2 perfect days in Slovenia – Part 2 – the Julian Alps
Day Two – the Julian Alps
Did you know that the Julian Alps are named after Julius Caesar? Or that they were immortalized in Hemingway’s famous book A Farewell to Arms? This corner of the country, close to the borders with Italy and Austria, is a true paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, but also a hidden gem for military history buffs and foodies.
When touring north-western Slovenia and the Triglav National Park, one option would be to base yourself on the postcard-perfect Lake Bled and take a day-trip from there, or (as we did) to start from Bled in the morning and end the day at one of my favorite small boutique hotels in Slovenia – the Relais & Chateaux hotel Kendov Dvorec. You could also do this as a longer day-trip from Ljubljana – Slovenia’s capital, but this will mean more driving and less time to enjoy what this region has to offer.
After an early start from the Lake Bled and a short drive north, we reached the Vintgar Gorge. Located at the edge of the Triglav National Park, the mile-long canyon has been cut by the Radovna River and features a series of pools and rapids. Following the comfortable trail of wooden boardwalks and bridges makes for a refreshing, easy, and very picturesque morning walk.
The shades of blue and green of the swiftly moving water are amazing! Once you arrive at the entrance, you pay a small fee (currently EUR 4 per person, cash only) and follow the path to the gorge. When you reach the trail’s end and the waterfall, you simply turn back and return to the entrance and the parking lot. Please note that the gorge is closed in the winter months!
Next, heading north-west through, we drove through the green and idyllic countryside and amidst pastures dotted with the distinct Slovenian roofed hay-racks.
Later, we headed for the Vrsic Pass which connects the Sava and Soca valleys and is the highest mountain pass across the Julian Alps in Slovenia. The drive is challenging and the turns to some of the smaller roads easy to miss (and this is why I had my trusted local driver take me around today). The road through the pass includes 50 hairpin bends (each of which is numbered) – 24 going up on the Kranjska Gora side and 26 going down on the Trenta side of the pass, but the breathtaking scenery is so worth it.
The road across the pass was built by Russian POWs during the First World War in order to bring supplies to the front line. Sadly, hundreds of them perished because of the harsh climate, hard living and working conditions, and avalanches. It is still called the Russian Road and a small Russian Orthodox chapel commemorates the victims. This could also be a great starting point for hikes to the surrounding peaks.
Continuing up the winding road, we soon reached bend 24 and the summit of Mt. Triglav (meaning “three heads”) which offers yet more stunning panoramic views. There is a small chalet here offering snacks, drinks, and bathrooms, but it was closed in the off-season.
As we began our descent, we entered the Soca River Valley which was the scene of fierce battles in the First World War but nowadays its wild beauty attracts canoeing, rafting, and canyoning enthusiasts from all over. No wonder it was chosen as the location of Disney’s movie Prince Caspian – the second part of The Chronicles of Narnia series.
A suspension bridge over the fast-moving river makes for a nice little stop to enjoy the thrill of the bounce and the view of the crystal-clear water as it flows through the gorge.
Next on our list was the somber but really interesting and thought-provoking Kobarid Museum. It is located in the small and quaint town of Kobard which is surrounded by mountains and, under its Italian name Caporetto, was described in A Farewell to Arms.
The museum’s exhibits spread over 3 floors include period weapons and military equipment, maps, charts, and photographs, and focus on the historic events in the region during the First World War and particularly on the Soca Front and the Caporetto Battle of 1917 – one of the major clashes in human history having taken place in winter conditions and on mountainous terrain and immortalized by Hemingway who served here as a volunteer ambulance driver. Eventually, the Austro-Hungarian forces, reinforced by German units (including a young officer called Erwin Rommel), won the battle over the Italians with the use of blitzkrieg and poison gas.
For those wishing to explore the historical battle field (and to get some fresh air and exercise), several hiking trails lead from Kobarid along the former defense lines and through trenches, forts, and gun positions, many offering panoramic views over the valley and the surrounding mountains. The trails vary in difficulty level and length (some requiring up to 8 hours and proper mountaineering equipment) and can be done with a museum guide or independently.
Lastly today, en route to Ljubljana, we stopped at the Kendov Dvorec. I have a soft spot for small, historic, boutique properties with a unique identity and a real sense of the destination, and this is exactly what this hotel is. Housed in what used to be a family mansion, it has been part of Relais & Chateaux since 2000. The hotel only has 11 rooms named after former members of the Kenda family. No two rooms are identical as they vary in shape and size and each is individually decorated with 19th-century traditional furniture and handmade Idrija lace.
The focus here is clearly on warm and family-style hospitality, individual attention, and great regional food and wine. The manager and chef both came out to meet us and sat with us for a few minutes to chat over a glass of orange wine.
Contrary to what one may expect, this is not orange-flavored wine or wine made from oranges. It is mainly produced in Italy (called Ribolla), Slovenia (called Rebula), and Georgia, and its distinct amber color and bolder flavor comes from the fact that the mashed grapes are left to ferment together with the skins and seeds for a while before the juice is extracted.
Was this not a perfect day to spend in northwestern Slovenia – great mountain scenery, some hiking, some history, and some local wine at the end. What more could one wish for?!