By Noah Charney
Where I Dream of Visiting Post-Pandemic: Slovenia’s Julian Alps
Where I Dream of Visiting Post-Pandemic: Slovenia’s Julian Alps
by Noah Charney, in December 2020
This past December, while still in the grips of pandemic lockdown, my editor at The Guardian Travel section asked if I could contribute to an article. I’m The Guardian Travel section go-to author for all things Slovenia, and the editor asked the Travel author for each European country to answer the question of where, within their country, they were most excited to visit the moment pandemic conditions permitted.
What first flashed across my mind was not a single destination but a constellation of them, most of which were scattered around the Julian Alps region of Slovenia, my adopted homeland. I realized that my fantasy after-lockdown road trip, which involves re-visiting favorite mountain destinations for me, would make a great taster tour for someone who has never been to this beautiful part of Middle Europe.
The belt of mountains across Europe’s midsection, the Alps, is divided into named sections. Slovenia boasts two of them. I live at the foot of the Kamnik-Savinj Alps range, but my favorite holiday destination is the adjacent Julian Alps, which bridge the border between Italy, Austria and Slovenia. They were named Alpe Iulia after Julius Caesar, who began construction of the first significant road through them. Their pinnacle is Mount Triglav, the symbol of Slovenia, rising 2864 meters (9396 feet) into the sky. Surmounting it is a fitting climax, but it is one that requires some eight hours of hiking one way, proper equipment and a reasonable estimation of your abilities.
There are shorter routes and the paths are often bustling with mountaineers of all ages, but it’s best to go with a guide unless you’re an experienced mountaineer. I am not the least bit intrepid, so I prefer to tackle any of the many other peaks in the Julian range, for an experience that is just as beautiful, a bit less-traversed and certainly more appropriate to my (non-existent) skill level. For those for whom elevation is not a destination, Triglav National Park offers less vertical options of striking natural beauty, including a trail of seven lakes. That’s more my speed.
I’m fortunate enough to live in a mountain town about an hour’s drive from the Julian Alps, but even I prefer to spend the night right in the middle of the action. There are numerous cabins, apartments and rooms to rent which allow you to step outside and right into idyllic nature, falling asleep to the arias of owls and waking to low of a wayward cow or the skitter of a squirrel on the roof.
I am a regular at two spots that are the most frequently-touristed in Slovenia’s Julian Alps. The first is probably the most obvious, Lake Bled. This Faberge Egg of a destination looks like an artist’s conception of the perfect mountain resort: a lake with a single island in its midst, topped with a picturesque church; and, as if that were not enough, there’s also a sharp cliff rising above the lake, topped with an equally picturesque castle. Bled is Slovenia’s best-known tourist site and needs little introduction. I actually enjoy exploring its periphery, like the hike through Vintgar Gorge in Gorje or sampling a very local specialty in the village of Zasip, the global capital of cooking with dried pears (I’m all about finding these quirky gems off the beaten path, particularly if eating is involved).
As an enthusiastic foodie, I’m always on the hunt for special meals. This, combined with my interest in charming towns and architectural gems, makes me a frequent visitor to Radovljica. With one of the best-preserved (and most photogenic) historical centers, Radovljica is ideal for tourists to feel transported back through the centuries. There’s a surprisingly fascinating Museum of Beekeeping and several traditional country inns (gostilne), including Lectar, which has a small museum dedicated to an unusual art-form: baked, painted decorative hearts made of a honey dough (lectarjevo srce). For the best in contemporary dining, head for Vila Podvin just outside of Radovljica, one of Slovenia’s six Michelin-starred restaurants. Chef Uros Stefelin helped found the Radovljica Farmer’s Market, which is worth a journey on Saturday mornings to buy the best local produce. Vila Podvin proudly features these goods, including the tepke pears (of Zasip fame), which he serves dipped in chocolate.
Slovenia’s industrial heritage can be explored in the towns of Jesenice and Žirovnica. Jesenice was once an important center for ironworks and metallurgy for the Habsburg Empire. Žirovnica and its environs were birthplace to a number of Slovenian cultural icons, including its poet laureate, France Prešeren and a pioneer of beekeeping (featured in that museum in Radovljica), Anton Janša.
I’m more of a regular visitor to Bled’s rawer, wilder, more Romantic neighbour, Lake Bohinj. We’ll spend several weekends a year around Lake Bohinj, in all seasons. During the summer, there’s a semi-secret Alpine “beach” that will be populated with in-the-know locals enjoying a dip in the sun, and our annual family ski holiday is at Vogel, a mountain that rises high above the lake.
But the Kamnik-Bled-Bohinj circuit is a regular expedition for my family. What I’m fantasizing about for 2021 is exploring further afield, coiling around Triglav National Park and tracing the arc of Slovenia’s Julian Alps from Bled through to the Italian border.
