On the fourth episode of Travel Tales by AFAR, season four, writer Peggy Orenstein travels to Slovenia to hike through the European country’s newest mountain trail.
Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, this is Travel Tales by AFAR. In every episode, we hear from a traveler about a trip that changed their life. Plus, this season, I’m sitting down with each storyteller to talk about life’s big travel questions. Well, I’m not really sitting down with them, because I’m recording all this from my houseboat in Sausalito, but you know what I mean.
This week, we’re traveling with Peggy Orenstein. Peggy is a New York Times bestselling author, a journalist, and a speaker on gender issues. She’s the author of eight books, including her latest, Unraveling: What I Learned About Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool, and Making the World’s Ugliest Sweater. Great title. She’s also an AFAR contributing writer who really, really loves to hike.
Last year, she came to us and said: Hey, I want to hike through Slovenia. She’d discovered the 167-mile Juliana Trail, which was developed to help spread out the rising number of visitors to this European country. It seems so forward thinking and wise, she said at the time. As we were emerging from the pandemic, she also wanted to tap into the humility that comes with walking long distances. Here’s what she learned along the way.
Aislyn: Peggy, welcome to Travel Tales.
Peggy Orenstein, author: Thank you. It’s nice to be back.
Aislyn: Well, I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about this trip before we actually hear your story. You are a big, you’re a big hiker you actually, the Travel Tale you told several years ago was about your pilgrimage along the Kumano Kodo in Japan. So what led you to this Slovenia hike?
Peggy: I love, I love hiking. I think it’s a great way to see a place. It kind of appeals to both parts of me, which I’ll talk about in a sec. On one hand, I’m a little bit of an extreme person and I need to kind of push myself, um, in order to be happy. And, but also I’m always trying to kind of battle against that. So, like, when I take my family places—we went to, I remember we went to Vietnam and they just at one point, they just rebelled. They just said, “We are not leaving the hotel. You can’t make us.” Because it was a million degrees outside, and I was still going, like, “No, but we have to do this and we have to do this. We’re here! We’ll never be here again. We have to take every opportunity.” So it makes me go small.
Aislyn: That is an interesting tension throughout the story of you, you know, wanting to push yourself, but also really trying to kind of be present and roll with the punches as they were. Has any of that stuck with you now, six months later?
Peggy: I think I always live with that tension. I will take any dare, you know, and I have to sort of control myself. Luckily, I’m married to somebody who is completely against that mentality. And so he sort of keeps me more tethered to, like, you know, “That one’s actually not one you can do.” Or, “That one’s actually dangerous.’ Or, “Please don’t do that.” Or you know, so I stay a little bit in check. But I do think that the hiking, not just this, but the, the the ones that I’ve done leading up to this, have really changed my perception and they really do help you to look at a place in a, in a deeper way.
And I was really conscious a couple of times when I was driving—you know, skipping sections of the trail—I would look out the window and think, “Wow, the leaves are going by so fast.” If I were driving here, I would never stop and look at the serration of the leaves or, you know, look at the trees so closely, look at the landscape so closely.
And one night I was having dinner—this is not in the piece—but I was eating dinner at a kind of fancy restaurant where they were cooking very locally and I, I met my friends on the trail: You know, they had, like, their little beech leaves wrapping things and I had seen those beech leaves. And, you know, they were little—the plants and the flowers, a lot of the produce that they used, I’d walked by and that was a really cool thing.
Aislyn: What do you think it is about walking in particular that can be so, especially over long periods of time or over long mileage, that can be so meditative and actually kind of transformative?
Peggy: I think it forces us out of our modern mentality. I mean if you’re really doing it right, I don’t—to me—I don’t listen to anything. I don’t listen to audiobooks, I don’t, you know, do social media. I don’t call people on the phone and talk—I’ll do that sometimes when I’m home hiking, which is not great—but if I’m going on a multi-day hike in a new place, I’m like, “I’m off.”
And to have that rare time in our society of being off the grid, first of all, is, is wonderful. But also for me, it like, it makes me feel connected to sort of people of all time. Like our, our ancestors, the ancient ones, they walked everywhere and and stopped and looked and they knew their area. And I thought about, you know, Slovenia, especially because there’s a lot of that World War I history there, um, and and the the whole history of changing empires and everything, the people who had been kind of living there through all of it, who’ve lived there always and lived in their various valleys and glens and didn’t know what was going on—or necessarily even care to a degree—what was going on a hundred miles away and were just sort of, you know, able to keep their culture alive, um, in their place origin. And sort of—I don’t know, somehow walking makes me feel more connected to that.
