A fairytale travel following the Soča River, Slovenia (Zagreb, Croatia to Jesenice, Slovenia)

We sat in a minivan loaded with five young Czechs. Everything was going so well until they swapped from English and had an intense discussion. Having been picked up from a petrol station just outside of Zagreb, Croatia, they were coming from a sailing trip on the coast and now heading to Prague (the capital of Czech Republic) and directly to Slovenia, by Ljubljana our destination, we jumped onboard eagerly. Ten minutes down the highway the girl which spoke english best turned around and explained they had taken the wrong highway, and misread their direction and in fact were not going by Ljubljana.

They were extremely apologetic and kind about the situation. They told us how one of the couples in the van had hitchhiked 2 years ago and seeing us standing beside the road felt they had to pick us up. Now driving off the motorway and seeing it was absolutely deserted, they kindly drove back onto it and continued another 10km to a petrol station. We figured it was still a decent spot, somewhat quieter than the previous station but now the Slovenian border sat only 10km away and Ljubljana another 100km.

As it was around lunch time the business of the petrol station soon became non existent. Midday flew by to late afternoon and we stood at the entry ramp feeling worried. Our previous days  hitching had been our worst yet, a 5 hour wait, and now again, we were creeping up on that figure. Unsure of what had fallen upon us, we resorted to our desperate approach and started asking every driver if they could give us a lift across the border. After an endless amount of “sorry no english” or simply shaken heads, a lovely Serbian lady felt so sorry for us she felt obliged to help. Her husband was not impressed and it took some convincing in Serbian however shortly after we had our packs in their car and carrying on.

Having the time before the border to explain our story and where we were going, they offered to drop us on the outskirts of Ljubljana as they were heading home from Serbia to Austria. A massive 16hr drive. The lady was extremely kind and easy to talk with and before long we were dropped just off the main ring road at a McDonalds. We had pre-booked a hostel similar to the night before and could only put down our terrible luck of hitchhiking to that! When we had no plans to be somewhere definitely, the laws of hitchhiking work best. A quick wifi check of how far our hostel was stated a 40 minute walk. Thankfully Ljubljana is a tiny capital city as our hostel was directly in the middle and as we began the walk, the sun setting. We walked through the beautiful fairytale city for the first time by night, its historic old buildings and cobble stone roads lit majestically by pretty street lamps. It was a beautiful sight, eliminating all care of the difficult day. We checked into our hostel and went to sleep exhausted.

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The next morning we woke with only a few hours to explore the beauty which we witness the night before. It was unfortunately raining although we still explored the large castle looking over the city and all the quirky small streets which follow the central canal. Time of course alluded us and we found ourselves speed walking then black riding a bus to where we had plans to hitchhike north to a lined up coachsurfer in the tiny town called Branik, 95km away and in the depths off to beaten track. It was 3pm and was going to take all our luck, contrary to the past two days of hitchhiking..

An hour past before a friendly guy offered to take us to the next town 15km away. It was a start as the sun was only a couple hours away from setting. With poor communication and assuming there would be a petrol station on the freeway, we found ourselves being dropped in the tinniest town and with no where to hitch from. As a result we stood where cars had just a small stretch of grass to pull in before entering the motorway with options to go either direction. Another hour flew by and we knew we were in trouble. The nights were becoming borderline too cold to camp, and there was a lot of traffic except it was heading back to Ljubljana. Desperate, and knowing we had failed for the first time hitchhiking, we rewrote a sign reading Ljubljana and in 5 minutes was on our way back with an older Slovenian man.

On the way we weighed up whether to continue hitchhiking but the likely hood before dark was extremely thin. We swallowed our pride and as a suggestion from our kind driver, was dropped at the bus terminal to check whether one could be an option. It wasn’t. The thought of spending money on a bus and the fact none went remotely close to our couchsurfers took us walking back into the city and finding the cheapest hostel again. It was a sad day, to have finally not been able to successfully hitchhike to a destination, but we put it down to our poor use of time and thought at least, we always had each other and a cheap roof over our heads. We apologised to our couchsurfer and asked whether if was still possible to stay for the next night. Darja our lovey host, said of course it was fine.

