Towns / Cities Visited: 140
Countries Visited: 23
Steps Taken Today: 22,270
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,631,720
With bags packed and stowed, we tumbled out, albeit bleary eyes, into the blindingly bright morning light. We would bid farewell to Bled today, but first, it was time to wander off into the welcoming embrace of mother nature, who seems to be at her best nestled within the mountains here. One of Slovenia’s most notable trails, Vintgar Gorge, was calling to us, and although most visitors out this way choose to take a bus to the start point, we decided to make our way there on foot, both because we didn’t feel like cramming onto a bus full of people when the weather was so favourable, and because out hostel was closer to the trail than the bus stop we would need to journey to.
It was a pleasant walk, out past the quaint little rural homes with their lush green grass being munched on lazily by a spattering of cows. There is sufficient signage to allow you to find your way to the gorge without much hassle, with the hardest decision being which of the three marked roads to take from a crossroads about halfway to the gorge. In no time, we reached the car park which sits just inside the border of Triglavski Narodni National Park at the start of the hiking track. With the spaces packed full of cars and tour buses, it soon became obvious that, although it was well and truly shoulder season here, there was still no shortage of tourists eager to gorge in the scenery.
Joining the string of people ahead of us, we set off. Vingtar is a 1.6 kilometre gorge carved out by the Radovna river over the millennia since the last ice age. So deep is the gorge, that in places the canyon walls are up to 100 metres tall and it makes for quite an intimidating walk at times. The start of the track is along a well tread path which runs alongside the crystal clear river flowing along the base of this deep cut gorge. The way in which the serene, blue-green water has eroded the rock here, has resulted in the flow switching from calm pools to crashing white rapids, and back, in the blink of an eye. The banks are donned in weathered rocks, who’s rough edges are softened by a cloak of moss. The changing colours of the slender trees clinging, rather impressively, to the steep slopes, offer a pleasing juxtaposition to the rich green of the creepers carpeting the undergrowth.
Before long, you reach the beginning of the boardwalk which makes up the majority of the trek. It begins by spanning the river, taking you across to the far side, where the boardwalk is secured into the very walls of the canyon themselves. Here the walkway is just wide enough for two people to sidle past each other, making it a bit of a crush to move along past the throng of tourists trying to capture the perfect photo of this magical place. If you go with the flow its not too bad, but with people passing back toward the car park, it means that it bottlenecks at regular intervals. Despite the crowds, when you turn from the people and concentrate on the view, its easy to find tranquility amongst the hubbub. The gentle curves of the exposed rock layers speak of eras passed: the world before humans, frozen in time before us. The cool spray from the frosty alpine water crashing over itself made us hug our jackets closer, when just a short while ago we were peeling them off as we walked through the heat of the morning sun. The fallen trees which have tumbled down into the river mark the transition from life to death, whilst poetically demonstrating the cycle of existence in nature.
As you continue, the number of people thins, as I assume many of the tour groups only have a limited time to bask in the glory here. On the upside, this made for a much more peaceful second half of the hike. At points the gorge narrows to a just a few metres wide, before opening up again to a shallow, almost lake-like expanse which offers a place of deep calm and quiet. Further along, where there bank of the river is level and traversable, there sits a large collection of stone stacks, added to by the visitors who venture from the path. It made us laugh to see that, seemingly no matter where you go in the world, if there is a plethora of liftable rocks, people will fulfill some seemingly ingrained human need to stack them; as though there is something deep in the human condition which leads us to wish to create order out of chaos wherever possible. Still, regardless of their origin, they make for some rather interesting photographs. I’d like to give a special shout-out to whichever group of Jenga masters managed to balance a stack on the end of a fallen tree overhanging the water.
As the gorge walk nears its conclusion, the boardwalk ducks underneath the lofty arch of a stone bridge which spans the top of the canyon: a bridge that made me feel like if this were a fairytale, we would definitely be meeting the troll that lived beneath it at any moment. Unencumbered though, we continued on, being gifted with a view onwards to the mountains, as the gorge dips downwards at its end. Passing the man-made, dam like waterfall, we came to the pièce de résistance at the aft of the walk: Slap Šum, or Šum Falls in English. There is a wooden bridge that hovers above the top of the thirteen metre high waterfall, but if you continue on down the gorge a little, you can reach a different viewing platform that provides a picturesque view of the country’s tallest river waterfall, its crash filling the air.
