Mountainous northern Slovenia may be covered with a thick layer of snow for much of winter, but you will find a warm welcome in the traditional homes of local farmers.

Snow is falling on Perk Farm, high on the slopes of Matkov Kot; fine, powdery snow, silently adding to the white blanket spread over the farmhouse roof, the painted beehive and the woodstore with its neat pile of logs. The spruce and pine trees all around are weighed down, more snow than tree, and the steep mountainside that falls away beneath the farm is hidden behind cloud. The creak of my footsteps is the only sound as I make my way down to the barn.

'Živijo, pomocnica,' says Karel Krivec, the farmer, smiling and crinkling his eyes. 'Hello, assistant.' He is amused by my desire to help, tolerant as all Solcavsko folk seem to be of the outsiders who come and homestay at local farms, with their strange enthusiasm and astonishment at such simple matters as churning butter or making salami. He passes me a wicker basket of hay and shows me how to swing it on my shoulder. The donkey, overdramatising as usual, lets out a strangled, desperate bray before I scatter the hay for him and the two jostling bullocks, then wheel in several barrows of silage for Perk Farm's eight cows in their stalls and give the chickens their grain.

'Enough.' Karel puts down his pitchfork and grins at me. 'Breakfast!'

This is my fourth day in the little Alpine enclave of Solcavsko. I have spent them visiting different farms, and marvelling at the beauty of the three flat-bottomed valleys that make up this district, and the wooded slopes that rise abruptly out of them. Above is the dramatic profile of the Kamniško-Savinjske Alps: a towering rocky horseshoe, dusted with icing-sugar snow, which cuts across the southern sky. To the east, Solcavsko is enclosed by the cone of Mount Raduha, while across the north, the long, rocky bulk of the Olševa Mountain forms the border with Austria.

It's hard to believe that we are in the heart of Europe, only a few hours' drive from Trieste or Vienna. Historically, the area was so isolated by its ring of mountains that until 1895 only a footpath connected it to the rest of Slovenia. Deserters from the Austro-Hungarian army found this made it the perfect hideout - at the head of one valley the pathway passes through the 'eye' of a needle of rock, and from here foolhardy Imperial Army inspectors could be dispatched with a cosh over the head. To this day the valleys retain the magical feeling of a world apart.

The mountain farms themselves add to this aura, being run using farming techniques little-changed since the Middle Ages. In 1426, the Benedictine monks in nearby Gornji Grad recorded Perk Farm, with its pasture and forest, in their register. At that time Nicla Kokecz po Oroznovem- Perko was the farmer, supporting himself and his family by driving his indigenous cattle and sheep up to the high pastures in the summer and making cheese, butter and yoghurt. In the winter he fed his stock on hay cut and dried on the mountainside, and for a little extra income, he cut timber from the forest and floated it downriver - just as the Krivecs of Perk Farm do today. As I return from the barn, stamping the snow off my boots, the direct descendant of Nicla Kokecz, our kind-faced landlady Neža, is covering the table with dishes for breakfast - home-baked rye bread and pastries, piquant salami, homemade cheeses and eggs with deep orange yolks. The people of Solcavsko have embraced some of the advances of modern life - fourwheel drives, wi-fi, and the euro among them - yet the conveniences of the food industry have left them cold. Accustomed for centuries to providing for themselves, they have not lost the art.

'Why would I go shopping?' Majda says during my two-day stay with her at Majdac Farm. 'We have to buy flour, sugar and coffee... but everything homemade is more tasty!' She is right. All the food I am offered is layered with rich flavours. 'Eat up!' is the constant refrain. I savour štruklji (cream cheese dumplings), žlinkrofi (pork dumplings) and mushroom soup made with boletus and chanterelles picked from the forest. Hospitality in these valleys is a duty and a pleasure, and every landlady I meet wants me to try her specialities. Occasionally their generosity defeats me. At Majdac, the granny, Anica, sighs and tuts as she clears away the leftovers from a bounteous dinner. At last, she can restrain herself no longer.

'If you eat,' she bursts out, raising her palms to the sky, 'I can live!' Her daughter, Majda, roars with laughter. 'This is our mother!' She slaps her thighs. 'Look what she has done to me!'

The hearty meals have a practical purpose, of course: life on a mountain farm uses up a lot of energy. Neža at Perk Farm remembers walking to school as a child: an hour and a half down in the morning, and three hours back up the mountain after school. Even today, many of the children at the village school will be up early to help feed the animals and milk the cows. 'I began to help with the milking when I was six,' says Majda, beaming. 'I love these animals!'

THE snow has stopped, and the sky above the rocky peaks is a soaring blue streaked with high cirrus cloud. I'm setting off to walk the circular path up the Logar Valley, one of the three that make up Solcavsko. There must be wind far above, but here the air is still and sharp. Great tits chirrup beside the trail, hopping from twig to twig, little showers of powder spraying out as they land.

The air is cold in my lungs, but the sun beats down on my back, and as I climb through these festive, glittering woods, I find myself smiling irrepressibly; it is all so absurdly beautiful. In the summer, there is a longer trail around the valley, blocked by snowdrifts at this time of year. Yet even the shorter path seems strenuous as my boots sink into the snow with each step. By the time I return to the valley floor, I am happy to sit awhile on the terrace of another farmhouse, Ojstrica, sipping Laško beer and turning my face to the sun.

A more effective way of getting about is on cross-country skis, taking the 12-mile track around the valley. The following day I do this, gliding smugly over areas where I would have wallowed hopelessly on foot. The 'schuss, schuss' of the skis as I slip between the trees is evocative; I picture Neža and her classmates swishing down to school on winter mornings, fiery-cheeked and bundled up in knitted hoods. Vistas of pine trunks, straight and serried, stretch out on every side. When, in mid-afternoon, the sun dips behind the mountain and my skis suddenly criss-cross ice-blue shadows, I am reminded of the more sinister snippets of local folklore my hosts have passed on: the wizard Fida, who lived in a cave above the valley and sold his soul to the devil, and the evil little spirits, parkeljni, who rattle their chains as they lie in wait for naughty children. No wonder Neža said that she found the woods frightening. Even without rattling chains, their sheer size is unsettling. In Slovenia, untamed forest still exceeds land that has been brought under cultivation.

Solcavsko people know these woods intimately; in practice, they are huntergatherers as much as agriculturalists, reaping a rich harvest from the forest: berries, mushrooms, herbs and flowers. My hosts at Majdac farm show me a list of a dozen different plants - including balm mint, dandelion, dog rose, thyme, nettles and two types of violet - that make the delicious tisane that is offered instead of tea.

At a neighbouring farm, Žibovt, I join host Martina Policnik and her friends for a huge meal created largely from foraged ingredients. Sitting in the dining room, the Alps spread out before us, we polish off course after course: wild garlic soup, dried pear dumplings, mažlni - a sort of round sausage - served with rowanberry jelly, venison and wild Jerusalem artichoke mash. Finally, a yoghurt panna cotta and blueberry compote sprinkled with mint arrives; light and refreshing, it slips down my throat almost of its own accord.

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.

 

 

 

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