In the steambath that is Rome in July, mornings on my terrace are paradise

Me on my terrace, my usual perch every morning with my laptop and perfect cappuccino.

Me on my terrace, my usual perch every morning with my laptop and perfect cappuccino.


It’s 9 in the morning in Rome. It’s the spark before the fire. The searing sun that will reach 99 degrees this weekend has yet to pour over my rooftop. It has left my fourth-floor penthouse terrace in an embracingly cool shadow of 79 degrees. Seagulls floating in from the nearby Tyrrhenian Sea squawk over my head. If the Tiber River below me was the ocean, I’d feel as if I was on Capri instead of in Testaccio, my neighborhood I’ve grown to love like my hometown. My perfect cappuccino is next to this laptop as I peck away in complete solitude.

Yes, Rome in July is awful as I wrote last week https://johnhendersontravel.com/2015/07/09/july-is-worst-time-to-be-in-rome-or-anywhere-else/. However, in the mornings it is tolerable. On my terrace, it is spectacular. On my terrace is when Rome becomes the city of my dreams. It’s where I feel like this isn’t 2015. It’s 15 AD and I’m a member of the Roman Senate, sitting above the city in obscene luxury, lounging above the great unwashed. I keep looking around for curvy peasant women in togas to feed me grapes. Alas, I feed myself cereal and eggs.

My terrace has become my sanctuary, my home in my home. It’s where I write in the mornings and entertain in the evenings. It’s where the Tiber River transforms from one of the filthiest rivers in Europe to the Seine in spring. I never tire of climbing my 90 steps and cooling off at night, looking out over my balcony and watching the 19th century street lamps reflect off the gently flowing river. (It also helped that the gypsy camp on the river bank got mowed outta town.)

My terrace is 35 square meters, as big as some apartments in Rome.

My terrace is 35 square meters, as big as some apartments in Rome.


My terrace is 35 square meters or 377 square feet. That’s huge by Rome standards. It’s big enough to be lined with plants of all sizes and shapes. I’m surrounded by green. I remember reading a long story in The New York Times in 2008 about an expat couple. She spent four years looking for an apartment with a terrace big enough for a garden. At the end of the story she finally found one. In about the second to last paragraph, The Times added that the going rate for a 180-square-meter apartment with a balcony went for 5,000-5,600 euros ($5,555-$6,216). I took it as a sign that terraces are as rare in Rome as elevators. (This is nearly a 3,000-year-old city. And you wonder why Romans aren’t fat?) I pay 950 euros for my flat, the inside itself is 45 square meters or 484 square feet. My terrace is like another giant room.

My furniture is all 21st century IKEA, Sweden’s greatest gift to the world besides its women. It’s all waterproof and the cushions on the wooden chairs make you want to stay all day. I sometimes brave the afternoon elements and sun myself on my lanais chair, something I haven’t done at home since my days atop the Phi Psi roof at the University of Oregon. (By the way, ever see “National Lampoon’s Animal House”? That was filmed in my fraternity while I was living there fall term 1977. I had breakfast with John Belushi for six weeks. Feel free to bow.) And in Rome, I’m no longer worried about getting pelted by water balloons from the nearby Sigma Nu house. I put a big liter bottle of cold water next to me and read my Corriere dello Sport newspaper. No cafe in Rome or North American can beat this solitude.

The colors on Roman mornings are wonderful. Despite a reputation for dirty air, Rome’s sky from within Rome looks as clean as San Diego’s coast. The turquoise sky is void of clouds. It’s brutal in the afternoon when there is no escaping the sun but in the mornings it has the prettiest landscape for breakfast. Below is my lovely street, Lungotevere Testaccio, lined with huge, billowy Sycamore trees that cover the walkway in shade. You can walk from the southern tip of Rome to the northern with hardly ever setting foot in the sun.

Mostly, I love my terrace for entertaining at night. When the sun drops in Rome, so does the humidity. Unlike Texas or Florida, where you must take as many showers at night as in the day, Rome’s evenings in July are as comfortable as anywhere in the world. I invite friends over for a typical Roman aperitivo: big trays full or prosciutto, salami, cheeses and olives, bread and spreads of olive and pesto. Fresh fruit fill another tray next to big chilled bottles of white wine. Somehow a fresh Pinot Grigio from Veneto tastes better when looking down upon Rome. Conversations are livelier. Laughter is louder. Dreams are bigger.

So is life. I must go. The sun is starting to creep over my roof. In an hour, Rome is going to turn into a greenhouse. I think I’ll feed myself some grapes.

July is worst time to be in Rome — or anywhere else

Tourists recovering from Wednesday's 93-degree heat and 50 percent humidity in Piazza del Popolo.

Tourists recovering from Wednesday’s 93-degree heat and 50 percent humidity in Piazza del Popolo.


Everybody talks about their favorite month. All the reasons are interesting, and they tell a lot about people. My favorite is September. Soccer season is in full gear, American football season begins, baseball pennant races are heating up, the weather is heating down and for another September I’m reminded that I’m no longer in school. Your favorite month is easy.

