We’d seen photos. We’d heard rumors. But we were not prepared for the angelic emerald blue of the Soča River, and the majesty of the Julian Alps towering above the Soča Valley.
After our two day trek up and down Triglav, Slovenia’s tallest mountain, we nestled ourselves in the famous valley that many have never heard of. Here, we planned to spend the rest of the week at a cozy eco-farm-stay, Pri Plajerju, hiking along the river and back up into Triglav National Park, before making our way to the culminating reward of the trip – our two night stay at Hisa Franko, home of the World’s Best Female Chef, Ana Ros.
Normally, the drive from Mojstrana (where we’d finished our Triglav climb) to the Soča Valley takes you through Vršič Pass. During our travels, the pass was closed for road works, and we instead had to drive around the mountains, through Italy, and back into the Soča Valley via Bovec. Initially I was disappointed that we wouldn’t be driving on the notorious hairpin turns of Vršič Pass – there are World War I and Russian monuments scattered along the drive that are supposedly worth a visit. But our slightly longer journey into Italy and back became a highlight of the trip.
Mike bravely navigated our tiny lawnmower-powered Fiat 500 with his tired leg frequently pressing the pedal to the floor along each turn (note: this car does not have engines worthy of Slovenian mountain passes) as we wound our way through sleepy Italian towns. The sun beamed through the trees, casting light on the terracotta roofs and old men drinking espresso on roadside terraces.
We found ourselves behind an equally slow and decidedly more smelly vehicle – a vintage diesel VW bus. While the motorcycles zoomed past us and our new driving counterpart, I leaned out the window to take in the view. Up and up and up our little car puttered around each corner, until we got to the towering precipice where we plummeted back into Slovenia and caught our first glimpse of the River.
The “Emerald Beauty” of the Soča River
My words, and our photos, cannot possibly articulate the beauty of the Soča River, so you’ll just have to visit it for yourself. In the meantime, I can tell you about two of the best hours of our life, plus a bonus waterfall, to tide you over.
By the time Thursday rolled around, we’d been clocking in at least seven daily miles of strenuous hiking for five days in a row. I told Mike that if he insisted on another day of this, I would acquiesce, but I hinted that a more leisurely day might be preferable. Especially after the previous day’s accidental 9 hour “cool-down” hike (see below for further details). Mike’s getting pretty good at this whole marriage thing – he read my hints [MC: received the direct instruction loud and clear, processed said message and thankfully interpreted correctly] and suggested we spend the day in the valley (i.e. no climbing) and wander along the river near our farm-stay.
Our farm-stay host, Stanka, suggested that the best spots along the river were near the small village of Soča itself. In order to fully maximize the day of leisure, we equipped ourselves with a Nalgene water bottle full of Slovenian red wine, drove the car a few kilometers down the road, and parked at a small market in Soča where we picked up some local cheese and salami.
We thought we’d have to wander for awhile to find the perfect spot, but we stumbled upon it just off of the main road. The sound of the river rushing through the gorge, and the rustling of the trees, drowned out the noise of any infrequent cars passing by. We climbed along the limestone boulders and found a comfortable place for a picnic right in the sun.
As soon as we were close enough to the river to peer in, we saw several large marble trout basking in the light as they swam against the current. One in particular had parked himself right in front us. He’d occasionally dance out of the water to feast on a bug, but otherwise hovered in place, protecting his feeding spot from the other trout.
We sat in almost total silence for over two hours, passing the wine back and forth as we spoiled ourselves with cheese and were mesmerized by the swimming trout. If, like me, you’re one of those people who has trouble even making it through counting to ten during meditation without thinking about your to-do list, then I highly recommend you find a trout and watch it. I’ve never felt quite so at peace as I did during those two hours.
We hiked along other stretches of the river, further south near Kobarid, towards the end of our adventure. While nothing will beat that two hours spent in Soča with the marble trout, the waterfalls we found up in the gorges were pretty impressive.
Day hiking from Trenta, Boveč
Despite our sore legs from Triglav, we still wanted to make the most of our access to the mountains during our stay at Pri Plajeru in Trenta. So on the morning of our first full day there, we asked our hosts, Stanka and Marko, for hiking route recommendations. Marko glanced at my map splayed out on the breakfast table and pointed to the peak just next to the farm – Zadnjiški Ozebnik. “This. Hike up into the mountains and around this peak. Very easy hike. Four, five hours. Maximum. No problem.” (Pro tip: when a Slovenian recommends a hike, double your allotted time and pack extra food.)
