Big Berry Camp: A Door to Slovenia's Best Hidden Treasure
Reaching a camp far from big cities, in the small hours of the night after a day-long bus trip, arriving to a house already full of people, only to wake up in three hours to go through a list of activities – doesn’t sound particularly encouraging, does it? It’s not your way to spend a summer holiday. Maybe when you were younger, a camp looked more appealing.
Then you do wake up – as the sun peeks through the windows and touches your lids; have a warm shower; go out on the porch of a Scandinavian-design house that overlooks a green field and an abounding river; sit in a summer chair next to your jacuzzi and as you are enjoying the morning light’s play with the leaves of grass, notice that a breakfast hamper has appeared between your hands out of thin air, full of bread, milk, honey, juice, sweets and berries. All freshly made and coming from the local farmlands.
Then someone comes and asks you: “Where do you want to go?”
Welcome to Slovenia. Not that Slovenia one can see on a postcard, even though national landmarks like the Eastern Julian Alps, Postojna cave, Lake Bled, picturesque Ljubljana and Maribor are all only an hour or two away.
“Welcome” should be taken literally here: the sign greeting newcomers to the country is also a few minutes’ walk, with Croatia right across the river. However, in four days by or along the Kolpa, one feels as if they were right in the heart of the world.
The reason could be summed up in three words.
People, beauty and
Let’s start with the last one, as it was precisely what brings Novinite to the Slovenian region of Bela Krajina, invited to visit a lifestyle camp called Big Berry earlier this summer.
A relatively new word, glamping, coined out of “glamorous” and “camping”, takes the best of two worlds. One might be in the middle of nowhere from the point of view of standard urban life, but no element of civilization is particularly missed as most of them are still available: from hot water and a comfortable bed to a kitchen that looks as if it were taken out of the catalogue of a Scandinavian furniture giant; the aforementioned porch with a jacuzzi; options not only to cook something yourself, but also order it – or go to a wonderful eatery not far away. A visitor who feels spoiled by civilization will not feel anyhow deprived of its everyday perks, glamping advocates have been arguing.
At least this is how Big Berry camp works.
Born out of a new mobile home concept and having opened doors in April, the place is already abuzz with activity, but also visitors - bloggers and journalists – at the time of my arrival. The camp lies on the left bank of Kolpa, Bela Krajina's biggest river (which is joined by Lahinja and other tributaries as it makes its way through the region). Meters away from it is Primostek – the window of some rooms gives onto this tiny village, and the distant sight of cows going down a hill slope to reach their grazeland is a usual one in the mornigns.
As breakfast arrives, so do our leisure options. Looking around, one could just spend an entire day by the river (or in it, as Kolpa is warm enough to swim in the summer, even though bathing here could in theory result in crossing borders), by the house in case of bad weather, or at the Barbecue House, a special place within the camp, during a Sunday grill party.
Another option is to begin exploring Bela Krajina – a region ill-known even to some Slovenians, but with a rich history. Lying within the realms of what was once called the Holy Roman Empire, over the centuries it was ruled by Bohemia and later by the Habsburgs, entering the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (subsequently Yugoslavia) after WWI and, in 1991 the independent Slovenian state. In the 16th century, the Ottoman invasion into the Western Balkans prompted people from Serbia and Croatia, but also a group of Dalmatian soldiers called Uskoks, to flee north, reaching Bela Krajina.
Ton?ka Jankovi?, who works for Krajinski Park Kolpa, welcomes us to ?ok?ev dvor, a typical Bela krajina farm whose inhabitants descended from the Uskoks. Old furniture, farm clothes and costumes, and the yard revealing the old way to make a living and do crafts in a region that, like many rural areas across Europe and elsewhere, was poverty-stricken in the past. After the tour, she invites us over for coffee and tell us stories of the region.
We first go to Metlika, the biggest city which has just over 8000 people. Everything is neat and tidy in Bela Krajina; after going through the local museum in a 15th century castle and a firefighters' museum (throughout the region, the locals are in love with firefighters, the first volunteering unit in Slovenia having been set up in Metlika in 1869), we get misled by the quiet streets that calm is the only and eternal leitmotif of this place. A different story could be told about the years of the Reformation, when it was a market for religious literature for Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Lutherans alike. Nowadays, local celebrations are marked with respect for tradition, but new ones are also created, such as an evening festival in and around the castle in the summer with events held through the summer – or unusual contests such as the Metlika Night Run.
We don't see tourists around, but locals are always polite enough and ready to explain, in fluent English, when we ask for directions. A lady working at a local gallery catches our eyes and ears giving us details, with many photos, about traditional garments in Bela Krajina and ancient rites dating back to pre-Christian times.
