Tina phoned us at the hotel the next morning to report that the weather looked reasonably good for an excursion into the Julian Alps — at the moment the sun was shining brilliantly in Bled, and although the day’s forecast was not perfect, that for the next day, our only alternative, was worse. She also asked if we’d mind letting another couple who had phoned that morning join us. Sašo was going to take us, and he could rent a van to accommodate the group. But, since we had made our reservation long before, the choice was up to us. We said yes, and as a result shared the trip with Tanya and Jeff, a pair of young physical therapists from Toronto. Their congenial presence was one of the day’s pleasures.

Sašo's map of our route
Before we set out, Sašo gave us this map, which he marked to show where we’d be going. It covers just about everything we saw or did. One exception is our spontaneous and unplanned visit to Italy, but if you enlarge the map you can see the road we were on, just above the arrow that points to the ski jump. Another arrow, labeled “Lunch,” obscures the name of the town of Bovec, where we ate that meal. For the part of the trip that we took by train, I’ve changed the color to purple. We boarded the train at Most na Soči, nearest to the bottom of the loop (where all you can see of the name is “Mo”), and got off at Bohinjska (abbreviated “Boh”) Bistrica. In case you missed Bled, where the tour began and ended, think of the upper right part of the loop as a bird’s head and you’ll find Bled in the beak.

The bright sunshine began to fade very soon after our van left Bled, heading along an expressway toward the extreme northwest corner of Slovenia about 25 miles away. Shortly after the industrial city of Jesenice, the expressway turned north to enter a five-mile tunnel that runs under the Karavanken Alps and comes out in Austria, but we continued along a smaller road toward the ski resort of Kranjska Gora. As we passed it, Sašo pointed to a relatively small slope with lifts and ski runs, and told us that this was all Kranjska Gora has to offer. The resort is very popular, especially with natives of the British Isles, but Sašo attributed this more to vigorous marketing than to magnificent skiing.

We continued toward the Italian border without pausing, and Sašo, as he was telling us how membership in the E. U. has changed the nature of borders, decided to demonstrate this by paying a spontaneous visit to Italy. We drove a couple of miles farther along the same road, passed through a deserted Slovenian customs station, and a few yards later an equally deserted Italian customs station, and ecco! — we were in Italy. It looked pretty much like Slovenia at that point, with many mountains and few buildings. No people or even cars happened to be in sight at the moment, and we reversed course to repatriate ourselves (or at least to repatriate Sašo; strictly speaking, the rest of us would have had to return to our respective parts of North America to accomplish that). The border had been made completely open only a few months before, in December, 2007, when nine countries in central and eastern Europe joined the E. U. Our entire international expedition had taken less than ten minutes. It made an interesting contrast to our passport control experience at the airport, and helped us understand it.

Where three countries meet
We were at the Italian border, but Austria was very near. Slovenia, Italy, and Austria come together at the top of a mountain only a few kilometers from where we were. On the Austrian side of the mountain is a ski resort named Dreiländereck (‘Three-country Corner’), a label that’s used in German-speaking countries wherever it’s appropriate: for instance, Austria has another one in the Tyrol where its border meets those of Italy and Germany, and there is a very well-known Dreiländereck on the Rhine just north of Basel, where Switzerland, France, and Germany come together. From Planica, where Sašo took us next, we could see the Dreiländereck mountain not far away to the north. A cleared strip ran straight up the side we could see, separating Italy on the left from Slovenia on the right. Austria was on on the far side, but at the peak we could just see the treeless space where the borders meet. Sašo told us that people from the three countries hold a celebration there every September.

Our reason for going to Planica was to see its famous ski jump, where records have been set (and repeatedly broken) — not for the greatest linear distance between takeoff and landing, but for the longest time in the air. As Sašo explained it to us, Planica’s supremacy in this respect is not a matter of the length, steepness, or construction of the jump; it’s due more to prevailing winds and the way these are influenced by the contours of the terrain. Strict regulations govern what jumpers are allowed to wear so that no one can gain an unfair advantage by dressing as a kite.

The Planica valley is the source of the Sava Dolinka, one branch of the River Sava. We had been following the valley of this branch (heading upstream) all the way from Bled. The other branch is the Sava Bohinjska, which, as the name suggests, originates near Lake Bohinj. The two branches come together near Radovljica. Click here for more about the Sava.

