Getting to know a mountain region is very different from making a dash for the highest summit. Understanding the deep topography of a place takes time, as we well know from Gilbert White’s Selborne diaries, Tim Robinson’s mapping of Connemara or Nan Shepherd’s evocation of the Cairngorms. A week or two is never enough, but one can at least make a start, as Rudolf Abraham discovers when he follows a new long-distance walking route through the one-time borderlands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
It is early September, and almost breathlessly hot, as we follow a rocky trail upstream beside the sweep of turquoise which is the River Soča, through the heart of Slovenia’s Julian Alps. Small stones clatter down from the edge of the path, crickets sound in the sparse bushes, and the white-streaked water rushes between sun-bleached boulders below. Here and there the river is overhung by bluffs, over which the trail climbs in a succession of steep wooden steps, and over which cool water trickles down through a dark green curtain of shaggy moss, to hang in tiny droplets, glittering in the sunlight.
I’m walking between Kobarid and Trnovo, along a section of the Juliana Trail — an outstanding new long-distance hiking trail through Slovenia’s beautiful Julian Alps. The emphasis here is on slow tourism and sustainability — it’s a chance for visitors to immerse themselves in a landscape and to see Slovenia’s highest peak, Triglav, from all angles.
The Juliana Trail is designed to reduce the strain of visitor numbers on Triglav — the unremitting stream of visitors intent on ‘bagging’ Slovenia’s most famous mountain has led to overcrowding and trail erosion. The Juliana makes a circuit around this iconic 2,864m peak, without actually climbing it. That invites comparison with some of the great trails in the western Alps which encircle a mountain, such as that celebrated trinity of routes that loop respectively around Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn. But in fact the Juliana is by no means as demanding. There are no challenging glaciers to cross, and much of the route follows well marked paths and tracks.
As an antidote to the popular blitz assault on Triglav, the Juliana encourages visitors to stay longer and explore the surrounding area — which after all is equally beautiful, even if a little lower than the maximum altitude which rather arbitrarily defines a country’s highest point. The route takes in several less-frequented valleys (meaning you’ll meet fewer hikers along the trail), makes a few unexpected turns, and even ducks over the border into Italy for one section, while still managing to include such must-see spots as Bled with its lakeside castle perched on a crag and its celebrated island monastery. And even though it doesn’t climb Triglav, along its route the Juliana offers several fabulous views of the country’s most famous mountain — which according to popular tradition, every true Slovene should climb at least once during their lifetime.