Tour of Slovenia
Mountain ranges, fast-flowing rivers and green slopes
Canoeing on the Soca, followed by a thousand kilometers bike tour of mountainous Slovenia. From Piran on the Adriatic, along the Croatian border eastward to Ptuj and via the Karawanken, the foothills of the Alps, which form the border with Austria, back west to the Triglav mountains. Triglav, with its 2864 m the highest peak of Slovenia, is climbed on foot.
Gorgeous but deadly
We drive from The Netherlands, staying in Werfen, Austria for one night, to Vrtojba, Slovenia, a town near Nova Gorica where my friends Danila and Miro live.
Before we leave on our bicycle tour, we go canoeing on the Soca, the most beautiful river of Slovenia.
The poet Simon Gregorcic (1844-1906) wrote a song about this river, called Soci ("to the Soca"). In the song, he predicts the bloodshed during WWI. And he was right. In the Soca Valley 500.000 people were killed, both on the Italian and Austrian side.
Following the Soca from its source, at 1100 m, to the Trenta valley west of Triglav mountain, to the sea, one can see the green river change. From wild and narrow, via quiet and wide to deadly.
Near Kobarid and Tolmin, but especially Bovec, one can go rafting, canoeing, canyoning, etc. Our canoe ride on the Soca, from Kobarid to Tolmin, is wonderful. The river isn't wild and the water is at a low level.
Narrow alleys and small houses
On our first two days of bicycling, Miro accompanies us. We bicycle through Kozina, along the Italian border in the too hot sunshine.
After 60 km I want to find a camping site. But after a plate of spaghetti, I get back on my bike as if reborn. From here traffic gets busier. There is only one road for cars to the sea, which also has to be used by bikers.
Between Dekani and Bertoki, on a roundabout, we meet Gert Brunink from Tilburg, The Netherlands. He bicycles along the borders of the new European Union, from Slovenia to Lithuania. We invite him to stay in the apartment of Miro's brother in Piran.
In Piran, a town with narrow alleys and small houses, we catch up on a terrace near the sea.
Piran may wel be the prettiest town on the Slovenian coast, but Ankaran, Koper, Izola, Portorož and Lucija are also pretty. But during the high season it can be very crowded in those towns.
22 subterranean lakes
Our next destination is Križna jama. The quieter roads have more climbs and more kilometers. So we take the highway.
We ride back to the exit to Škocjan. We visited the Škocjanska jama (=cave) some years ago. Very impressive, especially the subterranean hall, with a walkbridge at a height of 40 meters and some 110 meters of hall above it.
Via Ribnice, Pivka, Postojna we arrive in Rakov Škocjan, a narrow gorge, which is best visited on foot. It has two well-known stone bridges, which one crosses if one is bicycling.
Ten kilometers or so farther, we ride through Cerknica jezero. It is a lake (jezero) which holds water only a few months every year, but which is dry the rest of the time. In Dolenje Jezero one can see a scale model which explains the workings of this area with its underground rivers.
Another climb and we arrive in Bloška Polica. Alois Troha, the administrator of Križna jama, allows us to pitch our tent in his garden.
Next day we visit the cave. The only light here comes from the lamps on our hard hats. We spend four hours in rubber boats, sailing from lake to lake.
The border between Slovenia and Croatia
After a day of rest we ride via Babna Polica to the Slovenian-Croatian border. This town lies in a region called Babno Polje, after an old woman who hid in a dunghill when, during one of the many wars here, the whole population was slaughtered; she was the only one to survive.
Just before we reach the border we have to climb. The first stage from Bloška Polica has forests with bears. Later, the landscape is open up to the Croatian border. There we follow the Cabranka Reka.
After passing the Slovenian-Croation border a couple of times, we reach Osilnica. Here the Cabranka merges with the Kolpa reka, which originates in Croatia. Here, this river is the border between the two countries. The valley through which both rivers flow, has wooded slopes on both sides.
