In his running the world’s-trails series for Outpost, Robert Brodey heads to the only national park in Slovenia to explore a place that’s as stunningly beautiful as its history is complex
Story and Photos by Robert Brodey
The footpath before me snakes its way up through dense forest, the scent of rich damp earth a feast for my olfactory senses. After 20 minutes or so, the path ends at a clearing, where a mountainscape spreads before me like one of those all-you-can-eat buffets — if buffets were beautiful alpine landscapes.
Down below, Slovenia’s Lake Bohinj reflects the Julian Alps surrounding it. It’s a painterly impression of these mountains. Deep shadows cling to the wrinkled slopes, while the occasional burst of sunlight reveals the vibrant green pastures below. And, at this distance, the paddleboards and kayaks on Bohinj leave traces across the lake’s surface like darting dragonflies.
In the stillness of the moment, a local creation myth comes to mind. The myth tells of a time before clocks when God was giving out land for people to settle on. At the last moment, the Creator realized He had forgotten about a small uncomplaining group, who waited patiently. He was so struck by their modesty and patience He decided to give them the most beautiful land of all, which He had been planning to keep for Himself. This sacred place, of course, was the Bohinj Valley.
So it’s in this mythic setting, on the eastern shores of Lake Bohinj, that I’m planting my stake for a few days. From the village of Ribčev Laz, I’ve planned a trail run and a bike outing around the surrounding area, followed by a three-day 200-kilometre loop through the heart of the Julian Alps on a rented bicycle.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about the 3,000-plus metres of climbs, including the historic Vršič Pass, with its 50 switchbacks (but whose counting?), on a bike of unknown pedigree (and gear-ratios!).
In some strange way this trip is the completion of a journey to explore the 1,200-kilometre-long Alps range — from west to east — over the last five years, beginning with Mont Blanc, followed by Switzerland, then the Italian Dolomites.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my other big inspiration for coming to this place: history. Nestled between Austria, Hungary, Italy, and Croatia — at a crossroads where the Slavic, Romance, and Germanic worlds intersect — the Slovene territory has had more than its fair share of invading armies and occupation by mighty foreign powers.
And only the Slovene soil knows just how much the people suffered beneath the weight of the First World War and the dual calamity of occupation and civil war during the Second World War, followed immediately by a communist regime that lasted four and a half decades, until 1991.
So this story is as much about Slovenia’s journey — at times a traumatic one — as it is my own.
Coffee. That’s the first thing my brain demands, even before my eyes open each morning. Slovenia doesn’t get a pass on this one.
So I stumble out of bed and go in search of coffee along Ribčev Laz’s one and only street. I find it in a vending machine that takes my one-euro coin and, like a good barista, sets me up with a short, tasty espresso — without any attitude.
I sip at it while admiring the emerald waters of Lake Bohinj, which sits firmly inside Triglav National Park — Slovenia’s one and only national park.
And remarkably, at a mere four kilometres in length and one kilometre in width at its maximum point, Lake Bohinj is Slovenia’s largest lake. (Without trying to sound like a braggart, my hometown lake — Lake Ontario in Canada — measures 311 x 85 kilometres at its greatest points.)
But what Bohinj lacks in scale it more than makes up for with its pristine visage and the 700-year-old lakeside Church of St. John the Baptist, with its elegant bell tower and 15th and 16th-century frescoes.
I catch a bus to the nearby town of Bohinjska Bistica to pick up my rental bike with SPD pedals (clipless) from Hike & Bike, a great shop conveniently located across the street from the bus stop. I bike back toward Lake Bohinj via a paved bike path. I am giddy, well removed from the hum of car traffic, passing through farmers’ fields and following the curves of the River Bohinj. And I’m not alone. All along the path, I see tons of families cycling together, including some with very young children. Overhead, paragliders float in lazy circles.