With the hike complete, we were faced with a decision: to return the way we came, or to take our hostel keeper’s recommendation and finish a circuit route back to town that would take us back via a small village at which we could grab some lunch. Up for an adventure, we chose the latter, and finding the signs for the path, we began the steep walk upwards through the forest. The scene we found ourselves is was truly otherworldly. The trees reached high above us, their dark trunks contrasting starkly with the brightness of their leaves, which filtered the light and dappled the ground below in rays of early afternoon sun. The forest floor was blanketed thickly with the rich amber of fallen leaves, making the otherwise rocky footing soft, if a little questionable.
Signs nailed to trees relieve any confusion at crossroads, until eventually, the woods released us from their grasp at the crest of a hill overlooking the surrounding area. Just across the field, on the corner of the road coming up from the small town of Zasip, towards which we were headed, there sits a tiny rural church: St. Katarina’s, an old pilgrimage church which dates back to the turn of the 15th century. Although it is small, it is well maintained, with clean whitewashing on the walls, and a well kept tile roof. It also sports the remains of a few medieval religious paintings above and beside the door, but otherwise it is rather unassuming. It doesn’t really need to exude grandiose beauty though, as it boasts a view to die for.
Meandering off down the hill, we soon reached Zasip, dropping into the restaurant our host had suggested we dine at. Settling into the cute little place, we had soon ordered and were chowing down on a mixed meat platter, and a tantalising pork dish with mushroom sauce and cheese dumplings. Yet again, listening to the suggestions of locals had paid off, and we left buoyantly content with our adventure.
Making it back to Bled, we grabbed our bags, bid farewell to our host, and trundled off to the bus station. Missing our bus by five minutes, was settled in to wait for the next one, but with good company and conversation, the hour wait went by quickly. The bus ride was painless and, at only ninety minutes, relatively fast. Alighting, we found ourselves in the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana. A short walk brought us to the door of our hostel, and one of the most unique we had stayed in at that. You see, Hostel Celica occupies a building which previously served as a military prison for a hundred years. After a battle with the government and a successful sit in, a group of artists managed to acquire the space, and transformed it into a youth hostel. It remains a hostel to this day, providing a strange mix between its modern artistic vibe, and the prison feel it retains. The dorms themselves are located within the former cells, and as we reached our room and opened the door we were faced with the metal bars which had once offered a much less private seal to the room. As you can expect, the space was tight, with a bunk bed on which my mother and I would sleep, and an added loft area above the door where the third mattress rested. Given that reaching the upper bed involved a rather questionable climb up a ladder tied to the storage rack with rope, my partner offered to occupy it for the singular night we would be staying. Also, noting that there was no curtain on the window, it was clear we were going to be getting more of a prison experience than we had originally thought. Still, the beds were far more comfortable than I imagine the originals bunks were; the showers were hot, private, and clean; and a tiny communal kitchen allowed us the ability to make ourselves a quick, cheap meal.
Settling in beneath my duvet, it was hard not to ponder a life in prison. It’s easy to believe that you understand the concept, but as I lay in the dark of this rather claustrophobic room, its walls seeming to move ever closer in the shadows, I realised I had never really considered the entire stark reality of an existence behind bars. That’s not to say that the majority of people behind them have not made the bed they now lay in, nor am I saying that they deserve to live an existence full of creature comforts given their crimes. Still, the empathetic part of me felt for them in a way I had not previously, especially the prisoners of the past, or those in much harsher countries, who did or do not have the amenities and opportunities of many modern prisons. The contrast between our day and night came screeching to the forefront of my thoughts, from the freedom of wandering through the vast open wonders of nature, to sleeping within the bleak concrete walls of man-made confinement. It was a strange jumble of feeling to share my bunk with, and it served only to make me more grateful for the liberties I am allowed and accustomed to.