Getting Pastoral and Priden in the Pandemic

It started with a virus. Then followed the excitement of the lockdown-high. I had zoom calls with long-lost friends and was added to a zillion new WhatsApp groups. Then came the come down. Winter returned, life was cold and isolation felt strange.

Now, a month after running to the hills of Koroška, and I have found a certain peace. We humans have the ability to adjust to our situation, no matter how strange, and I seem to have reached a gentle contentedness to living more simply, more frugally and more physically than before.

This has been achieved by turning to a more pastoral way of life. In addition to working on various home improvement projects, (I spent two weeks with a chainsaw and chisels, making traditional wooden rain gutters for my house from tree trunks) I have been helping my neighbours – forty-something Štefka and her 74-year old mother Ančka, Breg’s Matriarch – work their land.

They have a mountainside farmstead (think Heidi landscape); a couple of cows, two pigs, a few chickens, some alpine pasture and a scattering of plum and pear trees. And with each new season, there are new tasks to be done.

Assisting them was the least I could do considering their extreme generosity. They have been bringing me homecooked meals, to the point where I had an excess of food and had to protest. And that is just their most recent act of kindness. Ever since I bought Breg house in 2007, Štefka, Ančka and Jaka (God rest his schnapps-drinking soul) have been nothing but the best of neighbours to me.

I spent two afternoons raking dried leaves and dead grass from the meadows with Štefka. It had the instant gratification of cleaning a dirty window with a squeegee. It was a simple, even mundane task, yet I enjoyed it immensely. With this simple act of raking, we were helping to maintain the meadow and hold nature in stasis by preventing the forest from reclaiming the ground. No tractors, no machines. Just hand rakes, exactly as it has been done here for the last 300 years.

I have come to enjoy all this physical work. There’s wood to split, logs to bring in, the Piazzetta fire to light. There’s a fence to repair, a pipe to be fixed, a stone wall to build. I have found pleasure and fulfilment to the slowness of lockdown life. I am never bored. I become completely absorbed in my tasks. I forget all other worries and lose awareness of time passing. I feel fitter, more focused and more content.

I recently watched a documentary about the Amish. They believe that daily physical labour is a joy in itself. This is why they shun modern-day labour-saving devices as these would, in their eyes, reduce the amount of hard work required, and thus reduce the quality of life. I’m not about to swap my car for a horse and buggy, and grow a weird beard, but my pastoral BREGxit lockdown has made me realise that perhaps the Amish are on to something.

It is also through interaction with my neighbours that I have been able to practise speaking Slovene on a daily basis. Which is ironic. Because in my normal Ljubljana life, when I see far more Slovenian people, I speak far less Slovene. Though my level remains crude, we have been able to converse to an interesting-enough level. And I have discovered more about their lives as we have toiled together.

“My brother would have been 50 today” Štefka told me, as we pulled our wide rakes towards us, gathering hay and leaves at our feet.

Though I knew she had a long-deceased brother, I knew nothing of the circumstances of his death. I decided it would be an appropriate time to enquire.

“He hung himself. His girlfriend left him for someone else.”

A little later, Ančka arrived with a can of cold beer and two glasses.

“She’s come to check on our work!” Štefka joked.

We took a seat on a wooden bench, sipped the beer and looked out over the mountains and Meža valley below, now in the golden sun of spring. I asked them if they knew everyone who lived in the farms we could see, perched on the sides of the surrounding hills. Štefka proceed to point out each farm, recount the family name and the number of inhabitants of each.

“Do they ever come here?” I asked.

“Yes, once or twice each year.”

“Do you ever go there?”

“No!” – Ančka said, shaking her head, as if the idea of her leaving Breg was absurd.

Indeed, Ančka does not leave Breg. Incredibly for a Slovene, she has never seen the sea. She has no desire to visit lands beyond her borders. She believes she has everything she could want right here on the planina of Breg.

If you want to see Ančka, you must come to her. And come they do; she has no shortage of visitors. Despite living 850m up a mountain, the gravity of this Matriarch is strong. There is always someone popping in for a kava or homemade schnapps – be it the snow-plough driver, a relative or one of their many friends. No matter how busy, there always seems to be time for a little malica.

The difference between their worldview and mine, perhaps makes our friendship an unlikely one. I have jumped at chances to leave my own country and go far beyond its borders. I have lived in Asia and North America, and visited exotic lands: Beirut, Beijing, Burma and Kashmir.

Back home in the UK, I had never spent so much time with such deeply rural people. But I seem to have an affinity for rural folk in secret corners of the world. Indeed, amongst others, it was the lives of the farmers, fisherman and other local characters of rural Japan that fascinated me most, during my two years living there. There’s something appealing to me about those who still live the ‘old way’.

It’s thanks to Štefka and Ančka that I have met many other Slovenes in the area. But I have returned the favour too.  Whenever friends come to visit me in Slovenia, I always take them to Štefka’s and Ančka’s. So ironically, Ančka, who rarely leaves the borders of Breg, let alone her country, has shared her kava and klobasa with people from America, Scotland, France, Iran, England, Austria, Ireland and New Zealand – and she seems to enjoy such visits.

