Most visitors to Slovenia head quickly out of the capital, in search of natural beauty. And they find it, in the Julian Alps, on postcard-perfect lakes, and beside turquoise rivers. But for those who linger in the city, Šmarna Gora offers pristine woods, impressive views, and a chance to spend a Sunday the way locals do.
More than a dozen trails rise the 2,100 feet (640 meters) to Šmarna Gora’s peak from the towns that ring the mountain. The longest begins in Šmartno, a place that on a misty autumn morning seemed more like a fairy-tale village than a Ljubljana suburb. The pastel houses that lined its quiet streets had red-tiled roofs, and geraniums bloomed from boxes in their windows. Vegetable gardens covered every available inch of yard. Goats grazed in a pasture beside the trailhead.
Many who live at the foot of Šmarna Gora are proud to climb it every day for exercise, but on this chilly Sunday morning, only a few people were beginning their hikes. An elderly woman in dress shoes and a suit started up the path, carrying a bouquet of sunflowers. A young couple, power walking with metal hiking poles, hurried past her.
The quiet of the woods was interrupted only by church bells that clanged for twenty minutes to announce morning mass below. If some Šmartno resident had lazily turned over in his warm bed when the rooster crowed that morning, here was his snooze alarm.
Halfway up the steep and rocky path, a family stopped to say a prayer before a small shrine to the Sorrowful Mother of God. The lady in Sunday best placed her yellow bouquet in a vase at Mary’s feet.
A few yards farther, the Šmartno trail met with two other, smoother paths at a life-size statue of St. Anthony. Above him hung a large bell, which a toddler girl rang for good luck, as people have been doing at this spot for nearly two centuries.
At Šmarna Gora’s peak stands a white Baroque church. Built in 1729, this is the latest in a series of churches that have stood here since at least the 15th century, when the hill was a lookout point against Turkish invaders.
Since the hill is no longer at risk, several of its old stone buildings are now used to entertain visitors. One houses a gallery, which displayed wildlife paintings by a local artist. In another, a restaurant serves hearty fare like potato and mushroom soup, homemade donuts, and brandy made from honey.
The doors of the churchyard opened onto a vista of the Sava River valley. Along the overlook, hikers stretched out with their beers and teacups to soak up the view, along with the warm autumn sun.
Away from the crowd, the path continued around the church’s former defense walls and along the mountain’s edge. It was midmorning, and the mist had cleared.
To the west, the Julian Alps came temptingly into view. But they’d be there to climb another day.