I loved almost everything about Slovenia, and I get the feeling that if they spent a few trillion bucks on infrastructure and marketing that their popularity as a tourist destination would rival any other European country. Slovenian scenery is world class, right up there with the parts of Switzerland I have seen, but Slovenian roads… hmm, not so much.
The main highways are all fine, but on a few occasions during our time in Slovenia we ended up driving through little villages with roads no wider than footpaths, and these were supposedly two way streets. Perhaps I had been spoiled by the experience of driving in Austria (…if there is a pothole on any Austrian road I am yet to find it! Immaculate!) but I found driving in Slovenia to be a tiny bit scary at times. For any Australian driver, lining up the car on the right side of the road is an adjustment to start with, and the thin and often windy roads in some of the less populated parts of Slovenia, especially when combined with the constant temptation of allowing the scenery to distract me, didn’t make for relaxed driving.
It was around 5.30pm on a Sunday afternoon, around 5km out of the not exactly huge town of Bovec, when I rounded a blind corner and drifted a bit too far to the right to avoid oncoming traffic. A thunderous BANG signalled the back of the rental car spanking a cement retaining wall. Oops. Not my finest moment. Within a minute or so a strange noise started emanating from towards the rear of the vehicle and we pulled over to discover that the rear passengers side tyre was almost entirely off the rim, and the entire back end of the car had retaining wall marks on it.
The bad news was that we were now stranded about 5km away from the smallest town we were visiting in our entire trip, and did I mention that it was Sunday afternoon? I didn’t rate our chances of getting help in a hurry (or at all) too highly. The good news is that we still had three or four hours of sunlight left – because European summers are frickin’ AWESOME – and the even better news was that we were able to connect a phone call despite our current GPS position of “somewhere in the middle of nowhere, Slovenia.”
Paulie put a call through to the car rental company back in Innsbruck, Austria and they arranged for someone from the Royal Slovenian Automobile Club to come and rescue us. The nice lady at Europcar said to call her back if nobody arrived within an hour and a half, so for that time we sat in the car, right next to the incredibly clear and beautiful Soča river, taking the opportunity to swipe away at our phones looking at some of the photos we had taken earlier that day and waiting to find out if it was just a tyre or if we had done more damage than that.
Pause: In case you’re now wondering why we didn’t just change the damn tyre ourselves, I need to explain something about myself here. While I’m very comfortable with technology and will happily figure out how to get in and around pretty much any electronic device that’s handed to me, I am not and have never been terribly handy with anything that is mechanical. Neither Paul or I have even owned a car in the last decade, so anything to do with car maintenance and repairs is a hell of a long way out of our respective wheel houses. Therefore when it comes to changing a tyre on a car, especially if the instructions in the owners manual happen to be in German, forget about it. I’m not proud to admit this, but when it comes to do with anything mechanical I am basically a helpless little old lady. Unpause.
An hour passed, and then it was an hour and a half… and still no sign of help. I kept picturing some poor Slovenian bloke trying to have Sunday dinner with his family going “Yeah yeah yeah, I’ll go and help the stupid Australians when I’ve finished my kranjska klobasa, OK Uršula?”
7.20pm. The light was beginning to fade and the uneasy feeling in my stomach was slowly building. Paul was on the phone to Europcar chasing up our kranjska klobasa eating friend’s whereabouts when two guys in a van with the name of their rafting business emblazoned on the side pulled over. By now my faith that the help the rental car company were sending was ever going to come was evaporating, so I thought I’d try my luck with these friendly looking strangers. After taking one look at them I could tell they were more mechanically literate than us, which would not be a stretch, so I jumped out of the car and walked towards them.
“You guys need some help?”, asked the driver of the van in impeccable English.
“You don’t happen to know how to change a tyre on an Audi do you?”
“Actually, that’s my dream car. I’ve got the model before it and I’ve been researching this car for months.”
At that point we lifted the suitcases out of the back of the car and the friendly stranger (who we later found out is named Gregor) unlocked a hidden compartment to reveal a fluorescent warning sign which he unfolded into a triangle and handed to his mate, (who we later found out is a Hungarian dude named Tamás) to place 20 metres down the road to alert oncoming traffic so that he could change the tyre safely. He knew exactly where everything was and how it all worked, and this sudden flurry of activity after two hours of sitting still was beyond impressive. I was also grateful that he at no point looked at us and went, “Why haven’t you done this yourselves? What’s wrong with you guys?”
Within a few short minutes Gregor had changed the tyre, chatting happily as he did about his rafting business and how he liked to help keep Slovenia clean by grabbing one piece of rubbish every time he went in the river. At one point when he was having difficulty with one of those thingys that holds the tyre on (I wasn’t kidding when i said i know nothing about cars…) he said something in Slovenian that was quite obviously not “Hi, how are you?”
“Ooh, that sounded interesting” said Paul. “What did you just say?”
“That”, said Gregor, “is a very rude Slovenian saying.”
“Can you translate it for us?” Asked Paul.
“In English it means ‘fuck your mother in the pussy’.”
That was the exact moment when I thought to myself “I like this guy a lot.”
