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Camping like the 60’s on the shores of Lake Bled


One of the most disconcerting things to see when you awake is the floor rippling. You are fairly sure that this doesn’t happen, after all solid ground is supposed to be just that, solid. So sleepily you pat it again and a third time. Ripples flow out across the floor confirming that this isn’t going to be a good start to the day.

Thick steel cables of rain had fallen all night and waking on my first morning in Slovenia I wasn’t keen to find out why the integrity of my floor had altered. There was only one possible, unbearable reason.

Carefully not to risk capsizing I unzipped the door and there in the vestibule was a small muddy lake with my ripples still escaping. I slumped.

The sun had just risen somewhere but it was apparent that if I wanted to keep my sleeping bag damp rather than sodden I had yet again to abandon ship and head for Lifeboat Austin. During the night the tent had become a sanctuary for other storm refugees; a colossal cricket, a spider and several unwieldy shield bugs hunkered beneath the canvas.

Escape Comittee book coverI was curled up on the backseat reading Nicolas Bouvier. As he passed through Yugoslavia he recorded in his The Way of the World ‘By midday the brakes, our skulls and the engine were very hot’. My journey from Zell am See began and ended wetly but in the middle the magnificent heat hammered down gluing me to the leather seats. Austin wasn’t ready for this inferno.

Idling in the Karavanški predor tunnel queue for forty-five minutes saw him overheat and stall over and over again. Either he needed restarting each time we needed to inch forward or else I had to tap the footbrake, dip the clutch, give a little rev and, until I grew an extra leg, use the handbrake.

We planned to take the Karavanški predor beneath the Karawanks range, then along the A2 for Ljubljana, turning left with the signs for Lake Bled. New and modern, the tunnel had only been open a month when it was caught up in the first days of Slovenian independence. The Ten Day War across June and July of 1991 saw concentrated fighting that involved the Serbian controlled Yugoslav air force and troops in helicopters attacking the Slovenes. Here, at least, there were no casualties.

It was a stressful hour of mechanical and mental anguish but eventually we were through and arrived with the rain at glorious Lake Bled.

Bouvier had moved on to gypsies and painting when there was a polite tapping on the misted window. With a squeak and a whinge the glass lowered to reveal a hatch of unruly hair and a smiling face.

‘You look like a man who needs a coffee.’ I was about to politely refuse when I realised I was exactly a man who needed a coffee. From the safety of his awning Mauel continued, ‘We have a spare lifejacket too, if you want it,’ nodding cheekily in the direction of my tent as it floated like a grotesque blue toad in a muddy pond.

Mauel’s family were away hiking in the drenched Julian Alps with friends. He had stayed behind with his youngest, who slept in that mangled octopus way that only children can. The coffee was placed on the table and topped up with brandy. The canopy reached critical mass and a sluice of rainwater was swept off, very cunningly I thought, and into the washing up bowl next to a line of wellies in ascending sizes. The coffee steam spiralled lazily then was snatched away by the cold wind. I pulled up my collar and placed both hands round the cup.

They came here every year. It was a pleasant little campsite. They could drive here slowly from the Netherlands. They didn’t go to Croatia any more. The Slovenians were lovely, the Croatians had forgotten visitors were more than the weight of their wallets. He shivered. ‘Although the weather can be better.’

With Slovenia’s succession from the Republic of Yugoslavia it was open to Europe’s tourist keen on bargain vacations. Croatia, with its 1770 km of magnificent coast and over 4000 islands sold itself as the novo Italy or Greece. Slovenia nestled in the Julian Alps, named after Julius Caesar, and with only a toe in the Adriatic at the venetian gothic Piran followed the route of its neighbour and old owner, Austria, into the tourist market ski fields in the winter and hiking, kayaking and wild swimming in the summer. Slovenia made only minor changes and held back from the monstrous tourist developments elsewhere in Europe, with little or no changes, and today, twenty years after it gained independence, the tourist industry is worth millions of euros and employs one in ten Slovenes. A great deal of this is focused in and around the jewel in its crown the Triglav national park and Lake Bled.

Six months after the departure of the last Yugoslav soldier the newly independent nation of Slovenia was recognized by the EU and within the year the United Nations, too. It immediately applied for membership to the EU and was granted a full place on 1st May 2004 and started using the euro in 2007.

