The guide to our cavern tour in Slovenia looked me over, chuckled and said somewhat sarcastically, “I’m glad to see you are prepared.”
I had joined a group of various other nationalities who were wearing long pants, fleeces and appeared ready for a cold, damp sojourn though it was over 30 degrees Celsius (almost 90 F) and sunny outside. I wore a T-shirt and shorts, plus a good pair of hiking shoes. I didn’t bring any heavier clothing.
“The first cavern is 13 degrees C. (54 F) and the second is 6 degrees C (43 F). Should be a fun time for you!”
Our guide, a gentleman in his forties was amiable, but his eyes betrayed that he had had some life experiences he probably didn’t like to share, not an uncommon trait in former Yugoslavia with its vicious civil war and genocides of the 1990’s. We will call him Goran, though that is not his real name.
Slovenia had gotten off better than most. Being the closest state to non-Communist Europe sharing a border with Austria, the Slovenians had created an organized and prosperous region. After the communist regimes started to fall apart they had the savvy and wherewithal to quickly put together armed veterans, police and volunteers to create a formidable force to combat troops that former Yugoslavia sent to fight them. In fact the Yugoslav army had a great number of Slovenians who were less than enthusiastic about subduing their brethren.
We entered the caverns, part of a breathtaking system of some of the biggest and most beautiful caverns in the world. The first cavern was a cool relief for me from the oppressive heat I had been experiencing all day. After about 45 minutes we passed through a doorway to a second and much cooler cave. This was just comfortable for me and I explored side caverns and enjoyed the views the grottoes offered. Goran looked at me, at first somewhat amused and then finally looked rather puzzled that his guest wearing a T-shirt and shorts should not be suffering after almost two hours in what he considered to be very cold circumstances.
I smilingly explained, “I’m Canadian. Anything over 0 degrees Celsius (32 F) is shorts weather!”
He laughed and seemed to feel anyone tough enough to brave the cold of the caverns was worth opening up to a little. He told me that he grew up here and always enjoyed nature, hunting and fishing. When the Civil War started he enlisted to fight communist troops attempting to reconquer his country. Given his experience with a rifle he was assigned sniper duty.
Now, perched in a tree cradling a rifle with a telescopic sight, Goran could see a wave of Yugoslav communist troops advancing. Their regular infantry he knew would be well represented by Slovenians and the hope was that they would not wish to harm their fellow countrymen. Goran also had no desire to shoot anyone.
As he watched, the front line troops wavered in their advance. The communist officer pulled out a pistol and proceeded to coldly shoot several of his own men in the back. Angered, Goran focused the cross-hairs of his sniper rifle on this officer’s forehead.
“Let’s just say that bastard never shot anyone again!”
In a scenario replayed time and again the communist army either retreated or deserted to the Slovenian side, leaving the country free and with minimal damage after an only two week conflict. Slovenia was almost unscathed and remains free and prosperous thanks to men like Goran. Unfortunately history reports the rest of former Yugoslavia was not so fortunate and things only settled after years of conflict and genocide.
Things have now normalized and tourists are flocking to Slovenia, Croatia and other countries of former Yugoslavia. Many scars remain however and many survivors bear both mental and physical evidence of this horrid war.
Photos are by Stella van der Lugt – All Rights Reserved