The Hidden Gems of the Julian Alps and Soča Valley in Slovenia
The eighth stop on our nine week summer vacation across Europe found us in Northern Slovenia and the beautifully scenic areas of Lake Bled, Soča Valley, and the Julian Alps. While visiting these sights we spent four nights in the tiny village of Podkoren in the far northwestern corner of Slovenia.
We stumbled upon Podkoren while searching for a centrally located apartment in the northern part of Slovenia that would serve as a home base for exploring the mountains, lakes, and valleys nearby. Podkoren was perfect for all of that. Wikipedia says Podkoren has 388 residents, but they must have done the census during the winter ski season and not when we were there during the sleepy summer off season. We assumed Podkoren would be nothing more than a place to rest in between our daytime adventures across Northern Slovenia but to our surprise the village turned out to be worth exploring as a destination in itself.
Here’s a recap of our trip in Europe so far. We started our journey in Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada, Spain. After Granada we visited Seville, Spain. From Seville, we flew to Milan on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight. After a two hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Venice. Then we took a four hour bus ride to Ljubljana where we spent a week exploring the city and the nearby caves. After Ljubljana, we drove just under an hour north toward the upper edge of Slovenia to Podkoren where our story picks up.
We spent four days in Podkoren and the surrounding countryside exploring the Julian Alps, the Vršič Pass, the Soča Valley, and a few lakes near Podkoren. Though the various lakes and rivers were stunningly beautiful, the water wasn’t as inviting to swim in. Water temperatures hovered between 43-50F degrees (6-10C) during the middle of the summer when we visited. Most of the water is snow melt from the Julian Alps and the mild summer temperatures do little to heat up the water. Brrrr!!!
This place is paradise on earth. So named for the translucent aquamarine Soča River that runs through it, the Soča Valley is truly an amazing place. The one hour drive to the valley from our home base in Podkoren took several hours since we had to stop and drink in the scenery along the way.
We visited the Slap Virje waterfall while in the Soča Valley. What is amazing is that we only saw about 15 other tourists during the hour or two that we were there. Elsewhere in the world this would be a major tourist attraction with hundreds or thousands of visitors.
Julian Alps and the Vršič Pass
The Julian Alps mountain range extends from Italy into Slovenia and provides similar breathtaking scenery as the main branch of the Alps that run from France and Switzerland in the west into Austria and Germany in the east.
To get to the Soča Valley, we had to cut through the Julian Alps and drive through the Vršič Pass. At a mile high, the Vršič Pass is the highest elevation mountain pass in Slovenia. The drive through the Vršič Pass is a destination all its own, with a 3,200 foot elevation gain and a series of 50 tight hairpin turns up one side of the mountain and back down the other. Our little Audi rental car was fun to drive on these mountain roads! The road through the mountains was built around 1915 by Russian prisoners of war during World War I. Halfway up the northern slope, we stopped at a Russian Orthodox church built by the Russian POW construction crew.
Three miles from our apartment in Podkoren lies Lake Jasna. It was open to the public for free. We visited on our first day there and loved it so much that we came back a second time. Next to the lake is a rock-strewn riverbed and floodplain with shallow ice cold swift currents. We spent quite a while building dams in the riverbed to divert flow to new channels we dug in the sand and rocks.
We saw a couple jump in the 50F degree water from this pier. After 30 seconds they climbed out quickly. The woman that jumped in wearing only a bikini climbed out with bright red skin all over after her brief swim in the freezing water. Our kids were troopers and claimed “you get used to it” but I couldn’t take more than about 30 seconds in water up to my knees.
Exploring the Village of Podkoren
We enjoyed exploring the tiny village where we spent four nights.
The Zelenci Spring is the source of the Sava River that runs for 600 miles through Slovenia and several other countries before joining the Danube River in Serbia. We saw the “underwater volcanoes” where the spring water bubbles up through the sandy bottom similar to lava erupting from a volcano. The water table in the valley is under pressure from the higher elevations surrounding this pool (according to the explanatory signage in English at this site).
Lodging for four nights in Podkoren, Slovenia with Airbnb
We were looking for a centrally located base camp for exploring the northern parts of Slovenia. We found that base in Podkoren just a mile from the Austrian border and two miles from the Italian border. Our airbnb was a ground floor two bedroom apartment in what must have served as a ski chalet during the winter ski season. During the summer when we were visiting, Podkoren is a sleepy rural village without a lot going on. The only activity we saw was the hotel next door with a few guests lingering at the adjoining open air cafe, and an old-fashioned lumber mill with a few guys feeding huge logs into the buzzing saw, leaving only saw dust and rough hewn boards in its wake.
