“You’re from Canada?”
“Yeah – Does that mean we have to pay more?”
“Ha-ha, no. That’s cool. Welcome! Our entire district has had only one case of Covid in the entire pandemic time. We don’t even need to wear our masks to work anymore.”
“That’s great to hear! We had our Covid tests in Germany a few days ago, so we won’t be bringing it to your area.”
“Here are your tickets. Enjoy the Tolmin Gorges and thank you for coming to Slovenia.”
It was late last month and my sweetheart Cindy and I were about halfway into what had shaped up into not merely a manageable trip to Europe but a dream vacation. Tolmin is a pretty valley town amidst lush pastures and forested hills at the foot of the Julian Alps. Our original plan had been to ascend Triglav, Slovenia’s highest mountain, a long hike followed by a rocky Via Ferrata (fixed cables and rungs that ameliorate the hazards of climbing) topping out at nearly 10,000 feet. But a fierce turn in the weather, including lightning and snow, had ruled that out.
The valley town of Tolmin and (right) the Tolmin Gorges.
We found plenty to do down low, however. Slovenia’s karst limestone geology features deep vertical gorges with impressive waterfalls and whirlpools, and some of these have been developed either with proper footpaths, stairways, bridges and railings or as more challenging Via Ferratas. The Tolmin Gorges are of the former variety, and entry costs a few euros. After exploring this microcosm of roiling teal-green water and lush plant life clinging to the vaulting sculpted cliffs, we ascended out of the gorge and up a steep trail through hardwood forest pungent with decaying vegetation and mushrooms.
Eventually forest gave way to a steep hillside pasture dappled with trees groaning under the weight of ripening apples and walnuts. A farmer was cutting hay with a scythe. He smiled as we passed and exchanged Dober Dan – “good day” – then, strangely, followed us along. At the top of the path sat a few stone houses, including a small café. The farmer went inside and returned with menus. A few minutes later we were sipping double espressos and downing warmed apfelstrudel beneath a trellis of grapevines, the lovely valley spread beneath us. The feeling of peace and contentment was total.
For months Cindy and I had been vowing to travel somewhere outside Canada as soon as conditions seemed favourable. Perhaps the land border to the U.S. would reopen and we could take our camping rig on our usual Montana and Wyoming fly-fishing circuit. Perhaps Hawaii would once again welcome visitors. Perhaps the EU, which in early summer reopened to personal travel from many countries, would further lift restrictions and activities would be unimpeded. Somehow our summer slid by with no decision. As Labour Day neared, the first two ideas remained out. Europe it would be.
We still had to evaluate hazards and find the right risk-reward balance. We would select countries with a low Covid-19 caseload, a good pandemic management record and the lightest restrictions around. Several European countries are indeed safer than Canada, but we’d still be interacting with far more people than at home. We’d be in hotels. We wouldn’t have home to fall back on. We wouldn’t know if we were stumbling into a sudden hotspot or strolling into a slovenly restaurant. Still, we reasoned, the most dangerous phases would be the airports and plane rides. That drove our decision to book only a non-stop flight from Calgary to a European airport. Once on the ground, we would travel by car, focus on outdoor activities, stay mainly in villages and visit only the safest large cities.
Oh, and our destination would have to be a nice country to visit in late September. The many criteria shrank the candidate list. Spain, France and most of Italy were clearly out. The UK? Not for us right now. Norway? Gorgeous, healthy and with some of our dearest friends living there, but burdened by some of the world’s tightest restrictions. “We still can’t even have people home for dinner!” lamented our normally effusive and welcoming friend Sabine during a phone call in August. We found the right mix of attributes in Germany, Austria, South Tirol (technically Italian, culturally Austrian), Switzerland, Slovenia and Croatia. It seemed we were good to go. Excitement rose as misgivings eased.
