“Silence on a
hill where the path ended
and then the forest below
moving in one long whisper
as evening touched the leaves.”
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9th to 29th November - Slowly through Slovenia
We woke to the sound of rain hammering the tent and thunder rumbling in the mountains around us. Welcome to Slovenia. Thanks to Slovenian entry to the EU, and perhaps also to our friend Antonietta working her magic charm on the bored looking guard, we’d had no problems at the border the previous day. Audin, Hannah and Sealeah were particularly disappointed that their passports weren’t even looked at. But darkness had forced us to stop high up and the horses must have had a grim night.
In the morning we were all glad to get moving but our track took us up into a cloud and along a high ridge where the rain turned to snow. We suffered a bit in our summer clothes – the following day we were due to meet up with my parents and a carfull of stuff for winter but somebody had forgotten to tell the storm about this arrangement. We warmed up a bit as we descended to the Soca river valley and even more on the long zigzag climb up the other side. If we got too cold on horseback, we’d get off and walk for a bit to warm up. It was whilst on foot, deep in a forest and having a brief debate about exactly where exactly we were on the map, that something startled the horses already on edge due to the storm. Maybe it was a deer, maybe a boar, but the flight instinct took over and suddenly they were all galloping back the way we’d come. In a few seconds they were out of sight. Sealeah had been following loose so that I could keep my hands warm in my pockets (a perfectly good excuse in my view) and Audin had pulled his lead rope out of Lisa’s frozen fingers. On her way past, Hannah managed to flatten me with her pannier – which was nice.
We sprinted after them as fast as our legs could carry us, lungs bursting, all the way back down the road to the river. Despite the effort of running, we still managed to have a full scale row about who’s fault it was, which must have impressed any casual observers. There was a main road crossing at the valley bottom but we had to force ourselves not to think about it. At last a car pulled up and gave us a lift. The driver, Branco, stopped to ask people if they had seen any “Konji” (horses).
We followed the leads until one woman said she’d seen just one horse in the woods opposite her house. By this point, Lisa was distraught with worry but instead of following the woman’s directions, Branco turned off the engine. Painfully slowly, and with great difficulty he tried to explain in a mixture of Slovenian, Italian, and sign language that during the 1914-18 war a nearby field was the site of a battle where thousands of men and horses were killed. Tragic though this was, and though we were normally interested in local history, we felt that maybe this wasn’t quite the moment. Lisa dissolved into tears and this gave Branco cause for amusement- the more she cried, the more he laughed.
Luckily at that point, Boris and Ivan arrived. They’d found Hannah’s bags on the road but, more importantly, had found out where the horses had left the road and entered the forest. In the rapidly fading light we followed their tracks. I called Hannah’s name for the hundredth time and, at last, a call in reply! We finally found them in a small clearing, huddled together and shaking. Hannah must have gone down on her knees on the road and she’d lost a shoe, but apart from that they were all unharmed. Relief! It was only later that we told them that they wouldn’t be coming on holiday with us again if they carried on like that.
Ivan and Boris took over and soon the horses were munching hay in Ivan’s barn and we were drinking Snops (the local aqua vitae) in the shelter of the garage. For Ivan, Boris and Branco, hunting buddies, the horse search and rescue had been just a brief intermission in their afternoon drinking session. Later over a Pizza – and after we’d been formally introduced to the evidence of Boris’s hunting prowess, his big box of skulls – the events of the afternoon were recounted. It was carefully explained to us that Branco had only been laughing because “he knows that horses will always come home”. Yes yes, very funny. There is just one minor problem Branco: our horses' home is 4000 km away.
There’s always sunshine after rain and the next day was a beauty; blue skies and fantastic views North to the Julian Alps plastered in new snow. We followed forest tracks and the horses’ exuberance showed they were as glad as we were to be back in the mountains, the industrial plains of Northern Italy now well behind us. In the afternoon we picked up a long track which climbed steadily up through beech woods to the village of Lokve. As we gained height, the snow became deeper and deeper and we were forced to let Hannah into the front to break trail. She powered all the way up to the road, which luckily had been scraped clear.
We had arranged a rendezvous with my parents at a small hut in a forest clearing called Mala Lazna. The hut was at 1100m but thankfully the long track to it, although unsurfaced, had been cleared all the way. (At home, they deliberately leave snow on the main roads so that people can enjoy the novelty of skidding around in their cars having accidents and being late for work.) The owner, Zmago, had opened the hut for us specially, having closed it to tourists at the end of the summer. He liked the horses and brought them hay, barley and huge sackfulls of bread. His hut was a refuge for him and its creation had clearly been a labour of love. Every inch of wall space was covered with antiquities, metal work creations, his paintings and hunting trophies.
After a thirty five hour blast from Manchester across Europe’s motorways, my parents and our winter equipment had arrived at the same spot. For two days, Zmago and his friend Rogero kept the fire going, the meals coming and the wine flowing. While my father tried to understand the rules of a Slovenian card game in which a three beats a six (obviously), we sorted through the gear and made up some fleece liners for the horses’ rugs.
Our route East from Mala Lazna took us to the middle of a high wild forest – the Trnovski Gord. Feshly fallen trees across the path showed the strength of the recent storm and we were glad to have our winter clothes as a cold wind was still blowing hard. The five of us were alone in the forest and the pristine snow underfoot showed that nobody had passed this way for a few days. But we soon picked up evidence of other activity – bear tracks ! We’d been told that these furry fellows had all gone to bed for the winter but we followed one set of tracks for a couple of kilometres and picked up another later on. Deer, hare and some kind of wild cat prints also crossed the track from time to time. It would have been great to see these animals but this was the next best thing – a map of all their activity drawn in the snow.
