A new hiking trail through the Julian Alps in Slovenia offers lake and valley fun instead of peaks. This is a worthwhile trade-off.
The 13th stage of the Juliana Trail in Slovenia crosses the Soka River. Image source... Marcus Westberg for The New York Times
On a recent afternoon, the scenery seen from the east shore of Lake Bohinj in Slovenia is a portrayal of the summer leisure in the Alps. On three sides, the gray peaks of the Julian Alps are hazy and indifferent under the scorching sun. Rowing boats and rowing fleets rowed across the water. The lake stretched out like a polished jade.
This view represents a basic fact of this region in northwestern Slovenia: it provides a panoramic view that is not proportional to its physical size. Based on only important statistics, first-time visitors may be forgiven for anticipating a small mountain range. The Julian Alps are a compact oval limestone joint with an area comparable to Rhode Island; their apex, Triglav, is 9,396 feet above sea level, one mile from the more familiar Alpine peaks in Western Europe. But the lack of scale of the mountains, they make up for the accessibility. The area erupts from the lowlands and is only 35 miles from Ljubljana, the capital and largest city of Slovenia. It is best viewed as an adventure park for a country that loves outdoor activities.
Before Covid, this had started to be a problem. On the eastern outskirts of the mountain range, Lake Bled and the Instagram-friendly Church of the Assumption sit on its Teardrop Island, which has become a frequent visitor to cyclone bus tours. The upper valley is undulating. "The last time I climbed Triglav Mountain, there were people selling beer on the top of the mountain," Clemens Langus, director of the Bohinj Tourism Office, told me.
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A few years ago, the local tourism bureau worked together to develop a solution: a new 167-mile walking route that surrounds the entire plot and does not exceed 4,350 feet in height. They hope it can be used as a pressure valve to attract tourists to lower places. "There is a saying in Slovenia that you must climb Triglav once in your life to prove that you are a Slovenian," Mr. Langes said. "This clue is to help us erase this sentence."
The Juliana Trail, this new route, opened at the end of 2019. I originally planned to visit in May of the following year. But by then, the threat of the new crown virus has closed the borders of Slovenia. Although the country’s initial experience of the pandemic was relatively mild, the surge in winter has been long and difficult. It wasn't until July this year that photographer Marcus Westberg and I finally took the first step on Juliana, starting from Begunje village under a cloudless sky.
The plan is to travel from east to west along the southern edge of the plot. The trail is divided into 16 stages of different lengths and slopes, some are short and flat, and some are undulating on the footpath. The trail runs from town to town, which means you can spend every night in a comfortable hotel; Juliana Trail reservation service can arrange detailed information.
Since we only have one week to experience the trail, the booking service arranged a mixed itinerary for us, starting from the popular lake area and finally reaching the southern valley that most foreign tourists overlook. (We walked through stages 4, 7, 10, 13, and 14.) The extensive public transportation system allows us to skip sections along the way.
The opening day-from Begunje to Bled and then around Bohinj Lake-served as a gentle introduction.
In most cases, they provide an opportunity to appreciate a national episode in the throes of recovery. With new daily Covid cases falling to double digits, Slovenia is respite. The restaurant is full. The lakeshore was full of voices. In the old square of Radovljica, this small town marks the midpoint of our first day's walk, where cyclists sip espresso in outdoor cafes. A pair of musicians sang beautifully melodic folk songs, and a group of 70-year-old audience swayed with the singing.
On the third morning, we caught the early train along the Boxing Railway, which cuts off two trails through the ridgeline of Hunan. To commemorate the fact that the hike on the day will be stricter, we recruited a guide. Jan Valenticic was waiting for us on the platform when the graffiti-filled carriages on the train entered the station in the village of Grahovo. He led the way into the 10th stage track, over the dewy pastures, and then into the beech forest, where the trails are delineated by yellow road signs, and more commonly orange symbols-"J" and "A" inside interlocking diamonds- Template onto trees and boulders.
This is easy for Mr. Valenticic, who is 32 years old, with a beard, long brown hair, and eccentric nose that complement his rugged face. For the past seven years, he has been working as a tour guide abroad, leading ski trips in the Caucasus and trekking in the Tianshan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan. He grew up in the mountains where trains bypassed, and his wandering lifestyle reflects the region’s history of depopulation: According to the World Bank, the proportion of Slovenians living in cities has doubled since 1960 to 55%. In the forest, signs of human presence—some mossy quilted stone walls, a tree sprouting from the roof of an old hay barn—exposed the remains of a long-abandoned farm. Although I stayed on a drivable road for part of the hike that day, I don't remember seeing a car.
The pandemic and the arrival of the youngest son brought Mr. Valentic home. He told me that he dreamed of establishing a host family on the cliff where he grew up-a sanctuary for tourists who want to avoid the relative hustle and bustle of the lake. "People in the city want to sit down, do nothing, and enjoy silence," he said. As a person who has rarely left London for more than a year, I understand this sentiment too well.
At 2 pm, in the sweltering heat, the trail peaked above a wide valley, dotted with the terracotta roofs of two neighboring towns, Most na Soci and Tolmin. The river winding at the bottom of the valley is the river that carved it: the Soka River, whose passage was made heavy by a dam downstream.
