Our last day in Bohinj and the mountains are completely hidden, cloud driving across the hills and spitting out sporadic rain. The cycle trail to Izica Bistrica, the source of the river, is wide but wet and a little slippery, water splashing my legs as I ride through muddy puddles. It soon becomes rough, loose rocks with some steep ups and downs. My wheel skids, forcing me off and pushing, a sharp drop to one side that dissuades me from trying to remount. Even Neil considers abandoning, parking the bikes and continuing on foot.
Suddenly the track ends, a small bridge over the river leading to a steep climb that is challenging on foot, impossible on wheels. All around is green, trees hanging over the water, moss and lichen clinging to rocks that line the side of the stream. A small waterfall plunges into a pool, creating a moody mist that lingers and hangs low over the water as it burbles past on its rocky way. The air is sticky and warm, like a sauna, and humidity must be near 100%. It’s so calm and serene, the only sounds those of nature, and we speak in whispers. We are interlopers here, welcome if we respect the solitude and peace. It feels like an ancient place that has seen much and hides secrets. The low light, the blue of wildflowers glowing like velvet in the undergrowth, the rain and haze, all conspire to keep those secrets that a bright sun would reveal.
We spend the rainy afternoon in museums. The local museums are a surprise, very well organised and full of information, but not too large that you get over it before you’ve seen it all – I’m a museum geek but my brain gets full easily. The one in Stara Furzina tells the history of dairying in the area, dairymen and women living alone in the huts on the planina, managing small herds. Milk was delivered to a central point, a cheese maker, who would use it to make a hard cheese based on the Emmental recipe, returning the whey to villagers for them to make cottage cheese, a ricotta like version rather than the one you buy in plastic tubs. It’s the same cheese used today to stuff a local delicacy, dumplings, in fact little parcels of buckwheat pasta, delicious when smothered in a mushroom sauce.
The museum is Bohinj has an entire floor devoted to the area’s involvement in the two wars, which I hadn’t thought about but, of course, it was slap bang in the middle of both of them. In WWII it was occupied by the Nazis, Slovenians being forced into the Nazi army to fight, often against their own countrymen. Many families were almost wiped out, those who refused to fight – or joined the resistance – executed or deported to concentration camps. In WWI the mountains to the west were the site of the Italian front, the scene of some fierce battles, and a cableway was set up to supply the troops. Walking in the hills a few days later we come across anchor points in the rock, the path of the cableway leading high into the mountains through impossible terrain, Deep channels mark the remains of trenches. I shiver in the stifling heat, unable to imagine how horrific it must have been, scorching hot in summer, sub-zero in winter, the enemy possibly only feet away.
Departure day dawns with a huge thunderstorm. The weather Gods are kind though, ceasing their battle for half an hour whilst we load the car. As we wend our way alongside the river, criss-crossing it so the sat nav shows us driving along a plait, strands of cloud thread through the trees and the hills are flat-topped. Drying racks drip with moisture.
Essie, our friendly sat nav, lets us down again. I’m scribbling notes, not paying much attention, when we dive into a tunnel. I look up, surprised, to see it’s the tunnel between Slovenia and Austria.
‘Why are we heading across the border?’ I ask.
My directionally challenged husband has no idea and eight km and twelve Euros later we emerge and ‘discuss’ our options. If I had a map I could look where we were and find an alternative route but… Cursing modern technology we resort to Google maps and find a way over the Wurzenpass, a narrow twisting road that takes us into cloud and back into Slovenia. It’s an eerie journey; all we can see are ghosts of pines alongside and the strip of tarmac ahead. It’s a dress rehearsal for the Vrsic Pass, the route Essie had tried to steer us away from.
After a brief hiatus, dropping into the pretty little village of Kranskja Gora, which sits in a bowl where lines of ski lifts disappear into cloud, we hit the first of the pass’s famed forty seven hairpins, many of which are cobbled. I’m amused to see that they are numbered, but the ‘incredible’ views we have to imagine, the cloud pressing on us from all sides. Astonishingly, cyclists appear out of the gloom, pumping their way uphill. By hairpin twenty even the trees disappear, nothing visible except a few metres of road ahead of us and a barrier to the side. Despite this some drivers are clearly keen to get places, cutting corners and taking ridiculous risks. We round one hairpin and a campervan is metres away, directly in front of us. I scream and Neil slams on the brakes, yelling obscenities at the driver, who swerves and manages to avoid us by inches.
We swing down and around corners, descending into the Soca valley, the view opening up occasionally through gaps in the cloud. Pulling over for a photo, Neil nearly reverses the car off the road, only my panicked yelling stopping him. My jaw aches from clenching it, my hands the same from gripping on to handle, seat, anything that is available. It’s a hairy drive all round and I’m relieved when hairpin forty seven is behind us, the river is alongside us, and the road straightens.
We follow the Soca through its valley, squeezing close to it as it gushes through narrow gorges, the air still heavy, ominous clouds lurking over us. It’s a gorgeous river, in places narrow, cerulean blue, tumbling over rocks in white froth, a layer of mist hovering above it. At other times it is wider, turquoise, flowing under impressive bridges through towns.
As we near the coast we part company, the river continuing its descent and the highway, busy now, rising towards dense clouds that bang against each other. Lightning flashes and rain lashes the windscreen. I again clench my hands into anxious fists, each flash highlighting the gloom – we are driving through a thunderstorm with two lightning rods – the bikes – on the roof of the car. Finally we clear the storm, the sea ahead of us reflecting a promising blue sky over the red roofs of Koper.