World’s greatest driving roads: Julian Alps, Slovenia

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To say Slovenia has gone through a few rough patches throughout history is beyond an understatement. But with the relative calm and stability of post 1990s independence, the northern region of the former Yugoslavia, much like its southern neighbour Croatia, has become an increasingly popular destination for the smart and discerning traveller.

Beautiful, affordable, refreshingly free of Anglicised gentrification and fledgling to the ways of Westernised/commercialised tourism, Slovenia’s roots remain deeply embedded in historic Eastern European culture that’s brimming with charm and adventure.

It turns out Slovenia also has its share of breathtaking Alpine wonders and the typical pulse-racing driving and touring roads that go with the territory. I, for one, wasn’t even aware just how accessible they are until I’d stumped across them, literally by accident, a few years back while traversing from Germany to visit my partner’s family in Croatian Istra.

Thanks in no small part to geopolitical fate, Slovenia’s wondrous Eastern Julian Alps, home to Triglav National Park and the nation’s highest mountain from which the park takes its namesake, nestle right up to the Italian and Austrian borders in the north-west. If you’re in eastern Italian or southern Austrian neighbourhoods, the Slovenian mountains are hard to miss, despite the fact so many road-tripping travellers do.

That accident? Years back, the missus and I spent a quick overnighter at Slovenia’s gorgeous Lake Beld to break up the seven-hour slog between Munich in Germany and Rabac in Istra. Literally just over the Austrian border, and on the eastern fringe of Triglav Park, we had a poke about and came across the equally pretty Alpine resort town of Kranjska Gora. Just beyond its picturesque glacial lakes, the twisty road leading up into the dramatic mountains was blocked due to late autumnal snowfall. That impassable road was Vrsic Pass.

Never heard of Vrsic Pass? Me neither. Then I did some digging. Turns out the squiggly 25-odd-kilometre run between Kranjska Gora and Trenta, deep in the national park at the entry point into the Soca Valley, is as famous for its historical infamy as it is for its beating track touring delights.

A cursory online search reveals origins as a military road dating back to the early 19th century that once more or less formed the border between Italy and former Yugoslavia. Today it’s commonly referred to as the Russian Road thanks to some, erm, renovation work at the hands of an estimated 10,000 Russian prisoners of war in 1915, around the time of World War I.

If roads could talk, Vrsic Pass would certainly have some stories to tell.

But as interesting as those tales may be, I’m primarily drawn by the punt and what look to be some of the most dramatic and confronting landscape of all the Alps, which is really saying something. At an elevation of 1611m at its peak, it’s not only the highest pass in Slovenia, it tops the altitude chart for any road in the Julian Alps, and it skirts quite close to the Triglav Mountain and its nation-topping 2864m peak.

With its claim of 50 hairpins in a single tour, Vrsic Pass not only looks a great road on paper, it contains all the key ingredients for one of the world’s list-toppers. Problem was, in three years I’d made two trips to sample the Russian Road and document it on the smartphone’s camera for posterity, only to be thwarted by cold shoulder-seasonal weather that buries the main route through Triglav National Park under metres of snow, making it impassable.

Early September 2017, though, during the same European trip I went punting around Italy’s Lake Garda’s finest twisties in a Volkswagen Golf GTI, Mother Nature relented, the early autumn weather remained kind and I spent a few days becoming more familiar with Slovenia, its wondrous north-western fringes and one much-anticipated road.

For this foray, though, I swapped out of the GTI and into a nicely optioned, oiler-powered Tiguan 110TDI, courtesy of the helpful folk at Volkswagen Italy. Spacious, torquey, comfortable, economical and mildly off-roadable, the small SUV proved the perfect foil for clocking up a couple of thousand kays across various nations over a couple of weeks’ touring without busting the bank on fuel.