From Bohinj, we’ll drive past the village of Mojstrana, home of Slovenia’s Alpine Museum, and continue to the Vršič Pass, which links the Sava and Soča river valleys, is perhaps the most photogenic spot to pull over your car. As an art history professor, I can’t help but think of the Romantic concept of the “sublime,” the simultaneous recognition of the beauty of Nature and of man’s humble insignificance before its might and grandeur. If Caspar David Friedrich, the artist who best embodies the sublime in his Romantic paintings, ever needed a vista for one of his landscapes, this is it.
If it’s ski season, then stop at the largest town in this area, Kranjska Gora, a ski resort and the gateway to Triglav National Park to see Zelenci, the green spring of the Sava Dolinka River, or to enjoy a variety of winter activities at the ski resort.
I also like to stop at Lake Jasna, where stands a bronze statue of Zlatorog (Goldhorn), a mythical mountain ibex with golden horns who features in a local legend (as well as on Slovenia’s popular Laško brand beer bottles). The lake is manmade and was exquisitely sited to reflect the mountain-scape in the near ground. Before you embark on this journey (or perhaps for a relaxing evening during it), I recommend watching the beloved, classic Slovene children’s film, Kekec (1951) and its sequel Srečno, Kekec (1963). They follow the charming adventures of a young shepherd boy and were filmed in these mountains, an impossibly idyllic backdrop that you’d think was a painted film set—until you visit and see them in person.
Along this same Vršič Pass road, I like to pull over at the Russian Chapel. This fairytale wooden chapel dedicated to Saint Vladimir was built by Russian prisoners in 1916, as was the very road on which you drive, through the Vršič Pass, which rises 5285 feet into the sky. The tallest pass in the Julian Alps, it features fifty hairpin turns, making it great fun to drive and offering numerous incredible vistas for photo ops.
My interest in history makes this area a rich one, as this was the site of the infamous Isonzo Front during World War I. Hemingway served as a supply driver here when he was eighteen years old. He was struck by shrapnel while delivering chocolate and cigarettes, but still managed to pull an Italian soldier to safety, for which he received a medal. While hospitalized and recovering from his injury, he fell in love with an Italian nurse, which led to his first heartbreak. His experience was fictionalized in his novel, A Farewell to Arms.
One of the ghostliest monuments to the fighting is the Kluže Fort, which hunkers down on a hilltop like an angry beetle and evokes memories of the many armies that have passed through this land. It was first built as a wooden structure to guard against raiding Ottoman incursions. Its current form was built in the early 19th century, to guard Austrian territory against Napoleon, but it was in active use during the Great War, too.
Visiting museums is just about my favorite thing to do (a character trait I’m delighted to have brainwashed my young daughters into sharing), and one of the finest museums in the world dealing with World War One can be found nearby at the Kobarid Museum, which won an international award for its heartfelt and moving presentation of the war in this region.
We’re now down in the Soča River Valley. The river has been called the most beautiful in the world by numerous travel magazines, its haunting emerald color a natural phenomenon that makes it look like a river in Oz. In fact, sections of the film versions of the Chronicles of Narnia were filmed here—who needs special effects and an artificial set, when Slovenian nature offers all you could imagine?
This valley has earned a place on the world’s gastronomic map thanks to the 2017 Best Female Chef, Ana Roš. Her restaurant, Hiša Franko, is located just outside of Kobarid. It’s the best place (and one of the only places) where you can sample an indigenous specialty, Soča River Trout. These trout were once nearly extinct (the hungry soldiers camped in this region during World War One over-fished them, sometimes using hand grenades thrown into the water to do so), but are on the rise again thanks to the efforts of local biologists and the Faronika Fish Farm. But only enough of these colossal and much-prized trout are available for local chefs (chefs from the capital, Ljubljana, can rarely get them), so this is the best place to sample their delicate flavor, which is best presented in a simple carpaccio.
Speaking of carpaccio, we’re very near to the Italian border. Practically straddling the border (in fact, you can easily walk across it) is a cluster of villages that comprise Goriška Brda. This is Slovenia’s most famous wine region, dubbed one of the top five terroirs for white wines in the world and home to numerous award-winning vineyards. Be sure to try the famous indigenous white varietal, Rebula, an example of which scored a remarkable 100 points out of 100 from a renowned Italian wine critic. A glass of sparkling Rebula from Medot Vineyard goes perfectly with pršut, Slovenian prosciutto, and one of the world’s best is made and served on-site only at Klinec Plešivo. Uroš Klinec makes only around 80 legs a year and they are reserved for some of the globe’s top restaurants, but you can try them on his terrace, overlooking a blanket of rolling vine-clad hills.
From there, an extended holiday can lead to crossing to the Italian side of the Julian Alps and into the Dolomites, zipping over to nearby Venice, or circling back to explore more of Slovenia. Whichever way you choose, these are all stops that are high on my wish list for 2021.