Into the Green | Adventure Hunting High in the Slovenian Mountains
We go beyond the tourist trail in a country that's 62% forest and built for pure adventure
We need a new point of comparison for spectacular viewpoints which encompass endless green mountains.
We need a new simile. We can’t, as a culture, as a conscious society, as a race of intelligent beings, continue to say that every view of fast-rising forests, beautiful lakes or skyscraper waterfalls on this rapturous planet of ours “looks like Jurassic Park".
Jurassic Park is a film starring Jeff Goldblum. It is a 24-year-old blockbuster with a lot of dramatic views and a hell of a lot more dinosaurs. And, crucially, and I know I’ve already said this, it is a film in which Jeff Goldblum is one of the stars.
Please stop comparing the nicest places on Earth to a film starring Jeff Goldblum.
This is an - albeit bizarre - string of thought running through my head as I sit on the saddle of a mountain bike 1280m (4200ft) above sea level in Bohinj, Slovenia looking out over the rest of the region.
This is far from the highest point in the country, but it has to be one of the most beautiful.
The 790 acre Lake Bohinj is on one side. It sits at the foot of Bohinj Valley in the Julian Alps, which is part of Triglav National Park, home of the eponymous Mount Triglav - the highest mountain in Slovenia at 2,864m (9,396ft). They say that you’re not a real Slovenian until you’ve made the lengthy journey to the top.
On the other side of the view is forest green as far as the eye can see, rising and falling with the rolling mountains and covering up every single spec of it on the way.
I had heard a couple of tourists in my hostel compare the view to Jurassic Park the night before, and don’t get me wrong, it’s stunning. Absolutely stunning. But it doesn’t look like Jurassic Park.
Partly because there are no dinosaurs, of course, and no Jeff Goldblum, but more because this is the kind of view that stirs up something a film camera can never fully capture; that feeling of freedom and weight-lifting perspective that comes with being completely engulfed in nature; with being completely unplugged from everyday life.
And in Slovenia, unplugging from city stress is almost easier done than said. 61.97 percent of the country is covered in forest. That's 12,563km² of glorious green. There are 29 mountain peaks higher than 2000m (for comparison, Britain’s highest mountain Ben Nevis is 1,345m).
You just have to be in the right part of the country. The thing is, not a lot of people go the right part of the country when they travel to Slovenia.
Most travellers don’t add much to their venture outside of Ljubljana or Lake Bled. These two have cemented themselves on the Eurorail trail and found fame and acclaim on TripAdvisor, a website people often forget is largely written by an angry 60-year-old American in a questionably large sunhat who asked for their steak medium, not medium-rare.
"A lot of travellers get what’s on the postcard and only what’s on the postcard when they come to Slovenia..."
Long story short, a lot of travellers get what’s on the postcard and only what’s on the postcard when they come to Slovenia. A lot miss out on Bohinj altogether, and even more miss out on the other areas we would visit in the days that followed - the blue waters of Soca Valley, Tuscan-hills of Goriska Brda and silent wonderland of Ajdovscina.
Don’t get us wrong. Ljubljana is a stunning capital, but to only see the city in a country so rich in nature is sacrilege. Bled too is beautiful - the island, lake and towering castle will make your jaw drop on arrival. But there are a lot of tourists, a lot of weddings, and a lot of tour buses.
There is also this, of course:
...which is why you should definitely stop by for a day trip and take the hour-walk around the lake and up the castle, but after that? Bohinj is waiting just next door to Bled, and talking amongst Slovenians you quickly learn why it’s the preferred option.
It's quieter, calmer and the water is cleaner than in Bled. The drinks are cheaper in Bohinj, and you’ve got easy access to the Soca Valley - arguably the adventure capital of Slovenia.
Along with local guide Grega Silc we ascend to 1300m on our first day riding in Bohinj before flying down a full 950m of beautiful mountain bike trails. The nature is stunning.
“This is actually bear territory," says Grega. “But if we see a bear, we buy a lottery ticket!"
We don’t end up winning the EuroMillions on that particular day, but the surroundings still offer more than enough to enthral. Brightly-coloured butterflies flicker over the fauna and flora and land on our handlebars. We ride through bright meadows and traditional mountain villages before heading into the forests, with views of the mountains visible between the trees the whole way down the trails.
Because Bohinj is situated within Triglav National Park, trail building is strictly forbidden, but if this proves anything, it can only be that God is a mountain biker - because the natural stuff is tasty riding.