Driving up the Sava Dolinka valley, we had been passing to the north of Triglav National Park — named for its centerpiece, the mountain whose name means ‘three peaks.’ Slovenes consider Triglav, the highest mountain in Slovenia (and in the former Yugoslavia as well) their primary national symbol, and have a stylized representation of it on their flag. Unfortunately for us, however, the weather had been deteriorating as we traveled, and we couldn’t see Triglav’s peaks, only its lower slopes.

From Planica, we took the main road back toward Kranjska Gora, where we turned south into the Julian Alps to follow a road up to and over the Vršič Pass. The road was built during World War I to supply an Austrian army fighting an Italian invasion on the southern side of these mountains. Most Americans know little about this part of the war, though readers of A Farewell to Arms may know that Ernest Hemingway took a small part in the campaign as a volunteer ambulance driver for the Italian army, and used his experience as material. But the fighting in these mountains, including the disastrous Italian defeat at Caporetto — all of which Hemingway described in the novel — was over before he arrived on the scene. For an account of this costly struggle, click here.

One of the 50 switchbacks on the military road
The military road over the pass was built during 1915 and 1916 by the forced labor of about 10,000 Russian prisoners of war (or 12,000 by some estimates). Running south from Kranjska Gora, it climbs up the mountains east of Triglav through 24 closely spaced switchbacks, goes over the high Vršič Pass (5,285 ft.), and makes 26 more hairpin turns on the descent. After that, it follows the valley of the Soča down to the town of Bovec (Plezzo to the Italians, who had their headquarters there until their retreat from Caporetto; Flitsch to the Austrians). It’s still an impressive road, but much suffering went into its construction. The prisoners labored under very harsh conditions, and hundreds died of illness and exposure. On March 6, 1916, an avalanche overwhelmed the POW camp, killing something like 300 prisoners as well as some of their guards. The exact number of men who died in that disaster, or in the whole course of road-building, is unknown.

The Russian chapel
Near the place where the last avalanche victim’s body was found, some of the Russian survivors later built a little Orthodox chapel, and a number of bodies brought from other sites were reburied next to it, under a monument. The chapel stands close to the road, so that most travelers can and do stop to visit it. Set back from the road on a forested slope, it is beautifully built entirely of wood — like ancient Russian churches, but in miniature. It was one of the most moving sights we saw on this day. During the Soviet years, Russia may not have taken great interest in such an explicitly religious monument, but if so, official attitudes have changed greatly since then. Sašo told us that Putin had made no fewer than four visits to the chapel. In 1996 the Slovenes officially named the highway “the Russian Road,” in a ceremony involving official representatives of both countries.
Sašo and Tina

When we arrived at the roadside parking place near the chapel, we met Tina. She had driven to Bovec, on the other side of the mountains, for an early morning conference with her academic adviser. Now she was coming back over the Russian Road on her way home, and she and Sašo, in contact by cell phone, had arranged a rendezvous here so that she could say hello. Dorothea took advantage of the opportunity to take a picture of the two of them.

The mountain scenery was grandly impressive, but the low clouds kept us from experiencing it fully. After our brief stop at the chapel, we continued up around the snaking switchbacks toward the Vršič Pass. Just before we got there, we stopped at a mountain hut for tea and coffee. Mountaineering tradition may require that such places be called “huts,” but this was really a small lodge, where hikers can not only get a meal, but (at least in small numbers) find accommodation for the night.

Despite the clouds and cool dampness, this was mid-May, and Alpine flowers of all sorts were growing around the lodge and by the roadside. The Julian Alps are made of limestone, which, being relatively soft, tends to crumble in big chunks. Landslides as well as snow avalanches are common there. But not all the chunks are big, and the limy soil supports many plants found in similar regions all over Europe, not all of which are at high altitudes. (For example, some of the vegetation of the Burren in the west of Ireland, a relatively level limestone plateau at the edge of the Atlantic, also grows — at least so I’ve read — in no place nearer to County Clare than the Dinaric Alps of the Balkan Peninsula, not many miles southeast of where we now were.)

View ahead of us from the Vršič Pass
Only a few minutes from the lodge, we came to the Vršič Pass. The view down the Soča valley ahead of us was impressive, even though we might have seen farther on a clear day. Back in the van, we began negotiating the 26 switchbacks that led us down into the valley. Sašo told us when we were near the source of the Soča, but it’s a tiny spring and not a very interesting sight, so we didn’t stop. After the last of the switchbacks, near the village of Trenta, our road followed the course of the river, which was a brilliant green, with just a touch too much blue to be called emerald. The swift, strong current ran between steep banks, with a turn here or there as the terrain required. It was easy to see how this stretch of country had given the invaders in World War I much bigger problems than it gave the defenders.

