Slovenia is a country of green hills, thick forests, rugged mountains, emerald rivers and turquoise lakes. I spent a week in Triglav, the country’s only national park. All of Triglav was an extra detour off my route towards Bled, so I did plenty of hitchhiking when faced with long ascents. (It’s not cheating if it’s a bonus detour!) Otherwise I doubt I would’ve bothered to climb to 1600m three times and 2000m once, in +30C August weather.
I expected Triglav's wild nature to be the focus of this update. The nature and landscapes were indeed beautiful, but the people I met there left even more of an impression. The young easy-going Dutch couple on their first day of a van trip who gave me a ride up the mountain, the camping ground owner who let me shower for free, and an unkempt local guy tending to a traditional coal-making fire pit for two months:
“9000 kilometres? Do you want a beer?” Besides those two questions he wasn’t much of a conversationalist, despite looking like he’d already had a dozen of those beers himself by 11am. Tending to a fire that lasts all summer must be a boring job.
To provide some change in his life, I let him tend to my bike instead while hiking to a nearby waterfall. I met a lovely lady out with her granddaughter, then hitchhiked back up the mountain with the help of two American pastors. The word “spreadsheet” was mentioned so often in their conversation that I figured it must be one of the most important aspects about running a church.
While looking for a suitable tent spot on the banks of the Soča river, I ran into a cute Czech cyclist called Anna with similar plans. (Also looking for a place to camp, that is - not plans to start a church.) By coincidence I had already met her briefly a week or two earlier in Austria, on her way to Italy. This time she was bound for home. I was in need of company, and it felt great to share a campsite with someone. We were out talking long after the stars came out. In the morning we went our separate ways, which is usually the sad reality of meeting other bicycle tourers. They’re always going in the other direction.
I needed two car rides to get up to Mangart, the highest road in Slovenia at above 2000m. First a young guy who already had another two hitchhikers with him stopped, and we just about managed to fit everything in the car by removing the front wheel and using a bit of force. Then the rest of the way was offered by a nice Austrian family with enough space in the van for several touring bicycles.
Mangart happened to be one of the checkpoints for the crazy Transcontinental Bike Race. About 300 cyclists racing to cross Europe self-supported. Some told me they were braving the challenge with so little sleep that they even hallucinated on their bikes. The race had started from Belgium on the previous Sunday. I received laughs when I said I had also come through Belgium… in November. Despite the exhaustion, the racers seemed to exude joy and life.
On Mangart I realised I was starting conversations with strangers like they were already friends. This is really a huge deal for someone as previously introverted as me. Even if this were the only skill I learn from a year’s cycling, it would all be worth it.
I suggested a sunset-watching spot to another happy Dutch couple, and was rewarded by a bag of delicious liquorice candy (salmiakki), which I didn’t know existed outside Finland. In the night Jiri, a tired Czech racer arrived up the mountain and we chatted in the light of our headlamps before finding places to sleep. I saw him again in the morning, but by that time I wasn’t quite as social and talkative anymore. No amount of cycling is going to cure my morning grumpiness.
The ride down the mountain destroyed what was left of my brakes. The screws to change the pads were busted, so I needed to open the brakes to access the pads. I ran around Bovec asking people and in random shops for tools. I saw Marc, a German bicycle tourer having a snack by the side of the street. He also didn’t have a T30 Torx tool, but what he did have was decades of biking experience and a calming presence.
He didn’t use smart phones, because he preferred to live fully in the moment. And even though I agree completely that people’s need to constantly stave off the slightest suggestion of boredom by seeking for distraction on the phone is a terrible habit, I still do it myself. Honestly, I spend too much time looking at screens, even during the bike trip. Perhaps I need to learn to put the devices away more often and just.. be.
Some friendly laundromat workers offered me tools, a shelter in a garage from a deafening thunderstorm while I worked, a band-aid to fix the finger I damaged in the process, and finally a cup of coffee and conversation before I continued out of town.
Two nice Belgian hikers hadn’t been as lucky with shelter. They crossed a footbridge over the river in wet clothes as I was cooking dinner. Being outside for a lightning storm like that must’ve been scary. We had a brief chat, and later I got a surprise message from them via my website. They had gotten curious about my 5-year plans and had found my blog without me even mentioning it.
Next day on my way out of the national park, I had a tough time in the heat trying to hitchhike up the same mountain for the third time. But once again good people came to the rescue. First I took a break to talk with Darren from UK, driving with three teenagers to their holidays with a huge caravan. He seemed to consider changing his direction just to give me a ride, but the car would’ve been dangerously big for the steep and narrow hairpins of Vršič Pass.
With lifted spirits I tried to hitchhike again, but still no success. Eventually I resigned and started heading back to take a completely different road around the mountain instead. Until I came across a French couple with a toddler on a month-long van trip from Montpellier. They were on their way up and were happy to take me there. Remy and Flora seemed to be good parents, letting the baby play in the (very shallow) river without being overprotective.
The people I’ve met along my journey have been pretty amazing overall, but the first days in Slovenia were exceptionally friendly and social. (The above was not even close to everyone I met or spoke to during this time, but this blog might be the longest one yet, as it is.) This kind of thing will probably only increase as I had head closer to the friendly and hospitable lands of the Middle East. It made me realise how very wrong my attitude was in the Dolomites. Solitude can be nice, but when it’s unavailable, I should just talk to people and make friends instead of complaining.
Of course, I won’t just stop being an introvert entirely. And after all this, I chose to spend three days camping by the Sava river, enjoying some quiet time for a change.