FreeRide | RideFree — A Slovenian Mountainbike Story

From ancient traditions, Slovenia cooks up pure mountain-riding experiences, big culinary surprises, and a clear vision for the future.

 

Words:: Todd Lawson
Photos:: Mason Mashon

June 25, 1991 – Birth of a Nation

Throughout much of the 20th century, life in what was then known as Yugoslavia was a dull, dreary, and often scary affair. Fascist, Socialist and Communist regimes kept the general population under stress, limited economic options and stifled creative expression. To escape, many turned to the freedom afforded by alpine exploration. Mountaineering became a celebrated pastime—one that brought a great deal of tradition and culture to this tiny mountainous region.

 

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Small Town in Slovenia
“A long long time ago, there lived a people who existed in accordance with nature and it’s rhythms.  They were a just people, welcoming to strangers, and one that loved freedom, one to whom the idea of power was completely alien.” – Leszek Matela, as quoted in his book Tajemnice Slowian (The Secrets of the Slavs.)

In the summer of 1991, a new country was born. Home to just two million people, Slovenia became one of the wildest and greenest countries in the world, with more than 60 per cent of its total area covered with forest and national parks. While Slovenians had long reveled in the outdoors, new ideas and creativity flourished after independence and the sport of mountain biking, barely in its infancy, found a foothold. Riding on the coattails of the rich alpine traditions and Europe’s deep road-biking history, mountain biking offered a perfect blend of both—an exciting way to explore mountain passes and the old World War I & II trails that connected Slovenia with Austria and Italy.  

Mountain biking has flourished here for 25 years, albeit with some growing pains. Many of the 60,000 members of the Slovenian Alpine Association have had issues with two-wheelers using, and abusing, centuries-old hiking trails without permission. But the sport is evolving, in a good way.

Mountain Bikers Overlooking Slovenia
Soaking up the views over stunning Lake Bled.

October 25, 2018 – Cultivating Community 

Gasper Budkovic and Aljaz Urbanc are two important links in the Slovenian mountain bike scene. Both former national champion basketball players, Budkovic and Urbanc are now certified MTB guides and two of approximately 150 MTB guides registered with the Slovenian Alpine Association (with another 60 registered via the Bike Association of Slovenia). Their overall goal is to build and maintain more purpose-built mountain bike trails in the region—all for the greater good of the sport and the economic spin-off it creates.  

Currently, environmental protection legislation prohibits biking on hiking trails, so the focus is to create a network of all-mountain trails not only in the alps, but across the whole country.  

“There are several groups in Slovenia already doing an awesome job connecting the stakeholders and developing a great story and infrastructure,” says Budkovic. “We’re focused on creating a fair system that will be in the best interest of the general public. Locally, we are doing our best to bring together municipalities, land owners, farmers and mountain bikers to improve knowledge of the sport and give it a more important role.” 

Budkovic and Urbanc also organize a riding group known as ‘Small Friday’, a crew of 130+ enduro MTB riders that meet each Thursday, every week of the year (rain, snow or shine) to ride the very trails that they work hard to open. ‘No dig, no ride’ is their modus operandi. 

“Mountain bikers in Slovenia don’t really get together,” says Budkovic. “For the hikers, it’s thousands of people. But the mountain bikers, they are never on the same page. We’re hoping to change that and bring everyone together. We just want to get people stoked on riding in Slovenia.”

Slovenia Mountain Biking
Twisting single-track in the stunning Julian Alps.

And stoked we are. Our small crew of British Columbians find ourselves in Kranjska Gora, a Whistler-esque playground that’s part of the Julian Alps in the northwest corner of the country. Hundreds of rugged, steep mountains full of chutes and gullies, or ‘gutters’ as they’re known here, provide a stunning contrast to the smooth, fast and flowy singletrack that we’ll ride for four kilometres to the valley floor. This is our first ride in the country and the initial impression is pure gold. 

