“The only thing I know about Slovakia is what I learned first-hand from your foreign minister, who came to Texas.” George W Bush, reported speaking to a Slovak journalist in 1999 – following a meeting with Janez Drnovsek, then prime minister of Slovenia.
Poor old Slovenia. Tucked away between Croatia, Italy, Austria and Hungary, it’s fair to describe it as one of Europe’s better-hidden gems. Still, it’s not so hidden that such a gaffe is justifiable – even from a figure not exactly renowned for his grasp of global geography. Slovakia is part of the former Czechoslovakia (see what they’ve done there?), while Slovenia was once part of Yugoslavia.
Luckily the ‘gem’ part of the description stands the country in better stead. For a little place – about the same size as Wales – it packs in a hell of a lot. There are historic towns, imposing castles, dramatic karst cave networks and three mountain ranges’ worth of outdoor playground.
And if you’re going to get into specifics about Slovenia’s gem-like nature, it would probably have to be an emerald – the country is sometimes referred to as ‘the green piece of Europe’. Not the most inspirational of titles but certainly an accurate one – Slovenia is one of Europe’s greenest countries, almost half covered by forest, with agricultural land accounting for most of the rest.
I was there for a few days’ walking in the Gorenjska province, to get back to nature and explore these verdant delights. And they didn’t disappoint – after arriving in the dead of night I opened my shutters the next morning to a view of dewy fields, misty slopes bristling with pine trees and not-too-distant peaks.
My guesthouse was in a tiny hamlet on the edge of Triglav National Park. Having developed through various incarnations since its inception in 1908, it’s one of Europe’s oldest national parks. Dominated by Mount Triglav – at 2,864m, the country’s highest peak – the park encompasses an area that includes almost all of the Slovenian Julian Alps. Which of course makes it the ideal place for all sorts of uphill, downhill and even downriver fun.
Dejan, our guide, was a true son of Slovenia’s outdoorsiness. To meet us for our first walk he’d cycled an hour, arriving at eight in the morning fresh-faced and raring to go. I’m rarely raring to do anything at that hour, but my wake-up view had tempted me, and we were soon off.
Our first port of call was to be Mostnica Gorge. This trail starts in Stara Fuzina one of several villages within the Triglav National Park. These villages and settlements enjoy statutory protection, so retain a very traditional look – all wooden, chalet-style buildings, begonia window boxes and well-tended verges. Men appeared carrying scythes, women with brooms. Swallows looped acrobatically overhead, and wagtails dutifully wagged their tails.
As if this wasn’t all impossibly bucolic, there were the hayracks – one of the most distinctive sights throughout the area. When full of hay, the kozolec (single racks) stand in fields like big shaggy walls. Toplarji (doubles) are more like open-plan barns, with space for storing hay bales, logs stacked in tight mosaics and even tractors and cars. Dejan told us that they were traditionally good places for taking women. When local wine bars are few and far between it must make sense to do it the Cider with Rosie way.
We wound our way out of the village and up to Hudicev Most, the ‘Devil’s Bridge’, which spans a narrow point of the gorge. The sight of water running far below us gave rise to the inevitable urge to throw stones into it. They pinballed satisfyingly down until they sploshed into the river – which was so clear we could see where they came to rest. But we were here to walk, not play vertical ducks and drakes. Onwards and upwards.
Where the gorge opened up slightly into a narrow valley, the rocks gave the transparent water the appearance of flowing in muted pastel colours – pale amber and a glacial blue. The water comes straight out of the mountains, so is as cold as the colour suggests. Even the hardy Dejan said he’d only swim in it during summer months – when it might just reach 12°C.
Dejan was beginning to sound like a scary sports freak, but his conversation soon turned from the world of Brasher boots and bicycle pumps. As we followed the path winding up through the trees, he would point out small shrines, like those that appear unnervingly along continental roads. These weren’t for crash victims, though, but for Second World War partisans. Dejan explained that these resistance fighters would hide in the mountains, where the Nazis feared to goosestep. After the war, fellow Slovenians treated them with a saint-worthy reverence – the shrines were still adorned with fresh flowers and lit candles.
I wasn’t the only one keen on getting back to nature. Unlike some guides who plough on ahead of the group, intent on walking alone, Dejan would constantly stop to admire the view, sniff the flowers and describe local traditions.
