Cycling through the Julian Alps and Slovenia

Cycling through the Julian Alps and Slovenia

I was beginning to find out the major difference between holiday touring, and cycle touring without deadlines. On holiday tours, there was always a train station or an airport that had to be reached in order to get back to work on time. With open-ended touring, there was no limit to the number of break days or slow mornings I could take on the road. And so after rushing through Austria, la dolce vita hit me again in Tarvisio.

Turquoise lakes, Turkish coffee

In front of my hotel in Tarvisio, there was a map shop. The window display had a calendar in panoramic format, which had been opened to a photo of a mountain lake surrounded by steep rock walls. So after updating my blog, I left Tarvisio and cycled up to the Fusine Lakes, two glacial lakes in a deep cirque of the Western Julian Alps. The water was turquoise and the gray walls of limestone were steeper and higher than I had reckoned from the wide-angle photograph. Gray clouds were already gathering again on the mountain tops and the sunny spells were short. After a slow lunch, I cycled down from the lakes and across my last Alpine pass, the Fusine Pass, into the catchment of the Sava River, and Slovenia.

Slovenia was a completely new country to me. Except for Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, which were not much of a culture shock, I had already been familiar with all other countries I had been through. Now for the first time since the beginning of the tour, I was truly feeling like a traveller. The other big change that happened is that I was finally leaving the German language realm. Basically all the way from Luxembourg, I was cycling through regions that spoke dialects of High German : Luxembourgish, Alsatian, Black Forest Alemannic, Swiss German, and southern Bavarian in South Tyrol and Austria.

With the change of language also came a change of culture. I was beginning to leave central Europe, and to enter the Balkans. But when traveling by bicycle, changes of culture are seldom abrupt. At first sight, Slovenia felt a lot like Austria and Switzerland, but when I ordered my first Turkish coffee, I suddenly felt closer to Asia. Before reaching Bled, I left the well-marked cycle path for a minor road that cut through Triglav National Park and down into the Radovna Valley. The ascent to the little pass was steep but the views on the other side and the long downhill in the forested gorge were rewarding.

I slept at the camping at Lake Bled, one of the world’s most popular destination for photographers. In the evening there was a massive thunderstorm. Even through the nylon of the tent, the lightning was blinding, and the thunder so strong I could feel the ground vibrating through the sleeping mat. What scared me more is that it rained heavily for maybe an hour and continued to rain the entire night. The camping was located in a little vale without a river, but apparently the drainage system worked. I had hoped to take early morning photos of the lake, but the rain went on well after sunrise. It was not the day for world-class photos of Lake Bled.

The forecast announced more rain, so I decided it was a good day to book a hostel in the centre of Lubljana. On my way there I met Anina and Maxim, a Swiss-Ukrainian couple touring Slovenia at leisurely pace, following an itinerary that had been planned in every detail by a travel agency. We had lunch together in Radovljica and I followed them along their carefully planned route, which was less flat than the cycling road, but went through beautiful small villages in the foothills, where water and vegetation were omnipresent.

Progressively the mountains became hills, and the hills replaced by plains with corn fields and cereal. I cycled the last 25 km between Kranj and Ljubljana in the rain. When entering the capital city, I began to feel a weakness in my front tire. I thought it would be the worst time for a flat. But it was the time. My first flat of the trip. Actually my first flat on this bike, after 1800 km cycling east across Europe, and maybe another 3000 km on prior tours in Japan and France. My front tire had a couple of scratches, and one of them was responsible for the flat. I replaced the inner tube and packed the old one to fix it later.

Alone in Ljubljana

In Slovenia, I found that cafe and restaurant staff almost systematically spoke multiple languages and followed a stricter code of conduct than in northwestern Europe. In Lubljana I stayed at the Dežela Okusov hostel, where the owner took ample time to show me around the place and to help me lock my bike. When he saw how much luggage I had, he was very kind to give me a bigger room, even after I decided to stay for two nights, and then three nights. He explained to me that Ljubljana was exceptionally quiet this summer. But to me, Lubljana still felt like a small but vibrant capital. There were trees by the river and many restaurants and bars. Music, I found out, was the thing I missed most. I walked around the city looking for music. But this was summer 2020, and perhaps one of the saddest side-effects of the pandemic, was that summer 2020 had very little music.

I took time to do a real laundry, and to change the way things looked on my blog, though I mostly got angry with WordPress and did not go very far. For the first time in one and a half month, I also checked on coronavirus news and travel restrictions. Anina had told me that Montenegro had closed borders but apparently this was already outdated information. I filled an online form that would make entrance into Croatia easier, and checked the status of western and central Asian countries, where tourism was still very restricted.

