underrated destinations: slovenian alps
Despite spanning over eight countries, the more high profile places in the European Alps get most of the attention. When I say "Alps" you probably picture Switzerland, Austria or perhaps Italy (France and Germany rounding out the big countries). The others are lesser-known Alps countries of Monaco and Liechtenstein. The last one, Slovenia, is what I'm here to introduce you to.
Being around the size of Israel in landmass, Slovenia is home to its own Alps region, the captivating Julian Alps. While this Alps region is named after a well-known betrayed Roman leader, this region itself is not well-known. Regardless of the obscurity, its landscapes still stand toe to toe with the more famed Alps territories such as the Italian Dolomites or Mont Blanc. Browsing through travel blogs about their top Alps destinations, it’s rare to find a Slovene region. This, of course, is great news for you and me.
Briefly, there are numerous options to get there besides flying directly into Ljubljana, the main city and capital. Venice, Vienna, and Zagreb are a half-day drive to the Slovenian mountain towns. We flew Denver to London to Zagreb, Croatia. There are no direct flights so you’ll be looking at at least one stop en route.
Having an Alps vacation can usually mean overpriced accommodations, expensive meals, and fighting crowds. Slovenia has a nice hidden gem of an area that seems to be untouched by a lot of Americans. The only people you’ll usually encounter in these areas are other Europeans and Asian tourists. Hiking around we rarely heard any English, let alone American English (A Brit or an Aussie here and there).
As with any mountain range adventure, the options are either of the skiing/snowboarding variety or the warmer climate pleasures of hiking which we’ll hone in on. There is an amazing company that was so vital to our own “self-guided” tour. We stopped in at the Altitude Activities office in Bled to get some advice and even though that meant these guys weren’t getting us on a tour, they were super pumped to help out. It’s not usually my style to hire a guide, but I kind of feel bad for not hiring these guys. They were so damn nice.
Let’s get to the good stuff: the mountains! Below is a pretty strategic, “moderate” itinerary for three days which can be flexed to more intense or less intense depending on your situation. Note: This itinerary will require a car, which I recommend anyway. My preference in the public vs private transit always leans on the side of complete freedom. This guide is from a home base at Lake Bled, probably the most iconic scenery in Slovenia, but can be done from any of the other lodging areas such as Kranjska Gora.
Day 1- Epic Sunrise
When you arrive in Bled, the staggering scenery of the lake will quickly capture your attention. Early morning light makes it even better. Wake your butt up an hour or so before sunrise and put Ojstrica in the GPS for the top sunrise view of Lake Bled. The short uphill trail takes off south of “Camping Bled” which is the far west side of the lake. Essentially, if you trace the lake clockwise from the town of Bled there is a small wooden post just to the left about 200 ft from the camping entrance with arrows pointing up to Ojstrica (and the further up Osojnica, if you are ambitious). You’ll trudge up for 20 minutes until you veer off to the right and up to a wooden bench where the magic happens. The lookout faces right into the sunrise and blew me away, especially since I was lucky enough to have it to myself (going up the next morning, I shared the sunrise with 6 people; still not too bad though).
Once done, head down for some coffee at Confectionery Zima a great local hotspot. Then go get an early jump on Vintgar Gorge. This gorge is a breezy 10-minute drive from Bled and is a great way to get those legs moving on some fairly easy terrain. This place itself is “gorgeous”--see what I did there (sorry). I’ve fallen in love with gorges recently since visiting Hell Valley Gorge in Germany (look it up; it's insane) and tend to seek them out nowadays. The gorge itself is easy to navigate and costs a “worth-it” expense of a few EUR. I can’t emphasize enough to get there once sunrise is done. As soon as that first tour bus shows an hour after opening you’ll be playing the tourist dodge game along the narrow path the whole time. After the gorge, head back into town for lunch then stroll the nicely kept trail around the lake to rest the legs.
