Today’s hike was a navigational schmozzle. Only 21 km, but very long. However, I write this from a warm, comfortable youth hostel called Ars Viva in Podcerkev, so I can’t say it ended too badly.
We woke early on Slivnici and peered from the tent to see that we had slept inside a cloud. It rained heavily overnight which meant that although the tent was dripping wet, we were spared the cloying humidity of the night before. We pack easily in the shelter of the hut.
It is beautiful walking through the woodland on Slivnici. Everything is wet and verdant, the markers are freshly painted and although we are clomping along in rain gear, the clouds are receding. We pass the ruin of a beautiful old church, Sveti Nikolai, destroyed by Italian shelling during World War II. It feels lovely, wild and isolated up here.
At Sveti Nikolai, however, the route changes course. The red-and-white marker dots point us downhill, off the beautiful ridge track and towards a little town in the valley called Grahovo. We are dubious. Why, dots? Can’t we stay up here?
The Via Dinarica is an unconventional, choose-your-own-adventure style track. So although we sometimes listen to the dots, more often than not we find ourselves on a hybrid route inspired significantly by the GPS trails of Eva Smeele but also our own whims (it’s raining, my feet hurt, ooh, look at that church, et cetera). I.e., not following the markers.
But today, the dots seem urgent – there is a cluster of about five dots pointing us downhill, where usually one would suffice; in addition, the word ‘GRAHOVO’ has been written in capital letters on three separate trees with big arrows. They really want us to go down there. Our original plan was to leave to ridge further east at Radlek, and then continue on to camp beside Volcje Lake – however, we decide that this time, we’ll give the dots the benefit of the doubt, and head towards Grahovo. Maybe the track will swing back round to reach the lake later.
The path downhill from the church is narrow and slick with mud. I fall over more times than I bother to count – there’s no chance we’re turning back to the ridge now. When the path finally levels out, we trudge out of the forest and towards the town. We are led to the centre of Grahovo and promptly abandoned at the bus stop. The dots disappear. Wot.
(I wish I had a photo to illustrate this section, however judging from the large gap in our camera reel, we were both too bewildered and frustrated to take any).
We are now completely off course from Volcje Lake, Eva’s tracks and the official GPS route. We sit at the bus stop and Callum pulls out the biscuits.
Our options are to hike 11 km along roads to try get back on track… or we could go our own way. I spy a beautiful, lone church on a nearby mountain. On the map, we can see the church is called Sveti Križna, and lies near a famous cave system of the same name. Noting that a youth hostel is just over the other side of the hill, we opt for the latter and forge our own route towards the church.
Leaving Grahovo, we return to a woodland path and eventually reach the turn-off for Križna jama, the cave system. Chocolate breaks are required as the day stretches longer. We leave our bags at the junction and head off to investigate the cave. Unfortunately, Križna jama is locked with iron bars, so we can’t see much at all except for a glimpse of the caves’ silent, dusty mouth. We stand there a few moments in it’s cool breath. A camper van parked at the entrance is empty save for a small black dog, waiting patiently for it’s owners.
Fifteen minutes later, and 200 m higher in altitude, we reach the church, Sveti Križna. At some point, the marker dots have slunk back to walk beside us. I glare at them every now and then.
It seems like we’ve been walking for an incredibly long time when we finally reach the youth hostel, Ars Viva, in Podcerkev. By this stage, my feet are shiny red with blisters. But this day is not over quite yet…
After dinner (pasta, tomatoes, mushrooms, wine), a man in a wheelchair rolls into the otherwise empty kitchen. “Hello!” he says, with a rough Slovenian accent. His name is Benjamin, he and his wife Ursa own the hostel. He apologises profusely for not greeting us when we arrived, but he has been having some back troubles, and in addition has an art exhibition in Croatia tomorrow. Would we like to see his paintings?
We follow him over into the main house and are shown an array of works. He tells us that when he was 27, he was up a ladder in a cherry tree and fell, breaking his neck. He does not have full movement in his hands, so instead paints with the brush between his teeth. His paintings are colourful and vivid, of flowers and Slovenian landscapes. His style reminds me instantly of Van Gogh, and I fall a little bit in love.
One of Benjamin’s friends arrives to visit him before the exhibition. An ex-body-building champion, this broad and powerful man is also in a wheel chair – a paragliding accident, we learn. He takes my foot to inspect the red horseshoe of my blisters. I wonder if the two men were friends before their accidents, that perhaps their lives have followed coincidental arcs. Will we have a drink with them?
Much later, we walk slowly back to our room beneath the night, cradling a bouquet of home-grown asparagus.
This was a long day, and this has been a long post. But a very special one, too.
Slovenia, Stage 1
Approximate distance: 21.5 km
Villages: Grahovo – Sveta Ana pri Ložu – Žerovnica – Stari trg pri Ložu – Podcerkev
Features: Planinski dom na Slivnici (Slivnici hut) – Šteberk grad (Šterberk castle, ruin) – Križna jama (Križna cave) – Križna gora – Supermarket in Stari trg pri Ložu (Mercator) – Ars Viva Youth Hostel