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Mountain highs: biking and bivvying in Slovenia | Slovenia holidays



“I slept rough for eight days and climbed the height of Everest on a bike,” might not be everyone’s ideal holiday. But for anyone with a sense of adventure and a passing relationship with a bike, the West Loop of Slovenia’s pristine blue Julian Alps takes some beating.

This 260-mile (418km) circuit, plotted out by cycling guru Joe Cruz on the site, was spotted by some pals in Scotland with a bit of a habit for rather extreme outdoor shenanigans – wiry gents who spend winter weekends kayaking and bivvying in the Cairngorms, and so on. I recognised that it was not so much the distance that was the challenge – more the roughly 9,000 metres (29,000ft) of total climbing. But even as a mere amateur, it didn’t take much to convince me. The majestic Julian Alps, the eastern bookend of the range, looked fundamentally, spectacularly alpine, but with a fraction of the tourists of nearby Italy or Croatia.


And bikepacking is the way to explore it all – really a new word for touring, but with kit designed for offroad abuse such as lightweight panniers and inline frame bags. Travelling light, wild camping under the stars: a bike, a bivvy bag and a few bits of gear. Because it’s not always strictly sanctioned, you bivvy somewhere well out of the way (some call it stealth camping): you stay, and you camp, without leaving so much as a footprint.

The author and Mount Prisojnik in the background.

So, the equivalent of tackling a Ben Nevis a day. Would I cut it with my pouchy midriff and milky chops? My friends had all the kit: gravel bikes – hardy touring machines with wide drop handlebars, carbon frames, platter-sized cassettes and thicker, offroad wheels. I didn’t have any of this. Not to worry – a mountain bike will do it. Shops in Ljubljana even recommend them for the West Loop. And I worked out that hiring in Ljubljana would be cheaper than shipping one over in a bike box. Would I be able to keep up? Probably not. But mere facts have never stopped me before.

The day came. The weather was sparkling. I watched the nerds fettle away at their sleek machines at our Ljubljana hotel (the friendly and helpful Asteria), but I was relieved to see my good friend Mike planned to ride the loop on his (t)rusty mountain bike. I picked up mine – a Giant hardtail – and we finally set off from the town square, winding west through Tivoli park and steep woods, spilling out on to meadows melding into distant hills and, beyond those, a jagged blue line of mountains. Home for the next nine days.


Reality set in on the first big climb. A pecking order was established smartly. Four or five of our fitter compadres cranked gamely up the road ahead while others established a more liberal interpretation of the pace. I slotted in nicely at the back.

But it was gorgeous. We climbed in dappled sunlight through beechwoods, finally arriving red-faced at the pretty rustic village of Toško Čelo, where we parked at a family restaurant, inhaled cool beers and filled our water bottles – virtually all the rural villages have a public tap to fill from.


Onwards and very much upwards, we emerged at golden hour on a sublime grassy hilltop with the pristine white church of St Jacob, Bresovica, at its summit. Spectacular hilltop churches seem to be a national motif. Cowbells tinkled and a cool breeze blew. It was absurdly idyllic – and just the first of many such scenes.

We followed a river towards Škofja Loka and scouted out a secluded woody glade next to a stream to camp for the night. We shared a couple of bottles of local grog, local cheese and sausage, then slept like the dead in the cool air.

Heaven on the rocks … stealth camping after a day’s cycling

Next day, we climbed with the rising sun through misted woodland on quiet lanes, and then through steep pine woods where the red earth had become rutted in recent storms and boobytrapped with exposed roots. Some of us – like James, an experienced downhill mountain biker – relished this terrain. My bike was still as wide as a cow so I made a liberating executive decision and took a detour on an adjacent logging track, descending smugly into the valley beside a swift stream. This reassured me that the loop does have abundant detours should you need to take one.


I met the others at Podblica, and on we rolled, through Jamnik with its spectacular church, followed by a leisurely spin through rolling hills to majestic Lake Bled and its island church. I could see why people tarry here for their entire holiday. But we took a dip, had dinner, and headed off to find our night stop 10 miles away in the sleepy Radovna valley.

The sun set and a mist began to haunt the river, but already my canny companions had found a perfect bivvy spot: an idyllic riverside pasture with trees for a hammock and thick grass to lay a mat on. We cranked up the petrol stoves, had a good feed and a sound night’s sleep, punctured only by the thud of Guy falling out of his hammock.


The next day, winding along the Radovna river through the woods of Triglav national park, the valley widened to reveal Slovenia’s highest mountain, Triglav itself, to the west. And after Kranjska Gora, the big climb – the 50 hairpin bends and nearly 1,000-metre ascent to the historic Vršič pass, Slovenia’s loftiest, and once the border between Italy and Yugoslavia. A slog, but you will never forget the views of Prisojnik and Goličica on your left.

That night, we bivvied high on the mountain on a ledge below the pass. The air was crystal clear, the stars intense, lending a real feel of wilderness.

What goes up must come down … the descents are exhilarating

The next morning, the exhilarating, endless descent to the upper Soča valley between dark peaks of pine delivered us to the valley bottom, the route crisscrossing the Soča, opening out into lush pastures, the young river maturing and glittering blue and chalky white.


Another winding, steady climb among clear beechwoods took us to the splendid and historic Kolovrat Ridge, straddling the knife-edge of Italy and Slovenia. We stayed up high on that woody ridge all day, and camped in a breathtaking spot at Koča Korada, with a fantastic 180-degree view of the entire Julian Alps and Italy stretching south to the Med. It was a privilege to wake up to that view as we emerged from our bivvy bags in the morning.

Now the mountains gave way to vineyards and rolling rustic farmland. We took our time, enjoying dips in sunny rivers, and by dusk making it to the bucolic village of Vrhpolje in the foothills of the Nanos forest reserve. We enjoyed a beer at at Cerknica then took off up into the nearby hills for a last night under the stars on a secluded wooded ridge.

Our last morning was a long climb on unpaved tracks into the last of the old logging roads. Then one final, exhilarating downhill to the Iška gorge and plain below. After a dip in the Iška, the victorious glide back to Ljubljana followed and we had time to explore the charming old town with its medieval castle and lattice of lively streets .


The West Loop offers quiet routes in scenery that, for my money, are as striking as any in the Alps. Don’t be put off by a lack of experience or kit. It is a superb way to see Slovenia in a way that others won’t. They might see the fairytale churches, misty wooded valleys, or even dramatic blue alpine peaks. But they won’t get to live them the way you can with just a bike and a bivvy bag.

Mountain bike hire is available in Ljubljana at Nomad 2000 for around €23 (£19.50) a day including helmet, panniers, lock and repair kit. Gravel bikes not yet available. Asteria hotel, close to the station, has rooms from €40-€60 a night

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