The Diary of a Hedonistic Hiker

Part I – The competition, the departure and Day 1 of the tour

Sunday, 14 July 2013
I had spent a very hot morning playing my violin with the Winchester Chamber Orchestra in a concert for children at the Winchester Discovery Centre. There was a power-cut that day and the air conditioning was not working. However, not to be thwarted, the orchestra played on to the bitter end. And the kids loved it.

Once back home, I sat in the shade on my balcony to recover with a glass of wine and the July 2013 issue of Italia magazine to read and I did something that I never do, I entered a competition. Not just any competition, but one to win a luxurious gourmet walking holiday with Hedonistic Hiking. It sounded like my kind of holiday, although I had not heard of the company before. All I had to do was answer a simple question. As the answer was clearly indicated on the page, I emailed the magazine with it and in the days that followed forgot all about my entry.

Friday, 19 July 2013
To my great surprise, I received an email from Italia magazine informing me that I had won the competition.
In due course, Jackie from Hedonistic Hiking contacted me and sent me details of the different tours – I was spoilt for
choice! I waited for the catch … but there was none. I only had to pay for my flights and the single room supplement.

After much deliberation, I booked myself onto the tour to Slovenia and Friuli for 1-9 June 2014 as I had never been to
mainland Italy or Slovenia. I had my annual leave authorised at work and then I just had to wait… almost a year!

Saturday, 31 May 2014the night before the Hedonistic Hiking tour began
The adventure had finally begun. I said ‘Goodbye’ to my cat Marcel, who was left in the care of my reliable cat-sitter,
and headed for the bus-stop. I was early of course. Travel nerves. Fortunately, the bus was on time, arriving at 07:19
precisely, giving me 20 minutes to enjoy a cappuccino at Winchester station before getting my train to London Waterloo.

When I arrived at the airport I looked around to see which other passengers on my flight were wearing walking boots – could they be on the Hedonistic Hiking trip too? During the flight, I read a brief history of Slovenia and, as my seat was by the window, I enjoyed spectacular views as we flew over the Alps.

On arrival at Ljubljana airport, I was pointed in the direction of the shuttle bus which delivers you directly to your
destination for only 9 euros. I chatted with a young English couple en route and tried to tune my ear in to the Slovene
on the radio. I had expected to be able to understand a lot more because of my knowledge of Russian, but despite some
similarities, I struggled to understand much of the spoken language, although reading the billboards we passed was
easier. My English-Slovene phrasebook would definitely come in handy.

The driver took me to the Bit Center, Litijska c.57, approximately 2.2 km out of Ljubljana, where I had booked a room in
the Youth Hostel part. I checked in. Everything was very clean and the staff very friendly. I was given maps of
Ljubljana, had the bus system explained to me and bought a bus card. By this point, I was exhausted and rested for an
hour or two. Then, not wanting to waste my one evening in Ljubljana, I forced myself out of bed and took the short bus-
ride into town.

I first checked out the train station where I was due to meet the Hedonistic Hiking group the next day. Then I walked
down Miklošičeva Cesta, past the Grand Hotel Union and the colourful Cooperative Bank until I reached Prešeren Square,
named after the poet France Prešeren, apparently a womaniser and alcoholic who wrote romantic poems about unfulfilled
love, the joys of drinking, and his beautiful country.

By this time, I had rediscovered my camera, which had suffered months of lack of use. Following my pocket guide-book’s itinerary, I walked over the Triple Bridge, through the Central Market and past the Cathedral of St Nicholas. 

I crossed over Butchers’ Bridge, also known as the ‘lovers’ bridge’ as it is where lovers leave padlocks to symbolize their love, and bought some postcards in a souvenir shop. I continued as far as Dragon Bridge, crossed back over and just made it in time to get the Funicular to Ljubljana Castle.