Finding the village was an exercise in quaintness as the airbnb host gave us “country directions” (a term bestowed in homage to my Appalachian mountain heritage). Google maps was of limited usefulness in this situation because literally every road in the village was named “Podkoren” and there were no street signs. Eventually we found the right place by following the directions that went something like:
“turn left at the first turn from the main highway, then go past the fire station until you come to a dead end where the old Black Kitchen restaurant used to be. The apartment is behind the restaurant”
We arrived at the airbnb rental earlier than expected and found our landlord on his hands and knees scrubbing the terra cotta tile (remember, we’re just two miles from Italy) with a soapy brush. “The previous guests complained the floor was dirty” our host Dejan explained in his mildly accented English. Dejan is pronounced “Dan” with a Southern drawl in English; remember the “j” is a “y” sound. And let me express how glad I was to see him scrubbing the floor clean – always a good sign to see attention to detail when you first enter your abode for a few days and you know you only paid the ridiculously low sum of USD$45 per night. The place was nice, clean, and well appointed for our short stay.
Dejan soon friended me on facebook so we could keep in touch during our stay. He provided plenty of tips on dining and recreation for our four night stay in his weekend getaway bachelor’s pad. He explained there’s plenty of beds and couches inside and he routinely has ten or so friends come up from Ljubljana with him to go skiing and enjoy the countryside. Dejan was a great guy, in spite of my initial impressions upon seeing his shirtless Putin-esque facebook profile pic (note: never judge a book by its cover). Must be a Slovenian thing. Dejan also welcomed us to sample his homebrew liquor kept in little flasks by the front door.
He’s a plumber in the capital city who somehow owns this basement apartment in a ski chalet in the Julian Alps plus “a house trailer and a boat on a lake in Croatia” as he later tells me. Plumbers must make a great living in Slovenia. He explained he owns a van with a rig that pressurizes and shoots out jets of high pressure water to clean sewer mains. Per his facebook page’s Christmas well wishes (automagically translated from Slovenian): “Give us the jimky and the sewers. Your shit our joy.” Business must be good! Another cool character we met during our nine week trek across Europe.
If you want to enjoy the personal connection that sometimes comes with Airbnb rentals, click here to take $40 off your stay.
Getting Around Town (and Country) and a HUGE problem with our rental car
There isn’t a lot of public transit in the northern part of Slovenia where we were visiting. We kept the rental car we picked up in Ljbubljana and drove it for the four days we spent in the north. At $17 per day it was quite a steal and it allowed us to explore at our own pace. The hour drive from Ljubljana to Podkoren took all day (by design) because we stopped at Lake Bled on the way up. We also picked up a trunk full of groceries when we were in Lake Bled since we didn’t know how large the local grocery stores would be once we arrived in Podkoren.
The rental car experience was mostly uneventful except for the maddening return process. We booked the car through Sixt and they conveniently dropped it off at our apartment in Ljubljana with no problems and no extra fees. Several months earlier we had booked deeply discounted advance purchase non-refundable tickets on the morning express train to Salzburg with a 10:03 am departure time from Lesce-Bled in Slovenia. There’s no Sixt rental car office at the Lesce-Bled station but they pick up rental cars for free from anywhere within a 30 km radius of their main office at the Ljubljana airport. I let Sixt know that we would return the rental car at the Lesce-Bled train station right on the outskirts of the city of Bled so we could take advantage of returning the car at the train station near where we were staying north of Lake Bled and avoid a drive all the way into Ljubljana first thing in the morning. How about we meet at the train station at 9 am, Sixt? That will give me a full hour to hand them a key and shake hands and I can wait on my train in the cozy little station.
Sixt told me it would be super easy to find the rental agent at the train station. They will wear a bright orange Sixt shirt and it’s a small train station. No problem, right?
As it turns out, Sixt forgot to send an agent to pick up the rental car at our scheduled 9 am drop off appointment. By 9:30 am I started to panic as I realized I have a train coming in 30 minutes and no one to hand the rental car keys to. I didn’t have cell service in Slovenia (the ONLY country that wasn’t part of my global SIM package!!). My backup T-Mobile cell phone that has global service everywhere wouldn’t work either. Tick tock the train is coming soon.
I considered locking the keys inside the rental and emailing Sixt with a heads up that they messed up and I had to think fast. The car would be secure but I might face a steep fee for unlocking the car.
One thing I decided was that I WOULD be getting on that 10:03 am train to Salzburg, Austria. If I didn’t make the train, then a cascading failure would surely result. The next train to Salzburg wasn’t an express train and would (best case) get us to Salzburg late in the day. I’d be paying $200 for full price last minute tickets and lose the $40 I had already paid for non-refundable train tickets. I would probably reach the next rental car office after they closed and be stuck carless all weekend (this was a Friday and the car rental office in Salzburg wasn’t open Saturday or Sunday). We only had one full day booked in Salzburg with sightseeing an hour and a half outside of town, so we didn’t want to miss that just because we couldn’t get the rental car.
