We began our journey up some of Slovenia’s highest peaks on a sorrowful note.
After winding past several graves on Gradic Hill, the hulking grey Italian Mausoleum with its remains of 7,014 soldiers rose into view — a stark, cold reminder of the countless casualties borne by one of World War One’s bloodiest frontlines.
Over a period of 29 months from 1915 to 1917, approximately 1.7 million men from the Austro-Hungarian empire and Italy died fighting here, many losing their lives attempting to navigate the steep mountain slopes or traverse unsurpassable canyons amid the most brutal winter in a century, and all for power.
The Italians believed that they could hold the Soca River Valley and push over the mountains, Vienna — and victory — would be theirs. Ernest Hemingway was here, driving an ambulance in the mountains during the war (he eventually penned down his experience in A Farewell to Arms). So was Mussolini, who came to dedicate this mausoleum.
These days, men come here to fight over different reasons — for a picnic spot or a photo beside waterfalls, aquamarine rapids and emerald forests, amongst which a number of WWI relics are sprinkled. Winding its way through all this is the Soca River, and those who lay eyes on it cannot help but strip off their socks to baptize their toes in its icy waters.
Others who weren’t doing so were jostling for a table at Hisa Franko, supposedly one of Slovenia’s finest restaurants. Opened by Chef Ana Ros, who appeared on Chef’s Table and was crowned the World’s Best Female Chef in 2017, this eatery prides itself on its Slovenien alpine culinary traditions.
Since it was easier to get a lap dance from Channing Tatum than a table for 6 at Hisa Franko if one didn’t book in advance, we headed instead to Hisa Polonka, its cheaper and less serious offshoot, smack bang in the town of Kobarid.
The food was hearty and comforting — crispy puff pastry with wild boar cheeks and deer goulash were on the menu while we were there — but the star was undeniably the dessert. The Kobarid struccoli, warm dumplings made from walnuts and doused in milk and rum, left us breathless.
Perhaps it wasn’t the best time to stuff ourselves, as the 50 hairpin turns of Vrsic Pass — Slovenia’s highest pass — came next. But we survived that (although my knees were wobbling from the drive), and Triglav National Park, with its fields of dandelions and rocky mountains, slowly opened up before us.
The barren, snow-dusted Mount Triglav, is the country’s highest peak at 2864m, and a national symbol: it is said you are not a true Slovene until you’ve climbed it.
Since we were just a bunch of lazy tourists, we hopped into the warmth of our Ford and drove to our accommodation, a wellness hotel nestled in the resort town of Kranjska Gora.
Drab, grey and modern — and not in a good way — Hotel Spik looked like an internment camp compared to its surroundings. This was the type of place that retirees go to rest their weary bones, and where families go because it has a kids’ play area and heated indoor pools so their kids’ would shut up if the weather was crappy.
Kranjska Gora, you see, was all about the great outdoors and tens of thousands of sports fans descend upon the Planica Nordic Centre once in every few years to watch the ski-flying world championships (The next one will be held this March, 2020).
Just what is the Planica? Only the biggest, steepest, fastest ski jump in the world.
Since it’s summer and the base is littered with bleating, grass-munching sheep instead of dead bodies like I expected, it looks much less intimidating. But it is here that the world witnessed several inhuman displays of badassery: a local boy was the fist person to fly more than 100 meters on skis, while the current record stands at about 239 meters— more than the length of two football fields — or about 17 seconds in the air.
People with suicidal tendencies can also have a go: by taking an adrenaline-pumping zipline that runs parallel to the jump. The husband was keen on showing his manliness, but was turned away at the counter because he hadn’t booked in advance.
We did, however, manage to freeze our asses off in the indoor ski centre filled with artificial snow and gasp at videos of previous derring-do at the little museum (and that was enough for my lily-livered ass to negotiate a quick exit).
