The Diary of a Hedonistic Hiker III
Last year Gina Dark entered and won a competition with Italia! magazine to join one of our hikes. She came in June to Slovenia knowing nothing about Hedonistic Hiking and when she returned home wrote this wonderful diary of her HH experience. Happily for us she was willing to share it!
6 June 2014 (Tour Day 6)
We waved goodbye to Hotel Hvala and drove in the Hedonistic Hiking minibus up to about the 400m level of Mt. Matajur, located in the Julian Alps on the border between Slovenia and Italy. A challenging four-hour hike followed, taking us through woods and alpine pastures, where cows were grazing and a friendly horse nibbled our rucksacks. We could see Slovenia, Austria and Italy, and the views onto the mountains, still snow-capped, were spectacular.
The climb was tough in places and we had regular rests, but the flowers, wildlife, mutual encouragement and wonderful views kept us going. In the distance, we could see the little chapel on the summit of Mt. Matajur, our first destination of the day. About half-way into our hike, we crossed the invisible border into Italy, which to me felt quite surreal.
Finally, after a steep climb, we arrived at the chapel some 1641m above sea level, but we had frustratingly been beaten to it by a group of Germans. We consoled ourselves about this intrusion with the knowledge that they had all taken the short-cut route up to the summit from the Italian side, whereas we had done the longer and more difficult route from Slovenia! Some Italian cyclists also arrived, stripping off to cool down on the monument, but to the disappointment of the ladies in our group, they sadly lacked those ‘Tour de France’ physiques.
After a rest and a group photo, we descended the mountain for about an hour, admiring the flowers and butterflies on the way, until we reached a little refuge where Isabelle and Andrew had set up a lovely picnic. It was a beautiful spot, surrounded by mountains. Food and wine awaited and were very welcome, allowing us to rest our, by now, weary feet.
Jackie read out some extracts from a book called ‘Slovenia 1945: Memories of Death and Survival after World War II’ by John Corsellis and Marcus Ferrar. They gave a good history of the area and of the betrayal when, at the end of the war, the British army forcibly sent back 12,000 anti-Communist Slovenes, the Domobranci, who were escaping through the mountains, resulting in their massacre at the hands of Stalin. [I don’t yet know the detail of this tragic event, but this is another book I’ve since ordered to read in quieter time! For anyone who is interested, there is an interesting interview on YouTube – just google ‘Slovenia 1945 TV interview’ and there is an interesting article at http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2010/10/britains_sloven...
We then continued our descent for about half an hour until we reached the ‘Rifugio Guglielmo Pelizzo’ guest-house, where there is an observatory located nearby, and we enjoyed a welcome cappuccino and traditional cake.
From there, we took the minibuses to the picturesque Italian town of Cividale del Friuli, a UNESCO World Heritage site not far from the Slovene border. We visited the Monastero di Santa Maria in Valle and the Tempietto Longobardo (the Longobard Temple or oratory) with its wonderful frescoes and 9th century woodwork. We also went outside onto the little path with its view over the Natisone river and took photos of the town and the Ponte del Diavolo or Devil’s Bridge, the symbol of the city. Then followed a short walk back into town where we visited the Christian Museum and Treasure of the Cathedral of Cividale with its stone Altar of Ratchis , its medieval paintings, icons, old instruments and bishops’ gowns.
After a wander through the old town, including a medieval house, we ended up on the main square. By now, I was hot and flagging, so I bought my first Italian ice-cream in Italy – biscotti and limone flavour – in one word, delicious! Others in the group enjoyed a refreshing drink at the café on the square.
Refreshed, we drove to Gorizia and to our wonderful hotel, the Grand Hotel Entourage, the 16th century palace of the Strassoldo family that once gave hospitality to the French Royal family. My room – No 209 on the second floor - was worthy of several photos. The bed was massive and the bathroom separate, self-contained and impeccable, and I willingly ran a hot bath to ease my aching muscles. After a long soak, I watched some Italian TV and relaxed.