It takes us just a few hours to go around Metlika and we can't help wondering if this is all to see in Bela Krajina except for the charm of an area of towns and villages scattered in between low hills, meandering rivers and even more meandering roads, large forests and thousands of decares of arable land? In the next few days, however, we realize
Metlika is just a short introduction to Bela Krajina.
Life runs calmly here nowadays, whether out in the nature, cycling or kayaking, or in the tiny towns and villages, with neat houses and hospitable locals, family businesses and restaurants offering delicious local cuisine. This agricultural region, despite not being by any means underdeveloped, looks like a walk back in time. It meets some of its needs of food and beverages – everything we eat for breakfast comes from the region, and cocktails prepared at Big Berry’s party promoting the first issue of B-ezine, its monthly magazine, used strawberries we helped to pick at the nearby Pavlovi? farm. With Slovenia having allowed the use of medical cannabis in 2014, oil made from industrial hemp (which contains negligible amounts of THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis) is popular with locals and tourists alike.
We discover that as, led by Big Berry staff, we spend two days mostly eating and drinking.
No, this is not a way to keep journalists and bloggers happy by leaving their stomachs full every two or three hours. Rather, it is a meeting with local producers who are the backbone of Big Berry’s network of partners. We first stop at a beekeeper’s place – ?ebelarstvo Veseli? – a real dynasty devoted to making honey and honey products. The senior beekeeper, who runs the business, ushers us into one of the hive meadows and we, surrounded by buzzing swarms, learn from first-hand experience that bees don’t (usually) sting. He offers us to try “fresh” honey and, after showing how it is made, invites us to a wooden table by his house where a violin-shaped bottle of honey liqueur is waiting for us with several shot glasses around it. He cannot talk to us now as his son who helped us with the translation is not sitting with us; but as he raises the hand with his glass for a toast, the most wholehearted of smiles lights up his face.
We then pass on, equipped with pieces of bread, to a degustation of oil – Pe?ari? oil mill makes it from a dozen seeds ranging from walnuts, hazelnuts and soybean to almonds, pumpkin seed and cannabis. Some minutes’ drive is Berryshka, another family business with a distillery and a handmade chocolates facility, where we are served a tray with edible cups – edible as they are made from chocolates – and fruit liqueurs poured inside.
Other colleagues who were at Big Berry earlier got the chance to also visit local craft breweries and taste good Slovenian wines meeting local producers. Some of these drinks are also available in restaurants we visit: late into the third day of our stay, we are about to attend a jazz concert in the town of ?rnomelj. There are two hours until the start and the Big Berry team takes us to Gosti??e Veseli?, a restaurant in a town nearby. After a wonderful meal Andreja, the owner, offers us to play a wine-tasting game. We are divided into two teams, the winning one takes several bottles. Immersed in the game, we miss the concert but don’t regret – it was funny enough for us to lose our sense of time.
Strawberries, grown at a nearby farm, are needed for the big party Big Berry is preparing to throw – the one that marks the launch of its official magazine. Everybody on the team working for the project this year – a team where the average age is under 25 – is excited.
Quality is more appreciated here than the industrial scale of production in Bela Krajina as farming and family-run industries and services are the very fabric of the local economy. Some of these are in the list of Big Berry’s vast network of partners to whom the team on the camp can help visitors get through.
We end up by the Kolpa after a four-hour walk, following the so-called trail of Oton ?upan?i?, one of the most renowned poets, which brings together people from across the region who walk for hours to visit places connected to the life of the poet. Guests are also invited to join – so do we. The final point is an open-air restaurant with local beer and live music featuring songs from the region.
For anyone willing to travel around the country’s landmarks,
Bela Krajina is also a good gateway itself.
From Big Berry, a trip to Postojna, one of Eastern Europe’s most famous caves which reminds that nature is the most gifted sculptor, or the capital Ljubljana takes about an hour. It doesn’t take more than two hours to reach Bled, a town in the Julian Alps whose castle offers a magnificent view of the Lake Bled, with a tiny island where the Assumption of Mary church is located. A similar opportunity will soon be present outside the country, for other locations that are more popular with tourists in Central and Eastern Europe, as new camps are set to open in in Croatia, Romania and Austria.
Even if the fabulous beauties of these Slovenian sights were difficult to reach from the area of the Kolpa river, however, a stay there would still be opening the door to a new world. Located in a place that is still off the map for many travelers, Big Berry in particular offered us the blend of experience that connected us to Slovenia’s hidden treasures.
Visiting Bela Krajina, a region shielded from the turbulence of contemporary life albeit in the heart of Europe, is not just a chance to enjoy the Kolpa river, but also a reminder of British writer W. Somerset Maugham’s notion that it is not so much places as people that travel is about. This opportunity to get in touch with Slovenia’s southeast would not have been possible without the help of the Big Berry team, which introduced us to both the people and the places and whose liveliness and enthusiasm were contagious even when we were exhausted from moving around.
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