cycling and bivvying in Slovenia

“I slept outside for eight days and climbed the height of Everest by bike,” may not be the perfect vacation for everyone. But for anyone with a sense of adventure and a passing relationship with a bicycle, the Julian Alps, the blue, blue of Slovenia, are a guess.

Some friends in Scotland saw this 260-mile (418km) circuit, plotted by cycling guru Joe Cruz on the site, and had a habit of some pretty extreme outdoor shenanigans – eternal weekend men winter kayaking and bivvying in the Redlands, and so on. I recognized that the challenge was not so much the distance – more than 9,000 meters (2,900 feet) of climbing in total. But even as a mere amateur, it didn’t take much to convince me. The majestic Julian Alps, the eastern book of the range, looked essentially, magnificently alpine, but with a fraction of the tourists from Italy or Croatia nearby.

And bikepacking is the way to explore it – really a new word for touring, but with gear designed for off-road abuse, such as lightweight panniers and inline frame bags. Travel light, wild camping under the stars: bike, bivvy bag and a few gears. Because it is not always strictly allowed, you end up going somewhere well out of the way (some call it stealth camping): you stay, and you camp, without leaving so much as a trace.

So, it’s the equivalent of tackling Ben Nevis a day. Would I cut it with my midriff pouches and milky chops? My friends had all the equipment: gravel bikes – hard touring machines with wide handlebars, carbon frames, platter-sized cassettes and thicker off-road wheels. I had none of this. Don’t worry – a mountain bike will do it. Shops in Ljubljana even recommend them for the West Loop. And I worked out that it would be cheaper to hire in Ljubljana than to send one in a bike box. Would I be able to keep up? Probably not. But facts alone have never stopped me before.

The day came. The weather was sparkling. I watched the nerds tease their sleek machines at our hotel in Ljubljana (the friendly and helpful Asteria), but I was relieved to see that my good friend Mike planned the loop on his rusty mountain bike see. I picked up mine – a hard Giant’s tail – and finally we went out of the town square, heading back through Tivoli park and steep woods, spilling out onto meadows melting into distant hills and, beyond, a blue line rugged mountains. Home for the next nine days.

Reality set in on the first big climb. A pecking order was established intelligently. Four or five of our fit mates bravely went up the road ahead while others decided on a more liberal interpretation of the pace. I slotted in nicely at the back.

The majestic Julian Alps are truly alpine, with emerald valleys and chalky rivers that are truly blue, but with a fraction of the tourists of Italy or Croatia

But it was great. We climbed in the sunlight through beech woods, approaching the red face of the beautiful rural village of Toško Čelo, where we parked at a family restaurant, inhaled a cool beer and filled our water bottles – almost every rural village has a public tap to fill. from.

Onward and far up, we emerged at golden hour on top of a sublime grassy hill with the pristine white church of St. Jacob, Bresovica, at its summit. Magnificent hilltop churches seem to be a national motif. Cowbells rang and a cold wind blew. It was very idyllic – and only the first of many such scenes.

We followed a river towards Škofja Loka and set out on a secluded wooded ravine near a stream to camp for the night. We shared a few bottles of local grog, local cheese and sausages, then slept like the dead in the cool air.

The next day, we climbed with the rising sun through misty woodland on quiet lanes, and then through steep pine woods where the red earth had been torn up by recent storms and lashed with exposed roots. Some of us – like James, an experienced mountain biker – really enjoyed this terrain. My bike was still as wide as a cow, so I made a liberating executive decision and detoured onto a nearby logging trail, descending smugly into the valley next to a rushing stream. This reassured me that the loop has plenty of detours should you need to take one.

I met the others at Podblica, and on we went, through Jamnik with its magnificent church, and then a leisurely turn through rolling hills to the majestic Lake Bled and its island church. I could see why people stay here for their entire vacation. But we took a swim, had dinner, and headed out to find our overnight stop 10 miles away in the sleepy valley of Radovna.

We found a wonderfully ambiguous place: a wonderful meadow by a river with trees for a hammock and thick grass to lay a mat on.

The sun was setting and fog began to haunt the river, but already my canny companions had found a perfect bivvy spot: an idyllic meadow by the river with trees for a hammock and thick grass to lay a mat on. We lit up the petrol stoves, had good food and a good night’s sleep, except for Guy falling out of his hammock.

The next day, approaching along the Radovna river through the woods of Triglav national park, the valley widened to reveal Slovenia’s highest mountain, Triglav itself, to the west. And after Kranjska Gora, there is the big climb – the 50 back loops and almost 1,000 meters going up to the historic Vršič pass, the highest in Slovenia, and once on the border between Italy and Yugoslavia. A slog, but you won’t forget the Prisojnik and Goličica views on the left.

That night, we went high on the mountain on a ledge below the route. The air was crystal clear, the stars intense, lending a true desert feel.

The next morning, due to the exciting, endless descent of the upper Soča valley between the dark peaks of the pines, we were delivered to the bottom of the valley, the crisscrossing path of the Soča, opening out into lush meadows, the young river ripening and sparkling blue and chalky white.

Another steady climb among the clear beech woods brought us to the magnificent and historic Kolovrat Ridge, across the knife edge of Italy and Slovenia. We stayed high on that wooden ridge all day, and camped in a great spot at Koča Korada, with a stunning 180 degree view of the entire Julian Alps and Italy stretching south to the Med. It was a great privilege to wake up to that attitude as we got out of our bags of ambiguity this morning.

Now the mountains have given way to vineyards and rolling country farm land. We took our time, enjoying dips in sunny rivers, and on our way to the bucolic village of Vrhpolje at the foot of the Nanos forest reserve. We enjoyed a beer at Cerknica and then headed up into the nearby hills for one last night under the stars on a secluded wooded ridge.

Our last morning was a long climb on unpaved tracks into the last of the old logging roads. Then a final, exhilarating downhill to the Iška Gorge and plain below. After a swim in the Iška, the wonderful tour continued back to Ljubljana and we had time to explore the beautiful old town with its medieval castle and lattice of lively streets.

The West Loop offers quiet routes in scenery that, for my money, is as striking as any in the Alps. Don’t be put off by lack of experience or equipment. It’s a great way to see Slovenia in a way that others won’t. They might see the fairytale churches, misty wooded valleys, or even blue alpine peaks. But they won’t be able to survive them as you can with just a bike and a duffel bag.

• Mountain bikes are available for hire in Ljubljana at Nomad 2000 for around €23 (£19.50) per day including helmet, panniers, lock and repair kit. Gravel bikes are not yet available. The Asteria hotel, close to the station, has rooms from €40-€60 per night

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *