Slovenia was basking in early summer heat. Its long-rolling hills shimmered with green wheat fields and jewel-like wildflowers, ringed in the west by the majestic snow-capped Julian Alps, and flowed through by the wide waters of the two main rivers, Llubljanica and Drava.
Across the border on a climbing sky-drive on an elegantly engineered mountain motorway we swapped Italian highway chaos for a calm and orderly passage amongst freight trucks and local traffic heading east.
With a population of just two million people and a land mass a little smaller than Wales, Slovenia is largely rural, with industry based around agriculture, summer and winter tourism, paper and wood products, electronic and green technologies.
It’s a relatively young country, having come out of the former Yugoslavia in 1991, and is westward-looking with a stable democracy and strong economy.
Proud eastern traditions are shown off in food, music, hand crafts, costume, architecture and (cheap and plentiful) beer-drinking.
On a cycle ride through the foothills of the Julian Alps from our camperstop at Sostra we admired the calm and tranquillity of traditional farming scenes – old boys driving small antiquated tractors towing hay ricks loaded with the first harvest of fodder bales, some of which had been hand raked, gathered and tied by younger men.
Women of all ages were busy in vegetable patches, often squares of land dug into the earth alongside the roads, hoeing and weeding meticulous lines of early potatoes, summer salads, onions, tomatoes and herbs.
It is gentle countryside, seemingly leading people to work in gentle ways with the land, and at a gentle pace.
Tall wooden drying racks, used for hay in high summer, were festooned with huge bags containing the yellow heads of drying corn cobs. Wild flowers glowed like jewels of bright colours; red, blue, purple and orange, alongside the lanes and across the hedge-less hillsides.
Puffing a long steady climb up a steep 22% gradient and then plunging down a tumultuous drop, which we had to repeat in reverse, put us up in the dark forest line amongst calling cuckoos and bee hives, with a bird’s eye view of the rural idyll below.
Animals, well-tended and comfortable farm stocks of cattle and sheep as well as domestic small-holdings of pigs, chickens and, unusually, soft-eyed goats were plenteous.
Farm cats stalked the open land and on occasion, joined us for a small meaty meal, not minding the lashings of burnt-orange and burn-the-back-of-your-throat paprika sauce that is doused on pork, beef and chicken dishes.
The Savinja valley has been exploited for its timber since the Middle Ages. Rafters transported the timber from Ljubno to Mozirje and Celje and some of the logs travelled as far as Romania. The trade brought wealth to the valley, evident from the many fine buildings still standing here.
Ruined castles perched in the highlands where previously they had jealously guarded ducal lands and estates. Brackish lakes hosted more than 100 varieties of water birds, native and migrant, busy fishing and feasting on water bugs and plant life.
At Prebold we cycled through a wide valley of hops, bewildering at first, then understood to be giant wooden frames along which long lengths of sturdy rope were woven in parallels to train the individual hop plants upwards.
With heritage from both continental and British growing traditions, Slovenian hop varieties are traditional in many Belgian and English ales.
Lasko and Union beer, Slovenia’s two national brands, are cultivated here but are now sadly brewed by Heineken, which bought them both out recently. Rueful bar owners told us this, but foreign ownership clearly didn’t diminish enjoyment of the plentiful quaffing!
It’s so easy to enjoy the beauty of Slovenia and all it has to offer on two wheels.
During the past few days we’ve attempted to follow many of the designated cycle routes on our very detailed local maps but predictably, we kept getting lost. It didn’t matter though, because around every corner there was always something new to see, scent or admire. No wonder the Slovenians are so immensely proud of where they live.