From the 14th to 18th centuries, Kranjska Gora was a quiet, remote settlement full of lush valleys and green pastures. Now it’s an all-season outdoor haven where hiking, rock climbing, ski touring and beer drinking are mixed with high consequence, world class alpinism and a growing network of MTB rides and riders. With that first-day-in-a-new-country feeling coursing through our veins, our guides shuttle us to the top of a trail called ‘Kinder Surprise’, one of the newest rides in their purpose-built quiver. With well-shaped berms and corners, a fast-flowing rip through the woods and an easy shuttle back to the top along a tight road, we ride and repeat with full satisfaction.   

But the best surprise is waiting for us post-ride at a place called Pension Milka, offering incredible lakeside dining at the foot of the Julian Alps. The plates in front of us feature local grass-fed braised beef shoulder, crispy sweetbread spring rolls, seasonal farm-to-table vegetables and hand-picked pears with chestnut ice cream, paired with smooth merlot from Goriška Brda, Slovenia’s wine region often compared to Napa Valley in California.  

Mountain Bikers below Slovenian Church
Built in the 14th century, this rural Church of St. Peter still rings its bells every Sunday.

Joined by a few other Small Friday riders, we’re shuttled up high on the other side of the valley to the stunning Karavanke mountain range and ‘Robe Twist’, another purpose-built trail that takes us through switchbacks and chutes. It looks and feels like prime fall riding in the Sea to Sky and we eventually arrive on a paved trail at the valley floor then pedal straight to a village pub for some well-earned pivo (beer). 

Growing Culinary Roots  

Organic since time immemorial, Slovenia’s gastronomic roots run deep. From simple, old-world cuisine packed with flavour and handed down through generations, world class chefs have recently started stirring up the scene with ‘zero-kilometre’ food practices and authentic farm-to-table dishes. Self-taught Slovenian chef Ana Roš, crowned the World’s Best Female Chef 2017 says, “We needed foraging-to-table, garden-to-table and farm-to-table approaches. It isn’t just a trend: it’s our life story.”  

We see this philosophy firsthand as guests at Gostilna Psnaka 17th century farmhouse that now operates as a restaurant/hotel tucked away in a verdant valley a short distance from Bled, one of the country’s top tourist draws.

Slovenian Food
The views beyond this plate are as stunning as the dessert itself. Each ingredient you see here has been grown, picked and made locally by the Chefs at Pension Milka in Kranjska Gora. Photo Todd Lawson.

“You have to live with nature here, you have no other choice,” says our hostess Natalija Pristavec. Built in 1609, the stone home has seen six generations of the family grow old under its roof (four generations currently still live here). With her hair tightly pulled back and dressed in the traditional attire of a white shirt with lace sleeves and collar, satin vest and long grey dress, Pristavec introduces us to huge plates of sausage, sauerkraut and barley flour topped with pork crackling and pig lard. It’s a lunch that dates back hundreds of years in this very region, made inside a kitchen where “the quality of blood sausage was the mark of a good wife,” Pristavec says.  

Janko and Natalija, the father-daughter team at Gostilna Psnak who are intent on keeping their centuries-old family traditions alive. Todd Lawson photo.

After lunch Pristavec’s father, Janko Lipovec, tells us about life on the farm and in the mountains. Lipovec, his father, grandfather and great-grandfather used to mount horses to deliver materials and supplies to nearby mountain huts—dom’ or ‘koča’ as they’re called. A lasting testament to Slovenia’s alpine culture, there are more than 170 huts (some with walls three feet thick) all accessed by the country’s vast trail and mountain road network. For any active member of the Alpine Association they are a home-away-from-home, a place to fuel up with a warm bowl of mushroom soup and a cold beer by the fireplace.  

