Mary Winston Nicklin
“Look out, Dad!”
We were listening intently to the audio version of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and the rental car almost swerved off the road when Frederic Henry got hit by a trench mortar shell.
I tried to reconcile the scenery outside the car window with what Hemingway describes in his classic novel, published 90 years ago.
The “picturesque front”, his narrator called this area of present-day Slovenia where intense fighting occurred between the Italians and Austro-Hungarian forces during the First World War.
Never mind that my young kids were riled up in the back seat, complaining loudly about the lack of pop music on the radio, now in hysterics after their grandfather’s blunder.
They were quieted when we rounded a bend and the Soca River (Isonzo in Italian) flashed into view.
It is otherworldly, the colour changing in the sunlight: sometimes emerald, sometimes turquoise, sometimes an intense electric blue.
The river splashes through dramatic gorges, the white sand and limestone rocks at the bottom reflecting the water’s stunning hues.
I want to take a cue from Hemingway’s pared-down prose, but the Soca Valley is so beautiful it makes me want to gush adjectives.
From our rental house in the town of Bovec, Dad was driving us to shadow my husband, Pierre, who was cycling up Slovenia’s highest road pass (5,285 feet).
It was the end of February and the Vrsic Pass, a formidable ascent with dozens of serpentine switchbacks, had just opened for the season. It was built by Russian prisoners of war in 1915-1916 as a supply route for the Austro-Hungarians battling at the Isonzo Front.
The mountains rise in dramatic craggy formations, their cliffs coated in snow as we climbed higher. When they built this road out of the impregnable wilderness, many of the POWs died as a result of avalanches and sickness.
Pierre was goaded on by our car following closely behind him and doggedly pedaled the rental bike, a bulky mountain model instead of the carbon road bike he’s used to.
When we caught up, the kids were thrilled, yelling, “Go, Papa, go!” We handed a water bottle and snacks through the car window, Tour de France style. And he powered through to the summit, surrounded by the snowy peaks of the Julian Alps and Triglav National Park. We leaped out of the car into the raging wind and attempted to walk through the snowdrifts, but we didn’t last long. The sunny Soca Valley beckoned down below.
This was not only a family vacation for the kids’ winter school break but also a reunion of sorts, bringing together far-flung relatives.
Always up for adventure, my aunt and uncle had taken the train south from their home in Prague. My father, arriving from the United States, had driven his rental car from Switzerland.
We had flown to Ljubljana, Slovenia’s lovely, cafe-lined capital, from our home in Paris. Our respective journeys to get there illustrate how this tiny country is a nexus at the crossroads of Europe – wedged between Italy, Austria, Croatia and Hungary.
Historically, the borders have been fluid in this contested land, sitting at the junction of ancient routes and civilisations.
Slovenia became the country we know today in 1991, after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Each of us had different vacation ideas. Practiced mushroom foragers in the Czech forests, my aunt and uncle love hiking. My father is into cross-country skiing. Like me, he’s also a history buff. (Yorktown and Manassas, the battlefields of my Virginia childhood, have been replaced by Normandy, Verdun and now the Isonzo Front.) Pierre had a cycling goal. Our kids like to run wild in nature. We all love trying good local food (the krafi pear-stuffed dumplings were a hit, though we didn’t make it to Hisa Franko, the world-famous restaurant run by chef Ana Ros in Kobarid).
With its myriad charms, Slovenia could win over even the most demanding of travelers. It’s also remarkably green. More than half of Slovenia is covered with forest, and in 2016 it was declared the “world’s first green destination” by a Netherlands-based nonprofit. Slovenia is a place I keep returning to.
Strangely, there wasn’t any snow in the valleys for cross-country skiing. Blaming climate change, locals told us that late February brought record-high temperatures. But there were plenty of other outdoor adventures – from hiking to zip-lining in Europe’s largest zip-line park.
And there was still downhill skiing in the high-altitude mountains. Bovec is known as the gateway to some of the best slopes in Slovenia. In the summer, adrenaline junkies flock here for kayaking, white-water rafting and paragliding.
On our zip-lining trip, we soared over river gorges and waterfalls. One of the guides told us to look out for trout down below – some getting so big they could eat ducklings. Sure enough, we spied the shadows of fish in the brilliant blue. Our guide also raved about the region’s thermal springs and the clean water that occupying Italians had hoped to take out of the country in aqueducts years ago.
On a waterfall hike near Kobarid, we stopped to chat with a couple who were fishing a piece of driftwood out of the turquoise stream.
“It’s prettier than sculpture,” they said, planning to hang it as a piece of art in their home in Koper, situated 78 miles away on the Adriatic Sea.
I noticed this same Slovenian eye for aesthetics in the beautifully painted beehives arranged in rows in the fields, and the carefully stacked woodpiles.
There’s even a word for this craft of arranging firewood: Tase.
It’s an ancestral tradition, and woodcutters measure a tree before cutting to get exact measurements for a flawless stack.
In this aesthetic coexistence, here humans are in harmony with the natural world.
It may have been the “picturesque front,” but it was also perilous. From May 1915 to October 1917, 12 major battles took place along the Soca River.
On hikes, we encountered the remains of trenches, machine gun nests, fortified caverns and concrete bunkers. We scrambled over the Austrian military forts of Kluze and Hermann, and visited the Italian ossuary at Kobarid.
It’s hard to imagine trench warfare in fortresslike mountains where avalanches were as much a threat as artillery shelling.
Hemingway’s inspiration for A Farewell to Arms was his stint as a volunteer ambulance driver for the American Red Cross in Italy.
He was first stationed in Schio, a town between Milan and Venice, surrounded by the Dolomite mountains. During an offensive along the Piave River, he was struck by an Austrian mortal shell, his leg lacerated with shrapnel.
As he recovered in a hospital in Milan, his affair with nurse Agnes von Kurowsky became fodder for his tragic love story.
Today a hiking trail called the Walk of Peace follows the Isonzo Front, linking many of the places and historic sites described in the book. The war museum at Kobarid (known as Caporetto in Italian) is particularly poignant, detailing the events of the First World War including the 12th Battle of the Isonzo, also known as the ‘Battle of Kobarid’.
Together with the 11th Isonzo Battle, this was the most brutal armed conflict ever experienced on Slovenian soil.
It’s also considered one of the biggest mountain battles in the history of humanity. Hemingway once described traveling “all along the Front, from the mountains to the sea,” and now hikers can likewise go from the Julian Alps to the Adriatic on the Walk of Peace.
Beyond the memory of war, we encountered scenery that stopped us in our tracks: purple crocuses pushing their noses through carpets of moss, waterfalls cascading down mountainsides, sparkling rivulets rushing into the crystalline river that’s carved the Soca Valley.
I’ll now defer to Hemingway’s description: “There were trees along both sides of the road and through the right line of trees I saw the river, the water clear, fast and shallow. The river was low and there were stretches of sand and pebbles with a narrow channel of water and sometimes the water spread like a sheen over the pebbly bed. Close to the bank I saw deep pools, the water blue like the sky . . . “
I could add some adjectives describing the brilliant-hued Soca River that once separated the two armies, but instead, I’ll simply recall a moment after a long day of hiking. Given the gorgeous weather, Thirsty River Brewing had flung open its doors early in Bovec.
We joined a happy local crowd for drinks at outdoor tables, the square peaceful and pretty in the late afternoon light.
The drinks were cold and good, the local sheep’s milk cheese pungent and delicious. I think Hemingway would have approved.