Sunday, July 20, 2008

Flying in Slovenia by Stephanie Cone

Something spectacular for everyone. That’s how I’d sum up our recent two-week trip to Slovenia. Bit of background. I’m a Seattle-based P2 pilot with 100 post-training flights at 18 different sites over the last two years since my instruction from Aerial Paragliding. This was my first non-guided/instructor supported flying trip. My partner Matt and I chose Slovenia based on the initial advise of experienced traveling pilots Matty Senior and Heather St. Clair, the relative uniqueness of the location, varied, abundant and easily accessible flying sites, lack of crowds, relaxed and friendly local culture, natural beauty, and lower costs than Western Europe. Slovenia is about the size of New Jersey, population of two million, positioned south of Austria, east of Italy, north of Croatia and southwest of Hungary. There are 1,100 members in Slovenia’s paragliding association.

Matt and I arrived at Ljubljana Airport on June 27, gear in tow, a 4-day reservation at cozy and modern Apartma Gorjan in the town of Tolmin,   notes on the who, what, where, and how from Matty who had been to Slovenia a year earlier,  no llick of the local language (we usually prepare for trips abroad with at least the pleasantries, but alas we “were too busy” before the trip,) and most importantly…drum roll please!…big time positive go-with-the-flow attitudes of allowing the adventure to unfold as it may. Without fail, our favorite trips involve little planning to create space for spontaneous adventure. And unfold it did! We had a fantastic time. As we were waiting for our bus to take us to the train to take us to the taxi to take us to our apartment in Tolmin, we made a spontaneous decision to rent a car. We agreed the price was worth it as it gave us many more flying options. The topography of the Julian Alps is such that if its not working at one site you can drive an hour and fly some mighty fine air.

Since paragliding is so popular in Slovenia most pilots make use of parataxis to get to the more popular launches. The two parataxis services Matt and I took advantage of cost about 8-10 Euros per trip and involved an hour drive up, up, up winding, scenic, well-groomed roads. It was fun to listen to the banter of the local pilots, even if we didn’t understand a word of what they were talking about. Paragliding pilot banter is universal anyway, isn’t it? There was always someone who spoke some English to give us a site briefing.

Based on the varied weather conditions while we were there we were able to fly a different site or two nearly every day we intended to fly. TolminWe initially set up residence in Tolmin for 4 days and flew the Kobala site one day, the stunning Lake Bohinj site another, Lijek out of Lokve and finally Stol. All of these sites offered a splendid mix of ridge soaring and thermaling. I experienced my very first XC flight off Lokve – soaring and thermaling ridge to ridge, getting high to cross valleys, finally landing to the fairy tale sound of melodic church bells, in a freshly mowed field in front of a small family vineyard in a village dotted with quaint stucco houses, anchored by the ubiquitous white steepled church. Hitchhiking in the heat of the day back to the LZ I received a knowing offer by a down to business, heavily perspiring older man driving a flat bed truck. Our only communication through exaggerated hand gestures, nods, yeahs, and smiles made the journey all the more sweet. For me, the joy of paragliding comes largely from the process of getting there, getting up and now that I’m an XC pilot, getting back. Take the dramatically beautiful Lake Bohinj site as another example. Modes of transportation: car, followed by a car train where you drive your car up onto an old flat bed train simply engage the hand break, sit back and relax while you are transported through mountain pass tunnels, followed by cable car up the mountain resort, followed by chair lift to launch, followed by a pretty red, yellow and orange Ozone Buzz, followed by hitchhike with nice Dutch couple on holiday. Going with the flow, allowing for whatever, not tied to any particular outcome. It’s about the process.

