Is there anything worse than a Monday morning? Our fellow passengers on the No. 5 bus in the direction of Podutik don’t seem to think so, their faces pale and drawn, reflecting the miserable fog outside. In our many layers of quick-drying synthetics and Gore-Tex we stick out like… well, like a pair of hikers on a bus full of middle-aged women commuting to work. It might be 7am on a Monday morning, but for those of us who keep irregular schedules that’s as good a time as any to go for a day-long hike from Ljubljana to Škofja Loka.
This is a much more reasonable plan than it might seem at first – while the half-hour drive from Ljubljana to Škofja Loka is not particularly remarkable, the 27-kilometre hiking route takes one across the Polhov Gradec hills (Polhograjsko Hribovje), linking a number of popular hiking destinations into one long yet technically undemanding hike, with plenty of views, churches, and general Slovenian quaintness thrown in for good measure. Many of the peaks and villages passed en route will ring familiar to most people from the central Slovenian region – Toško Čelo, Topol, Gonte (and Grmada), Tošč, Ožbolt, Sv. Andrej, Puštal and, finally, Škofja Loka. For anyone visiting Slovenia this hike is an easy way to go native for a day: while Slovenians might not be able to agree on politics, history, or the correct way of butchering Slovenian grammar, one thing is pretty much universal – our near-pathological obsession with hills and mountains, whether it’s hiking up them, skiing down them, or just enjoying the view at the top.
Ok, the bus ride’s over – time to get moving.
No use taking photos of the fog… but the views cleared up beautifully later in the day
We disembark at the final station, Podutik, and start walking, continuing down the same road. I won’t bore you with too many navigational details in this post – neither my memory nor my note-taking skills are good enough to recall every turn on the road and fork in the trail. Besides, I wouldn’t want to put cartographers out of business. You can get a map of the region in most bigger bookshops, or, if you’re not completely averse to letting your smartphone butt into your outdoorsy pursuits, the maps.me offline map includes all the relevant trails, with the added bonus of GPS if you get so lost that an old-fashioned map is of no use… but we’ll get to that later.
The start does not look promising, I admit, trudging along the road grumpy and groggy, thinking about how much I hate mornings and love sleep and how this was a stupid idea anyways. But the bleary autumn sun promises a beautiful day once we rise above the fog and my mood starts to lift reluctantly – this hike was my idea after all, stupid or not. Following the sign for Toško Čelo we take a road to the right and soon reach the statue of a courier boy, a monument to the Partisan couriers who used the trail via Toško Čelo during the Second World War. This is the trailhead where our hike starts in earnest, hot on the heels of a spry old lady on the hunt for mushrooms, armed with an optimistically large basket.
Forest covers around two-thirds of Slovenia, so it’s common sense that one is never far from it, and yet it still always takes me by surprise how quickly one can leave the city and find oneself surrounded by trees, where the only signs of the outside world are the occasional trail marking and the trail itself, created by the countless pair of feet that walked here before. It’s a feeling I strongly connect with home, this effortlessness of reaching nature, and also what I miss most abroad. No matter how far I go or where I live, my idea of home is always inextricably bound to the luxury of having forested hills in my backyard and endless mountains to climb just a little bit further.
This first section of the hike is far from being a remote wilderness – it’s a popular route that intersects with the road a couple of times – but it’s empty and quiet on this Monday morning. The trails are generally well marked, but as is often the case there is also a network of “unofficial” trails, shortcuts and detours that have sprung up through heavy use, so it’s always a good idea to keep an eye out for the round red and white markings on the trees.
After a short quick climb the trail comes out of the forest just before the Toško Čelo hunting lodge and, joining the road, we continue through the village, admiring a couple of beautiful old houses along the way. In the course of the day our walk takes us past a number of small settlements and old homesteads that make my companion – the sort of person who asks for a five-volume encyclopaedia of Slovenian rural architecture for his 30th birthday and does not understand why the request is met with raised eyebrows – whimper with desire in a mildly indecent way that makes me quite glad we’re the only people in sight.
