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William Oscar Johnson
October 24, 1983
Dame Rebecca West's classic book on Yugoslavia inspired a journey to the fascinating and complex home of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games
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October 24, 1983

A Trip East With West

Dame Rebecca West's classic book on Yugoslavia inspired a journey to the fascinating and complex home of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games

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The next morning, a glistening frosty morning at that, we set out for Kranjska Gora in the farthest northwest corner of Yugoslavia. It has been the prime Alpine skiing center for more than 50 years. It's located in the magnificent Julian Alps, named not after Julius Caesar, as one might assume, but after a German biologist named Julius Kugy, who settled in this part of Slovenia in the 18th century. Kugy's mountains include Triglav, at 9,395 feet the tallest in Yugoslavia. Cooke and I skied at Kranjska Gora with Leopold Ferjančič, head of the local tourist bureau. The skiing is pleasant, but this isn't Sun Valley. Later, Ferjančič led us to a small restaurant with a dazzling view of peaks and pistes all around, and treated us to a glass of slivovitz. While we sipped, an urgent voice speaking in some Slavic language spilled forth from a radio. When the voice stopped, Ferjančič slammed his hand on the table and the whole restaurant burst into applause. He said, "Bojan Križaj, our fine slalomist, has just won a World Cup race. He is our premier athlete now. If he wins a gold medal in our Olympics, he will be as big to us as Babe Ruth is to you."

That evening we retraced our route to Maribor. On the following day, the last Sunday before Lent, a carnival was to occur in the ancient town of Ptuj, pronounced Ptooey, as in spitting tobacco. A crowd of several thousand had gathered at the town square, which is surrounded on three sides by old stone walls. Our guide for the occasion was a handsome blonde woman named Nevenka, who introduced herself as being from Radio Ptuj. She explained that we would see groups from various villages in the area, each acting out a different local ritual. "Mainly," said Nevenka, "these things are about the coming of spring and the parting of winter. The idea is to scare winter away. The costumes are authentic, except sometimes you will see an ancient ghost wearing Adidas running shoes. We overlook these things."

There was a complex dramatization of an ancient wedding ceremony in which a virgin was married to a tree. There were bell ringers, folk dancers, men dragging plows and men snapping whips. Mainly, there were the kurents. They're a Slovene specialty, designed to scare the hell out of winter and bring spring in immediately, if not sooner, and they come in several varieties. Some clanked with bells, some had drums, some carried clubs. They tended to advance into the square using curious ambulations, some of which owed much to Groucho Marx and some of which the Monty Python Department of Silly Walks would be delighted to have invented. Some wore shaggy sheepskins, some chicken feathers, and some did sport Adidas shoes. At noon all the kurents gathered for a mass winter-scaring dance in the square. They set up a terrible din with their bells and chants. The morning had been dark gray, dim and wintry as death, but at the very moment the dance began the sun broke through and bathed us all in springlike light. Cooke said, "Hey, this works pretty well. Maybe we will have to transfer this to Sarajevo next winter." Nevenka smiled and said, "I doubt if kurents have power over smog."

The next day we were in Lipica, the original home of the 400-year-old Lippizaner breed of horses. It all began here in 1580 when the area was part of Austria and the Archduke Charles bought the village of Lipica and set it aside for a stud farm. The superb breed of horses in the region was crossbred with Spanish stallions and mares, renowned for their regal bearing and their high-stepping pace known as the Spanish walk, and later Arabians, to develop the world-famous Lippizaners.

Centuries of off-and-on war have disrupted the stud a number of times. In 1943 the Nazi occupiers of Lipica shipped 179 horses to a "united stud" in Czechoslovakia. Only 11 came back after the war.

Things have brightened since then. The director of the farm is a dignified fellow named Andrej Franetič, and he's happy to report that the stud has now grown to 250 horses. Franetič took us on a tour of the farm. He showed us the stalls, where he pointed out the faint L tattooed on each Lippizaner's cheek. He showed us several colts, which are born black, and the dirt-floored arena used to train the show horses. One handler put his horse through the famed capriole—the graceful, yet brutal maneuver in which the horse springs off the ground with all four feet and snaps out his rear hooves in a violent midair kick. This, legend has it, was intended to decapitate enemy foot soldiers during battle. Franetič announced with zest that he would now take us to the "hall of marriage." Since his English was coming to us through an interpreter who was admittedly out of practice, Cooke puzzled briefly over this term and then said, "Of course, he means the breeding shed." That made sense. But when Franetič threw open the door to the "hall of marriage," we gasped. The place had marble floors, a great chandelier and what looked like an altar. Cooke and I stared at each other. Breeding shed? Good God, any stallion working in environs like this had to produce kingly progeny. Through the interpreter, Franetič said that about 150 "couples" were "married" by him here each year. We thought the terminology was ungodly cute for a man involved in a full-time career of getting horses to copulate on demand, when suddenly it dawned on us: It was a marriage hall—for human beings. Franetič, as director of a stud farm, had roughly the same powers as a ship's captain and was allowed to marry people.

That hilarious little misunderstanding cleared up, we adjourned to his sunny office, sipped slivovitz and admired one of the best photographs ever taken of the late Marshal Tito, who though dead three years still lives pictorially in the form of a portrait on the walls of almost every public place. At Lipica, however, the marshal is seated comfortably on a Lippizaner, handsomely dressed in tweed jacket and a jaunty checkered cap, looking as much like an aristocrat as any tough old socialist dictator could ever manage.

That night Cooke and I made a quick run across the border into Italy. We drove down the mountain seven twisting miles to Trieste. We'd already eaten in quite a number of Yugoslav restaurants, and the preponderance of grilled meat was beginning to pall. So the sight of the harbor in Trieste with its plethora of seafood restaurants was positively glorious. We dined at the Nastra Arbruzzio and picked our seafood from fresh iced specimens displayed on a rolling table. We drank two full bottles of superb Italian wine, one red, one white. On the way out of town we stopped at the railroad station and bought the International Herald Tribune, which along with all other foreign newspapers had been temporarily banned from Yugoslavia as one small way of helping the country correct its weighty balance-of-payments problem. We returned after dinner to Lipica.

The next morning was radiant, but an arctic gale was blowing. Yugoslavs call this wind the bora. It blasts down from the mountains in the north and keeps up its high-velocity chill for one, three or seven days. We headed to Portorož on the Adriatic Sea, assuming that that great body of blue water would lake some of the bite out of the bora.

Definitely not. If anything, the wind blew harder at the seashore. Portorož, part of a kind of Slavic Italian Riviera, and its streets were almost totally deserted at this time of year. There was also nothing in sight at sea except for two windsurfers in wetsuits who zipped about on the shimmering blue harbor. When they saw us watching, they steered close and one shouted something that we didn't understand and so indicated. He swung about, flashed past us again and shouted in English, "Bora-surfing: better than wind!"

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