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.

 

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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.

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 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 too low a probability to try. 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

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.