But what about your worst?

No one talks about that one. The late great sports columnist at The Denver Post, Dick Connor, used to say, “February kills columnists.” He had a point. The Super Bowl has ended and all you have are the dog days of college and NBA basketball. I live in Rome so my perspective should have changed. It hasn’t. There is no doubt in mind — and there never HAS been a doubt — as my most hated month of the year.

July.

Now. I’m dying. Rome rarely sucks. It sucks now. But nearly every place in the world sucks. Sucks. Sucks. Sucks. I travel. A lot. Yet there is nary a place in the world that isn’t awful in July. Think about it. Europe is too crowded, Asia is too hot, the Southern Hemisphere is too cold and the Caribbean is too rainy. The only places nice in July are Scandinavia, Colorado, Alaska/Canada and Mongolia. And only go to Mongolia if you have an addiction to mutton.

But don’t EVER come to Rome in July. Ever. Every day this month has been 90-95 with 45-50 percent humidity. It’s not as bad as Houston where today it will reach 94 with humidity at 64 percent. But add a good chunk of the 10 million tourists Rome receives every year and put them on a subway system too small to serve Des Moines, Iowa, and La Dolce Vita turns into a puddle of melted flesh.

My subway car Wednesday. Rome gets about 10 million tourists a year, a good many of them coming in July.

My subway car Wednesday. Rome gets about 10 million tourists a year, a good many of them coming in July.


I take pride in handling extreme weather conditions. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest so rain, cold and eight months without seeing the sun don’t faze me. Neither does searing heat. I lived in Las Vegas for 10 years. Ice and snow? I love them. I lived in Denver for 23 years. But I may have met my match with humidity. It affects me more than I’m willing to admit. Sweat stains are the ultimate in tackiness. I don’t care if we can’t help it. I hate them. I don’t naturally sweat much. Still, I only wear black or white shirts during the day in Rome. I once would rather go out naked than wear shorts in Rome like a common tourist. Now I wouldn’t wear long pants in this heat if threatened by armed gladiators.

These days in Rome remind me of the heat I experienced in South India in March. In the beach town of Varkala, I hardly noticed the gorgeous women walking around in bikinis and sheer sarongs because I couldn’t get my eyes off my extra-large bottles of beer. This month in Rome, even the hottest women walking the sidewalks look like melted cake frosting as their mascara runs like jelly and their blouses stain as if hit by broken bottles of wine.

How do I beat the heat? I sit on my terrace and eat fruit. I’ve eaten more fruit than an orangutan. I’ve eaten so many bananas, a birthmark is starting to look like a Chiquita sticker. Every day I drink three liters of tap water from big glass bottles in the refrigerator which doesn’t quite chill anything quite like it does every other month.

Cooking pasta in Rome in July is like shoveling coal in the Sahara. My top-floor apartment is well ventilated with plenty of windows on both sides, but tending a steaming tomato sauce beats the appetite right out of you. I’m thinking about starting the morning by pouring my cold cereal down my shorts. (I don’t know what that means, but it sounds refreshing.)

Last night I went to a modern wine bar near the Colosseum where my Wine Enthusiasts in Rome Meetup group had a wine tasting. The bar’s lone air conditioner unit was a mere decoration. It was hot enough inside to grow African violets. But the wines were good and they were cold and when I walked outside later that night, Rome returned the cool, comfortable embrace I’ve learned to love.

But during the afternoons, Rome is a beast. Stay away.

Calcio Storico Fiorentino a violent history lesson of Florence’s once gloried past

Calcio Storico Fiorentino started 500 years ago to show Emperor Charles V of Spain they weren't afraid of his invading army.

Calcio Storico Fiorentino started 500 years ago to show Emperor Charles V of Spain they weren’t afraid of his invading army.


FLORENCE, Italy — The players march onto the sand-covered piazza behind a parade of troubadours, trumpet players, drummers and soldiers dressed in the pointy brass helmets of the Florentine Republic’s front-line army. Little boys dance and wave flags. The piazza floor fills with bright colors dominated by green and red. Green and red smoke spilling down from the grandstands on opposite sides of the piazza blocks out the light from the setting sun. Partially hidden in the mist, well-muscled Florentine men, half wearing green and the other half red, warm up like roosters before a cockfight. They fidget in the dirt, shadow box into a frothy sweat, zigzag between teammates, flag bearers and the occasional cameraman.

It’s the opening game of the 2015 Calcio Storico Fiorentino, a Florence tradition that dates back 500 years, back during the Italian Renaissance, when Florence was the biggest economic power in Italy, when art was its monetary unit and artists were its heroes. Yes, Florence. When you think of Florence, you think of the birthplace of the Renaissance, of Michelangelo masterpieces in the Uffizi, of the Ponte Vecchio straddling the Arno River at sunset. But hidden underneath the art, Chianti and romance is a sport that is all about blood, guts and a lot of glory. Calcio Storico Fiorentino combines rugby, soccer and violent assault. For nearly five centuries, Florence’s four major neighborhoods have gathered for one weekend in June and, literally, fight for a city they will risk facial rearrangement to defend.

