Discovering Europe’s Hidden Gem – Slovenia

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Slovenia is the hidden gem of Europe, with the perfect blend of old and new. Hiking from medieval Maribor to stunning Semič, I experienced a rich and diverse culture through the eyes of locals. Proud of their heritage and lifestyle, they embraced me as if I was a long lost family member. Slovenia immediately became my home away from home. 

As a country steeped in history, Slovenia covers it all. Gorgeous castles waiting to be explored, World War II history, skiing, hiking, a focus on farm-fresh food, wines varying from fresh whites to sweet dessert wines and everything in-between. A country with mirror-like lakes, rugged mountains, deep valleys, quaint farms and baroque churches, yet mostly undiscovered by tourists.

Despite being relatively unfit, the idea of hiking through such a beautiful country strongly appealed. As I stepped off the train in medieval Maribor, it was clear the lifestyle here is a world away from my home town of Melbourne. While Melbourne prides itself on having a cool vibe, great food and amazing coffee, it has nothing on the many towns I visited in Slovenia. 

Weaving through the streets, locals were warm and friendly, excitedly directing me to the local food festival happening that day and offering suggestions for food and wine. Later, as I made my way through a restaurant with views of the city, I was mistaken for being Slovenian or Austrian, partially for my looks but also because I felt completely at ease, almost as if I did belong here.

Over half the country is mountainous ranges with hilly plains in-between. Standing at the bases, looking up, I felt I’d never be able to cross the distance required for my hike. The mountains, hills and long stretches of valleys felt so intense. Yet, with each step, I became fitter and stronger, realising I am capable of more than I imagined. 

Crossing the Pohorje Mountains was a unique experience. Here, in the northeastern part of Slovenia, the mountains are mainly covered in woods with clear trails and stunning views whenever you come to a clearing. Farms scatter the area and hiking trails cross straight through them. But it was the schnapps tradition that surprised me the most. As you come over any hill, you have a shot of schnapps, usually flavoured with herbs, pines and similar from the area. My guides carried some and the tradition was clearly important. However, it wasn’t limited to just them. If any farmer saw you coming they would rush out with schnapps for everyone, excited to hear where you were from, what you were doing, share their lives and of course, schnapps, with you.  

Here, walking through their property uninvited, you’re welcomed with open arms and bottles of drinks. Anywhere else I’ve been in the world has not been as friendly about their property, produce, homes or lives. Tradition, authenticity, family, history and love are integral to Slovenian’s lives. 

By my third day hiking, we came to Lover’s Spring, named due to the belief behind it. When you drink from it, the first person you see you’ll fall in love with. Surprisingly cool and refreshing, whether the spring worked it’s magic on me or not, I’ll never know. But my boyfriend messaged and his face popped up first as I drank! 

Walking through the woods, my guides Matej, Dare and Igor shared the traditions of each area, unique stories, tidbits from different parts of history and answered every question I had. Keeping active is important to Slovenians, so is being connected with nature, something I feel many of us have lost. As we walked, my guides pointed out mushrooms we could eat and how they would cook them, springs we could refill our bottles from (all of the springs we passed were fresh and drinkable), edible berries, flowers, and what to avoid. 

Each meal on the trip was different from the last. Travelling up to 21km a day, we crossed through numerous provinces such as Maribor, Rogla, Loverenška Lakes, Golte, Toman, Geoss, Menina planina and many more, all with unique local dishes and wines. Strudel was popular throughout Slovenia but my favourite meals were the ones lovingly prepared at the farm stays around the country. 

Beginning with Sadonik Organic Farm, a 400-year-old Slovenian farm in the centre of Lovrenc na Pohorju, where your hosts not only provide a hearty three-course meal but the entertainment is hilarious. With a strong, outgoing personality, the jokes keep coming, perfectly tailored to each guest and the drinks are endless. Hotel Rakar was another favourite, a family-run hotel with an extensive wine list and the knowledge to match.

It was here I had the delight of being ‘special’. Travelling with coeliac disease can be a little tricky. At Hotel Rakar, they went out of their way to ensure every dish was a culinary delight for me. Instead of being coeliac or gluten-free, I was dubbed special. With hearty soups, fresh mains and delectable desserts matched perfectly with wines, the meal was an experience. After we’d finished, a round of coffees were ordered and I requested a hot chocolate, if possible. To our delight, they obliged, returning with a rich hot chocolate in a teddy bear mug which read: “Bears are special, like you”.

Each step of the way, Slovenians went out of their way to ensure I enjoyed my time in their gorgeous country. On day five, I needed to quickly write an article. Staying back in the van, Igor took me to Hudi potok, where he set up tables for lunch as I sat by the waterfall and worked. A beautifully picturesque place, I was able to quickly finish my work before the rest of our group joined us. As we sat and ate lunch, the farm owner arrived, greeting us warmly, asking questions about our hike and where we were off to next. 

As I continued on, each day was a new adventure. High mountains and ski resorts such as Golte, combined with family-owned farm stays. The further we journeyed, the more varied the scenery became. After climbing the Pohorje Mountains, walking around Loverenška lakes, crossing undulating meadows, we came to one of my favourite parts of the trip, Gorenje Ponikve to Sadinja Vas. We walked through bear country and a forest full of sinkholes as the sun streamed through the canopy in golden rays. 

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Reflecting on my trip thus far, it was incredible to see the diversity of each stage, yet the consistent themes of open hospitality, the humble pride in their country, stunning scenery, quaint farms, gorgeous views and delicious food. With only a few days left, I knew I would miss Slovenia deeply. Turning to Matej, as we hiked up a hill I commented on how surprised I was with my ability to complete this trip. His response, “Ja, you’re a little pocket rocket!” I had also been called Heidi of the Hills, often mistaken for being Slovenian and truly felt I could live in Slovenia. 

I always imagined my first trip to Europe would involve numerous countries, rushing through, seeing the sights, and tasting food. Instead, the slower pace I took in Slovenia was perfect. The knowledge I gained from learning about the way they live their lives, the focus on health, fresh produce, happiness, family and living an authentic lifestyle was refreshing. Rather than head straight back into my fast-paced lifestyle at home, I’ve learned to slow down. My daughters and I cook breakfast together, hike and get out more. My time in Slovenia changed how I live my life and taught me more than I thought it would. 

Disclaimer: Kylie travelled as a guest of The Crows Flight.

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