Many Curves of the Russian Road

{I am currently in Annapolis, Maryland on a work trip. I’m tired and jet-lagged again, and feeling unable to tell the complete story, so I asked Pedro what he remembered from the next day of our Slovenia trip. His words are quoted a lot in this post, and now you know why.}

Manja, her father Branko, and her mother Meta, all walk ahead of me as we depart their dream home and walk out to the road to be picked up by Marco.

Our hosts knew that Pedro and I eat a big breakfast at home, and we had been treated to heaps of food each morning since we arrived, with cold cuts and cheese and bread usually. In Piran, we had the added bonus of fig pie. When we left our room and emerged, everyone was up before us, and coffee was waiting for us. I swear, we were so spoiled on this trip. Branko had learned from Manja about the avocado that we were forced to bring overseas from Oregon while we waited for it to ripen so we could eat it, and before we arrived he made a special purchase of a new avocado for us. This one was already perfectly ripe, and we ate it at breakfast. We walked out into the garden and Pedro made a beeline for the fig tree, and grabbed a couple more perfectly ripe figs to eat.

Today we would be taking our leave of Piran. We gathered our luggage beside the front door and Marco left to go to the parking garage outside of downtown, to get the car. The rest of us carried all the things down to the waterfront again. As we waited for Marco, Meta told me she was going to keep an eye on the housing market for me. I had told her that I wanted to live there, and pointed to a house near theirs, where we could spot each other from our outdoor patios. I said in the future, when I lived there, I would come out and wave to Meta when it was time for her to come over for coffee. She agreed it was a good plan. All in jest, of course, but only because I am not yet a millionaire and can’t afford to buy a second home next to Branko and Meta in Piran. Meta made Pedro promise that if he saw her brother, he should tell him how much he loves Union beer and dislikes Lasko beer. Dragons are better than goats.

The Piran marina in morning light.
The restaurant Pirat, where we had our first meal in Piran, mere hours earlier. How did the time fly like that?

We drove to Ljublijana, the capital of Slovenia. If you look at a map it’s only a 1 ½ hour drive, but we took a special route and made it last all day. Manja wanted us to see Vršič Pass and the Russian Road. Pedro again gave up the front seat so that I could take pictures. To get there, we crossed back into Italy and while in Italy we stopped for espresso. Naturally. Then we crossed back into Slovenia. Each border crossing was like crossing a state border in the U.S., which means: it was like nothing happened. It’s a bummer because we wanted passport stamps.

Our morning drive again revealed photo-worthy views when we made stops for gas and coffee and dog breaks.
We went through a surprising number of tunnels. I know it is mountainous country, but for whatever reason, I was not expecting so many tunnels.
An interesting bridge.

As Pedro said, “Soon we started seeing the amazing mountains that are part of Triglav National Park. It is hard to explain how big and majestic those mountains are. It is one of those things that can only be appreciated in person.”

Pedro and Marco stand at a vista point and marvel at the mountains.
Some of the mountains Pedro was talking about.
A honey bee in the mountains
The backdrop for our drive was awe-inspiring.
These small villages and homes were tucked up into the foothills of massive peaks.

The road follows the absolutely remarkably beautiful Soča River for several miles. We stopped to take photos when we could find a place to pull over. As a driver, Marco is extremely generous and accommodating for people who are holding cameras. Pedro noted that, “We even saw a splendid, nature-made piece of cake while standing on a suspended bridge (Fonzie – the bestia – didn’t want anything to do with that bridge, no thank you he told us with his eyes).”One information sign explained that for about 2500 feet (750 m), the water was compressed into a gorge 32-49 feet (10-15 m) deep. The troughs are carved into early Cretaceous Period limestone and were sometimes only 6 feet (2 m) across. It truly was impressive.

The outstanding Soča River.
Can you even believe how clear that water is?
Unmistakably a slice of cake on the side of the Soča River.
This time I took the bestia down to the river.  {photo by Manja Maksimovič }

At one place we pulled over was a warning sign about leaving food for wild boars. The night before, when Branko was detailing a hiking route for Pedro and me, he told us about mountain peaks, only with his accent, he said “mountain pigs.” I asked, “Mountain pigs?” “Pig. Pig!” he clarified. When we figured it out, we all laughed. Then the very next day, here we were in the mountains and there was a warning sign about mountain pigs.

