Petrol heads, bikers, hikers, canoeists and mountain-lovers: DON’T tell anyone about this part of Slovenia!
Every year we travel back from Bratislava to the UK in our lovely camper, Peaches. Here is something for all petrol heads or bikers out there. But still don’t tell anyone else!
San Baronto, Tuscany, Italy.
Mollie is now firm friends with the Belgians across the way. Three little girls, each one dressed entirely in pink, aged 1 ½ , 2 ¾, and 5 works well. The shipping has been put back a day but we still decide to head off today. We are on the road by 9.30 and soon hit the autostrade towards the eastern coast of Italy. Once again I am in awe of the engineering of all these Appenine tunnels and viaducts so high and remote in the mountains. As we come out of one tunnel it looks as if we have hit the top of the range and are actually amongst clouds. It was thirty one degrees when we left this morning but the temperature drops sharply up here. Soon we are over the mountains on a flat agricultural plain and are about twenty-five kilometres from the Adriatic coast. Only the volcanic peaks of Euganei break the monotony of the flatlands.
The service stations here in Italy, a nation renowned for its cuisine, do not do it justice. Every one is the same. Not quite enough parking spaces or petrol pumps, no grass or other area to sit and a shop/café/bar that is frantic and overcrowded, with long queues at both of the checkouts. We soon leave the autostrade and head off to the mountain range we had been following for a while on our right. These form the border between Italy and the former Yugoslavia, now Slovenia. These mountains are incredible for their sheer drops and steep peaks, pretty villages and azure rivers. The border post is a sad, deserted collection of dilapidated buildings on the zigzag road.
By now it is nearly six o’clock.
We have been on the road for nine hours and when I spot a sign to a campsite at the village of Trnovo Soci, in the Soca valley, we decide to stop over here. The mountains of northeast Slovenia are enough to tempt anyone to want to stay – a rugged, dramatic paradise, largely devoid of the trappings of international tourism. Definitely don’t tell anyone. The campsite is the equivalent of surfer city, Slovenian style. Except that the wetsuit clad people here are not surfers, but white water rafters. We need an adaptor for the electrical hook up, bringing back memories of the fifty Euro deposit we had to pay in Switzerland, but here they lend us one for free. The campsite is a fraction of the price too, in a superb location engulfed in dramatic scenery, and the welcome is warm. Most of the campers are Slovenian although I do spot one Czech, one Italian and one Finnish vehicle.
The river as seen from the rickety wooden-slatted rope bridge far above, is an amazing sight, frothing white rapids breaking above the turquoise water as it heads back towards Italy. Tomorrow the Vrsic Pass.
Day 11, Slovenia to Austria
Today I met the Vrsic Pass.
Wow! What a day’s drive! The shortest one of the whole trip in terms of distance covered at about 40km, but a full day’s drive. The Julian Alps are incomparable. We leave Trnovo Soci and follow the Soca River. It somehow manages to convey the impression of crystal clear water whilst at the same time offering the sort of vivid turquoise that only mountain waters or clean tropical oceans seem to possess. One of the advantages of a left hand drive along this valley is that Tash, rather than me, is closest to the somewhat worrying drop. We have programmed Marilyn to send us off to the left just past the village of Soca to drive the pass. But she is confused, repeatedly telling us to turn right under circumstances which would prove highly injurious to ones health, not to say fatal, for reasons which will become clear. The problem is that you can‟t just tell her that that you want to go via such and such a town, she insists on the street and house number. So you make one up that matches a real street.
Consequently if you do not hit the exact address as you pass through a town she keeps trying to send you back there, even if it is off sheer drops or into rock faces. Hence the phrase “Oh shut the f*** up, Marilyn” becomes one that is increasingly deployed. She has done a first class job getting us around Europe, but sometimes you just want to take the scenic route, and still ask her to get you to the campsite.
We are now heading for vertical mountains which fill the windscreen. You have to lean forward to see the sky. The thought occurs: how the hell will we get over that? The answer is in first gear, with the help of fifty hairpin bends and 6547 careful’s from Tash. This is the Vrsic Pass. The most amazing road I have ever driven. I rarely managed second gear on the way up. It is an understandably popular route with bikers, but cyclists?! Maybe it is some sort of rite of passage, but there were plenty of them. The landscape would have provided a near impenetrable natural border between the former Yugoslavia and Austria or Italy but for hundreds of years the path over the Vrsic range was a route for shopping, going to fairs, seeing a doctor or accessing pasture land for the locals. The demand for timber necessitated the widening of the path in about 1909, work later carried out by Russian prisoners of war. Over ten thousand of them toiled up here, protected by avalanche fences. The road is only open an average of seven months each year even today because of this danger. Despite this protection over three hundred of the Russians perished, along with their guards in two devastating avalanches. A restored chapel exists to honour their memory and five or so years ago the Slovenian government renamed this section “The Russian Road”. The views defy description and Peaches‟ brakes are starting to smell by the time we get down the other side. The Lonely Planet guide to Central Europe describes the road as “hair-raising” and “spine-tingling”, something I had purposefully avoided informing Tash of beforehand. On the way down we take a break beside an alpine meadow nestled amongst the peaks.
We are staring up past cattle, which, Tash insists, look dangerous, to Prisank, at 2547 metres the highest in the area.
Near the summit is a hole in the mountainside through which the sky is visible. It gives the impression of a giant Cyclops looking down on us. The jagged edges around the 80 metre high, 40 metre wide window have been given names by the locals; the Bishops Head and The Pagan Girl stare down on beech and spruce forest, rhododendrons, between alder or larch covered slopes. Some of these are dwarf species near the top of the tree line.
After a lunch stop in the ski resort of Kranjska Gora we take a comparatively tame route through the Wurzen Pass and another deserted border post into Austria. Tonight’s camp is at Villach, described as a “stunning lakeside location”, but after the Julian Alps these mountains seem more like gentle hills. All appears overly sanitised and almost unnatural. Too clean, like Switzerland. Neither flamboyant Italy, closed-for-lunch France nor midge-infested Scotland can come anything but second to Slovenia in my mountain list. And I, for one, am totally enamoured with the gloriously beautiful country of Scotland but Slovenia tops even that!