But as I started to research details, I learned that Europe was a mess of recommendations, rules and ad hoc approaches. Germany and Holland, for example, were following the overall Schengen Zone policy and allowing unrestricted access – meaning no Covid-19 test or quarantine required – from countries deemed non-high-risk, Canada included. Austria, however, required a fresh test and a 10-day quarantine period, even if the test was negative. Italy required a test and quarantine for Canadians flying in, but not if they showed up at a land border from a low-risk country. Slovenia wanted a fresh test and a hotel reservation. Croatia, meanwhile, had been “red-listed” by its neighbours. One could still go there, but it would be a one-way trip. The Dalmatian coast had bowled me over on my last visit in 1995, but I wasn’t quite ready to move there. Further, many of these rules and edicts were on hard-to-find web pages, were almost incomprehensibly written, and were changing randomly.
Still, by Labour Day we had made the call. We’d fly nonstop to Amsterdam, transfer to Frankfurt, visit relatives in three parts of Germany, then head to Slovenia. If we had any trouble traversing Austria, South Tirol was Plan B and, if Italy turned us away, Switzerland Plan C. Booking our flights took mere minutes. Total cost, including taxes and a checked bag: $1,060 per person. That was the least we’d paid for tickets to Europe in many years.
As we rolled our bags into Calgary’s cavernous and empty new international terminal I recalled an article I’d read in the spring by a journalist who flew to the U.S. when most people thought it was illegal even to get on a plane. He said the experience evoked stories about the fabled “Golden Age of Air Travel” of the late 50s. It was a time when flying was glamourous, uplifting and an enjoyable part of travel itself. Airport halls were beautiful and clean. Flights were on-time. Passengers were respected and coddled. Most dressed up for the occasion.
I didn’t find the current milieu that good, but I could see his point. There were no queues. Airline staff were friendly and accommodating. We sailed through every phase without stress. The masks, of course, gave the game away, the closed retail and food outlets were depressing, and many airport staff seemed worried and demoralized. Still, during the smooth and quick boarding the KLM purser uttered a hearty, “Welcome aboard, sir.” I replied: “Thank you ma’am, it’s truly wonderful to be here.” Somewhat surprised, she replied, “And it’s wonderful to have you!” There was ample room for carry-on, the cabin doors closed early, the plane pushed back, taxied directly onto the runway, spooled up its engines without stopping and took off. Early. The in-flight service was admittedly truncated: a pared-down meal, one round of wine or beer and a Ziploc bag crammed with junk food. Then again, all the elbow room made the half-empty flight relaxed and comfortable.
My biggest worry had been simple: Would I be able to bear the mask for 16 hours? I dreaded becoming a media headline along the lines of, “Crazed 58-year-old Loses it on KLM Flight, Banned for Life.” I still don’t truly know the answer, because we found ways to gain relief. We brought a large supply of masks and changed ours whenever they started to smell or itched our faces. I’d pull the mask down in the bathroom and wipe off the condensation. Some people brazenly marched about with their mask below their nose; we never did that. We did somewhat exploit the eating/drinking exemption by doing so slowly. One grain of rice at a time, so to speak.
Unlike Calgary, Amsterdam and Frankfurt airports were quite active. Our first visit was to my cousin Hans and his wife Lisa, who live on the Rhine near the twin cities of Wiesbaden and Mainz. We greatly appreciated their willingness to host us and felt somewhat guilty at imposing on them and perhaps increasing their risks. Hans, a hale and very hearty 74-year-old who still works full-time flying an executive charter jet, greeted us like visiting royalty, however, and it soon became clear he and Lisa hugely appreciated the risks we had taken and worried about us feeling nervous in their presence. Once we all realized this, the barriers fell and we had a lovely afternoon walking in the sunlit hills above the Rhine and downing enormous Wiener schnitzels in a traditional German Waldhaus – forest house.
The next morning Cindy and I strolled around the alternately quaint and magnificent inner city of ancient Mainz, with its large pedestrian zone. Unlike in normal times, there was parking available everywhere at the zone’s edge. The daily market beside the magnificent Dom (cathedral), consecrated in the late 900s, was bustling and overflowing with fresh produce, flowers and handicrafts, and we all-too-briskly toured the Dom. Eating and drinking being national pastimes and passions, the array of establishments seemed to approach infinity, more than counterbalancing the seating restrictions and slightly slower service. Later we strolled uphill to view the remains of a Roman-era gate to ancient walled Mainz.