We stopped at a preserved telpher relay station for the Golobar telpher line. Established during World War I, telpher lines were originally used in the Julian Alps to transfer supplies. After the war these routes were expanded for logging, in the times before there were mechanical cranes. Timber could be attached to cables and carried down or up slopes to a station, then reattached and carried to the next station.

One of the last telpher stations that was in use, kept now for informational purposes.
A sample log hangs to demonstrate how it worked.
Logging remains an industry in this region.

This from an information board: “In late 1915 a supply military cable line was constructed; from its lower station in Kranjska Gora, the military cable line climbed to Vršič, descended to the Trenta Valley, and ran along the valley toward Bovec. In winter, when snow made transport over the Vršič road impossible, this was the only way to supply the troops. The line was divided into section, up to 2.5 km in length, each fitted with a 20-35 HP engine. The cars were able to transport up to 100 kg loads. In October 1917 the Vršič military cable line played a very important role in delivering military supplies for the 12th Isonzo Battle, in which the 14th Army Corps broke the front line and pushed Italians to the Piava River.”

“Manja kept telling us that soon we would see signs with numbers that would count the curves,” recalled Pedro. I teased her about that, as we went through curve after curve after curve, Oh yes, I believe you, the curves will begin any minute now. Pedro continued, “After many, many turns without signs we finally came across a number sign, and then we were officially on the Russian Road which has a sad history of construction.”

In the mountains.  {photo by Manja Maksimovič }
Take a look at this road. Look at its construction, how its shaped, the curve, the ledge, the backdrop. We had 50 turns that looked like this. (And another 50, unnumbered, that were close to this)
Our view from one vista point.
We found these sheep in the middle of the Russian Road pretty amusing.
The more curves we followed, the more astonishing the views.
The Alps grew higher and higher around us.
I spotted a hole! There is an arch in the Julian Alps. 🙂

“At some point our damned stomach or brains reminded us that we were human and should probably eat something,” said Pedro. “Manja suggested Tonkina Koca (hut) run by a well known, badass, local woman.” The Bavarian style food of sauerkraut, hearty bread and sausages, was delicious.

This is where we ate lunch.
I mean, seriously, how delicious is this?
Photo by Pedro Rivera
 {photo by Manja Maksimovič }
I spotted something in the distance.
Someone was exploring the Alps via parachute.

We stopped at a site with a painful past. In July 1915, a camp for Russian prisoners of war existed here, and its inmates built the road across the Vršič Pass. In March 1916, around 110 prisoners and 7 guards died there in an avalanche. To honour their memory, the prisoners erected a small wooden chapel near their barracks. From 1915-17, it is estimated that 380 people died in the camp due to harsh working conditions and hunger. In 1920, their remains were moved to a common grave by the chapel, and an obelisk with an inscription “To the sons of Russia” was erected over it in the 1930s. This history is the reason why our route was officially named the Russian Road (Ruska cesta) in 2006.

The unimposing entrance to the Russian chapel.
Pedro and I approach the Russian Chapel. {photo by Manja Maksimovič }
The Russian Chapel from a distance.
Up close
The site where the remains of all the dead are buried.

We made a quick stop at a scenic lake, and then continued on to Kranjsk Gora, a village with a picturesque church and ski slopes. Pedro and I noticed “peculiar brackets mounted on roofs, which apparently are brackets designed to prevent small avalanches by allowing snow and ice to drop off in small amounts, these are typically triangular or half-rings shaped brackets, about 5 centimeters tall and Marco explained that it was designed to keep just the right amount of snow on the roof to help with insulation.” This is a concept that blows my mind, since in snow country in the U.S., I have never never seen a desire to keep any amount of snow on the roof for any reason. Using snow for insulation seems like a good idea, however.

