The moonlight was so bright that when it bounced off the deep, new snow, it lit up the valley and we could see for miles. We were about five metres up on a rickety wooden platform used by shepherds to keep an eye on their flocks. It was nearly 2am and the exhaustion of a two-hour forest trek in, at times, thigh-high snow rapidly faded. We fell quiet by some unsaid mutual understanding and breathed in the beauty. It was magical. On the far side of the valley, a jagged spur of the Julian Alps ripped into the starry sky. In front of us were fields covered in snow in bright contrast to the dark, sleeping forest. And silence. A soft blanket of silence.
For a moment I had a glimpse into why Slovenians have such a serious love for their forests, mountains and rivers. I had been incredulous when our guide, Blaz, suggested a midnight walk through his favourite stretch of forest to see his favourite view. I was delighted by the idea that people had favourite bits of forest but slightly surprised that they liked visiting them in the middle of night, in the middle of winter.
As we set off, trudging away from our warm hotel in snow boots and zipped-up jackets, we came across two other parties who were off on their own midnight rambles – no doubt to visit their own favourite spots. It seems all self-respecting Slovenians have their own special bits of forest and they clearly like visiting them when the moon is up.
During the trek I had started not only to doubt Blaz’s sanity, but also my own. However, as I breathed in the night air and stared in stunned amazement from my shepherd’s platform, it made perfect sense. The silence. The beauty.
FORGED IN CHAOS
Everyone loves their homeland, but the two million Slovenes (they use the terms ‘Slovene’ and ‘Slovenian’ interchangeably), in this crucial but often overlooked crossroads in Europe, cling to theirs more fiercely than most. The land, which has been fought over, occupied, traded and abused by neighbouring powers since before the Romans, has a special grip on its people, more so since 1991 when the Slovenes could finally claim it as their own.
That and their rather strange language is the source of their identity, which has survived whatever political upheaval history has managed to throw at them. The Slovenes have existed as a distinct ethnic group for at least a millennium, but have only enjoyed true self-government for the past 24 years.
Slovenia emerged from the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s after a ten-day war, and is tucked into the eastern spread of the Alps bordering Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. It covers 20,273 square kilometres, more than half of which is forested. Once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it was the site of some of the most brutal fighting in the First World War and, stretching back in time, has been invaded by countless armies from all points of the compass.
It is neither southern and Slavic, nor northern and Teutonic. The tiny stretch of Mediterranean coast of Istria may have echoes of its neighbour and former ruler in Venice, but it’s not quite Italian. Place names have changed numerous times as borders have moved back and forth, but resolutely, and greatly against the odds, the Slovene people have clung to their identity.
The unique language helps. While having echoes of the neighbouring Serbo-Croat tongues, it is nevertheless quite distinct. A mix of Russian and Latin, it has some peculiar features – a particularly pleasing aspect being that not only does it use singular and plural forms, but it has its own concept of the ‘plural singular’ referring to couples. Great for romantic poetry.
I was here in winter to learn how to cross-country ski and to check out its underrated but great value downhill skiing. Winter sports in general are something of a national obsession here – per capita, Slovenia came second only to Norway in the 2014 Winter Olympics medals table.
Cross-country has none of the frantic glamour of downhill skiing, and if you’re not raised in a snow-covered nation it can easily pass you by, which is our loss as this is the perfect way to commune with the forest in winter. It is also one of the best ways to keep fit. An American study found that cross-country skiing exercises 80 per cent of the body’s muscles, compared to 60 per cent for swimming and just 40 per cent for running. Also, once you get the knack, it is strangely satisfying. First you have to get used to skis that are only a few centimetres wide and a technique more like skating than skiing, but once in the groove (literally to start with, as you learn by gliding along narrow tracks through the forest) you can wander off into the snowy wilderness. One of the experts at the Pokljuka Center in the heart of the Triglav National Park – a former Olympic champion – knocked us into shape in a few hours, and on my second day it was becoming more and more natural.
The locals in Pokljuka claim their forest has ‘special powers’ and that if you go deep into the woods you will feel its curative effects. People come from far and wide just to lie down in deserted glades – supposedly it cures everything from rheumatoid arthritis to depression. My rational disbelief was more than willing to be suspended after a few days in the forest. I felt wonderful, but one suspects that could have been down more to the exercise and the clean air fumigating my jaded city lungs.
But I was won over to cross-country skiing. Its Zen-like simplicity is a million miles from the headlong adrenaline rush of its downhill relation. No lifts, no queues, no noise. It is calmer, cleaner and more simple. It suits the forest and gives you a chance to relax and enjoy its seductive balm.
JUST DO IT
That is just one of the benefits of Slovenia – it’s easy to just give things a go and potentially surprise yourself. First off, it’s cheap to get to. Budget flights from Luton cost as little as £20 each way and take you to the small and efficient airport outside the capital Ljubljana. The nearest ski resort is a ten-minute drive away.
It’s easy to roam around on good roads and discover wonderful small hotels, different ski resorts and a wealth of other delights. Krvavec is just eight kilometres from the airport and claims to be the nearest ski resort to an international European airport.
The Julian Alps are generally lower than their western counterparts. The highest point in Slovenia and one of its national symbols is Mount Triglav at 2,864 metres. Krvavec, with its 30km of mostly tree-lined runs, ranges from 1,480m to 1,971m.
Further into the country’s only national park is the similar but even prettier resort of Vogel, a small resort perched on a couple of mountains overlooking Lake Bohinj. A gondola ascends almost vertically for 1,000m, providing dramatic views of the lake and the surrounding park.
The park raises issues which show the contradictions at the heart of Slovenia and its developing tourism. The national park was one of the first formed in Europe when the area was a little known province in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Since then it has grown and with it, more and more complex planning regulations and rules have evolved.
But this is no isolated wildness. It contains a substantial rural population and the competing uses for the land can cause problems. The park is divided into three conservation areas with varying degrees of regulation, it is part of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve established in 2003 and is also covered by a number of EU covenants and agreements.
‘It can be a bit complex at times,’ was, diplomatically, how one of the directors of the Vogel Ski Center, Matej Kandare, put it. ‘It can seem as if you can’t get anything done. But if you work with the rules and regulations rather than give up, it is amazing what you can achieve.’
Vogel’s problem was that for years it seemed as if there was no way around park restrictions which stopped them introducing snow-making equipment – the lack of which put the resort at a significant competitive disadvantage. But Kandare is convinced they have found a way around the rules and work starts next year on installing a much-needed system.
There are also tensions between the park with its admirable conservation goals, and the economic ambitions of some of the residents eager to catch up with their northern neighbours after decades of being hitched to the rather slower-moving economy of the former Yugoslavia. The mayor of Bohinj, Franc Kramar, has been calling for the national park to be dismembered, with the populated regions being taken out, leaving just the higher mountainous regions protected. However, the deep bond most locals have with their landscape appears to be keeping the area safe for the time being.
In winter this means you can escape here for a skiing weekend for less than half the price you would pay on the other side of the Alps, and without lengthy transfer times be immersed in one of the last wild forests in Europe. You might even find your own favourite woodland spot to contemplate on moonlit rambles.
This article was published in the November 2015 edition of Geographical magazine.