Črno Zrno: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

Č is for Črno Zrno

Today we reach the first exotic letter of the Slovenian alphabet; the letter Č. Pronounced “ch”, like “ch” in “church”, there were a few contenders for Č.

I am a fan of Čevapčiči – the Balkan dish of grilled, minced meat shaped into sausages (but without a sausage skin).

Čebela (bee) would also have been a worthy choice; Slovenia is bee mad, and you see hives (called ‘bee houses’) painted bright colours or with traditional folk art, all over the country. But rather than those more obvious choices, I am instead going for Črno Zrno, Ljubljana’s most interesting coffee bar.

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Črno Zrno (pic: Črno Zrno)

Črno Zrno translates as ‘Black Bean’. I first became aware of Črno Zrno from Noah Charney, an American who has settled here and is a long time Slovenophile and prolific author (check out his excellent book: Slovenology). Situated in the old town, on a cobbled street that curls up and around the castle, Črno Zrno is the creation of the Colombian, Alexander Niño Ruiz.

I describe Alex as a coffee scientist. He carefully weighs out his ingredients using an electronic scale and uses glassware that could come from a lab. He imports beans from his native country, then has them roasted in Slovenia to create his own, unique flavours which he loves to share with his customers.

Alex keeps his menu simple but is constantly experimenting with blends and brews. My personal favourite is his delicious cold brew which he serves in wine glasses, but you can also get ‘pour over’ coffee as well as espressos.

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My personal fave: cold brew (pic: Črno Zrno)

His coffee is okusno (delicious) but it’s not just the beans that keep people coming back to Črno Zrno; it’s Alex himself and the very space he has created. An architect by trade, he has turned what could almost be just a passageway, into a stylish and welcoming place. The vaulted ceiling and colourful tiles draw you in to his stage, where he performs his coffee making ‘displays’.

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Črno Zrno sits on a cobbled street in Ljubljana’s old town

He enthusiastically explains where each coffee is grown, referring to a map of his homeland that sits on the wall, allowing him to educate his customers on the geographical diversity of Colombia and the characteristics each region imparts on the flavour of the beans. Alex has visions of how he will evolve his business; he already sells his own bagged beans and various coffee-making hardware. He’s done coffee pairing with local resturants, and there are more ideas to follow, he says.

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Alexander Niño Ruiz – Colombian coffee scientist and creator of Črno Zrno – Ljubljana’s most interesting coffee bar (pic: Črno Zrno)

There’s something about Alex’s warm personality and Latino cheek that draws a certain patron. A meeting place for both the exotic expats of Ljubljana and homegrown locals alike, it’s so small that you inevitably end up talking to whoever else is there. And this, combined with Alex’s knowledge and passion for the coffee he serves, makes Črno Zrno a very regular stop for me.

When I first arrived in Ljubljana, I was looking for somewhere friendly and homely. A place where I might meet an interesting mix of people and enjoy something delicious and unique. I found all those things at Črno Zrno.

Don’t be fooled by its petite nature. Physically it may be small but Črno Zrno punches well above its weight and is a huge asset to Ljubljana’s coffee and social scene, and somewhere I will keep going back to, again and again.

 

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Cockta: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

C is for Cockta

At first it was somewhat slim pickings for the letter C. Consulting my Slovenian-English dictionary, the C-section was lean.

I shortlisted Cerkev (Church) – as there are many pretty ones atop green hills all over Slovenia, Cesta (Road) – as I do enjoy driving the quiet winding mountain roads here, and Copati (Slippers) – the Japanese-like love of wearing slippers AT ALL TIMES when in your home is quite a lovely quirk; slippers are provided for guests, and you better damn-well wear them or else face Slovenian Slipper Wrath from your host.

Then I remembered Cockta. Invented in the 1950s, it’s a Slovenian brand (though now Croatian owned much to Slovenians’ lament) and since I first visited Slovenia in 2007, Cockta has been a reliable source of schoolboy humour.

