Inspired living

Want to explore Soča Valley? Learn to live life at a slower pace

Want to explore Soča Valley? Learn to live life at a slower pace

Credit: Artem Sapegin

It’s almost impossible for the untrained eye to differentiate between a common wildflower and Pulmonaria officinalis.

“This one?”

“No. You have to find one that has a slightly tougher leaf.”

“This one?”

“No. Here, see this? Can you tell the difference?”

I squint my eyes and look closely at the little purple blossom Vesna is holding up for me, its petals fragile and soft, the colouring bordering on pink; its stalks and leaves rigid and covered in thin spiky hair, shielding the delicate flower against crawling insect predators.

Slovenians are particularly good at picking wild herbs, whereas my ability to recognise certain herbs is limited to the labelled variety on the supermarket shelves.

Focused and determined, I run my fingers across a patch of dense shrubbery and locate a plant much like what Vesna had described.

“Look, I got one that has spiky hair!” I dash towards her with what I think may be Pulmonaria officinalis, more commonly known as lungwort. A slight giggle from my guide indicates that I still haven’t got it right.

“I think that one has too much hair.”

We have been foraging in the meadows along the heel of Korada Mountain in Slovenia, where I am being taught to identify wild herbs in preparation for our dinner tonight by Vesna Velišček, local guide and homestay owner in the Soča Valley.

Away from it all

Wedged between the Julian Alps and the border of Italy, the river Soča carved its way through the limestone rocks to create a valley that is known for its unspoilt nature and charming traditional towns. While Slovenians frequent the valley to embrace its vivid landscape and participate in adventure sports, the valley receives less than 5 percent of overall international tourist numbers in Slovenia.

The towns and villages in Soča Valley have retained much of the traditional ways of life and have fought hard to keep out the conveniences of fast food restaurants and hotel chains.

The towns and villages in Soča Valley have retained much of the traditional ways of life and have fought hard to keep out the conveniences of fast food restaurants and hotel chains. Those who venture this way accommodate themselves in boutique Alpine mountain huts and small local homestays, where the locals are keen to immerse their visitors in warm Slovenian hospitality, demonstrate their natural way of living and offer traditional gastronomic delights.

I began my Soča Valley expedition with a three-hour train journey through areas of unexplored countryside west of Ljubljana, Slovenia’s green capital. The train clattered along the base of craggy cliffs where birdsong echoed through the ravine, laboured itself up the gentle hills and dragged its rusty carriages in and out of long, winding tunnels. Outside, a sharp and rugged landscape reeled past the window and small clusters of the logging community alongside the track appear and disappear in a flash.

Besides the murmurs of conversation from local passengers that could be heard from the adjoining carriages, the train remained empty.

“Welcome!” Vesna’s strong pair of arms threw me into a hug as I alighted the train at Tolmin. Her smile widened and shone with contagious glee.

“Get ready to forget the city and get away from all your stress. Welcome to Soča Valley!”

We trace the river Soča, gushing below us in the colour of an electric emerald blue, to enter the shadows of the Julian Alps westwards towards Plave, a relatively unknown village that appears simply as a pin dot on my map.

In front of us is an ever-changing canvas of landscape. Snow-capped peaks shine like beacons against a cloudless sky, their lower hills basking in the golden glow in the warm afternoon sun, and the crisp, green saplings of a new season’s forest splash the landscape with new life.

Dotted around the amphitheatre of nature, traditional houses in the style of mountain huts feature along the route, their wooden frames blending so harmoniously into the landscape that it feels they had been digitally added for an enhanced visual. Every house features gardens overgrown with the season’s best produce, ingredients that would be made into one of the many gourmet delicacies of the region.

Slow and natural living

I am staying in Vesna’s Herbal Rooms Homestay in Plave. With her commitment to giving her guests an experience of traditional Soča lifestyle, everything in the house has been created by hand using natural material, with each piece of furniture constructed using locally sourced wood by Ivan, Vesna’s father.