Many of the players train as boxers and have been in this event 25 years.

Many of the players train as boxers and have been in this event 25 years.


I intended to go last year. I heard bits and pieces about what many called the world’s most violent sport. I had to see for it myself. However, last year’s games were cancelled. Why? Because the sport had become TOO VIOLENT! Some rule changes brought it back. Also back are men with an extra year of pent-up hostility. I see the Red team, “I Rossi,” gather before the game in Piazza Santa Maria Novella, in northwest Florence and right in the heart of Reds territory. They are on the ground leaning against the Chiesa di Santa Maria Novella. All wear the traditional Florentine Republic pants that are baggy, multi-striped and look like they were torn off court jesters. These guys, however, are not laughing. They are all heavily muscled and tattooed to where I see more ink than skin. Their hair is already glistening with sweat and water from bottles they keep splashing to cool their jets.
The start of the parade that winds its way for an hour through the city to Piazza di Santa Croce.

The start of the parade that winds its way for an hour through the city to Piazza di Santa Croce.


While the Reds are from the neighborhood of Santa Maria Novella, they play the Greens from San Giovanni, in central Florence surrounding the famous Duomo. The Whites are from Santo Spirito on the other side of the Arno in the southwest and the Blues, whom the Whites play the next day, are from Santa Croce in the southeast. Florence neighborhoods have no demarcation lines. Florence is not South-Central L.A. Yet the four ‘hoods have been at war for 500 years.

I ask the manager of the Reds, Rodolfo Carbone, a burly 50ish fellow with short gray hair and beard, what this event means to the Florentine people. I want to ask why normally sane men beat the brain cells out of each other every year in a city small enough to see each other every day. However, one of his players stands my height, 6-foot-3, and his tattooed-chest can fit a family of four.

Part of the procession is a group dressed as Archibusieri, the uniforms of the Florentine Republic army.

Part of the procession is a group dressed as Archibusieri, the uniforms of the Florentine Republic army.


“You’re born with this,” says Carbone, an import-exporter, tapping his heart. “You have it inside you since you were a child. When you start doing it, you feel something. You feel something to be Florentine.”
A trumpeter with Florence's city symbol it's held since the days it was an Italian economic power during the Renaissance.

A trumpeter with Florence’s city symbol it’s held since the days it was an Italian economic power during the Renaissance.


I follow the parade as it snakes its way through the streets of Florence to the piazza. The drummers lead the way, pounding a steady “BOOM! BOOM! BOOMBOOMBOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOMBOOMBOOM!” With the hulking, frowning players slowly marching behind, it sounds like a march to the gallows. Yet the trappings of 21st century Florence stand in deep contrast to this 16th century tradition. Something about a bald, sweating, bare-chested man covered in tattoos walking past a Max Mara store jars you back to the present. Yet if you have a good imagination, you can picture this procession passing blacksmiths and cobblers and donkeys during the Renaissance. Maybe Michelangelo put down his chisel to stare at the men.
A Reds player raises his fist as shouts of "ROSSI! ROSSI!" (REDS! REDS!) come from the crowd.

A Reds player raises his fist as shouts of “ROSSI! ROSSI!” (REDS! REDS!) come from the crowd.


The parade marches an hour before it enters Piazza di Santa Croce. Hovering over one end is the towering black and white Basilica di Santa Croce which houses the corpses of such famous Florentines as Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. A statue of Dante Alighieri, perhaps Italy’s most famous author, has a perfect view of the field from the front of the basilica. How ironic his image spends an eternity watching this event after he wrote one of my favorite books, “Inferno.”
Piazza di Santa Croce with the Basilica di Santa Croce in the background before the game.

Piazza di Santa Croce with the Basilica di Santa Croce in the background before the game.

Dante Alighieri looks down from the corner outside the basilica.

Dante Alighieri looks down from the corner outside the basilica.


The field is heating up into what I’m told will be a living hell. The trumpeters leave. The children escape. All that’s left are 54 men, 27 to a side, their shirts long gone and sweat covering their bodies. Teammates hug and pound each other in a football-style warm-up drill. Everyone is shadow boxing. As the public announcer screams “VIVE FIRENZE!” a bearded player in green drops his head back, closes his eyes, slightly opens his mouth and clenches his slightly raised fists, seemingly in a trance. I try to find a vantage point to shoot photos through the Cyclone fence. I couldn’t help noticing how much it resembles a cage from an MMA card. But MMA doesn’t have much on this.

Soon, both sides stand on their side of the field. Opponents lock eyes. A referee called a Pallaio, in a baggy, florid outfit, holds a ball aloft. A whistle blows, the ball goes in the air and …

***

The year was 1529. Florence was the center of the Italian Renaissance. Michelangelo completed David, today still the world’s greatest sculpture, in 1503. Eight years later he would finish painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The Florentine Republic, established in 1115, was the greatest economy power on the Italian peninsula for 200 years. However, in 1530 Charles V, a Spaniard who was emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, sought favors from Pope Clement VII and in October 1529 attacked Florence, which had clashed with the pope and wanted to stay independent.

