There is much more to explore in Slovenia, so I plan to spend a few more days before heading to Serbia. With each mile I ride, glass of wine I taste, and the people I meet, I’m fascinated by the diversity of Slovenia, such a small country only about the size of New Jersey in the United States, though far less in population.
While tourism is growing in Slovenia, mostly, it’s off the radar. It’s also off the beaten track. Those who travel here will check off the usual Slovenia tourist stops such as Lake Bled, the caves of Postojna, the natural beauty, lakes, and waterfalls of Triglav National Park, or the Venetian town of Piran on the Adriatic Coast. You can find these places on most any list of the most visited Slovenian tourist destinations.
Sure each of these places is worth of a visit, but often I enjoy taking the back roads to the yet undiscovered gems. So at the strong suggestion of Jure Pecaric, I will follow the Soca River south and then head east to Bela Krajina in the southeast near the border of Croatia.
The road twists and turns, following the whim of the river south and passing through small villages, and forests and meadows. I cross the river in the quaint town of Kanal. I skirt the protected ecological area of Škalnica and Nova Gorica before heading east. Along the way, I see road signs I’ve never seen in over 170,000 kilometers of riding. Are they trying to warn motorcyclists or cars? Marshmallow clouds dot the blue sky, it’s warm, but the breeze as I ride cools me through the vents of my riding suit.
Everything is close in Slovenia. I could ride across the entire country in less than four hours, my ride from Kobarid to Bela Krajina takes just about three. After passing through the town of Metlika, I arrive at Big Berry Kolpa resort, a unique accommodation concept and creative community that sits on the bank of the Kolpa River.
A security gate opens, and I ride to the reception area where I meet Tjasa who heads up PR and marketing for Big Berry. The modest reception area comprises a few desks, a seating area and displays of local products on the walls and tables. A wide sliding glass door opens to a large patio that stretches almost to the river bank. A half-dozen people are milling about, conversing, or tapping on computers. It’s a diverse and international group who all work for Big Berry.
I take a seat on the patio and sip a cup of tea while Tjasa takes care of business. One Big Berry team member sits down and reviews breakfast options and asks me to make my choices by checking boxes on a simple one-page form. They will deliver breakfast to my house in a basket tomorrow morning.
Big Berry is not a traditional resort. It’s much more. A Slovenian company purchased the idyllic riverfront property to showcase its tiny modular homes, each fitted with a master bedroom, bunks, kitchen, bath, living area and a patio with a hot tub. The company soon realized it would be a waste to use the beautiful setting solely as an outdoor showroom. So they recruited a team of passionate and talented tourism professionals who created the Big Berry Resort concept and opened the resort for business in Spring of 2016.
Big Berry Kolpa River Resort is a unique tourist destination sprawled along the banks of the Kolpa River in southwestern Slovenia. The river forms the natural border between Croatia and Slovenia.
The entire resort features a low impact design and blends with the natural setting. Guests have an outdoor experience with the comforts of home. This encourages longer stays and therefore more time to take advantage of the river setting, outdoor activities, and interaction with local people and businesses.
Tjasa explains the Big Berry concept is supported by three pillars that are all intertwined:
FEEL — When guests arrive at Big Berry they will feel the experience, the luxury, and the interactivity and support of the team—most of whom also live on the property. They are promoting a lifestyle rather than an escape. The cozy houses have fully equipped kitchens and outdoor areas and hot tubs. Plus, they have canoes, kayaks, bicycles, and several areas to relax along the river and swim.
JOIN—Big Berry allows guests to interact with the community and the local community and businesses to interact with guests. So they’ve developed partnerships with both local and regional companies who produce food, wine and beer, historical, heritage, and experiential tours and learning opportunities and more. Guests and partner join in building a connection that’s more personal than transactional.
CREATE—They are not only developing and promoting the experience, but they are also leading a movement in sustainable and responsible tourism which they hope to promote and expand through franchising. This can help bring the experience to locations off the beaten track. It is showing how to build a tourist destination that integrates with the community and provides a lower cost to develop.
Big Berry calls its concept the “Luxury of Freedom.” I’m guided to my house just about two-hundred kilometers from reception, past a beach sand volleyball court on one side and pasture with roaming cattle. I park my motorcycle on the grass off my patio. I pass through a sliding glass door into the kitchen and living area where I find a basket of goodies with a personal letter rolled like a scroll held together by twine with a Big Berry branded button.
“Dear Allan, Big Berry wishes you a BERRYfull welcome. We hope you will feel special in every way. Starting with the welcoming package where you can find only products of local producers which are also our beloved partners.” Inside the basket, I find hazelnut ghee butter, pumpkin seed oil, craft beer, hemp liquor, and homemade cookies. There is ice cream in the freezer and the bathroom products are all-natural and also from a local producer.
