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‘The wind makes Karst people stay in, and gives them character’: walker and author Nick Hunt

Mother and Son hiking on a grass covoered mountain, Golic, Slovenia.
Hikers on the Karst plateau. ‘It feels like a region overlooked - people go to Slovenia and the Alps but the Karst has a very different flavour.’ Photograph: Alamy

Trieste is the least Italian part of Italy – on a map it looks like it should belong to the Balkans. It was once one of the biggest sea ports in the world and has an amazing history. Climb onto the Karst, though, and it’s immediately different: the sea and city below, the smell of ice in the air, and the vast stretch of limestone, going up into Slovenia and beyond, swathes of flaky grey stone, riddled with caves and sinkholes.

Karst plateau, Italy and Slovenia

I remember once seeing a map of wind routes of Europe with names like Tramontana, Mistral, Sirocco, Bora and Helm. They were instantly evocative of a sense of romance and mystery. The arrows put me in mind of roads connecting regions and cultures and made me want to walk some of the paths to see if they made sense as a journey – which is what I did.

Nick Hunt.
Nick Hunt

The Bora is a northerly wind that’s formed along the Adriatic coastline, where the mountains run parallel to the sea, and the Karst is the most northerly region it touches. The name comes from Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind. You can see him depicted in the Tower of the Winds in Athens – a furious old man with a beard full of ice, holding a conch shell to signify the sound he makes when he sweeps down from the north. He’s associated with the wild, uncivilised region that lay beyond the frontiers of ancient Greece. Winter to spring and autumn to winter are the main seasons, but the Bora can blow at any time. Despite the disruption it causes, the people have a strong affection for it, as it sweeps away the pollution and mugginess and brings clear, bright blue skies.

The Karst is a segue between western Europe and the Balkans, a much more rustic, peasant culture. And it was almost completely deserted, I hardly saw anyone in three days of walking. The wind makes people stay in and lends them character – the locals have a reputation for being tough, hardy and intensely parochial. There are lots of dialects that are mutually unintelligible, so people are very much in their own territories.

Hiker in the Val Rosandra valley, between the city of Trieste and the border with Slovenia.
Hiker in the Val Rosandra valley, between the city of Trieste and the border with Slovenia. Photograph: Getty Images

The Karst was the frontier zone between the rival Hapsburg and Ottoman empires and has a sense of being bandit country. There are lots of reports of 19th-century highway robbery and fires in forests where thieves were hiding out. You can see it in the architecture; the villages are built like fortresses to defend against bandits as much as the wind, you get church steeples sticking up, like islands coming up from the sea.

There are forested areas with medieval villages every few miles. You’ll see “little doves” on the roofs – rocks used to weigh down the tiles. You can tell the most wind-affected areas by the frequency of the rocks. The most famous food is pršut, a type of prosciutto, which is cured by the Bora. They hang hams in windows and it’s cured by the cold, dry air.

Štanjel is a fortified medieval village surrounded by huge walls that were damaged in the second world war and it hasn’t really been rebuilt. Only about 26 people live in the old part of town and it’s very atmospheric. I stayed here in a family-run guesthouse and ate at a gostilna, a type of tavern, which served hearty soup, stew and thick homemade bread, and beer, wine and rakia (local brandy).

Scenic old town Štanjel in Slovenia.
Scenic old town Štanjel in Slovenia. Photograph: Getty Images

I met a woman who said she could predict when the Bora was coming by the dryness of her hands. When they were dry, it was a sign the wind was coming. She was young and a judge and looked embarrassed by her own superstition but I think there’s something in it.

The real beauty of the Karst lies in the rusticity and simplicity – the crumbling houses and taverns you might not notice because they don’t have signs up and everything is family-run and on a small scale. The area is famous for its subterranean landscape too, the amazing caves – but I didn’t go there because the wind doesn’t blow underground!

Where the Wild Winds Are by Nick Hunt (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99). To order a copy for £14.44, including UK p&p, go to guardianbookshop.com

This article titled "‘The wind makes Karst people stay in, and gives them character’: walker and author Nick Hunt" was written by Interview by Jane Dunford, for The Guardian on Friday 12 January 2018 12.28pm

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