A few miles past Trenta, in a village with the same name as the river, we stopped at the church of St. Joseph, notable for the painting of its interior walls and ceiling. This was done in 1944 by an artist named Tone Kralj who had hidden from the Germans in the nearby mountains. Although the church was still under repair for earthquake damage suffered in 1998 and 2004, the scaffolding didn’t hide the aggressively patriotic nature of the decor. The Yugoslav national colors — blue, white, and red (as one reads the flag from top to bottom) — are prominent, and a large painting on the ceiling shows St. Michael the Archangel trampling God’s enemies, in the form of an eagle (for Germany), a wolf (for Italy), and a snake (for Japan). In the Stations of the Cross that line the walls, illustrating the suffering of Christ, Hitler and Mussolini can be glimpsed among the jeering onlookers.

Two cemetaries at St. Joseph's Church, Soča
Immediately in back of the church we saw a cemetery full of lovingly tended graves, many decorated with fresh flowers. In the European style, the gravestones often bear photographs of the people whose memory they represent. Behind this, and separated from it by a low wall, another cemetery occupies a hillside. A single monument there marks a mass grave of Austro-Hungarian soldiers who died in the World War I struggle over the valley. It’s only one of many. The inscription said only “Schwurgetreue (‘faithful to [their] oath’) 1915–1917”: a reference to the oath of allegiance to the Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary (who were the same person) that all the soldiers swore, not only Austrians and Hungarians, but Poles, Ukrainians, Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians, Bosnians, Slovenes, and other ethnicities as well. It was no small empire.

The swift Soča and its valley are famous for “adrenaline” (or as we say in the US, “extreme”) river sports, such as white-water kayaking and rafting, but the dangerous waters are safe only for experts. The town of Bovec, where we stopped to eat lunch, is an internationally known center for these sports. Sašo, who teaches adrenaline sports, loves Bovec and said that he’d like to live there, but that Slovenes seldom move far away from their families, so he probably will never relocate. Besides river sports, he also teaches skiing and ski-boarding, conducts team-building experiences (like Outward Bound in the US) for kids and executives, leads a biking team, and engages in other sports as well.

In Bovec, where we found the climate warm and pleasant, we ate lunch on a roofed porch outside a restaurant Sašo led us to. Its name is Martinov Hram, which I think may mean “Martin’s Inn” or something similar — the only translation I could find for hram in an online dictionary was ‘sanctuary,’ but considering that one English synonym for sanctuary is shelter, it wouldn’t require too great a semantic leap to apply it to a travelers’ lodging. Nowadays, however, Martinov Hram sticks to the food business, and does it very well. Dorothea and I both ordered a Soča valley specialty, a kind of omelet called frika. It always contains eggs and cheese, and often potatoes, but a rich variety of other ingredients are also available. Dorothea’s Bovška Frika (‘Frika of Bovec,’ I’m pretty sure) had potatoes and ham in addition to the eggs and cheese; my Trenta Frika was the same except that it had polenta in place of potatoes. I can’t say whether the geographical names are based on local culinary traditions or creative marketing, but both dishes were thoroughly enjoyed. I drank beer and Dorothea Radenska, and after lunch I ordered a cordial flavored with honey while our fellow tourist Jeff had one that was blueberry based. Then the owner, who knew Sašo well, brought a round of pine-needle-flavored cordials that he made himself. (Home-made cordials are common in Slovenia, especially in the Alpine part. According to one tourism website I looked at, some Slovenian “tourist farms” — i.e., farms that offer B&B accommodations — schedule occasional “schnapps-tasting evenings.”)

For more information about Slovenian cordials, click here.

The Boka waterfall, at its late-spring best
A few kilometers south of Bovec, we paused to look up at the Boka waterfall, which seemed to burst out of the side of a mountain. A trail runs up to it, but we contented ourselves with snapping photos from the roadside, and continued on to the small town that the Italians called Caporetto. This is where their World War I campaign to increase the size of Italy at Austria’s expense suffered a crushing defeat in 1917. An assault by Austrian and German forces pushed them back across the border, almost as far as Venice. “Go to Caporetto” is still a curse in Italy.

In spite of their military disaster, however, the Italians were on the winning side. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was on its last legs by the following summer of 1918, and after beating their weakened forces decisively in Italy, the Italian army marched back, as the war was coming to an end, and occupied much of the territory they had fought for during the previous three years.

In the peace negotiations, however, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson refused to accept the secret treaty in which the Allies had promised Italy, in return for entering the war on their side, a good chunk of what later became Yugoslavia. The Italians got much less new territory than the treaty promised them. Most of what they didn’t get had no significant Italian population, and thus ended up in the new South Slavic kingdom, where — according to Wilsonian principles — it belonged.

