Have you Slovenes been hiding this gem from the world intentionally?”, I was asked in the first days of September by a young British couple peacefully enjoying a glass of Furmint in Jeruzalem, one of the most beautiful Slovenian wine-growing districts, just a stone’s throw away from the Slovenian-Croatian border. It was such a beautiful day as ordinary mortals could only desire: the sun was shining lavishly on the terraces of the surrounding vineyards and tall, dark-green poplars, the rattle song was singing in vineyards, announcing the final ripening of the grapes, and apart from the occasional sound of a car winding lazily along the wine roads of the Jeruzalemske Gorice Hills, simply nothing could disturb the peace of mind found under a trellis – the pride of every landowner who, in addition to their vineyard, also takes care of the house vine.
This young British couple, with their pale yellow, slightly worn motor home, also strayed between the endless wine hills in Jeruzalem rather by chance. This dreamy green landscape in the Slovenian far north-east is still looking for a place on the world tourist map, but it seems that it will not be long before the wine roads of the Jeruzalemske Gorice Hills are flooded by tourists from all over the world.
In tourism waters, Slovenia has been sailing at high speed for four years now, and this year, too, this country of two million people, nested between Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia, received a new and even more important challenge – to justify its nomination as a European Gastronomic Region 2021, an honour which it will share with Coimbra, Portugal.
What wine did Napoleon’s army sip in Jeruzalem?
If you type Jeruzalem into your web browser, the likelihood of being ‘taken’ to Slovenia is, to be truthful, rather slim. You will have more luck if you browse Furmint, one of the oldest noble varieties of wine and a carefully guarded secret of Slovenia, which boasts nine wine-growing districts. What Chardonnay is to Burgundy or Sangiovese to Tuscany, Šipon (Furmint) is to Slovenia and its wine-growing region of Podravje. This white wine variety is so characteristic of Slovenia that we could say it is indigenous. Its name presumably originates from the Napoleonic period when the officers praised the wine with the words Si bon. As legend has it, the wine is known here only as Šipon, while in neighbouring Hungary, it is called Furmint because of its grain-golden colour.
But let’s get back to Jeruzalem, a small village with only 40 inhabitants, attractive not only because of its wine varieties but also the beauty of its landscape, and to the Jeruzalemske Gorice Hills, where almost every house has its own wine cellar. These hills are also famous for their authentic culinary delights, which are so good that this peaceful corner of the world is becoming increasingly popular among gourmets because the hills are famed for not copying European food flavours. And when you enjoy the unique panoramic views of the surrounding vineyard terraces or indulge in culinary delicacies at tourist farms, straw-covered wine cellars and stone vineyard cottages, and enjoy your peace of mind, you will agree with those who say that the Jeruzalemske Gorice Hills rightfully bear the name of a heavenly place.
Not long ago, the extreme north-eastern part of Slovenia along the border with Austria and Hungary, where the Prekmurje and Prlekija landscapes are located, was considered an overlooked tourist destination; however, that is changing, which has a lot to do with the English, who used to buy old houses in Prekmurje a decade ago for their extended weekend getaways, with some even moving there permanently. The Prekmurje plain, which was the bottom of the Pannonian Sea millions of years ago, is also rich in numerous water sources, and the healing waters in this region have enabled the rapid development of spa and wellness tourism. Little Slovenia has as many as 87 natural thermal springs with water temperature between 32 and 73 degrees Celsius.
From Prlekija, it is not far to the town of Ptuj, about which the famous Daily Mail recently wrote that it is the most difficult-to-pronounce place in the world among British tourists, and to the Svečinske Gorice Hills, where a heart-shaped wine road winds among the vineyards. The survey that found that as many as 92 percent of the British pronounce the name of the oldest town in Slovenia incorrectly, inspired the local tourism institute to film a new promotional video in which Ptuj citizens teach foreign tourists in a congenial way about the correct pronunciation of the name of their city. On the other hand, in the Svečinske Gorice Hills, promotion is not even needed as their heart-shaped road is one of the most photographed Slovenian attractions on Instagram.
A view worth paying for
Lake Planšarsko jezero in Jezersko is another heart-shaped pearl, which we may allow ourselves to describe as a pearl hidden-from-the-world by Slovenia. This magical emerald lake in the heart of the Alps, near the Slovenian-Austrian border, is now artificially dammed, but a large glacial lake, after which the place was also named, once flooded there.
