Tag Archives: Slovenia


I thought I was pretty familiar with Europe, and that I knew a thing or two about European culture and life. But when I say “Europe”, I mean the UK, France, Switzerland, Italy and so on – the countries that attract visitors from all over the world to spend their holidays there. When I set out on our June research trip, little did I realize that I was about to discover another understanding of the Continent.

One of the stops on our research trip was Slovenia. Before the trip I had only the haziest of ideas as to what Slovenia would be like. All I knew was that it had been communist until about twenty years ago, and so I imagined it to be a sombre place, its people dressed drably, its buildings colourless. Yet my experience of the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, turned these expectations completely on their head.

One sunny, 34C Tuesday morning, the sunlight shining through the leaves, we drove into the city. I couldn’t stop looking around me, comparing what I saw before me to the mental picture I had conjured up before our trip. This was no grey, drab country! I had to laugh at my own ignorance. As we approached the city centre, the roadside was plastered with adverts of all kinds of cultural events and activities; classical music, pop concerts, dance, theatre, I even saw a poster for Beijing opera, which gave me a moment of disorientation. After parking the car beside Republic Square, a popular spot for concerts and a gathering place for local people, we walked around the square. The scene that greeted our eyes was one of unselfconscious relaxation: people lay back on the lush green grass, reading, talking, drinking red wine or peacefully soaking up the sun. It looked like a still from a slow-motion film, so complete was the air of leisure, like a remake of La Dolce Vita.

When dinnertime arrived, we accepted the invitation of friends to a restaurant in the hills, and took in the view out over nighttime Ljubljana. During the meal, the sound of distant music floated up from below. Our friends told us that there was an open-air concert being held in Republic Square, and I wished that I could hurry back down into the city to enjoy the summer evening programme.

Without realizing it, the sounds of the concert gradually disappeared as our meal drew to its end. When I looked at the time it was already 11pm, and I started to worry that the streets would be deserted by the time we returned to the spot where we had left the car many hours earlier. After all, when one is in a strange place there are so many uncertainties; would it be safe? I never thought that the scene on the streets would completely surpass my expectations. Restaurants were just as full as they had been earlier in the evening, and – their insides full to bursting – happy drinkers simply spilled out onto the steps in front of each bar!

Centuries ago, the earth was thought to be flat, and people believed that if you walked to the end of the earth, you would simply fall off.  And yet, as people gradually moved across the surface of the globe, eventually people discovered that our planet is a sphere. With every journey, as I gradually discover new places, I’m continually made to feel that the world is bigger than I could have imagined; a big and a beautiful place indeed.

peifen_signature_white

 

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(For parts 1 and 2 of this 3-part series, please see “A holiday? Not exactly…” and “Impatient to run free…“)

In the Vipava valley

In the Vipava valley

“What do you really mean by a ‘Hidden Gem’?” people often ask me. Everyone intuitively knows what we mean, but it’s tricky to put it into words. When I try to describe my idea of a hidden gem, I say that it’s a well-kept secret, found in the most unexpected location at the most unexpected of times.

Still, that’s the kind of answer that, if it came from a politician, might make you roll your eyes and say to yourself “That’s why I hate politicians,” because it feels calculated and inauthentic. And so, often, I end up answering “I know one when I see one.” While this is still unhelpful, at least it has the merit of being completely true.

Whenever we’re researching a new itinerary, the quest is really to uncover hidden gems. From the moment I type a query into Google or e-mail a friend for suggestions to the day I finally program the address of one of my potential gems into the GPS, I am filled with anticipation that we might, perhaps, have found another one.

Majerija garden 1

What’s in the garden goes…

Back on June 23 this year, when I looked at my map of Slovenia the restaurant on our “to-do” list for the day, Majerija, looked like it was right off the highway. Thinking of greasy fast food at charmless service stations, I was almost put off visiting it. Would it be worth our while visiting it? That the restaurant is located in a village called “Slap” did little to assuage my worries.

