Pliskovica: a traditional Slovenian Karst village
Where in the world can you have a go at cutting limestone, taste six types of honey and meet the bees that produced it, bike around vineyards then play traditional shepherds’ games on a hillside? And all in one day, if you have the energy in the glorious sunshine. The answer lies in the Karst region in the South of Slovenia, which surprisingly isn’t just about life beneath the earth…
A boy, a stone and a hammer
Matthew is offered a hammer and a slab of limestone. There is a worrying glint in his eye that I’ve seen before. He selects the biggest of both, licks his lips, and then ‘bam, bam bam.’ I think the craftsman recognises a kindred spirit.
You see, since he was born, Matthew has been a master at striking, chipping, bashing and reshaping his world. As a toddler he could knock down tall Lego towers with one swipe, and wreck a sofa with one bounce. Then when he joined the scouts someone gave him a full demolition kit including penknife, flint and steel and I’ve never felt totally safe since.
A couple of bangs with Matthew at the helm of the hammer and the stone cutter’s eyes are glinting too. “Pneumatic!” he says, pulling out a drill. I haven’t a clue what they are making, but looking around I am sure it will turn out beautiful.
Familiar as their own bedroom wall
Our children, easily bored, could stay a couple of days here. Stone cutting workshops are right up their street; a mixture of the practical and the artistic. And the material they’d be working with is as familiar to them as their own home; in fact their own home is built with it. The family that we are visiting today consists of two generations of stone cutters who carve gifts from the limestone that gives the Karst area its history, geography and traditions. This is the real thing; taken straight from the local quarry, it even has the imprint of fossils still in it.
We are told a legend of how this land was formed. It’s said that when God finished making the earth on a hill above Pliskovica, he had quite a lot of stone left over. He called over his angels and told them to put it in a bag and throw it in the Adriatic. But the Devil heard him, accosted the angels, cut the bag, and all the stones fell down here.
All I can say is it was a big bag of stones.
A limestone paradise
The limestone makes the Karst region of Slovenia famous throughout the world. Millions come for the showcaves which are big business but we find an unexpected treat above ground in Pliskovica , where locals are working together to involve tourists in daily life and paint a vivid picture of the nature, people and traditional ways.
At surface glance the panorama above ground is nowhere near as startling as beneath it. But this southern corner of Slovenia, lying close to the Italian border is still undeniably beautiful. There’s a clear Mediterranean influence here; the hillsides rich with vines, and together with the old stone buildings, the place somehow reminds me of Umbria.
Sun, drought and stone
We stay at the Youth Hostel Pliskovica, an idyllic 400 year old converted homestead with dried lavender on the walls, the obligatory grapes overhead, (almost every householder makes their own wine), and a view over miles of pine trees towards the border with Italy. It is typical of Karst houses with its surrounding wall that protects it from the fierce bora wind in winter, small windows and thick limestone walls. Even in early morning it’s hot here, this land tips into drought every summer as the caves consume any water that falls. But this is no barren desert; despite the high temperatures the village is green and peaceful.
In several hours of wandering round it, we meet only one car. Yet it’s rich in culture and life. Laura Lozej, the Information Officer for the youth hostel takes us on a tour of local businesses, first with the stone cutter family Bortolato, then the bee keeping family Petelin who have 250 hives.
Their bee keeping came from a hobby that turned into a business after the economic crash meant Irma Petelin lost her job. Now together with her son she takes batches of 50,000 bees in mobile hives across Slovenia to expose them to the different flavours of nature that make the honey so varied, and then they produce the sweet stuff. After viewing some of the hives from afar, we taste six varieties of honey ranging from chestnut to lime to wild cherry. All flavours are unique to the country and one, ‘Reselika’ is only found in this area. We then try brandy made from honey and a firewater from local herbs. “The Americans say this is gasoline while the Russians drink it like water,” chuckles our host.
A community project
On Saturday morning we could hop on a bike and take a guided tour of the wine producing area. But today we skip the biking and have the local Teran wine with cheese and home made prosciutto (kraški pršut) at the home of the President of the Association for Development, Ivica Zerjal. She explains how the community came together to convert a youth hostel from an old disused building to bring in the tourists. And then how it went on to develop an offering for the tourists including the local producers and the 6km Pliska learning trail that follows a circular route over the plateau in the heart of Karst. The aim of the trail is to show visitors how the Karst landscape has been formed by nature and modified by humans, and how those humans managed the stony terrain and lack of water in the past. Its latest addition is a set of traditional shepherds’ games that tourists and locals can play.
The community also manages to run monthly festivals including a wine festival in April with 11 cellars taking part, where tourists are given a glass and sent off in search of the grape to fill it with. Sound good? Come and try it. The Youth Hostel may be booked up but there are plenty of locals who will house you.
Small scale rural tourism that works
All this joined up thinking seems a huge achievement for such a small place and an example of rural tourism that works. I think of the chocolate box villages of my home, where millions pack in and spoil the experience that they came to see. Intimacy is the thing here. You feel like you are the only person to have stumbled across this village of only 100 houses and 200 people, and ironically it’s in not feeling like a tourist that you get the best tourist experience.
I tell the president, through the interpreter, that the British Lake District has more than 10 million day visitors a year. They all look as alarmed as I did when the stone cutter gave Matthew a hammer.
“We wouldn’t like that here,” they agree. At this moment the weekly fish van goes past, with tinny music that announces its presence like an ice cream van. The traffic now over for the day, everyone relaxes, and helps themselves to another glass of wine.
Disclosure Note: Our thanks to Spirit of Slovenia and Jana Martincic from Park Skocjanske Jama, Slovenia for organising our visit to Pliskovica to enable us to bring you this story. All the experience, views and opinions remain, as ever, entirely our own.