“We have been welcoming guests here since 1912,” says Janja Dolhar, current owner of Gostisce Pri ŽerjavuTogether with six different bottles of homemade schnapps (pine, pear, honey, strawberry, blueberry and mille-feuilleshe puts enough food in front of us to feed a Toonie Ride, introducing each dish one by one. Charcuterie meats with fresh bread, cottage cheese spread, mushroom, vegetable and beef noodle soup, blood sausage, sour cabbage—food that has been consumed for centuries in this small region of the world.

 

Cows in Slovenia

Keeping the “LOVE” in SLOVEnia 

Like the aloha spirit in Hawaii, pura vida in Costa Rica and joie de vivre in France, Slovenians believe in spreading elan—living life with energy, style, and enthusiasm. At the heart of it all comes their centuries-old ethos of hospitality. Even the tourist board’s mission of the message “I feel SLOVEnia” rings true: going forward with nature, focusing on organic development, promoting a niche economy, and welcoming diversity.  

Instead of seeing fast-food joints and strip malls at the end of a long day in the hills, mountain bikers in Slovenia will find herds of cattle, centuries-old churches and character villages, all possessing the elegant grandeur of old Europe; narrow cobblestone streets, arched doorways and cozy homes.

Farmer with Dog
“Bikers are always welcome here, everyone is” says Marko (above), a 66-year-old caretaker of the Zabreška Planina mountain pasture, an area owned by a cooperative of local agricultural societies. Marko works with riders every spring to clear the cattle trails of winter debris. He also helps build trails and new entrances so bikers don’t have to dismount and climb over fences. In a 200-year-old pasture, the collaboration is working well and, leaning against a tractor in the barn of a mountain hut built more than 250 years ago, Marko says, “Bikers can always pass through and should come whenever they want. Everyone is welcome.”  

Borut Kelih is an entrepreneur who sold a successful business and entered the tourism market headfirst. He’s also a strong believer in getting Slovenians working together to understand, enjoy and promote mountain biking.  “The creation is the right thing,” he says. “When you can create something there is much more meaning behind it.”

Mountain Biking in Slovenia
Dylan Siggers, making hay.

To back up his words, Kelih created two bike-friendly spots with a vision for the future in mind. First is The Garden Village in Bled, the world’s first six-star glamping resort—a piece of property close to Lake Bled filled with canvas tents and treehouses where guests are encouraged to pick fruit and vegetables for themselves, straight from the garden. And at his Tourist Farm Rocnjek, guests can choose to stay in themed rooms, each an ode to centuries-old traditions of carpentry, iron working and hunting. He wants to promote these cultural cornerstones as part of the guest experience. 

“The most important thing is freedom,” he says. “You live for love and food, but if you work all the day just for surviving, you never have time for either. If you are free, it doesn’t matter what you do, your freedom is everything.”

Mountain Biker Getting Air in Slovenia
Siggers leaps into a quintessential Slovenian mountain moment.

Itchy pedals?  Check out the links below and go have a blast. Below is author’s suggested itinerary:

DAY 1:
Accommodation: Gavedarjo Design Rooms
Schnappy Time! Using garden-picked ingredients, the traditions at Pri Žerjavu continue with a selection of homemade schnapps, a staple on any table in Slovenia. Todd Lawson photo.
DAY 2:
Accommodation: Gavedarjo Design Rooms
If you want a Slovenian history lesson painted on wooden ’tiles’, check the apiary at Gostilna Psnak. Todd Lawson photo.
DAY 3:
Accommodation: Garden Village Bled
Garden Village Bled. An oasis of serenity with a conscience. Todd Lawson photo.
Six-star Glamping? Why not? Your legs will thank you later.
DAY 4:
Accommodation: Garden Village Bled
“The creation is the right thing,” says Homestead Ročnjek owner Borut Kelih. “When you can create something there is much more meaning behind it.”
DAY 5:
Accommodation: Homestead Ročnjek
This is what you call simple, table-side magic, Tourist Farm Rocnjek style.
Todd Lawson photo.

And a bit more magic, Slovenian style. Todd Lawson photo.