Learning the Value of Slowing Down on Slovenia’s Juliana Trail

Cheese dumplings, medieval towns, and ancient mountains—one writer hikes the 167-mile-long Juliana Trail.

People playing in a riverbed in Slovenia.

The 167-mile-long Juliana Trail ribbons around the Julian Alps in Slovenia’s Triglav National Park.

Photo by Julia Nimke

For the fifth time in an hour, Vili Črv, a former member of the Slovenian Olympic cross-country ski team and sometime hiking guide in Slovenia’s Triglav National Park, apologizes for the weather. As if the low clouds and mist are within his control. “If it were clear,” he tells me, “you would be able to see the Alps.”

“What about those?” I ask, pointing to a range of snow-capped peaks. They look impressive to me.

Črv shakes his head. If it were sunny, I’d be able to spot Mount Triglav, which, although a relatively modest 9,396 feet, is so dear to residents of this Central European country that it is featured on the flag. But it isn’t sunny: My nine days on the 167-mile Juliana Trail, a loop that takes travelers along the edge of the park and the foothills of the Julian Alps in the northwestern part of the country, fall smack in the middle of soggy spring.

I could feel badly about this, as Črv does, but why? The low, flat sky creates a kind of intimacy, a coziness that forces me to look at what’s close—the beech leaves fluorescent against the pewter horizon, the reds and blues of a painted wayside shrine. A moss-covered wooden waterwheel whirls faster in the wetness. A yellow-spotted fire salamander, typically seen only at night, peers up at me from the woodland floor. Best of all, on this first day of my trip, I have the trail to myself.

The same is true when I arrive in Kranjska Gora that afternoon. In off-season April, the Alpine resort town of chalets, restaurants, and bars is as deserted as the post-apocalypse TV show The Last of Us. I am the only diner at Kosobrin, a homey log-cabin restaurant and guesthouse, so Miha Samotorčan, 27, who owns Kosobrin with his mother Mojca, acts as my personal chef. He seats me by the fire and brings a charcuterie assortment on a wooden cutting board. There are slices of his own cured sausages; mild, sweet cheese made by a friend; dried figs, pear jam, and freeze-dried raspberries, all from last summer’s harvest; plus a basket of homemade bread. He follows up with pork shoulder draped over coarsely chopped, sautéed potatoes. He then insists I try two desserts: a cheese dumpling, the dough rolled thin enough to see through, and strudel filled with local blueberries. In this case, I’m delighted to exceed my limits.

Left: a white horse grazing in a field. Right: Sunlight on the Julian Alps.

Snaking past medieval castle and idyllic farms, walking the Juliana Trail can sometimes feel like walking through a fairy tale.

Photos by Julia Nimke

Quiet solitude is integral to the Juliana Trail, a venture among 12 municipalities that was developed in response to a rising dilemma. Slovenia, a country roughly the size of New Jersey surrounded by Croatia, Italy, Austria, and Hungary, has historically been a land of shifting borders. For centuries, it was part of the Habsburg empire and later, the Austro-Hungarian empire. After the First World War, it was annexed by Italy, then folded into Yugoslavia after the Second. It became independent in 1991 and joined the European Union in 2004, when tourism began to increase; by 2017, it had exceeded 5.5 million arrivals—more than double those in 1990. It’s easy to see why: The climate in this region ranges from Alpine to Mediterranean. Within a few hours, it’s possible to hike in the mountains, bike through the vineyards, and loll on the beach. Slovenia is also one of the greenest places on the continent; 60 percent of the land is forested, and a third of that is protected.

The Juliana Trail, which opened in 2019, aims to spread out travelers, boost remote economies, and better preserve natural wonders. Hikers of its 16 stages (there are four additional access stages on a spur on the loop’s south side) encounter literary landmarks, traditional cuisine, and folk music, as well as Slovenian history and relics of World War I battles. Travelers can backpack or send luggage through the Julian Alps Booking Center; bed down at campgrounds, inns, or grand hotels; self-cater or eat farm to table. “The concept is to provide an experience where you’re part of nature, not just watching other people in front of you,” says Viljam Kvalič, director of Soča Valley Tourism. “[The trail is] not about conquering a mountain or reaching a destination and saying ‘been there, done that.’ It’s about the journey, and all the experiences that happen during the journey.”

A few people walking on a bridge through the Vintgar Gorge

The Vintgar Gorge is one of the most popular sights in Slovenia. It is roughly an hour by foot from Bled, which is the landing spot for stage 4 of the Juliana Trail.

Photo by Julia Nimke

This last bit struck me. I’m the kind of traveler who needs to go a little farther, a little harder, hiking despite 100-degree heat, snorkeling in too-rough waters, pushing past exhaustion to visit one more museum. My natural bent is to do “everything,” even if I’m miserable. What if I never come back? I don’t want to chance regret. But that’s the very mentality the Juliana challenges. Hiking an average of 10 miles a day is not exactly slacking, but I can still cover only so much ground. The Juliana Trail would force me to shift my focus from ticking every box to appreciating smaller, slower, and perhaps more spontaneous moments.

