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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Walking an Adventure Playground

The view from the eastern shore of the Slovenian Lake Bohinj was the epitome of summer holidays in the Alps on a recent afternoon. On three sides, the gray peaks of the Julian Alps seemed hazy and indifferent in the bright sun. Flotillas of rowing boats and oarsmen sailed on the water. The lake stretched out like a sheet of polished jade.

This view represented the basic truth about this region in northwestern Slovenia: it offers panoramas disproportionate to its physical scale. Based on vital statistics alone, newbies can be forgiven for waiting for a small mountain range. The Julian Alps are a narrow oval of limestone joints, comparable in area to Rhode Island; their summit, Mount Triglav, rises 9,396 feet, a mile behind the more familiar alpine peaks of Western Europe. But the lack of the size of the mountains is compensated by the availability. Erupting straight out of 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 spend time outdoors.

Before Covid, this became a problem. Lake Bled, located on the eastern edge of the ridge, with the Instagram-friendly Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos perched on a teardrop island, has become a permanent destination for hurricane bus tours. And the upper valleys rose. “When I last climbed Mount Triglav, someone was selling beer at the top,” Clemen Langus, Tourism Director of Bohinj Municipality, told me.

A couple of years ago, local tourism boards jointly came up with a solution: a new 167-mile hiking trail that spans the entire massif and never exceeds 4,350 feet. They hoped it would act as a pressure valve, enticing visitors to descend to the ground. “There is a proverb in Slovenia that you have to climb Triglav once in your life to prove that you are Slovenian,” said Mr. Langus. “This trail should help us erase this saying.”

The Julian Trail, as the new route was called, was opened at the end of 2019. I originally planned to visit next May. But by then, the Covid threat had closed Slovenia’s borders, and while the country’s initial experience with the pandemic was relatively benign, the winter surge hit long and hard. Only in July of this year, photographer Markus Westberg and I finally took our first steps on Julian, leaving the village of Begunje under a cloudless sky.

The plan was to travel east-west along the southern edge of the massif. The route is divided into 16 stages of different lengths and inclines, some of which are short and flat, others are wavy along the foothill passes. The route runs from city to city, which means that you can spend every night in a comfortable hotel; The Juliana Trail Reservation Service can clarify the details.

Since we only had a week to walk the trail, the reservation service arranged for us a route of our choice, from the popular lakes to the southern valleys, which most foreign visitors overlook. (We passed stages 4, 7, 10, 13 and 14.) An extensive public transport system allowed us to skip sections along the way.

The opening days – from Begunje to Bled and then in the vicinity of Lake Bohinj – served as a gentle introduction.

Basically, they gave the opportunity to enjoy vignettes of a country experiencing the pain of reanimation. As the number of new daily cases of Covid dropped to double digits, Slovenia experienced a collective exhalation. The restaurants were packed. The lake shores were buzzing. In the old square of Radovlitsa, the city that marked the middle of our first day of walking, cyclists sipped an espresso in an outdoor cafe. A couple of musicians sang a melodic folk anthem while the audience in their 70s sang and swayed.

On the third morning, we boarded an early train along the Bohinj Railway, which broke through the ridges south of the lake, carving out two stages of the journey. To celebrate the fact that the day hike was more severe, we hired a guide. When the cars, painted with graffiti, drove up to the station near the village of Grahovo, Jan Valentinčić was waiting for us on the platform. He made his way to the Stage 10 trail, through dewy pastures, then into a beech forest, where the trail was marked with yellow markers and, more often, orange stencils – J and A within intersecting diamonds. on trees and boulders.

For 32-year-old Mr. Valentinchich, bearded, with long brown hair and an off-center nose that accentuated his rough face, it was easy. For the past seven years, he has worked as a tour guide abroad, leading ski tours in the Caucasus and hiking in the Tien Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan. He grew up on the hills that the train passed by, and his itinerant lifestyle illustrates the region’s history of depopulation: According to the World Bank, the proportion of Slovenes living in cities has doubled to 55 percent since 1960. In the forest, hints of human presence — a moss-covered stone wall, a tree growing on the roof of an old barn — betrayed the sites of long-abandoned farms. Although part of the day’s trek was on road traffic, I don’t remember seeing a single car.

The pandemic and the appearance of a young son have brought Mr. Valentinčić home. According to him, he dreamed of creating a guest house on the escarpment where he grew up – a haven for visitors who wanted to escape the relative hustle and bustle of the lake shores. “The residents of the city want to sit and do nothing, enjoy the silence,” he said. As someone who rarely left London for over a year, I understood this opinion too well.

At 14:00 in extreme heat, the trail ended over a wide valley dotted with terracotta roofs of two neighboring cities, Mosta-na-Sochi and Tolmina. A river flowed along the base of the valley and cut through it: the Soka, which was hampered by the dam downstream.

At this point, we really need to talk about water. The bedrock in Slovenia consists mainly of Early Triassic limestones. When sunlight hits a river carrying white crystals of limestone in suspension, the water becomes dazzling and iridescent, its spectrum ranging from transparent green to deep azure blue. Sometimes the color of the Soka River and its tributaries is so unnaturally luxurious that it is tempting to imagine some insidious PR man hiding upstream, licking the headwaters with a chemical dye.

