I’ve quoted him before, and I’ll quote him again.
“I think human beings need contradictions. We need opposites. We need to sleep in a five-star hotel and we need to sleep under a tree. The distance and the difference between those two extremes are what makes us happy and what makes us think and what makes us grow.” – Francis Mallman
Francis Mallman’s quote has quickly come to embody how we travel. Each adventure we embark on becomes more memorable and more epic than the last; particularly because we’ve learned that in order to appreciate ‘luxury’, we must also challenge ourselves in some way. Because, just as Mallman says, we need contradictions.
We would not have fully appreciated our two-day stay at Hiša Franko, where we we were spoiled with the two best dinners we’ve ever eaten, had we not first had boiled cabbage and beans after climbing a Julian Alp. The frigid (-5C) night of sleeplessness in the haunted mountain hut at Triglav‘s summit, meant that the cozy flannel sheets and dinner of local trout at the farm stay, Pri Plajerju, felt like pure opulence.
By including a spectrum of extremes, our Slovenian holiday felt whole, and rewarding. So, how did we make that happen?
Phase I – Pick a challenge and remove traditional comforts
If you’re looking to create your own ‘holiday of contradictions’, I’d start by picking a challenge to include in your itinerary.
We decided early on in the planning phase of our Slovenian holiday that we were going to climb the tallest Julian Alp, Triglav. Over the past nearly-three years (eek, time flies!) that we’ve lived in the UK, I’ve increasingly pushed myself in the outdoors. We’ve adventured through the Brecon Beacons, climbed around mount Mosor in Croatia, and traipsed across ridges on the Isle of Skye. But attempting to summit an alpine mountain in wintery conditions was a new level for me, and even for Mike.
And although the climb’s ascent and descent are doable in one day (if you’re superhuman), we planned to spend the night at the summit to make the adventure more achievable and, dare I say, leisurely.
Triglavski Dom sits at 2,515m (8,251ft) just meters below the summit. It operates as a weather station, which means that it’s one of the only mountain huts in Slovenia to function year-round. During the summer months, when it is teeming with touring hikers (350 people per night from June through August), the electricity and hot water are running, and it is operated by a full staff. In the off-season, the weathermen who live there keep extra blankets clean and prepare extra portions of their own meals, so that infrequent winter hikers can seek refuge from the elements for a night at the summit.
Of course, we were expecting a certain level of ‘rustic’ out of this particular night, but Triglavski Dom took rustic to a whole new level. The majority of the hut is not heated, so by 5PM, just as I was settling under six layers of wool blankets to massage my muscles, I could see my breath. The ‘private’ room we slept in was really just a small rectangular cupboard branching off of an unlit hallway, and housed a stack of rickety twin bunk beds. The extra portions of the weathermen’s food was different variations of canned beans and noodles. And the bathrooms…
Have you ever watched The Shining? Do you remember the scene where the little boy is riding his tricycle down the hallway? Admittedly, I didn’t get very far past that scene because I’m a horror-movie-wimp. But the basement bathroom in the mountain hut at Triglavski Dom may as well have had Jack Nicholson waiting outside one of the stalls with that terrifying grin on his face. How I ever managed to sneak in the dark with my head lamp, through three sets of squeaky whooshing double doors and down several flights of stairs, to pee in a basement where I’m sure no one would have heard me scream if I was being murdered, is beyond me.
But if you’ve ever exerted yourself by ‘playing’ outside for a full day, particularly in colder conditions, you know just how gourmet any food tastes, even if it is boiled cabbage. And you know just how comfortable any mattress feels to lie down on.
While I never thought I’d be spending one of our wedding anniversary nights in a separate bed from Mike, in a room that was -5C, removing ourselves from our daily comforts forced us to form a different definition of romance. From that portion of the trip, I defined romance as the pure admiration and pride I felt for Mike when he summited the final bit of Triglav; spending a whole 36 hours with each other in the wilderness away from screens and other people; going to sleep with a small window that looked out onto the clearest and darkest sky we’ve ever seen, with the milky way illuminated, and then waking up to a view of the sun creeping over the snow capped mountains; standing at the edge of a rocky cliff and watching that sunrise together, totally alone.
Phase 2: Immerse yourself in the culture
We’ve stayed in a few rather nice hotels over the past few years of adventuring. But our most memorable accommodations have always been places that have fostered a connection with the local culture, and especially the local people. We found this during our next two nights at Pri Plajerju – an eco-farm-stay I’d found on a hiking website.
Pri Plajerju has all of the epic wilderness-romance of Triglavski Dom, but with the comforts of modern life (i.e. central heating) and incredible local food. When we pulled off of the main road that wound its way along the dazzling Soča River and into Pri Plajerju’s driveway, it felt like coming home.
Stanka and Marko, our hosts and owners of the farm-stay, came out to greet us with their young daughter and shaggy dog. I had mentioned in emails to Stanka that we were climbing Triglav just before arriving at their farm-stay. So upon meeting us, she immediately asked us how our legs were feeling and if we’d like to nap until dinner. She and Marko ushered us along towards the lodge-like houses scattered across the property and told us we could have our pick of a room for the next two nights.
