Weeks 5 & 6 have been spent in the southern provinces of Dolenjska & Bela Krajina (click on map right for details →), along 2 of the country's finest rivers, the Krka (not a typo, but a sonant r) and Kolpa which forms the southern border with Croatia.
The first of the fortnight's highlights was the tour of the Ljutomer to Ormož hills, Slovenia's most beautiful wine producing region. The lane wound through a wonderfully picturesque landscape, with terraced vineyards curving around the hillsides and flower-decked villages with their starkly impressive churches (Photo 1). Most of the farmsteads offered their wines for tasting, and we stopped at Vinotoč Slavinec to buy his Laški Rizling and Šipon dry whites. We turned off into the beautiful and aptly named hilltop village of Jeruzalem. It was supposedly so-named by passing Crusaders on their way home from the Holy Land, so impressed were they by the local wines, a view which we tended to share. Even better, we were invited to wild-camp in the village parking area, looking out over the panorama of vine-covered hills, where the only sound was the 'clopping' of a nearby klopotec (wind rattle).
From Ormož, we headed south over the Haloze Hills to camp near the town of Brežice, close to the Croatian border. The idea had formed earlier to re-visit Zagreb, the capital of Croatia last seen in 1974 before all the turbulent upheavals of the last 30 years, for a day by a 45 minute train journey. This added further to our Slovenian vocabulary - povratna vozovnica (return ticket), vlak (train), peron (platform). We caught the train at the small border village of Dobova where even major trans-European expresses stop for passport-control - twice - as posses of first Slovenian and then Croatian police boarded the train for the unsmilingly officious ritual. On the journey, we got into conversation with a Croatian-Canadian, returning home to visit elderly parents. He bemoaned the fact that the destructive Bosnian wars had torn Croatia apart and all but wrecked the country's economy: in a country of 4.5 million citizens, 1 million were unemployed, 1 million pensioners, 1 million children, and only 1.5 million economically active. No wonder so many Croatians like him had emigrated to seek a new life overseas. The re-visit was an interesting experience (Photo 2 of Zagreb cathedral), but our overall impression of Zagreb was of a rather drab and run-down city. Prices were so much higher, and it was comforting to return 'home' to Slovenia in the evening, where somehow even the language felt more familiar.
Our camp at Brežice was close to the confluence of the River Krka with the Sava which flows down from the NW. Over the next 10 days, we followed the Krka from its end-point here, back up to its source in the province of Dolenjska . It's a beautifully sparkling and fast-flowing river, and we spent several good days along its middle course (Photo 3), camped at a beautiful setting on the river bank near Otočec. Even the midges here seemed benign. After a thoroughly miserable day of non-stop rain, when only the ducks on the Krka were laughing, the following day dawned bright again - it is always such a primordially enlivening feeling to sense the warmth of the sun again. The nearby old town of Novo Mesto, set on a hill above the Krka, was not over-brimming with attractions, but it did have an excellent museum with an exceptional collection of archaeological finds from around Dolenjska, particularly from the Celtic Halstatt civilisation (800~400 BC Iron Age). Another gallery commemorated the struggle of Slovenian partisans in their efforts to liberate their homeland from German occupation during WW II.
Before leaving the middle Krka valley, we had a day's walking among the Gorjanci Hills, another wine-growing area, where it was clear that the generally fine weather was ripening this year's grape harvest. The high-point of the afternoon was enjoying a glass (or 2) of the local light red wine, cviček (pronounced 'tsveechek') at a small gostilna (inn) amid the vines. It was here also that we saw a fine specimen of the uniquely Slovenian hayrack - a kozolec (Photo 4). Because of damp ground in hilly areas, hay is hung on racks to dry. These come in various sizes and shapes - single, double, some combined with barns, and all with a roofed covering. So proud are the Slovenes of the kozolec - which are seen everywhere - that it has become almost an icon of national culture - remember the word for your next general knowledge quiz.
We turned south to the southernmost province of Bela Krajina, along the Kolpa river which here forms the border with Croatia. This is also wine country, and we arranged a tasting session with Mr Kostelec at his wine-cellar in Drašič, a neat hilltop village set in a sea of vines. A unique wine to this corner of Bela Krajina, near the town of Metlika, is Metliška Črnina (pronounced Metlishka Cherneena), a rich, velvety and very dark blend of 5 different red grapes. It lived up to its reputation and we came away with another 6-box - for Christmas, we assured him. Bela Krajina, meaning 'white country', is said to take its name from the characteristic copses of birch trees (stepjniki) which gleam white in the afternoon sun against the green ferns. This is also classic Karst limestone country, with grassy sink holes, and streams which do unexpected things like emerging from caves and disappearing into the limestone. We spent a fascinating day around such an area near the source of the river Lahinja. It is truly a beautiful region, which being one of the least visited corners of Slovenia, meant we enjoyed two peaceful campsites along the Kolpa river at Vinica and Podzemelj. It was a strange feeling looking at the full moon sparkling across the river in the evening, and knowing that the twinkling lights on the south bank were in another country.
But time was moving on, and unfortunately it was time for us also be heading northwards, across the spectacular and heavily-wooded hills of the Kočevjski Rog - some 400 square kms of pristine birch and pine forests. So remote and uninhabited was the region that it provided a perfect sanctuary during WW II for the Slovenian partisans, sheltering military and political leadership, workshops, clandestine printing presses and hospitals. The centre of operations was Baza 20 (Base 20), a collection of 26 wooden huts, camouflaged in hollows deep in the woods high up on the Rog. We wild-camped nearby for an early start to visit Baza 20 and the Jelendol partisan hospital; it was the eeriest camp ever, in the dark and silent forest at around 2,000 feet up in the Rog, said to be inhabited by brown bear. Early the following morning, we linked up with the guide who showed us the huts of Baza 20. It was a moving and totally unforgettable experience, and difficult to comprehend how the complex had directed partisan activity and remained undetected for over 2 years. During this time, in such difficult conditions, the hospital had treated some 330 seriously wounded partisans, with only 21 deaths, a remarkable clinical and logistical achievement.
Continuing our journey northwards, we descended to the upper Krka valley to complete our association with this lovely river, by visiting its source where it emerged from a cave in the Karstic limestone.
But September has now begun; the leaves are starting to fall, and morning and evening there is a coolness and feeling of early Autumn in the air. Our circular tour of north, east and south Slovenia is complete and it is now time to head up to the Julian Alps in the NW of the country for the second phase of our visit - more next time.