Into Eastern Europe: Kazlje to Keszthely

As I passed from Italy into Slovenia on Wednesday, the 26th of April, the rain began to fall lightly. The border was only 12 km from the town of Kazlje, where I would be staying with Couchsurfing hosts Marco and Arletta. Sežana disappeared suddenly. I found myself on a well-paved highway rolling gently through a thick wood. I had not seen a forest with no sign of human habitation since driving through the Pacific Northwest last summer, and I had never seen anything like this in Europe. Except for the tiny hamlet of Storje, there was nothing on this road but the trees and me. An occasional car or motorcycle passed me, but almost all the traffic was on the expressway, far out of sight.

By 1545, I was riding through the fairy-tale village of Kazlje. Arletta let me into their beautiful home. An old stone house with a garden out back, which they have fixed up with modern appliances, windows, and other features of a 21st Century home. After Marco came home about 1800, the rain picked up and continued into the night. We all turned in early, because they still had to go to work in the morning.

The rain and wind worsened overnight, so Thursday turned into a good day to do the laundry (and hang it in the wood-fired boiler room), and write this blog. I offered to take them to dinner, but after commuting in the rain, both my hosts preferred to take a rain check for Friday night. A translation assignment came through in the evening, which I did on Friday morning while the storm front passed with a final violent gasp. The brilliant sunshine in the afternoon quickly dried everything, turning the green hills into a picturesque landscape and highlighting the shades of grey and yellow in the stones of the village.

Late that afternoon, Arletta drove me to the train station in Sežana to buy a ticket to Murska Subota, on the other end of Slovenia. The train station turned out to be so small that it was unmanned. A gentleman working nearby said that I could pick up my ticket on the train.

We then went to Basavizzo to pick up Marco at work. I had been fascinated to learn that there were not one, but two accelerator facilities there: a ring-type like CEBAF (Continuous Beam Accelerator Facility) in Virginia, and five linear accelerators like the SLAC (Stanford Linear Accelerator) in California. I had heard of the Fermi LINAC, but I thought that it was at the University of Trieste. What were the odds that I would happen on Couchsurfing hosts from the scientific community that I worked with at the University of Virginia? In fact, my hosts had met at the FEL (Free Electron Laser) facility. Arletta is a neuroscientist; Marco a radiation protection specialist. Very interesting people.

Watching them speak English and Italian around the home, I have learned to appreciate that Trieste is still the de facto capital of Istria, even though three countries share the land around it. The people of Slovenia, Croatia and Udine (Italy) eloquently make the case for the European Union, finding employment around Trieste, housing in Slovenia, and sharing resources from Croatia. Fascinating to watch.

We dined at Capra, an upscale seafood restaurant in Koper, formerly Capo D’Istria. Located just over the border from Trieste, it is still very much an Italian city. We walked down to the waterfront for ice cream and admired the beauty of its long promenade. Arletta had to go to work at 0430, so we returned to the house by 2200. I made some sandwiches for the trip the next day, and packed my bags.

Saturday morning I was awake just before the alarm at first light. By 0600, I was riding with the early-morning commuters back the way I had come on Wednesday. The train was on time, and thankfully it was a small, modern train with a low, roll-on entrance for the bicycle. A friendly, blonde conductor showed me where to put my bike and sold me the tickets I needed for the next two trains.

To my surprise, Ljubljana had a primitive station, without elevators or walkways to the tracks. The ticket window was 300 m from the train, and the station had no monitors or posters with departure schedules and track numbers. With only seven minutes between trains, I missed the through train to Murska Subota. I had expected something like this, so I used the two-hour wait for the next train to charge my phone and read a book. I made good connections at Jagersko, and arrived in Murska Subota by 1500. Slovenia is a beautiful country. The train rolled through steep mountains covered with dense forests, following rushing rivers swollen by the recent rains. Although the last train from Jagersko was very hard to board (no ramp or stairs to the five-foot high bike compartment), the train personnel were very helpful. In spite of the inconvenience, I felt more appreciated as a train customer in Slovenia than I ever have in Italy.

Murska Subota is only 30 km from the Hungarian border. It was a simple matter to ride to Lenti. I found wide, asphalt bike paths almost all the way to the Hungarian border. My initial impression of the Hungarian roads was less favorable: poorly paved with no shoulders or bike paths. I would find out later that this 15-km stretch of Hungary was the exception to the rule.

The Bundics Vendégházak guesthouse was easy to find, on Highway 75 east of Lenti. A well-equipped, comfortable room and a good restaurant were just what I needed at the end of a very long day. However, my Berlitz Hungarian phrase book was not what I needed. Everyone spoke German, and I had mailed my German phrasebook to Budapest. For rich, hearty, and warm comfort food, try the deer stew with rice.

On Sunday, I made my way to Keszthely on the west end of Lake Balaton. Having left the mountains and forests of Slovenia, I began to appreciate the vast breadbasket that is Mitteleuropa. The farms are enormous, reminding me of the seigneurial plots in Québec. I had never seen such large fields outside of North America, and I wondered if the land still reflected the collective farm system of the Soviet era. Beneath the brilliant yellow flowers and the bright green of the emerging crops, I recognized rolling tank country. I could picture the armies that had raced across this land for centuries, and could understand why the Panzer Corps and later the Soviet tanks could dominate so much of Eastern Europe. However, this was not a low-lying plain. Every place that a river ran, it cut ravines into the plateau. I was climbing sharp grades and racing downhill for much of the day. I faced a headwind all day; even though it was light (less than 5 knots), it began to wear me out after 60 km.

By 1700, I was checking into the Gartnerhof campground in Keszthely, and putting up my tent for the first time this year. The wind off the lake chilled the air as the sun went down. I put on my jacket and rode to the only open restaurant in town, where I had hot pasta and pork chops for dinner. The red wine from the Sopron area did not impress; it is time to switch to beer.

Back at the campground, I settled into my camp chair, and plugged into the power post. By 2100, it was dark and too cold to work outdoors anymore. I retired to my cozy tent and sleeping bag, happy to be camping again. The lights never go out in these RV-oriented campgrounds. Nearby, a discotheque played rock music until after midnight. Thanks to our trip through the Pacific Northwest last summer, my memories of camping were associated with dark, silent forests. As I fell asleep, I resolved to be more careful picking my camping locations in the future.

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Jonathan

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