The next day we did not make the same mistake. By 10am we were walking the 6km to the outskirts of Ljubljana and standing at the familiar hitchhiking spot. On the metal power post was an army of hitchhiking stickers. Funny we could see a long white one which read #thelimitlessones. We wondered how that got there ;). Within five minutes our hitchhiking luck was renewed when a lady on her way to work 100km away in the town of Nova Gorica, the location we were heading as Darja worked there and offered pick us up once finished, pulled in and told us she would happily take us. As it turned out her husband had done a similar trip when younger and she felt empathic towards us. It was a pleasant drive and within an hour, just past midday ,we were laying in a park waiting until 4pm when Darja would finish work.

Slovenia meant something special to me (Jian). It was the birth country of my grandmother and we had plans to retrace her childhood and younger years. It began in Ljubljana when we explored the city she spend her young twenties in. Our next plans were in hopes of Darja being able to help find long lost second cousins who lived in Nova Gorica. When we met the incredible lovely lady it was as if fate set us up with the right person. She had been teaching at a primary schools for decades and as all i had were names, knew instantly who they were, even having taught some. It was an incredibly humbling experience staying with Darja in her very authentic self built family home in the countryside of a small Slovenia town. A truely powerful insight to the country my grandmother had grown up in. That night we thanked her tremendously for giving us a bed, cooking us dinner and being so full of information on Slovenia. It had been an amazing day!

The retracing did not stop there however. When we woke the next day to Darja and her family left for work. We were quickly out the door and making our way along bustling vineyards and growing vegetable gardens to find the train station. Yes! We were catching a train but it was 1.70€ to Nova Gorica and a beautiful view over the surrounding small villages. Rolling hills of agriculture, mainly grapes, with traditional white two story houses and sprawled vegetable gardens were spread over the landscape. It was as if stepping back a century ago, humble and peaceful. Once in Nova Gorica we did the typical and walked through the town and to where we could hitchhike from. It was on the northern edge and beside the extremely beautiful Soča river. From here we had plans to follow the river/valley its entire length into the mountains where it began in Triglav National Park. My Grandmother had lived as a teenager during WWII and as a result moved from village to village along the Soča river. Our days goal was to reach Kanal, her birthplace and stay there for a couple of nights with a couchsurfer. It was only 25km away however we only plans to hitchhiked 15km then walk the rest along the river, retracing a route which she had done frequently as a child.

We were picked up within 5 minutes, mainly due to the town we had on our cardboard sign was only 15km away. From here, the small village of Plave, the bridge to cross the river and begin our walk was under construction, resulting in us having to walk along the narrow winding valley road. It had some hairy corners where we were leaning up against the metal railing upon hearing passing cars. After 5km we were at the next town and able to cross onto the quieter side where a gentle, uncrowded road followed the river closely and connected tiny villages. We almost saw no people the entire time and with the beautiful steady flow of the river on our right and a simple, traditional lifestyle of living on our left, the remaining 10km was a peaceful, touching experience to imagine where my grandmother had once lived.img_5399

We entered Kanal through the fairytale connecting village of Gorenja Vas. Being lead by the road  past the train station, still exactly the same as described by my grandmother, under the crossing and over the famous bridge which all traffic taking the valley main road crossed, we stood on its centre and looked down at the incredibly emerald coloured water. The buildings each side were painted in an array of colours, reflecting happiness and joy. In the centre of the small town stood a tall white church, again accurately described to us and a bakery, supermarket and two hotel/pubs. It was a moving experience to just be there, and for the next two days, with the help Ksenija our couchsurfer who so kindly let us stay in her century old house right in the centre of the village, we continued exploring the small town and imagining what it would have felt like to live there.
(Thank you Ksenija and little Metaja for having us!)img_5352
Two mornings later walked through Kanal and across its amazing bridge on our way to the a hitchhiking spot. It was just around a bend and perfect for cars to pull in. Being early, 9am, the weather was getting incredibly colder although being a beautifully sunny day. We planned to hitchhiked only 25km to a well known town called Tolmin. As for the nights accomodation we had nothing planned however were fearful of the near negative night temperatures. A Tolmin local old man picked us up who introduced himself in an array of languages. We picked english however and it was his last option, resulting in very till conversation. The drive through the valley was amazing and upon emerging into the large space where Tolmin resided, it was one of our most beautiful sites. Enormous snow capped mountains cradled the town with a typical European alpine village vibe. Mountain flowers of  distinct colours grew in paddocks and off tall pointed roofed houses everywhere. It took our breath away.