While parawaiting at the Lokve launch one sunny afternoon Matt struck up conversation with Klavdij Rakuscek, a friendly local pilot who runs a parataxi service and lodge in the town of Dreznica just 30 kms north of Tolmin. This was great timing since our Tolmin apartment rental was expiring. We were unable to extend our stay with our warm and lovely hostess Vlasta due to the impending arrival of MetalCamp ‘08, the huge annual heavy metal festival that draws thousands from all over Europe and takes over the town for a week. Every other place in town was booked as well. The next day we called Klavdij and as luck would have it they had one room left for us. We ended up staying at Jelkin Hram, along with a group of 10 pilots from England, three pilots from Sweden, and three pilots from Japan. This place was paragliding central…local pilots were available in the morning for weather forecasts and would recommend which site looked best for flying that day and of course the use of the parataxis was made available to us. Klavdij introduced us to the Stol site one perfect day. Stol is down range from the outdoor adventure mecca of Kobarid. After an hour or so parataxi drive up, up, up to launch we were greeted with impossibly breathtaking views of the endless alps, valleys of contiguous hay fields, farm land and villages, and the brightest emerald green river you’ve ever seen…as clear and green as the actual gemstone. The flying was a fabulous blend of ridge soaring and thermals and valley crossings. I want to return to this place someday.

Klavdij and his business partner Paolo have a sweet set up in Dreznica. The terraced village sits serenely into the mountainside surrounded by several mountain peaks, the highest being Mt. Krn standing proudly at 2,245 m. I consistently found myself surprised that there were actual inhabited villages in these areas with modern infrastructure and all. Just as you were thinking the next place you would come to would be heaven, Bam! yet another perfectly quaint village with charming houses decked out with opulent window flower boxes, hay barns, and central water fountain. Ok, so it wasn’t so perfect, every morning at 6:00 the perfect looking ubiquitous village church would grandly announce its reminder to the world with a bell ringing cacophony that went on for nearly10 minutes. And those bells sounded so pretty at noon! Did I mention that said lovely church was so close to our lodge that when I arrived in our room and stuck my head out the window to look at the idyllic view and sneezed, I nearly sprayed something on the church’s big old door? I admit I’m not a morning person.

One morning,…at 6:00…we woke to dark skies and thunderstorms and not much hope that it would clear anytime soon so Matt and I decide to head to Italy based on a simple recommendation from Matty to stay at the “Rifugio” in Pieve D’Alpago where we could fly another spectacular range on the southern edge of the Dolomites. PieveD'Alpago After spending the rainy turned hot and sunny morning in Venice, we made our way to Pieve D’Alpago near Belluno and trustingly followed signs to Rifugio not really knowing what to expect except that Matty’s advice up until that point had worked for us. The Rifugio is an alpine bed & breakfast & dinner & lunch & much more conveniently located at launch a 45-minute drive up another perfectly paved narrow road into the mountains. The owner of the inn/paragliding instructor Mauro, and vivacious innkeeper Francesca took plenty good care of Matt and I with abundant and delicious food, wine, grappa, site briefings, conversation, vistas, and a comfortable bed. We spent two nights at the Rifugio, and felt like part of the family by the time we left. Gotta love Italian hospitality. We enjoyed a couple glorious flights during our stay. Mauro sent his right-hand man, Gigho to retrieve us both at the LZ after our first flight. For our second flight of the day, Matt top-landed, I suspect so he could gallantly retrieve me while I soaked in the stunning beauty of the mountain range, lake and villages during a sledder to the spacious and groomed LZ flanked by the local flying clubhouse. Our brief stay at the Rifugio was a fun cultural highlight for sure. I’d go back in a heartbeat.Rifugio

Not only was this trip chock full of personal firsts, and big time growth in skill and confidence: my first XC flight, my first flights over an hour, first time hitchhiking, etc. but more importantly this trip reaffirmed that the attraction and fun of flying contains the same spirit that propels me happily through my daily life. Part experience, part skill, part understanding that its about having fun, and a whole lot of positive attitude to take things as they come without attachment to landing anywhere in particular. Oh, and part knowing to pack the earplugs when traveling to places where you may end up sleeping within sneezing distance of an old church.


Steph Cone

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