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As the afternoon wears on and the mountains are stained gold and pink, deepening into purple twilight, we sip one flavoured brandy after another - blueberry, beech leaf, rowanberry - and listen as everyone round the table competes to tell anecdotes of local life. With a total population of about 650, the small, three-valley community of Solcavsko is well-known in Slovenia for its characters and its particular sense of humour. Everyone has a nickname, some earned, and some passed down through the generations. One old man, who's never been much of a writer, has been known all his life as Pen. Now the village has a name for his grown-up son, who's rather more versed in the modern age - Technical Pen.

'You will have understood that Solcavsko people do things slowly, they like to take their time,' says Martina's neighbour Karli, a well-known zither player, as he recounts the story of Luca, whose car was swept away in a flood in 1990. 'Look, Luca, your car is being washed away!' people told him. A pause while Luca processed the news. 'Oh well,' he responded, 'it didn't have anything valuable in it.' The character in Karli's stories who makes Martina laugh so much she has to sit down is a man known as Salami, whose remarks have a surreal brilliance. 'My mother is so ill, she can only eat bananas,' a friend told Salami one night in the bar. 'Hmm,' mused Salami, looking grave. 'Live ones?'

Winter days in Solcavsko were made for meals such as this - leisurely, delicious, eaten around the large ceramic stove that is the focal point of every house. In the summer there is no end to a farmer's work, but winter is the time for visiting friends, joking, gossiping and listening to Karli as he plays us a polka on his zither. In the relaxed, jolly faces around me is the sense of a way of life that is industrious, simple and integrated into a landscape and a community - the lives of contented people.

Darkness has fallen by the time the party breaks up. I wander outside, breathing the cool pine-scented air. The moon is full and the clouds scudding across its surface cast blue shadows on the snow. Two owls call to each other across the valley. In April 1941, this peace was shattered by Nazi occupation. The inhabitants of Solcavsko were sent to concentration camps, their homes burnt. Those who managed to escape deportation hid in the mountains, forming partisan bands. On a moonlit night like this, it's easy to imagine those young men making their way through the forest, the noise of their boots disguised by the sound of rushing water; creeping up on Nazi positions and laying explosives.

After the war, the survivors returned and slowly rebuilt their farms and their community - working together to put up barns, supporting widows and their children. This was the '40s and '50s, when farmers all over Europe were embracing industrial methods. The people here made an unusual choice: they resumed the farming practices that had provided for them throughout the centuries. Solcavsko folk like to take their time; as Karli said, they do not embrace change lightly. In our whirling, fast-forward world, it is precisely this continuity that makes their lives look so original to us, and so inspiring.

 

Charlotte Hobson is the author of Black Earth City, which describes life in Russia during the collapse of the Soviet Union. She writes book reviews for the Telegraph and Spectator.

 

 

 

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The article ‘Snowbound Slovenia’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.

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