Saturday, June 22, 2013


The northwest corner of Slovenia might be the most beautiful place I have ever been. The Julian Alps (named for Julius Caesar) are spectacular.

Roofed Slovenian hayracks are recognized as part of the national heritage and are now preserved.
The advertising on the hayrack below makes it just a little less quaint, don't you think?

A local Slovene Roman Catholic priest named Jakob Aljaz (1845-1927), who was passionate about mountaineering, had mountain huts and hiking trails built throughout the Julian Alps and is credited with starting mountain tourism in Slovenia. A strategically placed statue has him waving at Mt. Triglav across the valley, which is Slovenia's tallest mountain at 9,396 feet and its national symbol. Its image is on the Slovenian coat of arms, which is part of the national flag. The picture below shows the back of the mountain. Its three points are less obvious from this view.

It can also be found on Slovenia's version of the 50 cent euro:

Just a little shorter than Mt. Triglav but even more dramatic is Spik Mountain (a cognate of the English "spike"):
Mt. Spik and its accompanying mountains filled our view, making it hard to believe Spik is only 8,110 feet tall, which is relatively short compared to the Rockies or Sierras.
There is gorgeous scenery in every direction:
 Could this be Jedi Goulash? Obi Wan Kenobi, where are you?

We spotted what we thought was a mountain goat statue and pulled over to take a look. Turns out it is the zlatarog, or "golden horn," a mythical creature who once lived in the heights of Mt. Triglav and guarded its treasures. Here he stands overlooking small Lake Jasna, which is the deep green of emeralds and the forest and yet so clear that each rock at the bottom can be clearly seen.

Shortly after passing this lake, we started our ascent to Vrsic Pass via twenty-four hairpin turns.  They are cobbled to provide better traction, and numbered so that those of us with queasy stomachs know when the torture will end. Hairpin #15 is at an elevation of 1313 meters, or 4308 feet.

The road was built during World War I by 10,000 Russian POWs to give troops fighting in the mountains better access to supplies.

Just after switchback #8, there is a little fountain at the side of the road and a set of stairs leading up into the forest.

This area gets a lot of snow, and in March of 1916, a huge avalanche killed about 300 of the Russian POWs working on the road. As the dead were being buried, the idea for this chapel was born, and during the next year, the remaining Russian prisoners built this beautiful Russian Orthodox memorial chapel on the site where the final body was discovered. It honors not just those who died in the avalanche, but also those who suffered and died during the construction of what has come to be known as the Russian Road.

During the Yugoslavian Period, this chapel was largely ignored by other than local tourists, but when Slovenia declared its independence in 1991 and diplomatic relations were restored with Russia, this little chapel became an important symbol connecting the two nations. It was fully restored in 2005-2006. Each year a commemorative event is held here, attended by officials from both countries.

Unfortunately, it was locked up when we were there, and we did not get to go inside. However, we were the only visitors, which allowed us to truly enjoy our stay. The grounds surrounding the chapel include several benches. Clearly it is a place meant for contemplation.

 Many of the dead are buried beneath this headstone, which is engraved with the Cyrillic words for "Sons of Russia" and adorned with fresh flowers.

Another cross is on the hill above the chapel, and what appears to be a second burial site is just below the chapel:

We continued our ascent to Vrsic Pass, elevation 5,285 feet. This road is typically open only seven months of the year and is completely shut down in the winter. I was intrigued by the ground, which looks like green moguls. I wonder what makes these little hillocks?
Near the top of the pass is Mt. Prisank, famous for its natural window near the top right, and for the face of a girl almost directly below.  The legend is that this girl is Ajda, a pagan who accurately predicted the death (and thereby extinction) of the mythical, magical zlatarog that we saw the statue of by the lake at the bottom of the pass.

I nice plaque in English helped us find the two natural wonders:

My zoomed in shot of poor Ajda, condemned to live forever in stone:
We were so glad for signs to show us the way . . . NOT.
 This little hut at the top of the pass sold snacks and postcards but lacked a bathroom.
Several people were standing next to it and watching the mountain with binoculars.  I had brought along our little binoculars and ran back to the car to get them.  Look closely at the spots indicated by the arrows.  See anything?
My binoculars and then the zoom lens on my camera revealed a group of brave mountaineers. Some day this might be my rock-climbing son, but he will probably be rappelling from one of those stony peaks.

I was desperate for a bathroom and in the process of assessing the relative sizes of bushes when I noticed a nice little villa across the way. We made our way over to it and discovered that it was a small restaurant, and YES! It had a bathroom!

I was so grateful for their facilities that we ended up ordering a small plate of bratwurst and sauerkraut to share. With the Austrian border only a few miles away, it was no surprise that the menu had a German-Austrian bent.

Our dining vista was beautiful, just as it had been earlier in the day at Lake Bled.
While there, we also tried two new (to us) sodas: Tangerine Schweppe's and Cockta. Both were horrid.
However, the Cockta has an interesting story.  It was invented in Slovenia in the 1950s to compete with sodas being shipped in from overseas. Supposedly scientists analyzed the flavors of Coca-Cola and then came up with their own twist.  Cockta's main ingredient comes from the rose hip, and it also contains ten other herbs that all grow in Slovenia, making it a truly "national" beverage.  It does not contain any caffeine or the artificial ingredients found in Coke, and it's billed as a "healthy" alternative to other soft drinks.  In this case, "healthy" = "vile."

From Slovenia, Cockta spread all over Yugoslavia and became a very popular drink. We saw it in most of the countries we visited, but we never purchased another bottle, in spite of the fact that it is  apparently the drink of choice for Chuck Norris. He is apparently one of the few Americans strong enough, brave enough, and stupid enough to drink it.

After finishing our brats and kraut, we left the pass and started back down those 24 hairpin turns. 

We had plans to spend the late afternoon and evening in Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital. At about this point, we began to realize that we should have allotted more than one day for magnificent, entrancing Slovenia.

 At the young age of 18, Ernest Hemingway volunteered for the American Red Cross and was assigned to be an ambulance driver in the Julian Alps during World War I. He witnessed a string of battles shortly after his arrival, but he had only been there for two months before he was severely wounded by an Austrian mortar shell while distributing chocolate to the Italian troops. One man next to him was killed, and another had both his legs blown off and later died. Hemingway with shrapnel in his foot, knee, and thigh, picked up a third man and carried him to safety, for which he was awarded a medal of valor. After five days in a field hospital, he was sent to a hospital in Milan to finish his recuperation. While there, he fell in love with his nurse and they planned to marry, but she later married someone else.

His experiences became the basis for one of his most famous books, A Farewell to Arms, the story of a young American ambulance driver on the Italian front who falls in love with an English nurse.


  1. Nice post. The Julian Alps are magnificent. Those hikers up on the mountain turned out to be Slovenian soldiers out on a training hike. We saw some of them as they returned to their military vehicles parked at the top of the pass.

  2. Those pictures of the mountains are so beautiful they look unreal!

    Perhaps the message is that Bob should down some Cockta before carrying silent you up the steps?

  3. Wow. I just told Dave last night that we should book our trip to that area right now, and get ready (remember his sister/BIL are going to be serving a mission there next year) and after seeing this post, I'm convinced a trip to this area is in our future. Just not this week (!).

    Great post! and no, I don't want to try Cockta now either.