Štefka and Ančka run a tight ship up here in Breg and keep a critical eye on my projects. After I have finished any given construction or garden task, Ančka soon arrives to inspect my work. My wooden gutters met with her approval, but at the same time she remarked on my untidy garden. She approved of my new vegetable plot, though instructed me to make a fence to keep out the deer.

Often when I am working away outside, Ančka will suddenly appear. Normally, I would rely on Štefka to translate her mother’s heavy Koroškan dialect into more understandable Slovene for me. However, a few days ago, Štefka was absent, so for the first time ever, I had a long, one on one conversation with Ančka, and to my surprise (and joy) I found we could communicate.

We talked about the number of eggs the chickens are currently laying (seven or eight a day) when the cows will go out to pasture (late May), if they’ll be any plums this year (last year there wasn’t) and when it’s time to start planting the vegetable garden (first of May). I also learned that despite their ample supply of eggs, Ančka doesn’t eat them, and for all the plums they pick, she never drinks schnapps. Instead, such commodities are used as currency; gifted to friends who visit and help out on the land.

As lockdown goes on, I have started to go the way of Ančka, becoming almost allergic to leaving Breg. When I had to make a trip down to civilization this week for supplies, I didn’t enjoy the strange, new COVID-mask world, and I was glad to get back to the sanctuary of Breg.

And so, I have been settling into the rural Slovene life, working with my hands and working outside. Global lockdown makes it easier to appreciate this simple life. Because for now, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) has been cancelled. One thing we can all be sure of right now, is that there IS nothing to miss out on. And this allows us to gain contentment from life’s more simple pleasures.

This morning it was ‘casually suggested’ by Štefka (likely she was delivering orders from up on high) that it was time I got my flower beds in order (which I confess, have been neglected for more than a decade). So, I spent an hour weeding them, and as I raked in the last of the cow-manure compost, Ančka appeared. She lent on her stick, silently observing my progress.

I awaited her ruling nervously. Had I done enough to please The Mighty Matriarch of Breg? Finally, she put me out of my misery:

“OK, now your house is beautiful.”

It’s taken me over ten years, but I think I just got my priden* badge.

*Priden is a Slovene word meaning ‘diligent/hard-working and seems to be a Slovenian trait to aspire to.

This post was first published in Total Slovenia News and was the third part of The BREGxit Corona Lockdown Diaries.

How to Make Traditional Wooden Gutters from Trees: Slovenian Style

When I first visited Slovenia more than 13 years ago, I was immediately enamoured with the liberal use of wood as a building material.

Once outside of the cities, I saw a lot of traditional-style houses, barns and kozolec (hayracks) made from wood. Wooden roof shingles are still quite common (although not as prevalent as they were 50+ years ago) and many of these traditional-style houses have wooden rain gutters.

Breg House itself had wooden gutters when I first bought it but they were at the end of their lives, and with interior renovations the priority, the house had remained gutter-less for over decade. Which was probably not a good thing. Slovenia gets plenty of rain (which is what keeps it so lush and green) and there is some damp present in some of the old stone walls.

It was always my intention to replace the wooden gutters. I had planned to do that at the same time I replaced the roof (which was also originally a wooden shingle roof).

However, the sudden gift of time due to the coronavirus lockdown gave me an idea. Could I make and install wooden gutters myself? Afterall, I had seen plenty of them and it couldn’t be that hard – right?

It was to be a learning curve. Despite numerous searches, I was surprised that I could not find any information online about making traditional wooden gutters from tree trunks. So I had to make it up as I went along, modelling my designs on gutters from a nearby building.

The are just two parts to the traditional wooden gutter design; the gutter itself and the brackets that attach the gutter to the roof, normally at the rafters. The gutters are fashioned from single, straight tree trunk, with a ‘V’ or ‘U’ shaped channel carved out from the middle. Impressively, the brackets are also made from pieces of wood; branches that have been selected specifically for their curved shape which cradles the gutter and holds it in place.

Fortunately I already had some suitable lengths of trunk. I was unsure as to the exact species, but some type of conifer. There are certain types of wood that will last seven or so years, and some that will last many more. Mine is likely the former, but ever since I started renovating this place, my Breg ethos has been to reuse, recycle, upcycle or repurpose materials already present, rather than buying new, wherever possible.

My first job was to remove the remaining branches, nodules and bark from the trunk which I did with an axe. Then I secured the trunk down and did some rough measuring and marking. I aimed to remove a 90 degree section of the trunk, leaving behind a V shaped channel.

I contemplated several different methods for this. I began by using a hand saw and chisels, cutting vertical lines into the round of the trunk, then chiselling out the waste. Whilst it was satisfying to make wood chips fly, it was slow going, and with some 20 metres of gutters to make, I decided to break out the chainsaw on the second day.

I spent that day using the chainsaw to cut the lines, and the chisels to remove the waste. This was much faster than with the hand saw, but still quite labour intensive. By the end of the second day, my hand was blistered from pounding my chisel with my makeshift mallet (a round log off the wood pile; the Breg ethos strikes again).

