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Its outbreak over, Slovenia’s mountains and food culture are calling

Ljubljana Castle stands above the city skyline in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

CHRIS RATCLIFFE/BLOOMBERG

By SARAH FREEMAN | Bloomberg | Published: June 4, 2020

For as long as I can remember, my refuge in troubled times has been nature — the wilder, the better. Particularly the mountains, thanks to girlhood adventures with my mum in Austria’s Dachstein Group and Italy’s Dolomites. Whenever I return home, even almost two decades later, my mud-caked hiking boots are slung in Mom’s trunk and our flasks are filled before I can even unpack. Walking is our mother-daughter jam. It’s where frustrations are vented, the world is put right, and we can return a bit lighter.

My curtailed, yet still gratifying, strides across Northumberland’s empty moors have fostered my own meditation during England’s lockdown. Stripped of human connection, I dream not of scaling lonely peaks but of roaming Slovenia’s gentler hinterland. It’s there, on assignment in 2018, that I discovered its smiling hospitality to be as generous as its home-brewed pear brandy (which packs some serious oomph).

Better known as U.S. first lady Melania Trump’s homeland, this speck of a country in Central Europe boasts a disproportionate variety of wonders for its size (comparable to that of New Hampshire). Slovenia’s 23 gastronomic regions are the fruits of its boutique vintners, alpine dairy farmers, and third-generation olive oil growers’ hard work. You need only look to the country’s 8,000 beekeepers, who maintain an unwritten rule to harvest just 20% of their bees’ honey, to realize how closely attuned Slovenians are to their environment. The fact that it’s the only EU country to have protected its native bee speaks volumes.

My repurposed jars of chestnut honey, cherry jam, and pumpkin seed oil (a surprising hit with vanilla ice cream) testify to my love for Slovenia’s cuisine. So when the time is right, with my frustrated-hiker mom in tow and a larder to replenish, I’ll be taking a foodie ramble through its Northwestern province.

Getting There

The best pre-pandemic flight connections from the U.S. to Ljubljana passed through Amsterdam or Istanbul via KLM and Turkish Airlines, respectively. It’s possible to fly there via Lufthansa through Munich to Trieste, Italy, just 35 miles from Slovenia’s border. Considering its proximity to Italy, one of Europe’s COVID-19 epicenters, Slovenia has suffered a mercifully small outbreak (around 100 deaths among its 2 million population). On May 18, Slovenia reopened its borders to EU citizens, making it the first European nation to declare an end to its COVID-19 epidemic.

Hiking for Our Supper

With a mutual aversion to driving abroad, my mother and I would hop on a three-hour bus ride west from the capital, Ljubljana, with its picturesque castle sitting high above the city, to Lake Bohinj. This serene cousin of heavily touristed Lake Bled is blessed with the same scintillating reflections of the Julian Alps — minus crowds. I’d talk my mum into a bracing 64F degree (18C) dip in its glacial waters. Invigorated, we’ll take a two-hour gambol across Dobrava’s hummocky meadows, where wildflowers exhale perfumed vapor and bees drone till the sun goes down. Before it emerged from the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, western Slovenia was known as Carniola, after its prized pollinator.

This is stage seven of a new, 186-mile Julian Alps Hiking Trail that circumnavigates Slovenia’s loftiest peaks in Triglav, Europe’s second-oldest national park. Ramblers with two weeks to spare can tackle all 16 sections. I’ll plan to take a bite out of the circuit, which is serviced, for the most part, by Slovenia’s dirt-cheap public transport. On stage eight, we’ll spend $1 trundling from Bohinjska Bistrica to Podbrdo on the Habsburg-era Bohinj Railway line, a marvel of engineering that connects the Julian Alps to the Adriatic.

Drunk on alpine air, we’ll be ready to hit the hay in our first kmetija, a sustainable, family-run tourist homestead at which farm-to-table is more than a meaningless buzz phrase.