The trip wasn’t without surprise either. Much like my accidental discovery of Vrsic Pass years back, the missus and I stumbled on an even more dramatic, attention-grabbing, heart-racing route just a stone’s throw from our base camp in Bovec once we were already on Slovenian ground. We’d soon begin to wonder how on earth we’d never heard of the daunting Mangart Road before. But first things first…


Vrsic Pass

Bovec is 130 kays from the Ljubljana big smoke, but it’s a quick 170km blast from Italy’s Venice Airport, about 350 kays from Munich up north, and about 300 neat from the gates of Volkswagen Italia in Verona where we grabbed the Tiguan.

The first 250 on the odo are all Autostrade at a buck thirty (and a bit) east along the E70 then north on the A23, peeling off at Udine and taking the shortest back road route to the border. Within minutes of entering Slovenia, about 15 kays short of Bovec, rockfall has blocked our passage, and it’s another hour of back-tracking before arriving at base camp.

Water sports, hiking and biking in summer, skiing and ice climbing in winter, Bovec is a quaint, quiet and relaxing hamlet nestled within the hills and gorge of the Soca Valley alongside the aqua waters of the Soca River.

It’s wonderful. The food and wine at the local pub are so good and cheap we eat there every night (tip: tables are hot property so book in advance). Accom’ is of the upmarket ‘sport and recreation’ type, mostly, and our digs are excellent. Importantly, the road at the end of town essentially kicks off Vrsic Pass (206) as it weaves along the river up into the thick of Triglav National Park.

Smooth, narrow, single-lane hot-mix marks the 20km blast from Bovec to Trento, the road skirted by low rock walls on one side and barriers to the flowing Alpine river water on the other. It’s a decent punt that can be covered at a quick clip, but the rock wall is unforgiving. One motorhome too large for a path this narrow is rendered motionless after the rock manages to rip its front wheel off.

Just after Trenta, the closest point by road to the mighty Triglav Mountain, the road turns sharp left and makes a sudden and dramatic climb, kicking off the ‘real’ Russian Road experience.

Two hairpins in we stop for a happy snap of a statue – Julius Kugy, Slovenian mountaineer, for the record – and I manage to drop and smash my smartphone, two pics into the road trip. Great. But any slump in mood is quickly countered by the stunning vista of the green, tree blanket valley that quickly drops behind us as the road continues to climb up the mountain (see pic above).

The road is wide and well maintained and you can attack quite hard. That is until you hit a succession of switchbacks, after which the route narrows, with unforgiving rock walls one side and steep drop-offs on the other, the scenario swapping left to right and back with each successive hairpin, all of which are numbered with a placard.

As seems to be common practice for Alpine roads right throughout Europe, there’s a smattering of Armco in the really perilous sections of road, but for the most part there’s no barrier whatsoever as a buffer between a lapse of concentration and the wildest, misadventurous ride you’ll ever likely make in your lifetime.

That said, this south-western end of the Vrsic Pass isn’t what you’d call a dangerous drive, short of the odd meandering, oncoming motorhome taking up more than its fair share of real estate. Typical of any decent driving road worth its salt in current times, you’ll come across some slow-moving cyclists attempting to tick off their Alpine bucket lists, and motorcyclists keen to make swifter progress along the tight thoroughfare than larger cars, trucks and mobile homes dare muster.

The road surface itself varies from smooth and grippy to cracked and patchy in paces, but for the most part, the course ahead is consistent and trustworthy. With a clear road ahead it’s easy enough to push on, and depending on the size of the mobile roadblocks you might come across, there are opportunities for deft overtaking manoeuvres if you’ve got enough poke underfoot. The Tiguan makes reasonable if hardly thrilling progress, Sport drive mode left permanently engaged, its little diesel wrung out for dear life for most of the ascent.

About halfway up the ascent to Vrsic, the pass’s geographical mid- and high-point, the hairpins ease up, the trees clear, the scenery becomes more picturesque and the road can be attacked harder and faster, with longer stretches and switchbacks fewer and far between.

