By bike from hillfort to hillfort – an expedition into the past

Irena Hlede 06.05.2022

Everything unknown, unexplored or mysterious has always stirred our imagination. Many extinct tribes or even civilizations have left no traces behind that would tell us about their lives if they have been building their dwellings from materials such as wood or clay that disintegrate over the years. However, when they used such a durable and solid material as stone for the material of their homes, even the ravages of time could not tear it so much that the stories of their lives remain hidden from the present.

This is also the case with hillforts or “castelliers”, as they are called in Istria and lower in Dalmatia. Peoples who lived here three thousand years ago and more, from the Late Copper Age untill the Iron Age and later, for their safety surrounded themselves with thick walls, which are still visible to us today in the form of mighty screes. There were many such hillforts in the Karst, Istria and elsewhere. Some are better preserved, others a little less, but almost each has its own special story and is therefore interesting.

Two days by bike is enough to visit most of the Karst hillforts north of Sežana. This time we chose the village of Pliskovica as the starting point of the trip, mainly because it offers a lot of accommodation facilities.

However, as it turned out this time we did not need these, since the participants preferred to choose a “more intimate” apartment or participate in a trip without accommodation.

The first day of the trip

In the morning, we gathered for a morning snack consisting of delicious freshly baked buns, Karst meat delicacies and traditional spring “frtaja” with asparagus. Accompanied by coffee, tea and with lemon balm spring water, of course.

Invigorated, we first “warmed up” on a few gentle slopes with an asphalt surface, and then in Krajna vas we branched off onto cart tracks, which took us through the green groves to the wine-growing village of Godnje. In the meantime, we visited one of the exemplary maintained cemeteries of soldiers from the First World War.

Gradišče above Tomaj

The first hillfort was not far away, at the top of a hill above Tomaj. Along the way, we took a look at the pond, called here “lokev” and learned about the difference between the terms “lokev” and “kal”. We also passed by the family house of the Slovenian poet Srečko Kosovel.

Hillfort in Tomaj is divided into two parts – the first is called Gradišče, the second Tabor. The fate of the former was shaped by the locals, who used the land for agricultural purposes, so that its walls are preserved only for a short section. Many archeological remains have disappeared or been destroyed there. On the contrary, Tabor, the highest part of the hill, remained until the beginning of the new century an important fortress before the invaders. The chapel of St. Paul was built here in the 11th century already, followed later by the church of St. Peter and Paul and, at the beginning of the 20th century, the monastery. In the past, the medieval fortress was guarded by as many as six defensive towers, the last of which was demolished only before the Second World War.

Vahta by Kazlje

From Tomaj to Kazlje, where the next hillfort was, the path first led us along a pleasant forest path, then a little along the traffic-free asphalt road, and again through the groves to the village. Gradišče Vahta is located on a hill between Kazlje and the Raša valley. Access along the trail is difficult to find for a random visitor. On the remains of the mighty walls, we came across a local woman who kindly escorted us to the abyss, where there could be a hiding place for a pirate’s treasure or at least a golden calf, about which legends circulate. In any case, the 850-meter-diameter hillfort still hides many archeological remains from the past, which are hidden safely in the bushes and prickly blackberries.

Gradišče above Kobdilj

We cycled to the next hillfort above the village of Kobdilj through the mysterious valley of the river Raša, a watercourse on the border between the limestone Karst and the watertight flysch, which rises in the east of Karst high to the so-called “Karst Switzerland”. The river, which once meandered through the valley in typical meanders, has been land reclaimed into straight shape, but unfortunately, its bed is mostly dry since on. Gradišče above Kobdilj is raised by more than a hundred meters above the settlement, and since the access to it is quite overgrown with bushes, we only looked at a panoramic view of the hillfort, as offered from the village.