We bicycle on Croatian territory to Brod na Kupi. From there we ride through dense forest on a narrow asphalt road on the Slovenian side of the Kolpa. The camping site in Gorenja Žaga is small, but wonderfully quiet.
We are told that we can keep bicycling along the river. There is an accessible path which is not on the map. That saves us some climbing.
Next day, that's what we do. We have to get to Predgrad and that is quite a climb. But the approximately 3 kilometers are reasonably doable. It's colder and overcast. Now we descend. The road along the Kolpa river is asphalted at first, later it's gravel with small grit.
At the most southern part of our bicycle tour (near Hrib) there are a few hard slopes. But I succeed in reaching the top without getting off my bike. Mostly because the steep part (19 per cent) is only 300 meters long.
We pass Vinica, but because it's still early, we continue riding to Adlešici between rolling hills.
In Adlešici we make a long descent on a bad road with big rocks to a kayak camping site on the Kolpa reka. We pitch our tent between two others, which turn out to belong to Slovenians.
They keep us awake until all hours. Their car radio plays Slovenian music. When Slovenians drink, they sing and shout. I ask them if they can turn the radio down. To my surprise they switch it off.
Around 11:30 PM another group arrives. They play a nice song. I really think so, but no longer after the 40st time. I'm glad that Koen doesn't wake up.
Next morning the Slovenians are up early as well and they wish us a friendly "dober dan" (good morning).
Via Doljenci, Gribje, Podzemelj and Primostek we arrive in Metlika. In the town center, near the old city, we have lunch in the sun, near a WW2 memorial.
The eastern border
The flattest part of Slovenia
From Metlika we take the shortest and busiest route to Novo Mesto. Past Jugorje there is a steep climb. After we've conquered that hill, we rest for a while near Gostilna Badovinace. From there on, we bicycle between rolling hills.
As we get nearer to Novo Mesto, the road gets busier and trucks roar past us. In Novo Mesto we find the old city center, which is beautiful, as promised.
Because Koen doesn't like crowded cities, we keep bicycling. After Novo Mesto we ride toward Otocec. A few kilometers on our way, at the exit to Otocec, we get on a quieter road.
After 5 km we arrive at a castle where we have to check in for the camping site, which is on the Krka reka.
A Slovenian man concludes from the way I look that I wouldn't mind a beer. And yes, the cold half liter of Union goes down well. Slovenia has two brands of beer, Laško and Union, of which the last one is my favorite. But Laško has special beers and isn't bad at all either.
Next day we want to camp in Catez. Immediately after our departure from Otocec, we have to climb a steep hill. Fortunately the road is quiet. After the climb, the bicycling gets easier.
This is the only straight road we encounter during our trip. After we pass Kostanjevica jama (cave), we arrive in the picturesque town of Kostanjevica na Krki. This town is located on an island which was created by cutting a bend of the Krka river with a channel.
We arrive in Catez early, so we keep going, first to Brežice, then toward Bizeljsko. The hills are farther away than before and we ride in a flat area.
Near Brezovica pri Bizeljshem we meet a family on bikes. They call out in French that we have to drink a lot of water before the next climb. They are right that it's a tough one, but it's doable.
We spend the night in Podcetrtek, on the camping site Camp Natura. Today we stayed away from the highway, except for a short stretch near Brežice.
When we get up, the sun doesn't shine, but that's okay with us. Yesterday it was too hot. We leave the busy road just before Sodna Vas and bicycle in the direction of Croatia. Just before the border we see a dam. According to the map, there should be a reservoir. But it's not here. Judging from the overgrowth, it's been a long time since this place has seen water.
On the Slovenian side of the "lake" we ride to the northeast on a gravel road, along the Sotla Reka to Rogatec.
There we turn to the north, direction Žetale. It's a tough and long climb, but it's beautiful here. The road is under repair, so we mainly ride on grit.
After Žetale it's all the way down on a good asphalt road to Podlehnik. We ride to a camping site near Ptuj, where we take a swim in the evening. It's a famous thermal bath, Terme Ptuj.
Ptuj is a pretty, picturesque town. It seems great to have dinner on a terrace on the Drava river.