Before long, the handful of buildings – a restaurant, shack selling tourist trinkets – loom into sight. And suddenly, the peak of the pass arrives, the road crammed with parked cars and motorcycles, some here for the motoring experience, others using the venue as a port to venture further afield on foot or by mountain bike.

Adding to the sudden bustle around Vrsic – which literally translates to ‘little peak’ – are herds of sheep and goats, eating grass or mooching food from humans, most of whom seem to be motorcyclists from Germany judging by the rego plates. At one point I wonder if every Harley-Davidson owner in Deutschland has made the two-wheeled trip down for the day.

We stop for a coffee of dubious quality, to shop for a fridge magnet keepsake, and to rattle off a few dozen happy snaps of perhaps the most breathtaking views of the Julian Alps in road form anywhere in the Triglav National Park.

To the east is the mighty Triglav itself (2854m) with Skrlatica (2740m), Razor (2601m) and Kanjavec (2568m), all amongst Slovenia’s highest peaks, within one eyeshot. To the west, perched on the Italian border, lies Mangart (2679m). Of course, phone pics don’t come anywhere close to capturing the grandeur of the naked eye.

The 25 hairpins crammed into little more than 10km of distance in the ascent, Vrsic Pass repeats the switchback count along the north-eastern descent down to Kranjska Gora, right on the tri-border with Italy and Austria in a region called the Upper Sava Valley, home to thick forests, green flowing waters and wild animals.

It’s surprising just how different this new side of Vrsic Pass is in character compared with the last. For one thing, unlike the ascent, many of the hairpins are cobblestoned rather than having sealed hot mix, perhaps to accommodate the aggressive and rugged nature of the landscape. The most unnatural sight along this great road is perched on the outside of a hairpin turnout: rocks stacked in some sort of man-made, miniature homage to the mountain ranges surrounding us, though on evidence a number of Deutsche Hoggers clearly mistake it for some makeshift public toilet.

What’s impressive is some of the deft craftsmanship in the road’s construction. Some of the grey limestone that creates so much visual drama in the Julian Alps summits’ thousand-metre-high vertical rock faces has been repurposed, in tandem with concrete and wood, to build some of the prettiest little arched bridges and roadside barriers you’ll find anywhere, often where a road route needs to cross over rivulets of Alpine water.

With an average of one hairpin per 500 metres of distance, it’s understandably a pretty steep descent. It’s probably around 16 degrees or so in sections. The issue isn’t necessarily running out of brakes, it’s running into over-ambitious cyclists tackling an oncoming ascent at what must be half-walking pace. Throw in the speed differential between motorhomes, sports cars and Harleys with their throttles pinned and it can make for close flirtation with natural selection.

It’s narrow going in places, with some gentleman’s give-way in the hairpins, but at least there are few precarious drop-offs to contend with and it’s easy to have a swift and safe punt, braking power permitting. You can’t attack too hard, though, as there’s only so much grip to be had on those hairpin cobblestones.

It’s a fun course that ping-pongs down the steep valley decline, offering plenty of thrills without ever having the speedo creep much beyond triple figures. Halfway down we pass the Russian Chapel, perhaps the road’s most famous landmark, built in 1916 by the Russian prisoners of war as a memorial to the near 500 comrade soldiers who lost their lives building the road around the time of its construction.

A few kays beyond the chapel lies Kranjska Gora, and its boutique spa hotels and upmarket ambience couldn’t be any further from the Vrsic Pass’s gloomy, military-driven origins. All up, the route here from Trenta covers a distance of just 25km, which takes about an hour without stopping or lolly-gagging. After a short break we about-face the Tiguan, blast back across Vrsic Pass in the opposite direction, and we’re back at our Bovec hotel 90 minutes later. Mission accomplished.

