This is the first in a planned series of recollections and stories from my adventure in the Balkans.
I pulled the SUV onto the gravel shoulder. Across the narrow one-lane-wide strip of asphalt was sharp turnoff onto a gravel path that descended steeply into the brush below. It looked as if I would need to go the rest of the way on foot. The Satnav reckoned that my destination would be less than a kilometer away down the path. Hoping it was right, I set off. If Slapnik was any further than that, I’d be in Italy.
Finding myself in Slovenia one lovely August day, I set out to the remote region of Brda, tucked up on the hills that rise above the Slovenian littoral. Just off a tiny country road was one of the country’s most beautiful secrets, at least in the eyes of this beholder. The destination was the “village” of Slapnik, a few rows of ivy-covered houses arranged along idyllic lanes and hidden from public view in a small valley. Except to call it a village would be quite the misnomer: Slapnik had long been in decline, starting with the partition of Yugoslavia in the early days of World War II. This process finally ended around the time Slovenia became an independent country in 1992, as its last residents either moved out of the valley and into the neighboring towns or simply died off. Slapnik had become Slovenia’s most picturesque ghost town.
Even before Slapnik came into view, I knew that I wasn’t going to have the place to myself. The calm ambiance of the Mediterranean hills was broken by the intermittent shrieks and screams of a despairing woman. Where the path ended, I found her. She was standing on crutches with her leg in a thick cast, still screaming helplessly as tears streamed down her face. An older woman was trying to calm her down, but she was inconsolable. Between her sobs she begged me to help her. Her young son had followed their dog deep into the brush, she explains, while the family was settling down for a quick picnic amidst the ruins of Slapnik. With her leg the way it was, she was in no shape to go searching for him herself, and so implored me to join her husband and head into the brush.
I was hesitant to spend what little time I had going on a tiny Slovenian manhunt instead of exploring the village, but there was no way I could tell her no. She gestured that the boy had gone off the path and into the brush past the ruins of a stuccoed white wall overgrown with ivy. Noticing a small opening in the thick growth, I followed it into the trees as sharp thorns pierced through my jeans and pricked my legs.
The track led me down onto the village lanes, where empty houses stood in a row. Some were still tightly padlocked, perhaps still used as storage by former villagers, while others were in a rather advanced state of decay. Doors were left open, furnishings were ripped out and scattered on the floor, and a thick layer of dust was caked on everything. I peeked into them as I walked, thinking perhaps that the boy, frightened, had decided to hide indoors. Some houses looked as if the slightest breeze could take them down, but others seemed much more solidly built. I invited myself inside a few of them, while trying to persuade myself that I was intruding not to satisfy my own curiosity but rather, more nobly, to help find the missing child.
Rays of afternoon light cut through the musty air. The rooms were cluttered with everything from pots and pans to personal belongings like shoes and books, all left behind when Slapnik was abandoned for the last time. These dated, forgotten belongings painted a vivid picture of what life in a rustic Mediterranean village would have been like in Tito’s Yugoslavia. However, I quickly reminded myself that this was no time to ponder the days of old. Not finding any sign of the young boy nor his dog, I moved on down the row of houses.
I reached the end of the lane empty-handed, and reluctantly rounded the corner to head down into the backwoods. Right around the corner, however, I found an old man, presumably the older lady’s partner. I waved at him, and tried to ask about the child. The old man, fortunately, spoke some Serbian, a language much more intelligible to the normal Slavic speaker than Slovenian. Without any look of worry on his face, he told me that he, too, was looking for the woman’s son. However, he was going about it with about the same level of enthusiasm as one does going on a Sunday stroll. The old man took slow, yet confident steps down into the brush, motioning me to stay behind him and to not be so hurried. As we went deeper down into the valley, the man spoke of spending his youth, with his dog, on these very trails. His family had lived in Slapnik, back when people still did there. Now he was pensioner in Nova Gorica, a ‘city’ of about ten thousand souls that was the center of local life. Every so often, he would come back with his sweetheart and reminisce about their childhood and the stories that were written along these ruined and overgrown streets.
After a while, we reached the bottom, where a small stream cut through the valley and marked the border between Slapnik and the next settlement. Still seeing no sign of the boy and his dog, and with the sun now lazily making its way down towards the horizon, we turned around and walked back. Realizing how difficult getting out of these hills at night would be for an outsider, the man beckoned me to go back to the village, take the photos that I had come here to take, and get back to the city before the one-lane country roads become a death trap. The man reassured me that he would be fine staying in the woods to continue the search, saying that he still knew these hills like the back of his hand. Feeling swayed, I turned around and headed back towards the village.
Indulging myself in one last abbreviated tour of Slapnik, I noticed that the streets were much quieter than just a few minutes before. The mother’s cries had gone silent, and even the ambient sounds of leaves fluttering in the wind seemed more suppressed. I didn’t let this bother me, and was more than happy to punctuate the relative silence with the swift click-clicks of my camera shutters.
A peculiar sight greeted me when I made it through all of Slapnik and started hiking back up the gravel road from which I came. Both the inconsolable woman and her car were gone, even though we hadn’t found any sign of her son, husband, nor their dog. Only the old lady was left, sitting on a stump and waiting for her partner. I waved, and she smiled back. Taking this as a good sign, I walked back up to my car reassured that the woman had been reunited with her son.
Nothing struck me as odd as I began to drive down the hills towards Nova Gorica. Two kilometers down the one-lane road from where I came, and further from Slapnik than the Italian border, I drove past the old man and his wife, who were just about to get back in their car. Shaken at how quickly they had made it up the mountain and back to their car, I decided to stop and say hello. As I shut off the engine and rolled down my car windows, the faint yet unmistakable howl of a dog pierced through the evening Mediterranean air.
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