It's illegal to hit a man while he's prone on the ground, but that's one of the few rules.

It’s illegal to hit a man while he’s prone on the ground, but that’s one of the few rules.


A siege lasted 10 months. In what amounted to a major rattling of sabers, the Florentine citizenry put on a show of their own. The four major neighborhoods met in June 1530 in a bare fisted brawl in Piazza di Santa Croce to show Charles V they weren’t scared of his army, that they were tough enough to handle any siege.

Alessandro Ghidoli, 56, is heavily into Calcio Fiorentino. A Florence resident since 1979 and a son of a native Florentine, Ghidoli joins the parade as an Archibusieri, one of the Florentine soldiers. He’s as much of an objective historian as you’ll find. I ask him why they still do this after 500 years.

“It’s a remembrance, although a bit peculiar, of a historical moment when Florence showed all its power, pride, importance in a political competition all around Europe,” he says. “This is at the same time the strength and the problem with the Calcio Storico. The strength because all around the years during the centuries, it comes out the pride of the Florentines, who are very particular and individuals, very proud.

“At the same time is the problem because it’s not a game. It’s only a history of violence.”

Players square off immediately after the opening ball is tossed.

Players square off immediately after the opening ball is tossed.


The problem of the Calcio Storico is the essence of what inspired it: violence. The rules are simple. There are 27 men to a side. Teams try to advance a ball about the size of a soccer ball up a field that’s 80 meters long and 40 wide. To score they must move the ball upfield and put it behind a padded cushion that stretches the length of the opponent’s end. That’s worth one point. The space between the cushion and fence is about a meter wide. If a player tries to throw it in the opening and instead hits the fence behind it, it’s a half point for the other team.

As far as defense, well, anything goes just short of cutlery. Fighting isn’t just allowed, it’s expected. So is kicking. So is tackling the head. Neighborhoods’ thirst for winning reached a point where they reached across the water for talent. They tapped Ireland and Great Britain for hired thugs and rugby ringers. The games became so violent, the ball became mere decoration in a landscape of fistfights. No deaths have occurred but men have been hospitalized for up to five months with head injuries. They cancelled it all in 2014 then brought it back with some subtle rule changes: Players must be Florence residents for at least 10 years. Multiple men can’t fight one opponent, unlike before when gang beatings were common. If a player is disqualified and doesn’t leave the field within three minutes, his team is disqualified.

There is a lot more clutching and grabbing than scoring.

There is a lot more clutching and grabbing than scoring.


Even Ghidoli tells me, “This is not sport. First, at the basis of sport there is fair play. No? Or in the (Baron de) Coubertin (who wrote the Olympic Oath) way, the importance is not to win always but to participate. In Calcio Storico, those two rules are nothing. You have ONLY to win in whichever way and it’s not a fair game.”

Yet the games go on. Florentines stick out their chests, wear their colors, fire their smoke bombs and wave their banners. Lost in what Calcio Fiorentino has become is this: Maybe modern Florence should take a history lesson. How much did these games scare Charles V in 1530?

In what forevermore would be called the Siege of Florence, the city surrendered that August.

***

… five fistfights immediately break out. Ten men square off on a sand floor, fists up, feet shuffling, jabs throwing, testing their opponent. This isn’t a bar brawl. These are chiseled, mostly tattooed men with decent boxing skills. Curiously, I see they’re facing opponents about their size as if Calcio Storico has weight classes. I focus my camera’s zoom lens on one pair and my trigger finger is too late. POW! A right cross from a Green hits a Red square in the face. He goes down. The medic team gets up. Men in yellow fluorescent uniforms carry a stretcher to the man prone on the ground. He is not moving. The other men are. They’re all still boxing. They’re in various states of clutching, feigning, punching and holding. Two have opponents in immovable positions, like wrestlers ready for a pin.

A Verdi fan.

A Verdi fan.


Meanwhile, behind the line of unarmed gladiators, four guys from the red team pass the ball around underhanded, unguarded. That’s all they do. They just pass it back and forth like little kids at a beach. They have no more interest in advancing the ball than they do advancing mankind. The Green defenders by their goal stand back and watch. It’s absurd to the point of hilarity. Completely forgetting my Italian, I yell to no one in particular, “THIS IS NOT SPORT! THIS IS RIDICULOUS!”

The violence gets worse as the game heats up. A Red player appears to beat up a Green and a Green teammate comes to the rescue. He appears to kick the Red in the head. A referee dressed in what in some rural American towns would consider a clown outfit, gives him the thumb. It isn’t for kicking him in the head; it’s for jumping in as a third party. New rule, you know.

