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Cycling Slovenia – along with the Burja

The view was spectacular, peaks spreading out around me and sloping down into the Trenta valley from which I’d climbed. Triglav, literally “three-headed”, the dominating apex of the Julian Alps and national symbol of Slovenia, sat shrouded in cloud, rising above the serrated ridges surrendering below. Here, tucked away in the northwest of Slovenia, all would seem wondrous and serene. Except for the cold, the bone-rattling cold.

I was standing at Vrsic, the highest mountain pass of Slovenia, having cycled for one and half gruelling hours to the summit. As I’d continued up, every one of the 26 pinecone stained hairpins gnawed at my muscles and sucked at my willpower. I’d been driven on by the wonder of the mountains, the breathless power of nature and my visions of the summit and with it the opportunity to relax and admire it all, a just reward for my arduous journey up the side of the mountain. Sadly, I’d deluded myself. The Alps were majestic and the liberation of nature unfettering, but the wind was forbidding and relentless.

Protected by the mountain on my ascent, I was warmed by exertion and pride, but in the unbridled gusts of the Burja, I felt naked and weak. Struggling to enjoy the scenery, I wanted to descend, and quickly. But this was worse; my fingers were frozen to my creaking brakes, the cobbled serpentine road sent me bouncing awkwardly around the turns. The flakes of snow jabbed like shards of glass.

As I descended towards Kranska Gora, an alpine town dating back to the 14th century, warmth slowly trickled through to my extremities. My core was still chilled and my face burning from the biting wind, but I was able to appreciate the scenery once again without discomfort searing through my body. Situated at about 1150m is the Ruska Kapelica, a small wooden chapel built in memory of Russian prisoners of war swamped by an avalanche. During World War One, great numbers of prisoners had been transported to the region to cut a road through the limestone Alps, thousands dying in the treacherous climate, through starvation and exhaustion. The mountains can be unforgiving.

Indeed, the whole area around the Julian Alps is steeped in tragedy and marked by battle. Numerous cemeteries honour soldiers lost to conflict, particularly during WW1. The region itself is where Ernest Hemingway set “A Farewell to Arms”, based on his experience of the front line. The Soca Valley leading up to the western Alps was the location of some of the most brutal and decisive military encounters between the Germans and Italians, with over a million soldiers losing their lives within this most dramatic and frightening terrain. It was here, at the small, idyllically located town of Kobarid, that the Germans used “Blitzkrieg” to wipe out the enemy trenches and front line and advance on the Italians. Although the brooding, menacing presence of the Alps rise so dramatically from the earth, it’s impossible to imagine the fear and agony that so many young men had forced upon them, in a place of such stunning beauty as the Soca Valley. Stunning but hostile, and swept by the Burja.

I’d started my trip five days previously at Trieste airport, cycling down alongside the glistening Adriatic towards to the port city itself. From here I’d left the coastline and hauled myself up to the Karst in western Slovenia. At Sesana, the border town, I’d met an off-duty policeman who, coincidentally, also happened to be a keen cyclist. As he enthused over my trip and eulogised about Slovenia, I noticed his tone change. “It alls sounds good” he concurred, his blue eyes fixed on mine, “but watch out for the Burja.” I frowned and continued staring back, waiting for him to explain.

“The wind. It comes south, straight from the Alps and into the valleys. At this time of year it starts to pick up. It’s cold…sometimes really cold!”, he seemed to be pausing for effect, almost enjoying the drama. Then he read my expression and sensed my pupils widening. Real Police. “I wouldn’t worry though, its only autumn. Slovenia is beautiful. Good luck!” I thought back to my phrasebook. “Hvala”. “Prosim”. He smiled and patted me firmly on my shoulder, then disappeared into a café, perhaps waiting for the next daft cyclist before he started his shift.

I felt nervous, unexpectedly confronted by this well-meaning messenger of doom. Gone was the warming, southern front from the Mediterranean. I was cycling into the Burja. Already my lungs had been popping just climbing out of Trieste, and now this. Perhaps I was over-estimating my stamina and fitness, dicing with mountains and geography unfamiliar in England. But this is what had brought me here; the Alpine monoliths, the rolling valleys and, most importantly, the joy of the unknown.

