The Curious Case of the Slovenian Snow Caterpillars

It came late this year, but winter has finally arrived at Breg House. To celebrate the glorious Premier Snow – last weekend, I popped on my skis and went for a little ride near the house. The snow was calf deep, and I was sorry to get to the bottom of Breg Piste, and then have to de-ski and walk back up again. But as I did, I noticed something strange in the snow: caterpillars.

There were dozens of them, up on top of the snow. At first, I thought they were dead – but upon closer inspection, I found them to be very much alive and kicking.

Green ones, brown ones, speckled ones. How did they get there? What are they doing? It had been unseasonably warm the previous day, and I wonder if they had prematurely been roused, fooled into thinking spring had arrived?

I suspect the future is not bright for the Slovenian snow caterpillars of Breg House. With snow on the ground and temperatures set to fall to -8c, they may not find the food they are looking for.

If there are any caterpillar experts reading – please do add an explanation in the comments below.

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DIY Meat Supply: A Lesson in Slovenian Butchery

Last weekend I headed up to Breg House to do a few jobs I wanted to finish before the winter snows fell. But I ended up getting roped into to dismembering an entire cow and being taught the finer points of butchery at a local family farm.

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The farm belonged to my neighbours’ sister/daughter. I had met them several times in the past, and they had invited me to visit. Finally the day had come when I took them up on their kind offer, as I was running some errands in the vicinity of their home.

The farm sits just metres from the Austrian border. Indeed, some of their farmland is actually on the Austrian side of the border, a slightly unusual arrangement which may make their application to the ‘Farmers Without Borders’ organisation somewhat  tricky.

It was about 11am when I was welcomed into their house by Marjeta, and instantly offered coffee, and schnapps. As I was quite thirsty I asked for a glass of water. Marjeta produced a small glass of schnapps, along with a small blue bottle from the fridge. This, I assumed to be the water, so uncapped it and took a massive swig only to discover it also contained schnapps! It was quite the faux pas, and I scambled to explain in broken Slovene my mix-up and why I had just downed half a bottle of her homemade Slovenian spirit.

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We sat for some time chatting. It was great for me to get a chance to really practice speaking Slovene. As I have previously noted (see: Struggles with Slovene: 6 months of learning Slovenian), one of the downsides of Slovenians being, on the whole, excellent English speakers, is that most of my day to day conversation at work is in English. But in the hinterlands of Koroška, it is often out of necessity that I must (try to) speak Slovene. And though I know I still sound like a caveman, it is the best practice I can get, and I was able to ask numerous questions about life on the farm.

After a round of pork and bread, it was time for me to be put to work. So I headed downstairs to the meat room – to find Dani, the man of the house, and two of their friends Marko and Neva, slicing, dicing and sawing up a cow. They explained that the vast majority of the meat would end up as sausages and salami, with just a few choice cuts being used as steak or mince.

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I was intrigued to learn about the process of butchering, so they armed me with a knife, dressed me in an apron, and demonstrated the process of removing the fat from the muscle tissue. Apparently, butchering your own meat is a long-standing, once-common Slovenian tradition. Known as koline, there’s a strong social element combined with the task, so it’s a sort of meat-butchering, sausage-making party. However, the practice is nowadays less prevalent than it once was.

 

Now, watching my Slovenian workmates, the process looked easy. But in practice, I found it was not. There’s a delicate technique required to gently remove the layer of fat without wasting any meat, and it took me some time to find the right angle of the blade and cutting action that would best allow the fat to come away quickly and in one piece.

I spent the whole afternoon de-fatting and chatting with my fellow butchers. It’s an often fiddly task, but with Neva’s patient tuition, I improved as the day went on. The day was punctuated with cake, coffee and beer breaks to ensure the workforce was kept contented. It was also interesting to really feel and see how different the various cuts of the cow were, in terms of the muscle tissue, fat content and general texture.

Dani was kind enough to give me a full tour of the farm, where he showed me his cow shed, cat collection (they have eight), impressive log supply (no danger of a log crisis here!) and his cider-making operation, where I was given a sample.

