Had anyone told me 20 years ago that one day I would be hiking with kids up to hilltop churches in Slovenia, I would have scoffed at the idea.
Now I love hiking. Sadly though, my legs beg to differ. I’ve always known that I am not the fittest person in the world (or in my hometown come to think of it!). Being an asthma sufferer doesn’t help much; although I must confess to having used this as an excuse on many an occasion, especially at school to get out of cross country running.
But many years ago, even the merest suggestion of hiking up a tall hill, let alone a mountain, would have been met with a long frown and cries of “are you crazy?” And anyone asking me to undergo an arduous hike just to visit a hilltop church would have resulted in a huge question mark being placed over their sanity.
All this changed one day however, when I was at the end of the world. Now, I don’t mean the end of the world in a prophetic sense, but rather the end of the world in a geographical sense.
I was in Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), which lies at the far southern tip of South America and is divided between Chile and Argentina, the more southerly and most beautiful half being in Argentina. This is the most southerly point that one can travel to without actually having to share an iceberg with a group of penguins. So to me, it represented the end of the world.
I was on a three-month backpacking trip around South America, back in my more youthful days when I was free and unhindered, and more importantly: childless!
A young couple I had met along the way had convinced me to go wild camping in the Tierra del Fuego National Park, and while there also somehow managed to convince me to hike up 940 metres to Cerro Guanaco mountain peak. It was tough to say the least, but I soldiered onwards out of a mix of sheer pig-headedness and a desire not to look wimpy in front of the others who were strolling up the steep inclines like it was a walk in the park.
Now prior to this moment, I had never really understood the true meaning of the words “breathtaking view”. But as I stumbled on to the top, beaten, lifeless and about to collapse, I turned to a view that epitomised these very words. It was then that I realised hiking is really worth the huge effort it involves.
I was hooked. I loved it, even if my legs didn’t. Now the one problem with avid hikers, and one that even my wife seems to suffer from, is that after ten minutes at the top they want to start back down! Still to this day it baffles me how you can kill yourself to hike up to a place like this for the totally breathtaking views, and want to head back down after just a few minutes. In the case of Cerro Guanaco, I had almost destroyed my legs and lungs to get there, and was now being treated to a once in a lifetime view of the end of the world from 1000m above sea level. I wanted to stay the night! Well okay, at least for an hour.
From that moment I embarked on many hikes in South America and the ensuing countries I travelled around; many with my heavy backpack. I thought it would make me fitter….. It didn’t. But my love for it grew quickly.
When I first came to Slovenia I discovered that Slovenes also love hiking, and that there is a huge network of hiking trails and a ton of mountains and hills to climb. It soon became evident that many of these hilltop hikes end at a church, which also provides stunning views. Now I’m not a religious man, but it is clear that whoever built these churches must also have loved hiking (although I’m sure there were other reasons).
Hiking with kids
Once the kids came along, these regular jaunts were hindered somewhat. We often wake up on weekend mornings with grand plans for a hike, while the kids seem to spend the morning devising ever more cunning plans to thwart them. So we usually end up going to a more familiar place for an easy afternoon hike. But every now and then the kids throw us a bone and we actually, to coin a nice British phrase, “get our shit together”. When this happens, we try to hike somewhere new.
One beautiful Sunday morning we got our shit together, and so we decided to try the hike to Sveti Jakob (Saint Jacob) church in the Polhov Gradec hills near Medvode.
One of many starting points
As with all hilltop hikes in Slovenia, there are several starting points. On this day we opted to start in the village of Trnovec. You can park by the roadside here, and so we did just that.
From here it is about one hour to the top, according to the sign. They obviously don’t take into account that hiking with kids means you are never on time for anything! After years of arduous effort we had finally got our boy to hike the whole way without being carried. Then we made the mistake of having another, so nowadays instead of a heavy backback, I have to carry a heavy 3-year old. But thankfully she does walk a fair bit by herself now.
Over the hills and into the forest
The trail takes you past a farmhouse and a couple of traditional kozolec (wooden racks for drying hay) and onwards until you reach another house. The sign here points you left into the forest. About 15 minutes later you emerge once again to into the open. It’s here that you get your first stunning view across to the Kamnik Alps.
From here it’s a short trek through another little stretch of forest until you reach the hilltop itself. The church sits on a small brow just above, and of course provides panoramic views all around. It is breathtaking, and as you know, I don’t use that word lightly.
If you are hiking with kids then it may take a little longer than one hour, but should you be fortunate enough to not have had them yet, or have already raised them and thrown them out of the house, then you can easily make this hike in under an hour. It’s a very picturesque walk and quite frankly not too demanding. The trails are gentle and there are no steep sections at all.
It was built in the 16th century and on clear days you can see everything, the Julian Alps (Mount Triglav, the highest peak in Slovenia), the Kamnik Alps and the Karavank Alps. To the south you can see right into the Ljubljana Basin and even see the Ljubljana Castle which sits in the centre of the city.
The one advantage to having kids is they need feeding after a hike like this, so we settled down on the hilltop for a fairly reasonable amount of time to munch food and soak up these magnificent views before dragging them back down again.
An alternative route
An easier, shorter trek, starts from the village of Topol Pri Medvodah. You can park at a car park next to the school and from here it is a short trek through a little forest which takes about 45 minutes. This route brings you in from the other side, so you get clearer views of the church and hilltop as you approach.