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She is certainly enjoying a bit of Cockta here. Billboard circa 2012

Originally deemed ‘Yugoslavian Coke’, it shares the colour of its American rival, though unlike coke it is caffeine-free and its flavour is also quite different “coming from 11 of the finest herbal extracts, which are handpicked, carefully inspected and blended into a unique herb cocktail.”

Above: early TV advert for Cockta

The official Cockta website describes Cockta through the ages, and has some amusing claims:

“From Sputnik to Moon landings, from champions to revolutionaries, from cosy traditions to great changes, Cockta has not just been there – it has made history.”

In the 1960s, Cockta apparently was “the official beverage of the sixties”. I’m unsure which official body made this so, but it’s quite possible that the Yugoslavian government did actually make Cockta its official drink during this decade.

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Vintage Cockta poster from Yugoslav era

The 1970s was apparently the decade of “Cockta-ing the world”:

“The Beatles disbanded, the Moon was conquered, the rock hardened, the world toughened. The seventies were strange times, and Cockta was both nostalgic, contemporary and futuristic.”

The 1980s was apparently the decade of “Cockta mania”:

“In the decade of one-hit wonders, Cockta was the classic, in the midst of bizarre clothes and hairstyles, Cockta was the ultimate cool, and on the dancefloor Cockta had the best moves.”

I must point out that if a bottle of soft drink had the best moves on the dancefloor, it does not say much for Yugoslavians’ abilities to shake their booties in the night party discotheque clubs of the ‘80s.

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Be careful how you hold your Cock(ta).

Perhaps realising that dancing was not its forte, Cockta got serious in the 1990s, getting involved in politics and apparently playing some sort of role in the dissolution of the Former Yugoslavia:

“Tear down this wall and get me a Cockta! Everything changed in the nineties, from the basic economy to maps. It was a time of exhilaration, and we had our own Ode to Joy in our hands: a cold, perfect Cockta.”

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A Cockta Calendar

Moving into the millennium, Cockta became “a tasteful guide to the things to come, a fizzy reassurance of our choices. The future is cool, and so is Cockta.”

And finally, bringing us to the year 2018, the big news for Cockta lovers is the release of ‘Cockta Original’ along with a label re-design.

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2018:  Cockta Original on the shelves

So there you have it; Slovenia’s answer to Coca-Cola seems to have become a notable part of Slovenian identity, having played a role in Yugoslavian dance culture, geo-politics and youth fashion.

Cockta must also be credited with providing English-speaking visitors with a wealth of crude punning material, the likes of which we have not seen since the Americans invented ‘fanny packs’.

And it tastes pretty good too.

Read more: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

Akvarel: Reasons Why I Live in Slovenia A-Ž

A is for Akvarel: Watercolour

I’ve been visiting Slovenia for over a decade, but the dashing splendor is yet to wear off. I’ve decided to compile a series of A to Ž posts that share some of the reasons that I now live in Slovenia.

We shall commence our Slovenian alphabet aerobics, with the word Akvarel. The literal translation is ‘watercolour’ as in the type of painting, however, I’m taking some artistic license of my own and using it to mean ‘the colour of the water’. Because the colour of the lakes and rivers here never gets old. Here are some pictures I’ve taken of The Slovenian Blues (and greens, and aquamarines) over the years.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Snowshoeing at Dom na Slemenu

In early February, with thick, fresh snow on the ground, I headed to the inn of Dom na Slemenu. Run by my friends Rajko and Darinka (who previously ran the inn at Pikovo) it offers one of the most beautiful views in the area as well as delicious, hearty food, so it’s a regular destination for me.

My goal was to explore some of the trails in the forest via snow shoe and take some pictures of what was quite a magical snowscape. Below are a selection of snaps from my visit.

 

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.

[photo of master bedroom coming soon]

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!

Barcelona to Breg Slovenia; Roadtrip from Hell: Part 2

Following the ordeal of the Barcelona police and multi-storey car park puzzles, the next two days of driving had gone well.