By early evening, Danjela and Mitja – the daughter and son – had returned home. Both of them speak excellent English, so I was able to ask some of the more complex questions that my basic Slovene had prevented me from asking. It also happened to be Mitja’s birthday – so yet more cake had to be eaten!

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Log on. No danger of log shortage here.

There is something I love about learning how life works here in Koroška. Getting involved in the traditional practices like this is a pleasant contrast to my day job, working for a blockchain company in Ljubljana.

I left with improved blade skills and the desire not to eat another piece of cake for some time.

 

Making Schnapps (Šnopc) in Slovenia: Part 1

Ever since my neighbour Jaka, (God rest his Slovenian soul) plied me with his homemade Slivovka – the clear, strong spirit that is plum šnopc (or schnapps) some 10 years ago, I had been eager to join the making of it.

I remember my first visits to my neighbours, when Jaka would dole out the stuff regardless of the hour. Despite the somewhat ‘interesting’ flavour, me being British and therefore legally bound by British etiquette and politeness, I would of course finish the entire glass and remark how delicious Jaka’s šnopc was.

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My contorted face clearly didn’t betray my true feelings, and encouraged by my apparent fondness for the spirit and pleased that he had found such a fan of his creation, each time I finished my glass, Jaka would immediately refill it. My protests had no effect and I would be once again faced with the prospect of draining another draught.

I eventually learned that in order to not become drunk on šnopc before midday, I had to fight my British instinct to politely drink all that had been poured, and risk potential offence to my host by leaving my glass at least half full.

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Many Slovenes make their own šnopc and I have quite a supply

Since then I have been the lucky recipient of various bottles of homemade šnopc from various Slovene friends, and I have now developed quite a taste for the stuff. Alongside my whiskey collection, I have various bottles of homemade šnopc, including one of Štefka’s 2015 vintages – a fine year.

Unlike in the UK, where the distilling of alcohol without a license is highly illegal, resulting in heavy fines and prison time, in Slovenia it’s permitted and popular, especially in the countryside.

After a decade of drinking it, this weekend, in the Kingdom of Breg, I was finally able to get involved with the making of this most Slovenian spirit.

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Purple carpets of Slive (plums) at Breg

Šnaps Team: Assemble!

I sat at the little table outside the house, where I was given – a small glass of schnapps (of course!). It was a clever move by Ančka – the Kingdom of Breg’s matriarch; a little taste of what was to come, if I put in the hard work. And Stage 1 of making Slovenian schnapps is to harvest the raw materials.

The one and only ingredient required for the most popular variety of schnapps is slive – plums. By design, The Kingdom of Breg is rich in this asset; successive generations of residents have planted and maintained a significant orchard of plum trees, the oldest of which are now around 100 years old.

The process started with each tree undergoing a thorough shakedown with a hooked pole. This relieved the branches of their burden and created a purple plum carpet beneath each of the 50 or so trees.

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Bojan carrries out a plum tree shakedown

After a quick tutorial on quality control from Štefka, regarding which plums were v redu (OK) to collect, and which were to be rejected, I began to fill my bucket with the purple fruits. Once all our buckets were full, I was tasked with transporting the fruits via wheelbarrow, to the schnapps making HQ – Štefka’s barn – where the contents of each bucket was poured into a large, plastic barrel.

There was no washing of the fruit. Alongside our purple gold, each barrel contained a ‘seasoning’ of grass blades, stalks, the odd leaf, earth, an ant or two and the occasional spider. Once a barrel was full, it was simply sealed and left to liquefy and ferment. Nothing more was added. I appreciated the simplicity of the recipe, and it is probably a reason why making schnapps is so popular in Slovenia.

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Future Šnopc: 100% plum (may contain trace amounts of ant, stalk and spider)

Whilst the procedure is simple, the work itself is more taxing than I expected. With thousands of plums to pluck from the ground and dozens of full buckets to be hauled up hilly terrain, it was hard on the back. Štefka alluded to this as we gathered plum after plum, hunched over with bent backs, and she exclaimed:

“Šnopc is expensive!”

I had to agree. For the first couple of hours, I was having great fun in my plum-picking bubble, but by the end of the day, my back was stiff, my body aching, and I was looking forward to the end.