We set out from the farm-stay, just outside of Trenta, and immediately began hiking up the towering limestone slopes above us. The map told us we had a fairly steep, immediate climb 1000m up above the valley. As we wound our way through patches of emerald green forest and open viewpoints, I wondered aloud whether my legs were up to the challenge since they still felt like jelly from the prior two days on Triglav.
But the beauty of the forest distracted from any pain I felt, and we meandered along, keeping our eyes out for ibex and any birds of prey. While we never came across these elusive creatures, we did encounter a network of innumerable spider webs dancing in the sunlight between the trees. We paused, mostly contemplating whether we’d be able to walk through the webs [MC: actually just waiting for me to go through first and clear the way], but also to take photos and quietly observe the spiders for a bit. (Mike claims that he’s not like his bug-loving entomologist brother, but when you put him out in nature, he gets pretty excited about the surrounding fauna, including insects).
After the enchanting spider web scene, a clearing in the trees with a view of the mountain peaks to the west emerged. We deemed it a perfect spot for a lunch break and photo of the two of us with my tripod.
At this point, we realized it was already 2 o’clock in the afternoon and we’d been hiking for four hours. If we were reading our map correctly, we were only half way done with the hike and were starting to question our farm-stay host’s time estimate, and whether we’d make it home for dinner.
We decided to continue on the circular route instead of doubling back. This was a sound choice, because otherwise we would never have found the most beautiful spot I’ve ever seen – Mike’s future “early retirement” home, aka the abandoned shepherd’s hut [MC: I don’t understand why we keep describing this as “early”, I’d say I’ve worked more than enough]. I should explain that at this point in the hike, we were at least six miles up into the mountains, far away from any roads, and had not encountered a single human being. The remote isolation, coupled with the stunning scenery surrounding this hut, resulted in Mike contemplating whether we should just stop hiking and live off the land right here in Slovenia for the rest of our life.
I finally convinced Mike that while I agreed this was the perfect home, we’d at least need to return to reality to pick up a few important things (like our aeropress and a lifetime supply of coffee beans), so we carried on to the edge of the peak of our hike. We stood at the precipice of another gorge, looking across a nearly 1000m plunge to the next peaks – Pihavec, Luknja, and Bovški Gamsovec.
The descent wasn’t necessarily hiking, but instead involved sliding down many switch backs of sharp limestone scree for nearly an hour. This bit sparked my fear of heights again, but Mike was extremely patient and encouraging, and coached me down the whole way as my stomach started to grumble and my legs trembled from exhaustion.
We were initially worried that our hike would take so long we’d miss dinner at our farm-stay (usually it was served promptly at 6 o’clock). I’d managed to turn my phone on and find enough reception to call Stanka to let her know that our five hour hike was taking longer than advertised, and we’d be late for supper. This news was received cheerfully – she just sounded relieved that we were not lost, and that her husband had not caused their American guests to wander aimlessly in the Triglav National Park wilderness.
The challenge and late finish were worth it, because it was one of my most memorable days to-date. A day marked simply by time in nature, nine hours of enjoyable exercise with my husband, and views of the Julian Alps – you can’t really beat that.
Getting our Soča River Swim on
A little known secret about my husband: when he takes his hearing aids out for a swim, he reverts to child-like, gleeful behavior. There’s a lot of giggling and splashing and excited babbling. Especially if the swim involves frigid water. It’s one of my top five favorite things about him. Except for the fact that it usually involves pulling me into this frigid water, too.
Even though we were traveling to Slovenia in late October (i.e. practically winter), and even though the Soča River was said to be chilly even in summer (7C / 44F), I knew I should pack my bathing suit because he’d insist on at least one swim.
On our drive from Trenta to Kobarid, I could see Mike gazing out of the car between hairpin turns and knew he was eyeing the river for swimming spots. I knew there was no way out of this, so suggested a pull off I’d noticed the day before that was far enough away from the main road we wouldn’t have any onlookers.
Mike smiled excitedly, probably because he didn’t have to convince me to participate this time. The water was freezing. But probably due to the fact that it was so refreshing, and so obviously clean, it was a really enjoyable icy dip.
The first dip in the river was so enjoyable that on our last day, we made extra time before our flight to have one last dip in the Soča River. We sped along the road and found another good swimming spot, dashed out of the car, and into the river. Only once we were in did we notice that a couple was watching our swim. They started cheering us on and congratulating us for being so brave in the icy water. Obviously Mike couldn’t hear them, but I had to have a conversation with them instead of paying attention to Mike and his GoPro.
It was a perfect way to end the trip – heading to the airport with our hair still wet with the magical Soča water, feeling totally relaxed and refreshed. We’d fly all the way back to Slovenia just for another dip in that water. And maybe a five-turned-nine-hour hike up into the Julian Alps while we’re at it.