Aislyn: Yeah. The span of humanity.
Peggy: Yeah. Yeah, yeah I know that sounds really crazy in a way but it’s true, right? I mean, you, you’re walking—you’re traveling through the way people have always traveled through there and, and it forces you to think about it a different way. It forces you to think about—and maybe force is a bad word—it encourages you. It encourages you to think in a different way. It encourages you to think about travel in a different way. It encourages you to think about your connection to people and community in a different way. Um, and it also, you know, when you run into people, it encourages you to interact in a more intimate way, I guess. Or you see them more, you know, like, like you actually are present with them in a different way, And I, and I kind of love that, too.
Aislyn: Especially if you’re not, like you said, listening to anything or you’re just very kind of present in this space, there’s an opportunity there.
Peggy: It’s hard for us in our modern society to walk and do nothing else at the same time. I guess the first hike I did and wrote about for AFAR was Kumano Kodo, and I was tempted to take along a bunch of audiobooks when I did that, And then I got there and I thought, “That is, that just takes you out. That is a way of taking yourself out of your experience. And it’s fun and I’m not doing it.” So and that became just sort of a policy. And I think if you’re going to, if you’re going to do something like this, you should be 100 percent fully present the whole time for what is wonderful about it, what’s boring about it, what’s difficult about it, you know, all of it. It’s not like it’s transcendent every single second. You get tired, your legs hurt, your knee aches, you know, you have to be there for all of it.
Peggy, on the trail: Look how beautiful that is. Isn’t that pretty?
Vili Črv, on the trail: It’s difficult to select the top five, but these are the most popular.
Peggy: 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. Vili shakes his head. Those are lesser heights. On a sunny day, he tells me, I’d be able to spot Mount Triglav, which is so close to the heart of residents of this Central European country that it is featured on the flag. But it isn’t a sunny day: I’m sampling the Juliana Trail in a soggy spring. The 167-mile loop takes travelers around the park and over the foothills of the Julian Alps.
I could feel badly about this, as Vili 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 only seen at night when they are active, peers up at me from the woodland floor. Best of all, on this first day of my trip, Vili and I have the trail to ourselves.
The same is true when I arrive in Kranjska Gora that afternoon, after parting ways with Vili. In off-season April, the Alpine resort town of chalets, restaurants, and bars is as deserted as the cities in 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, a 27-year-old man who owns Kosobrin with his mother, Moyca, acts as my personal chef.
He seats me by the fire and brings a charcuterie assortment on a wood 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, along with a basket of homemade bread. He follows up with pork shoulder draped over coarsely chopped, sautéed potatoes. He then insists that I try two desserts, a cheese dumpling, the dough rolled thin enough to see through, and strudel filled with local blueberries he froze last summer. Given that I just hiked a brisk eight miles, I’m delighted to exceed my personal limits.
Peggy, on the trail: First day out on the trail, um, for real. Uh, I’m walking through meadows, uh, with the mountains above me that are swathed in clouds through small towns. Um, the fields are completely full of dandelions, which is really sweet. Um, it makes me think, why do we eradicate them? They’re lovely little flowers.
Peggy, voiceover: Quiet solitude is integral to the Juliana Trail. The project was the brainchild of 12 municipalities in response to a rising dilemma. Slovenia is roughly the size of New Jersey and surrounded by Croatia, Italy, Austria, and Hungary. Until recently, the country had been a land of shifting borders. For centuries, Slovenia was a part of the Habsburg empire and later, the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was annexed by Italy after the First World War, then folded into Yugoslavia after the second. The country became independent for the first time in 1991 and joined the European Union in 2004.
By 2017, it had exceeded 5.5 million visitors a year. It’s easy to see why: The climate in this tiny region ranges from Alpine to Mediterranean. Within a few hours it’s possible to hike in the mountains, bike through the vineyards, and relax 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 encounter literary landmarks, traditional cuisine, and folk music, as well as Slovenian history and relics of World War I battles. Travelers can backpack or forward luggage through a booking service; stay at campgrounds, inns, or grand hotels; cook their own food or eat farm to table.
I’m the kind of traveler who always 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. Because, 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 only cover so much ground. The Juliana Trail will force me shift my focus from rushing from place to place to be sure I tick every box to appreciating smaller, slower, and perhaps more spontaneous moments.
