Back to Nature

10: Slovenia



“You’re doing it wrong,” Jeff replied when I told him my next stop was Lake Bled. 

He’ll deny he said that, of course. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he went so far as to cut-and-paste directly from our exchange, highlighting his actual, written words, the ones that read, “Don’t miss the Julian Alps, Lake Bohinj and the Soca River Valley, they are all gorgeous!” 

Facts are what truly desperate people turn to when their backs are up against the wall. But I knew what he meant. 

I was doing it wrong.

I’ve lived alone for a long time, so I’m used to it and enjoy it and prefer it. But traveling alone for this long is a little different. At home I saw friends and family, Marty and the hockey crew. We’d talk and grab a lunch or have a couple of beers after an evening skate. On the road I don’t get to talk to people as often, sometimes to the point that when I suddenly engage in a lot of conversation, my voice can get hoarse. It also means that I’m often left alone with just my thoughts, and quite a lot of time to ruminate. And ruminate I did.

I wondered if it was possible I actually could be doing this wrong. I mean, the only agenda I have is my own. The idea is to be on the road through next August, but I could decide I’ve had enough after six months and come home – though I’d have to live with Mom, of course, since my home, including Ernie and Hads, are rented out for a year. But I could. I’ve set few rules for myself, in fact, other than just wanting to see the world, see it now before I’m too old or too tired or I catch an errant slapshot from The Plumber and it gimps my ankle for life. But if he was right, and I was in fact doing it wrong in Slovenia, where else might I be doing it wrong?

I’d chosen my path using Lonely Planet’s compilation of the world’s Top 500 Must-See Places. I mapped the locations of the top fifty, and did my best to create a route that would pass by as many of them as possible. I eliminated some based on simple remoteness. I added some not-top-50s because they were along the way. Still others were changes made on the fly, some because friends or family suggested them. I spent an entire day traveling to an otherwise obscure Scottish town because one friend mentioned it was a bucket list destination he no longer believed he’d get to see in person, so that was all I needed. I visited the castle that’s connected to his paternal lineage, and later on surprised him with a file of nearly two hundred photos, which, in hindsight, seems totally, insanely excessive, sure, but this isn’t about that, so let’s stay focused. It’s about the fact that getting there and back via train, taxi, bus and foot was an unplanned adventure unto itself, and long after I’ve forgotten what the inside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral looks like, I’ll remember nearly every detail of that day. 

And that’s the beautiful thing about traveling alone. I can change my mind, change course on a whim, without compromise, for any reason I want, just as I would later on, in Slovenia.

Lake Bled had come in at #6 on Lonely Planet’s all-time list, so to hear Jeff so easily dismiss it took me by surprise.

Jeff, as you know well by now, is my famous author friend, Jeff Hull, writer of the must-read novels Pale Morning Done and Broken Field, to name just a couple. If you don’t know his name, you certainly know that of his now legendary character, that loveable rapscallion, Pud, for whom fans have been clamoring for an eponymous novel. When I asked Jeff recently about that possibility, he replied “No, never, impossible, it will never, ever happen, not ever,” which I think we all know means there’s a big announcement about Pud’s star turn on the near horizon. 

But I digress.

Jeff isn’t simply a great and famous author friend of mine, he’s also one of my most accomplished travel friends, traveling plenty for pleasure, but also work, having written countless pieces for magazines like Outside and National Geographic Adventures, Travel, Fly Rod & Reel, and more. In fact, he’d written about fly fishing in Slovenia, a piece called Marble Country, though to be honest it seemed like he mostly just drank wine at local vineyards, and again in his fancy hotel’s claw-footed bath tub. But then that’s the genius of his writing, for I’ve never been more interested in taking up the hobby.

So to have him dismiss Lake Bled was at once surprising and disconcerting. After all, I respect Jeff’s opinion, though I will forever deny that, and will even state here, unequivocally, that those very words were added to this blog by my editor (who also adds all of the profanity).

I was going to Lake Bled regardless. I mean, there’s a reason it’s #6, and I wanted to know why. I also wanted to check the box on my first Top 10. And if I’m being totally honest, I wanted to be able tell Jeff just how wrong he was, but that would just be icing.

I would stay in a private room at Adventure Hostel in Lesce Bled. My room’s single window overlooked a church graveyard, with its oft, oft, oft-ringing belltower looming high above.