After 12 minutes, the Green team finally gets the ball. But the blockers seem more interested in fighting than blocking. A Green picks up a Red and body slams him to the dirt to a hearty cry of “OOOH” from both sides of the piazza. Nearby, a Red pounds a Green into the ground and a Green gets a running start and lands a perfect right foot into his skull. The Red’s grip suddenly loosens and he slowly rolls onto his back, seemingly out cold. He is not. Soon he’s up and fighting again.

Meanwhile, the Red team knocks the ball loose — I don’t know. I long ago realize the ball is a meaningless prop. Maybe someone tore off a ball carrier’s right arm. — and has a clear path up the left side of the piazza. He does not run. This whole affair reminds me of a hockey match between two teams who had a score to settle from the drop of the puck. Except this score has lasted two years.

“Generally, the first 10 minutes of the game is a show of strength: ‘We are ready to fight,’” Guidoli tells me later.

Soon I see 10 pairs on the ground in various holds. That’s 20 players not doing anything. There is no time limit on letting up the opponent. One time, two players are on the ground in their own vice. One leans out, grabs it, gives it a weak push to a teammate and resumes clutching his opponent as if he’s saying, “Oh, yes. There’s a ball. I’m supposed to do something with it but I can’t recall what.” One guy, straddling another’s chest, appears to have a normal conversation with him, like they’re discussing the best places for bistecca fiorentina.

Finally, like the captain of the Titanic who has long been forgotten, the ball reappears. A Green player gets near the Red goal and throws it at the opening behind the red padding. Nope. It hits the fence. Penalty half point. It’s Reds ½, Greens 0. Twenty-five minutes of the 50-minute game have passed. This would be halftime but there is no halftime. There are no breaks, no timeouts. The only subs come for injuries.

The ball is thrown into the middle of the field again. It’s batted around and bounces along the dirt. There is no mad dash of rabid humanity trying to recover it. This isn’t American football. It’s Calcio Fiorentino and more fights break out. Now I start looking at my watch. I’m getting bored with flying leg kicks, body slams, skulls getting knocked back only to return with a grin behind a mouth guard and curling fingers to say, “Come on! Is that all ya’ got?”

In the second “half,” the Greens get serious. One races down the left side of the piazza for one goal, a Red throws too high on another. The Greens go ahead 2 ½-½, the Reds tie it with five minutes left and the Greens win a minute later with a mad solo dash upfield that would be worthy of American football athleticism if not for the eight pairs of fighters on the ground at the time.

If this is sport, house painting is art. I see little athleticism. No one is terribly fast or quick. I see no moves. The boxing is skilled but slow and methodical. They are fit, big and mean. They are also crazy. They are putting themselves at this kind of risk for a tradition that dates back to the time when their city’s most famous period in your history fell to a power-hungry Spanish asshole.

As the whistle blows, the Reds fall in despair. The Greens fall kissing the dirt. Green-clad fans, many with quite large breasts, pour onto the ground to hug the players. I manage to reach the sideline where I ask a balding, muscular Green player named Mirko Cardelli why he does this.

“When you are born in Florence, you have it in your blood,” says Cardelli, a trained boxer who was in his 13th game and delivers food to the sick in a hospital. “I have a lot of competitive spirit. To me, this is sport. I don’t hate anybody.”

The players say rivalries don’t spill into the streets. Florence is not a big city. It has only 380,000 people. Daniele Brumillotti runs a bar called Chocolate. He’s 43. This is his 25th game. He’s also the player who got tossed for kicking the guy in the head of which he tells me, “But I didn’t do anything!”

I ask him if he hates the other neighborhoods.

“I love Florence and am very proud to be Florentine,” says Blumillotti whose team plays the Whites, the current Calcio Storico power, in Wednesday’s final. “It’s why I practice Calcio Storico. I hate my rivals. But only on the field. When we meet in the city, everyone’s my friend.”

I understand the historical significance and Italians holding their history close to their vests. I trained for two months with Rome’s gladiator school. From what I read, the Ancient Romans’ were mankind’s first Nazis. I later died in a reenactment of a gladiator battle in front of about 1,000 tourists in a colosseum outside Rome. I get it. But that was a reenactment. I was even chastised for playing dead on the colosseum floor while furiously trying to pull my one-size-fits-all tunic over my underwear. Calcio Storico, however, is a full-scale brawl with more incentive to score the most blows than the most goals.

Charles V wasn’t impressed and, frankly, neither am I.

Skocjan Caves a must do in Slovenia, the cave capital of Europe

The Slocjan Caves are among 11,000 in Slovenia. About 250 are discovered every year. Source: Archives PSJ. Photo by Borut Lozej

The Slocjan Caves are among 11,000 in Slovenia. About 250 are discovered every year. Source: Archives PSJ. Photo by Borut Lozej.


DIVACA, Slovenia — Have you ever wondered what’s under your feet? I’m not talking about under the grass or concrete or sand. I’m talking about under your feet boring deep into the earth. This planet is 8,000 miles from where you are through the middle of the earth to the other side. That’s a lot of molten rock, continental crust and, well, sand. But you don’t have to go to the center of the earth as Jules Verne’s novel did to get startled by the unknown.

