Not your usual European adventure: Paragliding in Slovenia’s Vipava valley on a ‘hike-fly-wine’ tour
This unique tour takes visitors to boutique vineries via an aerial excursion over hills and forests. The Financial Times’ Camilla Bell-Davies takes a leap of faith.
In Slovenia’s Vipava valley, life is defined by a wind called the “burja”. When conditions are right, cold air sweeps down from the Julian Alps to the Adriatic coast, sometimes reaching 150km per hour. Rocks are placed on roof tiles to stop them blowing away, roads are sometimes closed to lorries and buses, even the trees have branches only on one side, their flat backs braced against the wind.
By early summer, though, calm usually prevails and just a warm sea breeze remains. It blows gently up the valley, creating ideal conditions for paragliding, a sport popular with the locals since the 1990s.
Today I am among their ranks, anxiously standing on a ridge, preparing to fly. I am here with guide Jani Peljhan who runs a “hike-fly-wine” tour that completes a perfect arc of Vipava: Starting at the town of Ajdovscina on the valley floor, hiking up to one of the highest cliffs, paragliding to the vineyards on the other side of the valley, before finishing underground for a tasting in a wine cellar.
The hike has taken us through woods and wildflower meadows, past a gaping hole in the ridge called “Otlisko okno”, the Otlica window. Legend has it that the devil tripped and his horn tore through the mountain, perhaps causing the wind to rush through.
At the top, we find our tandem pilots waiting. Tomaz Bavdez straps me in and reassures me with various safety checks. Then we are on our feet, harnessed together and ready to run. I had expected some kind of long, aeroplane-style take-off run, but instead we have less than 5 metres ahead of us before a sheer drop.
The run isn’t as graceful as I imagined either. The paraglider yanks us from side to side, but finally we feel the lift and the valley rushes away below us. I dangle for a few seconds, feet still paddling in the air, then at my pilot’s encouragement I slide back into the harness. “The best sofa and TV screen in Slovenia,” he said, over the wind.
He’s right: as we fly along the ridge, the scenery is dramatic. The shadow of our wing falls across the rocks, a warm breeze lifts us higher and brings the scent of pine up from the forest. I notice my muscles are still tense and I exhale; the experience is actually surprisingly relaxing.
When the cliffs end we turn and swoop into the valley. The Adriatic comes into view, misty in the distance. Tomaz asks if I want to try steering using the brake handles, found on either side above our shoulders. I take them cautiously and look up, my eye following the web of suspension lines that fan out to the wing above, each one thrumming lightly in the wind.
The vineyards are getting closer, as are the rooftops of the village of Budanje and its tiny church tower. Finally, we glide down beside them and our feet touch the ground. The wing folds gently behind us and I unclip and sway, totally blissed out. It’s a feeling one could easily get hooked on; indeed Tomaz tells me of an ex-heroin addict who got clean by taking up flying.
After packing the kit we head to a nearby winery belonging to young vintner Urban Petric, who runs one of hundreds of boutique wineries in the Vipava valley. The burja actually helps the vines here, Petric explains, preventing fungal diseases and obviating the need for chemical sprays. In an upstairs room he also cures hams, dried by the burja through open windows.
He leads us down to his cellar for a tasting, and the cool air is a relief to our windswept faces. We try his white wines, from Zelen, Malvazija and Pinella grapes. The wind affects the taste too, I’m told, combining with the mineral-rich soil to produce a flavour peculiar to Vipava that Slovenians call masleno, or buttery. To me they taste floral and heady but this could be down to my post-flight high.
“Despite its difficulties, we like the burja,” said Petric. “It keeps us invigorated. The air here is fresh, the food and wine distinctive.” And paragliding, far from being an adrenaline sport, is a way to unwind when the wind dies down – a moment of calm between each storm.
By Camilla Bell-Davies © 2022 The Financial Times.