So the town we were visiting was no longer named Karfreit, but neither was it Caporetto; today it bears the good Slovene name of Kobarid. The town has several war cemeteries and memorials, but we only had time to visit the museum, whose exhibits were focused equally on the soldiers of both sides, and made no pretense that their struggles and sufferings were a glorious affair.

Here’s another link to further information about the fighting along the Soča, in case you skipped it above and have changed your mind: click here.

It was getting late in the afternoon when we left the museum, and we had a train to catch. Driving all the way back to Bled would have been a toilsome and time-consuming business, requiring us either to climb over the mountains (on a road said to be quite poor in places) or to take an alternative route that would add many miles to the trip. But Slovenske Jeležnice, the national railway system, operates a car train through and under the mountains to Bohinjska Bistrica, near Lake Bohinj. Bled is only about 12 miles from there.

The train starts from Most na Soči, or rather from the railway depot a few miles outside that town, whose name means ‘bridge on the Soča.’ (During World War I, however, it was named after St. Lucia in all three local languages. Marxist ideology may have been responsible for its renaming in 1952.) Most na Soči sits on a high, narrow ridge between the Soča and another river, the Idrijca, that flows into it — a good spot for defense, a bad one for railroads, which presumably explains why the station is so far from the town. During the Isonzo campaign, this was the main supply depot for the Austrian army in the southern part of the Soča valley, and the station is correspondingly large, with several buildings and a very long platform, all of which looked slightly incongruous in their rural isolation. We got there in plenty of time, and found a couple of cars waiting ahead of us. Soon the railway crew directed us up a ramp and onto a flatcar. One more car arrived and was driven onto the train, and that was the full load, though there was plenty of room for more. Trains, often much longer than this one, would be full later in the season, but, between the early date and the heavy weather (it soon began to rain), not many people were making the trip on this particular Monday.

The engine backs past us to the front of the train (i.e., the flatcar at the left)
When we drove up onto the train, the diesel engine was still at the “wrong end,” facing south, away from Bohinj, while our cars were facing north. I thought the engine might be going to run backward, pushing us through the tunnels, but when all the cars were aboard it was uncoupled, switched via a crossover onto a parallel track, and moved past the head of the train to another crossover, where it backed onto the track in front of us and got connected at the right end. We pulled out of the depot on schedule at 6:05.

The railway line followed the twists and turns of a small river called the Bača, passing through many short tunnels (for some reason I think Sašo told us there were 29 in all, though my memory isn’t clear) along the way. When about three quarters of the distance was covered, the line turned away from the river and plunged northward into a single long tunnel that took us, in about ten minutes, under the 4,900-foot mountain Kobla to the end of our journey at Bohinjska Bistrica. The tunnel, not quite four miles long, was dug in the first decade of the 20th century, when the Austrians completed a railway line from Jesenice over the Alps to Trieste. It is said to have been the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s last major engineering project. According to information I found on the Web, the whole line (called the Transalpina) includes 42 tunnels (so it isn’t a crazy idea that 29 of them might be in this part, which is the most mountainous). There are also 60 bridges and 3 “avalanche galleries” — long roofs built over sections of the track to deflect snowslides.

Highly artistic artificial double exposure
Safety, or perhaps just rain, required us to stay inside the car during the trip. I was in the passenger seat next to Sašo, facing forward, and tried snapping a few pictures as we went along, but either the rain or the windshield had an adverse effect on the focus, so none of them turned out well. At one point I inadvertently clicked the shutter and got a picture in which a blurred image of the car in front of us on the train is combined with a reflected image of my hat in my lap. It looks like a double exposure, but it isn’t. I’ve taken several of those in my time, mostly back before cameras required batteries, and never on purpose, but nowadays a double exposure is just too much work.

When we got back to Bled, we asked Sašo to drop us at the Oštarija Preglez’n, the restaurant where we’d eaten on Saturday night. We both feared that if we were dropped off at the Mayer Penzion, we’d be too tired to come back down the hill for dinner. Our meal was delightful. I had tiny Mediterranean squid stuffed with ham and other good things and served in a cheese sauce, and Dorothea had grilled salmon, both dishes including potatoes and greens sautéed together. I drank a half-liter of local white wine, plus some of our shared bottle of Radenska. We split a salad, but agreed that the dessert — chocolate mousse with whipped cream — was much too tempting to divide, so we each ate a whole serving, and very good it was.