This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
you can do is plop down and surrender, pondering it in awe. Which is all I could do on the Slovenian side of Mount Mangart high in the Julian Alps on the border with Iraly. The sh-y was blue, the sun hot, me peaks as sharp and jagged as ancient arrowheads. The only sound was the soft tinkle of bells from a herd of grazing sheep. Far below stretched hazy green valleys and, to the north, a series of azure Lakes. I felt perched on the edge of the world, and in a sense T was. I was sitting in Slovenia; me valleys below me were in Italy; Austria lay just beyond. People there spoke in different languages, were in different nations. Yet you couldn't tell where one country ended and another began.
In America we tend to think of borders as immutable boundaries between one set of characteristics and another. But here along me Slovenian-Italian border 1 would have a very different experience. After an hour or so of gazing, I hiked a few hundred feet down to a
The idea drew me in-what are borders in fact, for those who actually live along them?-and gave rise to an unconventional plan: to circumnavigate Slovenia by weaving in and out of the New Jersey-size nation and its immediate neighbors Italy, Austria Hungary, and Croatia. Slovenia seemed an ideal laboratory: a little gem of green mountains and castles and villages, left unspoiled during decades of socialist Yugoslav rule, that was also rich in border history.
As I planned my trip cross-referencing maps and a pile of guidebooks, I had my first epiphany: guidebooks highlight cities and villages that are central and on the beaten track. Borders, by definition, are at the edge. All the lines and dots representing border roads and crossings around Slovenia were barely mentioned. Traveling along the borders would take me to places that tourists seldom visited, worlds that were quiet and still and far, far from the mainstream.
I crossed into Slovenia at the northwest Italian city of Gorizia, Or Nova Gorica, Slovenia. Specifically, I stepped across the ItalySlovenia border on the square called Piazzale della Transalpina, the perfect place to experience the unsettling paradox of international borders. Where you are-who you are, even-depends on where you stand on this square. As Italian piazzas go, Transalpina was nothing special: cobblestones in an expanse of asphalt presided over, on the Italian side, by a restaurant-hotel, the Albergo-Ristorante Alla Transalpina which has been owned by the same family for a century. Across the piazza loomed Nova Gorica's railway station, a classic ornate pile of Austro-Hungarian solidity.
One second I was standing in Italy; a single step later I was in Slovenia. The birds, the ants, the air, me view, the trees-rhey were the same on both sides.
"My mother-in-law is 73. She has seen the flags of four successive nations fly over mat train station," said Mauro Gubana, the chef at the Transalpina restaurant, when I popped in for a coffee. The restaurant opened in 1908- when this piazza was part of Austria. A decade later, thanks to World War I, Gorizia became Italian. World War Il brought the next transformation: The town and piazza were split in two. One side remained Italian, me other side went to communist Yugoslavia. With the stroke of a pen, me restaurant was cut off from the train station. "But," Gubana said, "we still considered ourselves Italians!"
All of this history was making me concept of borderlands hard to wrap my mind around. So I set off on my journey of discovery, along a two-lane road that twisted and turned and steadily rose into forested hills and greener valleys following the milky Soea River. Every few miles stood village clusters of stone-and-stucco houses topped with peaked tile roofs, their windows and yards filled with geraniums. They could have been stage sets for mythical Namia, or Middle-earth. The landscape felt so secluded and quiet that it was hard to believe armies and traders had been treading these valleys for thousands of years. The Celts stormed through in the third century B.C., the Romans just before Christ
stone-walled hostel, where Erik Cuder and his wife were serving a hearty sausage-and-cabbage soup. Cuder, dressed in black with a red bandanna around his neck, was short and dark and full of ideas. Mangart, he told me, wasn't JUSt a beautiful place; it was a place where borders had never been absolutes. "This is a meeting point," he said, sweeping his hands across the horizon, "of Slavs, Austrians and Italians"-and it bad been for hundreds of years, even as national boundaries moved. Now Slovenia, Austria, and Italy are part of the European Union; an EU citizen doesn't need a passport to cross from one to the other. 'But there are profound psychological barriers in us," be said. "J have a German name, yes; I'm dark like an Italian, yes; but I feel Slovenian,' he said, thumping his chest.
For much of the world, national identity is less about political lines on a map than history, ethniciry, religion-what me British writer Colin Thubron calls the "falseness of national boundaries."
58 NATIO!lAL GeOGRAPHIC TRAVeLER I SEPTIlMBHR 2010
Remote relic of World War I. remnants of a cinder-block fortification (above) frame a view of both Italy and Slovenia in the border· straddling Julian Alps. Venetian touches-Including a smaller version of St. Mark's bell tower-fill sunny Piran. Slovenia (right), part of the Venelian Republlc for five centuries.
was born. Six centuries later Slavs moved in from the east. Some of the most vicious fighting of World War I took place in these very valleys and mountains ..
