A young couple wandered nervously into the fenced compound where we, and a small group of Americans, were already seated. Fani, the owner of the establishment, emerged from her wooden hut with a beaming smile on her face.
“Do you have some cheese and bread, and some beer?” the man asked in stuttering English.
Fani responded at length in Slovenian and then paused, waiting for a response.
The couple looked at each other, then back at Fani, and the girl said, “I do not understand.”
Undaunted, Fani repeated her monologue, this time louder, as if the inability to understand her native language emanated from a hearing deficiency. The young couple resembled rabbits caught in the headlights of a rapidly approaching car while the remaining assembled diners, including us, grinned in the background. We had all been there and were very glad the spotlight was now on someone else. The Slovenian guide with the American group came to their rescue and ordered on their behalf. When Fani re-emerged with their order she was carrying a large plate piled high with salad, and two glasses of apple cider. While the young couple stared incredulously at their order, it took some time for the rest of us to stop laughing.
That morning we had driven as far as the car park at Ŭsivec before setting out on foot for the herdsman's settlement of Velika Planina, just north of Kamnik in Slovenia. Snatched glances of glorious mountain vistas through the dense forest veil that surrounded us, hinted at what was to come but nothing prepared us for what actually lay before us when we emerged from the forest... into Middle Earth.
Dispersed around a series of grassy meadows the colour of fresh apples was a collection of low wooden huts, each one dwarfed by its own roof which sloped almost to the grass on every side so the huts looked like someone had tried to stop them from running away by placing wide lids over them. A thin wooden fence ran around the outside of each hut in case the lid didn't work, and between the fences, cattle grazed contentedly to the rhythmic clanging of metal bells hanging around their necks. Beyond this Hobbit-esque scene, forested slopes gave way to a glorious mountain landscape spreading beneath a baby blue sky as far as the eye could see in every direction.
Set on a karst plateau in the Kamnik-Savinja Alps, Velika Planina is the largest settlement of its kind in Europe. During the summer months of June to September, herdsmen drive their cattle from the valley into the mountains and spend their summer keeping watch on the herd. These plateaus have been occupied since prehistoric times and the huts that today lie scattered across the meadows have evolved over centuries from a simple bivouac to the relative sophistication of ceilings, windows and the occasional solar panels. Destroyed by German troops and their collaborators in the spring of 1945, the huts were rebuilt to their original design.
At first, we wondered if we might feel intrusive being here but apart from a handful of other visitors, there were very few people to be seen and it felt natural just to wander freely between huts and up to the small church which stood on the highest point of the plateau. There are no concessions to tourism in Velika Planina, no purpose-built tourist shops or cafés to occupy precious grazing ground, just one or two huts whose doors are open to visitors for a small menu of food. It's not souvenirs people come here for, it's the beauty and tranquillity of the surroundings coupled with the remarkable solitude and simplicity of a way of life unchanged in generations.
We had wandered into Fani's Alpine dairy farm, tempted by the menu pinned to the fence which promised traditional buckwheat mush with pork crackling and sour milk, a dish Jack was keen to try. By pointing at the menu, we managed to order a portion of the buckwheat mush but when I tried to order something called Flancati, which looked like doughnut fingers, I gathered it was off the menu today. Amidst a barrage of high volume, unintelligible Slovenian and a vague awareness of sounds of amusement coming from other diners, I made out the words 'apple and strudel' and nodded enthusiastically.
When Jack's food arrived, I tried a few spoonfuls but failed to acquire a taste for its, er, singular delicacy. Jack valiantly ate most of it while I waited for my apple strudel to arrive. When Fani came to take the bowls away, she said something in Slovenian, laughed, and headed back into the hut. The Slovene guide translated: “She says you can't have your dessert because you didn't finish your dinner.”
This time it was the young couple's turn to laugh at us, as we paid the meagre bill and left.