Stara Fuzina is a small alpine village only twenty minutes walk north-east of Lake Bohinj in Slovenia. Surrounded by green meadows and patches of forest, it sits at the base of a mountainous backdrop forming the edge of the Julian Alps.
As I walked towards the village on a warm sunny day in early June, I felt a sense of calm and excitement at what lay ahead. I had spent the previous two days in a crowded campsite near Lake Bled and was now walking though an environment even more beautiful and less developed.
In times past, Stara Fuzina would have relied predominantly on farming for its existence but now it seemed as if a significant number of farmhouses had been converted into guest houses. Despite these changes the village, with its population of just over five hundred people, had maintained its traditional appeal and warm sense of hospitality.
I’d booked a room in a private hostel, run by a young and hard-working Slovenian couple. Nestled in the middle of the village, Hostel Bohinj was a large three-storey house with eight guest rooms, two bathrooms and a large communal kitchen. I liked the room immediately. It was spacious yet unassuming, with functional furniture and modest decoration. The hostel was impeccably clean, the bathrooms were modern and the kitchen had all the necessities. Several other guests arrived later in the day and I welcomed the possibility of meeting fellow travellers and listening to their stories.
That evening I walked to the nearby Mihovc Guesthouse, the one and only village restaurant, for some home-cooked Slovenian food. It was a large space with several bars and dining rooms and a substantial outdoor eating area that was already almost full with diners. I took a seat outside at one of the few remaining tables and ordered a sausage and sauerkraut stew, a green salad and some red wine. The walls of the guest house were decorated with old black and white photographs and traditional farming implements and tools. It was a popular place for both locals and visitors alike and had a deserved reputation for hearty food and a lively and communal atmosphere.
The next morning, over breakfast in the hostel’s kitchen, I chatted with Silva, a young man from Switzerland. He was spending some time in Slovenia after quitting his job with an IT firm. He’d got fed up with sitting at a desk all day, and found Slovenia to be the ideal place to reconnect with nature and to think about what he might do next. The following day he planned to travel by train to the Soca River near Slovenia’s western border, a spot renowned for its white-water rafting. At this time of year, and at least until October, conditions on the river would be at their best.
I also met an older English couple who were travelling around Slovenia on a tandem bicycle. They were at the hostel for three nights and had planned several rides through the neighbouring countryside. Both were particularly keen on viewing the wildflowers which were making a brilliant show on the alpine meadows.
Although keen to get out on my own adventures, I first had to attend to my tent. During the final night at the campground at Lake Bled, it had got very wet during a downpour and I hadn’t had a chance to dry it. After lunch, I took it out to a grassy area behind the hostel, washed it down and hung it out to dry. Although light showers were forecast late in the afternoon, there would be a few good hours of sunshine beforehand.
With the tent drying, I went for a walk around the village. The houses were packed along narrow and windy streets. They were typically alpine in their design with multiple stories, small wooden balconies and steeply pitched roofs. Further from the centre, many of the houses had additional structures – farm sheds housing old tractors, carpentry workshops, large wooden racks for drying hay and stalls laden with carefully stacked piles of wood that looked like works of art. There was an old church, dedicated to St. Paul and a cheese-making workshop that had been converted into a surprisingly interesting alpine dairy museum. Wandering around the village was a bit like stepping back in time, admiring daily scenes from a more traditional way of life.
Hiking in the Alps
I decided the next day I would hike into the mountains in the direction of Mount Triglav (2864 m), Slovenia’s highest peak. I had first read about Triglav during the planning stages of my trip to Slovenia. It was an important icon for the Slovenian people and had become a strong symbol of national identity. Even a stylised image of the mountain appears on the national coat of arms. The former president of Slovenia, Milan Kucan, once proclaimed that it is the duty of every Slovenian to climb Mt Triglav at least once in their lifetime. The mountain with its three distinctive peaks (Triglav means ‘three heads’) is a popular destination for climbers and mountaineers. Most trips to the summit require two days of hiking with an overnight stay in one of several huts and, for most people, climbing the final stages of the mountain requires special climbing equipment.
In the morning I packed some supplies in a day pack – some nuts, protein bars and 2.5 litres of water. I set off on one of the hostel’s bikes and rode out of the village to nearby Mostnica Gorge, located at the entrance to the valley that leads towards the mountains. I secured the bike to a fence and started walking the trail along the two kilometre gorge carved out by the Mostnica river. In parts, the gorge was very deep and from various bridges along the trail I could peer over the railing into its depths. The clear mountain waters flowed rapidly between narrow walls of rock made smooth over centuries, producing spectacular cascades and clouds of fine mist. The stunning natural beauty of the gorge was a drawcard for tourists who could circuit its entire length in an hour or two.
I continued on past the gorge and onto a dirt road that lead up into the alpine meadows and farmlands of the Voje valley. At the far end it looked as if the route was blocked by a wall of mountain but the trail continued. It was hard going up the steep and very rocky terrain that switchbacked its way up the heavily forested mountainside.