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Ančka: matriach of the Kingdom of Breg

Of course, the day was punctuated with numerous pauza – breaks in which I sat with the rest of the work crew: Štefka, her mother and matriarch Ančka, and two more of their friends, and was offered beer, cake, salami, bread as well as a lunch of potato salad, boiled eggs and sausage.

During these breaks I ascertained that each 300 litre barrel of plums would eventually produce about six litres of schnapps. The strange thing is, that neither Štefka, nor Ančka drink the stuff. However, it seems to be a good currency here in the Slovene Hinterlands and therefore a valuable asset to stockpile.

Now the hard work of the plum harvest is done, we must wait until January by which time the plums should have fermented nicely and we’ll be ready for stage 2 of the process; the distillation.

I plan to be present.

Dež: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

D is for Dež

Some might see dež – which means ‘rain’, as an unwelcome addition to my A-Ž of reasons for living in Slovenia. Indeed, I have noted the Slovenian tolerance for any weather other than completely clear and sunny, is markedly different to my own.

On numerous occasions I have heard Slovenian friends curse the ‘terrible’ conditions (ie not 100% blue sky and sun) which by English or Scottish standards, are really quite pleasant.

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Clouds move in front of the mountains, during a rainy day on the Ljubljana outskirts

Interestingly, the data almost hides this fact. Ljubljana, my current home, receives double the annual rainfall of my former home, Edinburgh. Certainly, Slovenia’s lush greenery must in part be attributed to dež. But despite the volume of rain which falls here, Ljubljana’s climate is far more to my taste. The rain is more intense and less frequent than that of the UK’s. And the fact that Ljubljana also receives more than double the sunshine, and far less of the incessant wind (which even after 10 years of Edinburgh life, forever annoyed me) seals the deal for me.

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Cloud and mist fill the valley below Breg House in Koroška

From my point of view, Slovenia’s dež is very welcome. Sometimes it comes in the form of short, violent storms, almost tropical in nature. Other times, it’s less dramatic; a day of soft rainfall that blankets the entire landscape. However the dež arrives, I relish a rainy day. Granted, it’s an inconvenience when it comes to my commute, (my preferred mode of transport being a bike), but aside from that, there’s something very pleasurable about rainfall.

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It’s a Velux window rather than a pot of gold that sits under a Slovene rainbow.

D always brings with it a different mood; a certain quietness to the land. There’s a feeling of calm and tranquillity that accompanies the water falling from above. I love to sit on my balcony and watch the plumes of clouds drift in front of the nearby mountains, forming new scenes each minute.

Then there’s the noise. Even if you are a dež detester, surely you can not deny that there are few sounds more comforting than the hiss of rain falling outside?

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Rain at Breg House

And let us not forget rain’s other pleasure; the delectable smell of the land; the earth, the fields, the pine-fresh forests. The rains bring it all out of the ground and into the air for us to deeply inhale.

Rainy days are also when The Kingdom of Breg House is at its best. Watching the fire dance inside, whilst the rain falls outside, with a whiskey in hand, is surely one of life’s greatest pleasures.

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Early morning storm over Lake Bled

So let’s raise a glass for dež, probably the most unliked and underappreciated form of weather for most, but for me, a time to be enjoyed rather than endured.

Phallic Fertility Symbols Found in Forests of Koroška

Over the last six months of wandering the wilds of Koroška, I have stumbled upon several representations of wangers. Are these some ancient Slovenian fertility charm, or is it just the lumberjacks having a laugh?

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A pine plonker found in forest near Breg

Certainly, with the wooden willies, some effort has gone into finding and shaping of not just the winky, but the arms, legs and face. And in some cases, several wood wangers have been stockpiled, presumably for future distribution to areas where fertility rates are below average.

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A cache of wood wangers, as found in the forests around Breg

During the heavy snows of the Koroška winters, when the forests were largely impassable, the ingenious locals instead took to crafting giant snow schlongs. Impessive attention to detail can be seen in their work suggesting this is more than mere child’s play. Indeed, they have gone to great lengths on their rendition of follicles on the cobblers here. Such art deserves wider recognition.