When the path forks toward the lake, I head north up the nearby valley toward the town of Stara Fužina. In time, I leave the dedicated bike trail and take a secondary road through several small villages. I stop in the narrow streets of Studor v Bohinju to refill my bottle at a public fountain that draws its water directly from the mountain. On the outside wall of a nearby café, a plaque lists the names of local fighters killed by the Nazis in the Second World War. (Put a pin in it. I’ll circle back to WWII a bit later).
Everything about the Bohinj region — including the old wooden hayracks dotting the fields — breathes history. The 5,000 inhabitants scattered over 24 villages are apparently mostly descendants of the original people of Bohinj, which was likely settled in the Bronze Age (perhaps 5,000 years ago).
The history runs deeper still. About 20 kilometres south of here as the crow flies is the Divje Babe cave, where a cave bear femur was discovered in 1995 with holes in it that’s purported to be an instrument created by Neanderthals some 43,000 years ago. If verified, this would make it the oldest known musical instrument in the world (Slovenia was clearly popular with the older generations).
Over the millennia, the Slovene territory has been something of a revolving door — a who’s who of invading and retreating civilizations. In the Iron Age, the region was inhabited by Illyrian and Celtic tribes until the Romans conquered it in the first century BCE. The Germanic “Barbarians” swarmed through in the fifth and sixth centuries on their way to Italy, while in the 550s Slavic tribes also arrived from the north.
After more comings and goings of various regional groups, the House of Habsburg grew in power from the mid-14th century on and held sway over the region, and even battled the invading Ottoman Empire. Later, it was reconfigured in the form of a dual monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which flourished then crashed out of existence in 1918.
The pastoral scenes around Studor are lovely and wonderfully bikeable, but now I need to test my bike gears and my body to see if I’m ready for a three-day ride through the mountains. I pedal back toward Stara Fužina and head up another valley, a steeper one, toward the mountain hut Planinska koča na Vojah. Along the way, there are several long grinding climbs with some seriously steep grades, which have me standing on my pedals and still barely moving.
On one such climb, I pass a family with young kids on mountain bikes, and I can see they are taking advantage of their third (and smaller) chainring, which means they can keep their pedals spinning at a high tempo, even on a steep climb like this (though, at this point, it would be faster to walk the bike uphill). Sadly, I only have two larger rings, so I have to squeeze out the last of the juice in my lungs and legs to power to the top.
The prize for my effort comes in the form of a beautiful view of the Voje Valley and the scaling Julian Alps. The restaurant patio is packed with hikers and cyclists, so I opt for a Coke and a stretch of the legs in the grass to admire the view — and contemplate my fate for the upcoming three-day ride through the mountains, including a 12- and 25-kilometre climb over two mountain passes.
Back in Ribčev Laz, I skip a planned mountain run (rest is a crucial part of any training regime) and head to Lake Bohinj to soak in its cool waters. As the light fades from the early evening sky, I saunter down to Pod Skalco, an outdoor pizza restaurant adjacent to a smooth grey cliff, where several rock climbers slowly claw their way up.
A large yellow tarp over the restaurant’s seating serves as a protective chapeau against the rain (and maybe the occasional falling rock?). I order a pizza, salad and small beer in a muddled mix of Slovene, Italian and German words. The waiter answers in very proficient English (based on what I overhear, he seems to speak four to five languages).
It’s beneath the grey slab of rock beside the restaurant that I meet Andrej Pikon, the owner of a climbing, guiding and gear-rental business (www.alpe-rjavina.si). I comment that there seems to be a lot of sporty people in Slovenia. He smiles with pride and attributes Slovene athleticism to their geographical blessings — there are many good places to ski, climb and bike in close proximity to larger urban centres.
“The mindset has changed here of what’s a good lifestyle,” he says. “It’s no longer just about sitting around drinking beer.”
We discuss Mount Triglav, the highest peak in the Julian Alps at 2,863 metres, which is considered a national symbol and has been something of a rite-of-passage to climb for Slovenes since the 19th century.
“If you want to stay in the country,” Andrej jokes, “you have to climb Triglav. That’s your passport.”