Germany’s restrictions were generally similar to those in B.C. and the Prairies. The considerable autonomy of Germany’s Laender, like Canada’s provinces, means they make many of their own rules. In addition, the German federal government mandated that regions, cities or even city districts deemed “hotspots” be subject to stricter rules. One of Germany’s general twists is requiring personal registration in any hotel or restaurant, for potential future contact tracing. This sounded like a hassle but took barely a minute. The rumour had also been that one had to reserve a table in advance for any form of dining, but that proved not to be mandatory.
As the temperature topped 30° it became too hot to walk around, so we put the top down on our borrowed convertible and drove downriver through the lovely Rheingau wine-growing country towards the Rhine Gorge. “If you want you can keep driving all the way down to the famous Loreley cliff and statue,” Hans had told us that morning, before scoffing, “But this is pure kitsch. No German goes there. But you Americans, as well as the Chinese, all must see it once.” Suitably admonished, we cut short our excursion at Rüdesheim, site of the opulent Niederwalddenkmal monument set high on the escarpment, commemorating German unity in 1871.
The ancient city of Mainz and (right) German’s lovely Rheingau.
The following day we headed eastward towards the Erzgebirge – the Ore Mountains – a rugged and lightly populated region on the Czech border, where my mother Maria grew up. An exhilarating burst of adrenaline hit us both as I took the on-ramp onto Germany’s meticulously maintained Autobahn, floored the accelerator of Hans’ Audi A5 and rocketed to 170 km/h. As the scenery rushed by I had to think of Patrick Keeney’s article on the value of exercising our freedom and personal judgment in his review of Matthew Crawford’s Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road. In truth, I’d say half the mileage of Germany’s huge freeway network has some kind of speed restriction, many miles are under repair or being upgraded, and you truly can’t drive four hours in any direction without stopping dead in a couple of the country’s infamous Stauen – freeway traffic jams.
But on thousands of kilometres, you and you alone are the judge of your driving competence. I settled into cruising at around 160 km/h, a genuinely relaxing speed where one spends nearly all one’s time looking forward and can cruise in the left lane, reducing the anxiety of constant lane changes and mirror checks. Occasionally, however, someone would come rocketing upon us as if we were parked and I’d dart to the right. Perhaps it was from having re-watched Ford vs. Ferrari on the plane, but when the pavement was perfect, the road dry and the traffic light, I pushed the car hard and sprinted as high as 210 km/h. OK, that was a bit scary. But also intensely, almost indescribably liberating. Cindy felt the same.
Gabi and Dietmar live in a 100-year-old stone house on a sun-drenched hillside in a little valley on the Czech border. Gabi keeps a magnificent garden overflowing with flowers, berry bushes, vegetables and fruit trees. I hadn’t seen them in 18 years, but here too the years fell away, they welcomed Cindy joyously and we spent three gentle days catching up, touring the area’s charming villages, where the famous wooden Christmas pyramids, figurines and nutcrackers are still produced in artisans’ workshops, and going on walks in the woods. Their daughter Sara also drove down for a visit.
I hadn’t been here in over 30 years, towards the end of the Cold War. At that time every building – every last one – was crumbling grey stucco, a relentless grey-on-grey-on-grey world, the beaten-down East Germans in threadbare clothes, with even coffee and toothpaste hard-to-come-by luxuries. Now the area had come alive, the houses neat and renovated and brightly coloured, the roads immaculate and the people smiling and prosperous. My mother’s hometown of Olbernhau was picture-perfect and often I thought of how she would have felt to see it now. One afternoon we all popped across the Czech “border” to drive up into the Erzgebirge’s highest country for a walk.
Next stop: Munich, just under five hours’ drive to the southwest. The principal city of Bavaria has been one of my favourites since childhood and also the home of my uncle Martin and auntie Margit. Cindy and I had a full day to wander around Munich, and we started at the Englischer Garten – Bavaria’s rather excellent version of New York’s Central Park. Despite the recent cancellation of Oktoberfest we found the enormous area alive with people of all sorts. Literally. Oom-pah-pa bands were playing at the Chinesischer Turm, local bubbas were well into their third rounds of draft at 10:30 am, families and couples strolled or biked, volleyball and frisbee games were happening and in the informal “free” area aging fat men lolled naked near thankfully far more winsome females (according to Cindy).