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Giant snow schlong as seen on road to Breg, Koroška, Slovenia

I am yet to ascertain whether the snow and wood winkies of Koroška are purely for fun, or whether there is some fertility function surrounding their construction, but I will keep you posted on any new John Tompsons that appear in the vicinity.

My Favourite Axe: a weekend of woodcutting

Slovenia, like much of Europe, had experienced a heavy winter. The copious snow combined with some vicious windstorms had done its damage to the trees around Breg House; many had limbs dangling, some had been brought down completely.

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Now that the spring melt had arrived and the patches of snow were rapidly retreating, it was time to tackle these now-defunct trees so I headed up to Breg for the Velika noč (Easter) weekend to spend some time sawing, chain-sawing, splitting and stacking wood.

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The (hand) tools for the job

As the trees were ‘windblown’ I had to consult my brother (who is a tree surgeon) on the best way to tackle them. There are numerous forces of compression and tension at work, and with one tree lying atop the other, I had to be careful to dismember the tangle in the correct order to avoid me being crushed to death by a falling trunk.

My brother also advised me that it was ok to use sunflower cooking oil in my chainsaw (since I’d run out of chainsaw oil and being the Easter holiday, the shops were closed). The sunflower oil ‘hack’ worked and my chainsaw powered on through the job.

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My brother told me I could use sunflower oil in my chainsaw as a temporary substitute. So I did.

Sawing up wood by hand is tiring but I prefer it for many jobs, especially when dismembering a fallen tree in a tangle of branches. However, using a chainsaw to slice up trunks and limbs is satisfyingly fast and there’s a joy in sinking the chain-teeth into a log and watching it almost melt through the wood it like a hot-knife in butter. Apart from when your chainsaw gets wedged in the tree – which thankfully only happened once during this operation.

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The dream team: chainsaw and axe

But no wood work is more fun than splitting thick trunks and limbs, into fire-sized logs. For this I use my Struc Slovenian-made splitting axe or ‘maul’. Mauls have a fat, wedge-shaped blade which forces the wood apart, helping it to split more easily along its grain.

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Check my wedge: maul head

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Axes: turning wood into firewood since the Iron Age

However, my favourite axe is a smaller one that I bought in Britain some years ago, and never had much use for it, but at Breg House, it’s the perfect tool for splitting wood into kindling, or snedding. Snedding is removing side branches from a larger limb or trunk. This can also be done with a saw or chainsaw, but a good axe is a quick and fun way to do it. This axe is perfect for both jobs – it’s perfectly weighted, nice and sharp and just feels great in the hand.

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My favourite axe

My third axe – a ‘Viking’ – was somewhat of an impulse buy. I saw it in the local DIY store, Inpos, in Ravne na Koroškem, and I just had to have it. I love the shape of the handle and the colour of the blade. It can also be used for snedding or splitting kindling, but as it’s a little lighter, it’s not quite got the oomph of my fave axe. However I like the way it looks and its light weight means it would make a great ‘travel axe’ for a camping trip.

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The Viking; my smallest but sexiest axe

I spent two days dismembering two fallen fruit trees, hacking, sawing, lugging, splitting then finally stacking the wood in my Kozolec – a Slovenian hay rack which doubles as my log store. With a hot Slovenian summer, those logs should be ready to burn in my Piazzetta stove this winter, and therefore I hope never again to suffer the great log famine of winter 2017/18.

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Pimp my log pile: a fine mix of freshly cut apple, plum and a touch of elder

One of the benefits of doing a bit of hard graft at Breg House, is that my kindly neighbours ensure I am kept well fed throughout the day. Numerous rounds of potica, an elevensies break consisting of Turkish coffee, homemade biscuits, and a shot of their schnapps (in Slovenia it’s perfectly normal to drink schnapps in the morning and/or whilst operating chainsaws or other heavy machinery), as well as a beef and horseradish lunch.

My neighbours also invited me round for ‘Easter breakfast’ which is a big deal here. Everyone eats bread, ham and boiled eggs mixed with horseradish. It was delicious, but I was to later experience the somewhat noxious side effect of eating six eggs before 9am.

