It’s taken a long time to get this story wrapped up, as I had some media upload issues on the PC, but I’m pleased to have it done now (before Christmas!) – using the iPhone (coincidentally the iPhone also got us round this ride, after finding the route had not uploaded properly to the Garmin Etrex – thank you phone!)
…I am pretty sure that many of you will agree with me that the best way to discover a country – particularly a small country is by bike, any bike is fine, however a mountain bike lets you get into all the exciting bits – unrestricted adventure up close and personal!
I feel quite lucky and privileged to go bike-packing, not everyone is fond of the appeal, I find it ‘re-sets’ your basic needs, it allows a good detox from the usual pressures, mechanisms and routines of our modern lives and as an added bonus you get intimate with the environment that you are passing through.
So why Slovenia?
Wonderful wood stacks.
Well last year I toured the Trans-Pyrenees with fellow local adventure companion – Mark Wildsmith. It was Mark’s first ‘big’ bike-pack tour and probably a big ask for someone to do – at quite a fast pace and with little ‘roughing-it’ experience. At the journeys end it was clear to see that Mark had ‘found the love’ of this type of adventure holiday… [I think…] This basically comprised big-days on the bike, lots of great eating, the odd beer or two at the end of a long day and either the thrill of a bivvy in the wilds or the relative luxury of a hotel, which provide good recovery and a good rest and clean-up opportunity.
Sorry I still haven’t answered the question…
Located at the eastern end of the Alps, slightly off the beaten track, with a wide variety of landscapes and a tested bike-packing route to follow, Slovenia sounded appealing. I have a fondness for Eastern Europe and have enjoyed several trips to what were the former Yugoslavian states. Also for this trip we would experience some of Croatia as well, since we fly into the Pula, situated on the on the coast – sort of opposite Venice on the other side of the Adriatic.
Fresh water stop
Pula is well worth a few days visit, it is an interesting little city, with Roman architecture and also the less pretty but no less interesting boatyard relics – large ships half built and a collection of large cranes, well worth viewing on a nice evening as they are brought to life by large lights. Sadly the shipbuilding industry there is no-longer, due to in-efficiencies, lack of investment, the odd bit of corruption and the cheaper/better offerings from the Far East. Despite its touristy quaintness Mark and I were keen to leave the place and get on the road and trails. To make life a little easier for us we would take a local train and travel 75km north, our plan for the trip was to do roughly 100-120km a day (plus quite a lot of ascent/decent!). The village of Lupograv is were we get off the train would then have about 75km to ride to where we would pick-up the West Slovenian Loop, at a nice town called Postonja.
Day 1 – Out of Croatia to Slovenia
The train journey was successful and interesting, an old state funded railway, very steady, lots of stops and good way to see some of Western Croatia, it also climbed up to about 400m, which felt good, taking us into the wooded rolling hills. The character inland is much different, most noticeable was the large number of unoccupied and derelict buildings, many of which would make lovely projects. Also as the first part of journey was mostly road, it was noted that there is far less traffic, we were on back-roads, but they were good roads, yet we could often go for 15-20 minutes without a passing vehicle. Also on this section we would be confronted by a closed border crossing, luckily not such a big set-back, perhaps 8kms out n back detour in total, we were surprised to see a big locked gate across a track and coils of razor wire extending in each direction.
After the re-route back to the road, this incurred a hefty re-route to another border crossing point, meaning that our carefully planned off-road trail route to Postonja could not be finished, instead it was more tarmac, but it was quiet and picturesque, so no complaints. We passed through a few villages and it was noted the lack of shops and cafes, that would often be in abundance in somewhere like SE France.
We came into Postonja late afternoon and did not really need to stop for anything, being a bit later than planned we pedalled straight through, in our minds we had an overnight location planned, this was about 25km further in a forested karst landscape. If there is one thing that Slovenia is dominated by, it is forest and limestone, it makes for a pretty yet impenetrable landscape, full of great sink-holes and boulders, a hobbit like landscape even. We enjoyed a dusk explore of some old collapsed caves and disappearing rivers, a magical place. But we had to find a camp spot and it was all looking to bushy and dense. However the forest is good for camping as it regulates the temperature and keeps away the morning cold and dampness, also we could have a little campfire to add some warmth and cosiness to the night. [The fire was in a small pit that was covered over and undetectable afterwards – I don’t like seeing a nice camp-spot splatted with fires everywhere – so enjoy a small fire responsibly, discreetly and leave no trace – everyone’s happy or non-the-wiser…].