From Ptuj via Maribor to Dravograd
In the morning sun Ptuj looks different than at night. Ptuj is the center of the main winegrowing region of Slovenia. One can visit wine cellars here. The old town center of Ptuj is landmarked in its entirety.
Because of the many times the town was destroyed and rebuilt, there ar many different architectural styles. This is especially true for the castle, which sits on a hill above the town, and the Dominikanski Samostan, a former Dominican monastery, dating from the 13th century.
Via Sp. Duplek we bicycle on a quiet road on the northeast side of the Drava to Maribor. In Sp. Duplek we see a stork couple in a nest on a high pole.
On entering Maribor we get lost. Fortunately we meet a woman on a bike who accompanies us to the city center south of the Drava.
This university city used to be a small town. But after Maribor, as the first Slovenian town, was connected to Austria by railway, in 1846, it grew steadily. Now it is the second city of Slovenia.
We continue our ride to Ruse along the south bank of the Drava. After Ruse we have to climb. We ride along the Drava and the higher we get, the more beautiful the view of the river becomes.
Near Fata Grad we leave the river and follow a bicycle route in a wooded area. Via Pušcava and Recenjak we bicycle to Lehen. It starts to rain very hard. Luckily we find shelter in a gostilna (guesthouse).
Everything looks beautiful and bright after the rain shower. It also smells nice and fresh. The next town is Podvelka. There we cross the Drava and continue on the "busy" road north of the Drava. The road turns out to be not as busy as expected and from Maribor to Dravograd the incline is only 100 meters over a distance of 40-50 km.
In Radlje ob Dravi we find a hotel. In the evening we have dinner in an Italian restaurant where we meet Miroslav Hajnc. He is dressed in biking wear and has dinner with a friend. His friend introduces Miro as the best artist of Slovenia. He tells us extensively about the project he is working on, called "Exodus". It consists of 60 paintings. Later he shows us his studio.
Next day we bicycle to our friend Rosalie from The Netherlands. She and her husband have built a house in Legen near Slovenj Gradec. We take the main road to Dravograd. There isn't much left of the "grad" (castle). Just a few remains of the walls. There also is a Romanesque church, the St. Vitus. This in contrast to most churches in Slovenia which were rebuilt at least once (Gothic) and often twice (Baroque).
To Logarska Dolina
Via the Mislinja, Paka and Savinja rivers
The main road from Dravograd to Slovenj Gradec is not busy. At Slovenj Gradec we exit the main road and ride to Legen. We stay overnight with Rosalie.
After a good breakfast we leave for Mislinja and from there we follow the Paka reka to Velenje. Velenje is an industrial city. In the industrial zone we pass the Gorenje plant. Gorenje is on of the largest companies of Slovenia.
It's a great relief when we ride toward Šoštanj and leave the industrial zone behind us. The gorgeous road leads via Mozirje, Prihova (near Nazarje), Sentjanž and Ljubno ob Savinji to Luce ob Savinji. Near Gorenje the Paka reka merges with the Savinja, which we follow upstream.
In the picturesque village of Luce we find a camping site. Next day we reach Solcava after an easy climb through a valley, riding along the Savinja with sometimes steep rock walls on the other side of the road. There is a limestone church(Marija Snežna) here and in its columns fossils are visible. It's more touristic here than between Maribor and Dravograd; there are many hotels and camping sites.
After Solcava the road gets steeper, but it's still okay for bicycling. Until we reach the Logarska Dolina valley. There is only one road and no throughway, so we'll have to take the same road back.
The 8 kilometers long valley, hemmed in between two mountain ranges and closed off in the south by the Savinjske Alpe, is one of the most gorgeous landscapes of Slovenia. The Savinja flows through it, often underground. It is an example of the Karst phenomenon. You need a lot of gears on your bike, because in some places the incline is 20-25 per cent. But if you complete the ride, you are rewarded with a view of the Slap Rinka (slap = waterfall).
