Three Video Reports from the Slovenia West Loop
Tristan Bogaard and Belén Castelló spent some time on our Slovenia West Loop Route over the summer, and they put together a series of in-depth video reports along the way. Find all three videos here, plus a lovely gallery of images and some written thoughts about the route…
Words and photos by Tristan Bogaard (@tristanbogaard)
Like all of our bike rides this past summer season, this one surprised us in a multitude of ways. Belén and I hadn’t cycled in Slovenia before, and tackling the West Loop route in the most touristic months of the year seemed a little daunting. But as we soon found out, this country and indeed the ride is all about tasting the organic fruits of traditional gardening practices, feeling the cold glacial water of rushing rivers on sunbathed skin, gazing over the lush landscapes, and discovering the history buried underneath a modern layer of development and hospitality.
The West Loop was created by Joe Cruz and is, as its name states, a loop that starts and ends in Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia. It’s a great place to kick onto the pedals as train connections from Italy, Austria, and Croatia get the rider right to the start. As we rode the route, we documented every section of it in detail and came to realize that the ride can be divided into three parts. In this route report, I’d like to talk you through our West Loop experience––with the added benefit of a video full of visual impressions for each of the sections––so that you, a properly informed future West Looper, can ride the route with newfound inspiration and understanding of what goes on under Slovenia’s beautiful bonnet.
But let’s start at the beginning—the centre of Ljubljana and more specifically, Tivoli Park on the west side of the city. This is where we started our ride after having taken trains from Milano with our Interrail pass. We stitched the routes of this summer together by using their tickets so as not to have to cycle all the distance in between routes. It was already late afternoon when we got on the saddle, and getting out of the city to find a place to camp was our only priority. Having had a big late lunch gave us the energy to push over the first few steep hill climbs, and we quickly left the suburbs behind us to find green pastures, views of the Ljubljana Valley and flourishing nature all around us.
A few things to know before starting your Slovenian ride:
Wild camping with a tent is forbidden in Slovenia, but bivouacking is permitted. If you’re brave (unlike us), this way of camping is perfectly legal. If, like us, you do use a tent, be very discreet in where you put it up and only pitch up after sunset and down as early as you can. Watch where you put your trash or touch the soil, because apparently there’s a disease spreading amongst mice populations called Hantavirus, which can be lethal. It’s been said before, but please leave no trace when camping out. Be especially careful in Triglav National Park and the Soča Valley, as you might be fined €300 (or more) if you’re found by a patrolling ranger in a bad mood––they only go close to roads though; you should be safe on paths and trails that cars can’t get to.
Slovenia is not a cheap country. We were pretty shocked by the prices charged for accommodation in both populated and rural areas, although it’s worth mentioning we were there during the high season. I’m not sure if this has to do with a COVID rebound in the tourism industry, but most basic guesthouses will easily charge you €50 a night, while regular accommodation usually doesn’t start lower than €80 a night. Campsites along Soča will easily charge you €14 per person, not to mention surcharges like tourist tax and an environmental contribution.
Vegan food is easy to find pretty much everywhere if you know what to ask for. Supermarkets like Hofer and Lidl (and even Mercator) are well stocked on certified vegan products but also have plenty of secretly vegan ones like ajvar (ash-vaar) and Smoki puffed peanut chips. You’ll find many Italian-influenced restaurants where you can ask for a pizza without cheese. Mushrooms, polenta, gnocchi, and veggies are part of the traditional diet, so those are on most menus as well. Restaurant coffee is delicious and well priced; supermarket coffee is generally not so good.
Most of the folks in rural places are really friendly and might even speak great English, so asking for water or having a little chat will elevate your social experience.
Some common words and phrases:
- Kolesarim po Sloveniji (I’m cycling across Slovenia)
- Govorite angleško? (do you speak English?)
- Dober Dan (good morning and afternoon)
- Koliko je to? (how much is that?)