Depending on your interests, you could take the time to go across the lake to the Church of the Assumption that you saw in the middle of the lake at sunrise (it’ll cost a few EUR per person to get across and we opted not to). Then there’s also the Bled Castle up on the cliffside which is also another optional side quest. Last cool point of interest on the northwest side of the lake is the Slovenia Rowing Training Center where they’ve pumped out some Olympic medalists. Now that you've got your bearings and you maybe know a few Slovene words, get some rest.
Day 2- Slovenian rite of passage
Today you tackle the highest mountain in Slovenia at 2864m (9396ft), Triglav. I think one thing that is so interesting about Triglav is the immense spectrum of difficulty and technical levels available on this mountain, from technical rock climbing to hiking up. If you aren’t familiar with via ferrata, it may be better to hire a guide. A via ferrata is essentially a climbing route popular in the Alps with cable or ladder bolted into the rock. You use a via ferrata kit (harness and carabiners) to clip yourself in to prevent falling. If you have some experience, there are numerous routes up with varying difficulty depending on your comfort level. A summary of five of the more popular routes can be found on this link. One route doesn’t need any technical equipment, but once again if you’re not experienced go ahead and google Triglav mountain guide and get yourself linked up for a more enjoyable time. Another option for a challenge, which can be done on your own, is the Seven-lakes hike. An outstanding hike which allows you to check out Lake Bohinj (Bo-Heen) since it takes off near there. This hike is great because you can go up as far as your legs (or spouse) wants to go. The full distance is around 15 miles of hiking. Your legs won’t mind though with your eyes being so distracted.
Day 3- Mountain Pass to Narnia
Alright, let’s back it off a bit today. We’ll ascend two mountain passes via car and keep the side hikes short. The loop around Triglav National Park actually goes across the Italian border then back to Slovenia. If scenic drives are your thing, say no more. If a little more activity is your cup of tea then not to worry, I got you covered. I’ll throw in a couple of stops with 15- 30 min hikes to some waterfalls to keep healthy legs. The guys from the local guide shop gave me a few nice insider spots.
Leaving Bled and heading NW on E61 you’ll reach Pericnik Waterfall in a half hour. The quick walk up reveals one of those waterfalls you may see in Iceland where you can walk behind.
From Pericnik Waterfall the route takes you across the Italian/Slovenian border to the west. A good side quest before the border is checking out the second largest ski jump in the world at Planica. After the border comes the impressive glacial water of Lago de Predil. Enjoy a little snack and a stroll on the shore.
Leaving Lago de Predil and over the Predil pass, history aficionados can inspect some old forts built and used in the World War era of the early 1900s before heading through the town of Bovec.
Near Bovec flows the emerald water of the Soca River and a few waterfalls and troughs. Kozjak Waterfall flows into a swimmable pool in a narrow trough. Another stunning area is Sunikov Vondi Gaj, an under the radar spot with successive cascading blue pools. On the way there you’ll be driving next to the deep troughs which have been cut by the emerald river. Punch “Grand Canyon of Soca” into Google maps to get the exact location to walk along the river bank. The Soca River may be familiar if you’ve seen Prince Caspian from the Chronicles of Narnia series. They filmed a few scenes there.
Whenever you get tired of seeing falling and flowing water, it’ll be about time to head back to Bled. Don’t go back the way you came or you’ll miss out on the highest mountain pass in Slovenia. Take the Vrsic Pass instead which takes off after the town of Trenta. The road up was built by Russian POWs in World War I has plenty of hairpin turns to test your rental car. The scenery of these jagged mountains makes the driving well worth it.
This little sample itinerary barely touches the possibilities in the Julian Alps and doesn’t even mention other areas of Slovenia worth checking out such as their capital city or their UNESCO Site caves in the south. Whatever adventure you decide to pursue, the most crucial decision is the one to actually buy the flight and go for it. Slovenia is an unbelievable place. Plus, when you tell your coworkers and friends you’re going there, they’ll more than likely have to look up where the heck it is! I’m optimistic you feel a little enthusiasm now for a little globe-trotting and are pumped for your next (or first) trip.
To see more of Brock's adventures, follow him on Instagram: @buffandabroad