Walking an Adventure Playground

The view from the eastern shore of Slovenia’s Lake Bohinj on a recent afternoon was the picture of Alpine summer leisure. On three sides, the gray peaks of the Julian Alps stood hazy and indifferent in the high sun. Flotillas of rowboats and paddle boarders skimmed across the water. The lake stretched out like a sheet of polished jade.

The view represented an essential truth about this region of northwest Slovenia: that it offers panoramas out of all proportion with its physical scale. Based on vital statistics alone, first-time visitors might be forgiven for anticipating a modest mountain range. The Julian Alps are a tight oval of limestone knuckles, comparable in area to Rhode Island; their apex, Mount Triglav, rises to 9,396 feet, a mile shy of the more familiar Alpine peaks of Western Europe. But what the mountains lack in size they make up for in accessibility. Erupting sheer from the lowlands, just 35 miles from Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital and largest city, the region is best thought of as an adventure playground for a country that loves to be outdoors.

Lake Bled’s Church of the Assumption sits on a teardrop-shaped island and has become an Instagram favorite. Credit…Marcus Westberg for The New York Times

Pre-Covid, this had started to become a problem. On the range’s eastern periphery, Lake Bled, with the Instagram-friendly Church of the Assumption sitting on its teardrop island, had become a fixture of whirlwind coach tours. And the upper valleys were heaving. “The last time I climbed Mount Triglav there was someone selling beer on the summit,” Klemen Langus, the director of tourism for the municipality of Bohinj, told me.

A couple of years ago, the local tourist boards collaborated on a solution: a new 167-mile walking route, circling the entire massif and never exceeding 4,350 feet. They hoped it would act as a pressure valve, enticing visitors to lower ground. “There’s a saying in Slovenia that you have to climb Triglav once in a lifetime to prove that you are Slovenian,” said Mr. Langus. “This trail is to help us erase this saying.”

A hiker pauses on a bench along the Juliana Trail’s Stage 14. Credit…Marcus Westberg for The New York Times

Getting started

The Juliana Trail, as the new route was called, was inaugurated in late 2019. I had originally planned to visit the following 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 surge hit long and hard. It wasn’t until this July that the photographer Marcus Westberg and I finally took our first steps on the Juliana, setting out from the village of Begunje under a cloudless sky.

The plan was to travel east to west along the massif’s southern fringe. The trail is divided into 16 stages of varying lengths and grades, some short and flat, others undulating over foothill passes. The trail goes from town to town, meaning that you can spend each night in a comfortable hotel; the Juliana Trail Booking Service can arrange the details.

As we only had a week to experience the trail, the booking service arranged a pick-and-mix itinerary for us, starting among the popular lakelands and culminating in the southern valleys that most foreign visitors overlook. (We walked Stages 4, 7, 10, 13 and 14.) An extensive public transport system enabled us to skip sections along the way.

The opening days — from Begunje to Bled, then in the environs of Lake Bohinj — served as a gentle introduction.

Mostly, they provided an opportunity to enjoy vignettes of a country in the throes of reanimation. With new daily Covid cases down to double-figures, Slovenia was undergoing a collective exhale. Restaurants were full to bursting. Lakeshores were abuzz. In the old square of Radovljica, a town that marked the midpoint of our first day’s walk, cyclists sipped espressos in al fresco cafes. A pair of musicians warbled a melodic folk anthem as an audience of septuagenarians sang along and swayed.

A view to the peaks of the Julian Alps from Stage 14. Credit…Marcus Westberg for The New York Times

A more challenging climb

On the third morning, we caught an early train along the Bohinj Railway, which burrowed through the ridgelines south of the lake, cutting out two of the trail’s stages. To mark the fact that the day’s hike was set to be more rigorous, we’d enlisted a guide. When the train’s graffiti-covered carriages pulled into the station at the village of Grahovo, Jan Valentincic was waiting for us on the platform. He led the way onto the tracks of Stage 10, over dewy pastures, then into beech forest, where the trail was delineated by yellow signposts and, more regularly, an orange symbol — a ‘J’ and ‘A’ inside interlocking diamonds — stenciled onto trees and boulders.