My room is refreshingly simple, containing a bed, desk and set of bedside tables, with a window that opens out to a view of the Julian Alps. The pot-pourri jar on the desk is packed with flowers gathered from the family garden, perfumed using natural essential oils, and stacked on the bed is a set of herbal pillows that have been stuffed with wild herbs and spices to naturally promote a good night’s sleep.

“Traditionally, the knowledge of herbs is passed through the generations, from grandmother to mother, mother to daughter. It is something that defines the family life.”

Born and bred in the Soča Valley, Vesna grew up surrounded by herbs and learned the art of preparing and using them for natural wellbeing from her mother, Karmen, whose generation of Slovenians had a close connection with nature.

“It is the way of Slovenians,” Vesna says. “Traditionally, the knowledge of herbs is passed through the generations, from grandmother to mother, mother to daughter. It is something that defines the family life.

“During the wars,” she continues, “a lot of this knowledge was lost as people began to flee the country in search of refuge from all the chaos and destruction. A lot of this knowledge has left with them.”

She stops for a moment and we both contemplate the effect of war on ordinary people. From her garden, we gaze out to a forest that clings to the cliff-face of the valley, and listen to the trickling of the river below. She inhales the contents of her basket and sighs.

“Today, people are not aware of these natural ingredients and aromas; everything is chemical,” Vesna says, as she hands me the basket filled with today’s pickings: chives, wild garlic, dandelion flowers and, of course, Pulmonaria officinalis, the lungwort.

“That’s why I decided to run this herbal walk. It is a chance for my guests to experience natural living, to learn to achieve a good general wellbeing without the use of pharmacy supplements.”

Back in the kitchen, I am being treated to the family’s own blend of fennel, citronella and coneflower tea, accompanied by one of the Slovenian herbal specialties: tarragon cake.

“Did you know that Slovenians are the only culture that uses tarragon in sweet cooking?” Vesna asks. I shake my head. “Just flour, water, eggs and tarragon. No need for flavour — everything is all natural here. This cake always make me so happy.”

In our lives where we constantly pursue the latest and the greatest in artificial materials, I suddenly feel humbled by such simple happiness.

Hemingway’s war

In the bedroom, a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms had been placed on the bedside table.

“We lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountain.”

The novel began with this description, which I immediately associate with the beauty of the drive that welcomed us when we first arrived. Hemingway could have been writing about anywhere, but from my surrounds I’m certain he described a window that looked across the Soča and his mountain was the mighty Julian Alps.

In Hemingway’s narrative, he had woven a love story set against the backdrop of a losing side that cut right through the valley, telling the love story of an American lieutenant serving in the Ambulance Corps of the Italian Army during World War I.

Hemingway could have been writing about anywhere, but from my surrounds I’m certain he described a window that looked across the Soča and his mountain was the mighty Julian Alps.

The war ended bitterly for the Italians right here, along the valley, and by the time Hemingway’s own section reached these parts, his side had suffered a disastrous defeat at Caporetto. A weakened force built trenches and dug out bunkers along the Soča, fortifying themselves against their attackers with the natural gorge.

At the Kobarid Museum, dedicated to the 300,000 souls lost in the fighting here in the Soča Valley, the history of the Italian (Isonzo) Front is vividly told.

Vesna leads me on a short walk that traverses some of the most serene landscapes in this part of Slovenia. The path is part of a multi-day trail called The Walk of Peace, which follows the boundary of the Isonzo Front from the Julian Alps to Trieste in Italy on the Adriatic Sea. All along this route are bunkers, trenches, cemeteries and museums that recount the war effort along this valley.

We cross a hanging bridge that wobbles on our every step to reach the remains of a trench. The entrance is just wide enough to fit me with my arms folded, and the trench snakes a kilometre before ending abruptly on the edge of the river. The narrow dug-outs are as the war left them, dirt-smeared logs, bullet holes and all.