One of the advantages of staying in one place and doing day trips is that I get to travel light, which makes for a faster, more enjoyable outing. It’s in this fast and light spirit that I begin running a loop around Lake Bohinj the next morning, following a nice flattish single-track trail along the north shore. The forest is still cool, but the day is already heating up.
Glimpses of the emerald waters of Lake Bohinj tease me with the promise of a quick cool-off. But I deny myself and keep jogging until I’m beyond the far end of the lake and heading uphill along dirt roads toward the tourist destination — the Savica Waterfall.
I pay the entrance fee at the park gate and speed-hike up to the falls via a well-maintained path. In just a few minutes, I’m already looking at the 78-metre-high Savica Falls, which are kept at a distance by a fence. I share the view with a few dozen people, then make a hasty getaway. I can’t help but feel that “must-see” destinations like Savica could easily be passed over by travellers without sacrificing the experience of a country. In fact, I was way more stoked swimming in Lake Bohinj, with a bobbing 360-degree view of the Julian Alps around me.
As I continue on with my running tour around the lake, I make a detour and ride a gondola up to the Vogel Ski Center a thousand metres above the south shore (hey, I never said I was a trail-running purist!). As I exit the station, an inner voice cautions to go easy — to save my legs for the bike trip ahead. But up above, beyond the scarred landscape left by ski slopes and chairlifts, a chain of mountain summits calls to me.
So I abide and hike on. Admittedly, hiking up ski slopes off-season is not a back-to-nature kind of vibe. I scramble up the last few hundred metres to the crowded summit of Sija (1,880 metres), hoping to catch a view toward the high Julian Alps to the north and the lowlands of Slovenia to the south. Unfortunately, the south is completely socked in by clouds, but the north does offer up a panoramic view toward Mount Triglav.
I complete the circuit back to my home base of Ribčev Laz, running along a superb rolling trail that rides the contours of the lower mountains on the southern shore of Lake Bohinj. My biggest reward after the day’s physical effort is not food or drink but to cool off with a dip in the lake.
In the back of my mind, though, I worry about my three-day bike ride that starts tomorrow. Did I train enough back home? Did I put in too much effort today? What’s the weather going to do? Will traffic on the road be murderous?
It’s 5:30 in the morning, and I’m already organizing my kit to bike 65 hilly kilometres to Kranjska Gora, a ski town at the doorstep of the soaring Julian Alps and the historic Vršič Pass. My backpack is over-stuffed with weather gear, sneakers, a change of clothes, snacks for three days, bike repair tools, and, of course, a toothbrush.
My legs are feeling a bit mashed up from the 26-kilometre run-hike yesterday, so I promise myself to ride conservatively today.
After another coffee date with the espresso vending machine, I head out into the early morning, following the dedicated bike path through fields shrouded in a magical mist. I’m in my bliss, until the trail unceremoniously ends, and I’m sharing the main road between Bohinj and the tourist town of Bled with fast-moving cars and logging trucks. The road snakes alongside the Bohinjka River, the sun’s rays splintering through the mist rising off the surrounding forests.
In just over an hour, I arrive at Bled, a lakeside town famous for its 17th-century church dedicated to the Assumption of Mary that sits on an island in the middle of Lake Bled. Traditional wooden oar-powered boats gently glide by. The pulse of town is pure tourism, and even the marvelous medieval Bled Castle perched ominously on a towering cliff above the lake feels more like a Disney picture than a storied thousand-year-old fortification.
I navigate my way through Bled’s side streets, heading north in search of a small road that travels through the Radovna Valley along the eastern flank of Triglav National Park. I opt to stop and ask for directions every few kilometres, preferring to “lose” time asking for directions rather than getting lost indefinitely. Soon enough, the road I’m travelling down splits hard right and dives down a hillside into the heart of Radovna. Like magic, almost all road traffic vanishes.