By the third day, I decided to remove the bulk of the waste wood with the chainsaw alone. I was feeling confident enough with the saw that it wouldn’t pose too great a risk in these coronavirus times, and I used the bottom and the tip to slowly edge a line up the trunk. I’d then rotate it by 90 degrees and do the same again. This method allowed me to slowly cut out one continuous segment of wood, that ran the whole length of the trunk.

This still took me some hours to do. I had to keep checking my cuts to see where I needed to go deeper, and keep rotating the trunk. A more skilled chainsaw operator could have likely done the job in minutes, but I took my time, and it was still much faster than relying on chisels alone.

Once the wedge came out (assisted by my favourite axe) I then widened and deepened the channel as the trunks were not completely straight, (and neither were my chainsaw cuts).

To make the brackets to support the gutters, I searched for and selected branches of the right shape and size. This part was quite expiermental, and my first mistake was to make brackets that turned out to be too short. Due to the position of the rafters in relation to the roof, I required brackets with long, straight shanks.

Eventually, I found and shaped suitable pieces. The final stage was erecting the brackets, ensuring the gutters lay as close to the roof edge as possible and created enough fall to channel the water down the gutter. It turned out to be a particularly arduous job getting the brackets in the right place, in part because I had to hacksaw through the old metal brackets to remove them, whilst up a ladder, in a very arkward position, with a tiny hacksaw.

After days of chiselling, chainsawing and struggling with bracket positions, I finally got the gutters up. Over the course of the project, I became completely immersed in their making. I was totally focussed on them, and spent almost all the daylight hours toiling over their construction.

It was hard work, and it did make me realise why metal and plastic guttering are now the norm. And I have only made half of the gutters required, so there are days more work to come if I want to complete the task.

They are certainly not pieces of precision work. Due to the fact that the current roof has been laid down on top of the old wooden roof adding additional height, I was unable to get the gutters as close to the roof edges as I would like. They are rough and basic like much of Breg house. But I hope the original creators of Breg who, some 300 years ago, simply used whatever they had to hand to get the job done, would appeciate the effort. And they are up, they do seem to catch most of the water I poured on as a test, and I do like the look of them.

I now await the next rainy day, when I’ll observe them in situ and make any further adjustments required.

When Not To Launch your Slovenian T-Shirt Brand: BREG Vs Coronavirus

After months of work, starting with ideas in my head, moving to basic concepts sketched out in pencil, to inked-in line drawings, to polished vector files with the aid of a graphics expert, to searching for and selecting a local printer, to deciding which shirt cuts and which colours to go with, I was all set and ready to unleash BREG Apparel – my new brand of Slovenia-inspired t-shirts on the world. Then along came Coronavirus.

Visit BregDesign.com to read the story behind each design

Just a week after we had set up a display of the hot-off-the-press t-shirts in ČRNO ZRNO – Ljubljana’s best specialty coffee shop – the first place in the world to stock BREG Apparel, COVID-19 struck. Within a few days, Slovenia, like many other countries, was essentially closed for business.

BREG Apparel hangs in ČRNO ZRNO, Ljubljana

Unfortunately, like many others I’m sure, I have picked THE worst time to try and get a new business project off the ground. Right now, my six unique Slovenian t-shirt designs are the last topic of interest in a world obsessed with the latest lockdown news.

But although you’ll have to wait till the pandemic passes before shops in Slovenia are open and selling BREG Apparel – thankfully you can still buy the shirts online at the BREG Webshop, which ships worldwide.

So – if you like the look of the designs, and the stories behind the shirts – take a look and treat yourself to a new, original BREG shirt. The perfect attire for self-isolation.

Escape to Breg House: Slovenia’s Premiere Self-Isolation Destination

What a difference 5 days makes. The world right now is a far stranger place than it was just a week ago, as Coronavirus craziness sweeps the globe.

Just a few days ago, the idea of an enforced shut down of schools and universities in Austria and Slovenia seemed quite nice. It meant that my Austrian girlfriend, who is a teacher, and I, could look forward to spending some unexpected additional time together. As we ski-hiked a mountain on the Slovene-Austrian border last Sunday, enjoying impressive views of the Karavanke range, the whole COVID-19 attack all seemed quite the fun adventure.

But within hours, the situation became far more serious. As we gathered around the TV later that evening to watch the news, Austria announced new, stringent self-isolation policies. People were no longer allowed to leave their homes except to buy food, or for emergencies. Gatherings of more than five people were banned. All but the most essential business were to be shut, and all public transport between Austria and Slovenia was to cease.

I had caught the train from Ljubljana to Austria, but my return journey had just evaporated. Which put me in a pickle. The next day, everyone was glued to their phones, constantly refreshing media sites to get the latest Coronavirus updates. And the news got worse and worse. It’s hard enough having a long-distance relationship between two countries when borders are open, but the threat of closed borders makes it a whole lot more difficult.

But then on Monday, some good news arrived. My car – which had been caught up in the Corona craziness requiring repair – had been fixed. Beyond all odds my mechanic had managed to source the spare part and finish fitting it. Freedom was back on!

