Best cycling tour in Slovenia
Paradise by pedal power, fuelled by indulgence!
by Graeme Chuter / 14th July 2021 / reading time 10 minutes
People who know me better than most will tell you, without hesitation I believe, that my absolute favourite place away from Lake Bled is the stunningly picturesque wine region of Goriska Brda. And to date, this was also my best ever cycling tour in Slovenia.
Let me introduce you to what I consider to be my best cycling tour in Slovenia so far. Located on the extreme western side of Slovenia and hugging the border with neighbouring Italy, the landscape of Goriska Brda features gently rolling hills carpeted with vineyards and occasional orchards of olive and cherry trees. Quaint hilltop villages pepper the scene, each one typically characterised by an attractive church with an ornate bell tower, standing graciously above small clusters of white-washed houses with terracotta rooftops.
Goriska Brda, or “Brda” to use the shortened form apparently preferred by the locals, in translation means, “the hills above Gorizia”. From an elevated position in the upper hills of the region, the Italian Adriatic coast can be seen clearly on the horizon. Turn the other way, and the mountain peaks of the Dolomites and the Julian Alps loom majestically in the distance.
The scenery is breathtaking, which in itself makes this an ideal location for arguably the best cycling tour in Slovenia in my opinion. But what else makes Brda such a wonderful place? The peace and tranquillity, the pungent scent of blossoming fruit trees, acacia, honeysuckle, and lavender, the deserted country lanes, the friendly local inns, and of course – the plethora of local wineries.
On this occasion, I decided to explore for a couple of days by bicycle. From my home near Lake Bled, I took my bike on the train from Bled Jezero to Plave in the Soca Valley, located just over the hill from the Brda region. Now, when I say just over the hill, what I actually mean is on the other side of a very steep hill where the road makes several serpentine turns for around four or five kilometres before reaching the summit. Being an “old school” occasional cyclist, I rely on myself to do all of the pedal power – no cheating with one of those electrically powered bikes for me!! But if the truth be known, I really could have done with one of those for this part of the ride.
However, once at the top of the hill, and with the open panorama laid out in front of me, I knew that the huffing, puffing, and perspiration were worth it! Better still, the ride down to my temporary home for the next two days would be an easy freewheel.
The Hotel San Martin is located just outside the medieval walled village of Smartno. This “home from home” is my kind of place. A friendly and simple boutique-style property with no pretensions, lovely people, reasonable room rates, and views that are to die for!! Just across the road, the village of Smartno oozes character and charm. Narrow cobbled streets and archways lead you from one end of the village to the other.
The village remains largely unspoiled by tourism, with just a couple of subtle souvenir shops selling local products, a small museum, and an art gallery/cultural centre. The excellent Hisa Marica restaurant offers diners an opportunity to sample truly authentic and seasonal local specialities and a good selection of Brda wines. But on this occasion, I headed for my most regular haunt, the Gostisce Turn, which is more of a pub and grill, and a popular hang-out for the locals.
Due mainly to the travel restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic, it was my first visit for well over a year. Yet as I barely had a chance to pull out a chair to sit myself down on the outside terrace, a friendly voice boomed out my name. It was Jure, the pub landlord. “Graeme, welcome back my friend, long time no see!” It felt great to be back and my first ice-cold beer barely touched the sides! Simone, another member of the bar staff, with her beaming smile and engaging conversation, provided me with some companionship for much of the evening, in between serving customers. It felt like I was amongst friends, and the many months of my absence here seemed to melt away in a moment. As the sun set on this balmy summer evening, one glass of wine led to another, and another, and life felt very good thank you!
After a great night’s sleep, which was no doubt aided by the hearty meal and numerous “refreshments” from the night before, I woke up surprisingly keen and ready to burn off a few of those newly acquired calories! But not before enjoying a rather pleasant breakfast and a couple of coffees on the hotel terrace. I had an ideal plan for my leisurely day ahead. An easy-going full-day bike ride through the gentle hills and valleys of Goriska Brda.
From Smartno, I headed uphill in the direction of Gonjace and onwards to Vrhovlje. With a little bit more climbing I reached the highest point of my ride. The panoramic views from here warranted a rest stop and a few much-needed gulps from my water bottle, before heading downhill on the next section of my journey to Neblo, passing by the pretty villages of Nozno, Belo, and Pristavo.
Midday seemed a little early to take lunch, but I stumbled across a lovely rustic-style restaurant that looked too good an opportunity to pass up. Gostilna Peternel certainly lived up to my expectations and I enjoyed a delicious three-course lunch, consisting of a creamy minestrone soup, baked penne with a Ragu sauce, and a small flaky pastry with a rich chocolate filling.
Traditionally in Slovenia, many local restaurants offer a daily three-course “workers lunch” known as Malica, typically for around six or seven euros. Throw in a coffee or a beer, and you can enjoy a very nice lunch for just under a tenner!
Back in the saddle, my next scheduled stop was actually not too far away. Passing through the village of Neblo, I headed for the Vinska Klet Dobrovo, the largest and perhaps the most versatile wine producer in Brda. This wine co-operative has around 400 local members who contribute grapes of different varieties, quality, and quantities. Each vineyard is regularly assessed by the in-house oenologists to monitor the quality of its fruit, which will determine which line or brand the grapes will be suitable for. VK Dobrovo produces and markets wines of different levels of quality, from the basic house or open wines to premium aged barrique wines of single grape varieties or cuvees.
It has a very good shop and a wine tasting room which can accommodate individuals, couples or small groups without pre-booking. Since I have been a regular visitor here in the past, I thought it would be nice to drop by and say hello to one or two colleagues if they happened to be in. Fortunately, my good friend Boris Leskovar was working and he kindly invited me for an impromptu glass of wine and a chance to catch up. A glass of chilled sparkling Rebula was just the ticket, but just one for the road as they say, since I needed to get back on my bike!
For the remainder of the afternoon, I meandered my way through the vineyards and country lanes, passing through the villages of Medana, Vipolze, and Kozana, before heading back up the hill to Smartno. With the hot mid-afternoon sun beating down on me, I must admit that the last half an hour or so was a struggle. However, knowing that there would be an ice-cold beer waiting for me in the village pub was sufficient motivation to keep on moving!
The evening turned out much like the one before, but with an unexpected bonus. Jure from the pub was hosting a couple of local friends and invited me to join them at their table. “How would you like to visit our family vineyard?” They enquired. I didn’t need to be asked twice!
The Fikfak winery is located literally just down the road from Smartno, in the adjacent village of Imenje. I sampled four different wines, three whites (Malvasija, Rebula, and Chardonnay) and one red (Cabernet Sauvignon). All four wines tasted good and my favourite was the Malvasija, a grape variety associated more typically with the Slovenian Adriatic and the Karst, rather than the Goriska Brda region. As with pretty much everyone I have ever met in Brda, the hospitality was warm and welcoming, and I will definitely be back. Hopefully with a car so I can load up with a few bottles to take home. We headed back to the pub for a quick nightcap, a couple of shots of grappa, and it was off to bed for another very good night’s sleep, unsurprisingly!
After another fine breakfast the following morning, it was sadly time to leave. My couple of days in Brda – my self-proclaimed “paradise” – had come to an end. I had indulged in some fabulous local food and wines, but worked off a lot of the excess calories cycling up those hills! This was surely my best cycling tour in Slovenia yet.
I enjoyed a wonderful couple of days and it was certainly a wrench to depart, but hopefully it won’t be too long before my next visit. I can’t wait!