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Tackling new heights in Slovenia

Honeymooners attempt 9,396-foot Mount Triglav

Email|Print| Text size + By Keith O'Brien
Globe Correspondent / October 1, 2006

STARA FUZINA, Slovenia -- You are going to Slovenia on your honeymoon. You have agreed to this because it is your wife's idea and people smarter than you have informed you that you should listen to your wife. It is, after all, your honeymoon.

But it is also Slovenia.

Slovenia, a country you cannot pick out on a map. Slovenia, a country that even its own tourism officials admit is mostly unknown to American travelers.

``It is not Slovakia," Majda Dolenc at the Slovenian Tourism Board tells you. ``It is not in Yugoslavia anymore. We are in between Venice and Vienna. We are in the center of Europe."

You are not convinced.

But then you read that just 2.8 percent of the country is urban and 63.3 percent is wooded. You hear about the Julian Alps and about Mount Triglav, the tallest Slovenian mountain of them all, and how you can climb it, even if you are not a climber, and you begin to warm to the idea of spending time there.

It is said that every Slovenian must climb Triglav (pronounced Tree-glau), a 9,396-foot peak an hour's drive northwest of the capital city , Ljubljana. And if you are going to Slovenia, you want to be as Slovenian as possible.

You tell your wife this and she agrees.

And so, it is set.

You will climb Mount Triglav.

You set out for the mountains in a rental car after a one-night stay in Ljubljana. With a population of about 276,000, Ljubljana isn't the prettiest city you will ever visit. It is graffiti-tagged, like many major cities in the Balkans, and dotted with square, dreary Yugoslavian-era apartment complexes that stand at attention in hazy skies.

But at night, even on a Monday, the streets teem with life. Charming cafes along the Ljubljanica River in the heart of downtown are filled with people. The wine is cheap (as little as 200 tolar, or about $1 a glass). And the trip to Ljubljana is worth it, if only because the Alpine Association of Slovenia is located here.

You have tried in vain to reach the association before arriving in Slovenia. Its website (www.pzs.si) is only in Slovenian and phone calls went unanswered. Now, seeing it for the first time in person, you realize why. The office is tiny -- one room as far as you can tell -- and staffed by a woman who speaks little English.

But she is kind. She tolerates your lack of language skills and directs you to a map of the mountain and to the small booklet you've been told to read, ``How to Climb Triglav." One awkward conversational exchange and $20 later, you are ready to go.

Now, headed northwest in your rental car, booklet and map in hand, the mountains rise before you. This is Slovenia in all its glory, more like Austria than Croatia, green, rugged , and since it's early September, all yours.

You stop for lunch in Bled, a lakeside resort town popular with the tour-bus set. Bled gets most of the ink in tour book sections devoted to Slovenia's mountain country. But Lake Bohinj (pronounced without the ``j"), a half hour's drive fa rther west near the tiny villages of Ribcev Laz and Stara Fuzina, is where you want to be. The lake is as clear as if it were drawn from a bath , the tour buses more scarce , and the rooms for rent plentiful.

You find one such room in a home owned by the Pekovec family and, upon paying about $36 for one night, the daughter, Darja, asks you a question.

``Would you like schnapps?" she says.

``Yes," you reply. You would.

The home-brewed schnapps, made from pears and apples and popular in these parts, goes down like fire. You are ready to climb Triglav , and the next morning, just before 7 a.m., you set out under fog for a trailhead southeast of the summit.

There are many routes up and down the mountain -- the hardest from the north and the easiest from the south. Experienced climbers can get up and down in one day. But it's recommended that you allow two because you are not experienced climbers. You are desk jockeys turned holiday hikers. Your plan is to walk the mountain and to spend the night in one of the large mountain huts.

Here, you will eat goulash and polenta with other weary climbers and then push on the next day, using handrails and hooks near the top to reach the summit. This is the beauty of Triglav: Almost anyone in relatively good shape can make the climb. And its accessibility has helped turn Triglav into a symbol for Slovenia, a country only a little bigger than Massachusetts. In a small nation, Triglav looms large.

``By comparison the Dolomites are obvious," wrote Tom G. Longstaff, president of London's alpine club , in a letter recounted in ``How to Climb Triglav." ``Triglav reigns over a dream world, sundered from time, full of unbelievable hidden nooks, of unsuspected passages, of sudden visions of cliffs which cannot be real. Surely, there is no other mountain land like this."

You begin your climb from a clearing known as Rudno polje, wearing fleece and gloves. On a summer day, the path here would be thick with climbers. Those who make the ascent during that time of year are told to get reservations at the mountain huts well in advance.

But in September, on a weekday beneath clear blue morning skies, the path through the old -growth pines is all but deserted. You make good time through the forest and along the rocky ridge in the shadow of Mount Visevnik. You hear cow bells jingling in the valley below. And nothing else but the sound of your own footsteps.

It is so quiet that you are happy when you begin to see other hikers. This way, your wife tells you, you know that you are not lost. And yet, you are. You are 4,000 feet above sea level, then 5,000, then 6,000. You wrap your way around Mount Tosc, headed west and ever higher for the first mountain hut and a break, perhaps, for lunch.

You are happy. You are on your honeymoon. You are in Slovenia, surrounded by Slovenians, doing the Slovenian thing.

And then it happens.

Your wife takes an awkward step, looks down at her left foot and finds that the sole of her Italian-made boot has ripped clear away from the boot itself, peeled back like a layer of skin.

She stares at it. You stare at her. And then you both watch in horror as what's left of the attached sole tears completely away. Your wife is now standing there with the entire sole of her left boot in her hand.

It's not clear how this happened or why. But what is clear is this: There will be no summiting Mount Triglav, not today, not on this boot, and maybe not ever.

Much shouting ensues. Followed by silence. But there is nothing you can do except turn around and go back. Tired and defeated, you return to Stara Fuzina near the shores of Lake Bohinj and to the Pekovec family home.

``We need another room," you tell Darja.

``And some more schnapps," your wife adds.

You tell Darja what happened on the mountain and she assures you that it could happen to anyone. You don't believe her. But you are laughing now. You drink your schnapps and head down to the lake to watch the sun set over the clear mountain waters. And even with the mountain behind you, you feel Slovenian -- as Slovenian as you will ever be.

Contact Keith O'Brien, a freelance writer in Boston, at keith@keithob.com.

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