On the evening of my eighth day hiking the Juliana Trail in northwestern Slovenia, I arrived in the mountain village of Log pod Mangartom, only to discover that the village’s sole restaurant had closed for the season. Not relishing the thought of dining on the two stale pieces of bread in my pack, I set out to find a meal.
“Food?” I asked an old woman standing by the water spigot in the center of town, pantomiming eating. “Do you know where I can find food?” The woman squinted, repeating the hand-to-mouth motion I made, and said something in Slovene.
I nodded. “Food?” I said again. “Restaurant?” She pointed toward a low stone house across the road that was strangled with ivy. I held up my hands, confused, and she whacked me with the cane, gesturing for me to follow.
The next thing I knew, I was sitting knock-kneed at a tiny wooden table in her two-room cottage, between shelves lined with ancient sets of china, black and white photos, and walls plastered with yellowed newspaper clippings. The woman opened her icebox and served me meat, cheese, bread, and sweet wine until my stomach ached, even as I half-heartedly protested. After swallowing nearly a quarter pound of prosciutto, I finally convinced her to stop feeding me. I tried to wash my plate and offer money, but she just whacked me with the cane, snatched the plate, and shooed me out.
The Juliana Trail, which opened in October, covers 167 miles and encircles Slovenia’s Triglav National Park and the Julian Alps. It takes hikers through a variety of landscapes, from the remote and densely forested Baska Grapa in the south to the rolling green hills and dales of the Sava River Valley in the north. Wooden A-frame farmhouses dot grassy hillsides where cattle and horses graze freely, with the Alps rising in the background. More than once in my two-and-a-half weeks on the Juliana last fall, I had the feeling of walking through a fairy tale.
The trail is split into 16 stages of varying lengths, each one designed around notable nearby sites. For example, the short stretch of stage 11 is intentional, giving hikers time to visit the imposing Kozlov rob castle, perched high above town, the world-famous Tolmin Gorges, and the Javorca church, built by Austro-Hungarian soldiers in World War I. Every stage is a vastly different experience.
“The Julian Alps are an incredibly diverse region culturally,” said Janko Humar, director of the Soca Valley Tourism Board and one of the key figures who helped spearhead the trail’s development. A tall, stout man, with close-cropped gray hair, an easy smile, and a rock-solid grip, he has been involved in tourism in the Soca for 30 years. “In the north, you will find communities which appear more Austrian,” he added, “in the south, a style of life which is more Italian.”
Though the Juliana stops in a few major tourist towns, hikers will spend over half their nights on the trail in tiny settlements like Log pod Mangartom. This was deliberate, said Humar. “We want to get travelers into regions that have previously seen little to no tourist presence,” he said. “Over 60 percent of [Slovenia’s] overnight tourists come in a period of three to four weeks during the summer and only visit a couple of spots, like Bled and Bohinj. The Juliana gives conscientious hikers an avenue into remote valleys and villages untouched by tourism, which will also help boost the local economies.”
There’s no need to bring a tent either. Each section ends in a village or town where travelers can sleep. Some, like stage 11—an idyllic stretch along the verdant banks of the Soca River from the quiet fishing town of Most na Soci to Tolmin—are only a few miles. The longest segments are only 15 miles, and most are about ten miles. The trail is primarily flat, sticking to the river valleys between the peaks, but a handful of sections require a few thousand feet of elevation gain.
The Julian Alps Association recommends hiking in the fall or spring, due to heavy snow in winter and crowds of tourists in the summer. All 16 stages are marked on the Outdooractive app for Android and iOS. Along with cultural sites, there are plenty of adventures along its path.