In Slovenia, you can become slack jawed by going under the earth only 100 yards.

This spectacular country on the north end of what was Yugoslavia is known for its great wines, roasted meats and affordable skiing. But underneath it all lie cave networks that are among the most vast in the world. Slovenia has 11,500 caves. About 250 new ones are discovered every year.

“We are very curious people,” one caver said.

I toured the Skocjan Caves on the far west end of Slovenia. It’s about five miles from the border of the Italian tail that slips down the east side of the Adriatic Sea. This area of Slovenia is marked by rolling green hills and cute little villages with not a single reminder of the communist past from 25 years ago. Skocjan Caves stretch 6 kilometers. We were going to walk 2 ½ of them.

The Slocjan Caves are 100 meters high and 120 meters long in places. Source: Archives PSJ. Photo by Borut Lozej

The Slocjan Caves are 100 meters high and 120 meters long in places. Source: Archives PSJ. Photo by Borut Lozej


About 50 of us gathered outside the cave entrance with our English-speaking guide from the Skocjan Caves Regional Park (www.park-skocjanske-jame.si, psj.info@psj.gov.si, cost: 16 euros). Caving is THE thing to do in Slovenia. Not to say it’s popular but our guide had to wait until other briefings were given in Slovene, German and French. I believe some guide also speaks Hmong. I’m not sure.

“Caving” isn’t the right term. In reality, caving is exploring, putting a flashlight atop your helmet and crawling through tiny openings in the earth, hoping a flash storm doesn’t hit from above. I’m a little claustrophobic but even a vampire who sleeps in a casket wouldn’t want to drown like a rat in a flooded corner of a cave. What we were walking through were openings 30 meters high. You could fit a 10-story building. The caves’ northwest section is reserved for experienced cavers, like our guide who has apparently spent more time underground than Al Capone.

Flooding can be an issue here but park officials carefully monitor weather reports. Source: Archives PSJ. Photo by Borut Lozej

Flooding can be an issue here but park officials carefully monitor weather reports. Source: Archives PSJ. Photo by Borut Lozej


The caves themselves seem as old as earth itself. They’re estimated to be 2-3 million years old. Yet these weren’t discovered until 1851. To reach them we walked down a relatively modern 100-meter-long tunnel, built in 1933. We entered a vast cavern with a long walkway. The caves are lit from below so they appear a bit like a giant haunted house. We could not take photos. Safety reasons, they said. They didn’t want people not watching where they were walking. I looked down at about 50-foot drop. Forgot myself. A stumbling Japanese tourist with a video camera could knock my camera right into a gaping maw of darkness.
Some of the stalactites are 15 meters long. Source: Archives PSJ. Photo by Borut Lozej

Some of the stalactites are 15 meters long. Source: Archives PSJ. Photo by Borut Lozej


As we walked farther inside, the stalactites (hanging from the ceiling) and stalagmites (sticking out of the ground) were getting bigger. Most of these were formed 100,000-300,000 years ago and were topping 15 meters long. Much of the caves’ formation is based on the moisture above ground. These caves were the first underground wetland discovered in Europe and some of the stalactites drip like sweaty arms. Rain seeping down have also formed a very interesting pool formation. About 50 pools are piled up on top of each other like giant soup bowls. The guide pointed out small rock formations that look just like little dogs guarding their water supply.
These bowls were formed by seeping water from the surface. Source: Archives PSJ. Photo by Borut Lozej

These bowls were formed by seeping water from the surface. Source: Archives PSJ. Photo by Borut Lozej


These caves have been explored since 1933, when the most crude form of exploration aide was built. Narrow steps have been carved out of the cave and lead all along the wall. One misstep and you’ll go tumbling into oblivion. A simple rope serves as a weak guardrail. But it also blocks all entrances. Walking along these early 20th century stairwells is strictly prohibitive as if one glance wasn’t enough warning. But from a distance, the crude, jagged stairs look like old Roman steps I’ve seen near 2nd century B.C. ruins. They give the cave an even more prehistoric look.

We soon came into a cavern the size of an opera house. It’s called, appropriately, the Great Chamber. It is 30 meters high and 120 meters long. You could almost fit an indoor football stadium inside it. It is filled with life that you can not see — thankfully — such as bats, spiders and beetles. Here is where the cave gets noisy. A river runs through it. In fact, early explorers traced it 50 kilometers outside the cave to under a snowy mountain on the Croatian border. Flooding, however, is an issue. Last year, heavy rains caused the river to swell to within 15 meters of the long narrow bridge we crossed. These caves are no places for surprises. Guides carefully monitor weather reports. If heavy rains continue for days, they close the caves.

The view from the outside. The caves are located near the Italian border. Source: Archives PSJ. Photo by Borut Lozej

The view from the outside. The caves are located near the Italian border. Source: Archives PSJ. Photo by Borut Lozej


We finally surfaced through a giant, gaping opening in the cave and took a cable car all the way back to the top where a cold beer and our cars awaited. So did sunlight. Slovenia: a country as fascinating underground as it is above.