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The route

We drove up through north Spain, in to France, past Perpignan and hugged the south coast of France. Good conversation, good music. Past Marseilles, past Nice and in to Monaco, then Italy where we stopped shortly after Genoa in the small town of Cremona for the night.

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En France

The next day we did a five-hour burst into the north east of the country, spiked peaks in the distance, as we moved into Austria, skirting its southern border, before dropping down into Slovenia.

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Climbing higher:  Italy

But we were to be repelled from Slovenia’s border at the very last moment. Approximately one minute from the Bleiberg (Austria) /Mezica (Slovenia) crossing, the steep road, which had just a couple of centimeters of snow, defeated our Citroen Jumpy van. With our wheels spinning, there was no way we were getting the fully loaded van up that road.

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North-east Italy

You Shall Not Pass! (to Breg)

There then followed some awkward manoeuvring as I tried to turn the van around on the tight road, with Andy directing, without it tipping over or getting stuck. Thankfully there’s another border crossing on a less vertically challenged road, so we turned back and took the alternate route, although even that drive was hairy enough, our van not being equipped with winter tyres.

We made it though and after stocking up on supplies at Mežica’s Tuš supermarket, all that was left of the 1574km journey, was the final 3.5km. But this last 0.2% of our route, would end up taking us two days.

Reaching the turn off for Breg we were met with a snow covered road. With dark already fallen, nerves frazzled and limited experience of fitting snow chains, we decided our best option was to tackle that job in the light of tomorrow.

In normal conditions we were just ten minutes’ drive from the house, but now there was no other choice but to abandon the van for the night and walk the rest of the way. So we grabbed the essentials from the van, slung on our backpacks, and began the hour-long hike up the dark, snow covered -9C mountain, to Breg House.

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Mežica from the frozen road up on high

Brokeback Breg

After being stuck in the van for hours, the walk was actually quite welcome. Though the air was sharp, it felt good to be winding up through the frozen forest. Reaching Breg House, where no plough had been, the snow was above the knee, and we blazed a trail to the door, relived to be finally in the relative warmth of -1c inside. We quickly set to work warming the house, turning on the heaters and getting the water running.

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-1c in the unheated corridor. That’s #BregLife

I am always nervous when I arrive at Breg; there has often been a problem lying in wait. And with it so very cold, the likelihood of problems increase. Indeed, some of the pipes were frozen, meaning the waterworks were not fully functional, but thankfully one toilet, one shower and one basin remained operational. It would do. As long as we had hot showers we could cope. We celebrated with a beer as the fire crackled, toasting to the fact that we’d arrived (even though none of my possessions yet had).

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Deep snow surrounds Breg House

But just as we were begining to get settled, the lamp in the lounge suddenly went out. The trip must have gone, I thought. But no – all trips were operational. Then we noticed that half the sockets in the house weren’t working any more either, including the circuit that powers the electric water heater for the shower.

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Deep snow @ Breg House

Our elation of getting here shrivelled up like a winky in the cold. The van was still stuck at the bottom of the mountain with all my things, and now we had the prospect of cold rooms, and no hot water. The Breg House black magic had struck again.

General Electrics

I needed some electrical assisstance. So I gave my friend Paul a call, the electrical-arm of the original ‘Construction Dream Team’ who had helped transform Breg from a basic cabin to something much more liveable.

Paul listened to the symptoms then gave his diagnosis: one the ‘phases’ of the electrical supply had been knocked out, and that would require the local electric company to fix. It looked like we weren’t getting the lost power back online any time soon.

But Paul saved the day by talking me through how to open up the electric water heater and re-wire it with another cable and then plug that in to a still-working socket from another part of the house via an extension lead. The jerry-rig worked; we at least had hot water, a massive morale boost at a time of darkness. And with that done, we retired to bed for the night.

Snow Chain, No Gain

The following day we set the primary objective: get van containing all my worldly possessions to Breg House. Boyed by blue skies and sun, we set off, walking back down the mountain. Just 10 minutes down the road we spotted a gams (chamois).