Day 2 – Forests, Hills and a Lovely City
Bike in the City – he capital – Ljubjana
Out of the forest (briefly) to head across some plains, also home to Europe’s largest disappearing lake… It was quite an eye-opener seeing this vista early in the morning, I forgot to mention that the route was now following a series of gravel roads, since we had entered the forest shortly after Postonja. The other thing I forgot to mention was that we had no gas to cook on and had spent half the afternoon on the day of our arrival searching Pula for a small screw top gas canister, we found all sort of other gas canisters, but none to fit our stoves, as back-up I had some hexamine blocs for the first night. So the object for today was to visit Decathlon in Ljubjana, we know for sure they have gas there …and they did! We also took advantage of a Slovenian Aldi (form some reason called Hoffer – which is a way better name!!!) to stock up on food and buy some fresh fruit and stuff for lunch. Ljubjana is a lovely city, it is the capital, it is not a big city either, around 300k people. We cycled through the centre, but did not stop as we had spent extra time locating the gas and previously stopped for our lunch in a park, we still had around 60km to go and it was mid-afternoon. Incidentally Ljubjana is the usual start / finish point for the ride, we would of like to start / finish here, unfortunately there are no flights from norther UK airports. It is a city I would like to re-visit again with the Mrs! …Back to the park for a moment, it was interesting to see that many of the locals accompanied there lunches with a can or two of the local beer Lasko!
Leaving the town was exciting as we were straight into forest on some lovely interesting trails, it had become very hilly again and we started to pass the hilltop churches, that would become a frequent sight to us, we pedalled for about 4 hours before it became time to look for a camp spot.
We needed more water and knocked on the door of ‘Hansel and Grettle’ cottage, located in the middle of woods on a hillside, a lovely old dear filled up our bottles, chatted to us in thick Slovenian and waved us off, I wish now I had ask to get her picture as she was a characterful person. Soon after we find a wooded knoll and find some flat ground for our tents. Another great day and so much other stuff that I’ve not mentioned, the photos show some of the highlights.
Day 3 – Off to the Big Mountains
Usually by the 2nd night of camping, you get a better night’s sleep, we had been getting a good amount of sleep, but sometimes minor things like the tent being on an ever so slight slope can cause issues – these modern inflatable mats just seem to be so slippery that they slide out from under you and end up on top of you and it’s a right faff trying to re-position! Anyway the morning was another belter and we were rolling by about 7.30, our camp was up quite high, around 800m and therefore a descent would be instore. Our first main destination / stop of the day would be Lake Bled, but not before visiting another couple of lovely hill top church’s, with stunning views over the cloud filled valleys. We were really starting to like Slovenia! We also passed a villager out early with a wood chopping contraption, so we now knew were all the piles of logs came from, as they are a frequent feature along the trails and lanes. After a stone spitting decent, a café stop and a bit of road we arrived at Lake Bled (Mark says the name in a very good accent!). The beauty of the place was mesmerising, it seemed like a made up fairy-tale set! After some several photo stops on various points of the lake shore we were back on our way, heading up some lovely valleys towards the mountain town of Kranjska Gora. We were expecting a hard section here, but in fact it was a nice steady climb and then a 15km spin along a very good purpose built cycle road. We also had a route choice here, as we had the option of the ‘old’ WSBP route or the ‘new’ one, the new one head introduced more single track and really confirmed the best direction of the route to be a/c, which is the way we were going luckily. The old route headed up high towards the Austrian border, this would have added about 4 hours to the ride and because we were on a longer journey all-together and time-limited we stuck to the new route, up the cycle road and into the town.