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Elevensies for loggers at Breg House, courtesy of my amazing neighbours: homemade biscuits, turkish coffee, and schnapps

I got back to Ljubljana early evening, feeling zonked. One of the things I love about being at Breg is that there’s always physical work to be done, and despite the weariness from a day’s logging – doing it feels good. Especially with potica and schnapps.

 

 

Skiing to My Local Pub: Powder Snow at Pikovo

I was now living in Ljubljana, but with reports that Koroška already had 60cm of snow on the ground and more on the way, I couldn’t resist heading back to the Hinterland.

I have maintained a lifelong love of snow. Not just snowboarding or skiing, but walking in it, taking pictures of it, and just being out in The Great White Deep is one of my greatest pleasures.

My new car was put to the test and passed easily. In 4×4 mode it fired up the snow-covered track with not the slightest hesitation. Pikovo, a small mountain inn lies even further up the mountain, and with the roads up there covered in over half a meter of snow, it was the perfect day to try out my new touring skis.

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Snow road? Snow problem in 4WD mode

I attached the skins to the base of the skis, threw some water, chocolate and extra clothes into my backpack, and began skinning up the slope behind my house which leads to the road to Pikovo. I’ve done a fair bit of snowshoeing in the past, normally with a snowboard strapped to my back, but ski touring is far more efficient.

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skinning up

The skis glide over the surface of the snow, the skins prevent you from slipping backwards even on steep inclines, and the lightweight boots and bindings mean that overall, you’re carrying less weight and moving much faster than with a board on your back.

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The forest was beautifully silent. The sporadic ‘whumpfff’ of snow falling from a tree, the only sound. The first half of the route was quite steep, and with the deep snow, it was hard going. I had to stop frequently to catch my breath. Once at the pinnacle I found the other side had been ploughed more recently leaving just a couple of centimetres of snow on the road.

The underside of my skis would have preferred a deeper covering, but it was enough to ride over, albeit with the occasional p-tex gouging stone taking a bite. I reconfigured my bindings into downhill mode, and skied most of the way, although there were several flat parts where I had to free my heel and employ more of a ‘cross-country ski’ technique.

It took me nigh on two hours to reach Pikovo. It’s always a pretty spot but covered in pillows of snow it looked even better. Nataša and Felix, the proprietors, welcomed me in and served me gulash washed down with a Laško pivo. Sometimes I meet other people at Pikovo, but today it was my own personal bar and restaurant. Conversation was limited as my Slovene is still extremely basic, but this is a perfect place to practice, as their English is also basic, so it puts us on an even keel.

When it comes to communication, I’ve found a little can go a long way. Although I must sound like a caveman, we were able to share some conversation and learn a little more about each other.

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The gulash was a welcome meal after the two hour journey

The gulash hit the spot and after resting for an hour, it was time to make my way back to Breg. I kept the skins on for the first half, as it’s mainly flat, but upon reaching the ‘peak’ it was back into downhill mode and deep snow.

It was deep but not so steep, so I had to ski in my own tracks for most of the ride or I came to a halt, but I did cut through a couple of sections where powerlines run, and I got a nice taste of Slovenian powder.

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Powerline cuttings provide powder pistes from Pikovo

It’s a great little ski-hike, and one I’ll do again and again whenever conditions permit.

10 Years at Breg House: Before and After

It’s been just over 10 years since my brother and I bought Breg House. It’s been quite the journey with many problems (some of which I’ve not yet written about) and it’s far from finished, but it felt like it was time to show the progress with some ‘before’ and ‘after’ pics.

Perhaps the most striking change, has been the conversion of the upper floor. The entire purpose of this building when built originally some 300 years ago was as a larder in which to hang, cure and store meat. In the ’70s, following the division of the farm into three separate properties, the upper floor just became a storage zone for junk, completely uninhabitable.

A big part of renovating Breg House was to take what was actually a sizeable and very interesting space, and turn it into something useable, namely a cosy lounge, kitchen and a snug.