The idyllic Jezersko is an incredible combination of wild, untouched nature with a backdrop of Alpine peaks, and it’s a magnet for those who seek solitude, and those who want to spend their leisure time actively. Marjan Batagelj, the Slovenian businessman who recently bought the Planinka Hotel and undertook its thorough renovation, calls Jezersko the Slovenian Davos, while others say Jezersko is a healing place. This is undoubtedly not only because of the ‘healing’ views of the picturesque green valley, immersed in the heart of the mountains, but also because of the fresh mineral water for which Jezersko is known far and wide. You can pour yourself some mineral water. All you need to do so is find a wooden trough along the road or a signpost showing you the way to a mineral water spring. The mineral water tastes similar to bottled mineral water; however, it contains much less ‘added’ carbon dioxide. It is especially recommended to drink mineral water if you have cardiovascular disease, so don’t forget to take a bottle or two away with you.
There are no thermal spas or shopping centres in Jezersko; however, there are numerous walking and hiking trails that allow visitors to spend their leisure time actively in both summer and winter. Climbing tours of various difficulty levels, ski touring, cross-country skiing, as well as sledding, skating or, in the last few years, the increasingly popular snowshoeing – walking over snow with specially adapted footwear with a large surface so that the legs do not sink deep into the snow when walking. There is also something for mountain bikers and amateur cyclists who can try out numerous macadam roads leading through the glacial valleys.
Jezersko offers over 60 km of marked trails of various difficulty, but do not forget to stop at the Gostišče ob Planšarskem jezeru inn, where you will be pampered with a selection of home-made Slovenian dishes. Jezersko is located only half an hour’s drive from the main Slovenian airport at Brnik and, owing to cheap flights from the British capital, Slovenia is now accessible to British guests as a cheap weekend destination.
The Hollywood scenery of the Slovenian Tuscany
‘One would even pay for such scenery,’ emphasized the two young English at their farewell in Jeruzalem before departing for another culinary and wine indulgence – a visit to Goriška Brda near the Slovenian-Italian border. Probably, the vicinity of the border does not have much to do with the fact that Goriška Brda likes to compete with Italy’s Tuscany; however, they most certainly have excellent wines that do not require special advertising in Goriška Brda. It has already been mentioned that there are as many as nine wine-growing regions in Slovenia and the region of Goriška Brda is definitely in the leading position, since they can boast the largest number of medals and prizes per hectare of vineyards throughout Slovenia. In Slovenia, you will find more than 28,000 wine cellars, where over 90 million litres of various wines are produced each year. Translated into the language of statistics, two-million strong Slovenia has a vineyard per every 70 inhabitants.
It seems quite right to choose a camper to travel across Goriška Brda, where you will soon feel that the entire landscape is one large vineyard. Some people swear that this idyllic landscape with gentle slopes is at its most beautiful in the spring when the landscape becomes covered in white cherry blossoms, while others prefer early fall when the landscape changes colours and the vines turn red and yellow. But one thing is certainly true: the gorgeous landscape of Goriška Brda will put you under its spell with its medieval villages and hills covered with vineyards, fruit trees or centuries-old dark-green cypresses, and before you know it, you’ll be extending your visit to Goriška Brda for a day or two.
And once you feed your soul with the downright Hollywood scenery of this fairy-tale wine-growing landscape with castles, mansions and villas, other senses will come into play since Goriška Brda is a place producing exquisite wines as well as superb food. Fresh bread and home-made olive oil. Prosciutto and pancetta. Goat’s cheese, asparagus, corn pudding... these are just some of the delicious dishes in which you can indulge at Goriška Brda while being caressed by the warm Mediterranean air from the sea that is only a stone’s throw away.
And if you are a fan of escaping into the unknown, you may perhaps receive a very special bonus at Goriška Brda – when you drive along the winding local roads, you may well find that you are not completely sure whether you are in Slovenia or in Italy.
A natural gem in the Slovenia-Austria-Italy triangle
When you have imbibed the views of the Alpine mountains at fairy-tale Jezersko, tried the Furmint wine in heavenly Jeruzalem and pampered your taste buds with excellent culinary treats and wines in the Slovenian Tuscany, you can round off your trip with a visit to the tourist resorts of Bled and Bohinj or wander around and discover the renowned ski resort of Kranjska Gora in the north-west of Slovenia, at the foot of the Julian Alps and the Karawanks, which is a true paradise for recreation both in summer and winter. Kranjska Gora lies in a narrow area of the Triglav National Park, named after Triglav, the symbol of Slovenia and its highest mountain, with an elevation of 2,864 m and only a crow’s flight from the triple border between Slovenia, Italy and Austria. In its immediate vicinity, there is the Planica Nordic Centre, which is best known for world cup competitions in ski jumping.
The Triglav National Park boasts crystal clear waters, wild waters, canyons, the remnants of primeval forests, the largest natural lake in Slovenia (Lake Bohinj), and most of all, an unbelievable view of the Julian Alps scenery that will bring you back to Slovenia time and again.