The valley is stunning, with fertile pastures and alpine eye-candy at every bend in the road. Several kilometres later, I come across the shell of a stone farmhouse in the tall grass. I pull over and read a plaque memorializing the deaths of 24 villagers burned in their homes by the Nazis in September 1944, after anti-occupation forces kidnapped two German soldiers and refused to return them. It’s a shocking and emotional reminder that in war, it’s often the civilians who pay the highest price.
In all the kilometres that I’ve already put behind me, one thing I can’t forget is the pack on my back weighing me down on my narrow bike saddle. There’s a reason so many long-haul cyclists opt to carry their kits on their bikes and not their bodies.
The added weight puts lots of pressure on your…er, perineum, compressing those crucial nerves and arteries. This can lead to temporary numbness in the nether regions (am I oversharing?). I take advantage of the swooping three-kilometre ride down to the village of Mojstrana to stand on my pedals and give my perineum a brief holiday.
From Mojstrana, a scenic dedicated bike path takes me the last 16 kilometres to my destination of Kranjska Gora. And in all the day’s riding, the most dangerous moment on the bike is not with a logging truck but right here with a kid riding his bike toward me, staring down at his pedals. I bark loudly to warn him. Startled, the boy looks up and veers out of my path at the last second.
The lovely town of Kranjska Gora, just a few kilometres from the Austrian border, is surrounded on all sides by mountains and ski slopes. But this is no prefab ski village. The town is thought to have been established about a thousand years ago and was part of the trade routes with Italy in the 1300s.
Kranjska Gora also happens to be the first Slovenian stage of the Alpe-Adria Trail, a 750-kilometre hiking path that begins at the foot of the Grossglockner, the highest mountain in Austria, and ends at the azure waters of the Adriatic Sea. The trail is comprised of 43 discreet stages, each averaging 20 kilometres.
In the late afternoon, I take a short walk up to Jasna Lake in view of the High Julian Alps. It’s a busy spot, with visitors cooling off in the water and lounging on the sandy shores. I’m famished and tuck into a delectable burger freshly made by a food truck parked lakeside (the high quality of the food in Slovenia has been something of a revelation!). Between scrumptious bites of my burger, I stare up toward the towering Julian Alps and the 1,611-metre Vršič Pass — the highest in Slovenia.
Tomorrow, I will have to pedal my way up and over that thing, and, if the weather forecasts are correct, I’ll be riding up it in a lightning storm.
The sun is nowhere close to being ready to appear (but no storm clouds to report, either!), when I begin the day’s 65-kilometre ride to the famed First World War town of Kobarid (a.k.a. Caporetto by the Italians), ground zero of the Great War’s Italian front.
For the first two kilometres, the slope is gentle, and I remain bizarrely delusional that maybe this is going to be as steep as the pass is going to get. Who knows, I ponder. Maybe the topographical maps are wrong. Reality soon takes its first bite out of my ass, as I’m faced with the first of 50 hairpin turns.
With the impressive headwall of Mount Prisank (2,547 metres) almost constantly in view, I try to find a tempo to keep my pedals turning. It’s hard not to suffer on this climb, but it’s even harder not to feel that this physical trial is nothing but a kid’s toy in comparison to the suffering of the 10,000 Russian prisoners of war who were forced to rebuild a supply route here to the Isonzo Front during the First World War.
A solemn wooden chapel at hairpin #8 commemorates Russian POWs, who died building the road.
I grind on, counting down the hairpins, each one numbered, as if to taunt me. The funny thing is that I’d read somewhere that there were 50 switchbacks, so at #20 I’m zonked and wondering where I’ll find the jam to climb another 30 of these hairpins. Then, after hairpin 24, the road suddenly flattens out, and I arrive at the top of the Vršič Pass.
It has been said this pass actually marks the end of the Germanic sphere of influence to the east and the beginning of the Italian influence to the west (after the First World War, the Vršič Pass became the border between Italy and the newly formed Kingdom of Yugoslavia).
