Over the past few years, I’ve been less drawn to newness. Good thing for my marriage, less so for travel. In my 20s, I was a country collector, always seeking the shiny and the new. In my 30s, I’ve realized that new experiences don’t have to come in new country codes, and more and more I’ve been drawn back to old favourites. Thankfully there are people like my in-laws to invite us on trips far off our radar, because otherwise we never would have discovered the magic that is Slovenia.
Over a week last summer, we explored, hiked, toured and ate our way through this undiscovered mountain delight north of Croatia and south of Austria.
We set up camp in a chalet in Bled, the so-picturesque-it’s-got-a-tiny-castle town, but while we always kicked off our mornings with pastries from the local shops and capped our evenings with the local restaurants (where my MIL tried an Indian thali for the first time, thank you globalization!) for the most part we hopped in our cars to explore the country. Here are a few highlights.
The Vintgar Gorge is a must visit. Close to Bled, the canyon's walls have been adorned with narrow footpaths, and the water is so clear and green it begs to be Instagrammed. In short, it's a tourist magnet. But it's a tourist magnet for a reason. We made a day of it by renting bikes, as a guidebook said there was an easy, protected bike path to the gorge. That guidebook was clearly out of date, because the bike path was under construction, forcing us to take the roads. The narrow, busy, car-filled roads that lacked shoulders, sidewalks and signage. On rental bikes with deflated tires, seats that wouldn't stay up, and with parents that hadn't been on bikes in years. It was harrowing. I bailed while looking over my shoulder, and ended up walking the bike when the stress got to be too much. Thankfully, the gorge was beautiful, and a huge bonus of tourist magnets is concessions with well-deserved ice cream.
Our primary mission while in Slovenia was to hike, and our first attempt was Crna Prst. The most eastern summit of the Southern Bohinj range, we started from Bohinj (where we guessed at where to park, bushwalked our way through a "path," and crossed a pile of freshly felled logs (that would soon become a mountain of freshly felled longs) before finding any markers. We wound up our way up through forest, across alpine meadows, and to the Oroznova Kota hut. That hut, feet up and beer in hand, is where Mat fell in love with hiking rifugios as much as I had in Italy.
Satiated, we carried on along the path through the meadow, up past the treeline, and to the ridge of the mountain range. At this point, the wind, fog and threat of rain (or worse) rolled in, so we checked out the hut, skipped the summit (because what's a summit without a view) and headed back down the slope.
The next hike we tackled was Vogel. It's one of those lovely ones where you take a cable car up to decent elevation before starting the hike. My in-laws hiked downwards, and we hiked upwards, though looking back the descent might have been the hardest part. From the cable car, you can take another chair lift further up, or, like us, feel holier than thou as you huff and puff your way up the ski slopes. From the top of the lift, you head across a ridge that gets increasingly steep and shakier with skree. This seems typical for the region, as there's a bit of a blend between hiking and mountaineering, with iron posts and steel ropes that dot the slopes. After the ropes and across the ridge, it's a quick summit to the top of Vogel, where once again the fog had rolled in and blocked most views. We could tell we were high since free range mountain goats came up to hungrily lick the salt off our sweaty legs.
For our last hike, we went to the top. Starting from Vrsic Pass, the highest mountain pass in Slovenia, you have a choice of three routes. Two mountaineering, one "hiking", all connecting to Prisojnik. Without the right equipment for anything but, we chose hiking and set off on switchbacks through forest close to the pass. Soon enough, we emerged from the forest and saw the trail crossing scree slopes, and turning into tighter switchbacks up a loose skree canyon.
Now, I can generally handle any steepness on solid ground, but when the ground is moving beneath my feet, I freak out. It was not a fun scramble up. I sat on my butt. I used my hands. I breathed through it. (And all the while, we're getting passed by Slovenian dads with babies in backpacks.) We eventually made our way out of the 'canyon', and onto the ridge. At that point we discovered rock climbers helping belay their friends up the other side, so I felt better about my state. From there, we traversed the slope and continued up the ridge to take in the view of all the other mountains waiting to be discovered (for those with solid feet or solid equipment.) We headed back down, with a newfound appreciation for the firm trails of the Pacific Northwest.
After all the hiking, we also ate our faces off (justifiably). Bled's restaurants were surprisingly diverse, and Ljubljana's Open Kitchen Food Market put any food truck festival I've been to in New York or Portland to shame. Mat still talks about the porchetta sandwich. From your mountains to your meats, Slovenia, we'll be back.