Twenty years ago, I found myself in Slovenia for the first time. I had never heard of it; to me, it was just a rumor, a whisper of adventure, a place where few were aiming their sights. "You've gotta check it out, man. No one even knows it's there." So, with very little thought and absolutely no plans, my friends and I grabbed our bags and set out for the station. We crossed the border via Trieste and headed to Ljubljana to see the Dragon Bridge, and eventually ended up at the beautiful coastal city of Piran. Here we climbed the ancient town walls to sit high above the city. As night approached, we passed a bottle of wine back and forth and looked across the Adriatic to the lights of Venice.
But it was not the cities that left such a lasting impression on me for so many years. It was everything in between. The countryside was so green. Everything was green. Tree after tree, forest after forest. All around were mountains, rugged snowcapped mountains--the Julian Alps, the Karawanks. The lakes and rivers were crisp and clear. Every time we hiked or rested to eat our sad packed lunches, cold streams chatted quietly behind us. These are the things that left an impression on me for so many years, how unadulterated it felt. How quiet. How pristine. And I said to myself, "How lucky I am to be here now. It's the perfect time."
It was not until 2011 that I returned to Slovenia. I couldn't wait to go back. But I restrained my enthusiasm. It would not be the same place I remembered. By now, the whole world must know about the Green Piece of Europe. But I was wrong.
That is not to say that tourism has left Slovenia untouched. It is here. But it has come slowly--there is still room to breathe, even in the well-known towns and cities. Oh, but the places in between. Green. Clear. Rugged.
Now, I wait for every one of my trips to Slovenia with anticipation. I cross into Slovenia over Passo Tanamea. It is the mountain air that strikes me first. I love the fresh chilly breeze that reminds me to relax, inhale slowly and take it all in. The rocky cliffs stand overlooking fields and villages. A few white rimmed peaks touch the clouds in the distance. Soon I know I will be in the village of Bovec, and I can't wait to glimpse the Soča River again, the Emerald Beauty, with its incredible limestone-colored water, the morning fog clinging to it.
I know the fairy-tale city of Bled waits to the east. Every time I approach, I see the crystalline lake in the center of town first. Then the island in the center of the lake, and the stone staircase climbing up to the ancient church. As I circle the lake, I look for the stark rock cliff above, a castle sitting atop it, guarding the town.
But for me, it is always the places in between. The journey to Lake Bohinj climbs through forgotten villages, hay hanging over ancient racks, drying in the sun, waiting to feed the cows. As the villages fall behind, the forest advances, and every time it does, I think to myself, just as I did 20 years ago, "How lucky I am to be here now. It's the perfect time."