Ok I’ll admit this is damn pretty though
Following the sign for Topol the road leaves the village, returns to the forest and soon turns to gravel. This is an easy and uneventful stage, and there is some walking along a tarmac road towards the end – through Topol, left at the chapel and past restaurant Dobnikar, then right following the sign for Belo until a small stone quarry is reached, with a gravel path turning right towards Grmada and Gonte.
en route from Topol to the turn-off for Grmada/Gonte
After a while the ungainly wide path turns back into a meandering singletrack as the terrain slowly turns more rugged and mountainous. About half an hour after the sign for Grmada we came across a sunny outcrop of rock at the side of the trail that offers great views and a handy excuse for a break and snacks.
You might think this is too much food for two people, but you’d be wrong.
There is a turist farm at Gonte that serves traditional Slovenian food but is only open to visitors on weekends. Besides, we’ve packed enough food to open a grocery store, both being the tall rangy types that collapse in a heap of helpless hangry rage if not fed every hour, on the hour. We felt only slightly ridiculous carrying not only four sandwiches and trail mix, but also half a dozen leftover empanadas, four hard-boiled eggs, four müsli bars, two large chocolate bars and an impressive amount of bananas, apples and pears. After careful deliberation we had at least decided to leave behind a large loaf of dense fruit bread and spent the day proudly congratulating each other on what was clearly a very grown-up moment of restraint.
Just before reaching the tourist farm at Gonte a red sign offers the option of making the quick steep climb to Grmada peak for those feeling extra frisky but, knowing that we still had a long day ahead we decided to skip the familiar view and save our strength for the climb to Tošč, which begins right after passing the Gonte tourist farm. This is the only real climb of the day, rewarding the sweaty hiker with sweeping views of the surroundings at the peak, which is the highest point of the hike at 1021 metres above sea level.
Descending from Tošč
The hiking poles come in handy at the descent and there is some potential for unscripted adventuring once the trail levels out again, where a sudden dearth of trail markings can lead the distracted hiker to take a wrong turn and end up bushwhacking through the forest, wondering where the trail had gone. In hindsight this was the very spot that my mom, who had hiked the route a couple of years ago, had warned me about: When you have the choice between a narrow trail to the left and a wide gravel road to the right, with a cheeky little ambiguous marking in the middle, take the narrower trail to the left. Of course I didn’t listen, as children never do, but you still have the chance to put this information to good use. On the bright side, we did stumble upon a beautifully renovated homestead once we made it out of the forest, which gave my companion something to swoon about as we eventually found a road that took us to the church of St. Jedrt, where we re-joined out intended route.
From there one can already see the St. Ožbolt church – the next stop on the way – on a hilltop that seems barely a stone’s throw away, but the road skirts around the valley and takes its sweet time before reaching it, passing through the village of Selo and past some beautiful views, one particularly tedious stretch of road and, right at the end, yet another old wooden house that even I must admit looks almost too quaint to handle.
From St. Ožbolt we can finally see Škofja Loka in the valley below and, sensing cold beer in our near future, we gallop down the grassy slope towards St. Andrej. This time we are careful to pay attention to the trail markings, since my mother managed to get lost here and, having mercilessly made fun of her for it, I didn’t think repeating her mistake would do me any good.
Yet even without losing our way (ha!) this stage, which is only supposed to take about half an hour, ended up taking us about three times as long. This is because we were ambushed by truly obscene amounts of chestnuts that were strewn all over the trail, fat and brown and gleaming seductively in the autumn sunlight, having mostly already rid themselves of their spiky sheaths.
