Just outside Kranjska Gora we stopped by a lake and the statue of Zlatorog – the golden horned ibex that was said to stalk the slopes of Triglav, Slovenia’s highest mountain. We followed his gaze up into the hills, where low clouds obscured all but the lowest peaks. Was it worth continuing? We stood with Zlatorog a little while longer and discussed our options, and in the end we pressed on. After all, when you’re in the mountains, you never know how the weather might change or what you might find on the other side.
At the far end of the lake the road began to climb, turning one way and the next in a series of what would eventually number fifty hairpin turns before we reached the top of the Vršič Pass. Around here it is also known as the ‘Russian Road’, for this high mountain crossing that links Slovenia’s Soča and Sava river valleys was built by Russian POWs during the First World War. As the road turned through a thick forest of spruce trees, we came to a Russian Chapel, built in memory of POWs killed by an avalanche during the construction of the road.
The cloud was closing in, drifting across the road in front of us, hanging between the trees. Every so often it would break, offering a glimmer of hope and the sight of the huge rock walls in front of us. It was in one of these moments, these breaks in the cloud as we made our careful way up the road, that we caught sight of the heathen maiden of Prisank, a face frozen in the rock. Her eyes were lowered, focused not on the high peaks all around but on the mountain pass. It used to be her job to guide people through the mist and the snow, until she made a prophecy about the slaying of Zlatorog and she found herself cast adrift, frozen for eternity.
And then she was gone. The road twisted and turned, higher and higher until we left the last of the trees behind and it straightened out. We were at the top of the pass, 1611 metres. The visibility was so poor that we could barely read the sign. At the car park on the top of the pass we took a break to consider our next steps. There were other vehicles here, and we wondered about their owners, out there in the mountains, unable to see further than an outstretched hand. It made us shiver.
Two days later we would return to the top of the pass in brilliant sunshine and hike out from the car park across scree fields to high meadows and a mountain top that offered views all the way into Austria and Italy. But today we just continued on, making the traverse of the pass and the journey from one river valley to the next the point of the exercise. There were more hairpins on the way down, more than we could count.
We stopped at lookout points where we could see nothing until, in a moment of natural theatre, the clouds would part for a second or two to offer a glimpse of forested hillsides and the roofs of village houses far below. We stopped at Partisan memorials that told stories of the Second World War and the brave men and women that fought the fascists in these mountains and valleys. And we stopped when we caught our first glimpse of the brilliant blue waters of the Soča, the river racing down off the mountain, icy and clear. It was the colour all rivers should aspire to, even on this most gloomy of days.
It was uplifting, and made the whole journey worthwhile. We had followed in the footsteps of the traders who used to cross the mountains guided by the maiden, and paid our respects to the road-builders and partisan fighters who had perished on the slopes. The great roads take us places and tell us stories along the way, and the Vršič Pass was not a disappointment, even if – this time at least – it cloaked its beauty in mist. That night we would see the road behind our eyes, feeling the motion of each hairpin turn, as once again we climbed the mountain ever higher into the clouds.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton