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The Big Chill

Last summer there was a terrible heat wave in Central Europe, where hardly anybody has air conditioning. So the cities literally shut down, with everyone driving to the Mediterranean to sit in the cool water. But mostly they sat in stalled traffic. Along with the rest, I left Zagreb, but hoping to avoid the crowds I went in the opposite direction, to the southern Alps, looking for a good chill.

At Lake Bled, I stopped for a coffee at a waterfront cafe, only to discover that, in spite of the lake being a major tourist attraction, a glass of the fine local red wine cost just two bucks. I forgot about coffee. To make a (bad) pun, Bled didn‘t bleed me. The name has nothing to do with bleeding, just as Split in Croatia doesn’t mean division, though, of course, it‘s easy to imagine that it does. Bled means ”pale,“ and it is in the winter, frozen over and snowed under. But now it looked aquamarine, mutating into separate hues of blue and green as I walked by.

From the lakeside road, marble steps led to a villa, formerly Tito’s residence. I walked inside, just for a peek, but the polite, regally dressed receptionist was eager to show me some of the rooms that were available for a mere 150 deutsche marks -- $75. He pointed out that the white stone for the staircase came from the island of Brach in the Adriatic, the same source for much of the marble in the White House. He deplored the fact that most Americans did not seem to understand that Slovenia was at peace, that it had been at war for only 10 days in 1991 and that, with 60-some dead, it had become an independent country for the first time in history.

I drove on along the Sava River to Lake Bohinj, through canyons and wide meadows, with goats, sheep and stacks of hay, and men fly-fishing in the river. Mountain rocks surround Bohinj on all sides. Just as I arrived, a thunderstorm announced itself with a sonic majesty that made me realize how easy it was for the Greeks to imagine that gods lived in the clouds.

At Cafe Triglav, some 300 yards back and with a grand view of the lake, I ordered a golden-lipped rainbow trout. Other than a couple of lakes in Austria and Hungary, this is the only place in the world with this variety of trout. It was prepared with garlic, though with the side order of potatoes, onions and parsley it tasted as though prepared with mushrooms. The waiter assured me that there were no mushrooms involved.

Through the tourist office near the lake, I found a room in a private home -- for 10 bucks a night -- adjacent to a terrace above the Sava, 100 yards downstream from the lake. The river falls out of the lake in a small waterfall; the sound of it, along with the chilly and moist smell, made for most refreshing sleep. In the morning, the hostess, who was trailed everywhere by her tabby cat, brought chocolaty coffee and bright-orange sunny-side-up eggs, with dark bread. I ate next to two well-equipped Italians who had hiked from one mountain inn to another and would go still farther, and higher, up to the Alpine lakes. Their trip, no doubt, was more spectacular than mine, but I was happy, sipping coffee backed by that sparkly sound of the river while gazing out across Bohinj to the Triglav, or Three Headed Mountain, its high peak topped by a ring of clouds.

The day was hot; at the small, sandy beach most people were naked, and I did among the Romans as the Romans do. The water was bone-chilling, breath-cutting, yet many swimmers seemed to be relaxing in it. Five minutes of the exquisite cold woke me up, and I decided to hike to the source of the Sava, some eight fairly steep miles away.

A couple of hours later, I squatted near a pool of light-blue water. The Sava sprang straight out of a rock and tumbled with a deafening boom nearly 200 yards into this pool, walled off for a small hydroelectric plant. After the hissing water crested the wall, it tumbled farther down the mountain. I don‘t know what it is about the particles near waterfalls -- the ions or the coolness or both -- but their effect is strangely energizing. Only hours earlier I’d been content to sip coffee and watch the mountains. Now I wanted to climb them. I didn‘t have the equipment, of course. But next time a heat wave strikes, now that I know what Bled and Bohinj mean, I’ll be ready.

Josip Novakovich is the author of Salvation and Other Disasters: Short Stories.