Once the spare tyre was on there was still the lingering question of if we had done any further damage to the vehicle and if it would be drivable or not, so Gregor told us to wait for ten minutes while he and Tamás went and collected their other van – which is what they were on their way to do in the first place when they’d spotted us by the side of the road – so that they could drive behind us into Bovec in case we needed to pull over again. So we thanked them and got back in the car to wait for them when, you guessed it, old mate from The Royal Slovenian Automobile Club finally showed up, in a tow truck no less.
We told old mate that we had already received help and that we wouldn’t be needing his services after all thanks-very-much. He didn’t seem too fazed. He handed me a piece of paper and said “sign here” and after looking the car over he suggested that we take it to the nearest Audio service centre in a nearby town called Tolmin the next morning to get it looked at and get the tyre replaced. He seemed quite pleased to be driving away again within a couple of minutes of finding us.
Gregor and Tamás re-appeared – it was around 8pm by now – and we drove slowly behind them to our hotel in Bovec. (The car felt fine to me, but what would I know.) Once we parked it in the hotel carpark we asked Gregor and Tamás if we could buy them dinner to say thanks. They told us that – because they had stopped to help a couple of hapless Aussies – they were already running late to meet two Finnish friends for dinner, so the Finns came along as well and next thing you know there were six of us out for dinner and drinks at a local restaurant. It was one of the most authentic dining experiences I have ever had, and it never would have happened had I not accidentally pashed that retaining wall.
Gregor took control of ordering food much like he had taken control of the tyre situation, and we were more than happy for him to do so. He asked us what kind of food we liked and then went ahead and ordered everything for us in Slovenian. He also dispensed plenty of local knowledge, in particular when it came to the subject of Slovenian wine.
“The map of Slovenia is shaped like a chicken. Right now you are in the arsehole of the chicken, so you drink red wine. When you get to the head of the chicken, you should switch to white wine.” OK, Gregor, duly noted, thank you!
The food was great, all very authentically Slovenian. We drank German beers and had plenty of laughs, one of my favourite moments being when Gregor taught us how to say “Na zdravje” which is “cheers” in Slovenian and I thought I’d return the favour by letting the table know how we say cheers in Australia. Just for fun, I decided to use the version I’d seen in the 1994 Russell Crowe movie, The Sum Of Us.
“In Australia, we say up your bum!”
It all felt very international as two Finns, a Hungarian, a Slovenian and two Aussies all shouted “Up your bum” in unison. I particularly enjoyed watching Tamás, this big burly Hungarian dude, going “Up your bum! Up your Bum! Up your bum!” with a huge smile on his face as he went around the table clinking everybody’s glass. I was almost certain he had no idea what he was actually saying, which had me in fits of laughter. We had such a great night that we momentarily forgot about the fact that we still needed to sort the car situation out.
The next morning we rang the Audi service centre in Tolmin and after a few minutes of back and forth the guy on the other end of the phone bluntly said “No. I do not have this tyre in stock. Goodbye.” Um… OK then. Time to find a plan B, I guess.
I stood looking at the hotel car park and the imposing mountains that surround it and started wondering how long it would take us to get out of Bovec as Paul rang Europcar to ask them what they thought we should do next. Impressively, within twenty minutes they rang us back and told us that they had booked us into a tyre place in Villach, back in Austria who had the required tyre in stock and were already expecting us.
Here’s the amazing part; to get there we had to drive 54km through three countries. Admittedly, a European person reading this probably wonders why I find this so incredible, but the fact that we had to drive from Slovenia through Italy and then into Austria to get a tyre changed was pretty mind blowing to me. We were only in Italy for around ten minutes. In Australia you can drive nonstop for ten hours and still be in the same state.
It was a nervous drive on the spare tyre, especially with mysterious tyre pressure warning lights going off and continuous ominous beeping, but we crawled to Villach without any further drama and it took under and hour for them to replace the tyre, align and balance everything (…or whatever it is that happens with people who know what they are doing with that sort of thing) before sending us on our way again. Even better, there were no out of pocket expenses. We just signed a piece of paper and drove right back over the border into Slovenia. Well played, Europcar!
Our original plan was to drive south that day and end up on the Slovenian coast in Piran, but by the time the tyre was fixed this had become impractical, so we decided to cancel our Air BnB in Piran and head to the Slovenian capital, with a couple of fun stops to do a little bit of exploring in some smaller towns in between.
We had initially only planned to spend one night in Ljubljana, and I will be forever grateful that our Slovenian tyre incident effectively turned that into two nights. Ljubljana turned out to be one of the highlights of that trip, and it really would have been a shame to only spend one night in that special little city. Honestly, I’m a little sad that we never made it to the Adriatic coast and that we never got to properly explore the Soča Valley but nobody got hurt, and we are already planning on going back to Slovenia one day to see the parts we ended up missing out on this time around.
So I guess the moral to this story, if there is one, is to always go with the flow when you travel and to get the top level rental car insurance, especially if you’re overseas, and especially if (like me) mechanical spasticity is one of your issues. And if ever you find yourself in Bovec, Slovenia looking for a rafting instructor, see if you can track Gregor and Tamás down. They’re top fellas.