Our driver kindly dropped us in the centre of the town and we thanked him. Finding wifi which it seemed every Slovenia town had for free, we made some plans. Ksenija had told us of a canyon on Tolmin’s outskirts and we began the 4km walk towards it. Another suggestion was a blue wooden church a further 6km up a mountain from the canyon. We decided we would try and camp there, still anxious whether our gear would be warm enough so as we walked past a supermarket and noticed a bin full of cardboard, strapped a large sheet to our bags to use for more ground insulation. At this time of year the area seemed non existent to tourism but upon nearing the canyon entrance there was a ticket box which we tried to sneak past.img_5420img_5486

It didn’t work and we hesitantly paid the 4€ each entrance fee, finding it was well worth it as nobody else was around. Huge green walls of raw rock threatened to engulf us either side as we walked along the now commonly incredibly blue coloured water of Slovenia. Our circuit path took us through cave passes and over bridges. There was even a thermal spring pooling out of an underground gave which, very sketchily, we climbed down the gorge walls to stand in. The indescribably blue water was so rich that when the sun shone through the canyon at a certain hour, it reflected on the moss covered wall. We left in awe however now exhausted from so much walking, weighed up whether a further 6km up a mountain and freezing conditions would be a smart decision.

We decided against it, feeling defeat and a little off course. That night we found the only option of a hostel, braking the budget on 18€ each a night however had a queen size bed in an empty 18share room giving us a well needed nights sleep. We were up early the next morning, enjoying a free breakfast then back on track walking to find a place to hitchhike further up the Soča river. We agreed to attempt camping this night, hoping to reach the town of Bovec and explore apparently the most beautiful part yet of the Soča river. We had no idea how amazing an adventure the world was about to through at us, standing with our thumbs out and a cardboard sign.

After half an hour of waiting and little traffic, we glimpsed a French number plated car and lifted in enthusiasm. Our past experiences had taught us the French are most willing to pick up hitchhikers. As if hearing our plea, they pulled in and we met Jonas and Xaiver, two long time Belgium friends who were coming back from Croatia and having decided it was not what they were looking for, came to explore the Soča river and valley. Little did we know that they were going to become one of those incredible experiences hitchhiking, and having no plans, can unravel.

Immediately as conversation began it was obvious they were fun adventurous people, telling us they always picked up a hitchhiker as it offered a completely new opportunity for something interesting. Jonas, the driver and owner of the car was working in France and had some time off work where he drove and picked Xaiver up from where he currently lived in the Italian Alps of Tyrol. He had lived there for 6 months to learn Italian, having previously come from Spain where he did the same. They were both extreme adventurers, loving the outdoors and enjoyed camping. We told them of a waterfall on the way to Bovec, which was where they were heading, and they excitedly agreed to going.
It was beginning to become common, the sight we saw, yet still took our breath away. A long suspension bridge took us over a fake looking blue coloured Soča then into a thick forest where had we seen a mythical creature, it would have simply fit in. A stone path took us deeper and followed a small creek until a boardwalk rising in steps lead into a hidden gorge. There, an emerald green private fairies pool being replenished by a waterfall free falling between a slit in the gorge, was the treasure. Without any communication, the Belgium’s were undressing and crawled straight into the 6 degree pool. The only right option seemed to be to join and it stole our breath away! Literally.

