Good things in small packages
Autumn; fruitfulness, mellow mists and mushrooms. It seems that half of Slovenia's 2 million people are out in the woods collecting mushrooms, or selling them at the markets most towns have. A grandmother with a stall full of them proudly displays the 1.3-kilogram mushroom that her 7-year-old grandson found.
Slovenes turn mushrooms into fabulous food at the family-run inns that proliferate in this sweet little European country. I have mushroom soup for lunch, mushroom tagliatelle for dinner and fried mushrooms for breakfast.
Chestnuts, too, are in season and so abundant that they are squashed on the road and gathered up by tiny tots, and their fresh-roasted fragrance wafts around main streets in the late afternoon when people are out strolling, peckish perhaps for something nature-made.
Slovenia is squeezed between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. It has, though, the best of Europe in one small package; a Venetian-style strip of sultry Adriatic coast, a chunk of Alps in which the mountains and Heidi-style valleys are as grand as those of Austria, a wine-growing area whose reputation kicks butt in quality but not quantity. Slovenia is both cheaper and has fewer tourist than its bigger, better-known, neighbours.
And the food is fabulous. For me, a vegetarian, crossing the border from porky, beefy Austria into a country where the fruit and vegetables are still grown in country gardens, is like falling into vegetarian heaven. Every country home has a big vegetable garden and orchard and, in late September, pears and apples fall from trees; cabbages, beans, lettuce, endive, celery and parsley grow in neat rows in gardens fenced from deer that sneak from the forest at night.
My hubby Sam and I hire a car in the capital, Ljubljana, and explore the alpine portion of this country. We drive and walk and drive some more. We pass hamlets, 10 houses clustered around an austere church with a tall steeple; we curl our way along thin roads up valleys, over ridges and down into other valleys. There is hay in racks, chimney smoke rising through still air and small herds of cows being guided to barns. Children play, kicking a ball around, on grassy areas outside churches, and tractors plod past with trailers full of grass or firewood. This is the gathering season, the preparation for the winter.
The spread of small holdings dates back to when Slovenia was a part of communist Yugoslavia and no-one was allowed to own more than 20 hectares. This lasted for 50 years, until Slovenia broke free from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, by which time people were adept at making a living from what could be grown on small farms.
Diversity was the key; a mini milking herd, an orchard, vegetables, a paddock of sunflowers for seed, and mushrooms, nuts and berries from the forest. And, in the lower altitudes, grapevines for wine that Slovenes have been enjoying for 3000 years - they were making wine way before the Romans.
The car radio happily warbles, jaunty advertisements in Slovene, songs we don't recognise, and unexpectedly, Pauly Fuemana's How Bizarre. We join in: Every time I look around, It's in my face, a touch of home in this far place that, in mountainous ways, resembles parts of our South Island.
At the end of long, U-shaped glacial valleys we walk through forest, with touches of rust and gold, and long waterfalls plunging from cliff tops to the valley floor. I get flashbacks of walking the Milford Track. Also, deep in the Alps, along the edges of Lake Bohinj, where the forest and mountains reflect in double in the still water, it feels as if we are at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu.
Lake Bled is Slovenia's highly polished jewel; it's on the cover of most Slovene guidebooks, tour buses stop here for a few hours as they dash across Europe, and there are gazillions of postcards of it.
It is an ethereal area that is worth the fuss; a deep, still lake, an island in the middle with a baroque monastery and church, a castle on the cliffs above the lake, and high mountain peaks sparkling in the background.
We stay in a small, old, country inn, lakeside but a few kilometres out of Bled town. From the garden bar we watch people being taken to the island in gondola-style boats, locals fishing for trout from dinghies, others chilled out on folding chairs, and passing clouds changing the colour of the fairytale scenery.
There is no better way to appreciate Bled's beauty than walking around it in the early morning when the mist lifts from the lake and the mountains are shadowy.
The 6.5km path, often meandering under ancient beech and chestnut trees, is close enough to the lake edge to hear the water lapping.
I enjoy the shape-changing vignettes of the island and its church, the mountains and the castle.
There are few others on the path; a couple of optimistic fishermen and some joggers, while rowers seriously train on the water.
Back at the inn I relish a big breakfast of poached pears and sour yoghurt, sauteed mushrooms with thick, dark toast full of sunflower seeds, forest berry jam and cheese that still smells vaguely of cows.
Slovenia is smaller and poorer than its hefty neighbours and I sense a national inferiority complex that it need not have. It has the best of Europe's scenery in a compact and accessible package, traditions that are lived rather than brought out for festivals and real food.
If my beloved New Zealand mysteriously disappeared and I had to belong to another country, Slovenia could be it.
How to get there: Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland to Munich every day; singaporeairlines.com. Take the train from Munich to Salzburg, in Austria (two hours). The train journey from Salzburg to Bled, through the Alps, is one of the most scenic in the world (five hours).
Stay in Munich and or Salzburg at Novotel; accorhotels.com.
When to go September. In July and August Slovenia is crowded with European holidaymakers.