At this time we really have to talk about water. The bedrock of Slovenia is mainly Early Triassic limestone. When sunlight shines on a river with suspended white limestone crystals, the water turns into a dazzling rainbow color with a spectrum ranging from clear green to deep blue. Sometimes the colors of the Soka River and its tributaries are so rich that it is easy to imagine a sinister publicist hiding upstream and watering the source with chemical dyes.
This interaction between water and calcium carbonate culminates on the hillside above Tolmin. Some of the most impressive sights are standalone sights. In Tolmin Canyon, a network of stairs, balconies, and bridges provides views of the canyon system from every imaginable angle. Turquoise streams bubbling between steep cliffs. Hart's tongue fern overflowed the wall. It is dazzling to see these canyons and waterfalls as a rehearsal of more magnificent erosion miracles underground. Tolminski Migovec, the longest cave system discovered in Slovenia, honeycombed the surrounding karsts, with a total height of 141,000 feet. On the walk from Grahovo, Valenticic described these mountains as "essentially hollow."
For the locals, this imaginative dizziness has not diminished. The consensus seems to be that the best way to experience this landscape is to immerse yourself in it. After a half-hour bus ride from Tolmin to Kobarid, the next major settlement upstream, we visited the nearby Kozjak waterfall, where elongated cataracts rushed through the cracks Into the layered rock room. Without warning, a figure appeared on its head, wearing a helmet and a red neoprene suit. A few seconds later, a rope untied from the cliff, a series of canyons descended onto a ledge, and then jumped into a 20-foot-deep pool.
This is not the only national tendency that makes me feel lazy. Since then, when the trail separates from the bubbling Soka, we often see rafts and kayaks bouncing on the swift river. During the entire walking process, it is rare to see two or three paragliders spirally moving from a distant ridge to the ground.
At least to me, the steady pace of adventure on the Juliana Trail seems to fit the situation exactly. After months of inactivity, the slow pace of multi-day walking feels like an ideal way to reconnect with the wider world. The length of the stage—usually between 7 and 12 miles—allows us time to wander, pause, and absorb the sounds and scenery of foreign countryside. In the 13th stage, the long kicks crisscrossed on Soca, we take it slowly.
In hindsight, this was picky about the legs. At 6 o'clock that morning, we set off the cloud belt, and the remnants of the thunderstorm the previous night were still clinging to the ridge. Condensation beads on leaves and spider webs. Viviparous lizards appeared on the roadside stones to keep warm.
As the temperature rises, the scenery also rises. The view of the blue-green ribbon up the river is very nice. Descent brings relief, because we can usually slam the jungle to the water's edge and dip our hands in the rapids to cool down. In the afternoon, we often find ourselves sharing pebbles spitting with other holidaymakers, spreading out on towels, usually with a bag of beer cooled in the water, their presence is a prelude to our entry into each village.
Soca Valley’s other fame came from a famous quote by Frederick Henry, the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s novel "Farewell to Weapons": "I was blown up while eating cheese."
Local cheese, honestly, I can accept it or leave. In Kobarid, we tasted its unique floral fragrance at the "frika" lunch, a traditional farm meal that includes potato chips and cheese hash. The surprise of the young waitress who accepted our order should warn us in advance that eating it — the pleasure of two bites of greasy, and then slowly worrying that your arteries are clogging — requires more stamina than mine.
But the echo of Hemingway's explosion is even more indelible. Kobarid's thought-provoking museum tells this story. In May 1915, initially declared neutral during the First World War, Italy sent soldiers into these mountains to retake the disputed border area from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. When the Allies deployed troops to thwart Italy’s offensive, both sides dig deep. The resulting Isonzo Front will witness months of futile bloodshed to contend with the well-documented Flanders horror. In the 11th offensive in the summer of 1917 alone, 5 million shells detonated through the line of defense. More than 250,000 soldiers died.
As we entered the western part of the Juliana River, towards the town of Bovec and today's Italian border, the ghosts of this so-called white war haunt the valley. The path bypassed concrete trenches cultivated by moss and passed through a military tunnel, where an eight-inch hole showed the location of the machine gun turret.
I found that these relics are so out of place, maybe it is the product of my British-centered education. But I also want to know if this is due to Hemingway's seclusion and unusual beauty. His volunteer service as a Red Cross ambulance driver inspired his 1929 novel, which was described as a "picturesque frontline."
Earlier in Phase 14, on the gorgeous woodland trail above Bovec, we found a rusty helmet on a boulder. It is left to imagination how its owner separated from it a century ago.
Later that day, we climbed the road leading to the peaceful village of Log pod Mangartom. Behind it, the towering peaks form an amphitheater, surrounded by the bare fangs of Mangart and Jalovec, the two most majestic peaks in the Julian Alps.
Part of me regretted the distance. It feels counterintuitive to spend time in the mountains without succumbing to the temptation of upstream. But I also appreciate that this is part of the charm of the Juliana Trail, as well as its basic principle. At this watershed moment in the tourism industry, here is a weather vane for the tourist, who need to appreciate less value. Less rush. The mileage is low. The altitude is low. Tomorrow, we will leave the mountains from this respectful distance. A respectful farewell to accommodate the tentative rebirth.
Henry Wismayer is a writer living in London. Find him on Twitter: @henrywismayer.
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