I take a few minutes at the col to relax and bask in my modest achievement. All around me, cars are parked by the side of the road, and hikers are heading off into the surrounding mountains (the pass is an excellent starting point for day and overnight excursions).
The alpine views flying down the other side of the pass are remarkable, but I have to stay focused, given there are still 26 hairpin turns to navigate — many of which are surfaced with bumpy cobbled stone.
I try to stay relaxed, but my hands are gripped tight on my brakes, as the occasional oncoming car strays into my lane. At the valley floor, the road follows the snaking Soča River — known by the Italians as the Isonzo. At times, it takes on the most fantastic iridescent blue-green colour, a product of mineral deposits in the limestone bedrock (if you told me this is where aqua-green Gatorade was bottled, I’d believe you). My appreciation extends beyond the river to the road itself, which, for the most part, slopes downward through the lush green valley for more than a dozen kilometres.
I consider this to be geography’s handsome payoff for the 12-kilometre slog up the Vršič Pass.
I trade in my bike shoes for walking shoes and head out into the streets of Kobarid perched above the banks of the Soča River. It’s hard to imagine that some of the fiercest battles of the First World War occurred here after Italy declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire back in 1915 (Slovenia was a mere cog in the empire’s machine).
In total, there were 12 main battles that took place in the region over a two-year period, which are known as The Battles of Isonzo.
It’s a little after noon and the place is hopping with visitors of many nationalities. I find it strangely heartening that so many people still consider the Great War a worthy subject of contemplation (which it is).
Before I pay, I introduce myself as a journalist, and right away the entrance fee is waived, and they provide me with an English-speaking guide named Roman, who shows me around the various rooms and displays of war artifacts and photography. He describes how Kobarid was immediately captured by the Italians, taking the Austro-Hungarian Empire by surprise (up to that point, Italy had declared itself neutral in the European war). Italy’s ambitious plan was to strike at the heart of the empire by taking Vienna and Budapest.
The first 11 Battles of Isonzo were pretty much defined by Italian offensives, inspired by the vitalist philosophy that offensive moves were spiritually superior to defensive ones. Unfortunately for the Italians, the Austro-Hungarian forces were well-entrenched in mountain positions and were happy to stay defensive. Italian soldiers paid dearly for the vitalist ideology of their commanders.
The conditions along the Isonzo Front grew progressively graver, as soldiers were tasked with doing the impossible. Such was the case for the Italian 132nd Infantry Regiment trying to take the well-defended Hill 124 in the fall of 1915. Fighting uphill in deep mud, with row upon row of unbroken barbed wire blocking their advance, the Italians were easily mowed down by machine-gun nests.
After weeks of attacking, the Italian commanding officer, Colonel Viola, protested the futility to his superiors. Still, they ordered him to take Hill 124.
After a month of attacking and many hundreds of soldiers killed, Colonel Viola died fatefully leading his men uphill, their elusive goal of Hill 124 nowhere close at hand. In all these battles along the Isonzo, the frontlines barely budged.
One of the highlights of my museum visit is when Roman takes me to a large room. On the floor is a scaled-down model of the mountains surrounding Kobarid. He dims the lights, and a digital projector on the ceiling begins to project on the model the first hours and days of the 12th Battle of Isonzo (also known as the Battle of Caporetto), which began at 2 a.m. on October 24, 1917. This was the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s only major offensive against Italy along this line.
Roman talks me through the flashing lights all over the map, as the heavy bombardment of Italian positions is beamed down on the model. A clock with the hour-hand spinning illustrates the speed with which the battle unfolded, as Austro-Hungarian and German troops swept through Italian positions, sometimes using poison gas to clear the way.
The Battle of Caporetto was so catastrophic for the Italians that the Chief of Staff of the Italian Army, Luigi Cadorna, was sacked, and his name became slang among British soldiers (“Doing a Cadorna” is to totally fail and pay the price). Having broken through Italian lines, the Austro-Hungarian forces sped toward Venice. Many Italian infantrymen, fed up with the war, threw their guns away and literally started walking home. Some commanders were having none of that and began shooting their compatriots on the spot.
