“How early is too early?” – A question that many of us were asking with bleary eyes at 3am this morning in the entrance hall of Stansted. But there’s something about the tired excitement of an airport, like a busy boot room before a big day in the mountains, that never fails to rub off on you. After a coffee and a bit of breakfast (or some rather more unorthodox meal choices…) helped clear our heads, we were all raring to go.
Thanks to the excellent work of the group, moving 20 enthusiastic students (and 2 even more excited members of staff) through the airport maze was easy, and it wasn’t long before we were looking out of the windows of our plane at the Alps below us. We flowed through Venice airport with the same ease, and met our driver (who introduced himself with the excellent “Hi, my name is Simon, but in English, it’s Simon”! Hopefully we may pick up some of the intricacies of Slovene pronunciation as the week progresses…), and began our trip to Ljubljana, today’s lunch stop and Slovenia’s capital city.
Ljubljana may not currently be at the top of everyone’s list when they are choosing a city break but, from what we have seen today, it won’t be long until it is. A fantastic combination of Italian, Austrian, and further Eastern architecture, the city sits astride the Ljubljanica river and seamlessly blends many cultures. A clear effort has been put into large and open social spaces, and locals and tourists alike made great use of them. From small cobbled streets and twisting back alleys, to large food markets and even a castle, everything combines to make a city that feels both alive and relaxing, definitely somewhere that many of us plan to return to with more time.
After a few very enjoyable hours we were back on the bus for the last leg of our journey, to our hostel on the shores of Lake Bohinj. We passed through thick forests, and steep-sided limestone valleys and soon found ourselves tracing a river round the last twists and turns of the day. The lake was a dark turquoise as we arrived, and despite many hours of travelling, it didn’t take long for us again to feel the calm of Slovenia.
After a satisfyingly filling meal, we were all ready to be horizontal as soon as possible. After all, having travelled in their shadows for the second half of the day, the mountains were waiting for us!
We woke to the lake lapping against the shore and, to our relief, very little of the forecast cloud in the sky. The green mountains that surround the hostel brightened as the sun rose higher in the sky, and we headed to breakfast keen for our first day of walking.
After copious amounts of cereal, bread, cheese, meats, and the all-important Nutella (other chocolate based spreads are available), we bustled onto the coach for the short drive to the start of our walk. The aim for the day was Debela Peč (pronounced Debela Pesh), the tallest peak on a ridge line of rocky summits. Our drive ended on a stretch of forest track, and we walked our way steeply up through the woods, a good warm up after a couple of inactive days! Reaching a grassy plateau, we passed a mountain refuge, and soon the whole of the Triglav National Park spread out before us.
At the centre of it sits Triglav (meaning ‘three hats’ in Slovene, you can see why), an impressive rocky mass dominating the surrounding landscape. It towers above the valley, steep on all sides, with no easy way to the top. Certainly, upon seeing this, a fire has been kindled within many of the group, and as we walked further towards today’s high point, many conversations turned towards the idea of future trips to the area.
We broke through the last of the trees, and after negotiating some narrow rocky paths with care we stepped onto the summit of Debela Peč. Our view now expanded to a full 360 degrees, and we could see the whole of the national park, along with the two neighbouring mountain ranges – the perfect spot for lunch! After sharing the summit with a few alpine choughs, we headed back down the way we came, only this time stopping at the mountain refuge (a first for many in the group) for some well needed sugar, and a contender for the world’s best sausage! Relaxing outside in the sun, it was easy to forget the hard work that had come before, and when the time came to continue downwards, the pace noticeably increased.
We reached our end point in very little time, and bundled back on to the coach after a satisfying day. The whole group were really impressive, and made light work of a tough first walk, so we all looked forward to upping the intensity tomorrow! After a brief stop on our return journey to sample a local supermarket (I fully expect them to have sold their month’s supply of chocolate and biscuits in this afternoon’s raid), we made it back to the hostel in time for another excellent meal, and a bit of time to relax in the warmth of the evening. A great end to a very enjoyable first day.
After a kind late breakfast yesterday, the 6:15 alarm this morning was a bit of a shock – nothing that half a tub of Nutella and a cheese toastie couldn’t solve however! Today’s bus journey was a little shorter, taking us in to the middle of the mountains just behind Lake Bohinj. We twisted our way through several small farming villages, and continued up through the forest to the bottom of the first climb of the day.
Again our warm up was a sudden shock to the system, but before long the group were happily ambling on towards our first ‘middle-mountain’ refuge of the day (Planina in Slovene, comparable to a French buvette). Slovenia has a very strong mountain refuge culture, and most mountain paths either lead towards, or start at, a refuge where you can fill up on any number of local foods or drinks throughout the day. Your visit will usually be soundtracked by the gentle lapping of a nearby lake, the song of mountain birds, and the heavy jangling of numerous cow bells.
As we left our first planina, we were pleased to be able to help with transporting the week’s milk to the higher refuge, and as the group seemed (as always) full of energy, they leaped at the chance. We wound our way further up the mountain, passing many impressive limestone crags, gorges, and dolines, and soon were scrambling our way onto the next plateau. After another hour, we reached the first true refuge of the day, a beautiful wooden building, managed in three week blocks by two locals. We again took the chance to refuel, and deliver our precious milk – I’m amazed that all the bottles arrived un-drunk!