In the southwestern reaches of Triglav National Park, from stages 11 to 14, the trail follows the emerald Soca River, which features world-class fly-fishing and whitewater. There are also paragliding and hang-gliding spots along the Soca and near the opening stages of the trail in the Sava Valley to the north. Dozens of waterfalls and lakes lie just off the route, like the sublime Kozjak waterfall on stage 13, nestled in a rocky, moss-shrouded amphitheater in the hills northeast of Kobarid. Trekkers can visit the popular Slovenian lakes of Bled and Bohinj on the eastern part of the trail, and the famed Lago del Predil sits just across the Italian border to the west at Predil Pass (the final two stages of the trail travel through Italy).
Podbrdo, in stage eight, is a particular gem. In this quiet village of 300, tucked away in the isolated Baska Grapa Valley, on the southeastern edge of the national park, sheer, tree-covered ridgelines loom hundreds of feet on all sides. Travelers can dine on freshly caught trout at the town’s only restaurant, Brunarica Slap, perched above the Baca River.
For climbers, the Juliana is within spitting distance of countless multi-pitch rock and Alpine routes on famous peaks in the northern and western segments of the trail, including Mangart (8,789 feet), Spik (8,110 feet), and Triglav (9,396 feet). Triglav, Slovenia’s tallest mountain and a national icon, is famed for its 3,940-foot north face, which offers superb sustained climbing and is one of the tallest faces in Europe. The area also features canyoneering and via ferrata opportunities in Gozd Martuljek and Mojstrana, near the trail’s first stage, which winds along the mellow banks of the Sava Dolinka River in the shadow of the lofty summits of the Martuljek range.
The slopes of nearby Mangart, visible from stage 14, hosted a legendary ski race held by members of the U.S. Army’s Tenth Mountain Division after the Second World War. There’s more skiing in Kranjska Gora and Planica (the latter home to the 2020 Ski Flying World Championships).
For history buffs, there are seven major castles and fortresses along the Juliana, with several others close by. Among the most notable are the 1,000-year-old Grad Kamen castle, north of Begunje village in stage three, and Kluze Fort, which defended against Napoleon’s army in the 18th century, en route to Log pod Mangartom on stage 14. On stage eight, at Vrh Bace, a mountain pass north of Podbrdo, the Juliana crosses the Vallo Alpino, where defensive bunkers were built along Italy’s northern border before World War II. Here hikers can explore a labyrinth of abandoned passageways and tunnels honeycombing the mountain ramparts (no fees here—just scramble off the path a bit to find the entrances). The trail also travels a large portion of the Isonzo (Soca) Front in the west, which saw a dozen bloody battles between Austro-Hungarian and Italian forces in the First World War (much of Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms is set along the Soca). As a result, a host of impressive museums dot villages and towns along the trail. Of note is the award-winning history museum in Kobarid, the stopping point after stage 12.
There are plenty of quirky sights to see, too, like the beehive of Anton Jansa, the father of modern beekeeping, or the longest train tunnel in Slovenia (and the hundred-year-old railway running through it), an easy way to cheat one of the more difficult stages, undercutting the Vrh Bace pass and taking tired hikers directly to Podbrdo.
Each day brings something new. Sometimes hikers travel on narrow mountain tracks, other times on dirt roads or bike trails. More than once I found myself crossing a farmer’s field, mingling with goats and cattle, or wandering through villages consisting of no more than four or five buildings, some completely abandoned settlements. Another segment took me along a deserted mining facility that dates back to the 14th century, in the Italian village of Cave del Predil.
Adventures aside, it’s the people you meet that make the Juliana shine. Great climbing and kayaking couldn’t beat the memories of the meal the woman in Log pod Mangartom fed me, or beers by the fire with villagers in Grahovo ob Baci, or the café owner in Begunje who, when I asked for directions, sent his daughter out with a massive sandwich and coffee and shrugged off the money I offered. One night I stayed up past midnight sharing home-brewed schnapps and swapping stories with several local roofers at a village inn. In the morning, they passed me on a dirt road, riding in a flatbed. “American! American!” they yelled as they roared past, oblivious to the dust shower they were giving me.
The Juliana Trail won’t be the most challenging hike you’ve ever done, but you won’t find an experience quite like it anywhere else.
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