We descend through beautiful forests, over rocky, rooty trails with hairpin turns and natural banks. At one point we bump into a friend of Grega’s foraging for wild mushrooms. He explains that local laws state you can help yourself as long as you don’t take more than 2kg per day. We try some of the forest mushrooms ourselves later that night and it’s simple to see why the locals don’t settle for the supermarket.
With a hostel on the edge of Lake Bohinj, a shower is replaced with a jump and a swim in the dark blue waters the next morning. There’s no wake up call quite like a paddle beneath a glowing green valley as the sun rises over the mountains to the East.
We climb to 1280m after breakfast, this time to the border between Bohinj and Soca Valley, the next stop on the trip. 900 metres of forest downhill trail later and we had arrived at a train station we had been viewing from far above just 45 minutes earlier.
Grega says goodbye and a 30 minute train journey and quick stop for lunch later I find myself hiking to the top of a canyon in Soca Valley carrying a 5mm thick wetsuit. It’s more than 30 degrees Celsius. The plan is to abseil and jump our way down the waterfalls of the huge local canyon.
The canyon water is notably colder than the lukewarm lake I was paddling in that same morning, I hear. A six metre leap into a pool of the dreamy light-blue water unique to Soca Valley confirms this fact. The colour of the river makes it look like it’s been photoshopped.
We descend further into the canyon. After leaping off a seven metre waterfall - “jump straight and you’ll be fine," says guide Jure Kavcic - there is now no way out the canyon until we reach the famously beautiful Slap Kozjak waterfall at the finish. To be honest, I’m not sure I want out. The giant stone walls rise high above us, the rocks twisting and turning into characters of their own, furnished with green and glowing with God’s highlighter where the sun sneaks through the trees. Bite-size rainbows appear in the waterfalls as we descend.
We don’t meet anyone else during our hour in the canyon. When we exit at the 20 metre high Slap Kozjak waterfall - I’m told to abseil down to nine metres and then jump, while Jure happily jumps the full 20 - the place is abuzz. There’s a popular hiking route from town up to the waterfall. We walk past the gathering tourists having leapt out of our solitude into a small sea of camera phones and stroll back down the mountain.
The mountain biking in Soca is a prospect to relish as well. Trading Jure for his colleague Blaz, wetsuit for a riding jersey and helmet for… well, a slightly more familiar helmet, we set off on our bikes up the Soca Valley to ride a truly incredible trail - starting from the border of Slovenia at 1550m down to San Pietro, a small town in Italy at 150m. That’s a whole lot of downhill, and it’s all on one trail.
We roll off onto dusty, dry trail, twisting and turning perfectly and rocky enough to make your hands need a break every few minutes. A brief break allows a glance up to the ridges on ridges of tree-filled mountains that lie before us.
We would soon descend into those woods and across those ridges, where the real fun starts; a dirty, rooty wonderland flowing right down to Italy. At the end, it’s a simple ride back to Slovenia. After a stop for gelato of course.
I was on to Goriska Brda though - the next stop on my whirlwind tour of Slovenia. Goriska Brda is further along the border with Italy. Goriska Brda, for those who don’t know, is pretty much just Tuscany. It looks the same. The wine is arguably better. The food is absolutely stunning. The climate is perfect. Oh, and it’s a lot cheaper than Tuscany too.
Slovenian Ana Roš, crowned "The World's Best Female Chef 2017" this year, has a restaurant in Kobarid in the next municipality over, and Goriska Brda is where she gets her wine. Nearly half of the houses we pass in the Tuscan-esque valleys are wine producers - and the best thing is that you can roll up to many of their doors with a smile and some good manners and organise a little wine tasting on the spot. Some of the larger producers require a phone call in advance, but there’s plenty that you can just drop by.
There’s a whole lot of riding in the region too. Local Matic Pirih tells us it’s the perfect place for linking anything from trail riding to downhill to cross-country with the ultimate experience in wine-tasting and gastronomy. If you’re looking for riding and relaxation, this is your place.
Unfortunately we don’t have the time to confirm. We’ve got a date to keep with the Črn trn (literally ‘Blackthorn’) riding troupe over on the trails of Vipava Valley, Ajdovscina.
All of a sudden we’re back in mountain biking gear, in another shuttle and heading up the mountain. Today we’re going to be trying to follow 20-year-old Slovenian wonderkid Mitja Ergraver on the trails of Ajdovščina, a small town in Vipava Valley.
If you don’t know Mitja, he’s the current fourcross World Champion, having rode to victory at Val di Sole last year. He pulls on the rainbow jersey while we’re in the shuttle.