Around 8pm, I went down to the square in front of the hotel for supper with the group. We dined at the lovely Il Chiostro restaurant, and were served asparagus risotto, pork, and panna cotta with strawberries, accompanied by a variety of wines, including a refreshing Prosecco Modolet and a Moscato rosé. I retired around 10:30pm to get a good night’s sleep, abandoning the buzzing and lively atmosphere of the busy square.
7 June 2014 (Tour Day 7)
At breakfast, I tried the delicious chocolate croissant which I had managed to resist all week. Heaven! After breakfast, we drove to the Primosic vineyard and winery in Oslavia, still in Italy, and met the family who run it. We had a tour of the winery which was in the cellar of the house, and were shown the three types of wooden barrel used in making the wines, as well as the stainless steel vats.
We were told that during the war, production had stopped and we were shown the oldest wines in the family’s private collection. I learnt that litres of the wine in the barrels can be lost by the barrels absorbing it and so when the house was rebuilt, the family preserved the old well in the cellar or ‘cave’ in order to provide humidity and reduce this loss. We then went back upstairs and tasted three types of Ribolla Giolla wine – the ribolla grape apparently originally came from North-East Europe. The first two wines were not too strong, but the third reminded me of sherry. That was my first after-breakfast wine-tasting!
We then drove back over the Italian-Slovenian border into the Goriška Brda region and walked for an hour or so through beautiful vineyards lined with cherry trees, tasting the succulent cherries on the way, to the fortified village of Šmartno. As the Cherry Festival was taking place, the village was very busy. It is very pretty, with the Church of St Martin standing in the centre, but a number of buildings were destroyed in the earthquake of 1976 and renovation work has since been carried out thanks to EU funding. I briefly visited the Ethnography Museum and strolled around the village until we re-grouped.
We walked through more vineyards to the village of Biljana, seeing frogs en route and eating more cherries from the fields – delicious! On arrival, we visited the ‘Bjana’ (short for Biljana in local dialect) winery. It is a UNESCO protected winery which was originally in the family that currently owns it for many years before being taken from them, ‘socialised’, and later given back to the son of the family, who resumed production, renovated the building, and began to run a two-room agro-tourism gîte. We had a home-made lunch there, with thick vegetable soup, followed by a type of herb omelette and polenta, meats and cheese, and finished with a delicious cherry strudel. We also celebrated Diana’s birthday. Lunch was accompanied by three truly excellent sparkling wines – Brut, Brut Rosé and Brut Zero. I made a note to self to order some for Christmas! Indeed, these are considered to be amongst the best wines in Slovenia and with good reason.
After lunch, we walked for about 20 minutes through the fields and on the Cherry Blossom trail to Dobrovo, Goriška Brda’s largest town and principal wine centre, to enjoy the Praznik Cesenj or Cherry Festival. At the entrance to the village, an entire cow was being roasted on a spit, giving off a lot of heat. I spent half an hour wandering round the stalls selling handicrafts and produce, including wooden items, olives and cherries, and had a look at the traditional wedding taking place in Dobrovo Castle. On the main square, a choir sang some Slovene songs.
We then drove back to the hotel in Gorizia where we had some free time. It was a hot day, so after a quick shower, I set off on my own for a walk up to the castle. To my surprise and delight, the ‘carabinieri’ were holding an open-air concert on the Piazza. I stayed to listen to the wind band playing music from various Italian films, as well as some Verdi and Bizet. I just had time to look around the castle ramparts before the castle closed for the day. I listened to the music some more before descending into the town where I bumped into Jo and we walked to our group meeting point on Piazza della Vittoria.
Supper was in a rather eccentric and quirky restaurant, the Trattoria della Luna, which had a décor of saucepans, toys, plastic flowers and so forth on the walls. The waitresses wore traditional dress and the table was covered with numerous wine glasses and a plethora of plates. We had little ricottina cheese balls to start with, frico con polenta, rabbit, some biscuits and ice-cream to finish. The decoration of the dishes was somewhat original with ribbons and paper tied around the glasses.