Dropping out of the mountains on the other side.
Lake Jasna
Beside Lake Jasna is this riverbed.
In the village of Kranjska Gora.
We had passed many things for sale to tourists during our journey, but Pedro and I are not the kind of people who are interested in shopping. Also, for our two weeks we carried only a small backpack each, and there was no room for purchases.
The church tower in Kranjska Gora was so eye-catching.
I couldn’t resist photographing it.
Look at this extra little touch on the tower.

We arrived in Ljubljana around 8 pm and first stopped at the family home that Manja had grown up in. We met her sister Nina, who followed led us to her apartment downtown. She normally rents it out, but at the moment the place is unoccupied, so she turned it over to us for two nights. The place was so beautiful, in an old building full of character, with high ceilings and wood floors and huge windows and a tiled stove. Nina had filled it with plants. One super exciting thing about Nina’s place is that it had a washing machine across the hall and we were desperate to do laundry. Nina also told us how to find a nearby market, in case we needed anything.

We thanked everyone and said goodbye and put our first load of clothes into the washing machine. The settings were mysterious to us, so we did what seemed to make the most sense and pushed “go.” Then we went to the market, and walked through young people lying around the front door and holding the walls up outside. Pedro noticed that many of them were holding bottles; I did not. We wanted to shop for our hike the next day, purchase some snacks and some water bottles, and also a bottle of wine to drink while we waited that night for the laundry to finish so we could hang the clothes and put the second load in before going to sleep. As Pedro wrote, “The market was tiny and jammed full of groceries and people at 8:45 pm. It has a one-way narrow alley for customers, locals must know exactly what they need or have a list, if you miss something there is no going back, lest you exit and re-enter the store. We got red wine, water and a bag of vegetable chips for our hike the next day. We selected the wine (ergh vinegar?) based partially based on the fact that we didn’t have a corkscrew, so we got a cheap bottle with a twist cap. It was late; we were tired and unfamiliar with the town and language, so we were clearly making bad decisions. Later we learned that the store is very popular with the local drunks around the area, because it is opened late and has some of the cheapest wine in town.”

We realized that night would be our only opportunity to explore Ljubljana. “I thought that finding some dragons was a must. Luckily Nina’s apartment was close to some of the main dragons in the city on the 4 corners of a bridge. After returning to the apartment we worried that the washer was still going after two hours, but left it and went to bed. I woke up at 1 am and decided to check on it, and to my pleasant surprise the clothes were clean and also DRY. We had accidentally selected the wash/dry mode. So I immediately started a second load and by the morning all our clothes were clean and dry.”

A Ljubljana dragon
Wonderful dragons on Ljubljana’s Dragon Bridge.
The Ljubljanica River reflects lights.
An interesting side street with a Chinese restaurant and graffiti.

8 thoughts on “Many Curves of the Russian Road

  1. Great post! My Grandmother was German Hungarian and was born during th Austrio-Hungarian Empire days. As far as we’ve been able to determine she was born in what is now Slovenia, perhaps some of the very territory you traversed.
    Thanks for a fascinating post!

  2. Hihih, mountain pigs!! Now you see how you were tricked into driving all day for what could be done in an hour and a little more. 😉 But then you wouldn’t see all that, including sheep in the road. Thanks to Pedro for additional memories that you incorporated. I’m sorry that I couldn’t show you around my city Ljubljana. Clearly you must return. But at least you got to meet the dragons. Gorgeous photos! I love especially the one of us that Pedro took. All well to both of you and thank you for doing this!!

    1. Yes, the post was extra fun for Pedro’s contributions. He wrote a novel, and I actually cut a lot out from his original description of the day. Yes, he is also a writer 🙂 We missed a tour of Ljubljana, but it waits for our return.

    1. Oh! I just discovered this unanswered comment. The rock cake was fun to discover. I couldn’t think of anything else, once my brain told me it was cake. Thanks for the kudos on maintaining the blog, but heavens, I’m slacking lately. So many other demands on my time now that I’m home. I’m trying my best though, and I’m steadily adding posts to get it done.

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