When contacted recently by the Luxembourg Slovenian Business Club about a Slovenian organisation selling mobile homes / holiday chalets to a Luxembourg campsite, in Wasserbillig, I was invited to take a closer look and visit the Big Berry Lifestyle resort on the Kolpa river bordering Slovenia and Croatia; having last been to that region on a family holiday ten years ago, and to the Dalmatian coast of Croatia (Dubrovnik - Zadar - Zagreb) earlier this year, I was delighted to be returning to this place of pure, natural beauty.
Big Berry Concept
The Big Berry Lifestyle Resort can be found at Bela Krajina on the south-eastern border with Croatia, the River Kolpa providing the reminder of where one country starts and the other ends. Set in 3.5 hectares of carefully tended grassland sloping down to the River Kolpa, the Big Berry resort is based around a new concept of tailored mobile homes (also described as prefabricated holiday chalets), all fitting in with the concept of sustainable tourism and Winning by Sharing, with just 7 units located at what is currently the showcase site.
This year (2016), the Big Berry Lifestyle Resout is open only for branding; however, it will open to the public from 2017. The resort is fully intergrated with the local community whereby all members of the scheme benefit from each other, and the effect is multiplied, therefore Winning by Sharing.
Here the lifestyle resort is set up as a Showcase were the model can be replicated in other destinations - agreements about to be signed with operators in Italy, Croatia, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania - either by franchise (regarding the entire set-up) or by purchasing mobile homes for their existing operation - as in Wasserbilling in Luxembourg which expects delivery in 2017.
The mobile homes have been produced for seven years now by the Slovenian company Hosekra, with all the interiors and exteriors made in Slovenia. Hosekra then established the Big Berry brand which consists of the Winning by Sharing model of supporing local producers, etc., as well as manufacturing the mobile homes, of which there are two main models:
- BLUE BERRY: for coastal and seaside tourism;
- BROWN BERRY: for countryside tourism.
The quality and fittings are the exact same for both, the only differences are the configurations and the colours. These come in three different configurations: 4m x 8.5m (34m2) for 2, 4 or 6 people. All are passive energy houses in that they do not consume external energy.
Big Berry currently employs two full-time people who operate the centre; they are supported by a large number of interns coming from all over the world and all with an interest in tourism, social media, event management, communications, etc., within the Erasmus for Interns programme and who get paid and are provided with food and lodgings.
Our Big Berry Experience (#bigberry)
Upon checking in and getting the keys to our own 2-person chalet, we quickly discovered a generous Welcome Basket awaiting our arrival. Inside we discovered an arrany of local produce including honey, bread, butter, walnut oil, organic apple juice, red wine, gin, a hemp liquer, soap and shower gel, as well as a host of information explaining each. All are from local partners, emphasising the bond with nature and the outdoors as well as the local economy.
The bedroom is equipped with two large single, adjoining beds, the separate bathroom has a large walk-in shower plus toilet, wash-hand basin and foot bath, and the multi-functional living area has a large flat-screen tv, airconditioning / heating controls and a fully-equipped kitchen (fridge, freezer, microwave, 3-ring cooker, liquidiser and plenty of utensils, crockery and cutlery). In keeping with the sustainable tourism concept, guests are provided with linen bags.
Outside, the covered terrace overlooks the river which is just a stone's throw away, and there is plenty of space for a jaccuzi, a couple of deckchairs and a table and chairs - on which we eat our meals and from which I am writing this article.
On the Croatian side of the river there appears to be a public car-park and access to the riverbank, with concrete steps down to the water's edge every 50m or so, with young and old enjoying an evening swim with others preferring high jinks and a big splash after sliding down a long slide into the relatively cool water. Some were fishing from the banks, with others going up- and down-stream in canoes and kayaks.
We went for a stroll around the resort and discovered a communal barbecue area, other pagoda-style tents with solid bases, equipped with cushions and pillows, allowing relaxation during the day and at night for those who prefer to sleep outdoors.
We discovered a host of wildlife too, from the trout and grayling meandering in the soft flow of the river, to the myriad of dragonflies hovering over the mown grass banks or sunning themselves on stones close to the riverbank. A heron flew close and a stork was out patrolling a tilled field to the back of the resort.
The resort is spacious and also has a central shop and area for the interns, with an extensive covered terrace leading down to the river and close to the children's playground and volleyball court.
The staff, both those permanent and the interns, were all fantastic to a fault. The excursions to the winery, oil producer, bee / honey farm, etc., included everyone who had not been before, providing visitors and staff/interns alike with the opportunity to get to know everyone else in an informal and social setting.
Dining & Food
While the Big Berry mobile homes / chalets have ample cooking facilities and the Lifestyle Resort has an extensive outdoors barbecue area, dinners are primarily in collaboration with 3-4 local restaurants that are Winning-by-Sharing partners with Big Berry Lifestyle Resort.