I leave the museum feeling grateful but weighed down by history. I hike up in the sweltering heat to the nearby ossuary built by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to memorialize the fallen Italian soldiers. Why is there an Italian monument on Slovenian soil, you ask? Well, despite the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s feat in the 12th Battle, the empire collapsed from exhaustion, which gave rise to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, an amalgamation of Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian territory.
And for being on the winning side of the war, Italy was gifted a chunk of western Slovenian territory, including Kobarid. In total, 300,00 Slovenes found themselves living under Italian rule and forced “Italianization.” It was a bitter pill to swallow — and the reason there is an Italian ossuary in Slovenia (much of this land eventually returned to Yugoslavia after the Second World War).
A little overwhelmed by the past, I walk down toward the Soča River to go for a swim and cool off. I cross the Napoleon Bridge, so named because Napoleon’s troops marched across it in their advance on the Habsburg Monarchy. The original bridge from 1750, it turns out, was actually blown up in the First World War. The bridge is yet another reminder there is no escaping history in Slovenia, even when you’re just going for a swim.
My early morning bike ride south of Kobarid follows the Soča River until I part ways with its aqua-green waters at the town of Most na Soči. It’s just past there that I take a smaller road that swings south of Triglav National Park through secluded valleys, before cutting north over the southern range and back to my final destination — the place of creation myths — the Bohinj Valley.
With so few cars, I feel like I’m entering a secret valley with hidden communities living secluded lives. It’s easy to imagine how villagers would have felt about war being imposed on them from the outside. They probably just wanted to make a life from the land and be left alone.
But like it or not, in April 1941, war came back, when Yugoslavia and the Slovene territory were invaded and occupied by their former allies the Germans, as well as Italy, Hungary, and the puppet Nazi government of the Independent State of Croatia. The Slovene response to the invasion was marked by bewilderment and shock, followed by passivity (a common reaction to foreign occupation).
Within a few months, however, a resistance movement emerged in the more leniently ruled Italian sector around the capital of Ljubljana. In the beginning, “the partisans” were a mix of anti-occupation forces and hardened communists like Josip Broz Tito’s partisans in the south. With the birth of the resistance movement, Italians began executing civilians as retribution and deported tens of thousands to concentration camps.
Some, who had chosen passivity, including the Catholic Church, felt the partisans were agitators and were only upsetting the occupiers. Some were also deeply uneasy with the communist ideology of the partisans and began openly collaborating with the Italian occupiers.
As the fighting escalated, the partisans began targeting Slovenes accused of collaborating, which, in turn, led to the formation of various Italian-sponsored anti-partisan militias. By the summer of 1942, civil war broke out. Slovenia was a house divided.
When the Nazis were finally defeated in the spring of 1945, tens of thousands of Slovenes — among them members of the militia as well as anti-communists fearing persecution by the communists — crowded the roads, fleeing north into Austria. British troops manning the border set up temporary refugee camps just inside Austria. Almost immediately, the Slovenes started up schools and churches, as well as kitchens to feed their people.
Their hope was to return to Slovenia when conditions improved. But they couldn’t stay in camps forever, so they had to contemplate resettling further abroad (many eventually migrated to Canada, Argentina, the UK and the United States).
But the big story was this: in May 1945, with the war in Europe formally ending, some 10,000 Slovenians who had escaped to Austria but were still in the uniform of the anti-communist militia, were told by the British that they were being resettled in Italy. Some became suspicious prior to their departure, discarded their uniforms, and joined the crowds of civilian refugees. Others believed the British would not betray them. But the British did, and sent them back to the awaiting partisans on the other side of the border.
There, the mass killings began. Of the estimated 10,000 executed by the partisans in a few short weeks, perhaps only a dozen or so lived to tell, escaping execution lines and hiding out in the woods to avoid detection by the partisans. And what happened to all those murdered? The truth remained buried for decades.