The muddy aftermath of an end-of-season snowstorm has closed stage 2, thwarting my next day’s plans. So I skip it, getting a ride with outfitter Kofler Sport 14 miles to Jesenice, a former iron-mining town near the Austrian border that marks the start of stage 3. I amble through a chain of villages, the fields between them bright with dandelions. Spring unfurls around me: Narcissus line the roads; tulips and daffodils bloom from front gardens. A cuckoo calls, and I reach for my pocket. According to local legend, if you’re carrying money when you first hear the bird in spring, you’ll have a prosperous year. I wonder if the credit card on my iPhone counts.

The trail winds past the birthplaces of several of the country’s celebrated authors and musicians, whose homes have been turned into small museums. Language, literature, and folk music were crucial to sustaining Slovenian identity during those centuries of outside rule. I stop to eat the lunch packed for me by my hotel—sandwiches of ham and local cheese, along with an apple, an orange, and a chocolate bar—on a wooden bench next to a rough-whittled statue that looks like Pinocchio. There is a barn and an old horse trough across the dirt path. An elderly man swings a scythe, clearing the early spring grass, pausing to wipe his blade every few strokes. When a cow moos loudly he laughs, and turns to say something that I can’t understand. I smile back, in no rush, sharing the moment.

The next morning, the trail passes through Radovljica, a town that dates to the Middle Ages. Seventeenth-century frescoes grace some of the pastel-colored buildings on the main square, mostly Bible-themed. Religious motifs were also commonly painted on the front panels of beehives. Slovenians are thought to have pioneered modern beekeeping; the illustrated panels are a long-standing form of folk art. The oldest one known, on display at the Museum of Apiculture across the square, depicts the Madonna and child. Other panels show scenes of hunting and of village life. There is also a man feeding his wife into a flour mill and a devil sharpening a woman’s tongue on a grindstone.

I buy a few homemade bonbons at the Radolška chocolatier. One is infused with tarragon, giving it a mild hint of licorice; another is filled with a sweet-tart mixture of locally produced goat cheese. I enjoy them across from the museum on a “bench of shame”—where those who’d transgressed were once shackled and publicly mocked—feeling unusually grateful to live in the 21st century.

Left: A street in Ljubljana. Right: Two people relaxing by Lake Bohinj.

From left: The town of Radovljica is known for its chocolate and its Museum of Apiculture; Lake Bohinj is roughly 50 miles from Ljubljana.

Photos by Julia Nimke

My route continues along the Sava River. Old folks chatting in backyard lawn chairs offer a friendly wave. Even the animals are hospitable: A trio of miniature horses dashes across a field as I pass, stopping to push their velvet noses into my open palm. Alongside the trail, people turn over plots of earth, scatter seeds for their summer haul. One couple plows a furrow with a horse, two children playing around their feet. Eating locally and seasonally is not a province of the privileged in this country—produce is expensive here, so home vegetable gardens are common (in 2020, nearly two-thirds of Slovenians reported keeping a vegetable garden). In addition to the world’s highest concentration of beekeepers, the country has the highest per capita rate of tractor ownership.

I land in the resort town of Bled, on the shores of its eponymous glacial lake. A church spire points skyward from an island in the center of the water; a fairy-tale castle built in the 11th century clings to the cliffs above. It is ridiculously picturesque. But the walk from Radovljica was an easy six miles and it’s only three o’clock, so my inner overachiever gets triggered: I can go farther! I can rest when I get home! I respond reflexively, hiking another three miles to Vintgar Gorge, a canyon carved out by the Radovna River. Like Bled, it tends to be mobbed in the summer, but today there are only a handful of people. By the time I arrive, I’m dragging, but the boardwalk path built into the side of the gorge over water revives me. I crisscross the river, past waterfalls, stone cairns built by visitors, and a stone railroad bridge, then hurry back to town, thinking I can still catch the last boat to the island. I’m too late. Although this has been a spectacular day, I wrestle with a niggling regret.

A canoe dock on Lake Bohinj, with a few people in the water

Lake Bohinj is the largest natural lake in Slovenia and is a popular destination among outdoor adventurers.

Photo by Julia Nimke

The next morning, I set out for Lake Bohinj. At the end of the 13.5-mile stage 6, it shines turquoise from a distance, then emerald up close. I gasp out loud at nearly every turn, every new vista; there is a reason the first syllable of its name, Boh, translates to “God.” Come evening, I contemplate the landscape from a quiet dock in Stara Fužina, near the minimalist, eco-conscious Hotel Bohinj. It’s too cold to swim, so I opt instead for the hotel’s “wellness spa”: saunas, a steam room, a salt wall room, and an outdoor whirlpool, punctuated by an ice fountain and multijet showers. I’m supposed to shed my robe before entering the Turkish sauna, but I’m hesitant, worried other guests might shout, “OMG! The American took off her clothes!” It works out fine, of course, and after an hour, my shoulders relax and the knots in my calves unwind. A man with a towel wrapped around his waist laughs, passing me in the corridor. “You are cooked!” he says, and it’s true.