Matej in the garden 1

Matej: “from the garden to the plate…”

From Lipica we turned north toward Ljubljana, before turning onto the highway to Trieste. After ascending a gentle pass, the modern highway swoops across elevated bridges and through brightly-lit tunnels into the Vipava valley, one of Slovenia’s wine-growing regions. Descending to near sea level, the temperature had risen to 35 degrees by the time we exited the highway. By this time one thing had become clear: wherever and whatever Majerija was, it wasn’t in a service station.

The road to Slap was so small that I missed the turn-off and had to do a U-turn to get back on course. Once on this little road, we saw a tiny village ahead, its diminutive skyline dominated by a church steeple. The road led through meadows, the air alive with the sound of cicadas and birds. Even though we were no more than two minutes from the expressway, it could not have felt further away. Both Pei Fen and I felt that as we drove we were not only slipping away from modern busy-ness, but also back in time.

Slap’s red, brick houses are situated on a gentle slope, and the village looks neat but still organic. Just 427 Slappers live in here. As we approached, I was filled with a mixture of apprehension and hope. It seemed highly unlikely that a restaurant worth a forty-five-minute drive could be here, in such rustic surroundings.

Dining in the garden 2

Dining in the midst of nature…

We drove past the church of St. Matthew and before we knew it the village was in our rear-view mirrors, and still the road kept rising and winding its way through the countryside as the road gradually narrowed futher. According to the GPS we had just another 200 meters to go to Majerija. We rounded one final corner and turned into a farmstead: if ever I’ve seen a “hidden gem” of a restaurant, this had to be it.

Majerija exists and is what it is because the owners, Matej and his wife, love what they do and because they are who they are: no attempt is made to convince others to like what they like; instead, they welcome those who, by word of mouth, love what they love.

Majerija Dish 1

Boletus pate with wild fennel flower topping and crostini

Majerija is a collection of four 18th century buildings that were and are one home. Dark wood-framed windows, decorated with bright red geraniums, contrast against white stone walls. The buildings are surrounded by vineyards, trees and verdant undergrowth, and festooned by tangles of roses. On the day of our visit, the deep blue sky completed the image of a home completely in tune with the environment that surrounds it.

A curved walkway leads to the entrance of the restaurant. As we turned the corner we see a few wooden table with white tablecloths, crystal glasses and gleaming silverware set in the shade by the side of the house. Shortly after we sat down, Matej emerged from inside the house and handed us his menu. I knew we should order – we had so much to do in the afternoon – but I put down the menu, closed my eyes and felt that I wanted to stay there for the rest of the day.

Eventually I picked up the menu again and ordered: “Boletus pate with wild fennel flower topping and crostini”, “Roasted shank of suckling pig and traditional autumn vegetables” and “Chestnut pave, homemade vanilla ice cream and cinnamon foam”, each one a feast for my eyes and my palate.

We spent one-and-a-half hours in the hands of Matej and the lap of Majerjia, a blink of an eye, it seemed – far too short in any event. When we took our leave it was with great anticipation of the time, in September, when we can share this experience with guests because, in the end, no words can do it justice.

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This post concludes a series of three posts about a single day on our latest research trip, June 23. A mad day of research? Yes, certainly. A typical day on the road when we’re putting together a new itinerary? Yup! But above all, an unforgettable day!

Peter

 

 

 

Interested in our new itinerary?  Please see here the Journey Dossier for Austrian-Hungarian Lands I: Vienna, the Adriatic, the Alps and Prague (12, 10 or 8 Days)

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(For part 1 of this 3-part series, please see “A holiday? Not exactly…”; for part 3, please see “I know one when I see one“.)

Spanish Court Riding School, Vienna

Spanish Court Riding School, Vienna

Ever since I was a small boy, I’ve known of the Lipizzaner stallions, the elegant grey-spotted horses that grace the performances of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School.  Perhaps because I spent three teenage years horseback riding, or maybe because I’m more interested in the future than the past, I’ve always remembered Vienna more for these horses than for its historical palaces and art.

Years and years of training...

Years and years of training…

Those of you that know of the Spanish Riding School will be familiar with the ritual formality and theatrical perfection of the School’s dressage, where the horses seem to float above the ground as they move through their routine.  As a demonstration of man’s control over nature it’s impressive, but entirely contrived – not that that makes it any less beautiful.

