce its debt and “reform” its education sector.
Everyone here speaks impeccable English, usually tossing in French, Spanish or German for good measure. And while Ljubljana has begun drawing the bucks and hens’ crowd in greater numbers – EasyJet frequently offer cut-rate flights from London – it’s still possible to have dinner and drinks in the old town without running into a group of tattoo-covered chavs flying the flag for British international relations.
Before wandering into the old town, we stumbled upon a restaurant in the northern part of town named Sarajevo, named after host of the ___ Winter Olympics. Various signs written in a Slavic language hang from the walls, souvenirs perhaps from the Olympic village. Less abstract was the Yugoslavian opening ceremony jacket hanging from the wall. More abstract were re-runs of video footage and soviet era advertisements displayed from an overhead projector. Intrigued by the bric and brac, we stayed for the cevapceci , small sausages inside soft grilled bread, served with tomato relish and a salty soft cheese, ten of which set me back a whopping 5.80 euros.
The beautifully preserved old town is a world away from socialist Slovenia. Cloistered around the tri-bridge – two pedestrian bridges and a larger bridge sandwiched in between – and the Dragon Bridge (featuring four ferocious bronze dragons, the guardians of the city), cobblestone streets and ice cream shops abound in this quaint region. It feels like a cross between Viennese grandeur and the old world of Prague, at a fraction of the size.
Even our tour sizes were tiny; three people on the walking tour, followed by just the two of us on the castle night tour, all topped with glasses of champagne overlooking the city.
However, the relaxed pace of our tour was set to accelerate: we hadn’t come to Ljubljana for the cheap eats, but the cut-rate skydiving.
We’d arranged an afternoon jump at nearby Lesce, just outside of Bled, for our last day in Slovenia. Tam and I had both been skydiving before; my first jump in York, Western Australia was in 2002 with a company that would later go out of business for poor safety procedures. I was hoping Slovenia, with possibly the cheapest skydiving in Europe, would not follow similar practices.
I remember being consumed by terror ten years ago, but this time I wouldn’t have time for such indulgences: our jump was hastily pushed forward as the airport was shutting at midday. We threw on our clothes in a frantic rush, ran to the bus station and just made the 10am bus into Lesce.
After being collected by our instructor at the bus station, we had all of five minutes to read the safety waiver and sign it in the car before arriving at the airport. Ten minutes later, we were in the air, steadily climbing to 10,000 feet. Tam couldn’t wipe the grin from her face while I was still adjusting to the transition from warm bed to blustery altitude.
As was the case in 2002, I jumped first. Shoved out is more accurate. Arms crossed over my chest, legs and back arched, head back, I suddenly remembered that, yes, I am not great with heights. For some reason, Wesley Snipes in Drop Zone suddenly came to mind. I felt pangs of vertigo as my tandem pilot jumped, followed by three to four seconds of freefall before stabilisation. Once you’ve stopped tumbling, skydiving starts being fun; my instructor showed how by rotating your hands in certain ways, you can steer your body left and right. The position of your legs and arms also act as hand brakes or accelerants. For 38 glorious seconds, I was flying.
For all the preparation and expectation that comes with skydiving, it’s over incredibly quickly. Soon we were back on the ground and having lunch at the airport restaurant, certificates tucked in our backpacks, wondering if it had actually happened at all. It was almost anti-climatic. The smile on Tam’s face, however, was semi-permanent.
Lake Bled was our afternoon excursion. The lake is stunning, the water almost too clear for an inland lake. Normally filled with row boaters, the lake had been taken over by the professionals; the World Rowing Champs were in town, meaning we had to settle for a gondola to ferry us to the lake’s island.
Bidding a sad farewell to Slovenia, we were soon saying Yassou to an old friend and the place where it all began (officially). Greece.