One could lose oneself for a month in Munich. There aren’t just museums, there’s a museum district. Ditto for theatres. And galleries. Not to mention shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. The architectural marvels alone, spanning eight centuries and including some incredible modern architecture, are astounding. At one gate to the 17th century Hofgarten a jazz band was playing for coins. We lunched al fresco at an Italian restaurant, then visited an exhibit of fashion designer Thierry Mugler.
The next day Martin led us on visits to two of Bavaria’s most famous Baroque Schlösser, or palaces, his encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm making him a remarkable tour guide. Covid-19 having eliminated the tour bus trade, we were virtually alone both at Nymphenburg and Schleissheim.
Munich International Airport was where I had pre-booked our Covid-19 tests, as Slovenia began requiring of Canadians and others from “yellow-listed” countries back in August. The cost of 190 euros apiece was steep, but the process was precise and efficient. Munich’s enormous, ultra-modern airport was a virtual ghost town. Not having sneezed once during the trip, I got nervous in the waiting room and began to sneeze as my nose ran inside my mask, but the other people waiting only chuckled and the nurse confirmed my vitals were fine. Then I gagged as the Q-Tip was rammed into the back of my throat. Cindy remained stoical.
The test results were promised to be e-mailed to our smartphones within 24 hours, meaning we’d be in the car and halfway to Slovenia before finding out for sure. But in good German fashion, halfway through a lovely dinner that evening at my cousin Julia’s and her husband Steffen’s inner-city apartment, our phones dinged and we let out whoops as the attachments in our Inboxes read “Negative”.
The next morning was charged with excitement tinged with regret at leaving so soon. We worried slightly about possibly encountering a belligerent Austrian border police officer fuzzy on the details of the rules pertaining to Canadians (which allow transiting Austria). But nearing Salzburg we realized there wouldn’t even be a border, really, just what resembled a disused toll facility, a slow-speed zone and a somewhat forlorn sign declaring Republik Österreich. Is this what spy novels mean by “Slipping across the border”?
The easiest route into Slovenia was via the 8-km-long Karawanka Tunnel, and border control was at its southern end. Seeing our German licence plates, the smiling guard waved us through without even stopping. Previously part of Austria-Hungary, Slovenia was always culturally and politically the most western-focused part of the Balkans. Back in 1991, Slovenia became the first of the old Yugoslav republics to break free, managing to do so without the bloodbaths that afflicted Croatia, Bosnia and, later, Kosovo.
When I first visited in 1996 it was still in a partial state of decrepitude following the Communist Era – though nothing like Bosnia – resembling a rundown Austria. Now as we cruised along a perfect freeway punctuated by soaring viaducts and state-of-the-art tunnels we could see the transformation. The picture-perfect villages looked just like Austria. The Slovenians’ legendary pluck hasn’t faded, however; in July it became the world’s first country to declare the pandemic over. (It has returned, of course.)
The resort village of Bled on the jewel-like lake of the same name reinforced the impression of prosperity and integration with Europe. Our digs, the stately late-Habsburg-era Hotel Triglav, sat amidst lush hardwood forest outside the main town, overlooking the lake with its emblematic island. The scene was out of a child’s storybook. I practically leaped into my swimming trunks and ran downhill to the shore, diving off the local rowing club’s docks into the deep-blue water.
Two hours later I was shaved, showered and sitting down with Cindy to a multi-course dinner with a Slovenian wine pairing. The hotel staff had been very helpful over the phone in setting up our visit, and the restaurant team were pros with a personal touch. Slovenian cuisine is a pleasing fusion of Austrian (schnitzels, wild game and pastries), Italian (pasta and gelato), coastal Adriatic (seafood and olives) and regional folk dishes, with a few Balkan items thrown in. The portions everywhere are enormous, and any public health diktats on ditching butter, salt and meat were either lost in translation or shredded by Slovenian customs. We soon noticed that even Slovenia’s barn cats are lazy and well-fed.