About 35 kilometres into today’s 73-kilometre bike ride, the road begins to angle up, steadily climbing more steeply for the next 25 kilometres. As I grind my way uphill in my easiest gear, I find myself shifting the gear levers to see if there happens to be ONE more easy gear at my disposal — as if magically, another gear just grew on the bike like a mushroom.
As the relentless climb continues — kilometre after kilometre — I begin imagining my dad (who passed away three years ago) helping to push my bike up the mountain. It helps. Still, even our parents can’t do everything for us.
So even with my dad’s assistance, I need to occasionally walk the bike up the steepest grades to recover my legs. At one point, as I’m pushing the bike uphill, two cyclists flying downhill spot me on foot and slow down. One of them asks if I’m having bike trouble. I tell him I need a bigger gear.
“Me, too,” he says, smiling.
With a little humour, I get a boost of encouragement, hop back on the bike, and pedal onward to the top of the final mountain pass.
On the far end of Lake Bohinj, on the edge of the village of Ukanc, an unmarked Second World War-era grave was discovered some years ago (I had gone searching for it during my run around the lake, without success). The exhumation revealed dozens of murdered Croatians, who may have been trying to escape north into Austria at the end of the war.
They were likely ambushed and executed by the partisans — accused of being members of the feared pro-Nazi Croatian Home Guard. Ukanc turned out to be one of at least 540 post-war mass graves unearthed in Slovenia. As already mentioned, at the close of the war, there was an orgy of killing by the partisans: some victims were innocent but had been branded “class enemies” of the emerging communist government of what would soon be the new Yugoslavia.
But a great many killed were suspected collaborators, members of the Nazi’s SS, or armed anti-partisans. For me, this becomes a struggle — how does one show compassion or mercy for those who committed atrocities with total impunity?
Some estimates put the number executed by the partisans on Slovene soil after the war at 100,000 (it’s been compared to the Killing Fields of Cambodia). But the post-war narrative was controlled by the communist leadership, so for decades, only whispers could be made about these mass graves for fear of retribution by the state. Hence, they were sometimes referred to as “silenced mass graves.”
But the truth can’t be concealed forever, and some, like the author and poet Edvard Kocbek, began to speak up about the mass killings and the graves in 1975. Then, with the end of communism, the grim process of exhuming the dead slowly began.
On my final night on the shores of Lake Bohinj, I treat myself to dinner at Foksner, a restaurant that’s always jammed packed from opening to close. I sit myself down at a picnic table and am soon joined by a couple in their thirties. In no time, we strike up a conversation, and almost immediately, I begin angling the conversation toward Slovene history. My tablemates, Neva and Blaž, wholeheartedly embrace the topic.
It turns out, they were both born in Yugoslavia, before Slovenia’s independence. Neva was four years old when Slovenia had its 10-day war of independence in 1991 (approximately 65 people died during the conflict). She has vague memories of sirens blaring and being told they had to find a bomb shelter. But no bombs fell.
On the topic of 20th-century history, they both agree.
“If you want to know about the Yugoslav war or World War II, ask someone over 50.”
In other words, a 50-year-old will be old enough to remember the wars in the 1990s and also have parents old enough to have experienced the Second World War and transmitted those memories to their children. In short, the trauma of war can be—indeed, often is—intergenerational.
At this point in my journey, I’ve come to embrace Slovenia’s complex history, which I’ve glimpsed without fully grasping. This, of course, isn’t the Slovenia of innocent creation myths.
But all these tangled historical webs are temporarily forgotten as Neva, Blaž and I chow down on scrumptious burgers and large cut fries and talk about our hopes for the future, which will also become history one day. Hopefully, a more joyful and peaceful one. **
Author’s Note: A very special thanks to Professor Gregor Kranjc of Brock University in Canada for providing invaluable access to his research on collaboration and partisan movements in Slovenia. Kranjc is the author of To Walk with the Devil: Slovene Collaboration and Axis Occupation 1941-1945.