A recent afternoon view from the eastern shore of Lake Bohinj in Slovenia was the picture of an alpine summer vacation. On three sides, the gray peaks of the Julian Alps were hazy and gloomy in the hot sun. Flotillas of boats and paddle boarders swam in the water. The lake spreads like a sheet of polished jade.
This view represents an essential truth about this region of northwestern Slovenia: that it offers panoramas in all proportion with its physical scale. Based only on significant figures, first-time visitors could be forgiven for anticipating a modest mountain range. The Julian Alps is a tight oval of limestone knuckles, comparable in area to Rhode Island; Their top, Mount Triglav, rises to 9,396 feet, a mile away from the more familiar alpine peaks of Western Europe. But what the mountains lack in size, they are accessible. Rising from low-lying areas just 35 miles from Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital and largest city, this region is considered an adventure playground for a country that loves to be outdoors.
Pre-Covid, this was starting to become a problem. On the eastern periphery of the range, Lake Bled, with the Instagram-friendly Church of the Assumption perched on its teardrop island, had become a hotbed of tornado coach tourism. And the upper valleys were heating up. “The last time I climbed Mount Triglav, it was selling beer on the summit,” Klemen Langus, tourism director of Bohinj Municipality, told me.
A few years ago, local tourist boards collaborated on a solution: a new 167-mile walkway, which circles the entire massif and never exceeds 4,350 feet. He hoped it would act as a pressure valve, enticing visitors to lower ground. “There is a saying in Slovenia that you have to climb Triglav once in a lifetime to prove you are Slovenian,” said Mr. Langas. “This mark is there to help us erase this adage.”
The Juliana Trail, as the new route was called, was inaugurated in late 2019. I had originally planned to go next May. But by then the threat of Covid had closed Slovenia’s borders, and while the country’s initial experience of the pandemic was relatively merciful, a winter boom was long and difficult. It wasn’t until this July that photographer Marcus Vestberg and I finally took our first steps on Juliana, having emerged from the village of Begunje under a cloudless sky.
The plan was to travel from east to west along the southern edge of the massif. The trail is divided into 16 steps of varying lengths and grades, some short and flat, others waving over foothill passes. The trail travels from city to city, meaning you can spend every night in a comfortable hotel; The Juliana Trail Booking Service can arrange details.
As we only had a week to experience the trail, the booking service arranged a pick-and-mix itinerary for us, starting between the popular Lakelands and ending in the Southern Valleys, which most foreign visitors ignore. (We walked on stages 4, 7, 10, 13 and 14.) An extensive public transport system enabled us to skip sections on the way.
The early days – from Begunje to Bled, then into the surroundings of Lake Bohinj – served as a gentle introduction.
Mostly, they provided an opportunity to enjoy the miniatures of the country in the era of revival. With new daily Covid cases reaching double figures, Slovenia was going through a mass exhalation. The restaurants were full of bursts. The banks of the lake were buzzing. In the old square of Radovaljica, a town that marked the midpoint of our first day’s walk, cyclists sip espresso at an al fresco cafe. A pair of musicians played a melodious folk song as the audience of the septuagenarians sang and swelled.
a more challenging climb
On the third morning, we caught an early train with the Bohinj Railway, which traversed through the ridgeline to the south of the lake, cutting off two stages of the trail. To mark the fact that the day’s hike was determined to be more strenuous, we enlisted a guide. Jan Valentinsky was waiting for us on the platform when carriages covered with train graffiti pulled into the station in the village of Grahovo. They followed the tracks on Phase 10, on dewy pastures, then in beech woods, where the trail was delineated by yellow signposts, and more regularly, an orange symbol – a ‘J’ and an ‘A’ with interlocking diamonds. Inside – on stenciled trees and stones.
For Mr. Valentinik, who is 32 years old, bearded, with long brown hair and an off-center nose that compliments his rugged fiancé, it was easy going. For the past seven years, he had been working as a guide abroad, leading ski tours in the Caucasus and mountaineering in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan Mountains. They were raised in hills that trains bypassed, and their peripatetic lifestyle exemplified the region’s population history: according to the World Bank, the proportion of Slovenes living in cities doubled from 1960 to 55 percent Is. In the woods, signs of human presence—some moss-quilted stone wall, a tree growing from the roof of an old hay barn—deceived the sites of long-abandoned farms. Although part of the day’s hike is stuck on walkable roads, I don’t remember seeing a single car.
The pandemic, and the arrival of a baby son, had dragged Mr. Valentinik home. He told me it was his dream to set up a homestay on the slopes he grew up on—a getaway for visitors who wanted to escape the relative hustle and bustle of the lakes. “The people of the city want to sit and do nothing, enjoy the silence,” he said. As someone who had rarely left London in a year, it was a feeling I understood all too well.
At 2 p.m., in the scorching heat, the trail topped a wide valley dotted with the terra-cotta terraces of two neighboring towns, Most na Sosi and Toulmin. Twisting along the base of the valley was the river that carved it: the Soka, its path downstream made difficult by a dam.
an ethereal blue
This time we really have to talk about water. The bedrock in Slovenia is mostly Early Triassic limestone. When sunlight hits a river carrying white limestone crystals in suspension, the water becomes bright and iridescent, its spectrum ranging from pale green to deep, deep blue. Sometimes, the Soca and its tributaries are so ethereally gorgeous that it’s tempting to imagine some sly public relations person hiding upstairs, dousing the headwaters with chemical dye.