Gledanica above Štanjel

In addition, not far from us was the next hillfort Gledanica nad Štanjelom, and before him in the inn Grad Štanjel was waiting for us a real prehistoric lunch in the form of a delicious prehistoric minestrone of legumes, celery and two types of meat, followed by a tasty carrot slices with a scoop of herbal ice cream. A sip of Teran rounded off this indigenous experience.

With a full stomach, the view from Gledanica, which is magnificent, was even more beautiful, especially since the weather was brilliantly clear all day. The lookout point was an irreplaceable fortress and observatory, from which paths in as many as three valleys were monitored: the Raša River, the Branica River and the Vipava Valley. Behind the natives, it was settled by the Romans, and later, in the Middle Ages, it passed into the power of the Counts of Gorizia, who built a tower court there. The importance of the fort began to decline when the Turkish invasions ceased and the tower gradually collapsed. So today, we can find only fragments of the former walls and the recently renovated ruins of the tower, but a magnificent view. The area of the former fort has recently been renovated for visitors and complemented by a rosette of lookout points and benches, so it always attract many visitors.

Gradina by Kosovelje

From the karst pearl of Štanjel, we were slowly returning to our “base camp” in Pliskovica. Along the way we had a visit to the last hillfort of Gradina, hidden in the woods on a gentle hill near the village of Kosovelje. We looked for the path again on the old field paths, many of which are already completely overgrown with grass. Before visiting the hillfort, we made a few extra meters of the path to the exemplary stone house – a shelter for shepherds and farmers from the rain and heat. This temporary shelter, built for thousands of years in exactly the same way, by using the dry construction technique, is being maintained and renovated recently.

The hillfort was waiting for us hidden in the woods and covered with thick layers of moss. The remains of the walls protected the homes of the natives inside, which we imagined with a lot of imagination when visiting various stone screes.

At the end of the day, we have finished our daily journey at the “native” Pliskovica with a richly painted interior of the church of St. Thomas, the trellis of the European friendship, 12 meters deep well and a 400-year-old linden tree with the status of a natural monument. Unfortunately, the latter recently surrendered the fight for survival and had to be cut down and replaced with a young tree.

We rounded off the evening with dinner at the homestead of Mirko Godnič, who served us a delicious cold “prata” with green pepper, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and polenta and dessert in the form of delicious ricotta. All together in the spring colors of the Karst, of course…

The second day of the trip

We started the morning with breakfast. This time, the asparagus “frtaja” was replaced by a herbal one with wild herbs, which grow everywhere in the gardens and lawns during these spring days.

Invigorated, we cycled this time to the grove straight from the village, along a beautiful cart track through the forest to one of the smallest karst villages, Kregolišče, where only a good 15 “souls” live. However, before we reached it, dry wall fences took us in their arms, embracing the ancient paths between the villages on both sides. Because these paths are too narrow for modern tractors, they are preserved in an intact image, so driving on them is poetry for the eyes, soul and the buttocks (because they are not damaged by too heavy and oversized tractors), too.

The picturesque landscape continued along the (too) narrow asphalt road that connects villages with Sežana and Komna, too. The next stop was Volčji Grad, a village with an unusual name, about which three different legends about its origin are circulating. Volčji Grad was a village of stonemasons, so it boasts many artfully carved entrance gates, called “porton”. Before going to the hillfort we turned to the church of St. John the Baptist, which is slightly away from the village.

Debela Griža by Volčji Grad

The hillfort Debela griža intersects the old path to Komen. Soon after leaving the village of Volčji Grad, you are impressed by the view of the magnificent piles of stones that testify to the mighty walls behind which the inhabitants of this hillfort hid. The area was inhabited by the original inhabitants between 1200 and 400 BC, but even later it was used as protection by both the Romans and the later settlers of the place. They had all of them left some “rests” – from the Austro-Hungarian army, for example, water supply remained, and from others the remains of pottery, jewelry and tools. Hillfort preserves many piles of stones that testify to the former buildings. A lot of research has been done here by archaeologists and on their basis made models of what the settlement looked like in prehistory and what was the way of life in it. These are the questions that most interested the participants of our trip.