Later that evening, in planning the following day’s activities, I quiz hotel’s reception about another squiggly road I’ve spotted close to Bovec during a quick Google Maps skirmish. “Ah, Mangart,” he says. “This is easy. Fifteen minutes.” As we would soon discover, our Slovenian advisor happens to be a supreme master of understatement…


Mangart Road/Mangart Saddle

Given how much time I’ve invested over the years actively researching dramatic and memorable driving roads, I figure the truly great ones would be fairly common knowledge. I figured the chance of stumbling across perhaps the most thrilling, most heart-in-mouth route by accident would be, frankly, nigh on impossible. Today, impossible happened.

Mangart Road? I’d never heard of it either. Turns out that while Vrsic Pass is the highest pass in Slovenia, the run up to Mangart Saddle (see main pic of this story), a paved loop that measures 2072m at its highest point at the base of the Mangart Mountain summit (2679m), is the nation’s highest road. Period.

Of course, half the fun of exploring great roads is not knowing what to expect. Neither Sonia, my partner in all manner of crime, or I were expecting to commit to scaling the scariest road either of us had ever driven with literally no opportunity to turn back once underway.

We head north out of Bovec, joining the Predil Pass linking our base camp with Tarvisio, north and across the Italian border. At 1156m and plenty of twists, it’s a cracking road in its own right. But instead, after just 13km, we arrive at the bridge at the Predil viaduct, with its magnificent 128m arch, the largest in all of the Alps. At the far end of the bridge, a small side road is signposted Mangart (it’s spelt ‘Mangrt’ locally), followed by another sign warning of an astonishing 22-degree gradient ahead. For comparative reference, Italy’s famed Stevio Pass maxes out at 12 degrees…

Initially, there’s nothing too adventurous about Slovenia’s ‘road 902’, a narrow slither of road up through a shallow valley, the grey limestone of Mangart Mountain looming dead ahead framed against the wild blue yonder. It soon switches back on itself across a rivulet, fires up into the forest, and hairpins back on itself again. Rock wall right, a mild drop-off left, it’s a straightforward climb up the valley, if one with barely enough width to allow for any oncoming traffic.

A couple of kays in, a gatekeeper demands five Euros in trade for advice that, one kilometre from the route’s end point, a landslide has blocked the road but “you can probably make it through”. Yikes. He also hands me a brochure outlining everything you’ll ever want to know about the road, its geology, its flora, fauna and, handily, its history and construction.

According to documentation, like Vrsic Pass, Mangart Road’s creation was military motivated, though it details a far rosier narrative. Some 500 soldiers from the Italian army knocked out its 12 kays, including five tunnels, in six months in 1938 while the spectre of World War II loomed. “No serious injuries,” states the pamphlet. The smooth, manicured – bar the odd rockfall – and disconcertingly narrow asphalted update as it is today, though, took 10 years and wasn’t completed until 2004.

Beyond the gate, the course switches back on itself twice again, the route dark, thick with trees and barely one-lane wide. Beyond the first of the five tight and claustrophobic rock tunnels, the tree line drops and the roads swings past the Gorenji Stan viewpoint, before literally taking a number of bizarre twists as tunnels and open-air straights and hairpins double back and stack atop one another, as if in desperate attempt to gain as much altitude in as little real estate as is possible.

The relentless change of direction, the increasing breathlessness from the thinning air, the intense monitoring for sudden oncoming traffic, the nail-biting drop-offs and mesmerising scenery conspire to create mild, trippy psychosis. When we finally come across a turnout just beyond the third tunnel, park up and peer out back across the Koritnica Valley towards the Julian Alps, we realise we’ve already ventured above the cloud line. Two-thirds of the way up Mangart Road, it’s been the first opportunity wide enough to make a three-point turn.

Beyond is another long, unlit, pitch-black tunnel burrowed through the rock followed by a succession of five switchbacks before the road takes a more direct course as it clings to the side of the mountain. Finally, there’s some line of sight to provide warning of oncoming traffic, but given the dramatic nature of this heart-pounding road, we’ve only seen one other car – no pushies, no motorcycles –  the whole way up.