“Most people know the history of the war,” Vesna says, resting a calming hand on a column of exposed concrete holding up a log. “These trenches and bunkers have been left as they are to remind us that war is never a good thing.”

We continue on the trail at the bottom of Koseč Gorge, splashing water on the stepping stones of the riverbed. The path ends at the slim, beard-like Kozjak Waterfall where locals often come for a bit of wild swimming. Not today, as the air still has a touch of the winter past and the water would be a little too cold for comfort.

After a quick rest to regain our energy, we retrace our footsteps back into town.

Delicious treats

“OK, now we have to eat,” declares Vesna as we emerge from the gorge into open meadow.

In addition to nature and history, Soča Valley is also one of the 23 gastronomic regions in Slovenia. And so it happens that we’re on the same route as the Kobarid Gastronomic Circle, with culinary delights to excite any demanding appetite.

We stop at a rustic camp restaurant called Lazar, surrounded by the mountains and the sounds of the Soča below, and dine on regional specialties such as idrijski žlikrofi, a traditional Slovenian dumpling influenced by the Italian ravioli, and baked trout fresh from the river, its flesh juicy and tender.

One of the most popular local desserts is sweet dumplings and, at Lazar, the type being offered is called Kobariški štruklji, filled with crushed walnuts and raisins wrapped in soft, sweet dough, which looks beautiful and tastes delicious.

Our next stop is a small farm shop Vesna knows well, and the treat here is the geographical indication-protected Bovec sheep cheese, a much tangier variety that the soft sheep cheeses sold elsewhere in the world. The proprietor offers me a slice of his homemade cheese burek, made from his own sheep cheese encrusted in layers of flaky pastry, and I instantly fall in love with the idea of becoming a Slovenian dairy farmer.

By now, food coma is settling in and I’m ready to admit defeat. However, before returning home for a hand-blended herbal infusion to calm the digestives, there is one more mandatory stop we must make. “You must try the competition for Kobariški štruklji. I know someone who makes it from a local pear!”

It’s an offer too delicious to refuse and soon I find myself eating a sweet dumpling filled with caramelised pear and raisins — without the will to stop at one.

“Now your Soča Valley education is complete,” Vesna smiles as I slowly sink into the car seat. Observing my dazed demeanour, she suggests a stop by the river to walk off the excess food.

We park the car by the bridge in Kanal, an attractive town surrounded by mountains and plains. The town’s arched stone bridge and colourful houses perched on the limestone hillside is home to the International Bridge Jumping Festival each August, a spectacle attended by thousands from around the world.

Today we have the sight to ourselves and I lean on a boulder to get a better look at the intensely green Soča below, where I spot brown trout fighting against the gentle current while a grey heron watches on. In this peaceful moment, I can’t help but contemplate the possibility of staying here to learn to live by a slower rhythm, to lead a natural lifestyle.

I realise I’ve fallen in love with “a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountain”.

Escape routes

Getting there

Ljubljana international airport receives multiple flights a day from all major European destinations. Regular trains connect the capital to Tolmin in the Soča Valley.

Staying there

Enjoy the local experience at Herbal Rooms Homestay run by Slocally where guests are encouraged to unplug, join a wild meadow walk or learn how to use natural herbs to boost general wellbeing.

When to go

With a variety of outdoor activities, Soča Valley has something for everyone all year round. Don’t miss the spectacle of the International Bridge Jumping Competition held annually in August, as well as the Soča Valley Hiking Festival September–October. In winter, the Kanin-Sella Nevea ski resort is perfect for a bit of backcountry skiing.

Additional information

As part of the European Union, the Slovenia’s legal currency is the euro. Depending on the season, it’s necessary to bring clothing suitable for the weather. Comfortable walking gear will be required in Soča Valley, especially if you plan to go on a hike through the gorges. It’s essential to also bring a small rubbish bag with you when out and about to ensure all rubbish is collected and not left in the wild.