Our plans to ascend Triglav having been dashed by the aforementioned foul weather, our mountain guide Matevš suggested some training on a Via Ferrata that scales a cliff not far from Bled, followed by a rugged gorge hike to several waterfalls. Mat spoke excellent English, and the talk soon turned to Covid-19. As we would find out, many younger Slovenians outside the capital of Ljubljana are appalled at what the Covid-19 restrictions have done to the tourism economy, their lifestyles and their longer-term economic prospects. Mat proved widely read on the issue. As we sniffed out one another’s political views, our literal and figurative masks came off, we shook hands and were friends.
Mat also proved a superb mountain guide, helping Cindy past the nervousness of ascending her first Via Ferrata. Mat’s company is called Altitude Activities and is based in Bled. The afternoon’s waterfall hikes were marvellous, alternating between deep European forests, charming meadows with views of the Julian Alps’ sheer north faces – Triglav itself encased in black clouds – and sheer gorges with some exciting scrambling up chimneys and cliffs aided by iron rungs and handholds.
“Slaps”, or waterfalls, are found all over Slovenia’s deeply-cloven limestone geology.
After four days we left the Bled region. While seemingly tiny, Slovenia is remarkably varied and ever since I’d first glimpsed its beautiful mountain streams on my 1996 skiing visit I had wanted to try its locally famous fly-fishing. We drove from Bled along a tortuously twisted one-and-a-half-lane “highway” through the mountains, via Tolmin, to the resort village of Bovec. As I would round the 157th hairpin turn of the morning it became a running joke to declare, “Thank God the speed limit is 90 km/h!” Often I was hard-pressed to hit 50.
The northwest corner of Slovenia is a veritable outdoorsperson’s paradise with mountaineering, hiking, whitewater kayaking and rafting, canyoning and numerous other activities, and accommodation ranging from campgrounds to pensions and a few hotels. We had booked the Dobra Vila, a uniquely renovated boutique hotel. The owners, brothers Matia and Juri, were so welcoming we soon felt as if we were visiting two old friends. The pandemic has been very hard on their business, however. “Last year, if you didn’t book six months ahead, you probably wouldn’t have seen the inside of this place,” said Juri mournfully one morning. “Now, we don’t know how it will go on…” Still, they didn’t let their standards slip, and every morning Cindy commented that theirs was the best hotel breakfast she had ever been served.
The weather now was truly dodgy and threatening to upend the fly-fishing. A couple of rain-soaked days were taken up by visiting local museums, long lunches, short hikes and an excursion to wine country for some tastings. Fortune intervened and at last we rendezvoused with Žiga, our bearded fly-fishing guide. After inserting a ciggie into his mouth Žiga thrust out his hand with a somewhat defiant look. I took it immediately. Message received. In these crazy times of ours, a proffered hand has ironically become a kind of secret handshake, conveying vast amounts of information in seconds.
Every angler knows that any fishing tale can consume many thousands of words. But that isn’t what this article is about. So I’ll merely say here that Slovenia’s streams are close to perfect, the scenery utterly spellbinding, the fish large and generally willing, and the price of fishing steep – thereby ensuring a healthy fishery with light angling pressure. Žiga proved both technically adept and very conscientious. He was visibly worried about what all the rain might do to the fishing, so when I hooked and landed a lovely rainbow trout on my third cast, we grinned like 8-year-olds on a sugar high. A couple of hours later, Cindy fought and landed one of Slovenia’s prized Marmorata trout. I was fishing upstream around the corner and had entered what I call my “golden world”, a kind of disembodied and suspended reverie in which I could be on any river, at any time, in any country.