This interaction between water and calcium carbonate reached a crescent in the hills above Toulmin. Some of the most impressive reaches were stand-alone attractions. At the Tolmin Gorges, a network of stairs, balconies and bridges offered views of a ravine system from every conceivable angle. Streams of turquoise bubbled between the steep eroded cliffs. The fern of Heart’s tongue spread deep beneath the walls. It was dizzying to think of these valleys and waterfalls as previews of even greater erosive wonders underground. Tolminski Migovec, the longest-discovered cave system in Slovenia, hives the surrounding karst to a total of 141,000 feet. On his walk from Grahovo, Mr Valentinsky described the mountains as “basically hollow”.
For locals, this kind of imaginative affair just didn’t cut it. The consensus seemed to be that the best way to experience this scenario was to throw yourself down. After taking a half-hour bus-ride from Tolmin to Kobarid, atop the next major settlement, we visited the nearby Koज़्jak Falls, where a thin cataract erupted through a layer into a chamber of flaky rock. Without warning, a figure wearing a helmet and red neoprene suit appeared on his head. Seconds later a rope opens from under the cliff, and a succession of gorges slides down, then jumps 20 feet down into the pool below.
Stage 13. settle on
This was not the only time when the instinct of national courage made me feel lazy. Thereafter, as the trail progressed to the foamy Soka, we would often see rafts and kayaks bouncing on the rapids of the river. During the walk, it was rare to see two or three paragliders looking up from a distant ridge without turning towards the ground.
For my part, at least, the more sober pace of adventure on the Juliana Trail was perfectly in line with the moment. After months of immobility, the slow pace of a multiday walk felt like the ideal way to reconnect with the wider world. The length of the steps – usually between seven and 12 miles – gave us time to pause, soak in, soak up the sounds and scenery of an exotic countryside. On stage 13, a long kick crossing Soka, we took our time.
At the back it was the pickup of the legs. We saw the cloud belt at 6 a.m. that day, the remnants of the previous night’s thunderstorm, still clinging to the ridges. Beaded condensation on leaf and cobwebs. Viviparous lizards came out to warm themselves on the stones of the trail.
As the temperature rose, so did the scenery. The climb was rewarded with views of the blue-green ribbon of the river. The descendants were relieved, as we could usually scrub to the water’s edge and dip our hands in the stream to cool off. In the afternoon, we often find ourselves sharing spit of pebbles for other vacationers, splashing on towels, often with a bag of beer in the water, the presence of which precedes each village’s approach.
Discovery of the Isonzo Front
Soca Valley’s other claims to fame came together in a famous line from Frederick Henry, the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s novel “A Farewell to Arms”: “I was blown away when we were eating cheese.”
Local cheese, honestly, I could take or leave. At Kobarid, we sampled its distinctive floral flavor at lunch at “frica”, a traditional peasant meal consisting of fried discs of potato and cheese hash. The astonishment of the young waitress taking our order may have warned us that eating it—twice the unrelenting pleasure followed by the slow apprehension that your arteries are clogging up—will require more stamina than I would. I can collect
But the echoes of Hemingway’s explosions were more indelible. Kobrid’s Gambhir Museum tells the story. In May 1915, after initially declaring its neutrality in World War I, Italy sent troops to these mountains to retake the border areas from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As the Central Powers deployed troops to halt the Italian advance, both sides dug up. The resulting Isonzo Front would witness months of futile bloodshed to rival the better documented horrors of Flanders. In the eleventh attack alone, in the summer of 1917, five million shells were fired across the line. More than 250,000 soldiers were killed.
As we pressed into the western reaches of the Juliana, towards the town of Bovec and the present-day Italian border, the ghosts of this so-called White War haunted the valleys. The path covered concrete trenches retrieved by moss, and passed through a military tunnel, where eight-inch holes showed the location of the machine-gun.
I found these remains to be so inconsistent that it was probably a product of my Anglocentric education. But I also wondered whether there was anything owed to the solitude and unusual beauty of Hemingway, whose time volunteered as a Red Cross ambulance driver in what his 1929 novella described as a “picturesque front.”
On the gorgeous woodland trail above Bowek, at the start of Stage 14, we found a rusted helmet on a boulder. How its owner separated from it a century ago was left to the imagination.
Later that day, we climbed the road to the quiet village of Pod Mangartum. Behind it, the high peaks formed an amphitheater, surrounded by the bare spiers of Mangart and Jalovec, two of the most imposing mountains in the Julian Alps.
Part of me sensed the distance. It seemed counterproductive to spend time in the hill country without succumbing to the greed of our uplands. But I also appreciated that it was part of the charm and justification of the Juliana Trail. In this watershed moment for tourism, here was a bell for the traveling public that needed to appreciate the lesser value. less haste. low mileage. Low height. Tomorrow we will send the mountains away from this respectable distance. An honorable farewell corresponding to a temporary rebirth.
Henry Wismet is a writer based in London. Find him on Twitter: @henrywismayer.