- Nasvidenje (goodbye)
- Hvala (thank you)
- Dan (hi)
Section 1: The church, lake, and mountain
When cycling through the lush, green hills northwest of Ljubljana, you’ll start seeing little white picturesque churches on the hills that surround you. Whenever you get a view from between the trees en route, there’s always a little church catching your attention from one of the many hilltops. And Joe’s route takes you right by some of the prettiest ones. They’re usually an added climb up to a hilltop, but the peaceful atmosphere surrounding these age-old human constructions feels rewarding and pleasant. We really liked cycling up to a nearby church in the fresh air of the early morning to sit down for breakfast, overlooking the forests and flatlands in the distance.
After having stayed with a local family in Škofja Loka, a small and thriving little town in the middle of this first route section between Ljubljana and Kranjska Gora, we entered one of the more challenging parts of the route. Or at least, that’s what it felt like for us. It starts with a pretty chunky climb out of town, followed by paths and singletrack combined with short stretches of asphalt here and there. Especially the part between Čepulje and the next beautiful church of the route—Sveti Jamnik—proved to be a tricky undertaking. It’s one of those places where one has to execute some serious hike-a-biking to stitch good paths together, all while avoiding a 500-meter down and up kind of thing. And even though you might feel like pounding your head on a tree in the moment, it’s a typical case of type-2 fun.
After having a dip in the crystal blue waters of Lake Bled to forget all about this sweaty endeavor, we cycled up and into the Radovna Valley. By providing smooth gravel roads, grassy fields, and forests with wildlife occasionally crossing the road, this place showed us what most of Slovenia must’ve felt like before human development. It’s only a stone’s throw to the west from Jessenice’s busy and industrialized valley, yet a calm and refreshing alternative to it. You’ll get your first views of the mighty Triglav Mountains and the opportunity to learn about past events that took place here through old structures and deserted barns with information boards outlining their stories.
The next morning we pedaled down a fairly easygoing stretch of road to catch a bike lane on a former train track connecting Mojstrana with Kranjska Gora. Stocked up on typical Slovenian vegetable spreads, freshly baked buns, and ingredients for a curry later that night, we set out to climb the Vršič (vur-seech) Pass on the route Joe proposes. We climbed up a narrow river valley, bleached out by the sun’s rays, with glacial streams seeping down through the rocky terrain, before finding ourselves on what we’ve come to call “the other Vršič climb.” As it is an alternative to the smooth asphalt highway, we went into this one with some skepticism on the gradients and riding surface, but this part of the route quickly turned to a favorite stretch once we rode it. It’s a fairly narrow logger trail that’s used by some hikers nowadays, and it provides a perfect way up and down Vršič for adventurous cyclists. You’ll need a gravel bike to ride it comfortably and will find an excellent little camp spot on the way in case you’re in need of pitching out for the night.
Section 2: The unobstructed crystal river
Because of our personal appetite to skip Joe’s courageous climbs close to the Italian border, as well as suggestions of locals and West Loopers who’d come before us, we took it upon ourselves to scout out an alternative route, through which one can cycle the Soča River Valley instead. This river is known worldwide for its crystalline glacial waters and lack of dams, something that’s become slightly remarkable in recent decades. So, we really wanted to get a chance to cycle alongside it.
In the days prior to riding it, Belén drew up a stretch of connected roads and paths between Bovec and Nova Gorica for us to keep descending slowly, staying close to the river’s shores and avoiding as much traffic and touristic mania as we could along the way. If you’re willing to give up a bit of solitude and some wild camping possibilities (I suppose it would be much easier on the original track), I can recommend adjusting your West Loop itinerary to our Soča variant (find it on my Komoot profile).
Once you’ve come down the Vršič Pass, you’ll meet the river shortly after descending its last switchbacks. From here on, you’ll be on a mix of asphalt and gravel until you get close to Bovec. Then the detour starts, and you’ll find a balanced combination of ups and downs as well as riding surfaces. You’ll probably be rid of heavy traffic most of the way, although there are still a few stretches where you should cycle with caution. It’s the most touristic valley in Slovenia after all—keep that in mind. Some notable sights you’ll find along the river include the Boka Waterfall near Bovec, Napoleon Bridge near Kobarid, the cute city centre of Most Na Soči, and a handful of rural towns containing ice-cold fountains, rustic exteriors, and friendly older locals.
