Saturday, February 26, 2011


The Soca River winds its way down the western side of Slovenia from above Trenta in the Julian Alps south to Nova Gorica where it meanders across the border and into Italy. There, the Soca (pronounced "sew-chuh") is called the Isonzo. It has also been called "The Emerald River" because of its incredible color.

Running Man (RM) had described to me the beauty of the Soca many times, and his photos of the river verified it. But the only way to truly witness the Soca's exquisite magnificence is to see it in person. It was a clear, sunny day in Slovenia when I first laid eyes on it. I saw above me the blinding white snow-covered peaks of the Julian Alps standing against a flawless blue sky and at my feet, the crystal clear blue-green waters of the Soca tumbling over pristine white limestone. It was, perhaps, the most awe-inspiring sight I've ever seen, and one I couldn't survey without feeling touched by God.

The Soca is home to the rare marble trout, making it a favorite river for fly fishing. Its fast current and crashing whitewater near the top of the river attract kayakers. And it was the location for Disney's Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.

Its awesome beauty inspired the Slovene poet and Catholic priest, Simon Gregorcic, who was born above this river and spent his life near its banks. His poem, Soci, which translates as To Soca, pays tribute to it. But during World War I, the river ran red with the blood of thousands of soldiers fighting on the Isonzo front in the Valley of Soca. More than a dozen battles between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies, the latter of which was aided by German forces, left up to one million dead. At the age of 18, after spending only a few months as a cub reporter with the Kansas City Star, Ernest Hemingway volunteered for the Red Cross and ended up as an ambulance driver on the Isonzo front. Six months before his arrival, in the Battle of Caporetto, more than 11,000 Italian soldiers were killed, another 20,000 injured and 270,000 taken prisoner by their foes. Hemingway himself was injured by shrapnel only two months after his arrival in 1918. His experience there, the stories he heard and his subsequent intensive research about the Battle of Caporetto inspired A Farewell to Arms. The bloody battles on the Isonzo front and a tribute to Hemingway are featured in Slovenia's Kobarid Museum.

Slovenia bears the marks of the Roman Empire and the scars of World War I. You can still see the stones that bordered the ancient Roman Road. On the mountainsides, you see the roads carved out of the rock by Russian prisoners of war. You also see everywhere the bunkers from which the Italians and Austro-Hungarians fired at each other from one peak to another. I won't get into the entire history of Slovenia which is complicated at best. But I will say that it's incredible that this tiny country kept its own language and culture throughout the centuries despite a revolving door of occupying armies and constantly moving borders. While they've been ruled by emperors and monarchs, the Slovene people themselves have always remained peasants -- strong and independent despite the hands that ruled them.

RM wanted me to see the source of the Soca River which, I found out, involved climbing up a long and winding, steep and narrow and sometimes treacherous path to an opening in the Julian Alps, out of which tumbles the river's magic waters. It is not surprising that this body of water has inspired poets, peasants and priests. I've been unable to find an English translation of Gregorcic's poem about the Soca but RM said he will help me translate it. My goal is to someday be able to read it in its original form while sitting in the sun on its white rocky shore.

There is an old story here about the creation of this tiny country. It's said that on the eighth day, God decided to give pieces of His creation to the various countries on the Earth. The Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Italians and the Slovenes all showed up to get their land. But the larger countries kept pushing the Slovenes aside. When no one was left but them, God said said He'd already given everything away. But they persisted and so God told them He had only one very small piece of land left. He had planned to keep it for Himself to live in because it was the most beautiful place in the world but instead, gave it to the Slovenes.

On that day, looking up at the alps and down at the stones on the bottom of the Soca, I thought the story just might be true.

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