While a view of a graveyard might sound less than appealing to some, I should note it was Halloween at home. And in Slovenia, it was All Saints Day weekend, also known as Day of The Dead, and I happened to be in a town named Bled, so it felt more like kismet to me. During this season, cemetery plots all across Slovenia are adorned with lighted, glowing, red glassed candles, flickering eerily throughout the night. While kids don’t trick-or-treat here, the holiday was a precursor to America’s child-beggar tradition. Here, it’s believed that on the evening we call Halloween, “All Hallows’ Eve,” the dead arise to feast on the flesh of the living, so tradition has it that the living would dress in costumes of animals and beasts and ghouls in order to confuse and divert the famished diners, divert them to, say, that pale and doughy American guy looking out from his hostel window.

Graves decorated with candles for All Saints Day.
All Saints Day is a national holiday in Slovenia, where all come out to remember those who have passed. This crowd would grow, and families stood in the rain for hours.
The priests and alter boys made their way to different corners of the cemetery, and each time a chorus of mourners sang a beautiful song in Slovenian. I of course had a toast for Dad.
My view when I wasn’t looking down to make sure a bunch of dead guys weren’t forming a human ladder up to my window. There’s a beautiful mountain range nestled in those distant clouds.
A side-trip to Vintgar Gorge. My smile belies the fact I bike-walked several miles of hilly terrain to get here because my bike’s gears slipped the entire way. I might have cried a couple of times.
I know, Margot, I knooooowww, touch the phone with my finger so the sky won’t be all washed out like that. I knnowwww…now.
Don’t. Just…just don’t. Instead just enjoy the fact I got a little taste of Fall in Slovenia.
Lake Bled.
Lake Bled Castle.
Number 6.
The odds clearly stacked against me, I didn’t even attempt to rent a rowboat…
…so I bought a beer and climbed aboard one of these things. I mean, how could I be right there and not go to Bled Island? That said, beyond being able to say “I went to Bled Island,” it was meh.
Apart from the wonderful family I befriended along the trip, and the adorable little 2-year-old girl who kept poking my knee and then pulling her hand away and laughing hysterically (where were her parents???), maybe the best part of the boat ride was learning about the catfish that live in its 100 foot depths. This is the record 8-footer from 2014. (do I need to mention this is not my photo?)
I celebrated my day’s success with a phenomenal paella at a great Slo-Mex Restaurant about a hundred feet from my hostel.

I had scored an incredible AirBnB in the center of Venice, my next destination. It was half price, and was an entire private apartment in the beautiful San Polo neighborhood. I should have been ecstatic. And I was for a while. But Jeff’s annoying little voice kept nagging, and nagging…

You’re doing it wrong, Peter. You’re doing it wrong.

Sure, Lake Bled was gorgeous, and I was very happy to have seen it, not to mention having enjoyed checking that literal box on my list. I’d even hiked some of the empty, wooded side trails to hilltop views of the Austrian Alps. But the rest of it was a bit touristy. And it wasn’t as purely natural as I’d hoped, having been developed over time to serve the ever-growing number of visitors.

You’re doing it wrong.

Shortly after writing myself a pretty goddamn convincing argument in my travel journal, one that completely justified the logic of my leaving for Venice, I canceled Venice. I cancelled my once-in-my-lifetime apartment in San Polo, and was penalized nearly fifty-percent of the fee for doing so. I cancelled my train trip, and lost one of my fifteen Eurail travel days. I wasn’t able to cancel the seat reservation some of these trains require, and lost $14.40 for the pleasure. 

And instead, I was heading to a tiny little mountain valley town called Stara Fuzina, a short walk to Lake Bohinj, where the forecast called for possible snow, possible rain, but at some point, most definitely a doozy of a storm.

Waiting for the bus to Bohinj, I was once again reminded that no matter where I roam, people are still idiots. Hilarious idiots, because I laughed out loud at this, but…hmm, wait, maybe I’m the idiot…

I arrived too early for check-in, so I took a seat in the sun on the patio of the town’s only café, which also happened to be its bar. I ordered a Lasko draught, and soaked in the stunning views of the surrounding mountain range. 

A short time later, my host Jerica welcomed me to my private apartment with a warm smile and a quick tour of the amenities, which even included slippers for the guests. She handed me three fresh eggs from her and her husband Marco’s chickens, a package of delicious Slovenian chocolate cookies, and then poured an obligatory shot of liqueur from a clear bottle bearing no label. It was only 2PM. As long as I didn’t wake up a couple of hours later naked on the roadside with my passport and wallet gone, I knew I was going to like this place. 