For Mr. Valentincic, who is 32, bearded, with long brown hair and an off-center nose that compliments his rugged mien, this was easy going. For the last seven years, he had been working as a guide abroad, leading ski tours in the Caucasus and hikes in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan. He was raised in the hills that the train had bypassed, and his peripatetic lifestyle exemplified the region’s history of depopulation: According to the World Bank, the proportion of Slovenes living in cities has doubled since 1960 to 55 percent. In the forest, hints of human presence — some moss-quilted stone wall, a tree sprouting from the roof of an old hay barn — betrayed the sites of long-abandoned farms. Though portions of the day’s hike stuck to drivable roads, I don’t recall seeing a single car.

The hiking guide Jan Valentincic grew up near the village of Podbrdo, in the Julian Alps.Credit…Marcus Westberg for The New York Times

The pandemic, and the arrival of a baby son, had drawn Mr. Valentincic home. He dreamed of establishing a homestay on the escarpment where he grew up, he told me — an escape for visitors who wanted to avoid the relative bustle of the lakesides. “People from the city want to sit and do nothing, enjoy the silence,” he said. As someone who had rarely left London in over a year, this was a sentiment I understood too well.

At 2 p.m., in fierce heat, the trail topped out above a broad valley, dotted with the terra-cotta roofs of two neighboring towns, Most na Soci and Tolmin. Twisting along the valley’s base was the river that carved it: the Soca, its passage made ponderous by a dam downstream.

The color of the streams along the trail comes from the interplay of light and limestone particles in the water.Credit…Marcus Westberg for The New York Times

An unworldly blue

At this juncture we really have to talk about the water. The bedrock in Slovenia is mostly Early Triassic limestone. When sunlight hits a river carrying white limestone crystals in suspension, the water turns dazzling and iridescent, its spectrum ranging from limpid green to deep, cerulean blue. At times, the color of the Soca and its tributaries is so preternaturally opulent that it is tempting to imagine some conniving public relations person hiding upstream, dousing the headwaters with chemical dye.

This interplay between water and calcium carbonate reached a crescendo in the hillsides above Tolmin. Some of the most impressive reaches were stand-alone attractions. At Tolmin Gorges, a network of stairways, balconies and bridges offered views of a ravine system from every conceivable angle. Turquoise streams bubbled between the steep-cut cliffs. Hart’s tongue ferns spilled in great profusion down the walls. It was dizzying to think of these canyons and cascades as previews of even grander erosive marvels underground. The longest discovered cave system in Slovenia, Tolminski Migovec, honeycombed the surrounding karst for a total of 141,000 feet. On the walk from Grahovo, Mr. Valentincic had described the mountains as “basically hollow.”

The village of Kobarid, where the museum tells the history of the area during the First World War. Credit…Marcus Westberg for The New York Times

For the locals, such imaginative vertigo didn’t cut it. The consensus seemed to be that the best way to experience this landscape was to throw yourself down it. After taking the half-hour bus-ride from Tolmin to Kobarid, the next major settlement upriver, we visited the nearby Kozjak waterfall, where a slender cataract burst through a cleft into a chamber of layered rock. Without warning, a figure appeared at its head, wearing a helmet and a suit of red neoprene. Seconds later a rope unspooled down the cliff-face, and a succession of canyoners rappelled down to a ledge, then jumped off, plummeting 20 feet into the pool below.

The bare fangs of Mangart and Jalovec, two of the Julian Alps’ most imposing mountains, seen from the trail.Credit…Marcus Westberg for The New York Times

Settling in on Stage 13

This wasn’t the only time that the national predisposition for daredevilry made me feel lazy. Henceforth, as the trail cleaved to the frothing Soca, we often spotted rafts and kayaks bouncing over river rapids. Throughout the walk, it was rare to look up without seeing two or three paragliders corkscrewing groundward from some distant ridge.