Ljubljana another Eastern European gem of a capital even a dragon could love

A panoramic view of Ljubljana, Slovenia, from Castle Hill where the first inhabitants came in the 13th century B.C.

A panoramic view of Ljubljana, Slovenia, from Castle Hill where the first inhabitants came in the 13th century B.C.


LJUBLIANA, Slovenia — What is it about these former communist capitals in Europe that makes me want to hug them so much? Ljubljana is so cute it belongs on a cat calendar. Its old town is a compact, cobblestone neighborhood with high-steepled churches opening up to big squares. Running through it is the Ljubljanica River lined with outdoor bars and restaurants serving those fantastically underrated Slovene wines. Looking down at it all like a kindly grandfather is the 15th century Ljubljana Castle, partially hidden by a forest of trees that climb all the way up Castle Hill.

Ljubljana. Bratislava. Prague. Tallinn. Riga. Vilnius. Only 25 years ago these were centers of suppression and depression. Today they glitter like candles on a birthday cake. They have plenty to celebrate. Democracy is kind of a cool thing when compared to living behind the prison of an Iron Curtain, where you can’t say you don’t like the Iron Curtain. Slovenia’s economy is in the tank, like much of Europe, but I don’t see anyone getting thrown in jail for gathering on street corners with other intellectuals.

Romantic Mackova Ulica is nestled in the heart of old town.

Romantic Mackova Ulica is nestled in the heart of old town.


It’s like communism left town and someone turned on the lights. I was in Budapest in 1978. Since citizens of Iron Curtain countries could not go beyond the Iron Curtain, Budapest was seen as the de facto party center for all of Eastern Europe. Hungary’s famed Egri Bikaver (Bull’s Blood) wine flowed all night and the Danube River added a majestic touch but the place was dark, foreboding. The giant statue of the woman holding the hammer atop Buda Castle seemed more executioner than historic symbol. I returned to Budapest in 1990, a year after independence, and everything seemed to have a fresh coat of paint. They changed the light bulbs. Everything in Budapest seemed to dance.
The view off Castle Hill and Ljubljana Castle from my AirBnB.

The view off Castle Hill and Ljubljana Castle from my AirBnB.


Ljubljana made me want to dance — and I hate to dance. But I found myself tapping my foot to a tune in my heart as I looked out the eighth-floor window of my AirBnB in the heart of Ljubljana. Just a few blocks away were the steeples of churches in the old town. To my left just above eye level was the castle, Slovenia’s white, blue and red flag flying in the soft breeze. Below me was a narrow pedestrian street with boutique shops, cheap, casual restaurants and funky local bars. A cross-section of Slovenes in coats and ties, tattoos and dirty overalls gathered on the street with big steins of cold beer. The only thing obstructing the view was the apartment building next door, a tall, rundown eyesore of communist-era architecture that could pass for any 1960s socialized public housing from Prague to Vladivostok.
There are still remnants of communist Yugoslavia.

There are still remnants of communist Yugoslavia.


But this is what I love about the old Eastern Europe. (By the way, Slovenes HATE being called Eastern Europeans. They say they’re now Central Europeans. Sorry, folks. Your communist legacy still defines you.) The mix of East and West is fascinating. You see a crumbling, charmless, concrete block of an apartment building next to an upscale wine bar. You talk to a guy in his 30s about his vacation to Sri Lanka at one table and at the next table you talk to a guy in his 50s about standing in line to buy apples when he was a kid. You can’t get that range of lifestyles anywhere else in the world. I adore Eastern Europe.
The bars along the Ljubljanica River.

The bars along the Ljubljanica River.


Of course, the booze is good. On a cool, overcast evening, I sat down by the river where all the bars seem to run together. Young, cute waitresses who never stood in line to buy anything but iPhones flitted around with big glasses of Slovenia’s long list of local beers. A pretty blonde named Yetna served me a crisp white wine called Refosk which seemed to summarize my feelings about this city. Clean, cool, refreshing. Even in Rome the graffiti gets to me after a while. In Paris it’s the noise. In London it’s the larcenously priced subway. But Ljubljana seems like such a happy place. All the yuppies around me laughed, chatted, hugged, kissed, smiled and drank. They seemed oblivious to an economy that has gone from one of the best in Eastern Europe to among the struggling with the rest of the continent. They reminded me of Romans in 2003 before 12 years of runaway inflation with the euro reduced them to bitter, angry quasi peasants.
St. George allegedly slew this dragon but it has been the town symbol ever since.

St. George allegedly slew this dragon but it has been the town symbol ever since.


Looking over my shoulder from down the river stood Ljubljana’s charming town symbol. It’s a dragon, two of which lord over both sides of Dragon Bridge. According to legend, a giant dragon watched over the city. Apparently, it did nothing but drink mead while Ljubljana was being sacked by groups of savages who practically took numbers waiting their turn. Huns, Ostrogoths, Lombards. Then St. George, the patron saint of the castle chapel, slayed the dragon who still has a spot in Slovenes’ hearts — not to mention on nearly every souvenir you find in town.
Aperitivo restaurant is just one of the many that have popped up in Ljubljana.

