A Mountain Bike Adventure: Slovenia
Manu Bustelo & Chris Davies
Photography by Chris Davies
In the third of our Mountain Bike Adventures we head to Slovenia and the beautiful Soča River Valley. We’re both really excited to be riding here having planned it this summer, obsessing over pictures of the turquoise river and autumnal forests.
After two and half days driving through France, Switzerland and Italy, stopping on the way to take photos of the mountain passes, I arrive at Bergamo Airport and collect Manu. It’s been a year since we last saw each other, a year since our adventure in Wales and we’re both hungry to start riding together again. We’ve read so much about Slovenia and seen the most stunning pictures but there’s still five hours to drive and it’s 10.00pm when we leave the airport. Coffee keeps us awake and we talk into the night. As we cross the Italian border the roads get smaller and the towns become villages. We see little past the roadside in the darkness but we can feel the gradient increasing as we pass though tunnels climbing up the Soča Valley. As we drive into Bovec, just 20 minutes from our destination, there’s a man in the road with a baton torch gesturing me to pull over. A police officer. It’s 3.30am and we get a random stop! All our paperwork is in order and we continue on to our lodge, rolling into bed at 4.00am.
The light sneaking through a gap in the blinds wakes me. I can hear the rushing water of the river outside across the road, and Manu is up making breakfast. This sets the pattern for the next five days as we shuttle our way down the Soča River Valley. Mornings spent climbing and afternoons descending; perfect!
The Soča River starts in north-west Slovenia in an area called the Julian Alps. It runs 90 miles from the mountains out through Italy and into the Adriatic Sea. Although famed more for its rafting and kayaking, we are keen to explore the high mountains and their lush autumnal forests that border each side of the river as it runs through Bovec, Kobarid and Tolmin.
Although famed more for its rafting and kayaking, we are keen to explore the high mountains and their lush autumnal forests that border each side of the river as it runs through Bovec, Kobarid and Tolmin.
In the mornings we toil up mountain passes on gravel roads and cattle tracks, passing farmers who glance at us with a look questioning why we make this effort. We see hideouts, either for hunters or remnants of the terrible fighting that occurred here during the wars.
The routes are hard to navigate. We’re exploring rarely ridden trails in a country new to us, but also relatively new to the world – Slovenia is after all only 25 years old. The area we are riding has previously been Yugoslavia, Hungary and Italy all in the last 100 years.
In the mornings we toil up mountain passes on gravel roads and cattle tracks, passing farmers who glance at us with a look questioning why we make this effort. We see hideouts, either for hunters or remnants of the terrible fighting that occurred here during the wars. Eventually we’d top out to views back into the Alps and snow-capped peaks in the north, and to the south we’d look down on smaller green hills, vineyards and the sea on the horizon. Then in the afternoons we rip down trails back to the river, in and out of the forests, skirting mountainsides – and falling off. Rocks and ruts catch our tyres and pitch us off. It’s a battle at times.
We get lost. We get very lost. The maps are good but rarely do the trails we ride bear any resemblance to their interpretation on paper, probably down to their lack of use.
The people we meet speak of a vibrant culture, passionate about their short history and global sporting achievements for a nation of only two million people. They also tell of the bureaucracy that stands in the way of progress – paperwork and legislation that stops them opening up more trails or maintaining the ones they have. Despite that, the people we meet enthusiastically share their experiences with us. They are proud to tell us of places we must visit on our adventure: the Great Gorge, a 750m-long 15m-deep gorge where the icy water runs turquoise blue; and Slap Kazjak, a natural rock amphitheatre with a torrent of water pouring into an emerald pool.
From high up on the mountains, the villages look like toy towns below – circles of red-roof buildings around a church set amongst ploughed fields and a maze of tiny roads. One descent, off Mt. Stol, is 900 vertical metres. It starts with a 10km double track ride along the side of the ridge – just rewards for the three hours of climbing to get there. The gentle downhill gradient is enough to take us down without pedalling and instead we hold on as our bikes skip and dance over the rocks. I’ve been lucky to ride all over the world but this single decent is the epitome of mountain biking for me – the best piece of trail I’ve ever ridden. I can’t wait to tell everyone about it.
Three days into the trip we get unlucky with the weather. Slovenia in October is usually dry, allowing you to enjoy all the colours of autumn, but unfortunately the rain came. Low clouds restrict the views and we get soaked through. We are guided on a ride near Cerkno where we start in a ski resort and ride back to the river, but in Ajdovščina the Bora stops us. This powerful wind blows up to 200kph and we were warned that riding anywhere high would be dangerous. The recent rains had also flooded a lot of rivers. We shelter in a fantastic vineyard and are treated to some of the local produce whilst we share tales of adventures.
After five days exploring this wonderful country it’s time to head home. There’s a hint of disappointment for us both that we weren’t able to enjoy more of the trails we had planned, but we are sure to return, probably with a guide next time!
‘A Mountain Bike Adventure’ is a series in which Chris and Manu take their bikes and explore places lesser know to the mountain bike world. The series explores the people, the cultures and the incredible trails and landscapes. A Mountain Bike Adventure is produced by Chris Davies