Meadow larks: orchids and alpine views in Slovenia
Meadow larks: orchids and alpine views in Slovenia

Fields of wild flowers, and a festival to celebrate them, plus fantastic food … The mountains of Slovenia really are bursting with life

‘Glacial rivers and lakes of an impossible colour’: in search of marble trout.

 ‘Glacial rivers and lakes of an impossible colour’… in search of marble trout. All photographs: Howard Sooley

Meadow flowers, mountain fishing, food from one of the best chefs in the world. All are on offer in Slovenia, though from the looks of my fellow passengers on the late-night flight, few will venture far from Ljubljana’s bars and throbbing club scene. My companion and I, however, are drawn by more pastoral daytime delights: the Julian Alps, aquamarine streams, the glacial lake of Bohinj (pronounced Bokhin), and particularly the appeal of the Bohinj International Wild Flower Festival.

I grew up reading Heidi aloud to my slightly scary grandmother, so alpine mountain meadows have long loomed in my imagination. I am armed with a signed Edwardian edition of Constance L Maynard’s An Alpine Meadow. It’s packed with her hand-tinted photographs, but I am still unprepared for the saturated colours and abundance. We join a guided wildflower tour, made up mostly of English people. Our group is a little bit Agatha Christie (they could happily be cast as extras in an updated version of The Lady Vanishes).

Hunting for wildflowers at the Bohinj International Wild Flower Festival.


 Hunting for wildflowers at the Bohinj International Wild Flower Festival

We are driven high to an abandoned ski resort of a few rusty towers, wires and slightly broken buildings. And acres of flower-strewn meadows. Farmers here cut the grass just once a year for hay that they stack in old-world, open-sided ricks dotted across the countryside. This allows any grass to grow wild with flowers, as if in a land the world forgot.

Orchids are everywhere, in varying shades of flecked pinks and whites and greens, in clusters or dotted singly throughout the mountain slopes and fields. I count seven new varieties in a happy half an hour before our guides inform us that there are 42 varieties growing here in the Julian Alps and 84 different wild orchid types in the country.

My companion is the photographer Howard Sooley, who knows the Latin names for flowers and has an eagle eye for identifying dianthus, gentian and campanula. I feel like rolling down the side of the mountain, but content myself with lying in the long grass, spotting astonishing butterflies and still more alpine flowers. It is near heaven here.

‘Orchids are everywhere’: the common spotted orchid.


 ‘Orchids are everywhere’: the common spotted orchid

We drive out into the surrounding villages, stunned by the scenery – it is all clouds spilling over nearby mountains and long sloping roofs; it’s almost Japanese in its beauty – to try a few of the floral menus widely on offer during the festival (think local lake trout with starflowers, pea soup with wild mint, or gnocchi with wild garlic, acacia and elder). Most menus are great value at a standard ₤15; the local wines are addictive at the same price per bottle.

We travel through steep mountain passes, constantly stopping to look at creamy foxgloves and cascading alpine clematis, and to tick off yet more varieties of orchid. Our numbers are rising. We are like happy hippie trainspotters. It is curiously satisfying.

Different altitudes bring different alpines in different stages of opening. The Lake Bohinj cable car takes us up thousands of feet, past miniaturised trees and goats seemingly stuck to the rocks without any sign of mountain path. At the top, gentians that are almost finished down by the lake are yet to burst into brilliant blue.

We tour the surrounding area in search of more flowers and food, taking open-top car trains – more of a flat wagon from a John Wayne western – through long mountain tunnels to emerge in other valleys with other climates. Some face northern Italy – we think we can see Venice – the sparkling sea and the sun; others are cooler with more shade and forest.

‘All clouds spilling over nearby mountains and long sloping roofs’: a village in the Bohinj region.


 ‘All clouds spilling over nearby mountains and long sloping roofs’: a village in the Bohinj region

Meanwhile, one of the roads has collapsed and disappeared – our phone signal and car GPS, too – due to heavy winter snow damage in recent months. It adds to the thrill of adventure, at least at first. After that, we wish we had also brought a map.

Howard is a keen fly fisherman, obsessed with the legendary marble trout to be found only in these mountain waters, so we take the car train to the Soča valley, past glacial rivers and lakes of an impossible colour. While he disappears upstream near the source of the Bača River in search of his holy grail, I sit on rocks, walk by the water and photograph another thousand flowers.

We stop off at to Hiša Franko, home to Ana Roš, Slovenia’s most famous cook and 2017’s recipient of the World’s 50 Best female chef award. This brilliant restaurant and its set menu showcasing local ingredients is worth a long detour, whichever season you visit.

First we tour their biodynamic fruit and vegetable plots. In this mountain area nothing is sown before 1 May when the threat of snow is finally over. By June it is already hot and humid. The food Ana cooks is flavoured with wild plant bouquets, summer flowers and pollen, sweet woodruff and local saffron. There is trout with wild watercress, octopus cooked in lamb fat, kid goat and crab, wild hops, wild mushrooms, and vegetables and fruit from the garden.

Pulsatilla alpina, the alpine anemone.


 Pulsatilla alpina, the alpine anemone

The farmers here have moved their cattle and sheep high into fresh pasture where they make cheese and ricotta. Ana’s husband, Valter, gives us a tour of his cellar, and I believe I can taste the mountain flowers in the aged cheeses he gives us to try.

We pass lorries stacked with brightly painted beehives parked on the sides of the road. Like the cows, they will stay in the mountains for the summer, driven occasionally to pastures new. We visit waterfalls, like scenes from Tolkien, with delicate walkways and misty spray. By now we almost cannot move for stopping and admiring another bonsaied forest of leaves and ferns and alpine flowers. Our orchid eyes are in.

This wild mountain land of wild boar, wolves, brown bears – its population up from around 50 just 100 years ago to about 500 now – takes hold of you. I long to return to watch cubs in the forest and for the next Bohinj wildflower festival with its alpine markets and botanical tours. After all, Howard and I still have another 30 or so wild orchid varieties to spot.

The 13th Bohinj International Wild Flower Festival runs from 24 May to 9 June. Allan Jenkins flew to Ljubljana from Luton with Wizz Air, from £18. Doubles at the Bohinj Eco Hotel from £90. Dinner at Hiša Franko from £74pp


The Guardian

Leave a comment