Hiking around mountains instead of up them does not preclude changes in altitude. On stage 10 of the trail, I am guided by Jožko Dakskobler, a firefighter and mountaineer in his seventies. Despite his age, Dakskobler has the dexterity of a mountain goat. I consider that there is “good shape” and there is Slovenian good shape—it seems everyone here hikes or skis or kayaks or climbs. The Juliana Trail is not technically challenging, but one does need to be fit.

Left: A sausage meal with bread on a gingham table cloth. Right: An older man with white beard wearing straw hat.

Restaurant Kosobrin’s traditional dishes include cured sausages.

Photos by Julia Nimke

Today, we will ascend more than 2,500 feet. Dakskobler asks if I want to take a detour to the Sopota waterfall, which will add distance to our day: Of course I do. We trudge up a path redolent with wild chives whose lavender-colored flowers bloom all around us. Sweat streams down my face, but then the mist hits me. I see the water cascading down 216 feet, and open my arms wide in delight.

“This,” Dakskobler announces, “is paradise number one!” He opens his backpack, fishing out two shot glasses and a small, green, hand-labeled bottle—his own homemade slivovitz, a potent plum brandy. It’s tradition, he says, to take a drink at the top of a trail—“but only one,” he cautions, “because you have to go down again.”

A few hours later, we arrive at “paradise number two,” a panoramic view of the Soča Valley, the river snaking through it the precise color of a mermaid’s tail, a trick of the light sparkling off suspended bedrock. This is wine country, the southern side of the mountain range, edging toward Italy; there is even the occasional palm tree among the grapevines and red-roofed stone villages. Dakskobler again brandishes the slivovitz—it turns out that the one drink applies to every height you climb—and unwraps three types of salami (which he also made himself), a container of cheese from a friend, and some hard rolls. We down our shots and polish off the snacks. I spend the afternoon relaxing on the riverside patio of the restaurant at the family-run Penzion Šterk, watching boaters and basking in my slivovitz buzz.

An open trench from World War I on green hillside with trees

The open-air World War I museum can be reached from both Slovenia and Italy.

Photo by Julia Nimke

It’s hard to believe that the bucolic Soča Valley was once among the bloodiest fronts of World War I. More than 1.7 million people died or were mutilated in this 60-mile region in just two years. That history hit me hard on the seventh day of my trip, on a recently added spur to the trail. Stage 17 cuts south of the original route, ascending to an open-air museum on Kolovrat Ridge. The Šoca Valley spreads out nearly 3,700 feet below, and I can see both the Julian Alps and the Italian border. I spend a few hours exploring the trenches built into the rocky slopes: spaces narrower than an airplane aisle, as cramped and dark as animal burrows. I think of all the young men who lived, fought, and died here. The wind blows strong and chilly.

When I’m ready, a hired car drives me back down to the valley, dropping me halfway through stage 13 near a fast-moving section of the Soča River. Over the next seven miles, the wildness strips away my sorrow related to what we humans do to one another in the name of power. I scramble over boulders, slip along rock faces, and bounce across suspension bridges while the occasional kayaker shoots the rapids below. I emerge a few hours later on the road to Bovec, where I’ll spend my last night. I glimpse a waterfall rushing full force after the winter snowmelt and recent rainfall.

Left: A car topped by a white and orange car cover. Right: A woman swimming in the Soča River.

The 86-mile Soča River is a popular destination for swimming, kayaking, rafting, and fishing.

Photos by Julia Nimke

My room at the intimate Hotel Dobra Vila feels airlifted from the Weimar Republic: a canopy bed, an elaborate claw-foot tub, a vintage phone, floor-to-ceiling casement windows dressed with red velvet curtains. When I wake up on my final morning, it’s raining in earnest. As I pull on my waterproof pants and jacket, the desk clerk looks concerned. “It’s not a good day for hiking,” he says. The river rocks will be treacherous and lightning is forecast. “But I’m here,” I tell him. I’ve committed to walking a certain number of days, of miles. I have a goal. Am I going to let rain defeat me? He shakes his head.

Oops. Wrong lesson.

After a moment of internal struggle, I unzip my jacket. I’ve seen so much on this trip, walked nearly 90 miles across hundreds of years of history, through wilderness and tiny towns. I’ve seen the awe-inspiring and the heart-breaking, witnessed a season unfold. What if I accepted that as enough? Maybe, rather than push it, it would be OK, more than OK, to sit by the fire in the hotel’s library, to gaze out the window at the mountains, to humbly enjoy the view. And so I do.

To listen to Peggy’s account of her adventures on the Juliana Trail, listen to her podcast episode on the fourth season of Travel Tales:A Walk on the Slovenian Side.”

Peggy Orenstein is a contributing writer for AFAR and a frequent contributor to The New York Times. She is the author of Boys & Sex, Girls & Sex, and Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Her latest book is a memoir, Unraveling: What I Learned About Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool and Making the World’s Ugliest Sweater.
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