It was about 8:15 pm by now. Although the castle and museums had already closed, I was still able to go up the observation tower where I took more photos of the fantastic views over Ljubljana as the wind came up and the sky began to darken but, fortunately, the few suspect drops of rain did not last. I took the Funicular down to Krekov trg, along Mestni trg and Stari trg and Gornji trg before doubling back on myself to head towards the station. At Slovenska cesta, I saw a No 9 bus-stop and as it was dark now and getting late, I took the bus back to the hostel, counting down the stops. A hot Panini and a nice glass of Slovenian merlot wine at the hostel bar made a great end to my first day.

Sunday 1 May 2014 (Tour Day 1)
Once the kids in a Serbian dance troupe had finished practising their dance moves in the room above, I got a reasonable
night’s sleep. After a nice muesli and yogurt breakfast and a quick trip to Lidl for sun-cream, I checked out of the
hostel and got the bus to Ljubljana.

I met up with the Hedonistic Hiking group in front of the station. I was introduced to Jackie, who was leading the tour,
and Isabelle, who was assisting with the logistics and food.  To my surprise, there were more Australians than Brits in
the group and I was the youngest there. Everyone seemed very friendly, although at this point I couldn’t remember
people’s names!

We travelled in the Hedonistic Hiking minibus to Škofja Loka (Bishops Meadow) on the Sora river and visited the town,
which was formerly a regional centre for craftsmen and an important trading post. Jackie told us some of the local history and about the bishops’ influence on the area. Looking up, we were told that the building on the mountain was not a church but a restaurant/bar and that the locals have to climb the mountain and sign the visitors’ book – the one who goes up the most often gets a prize!

We then wandered round the traditionally ‘rich’ part of the town along Mestni trg (Town Square), the medieval marketplace and then the ‘poorer’ part along Spodnji trg (Lower Square) and saw the building that was once the town granary. The town
was being re-cobbled thanks to EU funding. We visited the Church of St James (Cerkev Sv Jakob) which has an impressive bell outside, and then got to know each other better over a delicious light salad of local meats and cheeses in a local ‘gostilna’.

After lunch, we drove to Lake Bled, some 50km north-west of Ljubljana and apparently Slovenia’s most visited resort. It was surprisingly windy and we stopped to take pictures of the lake, Bled Island (Blejski otok) with its church and bell tower, and Bled Castle, dramatic against the surrounding mountains.

We then drove to our hotel, Hotel Jezero, on the beautiful Lake Bohinj. At this point, I felt truly lucky to have won the competition. The hotel was lovely, with a view of the lake to the left and the Triglav mountain to the right. Jackie later explained that the statue outside the hotel of the four people pointing to the mountain was of those who had first ‘conquered’ the mountain. Climbing it has now become a rite of passage for true Slovenes and apparently, spanking occurs at the top! I think I’ll stop there and ask no further questions…

After checking in, I went for a quick but relaxing swim in the hotel pool and wrote a couple of postcards. Around 4:30 pm, the group met up and we were driven a short way before setting out on a very scenic first walk in the Mostnica Gorge (part of the Triglav mountain range). Jackie paid our entry at the kiosk and we followed the ravine which has been sculpted into a variety of shapes by the river. Of these, we saw one in particular.

This was the ‘Slonček’ or elephant stone in the water, and we admired the beautiful limestone gorges and waterfalls. Jackie explained that the river Mostnica later joins the river Sava that caused the recent floods in Croatia. At the end of the walk, which was about 6 km, we enjoyed a champagne apéritif set up by Isabelle against the backdrop of the mountains. Beautiful!

After a short drive to the Gostilna Rija in Srednja Vas, we had a delicious menu of asparagus with Bohinj cheese, venison, carrots and potatoes, followed by crêpes in a mixed berry sauce accompanied by Sauvignon and Cabernet Sauvignon wine. A chance to chat and get to know people better, learning a few more names. Around 9:30 pm, after a coffee, we left for the hotel by a crescent moon which surreptitiously disappeared behind the clouds. A relatively early night and for the first time in months, no need for me to set my alarm at 6am for the commute to work. Absolute bliss! What a wonderful first day!

To be continued…