Slovenia: Bohinj Wildflower Festival Study Tour

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by Matt Dale

The aim of the trip was to allow us to experience Triglav National Park and Bohinj Wildflower Festival and get involved in some of the events and activities set up to celebrate it. We were to be staying in the village of Stara Fuzina in the heart of the Julian Alps where we would be visiting many fascinating and beautiful places and meeting local guides who would show us around. We would also be eating in restaurants where we could experience the local cuisine some of which was specially prepared for the Bohinj Wildflower Festival.

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Triglav National park was created in 1981 and is the only National Park in Slovenia. It lies within a larger protection area is 83, 982 hectares in size and encompasses the Julian alps which is an alpine limestone region. The park gets it’s name from Triglav mountain which is Slovenia’s highest peak standing at 2864 metres.

There’s a mixture of land owners with the state owning 25% local communities have 32% and the remaining 43% is owned by private land owners. 82% of the National Parks funding comes from the government.

The park is home to an amazing variety of plant and animal species with almost 9000 being discovered so far and the area is known particularly for its huge diversity of wild flowers which flourish in the mineral rich limestone habitat. Our visit coincided with the start of the annual wildflower festival and many of our activities were closely related to this topic. The park is also heavily forested with two thirds of its area being covered in a mixture of Spruce, Larch and Beech forests.

This pristine habitat sustains almost all the typical alpine mammal species one would expect and includes Chamois, Ibex, Lynx, Wolf, and Brown Bear. There are also over 160 bird species some of which I had never seen anywhere before.

We stayed in Stary Fujina on the banks of the beautiful Lake Bohinj which at 4100 metres long is the largest permanent lake in the National Park. Many of the smaller lakes dry up during the summer months because the water drains down through the porous limestone.

Cultural Heritage

People settled in the area during the stone age and have since survived through grazing the land with cattle, hunting and gathering, charcoal mining and cheese making. There are a lot of archaeological remains in the area and we spoke to some National Park rangers who have been involved in researching some of these sites.

Safeguarding the cultural and natural identity is one of the aims of the National Park and efforts are made to support local farmers in sustaining their businesses. For a long time local hotels and restaurants would buy produce in from far afield but due to a scheme set up by the National Park these hotels are now stocking a lot of locally sourced produce.

Grants are available for farmers to manage their land in a traditional and environmentally sensitive way and there are 3 protection zones that govern what land management practices are allowed there.

Wild Flower Foraging

One of the highlights of the trip for me was the edible wild plants workshop we attended where our guide, Monika (pictured on the left) taught us how to safely identify some of the plant species found in the area.

We also learnt a lot about the plants medicinal qualities and I was surprised at how flavoursome some of them were just eaten raw. Species we sampled included Ground Elder which is used to treat skin problems and Elderflower which is used to make a medicine for colds. I think my favourite tasting plants were the Meadowsweet and Sticky Willy. We were also shown one of the most deadly plants in Europe called Autumn Crocus (Colchicum Autumnale) which can be confused with Wild Garlic and has unfortunately been known to find its way into people’s salads.

Our guide Lucija Gartner manages a farm with her family and balances traditional farming with some diversification techniques. They have converted one of their old farm buildings into tourist accommodation and offer guided tours and cheesemaking workshops for visiting tourists. The cheesemaking workshop was one of the highlights Sampling the local cuisine

A big part of the trip was not just to experience the Natural and Cultural Heritage of the area but also the local cuisine which encompasses both themes. Most of the hotels and restaurants we visited had a menu linked to the local wildflower festival which we had attended the opening ceremony for on our arrival.

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These special dishes used local produce and often a garnish of wildflowers picked from the alpine meadows nearby. We used a phone app to identify some of these flowers so it was interesting to continue our learning of the plants through the enjoyment of the food. The picture above shows pumpkin soup with pumpkin oil which was one of my most favourite things we tried. The pumpkin oil was used in a lot of the dishes and wasn’t something I had tried before.

Beekeeping Tour

After the wildflower foraging we met with our guide Maria who took us on a walk through carefully managed wildflower meadows that are of great benefit to local beekeepers. The meadows are managed with nature in mind which means the hay is cut later in the season to give the flowers time to blossom which helps the bees and other insects. Often meadows have a fertilizer added which increasses the growth of certain grass species which might benefit grazing animals like sheep but we didn’t see any evidence of this in the area. All of the meadows appeared to be sensitively managed with a great variety of wild flowers present.

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We visited this amazing ‘bee house’ where the keeper gave us a talk about beekeeping in the area. The house has capacity for 50 hives and it’s traditional to paint the frontages of them. Sometimes they are paintings of local wildlife but they will often depict a cultural story or event.

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Inside the house we were shown the backs of the hives and some filters that are used for collecting some pollen off the returning bees. This pollen has very good health benefits and can be served as a topping on cakes or added to a hot drink and is another product of the beekeeping that can be sold. We were also lucky enough to sample this mead like drink made from honey and a local schnapps like spirit.