The final ascent to the peak of the day, Pršivec, gradually steepened, and, as usual, the group took it into their stride and bound up the final few metres with ease. The impressive view again stretched to the horizon in all directions, and our hostel looked impressively small in the distance, hundreds of metres below. The geography and geology of the area is astounding, and from such a view point it was possible to analyse every little feature. Our lead teacher (to be referred to as ‘The Captain’) took this opportunity to deliver a captivating talk on the formation of all the features
around us, and the Alps as a whole – final proof once and for all that geography is far more than just colouring in!!
The descent began with the most technical terrain we had encountered so far, with some exciting drops on both sides of us. The group performed admirably, and with a bit of care we were soon past the last of the challenges. Our descent took a different turn when we came across an Italian walker who had taken an awkward fall and required a little medical attention – a reminder of the seriousness of our environment, the group continued with renewed care to wait at the nearby planina whilst a couple of leaders assisted in the helicopter evacuation – another bit of excitement!
The rest of the journey down passed without issue, and soon our tired legs were walking the final couple of kilometres round the lake shore to our youth hostel for a well-deserved sit and some tea. Another big day for the group with seemingly endless energy – let’s see if we can change that with our biggest day tomorrow! The evening had an exciting end, with both the Wimbledon final and cricket world cup final being crowded around (with the cricket of course being the most important); anyone who saw the match can imagine the eruption at the end of the last over – we like to think the atmosphere huddled around a phone screen in Slovenia was just as good as at Lords!
The big day is here! Stol (pronounced similarly to ‘stow’) rises through the clouds to the summit at 2236m, the highest mountain in the Karawanke. We start in the way that we have now come to expect, with a steep slope to wake us up after a bus trip to the bottom of the mountain. On the other days, this would last for a short while before flattening out for some well needed respite, however Stol has no such generosity. The steepness is relentless, and it is not long before we are all down to our base layers despite the moist cloud and gentle wind.
After an hour of winding our way up through the trees we reach a log pile. The sign above translates as “If you can help to carry some of this wood to the refuge, we will be very grateful”! Clearly the gradient has done nothing to the energy of the group, as each member duly collects a log and adds it to their already weighty rucksacks. Little did they know there would be at least another couple of hours of up before the logs could be removed!
We continue our uphill charge, and as we progress our surroundings begin to change. First the trees thin, then are reduced to shrubs and grasses, and finally the rocky summit comes into view. The scene behind us broadens to cover a vast area, and it becomes easy to see how high and far we have climbed. We reach the hut just below the summit and at last relieve ourselves of our logs (The Captain was aghast to find that two large trunks had been strapped to his bag, as opposed to one small fire log), and make our way inside to enjoy another of Slovenia’s fine mountain
It is difficult to leave the warmth of inside, but after 20 minutes, the last push to the summit awaits us. The final metres pass by without worry, and soon we are sat astride the summit ridge (that happens to also mark the border between Slovenia and Austria) to enjoy the views on all sides. The Austrian side is made of impressive vertical rock walls that drop away below us, and on the Slovenian side the planina where the bus left us many hours below is nothing but a speck on a vast landscape.
The excitement of the group is only matched by the relief to have overcome this final challenge, and motivated by these emotions the descent passes in a flash. We again watch the environment change around us, and soon we are walking back along the same forest paths that tested our legs this morning. We pass the now greatly diminished wood pile, and break through the trees back to the car park at the bottom. The feelings of the group couldn’t be more different compared to this morning, gone was the tiredness and nervousness, replaced with satisfaction and relaxation. The planina (voted four times as the best in Slovenia) is soon drained of their sugar stocks, and the chairs are filled with the group members contemplating the many successes of the week. They have exceeded all expectations, and have been a true delight to accompany on their journey.
The bus journey back to the hostel is surprisingly quiet, but the first few snores give an indication as to why! We reach the hostel in the early evening, just in time for some more excellent food and a few games of table tennis after a job well done. Much to the relief of the group, the alarms will be set a little later tomorrow as we leave Slovenia for an afternoon in Venice before our flight home. Time to swap mountains and lakes for basilicas and canals!
It was hard to leave the hostel behind this morning, it has been a beautiful place to stay. Once bags were packed and a final breakfast had been demolished, we headed onto the bus for our last trip before heading home – Venice! A few hours later we were driving across the bridge that connects the city to the mainland, and our interest had already been piqued by distant views of St Mark’s Campanile. The city couldn’t feel further removed from the quiet mountains and lakes we have been enjoying for the last week, however Venice is no less beautiful. We all soaked in as much of the spectacle as we could over the few hours we had available, and I’m sure many of us will be planning to return in the future.
It was only a 20 minute journey back to the airport, but that didn’t prevent the majority of the group falling asleep – it has been a full week, but thanks to a fantastic group, and a brilliant location, one that I will remember for a long time.