Farms are great places for kids. Lots of room to roam, the allure of animals, fresh homemade food, often crafts to do or simple farm chores to perform – farms are a fantastic alternative to hotels or holiday homes. I’ll get more in-depth on farm stays in the US and around the world in another post, but for now I’d like to talk about Slovenia.
Few, I suspect, (including me before I moved to the region) could place Slovenia on a blank world map. Somewhere in Europe, right? Balkans? Baltics? In fact, Slovenia is a country considerably smaller than the state of New Jersey, surrounded by Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia, with a 29-mile sliver of Adriatic coastline. Mostly rolling green hills, it soars skyward in the Julian Alps, which are capped by the 9,396-foot Mt. Triglav. For such a diminutive state, it packs in a tremendous variety of topography, with climates and habitats ranging from sub-Mediterranean to Alpine.
We recently stayed at a small family farm in the crumpled hills of the north-eastern part of the country. The farm, Stern Pri Kovačniku, sits at 2,300 feet above sea level in the hamlet of Planica, about half an hour’s drive from Maribor, Slovenia’s second-largest city (but with a population of only just over 95,000).
Truly a family-run affair, three generations of Sterns operate 89 acres that provide almost all of the milk, produce, and meat for the family and their guests. What they don’t produce themselves (chicken, for example), is purchased from surrounding farms. And let me tell you, these folks can cook. Breakfast consisted of homemade yoghurt, milk not many minutes from the udder, fresh juices and herbal teas, cheeses and hams, salami, pâtés, breads and fruit – everything having moved only meters from garden to table.
Three-course dinners start with soup, then platters piled with simple country fare appear – meatloaf stuffed with whole hardboiled eggs, roast pork, fried chicken, boiled potatoes, braised greens, garden salads with pumpkinseed oil dressing. Dessert highlights included a flourless walnut cake and the house specialty, something they called cheesecake but was nothing like the cream cheese-and-graham cracker concoction we’re used to, but was sweetened homemade cheese baked atop a thin round of bread. Wash it all down with home-pressed juices, local wine, or a bit of homemade schnapps. The common denominator here is that everything is fresh, homemade, and outstanding. I’m a former chef and restaurant reviewer, and I was still blown away by just how good everything was.
On weekends Stern Pri Kovačniku is clearly a popular lunch spot for day trippers from Maribor, and the playground and soccer field were filled with families with young children petting the bunnies, spinning on the merry-go-round, swinging, sliding, or just kicking a ball around. Parents relaxed in the shade, wandered through the well-labeled herb garden, or sipped blueberry or sage schnapps under the grape arbor. If this all sounds rather too idyllic well, it was, really, but there’s nothing so very wrong with idyllic once in a while, I suppose.
The farm only has four guest rooms, three family rooms with a double bed and a bunk bed, and one double. Although the bedrooms are smallish, there is a common living room with a huge supply of toys, games, books, and a TV that takes much of the pressure off the sleeping areas.
There are nice walking trails right from the farm, and while the vaunted dendrological wonders of nearby Plotnik’s spruce and Plotnik’s chestnut were decidedly underwhelming, it’s still a very nice area for rambling. A bit farther away there are waterfalls, primeval forests, watermills, and the 1,200-acre natural park Rački Ribniki, which provides important habitat for over 210 species of birds, 50 dragonfly species and 12 types of amphibians. Only thirty minutes by car, Maribor is a pleasant and picturesque town to spend the day in.
While Slovenia might not be all that high on your list of must-see places in Europe, it’s familiar enough (it’s in the EU and operates on the Euro), yet exotic enough to put it on your travel radar. Add to that some of the most spectacular landscapes on the continent, world-class fly fishing (and any die-hard fly fisherman knows all about Slovenia’s massive marble trout), charming towns and villages, and wonderful family farms like Stern Pri Kovačniku, and there’s every reason to be checking Travelocity for flights to Ljubljana.
United, Lufthansa, and Brussels Airlines offer flights to Slovenia’s capitol, Ljubljana. Stern Pri Kovačniku is about an 1 ½ hour drive from there. From Zagreb it also takes about 1 ½ hours, while Budapest is a 3 ½ hour drive and Vienna just under three hours.