‘You can sleep with my horse’

by Russell McGilton

‘You can sleep with my horse,’ Matild said.

‘Well, that’s dating up now isn’t it,’ I joked. It wasn’t the usual offering I got from blonde young women but it was a damn sight better than sleeping with the pigs out the back of the hotel, the owner’s rueful suggestion.

‘You can make the sleeping on the sano,’ she laughed.

‘Sano?’

‘Hay,’ her boyfriend corrected me in his deep Slavic accent. He was a stocky smiling man called Sebastian.

I was in Radvona, a small town, well not even a town really, just a few houses and a hotel strewn together amongst the green rolling hills of Slovenia. I’d been cycle touring from the historic city of Bled, its claim to fame its impressive castle perched on a cliff overlooking a lake. I’d taken a secondary road through a forest for some hours, staying in the shade while Europe’s unusually hot summer heat had eased off. As I passed a couple sitting and drinking a beer in the dying light they offered to buy me one.

How could I resist?

Matild was a florist based in Treste, a city by the coast while Sebastian was an inland kind of guy who tended his family’s farm. By now it was raining and the prospect of putting my tent up had dimmed like the night.

They threw my bike in the car, drove over a steep hill, into a paddock and into a barn. A big pregnant molted grey horse came trotting over.

‘This is Mishka. Be nice to her,’ Sebastian said.

I climbed up a rickety ladder up into the loft. They passed my bags and bike. I got out my sleeping bag and stuffed the hay together. Mishka grunted impatiently. I threw her some hay, flicked off the torch and in the darkness I listened to the baying and hard hooves of the goats under me. Then I thought of rats.

I had originally come to Slovenia to meet up with a friend, Uros, who I’d met cycling from Delhi to Kathmandu. We’d gone to a gipsy festival in Serbia, but now he had to return to work leaving me to cycle the hilly province of Gorenska, the northwest of Slovenia that borders Austria and Italy.

Slovenia was once part of Yugoslavia and the first country to declare its independence from the Communist government in 1990. There was a short ten day war with few casualties, bypassing the horrors that would fall on their Baltic cousins.

As an ex-communist, easten European bloc country I thought I’d be surrounded by horrid architectural monoliths, belching pollution and sour faces.

But it was nothing of the sought. It was lush, clean and rarely did I see a piece of disgarded rubbish. Slovenia boasts a fact that half of the country has over half of its trees left, rarity in Europe. It has a high standard of living yet it is on par with Australia in terms of daily costs. Everyone it seems drives the latest cars, people dress with a certain chic, lolling around in cafes along the beautiful cobbled precincts of Ljubljana and 17th century architecture.

In the morning, after lobbing more hay at Mishka to stop her eatin my bike, I cycled into the Krma (pronounced Karma’) valley, left my bike at a café and climbed Slovenia’s highest mountain, Mt Triglav (2,500 metres).

Slovenians are proud of their country and climbing Mt Triglav is seen a patriotic duty.

It was a hard steep climb and if I hadn’t been adopted by a Slovenian family I don’t think I would’ve made it. It was dangerous, plagues marking the deaths of young climbers, some teenagers, killed, I was told, by lightning strikes.

Down back in the valley I cycled on to the ski town of Mostyna and prepared myself for the Slovenia highest motorable pass Virsic, a 12 kilometre climb. I left late in afternoon, cooling off in the lagoon. It was quite steep in parts the front wheel coming off. When I got to the top numerous cyclists were also there, heaving and panting, struggling up the hill. A small group of them passed around some whisky.

‘Do you want some?’

‘Sure.’ I swigged it back. They kept plying me with drink. And more and more till I had to eventually get on the bike and face the twenty kilometre descent, wobbling drunkardly all the way, down the twists and turns into the curtain of darkness.

That night I free camped. It’s not legal to do so but with some sensitivity you can do it just about anywhere. And I did. On a slope. Which was stupid because I ended slumped up at one end with a spoon in my back. Normally it is not too much to camp but I wanted to save my money for breakfast at the local Gostilna. I sat there outside in the European magic light, Turkish style coffee in a small cup, poached eggs, ham and cheese. The Slovenians love their cheese, their different hams and meat spreads. It was a little too much at times for this once vegetarian.

I cycled into Bovec a small town famed for its rafting and paragliding. As the lack of rain had lowered the level of the river rafting was out.

‘You should try Canyoning,’ said the young women at the tour agency. ‘Much more fun.’

And so I did. With twenty other tourists from Hungary, Italy and Spain we went splashing and splooshing down the rocky river, falling over ten-metre drops into rock pools, all bound up in wetsuits and helmets.

Alas, my holiday was soon over, and I boarded a small plane from Ljubljana to Zurich the very next day and by that night my memories of sleeping in hay and falling down canyons became a mere dream as often travel adventures are.