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A Slovenian gams (chamois) just minutes from Breg House

Normally they bolt as soon as they spy you but this one stayed put. As we approached, it stood up and hissed at us. This is something I have never seen before. It strutted back and forth, allowing us to get quite close, before leaping over a snowy bank and disappearing down the mountain.

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Views from Breg House

About 40 minutes later we were at the bottom. The van was still there, none of my things had been stolen and we were ready for action. First job: fit the chains. My memories of fitting snow chains on past snow adventures were of long, fiddly operations, resulting in cold fingers and frustrations. But we followed the instructions and had them on within a few minutes. So far so good.

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Chain up: the road to snowwhere

And so we began the very final leg of our 1574km journey. The chains were doing their job, biting into the ice and snow, and despite a few spins and swerves, we kept climbing steadily. Spirits were high, we were sure we would make it. Just the final quarter to go. But also the steepest section; foot down, get the speed up.

The road got steeper and steeper, yet we were still moving.  But then we were slowing. Slowing, slowing, slowing, and then we stopped. Our wheels were spinning and we knew we weren’t getting any further on that attempt.

So, we rolled backwards to a flatter section then walked back up to examine the terrain. It was a short section of the road where the wind had blown extra snow over the track, just covering the stone chippings that had been spread by the plough earlier. So we spent 20 minutes spreading handfuls of stone chips and tree branches on the road to aid traction, then went at it again, this time with more speed.

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Close but no cigar; this is a far as our Citroen Jumpy would go

We passed the point where we got stuck last time but little more than a 10 meters beyond that, the wheels spun and we were halted again. This time we’d broken the snow chains and any hope of getting the van up the last 1km of road was over.

Fellowship of The Breg

This trip had been dogged with mini-disasters. But, as with so many other times in Slovenia, help would come from the locals. I phoned my friend Vanja, my go-to girl, translator and fixer extraordinaire, who relayed a message to my kindly neighbour Štefka. Štefka arrived just 20 minutes later along with her friend Jože, each in a 4×4 vehicle.

They came equipped with cable ties and a spare set of chains. Jože immediately got to work, trying to bind the chains back together, and then got into the drivers’ seat to give it a shot himself. But the damaged chains were now so ragged, that even with him gunning it, he was not able to reach the point we originally had.

Kaput: snow chains to no chains

Jože exited the van and re-examined the chains.

“Kaput!” he exclaimed.

His evaluation confirmed that the working life of the chains, which had been approximately 30 minutes, was now over. Next Štefka and Jože tried to fit the spare chains they had brought, but they were too small for the van.

It was now obvious that the van was going no futher today. But Štefka and Jože pulled up their SUVs and together we unloaded the van and with multiple trips up to the house, finally got my things to a snow covered Breg.

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Unload; the van was going no futher

I was so grateful to these people. They had dropped everything on their Sunday afternoon to leave their cosy homes and come and help a stranded Brit on the side of a freezing mountain. I asked Jože to wait a minute while I located the box that contained my whisky, and presented him a bottle of 10 year old Laphroaig. He seemed pleased.

Yet again, the Slovenians had come to my aid at a time of need, and it made me yet again realise how lucky I was to be surrounded by such kind, generous and helpful people.

The 20 Year Storm

For the next two days and nights we were trapped in Breg house. Without snow chains, getting the van down the track and remaining alive was a scenario with a low probability outcome. So we holed-up in Breg and lived the simple life. All that mattered was fire and food.

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Andy during happier times

Then the weather warmed, and rain arrived. The once powdery snow turned heavy and water-logged. The road became sheet ice. It was so treacherous, that even Štefka, who must be the most experienced driver of that road in the world, deemed it too dangerous to descend, even in her 4×4, and called off from work for the day. There was no choice but to wait out another day in Breg House.

 

After the rain came the wind storm. The vicious tempest raged all night and at one point awoke me with such a bang, I thought one of the windows had blown in. The following morning we rose to a complete power outage; the whole of Mežica was now without electricity.