“It’s a real challenge for cyclists and every real biker boasts the royal ascent,” says the brochure, though with the cool autumn air and nothing but a dead end and only a return trip in maximum wind chill as a reward, few on two wheels are braving Slovenia’s highest road today. Even by Alpine standards, the window of opportunity to punt Mangart Road is limited, as it’s only open for traffic between mid-June and the “first snow of autumn” (any time from late September).

With the summit looming ever closer up ahead, the road tucks through a short tunnel and fires out towards a point on the mountain called Za Sedlom, which not only has yet another giddying vantage point of the Alps to the south-east but also a departure for paragliders. Frankly, even with four Michelins firmly planted on asphalt, between the narrow road width, the absence of safety barriers (bar the odd, randomly placed concrete block) and lack of margin for error, just touring this road slowly is hair-raising enough.

Finally, one kay from the foot of the summit, we come across that obstruction the guide warned us about (see pics below). What was described as a “rockfall” was, by all visual evidence, about a 10-storey chunk of overhanging limestone that’s fallen away from the mountain above, taking a big chunk of the road below it for a destructive ride down the mountainside below. The hole left in its wake seems to be packed with a variety of mostly small rocks.

“I can’t do it!” yells Sonia, who jumps out of the Tiguan and leaves me and the Volkswagen to soft-road across the makeshift road repair. It doesn’t help the situation that a small bus has suddenly appeared in the oncoming direction, and the rocky patch-up is the only section of not-really-road wide enough for two vehicles to pass one another. I fold in the wing mirrors, and we scrape by one another… Just.

Just beyond, Mangart Road arrives at Mangart Saddle, the landscape at the foot of Mangart Mountain’s peak and most convenient departure point for the ambitious mountain climbers. Here, the road loops around one way in an anticlockwise direction for a kilometre and a half or so. Given its shape and nature, it’d make one helluva fun go-kart track.

We spot a small group of touring bikers, parked cars here and there left by hikers keen to draw in the chilly, thin air and negotiate the magnificent landscape on foot. Between the deathly quiet, the wispy clouds licking away well down the mountainside on the Slovenian side, and the incredible sights from the loop’s high viewpoint that literally looks out into far Italian valleys below, this place is utterly magical.

The Mangart Hut, at the foot of the summit, marks the starting point for two hiking trails: the challenging Slovenian path heading right, and the easier Italian path heading left. Instead, we spend about an hour wandering about the ‘saddle’, hoping to spot a local jackdaw, a horned viper or a golden eagle – I don’t see as much as a goat – before swallowing some brave pills for the return descent.

Having endured a slow crawl up Mangart Road, I’m more familiar and less intimidated by its challenging nature, and becoming acclimatised to the narrow width of the road somewhat, decide to let the Tiguan more off its chain. It’s hardly what you call a cracking pace – there’s absolutely zero margin for error – but we manage to cover the road’s relatively diminutive length in about a third of the time it took to ascend. For something that’s just 12km in length, Slovenia’s highest road packs an intense amount of intrigue.

It’s not a high-speed road, not much of a driving road, and in fact it’s perhaps a far fitter and more enjoyable road via motorcycle. That said, if you’re a fan of seriously engaging and fascinating touring drives, you should stick Mangart Road on your bucket list and make a point of popping by for a quick loop if you’re anywhere in the Eastern Alps during Europe’s fairer seasons.

In fact, using the extremely likeable Bovec, the lovely Kranjska Gora or even the wondrous Lake Bled as your road-tripping epicentre, you could feasibly knock off both Vrsic Pass and Mangart Road in a single day. But as we quickly discovered, you could spend an extra couple of weeks in the Julian Alps with little risk of running out of cool and interesting things to do – once you’ve finished checking out this pair of great roads that might be short in duration, but are big on delivery.

Stay tuned for more in CarAdvice’s Great Driving Roads of the World series.

MORE: Car Lifestyle and Road Trips

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