Lockdown in Snow Country: Coronavirus Vs Winter in Slovenia

It’s a cruel irony that Slovenia is experiencing one of the snowiest winters in recent years, yet most people can’t take advantage of it.

The snow timed its arrival perfectly this season, with heavy falls landing from the start of December and continuing all month, ensuring a white BREG Christmas, and an excellent start to the season. Temperatures have remained cold since then, preserving the snowscape in much of the country.

However, even though some ski resorts in Slovenia (and Austria) are now open to locals, the ever-changing Corona travel restrictions mean that crossing borders (both municipal and national) is not always allowed, so it’s harder for people to capitalise on this season’s excellent snowfall.

Luckily for a snow lover like myself – there’s more to winter than snowboarding packed piste in a ski resort. I have long since diversified my snow activities to include cross-country skiing, ski touring, splitboarding and snowshoeing – none of which require a ski lift. Thus, wherever there is snow, I have the right snow-tool to tackle the terrain.

On the flat fields that lie a five-minute walk from my girlfriend’s apartment, I take my narrow, tooth-pick like cross-country skis, and ‘skate’ over the snow-surface. Akin to going for a run, I’ll often pop out for an hour during the day, to glide around the fields. It’s a great work out for the arms, legs and heart, and in the most beautiful of surroundings. I love the simplicity of cross-country skiing; you don’t need any lifts, you don’t even need a slope. Any expanse of flat, snow-land becomes a cross-country ski circuit.

In the dense forests surrounding Breg, I strap on my snowshoes. These enable me to float over the surface of the deep snow rather than plunging into it, and I can power up steep slopes with ease, thanks to their shark-like teeth.

If I want a bit of a ride down but the terrain is not too steep, I apply my skins to my touring skis and head up the snow-covered logging track at Breg. I’m not a good skier but this route provides a nice little hike via a forest-framed route, and then a gentle run back down. A few years ago, I even skiied to the Pikovo hut, and stopped off for a beer and some gulash before returning home. Sadly, the hut is rarely open these days, otherwise I would visit regulary.

Where there’s more steep terrain and deep snow, I don the splitboard and ascend higher. I’ve been lucky to have my girlfriends’ family to guide me into their mountainous backyard: the Karawank and Carnic Alp ranges in Southern Austria. Keen ski-tourers, it’s rare that a winter weekend passes and they are not hiking up and sking down some peak. Here, I’ve experienced some incredible snowscapes from spikey frozen forests, to the smooth domes of the ‘dumpling mountains’.

I’ve come to realise that splitboarding and ski touring are almost entirely different sports. My ski-touring friends are all about the hike up. The run down is almost inconsequential, and routes are not selected for their descent, meaning it can sometimes be a flattish logging road. As a splitboarder, my thoughts are always about the run down; wide open terrain, with a decent gradient and deep untouched powder is what I seek.

Now this is my kind of terrain (for splitboarding).

So as the sole split-border in the group, my ski-touring companions sometimes have to put up with the impracticality of my board (when it comes to flat sections – boards are a real pain) but they kindly humour my unstrapping/strapping-on stops and starts, often pulling and pushing me through the flats to get me to the bottom.

Whether it’s split, ski or snowshoe – I don’t really mind. I just love to be out in the snow and I love having the variety of snow toys to play with, whatever the conditions, terrain, weather or just my mood.

A Very British BREGxmas: Breg delivers a White Christmas

With lockdown restrictions and pandemic chaos for much of 2020, I knew that getting back to the UK for Christmas was going to be unlikely. I held on for as long as I could, delaying my decision to travel back to The Motherland, but by the start of November I knew a return was unlikely.

It turned out to be the sensible decision. After saying that there would be a relaxation of the lockdown restrictions in the UK over the Christmas period, there was a last minute reversal of the rules, meaning that much of the UK were unable to travel beyond their cities or towns, let alone travel from other countries.

I was not the only stranded expat in Slovenia; two fellow Brits were in a similar predicament, so as the reality of not being able to return set in, I suggested the idea of BREGxmas – spending Christmas in The Kingdom of Breg.

However, as the 25th of December approached, even making the two hour journey from Ljubljana to Breg started to look troubled. Slovenia had banned movement between municipalities, meaning that we would potentially risk fines if we were caught high-tailing it out of Ljubljana. Now, as I own Breg, I had justification to be traveling there, but my two compatriots were in an altogether greyer area, and though we did formulate a justification for our journey based on an exception loophole, we travelled in fear of it being rejected, and our wallets emptied of several hundred euros for breaking rules.

So, in the run up to Christmas, there was still some debate on whether we should attempt BREGxmas or not. However, just three days before Baby Jesus’ B-day, we decided the risk was worth it – and off we went, freeing ourselves from months of Ljubljana lockdown.

It turned out to be a good plan. Breg delivered a truly white Christmas, with snow already on the ground, which was topped up on Christmas eve and Christmas day and then followed by a cold, crisp, sunny Boxing day.

My guests for BREGxmas were – Tom – deep-thinker and founder of KickstartYourCommunity – and Jason – a former chef and the now-founder of Cultisan – who prepared a delicious menu for our stay, featuring Sea Bass, Roast Turkey, and all the Christmas cuts.

Together we spent our evenings in front of the log burning stove, warming ourselves whilst snow fell outside. We punctuated the festivities with walks around the snowbound landscape, down the white meadow and into the frozen forest, with Jason taking Ronnie – the local farm Alsatian for whom he has a great affinity – along for the ride.

Four years previous, I had spent Christmas in Breg with my family. It had been a slightly more challenging experience as Breg house at that time was in a less developed state, with no oven (so no roast) and due to some temporary problems – no water! There was also no snow, although it was an extremely cold period – hitting lows of -10c.

Thanks to COVID-19 it’s been over a year since I’ve been able to return to the UK. But in absence of my family, it was great to spend a couple of days with two fellow Brits – Tom and Jason – feasting and drinking, and watching some Christmas classics: Die Hard, Elf and The Office Christmas Special, all selected from the Breg House DVD collection.

Breg truly delivered a picture perfect Christmas the likes of which are normally only seen on Christmas cards, which was not only great to experience for the first time myself, but also lovely to be able to share with friends.

A big hvala lepa to Tom, Jason (and Ronnie!) for making BREGxmas 2020 one to remember.

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.

The Curious Case of the Slovenian Snow Caterpillars

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

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

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

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

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

Phallic Fertility Symbols Found in Forests of Koroška

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

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A pine plonker found in forest near Breg

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Skiing to My Local Pub: Powder Snow at Pikovo

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

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

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

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Snow road? Snow problem in 4WD mode

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

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skinning up

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

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

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

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

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

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The gulash was a welcome meal after the two hour journey

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

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

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Powerline cuttings provide powder pistes from Pikovo

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

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.