Austrian-Slovenian border posts
Pavlicevo sedlo and Seebergsattel
Back on the road to Austria it gets serious. We need to climb the Pavlicevo sedlo for 8 kilometers in a wooded area, with on average an over 10 per cent incline. When we've reached the top, the way back down turns out to be difficult as well: steep and many bends at close distances from each other.
After this descent follow two more climbs until we reach the Slovenian border. Past the border it's all the way down again. This takes good steering qualities and correct estimating of speed and distances because of the bends.
We bicycle to Planšarsko jezero where there is free camping. There also is a gostilna on the lake where we have dinner. We meet two other bikers, Sebastjan Kurmansek and Milan Žapunc.
They take a different route to the Vrsic. It turns out they know Miro from running. Milan runs ultra-long distances and a lot of mountain runs. Today it's easy bicycling along the Kokra. We reach Kranj with an average speed of 27 k/p/h.
Past Kranj we have to look for the right way. It's as if biking isn't allowed anywhere. We ask a Slovenen, who only speaks Slovenian, for directions.
Via Bistrica, Ovsiše, Podnart and Sr. Dobrava we bicycle to Kamna Gorica and Lesce. It is quiet, because the road is being repaired and car traffic is diverted.
Just before we arrive at the camping ground, we discover a shortcut, a steep descent on a grit road.
There are many Dutch on this camping site. The northwest of Slovenia has the highest mountains, of which Triglav is the highest, with an altitude of 2,865 meters.
Today we bicycle via Bled to Gorje. And then further to Mojstrana. We pass by a memorial for another slaughter during the war.
In this case all people (including the elderly and babies) were driven into one house, which then was set on fire.
Just before Mojstrana we get on an asphalt road with an incline of 14 per cent. After 2 km we reach the highest point and then a wonderful descent follows.
A little before Martuljek there is a bicycle path.
The roof of our tour
Vrsic: 1.611 meters high
Nervously I get on my bike to conquer the Vrsic. The incline is 14 per cent. The length of the climb is a little over 8 km. Soon Koen bicycles ahead of me and disappears. I won't see him again until I reach the top at 1.611 meters.
At first, the bicycling goes well enough. I have to stop twice, but can continue after a short break for a drink of water. Halfway there is a Dutch car with trouble on the side of the road. The tow truck is already there. I tell them: "Why don't you bicycle instead?". They laugh.
Now I can't get off my bike when it gets too hard. Even racing cyclers pass me by at very low speed. They groan. Out of sight of the Dutch, I take a rest. I walk for a hundred meters and get on my bike on a less steep stretch.
When I reach the top, Koen has been waiting for me for 15 minutes already. We enjoy the view with coffee and warm apfelstrudel.
After our break follows a descent in which I go faster than the cars. In the fifth bend we see Sebastian Kurmansek climbing up. His friend Milan Žapunc is still in the valley, running and will join him later.
The Soca revisited
Memories of the first world war
We race down. In the one but last bend I stop to take a picture of Koen who now lags behind. And there is Milan Žapunc, stretching after his running exercise.
We bicycle to Bovec, where we pitch our tent. Not long ago, there was an earthquake in this region and many buildings are damaged.
It is the last time this trip that we'll sleep in our tent. Tomorrow we will stay with Miro and Danila in Vrtojba.
Bovec lies at and altitude of 400 m and Vrtojba almost at sea level. Next day we bicycle along the most beautiful river of Slovenia, the Soca.
We pass Kobarid, which has a First World War museum. The frontline was in this region. If you're hiking in the mountains, you can still find traces of that war. The paths were made to get the heavy equipment up into the mountains. There are also caves where weapens where stored.
The last stage to Nova Gorica leads us along the Soca, which is very wide there. It's a completely different river here than at Tolmin, Kobarid and Bovec.
We're not even all that tired when we arrive in Vrtojba exactly on time. We have bicycled 1.044 km. Because of the many hills, bicycling in Slovenia is tougher than one would expect.