And like it I did.

My AirBnB, top floor, right. Jerica and Marco live below. You can’t see the mountains behind me – not because I don’t know how to use my camera – but because the entire hamlet was in the clouds.
There they are!
I can’t shake this feeling I’m being followed.
Welcome to Lake Bohinj – DAMN YOU JEFF HULL!!!!!
The start of my next morning’s hike around Lake Bohinj.
I didn’t see a soul for the first four miles.
One of the streams that feed the lake.
Seriously? I’m like halfway around already. You couldn’t have posted this at the trailhead?
(Sorry, Mom.)
Rain it shall be. Nearly four miles into the loop, and another four from my starting point and apartment, the skies opened up and the rain didn’t stop until I reached home.
That night a massive storm hit, knocking out power, with winds so strong I legitimately woke thinking I might be hearing (and feeling) a landslide. Marco and Jerica’s barn lost several slate tiles.
Marco repairing damage.
Instant Karma. Instead of offering to help, I made myself breakfast.
Pro Tip: Using Google Translate can help you avoid mistakes like putting sugar on your omelette.
(For the record, I would eventually offer to help, but it was much too late to help Marco – or my eggs.)
I rested that morning, then took a random walk through town, which led to a random path, and I just can’t ignore random paths…it led me to Mostnica Gorge and a gorgeous lower river waterfall.
Hard to capture on camera but this outwash from the base of the waterfall was immensely powerful, and the river is much wider than it appears here. I was giddy,
Looking down from Devil’s Bridge. Deceptively high, and once again hard to capture the reality. Let’s just say if a little old lady was solo hiking and happened to be walking by and didn’t return my friendly hello so I suddenly picked her up and tossed her over the side, she wouldn’t fare well.
Hypothetically speaking, of course. I think what I’m saying is we could all afford to be a little friendlier to strangers we meet in the woods.
The Julian Alps were my backdrop.
Mostnica Gorge trails took me from woods and river and gorge back down to the pastures surrounding Lake Bohinj.

After biking, hiking, and walking nearly twenty miles in the time I spent in Bled, I would hike another fifteen or so in my couple of days here, around Lake Bohinj and up into Mostnica Gorge in Triglav National Park. Save for Bohinj’s monument to the Goldenhorn, I didn’t see any landmarks here. None that were manmade, anyway. Nothing but a water-cut limestone gorge, trees, waterfalls, deer, swans, mallards, geese, huge trout in crystal clear waters, and only the occasional human. 

And for the first time since The Faroe Islands, I felt I was truly back in my preferred kind of natural habitat. Had I the power of foresight, I would have stayed another week. Maybe more. And just hiked and written and drank cappuccino with the locals each morning at the café, and beer with them each night at the café bar. I would have gotten to know the old woman who owned that Cika cow by name. The cow too. I would have talked more with Jerica’s husband, Marco, despite our language barrier, and maybe even succeeded in helping him around the property and barn. And I would have hiked, napped, and hiked again.

While I will definitely recommend a visit to see Lonely Planet’s all-time #6 destination, Lake Bled, take it from me, and not Jeff – because I believe I speak for all of us when I say we don’t want him to have the satisfaction, at least not until Pud is released in hardcover – that as beautiful as it is, it is far from the most interesting thing to see in Slovenia – and that’s not me saying you’re doing it wrong, that’s simply a compliment to this beautiful country.

Speaking of Jeff, sure, he might have been right about Bohinj, but he was dead wrong about how I was doing this trip. It was along the Mostnica Gorge trails that I reminded myself that the original idea behind this wonderfully stupid idea is very simple:

See The World.

That’s it. That’s all it ever was.

That doesn’t mean visit every country, city, town, monument, every must-see site. Nor does it mean visiting everyone else’s favorite destinations, or even my own.

It means to truly take the time to see what I’m looking at when I’m there. Checking boxes on a list is perfectly fine, as long as I’ve taken the time to see what it is I just checked off. The details. The colors. And also hear the sounds, smell the smells, feel the sun – and even the rain.

My experiences and my memories will be different than yours, even if we’ve visited the same places. But as long as we all take the time to truly see where we are, and where we’ve been, then we’re all doing it exactly as its supposed to be done, and that’s never wrong, no matter what Jeff says.

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