So, my girlfriend and I made a mad dash back across the border in to Slovenia to pick up my car, put it through its tehnični pregledi (the equivalent of the MOT) and get it insured again. Thankfully everything went smoothly, because the following day, Slovenia put all tehnični pregledi on hold, and the insurance offices closed their doors.

After a couple more days back in Villach, Austria and it was time for me to put my COVID-19 plan into action: run to the hills and spend the next three, four, maybe more, weeks in Breg.

But even getting here turned into a nail-biting journey, as, while driving down the Austrian motorway, I lost acceleration power, and had to limp all the way up to Breg. It was a great relief to finally arrive; Bregxit could now begin.

I have long imagined Breg to be an excellent Armageddon bunker to escape to in the event of some sort of doomsday situation. And finally – it’s kind of happening. I have a good supply of food and although there seems to be no problems with food supplies in the supermarkets right now, should stocks run low, I’m connected to farmers in the area who grow and rear produce.

Breg also has its own spring-fed water supply, and with my trusty Piazzetta woodburner – I have a source of heat even if problems were to come with the electricity supply. And the Breg House DVD collection – long-mocked by my friends whilst I trawled every charity shop I saw in the UK during visits home – will now serve me well for the long evenings ahead, which will largely be spent completely alone.

Breg House in the summer

So my plan for now is to hunker down at Breg for the foreseeable future. I have a long list of spring tasks to be working through, including BregDesign.com – my new Slovenia-inspired Apparel brand. And I can keep myself fit and healthy, walking in the mountains all around. Plus, any further draconian policies that might be imposed, such as curfews, cannot be enforced on me as I can simply melt into the forest without seeing a soul.

There are still some worries about the Austria-Slovene borders remaining open, which may prevent my girlfriend and I seeing each other for a while, but at the moment, there are still some crossings which are passable.

The next few weeks and months will be a very interesting time for the world. I am fortunate to have Breg and be able to hunker down and live the simple life till things improve. But I know many people who are now in very difficult situations that aren’t likely to get better for some time.

I’ll be writing regular posts on Life Under Lockdown @ Breg House – so subscribe if you want to hear more.

Winter Finally Arrives in Slovenia: 2 months late

It’s two months late, but winter finally landed in Slovenia. Last week saw the first decent dump of snow around Breg since December, and I was keen to get amongst it.

The journey from Ljubljana, however, turned out not to be an easy one. It was already snowing heavily as I reached Jezersko. The road had not been ploughed, but I switched to 4×4 mode and forged ahead anyway.

Making my way cautiously up the Jezersko pass. I didn’t make it.

At the start of the Jezersko pass – a steep, winding ribbon of road that ascends the mountain border between Slovenia and Austria – I began to doubt my decision. There was some 30cm of snow already on the road, and no other vehicles. I made my way up, slowly and steadily but became increasingly anxious at each hairpin. I had no idea how far I could make it up, and feared I would get stranded.

After making it about a third of the way up, the decision was made for me; I reached a sharp corner and my car would go no further. With wheels spinning, I had to admit defeat. I cautiously edged my car around by 180 degrees, and headed for lower ground.

Back in Jezersko, I took refuge in Kočna, a restaurant come bar come café, that I often visit. In crude but functional Slovene, I managed to explain to the landlady where I was trying to get to, and asked if she thought the snowplough would soon come. She assured me it would pass within the next hour, so I took a seat and a radler, and waited.

Sure enough, within 30 minutes the plough came rattling along the road. I settled up and resumed my journey. With the snow cleared I got to the top of the pass without incident, but to my dismay, found the Austrian side of the mountain had not been ploughed at all. After a brief pause – I decided to continue anyway and made my way down the serpentines, driving through deep snow, cautiously.

Once I reached the valley, the driving conditions improved and the onward journey to Mežica passed without problem. That was, until I reached the very last part of the route – the steep, single-lane track that leads from Mežica to Breg.

This road has thwarted me in the past – most notably during the road trip from hell: Barcelona to Breg – when my fully loaded van got stuck and we broke the snowchains. But this was the first time ever that I had problems in my 4×4, winter-tyre-equipped car.

Making the final part of the journey on foot through deep snow

Approximately half way up the track, my wheels where spinning, and try as I might, I couldn’t get enough traction to continue. So, I reversed the car back to a suitable passing place, took the essentials out, and made the rest of the way up the mountain on foot. In all, the journey that normally takes 2 hours, took 4.5 hours.

It was however, worth it. The following morning, I was up early and so was the sun. With blue skies above, and trees laden with dollops of fresh snow, the scenery was beautiful, and I wandered around Breg capturing the glorious scene.

The sun was strong that day, and a slow thaw began, but after seeing to some works on the house, I had time to strap on my splitboard, and head off into the snowy forest. For some years, I have had my eye on a mini ski route up above Breg.

My plan was to use the forestry track to ascend, and then to descend via the clearing under a powerline, which is steep enough and long enough for a decent run. However, when I got to the top of my desired piste, I found there was not quite enough snow to cover the tree trunks and brush. So I had to modify my route and take a narrow footpath down instead. The snow was deep enough – but there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre so little in the way of turns. 

