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Walking an Adventure Playground

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The view from the eastern shore of Slovenia’s Lake Bohinj on a recent afternoon was the picture of Alpine summer leisure. On three sides, the gray peaks of the Julian Alps stood hazy and indifferent in the high sun. Flotillas of rowboats and paddle boarders skimmed across the water. The lake stretched out like a sheet of polished jade.

The view represented an essential truth about this region of northwest Slovenia: that it offers panoramas out of all proportion with its physical scale. Based on vital statistics alone, first-time visitors might be forgiven for anticipating a modest mountain range. The Julian Alps are a tight oval of limestone knuckles, comparable in area to Rhode Island; their apex, Mount Triglav, rises to 9,396 feet, a mile shy of the more familiar Alpine peaks of Western Europe. But what the mountains lack in size they make up for in accessibility. Erupting sheer from the lowlands, just 35 miles from Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital and largest city, the region is best thought of as an adventure playground for a country that loves to be outdoors.

Pre-Covid, this had started to become a problem. On the range’s eastern periphery, Lake Bled, with the Instagram-friendly Church of the Assumption sitting on its teardrop island, had become a fixture of whirlwind coach tours. And the upper valleys were heaving. “The last time I climbed Mount Triglav there was someone selling beer on the summit,” Klemen Langus, the director of tourism for the municipality of Bohinj, told me.

A couple of years ago, the local tourist boards collaborated on a solution: a new 167-mile walking route, circling the entire massif and never exceeding 4,350 feet. They hoped it would act as a pressure valve, enticing visitors to lower ground. “There’s a saying in Slovenia that you have to climb Triglav once in a lifetime to prove that you are Slovenian,” said Mr. Langus. “This trail is to help us erase this saying.”

The Juliana Trail, as the new route was called, was inaugurated in late 2019. I had originally planned to visit the following May. But by then the threat of Covid had closed Slovenia’s borders, and while the country’s initial experience of the pandemic was relatively merciful, a winter surge hit long and hard. It wasn’t until this July that the photographer Marcus Westberg and I finally took our first steps on the Juliana, setting out from the village of Begunje under a cloudless sky.

The plan was to travel east to west along the massif’s southern fringe. The trail is divided into 16 stages of varying lengths and grades, some short and flat, others undulating over foothill passes. The trail goes from town to town, meaning that you can spend each night in a comfortable hotel; the Juliana Trail Booking Service can arrange the details.

As we only had a week to experience the trail, the booking service arranged a pick-and-mix itinerary for us, starting among the popular lakelands and culminating in the southern valleys that most foreign visitors overlook. (We walked Stages 4, 7, 10, 13 and 14.) An extensive public transport system enabled us to skip sections along the way.

The opening days — from Begunje to Bled, then in the environs of Lake Bohinj — served as a gentle introduction.

Mostly, they provided an opportunity to enjoy vignettes of a country in the throes of reanimation. With new daily Covid cases down to double-figures, Slovenia was undergoing a collective exhale. Restaurants were full to bursting. Lakeshores were abuzz. In the old square of Radovljica, a town that marked the midpoint of our first day’s walk, cyclists sipped espressos in al fresco cafes. A pair of musicians warbled a melodic folk anthem as an audience of septuagenarians sang along and swayed.

On the third morning, we caught an early train along the Bohinj Railway, which burrowed through the ridgelines south of the lake, cutting out two of the trail’s stages. To mark the fact that the day’s hike was set to be more rigorous, we’d enlisted a guide. When the train’s graffiti-covered carriages pulled into the station at the village of Grahovo, Jan Valentincic was waiting for us on the platform. He led the way onto the tracks of Stage 10, over dewy pastures, then into beech forest, where the trail was delineated by yellow signposts and, more regularly, an orange symbol — a ‘J’ and ‘A’ inside interlocking diamonds — stenciled onto trees and boulders.

For Mr. Valentincic, who is 32, bearded, with long brown hair and an off-center nose that complements his rugged mien, this was easy going. For the last seven years, he had been working as a guide abroad, leading ski tours in the Caucasus and hikes in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan. He was raised in the hills that the train had bypassed, and his peripatetic lifestyle exemplified the region’s history of depopulation: According to the World Bank, the proportion of Slovenes living in cities has doubled since 1960 to 55 percent. In the forest, hints of human presence — some moss-quilted stone wall, a tree sprouting from the roof of an old hay barn — betrayed the sites of long-abandoned farms. Though portions of the day’s hike stuck to drivable roads, I don’t recall seeing a single car.

The pandemic, and the arrival of a baby son, had drawn Mr. Valentincic home. He dreamed of establishing a homestay on the escarpment where he grew up, he told me — an escape for visitors who wanted to avoid the relative bustle of the lakesides. “People from the city want to sit and do nothing, enjoy the silence,” he said. As someone who had rarely left London in over a year, this was a sentiment I understood too well.

At 2 p.m., in fierce heat, the trail topped out above a broad valley, dotted with the terra-cotta roofs of two neighboring towns, Most na Soci and Tolmin. Twisting along the valley’s base was the river that carved it: the Soca, its passage made ponderous by a dam downstream.

At this juncture we really have to talk about the water. The bedrock in Slovenia is mostly Early Triassic limestone. When sunlight hits a river carrying white limestone crystals in suspension, the water turns dazzling and iridescent, its spectrum ranging from limpid green to deep, cerulean blue. At times, the color of the Soca and its tributaries is so preternaturally opulent that it is tempting to imagine some conniving public relations person hiding upstream, dousing the headwaters with chemical dye.

This interplay between w
ater and calcium carbonate reached a crescendo in the hillsides above Tolmin. Some of the most impressive reaches were stand-alone attractions. At Tolmin Gorges, a network of stairways, balconies and bridges offered views of a ravine system from every conceivable angle. Turquoise streams bubbled between the steep-cut cliffs. Hart’s tongue ferns spilled in great profusion down the walls. It was dizzying to think of these canyons and cascades as previews of even grander erosive marvels underground. The longest discovered cave system in Slovenia, Tolminski Migovec, honeycombed the surrounding karst for a total of 141,000 feet. On the walk from Grahovo, Mr. Valentincic had described the mountains as “basically hollow.”

For the locals, such imaginative vertigo didn’t cut it. The consensus seemed to be that the best way to experience this landscape was to throw yourself down it. After taking the half-hour bus-ride from Tolmin to Kobarid, the next major settlement upriver, we visited the nearby Kozjak waterfall, where a slender cataract burst through a cleft into a chamber of layered rock. Without warning, a figure appeared at its head, wearing a helmet and a suit of red neoprene. Seconds later a rope unspooled down the cliff-face, and a succession of canyoners rappelled down to a ledge, then jumped off, plummeting 20 feet into the pool below.

This wasn’t the only time that the national predisposition for daredevilry…

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