Most of the facts I encountered in planning this year’s summer holiday came as news to me. But the more I discovered about diminutive Slovenia, wedged between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, the more appealing it became.
This former Yugoslav republic, a member of the European Union and the eurozone, has a population of 2m, a literacy rate of 99.7 per cent, and is 60 per cent covered in forest. Its pocket-sized capital, Ljubljana, is becoming known in the travel trade as “Prague without the stag nights”.
What intrigued me most about this Balkan Ruritania, however, were its possibilities as a walking destination. Roughly the size of Wales, Slovenia possesses both a 27-mile stretch of Adriatic coastline and one of the least-visited expanses of mountain landscape in Europe – a place of lakes and waterfalls, peaks up to 2,864m and Alpine meadows to rival anything in Austria or Switzerland. Here would surely be yomping opportunities aplenty, it occurred to me, and few other yompers to spoil them.
Eight years ago, the very same thought struck Keith and Sarah Hogg, a British couple who bought a 16th-century manor house in the foothills of the Julian Alps, close to the medieval town of Skofja Loka. Their restoration of the fine old village house with its carved beams, polychrome frescoes, whitewashed vaulting and flagstone floors, is exemplary and won a national heritage award in 2010.
The result is authentic, plain in the best sense yet properly luxurious, with country-house comforts such as fluffy white bathrobes, free wi-fi and organic raw-cotton bedlinen. There are five double bedrooms, for up to 10 guests.
The Hoggs take turns in the kitchen and their cooking veers towards Slovenia’s Italian border, avoiding the Slavic stodginess of traditional local food while revelling in its rich larder of meat and game, river fish and cheeses. Dinners at Pri Lenart (“Leonard’s place”) are served with some ceremony and large quantities of (very decent) Slovenian wines. Pan-fried scallops with pancetta, herb gnocchi, truffle bruschetta, and tagliatelle with courgette and gorgonzola sauce would be impressive in a much grander establishment.
The Hoggs grow their own vegetables in a patch as picture-pretty as any in their hamlet of Podvrh. They make their own fruit liqueurs, preserves and ice creams: friends and neighbours contribute home-baked bread and biscuits.
Their idea is to take the kind of luxury chalet holiday popular among skiers and adapt it to walking. So guests come for a week and there are daily guided walks (which they can opt in or out of) before dinners taken together around a big wooden dining table. The holiday is not for those afraid to muck in and make friends. I admit to being alarmed, initially, by the awkward camaraderie prevailing among a group of perfect strangers but soon came to see that the nine of us (Britons all, but from diverse origins) were united by a love of nature, culture and refreshing travel experiences. As we walked, Sarah’s fluent Slovenian and her informed commentary on everything from politics to farming techniques made for a winning introduction to her adopted country. The tranquillity and order of a rural society in rude health – the haymakers with their scythes, the neatly kept-up Alpine villages, and the admirable lack of litter – gave the experience a dreamlike quality, idyllic almost to the point where you wanted to rub your eyes.
The landscapes we walked in were, by turns, rugged and verdant, dramatic and intimate. Monday’s route took us from the shores of Lake Bohinj along the wild and romantic Mostnica Gorge, the rushing torrent in its depths an unlikely shade of glassy blue. Up at the slap (Slovene for waterfall) I was reminded how good everything tastes – even a goats’ cheese and smoked ham roll and a muesli bar – after a morning’s hard exertion and lungfuls of crisp mountain air.
Two days later we were primed and ready to tackle Mount Ratitovec. A tough clamber through beech forests and moraine-scattered gulleys led to the high point, in every sense, of our week’s walking – a widescreen view of mighty Mount Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak and a national symbol, and the snowy-white limestone massif of the Julian Alps. Squalling crows broke the silence of Ratitovec’s summit, and a chill breeze leached off the heat of the August sun.
But gentler strolls around Podvrh among shady beechwoods and meadows dense with wildflowers and buzzing insects, were also memorable in their way. At Andrejon, a few miles from Pri Lenart, a family were eating lunch at a table laid, alongside the tractor, in their ancient barn. Meanwhile, our walking group, by now firm friends, sat outside the village pub drinking elderflower cordial and farm-pressed apple juice, before plunging again into a pine forest where a waterfall provided me with an impromptu cold shower.
While good opinions on Tripadvisor are not always a guarantee, the website’s universal acclaim for Pri Lenart (and its ranking despite its tiny size as the fifth best hotel in Europe for value and 20th for service), is worth noting. My own opinion is that what the Hoggs provide, apart from an up-close encounter with a delightful and under-explored European nation, is the most beguilingly pleasurable of all possible package tours.
A week at Pri Lenart (www.walkslovenia.com) costs from £795 including full-board, transfers and guided walks