Despite the narrow nature of the path, it was a fun ride and great to just be out in the snow again. I suspect this will be the last of the heavy snowfalls this year, so it’s been a very lean winter for snow overall. I can only hope next year bears heavier fruit.

An Ode to Davo Karničar: Slovenia’s Ski-Mountaineering Legend

Last month, whilst driving through the beautiful Jesersko valley en route to Breg, I was reminded of a meeting I’d once had there with a man called Davo Karničar, seven years previously.

The Jezersko valley: home village of Davo Karničar

I had wondered what he was up to now. Was he still climbing up and skiing down the world’s gnarliest peaks? Most probably. I vowed to get in touch with him and see what adventures he had been on since our last meeting.

Sadly there will never be another meeting with Davo. Tragically, I learned he was killed last month whilst felling a tree near his home in Jezersko. He was 56.

Back in 2012, in the wake of a breakup, I’d taken my entire allocation of annual leave in one go and come to Slovenia for five weeks. My plan was to drive solo around the country and meet as many interesting Slovenes as possible.

Thanks to Rok and Ivo – two enterprising young Slovenians I met early on in the trip – I was lucky to be able to arrange conversations with many Slovene characters; bee-keeping experts, wine-makers, and Slovene celebs such as Big River Man (Martin Strel) and Davo Karničar , a world-renowned ski-mountaineer.

Amongst his lengthy list of achievements, Davo was the first man to ski down Everest, and the first to ski down The Seven Summits – the highest peaks on each continent (which incidentaly, he did on a pair Elan skis, the Slovenian brand which sponsored him his whole life). He also skied down the northern wall of the Eiger and the eastern wall of the Matterhorn.

Having a love for mountains and snow myself, I was keen to learn more about him, and Davo was kind enough to take time out from his highly active life, to meet me one September evening.

We had met in the café of a small hotel in Jezersko, Davo’s home valley. The evening was warm and we sat outside, where I watched the Alpine glow come off the spectacular spiky peaks of the mountains that dominate the Jezersko valley. Davo said he had climbed and skied all of them.

Jezersko peaks: Davo said he’d climbed and skied them all

Davo was 50 when we met but looked much younger. He had a wiry, muscular build and a crushing handshake. Like with all the people I met during that trip, I recorded our conversation. I had always meant to do something with these stories but never quite got around to it. Hearing about Davo’s passing, prompted me to dig up that recording and listen to it again.

Davo was not just an extremely accomplished extreme ski-mountaineer, Yugoslavian ski champ, and adventurer, but a visionary, creator, hunter, hard grafter, gardener, father, family man and builder.

At the time of our conversation, he was in the middle of building his own mountain lodge, which would serve the guests that he planned to bring to the area for his climbing tours. He showed a deep love for his home of Jezersko and had dreams of sharing it with a larger audience.

“Skiing and mountaineering wasn’t a sport I chose to get into. Here in Jezersko, it’s just normal. My mother, my brothers, my sisters – we spent all our time climbing and skiing our mountains”.  

Davo was cheerful, funny and friendly; we laughed a lot. I enjoyed hearing about his adventures, his family, his philosophy and how he lived his life in such a beautiful, wild place. He explained his ideas of trying to live from the land as much as possible. He said he took deer and chamois from the forest, which supplied half of his meat requirements for his family.

We discussed Slovenian independence, and his hopes for the new Slovenia, which hadn’t come to fruition. He mentioned fears of Slovenes losing their identity being such a new and small country.

He also talked about his visions for developing mountain tourism in his home town and the problems of being a well-known personality in a small village. (Although I noted it also had its benefits; when I went to settle the bill, the waiter had waived it, because I was ‘with Davo’).

Although Davo lived life to the full, racking up far more achievements than most, I’m sure he would have had many more adventures to come, had his life not been cut short. His death is a great loss to Jezersko, Slovenia, and the entire mountain-loving world.

I only spent one hour with Slovenia’s most famous ski-mountaineer, but learning of Davo’s death made me sad. Our conversation had ended with invites to get in touch, go skiing together, and visit his lodge.

I never did. And now I wish I had.

It’s a harsh reminder to do things before it’s too late.

RIP Davo.

Cycling in Ljubljana: the bike-friendly city

When I first visited Ljubljana, back in the late noughties, one of the things that struck me were the number of people on bikes.

Everywhere I went, I saw cyclists weaving through town. Never rushed, the pace of the Slovene two-wheeler was leisurely. Bells pinged as basket-equipped bikes cruised past carrying shopping, books and bags.

Students rode around on rattling old Rogs, Slovenia’s very own classic bicycle brand, (which has recently made a comeback). Women in summer dresses and heels glided by with an air of elegance. No Lycra or helmets here.

A classic Rog bike – made and ridden in Ljubljana, Slovenia

It was a welcome sight to see so many bikes, and now that I’m living here, I too have taken to being a two-wheeler for almost all of my city commuting. Because when it comes to cycling in the city, Ljubljana has clearly tired to create an environment that encourages cycling – and it has worked.

So why is Ljubljana a good place to get around by bike? Well, I think there are four factors that have made it such a bike-friendly city.