I climbed higher among the saw-toothed ridges that form the border between northern Slovenia, Italy, and Austria. I was aiming for the popular .resort town of Bovee, nestled in 8. valley along the SOC!! River in the shadow of Triglav.Slovenia's highest mountain.
Bovee turned out 00 be perfect: a tiny maze of streets curving around a quarter-mile-lang main street lined with cafesand shops. At one end of town I found Dobra Vila Bovee, a lovingly restored inn with, of all things, a. gleaming Bianchi motorcycle displayed in the front window. Under a soft twilight I sat on the back poreh, overlooking a garden that slid downtofields of wildflowers. Beyond coursed the waters of the Soca. The sun glinted off the hard crags above. I ordered a. dinner of trout tartar with a seaweed pesro.Iamb ravioli with sweet Gorgonzola cheese, and a leg of venis on. As1 ate,.i! struck me that although Slovenia felt rustic and unspoiled, it was also, like my meal sophisticated and sweetly modern.
Sipping local sparkling wine, I gazed up at the mountainsand I suddenly wanted to be in 'them, More, I wanted to hike up across them into Italy. At an adventure-sports outliner in the center of town I found laze Flais, a 28-year~oId, kayakingobsessed rivet tat who said he knew just the place. The next rooming we caught the 9 a .. m, gondola up Kanin mountain, a skiing venue that rises above Bovee. Thirty minutes later we disembarked at an altitude of 7,200 feet, well above the tree line. Steep, scree-covered peaks rose on all sides. To the south ran the valley and the SoC!!; 45 miles to the southwest lay the Adriatic Sea. The air was 0001
and clear. I followed Flajs up a field of rocks tool. pass, then to a narrow ridge that plunged away 00. either side: th:e border. Down on the Italian side I could. make out another chaitlift station. Hiking up from mere came a couple. "Buon giorno!' they saluted.
.Flals and I strode into Italy along a nattow path cut into the mountainside. It was a heady, high place, all rock and jaggedness mixed 'with patches of snow and bright Alpine grass .. One hundred feet above us, like an Anasazi cliff dwelling, stood the remains of a World War I cinder-block fortification. Silence ruled. Slovenia ssretched behind; Italy ahead. During World War I this was the eastern edge of the hody contested Isonzo front between Ittllyand Austria. I wondered what the soldiers who were stationed here in the dead of winter thought, Cold, miserable, lonely, guarding a back doorto what, exactly? A border as an idea again---a human creation that here seemed a little absurd.
At midnight, under a full moon in the courtyard ora bat called
the Pink Panther, Flajs's friend Marijan Mlelruz, a tough-looking guy;. said as much when I brought up the subject ofYugo.slavia. "We've always felt Slovenian; we didn't belong withTito," he said, referring to Yugoslavia's longtime (now deceased) communist leader and taking a slug from II bottle of beer. "Yugoslavia Was artificial-a massing of separate states under one umbrella in 1943-and we Slovenians were always different. We felt pride in our state. We're open, like Slovenians, strict like Austrians, and," he. said with a wink, "we flirt and market like Italians!"
As the days passed, I largely gave up on the guidebooks and drove around by map and border, wandering and pausing at will in lands wherenationality Was 8. mixed affair, happy to be on no schedule---1lnd have no real destination. At the mountain pess of Predil, the Italian borderguard checked my passport. "Arrrericanf You need a Stamp." Not for the first time on this journey I experienced the odd sensation of needing official permission to cross a border I'd already freely walked through. I rolled into Cave del Predil, an Italian mining village that looked as if'it hadn't changed since 1942-and wasn't at all sure which nation it belonged to. A monument to the Austrian Kaiser Franz-Josef Erbstollen stood alongVia Giuseppe Garibaldi, named in honor of the t 9th-century Italian patnor, a pairing r pondered while I listenedro an interview with California, governor-and Austria native-Arnold Schwarzenegger on the car radio.
In a hamlet called Fusine I was attracted to a yellow-walled church sporting II peaked wood root and a high Slavic steeple adorned W;ith. an orange-faced clock, The church looked hundreds of years old. A stone wall surrounded carefully tended graves, all ornamented with brilliant yeUow marigolds and red geraniums. Another lovely spot, but what fascinated me were the names of the dead: Though the church was now in Italy, here lay Maria Mittendorfer, born 1877, Amelia Germansky, born 1889, and Johanna Mrak., born 1923. Through an iron gate and down a £light of stone steps lay more recent deaths, this time with Italian surnames: Franchertos and Agostinos and Coppelleris.In this comer of Europe so little seemed to have changed with the centuries or across borders .. The architecture looked the same, but the cemetery wasa human footprint that spelled out the shifting borders better than any political map.