The Karst sits inland from the sea, a plateau of gentle rolling hills, vineyards and medieval villages. Mountains to the west, naturally separating Slovenia from Italy, and the high Nanos, a muscular and dominating presence looming over the whole region, flank it on either side. The plateau is a geological marvel. Its limestone foundation, worn and eroded by water and time, has swallowed rivers. It is unlike any other on earth.

Amongst the many wonders are the Skocjan caves, an incredible underground monument to the power of water. Throughout the eleven interconnected caves and dolines, corroded under the force of the Reka River, lie a startling variety of rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites all carved and sculpted over millions of years. The river which travels for 35 miles, eventually spilling out into the Adriatic sea in Italy, falls over a series of cascades and waterfalls, tumbling over rocks and plunging into lakes and pools. The “silent cave”, also nicknamed “paradise” by the doting guides, opens up as visitors wonder at their first sightings of this magical underworld. Sloping down, further from the surface, is the stunning “great hall”, housing majestic configurations springing from both above and below. As the hall unfurls, so does the hushing echo of the Reka River sweeping through the final “murmuring” canyon. During my visit the river was diminutive, shrunken by the dry weather, but its voice still hummed through the still air.

Our guide pointed out the largest stalagmite in the world, affectionately known as “beauty and the beast”. It is a 50m monster, a lumpen, layered mass of limestone bloated over time and grotesque in shape. On one side the rock appears white and pure, the other darkened and red, the differences caused by the concentration of minerals and chemicals in the rainwater. The cave complex is carefully managed and less busy than the other main network in Slovenia, the Postojna caves nearer Ljubljana. Throughout, the guides show great affection for the wonders below, enthusing visitors with their knowledge and understanding of this incredible UNESCO attraction.

As I left Skocjan, the Burja was sweeping south in fits and starts. It seems many of these cave networks found throughout the Karst have been inhabited for over 10000 years and were major sites of pilgrimage 3000 years ago, the caves providing paganism with portals to spirits and the divine. Riding north from Skocjan up towards the Soca valley, trees buckled and vineyards rustled as the winds hisses through. The sun was gleaming and the headwind made me hot. It is easy to understand the importance of these caves, preserving man from the fitful nature of the elements and I’m tempted to find shelter myself.

As I continued, past the orchards and wineries nurtured by the fertile limestone Karst, I found shelter, although the wind had relented in the late afternoon. Throughout the Karst I was greeted by a constant series of spires, each proudly standing out amongst the undulating hills, marking the pretty rural villages lining the valley.

Strikingly situated and rising above all others, however, is the arresting walled village of Stanjel, a medieval village dating back to the Iron Age. Its fortifying limestone walls were erected in the 15th century to protect the village from Turkish invaders, contributing to its unique and picturesque character. Like much of the area, Stanjel was badly damaged in World War two although it came off lighter than many villages. Indeed, a number were razed to the ground by revenge German attacks, the inhabitants carted off to concentration camps as punishment for their resistance. Stanjel feels like working museum, its architecture and rustic atmosphere sucking you back to the past. I
t was here I could shelter from the wind, protected by the limestone that supports the whole region and defies time.

Having camped near Nova Gorica, waking up to a damp and dewy morning, I headed up through Goriska Brda, a region hugging the Italian border, towards the Soca Valley. The area is notable for its wine and it seemed every village was blanketed with the sugary, pungent smell of rotting grapes. The landscape is hilly, one downhill twisting away into another incline. It’s incredibly scenic, vineyards staggering down hills and old belching tractors tugging wooden carts loaded up with fruit. Ascending a final climb over the ridge towards the Soci River, a panorama of wooded hills and red tile villages lay out before me. It was quiet and peaceful, tucked away next to the Italian border and forgotten.

I’d previously had a brief glimpse of the Soci River at Nova Gorica and was struck by its magnificent, opaque blue. Its colour seemed improbable, as though dyed by jewels further up stream. But I guess in a sense it is, the jewels being the springs and purity of the Alpine range. Descending down towards the valley its colour seemed less milky but just as beautiful. Dotted along the valley, enclosed by two steep mountains either side, were quaint bridged towns leaning over its banks. Up ahead, looming in the distance were the Alps, an intimidating presence reminding me of my destination. I was both scared and overjoyed, the joy of unbridled nature countered by their unpredictability and strength.