1. Bike lanes: they’re everywhere

Coming from Edinburgh, where there are a few isolated bike paths, but getting from A to B almost always requires predominately braving traffic, Ljubljana has an amazing bike path network. I can cycle to almost anywhere in the city, on a bike-only lane. I can (and do) even cycle to the out-of-town shopping centre (BTC), entirely via cycle paths.

Even better, most of the time these are completely separate from the road, either on a raised pavement, or completely segregated from the pavement or road.

Almost all traffic lights have a green bike, alongside the green man, and bike travel has been properly integrated alongside pedestrian and car travel.

2. The terrain: Ljubljana is flat

Within the city limits, there are few hills, so you can get to almost anywhere without going up or down hill. In part, this has probably aided he construction of the cycle network, and it certainly means that old, heavy, or single-gear bikes, can still cruise along and get you from A to B, without having to slog up any hills.

3. The weather: Slovenia has a nice climate

The amount of warm and generally dry weather in Slovenia (compared to the UK!) means that the times I can make a journey by bike is vastly greater than in Edinburgh, because most of the time it’s not raining.

Visitor Colin takes advantage of the bike-friendly weather

4. Bickelj: shared bike scheme

Shared bikes are now very common in many cities of the world, and Ljubljana’s offering – Bicikelj – adds another spoke to the biker’s wheel. Costing just €3 per year – as long as you return it within the hour – it’s essentially free bike hire.

They only have one gear and are heavy, but they are solid city bikes, with a basket, lights, mudguards and a bell.

You need to register with a credit card, so it’s not quite so easy for the casual tourist (though not impossible) but for residents it’s great.

On dry days, I’ll take my own bike, which is faster and more comfortable than the single-gear, tank-like bicikeljs. But if it’s wet on the ground, or rain is predicted, I’ll jump on a bicikelj to save my own steed from rust. It’s also great if you just want to go one way, and take a bus back.

These four factors have combined to create a bike-friendly Ljubljana. Indeed bikes can often be the fastest form of transport in the city. Certainly, during busier traffic times, bikes can outrun cars, and most of the time, they are faster than the buses (I know this as the bike route into town runs alongside the bus route, and I normally beat it).

So, if you’re lucky enough to live in Ljubljana, ditch the car, skip the crowded bus, and get a bike. Healthier, greener, ‘funner’ and free.

Nature is Eating Breg House

What’s eating Breg House? Nature is.

It remembers a time, some 300 years ago, when the land was all hers. And it wants it back. So it constantly gnaws away at the structure. Left unchecked, it would slowly consume the place. So I find myself in an ongoing fight to stave off its advances.

In winter, heavy snows attempt to crush the house (indeed the old chimney was twice torn off by the weight of white) and ice has burst pipes, radiators and water tanks.

Winters at Breg are heavy

In spring, the vegetation around the house rises up from its winter sleep. It may appear an innocent observer, but in fact it’s constantly seeking for a way in. Roots reach in to the structure, ever working their way deeper.

Seedlings germinate in the smallest of gaps; a crack in the wooden stairs, a hairline split in a timber. Creepers search for a way to envelop the house. Damp is drawn up from the cool earth below in to the walls.

Breg greenery leaps up each spring

In summer the insects arrive. Wasps find cosy holes to build their nests, scraping away at Breg’s wooden walls, stealing pulp for their paper building materials.

The occasional wood-boring insect drills into the thick beams that support the structure. Slovenian ants have been known to invade, seeking to expand their territory into Breg House (but have been successfully repelled).

The Dance of the Slovenian Wasps

Hot sun scorches the black roof, blasting it with solar radiation. Each year, the corrugated tar material grows thinner and weaker, till eventually it loses its rigidity and allows for attack via the heavy summer storms, when the rain falls so hard, the slightest gap, hole or crack will be penetrated by water. The lightening strikes loud up here in the mountains of Mežica and although Breg house has never been be hit, the threat remains.

Breg House roof repairs

Autumn is perhaps the only respite Breg House gets, before the onset of winter once more. The plants are on the wane, the insects have diminished, yet the bite of winter is yet to arrive.

So I am in a constant fight against nature. Though I let the garden grow fairly wild – allowing the meadow grasses to flower, before cutting it back a bit – I have to be vigilant. Constant repairs are required. Clearing giant icicles before they damage the roof.

Ejecting unwanted insects seeking to cohabitate with me. Draining tanks and pipes come winter to avoid ice attacks.

Breg House has survived 300 years so far. I plan to help it survive another 300.

 

Evropa: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

E is for Evropa

Coming from the island isolation of Great Britain, life on the European mainland is an international treat.

Add to this Slovenia’s petite landmass, and ‘popping in’ to Italy for a quick pizza, or Austria for an afternoon hike is quite the norm here.

The Austrian border is under an hour from Ljubljana

All of these things give rise to a very ‘European’ feeling in Slovenia. Unlike in the UK, where our island mentality has bred an ‘us and them’ attiude (see: Brexit), here you feel part of Europe.

In the UK, a foreign holiday ultimately means flying (or ferry). In Slovenia, an hour in the car will take you into a neighbouring country. Dropping down to Croatia for some coastline is a regular Slovene habit, and Hungary’s western border is easily within reach for a day trip.