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No power? No problem. The trusty stove warms, dries and boils the kettle all at the same time

However, the 24 hours of wind and rain had also done us a favour. It had completely melted the ice on the road. With more snow forecast for the following day, this would be our only window of escape for some time.

Escape from Breg House

And so we packed our things, and said our farewells to Breg House. We re-traced our steps back to Barcelona, spending a night near Piacenza in Italy, Arles en France, and then Girona in Spain, escaping any incidents. Almost.

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Back on the road

Plane Sailing?

Andy and I parted at Barcelona airport. The Fellowship of The Breg was over. My flight back to Ljubljana was via Brussels. At Brussels I boarded the Adria flight (Slovenia’s national airline) and we took off. Finally, I was almost ‘home’. But 15 minutes in to the flight, the pilot announced a mechanical fault and we had to turn back to Brussels. I would spend the night there.

The following morning, we again took off from Brussels, this time landing successfully in Ljubljana. I was now back in familiar territory.  As I had booked a Slovenian lesson and was in a rush to get into town, I opted to take a taxi.

The Deceitful Taxi Driver

Of course, I couldn’t expect to go unscathed on this very final leg of my very long journey, which had been more than 3500km. I should have trusted my spidey senses when an insistent taxi driver offered his services, and when I got in, had no meter visible. The dishonest driver charged me €67 – more than double the real fare from Ljubljana airport to Ljubljana city centre (never, ever use Savic Vaskrsija Taksi – he’ll rip you off).

I was annoyed at myself for falling into such a silly trap, but it did round off the Road Trip of Nightmares quite nicely, so perhaps it was worth the €37 I paid in extra fare.

A huge hvala lepa to my co-driver, fellow road tripper, and cryptocurrency teacher Andy for agreeing to help me move house. We faced adversity from snow, ice, wind, rain, powercuts and police, but we overcame all obstacles, and we made it there and back again. And we definitely had ourselves an adventure on the way.

UPDATE: this road trip journey was immortalised by getting a shout out on The Bad Crypto Podcast @6m20s:

[https://html5-player.libsyn.com/embed/episode/id/6148239/height/90/theme/custom/autoplay/no/autonext/no/thumbnail/yes/preload/no/no_addthis/no/direction/backward/render-playlist/no/custom-color/ff0000/]

Barcelona to Breg Slovenia; Road Trip of Nightmares: Part 1

Within thirty seconds of parking the van outside my apartment, some Barcelonan bell-end had called the police.

I had been dreading this day for weeks. I knew it would be sad, stressful and painful, but I did not expect the ordeal that followed.

I had returned to Barcelona, the city I had moved to with my girlfriend during the summer, to collect all my worldly possessions. Sadly, what we had hoped would be a new, exciting chapter for us, had not turned out that way. After three years together, we had fallen apart and the relationship had come to an end.

So collecting my belongings from the apartment we had lived in was never going to be an enjoyable task. But on top of the emotional sting, the practicalities of the move turned out to be a logistical nightmare.

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I had wandered the city during the Catalan independence protests of Summer ’17

The apartment was located on a very narrow, one-way street in central Barcelona. Things had started out well. With everything boxed up and ready to go, me and my road-tripping companion Andy, who had kindly come out from the UK to help, picked up the rental van, and drove it back to the apartment.

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I had spent a lot of time of exploring Barca by bike

There could be no hanging around. With no parking space whatsoever, we had to pull right up on the pavement to allow cars to pass, but in doing so had to block one of the pavements. I had to move some 15 boxes worth of my life out and drive them all the way to my new home, Slovenia. But within half a minute of starting the operation, some Barcelonan took task with us being pulled up on the pavement and threatened to call the police.