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We hurried back to the car then commenced the drive to Bovec. It was a smaller town then Tolmin and while we made an estimated guess to where the “most beautiful” part of the Soca laid, we guessed wrong and found ourselves walking up a track following the river until coming across a bunch of canoers. We asked the guide and he thankfully knew the exact location, 10km further along the river so we walked back and drove to the spot. As we approached we crossed a bridge where the river now became tall canyon. Below the water appeared to be even clearer, bluer and large fish, nearing half a meter, idled calmly in its depths. It truely was somehow even more beautiful and we once again, found ourselves jumping and flipping into the freezing water. It numbed our bodies, but we felt incredibly alive!img_5582

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We ate lunch in the picnic area, still empty of tourists. It was still a sunny day however low in temperature. Talk among us of what to do for the night was serious and as we asked the Belgium’s, they said we should tag along as they were driving over the mountain pass and going to find somewhere to camp. With no plans and having seen everything we had hoped, we figured why not and before long we were 1800m above sea level crossing the amazing Triglav National Park. After an insanely steep decent and winding road, we were in the town of Kranjska Gora and having found a waterfall only 10km away in previous research, the easy going Belgium’s were quick to say “lets go!”. Darkness was only an hour away now but as we drove down the deserted gravel road into the woods, we had little consideration towards it. We were about to see yet another amazing landmark.

The carpark was empty, as well as the pay booth with which we were happy as having to pay for a natural phenomenon seemed outrageous when it had no infrastructure. A simply gravel path, leading to dirt was what we followed with the distinct sound and view of a huge waterfall in the distance. It already looked magical, however we were even more blown away when we reached its bottom. We were able to walk directly under the overhanging large cliff where the mass of water plummeted 50 meters into a small circled pool. Surrounding us were raw stones, thick autumn pines and mountains. It felt as if something out of a fantasy novel and we could not believe the abundance of amazing nature the past week had involved. Taking photos were especially difficult as under the over hang dripping water made it appear raining. The outside temperature began nearing zero and now shivering and wet, the realisation of a place to sleep became seemingly apparent.

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img_5692We had to camp. Not because there was no other option as we unexpectedly passed a hostel on the way to the falls but because we had to test our comfort zone. We had thermals, 3/4 blow up camping matts, comfort at 3 degree sleeping bags and plenty of layers. We had to try it, besides one night of coldness couldn’t harm.. The four of us drove down backstreets of a tiny town until we found a logging site and the most unusual area. Along the banks of a shallow running river and behind the piles of logged trees, we discovered an area which seemed to be some form of hippie nature holiday camping area build out of timber offcuts. It had a fireplace, benches, seats, tables and the perfect space for tents. It felt like we were meant to find it, and thankfully we did because as we set our tents up and darkness consumed everything, the temperature became negative and stocking the fire wildly, we had warmth until crawling into our frozen beds.img_5722

The Belgium’s had slept well, having the correct gear to endure the cold. We both had 3 layers on our legs, 5 on top and multiple socks and beanies. We awoke constrained by all our clothing yet in the early hours, managed to find some sleep. It was 7am and the sun was just rising and while we began packing up our tent shivering, we agreed camping was no longer an option. This was going to change things drastically as our plans were to continue heading north towards the UK and it only was going to get colder. Our immediate plans however were non existent and we asked our friends if we could tag along for another day, seeing where it would take us. They were happily to have us.

We drove for 2 hours, past the well known lake Bled and to a second lake named Bohinj. A friend of Xavier’s had told and sent him an incredible photo of a cave in the region and because we could not find any information on the internet or from locals of its where abouts, ended in realising it had been a hoax! We tried to rectify the situation and made use of the area by climbing off track, to avoid a pay booth, to a waterfall which was drastically crowded by tourists. It had been a disappointing start and like all unexpected delightful situations, the day ended in it being back to two. Jonas and Xaiver were heading back past where we had camped the night before and further east to the Italian Alps. Our initial plans were to head into them too, on the way to the UK but due to camping being to dangerous now, we asked to be dropped at the motorway intersection where cars headed in the direction of Austria. We would try and reach Munich and a hostel by the night, 400km away…

(81km walked, 492km hitchhiked)

 

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