This enabled us to have breakfast - picnic baskets of fresh bread (pogaca), fruit, yoghurts, milk and eggs were delivered daily before 08:00 - in the privacy of our own terraces overlooking the Kolpa river. And dinners were either driving 10-15 minutes to one of the partner restaurants or ordering food to be delivered. Availing of both opportunities we were able to sample the local meat and vegetable soups, the bread and, in particular, the local grilled and barbecued meats - primarily turkey, pork and chicken.
Wine Tasting (www.pecaric.si / #pecaric)
On Saturday evening those staying at Big Berry Lifestyle Resort were treated to a visit to a nearby family-run farm; a family of 9 live off the farm which has focussed on wine production over the past few years, but which also has pigs and other farm animals.
Starting with 2,000 vines the Pecaric vineyard (www.pecaric.com) now spans 5 hectares and 20,000 vines, in the fields surrounding the farm which is used both as a home and a working farm. The original farm outhouses have been rebuilt, from cellars to barns, using wood from local forests, which have also been used to create wood panel carvings depicting scenes from the farm.
The winery uses both steel urns (where the process is much slower as no air gets in) as well as oak barrels for storing the wine, both red and white, with 10 different grapes grown to produce 15 different wines, including both still and sparkling, both dry and naturally sweet. The farmer-cum-winemaker took great delight in describing the process to produce sparkling wine which takes a total of three years before it is ready to drink, after the two phases of fermentation, removing the sediment, corking, etc.
The tasting commenced with a sparkling wine, one of four produced at the winery, this one comprising 80% chardonnay and 20% local grape varieties. Quite fruity with quality small bubbles.
The second was a white wine blend which has 30-40% Reisling with the remainder coming from local varieties; the locals often mix it with sparkling water for a "spritzer". Quite unique but very drinkable. And so were the two reds that followed, one dry and one medium and fruity.
Out came the pogaca, a traditional welcoming bread garnished with salt, poppy seeds and cumin.
The winemaker was enjoying educating the mainly young audience about wine-making and wines in general, as well as how he works on each individual wine, with plenty of interpreters ready and willing to translate between Slovenian, Croatian and English. One of the issues that has speeded up the learning curve here of tending the vineyards and producing the wines is the annual wine competitions, for which Pecaric has done very well...
The rosé that followed was the most fruity, with a taste of cherries and other red fruits. With all the wines tasted so far being from 2015, we continued with another rose, this time a 2006 Pinot Gris which was heavily flavoured from the (10-year) ageing in oak barrels, but lets the vanilla flavour through. We finished off with a 2015 Muscat, a sweet wine with a strong scent of elderflower, and an ice wine which was like tasting the nectar of the gods...
None left a strong lingering after-taste but all were light and, offering contrasting flavours, are all eminently drinkable, some with food and others just by themselves. Pecaric is testimony to the Slovenian wine industry having come on in leaps and bounds in the last 25 years following the devastation of the 10-day war in the region as the former Yugoslavia broke up.
Bee / Honey Farm (#cebelarstvoveselic)
We visited the a bee farm nearby which has been in the same family for four generations. From an economic necessity the father and son also have other jobs but they put a lot of time and effort into their passion, a family hobby which is now a commercial venture.
The bee farm comprises a total of 300 bee families (hives), each with one queen bee and 20-80,000 male bees (drones). The queen lays up to 1,000 eggs/day and lives 2-5 years.
The son, an expectant father himself, explained that the largest threat to honey production are parasites which kill the bees, and expressed his particular concern at the future of chestnut trees, and therefore honey production, due to specific parasites that destroy the trees. Other countries are facing similar problems, with Italy introducing wasps to try to eradicate the parasites; Slovenia is being more cautious as the threat of wasps to the food chain, etc., is unproven.
He also explained that clear honey comes from bees harvesting honey from flower pollen, with dark honey coming from bees harvesting honey from insects that take sap from trees, with the latter being higher in quality. He explained that the bee farm produces between 2-10,000 litres of honey annually; however, this year is not good because of the wet weather and southern winds.
Pecaric Oil Producer (www.oljarna-pecaric.si / #oljarnapecaric)
Another trip was to the Pecaric oil producer - no link to the wine producer of the same surname which we visited the previous evening - which has also been in its family for three generations.
The family tradition is based on not using heat to extract oils, an approach that may result in lower quantities but higher quality. All their oils have good health benefits, being anti-cariogenic and containing anti-oxidants. They make oil from 20 different raw materials, including walnut (particularly good for the brain and heart), hazelnut (Vitamin E), grape, apricot (good for the skin, including acne), sunflower seeds, almonds (for baby's skin), flax seeds, hemp seed (painkiller), poppy seeds (for strengthening nails), black mustard, blank and white sesame seeds (white seeds for massage), pumpkin seeds, peanuts (arthritis), rose hip (skin) and cumin seeds.
The ingredients for the oil made from hazelnuts, walnuts and grapes are all sourced locally, with the others being imported. They are currently looking for more local producers to supply them. A tasting followed, with local bread.
