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A delicious day in Slovenia's Tuscany

Andy Montgomery, 02 July, 2020
A journey through the Alps brings Andy Montgomery to Goriška Brda – a tiny region whose superb wines have earned it the nickname of 'Slovenia's Tuscany'...
 

We step off the train onto the platform, squinting into the stark sunlight. No-one else gets off the train and there's no-one at the station. Tufts of weeds sprout in the dusty ground between the railway line and a single storey building with one bench placed alongside its outside wall beneath a sign that reads 'Plave'. If there were any breeze, I imagine clumps of tumbleweed would come sailing past.

We spot a dark grey people-carrier parked in the shade beyond the station building and by its side, a man is smiling at us. Here at Plave, there's no need for a sign displaying the name of the people you're meeting off the train.

Bogdan introduces himself as he slides open the vehicle's rear door with the words San Martin scrolled on it and beckons us to get in. We leave the dusty station and drive along a narrow winding lane through dense woodland. Emerging from a junction, we find ourselves stuck behind a large truck which is completely obscuring the road ahead as it makes painfully slow progress along the undulating, serpentine road, brushing leaves from low-lying branches and sending them raining down on us through the dappled sunlight. Bogdan picks up his mobile phone and punches in a number. A short conversation in Slovenian ensues and he hangs up. A couple of moments later the truck in front of us pulls into the side of a slightly wider section of the road and an arm comes out of the driver's window to wave us past. Bogdan toots his horn as we overtake, finally able to break the 30kph speed barrier.

I ring driver to ask him to move over,” beams Bogdan at us in his rear-view mirror. “I see number on back of truck and I ring. Luckily, is driver's number.

I can't help wondering how that would go down if I tried it in Manchester.

The hotel and restaurant of San Martin stands just outside the medieval village of Šmartno in Slovenia's tiny Goriška Brda region. Nestling between the Soča Valley and the Italian border, the views from its sun-drenched terrace stretch over hillsides braided in vines, olive trees and cherry orchards, all the way to the glistening Gulf of Trieste. The former village school, transformed into a chic boutique and restaurant by Bogdan and his wife, Vespa, capitalises on its privileged position with floor-to-ceiling windows which flood the space with natural light and showcase the beauty beyond.

Enjoying almost three thousand hours of sunshine a year, cooled by Mediterranean breezes in summer and protected from winter's ravages by the Julian Alps, the fertile terroir here has been producing quality wines for centuries and has earned Goriška Brda the nicknames of Slovenia's Tuscany and Slovenia's California.

We left Bohinjska Bistrica in the Triglav National Park just over an hour ago, departing the platform amidst Alpine splendour and within moments, disappearing into the famous Bohinj rail tunnel, emerging 6.3 kilometres later in Podbrdo on the other side of the Alps. The final link in the Habsburg's rail connection between Vienna and Trieste, this rail journey is considered one of the most picturesque in Europe. Snaking our way through the glorious Soča Valley, we transition from the jagged drama of limestone peaks and ridges; crashing waterfalls and dense forest to softly rolling Mediterranean hills delineated by neat rows of dusty grey olive trees and squat vines. Climbing the nearby tower of Gonjače brings the contrast even sharper into focus as, looking north, the distant Julian Alps are still visible, shimmering in the heat haze.

There's just time before lunch to stroll the narrow winding streets of the charismatic village of Šmartno outside whose defensive walls San Martin sits. This impossibly picturesque village enjoyed the strategic importance of lying on the border between Austria and Venice which afforded it a high level of attention and care, first from the Counts of Gorica and later from the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian, right up until the mid-18th century. Today its Gothic stone houses play host to art galleries and artisan shops whose handcrafted jewellery and ceramics would test the willpower of even the most reticent shopper.

Returning to the panoramic terrace of San Martin, Vespa pours us a glass of their own label sparkling wine, Anna, made from the local grape Rebula. Both experienced sommeliers and wine connoisseurs, Vespa and Bogdan have built up an impressive cellar of the best of Goriška Brda's wines, including five of their own branded labels. Strong advocates of sustainable farming methods and environmental protection, the menu at San Martin features local, seasonal and organic produce which their chef, Valerio, transforms into light, flavour-infused dishes which reflect the seasons and the surroundings.  Accompanied by a selection of cured meats and mature cheeses, the light elegant sparkling wine slips down easily. Over scorpion fish en papillote; a light walnut and raisin fried dumpling dessert known as Kobariški štruklji, and a couple of glasses of San Martin Sauvingonasse, the afternoon drifts away all too quickly and before we know it we're back on the platform at Plave, looking down the weed-strewn track in both directions, hoping that, unlikely as it seems, a train will arrive, which it duly does.

 
 

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