There are plenty of walks in the vicinity, but we did the a short one to Zelenci Nature Reserve, a picturesque marsh teeming with birds and bugs. Its centerpiece, an emerald green lake, is a bit peculiar because it has jets of spring water shooting out of it bottom like mini volcanoes. As a result, the water is 5 to 6 degrees Celsius throughout the year, even in winter.
Since Kranjska Gora was close to the Italian border, we had dinner in one of the many legit pizzerias in town. Gostilna-Pizzerija Jozica has a cozy wooden interior and about a thousand (delicious) pizzas to choose from. The kids were also each given a complimentary ice cream to end their meal even though the adults were the ones paying for it.
The next day, we headed to the rather uninspiring but peaceful one-street town center. Croatian and Slovenian tourists laze on the outdoor terrace of restaurants, refueling with pizzas and pastas and soaking up the sun. Many of them own a holiday home here and, as a result, property values has shot up over the years.
This illusion of lazy somnolence, however, is shattered the moment one visits the Furious Pehta, a toboggan run that’s only open in the summer. After a scenic chairlift ride, we zoom down a steep slope on a one-seat sled, screaming and cussing. It was the Planica for those such as myself, and the kids insisted on going again and again, egging me to go faster each time.
We were accompanied by Evel Knievels on two-wheels in the adjacent bike park. Kranjska Gora is a haven for leisurely cyclists and serious mountain bikers, with over 150 kilometers of well-signposted biking trails ranging in various difficulty levels.
The “rails to trails” bike route, for instance, is covered from an old railway bed and loops from here through Italy and Austria, allowing bikers to cycle three countries in one day. Instead of biking however, we strolled the lovely country paths, picking up wildflowers along the way.
That night, we celebrated nana’s birthday in Restaurant Milka. Miha, its young, passionate chef and owner, has abandoned the usual tradition of pizza and pasta for hot stone slabs with lamb and artichokes arranged artfully on top. The food was decent, and the view even better.
As I sat there, enjoying our dinner and watching darkness envelop the mountains, I thought briefly about the men who made all of this possible. Hundreds of Russian POWs of the Austro-Hungarian empire perished while building some roads up here so that the war against Italy could be won (their tragic deaths are commemorated in a beautiful Russian Orthodox Chapel halfway down the mountain).
Now these roads serve a different purpose altogether: to enable nature lovers to commune with Mother Nature and their loved ones. I suppose this story has a brighter ending than Hemingway could have ever hoped for.
Hotel Spik Equipped with heated swimming pools, saunas, playgrounds and a kid’s play area, this relaxing (but aesthetically challenged) property offers young and old visitors a chance to unwind after a long day outdoors. Rooms are standard and comfortable, but service may be a little brusque. $$
- The Julian Alps is an outdoor destination, with great drives and walks, and plenty of historical sites peppered along the way. You can drive it in one full day by starting in Tolmin and ending up in Bled or Ljubljana (or even do it in reverse), but allow yourself a couple of days to soak in the history and views. And if you do, be sure to go on a sunny day or splurge on a nice hotel in case it rains.
- The Kobarid Museum delves deeper into the Soca Front, and is well worth visiting for anyone interested in history and World War One.
- Kranjska Gora is a winter resort, but going in summer allows you to experience the town in a different way. In addition to the wealth of bike trails in the area, there is also something for hikers (including via ferratas), mountaineers and paragliders. The nearby town of Bovec is also known as the “adrenaline capital”, offering adventure sports such as kayaking, hydrospeeding and canyoning.
- Activities at the Planica — including the world’s fastest zipline — needs to be booked at least a day in advance.
- Families with younger children will enjoy a dip in the Soca river, the Furious Pehta, as well as do the many walks and bike trails in the countryside.
- Any experienced climber (age 10 and above) will be able to scale Mount Triglav quite easily, but it takes at least 2 days. There are several huts you can stay in along the way. The easiest way to do this is via a group tour, but those who want to do it independently need to do some online research as there are different routes with varying difficulty levels.
- Slovenia is really affordable, and the Julian Alps is a good alternative to Europe’s other, more expensive mountain regions, especially for first-timers.