Vizir Kraft Brewery (www.vizir.si)
Another trip organised was to the Pivovarna Vizir artisnal or misco-brewery in Črnomelj, around 15 minutes drive from the Big Berry Lifestyle Resort, where they have both a winery and a brewery, but it was the latter we came to see.
The owner, a passionate and knowledgeable man, talked about the the art of brewing and the beer-making process, about hops and yeast, and about the difference between lagers and ales. The tour of the brewery, including the massive steel vats, was followed by a tasting of some beers that are already commercially available as well as some that are still being "in development". Some of the beers included the following: Black Jack (American Stout), Kostanko Kostanjevo Pivo (Fruit / Vegetable Beer), Vizir Gringo (American IPA), Vizir Lucky Luke Sexy Ale (American Amber / Red Ale), Vizir Meggy Medeno Pivo (Herbed / Spiced Beer), Vizir Mirko Pale Ale (English Pale Ale), Vizir Nori Franc Strong Ale (American Double / Imperial IPA) and Vizir Pšenično Pivo (Wheat Ale).
One of the interesting options in the shop was the 6-pack of six different Vizir beers for €12.
Architecture and The Three Churches
The architecture seen through rural Slovenia presents a sense of a cross between that of the Black Forest (white walled houses with dark stained wooden balconies decorated with red geraniums) on the one hand, with old ramshackle wooden barns with overhanging rooves on the other, presenting a direct link with the past, conjuring images of horse-drawn ploughs to till the fields, etc. Another impression was how spic and span the entire area is, with nothing out of place.
One of the trips we manged to do in the vicinity of Big Berry was to visit the three churches - the Tri Fare Pilgrimage - where three churches have been constructed (at various times, and the older ones (dating back to the 11th century) rebuilt and renovated at different stages - right next to each other, with the others built by the Knights Templar in the 12th century.
The surrounding graveyard is very well tended with most graves having electric candeles that are lit (until the batteries die) and many have fresh flowers too.
We also got to visit another church at the top of a hill in the middle of the vineyards, where the congregation had climbed earlier in the day for a pilgrimage and church service, before settling down to a community meal outdoors, overlooking the hills and valleys below. Inside, the church was very ornate with frescoes decorating the walls and ceilings.
Fishing / Nature (www.kovac-kolpa.com)
On the 80-minute drive to the fishing lodge/hotel (River Kupa Lodge), still on the Kulpa (Kupa) river bordering Slovenia and Croatia, we noticed the fence that is still being erected along the Slovenian border to keep out refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, etc. the razor wire is still visible in many areas but is being replaced by fencing which is less inhumane and because the razor wire has resulted in the deaths of many wild deer which have tried to reach the river for water.
We travelled to thus spot as downstream the river is much warmer and better suited for fishing using other techniques; so we headed upstream for the cooler and faster-flowing waters.
This region is famous for its extensive wildlife, including deer, brown bears, wild boar, wolves, badgers, raccoons, and many birds too. The scenery is absolutely stunning - 70% of Slovenia is covered by forest - with narrow rural roads meandering an zig-zagging their way through the forests, through remote villages and up and down hillsides and along valleys. We stopped at a look-out with a Church stop, pausing long enough to take a few photos and admire the view.
Having purchased a fishing licence from the fishing lodge / hotel, we surveyed our options and decided to start from a bridge around 2km downstream and fish first upstream and then downstream from the bridge - with the river upstream accessible from the Slovenian side and, later, the river downstream accessible from the Croatian side. With one fly only allowed, setting up the rod - I had brought a 7-piece collapsible 7-foot rod with me in my carry-on luggage, together with a couple of fly reels, a couple of small boxes of dry flies and nymphs, and some flurocarbon line for tying traces, plus my waders - was simple and quick.
I managed almost 4 hours on the water, using my polaroids to search for grayling and trout and casting my line, trying different techniques and flies. Most of the fish - some small and some a decent size - were taking advantage of the shade offered by overhanging branches from trees growing along the Croatian bank. Few fish were rising to the surface, instead concentrating on the many insects and larvae on the bottom, so it was nymph fishing then. And some of the river was relatively shallow - up to 70cm deep - and rocky, with other stretches having muddy bottoms, deeper channels and slower-flowing stretches. It was between these that I found the best spots.
From the centre of the river and one foot in Croatian waters and the other in Slovenian waters, the scenery is arguably even more attractive. Fishing is not really about catching fish, it is more about appreciating nature and the outdoors. The sheer cliff faces rising up out of dense deciduous and coniferous forests, the angles of the rocky peaks and the valleys in between, coupled with the gap forged by the river are all marvels of nature, with the numerous bunches of wild flowers growing along the river banks providing an array of colour against all the shades of green in this luscious forest area.
The fishing lodge / hotel was also a centre for adventure sports in the area, including rafting, kayaking, paint-balling and rock climbing / abseiling, amongst others.
How to get there: fly to either Zagreb in Croatia or Ljubiana in Croatia, with a 90-minute drive to the Big Berry Lifestyle Resort.
Photos by Geoff Thompson - for full photo album (on Facebook), click here