Memories of the first world war
Today Koen and I visit the First World War museum in Kobarid. I was there once already and the visit helped me to understand this region much better. I would like Koen to feel that as well. I'm satisfied if he at least hears the history of the first world war once.
After our visit to the museum we walk to the memorial for the fallen soldiers of the first world war. It is visible from afar and very impressive.
Triglav: the highest peak of Slovenia (2864 m)
We get up at 3 AM. We eat a quick breakfast and at 4 AM we drive to Trenta by car. There we leave the car and take a road into the forest.
We begin our hike at 5:30 AM. It is still dark, but soon it gets lighter. First we walk in the forest. Later there are less and less trees. Meandering, we walk uphill.
After over 2 hours we arrive at the Koca Krasna cabin. Here we rest before we walk the last part. We're above the tree line at an altitude of approximately 2000 m. That means that we've already climbed 1.5 km. 800 meters more to go.
An hour after our break the real climbing begins. It is not difficult, but also not risk-free. In some spots steel cables and steel pins have been attached to the rock wall.
It can be done, but you have to know what you're doing. Sometimes we have to traverse a ridge holding on to a steel cable, with a 100 m depth beneath us.
After a little under 5 hours we have reached the top. The Triglav has three peaks. "Triglav" means "tri glave", or "three heads". The highest is the Triglav.
It went fast. During the hike and at the top I enjoy the view. There is a small round cabin. Miro "christens" us by hitting our behinds with a rope. It's a tradition...
A little girl is also "christened" by her grandfather, because it's her first time too. There are crowds of Triglav conquerers here.
We leave after half an hour. We have to wait regularly for new climbers. Once even a quarter of an hour, because a group of 10 people is coming up.
We sit on the edge of the path with a depth of a few hundred meters beneath us, while the group hikes uphill. The last climber is very insecure and has a big backpack on his back. Koen thinks he can continue downward and gets up. But then the man makes a quarter of a turn. With his backpack he could have pushed Koen off path.
I warn Koen to sit down until the moron has passed us. Everyone leaves their big backpacks at an altitude of 2400 meters, to pick them up on the way back. But this guy takes it with him, without giving any thought to the danger it poses to others.
At 2400 meters, my shoes irritate me because of some sand in them. But I also have a blister. The last 2.5 hours are very painful.
Koen also gets tired. But he wants to get downhill so bad that he increases his speed. After 4.5 hours we're back at the car. My blisters are as big as eggs.
We cool ourselves in the river. I'm glad we did this, but it would have been better to have walked to a cabin on the first day and spend the night there. Next morning we could have climbed the last part and have enjoyed the sunrise during the last climb.
Surroundings of Tolmin
Javorca cerkev, slap Brina and slap Gregorcic
Despite a day of rest my muscles still hurt. But I still go with Miro and Danila to see the surroundings of Tolmin. We take the road along the Tolminka reka.
There is ample opportunity for wonderful hikes there. But now we drive to Javorca cerkev. This church was built by the countries who fought Italy together. In the Soca region are many of these memorial churches. Because they are catholic churches, they're made of wood and not of stone. One of the most beautiful is Javorca cerkev.
We drive toward Kobarid on a quiet road on the northeast bank of the Soca. Half-way between Voljarje and Kamno we park the car. We walk to two waterfalls, slap Brinta and slap Gregorcic. We walk through dense forest. It's more like climbing than walking. In some places it's slippery, making this walk even more dangerous than climbing the Triglav.
We first arrive at slap Brinta. The water falls down from a height of 111 meters. It's a wonderful feeling to stand in a shower of fine waterdrops. We continue our walk to slap Gregorcic, which can be seen from a great distance.
Miro every time finds an accessible path to get nearer to the waterfall. Sometimes there are steep climbs. The waterfall (88 m)is named after the poet who wrote the already mentioned song about the Soca.
It's hot. It's a tough hike, but because of the dense forest and the lack of other people it's very special. During the last part we walk through super-green meadows where we're not protected from the sun.
Next we drive back home in one day. It was a very special experience to take this trip with my sixteen-year-old son.