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Kočevje – Slovenia’s Bear Forest
It almost felt like walking through snow. With each step, my feet sank into a thick layer of fallen leaves, way past my ankles. Just the sound was different. Instead of the distinct scrunchy sound that snow makes under winter boots, it sounded more like walking on crumbled up newspaper. Aside from the sound of my own steps, I could only hear my guide’s and our heavy breathing as we made our way up the steep slope.
But what was that? A rustling on the other side of that ledge? Hopeful, I glanced at Petra, my guide. Knowing my anticipation to see a bear, she shook her head. Nope, no bear.
So far, the only indication of bears have been the trail markings: White circles with a green bear footprint lead us through the forest of Kočevje.
Fall in Kočevje
It is ok though. It was a beautiful fall morning here in Slovenia. The air was clean and crisp. A layer of fog embraced the valleys and meadows in the morning. The trees shimmered in their fiery coat: an inferno of flaming oranges and blazing yellow. The fallen leaves lay like a golden blanket over the forest floor. A deep blue sky made the colors pop even more.
I snap hundreds of photos, giddy with joy as I know that these photos will turn out stunning. And taking photos gave me the opportunity to catch my breath. Walking through a knee-high layer of leaves up and over steep hills was quite strenuous.
Our goal for that day – aside from spotting a bear, obviously – was to hike along the Rajhenav Virgin Forest. Kočevje is one of the best preserved natural areas in Central Europe. 90% of its area is covered in forest, some of it a primeval virgin forest that has never been cultivated or interfered with by humankind.
As we walked through the woods, Petra dared me to spot the edge of the virgin forest. She told me to keep an eye out for fallen trees, a larger number of saplings and thick undergrowth. Those signs were good to know, so I wouldn’t accidentally walk into the protected area of the virgin forest – yes, it is so protected that people are not even allowed to walk through there. But while the edges are slightly fluid, after a while, I was able to spot distinct differences as our trail snaked along the fringes of Rajhenav Rog.
Petra, the Bear Whisperer
Suddenly, Petra waved me over to a large fir trunk. “These are fresh bear marks!” She explained. “The bear sharpens its claws on the trunk and rubs his back on the bark to mark his territory.”
But alas, still no actual bear in sight. Petra was full of bear-knowledge though. A Ph.D. turned hiking- and photography guide, she seemed to be a walking encyclopedia of facts and interesting stories about bears and the local wildlife. Petra also collected bear poop. She even had bear poop collection kit. Which makes her a legit scientist and gave our little stroll through the woods the air of an important scientific expedition.
As we walked through the woods, Petra shared more about herself. She moved to Kočevje because she realized that a life in a lab in Ljubljana was not for her. While she grew up in a rural part of Slovenia, the forests of Kočevje felt special to her.
Realizing that you can run into a bear or wolf on your walk through the woods make them so much more wild, primal almost. When you walk through a forest with preditors, you become more aware of your surroundings, but also feel small. It puts you in your place in nature and you realize that without gadgets and tools, humans are no longer the top of the food chain, a place we have become much too comfortable with. It reminds you to respect nature. A respect, many of us in our air-conditioned homes and airbag-cushioned cars, have long forgotten.
Kočevje – One of Europe’s last WILD Places
The people in Kočevje live a symbiotic life with the forest. The locals depend on it for its resources and it is part of their everyday life. After Sweden and Finland, Slovenia is the third most forested country in Europe and while it lacks the vastness of the Scandinavian forests, it felt wild and so different from the cultivated forests I grew up with in Germany. Maybe it is different if you live in North America or Australia, where predators and deadly animals are abundant and part of people’s everyday life there. In Central Europe, it is not. Even after more than 11 years in the US, I still grapple with the possibility of finding a rattlesnake in my backyard or a poisonous spider in my garage.
Kočevje – Slovenia’s bear forest
For a while, we walked quietly, only the rustling of our feet as we walked over the golden blanket spread over the forest floor disturbing the stillness. My camera packed up in my backpack, I was able to take it all in, imprint it into my mind and creating a memory that I will cherish more than any photo. Petra looked back over her shoulder and smiled at me. I was no longer hunting for the bears, the photos, and the stories. I just was. This is what Kočevje – Slovenia’s bear forest does to you and Petra knew it had done its job well.
Kočevje – Slovenia’s Bear Forest was written by Maria Haase for EuropeUpClose.com
Plan your Trip to Kočevje, Slovenia:
- Where to Stay: Bearlog Hostel, I highly recommend this place, even for people who have never stayed in a Hostel. It is clean, modern and feels like a 3* Hotel
- Get your Guide: I highly recommend my guide Petra. She offers hiking tours, wildlife walks, and photography tours/workshops. Take a look at her website here. And if you book a tour with her, she will take you to Rajhenav Eco Farm, for a delicious, homecooked Slovenian meal.
- Visit Matija Kobola, a local artist, who makes wooden bears and other sculptures. It was interesting to watch him work and see how quickly he made some of those cute little figurines.
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- If you like horses, you have to visit Ranch Marina: It is the largest indoor riding arena in Slovenia, owned by a local family. While Slovenia is famous for its Lipizzaner Horses, this ranch focuses on Quarterhorses. You can take riding lessons and hire guides to take you on horseback riding adventures through the local forests.
I also want to give a big THANK YOU to the Slovenia Tourism for making this trip possible and inviting me to explore your beautiful country. I had a wonderful time and can’t wait to visit Slovenia again – hopefully soon!