A little man was gesturing towards a lovely fig tree hanging over the road where Julie and I are standing in the shade, hanging our head and panting, trying to breathe again. He has watched us push our bikes up a hill so steep that it’s taken all my effort to slowly creep up the winding road to our missed turn. Calves burning, feet slipping backwards, face bent almost horizontal to the ground with all my weight leaning into the bike to keep it moving slowly forward and up.
We must have looked like we needed sustenance. Or a brain transplant. I was wondering what the heck we were doing up that skinny mountain road, too, and cursing the lack of good through bike routes in Slovenia.
So we caught our breath and thanked our benefactor and had a snack from his fig tree before climbing back on the bike and heading down a dirt road back down the other side of the mountain.
We were learning that those promising little white roads on our navigation app … while usually gorgeous and scenic and interesting … were also risky routes for planning bike rides. This was not the first time we were off the bike pushing up unspeakably steep hills. Or looking at a sketchy dirt path wondering if we dared follow the trail further or should admit defeat and try another route. Unfortunately for us, we are both stubborn and found ourselves pressing on more often than turning back. The temperatures were nearly 90 degrees in the afternoons, leading to grumpy hallucinations of Slovenian road builders driving a truck to the top of hills and letting the asphalt roll down where gravity took it. Some of the climbs of the last few days had to have been 25% to 30% grades. At minimum they just paved the old village paths and cow trails that cut through the rural areas. There can be a steep price for the most beautiful riding … and invariably at the end of the day once I was showered and fed I was happy to have paid it.
The day before we had extended our day in Gorizia to take a loop ride through the wine-growing region on the border between Slovenia and Italy. Beautiful country, and like most wine growing areas quite hilly. But with rested legs and no bags weighing down our bikes, the ride through the vineyards felt easy, with rewards of wine tastings and prosciutto for lunch in route.
The next day we left Gorizia heading East through the Slovenian wine-growing Villapa valley. This region, both the Friuli Italian side and the Slovenian valley is justly famous for their wines – particularly delicious whites. And it’s harvest time. The air smells like grape juice and the fields hum with urgency.
Much of the harvest is done by hand in pairs as entire families work on opposite sides of the vines, hand cut the bunches of grapes and drop them into plastic crates. A tractor occasionally pulls through and loads the crates onto a wagon, and we have made-way as scores of tractors drag their precious cargo back towards the hundreds of local wineries that are scattered around the hills and valleys. Many are small or even family wineries, but much of the production is also commercial with tasting rooms and professional winemaking facilities. These pickers look like family and volunteers, not paid labor.
At one point we stopped to watch some pickers work next to the road, and a woman walked over and hands us a huge mound of white grapes. We ate our fill by the side of the road, and at the end of the day washed the sticky grape juice off our bikes where it had run from our fingers. Best. Grapes. Ever. And we took stops to just rest, recover and simply take in the beauty around us.
In the evening we typically split half a liter of a local white wine with dinner … Dirt cheap and usually delicious. The wine tastes of the bounty of hours of love and labor of an area proud of its traditions. The work we saw hundreds of families putting into their fields, working together to create this bounty.
And our own hard work and sweat navigating the countryside, witnessing the country produce its legacy only made it more special.