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This interaction of water and calcium carbonate reached its climax on the hillsides above Tolmin. Some of the most impressive sights were the freestanding rides. In the Tolminsky Gorge, a network of stairs, balconies and bridges opened up a view of the ravine system from every conceivable angle. Turquoise streams seethed between the steep cliffs. Ferns in Hart’s tongue scattered in great numbers on the walls. It was dizzying to present these canyons and cascades as previews of even grander erosional wonders underground. The longest discovered cave system in Slovenia, Tolminski Migovec, penetrated the surrounding karst for a total of 141,000 feet. On the way from Grahovo, Mr. Valentinčić described the mountains as “mostly hollow”.

For the locals, such dizziness from imagination did not rid them. Everyone seemed to agree that the best way to experience this landscape is to throw yourself into it. After a half-hour bus ride from Tolmin to Kobarid, the next major upriver settlement, we visited the nearby Koziak Falls, where a thin cataract burst through a crevasse into a stratified chamber. Without warning, a figure in a helmet and suit of red neoprene emerged at its head. Seconds later, the rope unwound up the sheer cliff and several canyonists descended the ledge and then jumped off and fell 20 feet into the pool below.

This was not the only time that a national disposition for courage made me feel lazy. Since then, when the trail crossed the seething Soča, we often saw rafts and kayaks jumping over the rapids. During the walk, it was rare to look up without seeing two or three paragliders reaching for the ground from some distant ridge.

For me, at least, the quieter pace of the Julian Trail adventure seemed perfectly in tune with the moment. After months of immobility, a slow, multi-day walk seemed like the perfect way to immerse yourself in the world again. The length of the stages – usually seven to 12 miles – allowed us to procrastinate, pause, and soak up the sounds and landscapes of a foreign countryside. In the 13th stage, the long stroke that Soka crossed, we took our time.

In retrospect, it was a choice of legs. We set off that day at 6 o’clock in the morning. Cloud belts, remnants of a past night thunderstorm, still clung to the ridge lines. Condensation in the form of drops on the leaf and cobwebs. Viviparous lizards basked on tropical rocks.

As the temperature rose, so did the scenery. As a reward for the ascents, views of the blue-green ribbon of the river opened up. The descents were a relief, since we could usually go down to the water and dip our hands in the stream to cool off. During the day, we often shared pebble braids with other campers spread out on towels, often with a packet of beer cooled in water, the presence of which preceded the approach to each village.

Other claims of the Soka Valley to fame were combined in the famous phrase of Frederick Henry, the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s novel “Farewell to Arms”: “I was blown up while we ate cheese.”

Local cheese, frankly, I could take or leave. In Kobarid, we tasted its characteristic floral aroma at a frika dinner, a traditional peasant meal of fried potatoes and cheese hash. The surprise of the young waitress taking our order should have warned us that eating it – two bites of unctuous pleasure accompanied by the slow suspicion that your arteries are clogging – will require more stamina than I could muster.

But the echoes of the Hemingway bombings were more indelible. The story was told by the sobering museum of Kobarid. In May 1915, initially proclaiming neutrality in World War I, Italy dispatched soldiers to these mountains to recapture the contested border regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the Central Powers deployed to halt the Italian advance, both sides dug in. As a result, the Isonzo Front witnessed months of futile bloodshed to rival the more documented horrors of Flanders. During the eleventh offensive in the summer of 1917 alone, five million shells exploded across the front line. More than 250,000 soldiers were killed.

As we moved towards the western shores of the Juliana, towards the town of Bovec and the modern Italian border, the ghosts of this so-called White War haunted the valleys. The path skirted concrete trenches covered with moss and passed through a military tunnel, where eight-inch holes showed the positions of machine-gun firing points.

That I found these relics so incompatible may have been the result of my Anglocentric education. But I also wondered if it owed the seclusion and extraordinary beauty that Hemingway, whose time was a volunteer Red Cross ambulance driver, inspired his 1929 novel, described as a “picturesque front.”

On a magnificent forest trail above Bovec, at the beginning of the 14th stage, we found a rusty helmet on a boulder. How a century ago, his master was separated from him, remained only to the imagination.

Later that day we went up the road to the quiet village of Log near Mangart. Behind him, high peaks formed an amphitheater surrounded by the bare fangs of Mangart and Yalovets, two of the most imposing mountains in the Julian Alps.

Part of me regretted the distance. It was illogical to spend time in a mountainous country without succumbing to the temptations of its upper reaches. But I also appreciated that this was part of the charm of the Juliana Trail and its rationale. At this turning point for tourism, it was a landmark for travelers who needed to value less. Less rush. Less mileage. Less height. Tomorrow we will leave the mountains from this respectful distance. A respectful goodbye corresponding to a trial revival.

Henry Wismate is a London-based writer. Find it on Twitter: @henrywismayer

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