Last weekend was Easter or ‘Velika Noč’ which translates as ‘The Great Night’. Easter is a big family affair here and I spent it visiting my girlfriend’s family in Austria, where it was a great night indeed. A feast of traditional ham, eggs and horseradish, followed by much wine, beer and various shots of hard-to-pronounce spirits.

The following day we hopped the boarder to Italy, hiking into the glorious Julian Alps, followed by a trip to a local pizzeria. A little over an hour’s journey after, and we were back in Ljubljana. Three countries; one day.

Hikes in Italy’s share of the Julian Alps are only an hour away

Slovenia has tried hard to distance itself from the ‘Eastern European’ label. I think in large part to avoid misconceptions of being ‘a former soviet vassal state’ (as Jeremey Hunt – the British Foreign Secretary recently so wrongly stated.)

Slovenia was never part of the USSR. Indeed, by all accounts, Marshall Tito, Yugoslavia’s leader, was quite the thorn in the side of the Russians, who tried to assassinate him on more than one occasion.

It’s a common mistake that I often hear, but Jeremy – someone in your position really should have done your homework better.

West Hungary is doable in a day (although Budapest, pictured, is around 5 hours’ drive)

Geographically too, Slovenia occupies a European sweetspot; a Mediterranean country, with high Alps, yet small enough to make day trips to the neighbours.

With Brexit looming, the advantages of a borderless Europe are ever more apparent to me, and the possibility of losing freedom to travel or work in other EU countries all the more painful.

Until then, I will continue to relish Slovenia’s central European location, where you’re never more than an hour’s car ride from adventure in another nation.

Want more? Read other Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia – A-Ž

Let’s Cook: Making Schnapps (Šnopc) in Slovenia: Part 2


Making schnapps in Slovenia is a winter affair. My car thermometer read -11c as I pulled up at the small farm, somewhere in the distant hinterlands of Koroška.

In rural Slovenia, the hills are alive with the scent of schnapps cooking.

Ever since I was offered a small glass of the clear, strong, homemade spirit by my neighbour Jaka eleven years ago, I had been keen to see the schnapps making process for myself. Finally, a decade later, that day had come.

I was joining Viktor, Marina and their two (now adult) children – Ana and Martin – (as well as their rather long dog – Robbie), in a nine-hour moonshine making mission.

The day began a little after 9am with a spot of breakfast, which of course included a shot of schnapps, along with tasty cold cuts from the farm, finished off with dark, black Turkish coffee.

Long-dog Robbie joins the cook

The younger contingent of the cooking team – Ana and Martin – spoke excellent English so I was able to explore quite deeply into their lives and the process of the cook. But there were numerous periods throughout the day, where I was with only Viktor or Marina (or Robbie), which provided me with ample opportunity to practise my caveman Slovene.

Let’s Cook! Stage 1

In Slovenia, you don’t ‘make’ schnapps, you ‘cook’ schnapps (kuhati
šnopc). And my hosts had been cooking for the last 10 days straight. The 2018 autumn had produced a particulary fruitful harvest, which meant they had weeks of mash to get through.

Although back in autumn, during Making Schnapps Part 1, I had been plucking plums, today it was a batch of pear schnapps we were making. The mash had been sitting in a barrel fermenting through the winter. Now it was time to cook.

The Yugoslavian-made pot still was some 40 years old

Upon stepping into the barn where the cook was taking place, I was hit by the sweet scent of pear. The first part of the cook was filling the 100 litre still with pear mash. The steel and copper contraption was 40 years old Viktor told me, manufactured by a then Yugoslavian company that no longer existed.

A wood fire was then lit below the copper cauldron, and we sat around the still, enjoying the heat and waiting. Viktor instructed me to feed the fire to ensure it burned hot and fast. A wheelbarrow of well-aged pine fuelled the burn, which popped and spat as it roared in the belly of the still.

It took around an hour for the first drops of distillate to appear. For those who have forgotten their school chemistry lessons, let’s recap. Distillation is the process of separating (in this case) ethanol, from a mixture of liquids.

First drops coming off

The process works because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water. This means as the mash heats up, alcohol starts evaporating out of the mixture first. The vapour travels up the copper pipe and then down into the cooling coils of the still. These are kept cold by being immersed in a barrel of water, which was kept cool by pumping the water out through a pipe that sat in the snow, before returning back to the barrel.

The cold sides of the coil cause the alcohol vapour to condense into a liquid again, and this then comes dripping out of the condenser pipe and is collected.

The first cook produces something Victor called Meka Rakija.

“In Serbia – they drink it like this. But it is not yet schnapps. It is Meka Rakija. In Slovenia – we make schnapps.”

I was keen to sample the cloudy white liquid and found it to be very palatable. It had a sweet flavour with a tasty note of pear. I requested to capture some of this nectar and was duly given a 500ml Pepsi bottle which I filled. I later measured the alcohol content and found it to be a healthy 30%.

Keep on cooking

We kept the fire crackling, and as the mash came up to temperature, the flow of the distillate increased, filling several buckets which were then pooled with previous batches.

