OWe come across Leon on a wooded hill overlooking the Slovenian town of Kobarid. It’s the start of our bike ride and we play around with saddle positions and check tire pressure when it comes up. “Leave the bikes there,” he said. “There is something you should see.”
A footpath climbs through the pines in a maze of ancient fortifications: trenches, tunnels, gun emplacement and belvederes. “It was the first front line of the First World War between the Italians and the Austro-Hungarians,” Leon and Jan, my cycling guide, tell me. Turns out Leon is part of an organization that cares about the history of that war and has developed a long-distance trail, the Peace Walk, that connects historic sites.
From the top of the hill behind the fortifications, a vast panorama opens up. Looking south, the land plunges through intricate valleys filled with vineyards and wooded ridges to Trieste and the shimmering Adriatic Sea. To our left are limestone ridges that jut into the forests of Croatia, and to the right a coastline that disappears in a haze above which rise the jagged spiers of the Italian Dolomites. Behind us rise the snow-capped Julian Alps and Austria.
Leon points in this direction, to the north, descends again into the Soča Valley. “My family came from a village there – for many generations. However…” He raises four fingers and counts them: “Grandfather was born in Austria-Hungary, father in Germany, myself in Yugoslavia and my son in Slovenia. It’s the perfect reminder that our 200 km route to the coast along the border between Slovenia and Italy is a route whose beauty comes with a checkered past. This ride, I realize, is going to be a whirlwind tour of European culture, history and politics, a tour made all the more poignant by recent events.
Eager to get started, we hop on our bikes and ride down the hill; a long and delicious descent through ancient forests and quiet villages. The road, void of traffic, is strewn with fallen pinecones and sweet chestnuts, while tough alpine villages are barricaded behind substantial, well-constructed log piles. As we descend, the houses soon take on a softer Mediterranean look. Vines shade the patios and the trees are bursting with persimmons and lemons. Over the next three days we pass ancient villages with ruined castles, stopping everywhere to sample a delicious range of local delicacies. Turns out the road is also a culinary delight.
We dive into Italy, cross a line made invisible by the magic of the European Union, but when we are about to pass the empty customs post between Gorizia and Nova Gorica, Jan stops. There is a railway bridge right in front of us, then Slovenia. Behind is Italy. Jan points to a distant tower. “It’s the hospital in Šempeter. In June 1991, I was a nine-year-old child with meningitis and my bed was on the top floor overlooking this border post.
On the morning of June 28, Jan heard gunshots and looking out his bedroom window he saw tanks and soldiers moving around the customs post where we were now. “Slovenian independence forces were fighting the Yugoslav National Army right there on the border with Italy.”
In fact, what he witnessed then was the decisive battle of the 10-day war of independence in Slovenia. Two Russian-built T-55 tanks were knocked out and three others captured. It was a war in miniature by modern standards, but extremely important for Slovenia.
We keep on pedaling, taking full advantage of our superhuman ability to weave between Italy and Slovenia, putting together what scheming warlords have taken centuries to separate. The land becomes abundant and fertile, the cities a blend of ancient architecture with sleek modern flourishes. We stop and chat with an older man picking mushrooms, and visit a stonemason’s yard and an organic cellar, whose proud owner shows us his impressive cellar: three levels dug in karst limestone and filled with 2,000 one-litre barrels of his finest wines. To avoid offending, we agree to sit down and eat generous portions of pršut, air-dried ham, and wash it down with several samples of its wines, all made from native varietals: rebula, zelen, malvazija and teran.
The food and drink on this trip reflects the geographical diversity as we descend from the snow-capped peaks to the sea. In Kobarid, my first night, in Hiša Polonka, I had eaten pure mountain food, including frika, a kind of rösti, made with Tolminc alpine cheese. It is no surprise to learn that the owner, Valther Kramar, is married to Ana Roš, the chef of the famous Hiša Franko, a Michelin-starred restaurant also in Kobarid that uses only local products. As the kilometers go by, we pedal freewheeling through all the culinary strata: from high mountain cheeses to cherries, mushrooms, olive oil and oranges.
The reputation for great food is nothing new. In Štanjel, we chat with two inhabitants: Uroš and Petra, born in the neighboring villages. “We just have the perfect climate to grow great ingredients,” says Petra. “In the 1930s, wealthy Italians came here from Trieste to eat.”
This civilized tradition, however, was soon to be destroyed, along with Uroš’s own family. “When the war broke out, German soldiers came here, looking for partisans. My great-grandfather hid in a well, but was taken away, never to be seen again. We only learned in the 1960s that he died in the Dachau concentration camp. My grandfather, then 13 years old, was also taken away, but he reappeared after the war. He had been enlisted as a slave on a Bavarian farm. Looking at the quiet hills around the village, it is hard to imagine this cruelty and violence.
On the last day, a long descent through groves of persimmons brings us to our last culinary zone: seafood. We park the bikes and eat fish on the harbor wall in Izola, a town with lovely shady lanes. This, however, is just the appetizers to our final destination, Piran, a colorful maze of shady lanes and courtyards, all wrapped around a small harbour.
Over the centuries, this city has been Roman, Venetian, Byzantine, Austro-Hungarian and French Napoleonic. He was both communist and fascist. But it has survived them all, preserving the air of a coastal port that rubs shoulders with everyone. In the main square is a statue of Giuseppe Tartini, the violinist who allegedly sold his soul to Satan in exchange for the Sonata in G Minor. Better that, I think, than all those diabolical empires that have crossed here, dragging along their tedious divisions of barbed wire and borders.
We eat mountains of seafood, drink cold beer and I swear never to leave Piran. The next day I inadvertently went back to the UK, but I hope to rectify that mistake before too long.
This trip was organized by the Slovenian Tourist Board. Slovenian hiking and biking trails Specialist Visit Good Place organizes several cycle tourism trips, including a seven-night itinerary between the Alps and the Adriatic from €1,230 (based on two people sharing, includes breakfasts, luggage transfers, navigation pack and 24/7 assistance). Holiday Extras helped with transfers and hotels in the UK