The small apartment style room, while simple, felt like a five star hotel in contrast with the previous night’s stay. The farm is nestled just outside of Trenta, the most stunning part of Triglav National Park we saw. The Julian Alps tower over the sleepy little farms and the emerald-colored river. The window in our bedroom looked straight at mounts Razor, Stenar, and Pihavec, three of the most formidable peaks.
The next few days felt like we had reverted to a magical childhood. We’d wake up, be treated to an wholesome breakfast of homemade products from the farm. Honey, freshly baked bread, eggs from the chickens outside the front door. She and Marko poured over maps of the area with us and then sent us out to ‘play’ (i.e. hike) on their favorite trails during the day, and we returned at dusk to more delicious food they prepared with products from their farm. Fresh pasta with trout, carrot soup, lamb stew, dark chocolate crepes. Each evening we walked from their house where we ate our meals back to our own, and could hardly watch where we were going because so many shooting stars were visible above us.
A highlight for me was helping Stanka and Marko’s teenage son catch one of the family rabbits that escaped. He insisted that we wouldn’t be eating the rabbit, but then proceeded to tell us it was of a breed that is best for eating, so I wonder what was really in that soup we ate.
Our time at Pri Plajerju was the perfect interlude between the challenge of Triglav and the upcoming indulgence at Hiša Franko. We felt totally at peace, and immersed in Slovenian life. The way Marko and Stanka operate their farm, and the warmth they project to the travelers they welcome into their home, was a reminder that living simply, and intentionally, is best.
Phase 3: Treat Yourself
Now, you might be thinking that if Mike and I so thoroughly enjoy all of this rustic travel, we may not “treat ourselves” in the traditional sense. But just because we camp in the occasional blizzard on a Brecon Beacon, doesn’t mean we don’t also like staying in a lush BnB when we get the chance.
That’s why we decided that our trip of adventures would conclude with a bit of relaxation, and a lot of incredible food at Hiša Franko.
You may have heard of Hiša Franko if you pay attention to the world food scene. The owner, Ana Ros, was just named the World’s Best Female Chef. Or you may have seen it on Ana’s own episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix. Ros is credited with putting Slovenian cuisine on the map, and it’s for good reason.
We splurged on a weekend package that included two nights of tasting menu dinners, two mornings of breakfast, and two nights in a room at Hiša Franko’s attached BnB, which is really just Ana and her husband’s house with extra rooms.
Immediately after arriving on our first afternoon, we settled into our comfortable Scandi-style room, complete with a balcony overlooking the valley. We inhaled the delicious smells of dinner already cooking. Whiffs of prosciutto broth traveled up to our room from the kitchen, causing our anticipation to rise for our first tasting menu dinner.
On our first evening’s dinner, my stomach was full of butterflies. I couldn’t believe we were finally at the dinner we’d been looking forward to for months. The dinner we’d truly earned from a whole week of strenuous hiking. The sommelier offered us the wine pairing, which we went for to further enhance the whole experience. This was a sound choice, as every single wine over the course of the next two evenings complemented the food exquisitely.
The first evening was a procession six courses of artistic dishes exhibiting produce from the Soča Valley – baby brown trout with chestnuts and tangerine; wild mushrooms and potato in a cheese rinds emulsion; cauliflower ravioli over crab topped with coffee oil; and my personal favorite – roe buck on a mediterranean terrace of smoked eel, black trumpets cold cooked in plum vinegar.
We hardly thought the second evening could top the first, but it may have with its eleven courses. Sheep cottage cheese ravioli panfried with bone marrow in a prosciutto broth; tripe on a bed of cave cheese, fried nettles, and chanterelles; umami beef tongue; blood orange, black tea, granola, carrot ice cream and salted mousse.
(In case you’re wondering why I don’t have any pictures of the food, we decided from the get go to leave our cameras in our room to fully absorb the experience. Our waiter actually noticed this, and smiled when he told us that we were the only guests not Instagramming our food.)
We had high expectations for the food themed portion of our trip at Hiša Franko and they were exceeded. We enjoyed the two best dinners of our life as the culmination of our adventure; a reward for everything we’d accomplished in Triglav National Park.
Traveling with contrasts, just like Mallman said
My biggest take away from this trip is that in order to make our travels epic, we have to continue down this path of finding contrasts.
Basking in the sunlight with some afternoon wine and cheese by the Soča River during our stay at Pri Plajerju would not have felt as relaxing had we not climbed amongst the Julian Alps for the three days prior. My sore hamstrings and aching quads felt like they’d earned that two hour riverside siesta.
Our six- and eleven-course meals at Hiša Franko would certainly have been enjoyable on their own. But having hiked for the six previous days, pushing our bodies to their limit and then replenishing them with gourmet local cuisine, made us truly appreciate how special and indulgent our visit to Hiša Franko really was.