Use Caution- this route passes through Slovenia.
First, let me tell you that we absolutely loved Biking through Slovenia. We had heard only good things about Slovenia. Travelling Two had nothing but high praise for this little known Central European Nation. Then there was the spate of Bike Touring information coming from the Slovenian Tourist Ministry. They had produced a nice map of Slovenian Cycling Routes with adjacent camping areas and they’re trying very hard to attract cycle tourism. C noticed this last winter and had insisted no matter where we go this summer we had to cycle through Slovenia. So, as we cycled south from Graz toward the Slovenian border I was surprised to realize that I had developed an anti-Slovenia prejudice.
I don’t mean a racial or religious dislike, but rather a Google bias.
Let me explain:
When I mapped out our basic route cycling from Prague to Dubrovnik using Google Maps I noticed a message from Google regarding our choice of routes: “Use Caution- this route passes through Slovenia.”
“Hmmm, that’s strange”, I thought at the time…
I had forgotten all about it until about 20 minutes before we left Graz to cycle the 90km to Maribor, Slovenia. Suddenly it was ALL I could think about. What had Google meant to tell me? Bandits? Plague? Bad food or worse? There was no other explanation other than we were meant to ‘Use caution‘. I tried to express my concerns to C, but she just laughed it off. After all, she explained, “Slovenia was the first, and to date the only, of the former Yugoslavian Republics to be admitted to the EU.” “It’s fine”, she said.
Bring a map or two or three, then ask the locals.
As we continued south I slowly accepted that C knew best. Of course. What was I thinking? Slovenia is fine. Those fools at Google. Right?
Shortly after we crossed the rather benign border and began following the Slovenian D1 Bike Route toward Maribor we came upon 5 Austrian Cycle Tourists headed the opposite direction. They appeared a bit stressed as one of them flagged us down. It was hot in the midday sun. Perhaps they just ran out of water. We paused briefly as the leading cyclist asked, “Is this the way to Austria..?”
“Yes”, we replied, “just down this road about 5k, turn left at the highway and north about 3-4k is the border…” No sooner were those words spoken than the 5 pedaled away with barely a hastily muttered “Danke.”
OK, that was weird. Eventually we realized the problem. The Slovenian D1 Bike Route that had been decently marked for the first 10 or so odd kilometers began to unfold into a maze of unmarked, unmapped farm roads leading in every direction, mostly uphill. The Slovenian Bike Route Map did not show any of these roads. We had another Slovenia Road Map, which we had been comparing to the Bike Route Map. It showed one or two of the roads, but seemingly they we’re not really where the Road Map indicated. I had cached this section of Open Cycle Map on my iPad, so I pulled it from my bag to compare with the other two maps. Still not showing exactly what we were seeing on the ground, but at least we could tell that we were meant to follow the farm roads paralleling the freeway. South we went.
A few kilometers later there was a D1 sign pointing toward the left, so left we went. Down another small farm lane, under a rail tunnel, around a field and toward a farm house. Not unusual. We had seen this before in Austria. Small, local agricultural roads used as bike routes. Shortly, a dead end road and big dog convinced us that this was NOT the correct route. Back to the last turn off. Soon we felt we had found the right road. Unfortunately it was signed with a 20% grade sign! Up, up, up we went to a hilltop vineyard and farmhouse. As we cycled past the farmers walking toward the house I decided to stop and ask if we were going the right way. Since I don’t speak Slovenian, I tried my basic level of Polish.
“To jest trasa na Mariboru, tak?”
Confused, the farmers replied in English, “No, you can’t get to Maribor this way…”
They gave us some basic directions which sent us back down the steep grade that we had just climbed and around the roundabout and to another small tunnel, where we asked an elderly gentleman on a bike.
“Na Maribor…?”, pointing toward the tunnel.
“Da” came the reply, “Maribor.”
About an hour later we arrived in the center of Maribor. Covering 90k for the day and feeling a little confused and concerned about what we had gotten into, we stopped into the Tourist Information Center to ask if the campground we had picked on our map was really there. The lady in the Tourist Office was really nice. Pointing out some route advice for the next day and telling us about camping options. There were in fact 2 camping areas nearby. One catered specifically to cyclists. Nice! We had some time so we strolled through the center and ate some ice cream sitting on the main square in the hot afternoon sun. Soon, we were off to the camping area. A quick stop at a supermarket for an evening meal’s worth of food and we were pedaling to our home for the night.
Bike Touring Slovenia is like going back in time, in a good way.
You would be forgiven if you stopped reading long ago and came away with the idea that we did not enjoy Slovenia. Nothing could be further from the truth. The roads were quiet. The people were friendly and the food was excellent. Fortunately for us, the first section was the worst of our route finding adventure in Slovenia. We actually rather enjoyed the countryside and the wonderful, lovely people (except the strange guy who woke us at 3AM asking for a light for his cigarette). There were a few more instances of misplaced/mis-marked roads and distances, but generally Slovenia proved to be a delightful place to travel by bike.
Particularly we enjoyed Cycling through the Slovenian Wine Country. This beautiful section of land along the Drava, Savinja and Sava Rivers and through the center of Slovenia is as spectacular as any place we have travelled by bike. Some of the small villages and scenery between Maribor and Ljubljana reminded us of the old Europe that is romanticized in films. A place where time seems to have stood still, in a good way.
Camping is plentiful. There were even more camping spots than our maps indicated. We camped on our second night in Prebold, a small Hop and Wine farming town about 25k (although the maps showed it to be 10k) east of Celje, at Camp Dolina, operated by a local family who rents out the area around their home for camping during the Summer months. In fact there was an operational grape press standing next to the barn that had a date of 1850 carved into the massive wooden beams that supported it. Our host told me it was built by his Great Grandfather and it had been in use every year since.
Unlike Austria the main and best cycling routes tend to be over rather than around the mountains. This was evidenced by the beginning of our second morning as we ascended a 10k climb that I nicknamed “a World of Hurt.” It seemed to never end, switchback after switchback, from Prebold up and over a mountain known locally as Marija Reka and down to Trbovlje. As we began to climb the lower reaches of the mountain we encountered cyclist after cyclist coming down. Roadies mostly in small groups out for their Saturday morning ride. One way to tell you’re about to hit a really big climb: the presence of copious numbers of Roadies. This one did not disappoint.
We climbed for about 90 minutes or more before descending the backside into the Sava valley which we would follow for 60 or so kilometers into Ljubljana. Fortunately we had anticipated this and started out early in the morning to avoid the heat. Most of the route passed Goat farms and some interesting looking forest roads, but that will have to wait for later….
One thing we both agreed upon, we barely scratched the surface of Slovenia as a Bike Touring destination. We will most certainly be back.