Kranjska Gora was another lovely place, there was an ultra-trail run taking place, so there was a good buzz to the place, we had got lunch stuff and decided to carry on out of town and start to head up the river and find a picnic spot, before the big climb… Being a sunny Sunday the place was quite busy, however the climb was not too bad as it was a mix of road and trail, the road was called ‘Russia Street’ as it was built by them and it was cobbled in many places and probably one of best and prettiest cycle climbs that I have done. It took just over an hour and we had climbed about a 1000m up to our highpoint of the whole journey (around 1600m). The decent was all tarmac, but it was twisty and adrenaline fuelled as we were being chased by some German motor bikers, I counted 27 hairpins. We were now in the Soca valley, famed for its blue river and swim spots, however for us it was getting late in the day and quite cool and the appeal for a swim was somewhat minimal after that long chilling descent . We stopped at an old barracks block, now used as a bar and had a lovely half pizza each and some beers. About 2 hours of daylight remained to ride on a little further and find a camp spot. Riding down the Soca valley was stunning, with many stops to looks at the incredible river as it cut through gorges. Being in the valley, quiet camp spots seemed less frequent and it was gone dark before a wrong turn took us to a lovely hidden meadow, which even had a nice picnic table for us – Oh the trails gods!
Day 4 – Waterfalls and Huts and Monster Climbs
We were both well practiced in our morning ‘get-up’ routine – Mark was getting much slicker with every morning and he could now pack his tent away in less than a few minutes. It’s important to get to know your kit on these journeys, so you know what works and what doesn’t – I know one thing for sure and that is, I will try to find some form of grip treatment to add to my mat, so that it stays in place in the tent! Must remember!
We were rolling by about 7.30 and it was a crisp morning, but not quite frosty. We would reach another POI (point of interest) in few Kms and this one is the Slap Boka (or Boka Falls) the highest in Slovenia and well worth the 10 minute walk up to the view point, needless to say no one else there at 8am!
Slovenia’s highest waterfall – very spactacular!
Back to the bikes and we were next on the lookout for a café, we did pass one, but did not open until 10am – bah, never mind. Next up was another big climb – around 1000m. The first 300m was on a nicely graded and very quiet road, then it was a little turn off on to an old military mountain road that climbed endlessly through thick beech forest. The top was eventually reached, we had made good time and decided it was worthwhile doing a 8km detour to a little mountain hut for a coffee and noodle breakfast stop.
Bivak Hilek – A quaint and very well cared for mountain refugio
The hut was quaint and well cared for, no one there, we were not in a rush and decided to air-off our stuff and enjoy a couple of hours chilling out, we also lit the stove as there was a good stack of wood and need some warmth, since the sun was not quite out. Many curious cows wandered past, some taking a close interest in Mark’s tent, which was hung over a get drying. It was a shame not to have timed our arrival for a night stop …next time maybe! The route down the mountain was rough and loose and we were thankful not to have climbed up from that side, the decent was about 1200m, taking us to just 100m above sea level. Once down we were on the look out for a store to re-stock, but it was a Sunday and all the little shops were shut and we were not due to pass a large town until tomorrow, eventually we made do with a filling station, we also wanted a decent meal from somewhere, but cafes and bars were not that forth-coming.
The next section of the route was another ‘new’ bit, that took us up high again on to ridge that form the border with Italy. It was early evening by the time we had climbed up – another 1000m climb! The ridge felt ‘spooky’ as it was a bit dull and the light was fading, we were keen to do another 20-30km of the ridge this evening, as bad weather was due the following day. We past several old WW1 and WW2 fortifications, that proved worthy of inspection, these historical connections really enhanced the journey. We sped quite nicely along a mix of trail and road, however by 8pm we had not yet passed a suitable camp spot, and now being night time it was harder to find a good pitch …but something always comes up. And basically it did, 20min later we found a nice flat grass patch near a log pile and old barn, it was a little bit close to someone else’s building, but we figured our late arrival and early departure and no one be any the wiser of our stay. The barn was handy as it was now a little drizzly and we brewed up and better still it had power sockets – so we could pinch a little electric and charge our depleted batteries and phones – a critical thing when bike-packing believe you me!