All the interior design elements including linens, robes, window blinds, and even the hot tubs come from local and regional partners. The interior space is efficient, but not huge. Big enough for me, yet the cozy house sleeps six. Some might call it “glamping” as anyone staying here will spend more time outdoors than inside the house.
It’s peaceful. And it’s quiet. The only sound is the rustle of wind in the trees and water moving past the grassy banks. The houses are spaced far apart so you likely will not hear or see your neighbors. A family of four on bikes ride past me while I’m unpacking my motorcycle. They wave and smile. The youngest, a boy around six years old, cranes his neck as he passes. He is fascinated by and checking out my bike. He bumps into his sister, but both stay balanced and cruise on.
By the time I’m out of my riding gear and relaxing on the patio outside my tiny house the cloudless sky turns from deep blue to dark orange. I join Tjasa in the reception building before we both head to a local restaurant for dinner.
Over steak, vegetables, and buckwheat pasta Tjasa and I chat about Slovenia, the people, cultural attitudes, and more. It’s spirited, and I learn so much over the delicious hearty food.
“We are not a nationalistic country,” she explains. “We don’t pledge loyalty to our flag. Mostly we believe nationalism is not a good thing. So we’re completely different.”
“Except when it comes to food,” Tjasa takes another bite of her pasta. She tells me several years ago when international conglomerate grocery stores Lidl and Hofer opened locations in Slovenia the chains struggled. “They thought the Slovenian market would be super easy, they assumed they could conquer Slovenia, but they were wrong,” says Tjasa.
She explains. “They packed the store shelves with international products.” Both chains considered moving out of the country, but armed with the research, they changed marketing strategy and began promoting local products. “Buy local, more or less,” Tjasa remembers. “They started a campaign of local goods, and incorporated local products into its offerings.” Some Hofer stores featured only Slovenian products.” Before that, no one trusted them and their international offerings.
So we’re not nationalistic except when it comes to food. We don’t like national brands; we want local brands.”
Here in Bela Krajina as elsewhere in Slovenia, Tjasa tells me, Slovenian people, passionately keep age-old traditions alive. “Every house has a garden, and most have grapevines. For generations, every home made their own wine. You can see it as we drive through the region.”
Tomorrow we will visit several local businesses whose focus on tradition helps preserve and celebrate it and the history of the place.
The tourist season in Bela Krajina lasts from late June to early September. She tells me Big Berry houses are fully booked, and that people come to stay for more extended periods. But they are working with local businesses to bring more attention and tourists to the region in the offseason. Some wineries offer experiential programs and let guests take part in harvest. She also hopes to bring a popular bicycle race to the area. “The temperature is cooler in the fall, and it’s a great time to ride through the country because it’s not too hot.”
Over a glass of wine, our conversation meanders from history to food, wine, and politics. Tjasa tells me it stuns her to read stories of citizens of the United States who have limited access to healthcare. “Nobody would ever go bankrupt because of healthcare costs here in Slovenia. I can’t believe someone who has cancer in the United States goes bankrupt. This is like science fiction to us or a horror movie.”
“We have a sense of community here in Slovenia,” Tjasa explains. “Sure, everyone pays taxes, and we don’t mind paying taxes because we take care of each other.”
“People in other countries may get paid more, but they lack the security we have, and Slovenians are not ready to give that up.” She explains that not only is healthcare free, but University and education are taken care of, too. There are exceptions and requirements. For example, you can only get two degrees, and if you fail so many times, it’s not free anymore. “The school system is excellent here,” she explains. “We have one of the best universities in the world. I speak many languages, and the average of all Slovenia people speak 1.6 languages.”
If you come to University in Ljubljana from the countryside, your housing and food are subsidized. And this is for all of Europe. It’s capitalism, yes, but nobody goes bankrupt. We haven’t lost that compassion toward a person—empathy.”
When people need help, and the government does not aid them, the community will pitch in. She tells me that perhaps over ninety percent of Slovenia communities have volunteer fire departments and that the fire departments take part in communities much more than just fighting fires.
“When we have floods people come together. They help build roads and do things for the community. Sure, the world is changing around us, but we have not lost the sense and importance of community. We cherish it.”
She tells me of a horrible hail storm this past spring where massive hailstones pelted holes in roofs all over Bela Krajina. So people from all over Slovenia came here to help repair roofs, cover them with plastic, and support the local community. “We care for everybody,” Tjasa explains.
It’s encouraging to listen to her explain how taxation works and how they encourage students to learn different languages, take part in foreign exchange programs, and support and promote local businesses and communities. This isn’t just business, this is a lifestyle. And this is the underlying core of what Big Berry is doing.
After dinner and back at Big Berry, I fire up the hot tub on my porch and soak while sipping local wine. I like it here. It seems right.
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