From Fusine I cut due east back into Slovenia and then north
60 N"'TIOIM.L (j~.OGRArtnC TR"'''E.LJlR I SBrTE~!lER .2Ol0
Clockwise from above: Siovenian by birth. Crwtian by nationallty. a smiling v III ager p 113 ctices the un IVEfJ><l liB nguaga of hcsp Il1IlIty by proffuri ng a gla 55 of her homemade schnapps, ColorfUl public shrines are a common sigh1 along SloVenla's roads. High tech meets High Mass: Local boys take a call below a chLJn:;;h in Slovenia's southeastern 'Bela Krajina region. near Croatia.
and east again, slicing through a strip of Austria on one squiggly road after another. The border guard at Iezersko sternly informed me that that particular crossing was only for members of the European Union but let me through anyw!!y. Slovenia, Austria,I could see no difference-ejust thick woods and"high green mountains. I swirled down fr-om the .hills and emerged half an hour later back in Slovenia at a place called Logarska Dolina=-a valley dotted with small farmhouses and barns that was so virgin and lush, it had been declared a regional park. I noticed that many of the farms took guests. I stayed with Renata, Gregorc and her husband, Edvin Atnbroz,"a tall, solidly built farmer who also served as an officer in the. Slovenian Air Forcer and had spenta year in Alabama,
That evening, as Ambroz poured glasses of a.loca1 red 'Wine, his father worked steaks. on the barbecue. Chickens
but preferred Slovenia; it was more rustic and felt more real. As r continued east, the mountains gave way to plains filled with ·corn-and on a Sunday afternoon I crossed into Hungary.
The border knocked SO years off the clock, The town of Oriszentpeter was a world of cottage-size houses with thatch and wood roofs. It was almost preternaturally still. At a little roadside restaurant I ate a heady paprika-and-mushroom soup as storks perching in nests atop lampposts clacked their orange 'beaks, A farm couple rumbled by in a cart pulled by horses. Roosters crowed.
Whatever else 50-odd years' of communism had perpetrated, one thing was dear! It had left Slovenia, Hungary, and Croatia, which I crossed into later that afternoon, wonderfully free of commercialism. WOTking like a sedative, it had kept people tied to their land and their tribal identities in a way that had been impossible in the fast-developing countries of Western Europe. Especially in these outlying borderlands, time had passed, but little else. The Slovenian hill town of Metlika, on the Slovenia-Croatia border, was observing its 640th anniversary. In celebration, the town museum was exhibiting photos of the place daring back a century. The scenes looked virtually identical to what I was seeing. And when I ducked into the roadside Gostilna Peter Badovinac, a sort of trattoria, for dinner, I found an eatery that had occupied the same building for 112 years, presided over by a fourth-generation. Badovinac. As I dug into a plate of perk chops and sipped local Bela Kraiina wine, I gazed at photos of the building from the 19308. TIley could have been
taken that afternoon. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, two world wars, three different national identities, and secession-s-history had come and
gone, and a Badovinac had woken up each morning to cook pork chops with an. unwavering consistency .
It was while sitting there, comfortably sated and studying my map, that I hatched a, plan. The Kolpa River fanned the border between Slovenia and Cr-oatia, 70 miles-south and west of Metlika. Canoeing and rafting were big on the Kolpa; why not spend a day literally paddling the border?
With the help of Metlika's tourism office, Icalled.Martin Lindic and Andreia Rade, who run a rafting and .guiding service out of Lindic's ,home village of Radenci, and arranged to meet them on the banks of the Kolpa. There we loaded two inflatable canoes atop their van, drove 15 miles upriver, and slipped in. The Kolpa runsin a valley betweensteep forested mountaiasides. "This is the cleanest river in all Slovenia," Lindic said, as We drifted over water so clear we couldsee the bottom. Ui1ti11991 the. river ran between two Yugoslavstates; now it was .. an international border.
After two hours of paddling and a few small rapids, I spotted three houses on the Croatian side of the river. Lindic Jet out a piercing whistle, answered by a shout. We pulled up to the bank and scampered not just into Croatia. but into a borderland netherworld called. Lamana Draga. Amid cornfields, fruit orchards, tOWS of beanstalks, and a flower garden overflowing with nasturtiums and geraniums, lived just three people; Faniks Jak6vac, 76; her son Zladko; and a 79-year~ald woman.
Slovenia, .Austria,I COUld. see no difference~ just thick woods and high green mountains.
