Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Hrastovlje, Slovenia: No Dance of Death

There is one reason to visit the picturesque valley town of Hrastovlje, Slovenia. It is to see the large fresco "Dance Of Death," which dominates the interior of a small stone church. The fresco shows various skeletons dancing and interacting with regular townsfolk. All the guidebooks recommend seeing it. And me, being a Pag sheep who's been a diet of delicious herbs and salt, do what I am told.

Slovenia, being such a small country, is fairly close in size to what it appears to be on the map. Hrastovlje was only about one-quarter inch from the border on the map and, sure enough, I was quickly upon the town soon after crossing the border. The border crossing was not uneventful, as I alluded to earlier. But my problem was on the Croatian side of the border. I was waved past the first station by the police officer inside the little booth. I thought that meant I could drive on past. Then, as I was driving past, I heard a female voie loudly say "dober dan," Croatian for "good afternoon," and I was driving by, I thought, "Oooops. I guess I was supposed to stop." Luckily I was able to back up before I was chased down. I was rewarded for my misbehavior with a car search. They even looked inside my messenger bag. I had to explain what I was doing with such a large stash of Cliff Bars (snacks!) -- which was not easy given the very limited English language skills of the border police.

The Slovenian customs check was a breeze. I got my passport stamped -- which the Bosnians did not do to my disappointment even though they were asked, I had to buy a "vignette," a tax stamp which allows you to drive on the highways of SLovenia. No one at the gas station spoke a lick of English, which was surprising, as the well-educated, relatively-wealthy Slovenes are supposed to be great speakers of the English language. It took awhile, but I was able to finally buy what I needed after I found the word "vignette" in my guidebook. My preceding attempts to describe what I wanted to purchase ("a tax stamp ... so I can drive [move arms as if rapidly turning a steering wheel] ... on the roadways"). Here's another life lesson: when you're talking with someone who speaks just about no English, a very detailed description of what you want spoken in English, is useless, despite the great detail. Who knew.

All of which means it was about 5:45PM when I finally pulled into Hrastovlje. Again, I wound down a meandering series of one-lane roads, occasionally seeing a sign reassuring me I was headed in the right direction. I got to the church, and it is a beautiful church:

Unfortunately, it was locked:

The sign said it was open until 18:00 and gave a phone number of who to call to get the key. There also was a picture of the house of the key keeper. I did not have a phone -- well, actually, I do have my phone, but Verizon is not Europe-friendly -- so I drove the short distance to the town to try to find the house. I was hoping there would be some indication of which house was right. Perhaps a giant picture of the church with a neon key underneath?

A man saw me driving through the village, looking confused and I think he asked me what I was looking for. I can't be sure, since he was speaking Slovenian and I was responding in English. I pointed toward the church, said "key," and made a lock-opening motion with my wrist (why I didn't point to my car key is beyond me -- I guess I thought that wasn't sufficiently clear that pointing to an actual, tangible "key" would make it clear I was looking for a "key"). Oddly enough, he seemed to understand what I was looking for. He made a few phone calls, went to one of the village houses, but got no answer.

So I never saw the "Dance of Death." The closest I got was this picture, looking through the locked iron gate to the church exterior:

Even if I had gone inside there would've been no pictures allowed. And I don't take pictures inside churches when I'm told not to. Not after what happened to me in Salvador, Brazil. I took pictures inside a beautiful old cathedral of São Francisco even though the sign said no flash photography. I thought I was OK since I could use the old "I don't speak Portuguese" defense. After I returned, when I got my film developed -- this was in the ancient era of film photography -- that one roll of film was ruined, from the point forward from the picture-taking inside the cathedral. I learned my lesson.

But I didn't get to see the "Dance of Death" even though I would've abided by the rules.

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