8 June 2014 (Tour Day 8)
A later start today, so I got up and caught up on writing this diary. After breakfast, we set off for the spa town of Grado, about an hour’s drive away. I headed for the beach with Diana and Andrew and went swimming in the shallow waters, whilst they sat on a bench soaking up the sun. We walked back along the seafront and met the rest of the group at the lovely Agli Artisti fish restaurant. We had a prawn salad starter with a Tokaj/Pinot Grigio wine, and then a variety of fish in batter, including prawns, whitebait, sardines and calamari. To finish, we enjoyed a strawberry sorbet and coffee. Jo, Morfydd, Sheryl and Annette had checked out the local boutiques and paused for a photo to show off their newly-acquired scarves.
We then drove about half an hour to the ancient Roman city of Aquileia and visited the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Patriarchal Basilica and its archaeological site, which was an amazing experience. The Basilica stands on the same site as earlier churches and somehow withstood the earthquake of 1976. It contains, literally, layers upon layers of history which space (and my lack of knowledge) does not permit me to set out here. Restoration works uncovered several layers of an almost entirely intact mosaic floor, covering an area of roughly 750m², some of which dates back to the 3rd century AD, I believe. Indeed, we learnt that the smaller the tiles, the older the mosaics.
We had a wonderful guide who explained the significance of the patterns in the mosaics which portray biblical and symbolical themes. For example, two continuous rings represent Christ’s human and god-like forms, and three rings the Trinity. The rooster and turtle (from the Greek word for hell) represents good and evil. The Old Testament story of Jonas, who spent three days and three nights in a whale’s belly, was represented in three parts by Jonas being eaten by a sea monster, being spat out and then resting. A mosaic sea of 153 fish represents all the nations at the time. The fishermen represent the Apostles, the act of fishing is preaching and the fish caught by fishermen in the net represent those who had turned to Christianity - those who eluded the bait remained pagan or turned to other religions. There were many more examples.
We descended into the subterranean crypt which allegedly contained holy relics of saints. The vaulted ceiling and walls are covered in 12th century frescoes depicting St. Mark - who travelled from Rome to Aquileia and founded a Christian community there -, the Virgin Mary and child, scenes from the crucifixion and so forth.
From the crypt, we went back upstairs to see the altar, more frescoes and the organ, given as a present at a later date. I lit a candle in remembrance of my mother. We then went to another area of crypt excavation works and finally to the Baptistery which was octagonal - the number eight symbolising the concept of renewal and rebirth. However, the font was a sectagon to represent the Greek letters I and X, the initials of Christ. I made a quick visit to the shop to buy a guide-book about this fantastic place and then we drove back to the hotel where I slept for a while, showered and packed.
At 7pm, we met for our last supper which was at the La Subida restaurant in Cormóns, a short drive from Gorizia. We drank our sparkling wine apéritif, accompanied by Montasio frico, d’Osvaldo ham and other nibbles, outside in the lovely garden. The restaurant was elegantly decorated with felt flowers, funny motifs of rabbits and badgers, as well as a fox playing the violin which particularly caught my eye. We were served countless courses, including home-made pasta, guinea fowl roe deer and a trio of desserts and numerous excellent wines… As it was our last night, the Australians in the group staged a scenario about shaving a man from ‘Iron Bar’, which was very funny. To represent the British contingent, Morfydd heroically recited from memory the cautionary tale about Henry King eating string and Andrew told another of his fine tales. Finally, we drove back to our hotel for the last time.
9 June 2014 (Day 9 and final day of the tour)
After our last wonderful breakfast in the hotel, we said goodbye to the members of the group who were not going on to Venice airport, the group’s departure point, but continuing their travels elsewhere. Those of us remaining loaded our luggage into the minibuses and set off, taking in the scenery along the road. We arrived at the airport around 11am and finally it was time to say – in my case a tearful – goodbye to Jackie and Isabelle, who had been such wonderful hosts. Looking after us to the last, they had even organised a water-taxi for those of us continuing to Venice to prolong our stay. It was sad to leave my new-found Hedonistic Hiking friends, but I will really cherish the memories of the tour, especially the amazing hiking scenery and the warm, friendly and supportive group atmosphere.