Crossing the Border, from Ljubljana to Pula by Train
A JOURNEY ON THE ARENA TRAIN, LIKE IN THE OLD YUGOSLAVIAN
TIMES WHEN SLOVENIA AND CROATIA WERE ONE SINGLE COUNTRY
— text and photos by Giacomo Frison and Glorija Blazinsek (altripiani.org), translated by Glorija Blazinsek / october 2017
For any adventure you need to leave with light backpacks
Here we are, ready to travel again with a free mind and our passports, trying to keep our feet warm in this old wagon.
The train is not only a mean of transport to move from one place to another, for sure it takes you somewhere, but it facilitates reflection, creativity and fantasy towards new projects.
We are not going that far, just across the border, in Slovenia, in that green lung that if you watch the map you'll recognise it by its shape which reminds of a chicken with a long neck.
Here the spaces of time are extended too, memories are different, people still know how to preserve human relations and secrets, just as they know how to keep nature untouched.
For us Slovenia has always been a territory rich of forests, not so built, with no unauthorised buildings, a place where people are mostly reserved, near home and similar to Austria, but not so alike because it adjoins with the Slavic world, from whom actually always wanted to distinguish even if they were deeply linked from different chapters in history.
Slovenia is quite a small country, however its climatic conditions are linked to the variety of the territory, so they register considerable diversities.
In the Karst Region and in the mountain area the weather in this season is obviously cold, both on the northern border with Austria and in the Dinaric Alps on the border with Croatia.
For any adventure you need to leave with light backpacks, but never forget a technical gore-tex jacket and a pair of comfortable and versatile footwear.
Ljubljana is a little jewel, a capital city of Austro-Hungarian memories, with red roofs, Baroque facades, and the walks along the Ljubljanica river. The city is very green, in fact it has been recently declared as the "European Green Capital”. It is young, suitable for walking and cycling. Among the labyrinths of streets and little squares, it offers all the ease to live culture and Slovenian efficiency for a few days.
“Hia hia hia hooo”, the bajters’ greeting
Leaving Ljubljana and passing through loads of small orderly villages, in one hour by bus you can easily reach the mountains.
We went to Velika Planina (the Great Mountain), a plateau on 1600 m which is reachable with a two hours walk or with a cable car operative during the whole year. Here we found the colours of autumn, in the valley it was raining, but over the clouds the sun won with its brilliance and the panoramic view on the Skuta Mountain, the Grinttavec, the Ojstrica and other mountains over 2000m was stunning. Everything was just perfect.
In a good Altripiani style we met an older lady, Helena. She was puny, but full of energy although she was 70 years old. She immediately wanted us to help her bring the supplies up to the mountain. She lives in Kamnik, but she often sleeps on the plateau, in a small larch wooden lodge. In order to warm up ourselves we drank a toast with some shots of Pelinkovac. At ten in the morning!
She got acquainted with us and recognised us as curious and smart young people. She kept smiling and hugging us as we were walking together to the highest point of the plateau in order to sign the summit book and take some photographs to remember that moment.
“Hia hia hia hooo” screamed Helena: that’s how the bajters (the people who live here) greet each other. She sang a song and then, among stories and anecdotes she told us she used to work for a wood company and she lived in Raša (Istria) for ten years.
We knocked on a tiny dark wooden door, some friends who were preparing the lunch opened. We toasted again!
We were told that the day after would have been a celebrating day: the shepherds that during summer grazed on the plateau, will give the keys to the bajters so they can look after the alpine pasture during winter.
The gulash was boiling in the pan and men were off to pick mushrooms.
From porcini mushrooms to fish
To go from the Slovenian porcini mushrooms to the lobsters of the seafood market in Pula is not a difficult thing to do.
In fact, in this journey, we decided to go through and link two territories which represent the proximity between the mountain and the sea very well, sharing a lot of nature and forests.
Slovenia and Istria are united also by a single track train. A historical train which in the last century used to be a steam locomotive. It was called “Arena” or “the green train”, some others used to call it Istarska pruga, that means Istrian railway line which links Divača to Pula in 122km. The development of this railway follows the first industrial revolution and the agricultural necessities of these lands. It was needed to break up the isolation which used to characterise the centre of the Istrian peninsula and together with the Wien – Trieste line it brought links and development in different industrial branches such as the naval, the construction and the mechanical sectors.
A railway line that follows the destiny of these borderlands. It was launched on the 18th of August 1876, and it belonged at first to the Istrian railways, then it passed to the Italian railway line (under the compartment of Trieste) till 1945. Between the ‘50s and the ‘70s the line belonged to the main transports company of Ljubljana and in the mid-‘90s, after the declared independence of Croatia and Slovenia, it was divided among the respective railways of the countries that were in charge on that territory. A railway which has always been excluded from the rest of the Croatian tracks and has often been replaced by local buses.
In the mid-‘80s the railway line reached its top with 900.000 passengers in Istria. At that time the transport on track had its advantages considering the oil crisis and the fact that the roads network outdated.
The “Arena” train between Pula and Ljubljana was the mean of transport of businessmen with every comfort on board: air-conditioned wagons, daily newspapers, and buffet included in the price.
Ervin the train conductor
After two changes and five hours journey we went from the green Ljubljana to the romantic Pula. Ervin the train conductor has been working on this line for thirty-five year. He loves the landscape, especially the one after the passport control on the border, when the train – firstly slow and silent and then always faster and more convinced, goes down towards Buzet and the view on whole Istria is stunning. They always work in pair on the train and everybody knows each other: train conductors, train drivers, station masters and policemen and each one of them carries out his role with dedication and respect.
The train resists and is well used, passengers get on and off, the steam has been replaced by a diesel engine, but the wheels clank the same as they used to one hundred and fifty years ago, the brakes squeal and the driver makes himself heard before the level-crossings.
It felt like being seated in a cinema watching a long movie, which leaves you some time to think though.
From the windows we witnessed to the spectacle of nature, sweet and sour at the same time: the Karst, the stone, the mountain. And again the forest, the woods and the trees that were changing colours blended themselves into the landscape while the train was brushing against them.
There they are, the Slovenian policemen, in the middle of a huge field, near the border, leaning on the jeep and watching the train going to the checkpoint.
At the small station of Buzet we switched trains. The names of the following villages sounded like this: Roč, Lupoglav, Hum u Istri, Borut, Pazin, Sv. Peter U Šumi, Kanfanar, Galižana, Pula.
The train conductor would smile, announcing each stop where we would always find the station master who would pop out from his office or from a blooming pergola. A figure that doesn’t almost exist anymore in Italy, but who has survived in these lands.
The increasingly connected Europe has no more moustached station masters, nor slim or long-limbed or rounded ones, with the hat or without, with the tie or a uniform, with a green signalling disk or a little red flag.
Someone that wishes you a good day or a pleasant journey, that addresses uncertain passengers to the right direction.
The train ran fast
First we saw drywalls made from Istrian stones and the Venetian styled bell towers popping out from the green hills, then the green became yellow of the fields and we could glimpse the light blue sea line. That was our destination!
We got off of the train and thanked and greeted the train conductor who would have left for the backwards journey in a few minutes.
For us, a new adventure is about to start: the Pula Arena, the Arch of the Sergii and a dive into the Adriatic.