Exploring the local area

We stayed in at Stara Fuzina hotel surrounded by the most dramatic mountain scenery and the itinerary of the trip allowed us time to go and explore. The weather had been very wet for the first couple of days but when the weather improved a couple of us got up early to explore some trails and see what wildlife was about. We had a map of the local trails, of which there are many, and one led into the mountains quite near the hotel.

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The forested mountain sides rise steeply from the valley floor with the trails following the narrow ridge lines. Only a few minutes into our walk we heard some very unusual bird calls which had us really confused and even with fairly good bird knowledge we couldn’t figure out what on earth it was. The sounds soon moved away so we slowly continued up the path until we started to see movement in the trees.

It turned out that what we heard were woodpeckers and within an hour of quietly observing a woodland glade saw species of woodpeckers that were completely new to us. The first was a Grey-Headed Woodpecker then we saw a White-Backed Woodpecker which turned out to be the owner of the strange call heard further down the trail. Then after much patience and discussion we felt sure we had identified a Middle-Spotted Woodpecker as well.

Vogel Mountain Cable Car Trip

We were lucky to get good weather for this section of the trip as we were going up to high altitude in a cable car. The car took us up to Vogel Mountain Ski Centre where we enjoyed a lovely meal in the restaurant there.

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The resort is popular even out of the skiing season as there are many trails leading to the high mountains as well as some archaeological sites which unfortunately, we didn’t have time to walk to. The views across the valley towards the mountain peaks are some of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. These forested limestone mountains were of great interest to us as we don’t have such a habitat in the UK. We spent our time here taking lots of photos of unknown wildflowers and also saw several different species of butterfly such as the Swallow Tail which flourish in this diverse base rich limestone habitat.

Cheesemaking Workshop at Tourist Farm Gartner

Most of the farms in Triglav National Park are small in acreage and practice traditional and environmentally sensitive methods. Meadows are carefully managed for grazing livestock and the hay is cut later in the season to allow the wildflowers to flourish. The grassland is unimproved which means it doesn’t have chemicals such as nitrates added to encourage the growth of grasses rich in nutrients for intensive meat and milk production. The National Park encourages these traditional practices to maintain both the natural and cultural diversity of the environment and grants are available to help landowners with this.

As with many farms in the UK some have to or choose to diversify in order to make ends meet and we saw evidence of this with many old farm buildings being converted into tourist accommodation or second homes which can sell for a very high price in what is fast becoming a very desirable area. Some of these activities are of concern to National Park managers as there can be an increase in what’s known as ‘under farming’ where there are not enough land managers to care for land in a sustainable way which can lead to some land degradation.

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Our guide Lucija Gartner manages a farm with her family and balances traditional farming with some diversification techniques. They have converted one of their old farm buildings into tourist accommodation and offer guided tours and cheesemaking workshops for visiting tourists. The cheesemaking workshop was one of the highlights for me as it was fascinating to see the process in action and learn how settlers have been making cheese in the area for centuries.

In the images above you can see our guide, Lucija, training a local boy in the traditional cheesemaking methods. It was great to see local youngsters keen to carry forward the traditional practices and was further evidence of the local people’s passion and pride in their culture. A table full of desserts Description automatically generated with low confidence

They are adding rennet which is a complex set of enzymes added to curdle the milk. In ancient times farmers would store the milk in cow stomachs and the naturally occurring rennet in the stomach would trigger the process. We spent some time picking herbs from the farm garden which was added to the cheese to create our own unique recipes. This was quite experimental and produced some interesting results!

We also visited the farm cheesemaking factory and shop where they can produce larger quantities to sell to visitors and local businesses. The area produces a lot of popular cheeses that are sold all over the world.

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Above we can see the farm building where visitors can attend the cheesemaking workshop. This traditional construction is very interesting and charming as the animals live in the annex above the house which isn’t something I’ve seen in the UK. I think this is possibly to keep everyone warm during alpine winters and to help protect the livestock from predators such as bears and wolves.

General Thoughts on the Study Tour

The two main themes I got from my time here were that this is an area that has been incredibly well preserved both culturally and naturally and that the population are very passionate about this and more than willing to share it with visitors. There seemed to be a huge effort and passion to keep ancient traditions alive whilst embracing and adapting to a modern world. Land managers had genuine concerns about changes within the National Park but I really admired their dedication and work they do to enhance the area. There are increasing visitor numbers and pressures in the park which potentially threaten the heritage and we shared a lot of experiences from our own area of work.

I felt very privileged by the warm welcome we received wherever we went, and people helped us a lot to get the most out of our visit. The guides were all incredibly knowledgeable on their specialist subjects and the food was amazing. I would highly recommend this study tour to anyone keen to learn about the conservation of the natural and cultural heritage with a National Park.

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We took this photo on our last night at the hotel wearing these amazing wildflower head dresses created by our group member Francis. The group from left to right: Lisa, Susan, Joe, Francis, Charlotte, Fiona, Sandrine and me Matt.

 

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