I’m led down the stairs behind a bar. The lights are a bit weak but I can make out a door to the right at the bottom and some kind of big-ass freezer directly in front that I pay no attention to. We take our shoes off and Milos leads me into the Koper BJJ gym.
I’m impressed; not just by the good size, the equipment, the small weight-training area but foremost by the attention to hygiene. “We leave our shoes outside … and we wash our feet before we go on the matts”; he shows me to the long bidet where I scrub my filthy, backpackers’ soles clean.
I am shown to my little corner, in between the kettlebells and the squat rack. I prop my bag against a workstation.
‘Put your stuff here, don’t worry,’ he says ‘we don’t have to use this space while you’re here.’ Nevertheless, I try and make my stuff fit into a tidy corner so as not to obstruct. I now have an entire gym to myself.
‘We have wifi from the bar, but, uhh, you have to step outside, cause the walls are quite thick down here,’ Milos tells me. Bemused, I smile and nod. Quite the basement. When I’m in the doorway I measure the wall’s thickness: about twice the length of my hand, wrist to fingertip! All concrete. I’m curious as to why a standard tenement block would need this.
‘This was an anti-nuclear shelter,’ I take that information slightly for granted. That is until I look around, past the training gear and matts and notice the long ventilation tunnel and shaft, the rusty steel shutters on the windows and – last, but most certainly not least – the door.
Remember the huge freezer thing I mentioned? Yeah, that wasn’t a freezer. That is the door.
It’s a huge, vault door, with two locking levers as long as my goddamn arms. This thing was meant to seal in a whole group of Slovenians to their post-apocalyptic fate. Someone planned this place with an end of the world-scenario in mind and this is where I am sleeping. Sweeeeeet. I feel like I’m in a budget-larp of Fallout. And this is barely day one.
Not even the president of Slovenia sleeps this safely.
A bit of background to how I arrived in this weird and, frankly awesome, lodging place. I’ve been travelling Southern Europe (heading from Portugal to Serbia) and the 2nd half of my trip has just started. I’m gonna do the Balkans in a month.
I’m a little bit stuck. I’m in Trieste, a few kilometres away from where the dividing line of East and West was for the better part of a century, and I can’t get in. I had been warned that the Balkans are infamous for a very partial transportation system, but I had not expected a delay to happen on the very first day. The bus to Koper has been delayed. It’s travelling from Croatia and has been at border control for six hours long. The refugee crisis and its aftermath ramped up the level of security control. I sigh, resign myself to the bench and call my host.
I’m meant to be meeting up with a Slovenian purple-belt called Milos. He’s my first point of contact for the Balkan BJJ community. I’m excited since it’s been a few weeks of travelling in Western Europe since I’ve rolled. I’m even more excited by the fact that I’m finally gonna see the former Yugoslavia. When I stood in the station, that whole land was shrouded in historical Wikipedia posts and stereotypes. I had no personal experience of it, but to me it sounded exotic and unspoiled, unlike the West of the continent. I was overjoyed to find Milos through the Globetrotter’s website and now, after so much anticipation, I finally get a chance to meet a local Balkan!
I want to tell him that I’ll be late and that I may be arriving at night. He won’t hear of it, he pleadingly offers to come and pick me up. A bit flabbergasted, I stutter and say “ Are you sure?” He is fine with doing that, since it is only 20 minutes drive. Ok, I go and get a ticket refund and wait for him. I must remember to pay for drinks when I get the chance.
20 minutes later, an old black Volkswagen Polo pulls up and a guy in black Adidas tracksuits and sunglasses opens the door for me: “Hey! Nice to finally meet you!” and I’m in.
Hours later, after we drop off my bag, Milos drops me off in the port of Piran for the day, since he works there. This place is a treat for anybody into old Southern Med architecture and history. I ramble along narrow Venetian streets, marked by the lion of San Marco and sun-flag of the Koper region. The four-storey tall bell-tower dates back to the 12th century, and quite frankly the steps inside it feel that old too. They’re old, creaky wooden planks that groan with every step, accompanied by the sound of a bat nesting somewhere. It was worth it though: could see from Trieste to Croatia, and, if I squinted, large chunks of the Julian Alps were visible.
I rent out a bike for two hours and speed down the coast, overtaking scores of slow Italian families on holiday. I zip past pretty coastal towns, some villages and circumnavigate the Seča salt pans.
I turn back once I’ve reached the Croatian border.
I whizz back to Piran, hand my bike in and end the day with a refreshing Slovenian beer, after 18 km. Today I can say that I “saw” three countries. Not bad for a first day in Slovenia.
When Milos finishes his shift we head back to Koper and we briefly join some of his friends who are chilling and drinking in the backroom of the laundromat that one of their friends owns. I can’t properly join in with the conversation, but I’m content to look about the place and focus my eyes on the old maps of Europe, the Tito-themed calendar and the 1960s radio with a “YU” for Yugoslavia branded across it. I am treated kindly with pizza and rakja, the omnipresent fruit-brandy of Eastern Europe. This delicious spirit can be found all over this part of the continent, from Tirana to Chisinau, although most countries in between use different fruits or names. Afterwards Milos kindly drives me back to my lodgings, back into the depths of my matted dungeon. It sounds almost a bit too Fifty-Shades, doesn’t it?
This is both the most private and most public accommodation I’ve had over the past month. Private because, unlike the hostels I partook in, I don’t share it with 13 other people; public because, well, it’s a big-ass gym with thick concrete walls. When I drop my phone on the floor the echo comes back to haunt me a few seconds later. I make my own little comfortable den in the weight-training area and arrange my clothes neatly. Pyjamas on, industrial lights off and I’m tucked in, dreaming of getting up and literally rolling onto the matts (lol).
Happy May Day, tovarash!
Woke up in the dungeon to the sound of Slovenians above me moving store goods. I try to go back to sleep but it’s too damn cold. I cover my face and hands, pull my sleeping sheet around my head, my hoodie on my face, my hand in my pockets: why did I buy the thinnest sleeping bag?! (a day later I finally have the brains to ask Milos how to turn on the heating) I look like a mummy in recovery position. I get up to get warm and get ready for 10 o’clock training.
My arrival in Slovenia was ill-timed. The first full day is the 1st of May, which is a Communist holiday meant to be the official day for labourers. My calendar, set-up in the UK, tells me that it’s a “Bank holiday” – I feel that it’s an appropriately ironic nod to the historic contrasts of two opposing civilisations.
Very few people in training and most need to go and spend time with their families today. I don’t mind of course, during the day I have plenty of time to ramble and read, although it feels weird when people shower after training and head to the comfort of their homes whilst I just putter about, as if I was in my own living room. I’m still a newbie to training in a gi so every chance to train and practice gripping – something that felt extremely alien to me all too recently – is a huge learning boost.
I need to finish this first post with a note on my host, Milos. It’s cliche, but there is a stereotype of Balkan people being incredibly generous and hospitable. I’d say that he fulfills that stereotype, and surpasses it. Even though he is busy and constrained by responsibilities he made my stay very worthwhile. In the afternoon, over coffee, he mentions that he knows a good gym in Rijeka on the other side of Istria and also that his instructor, Bojan, has a gym in Zagreb. Next he begins to give a list of other gyms that come to his mind in Sarajevo and Belgrade. This was unexpected. I had come with very few expectations and was afraid I’d go for days without training at all. But, thanks to Milos, I would not go hungry for training – more Balkan tales to come!