There’s one more thing you should know: As we pushed our way out of Most Na Soči, a storm neared and eventually caught us right in the middle of our frantic tent mounting. Storms occur pretty regularly in this valley, but the closer you get to Nova Gorica, the less chance they have of catching you, as the mountains seem to have their own micro-climate. And indeed, we rode into Nova Gorica the day after, following a beautiful bike lane that starts just south of Plave. It was time to start the last of three West Loop sections.
Section 3: Caves, castles, and a cyclic lake
When cycling the previous two sections of the West Loop, you might occasionally experience something of a tourism bottleneck—a little too dense of a population of visitors in particular places, making you feel like you want to squeeze out of a narrow tube into the open natural spaces again. If that sounds familiar and you tend to prefer a little more solitude, you’ll really like the third section of the West Loop.
In a nutshell, you’ll see vineyards and forests in abundance, small rural towns draped in Mediterranean character, mountain views, and plenty of smooth gravel. This section starts in Nova Gorica and finishes in Ljubljana, and is probably the easiest of the whole route with only two major climbs, one of which is completely on asphalt.
I really liked cycling this part of the route. The lack of people and traffic along most roads and paths was calming. Even though it was much warmer in the flatlands, some elevation is reached after climbing out of Adjovščina, and the temperatures cool down a bit. The landscape rolled along beneath our wheels with very rideable gradients and was exceptionally suitable for wild camping. This part of the route also felt a little more family-friendly and would therefore be a great bike ride for families, more traditional touring-rig riders, and cyclists who are just starting out. I’m sure the locals also enjoy this area for weekend overnighters. Here are three of my favorite places we passed through on the way to Ljubljana:
1. The vineyards between Batuje and Dobravlje. This is a stretch of smooth gravel paths along a railroad that’s surrounded by countryside elements: old farm houses, white churches wherever you look (a nice way to identify where the towns are), and of course, grapes! So many you could mull a wine by your tent. It’s simply a very charming and satisfying ride.
2. Predjama Castle. This 13th century(!) castle is positioned in a cliff-face cave and a very worthwhile detour from the route. There’s a little restaurant and terrace in the small town that looks toward the castle, where we savored a tasty lunch. It’s a place to relax a little and learn about the history of Slovenia as well as the caving tradition in this country as it’s a very popular sport. There are so many unexplored caves, and the castle tale only adds to the enchantment of exploring the ground below.
3. Cerknica’s intermittent lake. We camped by its shore, essentially in the water—if it had been there. It is the biggest lake in Slovenia (once it fills up) and a habitat for storks and other nesting birds as well as many amphibious plants, thanks to the huge expanse of untouched grassland the lake leaves behind. We’re not sure when the lake appears and if it does at all anymore, but it’s a favorite place of ours due to the silence and unusual views one can find here. It’s an absolute must-see.
From Cerknica, it’s a pretty easygoing last climb before rolling into the marshes that lead you to the capital—just be careful with the heavy traffic in the suburbs, as Joe already warns on the route guide. This is it; you’ve done it!
It’s worth mentioning you’re now among a growing club of West-Loopers; brave cyclists who’ve cycled what might be one of Europe’s most promising bikepacking routes. We loved riding this route and can certainly recommend it to those who have Slovenia on their holiday-riding list. And with the addition of the Trans Karavanks route, you’ll have your time in the country cut out for you.
The West Loop
Slovenia—east of Italy’s Dolomites, south of Austria and sharing borders with Croatia and Hungary—has everything an intrepid cycle tourist could want. This loop includes remote dirt roads through rolling hills, picturesque towns, steep climbs, and bits of single track to keep you grinning. It’s a great introduction to this wonderful country. Find the full route guide here.
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