After the Trnovski Gord, the landscape was a little less wild but no less beautiful. We rode through mile after mile of beech woods, the horses ploughing through deep beds of leaves. Every so often an emergency stop and an eyeful of pricked chestnut ears would alert us to the presence of deer and we’d watch them spring off through the undergrowth and vanish, a well rehearsed disappearing act.
On hill tops glimpsed through the trees white painted churches caught the sun. Why were they built on top of hills ? Maybe a good uphill slog on a Sunday morning would get the churchgoers warmed up for a lengthy sit in the pews. Maybe it was a way to sort out the true believers. We later heard that these churches were also the site of beacons, lit to warn of Turkish raiding parties.
The villages were immaculately tidy. It was hard to tell the farm buildings from houses as they all snuggled up together. Except, that is, for the stunning timber hay barns. The sides of these are like ladders, with the rungs spanning the full length of the barn, threaded through the posts. Hay is stuffed between the rungs to dry and then stored “upstairs” in a kind of attic area under the roof. The pine ends are an intricate lattice with beautifully carved gables. As well as these barns, there are many single row hay racks, just a line of timber or concrete posts a few metres high threaded with horizontal rungs.
Just North of Ljubjana, the capital, we spent a couple of nights at a riding centre run by the Kosir family. While the horses had a well-earned rest day, Bustian Kosir very kindly took us to visit the famous Lippizzaner Stud at Lipica. It was confusing enough that the Spanish riding school is based in Austria; now we knew that their horses came from Slovenia. We were very impressed with the compact powerful build and lovely natural movement of these baroque horses.
Perhaps to repay us for that big storm on our first day in the country, the next week from Ljubjana to Ptuj, was perfect. The days were bright, sunny and clear, and our route through the mountains gave us fantastic views. There were hard frosts at night, down to minus 12 centigrade we were told, and the mornings would take a while to warm up. Sealeah would make a big point of demonstrating her dislike of mains water by stopping at the first frozen puddle of the day and punching her hoof through it for a drink.
Basho, On Love and Barley
Thanks to good maps and well marked trails, we kept off the roads most of the time and followed miles of tracks through forests and woodlands. Hannah is happy with the simplicity of a forest track, knowing she is going the right way, she trots off in front, rightfully, in her opinion, free to fully express herself. On the road through villages, back on her lead rope, her exuberance can take a while to dissipate. Like an ocean going tanker, she needs a good distance to come to a standstill. In fact, she always seems to need just one or two more strides than the rest of us. With her final step, she usually manages to crash her panniers into an adjacent member of the party, horse or human. If only we could train her to shout “let me through, I’m a baggage handler!”
The friendliness and hospitality of the Slovenians was incredible. They often made us feel as though we had done them a favour by stopping for the night, rather than vice versa. It was us who had appeared from nowhere with three hungry horses. “I am very happy that you are here" said one farmer. “Thank you for visiting” said another. Our offers of payment were refused everywhere, shrugged off as if it would be the strangest thing in the world for us to pay. Meals, hot showers, clothes washing and of course the odd drink.
It didn’t take us long to realise that the Slovs are fond of a drop or two. A glass of Snops was considered essential for surviving cold weather. Just before dark in one village, three children (large, medium & small) walked across the field to our tent, the oldest carefully carrying a tray with a bottle of Snops and two glasses for us. The procedure was repeated identically the following morning. On several mornings we were sent on our way with a pocket sized plastic bottle of this cockle-warming fluid. On one occasion the drink in our takeaway bottle was blackberry flavoured and contained so much extra sugar it was like a kind of Slovenian Alchopops version – far too easy to drink.
But is was Slavko in Ptuj who really went to work on us. His name even sounds dangerous and the fact that half a sheep was roasting in the fireplace should have warned us that a party was on the cards. As if the gallon of wine that was used to wash down the sheep had not been enough, Slavco insisted that I have two glasses of whisky for breakfast next morning! After a run of stops with this kind of hospitality, we were in need of a bivouac night on our own to “detox”. During our last few days in Slovenia, we noticed even more attention than normal as we passed farms and villages. People kept stopping us and asking questions. One woman walked from her yard and stood in the middle of the road, both arms raised in the air. We were told later that an article about us had appeared in the Slovenian equivalent of “Farmers Weekly”. How this had happened we don’t know.
At Ljutomer, our hosts the Jurer family were champion harness racers and they took us to visit the race track – and its bar of course. The also took us down the road to the wine growing village of Jerusalem. Some passing crusaders, perhaps a bit saddle sore and realising the Holy Land was still a fair way off, had decided to stop here and build their own Jerusalem in Slovenia’s green and, it has to be said, extremely pleasant land. A quick visit to the family’s vineyard ended with a tasting in the cellar to the accompaniment of Mr Jurer’s fine rendition of a traditional wine-blessing song. The acoustics were perfect and for us it brought on the Hiraeth – we told him he’d be welcome in any choir in Wales.
The character of the villages changed on the final stretch to the Hungarian border. It suddenly felt more like we’d imagined Eastern Europe. The houses were smaller and shabbier, the density of old women in headscarves increased and we witnessed a couple of backyard pig-slaughtering sessions at which it looked as though the whole family and several friends had gathered round to help. We were told that the reason so many people keep a few pigs dates back to the time when they were the only animals not stolen by invading Turks.
On our last night in
Slovenia we bivvied on some pasture at the edge of a village and
carried hay and oats from a nearby farm where we’d stopped to ask.
The farmer looked worryingly similar to the Baby-eating Bishop of
Bath and Wells but, as always, my offer of payment was rejected and
instead, a bottle of wine was thrust into my hand. Another man came
from his house the next morning with coffee, apples and pears. The
exceptional kindness and openness of the Slovenian people had lasted
right to the end. Beautiful country, beautiful people.