After some time I entered a clearing in the trees and walked across a huge natural meadow sprinkled with white and yellow wildflowers and alive with bees and butterflys. On the other side of the meadow I re-entered the forest and continued up the mountain. In some parts the trail was hard to follow, being almost completely obscured with brown leaf litter. For most of the way though, the path was clear but rugged underfoot.
The forest seemed to go on for ever. I could see nothing but trees even though I was continually gaining altitude. I wondered when I would ever emerge from the forest or even glimpse the surrounding mountains. Even though I had been walking for hours I had seen no more than a handful of people. I was beginning to feel as if I was caught in some kind of infinite loop, as if I were walking though the same scenery over and over again.
When I finally cleared the forest, I got my first glimpse of the surrounding peaks, their lofty forms clearly visible in the bright sunshine. The mere sight of them encouraged me to continue, even though I was beginning to feel tired and had only a vague idea of where I was heading. I consulted the map on my phone and decided I would head towards Mount Tosc (2275 m), whose bulk was clearly visible not too far in the distance.
With a sense of purpose now, I continued on, over what was more undulating ground. I passed through patches of forest and amongst an incredible variety of wild grasses and flowers. It felt like ecological perfection – untouched and balanced in a way that harkened back to a distant past. I felt privileged to be there in that environment, and delighted that such an unspoilt example of the natural world still existed.
Patches of snow started to appear on the trail. It was strange to walk across it in trainers. There was plenty more snow on the upper reaches of the surrounding peaks but fortunately most of the path was clear. Soon I turned right onto a trail that lead around the base of Mount Tosc’s upper peak. It was two o’clock in the afternoon by that stage. I’d been walking for five hours and had several times already considered turning back. It would take at least another two hours to walk back down to the village and I was getting low on water.
As I continued along the trail, the slopes of the mountain became much steeper and in places, fell away abruptly to the valley below. Very near the turnoff to the summit I was passed by a Slovenian hiker. He spoke very little English but I asked him how long it was to the summit. He didn’t seem to know and his vague estimate of thirty minutes didn’t sound convincing.
My doubts increased as I looked upwards to the immense curvature of the mountain above me. I imagined encountering a string of false summits and thought another hour would be more realistic. I headed up anyway. It was a steep climb now, on a very narrow path that zigzagged its way amongst rugged rocky outcrops and mountain grasses, still covered with wildflowers. The scenery took precedence over my thoughts about tiredness and a growing concern about water.
After a while, I came across three middle-aged Slovenian women who were coming down from the top. It would have been odd in a way to see other people up here, except for the fact that they were Slovenian. For them, and particularly those from the more alpine regions, hiking was a natural pastime it seemed. They looked completely at ease with where they were, as if on a short stroll in the countryside rather than a mountain hike several hours walk from the nearest village. They were very friendly and spoke good English and kindly offered me some of their water which I gratefully accepted.
It was 15:30 by the time I reached the summit. I had a panoramic view of the Julian Alps and in front of me across a deep valley rose the entire bulk of Mount Triglav. It seemed quite close even though it would have taken several more hours to reach it. The mountain was a mass of grey rock, completely devoid of vegetation and covered in patches of snow. It dominated the skyline despite many other impressive looking peaks populating the panorama in all directions.
I sat on the summit, feeling a great sense of achievement. The views were spectacular and it would have been nice to rest for a while and bask in the environment I was in, but it was getting late in the afternoon and I knew I couldn’t linger for too long. Feeling tired too, I didn’t like the prospect of the journey back down. The twelve kilometre walk to get to the top had taken me 6.5 hours and it would take at least half that time to return to the village.
As expected, the descent was in many ways more difficult. The rough rocky ground and the steepness of the trail were hard on my legs and particularly my feet, which received a battering not being in boots. I also didn’t have trekking poles which would have alleviated much of the strain on my knees. In the last few hours my trainers seemed to offer such little protection that I could feel the contours of every rock on the souls of my feet.
For all the aches and pains though, the weather had been perfect. It had been one of the few days during my trip where no rain had fallen. At this time of year, brief but heavy showers of rain were common in the afternoon.
During the walk back down I started thinking about dinner in the restaurant in the village. I hadn’t eaten anything other than peanuts and energy bars all day and the thought of a hearty stew kept me putting one foot in front of the other.
I reached the village at 19:30 after 10.5 hours of hiking. It had taken me 3 hours and 40 minutes to return to Stara Fuzina from the summit of Mount Tosc. Much to my dismay the village restaurant was closed. It was Monday and the only day of the week it didn’t open. I had few supplies back at the hostel, but what I had would have to do. I drank some electrolytes, ate some toast and a handful of grapes and went to bed. Feeling hungry and fatigued, it took me a long time to get to sleep.
The next morning my body ached all over. I was very slow getting started. It even hurt to walk down the stairs of the hostel but I knew moving was the best thing I could do. After lunch I made plans to ride one of the hostel’s bicycles down to the lake and revive myself with a swim.