We recently became aware of an interesting new project, Marnie’s House, being organised by Saira and Will Aspinall, who traded their lives in London for rural Slovenia. Curious to learn more about both the project and their reasons for pursuing it, we sent along some questions and Saira was kind enough to reply….
Where did you live before Slovenia, and what brought you here?
We lived in a small flat in Brixton, South London. We met in a rowdy reggae bar there, fell in love and had two beautiful children, but we wanted fresh adventures. A holiday by Lake Bled for Will’s 40th birthday in April 2018 presented the contrast and the opportunity we were after. Fresh air and mountains as opposed to crowds and the worst air pollution in Europe! We put our house on the market as soon as we got back from that holiday to Slovenia and looked back since.
What’s the idea behind Marnie’s House?
The idea is to create a luxury bed and breakfast especially for family travellers to Slovenia. As parents of two young children, we’ve had so many experiences of staying in hotels where it just didn’t feel like our children were catered for. Our aim is to offer families a chance to spend quality time together in beautiful surroundings, with a touch of English country house glamour and none of the stress sometimes caused by family travel. We’ll have a strong focus on sustainable tourism and green living, and will definitely be encouraging visitors to explore in nature as much as possible. A stay at Marnie’s House should feel like you’re staying with good friends who are just unusually good hosts.
How did you find the property?
We used Slovenian Property Development - a full-service estate agency, construction and development company based in Bohinj and Ljubljana. We saw the farmhouse for the first time in an online listing and instantly fell for it. The agency showed us several other houses, but secretly Will and I both knew we would end up buying this one.
How much renovation does it need, and what’s been your experience working with builders, and so on?
The original sales listing for the house said it hadn’t been renovated for “quite a long time.” In truth, some parts of the house date to 1500 and it hasn’t been inhabited for almost 40 years. So the renovation is daunting, as almost everything needs to be done, but so far our experience of working with architects and developers here has been very positive. We’re only just approaching the planning permission stage though, so have been warned there may be frustrations ahead!
What has been your experience of starting a business here?
So far, relatively painless. We were lucky as Slovenia Property Development helped us with registering the business and opening bank accounts etc when we were still based in London. There were a few humorous moments - signing a power of attorney which was entirely written in Slovene before we had any knowledge of the language was a little nerve-wracking. We’ve found that the banks and professional services here are a bit less flexible than in the UK, and perhaps not as used to the idea of small business entrepreneurs, but nothing is impossible.
When will the property be open for business?
We hope to be open for business sometime in 2020. As well as offering bed and breakfast, the house will be available for full-service private hire, parties and events. We have also just launched ‘Events at Marnie’s House’. Starting this summer, we will be running interactive workshops, guided walks, art classes and performances in our forest grounds. Our first events will be a series of foraging workshops, hosted by Katja Rebolj, a wonderful contact we have made here who is an expert in wild and edible flowers. Katja supplies foraged plants to lots of the top restaurants and bakeries in Ljubljana and she is going to share all her incredible knowledge during our workshop and foraging walk. All the events we host will be designed to inspire a greater connection with the natural world.
We are also renovating an awesome 1980s Adria caravan into a mobile bar (with Slovenian craft beer and Italian Prosecco on tap), which will soon be available for hire at weddings and parties, and will be adding some sparkle to a local campsite this summer.
What are some things from Slovenia that you think the UK could benefit from?
EU membership, to name one thing! We’re also very grateful for vrtec (kindergartens). In the UK the most basic pre-school care costs a fortune, often taking the entire income of one parent. That’s a bad start to life, and a huge stress on young British families.
The British countryside is beautiful but we’ve never seen so many wild flowers and butterflies as here in Slovenia. I’m not sure where they’ve gone in England but it would be nice to see them back again.
And what are some thing from your home country that you think Slovenia could benefit from?
Nothing beats a takeaway curry - poppadoms, onion bhajis, etc. We were very excited the first time we spotted mango chutney in Radovljica Spar.