I never knew the Lipizzaner’s history or provenance, so it came as a surprise when I saw “Lipica” on Google Maps, near Slovenia’s border with Italy, and realised that the town’s Italian name was Lipizza – hence the horse breed’s name.  Since we started researching our European journeys I had wanted to visit. We had run out of time twice before, but I resolved that this time would be different!

An outing...at Lipica...

An outing…at Lipica…

At Sezana we left the highway that leads to Trieste, in Italy.  The GPS said we still had seven kilometers to go on the lovely meadow-lined road that leads south from Sezana.  The day had started overcast, but by now we were blessed with a blue-skied mid-summer morning, the sun glinting through the trees as we drove.  A signpost led us toward the Lipica Stud Farm down a narrower road, with white picket fences and linden trees lining it on both sides.  The air seemed soft and gently fragranced.  Almost involuntarily, we slowed down to enjoy the pleasure of entering this equine paradise.

Lipica Studfarm Stables

Lipica Studfarm Stables

Presently, we arrived at the entrance gate. While we couldn’t see many people, it was clear that at times the stud farm draws large crowds of visitors.  We were shown around by two guides. The first, Victoria, welcomed us to view the  horses’ morning dressage training, and then took us to the stables where the stallions are kept, all the while answering our questions with humour and authority.  Second, her colleague, Vid, gave us a glimpse of the network of paths used by Lippizan-drawn carriages to access the farm’s ten square kilometres.  Finally, we explored the farm’s museum and historic stables.  Victoria and Vid were so infectiously enthusiastic about their work that Pei Fen and I found ourselves falling in love with the farm and horses too.

Impatient to be free...

Impatient to be free…

“Next time, when you bring your guests, be sure to arrive well before 10 in the morning,” Vid told us.  “Why is that?” we asked.  “Because there is a spectacle you won’t want to miss…” Vid went on to explain that each morning, the mares are sent out to graze at 10am.  Vid’s animated description conjured up images of a herd of elegant Lipizzan mares stamping their feet, impatient to run free. The gates of their stables open.  They gallop away and the earth shakes.  A dust cloud rises goes up, and twirling, subsides.  Then silence, except for the rustling of the linden leaves in the gentle breeze.  At least, this is how I imagine it to be – the first time I see this sight will be with our guests later this summer

Eventually we had to leave for an appointment at a restaurant in the nearby Vipava valley.  We drove slowly to the exit of the stud farm’s grounds, trying to linger as long as possible in this corner of Slovenia.  After the past couple of hours, anything – even a restaurant that two of our Slovenian friends said “you absolutely must try” – would surely be a letdown?

And with that thought I put the address of Majerija into our GPS.

Peter

 

 

 

Interested in our new itinerary?  Please see here the Journey Dossier for Austrian-Hungarian Lands I: Vienna, the Adriatic, the Alps and Prague (12, 10 or 8 Days)

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This Easter, we will return to Slovenia for the second time in as many years. Yet until 2015, I’d hardly heard the country’s name, despite growing up in neighbouring Austria. Suddenly, Slovenian connections seem to be emerging all over the place.

In the Triglav National Park

In the Triglav National Park

When I was growing up in Austria in the 60s and 70s, Slovenia was part of Tito’s Yugoslavia and lay behind the Iron Curtain. In my imagination, anything connected to the USSR was rendered in monochrome – inaccessible, undesirable, and forbidden. Why would anyone want to go there?

I never had cause to reconsider this attitude until about a year ago, when my wife, Angie, and I began planning a trip to Croatia. Angie, who is originally from Malaysia, mentioned this casually to her sister Denise when visiting her last year in Melbourne.  “You’re going where?!” exclaimed her sister. “Croatia’s right next to Slovenia. My best friend is from there.”  Thirty minutes later Denise’s friend Renate had joined us to tell Angie all about Slovenia.