While in the capital city, I also hoped to catch up with social life, but I am a sickly introspective animal. Approaching other mad cyclists was something I could do, but engaging conversation with others in the city was just out of my reach. I also felt that the pandemic made everyone more protective. There was no counter sitting at bars and restaurant tables were regularly spaced. So I ended up buying more food and drinks for myself than necessary, and felt lonelier than any time previous on the tour. Suddenly I realized the precariousness of my situation. Friends and family felt more distant. Borders ahead were closed or uncertain. My savings had begun to diminish and chances to find a job would also decrease with time. I began to wonder if I should cycle on, or call it a holiday and look for a real job.

And then something happened. Someone was asking for work, which was not unusual. It was voluntary, which was also not unusual. The work demanded about two days, and had to be completed within ten. There was a second email three days later warning that I had not responded to the first. The emails came from a very profitable global publishing company but the work was unpaid. This would feel like nonsensical conditions for many, but in my previous field, this was the standard. It was also the standard that if one is employed part-time or not employed at all, one works even harder in order to get a name. A few months earlier I would have felt bad about replying late to the first email. This time I got angry and wrote an unnecessarily provocative email to ask how much the publisher would pay for my work, which I knew in advance was zero, for others would do it for free, and quality did not matter.

In case you still wonder, I had worked for several years as an academic. Academia is certainly one of the few domains of society which is not ruled by money, but instead by the even more powerful forces of individual merit and peer pressure. In any case, the experience was enough to remind why I was here, why I had in fact turned down opportunities to be here, disconnected and alone in Ljubljana.

On the last night of my stay, there was music. A restaurant had set up a stage in the street with very limited sitting, and cautious crowds were gathering around the fenced area. I skipped dinner and ate the music instead. There was an excellent violin and banjo player and a stunning teenage singer and clarinettist. I thought society needed musicians much more than academic. I thought society would do well with one less academic. I thought I should cycle on.

Rivers flowing underground

On my last night in Ljubljana, I wrote late and did not sleep much. The thoughts of the previous day were still spinning in my head, and I was weary for the lack of sleep, but welcomed the day of cycling ahead. And the day started the best possible way in the Ljubljana Plain.

At times, when the road is flat and traffic not too intense, to me cycling feels a lot like meditation. The Ljubljana Plain was one such time. I’m not sure if it’s the repeating movement of the pedals, the sound of the tires on the asphalt transmitting to my whole body, or the regular flow of air around my face, but cycling provides just enough background noise to allow other thoughts and feelings to pass by without taking too much headspace. I thought again of the feeling of loneliness in Ljubljana, the anger at the academic world. The anger stuck around though, I was not yet done dealing with it.

At the end of the plain, I passed by the resurgence of the Ljubljanica River, a pond of water springing out of the Earth and flowing away like it was a mature river already. Then the road became less pleasant, for it was uphill and busy. There was a small shoulder on the side of the road, but I quickly reckoned that car drivers would not decelerate or keep distance if I wasn’t on their way. So I cycled in the main line instead.

There was a little pass, and I was in the Planina Plain, an intermontane depression where the waters pond in winter and percolate in summer. I ate my picnic in the sun and think I lost more water sweating there than while cycling up. So I understood that, from here on, clouds and trees would be my best friends. When there was a sign for a cave on the side of the road, I did not hesitate a second. I longed for the coolness of the rock. When I discovered the size of the cave I was stunned. Actually it was so huge that fascist Italia has tried to built a road into it to transport weapons through the mountain.

After the Planina cave, the road went through another little pass and the topography became very chaotic. They were mounds and bowls everywhere, abundant vegetation but no water. I was in the middle of the karst plateau. On the other side was another landlocked depression, occupied by the Pivka River, which flew underground into the Planina, which percolated into the Ljubljanica.

I slept at Camp Plana north of Pivka, which was perhaps my favourite campsite of the entire tour so far. The views on the surrounding hills were gorgeous and, pretty much like everywhere I’d experienced in Slovenia, the staff was incredibly friendly and hospitable. In this respect Slovenia reminded me a lot of Japan, though the comparison stopped at the language barrier, for many Slovenes I met seemed to speak fluently two or three foreign tongues. The sky was crystal clear, and I could take another photo of the comet, but could no longer see it by the naked eye. I was lucky to wake up slightly before sunrise, as a thin morning haze rose from the distant woods. To the east, the northern ridges of the Dinaric Alps were looming in the distance.

The route (3 days, 207 km)


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