The bar in AS Aperitivo restaurant is just one of the many that have popped up in Ljubljana.


I’m partial to cities with castles. Not only are they constant reminders of a city’s — and nation’s — history but they provide spectacular views and great picnic grounds. The Ljubljana Castle is one of the best in the world. It’s an easy, tree-lined climb up narrow cobblestone paths from the old town. Once on top, I walked along the ramparts and saw a panoramic view of a city lined with red-tiled rooftops, a regular feature all along the west coast of old Yugoslavia. To the left was a deep wooded area that fell all the way to the river below. A cool breeze came in from the rolling green hills beyond. The sun was on my face. I felt, not at all oddly, like a king.

A film clip inside the castle told me that people have been doing what I did since the 13th century B.C. That’s the dates of ruins from habitations that were found on the side of this very hill. The Celts lived here in the 9th century B.C., then came the Romans who built a fort and stayed 400 years. The Romans hadn’t packed up their last cappuccino machine when Attila the Hun raped, pillaged and plundered in the 5th century and the Slavs ran amok in the 9th century. The castle went up in 1456 to protect them from the Turks and it’s still standing today.

Gostilna na Gradu, a restaurant in the castle

Gostilna na Gradu, a restaurant in the castle

Sliced ham
What is new is the restaurant in the castle grounds. At least, I don’t think old Attila ate thin slices of pork filled with grated cheese and spinach and fried in almonds with mashed potatoes. That’s what I had at Gostilna na Gradu. He may have drank a few bottles of the Rebula red wine with which I washed it down but he may have drank Slovene blood instead.

Ljubljana’s restaurant scene, like the rest of Eastern Europe (In 1985 there were an estimated 50 restaurants in Moscow; today there are more than 3,000.), has exploded. In the university area north of old town, a restaurant called Eksperiment is an example of the growth. In the ‘80s, there was one cafe or restaurant on the narrow street. Today, they’re all up and down the street where Eksperiment replaced what was a casino. It has modern wooden tables and a shiny back-lit bar with wines from across Slovenia and Europe. Slovene cuisine is real heavy. Lots of grilled meats. Order a mixed grill plate of sausage, turkey, sirloin and chicken and you have enough protein for the New England Patriots. Any vegetarians are turned back at the border. I went relatively light with a Pleskavica, a ground beef patty stuffed with mozzarella.

A couple in old town.

A couple in old town.


In light of this easily toured and sparkling clean city, it’s hard to imagine the blood that has spilled in Slovenia. I couldn’t pick up a hint while strolling through the city’s museums, tony restaurants and romantic, dimly lit side streets at night. The whole place feels like the USSR leveled it in the ‘80s, collapsed and Slovenia rebuilt its capital on the model of Disney World. Since independence, Slovenia managed to avoid much of the Balkan bloodshed that made so much news in the ‘90s. I toured Ljubljana’s terrific city museum which breaks down the country and its capital from prehistoric times. One highlight of the museum is standing on the floor is a Ficko, Yugoslavia’s equivalent of the Soviet Union’s Lada. The Ficko was the forerunner of the Yugo which was laughed at all over the world, even in countries that didn’t have cars. The Ficko is a little bigger than one of the mini cars those fez-capped Shriners ride around and its panel didn’t even appear to have a radio.
Town Hall in old town.

Town Hall in old town.


What I found interesting from the history is after a couple millenniums of war, Slovenia has had a relatively peaceful existence since independence. While Serbia ran roughshod over Bosnia and Kosovo and fought the Croatians in a four-year grudge match for Croatian independence, which still rankles folks on both sides of the border, Slovenes sat in the corner of the old Yugoslavian republic and sipped wine. Well, in the summer of ‘91 the Yugoslavian army marched on Slovenia when it quit the Yugoslav Federation but the war lasted all of 10 days. Sixty-six people died but it has been uphill almost ever since.
The Franciscan Church of the Annunciation has always been a Ljubljana landmark.

The Franciscan Church of the Annunciation has always been a Ljubljana landmark.


Slovenia always was the richest of the Yugoslav republics. In 2007 Slovenia became the first of the 10 new European Union states to adopt the euro and experienced an annual economic growth of 7 percent. Like most successful countries rebounding from economic hardship, they banked heavy on tourism. They promoted a country that’s 58 percent covered by forest, the third most in the EU. It promoted its inexpensive and exotic ski resorts in the east, a promotion more than aided by sexy Tiny Maze winning two gold medals in the Sochi Olympics. And, what brought me to Slovenia, the wines, have become huge draws.
The Ljubljanica River.

The Ljubljanica River.


It’s a mess today. The global economic collapse in 2008-09 sent it heavily into debt from which it is not close to emerging. Unemployment is nearly 13 percent.

However, I don’t live here. I don’t work here. But I sure love visiting here. I can see why that dragon stuck around so long.