A few facts about Slovenia…

Slovenia is a small central European country  with a population of just two million. Part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until it became independent at the end of World War I, Slovenia shares Austria’s mountainous geography. Since joining the EU in 2004, Slovenia has become a moderately well-to-do and modern country, yet has retained a rustic and unspoiled charm. Slovenia produces wonderful wines (mostly whites but also reds) and has endeared itself to us for family restaurants that serve hearty food “like grandma used to make”.

Home made in Slovenia

Home made in Slovenia

 

Several of our On the Road in Europe itineraries visit Slovenia (for example, this itinerary here).  In 2017 we will be launching an Eastern Europe itinerary that will include the Czech Republic, eastern Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Northern Italy.

 “If you do go to Slovenia, I’ll introduce you to my cousin Sanja.   You can stay with her!” Just three months later Angie and I met Sanja and her husband Davorin. The couple live and work in Slovenia’s largest national park which takes its name from the country’s tallest mountain, Triglav. Sanja works in a drugstore; Davorin’s work is connected to the national park authority. They have three sons who could be the envy of any parent: courteous and lively, they come home from school to work on the family farm without their parents’ prompting. Much of what the family eats comes from their own land.  

After Angie’s meeting with Renate, our trip to Croatia expanded to take in Slovenia as well. While researching our itinerary we thought it

At Movia

At Movia

would be nice to stop at some vineyards along the way. A friend recommended Movia, one of Slovenia’s finest winemakers. The vineyard’s owner, Ales, is one of a kind, we heard. Wouldn’t it be something to meet him?

When we plan our holidays, Angie researches the hotels and restaurants; I pick the roads in between. On February 10th last year, we pulled up in front of one of Angie’s selected restaurants, Danilu, on the outskirts of Ljubljana and a member of Jeunes Restaurateur d’Europe. We were served by a fizzy young lady who turned out to be the owner’s daughter. Besides helping out in the family restaurant, she runs a night club and, to our great surprise, counts Movia’s owner Ales among her close friends. A week later we met Ales, shaking his enormous farmer’s hands, and spent an entire afternoon tasting his beautiful wines in his firelit tasting room.

On the road in Slovenia

On the Road in Slovenia

Sinuous roads lead through the Triglavsky park – one, narrow and steep, leads across a tall pass from Kranjska Gora to Soca; another enters from Italy. Less winding, the latter meanders across a lower pass and traces the course of a beautiful river. I could drive on these roads for hours without getting bored: how could one when immersed in this lovely landscape and dreamily following the curvy tarmacked ribbon of road?

We were driving through Triglavsky National Park earlier this year when I suddenly noticed something I hadn’t seen for a while. It was one of those double-take moments: did I just see what I saw? I turned around and back-tracked and then stood in front of, well, was I still in Slovenia? Or had I been transported to Tibet? Right there, in front of me, there were little cairns of stones that I had last seen along the road to Mt. Everest: sacred piles of stones that are constructed to fend off evil and bring good fortune. How had they been transported to Slovenia?

Manidui in Slovenia?

Manidui in Slovenia?

I find myself pondering how it can be that I had to go from Austria to Tibet and then via Malaysia and Australia only to discover Austria’s neighbor Slovenia and its unfathomable connections to places impossibly remote from it.

Sometimes it’s the things planned well in advance that make a journey special, like Angie’s restaurant choices or a particular route I’ve chosen, but at other times it’s the magic of serendipity – a chance collision of people and places – that transforms a journey into a really exceptional experience.

Manidui in Tibet!

Manidui in Tibet!

Peter

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Angie's Christmas Cookie

Angie’s Christmas Cookie

 

Welcome to our quarterly update, a whirlwind summary of what we’ve been up to in the past few months and what is to come in 2016 besides the smell of ginger bread cookies my wife will be baking in our kitchen this weekend.


Looking back…

Europe back roads

Europe back roads

 

The second half of 2015 stands out because we saw, at last, our first journeys in Europe. Given that “On the Road in the Europe” has been gestating for 15 years, it is with a great sense of pride that we can finally introduce our first itineraries in the Europe – to watch a beautiful video of our journeys in the Alps, click here.

 

Hong Kong guest yodelling for Swiss yodelers.