Now I’ve never cared much for eating chestnuts, but it turns out I’m a complete maniac when it comes to collecting every single one of those shiny buggers. I’d picked up the first one – oh, look, a chestnut! – and then a second – maybe we can roast some this evening! – and before you know it I was crawling along with a demented glint in my eye, filling my pockets with every chestnut that came my way, all the pretty shiny brown chestnuts, oh yesss, come to me, my preciousssss, screeching at my companion, who had caught the chestnut fever as well but was careless enough to miss one every now and then, That one there! The fat one! GET IT!! as though it might run away if not snatched up in time. Things got quite out of control, really, and by the time we reached the church of St. Andrej I could barely spare a glimpse for the beautiful fresco painted on its side as I was too busy moving my loot from various bulging pockets into my backpack while cackling maniacally.
The first step to recovery is, they say, admitting that you have a problem. Continuing from St. Andrej to Puštal, our legs beginning to drag and ache from the long walk, we realised that collecting all the chestnuts between Ljubljana and Škofja Loka and reaching the latter in a decent time were mutually exclusive goals, so we averted our eyes from the ground and quickened our pace. We relapsed a couple of times – it’s hard to go cold turkey when the trail is literally lined with chestnut trees – but eventually we made it out of the forest at the edge of the valley, with Puštal just ahead and Škofja Loka on the other side of the river. We breathed a sigh of relief – with the chestnut temptation behind us and the promise of cold beer ahead nothing could keep us from reaching our destination. Following the sign for Nace’s House (Nacetova Hiša) we took the Puštal trail (Puštalova pot), which goes past a number of historical sites to the Devil’s footbridge, over which we crossed the Sora river into Škofja Loka. Finally!
Škofja Loka first appears in written history in 973, when the lordship of Škofja Loka was granted by Emperor Otto II to the Bishops of Freising, and today the city has the best preserved medieval core in Slovenia. As we dragged ourselves through the meandering streets and past the intricately painted facades of the gothic and baroque buildings on Town Square, with the castle dipping into evening shadow on the hill above, I found myself quite smitten with the place, and not only because it was our long-awaited destination. Škofja Loka is not really considered much of a destination – or perhaps I’d just not gotten the memo – but it’s a wonderful place to arrive, tired and exhilarated, stumbling through over a thousand years of history layered upon each other.
Town Square / Mestni Trg in Škofja Loka
It was five in the afternoon by the time we reached Jesharna, a small restaurant in the city centre touted as having the best pizzas in Škofja Loka. We chose a table on the balcony with a view of the river and the Capuchin Stone Bridge, the oldest preserved bridge in Slovenia, though our attention was mostly consumed by our food and wonderful, magical German beer.
After dinner, tired and full and slightly tipsy, we only had to waddle across the bridge to the bus station, and by the time the sun dipped behind the hills we were already on our way back to Ljubljana, pleasantly tired and mighty pleased with ourselves, our pockets bulging with fat gleaming chestnuts.
The view from the restaurant
WHAT YOU NEED:
> A free day. The hike takes 7-8 hours at an easy pace, though it can take much longer in chestnut season 🙂
> Urbana bus pass for the ride to Podutik and 3,10 EUR for the bus from Škofja Loka to Ljubljana (for the schedule, click here. Generally the bus leaves Škofja Loka at 10 minutes past the hour.)
> Sturdy shoes. You don’t need hiking boots, but something with a good grip is welcome – my light trail running shoes did a great job while my hiking companion learned the hard way that minimal shoes and a long day’s walk on rocky/gravely trails don’t go together well
> Enough food and water. The tourist farm at Gonte is only open on weekends, so if you’ll be hiking during the week assume that you won’t be able to get food or water along the way and pack accordingly. (the hike passes through a number of villages where you can of course ask to refill your water bottle, but the villages were pretty deserted when we walked through, as everyone was at work.)
> A map. Either print (Polhograjsko Hribovje 1:25.000 or similar) or digital (I find the maps.me offline maps very reliable for hiking and they came handy on this route as well)
> Also sun block, reasonable clothes, etc, but I’m assuming you’re a grown-up and know these things already.
SOME EXTRAS YOUR MIGHT WANT:
> hiking poles. It’s a long hike with some knee-busting descents that will be more pleasant if you pack a pair of lightweight poles.
> Some extra money to end the hike in style with pizza and fancy beer. You know you want to!