I can still remember my first taste of local sweet buckwheat-rolled dumplings called struklji at one such kmetija in Tolmin (Tourist Farm Pri Kafolu, at stage 11 of the trail), that’s lovingly run by the Leban family and nestled in orchards. We’ll eat our weight in tangy Tolminc cheese — a protected designation of origin food used as currency by local peasants to settle taxes in the 1200s.

Onward to the next day’s walk, from Podbrdo to Kobarid through valleys freckled with half-timbered houses, winsome church spires, and satin-coated cows that make for a bucolic backdrop. We’ll refill our water bottles from medicinal springs and graze on Slovenia’s very own trail mix: swollen cherries (sweetest in June) and honey-like persimmons.

Wrapped in craggy peaks and dripping in Alpine-Italianate architecture, Kobarid is famous for the Battle of Caporetto, a World War I battle immortalized in Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel “A Farewell to Arms.” It’s also where beekeeper Tilen runs a charming chalet-cum-domestic apiary, where guests are coaxed to sleep by thousands of humming bees. Tilen is capitalizing on apitherapy, a curative cornerstone of Slovenia’s growing wellness tourism and something ancient Egyptians were first to harness. Inhaling clouds of sugary air straight from his beehive (safely on view through a glass partition) is deeply relaxing, if you can get over the initial mask-wearing ordeal.

The final push to Bovec, on Day 3, demands a squirrel’s head for heights (and a tight squeeze of mom’s hand), as we navigate the Soca Gorge. Its namesake emerald river burbles with the valley’s endemic marble trout — grilled to perfection at Dobra Vila, Bovec’s former telephone and telegraph office.

Just down the road, a hazmat-suited Maja gives very hands-on-tours of her Crayola-painted hives at Bee Happy. As if tastings of pine and acacia honey aren’t indulgence enough, I’ll slough off the hiker’s tan lines and any residual COVID-19 anxiety with an exfoliating honey massage. (Even with the promise of silken skin, I’m not sure mom will agree to being slathered like a giant piece of toast!)

The next morning, we’ll breakfast like queen bees on Slovenian street food par excellence at Kuhnjca, a chalet-style hut in Bovec’s main square. It serves frika (cheese and potato rosti with herbs and polenta) and forest mushrooms foraged by owner Ojan.

Fueled and inspired, onward we’ll go, 40 miles south to the footsteps of the Julian Alps, where we’ll earn our foraging stripes with Vesna Veliscek, founder of SLocally. She hosts three-hour herbal walks from her homestay in Goriska Brda, a region that’s changed hands five times in the past century and a half.

If the weather obliges, we’ll drink in views of Venice, across the sparkling Adriatic Sea from Smartno, a medieval, walled cultural heritage monument primed for idle strolling. Then we’ll follow our noses down its labyrinth of lanes to Hisi Kulture’s lemon-scented balcony for an olive oil tasting. Mopping up puddles of Slovenia’s liquid gold with host Tatjana’s freshly baked bread is strangely soothing, the perfect palate warmer for Hisa Marica’s nettle-pine nut pasta. And if it’s anything like last time, I must remember to leave room for the bed-and-breakfast’s four-year-aged, cherry-wood prosciutto.

As tempting as it would be to sleep off a long lunch here, I have a soft spot for Hista Stekar’s homespun charms, a five-minute cab ride away. At this working organic winery, a slobbery welcome from the family pooch is paired with liberal pours of Goriska Brda’s glory grape: rebula. With its stucco-tiled roof, wood-shuttered rooms, and soul-gladdening views over vine-terraced hills, one could be forgiven for thinking it’s Tuscany.

Drivers on a DIY wine safari of this macro wine-growing region can unwittingly slip across the border into Italy. To avoid this rookie error, we’ll enlist Vesna again. She arranges tastings to wineries such as Erzetic, which ages its orange wines in ancient amphora, and biodynamic Klinec, a centenary estate known for some rich, Bordeaux-style blends and heavenly plates of wild asparagus. Goriska Brda’s scene is all about low-key tastings and low-intervention wines. This is the understated Slovenia that I miss and will loosen my belt for, as soon as travel permits.

Slovenia-branded souvenirs sit for sale in a tourist store in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
CHRIS RATCLIFFE/BLOOMBERG