Hong Kong guest yodelling for Swiss yodelers.

I have two memories from our European journeys this autumn that I would like to share with you.

First, in Gstaad, a small Swiss town, we had arranged the surprise appearance of a Jodl (or Yodel) Choir to entertain our group while they dined on fondue one night. As the Swiss singers yodeled, they coaxed our guests to join their song.

Swiss Yodelers

Swiss Yodelers

Though initially shy, one of our Hong Kong guests suddenly seized the initiative and launched into a rendition of Teresa Teng’s classic, “The Moon Represents My Heart” (月亮代表我的心) for the Swiss yodelers, with the remainder of our guests swiftly joining him for the chorus. Despite their lack of a common language (the yodelers speaking a Swiss dialect that I found difficult to understand myself), the two groups sang to each other with moving warmth, and toasted each other with infectious enthusiasm.

 

As long as it is a cabriolet!

As long as it is a cabriolet!

On our second foray into Europe, I was immensely pleased when our guests all selected open-top cars, perhaps following my advice that, for our European journeys, you “can drive any car you like, so long as it is a cabriolet!” Even on the trip’s rare grey mornings, our small convoy would roll away from the last night’s hotel, each car with its top down. When we pulled into the next hotel’s driveway that evening, the tops would still be rolled back, having remained that way throughout the drive. It was wonderful to see so much enthusiasm for driving in the crisp, fragrant mountain air of the Alps.  一百分!100 points to all of the participants!


In the second half of 2015, our team grew with Peifen, Liu (劉佩芬) and Kayin, Chau (周珈妍) joining us.

Peifen
Peifen

 

Peifen is based in Taiwan. She brings a breath of fresh air into the development of our business there, and in a very short period of time she has turned many customers into fans of hers and On the Road.

 

 

 

kayin

Kayin

Kayin has joined our Hong Kong team and now takes care of “Operations” – all the things that need to happen before a group of guests can hit the road; reserving hotel rooms, renting cars, booking flights and a million other details. This role was formerly filled by Cathy Choi, who is now focusing on marketing our journeys in Hong Kong.

 

 


Looking forward…

Stayed tuned for our Burma in 2016!

We’re in the midst of developing two new journeys, one in Asia, and one in Europe:

2016 will see the launch of On the Road in Burma, if I can call it this. We have long wanted to offer driving journeys in this remarkable country, and in January and February we will complete our ground research so that we can – fingers crossed! – begin taking bookings for our first journeys there in November 2016. Stay tuned!

 

 

More of Europe to be discovered

More of Europe to be discovered

In March, we will continue our research for a new set of European itineraries in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, with the focus on the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Croatia. Our initial research has been incredibly exciting and we can’t wait to share the gems of cultural and scenic beauty that we’re discovering in this region!

 

 

Golden Sea of rapeseed flowers

Golden Sea of rapeseed flowers

This look ahead wouldn’t be complete without a brief mention of our upcoming journeys:

Our all new photography journey in Yunnan takes in three of the province’s most photogenic places: the striking fields of red earth around Dongchuan, the golden sea of rapeseed flowers that surrounds Luoping’s otherworldly karst scenery, and the “Mirrors of God” paddy fields outside Yuanyang. The journey starts on March 4th – it’s not too late to make time to join Ron and our team!

 

Meeting new friends in Vietnam

Meeting new friends in Vietnam

Over Easter, our “Family Adventures: Travel Photography in Yunnan” journey with Ron is fully booked, but there are two border-crossing journeys – one from Shangri-La via Laos to Chiang Mai in Thailand ; the other from Kunming via Laos to Mai Chau in Vietnam – that you will not regret joining. The variety of cultures, cuisines, landscapes and roads you will experience along both these routes is sure to make the holiday especially memorable!


Happy Holidays!

And now off to Perth, Australia, I go to celebrate the holidays with my wife Angie’s large Chinese family. Since they can all drink – no faces turning red in this family! – and all love to cook, I am, as always, in for a treat.

I wish you, your family and friends, wonderful end-of-year holidays too and thank you for all your interest and kind support throughout the years.

Peter

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