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VELIKA PLANINA: A hiker’s paradise

Covering some 577 hectares of pastureland, Velika Planina is the catchall name for a number of plateaus that come together to make the highest alpine pasture plateau in Slovenia. Just a short drive outside of Kamnik, hordes of herdsmen’s cottages sit at an altitude of over 1500 metres surrounded by pine forests. It is a remarkable place, and one that truly is a must-see when in Kamnik or Ljubljana.

As May comes around, green becomes the overwhelmingly dominant colour on the highland, along with the blossoming of the purple Kamnik flower (or Nigritella Lithopolitanica, to give it its scientific name). Huts sit lazily all around, with pine shingle roofs and an architecture that is genuinely unique to this mountain land. As various peaks rising over 2500m loom in the background, it all makes for some wonderful scenery. The Herdsmen’s Settlement comes alive in summer, maintaining traditions that are centuries old. The Snow Mary Chapel sits on top of the settlement, looking over in a most protective manner. The tourist settlement might not have quite as much history but it still has a fascinating story nonetheless, and the views are even more remarkable from this elevated spot. A number of guesthouses sit at various points throughout, providing weary hikers with some much-needed food straight from the history of this beautiful land.

HISTORY OF VELIKA PLANINA

There is evidence to suggest that man has been present on Velika Planina since prehistoric times. A number of items have been uncovered to confirm this, such as a number of axes from between the 13th and 11th century, numerous tools, pendants and ceramics, amongst over things. As with many things from such a terrifyingly long time ago there is a lot of conjecture with regards to the little details, but it is believed that animals were reared on these hills in the long long ago as well.

Velika Planina’s glory years, if a mountain can have such things, began in the 16th century. The style of huts that came to dominate were built during this time, with the Preskar Museum hut that stands today being almost identical in design. Dairy farming really took off during this time as well. The number of people living up on the mountain was generally unknown until the 18th and 19th centuries, when tentative records began. Tourism exploded in the 1930s, and this was because the huts, which had previously been empty in winter, were rented out to those who came to ski.

Velika Planina couldn’t escape the carnage that engulfed Europe in World War Two, and German soldiers and local militiamen burned down all of the huts on the plateau. Not even the Chapel of Our Lady of the Snows was spared. Immediately following the end of the war the rebuilding process began, bringing the settlement to its current aesthetic. The chapel was rebuilt in 1988. Much credit for the rebuild goes to Vlasto Kopač, a Slovene architect and mountaineer who visited the peak every year for 70 years, carefully noting everything and anything down about life so high up. Kopač died in 2006.

HERDSMEN’S SETTLEMENT: From June until September, Velika Planina acts as home for around 30 herdsmen, who slowly move up the mountain to their settlement to continue tradition and to tend to their cattle. Some 63 huts dot the landscape with their distinctly unique architecture in what is now an officially protected cultural landscape. The settlement came very close to being ripped down in 1957, only to be saved after an intervention by Vlasto Kopač and the herdsmen. Along with the 63 huts there is a parliament building (the main social centre for the shepherds) and an open-air dance floor.

CHAPEL OF OUR LADY OF THE SNOWS: Sat above the herdsmen’s settlement like a protective mother, the first incarnation of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Snows was built in 1938 in order to provide the herdsmen a venue for the holy mass. Prior to its being built, the herdsmen would gather on Zeleni Rob in order to hear church bells ringing through the valley. The first chapel wouldn’t last so long unfortunately, being burnt down by German soldiers and Slovene militiamen in World War Two. Only a painting of the Virgin Mary with Jesus survived, and this painting adorns the rebuilt (1988) chapel today. The Lady of the Snows feast day is August 5th, and is the busiest day of the year for the settlement. It really is quite the celebration.

PRESKAR HUT MUSEUM: The only preserved oval hut with an open fireplace and no windows or chimney, the Preskar Hut Museum stands out in the settlement. Built after the devastation of World War Two, it now houses a museum showing the life of herdsmen in the 19th century. Upon arrival a herder in traditional dress greets you, and we can confirm that it is quite the striking look. Through the summer there are also occasional events and workshops. Info: +386 (0)1 832 72 58, info@velikaplanina.si.

TOURIST SETTLEMENT AND GOSTIŠČE ZELENI ROB

Built for tourists and adjusted to suit their needs, the area around Zeleni Rob is now home to numerous cottages for those who wish to extend their stay on Velika Planina to extra days. Built using plans drawn up by Vlasto Kopač, it was intended to be aesthetically separate from the Herdsmen’s Settlement but it still retains a distinct Velika Planina flavor. The mountain lodge Zeleni Rob is at the heart of the settlement, and also to provide some much needed sustenance after a long day of walking. They specialize in traditional fare, doing an excellent line in cheese dumplings. Zeleni Rob contact: Info: +386 (0)1 832 72 58, info@velikaplanina.si.

KAMNIK ORCHID: As the snow melts and green pastures begin to take over Velika Planina in the summer, one flower in particular begins to flourish. The Kamnik Orchid (Nigritella Lithopolitanica, scientifically) reaches its zenith in June. With its purple egg-shaped blossom and grass-like leaves, it is the most famous flower from the top of the mountain and also the only orchid to find itself on the Red list of threatened plants, confirming it as a rare species.