This meant spending over a week, removing the old lime plaster by hand, using wire brushes and vinegar to reveal the beautiful timbers below, as well as cutting a bigger doorway to open up the entire floor and connect the new lounge space with the new kitchen space.

The snug was somewhat of an afterthought but is now one of my favourite areas of the house. From bare wood and a bathtub:

To beams and books:

And a new kitchen was added to in a space that was just a storage zone for junk:

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Downstairs, the old kitchen was converted into a master bedroom with ensuite shower and WC.

And one of the old bedrooms has been divided to give a shower, as well as updated furnishings.

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Moving on to the outside, it was once only possible to access the upper floor via an external staircase. Now an internal stair connects the two floors from the inside, and a new set of chunky steps has been built at the rear.

There are  more improvements to come – but that’s the summary of the last 10 years’ worth. Hopefully the next phases won’t take another 10 years!

Pivo at Pikovo: A Trip To My Local Mountain Inn

This morning I took my new pair of touring skis for a test ride. Although I’ve been snowboarding for 20 years, I’m relatively new to skiing but have wanted to get into the backcountry more.

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Plenty of snowy slopes for the taking

I long since discovered that skis are a far more efficient method of getting fresh lines so I’ve decided to up my game, get the kit and develop the skills needed to allow me to explore the mountain forests that surround Breg House by ski.

It was when I was living in rural Japan that my backcountry snow trips really began. Life in Koroška reminds me a lot of my life in Japan, where I spent two years living and working in Ono, Fukui. I seem to be drawn to mountainous places that are little known, and where foreigners are considered curious creatures.

Koroška is in many ways like Fukui. A rural backwater, unknown to most outsiders, and even to natives, considered to be ‘in the sticks’. The landscape shares many similarities too; lots of beautiful wooded mountains, heavy snowy winters, warm summers, lots of untouched nature, and not a lot of people exploring it.

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en route to Pikovo (pic: Benito)

In Japan, in a world of often bewildering foreignness, I found solace at a local bar called Yumeya. The owner, Yasu, a smiley-faced mountain-climbing fanatic, was to play a huge part in my enjoyment of area, as he led me and my American friend, Bran Van Man, into the backcountry for snowboarding expeditions on sacred peaks.

Yasu’s bar became a place where I came to know the people of Ono; a place where I could practise my Japanese, drink kirin beer and be merry with the local townsfolk, from gasmen to government officials, monks to maths teachers.

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the road to Pikovo

I now find myself in a place that has many parallels with Fukui.

A little under an hour’s walk from Breg House, is a small mountain inn called Pikovo.

Reached by a narrow, unpaved mountain track, it feels like a road to nowhere and the last thing you expect to find is a place where you can buy a beer.

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can you spy the spire of St Helena?

Yet, along the track, amongst thick forest, you eventually reach the tiny church of St Helena, and right next to it; Koča Na Pikovem. This is my local.

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The tiny church of St Helena

Previously, Pikovo was run by local legend Rajko, who spoke English well and is someone who has gone out of his way to help me with various things at Breg House, for which I am forever grateful. After three years Rajko and his wife Darinka, moved on to a bigger mountain inn in Sleme, which has incredible views and can accommodate some 70 odd people for sleeping. I still visit regulary.

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view from Sleme, my other local (pic: Benito)

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Koča Na Pikovem; my local

Pikovo now has new management; Felix and Nataša from Ljubljana. So whenever I feel like a pivo (beer), I hike on up to Pikovo. Being such an out-of-the-way place, I am often the only customer there, but I never know who I am going to meet, and today I met Mr Šumah.

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Mr Šumah was a rotund gentleman, wore a traditional mountain hat (I want one) and had a friendly smile. The fact that I told Mr Šumah that I didn’t understand Slovene was to be no impediment whatsoever to conversation, as he proceeded to talk away anyway.

I listened hard, picking out a few words and managed to ascertain a little info; namely that he was 77 years old, had driven here in his car, had a son called Rok, and something about cows. I thought he said he could speak Russian, but when I bust out a few phrases (thanks GCSE Russian!) he didn’t respond.

After finishing his coffee, Mr Šumah picked up his crutch, shook my hand, and parted with a srečno! (goodbye/good luck!).