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My time in Barcelona was short, but I did love the Catalan castells

I was on high-stress mode. Knowing we were loading on borrowed time, I sprinted up the stairs of the apartment, madly ferried box by box to Andy, who then loaded them in to the van. But I was not fast enough. The irate Barcelonan had made good on his threat and actually had called the police. After just six minutes of loading, the Spanish Five-O arrived. I tried to explain I was moving house. This was a one-off deal. Yes – I was blocking the pavement but come on – give me a break! How are you supposed to move house in a street like this without parking on the pavement for a few minutes?

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One of my favourite cycling routes in Barcelona, along the coast and over the river

We only needed another five or six minutes and we’d be driving out of Barcelona, never to return (until the following week when we had to return the van as no rental company will rent you a van for one-way hire to another country).

I was feeling sad, I was stressed and I just wanted to get out of Barcelona with my things and put the tough times behind me. I pleaded with the police. But the Catalan coppers weren’t cutting me any slack. As the police woman pulled out her pad and started writing me a ticket we were forced to abandon the loading operation, dash back to the apartment, lock the front door, and move the van. Muchas gracias Barcelona.

With another eight or so boxes to come, we didn’t know what to do. Driving on to the busy La Rambla, stress levels had been turned up to eleven. We spotted signs for a car park and followed them, ending up at an underground multi-storey. It was three blocks away from the apartment, but at least we could park in peace. Or so we thought. But Lady Luck was against us this day.

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My final night in Bacelona

There was only one space left in the whole car park, and it was the tiniest slot imageable. I was not convinced we’d even be able to fit the van in at all and I felt like crying, in disbelief of how my moving operation had gone from smooth and calm, to calamitous, in the space of three minutes or less.

Thankfully, with the expert tuition of Andy, who had once worked as a delivery van driver, I managed to edge the van in, with only centimetres to spare each side. Indeed, it was so tight, I was unable to open either door, and had to get out of the window. Still, at least we could take our time now, rather than being slagged off by annoyed passers-by for blocking the pavement and hassled by the police.

Lock Out

We had to make five journeys from my apartment to the car park, running the gantlet of the La Boqueria market each time, clogged with crowds. It was only after the forth leg that I suddenly had a terrible thought. How were we going to get back into the van? I had closed the window, thereby cutting off our only method of entry.

We were now faced with the situation of having a fully loaded van, but not actually being able to get into the driver’s seat. Fate really was not on our side today. We went through our options; if we opened the door enough to get an arm in, perhaps we could get the key in the ignition and be able to roll the window back down? Andy tried, but there was no way he could reach.

Was there a way to enter the cockpit via the back of the van? No – the pack panel was a solid sheet of metal.

Could we wait until the car next to us moved? Well yes we could but that might be hours, or the next day even.

Back to basics. Could we squeeze in via the doors? The driver’s side – absolutely not. But the passenger side had just a little more space. I squeezed myself between the van and the car next to it and opened the door as far as it would go – about 15cm. Stepping up from ground  level– there was no way I could do it. But I noticed that the opening was wider at the top of the door. If I could change the angle of entry, perhaps I could just fit?

Opening the sliding rear door gave me the step up I needed to give it go, but I still couldn’t quite fit; my belt was catching on the door frame. So off came my belt. Exhale. Contort. I edged myself in, centimetre by centimetre, worried I might get stuck, but kept going and just managed to slide myself in to the passenger seat. I breathed out, opened the window again and exited, and made sure not to close it this time.

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Exhaling and contorting to get into the van. Note: belt had to be removed. I would have taken my jeans off too, had it come to that.

It was such a massive relief that I didn’t even care about the lady who hurried her two kids past us as I stood next to Andy in the dark multi-storey car park, putting my belt back on.

Exit Planet Barcelona

We could now just get out of the city and begin the 16 hour drive up to the French border, east across south France, through Monaco, into Italy, up to Austria, and dropping down into my final destination: Slovenia.

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It was a brutal farewell from Barcelona. Driving out of the city, I felt sad but I was glad that I had retrieved my possessions, avoided a ticket and upskilled myself in contortion.

Little did we know that our road trippin’ troubles were far from over. Part 2 coming soon…

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.