Have you started to learn Slovene?
We knew that although many Slovenes are proficient English speakers we were never going to understand Slovenian culture or be fully accepted unless we tried to learn the language. We were recommended a teacher for private lessons and started as soon as we arrived. Kristina’s fantastic, conscientious, creative and very, very patient! A few months on and we’re still learning slowly but people are very forgiving and appreciate the effort. Počasi se daleč pride.
Will’s happy to throw himself into awkward situations, especially as we begin to meet business connections around the area. I’m much better at understanding what people are saying, but being a perfectionist I don’t like to be wrong and often let him make the mistakes.
Some of our neighbours don’t speak English at all and we are thankful that they persist in trying to hold conversations with us on a daily basis. Sometimes, we even understand them.
We are not very good at ‘studying’ and our grammar sheets often languish untouched, so immersion has been our most trusted technique for learning the language so far.
How do you feel about Slovenian food and drink?
We decided to become vegetarians for environmental reasons in early 2018. Despite the abundance of fresh vegetables and fruit the menus here are a bit of a challenge when you are looking for dishes ‘brez mesa’. But the food we have eaten has been of an exceptional standard - especially in some of the gostilna in Radovljica and at Vila Podvin. Will tried klobasa and nearly had to become a meat eater again!
We love the seasonality of food in Slovenia - mushrooms, pumpkin and chestnuts in autumn for instance. Seeing people with baskets foraging for food is a world away from shrink-wrapped ready meals in London.
It was a huge surprise that Slovenia has a thriving and ancient history of wine production, and we’ve become avid consumers of Refosk and Malvazija. Will comes from Somerset in England, a county famous for its ciders. Given the quality of the apples, he’s surprised that there’s no decent cider in Slovenia but plans to change that soon…
What things frustrate you about life in Slovenia?
Our main frustration is with ourselves and our slow progress with the Slovene language, but we know (hope) that will change in time. A few more bars showing rugby matches would be welcome too...
What things delight you?
Turning the tap and drinking the finest tasting water in the world; discovering močerad on rainy walks; how the ‘busiest’ spots in Slovenia will never match the queue for the 59 bus on Brixton Hill; the fact our children don’t want to leave vrtec to come home, the amount of carnivals, celebrations and national days we have enjoyed in just six short months living here, the talented craftspeople we have met whilst sourcing things for our caravan and house renovations.
Do you think you’ll stay in Slovenia for the rest of your life?
At the moment we plan to stay for 15 years or so, but I already feel like that isn’t long enough! Where we live now, we are surrounded by small farms and I love the idea of one day having one of our own. Perhaps when the children have left home... we can replace them with goats…
Where are some of your favourite places to visit here?
There are so many. We brought our dog with us when we moved, so we love a long walk in our area - along the white and blue waters of the Sava, or up in the forests above Radovljica. We are big fans of Pusti Grad (Lipnica Castle), and it makes us feel better about the relative disrepair of our house!
Our favourite family walk is the Grabnarca Waterside Nature Trail in the Lipnica Valley. It has everything: a babbling stream, a beautiful forest, a small lake and then an incredible reveal as you climb the valley and come out into rolling fields. I defy anyone not to break into ‘the hills are alive with the sound of music…’ at this point. One snowy day in December we followed deer tracks along the whole trail and drank hot chocolate on a small bridge above the frozen stream, which was about as magical as it gets.
We love Public Bar and Kitchen in Lake Bled - the menu is entirely vegan and the burgers and service are exceptional. Great for supper after a brisk walk or swim around the lake!
For a fun place to stay in the summer, you can’t beat the Eco River Camp right on the River Sava.
Finally, where can people follow the Marnie’s House Project?
Take a look at our website www.marnieshouse.si and sign up for our newsletter or keep up to date on our events, follow us on instagram @slovenianfamilyaspinall, or check out Will’s films about our life in Slovenia on YouTube.