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I ordered venison goulash, washed down with a Laško pivo, and finished up with a kava z mlekom (coffee with milk).

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Soon I will be making a concerted effort to learn Slovenian, and people like Mr Šumah, Felix and Nataša will be the perfect practising partners for me, because they don’t speak any English so it’s Slovene or nothing.

I don’t know why I am drawn to such places, but there is something I find very appealing about the lives of rural folk in secret places, unknown to most of their fellow countrymen, let alone the rest of the world.

Perhaps it’s the fact that it is so untouched that attracts me. There is little tourism here (although it’s an incredibly beautiful place), just people going about their lives in a way which likely has not changed a huge amount since Yugoslav times. And na zdravje (cheers!) to that.

A couple of the pictures in this post were taken by Benito Aramando. See more of his Slovenian photos here.

Slovenian Winter is Coming: Can I survive the Koroška Cold Season?

For the last two months I have mostly been living the life of a mountain hermit.

My days have been spent splitting and stacking firewood, working on the house, and stocking up on supplies. After my chores for the day are done, I have been picking a different logging road each day to explore, and have covered much of the mountain forest that surrounds my home. I spy deer and gams (chamois) amongst the trees, have admired the arboral ‘changing of the colours’, and am now surrounded by The Splendid Whiteness of the premier snow.

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Breg House in winter attire

I have harboured the idea of spending the whole winter at Breg. It would be an experiment in simple living and reduced social contact. But having now been here for almost two months, I have identified two challenges.

Firstly, the physical challenge; it’s cold up here in the Slovenian mountains. Now that the first snows have fallen, the temperature outside may not rise much above freezing for some time. I have my beloved log burner but there’s a log crisis at Breg House, no central heating, and until I light up that fire, it’s pretty chilly.

The first snow storm also brought down some trees, which must have taken out a powerline as I was told by the neighbours that there had been no electricity for two days. Thankfully I had been away and by the time I returned, so had the power, but these things can and do happen, and can be quite disastrous up here. No electricity means no means to heat water, which means no hot showers, and also means frozen pipes.

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Leaves on the line: I could hear the electricity hissing and buzzing at this invader

I am a snow lover and relish the beauty of a snowscape. But the fun of living in the cold may diminish rather quickly. The novelty of waking up to a house that is only marginally above absolute zero will almost certainly wear off. I love my Piazzetta e905 log burner, but having to empty the ash pan, find suitable fuel, and lay and light the fire each day to get any heat upstairs, may not remain as fun as it was at first.

It’s quite possible to get snowed in up here. Although they are admirably good at clearing even the smaller unpaved tracks, a heavy dump of snow could mean lockdown for a couple of days and it’s quite common for trees to come down and block the road after a storm.

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Breg grazing pastures now snowbound

The second challenge is the social isolation. Breg isn’t exactly party central. My two lovely neighbours have been looking out for me, (I think they fear for the strange Englishman’s survival and have taken to bringing me homecooked meals almost every day!), but unless you are into cows (I’m not) and log piles (I am fond of logs but feel my love is unrequited), there’s not a whole lot of social interaction up here in the hinterland.

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I love my log pile but does it love me?

I know a few people in and around Mežica (the nearest town), and can always pop down to the local bar where I know the landlord and a couple of regulars, but this is still small-town Slovenia, and opportunities for making new acquaintances is somewhat limited. And this is the greater of the two challenges. I just don’t know how long I can, or want to, spend so much time alone.

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Jezersko; en route from Ljubljana to Breg

I have been lucky to have had a few visitors so far, (thanks Andy, Benito and Jen). My anticipation of having such company has highlighted how I am beginning to miss socialising. It’s strange to spend so much time on your own, yet it’s also an interesting experiment.

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Breg House from the rear

Part of me wants to see how long I can go, just for the experience. I am at a rare point in my life where I am able to do that if I wish. For some people, living a simple life in a mountain cabin is a dream that may never come true. However, the cosy bars, warm restaurants and cheery townsfolk of Ljubljana beckon, and it may not be long before I am tempted to join them.