We had hoped also to test the rumoured very good fly-fishing in South Tirol, but the weather forecast had worsened further, so we opted to spend our last several days on Slovenia’s short stretch of Adriatic coast (beside Trieste, Italy). The Portorož-Isola-Koper area is more developed and touristy than our tastes typically run, but here too, the Covid-suppressed tourism traffic worked to our advantage. As everywhere in Slovenia, the region is like an enormous garden, its trees heavy with oranges and pomegranates, entire hedges of rosemary, palm trees at the sea and hillsides strewn with olive groves, vineyards and orchards. Flowers are clearly a cultural passion, for every dwelling has riotous flower beds and even crumbling barns have flower boxes beneath every window.
On our last morning we rented bicycles and cycled along the seashore to the Croatian border, then on the way back stopped for a swim in the clear and still-warm Adriatic. In the afternoon we put the top down one last time and drove up into the hilly wine country that rises immediately inland, to ancient hilltop villages with one-lane streets straight out of Tuscany. We strolled among vineyards and past traditional working farms, dogs barking and cocks crowing, then changed out of shorts and sandals into decent clothes and dined in a hilltop restaurant as night fell. The evening seemed suspended in time and the very idea of returning to Canada struck us both as surreal. The next day we drove 10 hours through rain and fog back to Frankfurt.
As must be obvious by now, the trip was a simply enchanting and enchanted time for Cindy and me. It might be the best decision we made in the entire pandemic period. The Covid-related hassles were few, mild and vastly outweighed not only by the sheer joy of the experience but the concrete benefits ranging from half-empty planes to ready availability and great pricing in excellent hotels, from friendly staff and guides eager for work to near-empty hiking trails and fishing streams. Hassle-free and worry-free aren’t the same, of course, and there was some stress over border crossings, the sudden appearance of new restrictions or, worst, catching an everyday cold near the end of the trip and being denied boarding for our flight home. None of that materialized, thankfully.
The return to Canada was essentially the reverse of the journey out. Upon arrival we faced the mandatory 14-day self-managed quarantine. Having a computer-based job and a rural acreage with no end of fall chores makes this relatively easy for me. But for, say, a young family with normal jobs, kids in school and three weeks of annual vacation, having to take two weeks of vacation time to quarantine following one week of actual fun abroad would likely deter travel. Yet rapid Covid tests are now widely available. Hawaii is basing its October 15 reopening on pre-tests (a recent list of trusted test partners is here). It seems lazy at best – if not designed outright to crush travel – for the Canadian government to stick with the quarantine regime.
Slovenia is like one enormous garden.
Further, international travel should be a two-way street. Canadians can go to Germany, but equally low-risk Germans can’t come to Canada. Government policy is destroying Canada’s tourism sector, and our airport authorities, airlines and the hundreds of thousands of associated jobs won’t be far behind. On our departure day Calgary’s billion-dollar international terminal logged exactly two flights. I never thought I’d live long enough to feel empathy for airlines, especially Air Canada, but our economy, our wellbeing and modern civilization itself depend upon a functioning air transportation system. I wish Air Canada every success in its pilot program of instant testing of arriving passengers, which the company hopes will persuade the federal government to drop the 14-day quarantine. The government itself should be driving this rather than being dragged along.
The old port of Piran, within walking distance of Portoroz.
A taste of Tuscany: Slovenia’s wine country on a rainy day.
I’m well aware that Covid-19 case-counts began spiking during our trip and many European countries have begun reimposing restrictions. To me this doesn’t suggest we shouldn’t have travelled. Instead it demonstrates the futility of “waiting for things to return to normal.” Normal is a long and indeterminate time off. More likely are erratic waves of greater and lesser risks and restrictions varying from country to country. The best tactic would seem to be to travel where and when you can. Do your own research, sweat the details, and look for places that meet your criteria for congeniality and hazard. Above all, think for yourself and make your own decisions.
My view is that hunkering down for extended periods is emotionally destructive, wears away at one’s physical health and intellect – and frays relationships. So I say, travel where and when you can. Identify a window of opportunity and dart through before it slams shut. Our trip was an immensely enriching experience emotionally, physically and intellectually. We had a lot of fun, and somewhat to our surprise we also made a lot of other people happy. Some are approaching 80, so it might be the last time. And even if not, every visit is priceless.
George Koch is Editor-in-Chief of C2C Journal.