Peggy, on the trail: Well, I guess you don’t sleep past seven here because the morning bell just went off. But I was up, anyway, really early. I decided that—yesterday, I made a wrong turn and I missed the Church of St. Peter, which is at the top of the mountain, and I thought, “I know what I’ll do. I’ll go at six in the morning and I’ll climb up there.” And that seemed like a really good idea—and then I got halfway up the mountain and thought, “Uh oh.”
I could not figure out the trails. They were going left. They were going right. They were going up. They were going down. And, um, I thought, “You know, this is how people wander into the wilderness and they don’t get found again.”
Peggy, voiceover: The muddy aftermath of an end-of-season snowstorm has thwarted my next day’s plans. So I get a ride to Jesenice, a former iron-mining town near the Austrian border. 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-yard gardens. A cuckoo calls, and I reach for my pocket. According to local legend, if you’re carrying money when you hear the first 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 essential to sustaining Slovenian identity during those centuries of outside rule. As a writer myself, I love that.
I stop for the lunch packed for me by my hotel—sandwiches filled with ham and local cheese, along with an apple, an orange, and a chocolate bar. I eat on a wooden bench next to an inexplicable, rough-whittled statue of 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, the man laughs, turns to say something to me that I can’t understand. I smile back, in no rush, sharing the moment.
The next morning, the trail passes through Radovljica, a medieval town with a real-life moat. Seventeenth-century frescoes grace some of the pastel-colored buildings on the main square, mostly Bible-themed. As it turns out, 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 in the main square, depicts the Madonna and child. There are hunting scenes and images of village life. There is also a man feeding his wife headfirst into a flour mill and a devil sharpening a woman’s tongue on a grindstone. Medieval Europeans: not so feminist.
To recover my composure, I buy a few homemade bonbons at Radovljica chocolatier down the street. 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.
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, so home vegetable gardens are common in Slovenia: 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 an eponymous glacial lake. A church spire points skyward from an island in the center of the water; a fairy-tale castle, which dates to 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 haven’t done enough! I can go farther! I can rest when I get home! So I hike 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 the water revives me. I crisscross the river, past waterfalls, stone cairns built by visitors, and a stone railroad bridge. Then I hurry back to town, thinking I can still catch the last boat to the island in the center of the lake. I’m too late. Although this has been a spectacular day, I wrestle with a niggling regret.
That concern disappears–OK, mostly–by the following morning as I tie my boots on and head out on an equally stunning, lesser-known stretch of trail. Lake Bohinj, my next stop, 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 sit on a quiet dock in the town of Stara Fužina. It’s too cold to swim, so I opt instead for my hotel’s “wellness spa”: saunas, a steam room, a salt wall room, and an outdoor whirlpool, punctuated by an ice fountain and bracing multi-jet 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 of trying all the offerings, my shoulders relax, 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.
Peggy, on the trail: I’m just about to start day four, um, of my trail. I’ve had the most beautiful night tonight, um, in the Bohinj Hotel, and I took a sauna last night, I had a wonderful dinner of local trout, and I think I’ve finally gotten this down. I woke up this morning, and I can see the lake out my window, and the mist floating over the lake, and the mountains looming above, and the green of the grass, and I can’t wait to get back out onto the trail.
Peggy, voiceover: I am cooked in a different way–physically and mentally–the next day, though it’s really my own fault.
Perhaps you are the kind of person who is totally organized, never forgets anything. Maybe you are not someone who, for instance, leaves your favorite leather jacket, the one that you paid more for than you ever imagined you would spend on a garment, hanging on a hook in the bathroom in Heathrow before boarding a transatlantic flight. Or the kind of person who leaves their wallet in a taxicab in Hiroshima, Japan, forcing your friends to call every cab company in town until they locate the right one, where it is waiting for you sealed in a pristine plastic pouch.
Perhaps you are not the kind of person who realizes, halfway along a nine-mile trail, that you didn’t zip the pocket where your phone was. Lucky you. As for me, several miles after leaving Lake Bohinj, I realize that my phone is no longer on my body. So I backtrack. For miles. My itinerary is on that phone, including my trail maps, the name and location of my next hotel, and my emergency contacts.
All the way back to Bohinj, I scan the ground, and then turn around to do it again, my third go at this stretch of trail. After a couple more increasingly panicky miles, I pass an elderly man tilling his garden who gestures and starts talking to me in Slovenian. He points down the road to where a lady with a dog is standing. I passed her at least 45 minutes earlier, and she has been waiting for me all this time. I nearly weep when I’m reunited with the precious. I thank her profusely, put the phone into my pocket, and zip it extravagantly.