The coffee and brandy did their work magnificently and as Mauel brought me up to date on the world news I felt the tendrils of warmth spread through my torso.

An hour later his bedraggled family returned looking as if they had been swimming rather than hiking and I made my excuses and returned to Austin.

Perhaps it was the company or maybe the warm rich coffee that put me in a good mood, I’m almost certain, however, that it was the several large brandies on an empty stomach that encouraged me to begin digging. Armed with Mauel’s trowel I attempted to construct drainage channels that would alleviate my pond problems.

Fifteen minutes of digging did nothing. There are only so many times you can slip over in the mud before it becomes disheartening. I thought it was time for some breakfast so I found some dry-ish clothes and pulled on my waterproofs and headed out for the first of many walks around Lake Bled.

Nicole was sending me a parcel of every last piece of car paperwork she could find. I hoped that it would at least endow me with proof of Austin’s health. In the meantime I would stalk happily through the pinechoked mountains that hemmed in the glacial lake.

Pausing at some gap in the pines I would marvel again at the brooding Blejski grad castle glued to the cliffs soaring above the town.

Lake Bled in the 60's

The sun shone on the 60’s

On these long walks, cloistered beneath my waterproofs, rain crept in through collars and cuffs soaking my dry clothes underneath, but between moods the sun would force divine fingers through the clouds to rummage around the Julian Alps or gently caress the malachite lake.

How many times did I circumnavigate the shoreline? My mind wandered as my feet had little to do but avoid puddles and my eyes drank in the pines and castles. Who knows or cares? It was pleasant enough to wander with little to worry about for the day other than where to find some lunch. Sometimes I strolled, sometimes I strode. Other times I ambled, dawdled or traipsed around and around the water but I never tired of the Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church floating serenely on the morning mists or the alpine vistas beyond.

One afternoon I paused half way through a circuit for a rest and something to eat. With an apple and sandwich I picnicked beneath Vila Bled, formerly the summer residence of the Yugoslav royal family. War hero, benevolent dictator and president for life Marshal Josip Broz Tito promptly appropriated it after he took power. Like all dictators he indulged in the delights of show trials, gulags and purges but was popular as a stabilising influence in the newly united Yugoslavia.

As a key member of the Non-Alignment Movement he fostered good relations internationally and was courted and lauded by the West. He was also a hit with the ladies, marrying three times and raffishly unfaithful to the end of his days.

He used it to entertain guests or, rumour has it, lent it to his favourites for colourful orgies. Today it has been converted into a multi-star hotel but has retained its 1950 interior, promising French, Mediterranean and Slovenian cuisine and the opportunity to send emails from the Marshal’s own desk. Although I think you have to supply your own orgy these days.

For an hour a day I lost myself in the ritual of maintenance. The bonnet was lifted and oil checked. The plugs were examined and Austin fired up. Oily rag in hand, I listened to the engine as the cylinders plunged up and down with the slickness of a Clifford Brown composition. Austin idled better and quieter than any car I have even known. He was beautiful to listen to yet on the way from Zell am See two more items were added to the litany of complaints. The oil indicator had been showing empty since Cologne even though I checked it every day while the temperature gauge claimed that after a ten-hour journey in 30 degrees heat Austin felt fine. You couldn’t touch the bonnet without third degree burns but the dial registered cool. It seemed it too had never worked. At this rate I could look forward to arriving in the East pushing a single wheel along through the streets of Damascus and arrive in Aqaba with just a car air freshener and a steering wheel.

When not taking wet walks, nosing around the town or visiting the castles and churches, I experimented with tent architecture. The Tent Nappy, a towel hung inside from the pole loop, had found itself severely wanting, as it merely stalled the inevitable and then ultimately prolonged it. Surely the key had to be preventing the rain from breaking through in the first place and therefore a barrier was called for. The first attempt saw the use of my tartan picnic blanket, given to me, along with a beautiful wicker hamper, as a leaving present. I had laughed when I got it but thanked Jamie, Jane and Paula for thinking of it. Placing the blanket over the top created the Tent Toupee, which worked well until it came into conflict with the nemesis of all toupees – a light breeze. The tent had long ago warped from a place of sanctuary to one of torment. It was nearly two weeks since there had been a dry night’s sleep and when Mauel’s neighbour and hiking mate Leo offered me his gigantic tarpaulin, I accepted it gratefully. Entering the world of refugee chic my final design went by the grandiose title Tent-a-grad in honour of the castle above. And while it worked brilliantly the interior was so dark I couldn’t tell day from night.