Having ruptured my spleen on a bike in Slovenia back in 2015 (the last article I wrote about the country literally included the sentence "having lost a litre of blood to internal bleeding"), a twinge of nerves crawl into the part of the brain I normally try and silence while mountain biking. Anyway, a short while later...
Stuart exits, pursued by a bear.
Stuart exits saddle, pursued by a mountain bike, having abandoned standard human form (the upright position) in order to fly over his own handlebars on the final rock of the trail and launch what appears to be some sort of drunken, off-balance attempt to impersonate Superman.
Stuart’s bike flies slowly behind him. Stuart has comfortably enough time to mouth a word his mother would rather he didn’t use as he looks up to see an understandably wide-eyed World Champion looking on from the end of the trail.
No harm done. Spleen intact. A bit of blood here and there. The bike is fine. On with the day!
Okay, so it turns out Mitja is one of the nicest guys around. I’m riding with him and Luka Novinec. They both work as local tour guides, and they’re both awesome.
They tell me they sculpt the trails and move about bits and pieces, but that by and large, they don’t have to do much to the trails at all.
“We’ve got a mix of everything here," Mitja says. “Rocks, dirt, on a few trails there are some jumps. There are brilliant views, and it’s mostly natural terrain - that’s the best part."
Mitja mercifully slows his pace as I follow for a few more runs. There’s some serious riding in Vipava Valley. Rocks, drops, tight turns. If you’ve got the skills, it’s really a dream set up, and you can see how it’s the kind of place that could brew serious talent.
I ask Mitja if he ever thought he’d be World Champion. “I was thinking it," the 20-year-old admits. “But not this soon!"
My hands are shaking by the end of the day. Thankfully, our final run brings us out at the door of a micro brewery. Pelicon have only been brewing for a handful of years but they’ve already picked up a bunch of awards around Europe.
Considering Ajdovščina only has a population of 6,700, the fact that they have prizeworthy beer and a mountain biking world champion (as well as a top 10 World Cup downhill rider in Monika Hrastnik) is rather impressive. Bikes and beer. They’ve got their priorities straight.
Cut scene. It’s three hours later and I’m flying. Not metaphorically. I don’t mean I got drunk on the beer. Well, maybe I got a little drunk on the beer, but then I went and sobered up, because three hours later and I’m flying. Paragliding to be exact. Looking out again over the stunning scenery, down on the forests I was riding through with Mitja and Luka earlier that same day and out over mountains reaching way into the horizon.
The sun begins to set over the mountains and we fly between the shade and the greenery, looking deep into the distance where you can see the Adriatic Sea, and on a particularly good day, even as far as Venice.
It’s beautiful. It’s relaxing. Here, in the air, you’re completely unplugged from any kind of stress. It’s just you and the nature around you.
And back on the ground in Slovenia, it’s much the same. This is a country where 61.97 percent of the land is made up of forest. Where it couldn’t be easier to unplug. Where there is no overcrowding in the adventure hotspots, mostly because there simply isn’t enough accommodation for there to be overcrowding in the adventure hotspots.
This is a country where mountains, lakes and the great outdoors rule. Where if you only visit Bled and Ljubljana, you’re stopping half way up the ladder on the way to heaven.
See, Slovenia doesn’t look like Jurassic Park. If you’re being generous, Jurassic Park actually looks a bit like Slovenia.
And there you have it. Maybe we’ve got ourselves a new simile after all.
Do It Yourself
We flew directly into Ljubljana, Slovenia from London Luton on Wizz Air. You can also fly into Venice Treviso airport and travel through Italy to parts of Slovenia - particularly to Brda or Vipava Valley - in about the same time as it takes from Ljubljana. It's only an hour or so in a car.
Accommodation & Guides:
Hit the trails with local guides from Hike&Bike and stay at Hostel pod Voglom in Bohinj. Go canyoning and mountain biking in the Soca Valley with Positive Sport, and stay overnight at Jazbec Inn. Stay at Stekar Homesteadin Snezatno (a beautiful home hotel offering fantastic food) in Goriska Brda and get the tour of the area with Ride Around. Go mountain biking and paragliding with Wajdusna and the Blackthorn crew in Ajdovscina, Vipava Valley and stay at Ajdovscina Youth Centre and Hotel - a war bunker which has been turned into a great accommodation spot on the edge of the trails. It's also worth checking out Hiking-Biking Slovenia for adventure guides. All of the previously listed are experts in their areas and will be able to help you get the full Slovenian experience!
For more on Slovenia, head to the website of the official tourist board for Slovenia.