He explained how salamanders can be cooked up into some sort of aphrodisiac potion – pre-hayrack action, presumably – and that ibex horns are similarly effective. He also enthusiastically pointed out the hazel trees, apple trees, a type of pine whose needles can be used for tea, and lindens, Slovenia’s national tree. Tea-making properties aside, I was particularly grateful to the trees – their roots formed natural steps which made the steeper trails easier to negotiate.
By lunchtime we had reached the Voje Valley. After a quick inspection of its tumbling waterfall, we settled down to our packed lunches. Herein lay yet another tale. According to folk legend, said Dejan, Kekec was a nine-year-old boy hero. Not only did he rescue a damsel in distress from the mountains, he also allowed a witch to imprison him in return for her curing his girlfriend’s blindness. Like the real-life partisan heroes, he’s still honoured – if in a more ignominious way. Kekec’s image graces the lid of the nation’s favourite pâté. Now there’s something to aspire to.
Our route back took us along the other side of the Mostnica through more open land. Here were further rural scenes: flower-filled meadows, cows grazing and jangling their bells, women in typically rustic overalls peering out of tumbledown shepherds’ huts. With the peaks of the Julian Alps behind us, this was real picture-postcard time. Eventually we found ourselves back in Stara Fuzˇina and heading for Ribcˇev Laz, a village on Lake Bohinj. The sun finally put its hat on in time for us to dabble our feet, and we lazed, watching boats send ripples through the mountains’ reflections, and fishermen find rich pickings in the trout-filled river.
The next day’s walk was much less of a gentle ramble. We started at Rudno Polje, in the Pokljuka area of the national park. Not only was the route steeper, but the mist had really descended with a vengeance, making the going more slippery and of course less scenic. As we proceeded over mud, moss and fallen tree trunks, I began to realise that walking in bad weather is much more about the challenge and achievement – it’s certainly not about the scenery.
It’s just as well the view was masked by the fog, though, as my eyes were forced permanently floorwards to avoid slipping in the rain. I focused on nature’s smaller glories instead. Dewy spiders’ webs hung like strings of pearls on the undergrowth, flowers – gentian, wood anemone, clover, primula, marigold – bloomed in the downpour, and slick, slow-moving salamanders nestled on the path. A flock of curious long-tailed sheep peered from between the trees.
The fog showed no sign of lifting, so we stopped at a hillside hut. I hadn’t been convinced by Dejan’s descriptions of ‘mountain tea’ – made from local flowers and lots of sugar – but by the time I had a steaming mug in my hand I cared less about the flavour and more about its central heating properties. Even so, we decided there was little point in plodding on to the Blejska Koca summit for a 360-degree view of cloud, so turned back down the mountain.
Dejan kept our spirits up with more fairytales – most of which seemed to involve beautiful daughters and boys who befriended supernaturally gifted mountain animals. He also explained that the white and red circles that marked the paths were chosen to represent peace and energy – suggesting that his tale-telling reflected national preoccupations as much as personal ones.
The weather continued to be uncooperative so we decided to find some fairytale settings for ourselves. First we tried Grad Kaman, a ruined castle in a picturesque hamlet with suitably dramatic rocky backdrops. Unfortunately it was so picturesque that someone had decided to book it for their wedding, but at least the sun had finally appeared so we could enjoy the view from a nearby flower-strewn meadow.
We weren’t the only ones enjoying the flowers; the local bees were getting busy too. The tradition of bee-keeping goes back centuries in Slovenia (something to do with the buckwheat planted there, apparently) and there are almost as many hives as hayracks dotted around the countryside. We found our meadowmates’ source just along the lane – a huge chest-of-drawers-style hive literally buzzing with activity.
But this wasn’t quite the kind of nature I’d intended to get back to, so we headed off for another castle, in Bled. This town, on its eponymous lake, is perhaps Slovenia’s most photographed. Up in the 11th-century castle it was easy to see why. Once we’d seen the chapel, the printing press, the winery and the museum, there only remained the view – and it was a pretty good one to save until last. There was the lake itself, its satin waters interrupted only by the church-crowned islet in the middle, and the pletnas (hand-propelled gondolas) drifting back and forth. Then there was the town, with its grand villas and hotels; but beyond that there was just green – trees, fields and mountains.
There may not be enough oil in Slovenia for Dubya to have paid it much attention. But for those with a more discerning eye, its other natural resources – its green gold, if you like – can only prove to be weapons of mass attraction.
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