Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Hairpins and hair-raising - 22 May 2007

Morning at Lake BledLake Bled was like a millpond in the morning. Lenin leaves the Last SupperOn the way out of town, we called in at the church, to see the wall paintings. Painted in 1936, the artist depicted Lenin as Judas leaving the Last Supper, moneybag in hand.

Up the Vrata valleyWe traveled northwest into the Julian Alps. A side trip up the Vrata valley took us, seemingly, right to the foot of the mountains but the track markers indicated it was another 10km on foot before one really was at the base, we appreciated the view from where we were.

Zelenci springsAnother side trip, almost to the point where Italy, Austria and Slovenia meet, took us to a great lunch spot in the Zelenci National Park where streams that have disappeared underground further up the mountains reappear in crystal clear springs; very reminiscent of Pupu Springs in Golden Bay NZ, only smaller.

Jasna LakePast Jasna Lake, the real challenge started as we took the Vršič mountain pass with its 50 hairpin bends. The day was excellent and the scenery breathtaking. Russian ChapelRussian POWs built the road during WWI. 100 killed in an avalanche are remembered with a fairytale Russian Chapel at bend 8 and near bend 21 there is a military gravesite.

A hole though the Julian AlpsA couple of bends further on is the highest point one can drive a car to in Slovenia, 1611m. [Circled in this picture is an inverted heart shaped hole through the mountain.]

The guidebook suggested a side trip to the source of the Soča River by leaving the main road at bend 49 on the descent. After driving to the parking spot we set off on the 15-minute walk along what the book described as a path.

Cliff 'path'We met a very hot and bothered looking walker, and asked by sign language, if the track was steep: he indicated it was OK. The day was definitely hot by now, when we set off on this easy walk along a 'path’. It ended up as a cliff scramble! Assisted by stakes in the mountainside and steel cables we struggled up the mountainside to where the river emerges from the hillside.

On a clear day this drive is a must: the track to the source of the Soča is definitely optional.

View from the cliff faceWe finished the slalom drive at the town of Kobarid, the site of the “Italian Front” in WWI. There is a historic trail that takes one to bunkers, trenches and a gun emplacement. Nearby is the Italian Charnel House where 7014 Italian soldiers are buried and the names of the 4266 known dead are engraved on the immense slabs of serpentine that make the walls of this most imposing monument. Ironically, Mussolini opened it in 1938, just a year before it was déjà vu, all over again.

Julian AlpsOur last challenge of the day was finding a bed for the night. Ignoring perfectly good signs for B&Bs as we drove along, we tried to find an organic tourist farm mentioned in the Slovenian guide. We followed the signs for Čadrag, as indicated, until the road seemed to stop at a National Park boundary. There was a tavern there, so we enquired and were told we had about 6km to go. On we pressed. The road up the side of a gorge made the morning’s hairpin bends on the alpine pass seem like driving for amateurs. Italian defencesAfter what seemed like miles of cliff edges with no passing room; road works on a track that hardly qualified as a road; and a wooden slat bridge over a very deep ravine, we arrived at a T intersection where we met a small truck and managed to pass by both going to the wrong side of the road. The direction signs indicated a left turn so we drove up what was no more than a narrow driveway to reach a cluster of houses. Sign language told us the farm was another 4 km along the right-hand branch of the T, an even worse road. Our nerves couldn't take any more; we turned back.

Fourth impression of Slovenia: the people are very friendly.

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