Slovenia: a home in the hills

Rural Slovenia makes a tempting place for a holiday, and not just for skiing. Especially from a pair of cute restored houses owned by an interior designer

Slovenia offers stunning scenery at affordable prices, often in the form of cheap ski holidays in the Julian Alps. But it's not necessarily the first destination that springs to mind for those wanting an affordable, stylish summer stay. Two newly renovated properties on the edge of Triglav national park are set to change that.

The characterful self-catering houses are owned by Matthew Norfolk, a British interior designer.

"I was thinking about buying a property in northern Spain," he said when we met. "But when I rode through the valley, a view of the Soca river opened up and I knew I'd found somewhere special."

Having travelled across almost every continent (mainly on two-wheels), Matthew settled on two villages in the foothills of the Alps: Kobarid and Podmelec.

Kobarid is a two-hour drive from Ljubljana airport, and just 9km from the Italian border. The village, which sits on the edge of the fast-flowing, milky-blue Soca, was made famous when Ernest Hemingway documented the Italian retreat from Kobarid during the first world war in his 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms.

Although it was devastated between 1915 and 1917, a handful of sturdy buildings survive in its old streets, including Pri B'zjak, a three-story, 280-year old house that once belonged to a carpenter, Ivan Kodeli. His hand-painted gold and green shop sign hangs on the wall in the front room.

Found objects decorate the interior of the house in Pri B'zjack
Found objects decorate the interior of Pri B'zjack Photograph: Will Venning

"We were using it as a ramp for materials before we realised what it was," Matthew confesses.

At the centre of the house, a cherrywood spiral staircase connects the three floors, leading from the high-spec kitchen up to two en suites on the first floor, and a giant en suite bedroom in the loft. The sign is one of many relics Matthew found when renovating the property, which had stood empty for almost 20 years.

Other discoveries included a bag of grenades and two pistols wrapped in oilcloth, all stashed in the old kitchen stove. The windowsills and exposed larch beams are decorated with more of his finds: a battered birdcage, a telegraph key once used to transmit morse code, a small model of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate and a tiny pair of wrinkled leather boots.

The objects connect the building with its past, and co-exist with modern day comforts: primary-coloured soft furnishings, Ikea homewares and mementoes from Matthew's travels. A north-African jalabiya (dress) hangs on the wall beneath a straw mask. There was a welcome pack on arrival: bread from the bakery, local cheese, milk and butter from the mountain cattle, Slovenian jam and honey. In recent years, the area has emerged as a champion of the slow-food movement: organic local produce and wines fill menus at the local restaurants.

On our first evening, we headed to Topli Val, a restaurant in the Hotel Hvala, for oysters and carpaccio of bream followed by linguine with spongy morels (a dish we re-ordered a couple of nights later). Dessert was a traditional Slovenian pastry stuffed with honey-drenched nuts, the house wine a soft Slovenian sauvignon blanc.

The giant loft bedroom in Pri B'zjack
The giant loft bedroom in Pri B'zjack Photograph: Will Venning

Apart from Topli Val, the village has a Michelin-starred restaurant in Kotlar which is renowned for its seafood and, 5km out of town, Hisa Franko, a slow-food restaurant that specialises in local, seasonal and foraged food: wild herbs, flowers, chestnuts and mushrooms. There is a pizzeria or a "kava bar" (coffee shop) on almost every corner.

Opposite the house, the Kobarid museum has extensive displays of first world war weaponry, clothing, medals and maps. The white-washed walls were lined with black and white photographs taken during the Caporetto breakthrough, a battle fought in the hills above Kobarid, where lines were drawn and rudimentary defences were carved into the rocks.

We followed the 5km Kobarid historic trail up into these hills and along the lines of the Soca front, through what is essentially a mountainous museum. Swallowtail butterflies led us along alpine paths towards the Soca gorge, where a wooden footbridge crosses a turquoise river that burbles with minerals and rare marble trout.

From here, we followed marked paths to the Kozjak brook, which feeds the river from the east. The brook runs through several pools creating a cascade of six waterfalls that culminates in a 15m-high column of white water called the Kozjak slap (waterfall). From a slippery wooden walkway, we saw a pair of spotted salamanders skulking on green rocks in the pool below.

The Italian army built three defence lines in the Soca region, and the narrow, historic path we trod took us through the trenches and forts that once defended the banks of the river. It was difficult to compare our surroundings with the black and white images of destruction on the walls of the village museum.

Sign advertising outdoor pursuits in Soca valley
Outdoor pursuits on offer in the Soca valley Photograph: Will Venning

The next day we drove into Triglav national park, which extends along the Italian border in the north-west corner of the country. According to local legend, the park is the home of Zlatorog, a mythical ibex said to have horns of solid gold. He lives on the slopes of Slovenia's highest peak Mount Triglav – the quarry of centuries of treasure hunters. Skiers flock here in the winter months, and come spring it's popular for fly-fishing and extreme sports: canyoning, rafting and paragliding. Hikers and bathers wade through vast wildflower meadows towards the high mountain lakes of Bled and Bohinj.

We soon realised that it was a public holiday and the banks of Lake Bohinj (a winding two-hour drive from Kobarid village) were full of like-minded day-trippers. Armed with a picnic, we joined families and couples for a 12km-walk around the circumference of the lake, stopping midway for a picnic and a paddle.

Matthew's second renovation, in Podmelec, a village in the Baca valley a little way south-east, sits at the top of a steep, single-lane track. Another former carpenter's house, it is smaller than Pri B'zjak, with a simple three-storey open-plan layout.

"This is where I stay in Slovenia. It feels like home." Matthew says. "You'll see what I mean …"

The wooden floors are strewn with faded kilim rugs, and reclaimed tools and trinkets line the exposed beams. The main room is prime lounging territory, with a woodburner, a giant leather sofa and double doors that open on to a traditional handcarved balcony overlooking the rooftops of the village and, beyond that, densely wooded hills.

Nell Card gathers garlic leaves for a pesto supper
Nell Card gathers garlic leaves for a pesto supper high in the Baca valley Photograph: Will Venning

Podmelec is tiny, with two churches and not much besides. There is no shop, no pizzeria, no kava bar … And after two hours of driving up from Lake Bohinj, neither of us fancied the 10km drive to Tolmin, the nearest town. The fridge was bare, but there was a bottle of red, so we dined on porridge oats cooked in water and supped wine on the balcony overlooking the hills.

On the edge of the village was a handpainted sign pointing towards another waterfall. The next day was damp, so we pulled on our jackets and headed uphill towards the roar of this "slap" that feeds the Soca. The wet weather had brought out more yellow-spotted salamanders and, turning a corner, we were hit by the unmistakable whiff of wild garlic – at our feet was an expanse of white flowering wild plants. We picked a bunch on our way down and whizzed up a wild garlic pesto (with oil, hazelnuts and hard cheese) for dinner.

Both of Matthew's restored homes are creaky and cosy and, although Kobarid has the added bonus of restaurants and supermarkets, Podmelec has a rare rural charm: we walked past the same man in blue overalls each day, drove past the same clapped-out orange Fiat 125 on the same stretch of road each day. The only thing missing was a sighting of the fabled golden-horned ibex.

• The trip was provided by; a week in the Podmelec house costs from £395 a week; Pri B'zjak from £495. EasyJet flies to Ljubljana daily from Stansted from £56 return


Nell Card

The GuardianTramp

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