Second Cook

Before commencing the more delicate second cook – the still was emptied of its now alcohol-less mash, and given a thorough clean-down. I asked Viktor what happened to the steaming barrels of spent pear, wondering if perhaps the pigs would enjoy it. Apparently not. The animals won’t eat it so it ends up in a big compost in the forest.

First cook done. Emptying the pear mash

We retired back to the house for lunch before starting the second cook. A hearty meal of beef goulash and polenta was served. When I asked Marina – the lady of the house – if I could help with anything in the kitchen, she expressed surprise, explaining that men are rarely seen in that part of the house.

Back to the now gleaming copper still, Viktor filled it with the proceeds of previous first cooks. The second cook is a much more careful and controlled stage. Ana and Marina showed me how to keep the fire small but as consistent as possible, burning just one or two small split logs at a time.

In goes the proceeds of the first cook. Meka Rakija – a liquid around 30% in alcohol.

We sat in the welcome heat of the still, patiently waiting for the first drops to appear. I am always keen to hear Slovenians’ opinions of life before independence. Do they miss Yugoslavia? Was life better then? Or has independence been good for the people? Viktor’s answer was typical to what I often hear:

“Everyone in the country had a job then; everyone had enough. But then there were many situations where they had five people doing a job that one person could do.

Also – because Yugoslavia strictly controlled imports, it was hard to get certain products that weren’t manufactured inside the country. For example, we had to go to Austria just to get washing detergent and you were supposed to pay import duty if you brought it back into Yugoslavia.

I think Slovenia is better now.”

The hot seat

After a good hour, the first drops of liquid began to appear. Completely clear and colourless, Viktor explained that this was very strong, and for ‘external use only’. In other words – not for drinking.

First stream from the second cook. WARNING: may contain methanol

Here the language barrier here proved to be too much and I was unsure as to whether it was methanol (a much more toxic member of the alcohol family which can cause permanent blindness by destroying the optic nerve if drunk even in small quantities), or just very strong ethanol (common drinking alcohol).

I noted that the first litre of the distillate was collected, bottled and measured (85% alc) but no futher testing was carried out on the rest of the batch. The only test performed was Viktor throwing a shot glass full on to the fire. Apparently, the ferocity of the ensuing flames, allowed him to gauge the alcohol make-up of the liquid.

I assume that even if the rest of the distillate contains some methanol, when mixed with the entire batch, it’s not at a dangerous level. At least that’s what I hope, else my optic nerves are going to get destroyed.

It’s All About The Angle of Dangle

After the first litre of this potentially-optic-nerve-destroying liquid had been taken, Ana explained that we had to keep the spirit flowing from the still, at a low, steady rate. And this was gauged by the angle at which the liquid ran from the pipe.

“The stream should fall exactly vertically” she explained.

At first I was unsure how it could not fall vertically, but as the fire died down, I could see how the steam started to bend back under the pipe. And when more fuel was added, there was an initial spurt where the stream arced away from the pipe. I played with the fuel, trying to keep the perfect stream as instructed.

Perfect streaming

Following a round of homemade pancakes, my hosts seemed satisfied that I was now a capable enough cook to keep the operation running. They duly left me to keep the fires burning, whilst they disappeared to milk the cows. 

At first I felt like Jesse from Breaking Bad when Walter White leaves him to cook his first batch of meth on his own. A pang of responsibly hit me. After all, this was part of their commercial farm operation. This cook was money. Was I going to mess the whole thing up and ruin the entire batch? Would Viktor (aka The Slovenian Heisenberg) ‘disappear’ me?

I paid close attention to what I had learned; keep the flow coming gently. Stop when the liquid becomes milky. Don’t drink it all. As each 10 litre bucket came off, I measured the alcohol content, then added it to the main barrel. Each tier was lower in alcohol than the previous one; 75%, 65%, 40%, 30%. But when mixed together, the overall batch was still well over 60%.

The Slovenian Heisenberg’s schnapps cooking operation

Saying that, we were using an alcoholmeter for the readings. This is a calibrated instrument that looks a bit like a thermometer and is designed to measure the amount of ethanol in a liquid, containing only ethanol and water. As there are numerous other products produced by the distillation process (methanol, oils and higher alcohols) I don’t think the readings we took could be completely accurate but did provide an approximate figure.

As the cook entered its dying stages, Heisenberg returned and instructed me to feed up the fire up again. Squeezing out as much ethanol from the cook was the goal, and that required a roaring fire for the last few litres. For the final hour of the cook, we entered diminishing returns. More heat was required to get what was a weaker and weaker distillate, until finally, the output became a cloudy liquid. The cook was over.

Each cut was pooled into one barrel

It was after 7pm when I placed the fruits of my labour into my car. Heisenberg seemed satisfied with the cook and had kindly given me two litres of pear schnapps, diluted down to 50% alcohol. It had been an interesting experience. I had learned much and acquired a new appreciation for the hours and energy that went into this fiery liquid, which is to Slovenia, what tea is to Britain; dolled out at any hour to guests.

Finally, 12 years after my first taste of Slovenian schnapps, I had joined the cook. And na zdravje to that.