Feeling positive I purchased a new stove from a man hidden behind a rambling hedge of a beard. How I revelled in the simple joy of hot food or a cuppa whenever I wanted – such sublime freedom. I also rejoiced in the tumble driers. It took a few days to dry out my sleeping bag and all my equipment, which was safely stored in Austin. But above all I swam.

I swam almost everyday, regardless of the weather. Shielded by the vertiginous cliffs and forest slopes, barely a breeze troubled the emerald waters of Lake Bled. Tiptoeing across the few stones in spring heated waters in a drizzle or a downpour I would dive a long slow arc through the shallows feeling clean and free. The glide would bring me slowly to the surface where I paused taking in the beauty that haloed the lake and then, resting my sight on the Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church, I began to stroke slowly across refined mercury towards the bucolic little church on her isle.

Mum and Dad had swum. They swam in lakes, and pools and tarns. They stroked through inlets, bays and seas; other than making tea it seemed to have been their primary activity.

The lake was the perfect place to meditate and think problems through. With slow measured strokes you push fractionally closer. Occasionally another swimmer would pass with a simple nod and a cheerful ‘Živjo’ leaving only a ripple. Yet one afternoon, as a cloudburst pitted the glaucous surface Julia pulled up next to me and briefly became my swimming partner. I would only know Julia as an elderly head gliding across the lake sheathed in her old fashioned swimming cap, the sort that requires a chinstrap.

It soon became apparent that my Slovenian reached only as far as hello and having exhausted my repertoire we returned to English. ‘My father used to work for Industrija Motornih Vozil. He was very proud to make your Austin cars. He loved that job. Even now the smell of car leather brings him back to me.’ We breaststroked through water so clear and richly olive as to seem like melted glass.

‘It is good that you do this,’ Julia said. ‘Children do not know their parents. They are a foreign country and a different time. I have been both. Maybe it is only when you are a parent that you hope your children will see you as more than just parents.’

Escape Comittee book coverAustria, and its memories of my early teens, had stirred things up. Along the way the young people of the diaries had grown and calcified into real people, young, fun individuals in an exciting time. Yet my passage through St Johann had whisked up all the recollections of my parents as I had seen them as a child about to become a teenager. The Pam of St Johann committed horrific crimes against fashion in a lemon ski suit and moonboots. Dad was equally embarrassing with the first strands of his comb-over and moustache that belonged in a previous decade. They were, of course, ‘parents’ and therefore authoritarian, old and square. Has any teenager ever seen their parents as anything other than dinosaurs? And these memories collided with the youngsters in the diary.

How could they be the same individuals who skied soooooo slowly and attempted to get my brother and I to get a haircut. When did someone who had owned a rare 1933 Hillman Aero Minx and sported a Chet Baker/Tony Curtis ‘barnet’ think that it would be acceptable to purchase a puce Austin Maxi let alone a Dacia Aro 10 Duster? ‘That one was a bleeding disaster, too’ Dad admitted later. For the first time since opening the diary months before, my parents were seemingly two separate entities again.

Julia’s laughter tinkled across the lake and she lost her breathing for a moment. We trod water while she got it back and bells from the church rung out loudly. From the shore their sonorous note soothed as it echoed through the valley. This close it was almost abrasive, almost arrogant.

‘The church is built on top of an old temple to our love goddess Živa. Couples go there to ring the bells for good luck. The man must carry a silent woman up all the stairs.’ A skinny groom was hauling a chunky bride up the ninety-nine steps. He huffed and puffed, he staggered and rested. It was a scene as full of romance as a washing machine being delivered.

Regaining her composure we pushed on.

‘You are looking at them wrong. One group is parents and one is children. They are not the same, but the same people. One is the, how do you say…ingredients, for the other. At least that is what I would want from my daughter to see.’ It didn’t make a lot of sense to me. The church steps were metres away now, the weeds inviting us in sweeping gestures in the wake of a wooden tourist Pletna.

Our conjugal deliveryman had reached the summit and as we turned back to shore, bridal dreams rang out across Lake Bled.

Extracted from Matthew Button’s new book ‘Escape Committee‘. Buy it here.

The Escape Committee from Design and Film Cornwall on Vimeo.

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