Via Alpina: Slovenia
Via Alpina Trail Dispatches: The Alps Connection
In mid-July writer Alex Crevar and photographer Carly Calhoun set out to thru-hike 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) along the Via Alpina.
Text by Alex Crevar Photographs by Carly Calhoun
Photo Slide Show >>
Where to Stay >>
Off-Trail Activities >>
Dispatch II: Austria >>
What's in the backpacks?
Alex: A tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, three shirts, a pair of shorts, a pair of convertible pants, four pairs of socks, cgaiters, a warm jacket, rain pants, rain jacket, hiking boots, flip flops, Via Alpina stage printouts from the Web, a laptop, video camera, two water bottles, passport, wallet, three notebooks, three pens, first-aid kit, digital voice recorder, walkie talkie, GPS device, headlamp, mobile telephone, mini version of Tao Te Ching, by Lao-Tzu
Carly: Sleeping bag, two water bottles, two New Yorker magazines, two cameras, three lenses, multiple camera batteries, a flash, rain pants, rain jacket, gaiters, three shirts: one tank, one short-sleeve, one long sleeve, a hiking skirt, a pair of shorts, pair of pants, one fleece, first-aid kit, walkie talkie, headlamp, three pairs of socks, a pair of sock liners, boots, flip flops, passport, wallet, Dr. Brawner's soap
What's been discarded
(so far): Extra computer battery (Alex's pack); multiple instruction manuals (both packs—we hope that won't be a mistake!)
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On July 14, Alex Crevar and Carly Calhoun set out to hike 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) along the Via Alpina, a newly connected megatrail linking eight nations.
Read about their trip >>
Slovenia is on the edge. That isn't meant to sound like some cutesy double entendre. Even if that were my intention, double wouldn't come close to acknowledging just how on the edge Slovenia actually is. Located on the frontline of culture and geography, this Massachusetts-size country (see interactive Slovenia map >>) is slowly becoming a destination for travelers who want to experience the Alps at a fraction the price.
Though the Alps here don't soar as high as they do in Switzerland, Slovenia is anything but Alps-lite. Our journey began near the Adriatic Sea in Trieste, Italy. In about two days, the trail exploded into Slovenia with a surge of limestone ridgelines overlooking valleys. From our rocky precipices—upon which there's a series of mountain huts operated by local alpine associations that serve hot meals (think sauerkraut soup or fuzi pasta with a sauce that combines fresh cream, red wine, and local prosciutto) and cold beer—we spotted farmers in high mountain pastures with sickles, snatching hay by the bundle and barking orders at sheep and cows.
As we were traipsing about with our mealy little 50-plus-pound (23-plus-kilogram) packs, we felt like a couple of weaklings compared to the men and women who stand at 45 degrees all day and heft more weight in one hand than I could with both legs. This feeling was certainly heightened by the knowing, old-soul nods they gave us as we passed.
"Part of the reason for the Via Alpina is to teach people about the Alps," says Slovenia's VA point man Petar Silak. "It's very hard to live here
all the time in the mountains and with no roads and no power."
Confession: Because Carly and I live in neighboring Croatia, we were somewhat familiar with the Slovenian traditions, language, and culture. Regardless (and somewhat objectively) there is no question in my mind that Slovenia is a pristine heaven for trekkers and is on the verge of becoming a much more popular destination. Plus, the people here are as athletic and accommodating as any on the planet.
Starting a hike through the Alps from the ocean means that you must deal with the challenges of starting at sea level and making your way up to mountain altitude—which, bacon or no, has done little to improve the weight of our packs. The main challenge has been, of course, accentuated by the lag time necessary to get our trail legs beneath us. That process should have been minimized by the fact that we're traveling with nothing but the absolute basics: an early-model laptop that might as well be an encyclopedia, multiple cameras, multiple lenses, a video camera and its accoutrements
and my pet anvil Paco, which doubles as my alter-ego.
We launched our thru-hike from the region that arguably puts Slovenia on the map: the cave-ridden fields of Kras.
Kras, where the word "karst" comes from, is to the study of caves what the Galápagos is to funky-looking animals. The entire region is a porous sheet of limestone, where rivers disappear from the Earth's surface and flow through a massive underworld only to reappear again elsewhere. One of the absolute best things about the Via Alpina is that it has given both Carly and me a chance—heck, the duty—to check out the embarrassment of geographical and cultural riches that flow before it. Two absolute must-sees in Kras (both directly on the trail and direct products of the karst phenomenon) are the Lipica Stud Farm and the Skocjan Caves. Photo Slide Show >>
The tiny community of Lipica has been breeding Lippizaner horses since 1580, when the Austrian monarchy realized that the dry, rocky conditions would do much to create sturdy animals. Today the horses are affable, typically all white, and powerful; and a tour of the grounds is a walk through history and through centuries of animal husbandry.
The nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site Skocjan Caves (GPS: N45° 39.789' & E 013° 59.370') are a welcomed escape from the midday hiking heat and an amazing reminder of the Earth's capabilities. Shaped by the Reka River, which dips from the surface into the grottos, the caves themselves have stalagmites the size of skyscrapers, house dozens of waterfalls, and offer about 159,000,000 cubic feet (4,502,379 cubic meters) of volume to explore.
