July 26, 2023: Our scenic route from Bled to Ljubljana rose in the Julian Alps over the dramatic Vršič Pass and back down the emerald Soča Valley.
Our route road led north from Bled and rose in Triglav National Park. At 9400′, Mount Triglav (“Three Heads”) is the highest mountain in Slovenia. The peaks represent air, earth and water and proudly adorn the Slovene flag.
We wound our way through 24 hair-pin brick turns to Vršič Pass, then descended through 26 more along the emerald Soča river as we edged close to Italy. Over 50% of Slovenia is forest, and this corner is the most stunning.
As we entered the park, beautiful meadows and jagged peaks framed our photos of traditional Slovenian hayracks. Soon we started climbing the 24 hairpin curves. These are bricked – supposedly for traction, but we suspect it is to slow the motorcycles.
At hairpin #8 we stopped by the Russian Chapel. During WWI, Russian PoWs suffered and died in horrific conditions building this road for their captors. The chapel was built as a quiet memorial to their hardship and loss.
At turn #22 we pulled out for a mountain vista. If you look carefully at the cliff face, you can see the doomed face of Ajda. A poor village girl, she was cursed for predicting the death of the Zlatorog (Golden Horn), a mythical beast, and is forever frozen on the cliff face.
We soon reached the crowded peak at #24, and after a brief delay for a tree fallen across the only road, began our descent to the Soča River Valley.
The Valley of Cemeteries
Slovenia’s Julian Alps are shaded with bright beauty and dark history. The Soča dances down the valley to the Agean Sea. It carries microscopic karst (stone flecks) in its snowmelt, making it both clear and brilliant aquamarine at the same time. Numerous footbridges cross the waters, connecting a lacework of hiking trails worth revisiting.
But just over 100 years ago, the natural beauty was shattered by WWI artillery. This was the WWI Soča front (Isonzo in Italian). With 1.7 million casualties, it earned the nickname “The Valley of Cemeteries.” An 18-year-old Ernest Hemingway was stationed here as a Red Cross ambulance driver for the Italian (Allied) armies. Ten years later, he wrote “A Farewell to Arms”, about war and lost love, based on his experience here.
This area was strategically important long before WWI. In the 1400s, Venetians defended against the Ottoman empire in these narrow valleys. Just over 300 years later Napoleon fought his way through to claim the Illyrian Provinces. And then WWI, and WWII. The region was Venetian, Austrian, Italian, Yugoslavian, and finally, part of independent Slovenia in 1991.
We visited Kluže Fort that defended the narrowest gap in the valley. Standing on the ramparts, we saw mountain thundershower racing up the path. We made it to our car just as the rain began to pelt, so did not get to hike any of the Walk of Peace that memorializes those lost to senseless wars here.
St. Joseph’s Church and Yugoslav Patriotism
The showers had stopped when we reached the town of Soča and the small St. Joseph Church. During WWII, an unnamed artist hiding in the hills decorated this church with Yugoslav patriotism, a dangerous undertaking. On the ceiling, Michael the Archangel, robed in Yugoslav colors, has the Axis Wolf (Italy), Eagle (Germany) and Serpent (Japan) underfoot.
The Stations of the Cross are even bolder. At #5, Mussolini, rather than Harrod, passes judgement.
At #11, Hitler in lederhosen hangs Jesus on the cross.
The rain started again, so we only snapped a roadside photo of Napoleon’s Bridge. His army built this bridge – as they did roads and bridges – throughout the Balkans. He took Slovenia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1809 and made Slovene Ljubljana the capital of this region. For the first time, the Slovene language was taught in schools, and their culture blossomed. They have a fondness for the French to this day.
From the bridge, we continued our scenic drive to our next Central Europe Trip destination – Slovenia’s lovely capital, Ljubljana.