For my part, at least, the more sedate pace of adventure on the Juliana Trail seemed entirely in tune with the moment. After months of immobility, the slow cadence of a multiday walk felt like the ideal way to re-engage with the wider world. The length of the stages — usually between seven and 12 miles — allowed us time to dawdle, to pause, to absorb the sounds and scenery of a foreign countryside. On Stage 13, a long kick that crisscrossed the Soca, we took our time.

In hindsight it was the pick of the legs. We set off that day at 6 a.m. Belts of cloud, vestiges of the previous night’s thunderstorm, still clung to the ridgelines. Condensation beaded on leaf and cobweb. Viviparous lizards emerged to warm themselves on trailside stones.

As the temperature rose, so, too, did the scenery. Ascents were rewarded with views of the river’s blue-green ribbon. Descents brought relief, as we could usually bushwhack down to the water’s edge and dip our hands in the torrent to cool down. In the afternoon, we frequently found ourselves sharing the pebble spits with other holidaymakers, splayed on towels, often with a bag of beer chilling in the water, whose presence prefaced the approach to each village.

Discovering the Isonzo Front

The Soca Valley’s other claims to fame came together in a famous line from Frederic Henry, the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s novel “A Farewell to Arms”: “I was blown up while we were eating cheese.”

“Frika,” a traditional dish, includes cheese and potatoes. Credit…Marcus Westberg for The New York Times

The local cheese, honestly, I could take or leave. In Kobarid, we sampled its distinctive floral flavor in a lunch of “frika,” a traditional peasant’s meal comprising a fried disc of potato and cheese hash. The surprise of the young waitress who took our order should have forewarned us that the eating of it — two bites of unctuous pleasure followed by the slow apprehension that your arteries are clogging — would require more stamina than I could muster.

But the echoes of Hemingway’s explosions were more indelible. Kobarid’s sobering museum told the story. In May 1915, having initially declared its neutrality in the First World War, Italy sent soldiers into these mountains to retake contested border regions from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As the Central Powers deployed troops to stymie the Italian advance, the two sides dug in. The resulting Isonzo Front would witness months of futile bloodshed to rival the better-documented horrors of Flanders. In the eleventh offensive alone, in the summer of 1917, five million shells detonated across the line. More than 250,000 soldiers died.

As we pressed into the western reaches of the Juliana, toward the town of Bovec and the present-day Italian frontier, ghosts of this so-called White War haunted the valleys. The path skirted concrete trenches reclaimed by the moss, and passed through a military tunnel where eight-inch apertures showed the positions of machine-gun emplacements.

That I found these relics so incongruous was perhaps a product of my Anglocentric education. But I also wondered whether it owed something to the seclusion and uncommon beauty of what Hemingway, whose time volunteering as a Red Cross ambulance driver inspired his 1929 novel, described as “the picturesque front.”

On the gorgeous woodland trail above Bovec, early on Stage 14, we found a rusted helmet sitting on a boulder. How its owner had been separated from it a century ago was left to the imagination.

A full moon over Bled, with the lake in the distance. Credit…Marcus Westberg for The New York Times

Later that day, we climbed up the road to the tranquil village of Log pod Mangartom. Behind it, the high peaks formed an amphitheater bracketed by the bare fangs of Mangart and Jalovec, two of the Julian Alps’ most imposing mountains.

Part of me rued the distance. It felt counterintuitive to spend time in mountain country without succumbing to the lure of its upper reaches. But I also appreciated that this was part of the Juliana Trail’s charm, and its rationale. At this watershed moment for tourism, here was a bellwether for a traveling public that needed to appreciate the value of less. Less haste. Less mileage. Less altitude. Tomorrow we would depart the mountains from this respectful distance. A deferential farewell to suit a tentative rebirth.

Henry Wismate is a writer based in London. Find him on Twitter: @henrywismayer.

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