After the caves, we followed the VA trail north—first to the caving and outdoor sports base camp of Postojna, where we mountain biked some of the loops that surround the town. After, we made our way up to Idrija: a pleasant little town in the foothills that once distinguished itself as the second largest producer of mercury in the world. Today, the mines are closed for production, but for nearly 500 years they pumped out so much quicksilver that the town claims to have produced 13 percent of all the mercury ever mined.
Just because they are no longer pulling up mercury doesn't mean that the town doesn't take advantage of its history. Donning dapper mining coats and hard hats to crawl down into the mines on a guided tour, we explored about one percent of the labyrinth, which took around an hour. When we thought of working 12-hour days underground, we were glad to be unemployed.
When I asked Urska Lahajnar from the Idrija tourist information office why the Via Alpina was important, she responded, "What the Via Alpina does is show that we are still important as a place for cultural tourism. Just think, 60 years ago people here were at war. Now people are welcome to walk from one country to the next."
The Julianne Alps
Much of the VA path that led us into the Slovenia's Julianne Alps from Kras follows the one-time border, and thus frontline, between Italy and the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia or the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which was a precursor to the Yugoslavia most are familiar with from the end of the Second World War to its dissolution in the early 90s. To this day there are still bits of barbed wire that line the walk, left over from just after World War I. There are also bunkers, squatty and stone, from the Italian occupation of the area after the Austro-Hungarian Empire—which controlled Slovenia prior to 1918—'fessed as the "war to end all wars."
The unofficial point of entry into the Julianne Alps is a peak called Crna Prst, which means "black dirt." But even before we entered the range, we had three goals. The first was to hike to the top of Triglav—the country's highest peak at 9,396 feet (2,864 meters). The second was to get to the Soca River Valley. And the third was to visit Kranjska Gora, home to one of Slovenia's most famous ski resorts and the longest ski jump on the planet. Photo Slide Show >>
Mount Triglav (GPS: N46° 22.701' & E 013° 50.196') is positioned in the center of glacier-lake speckled Triglav National Park, one of the first national parks in Europe. Though the mountain is no 14er, the last 1,000 feet (304 meters) or so are so jagged and tenuous that it feels much taller. A series of via ferrata cables and footholds took us to the top where we met renowned Slovene climber and all-around top-notch guy, Joze Mihelic. While I ate Oreo-like cookies sans lait and Carly ate Oreo-like cookies avec fromage, bien sur, under perfectly blue skies, Mihelic explained, "To be a real Slovene, you have to climb Triglav." Then he laughed and slapped me on the back with one of his giant Slavic paws.
A couple days later we achieved our second goal. Using the stage-stop town of Trenta as home base, we arrived at the head of the Soca Valley, where one would be hard-pressed to find a more idyllic cluster of little communities. The central theme of these villages is the Soca River, an emerald-colored waterway that's the life force for everything from salivatingly tasty organic food to sports like canyoning and rafting (which are based in the outdoorsy town of Bovec).
We took the day off to enjoy the area and were rewarded with the ability to debate what, until that time, had been our biggest dilemma: which Slovene beer is better: Lasko or Union? I am firmly committed to red-labeled Union—a more artful beer with overtones of intelligence. Carly is a fan of the green-labeled Lasko—something of a working-class brew favored by those who've been in contact with toxic, taste bud-deadening gases. Truth is, I'll drink either
We took this important debate northward to our final destination in Slovenia: Kranjska Gora. This gingerbread town of old stone houses and cafés is famous for hosting the World Cup skiing events. Every March, the nearby Planica ski jump complex acts as the launching pad for the longest flights man has ever made on a pair of skis. Each one of the 20 longest ski jumps ever recorded has occurred there (including the current world record of more than 784 feet or 238 meters). In the summer, it should come as no surprise, that the daredevil Slovenes (a countryman was the first to ski from the top of Everest) were the first to use every part of the mountain to come up with ways to defy gravity—including a freaky adventure down jumps, ramps, and berms and through the woods on a mountain bike. Carly and I opted for the summer toboggan, which corkscrewed down the slopes on a rail that seemed like it couldn't possible hold either of our weight—with or without the bacon and cheese.
Hair blown back, we put our respective Union and Lasko beers down and hoisted on our packs and headed for Austria. One country down, 15 weeks and seven more countries to go.
Lipica Stud Farm
A fun few hours for horse-lovers and lovers of horse-lovers.
Entrance Fee: 7 euros per person
E-mail + Phone: firstname.lastname@example.org; +011 386 5 73 91 580
Web Site: www.lipica.org/?lng=slo
Bovec Rafting Team
The folks at Bovec Rafting team do a lot more than rafting on the Soca River—but they are still all about the agua. Tops among their other options include canyoning and kayaking.
E-mail + Phone: email@example.com; +011 386 41 338 308
Web Site: www.brt-ha.si
Kranjska Gora Sports Resort
This was a great way for us to say goodbye to Slovenia and to keep our heads alert after days on end of trudging along like turtles—with a little high-charged adrenaline rush down the slopes on the summer toboggan. Next door is the crazy-gone-loco mountain bike "fun" park.
Town: Kranjska Gora
Web Site: www.kranjska-gora.si/index.php?t=animacije&l=3
Slovenia: Trail Dispatch | Photo Slide Show | Where to Stay
Via Alpina: Plan a trip >>
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