From Debela griža we continued along the forest by the Path of Stone. This one first took us past an abandoned quarry called “java” here. There were many such quarries 100 years ago, but today they are all completely abandoned. Along the Path of Stone we were greeted by a dry wall stone house, similar to the one we had admired the day before in Kosovelje. The forest trail led us through the green forest and elicited many shouts of admiration for the beauty of nature. We arrived in Gorjansko past the house of a stonecutter, who impressed with his stonemasonry arts, but we admired there the artistically designed garden and the fireplace of a nearby car mechanic, too.

Brith above Zagrajec

We just walked around Gorjansko and soon returned to our beloved paths, which continued to pamper us with beautiful views and led us in front of Ivanji Grad even to “Provence” in a shape of the vast field of lavender. Gradually we climbed all the way to the beautiful viewing church of the Holy Cross above Ivanji Grad, from which the path led to the next hillfort Brith above Zagrajec. Hillfort of a slightly smaller scale has well-preserved defensive embankments and in the center the ruins of the church, where there was a cemetery, and earlier supposedly a smaller castle, too.

In Zagrajec we joined the main asphalt road for a short section and soon turned again onto the forest connection to Temnica. The village of Temnica is the highest karst village, and it offers beautiful views of the Slovenian coastal areas from Koper to Savudrija, as well as the Friuli lowlands and coastal towns all the way to Grado and beyond.

The ancient religious shrine of the Gulaka

Not far from the village is the following attraction: an ancient religious shrine, which the locals discovered on the basis of a note by the historian and collector of the national heritage Pavel Medvešček and with the help of dowser Jože Munih. We learned the story of its discovery, as well as the basics of the energy forces of the earth’s surface and their impact on living beings. To “lower” developed creatures, such as migratory birds in particular, these forces are the only signpost in search of their seasonal nesting sites, and we “higher” ones are re-discovering that they can benefit us, too.

Filled with fresh energy, we still had enough strength to reach the location of our lunch at the nearby tourist homestead Leban, colored in strongly local “tones” of prosciutto, jota, risotto with asparagus and walnut strudels.

Lipovnik above Škrbina

After a hearty lunch, we were waiting for the ascent to the highest lying hillfort in this part of the Karst, called Lipovnik. In its walls, the Romanesque church of Sv. Katarina was built in the middle Ages. All that remains of it today are the ruins and the well-maintained and recently restored Way of the Cross. From the church, there are beautiful views on all sides, towards the Karst, the Vipava Valley and even further, to the Julian Alps and the Dolomites. The ruins of the hillfort are a well preserved, but unfortunately the majority of the site of hillfort is overgrown with bushes. The fort stretched over two hills and it is speculated whether it was not even two forts.

From the cart track with access to Sv. Katarina’s scenic path continued towards Komen, but we turned onto another cart track into the valley and towards the village of Škrbina. Before continuing towards our last stop – the hillfort Martinišče, we stopped shortly at the church of Sv. Anton Puščavnik with an Aquileian-type bell tower.

Martinišče near the village of Sveto

A path that connected the villages of Sveto and Škrbina for centuries led us through the hillfort. Martinišče is a very rich archeological site, where many valuable excavations have been found, from jewelry to pottery. Unfortunately, these same areas also serve the locals as agricultural areas, so many remnants of the past have already been removed and destroyed. Martinišče is still surrounded by extensive, moss-covered walls, and in its eastern part we can also find the ruins of the church of Sv. Miklavž.

The village of Sveto is interesting, too. In the center, we find an unusual octagonal church of Sv. Tilen, a large cemetery of fallen soldiers from the First World War and a 500-year-old lind n tree, whose huge, completely hollow trunk still strikes a completely healthy and alive treetop. 

From Sveto, the path led us past the “capital” of this part of the Karst – Komen straightly back to Pliskovica and to our fame.