Toxic Tour through Slovenia / by Felix Mortimer

  Photos: Nada Žgank

Photos: Nada Žgank

In early September I was invited by LIFT (The London International Festival of Theatre) to take a Toxic Tour through Slovenia.

Definition: Toxic Tour

A Toxic Tour is a tour of a natural site which is in danger of encroached on or jeopardised by the activities of humans, the tour takes in the stories of those affected and those affecting the landscape. 

I arrived in Ljubljana late on a Sunday, straight to the Hotel Park, a green hotel in the heart of the city. I bumped into another delegate, turned down an offer of a drink and went straight to bed. The itinerary that met me in my room talked of caves, corncrakes and the human fish. I fell asleep quickly.

Woke up early and stole downstairs. Met Mark from LIFT and got into a car, ended up in a park, had coffee and introduced myself to the other delegates. A wide range of experience and countries were represented including members of ArtsAdmin, Bunker and the organisations that make up the network. I met beekeepers, sound reenactors, students, icicle symphoniers, educators from Ghent, Latvia, Croatia and across Europe. We sat in the dappled light of the garden on stolen benches and learnt about each others practices. Lunch shortly followed in a school cafeteria, where I spoke to a professor at UCLA who worked with my friend Dustin. 

  Photo: Nada Žgank

Photo: Nada Žgank

The afternoon was spent in a small classroom where the head of the botanical garden talked to us about the marshes which we would be visiting the next day. We had another lecture about the corncrake (with an ice cream in between). Many of us were working out how we could artistically respond or react to these situations. After dinner at Bunker the evening we went to see a play in Slovenian which fused Beckett with modern Slovenian politics as the aftermath of a party. 

The next day we woke up at 6am to visit the corncrake in it's natural environment, we illegally steamed up river on a barge, past pontoons where illegal boat parties took place. Disembarking in the middle of the marshes. Sîan recorded with contact mics attached to the hull. We walked into the marshes and talked about monoculture and rice. We saw a kestrel. We hid in a hide and ate sandwiches. We saw a dead bird. We paused to listen to the sounds of the birds. 

  Photo: Nada Žgank

Photo: Nada Žgank

We spent some more time looking for the corncrake and then visited a museum which was dedicated to the river of seven names which scores through eastern europe and ends up in the Black Sea (Trbuhovica, Obrh, Stržen, Rak, Pivka, Unica, and Ljubljanica). The Museum was unfinished and they were yet to mount the world's oldest wheel or the objects found in the river. The museum was in a converted leather factory which once polluted the river so it could not be used. Back on the bus we talked about radio, and slovenian cultural references that I didn't understand in the play. 

Returning to the city, we did a bit of shopping and then had dinner, writing a song. 

The next day was the climax of the trip, a visit to the Planina caves. The caves were the largest in Slovenia, and a complex set of tunnels played host to Italian prisoners trying to bore their way to Austria through the mountains. We set off inside and walked for an hour and a half deep into the cave system, the opening and some of the caves were hundreds of metres tall and the light quickly diminished as we trod the regular path. Eventually we reached the site of four inflatable boats, the photographer and the main party turned round and we clambered aboard these silently rowing further in. The lights from our headlamps catching abstract rock formations under the surface, searching for the almost mythic 'human' fish, which we had learnt about. No eyes. a 100 year life span. Small arms and legs. The colour of human skin. Ony found in these caves and similar ones in Croatia. 

Our boat trip ended after another hour and a half in a cave flanked by stalactites and stalacmites. Our boat was left asunder as we took photos of the human forms shaped by hundreds of years of dripping water. We perfected our rowing technique on the return journey (with the addition of Tony) and spurned on by the promise of sandwiches (and unexpected Schnapps). 

 Human Fish

Human Fish

We relaxed at the mouth of the cave, I ate one too many sandwiches, and drank one too many schnapps. The return journey was warm and as I looked out of the window I listened to a podcast about WW1 and imagined the Italian prisoners. We went out for a drink and I met my friend Joe who had decided to visit from Italy. I missed a talk from a woman who wanted to pro-create with a wolf. We sat by the canal and on a rooftop. We joined the group for the evaluation session. We recited the song. You can listen to a version here. Sasha, a volunteer and expert in the legality of oil pipelines took us to the underbelly of the city. A dilapidated children's playground flanked with alpine inspired bars selling cans for a euro. We sat in a tree house and talked about how to live in a city on €60 a month and how tourists ruin Pula. I imagined living in a city that wasn't London where that might be possible. Do people create more when they need less? Does London create an uncontrollable pace which is spinning out of control?

We then went into town and drank a beer brewed by Human Fish. 

Got back to the hotel. Woke up and spent the next day in blistering heat wandering the city. Others went to Lake Bled. Looked out from castle which overlooks the city. A turret was filled with photographs of the nature we'd seen the day before. I imagined making a performance in it. We ate some trout and hummus and then I went back to the airport.