. skittered around the yard and cows munched on the grass .around us; the farm felr homey, tucked away in a valley so removed from the rest of the world. Once-again, talk turned to national boundaries. Here, far from Belgrade=-the old capital of Yngoslavia-e-the borde"!" was never much of a border Ambroz s.aid. Officially..rhe other side of the mountain was Austria, but it had once been Sloveniaa territory and held a large Slovenian minoritywho,be said, had always felt independent. In these remote valleys and deep mountain woods even the northern edge of the Iron Curtain was more abstraction than realitY, in;elevant t-o the people who lived on either side of it, People here were held together not by political constructs but by a much older, deeper sense of identity,
"This area was full of partisans in World War II," Ambraz said. "When it became part afYugo--
slavia, much stricter border policies were enacted. However, everyone logs here=end to log you.have to make your own roads. Soen a little of this and a.little of that W<lS being transported through the woods" toward the border, he said with a knowing look." Coffee" horses, tractors .. , .. " Ambroz smiled. "We take care of our own; the town knew, and God knew, and that's all that mattered."
From Logarska Dollna I headed north and east again, driving for hours on dirt roads through forests and along mountains, emerging at picturesque Alpine villages, which were always a. few farmhouses clustered around a church. I spent a night in Austria
62 NATIONAL :(lBOGRA'PIlIC TRAVELER I SE,PTEMBER ~illO
Clockwise from top left: A boy lingers over a, bowl 01 soup In Oflszentpeter. Hungary. three rnlles from Slovenia. Traditional WOOd~n si.SJ1$ point the way to villages and attractions in tI1e Logarska DoJlna Landscape Park. a highlight of north Siovenla·s K<lmnik-Savlnja Alps. Border crnsslngs are daHyevents
to r residents of a elJ acant Nova G onea Slovenia. an d Gorizi a. Ita Iy.
Zladko sported a black mustache and few teeth; his mother, a widow, wore all black. For half a century, Zladko explained, producing a bottle of Slivovica brandy rnade from his own pears and pouring shots all around, Lamana Draga was just an isolated little riverside hamlet in Yugoslavia. It had no roads; the Jakovacs crossed the river to acquire whatever they couldn't grow themselves by pulling themselves in a boat along a chain. As for their national identity, well, they had always just been Slovenians in Yugoslavia-and the river was just a river.
That changed in 1991: Overnight the Kolpa became the border between two newly minted .narions=-Slovenia and Croatia-and the folks in Lamana Draga officially became Croatian. There was even a new sign posted on their land announcing the border. The problem was, they were cut off from their new country by a mountainous wilderness. To reach anything-c-a road, a store-they had to float across this new boundary. It made guards look like a joke.
So what were they now, I asked. "! worked on the Slovenian side," Fanika said. "My husband worked on the Slovenian side. My doctor is in Slovenia, I think I'm Slovenian, but who knows!"
Zladko insisted on another round of Slivovica before seeing us off. & Lindie, Rade, and I paddled along the river, woozy from three mid-morning Sh0tS of brandy, I suddenly perceived it differently. The river was a border, yes, the most natural one I'd seen. But it was also, like all rivers and lakes and oceans, a connector of people and places:
Wbkh is what I contemplated a day later, sitting in a cafe in a different world altogether-looking OUt on the blue Adriatic Sea in the port town ofPiran. Over ten days J had driven 900 miles in five countries and crossed international borders 21 times. Piran
happened to be in Slovenia, but in architecture it was an ancient Venetian seaport, a scenic web-of tightly packed houses and wide streets overlooking a harbor full of yachts. If! closed my eyes and concentrated, I could hear conversations in English, German, SJovenian, French, and Italian. If Lopened my eyes and gazed south or north 1 could see, and even swim to--they were that close=Iraly and Croatia.
Here by the Adriatic I was back where I started-at the border between land and sea. I'd begun my journey in Trieste, Italy, just up the coast from Piran, In Trieste, I'd felt disoriented, a fact I'd attributed to the sudden dislocation of jet travel. But in Piran I realized that hadn't been my problem. Trieste was a borderland: over the centuries it had been Roman, Venetian, Austrian, Italian, even French. It was nowhere and everywhere--just like Piran, and like Lamana Draga and all the little border towns I'd visited over the past week. 'Who you were in these places depended less on lines across a map than on a deeper, older, mote tribal identity: the land where you were born, the language you spoke, your religion. My American notion of a countryand identity, defined by immutable borders was, 1 now realized, the exception.
The sea in front of me was atangible border. Except it wasn't a border at all, It was a free zone that connected 'the world. On it you could sail anywhere. It was the biggest borderland of all.
The sun was hot; the waters of the Adriatic shimmered. I could think of .nothing better than. to just dive in.
Contributing editor CARL HOFFMAN is the author of the 2010 book The Lunatic Express. Contributing photographer AARON HUEY last shot 'The High Road to Machu Picchu" (May-June 2009).