Eventually I came up with a better plan than locking the keys inside the rental. I decided to lie to the train station attendant. Just a small white lie. The attendant looked honest enough. So I told this young lady, probably no older than 20, that I had arranged with Sixt to leave the keys with her and they would pick up the keys from her. They were, uhhhh, mmmmm, running late! Yes, that was it. Sixt was “running late” and had phoned to tell me to leave the keys with this trustworthy looking train station attendant (Sixt was running late, they just didn’t know it at the time). She was hesitant to accept the keys but my powers of persuasion won out. I hurriedly handed her the keys before she had the opportunity to think things through all the way.
Worst case, I figured, would be losing the $4,000 hold on my credit card or perhaps I’d be on the hook for $26,000 (full price of the car) if this nice looking young lady stole the car. I figured the odds were under one percent that she would steal the car, since she thought Sixt would be there any minute to collect the keys and our whole exchange was being recorded by a security camera. But if I missed my train it would mean two days of blown plans and several hundred dollars to change travel arrangements. One of the benefits of having $2 million in the bank is choosing the convenience of sticking with your convenient pre-booked travel itinerary and shrugging off the tiny odds of a huge $26,000 loss.
It was 10:00 am and the train was due in a few minutes. These European trains don’t stop for more than 60 seconds when calling at the smaller train stations like Lesce-Bled, so we had to get going. We grabbed our bags and headed the few steps outside where the platform started to crowd with fellow travelers standing in the misty rain waiting for the train.
Fortunately the train was delayed by a few minutes. I managed to find an open wifi connection at the cafe next door. At 10:04 am I fired off a quick email to Sixt Slovenia saying “hey, your car is at the Lesce Bled train station / gave the key to the train station attendant / never saw anyone from Sixt / Peace out I gotta catch a train to Austria”. Minutes later we were on the train and a few minutes after that we were entering the five mile tunnel that leads to Austria. Once in Austria I regained cell service and was able to check my email. Sixt acknowledged that I had left the car at the station and apologized profusely. Everything turned out fine with the rental and no extra charges were assessed for leaving the key with a random young Slovenian woman who looked pretty trustworthy.
And that’s the story of how I spent my last hour in Slovenia. I don’t blame Slovenia as this snafu could have happened anywhere. I blame Sixt some. I blame myself for not confirming the day before that someone would actually be there to meet me and pick up the car. Lesson learned! Other than a very stressful adrenaline-filled 45 minutes of making a tough call, I didn’t let this incident bother me. I did what I thought best at the time and was ready to accept the consequences of a negative outcome. Travel can be unpredictable and this episode was fairly tame in the grand scheme of things. No one was injured and the worse case outcome was a slight chance of losing some money. Once I got on that train to Austria I accepted my fate and mentally moved on so I could enjoy a beautiful three hour train ride through the Austrian countryside.
Food in Podkoren
We stopped at EuroSpin, an Italian discount grocery store chain, in the city of Bled on the way up to Podkoren to stock up on supplies. We picked up our routine picnicking co-conspirators: baguettes, salami, ham, prosciutto, cheese, and apricots. Then we enjoyed a picnic next to the castle overlooking Lake Bled. We would later discover that the small grocery store in the larger village next door to Podkoren offered a full selection of groceries so we didn’t really need to stock up while in the city (better safe than sorry goes the theory).
We cooked most meals in our Airbnb and packed a picnic lunch for each day of adventuring. After a long day of climbing, hiking, lounging, and driving we embraced the spillover Italian culture and visited a local picerija (pronounced “piseria”) for some seriously good eats. I sat in the dining room watching the chef bake the pizzas in the wood-fired oven in the corner of the room.
Thoughts on Podkoren and the Soča Valley area
This area is a contender for the most amazing natural area in the world (from what little I’ve seen of the planet). We enjoyed our four days in the region immensely and plan on spending more time there in the future. It was the least crowded area out of all the fourteen cities/areas we visited across Europe. The lodging was also the cheapest of anywhere we stayed.
The beautiful scenery combined with the slow pace of life added up to a perfect break from the mostly city-based tourism we enjoyed during the first month of our European vacation leading up to our stay in Podkoren. The mountains, lakes, and valleys all blew our minds. Every time we rounded a curve in the road we were treated to another fairy tale scene.
Thanks for traveling with us on this scenic part of our trip. After spending four days in Podkoren and the Soča Valley area of Slovenia, we departed for Austria where we’ll pick up in the next article.
City or country – which do you prefer to see while on vacation? Ready to get on a plane to Slovenia yet?
Check out the whole series (so far) of our nine week European family vacation:
- Summer Vacation for 5 in Europe: 9 Weeks, 8 Countries, 14 Cities, $10,000
- Surprising Finds in Lisbon, Portugal
- From the Alcazaba to Sea in Malaga, Spain
- Exploring La Alhambra and the Narrow Alleyways of Granada, Spain
- Enjoying The Alcazar and Jamon Iberico in Seville, Spain
- Castles, Skyscrapers, and Prosciutto in Milan, Italy
- The Meandering Canals and Bridges of Venice, Italy
- Exploring Caves and Castles in Ljubljana, Slovenia
- The Hidden Gems of the Julian Alps and Soča Valley in Slovenia
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