As I resume my journey, walking toward the town of Bohinjksa Bistrica, I try to think about the gift my flakiness gives me: faith in human nature. When I lose something, some kind, lovely stranger nearly always returns it to me. For every moment of frustration my absent-mindedness creates in my life, I have experienced one of grace.
Peggy, on the trail: There’s something about a mountain, the scope of it, the majesty. And I’ve been to the top of mountains, you know, I’ve been to the top of the Tetons and looked out over the national park. I have been at 12,000 feet on a mountain in Yunnan, China, and looked at the snow and looked down at the world.
And I love going to the top of mountains, but I don’t know. I also think there’s something about being at the bottom of a mountain and being able to look up. And maybe you can’t see what’s past it. Maybe you don’t know what’s past it. Maybe you’ll never know what’s past it. But imagining what’s on the other side and also, just having them watch over you, maybe. I can understand why people used to worship mountains and give them names of gods.
Peggy, voiceover: Hiking the foothills of mountains does not mean staying level. On the next part of the trail, I am guided by Jožko Dakskobler, a firefighter and mountaineer in his seventies. Despite his age, Jožko has the dexterity of a mountain goat. This hike reminds me, not for the first time, that there is “good shape” and there is Slovenian good shape. People here are among the most physically active in the world—nearly everyone hikes or skis or kayaks or climbs. Some do it all. The Juliana Trail is not technically challenging, but one does need to be fit.
Today we will ascend nearly 2,000 feet. Jožko 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 of the 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 200 feet and open my arms wide in delight.
“This,” Jožko announces, “is paradise number one!” He opens his backpack, fishing out two shot glasses and a small, green bottle. 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.”
With a jolt, I notice the hand-written label says slivovitz, a potent plum brandy, that Jožko tells me he made himself. My father, who had died seven months earlier, suffered from dementia in the last years of his life: At one point, he would periodically shout “Slivovitz!” then burst out laughing. His dad was from Eastern Europe, but still, I never knew why. Tears prick my eyes. I clink my glass against Jožko’s then raise it to the sky, “Hey, Dad!” I say, “Slivovitz!” and I gulp it down.
A few hours later, we arrive at “paradise number two,”a panoramic view of the Soča Valley. The river that’s snaking through the valley is the precise color of a mermaid’s tail, a trick of the light sparkling off suspended bedrock. This is wine country, the south side of the mountain range, edging toward Italy; there is even the occasional palm tree among the grapevines and red-roofed stone villages.
Jožko again brandishes the slivovitz—it turns out that the one drink rule 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. We head down the slope and I spend the afternoon relaxing on the riverside patio at the family-run Penzion Šterk, watching boaters and basking in my slivovitz buzz.
It’s hard to believe that the bucolic Soča Valley was once among the bloodiest fronts of World War I. Almost 2 million people were mutilated or died in this 60-mile region in just two years.
That history hits me hard on the eighth day of my trip, as I hike a recently added spur to the trail. It 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 that soldiers had built into the rocky slopes, spaces 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.
I continue on to a fast-moving section of the Soča River. Over the next seven miles, the wildness strips away my sorrow over what we humans do to one another in the name of power. I scramble over boulders, slip along rock faces, 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 catch a glimpse of the Boka waterfall, rushing full force after the winter snowmelt and recent rainfall.
Peggy, on the trail: This is where I really struggle with myself because it’s raining, um, and it’s not raining that hard. But it’s going to be raining all day long. And this is one of those moments where I can talk about being humble before nature, but really how humble am I before my own inner demons, a feeling that, what if I say that I’m not going to hike in the rain and I miss the most spectacular moment of my trip? But you could also say, “What if I say I’m not going to hike in the rain, and I have a completely joyous day sitting downstairs in this hotel’s adorable 1930s library, reading, and writing, and thinking?” Sigh. I just don’t know what to do.
Peggy, voiceover: 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 at my hotel 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 and I catch myself. 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 heartbreaking, 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.
Aislyn: That was Peggy Orenstein. We’ll link to her AFAR story about hiking the Kumano Kodo, as well as to her books, website, and social media handles in the show notes. If you want more on the backstories of each episode, be sure to subscribe to our Behind the Mic email. We’ll include a link to that in our show notes as well.
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This has been Travel Tales, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composed and produced by Strike Audio.
Everyone has a travel tale. What’s yours?
Peggy, on the trail: [Singing] Gloria, Gloria. I really got your number. Oh yeah. Oh god, you can’t get away from it. You can’t get away from American pop music wherever you go.