Somewhere along the trail we’ve taken a wrong turning, spectacularly so. Not only have we followed a path which has taken us out of Europe, it’s one which has transported us to entirely another dimension.
I suspect it happened when I was electrocuted.
The problem with some old paths is when a new one is created they are forgotten, abandoned in favour of shiny new playthings just like Toy Story’s Buzz and Woody. You can’t always tell this when you set off along one, following Boris Johnson signposts which promise much but leave you in the excrement when you turn a corner to discover it was a promise which lasted only as far as the eye could see. Ours, on a high Alpine meadow north of Ljubljana, just gave up the ghost; the overgrown way ahead completely reclaimed by nature. We could have retraced our tracks for a couple of kilometres but a dirt track on the hillside above us was closer.
The only obstacle, apart from a huffy puffy climb up a slope, between us and the forest track was an electric fence… whose ease of crossing I misjudged. Which is when I was electrocuted – a sharp, hammer blow to my elbow transporting us to the fantastical land of Velika Planina; a herdsmen’s village in a shallow caldera 1500m above sea level.
Forget jaw-dropping, breathtaking, mind-blowing, awesome or any such word. All are too feeble to describe first contact with Velika Planina. The feeling of standing on a ridge looking down on this scattering of wooden herdsmen’s homes is one of a sense of discovery; explorers chancing across a lost civilisation rather than hikers walking to an unusual village which most Slovenians know about, even if most other Europeans don’t. A surrounding frame of granite peaks and forested hilltops doesn’t have enough pulling power to draw the gaze away from one of the most extraordinary landscapes we’ve set eyes upon.
With roofs constructed from neat rows of šinkles – pine shingles – which slope down almost to the grassy meadow, the huts manage to appear both ancient and contemporary. The sort of ambitious project you’d find Kevin McCloud enthusing poetically about on Grand Designs. They are works of architectural art, even their H-shaped tin chimneys gasping aromatic, smokey breaths look carefully designed to compliment the surrounding countryside. Circling each herdsmen’s hut is a wooden fence, a corral created to keep animals out rather than in. Needy cows wander freely around Velika Planina in search of someone to hug them. I kid you not.
A few days earlier Mojca, a guide with a well-deep knowledge of herbs and traditions, had scoffed whilst telling us about the practice of cow-hugging in Velika Planina. Every now and then a bovine ambles closer and flashes her long eye-lashes, trying to nestle against us for a hug. Who knows if the cows were always this tactile or it’s as a result of selfie-taking city dwellers from Ljubljana, but Velika Planina’s cows like to be hugged.
Although a cable car on its eastern edge connects the remote mountain village with the realm of humans, there aren’t many other people wandering around the road-less settlement; grassy indents connect the huts. It takes far more effort to reach the plateau from the west, which is where we arrived from. Subsequently we encounter few people as we descend into its centre. If you can call a water pump a village centre.
It’s lunchtime and there’s a local speciality we have to try. Notice I say ‘have’ rather than want. A couple of the huts serve food; select and simple offerings. Fani’s has a menu which not only shows what these offerings are, it lists them in English – sir (cheese), flancati (described as a cake-like doughnut although it looks nothing like a doughnut), žganci z ocvirki (buckwheat mush with crackling), kislo mleko (sour milk).
The owners are two Hobbit-sized women wearing thin, flowery housecoats over thick jumpers and scratchy-looking skirts. They might even have wellie boots on their feet, but that could be a trick of my mind as their garb reminds me of crofters’ wives in Scotland in the 1960s.
Neither speak English, only barked Slovenian. This is where the photos come in handy. We point at the flancati (there are none) and then the buckwheat mush and sour milk. I’m in (ironic) luck with that one. One of the woman barks another word at us which we do understand and which Andy latches on to as though it’s a life-ring – štruklji (strudel).
We settle on a wooden bench with a table made from a slab of sun-bleached wood whose surface is as deeply etched as Fani’s weather-beaten face. A few other walkers enter the paddock after us – a sextet of Americans with a Slovenian guide who is the spitting image of Ethan Hawke, and who subsequently translates for the rest of us, and a couple of young Germans who behave like rabbits caught in the headlights when Fani and sister bark and cackle at them.
Thanks to Ethan, we find out the buckwheat mush and sour milk will be served before the strudel. Fani places two bowls in front of us. One, the buckwheat, could be mince with crackling sprinkled on top. The other looks exactly like what it is, the sour milk covered by a thick, oatmeal-coloured skin. I watch Ethan show the Americans how to eat it as he informs them it’s like buttermilk – HA! The sour milk is spooned into the dry mush and mixed to make it all even more of a mush. It doesn’t taste bad, it doesn’t really taste of anything. But it fills me rapidly, the dense mixture dropping lead weight style to the depths of my stomach. Andy tries a couple of spoonfuls but insists, unconvincingly, she’s saving herself for the apple strudel. I valiantly try to work my way through the mush, but it’s too heavy. Halfway down the bowl I concede defeat. Fani looks at the half eaten mixture and barks at me again.
“She says if you don’t finish it you won’t get the apple strudel,” Ethan translates and laughs.
We laugh as well.
“No, she’s serious,” Ethan laughs again.
This time we don’t join him. Andy looks at me accusingly. She’s missing out on apple strudel and, apparently, it’s all my fault.
We settle the bill and make our way to the village’s tiny wooden church, passing a family hugging cows.
The Chapel of Mary of the Snow perches on a small hill above Velika Planina, a viewing platform from which to survey this phenomenal village. One of us calms her rumbling belly by snacking on a coffee cereal bar and we sit in silence, eyes constantly sweeping across a scene we still can’t believe is real, as time ebbs too quickly away.
Far too soon we have to continue on our journey; to leave this wondrous village high in the mountains.
Reluctantly we drag ourselves from our wooden bench throne. We have a walking route to complete and there’s still half of this other-worldly plateau to explore before we must return to our own dimension.