Bohinj Bistreca, in the Triglav National Park in the Julian Alps, is 500m above sea level in a flat-bottomed valley in the middle of mountains. If you were dropped here in your sleep you would think you were trapped within steep walls, some thickly forested with the dark green points of pine trees, some – true alps – bare topped and fighting the clouds, or grey-white against the brilliant blue sky of our first morning.
A cycle track runs from the town to the lake, along an old railway line. I like these sort of cycleways – trains don’t do hills any more than I do! Within a minute we are away from the town and riding through a wildflower-dotted meadow, small huts scattered around and those majestic peaks surrounding us. Random pieces of what look like ladder fencing beneath thin roofs are strewn across the meadow (we later discover these are drying racks for grass and corn, which is hung over the rungs).
It’s easily the prettiest cycling I’ve ever done. At the lakeside we cycle past the crowded car parks and beaches to a quieter spot on the pebbled shoreline. The mountains are reflected in the calm water until a duck swims past.
We join it, the water cool and refreshing rather than cold, and so clear. Within a couple of metres the lake bed drops steeply along with the temperature of the water. On our return we nearly fall off our bikes as we spot a trailer with Rowing NZ written across it! Definitely under the heading ‘things you don’t expect to find in Slovenia’! Our host has left us some tomatoes and an aubergine from her garden and these, along with some trout from the farmers’ market, make a perfect end to our first day in Slovenia.
An early start the next day takes us to Mostnica Gorge. The morning mist soon dissolves as the sun rises over the mountaintops. Like in France, the nights here are cooler, but the temperature hits the high twenties by mid-morning and stays there until sunset. In the gorge it’s pleasant under the trees, the sun yet to reach into the depths, and peaceful, the only sound the tumbling water below. The forest floor is scattered with flowers, pink and purple, the odd yellow dandelion peeping through. A pale blue bell hangs like a snowdrop and a deep royal-blue line of them is an upside down English bluebell with a dusty bright yellow stamen facing us. They glow amongst the trees.
The water runs between steep sides of rock, thundering out of sight. The path turns and suddenly there it is, level with us, deep and blue. It tumbles around and over boulders, through gouges it has carved over millennia, leaving stunning sculptures. It gathers in a wide pool, pebbles glinting in the light, a deeper pool the colour of emeralds. I stand and look, amazed at the beauty.
We climb through the trees and emerge at the edge of a wide plateau, the Planina Voje, surrounded again by mountains and walking into a blind valley. It’s like being thrown back generations, this as much as it would have looked when cows were tended by dairymen and women who lived through summer in the small huts scattered amidst the long grass. Then you notice the solar panel on the roof of one, the satellite dish on another, and hear a tractor start up. These huts are still individually owned, the grass around them a patchwork of different lengths as owners mow at different times. Despite the modern touches, it feels a million miles from civilisation.
The path ducks back into trees and re-joins the stream a short way from Slap Mostnica at the end of the gorge (Slap being Slovenian for waterfall). Like the best waterfalls, we hear it before we see it, the water plummeting off a cliff high above us and plunging into a deep turquoise pool below us. The spray casts a light mist over us, cooling the air, and I lean against the fence as Neil takes pictures. I need to more than see these things: I need to feel. Standing as close as safety will allow, my senses all work: I see the spectacular sight of a stream of white against dark rock, I hear the noise of water falling from a great height and landing in a pool, and my body is misted with its spray landing on the sweat it took to get here. I can even smell the musty dampness of the forest that surrounds me.
More people arrive, take a picture of themselves standing in front of the fall, check it on the screen and walk away. On our return we pass streams of people going the other way, many talking loudly about anything other than where they are, many with anything other than a happy expression on their faces, ignoring our cheery: ‘Hello’. As I often do, I wonder why people make the effort. If you don’t enjoy it, why do it? If you’re going to talk loudly about your experiences elsewhere rather than listen to the sound of nature around you, why do it? Worse, if you’re going to play music, why bother? It seems to me that so many people want to do things like this merely so they can have a picture of themselves there and tick it off or show others they were here. If I have a picture, I want it to be of what I saw, reminding me of what I felt. The last thing I want to look at is my sweaty red face ruining a perfect view.
A few days later we park the car and climb the 500 steps to Slap Savica, Slovenia’s most well known and photographed waterfall. I don’t know where that information comes from (or if they merely claim it) and it may be true, but it’s certainly not their best. The steps are good exercise, so I don’t mind, and we’re again early so it’s not busy, but after paying for parking and an entrance fee to the valley (usual here – more on that later), we’re both disappointed to get to a locked gate some metres from where the water doesn’t even fall, merely slides down the rocks. Waitonga Falls on Ruapehu is more impressive. We poke a camera lens through the gate and beat a retreat, passing a steady stream of people walking up. I realise we’ve become the tourists I dislike, shooting and running.