On, up past Tolmin and Kobarid, I continued, bathed by sunshine and the still air. At moments like this, cycling is bliss. It’s possible to meditate in the rhythm of your body, muscles pushing and pulling, mind calm, thoughts flowing between mind, body and environment. Hearing the cadence of breath and the whirring uniformity of my bike, it feels as though life makes sense, man and nature locking together. People often seem detached from the environment, afraid, uninterested or hidden from its charms. But why do people want more than these simplicities; a valley covered in fields, alpine flora, dramatic peaks and sun. Everything was perfect, and no one was there to share it with me. To be alone or together? To be single or shared? But I guess I wasn’t alone. Always, in my ear, the Burja was whispering. Sometimes just as quiet wisps of affection floating past, then as a growing roar licking down the mountains and engulfing my toiling body. It is for these moments of contemplation and abstraction, union and awe, that I find pleasure hauling myself up mountains and into chilling headwinds. It amplifies the pleasure of travel and exploration knowing that I achieved everything by myself, by nature and physicality. It makes me feel more alive and deserving.

Slovenia appears to be one of the less high-profile tourist destinations of modern Europe. Without the press infatuation of Croatia, the rustic drag of Hungary or the history of Italy, it almost anonymously meanders along without impinging on the consciousness of many travellers. Yet it is a land of striking variation and beauty. It has beautiful towns and cities, the soaring peaks of the Alps, the wine valleys of the west and the serene sanctuaries of lakes Bled and Bohinj. Situated at the south of the mountain range, it was at these I sought respite from the cycling. The lakes are around 20 miles apart and separated by a steep and pretty alpine road through forests and luscious pastures.

The lakes compliment each other perfectly, equally beautiful in setting but wildly different in character. Formed over 14,000 years ago when a retreating glacier left a basin flooded by water, Bled has developed into a prime tourist centre popular with both Slovenes and foreigners (the old Austro-Hungarian leaders were particularly taken by it). As I arrived at the lake, the sun was beginning to set over the lake, throwing a golden blanket over the snow-capped mountains lining the Austrian border. A faint breeze washed over the water, twinkling as it caught the last remains of the slowly disappearing light. It felt like a haven after the brutal beauty in the Alps. Peering over the northern shore sits Bled castle, keeping an eye on the church in the middle of the lake, itself surrounded by reddening leaves and preening ducks. Everything is idyllic and quaint, and ripe for tourists.

For me, the real beauty of Lake Bled lies away from the water and in the undisturbed villages further from the shore. Fields and pastures headed by trellises and bordered by hedges stretch away towards the mountains. Picturesque orchards lie in the fracturing sun, old tractors trundle through fields and inhabitants make repairs in preparation for the snowfall of winter. It’s satisfying to see old villages full of life and activity, not killed by urbanisation and second-home buying. Indeed, with a location so dramatic, who would want to leave?

Through these villages I cycled before hitting the mountains once more as I headed to Bohinj. Arriving at Bohinj, exhausted after another climb, I was struck by its rawness. Pure nature. Mountains tumbling into mirror-like water totally enclosed and protected from the outer world. Whereas Bled feels genteel and charming, submissively conquered by man, Bohinj is less acquiescent. It still feels primal and bullish. Reflecting the moon and stars in the starriest of skies, it took me to a place I often lose, back to some misty eyed naivety at the beauty of the universe, like a Jungian transcendence.

As I left the Alps to cycle to Ljubljana, over another mountain, into torrential rain and yet another enveloping valley, I could feel the bite of the Burja nibble at my back. Finally, she was on my side as I pedalled south and away from her heart. I wasn’t sad, that’s for sure, at leaving behind her gusting chill, but to say goodbye to Bohinj and the Alps was hard. Already I was making promises to return, ones I will most likely break. Such unadulterated beauty leaves a deep impression, both visually and spiritually. Mountains and lakes take people to a romantic part of the soul often trapped and lost in cities.

As both a tourist and cycling destination, Slovenia offers a wonderful landscape, both forbidding and amiable. It isn’t all mountains, yet it is rarely flat. It has friendly people and, in comparison to other European destinations, is reasonably priced. It will be difficult to forget the drama and beauty, and most of all, my dear Burja.

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