Border lookout points
Day 5 – Vineyards and Bush-whacking
Grapes – nice tasting too
A damp start, Mark was up a little earlier, I guess keen to make an exit from our camp spot before daylight, we had observed that Slovenians seem to like to work long hours – particularly the woodsmen, who we frequently saw. It was a good call being up an hour early as it had start to rain at about 6.30 and it was nice to be all packed and ready to go – hopefully to get a decent breakfast somewhere…? It took a while to work our way back down from the ridge to civilisation. The character of the landscape had changed, now out of the mountains and in vineyard country, but not a day to be celebrating as it was drab, the roads seem to drag on and even the sight of the largest ‘single span’ stone arch bridge did not really excite us – we just wanted coffee and food. Luckily it was soon found in the large town of Nova Gorcia that we had just entered. The café was busy, but did not serve food, the waitress pointed us to the bakery and said you can eat it here with the drink – that’s a winner!
This would be the last day on the main loop ride and in the back of our minds was being able to get some way back down the route to Croatia, also in our minds was the heavy rain forecast for later in the day. We pressed on out of town, the route was intricate to follow, and I was thankful of the charging-up of my phone and power-banks, my phone was the main source of navigation, as my Etrex mysteriously had dumped all of my loaded routes… I was cross with that, as the one thing that I wanted it for, was the line to follow on the map! On we went at one point the track disappeared into a lot of wind blown fallen trees and we had come too far to back-track. Bush-whack time, it was like an Adventure Race and I love this sort of stuff, slightly lost, trying to find a trod or a few gaps to tread through, after about 15 minutes we were out and rolling again. We then rode though miles of vineyards, most having been harvested, eventually we found some succulent bunches of grapes and afforded ourselves of some – we were low on food, maybe a few emergency gels left, so the grapes felt lush, maybe a little naughty though…
The next small town eventually arrived and the rain was coming down heavily, we spotted a ‘Hoffer’ and went for it, grabbing lunch and restocking for another (damp) night. The route started to climb again and after a quick map check, we realised we were in for another monster climb, 800m maybe. It was hood up, head-down grinding away, but we had a castle visit to look forward to… and this would be our finale of the West Slovenian Loop, we pressed on at a good cadence and soon ‘boshed’ out the 30km and big climb and even had a sweet single track to the castle, which was a mind blowing sight – built into a massive overhanging cliff. We choose not to make a full visit and satisfied ourselves with a few photos, besides it was a tourist trap and rather busy, we were soon moving again, to find a café to have a short break.
Magical castle built into a cave
The café arrived, but was shut, however the adjacent shop was open and we sat under a sheltered outdoor seating area and watch the rain, turn heavier. We had a chat about the sleeping options and agreed a motel would be the best option as rain was forecast until midnight. We got somewhere booked about 40km, it was 4pm and we were ready for beers and a de-gunge, we nailed the 40km in just over a couple of couple hours. The motel was ideal and had a pizzeria. The guy there gave us a bigger room, which was soon festooned with wet kit, the air-con was set to 30degC and the window opened to let the damp stinky air out!
Day 6 – Borders, Sunshine and Trains
Spin-out on some sweet deserted pavement
We had a pretty big fill at breakfast and it felt lovely to be setting off in dry kit, in dry weather, it was going to be a nice few hours riding, our target was the 13:00 train from a little place called Buzet, 55km away. We could have a gone a shorter, faster route, but decided we had enough time to go the quiet scenic way – it was well worth it and we still made good pace, afforded by a slight tail wind. Soon we were above Buzet at the top of a plateau and decided to find a place to brew-up our last brew of the journey, we soon found a nice quiet village, with a perfect picnic table and lovely view, there was no rush as we had 2hours and it was all downhill to Buzet Station.
We were earlier than planned for the train, but it was nice to see the old and rather graffiti’d beast on the platform. We do what bike-packers do and got our cook-set out and made a brew and cooked some food remnants. It was a pleasant way to round off what had been another stunning and successful bike adventure. To sum things up – Slovatia was a nice balanced ride, not too hard but yet enough of a challenge to feel stretched at times. Slovenia is a place I’d go back to, for the landscapes alone I could live there! but it has so much more to offer, not all of it jumps out and you have to find the best parts. And then the people – modest and unassuming residents, yet very proud of their special little country.
– A five star B-P award👍